Quotes Worth Repeating: Be Faithful By Being Yourself

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“I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was … and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.” – Barbara Brown Taylor in “Leaving Church” 

Stages of Faith and Beauty in the Wilderness

I originally posted Beauty In The Wilderness in March 2011 as I prepared for Lent.  I have done a rewrite so I could post it today as a contribution to the November Synchroblog: “Faith Stories”

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Over the years my faith has changed significantly – as I believe it should. For many years my faith was mostly about ascribing to a list of beliefs that were non-negotiable. Today my faith is more about living into the way of Jesus which mostly ends up being about loving others.

When I first started having questions and doubts about “the list” of non-negotiables I was really thrown off balance but over time I have become pretty comfortable with having more questions than answers and embracing the mystery of God.  I no longer believe that changing my mind about some faith related issue is evidence of a weak faith or being an immature Christian.  In fact, I ascribe to the idea that an active, vibrant life of faith will often lead to stages of faith that are filled with questions and doubts (see stage 4 in the chart below) which can lead to wonderful revelation and transformation (stages 5 & 6 in the chart) that always seemed out of reach in the midst of being so certain about everything. [1]

nextreformation.com wp admin resources stages of faith.pdf

These days I assume that I am surely wrong about a multitude of things that I believe at any given moment. However, that doesn’t stop me from living out my faith with conviction and passion. Instead, it imbibes me with a dose of humility that keeps me from feeling like the world has ended if I happen to discover that what I thought was true doesn’t hold up under serious study, thought, prayer and scrutiny.

One of the things that I have a significantly different perspective about these days is suffering … or “the wilderness” as it is often referred to by Christians.

“The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.” - Nancy Wynne Newhall

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

It was during a wilderness experience where I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay for me to be me – in fact, it was better than okay, it was good.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in the wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God and about the world you live in even when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

[1] If you want to explore more about the stages of faith:

Read these three excellent blog posts about Stages in the Life of Faith  herehere and here which may lead you to read the book: The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg & Robert A. Guelich

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Check out the other posts for this month’s synchroblog:

Quotes Worth Repeating: Rave On!

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I absolutely love the poet Mary Oliver.  The quote “And I say to my heart: Rave On” is the final line of her poem “A Pretty Song” in which she is talking about the great love she has for someone she has lost to death.  The line is like a “cheer for love”, an admonishment to love well, to love extravagantly, to love radically, to love without restraint … because that is the way love should act and live and be…otherwise it may not pass muster as love.  And we need to be cheered and encouraged because it takes guts and courage and gumption to let our hearts rave on with love….but I think it is worth it and so do many others and so we do…we love with abandon, we leap off the edge, we take a risk, we fall and tumble, we say to our hearts: rave on!

P.S. Here is the complete poem “A Pretty Song” by Mary Oliver

From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.

A Social Justice Story

This post is part of the October Synchroblog: What is social justice?  I’ll add a list of all the other contributions at the end of this post as soon as they are available.

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“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” -Cesar Chavez

Social justice is difficult to define. I heard someone say that there have been whole books written about social justice which never offer a concise definition. And so you can easily understand why I feel inadequate to offer up a definition. However, I am compelled to share a story with you that I believe has the definition of social justice written between it’s lines.

This story is true and it was written by my friend Hugh Hollowell who leads a ministry called Love Wins. Hugh is a perfect example of what it looks like to work for and practice social justice.  He inspired me to become a person who is aware of injustices in the world and to be brave enough to fight against injustices in word and deed.

She Call Me Bobby by Hugh Hollowell  

Several folks have wanted me to talk about what I do day-to-day.

“I don’t get it,” one correspondent said, “You just talk to the homeless? About what?”

Well, I do more than just talk to folks who are experiencing homelessness, but that is a big part of what I do. I want to show you how one such conversation went down just this morning.

Note: The way we talk, the choice of words we use, all of that is part of our story and part of who we are. Life on the streets is not pretty and it is not polite. Many in my position clean up the language when reporting what is said, but I have chosen to leave it.

*****

I was on my way to use the Internet at Morning Times (a coffee shop and, most days, my office) when I saw a gang of folks I know over by Betty’s van. I stroll over. The mood is solemn.

“Hey guys,” I said, “What’s going on?”

Everyone murmurs and shuffles, looking at the ground. I notice that one older guy everyone calls Slim was sullen and weeping.

“Slim,” I said, “How’s it going?”

“Bad,” he says. “I went to give plasma this morning like I always do on Fridays. This time, they wouldn’t give me any money. Instead, they told me I’m HIV positive.”

HIV. For most Americans it no longer means what it once did. However, these folks know that, if they get it, they probably won’t have access to the life-giving drug cocktails and cutting edge treatments. They all know someone who has died as a result of being positive.

For them, HIV spells death.

Having already heard this story, the crowd begins to melt away. I’m uncertain if it’s out of a desire to give us some privacy or a desire to get out of the cold– in any event, it was welcome.

I have known Slim for about two and a half months. I have helped several of his friends with job applications and have let them use my computer to check their email for messages from family. He knows me to say hi, but he has never really opened up to me. He is much older than most of the street folks, perhaps 50 or so. He told me once in conversation he had been homeless for seven years.

“They tested me, like they always do,” he begins to explain. “They test you every time. They wanted me to sign a paper saying I had HIV, but I ain’t signing shit.”

After several minutes of conversation, I managed to extract the following details.

That morning, Slim went to sell plasma. Many who are currently homeless do this as it is the only thing many of them have to sell. You lay on a cot and stare at the wall while they insert a needle in your arm. After they take blood from your body and extract the plasma, they put the blood back in you. They sell the plasma to the various bio-med places for research and pay you $20 – $35 and you can expect it to take about two hours. If you are a regular donor, they pay bonuses and an extra $5 every third visit, they say.

The routine tests on his blood for HIV showed positive. He was told he had to sign a statement saying he knew he was HIV positive. He refused and left – he later reveals that reading is not something he does well, so he has a fear of signing anything. Understandably, he was in shock by the time I heard this story, so the finer details were a bit harder to nail down. As near as I can tell, he had no second test and no referral to any health care options.

“You need to go to the Health Department,” I said. “You need to know for sure.”

Slim is crying. “It’s Christmas, man. I don’t need this.”

It goes like this for about 10 minutes, when I realize that Slim doesn’t have the two dollars for the bus to go out to the Health Department. I assure him I can spare $2.

“Will you walk with me to the bus station?” he asks.

“Be glad to.”

We begin to walk toward Moore Square Station, the central hub for the transit system here in Raleigh. Slim is beginning to calm down. He has the two dollars that I gave him clutched in a death grip in his hand.

“You are a nice man,” Slim says. “I know you help Sam and Julia out with clothes and help them, let them use your phone. I tell everyone what a nice man you are. I would ask to borrow your phone, but I got no one to call.”

“No one?” I said.

“Well, I got a Mom, but I haven’t talked to her in four years. I want to call her, but I’m scared. I’m afraid she don’t want nothing to do with me anymore. I done bad things.”

We talk about his Mom for a bit. It turns out she lives in Maryland and the family has endured one too many broken promises, so they no longer talk. I urge him to call because four years is a long time. He promises to think about it.

“You’re a nice man. Why you so nice? I mean, you help us out, you talk to us… I ain’t nothing, man. My own Momma don’t want to talk to me, you don’t even know me and you help me. Why you doing this?”

I hesitate. I know folks who would see this as an opportunity to swoop in, tract in hand, tell them about how Jesus will solve all their problems, fix everything. I try to imagine what Jesus would say.

“I care about you guys when it makes no sense to, because Jesus loved me when it made no sense for him to,” I tell Slim.

He perks up, looks at me from the side of his eyes.

“Jesus?” he said.

“Yup. Jesus,” I said.

I think I have lost him now. He surprises me.

“I know Jesus loves me – my momma told me,” he said. “But that Jesus, he is a motherfucker.”

I have no idea what to say to that.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Oh yeah. The thing about Jesus is, he don’t cut you no slack. Jesus is hard.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

We’re at the blue section of the transit station, waiting on the bus. The air is cold on my ears, the turbulence from the exhaust fumes pressing my jeans against my ankles. The two dollars has managed to disappear. After a lengthy search they turn up in a coat pocket.

“Thank you for doing this,” he said. “I don’t want to die from HIV.”

“Well,” I said, “we are not even sure you have HIV. The first step is to find out for sure.”

We agree to meet up this afternoon in Moore Square about dark so he can let me know what the verdict is. While we are working out the details, the bus pulls up and the doors open, a line of patient commuters waiting to board.

It’s one of those moments – they happen sometimes – when I think God tells me just the right thing to say.

“Slim,” I said. “What does your momma call you?”

He smiled, remembering. “Bobby. She call me Bobby.”

“OK, Bobby,” I said. “I will see you tonight.”

He laughs that I use his name. “Do you think Jesus cares I have HIV?” he asked.

“If you have HIV, then Jesus would be heartbroken,” I said.

“You gonna pray for me, aren’t you?” he asked.

I assure him I will. The breath is almost knocked out of me as he tackles me in a spontaneous bear hug, tears running down his face.

“If it is OK, I gonna pray for you too,” he said into my coat.

Then he turns, embarrassed at the sudden emotion and steps onto the bus.

As he waves to me from his seat two thirds of the way back, the bus pulls away, the exhaust kicking up leaves that swirl around my feet as both our tears dry on my coat.

If you want to know more about Hugh and Love Wins and how to get involved and help go here.

Check out the rest of these posts about Social Justice:

Loving Our Neighbor Means Caring For God’s Creation

This post is part of the September Synchroblog, “Loving Nature: Is God Green?” which asks the question: Does God really love creation? If so, what does that mean?

creation-care

I get a little confused when it comes to Christians and taking care of the earth.  Why do some Christians seem to be against environmentalism?

Perhaps they haven’t thought about how the love of God and the love of our neighbor and caring for God’s creation are linked together.

Maybe they haven’t considered that our relationship to the rest of creation should be based on God’s relationship to it, or that God calls Christians to care for all of his creation, or the fact that pollution hurts the poor the most and Christians are called to look out for and care for the poor and the powerless.

Environmental toxins and climate change have repercussions for many of today’s pressing issues from the health of our children, to global and domestic poverty, to jobs and economic growth. One in six of our children are being born with harmful levels of mercury in their bloodstream. The changing climate is causing floods, droughts, and famine that severely harm the least of these at home and across the globe. And our addiction to old fossil-based, non-renewable energy is crippling our economy and costing us jobs. These things makes how we care for God’s creation one of the greatest moral challenges of our time.

If you are like me, you might feel overwhelmed and incapable of making a difference.  But, there are some things that we can do as individuals that will make a difference collectively.

One thing we can do is to help other Christians learn more about how loving their neighbor is linked to them caring for God’s creation. I have found the video All Things to be very helpful in starting a conversation with others about how loving their neighbor cannot be separated from caring for the environment.

In addition to the video the book Gardening Eden: How Creation Care Will Change Your Faith, Your Life, and Our World by Michael Abbate is an excellent resource.

And partnering with others is often the best way to make a difference and that is why organizations such as Evangelical Environmental Network and Care of Creation are so valuable.

As followers of Jesus all of our actions should be determined through the frame of loving our neighbor and loving God. Can we love the Creator without celebrating and caring for the creation? Can we love our neighbor without protecting the environment on which that neighbor’s life and health depend?

Here are the links to the other synchroblog posts:

Jen Bradbury – Is God Green?
Carol Kuniholm – For God So Loved the Earth
David Derbyshire – Walking Through God’s Creation
Glenn Hager – The Oblivious and the Extremist
Oliver – Dieu il Recyclable
Tim Nichols – Never a Last Leaf
Leah Sophia – September Synchroblog Creation
Jeremy Myers – Can Christians be Tree Huggers?
Liz dyer – Loving Our Neighbor Means Caring For God’s Creation

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds

This post is part of the August 2013 Synchroblog – Parables: Small Stories, Big Ideas

“Religious writing is usually designed to make the truth of faith clear, concise, and palatable. Parables subvert this approach. In the parable, truth is not expressed via some dusty theological discourse that seeks to educate us, but rather it arises as a lyrical dis-course that would inspire and transform us. In light of this, parables do not seek to change our minds but rather to change our hearts.”  Peter Rollins in The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales 

I love the way a good parable surprises us and turns our thinking upside down.  Many good parables take a well-known story or situation and give it a twist here and a tweak there in order to cause the audience to think about something from a different perspective.  Jesus was a master at crafting and telling a good parable.

But I notice that Jesus parables don’t always seem to have the impact that they should have on me and I think that is because they have become too familiar.  Which is why I think I got such a kick out of the collection of parables that Peter Rollins wrote a few years ago.

If you haven’t read Rollins’ collection of parables you should pick up his book The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.  I think the 33 parables in his book might end up pushing you around a bit and that’s what a good parable should do.

Here’s one of the parables from the book to whet your appetite:

You sit in silence contemplating what has just taken place. Only moments ago you were alive and well, relaxing at home with friends. Then there was a deep, crushing pain in your chest that brought you crashing to the floor. The pain has now gone, but you are no longer in your home. Instead, you find yourself standing on the other side of death waiting to stand before the judgment seat and discover where you will spend eternity. As you reflect upon your life your name is called, and you are led down a long corridor into a majestic sanctuary with a throne located in its center. Sitting on this throne is a huge, breathtaking being who looks up at you and begins to speak.

“My name is Lucifer, and I am the angel of light.”

You are immediately filled with fear and trembling as you realize that you are face to face with the enemy of all that is true and good. Then the angel continues: “I have cast God down from his throne and banished Christ to the realm of eternal death. It is I who hold the keys to the kingdom. It is I who am the gatekeeper of paradise, and it is for me alone to decide who shall enter eternal joy and who shall be forsaken.”

After saying these words, he sits up and stretches out his vast arms. “In my right hand I hold eternal life and in my left hand eternal death. Those who would bow down and acknowledge me as their god shall pass through the gates of paradise and experience an eternity of bliss, but all those who refuse will be vanquished to the second death with their Christ.”

After a long pause he bends toward you and speaks, “Which will you choose?”

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Be sure and check out the other contributions to this month’s synchroblog:

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! - Jeremy Myers

Parabolic Living - Tim Nichols

Seed Parables:Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom - Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper - Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons - Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch - Glenn Hager

Parables and the Insult of Grace – Rachel

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds - Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run - Jerry Wirtley

The Woman Forgiven For Adultery (Guest Post by Susan Cottrell)

Note from Liz:

I know a lot of people say “the internet” isolates people from real life and real relationships but my experience continues to prove that wrong. I have made so many wonderful connections and friends online and it continues to happen.

I recently connected with Linda Mueller Robertson after I read her heartbreaking and inspirational piece Learning To Truly Love Our Gay Son in The Huffington Post  and she invited me to join a group she started and that is where I connected with Susan Cottrell. 

Susan is a writer and speaker who also blogs at Freed Hearts. Her and I are both passionate about making the world a better, kinder, gentler and more loving place for lgbt people.  We both live in Texas (a few hours apart) and will be meeting in person later this month (I can’t wait).

Here is a piece that Susan wrote and posted on her blog recently in which she challenges us to look closer at the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman.

Drawing by Elaine Clayton

Drawing by Elaine Clayton

Remember the story of “Jesus Scattering Townspeople and Self-Righteous Men in the Name of Mercy and Justice”? Oh right, you may know it as, “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” I love that Jesus instantly knew the hearts of everyone involved. I love how Jesus never falls for any of it. I love that He lets her go!

It seems we rarely marvel at the whole picture of what is going on here. Instead – out of the entire story – many focus on Jesus’ parting words, translated, “Go and sin no more.” It’s also been translated to the softer, “Go and leave your life of sin,” but that doesn’t quite get it either. Instead, the translation I learned as a young Christian captures the heart of the situation and Jesus’ heart for people.

Jesus was not admonishing her to go do better, but inviting her to life, to His life. His message to this woman is, in essence: “You don’t have to live this way.” That is, “I offer you so much more than anything you’ve ever known.” This is true for several reasons.

First, let’s take a look at the setting: this woman had just been caught in adultery – most likely by the men who set it up to entrap Jesus (notice the man involved was not also caught). This is certainly not the first time they put their heads together to concoct a plan to bring Him down.

She is dragged out to the public square as an adulteress. Before Jesus. Before the crowd. Naked. Can you simply imagine the shame? I shudder to think of it. She knew that the consequence was to immediately be stoned to death.

Jesus then does the remarkable. Obviously stuck, obviously backed into a corner by these clever men who have succeeded in entrapping Him, Jesus has absolutely no way out. No way. Until He opens His mouth.

“You who are without sin cast the first stone.” The crowd is stunned. Flummoxed. This is not the way these situations were dealt with… ever. It takes a minute, but slowly the older men and then the younger ones drop their stones and turn away (most likely with guilt of their intended entrapment ringing in their ears, in addition to who-knows-what other skeletons they had hidden away). Only Jesus could have given such a mind-boggling response. Time and again in Scripture, Jesus circumvents their yes-or-no questions and gives an answer they never thought possible.

Then He turns to the woman. “Does no one condemn you?” “No one, Sir.” “Neither do I condemn you.” What?? You don’t? Why not? You have every right to condemn me under the law. Isn’t that what You do? Apparently not. But why not? That is part of the key to the puzzle of His following remark.

If Jesus used “Go and sin no more” as a mandate to go and rid her life of any sinful thought of action, He would have implied some condition, even though it came after her release. Like the policeman who lets you off with a warning might say, “Now, keep your speed down.” (Not that I have personal experience with this one…) The implication is, “I’m going to let you off this time, but don’t push your luck – and get out of here before I change my mind.” (That’s often the feel of, “Go and sin no more.”)

The trouble is, nobody goes and sins no more. Everybody sins and sins and sins. If she had the power to meet her own needs, or rid herself of her own sins, she would not have been tricked into this in the first place. Forget the heart, this interpretation would say. Forget dependence on God and just change your own behavior. But this is a fragmented concept, as if real change comes from the outside in, instead of inside out. Jesus always starts with the inside.

Further, if we think Jesus had to warn the woman in adultery not to do it again, we don’t grasp the situation. I’m pretty sure she got the message right then and there that if by some miracle she did not die on the spot from embarrassment, or from stoning, she would never, ever, no never, get caught in this situation, ever, again. The trouble is not voluntarily choosing to be in that situation again; the question is, how? How do I constantly find myself on the raw end of the deal? Why do I keep letting men like this take advantage of me? Why do I do this over and over again? How in the world do I find a way out from my broken and wounded heart? Anybody so shamed and humiliated would be searching for a way out, vowing never to let this happen again. That was the question Jesus answered! He always answers our real need! For Him to say, “You don’t have to live this way,” was astounding news for this woman! I don’t? She had to ask herself.No, Jesus was telling her, you don’t.

Jesus here makes an offer of deep healing. Jesus offers to make us a new creation, to break the bond of sin and death! He would not reduce his earth-shattering offer of life to a silly throwaway line that simply gives her more of the Pharisee’s lifeless medicine. That sounds more like exactly what Jesus criticized the Pharisees for, rather than reflecting the true, heart-focused Jesus.

“You don’t have to live this way” is consistent with Jesus’ offer to the woman at the well, whom He did not tell to stop living with her boyfriend, but instead offered her so much more than the scraps she was receiving. Likewise, He offers the woman caught in adultery freedom from the likes of these men who set up and expected her execution.

Jesus had compassion on the tenderhearted and showed them their need for Him. He never, ever shamed or humiliated people but instead gave them hope! Jesus soundly chastised only one group in His earthly life: the self-righteous religious leaders. This is the mode throughout His interactions.Come to Me for rest and peace and life – I will give you life. Rules don’t give life; rules produce death. To say, “Stop doing this,” would only heap death upon her shame and humiliation. But Jesus never did that! On the contrary, He heals the brokenhearted, He lifts our head, He offers hope and life.

To reduce Jesus’ words to “Go and sin no more” is to reduce the gravity of sin. It reduces Jesus’ work as some kind of moral cleanup instead of life from death! The only way to convince ourselves we’re able to “go and sin no more” is to reduce sin to something manageable. But Jesus said the very thought of sin is sin. He showed us that our sin is so large, so deeply rooted, and so unmanageable, that the only solution is to recognize that we desperately need Him!

The next time this interpretation is thrown at you as evidence of the seriousness of sin, as if you are not taking sin seriously enough because you don’t tell somebody to stop sinning, I entreat you to pause. Ask Jesus what to say. As hard as it is for humans to grasp a free-and-clear pardon, that is what Jesus offers. Don’t set that down and take up self-reform. Instead, let Him shape you personally, from the inside out, so that the sin areas fall away, replaced by the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and other attributes only the Spirit can bring. That is what He does!