Friday, December 30, 2011

Getting rid of the Script

I have been the kind of person who scripts out everything in his mind and wants life to go according to the script.  It needs to happen like this.  I want to be this way.  I want to feel this way and not that way.  I need to perform this way.  I need this person to love me.  I create a definite picture of how I want things to be.

That script has changed over the years quite a bit.  It has narrowed from external circumstances to internal circumstances.  But even that is slightly untrue.  Though my "script" has become more about things like my own personal psychological makeup, confidence, poise, and the ability to handle suffering and rejection and difficult situations better, I must admit that even that script is about having a script for the life I life in, including what happens around me.  Maybe something like this: "If I can just be superman, I can be bullet-proof.  And if I can be bullet-proof, life will be easier and if I am rejected it won't hurt."

But the script, that need for control, hurt us more than it helps us.  It becomes a noose around the neck.  Having goals is not a bad things, but some goals are bad... destructive, constricting, imprisoning.  Trying to script life and make life, even your own internal life, stick to the script is all of those things.  You won't be happier, you will be perenially frustrated and you will beat on yourself for not getting what you want.  And most ironically, you won't be protected from the pains of life.

This is a rejecting world we live in... full of personal rejection and circumstantial tragedy.  You can't avoid it.  It is only a matter of when and how much.  Taking a defensive, scripted, controlled posture toward life, on the grander scale, and internally, emotionally, and relationally, on a personal scale, does not change that fact.  You create yourself a script, and it becomes your self-torture device.  You create yourself a protective wall, and it becomes your prison.

I wonder what went on inside of Adam and Eve after the fall.  They both hid from God, but they also both covered themselves from each other with fig leaves.  Was it merely shame over sin, or did they also feel betrayed by the other?  Did Eve feel betrayed because her husband did not stop her?  Did Adam feel betrayed because his wife brought sin to his door?  What about guilt?  Did they feel that they let each other down?  And was their retreat from each other out of these things?

A much better goal would be what?  A much better and freer goal would be to be able to live in this life "naked" -without your emotional defense mechanisms, without your need to control and script life, able instead to take the game as it comes to you, to live and relate in this world without those destructive "protections" and simply be.  That sounds so free, and it would be indeed.  But then you are faced with something... what a terrifying thing to walk in this world "naked".  But what a necessary thing when your "clothing" chokes you and stifles you and torments you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Good Sense of Humor is Generational

This isn't a theological post... but I think it has some very practical ramifications.  My son, who is now 17 years old, is not my son by blood.  I adopted him when I married his mother almost 13 years ago.

There are lots of things I could discuss about adoption or having adopted children, or about being a step-father and how God is our step-father through Jesus Christ.  But instead I want to reflect upon something else.  Though I am not his father by blood, and though I do not have the same kind of bond with him that he has with his mother, he is my son in many, many, many ways that go way beyond a legal piece of paper or the amount of years I've been in his life.  One of those ways is his sense of humor.  Regardless of all the things I have attempted (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to instill into him over the years through instruction and discipline and conscious modelling, he has adopted my sense of humor just as I adopted my dad's.  He not only has a good sense of humor -he appreciates the same kind of humor... and sometimes our connection, our shared wavelength in this realm, is uncanny.  This has been demonstrated time and time again while playing the game Apples to Apples, since we always wind up being able to read the other's mind.  His sense of humor came not by blood but by bond, by relationship.

On the broader scale, this highlights a powerful truth: we may actually instill more into our children through the things we are not conscious of or intentional with than the things we are.  They will learn from us or learn to be like us -not intentionally, not consciously, and often not willingly on their part- but it will happen.  I never tried to make my son funny.  There was no effort or intent involved whatsoever.  It never even crossed my mind, and now here he is, almost grown, and it is there in him.  I never lifted a finger to try to teach him humor.  It happened all on its own. 

In some ways this is good, in other ways this can be scary, but it is nevertheless intriguing.  Negatively, you will pass onto your children things that you wish you didn't, and they will take on those things and carry them unless they can break the cycle (or unless you can break that cycle, too).  It is unavoidable.  But on the positive side you will also pass onto them things that will bless and enrich their lives.  A good sense of humor is good for the soul.

It is not so much that your children are watching you and taking notes.  They are watching you passively.  They don't even know they are watching you.  They are sponges, and the seeds are sown deep and early.  It doesn't mean things can't change, and sometimes the flower of the seeds planted can take years to bloom.  It means that you will invariably affect your children's personality and attitudes far more than you can plan or control.  Parent them.  Learn how to connect with them.  Discipline them graciously but honestly.  But be on your knees for them and for yourself for the countless things you do not see both about you and about them.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thoughts on Christ on Trial by Rowan Williams: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 of Rowan Williams' book, "Christ on Trial," takes a look at the trial of Jesus as recorded in Mark's Gospel.  The centerpiece, which struck me so vividly, was how Williams drew out the events in Jesus' trial where, while being accused and questioned by the High Priests, He finally breaks His silence and answers their question, declaring Himself in clarity as the Christ, the "I am," the Son of the Blessed One.

Here it is... the dark of night.  It is not totally unlike the dark, shady interrogations ordered by corrupt governments or other men throughout history who are in positions of great power and authority.  You can almost picture a blinding light shining in his face, cutting through the darkness of the private room, as the interrogations continue.  Finally someone asks the prisoner point-blank: "Tell us, are you the Christ?!"  The prisoner, stripped and defeated by the encircling onslaught of prosecutors and false witnesses, answers back, "I am..." -an answer that not only answers the question definitively but gives a clear second message, an identification which the prisoner knew His Jewish audience would not mistake.  The "I am."

The 'I am'?  Really?  In this moment of weakness and condemnation?  It seems to make no sense.  What is going on?  There was a lot of underline-able material, but I will restrict myself to two piecemeal quotes to help give you an idea of what Williams wrote:

"If we are really to have our language about the transcendence -the sheer, unimaginable differentness- of God recreated, it must be by the emptying out of all we thought we knew about it, the emptying out of practically all we normally mean by greatness.  No more about the lofty distance of God, the sovereignty that involves control over all circumstances: God's 'I am' can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it; when it appears as something utterly different from human authority, even human liberty; when it is spoken by a captive under sentence of death.

The freedom or power at issue here, in such an utterance at such a time, is the freedom of complete alienation from the categories of the unaccountable world, freedom from the insanity and violence of human power.  I said that Mark's passion story gave the impression of voices in the dark. You could say more: that God's voice here is supremely a voice at midnight, audible only when the language of this world has fallen away once and for all around the figure of the prisoner on trial.  There is nothing comforting, edifying or reassuring, nothing that secures our picture of ourselves and our hopes for ourselves, in the silent prisoner.  And that is how and why we can hear him name himself with God's name."
And later...

"... Mark's trial narrative passes sentence on our understand of power and significance.  Without this strange moment at the heart of the trial, we might be left with a false clarify about God and how God is recognized in Jesus: God becomes the illustration of what is highest or strongest for us.  This applies not only to the crude identification of God with success or domination, and the resulting believe that failure in the world's terms somehow indicates God's absence; it applies also to the identification of God with what seems to us wisest or holiest, most spiritually impressive.  But here, the one who says 'I am' is, at that moment, in that setting, neither wise nor holy, neither admirable nor impressive."
As Williams' points out elsewhere in this chapter, we are always in an ever-present struggle to escape suffering, demanding an account from God when He does not rescue, and to escape the present, hanging ourselves in the past or hoping to transcend the present by looking at the future.  It is not as though we should think suffering is great, and it is not as though we are not given much to hope in. 

But in this glimpse of Jesus on trial, in the dark of midnight when the pretense of the world falls down and the insanity and violence and injustice and unaccountable, nonsensical power of it shows itself in the trial of Jesus -pointing its fingers at Him and demanding an account- God answers us plainly... with no arguing, no justification, and offering no "evidence" to prove Himself in our system, in our courtroom.  Jesus answers them, "I am."  He declares Himself, in stubborn opposition to the system of this world.  He will not play games.  He will not answer to it.  In the darkness of this hour, with the murmurings and accusations of our kangaroo court, He stands against the world... transcendent.

Yet it is not a transcendence that we would normally think of, nor is it the kind of transcendence that we would choose.  We would choose to speak of transcendence in terms of God's greatness and power and sovereignty, or in His might to save and rescue us from bad things in our lives, ensuring a happy ending.  But that will not do, here.  God silences us.  He not only opposese the world's insane system of power.  He also opposes, in one breath in this one moment in time, our aspirations of spirituality and what we think a better world, and a real God, ought to be.  He stubbornly exclaims, "I am not here to fit into your ideas or expectations or designs for how the world and happy endings ought to work out but to challenge and ultimately destroy them."

This is essentially what Martin Luther described as the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory.  The theology of glory does not merely wrap up all of the "badness" of us all but also all of our greatest spiritual aspirations and stories of glory and success and ascent up the ladder out of the moment, past our frailty, past our humanness.  It sounds wonderful to us, until we see the cross, which exposes it all for what it truly is.  God did not come down to us, to die on a cross, to fulfill our paradigm of the world and how we think it ought to work.  Nor did He come down to die to validate our ardent climb of spiritual piety and religion toward our idea of "heaven."  He came down to die, and in so doing, kill all of it -ripping it out from under us like a stinking rug soaked in our own urine.

At this moment of midnight where the Son of Man finally announces clearly what He had been evading all through Mark's Gospel, we see a God who is unequivocally unlike.  All results and expectations are thrown out the window.  He simply is, and He is in ways that again overthrow all the world's ideas of strength, power, virtue, religion, and God.  He declares Himself to be YHWH, yet in weakness and powerlessness.  What a strange way to oppose the entire world.  Rather than joining our Nitzche-like quest for power and authority, joining our game which He could so easily win by flashing His glory or smiting the world with fire from above, He chose to reveal Himself, and to oppose our system, by standing outside of it in utter obscurity and powerlessness.  It is as though God is saying, "I came not to play your game but to end it."

What struck me most is how this speaks to me so clearly in my own suffering.  I have longed for God's rescue.  I am the one who wants to not live in today but live in tomorrow, where God will finally rescue and deliver.  I am the one who wants to escape the suffering at all costs and demands an account from God when He will not save.  Yet here I am on trial.  I see a God who, before the day when He finally overturns the suffering and betrayal and evil and abuse and insanity in this world, stands against it in powerlessness and weakness while simultaneously declaring Himself to be.  But this is exactly where I am.  This is where I live.  I cannot stem the tide of suffering.  I cannot make it all go away.  I am powerless against the world.  I can pretend I am not, and I can lash out against it for a time, but I will again face my inability.  I will either be crushed under its weight, or I will numb myself by divorcing myself from living in today.  Or, I will discover another way.  I will discover that I am not alone in it.  That there is a kind of power in living outside of it, in being... just as Jesus was being the "I am" in the midst of his oppressors... and in being with Him.  He is there.  He lives in the obscurity, in refusing to play the game and standing obstinately yet powerlessly in the shadow outside of the world and its ways.  He is found where I am, and I am found where He is.  When the fanfare dies down and everything is stripped down to what it is, just like when we are suffering, this is where God speaks, where God is made flesh, where He dwells with humanity.  And this is a far cry from anything else out there and anything that religion has to offer, ever.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Good Kind of Hopelessness

Sometimes abandoning hope is good and healthy.  In life, there are seriously finite limits to what we can accomplish and what we can handle.  Some of us burden ourselves beyond the point of emotional exhaustion and despair because we stubbornly refuse to admit this.  We don't want to say goodbye.  We don't want to admit it is hopeless.  We don't want to give up.  There is too much at stake.  There is too much emotional resistance.  There is denial, false hope, and the desire to live in a fantasy land where we tell ourselves that just around the corner, just over the horizon, is the change that we hoped for.

Sometimes there is good and virtue in hanging in there, in waiting (sometimes for years) for something to change, for God to show up, for good to come.  But other times, our false and misguided hope hangs around our neck like chains of death.  Sometimes, that aching longing makes the heart sick, and that sickness spreads through your bones like cancer, eating the life out of you and others around you.  It saps your hope in life itself, and it becomes a snare.  Sometimes, there is room for a reality check and hopelessness.

Good hopelessness is the realization that all of your efforts to try and change the situation or the person in that relationship with you or whatever have done nothing and will never do anything.  It is the realization that there is no hope, no power in anything you do, to produce what you want and wait longingly for.  What you see is what you get.  Nothing short of a miracle of God or a sudden epiphany in the other person will ever do anything to make things different.  It is what it is.

Coming to this realization can be very difficult, met with unparalleled emotional resistance, but it can also be very freeing.  Suddenly, that chain is loosed from your neck and, though you are now forced to grieve and face new challenges, there is the smell of change in the air -the smell of relief and the smell of hope.

Proverbs says that unmet longing makes the heart sick.  If you are in a relationship with a person, for example, and they are simply selfish and do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of how you try to endure it or how you try to communicate your frustration, it will make you sick (sometimes even physically) to carry the burden of hoping that if you hang in there more, if you do this more, or if you do that more, or if this or that would just happen, that they would finally snap out of it and be the person you wished they were in your relationship.  It will bog you down and, in an ironic twist, it may start to infiltrate the relationship through anger and passive aggression, making you look like the bad guy and vindicating them in their delusion of being without fault in their selfishness.  That unhappiness in you will permeate you and start to make its way onto others around you, and they will not like it. 

Sometimes, what is needed is a reality check and a healthy dose of hopelessness.  You won't change them, ever.  They aren't going to get it.  They aren't going to wake up.  Once this really sinks in, new options spring up in front of you.... ones that will not be motivated by a desire to produce certain reactions in the other person.  Your new options will be for you, for your path, as you let the fantasy die.  And sometimes you are able to look at the situation with clarity and realize that the other person has been telling you this all along: "I'm not going to change.  Take me like this or don't."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Some Practical Parenting

Some parenting books irk me so much.  And I don't know what it is about Reformed Christians -we (I guess I am still unofficially including myself in this group) seem to overcomplicate and theologize everything to the Nth degree.  I just want simple.  I want to know what I can do, and I like instructions.

This entry is written about something I've really come to appreciate the importance of.  I'm not very good at multi-tasking.  When I am forced into a situation where I am pressured to handle more than one thing immediately I tend to get stressed out, and then when I finally sit down to do something for myself I do not want to be bothered.  So, this practical parenting item is very tough for me and really hits home:

Put in the time and effort to handle the situation properly the first time.

Instead of sitting there in your desk chair, engrossed in Facebook or maybe even something important like your job (if you work from home like I do), yelling impotent and completely unenforced commands and threats across the house to your mischief-making little miscreants, which only get louder and angrier the more you see they do not respond and obey you, building until you explode and storm out there slamming and yelling (all of which wastes time and energy, frustrates your child, and leaves you just feeling guilty later after you flip out), take the time to...

stop...
get up...
walk out there...
get down on their eye-level...
be clear and firm...
handle any discipline swiftly and immediately, such as walking your child by the hand to their bedroom for a time-out...
make sure they comply with your instruction...
without yelling...
before you get to the point where you are going to explode...
all of which takes about three minutes and usually resolves the situation, restoring peace to the home.

While this seems like way too much effort, because you don't want to get up and stop what you are doing, you will feel better about it and it will actually accomplish something, requiring much less time and emotional energy overall.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Immortals

Yesterday I went and saw the film "Immortals."  I had been excited to see this movie since I first saw the trailer months ago. 

I'm not going to waste time trying to review it.  I just want to note a few things that caught my attention.

One of the main themes was that of faithlessness versus faith.  Theseus, the hero of the story, grew into a strong, capable, but faithless young man.  He thought the stories of "the gods" were just made up fables, though his beloved mother was a woman of "faith."  This skepticism turned to full-blown bitterness when he saw his mother brutally slain.  Where were her gods then?  Why did they not help her?

This skepticism, it seems, permeated the Greek culture.  Even the king at Tartarus shared Theseus once-held skepticism (though by then, Theseus was a firm believer in the existence and power of the gods).

And then there was the evil king, Hyperion.  Hyperion also shared the faithlessness of the others.  His was much like the burning, bitter faithlessness of Theseus after seeing his mother slain.  It was not so much an unbelief in the existence of the gods as it was a hardened, hate-filled resistance toward them rooted in deep pain.  See Hyperion, in earlier years, saw his entire family killed.  And yet the gods did nothing.  Therefore, to Hyperion the gods were heartless and indifferent to the cries of those who called out to them for help and mercy.  They needed to be overthrown.  Hyperion's solution was to wage war on the human race and to unleash the Titans, who would crush the gods and punish them once and for all.  Hyperion intended to win, to conquer those who failed him, and to bring his own kind of bloody justice to the world.

I admit that I have roots of Hyperion in me.  There are some things I have been suffering with for so long, and there are things that seem to have no end in sight -every road before me seems endless and hopeless.  Where is God?  Unlike the "gods" of the movie, God has no rules to obey.  The gods of the Immortals film were bound by certain "laws" -for one, they were not allowed to interfere in the affairs of men (though they did).  But God is bound to no such thing.  The God of the universe is sovereign and wise.  So why, O God, does Your Word call you an "ever present help in the day of trouble" and yet when I cry to you for years it seems that the heavens are utterly silent and no help comes?  Have you cast me away?  Do you not care?  Or do you just not exist?  I do not merely whine for You to change my circumstances -I beg for you to give me what I need inside to bear it differently, to not live in torture within.  And yet... where are You?

I know the theological answers.  I know that having "faith" requires trusting in God's choice to deal with my cries in the way He so chooses.  But it just doesn't help.  I'm sick of suffering.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Soul-Care

Some of us suffer.  And some of us suffer a lot.  We have broken homes, broken marriages, broken hearts, broken souls, broken emotions, and broken relationships.  We experience betrayal, loss, and destruction.  We have sorrow, anger, grief, and despair.  And then on top of that, and often interlaced within it, we have pride, bitternes, jealousy, envy, and wrath stored up in our hearts.  Life can be torturous.

I will come right out and say that I am disillusioned a bit with what the Church has to offer us in our suffering.  It in't that it isn't well-meaning.  Some counsel and encouragement is helpful, as well.  I try to see a nugget of help somewhere in every encouragement, and I try to always remain teachable even if I don't think the person (pastor, counselor, elder, leader, friend) has any clue what my suffering is like inside. 

But time and time again, I feel as though the Church is perhaps too quick to want to be helpful without listening and entering into the suffering of people.  This may be borne out of a true desire to fix problems and alleviate suffering.  It is a typical male dynamic: men like to fix problems, not sit in them.  In the confines of the Church and the help and counsel of the Christian community, we may follow the same vein and be too quick to offer something for the hurting to "work on", as though a little home-work and thought and reflection will make everything better.  "Take two of these and call me in the morning."

As one who spent his entire existence viewing life that way, I have to say that this idea misses it.  Life is not to be "managed" by "homework" or information or better practices.  It is to be lived with others, to be wept through with someone's hand on your shoulder and yours on theirs, to be walked along beside another.

Here are two examples that make me want to smack someone.  I hold my tongue because I know the people who tell me these things truly mean well toward me, but it doesn't change my frustration about it.

1. "What you need is just to realize how much God loves you." From Brennan Manning's Abba's Child to Robert McGee's The Search for Significance, much ink has been printed on the idea that simply knowing how much God loves you will remedy your internal suffering in regards to your insecurities, fears, and broken sense of self. I do agree there is something to this from a theological standpoint. I am convinced that we were built for this relationship with God and that true closeness with God and with others, not marred by judgment and sin and selfishness, has a curative effect on the soul. However, what has really frustrated me over the years is how these books are offered as help when the real problem isn't lack of information but unresolved brokenness that exists beneath the surface layer. Yes, if such love and closeness did consistently touch our unconscious and shine its light on the darkest and deepest recesses of our pain, loss, and brokenness -the part of our soul that is buried deep within under layer upon layer of anxiety and defense mechanisms and self-abandonment and self-deception- I believe it would help. But sorry... a book can't make that happen. Only experience can -an experience of true, one-to-one, uncovered, vulnerable closeness and love and partnership. That is what I wrote this short little article about. Information, though part of the mix, doesn't ultimately do it. Most of us have read enough Bible and internet articles, in our pain, to fill a library. What we need is someone, anyone, not another book.

2. "Ahh, your problem is idolatry. All of us worship something... " Maybe that is the problem. Maybe it isn't. Does it really help me if you accurately diagnose that as the problem? This is one of the things I've found so frustrating especially among those who I find the most theologically astute and concerned. The craze, the buzz-word for all that ails us, even with some of my favorite pastors such as Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, is "idolatry."  You get the feeling that everything, all of your personal internal and emotional problems, must somehow be so bad because of idolatry somewhere.

And there are thousands of sermons out there about how to diagnose idolatry, how idolatry affects us all individually and culturally, and how through believing the Gospel it somehow goes away. It isn't that I don't believe there is some truth to it. I absolutely do. The problem is that it is tall on analysis and diagnosis, almost like a kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-psychology, but very short on help and solution. If you are suffering terribly, you already feel alone and isolated, but this leaves you feeling only more alone or worse... like you just need to "believe more" so that your idolatry (and hence your terrible suffering) will go away. To deepen the wound, it seems to encourage a kind of ultra-intellectual navel-gazing that I believe does really nothing good to help people grow and change and find relief and find Jesus more deeply. If I see one more article on the subject, I'm going to be sick. And, if you are on Facebook and know Christians who read that stuff all the time, it makes for some good status message quotes -you know, the kind that make you go "oooh.  good one." and press the "Like" button.  But beyond that...?

I have Pastor Mark Driscoll on my Facebook page.  I remember him making a comment in his facebook status a few months ago about visiting a woman who lives alone and is a compulsive hoarder -you know, one of those people who can't throw anything out so their house looks literally like a dump.  There were hundreds of comments from other Christians, many of them lamenting this woman's "idolatry."  It infuriated me.  Only one other person seemed to feel as I did, rebuking people for making simplistic declarations about this woman's spiritual state without even knowing her, her story, or the pain and suffering in her life.  There are many words that come to mind with this, but I'll only say the cleanest one:  unhelpful.



So what do I think is the solution?  What is a huge factor that I think the Church is often missing when it comes to soul-care?  Well, I've already mentioned it.  Suffering people and the people who are seeking to help them need to actually connect.  Suffering people need to buck the gravitational pull to isolate and, rather than showing up on the doorstep of their pastor merely to "be fixed" from their crisis and pain, immerse themselves into good, mutual relationships within the body of Christ. 

And it means that pastors, elders, counselors, and encouragers of any sort (i.e. all Christians to some degree, though some are gifted in such ways above others) need to not be as quick to give simplistic advice, rattle off formulaic spiritual maxims, or tell others what to do.  They instead need to truly listen to the soul of the person and carry their suffering with them before they offer any informed words of encouragement.  This is why those who have suffered much find it easier to connect with people who are presently suffering -it is easier to get to the place of connection where empathy and closeness occurs.  There is emotional common ground. 

On top of this, I believe we need to find the suffering people and go to them, given the tendency for intense suffering to promote introversion and isolation and even shame.  Think of how many people do not show up on Sunday morning because they are too exhausted and depleted and hopeless inside.  When your marriage is falling apart, when your children are out of control and on a path of self-destruction, the very last place many of us want to go is to church.  There is too much shame.  There is a sense that you do not fit in, that you are alone -an alien in a strange land among people with functioning marriages and happy children.  It should not be this way, should it?  These people are out there.  They just fall through the cracks and disappear.  They need someone who will seek out the lost, like Jesus did.

It isn't terribly difficult.  People who are suffering don't want simplistic pat answers, home-work, formulae, or theology lectures. If they have been suffering long enough, they have heard it all so many times they could teach you. What they want is relief, and if they can't get relief they at least want to know they aren't alone in it.

But what if someone comes to us for help and support but we have not suffered like they have?  What if we haven't walked that road before?  The Bible tells us that sometimes we suffer, sometimes we walk that particular road, just so that we can bring encouragement to others who walk the same road.  That is true.  But I don't think it means that we are useless to counsel or encourage someone who has walked a road we have not.  It means that if we want to help them, we must walk it with them.  To follow after Christ, we must incarnate.  We should learn their suffering and what it teaches their soul by proxy.

I remember listening to a sermon by Tim Keller on the death and raising of Lazarus, found in John chapter 11.  Obviously, Jesus had bigger plans than simply to ride in on a white horse and save the day -He planned to allow Lazarus to die so that He could display God's glory by raising him from the grave.  But, it cannot be overlooked that Jesus took time to do something before all of the supernatural, miraculous stuff.  He sat with Lazarus' family and cried with them.  Before He "fixed it" He wept with them.

Isn't that somewhat like the incarnation itself?  Before Jesus fixed our ultimate problem, He came down and literally walked miles in our shoes.  This is, according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, part of what makes Jesus the perfect High Priest for us.  He walked on this broken earth, in this broken life.  He was tempted in every point.  Every point.  He knew loss and betrayal and sorrow and suffering.

Jesus did not leave us with mere spiritual maxims about the connection between God's good and sovereign plan and human suffering -though they are true, indeed.  Before any of that, He came and entered into our life.  This is what makes life just that much more bearable.  Rather than just giving us some helpful bits of information to chew upon, to "correct our thinking," He gave us Himself.

I think as Westerners we would almost prefer to just be given a solution we can implement ourselves.  "Just believe these things, and it will get better."  "Just do these things, and watch how much better you feel."  "This will fix it."  In my own experience with my most recent therapist I found out how much this is true for myself.  When we suffer, we go all self-reliant.  We might show up for help, but we don't want closeness -we want you to give us a pill, some data, some information, or some tips to help us fix things ourselves.  Or if that doesn't work, we just want to lay there and have God -or someone- snap His fingers. We are individualistic to a fault, and some of us take that nine or ten steps further.  I say this is true for Western culture because I believe older, more traditional cultures tend to be less individualistic and more comfortable with partnership and closeness.  This is a big part of what I believe is missing, and it transcends men's breakfasts and accountability groups.

And I see this all over Scripture.  That is why I bristle when people call the Bible a "manual for life."  I hate that idea.  Is that really what it is -just a collection of stories and information to help you do life?  No.  It is a sign-board that shows you that you can't do life alone, individualistically, with your spiritual projects, with your self-help healing attempts.  It points you to the One who made you and then sent His Son down into your messy quagmire to walk with you and give Himself to save you.  The Bible is not a self-help book, though it contains much wisdom that is helpful for life.  If that is all it is to you, then you miss it.

So what would I really like to see?  Real closeness.  People getting into life with each other -and here's the trick- remaining there, comfortable to stay even when things can't be "fixed" or washed away with some spiritualizing, some Bible lessons, or some self-help books.  Sometimes that family won't be fixed.  Sometimes that person's spouse won't change and doesn't want to.  Sometimes that book on marriage and loving your wife like Christ won't work a miracle.  Sometimes doing all the right things as best you can and following all the right steps won't bring your wayward son to his senses.  Real life, with its bumps and trials and troubles, just isn't push-pull, like a machine that responds properly when all the right levers are pulled in the right way and the right buttons are pushed.  So, if our soul-care for suffering people is ultimately a push-pull ministry, we will fail them.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Humility vs. Being a Doormat

When you look at someone who is humble and serving, out of love, and then you look at someone who is just a doormat for others to use and walk-on, sometimes it is hard to see the difference from the outside.  Both of them do things in service of others.  Both of them put themselves aside, it seems.

But here's the difference.  The person who is a doormat is a person who is dominated by fear and who seeks to control the outcomes, such as gaining approval, preventing rejection, and maintaining the status quo, by putting on a compliant, lower-than-others, people-pleasing facade.  Whether they realize it or not (most of the time they do not, it is unconscious), it is a controlled position of avoidance... avoiding their true selves and avoiding the potentially painful consequences of rising up and being geniuine and seeking to connect with others eye-to-eye (they might reject or hurt you, after all!).  It is masqueraded anger, a way to deal with perceived threat by flight and control.  It is the equivalent of locking yourself behind a wall and while accepting abuse and lobbing gifts over the wall to control others and keep them from walking away from you.  Sure, it might seem "safe", but at what cost?  At the cost of yourself and any possibility of having closeness and engagement with anyone in this world.

Jesus served out of true humility (see Philippians 2).  His service was not a veiled power-play against His Father or others, a veiled way to keep the world going the way He desperately demanded it to be while staying at a controlled and emotionally "safe" distance.  It was not a way to deal with potential threat.  He engaged, he let go, he did not count his equality with God something to be held onto, he faced the risks and the pain he knew would come.  In the garden, Jesus said to His Father, "Nevertheless, not my will but your's be done..."  He is free, He is Himself, and in that freedom He chose to give Himself.

See, there is a way to serve others that is really only to placate them and keep them at a safe distance, managing the perceived threat, thinking that if you appease them you can be safe in your little emotional cocoon.  That is what doormats do.  They bury and imprison and punish all the parts of themselves that might cause conflict or break up the status quo or lead to being abandoned, they turn against themselves as a way to manage the pain and uncertainty of this world.  But there is a way to serve others that involves throwing caution into the wind and engaging life and connecting with others, putting aside your own safety for the sake of the good of others.  That is what Jesus did.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dusting Yourself Off

What do you do when you have sinned?  Well, we sin every day and aren't too terribly bothered by all of them, especially considering how many times we sin in ignorance.  But you know... there are those sins that are particularly destructive and/or prove to be a habitual snare.  What do you do after you fall in that way?  How do you dust yourself off and get up?

If you truly hate your sin and don't want to do it, you will feel terrible.  You will feel guilty and ashamed.  You may even feel depressed because you thought you had a handle on it, but then you fell again.  The temptation is to beat on yourself.  The temptation is to avoid the cross of Christ, or at least to avoid it until you have sufficiently atoned for your sin by self-abasement and self-torture.  The temptation is to run from God instead of toward Him.  If you do run to Him at all, it is to torture yourself in His presence by trying to show Him how sorry you are while secretly resenting Him for not helping you just annihilate this sin once and for all.

Why not go to the cross?  Well, I'm sure there are many reasons.  But one of the main ones is because we do not want let ourselves off the hook easy.  Because the old Adam in us is a died-in-the-wool legalist, we are still under the impression that applying grace to sin will produce laziness and a non-chalant attitude.  But really, there are only two options when it comes to this.  You will either go to the cross with your sin (which need not be some grand, ornate process or ritual), or you will seek to torture yourself for it in a myriad of ways.

What's so bad about self-atonement?  Well, first of all it doesn't work.  Law (punishment, condemnation) does not change your heart.  It can't.  You might be able to temporarily restrain your external behavior with fear and guilt, but it won't change your heart and produce real character. 

Also, in more pragmatic and secular terms, it is generally understood that self-condemnation becomes a mechanism for people to only continue in their destructive patterns.  It blows off a little steam, but just enough to avoid facing what is underneath the covers and therefore continue in the cycle of self-destruction: compulsive/destructive act, then self-punishment, then momentary reprieve, then tension builds inside again, then compulsive/destructive act, then self-punishment, etc.

Self-atonement is also anti-relational.  Human beings have a real knack for going all self-reliant when we experience internal crisis.  Self-atonement is a form of flight -escape from the eyes of other, from help, from community, from fellowship and intimacy with God.

But the big reason why self-punishment isn't the way to go is because it is not of faith, and hence it mocks the Gospel.  It takes faith, not laziness, to know you have sinned, hate it, and still go to the cross of Christ, leaving your sin there and all of your desires to self-punish, trusting instead in the punishment He took in your place.  Such faith changes us.  It doesn't leave us as we were.

It doesn't take faith to just say, "Well God forgives... so cool."  It doesn't take faith to believe that it is just God's job to overlook our sin, not really care about it, and then sweep it under the rug.  But that isn't going to the cross.  That isn't going to the real God, the God of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That is going to a god of our imagination: the wrinkly, old, senile, doting grandfather in the sky who used to be really mad about sin, back in the day, but has learned to relax in his old age and not take things so seriously.  That isn't going to the cross, and that isn't faith.

No, the cross is wholly different.  At the cross your sin is exposed for what it is.  Going to the cross fully simultaneously admits fully to what your sin really deserves.  It is to open yourself to the eye of God, transparently.  It puts your self fully in His hands.  In other words, truly going to the cross never treats your sin lightly.  After all, seeing Jesus dead for your sin means your sin is a very, very big deal.  You can't hide behind excuses and rationalizations and self-flattery and delusions of moral superiority at the cross.  But it is here, at the cross, that doing so is safe, because it is here at the cross that admitting your sin transparently and fully is met with welcome and peace and shalom and love and acquittal and forgiveness and acceptance and justification and reconciliation and restoration.  It is at the cross where you see the guilt of your sin swallowed up and done away with. 

It takes faith to go to the cross, because it takes faith in God's promise of the Gospel, promise of the cross, to know that being exposed there in our sinful totality will be met with satisfaction, forgiveness, and embrace rather than condemnation and rejection and fire.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Living in the Twilight

This may or may not go against certain theological qualifications and categories, but I don't care right now and I need to say it anyway because it is real.  I'm at the point in my life where I see that I need to stop living in the twilight between two worlds.  I've given myself a break, a big break in many ways, because of a lot of tribulation and suffering I've gone through in the past few years.  I've relaxed quite a bit -some ways being good but some ways not so good.  I see the long leash I've given myself, and I'm not really happy where I end up sniffing all the time.

I'm tired of slipping into the same sins, feeling guilty for a few days, and then going back to the same old non-committed attitude.  My intentions are good, but I've seen recently how I'm not 100% sold.  I'm living in a state of float, and I don't like it anymore.  I look at what Jesus did for me, and I don't like being on this long leash and sniffing in the garbage anymore.  I look at what Jesus did for me, and I honestly have to say to myself, "How can you live in such a passive, non-commital state?"  I don't want to anymore.  I don't want it on my conscience.  I don't want to live in the twilight anymore. 

Jesus, just for being who you are you deserve all of me.  But for doing all you have done for me, you especially deserve all of me... you deserve much more than a person who loves you on some level but gives himself license to be sloppy and to bend where he should not be bending.  No, there will be no guilt-tripping.  That is not what I am adopting instead.  I mean I want to be yours, for real again.

Sometimes "grace" can become a crutch and be dangerously used to minimize our sin, for fear of going to the opposite extreme and self-flagellating. "Oh, it's ok. Everybody sins.  God isn't disappointed -He already knew it would happen."  Excuses.  Rationalizations.  Minimizations.  But that isn't really grace. Grace doesn't minimize sin. It upholds the Law while getting past it to the point where you see that you are free at an amazing Price.  Jesus -you are that price.  This is where I've missed it, lately. 

Again... Jesus, given what you have done, how can I continue to live like it isn't a big deal?  How can I not give myself 100% to you?  I must ask myself... "Where does your allegiance really lie?"  I want to come home.  No more minimizations or excuses.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Losing My Religion

Below is a video from one of my favorite bands during my teen and young adult years.  Ironically, I could not be more ideologically or theologically distant from them, since they are unabashedly atheistic, but I love their music and though I disagree with them on many fronts I can't help but sympathize with them sometimes when it comes to their jabs at organized religion, namely organized "Christianity."

I think when we who call ourselves "Christian" lose our ability to sympathize with the grievances of those who don't believe as we do we lose our touch with this world.  When we cease to be able to listen and have willingness to see some validity in their complaints and objections, some of them very personal, we become unrelatable.  When we live in our Christian bubble where everything is about playing the Christian part and doing Christian things, we become someone that outsiders see as detached and unconcerned for this world.
And along with all of this, when we embrace the un-Biblical idea that all sin and brokenness can be fixed and changed in this world, unable to live in and love people in the real world where things are not so black-and-white, we become unrelatable to people who are really struggling and really suffering in this world, which is everyone at some point.

Unfortunately, many self-professing "Christians" become unrelatable, and we dismiss it with quick catch-phrases like "We're in the world but not of the world" or "The Gospel offends people -I can't help that."  We do care about some important things.  We care about pro-life.  We care about moral issues.  We care, to some degree, about feeding the poor -I mean, we'll at least give money at church for it.  But when our best friend is going off the deep end, we forget about them.  When people we once loved aren't living right, we distance ourselves from them. Maybe we are afraid we will become more like them because we are aware of our own weaknesses.  But maybe we are afraid that we don't know what to do because we have this idea burnt into our brains that all sin can be fixed -and if it can't just be fixed and overcome through some prayer and Christian self-help books, then we panic and don't know what to do about it.


We have a reputation for being up-tight and unrelatable.  And because of that, we fuel the erroneous assumption of our larger culture:  becoming a "Christian" means becoming just like that.  The larger culture, as men like Tim Keller have pointed out, generally believes that when we call them to believe in Jesus we are calling them to be essentially "Christian" religious moralists -people who are up-tight, unrelatable, who do their little Christian cultural things, who have their practices and their moral code (but with a nice Jesus emblem on it), and who then try to push it on everyone else.

"Well, gee... when you say it that way, I can see why someone wouldn't want that..."

It is true, of course, that God can save people in spite of our imperfections.  That is 100% true.  But that doesn't mean we aren't responsible for our non-conformity to the Gospel (myself included).  And it is also true that the Gospel is just offensive and repulsive by its very nature.  After all, that is how we are saved.  Hearing the Gospel brings about a death in us.  It clobbers our self-righteous, self-glorifying, self-deluded flesh.  But then something happens with most of us.  We become immersed in Christian culture and the "Christian look" which may have very little to do with the Gospel at all.  We forget that we should be daily returning to the place where we were first saved, the place where we saw ourselves in one amazing moment as simultaneously sinful, condemnable, guilty, and broken, but also justified, forgiven, accepted, and beloved for the sake of the One who died for us.

The song above talks about a pastor who climbs up to his pulpit and solemnly delivers shocking news to his congregation:  he can't relate to any of them.  The implication is that he is abandoning his faith because he can't relate to it and to any of the people who make up the community who embrace it.
Here's a story of an honest man losing religion,
Climbing the pulpit steps before an eager congregation,
The while praying came a wicked inspiration,
Brothers, sisters this is what he said:

Dearly beloved, dearly beloved, dearly beloved,
(Make no mistake, despite our traits, I've seldom seen evidence of genes)
I can't relate to you, I can't relate to you!

Sadly, I believe it is possible that plenty of people walk away from "Christianity" not only because of our common love for rebellion but sometimes perhaps mainly because they have the image of God in them which hates the smell of a counterfeit.

What is the solution?  It is easy to pick out flaws.  I don't know how to implement anything on a practical level.  To an outsider, they would say our Christianity is too strong.  If we toned it down a bit, we would be less up-tight and more open to different people and struggling people.  We just need to become more like those liberal and nominal Christians, right?  They go to church and stuff, but they know how to leave that behind and return to real life.  That is what we need, right?  Moderation...

No, that is false.  Our Christianity, true Christianity, needs to be deeper.  There are two things that the cross of Christ opposes, not just one.  The cross of Christ opposes open sin, but it also opposes pretentious, detached, happy-clappy-bubble religiosity.  It calls the "sinner" out of the pig slop, but it also pops the hot-air inflated bubble of the "good religious."  It brings us both down to earth where God is God and we are humans who rely on His unconditional grace.

I don't want to over-generalize, but has it dawned on the Church that Jesus alienated religious people but was a friend to "sinners?"  And yet today, many Christians are alienated from "sinners" and fit in quite well with religious people.  Hmm... 

We don't need strategies to try to be hip and "relevant."  External strategies don't change the attitude behind it all.  We need to come back down to earth out of the lofty clouds of organized "Christianity."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Simul Iustus et Peccator

I always thought Latin was cool.  It was mandatory to take two years of latin at the private school I went to, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There is something just... what's the word... classic or distinguished about it.

The phrase "simul iustus et peccator" is a Latin phrase that comes out of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther used it to describe the state of a believer in Christ.  He is simultaneously just and sinful.  In Christ, through faith in Him because of His death and resurrection for us, we are simultaneously declared righteous or "right" in God's sight and yet sinful. 

This truth, this reality, is not some mere factual declaration.  Living in this is exactly what frees us.  For it is how the old us is slain in the shadow of the cross, and it is what brings the new us out of the grave.  The cross of Christ tells you, "Jesus had to die because of your sins.  All of your pretensions of goodness, all your moral improvement projects are for naught.  The blood of the Son of God was necessary for you."  This is the death knell to all of our spiritual pride, to the old Adam in us... the same old Adam that likes to do bad things or likes to maintain control by trying to be good.  It says, "Your efforts are for naught.  You are cursed, and this is what it took to save you."

But then it says, "Yet the grace of God has come in this cross, in this crucified Savior, to blot out all your sins and bring you into the throne room of grace."  This is where faith is awakened, where the new man is awakened in us.  Grace upon grace.  God has not cast us off.  He has done the impossible.  You are the prodigal, the lost son and sinner, and the Father has thrown a party for you.  You are justified, accepted, adopted...

The combination of these truths is what undergirds the Christian life and what fuels our change and growth in faith and love.  Seeing that the cross declares us "peccator" (sinful), all the aspirations of the old Adam in us with his sin and pretenses and self-sufficient self-improvement programs are exposed as futile, ending in and deserving only death.  But seeing that the cross declares us "iustus" (righteous), a new love is kindled in the heart in which we find ourselves allied with God anew.  The old is condemned to death and the new is awakened in faith.

Seeing this is a daily need.  It is something to live in.  It is not something we need just once, and it is through this that we are made new, day by day, as the old Adam is constantly sent back to the grave.  As Forde wrote,

"We should make no mistake about it: sin is to be conquered and expelled.  But if we see that sin is the total state of standing against the unconditional grace and goodness of God, if sin is our very incredulity, unbelief, mistrust, our insistence on falling back on our self and maintaining control, then it is only through the total grace of God that sin comes under attack, and only through faith in that total grace that sin is defeated.  To repeat: sin is not defeated by a repair job, but by dying and being raised new."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Liturgy Again

I've posted before on the theological implications of the Sunday morning worship liturgy.  Maybe you think I'm splitting theological hairs.  Why change what seems to be working in churches all across America?

I understand.  It is hard to buck against the tide.  Every church in town, and what seems like every church in America, follows the same pattern:  "praise and worship" music, then sermon, then some kind of blessing and dismissal.

But when I show up on Sunday morning, I'm not really all that excited.  I'm tired.  I'm fleshly.  I'm dull.  I'm expectant of what the Lord will do, but the "praise and worship" part feels like more of an obstacle.  Yes, I know there are some super-elite Christians out there who would tell me that I need to prepare more for worship.  I need to go to bed earlier.  I need to pray more the night before.

The problem is that even if I do all of those things, it doesn't change the fact that I show up to church with my old Adam.  Maybe part of the problem is that we don't get what the old Adam is.  We think he is the part of us that wants to watch bad movies and listen to Lady Gaga and hang out at bars.  He is (that was a joke about Lady Gaga).  But the old Adam is also the religious fraud in us, the perpetual spiritual climber, the part of us who longs for a spiritual todo list, who still wants to believe that he can do it, he can become more moral, more spiritual, and more close to God if he just applies himself.  That is the part of me that screws everything up.  That is the part of me that needs to die.

And that is the part of me that does die whenever I hear the word of the cross, the word about Jesus.  What does the Bible say?  "Faith comes by hearing..."  ...hearing the word about Jesus.  Worship comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing. Faith is when the old Adam is put in the grave by the Word, the Gospel, and the new man rises to life.

This is why we leave church with a heart that is full and joyful and inspired, after hearing about what Jesus has done for us.  In other words, we leave church ready for worship.  Then wouldn't it make sense to put the worship singing right there, after the Word?

Let's summarize it.  Worship springs out of faith.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of the Gospel.  Ergo, the "praise and worship" should follow the preaching.  Simple?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Short Thoughts on Sanctification

I've been reading a great article on sanctification by the late Gerhard Forde, found here:
http://pastormattrichard.webs.com/Forde_Sanctifcation.pdf

I want to write something longer, later, on this topic, which is so important, but I want to point out a few things in passing that jump out at me from the article.

First, sanctification in modern evangelical circles is largely thought of as a separet thing from justification.  You get "justified" and then it is time to get on with the work of sanctification, which is something we do.  But as Forde points out, the Bible does not separate justifaction and santification like that.  Not only is sanctification something that God does, it is something that happens in connection with justification.  It is, as Forde puts it, "getting used to unconditional justification."

Second, sanctification is not to be equated with living morally or trying to climb some kind of moral latter.  There is nothing wrong with living morally -don't miss the point.  The point is that making sanctification some kind of religious or moral ladder is essentially to hand the reigns back to the old Adam in us.  "Sin is a slavery which we escape only through death," Forde notes.  You can't escape sin through moral improvement and effort.  Only through death.  What death?  The death that has happened to us through our union with Christ.  Check out Romans 6:1-11.  We are to consider ourselves dead already.  Done.  The more we see that, the less power the old Adam in us has.

Third, in this truth, sanctification is about being made new.  It isn't about us doing.  It is about a new man being made where the old has died.  It is through hearing that faith is borne, and it is through faith in the declaration that we are "dead" in Christ, dead through free, unconditional grace and justification, that the new man rises from the grave with Christ.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Mocking the Cross

We mock the cross when we do not take all of our guilt to it but hold some of it within, deciding how we will redeem or punish ourselves accordingly.  We minimize the significance of both our sin and the cross, opting instead to hide behind a wall with our self-redemption projects or self-flagellation, and we thereby rob ourselves also of the joy and power of the cross to change us.

We mock the cross when we will not forgive someone, because we are mocking the way in which God dealt with all sin and seeks to deal with all of us, reconciling the world to Himself through the blood of Jesus.  We say, "No, God.  Your way is insufficient.  My way is better, more just."

We mock the cross when we substitute a Christian image or ideal for God's Law.  A Christian image is more attainable, and we might just convince ourselves that we are pulling it off.  But there is no savior from this image, only from God's Law, so we not only empty the cross of its power but empty ourselves of any real options.  Self is a very, very poor savior.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Law Cannot Produce What it Commands

The Law commands, what?  Love.  At it's essence, God's Law commands love.  That is something that is found in the heart and which ripples out through the actions.  This goes beyond mere outward deeds and gets right down to the very motivations behind what we do and how we interact with others.

What do you do when you see that you fail?  What, as a Christian, do you do?  Well, one of the purposes of the Law is to show you that you are guilty and need a savior.  So, even as a Christian, the Law is intended to show you that you still need Jesus, you still need grace.  You aren't now some superman.

But this answer is not satisfactory to most of us.  The fear is that we will abuse grace -we will use grace as a context to minimize the grievous nature of our sin.  The fear may be real.  We may actually abuse grace.  Or it may be more hypothetical.  We are afraid of grace that free.  We are used to operating within the safe but cruel confines of performance-based living, complete with the hope of self-redemption and the biting sting and grinding pressure of condemnation.  We essentially say to ourselves, "You don't deserve grace because you will abuse it, so I'm putting you back under the Law to punish you and teach you a lesson."

Let me illustrate what I mean.  Let's say there is a man who was taught always that "real Christians" give 10% of their money to church faithfully.  Now, there is nothing wrong with that, so don't miss the point.  But this person frets and worries because he finds himself in predicaments often where he cannot afford to pay the amount he predetermined.  He also has to eat and pay rent.  He feels guilty, blaming his mismanagement of money.  How dare he buy things for himself, for example, or do something fun with his wife!

So, he turns to Dave Ramsey out of guilt.  He may tell himself that he wants to do right by the Lord, but this goal is mixed heavily with a desire to wipe away his sense of guilt and condemnation.  Dave Ramsey's advice just makes him feel worse, because he has a difficult time even doing that.  So what does he do?

He runs to his Bible.  He reads about Ananias and Sapphira.  He reads about sacrificial giving.  He reads about cheerful giving.  He looks at himself and at his heart and is terrified and depressed.  He is not cheerful -he is stressed about it!  And because he "mismanaged" his money by spending it on a few personal things that month, he concludes he is selfish.  He then wonders if he should force himself to starve for a few weeks so that he can just pay the tithe and get it over with.  But he sees the lack of love and other-centeredness in his motivations there and just feels worse.

Where to turn now?  He wants to turn back to the treadmill of the Law, so back to the Dave Ramsey website... and the cycle continues.  Guilt, trying to pull up his bootstraps, failure, guilt, condemnation, more trying to pull up his bootstraps, etc.  And at the end, he is not left with a heart that feels more loving and cheerful for giving.  He is left with a heart that feels condemned and defeated... and exhausted.

Where is Jesus in all of this?  Jesus stands not as Savior but as disappointed Lawgiver, shaking his head at how this poor man can't just get it together.

The thing is... the Law will do its job.  It will show you that you fail, eventually.  And it will eventually show you that you need a savior.  But who will that savior be?  Will it be you or will it be Jesus?  Will it send you back on yourself, in the endless cycle of performance and guilt and shame, falling into a deeper pit because you see that living under the Law does not and cannot change your heart?  Or will it send you to Jesus, to see the One who suffered, the pure One who was killed by your sins and for your sins, the one who gave and gave and gave to you in you poverty until it killed Him, and thus to see that you are free from your condemnation for something like poor stewardship, and thus to live in that freedom and go to Dave Ramsey out of that?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Essence

I read this in a book I just downloaded on my Nook.  I stopped at this sentence.

"The essence of being a Christian is placing all our hope in God, knowing we can trust Him to fulfill all his promises..."  (Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room, by Nancy Guthrie)

That is the essence.  I agree, and it is something that is easy to lose sight of.  Obviously, there are plenty of details left out of this statement... specifically about Jesus and what He did for us.  The promises contained in Jesus are the main promises to which the author refers.  But in essence, being a Christian is about God's promises (in Christ) and us trusting those promises. 

It isn't primarily about living a more moral life, though if you really trust God's promises you will want to come down to earth and live a more humble life, which includes following Him.  It isn't about going to church more, though if you really trust God's promises you will want to join others in worshipping Him.  It isn't even primarily, in essence, about being kinder and more loving to others, though if you really believe in what God did for you in Jesus, sending Him to die for your sins while you were an enemy and rise from the grave for you, and trust in God's promises for you in what He did you will soften and want to be more compassionate, even toward your own enemies.

Part of the reason being a Christian isn't primarily about these things is because you can do all of these things, on the outside, and have it still really be all about you.  You can be a "good person," and have it still be about you being good.  In other words, you can look great on the outside and have it be utterly disconnected from a living trust in God.

And being a Christian definitely isn't about becoming more religious or trying to perform our way into heaven, which is impossible anyway -if getting into heaven and being acceptable to God by our own good deeds was possible, then Jesus died for no reason (paraphrase of Galatians 2:21).  That is the whole point and the "prerequisite" to being a Christian: realizing that you are lost, that your "goodness" is a sham, and that you need a Hero. 

No, the essence is primarily about God doing something and God promising something, and us believing that He will be faithful.  Our belief in His faithfulness is our faithfulness... and all that flows out of that in our lives.

This is not an easy thing to do.  That is why it is likened to a race of endurance, or a "walk," or any of the other such metaphors.  What happens when tragedy strikes your life?  What happens when you try to do the right things and bad things still happen?  Why did God allow it?  Did He give up on you?  This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where you must look again at what it all means to believe and give up on the notion that you can or should be able to control your universe by being "good." 

This is where you face a challenge: will you believe Him?  He hasn't given any answers for why this bad things happened.  He doesn't even tell you what He is doing or when it will end.  All you have, the fullest and clearest expression and revelation of God, is found in the Son of God, Jesus, hanging in shame, like a weakling, on a cross... only to raise from the grave as the first of a new creation.  That's it.  In that is the heart of God revealed.  That -He- is the encapsulation of all of God's faithfulnes and all of His promises.

Walking by faith, believing in Jesus, means that this is enough.  I may not like how things are going.  I may not like that God allowed it and continues to allow it.  I may be suffering painfully.  But can I still look at that scene, at Him hanging there, bleeding, and then at the empty tomb, and say, "That is enough.  I know God is still here, with me.  I know He has not left.  I know He will fulfill all His promises to me."  That is where the rubber meets the road.  That is where the superficiality of feel-good spirituality and churchy religion and push-pull-morality-to-get-an-easy-life doesn't address real life.  That is where we either begin to enter the cross or walk away from it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Strings Attached

So you put in tons of hard work for someone, maybe when nobody else would.  You try to give them the best you have.  But they treat it like nothing, and they give their thanks to someone else.

Have you ever been in a situation like that before?

And some people will make you feel terrible for being upset about it.  Some people, often Christians especially, will make you feel like you are being selfish for being hurt.  Some of them might also tell you that they don't get upset like that when their overtures are rejected.  They tell you that you are giving with "strings attached."  That doesn't help.  It helps to only embed your negative feelings more deeply, leading to resentment.

But the thing is... it does hurt when you put a lot into someone and they reject or minimize or dismiss your efforts.  There isn't much you can do about it hurting.  We aren't robots, and it isn't selfish to have it hurt.  It isn't having "string attached."

And when people tell you that they never feel this way, stop and take a look.  You probably don't have to look too long to see how they struggled (and maybe still struggle!) with having their overtures rejected by certain people in their lives.  In other words, nobody is immune to this, and if someone thinks they are then they are lying or blind.

It becomes "strings attached," however, when you can't let go of the hurt.  When you hold on to it, and it settles into bitterness, and you need them to respect you and validate your overtures, then there are "strings attached."  That way of relating to people is not only sinful, it will not get you anywhere.  It will destroy what you seek to create.

That is why the only real solution to having your overtures rejected is to embrace the hurt head on and move through it, letting it go, and continuing to pursue and engage others.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Living under the Law

A young woman tried so hard to remain pure until marriage.  Her youth group, which she didn't like for various reasons, was pretty up front about the importance of remaining sexually pure.  They explained how sex outside of marriage is sinful.  They probably even warned her about all of the emotional baggage that comes about from these types of non-committed sexual relationships and encounters.  She was on board.  She wanted to do the right thing.

Then she met a guy.  She really liked him -a lot.  They were in love.  It was the first time she had ever felt this way about a guy.  And they had sex.  She rationalized it by explaining to herself and others that she loved him.  But soon after that their relationship took a turn, and they broke up.

What happened next?  She decided that remaining pure didn't matter any more, since she had already blown it.  So, she began sleeping with guy after guy, digging herself into a deeper hole, emotionally scarring herself more and more -all the while covering up those scars with numbness and apathy.  The Jesus she thought she knew became someone she avoided, along with church and Christians.  She didn't like the judgmental people in youth group, which was true, but she was also running away from any further sense of guilt and condemnation she felt.

This is what happens when we, even as Christians, still live under the Law.  It doesn't make us better people.  It shoves us down the path of rebellion further.  She believed that Christianity was essentially this:  you "get saved" by giving your life to Jesus who died on the cross for your sins, and then, as a Christian, you must keep your nose clean and live in such a way as to keep Jesus happy.  And what happens when you finally come to the point where you realize you have blown it?  Well, most religious people will continue to try and make amends and clean themselves up, but sometimes... sometimes a person will see that they have blown it and realize they can't undo what they have done.  So, they run away.  They run away from Jesus, and they run toward a life of "who cares, now -I've screwed it up, so it no longer matters..."

But they never understood the Gospel to begin with.  No, I'm not going to start going after the whole "purity" thing that youth groups try to indoctrinate youngsters with.  I agree with staying pure -not just because the alternative is sin but because life would have much fewer headaches if everyone did.  The issue here is that the Gospel is not grasped, not understood, and it is utterly disconnected with living as a Christian.  The Gospel becomes merely something you need to "get saved," and then we stay saved by keeping our nose clean (i.e. by living under the Law).  Nobody would say we have to be perfect.  Gossip is bad but not that bad, being jealous and spiteful fall into the same category, but for a teen who is told how important remaining sexually pure is, to "break" that is to cross the line which cannot be erased and redrawn.

But what is the Gospel?  The Gospel is the good news of how God has sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus, down into our world to live, die, and rise from the dead for us, to break the curse separating us from God, to defeat our enemies, and to restore us to a new relationship and new people with God.  In other words, the Gospel is about God creating something new and removing all the obstacles keeping us apart.

There are two main ways to keep from being close to someone.  The obvious way is to just avoid them and live as though they are not in your life.  The less obvious way is to relate to the other person like they are a boss, someone to please or placate, someone to keep up appearances for so that they will not react in a way you dislike.  It is less obvious because it appears good on the surface, but underneath all of the pleasing and placating is a heart that is keeping the other person at arms-length.  "Here's what you asked for, nor give me what I want or just let me be."

This is true in both human pscyhology and Biblical theology.  Take the parable of the "prodigal son" in Luke.  There are two brothers -there is the one who wanted the father's money and took it to run away and live wildly, but there is also the brother who always did what the father asked and worked like a slave for him.  At the end of the parable, it is revealed that the "good" brother only wanted the father's things, too.  He placated the father in order to gain control of his things, not because he loved his father and wanted to be close to him.

Living under the Law, while appearing to be "good" (sometimes very good), is just another way to avoid closeness with God.  The problem is not with the Law, per se, because the Law is very good and reflects the goodness of God and the goodness He wants for us.  The problem is us.

But with the Gospel, we who believed are no longer under the Law.  We have died to the Law... in order to be married to a new Husband, to Jesus (Romans 7).  God came down, came close to us, drew near to us, saw the ugliness of our sin, and bore it Himself.  When you see that your Best Friend gave up everything to free you from your prison and have you for Himself, when you see that He knows your deepest flaws and not only loves you anyway but bore the burden of your flaws, does it bring you to live as though he is a boss to placate?  No.  It brings you to live out of love, out of true closeness and transparency with that Person.  And to know that the Person who did all of this is your King only adds to the motivation.

See, the Law is good, but it can never create in us what it demands -a heart which loves God with all its strength and loves its neighbor.  In fact, living under the Law propels us further away from God, as seen with the young woman I discussed in the beginning of this article.  It was her non-relational, Law-based view of the Christian live which created fertile soil for her to walk away once she realized she "blew it."  Only faith, only true closeness with the One who died for us, creates in us what the Law requires: love.  He established and opened the door of that closeness by coming down to you and dying for you and rising from the grave for you to create something new, a new creation, a new life, a new way of relating to God and others, a new people.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Harsh or Holy?

The God of the Bible kills people.  He sends people to hell.  The Bible is replete with example after example.  God flooded the earth in Genesis 6, killing millions.  God killed hundreds or thousands when He rained fire on Sodom (Genesis 19).  God killed Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, for making an impure offering before Him.  And in Revelation 21, it says that God sends the cowardly and faithless to the "lake that burns with fire and sulphur."  There are many, many more examples, but these will do.

This God is "harsh."  He seems temperamental, capricious, and ready to snap -allowing certain things to go unpunished while killing someone for something as small as touching the Ark of the Covenant when it almost fell to the ground.  Whoa.  So unlike the Santa Clause-type god we like to imagine.  "Harsh," seems like an appropriate word, but isn't calling God "harsh" a veiled way of saying He is overbearing, overly-sensitive, and ultimately unjust?

But is He unjust, or is it just that we don't understand Him? Is He really unjust, or is it that we are unwilling to see things differently? 

God is not unjust.  Turn it around for one minute and think to yourself that everything He does, even in killing people, is right. He has the right to do it, and He is right to do it -even when we don't get it. If you look at it this way, what does it mean? It means that God is holy, in a way unapproachable, and that He has the right to do with us as He pleases. We have personal rights when it comes to each other, because He endowed us with personal dignity as His image-bearers, but in comparison to Him we are like ants and His rights transcend all. He has the right to do with His creation as He sees fit.  He has the right to take the life that He gave. And He has the right to act when His creatures act against and defy His character.

Yes, that is scary, but it is scary in a different way than saying He is tempermental or harsh like an abusive parent. It is scary because it means that you and I are powerless before Him.  We have zero claim on Him, and He has all the claim on us.  We have no ultimate say.  We are clay in the Potter's hands.  Our delusions of our goodness and our control and our "rights" fade quickly.  We are creatures and God is God.

In a world where we are always demanding our rights be heard and complain and even get angry with God when our plans never don't out, this is worthy of pause and reflection.

And then it comes...

"I could never believe in and love a God like that," some of us protest, if we are honest with ourselves.  My response to that is, "I know.  That is my point."  We don't like the idea of God having that much right over us.  "What abour our rights?!"  We are perpetually stuck on ourselves, even when it comes to God.  It would be too much for us to humble ourselves, bend the knee, and admit with full agreement and no reluctance that God is holy and just and has the right to take the life He gave, to execute judgment on anything that defies His character and desires, and otherwise do whatever He pleases whenever He pleases.

God is God and God is holy, and this pride of ours -this demand to be treated as God's equal, to have our rights be equal with God's, and to be consulted when it comes to the affairs of our life- is our problem, not His.  When we turn it around and see that God is God and we are not, that God is right to do whatever He pleases, our mirage of grandeur vanishes.  But then something happens.  We see an altogether different side of God, a side that is not just "righteous and just," not just transcendent, but something more.

That is what Isaiah experienced when he had his vision of God in Isaiah 6. I read from some commentaries that Isaiah was smart, intelligent, fairly confident, and capable. He was like the opposite of the timid Jeremiah. But when Isaiah saw YHWH God seated on His throne, all of that went away. He fell on his face and cried out, "Woe is me... I am a man of unclean lips!" How did God respond? Did He gloat and send bolts of lightning to terrorize Isaiah? No. He sent an angel with a hot coal to touch it to Isaiah's lips. He then pronounced, "You are clean."

It is God's holiness that makes His grace so profound. The God who sits exalted, from whom the earth and sky flee, who has the right to take the life He gave us when He sees fit, who has the right to execute perfect justice on the self-ruling heart of all of His human creatures, and who would still be perfectly righteous in doing so, is the same God who chose to come down from above, to humble Himself, to enter our creation as one of us, to walk among us, to be tempted as we are tempted, to know what it is like to be us, to fulfill all the obedience for us that we do not and could not fulfill, and then to die for our sins and rise from the grave in victory over the enemy of sin and death. It is the same God who took all of our sin and all the obstacles between Him and us on Himself so that we could return to Him and be His. It is the same God who calls the spiritually lost and "thirsty" to come to Him, who ate and drank at the table with sinners and tax collectors, and who built His Church on earth from broken, sin-sick people who know they need a Savior.

When we look at the cross of Christ, we can see both sides. We can see a God who hates sin so much and takes sin so seriously that He had His own perfect Son suffer horribly for it. But we can also see a God who is so full of love and grace that He took that sin on Himself for us, to bring us back completely by His grace. Sure, some people claim that they believe in Jesus and then live as if He doesn't even exist. But if you really see the whole picture of God, you can't do it. The only response is to be amazed and love Him. Even as I write this, I am amazed a bit.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Romans 7

To me, Romans 7 is one of the best passages that gives a sobering and realistic portrait of the Christian life. It has comforted me in many times of internal struggle.  Paul describes himself as loving God's Law, serving God's law in his mind, but also battling his flesh, which wants to do evil. He does not do the good he wants to do but does the bad he doesn't want to do. He is a man in conflict.

Some think that Romans 7 is talking about Paul's experience before becoming a believer in Jesus. I read some ridiculous article online, even, that tried to say that if this passage is about Paul as a believer then it would be saying Paul is a "carnal Christian." No.. a "carnal Christian" does not love God's law and battle sin, as Paul describes -he ignores God's law and enjoys his sin. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful for someone if I listed a few of the reasons why I am convinced Paul's words are talking about the believer's experience, using himself as an example.

1. The person Paul describes in these verses is one who wants to do good and hates evil (vv. 15, 16, 19, 20, see below) and who as far as the "inner man" is concerned loves and delights in God's Law (v.22) and serves it in his mind (v. 25b). But this is not how Paul describes unregenerate people (unbelievers) elsewhere. Paul says, for example in Romans 8:7, that the mind of set on the flesh (like an unbeliever) is hostile toward God -it "does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot."

"15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Romans 7:15-20)
So, if in this section of Romans 7 Paul is saying that when he was an unbeliever he served God's Law with his mind, why would he only a handful of verses later say that the flesh-dominated (unbeliever) mind is hostile to God and unable to submit to or serve God? It would be a contradiction. It makes no sense unless this "conflicted man" section in Romans 7 is talking about him as a believer -believers *are* described as wanting to please God, serving God in their mind, delighting in God's Law, even though they still struggle in sin. Unbelievers are never described this way. Recall how Paul describes unregenerate man in Romans 3 ("no one understands... no one seeks after God... there is no fear of God before their eyes...").

Bible commentator C.E.B. Cranfield notes, "In fact, a struggle as serious as that which is here described can only take place where the Spirit of God is present and active (cf. Gal 5:17)." I have to agree, and if we look at Galatians 5:17 we see a familiar concept. We see the desires of the flesh battling against the desires of the Spirit, to "keep you from doing the things you want to do." Paul urges us to walk by the Spirit. It is clear in this passage in Galatians that he is talking to believers. This battle is only a battle for believers. Unbelievers do not battle their flesh -they walk and live in it only.

2. If we read verses 21 through 25, we see something interesting.

"21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin."
Paul continues to lament his battle within. Finally, he comes to verse 24 and cries out "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me...?" This is a point of climax, one would think. If Paul was really talking about his experience before he believed in Jesus, now is when he would tell us how Jesus saved him and how now he has changed because of the Holy Spirit or something like that. But that isn't what happens. He does say, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord..." He does point to Jesus as the solution and gives thanks for Him, but there is no change that follows. He says, "So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Hmm... It's the same condition just restated (look at verses 21 and 22). That would be a big letdown if the post-Jesus condition is the same as the pre-Jesus condition, wouldn't it? It doesn't make sense. It only makes sense if we understand this section as Paul talking about his experience as a believer.

3. Getting into some details, Paul says that "in my mind I serve (Greek word douleow) the Law of God" in verse 25. This Greek word is the same word or same basic root word that Paul uses in other places in Romans, namely in his talk of serving and being a "slave" in Romans 6. Paul tells us that before our conversion we were "slaves" or servants (Greek douloi, same root) of sin. But after conversion we are "slaves" (edoulothayte, same root word) of righteousness. It would make no sense to the readers of this letter if Paul later, in chapter seven, was saying that unbelievers were servants of God's Law in their mind. It is clear to me that what Paul is talking about is a man who loves God, loves His law, and wants to serve God's Law (because he is converted) but still battles his flesh.

This, to me, not only makes sense of what Paul is saying in this chapter and in the context of Romans as a whole, but in the experience of the Christian life -both my own experience and how the New Testament depicts believers, even the apostles themselves, in other places. For example, Paul calls himself the "chief of sinners." He does not say, "I was the chief of sinners." It is written in present tense and it is clear in context that he is not speaking hypothetically. He says, "I am (still)..." Also consider chapter two of Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was years after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit was sent, and Paul talked about how he rebuked Peter for walking out of step with the Gospel. How could a Spirit-indwelt, Jesus-picked apostle walk out of step with the Gospel?! It is because Romans 7 describes even Peter accurately.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

True Closeness

"Fix Me!"

This is the cry of the heart of many of us.  We beg for God to "fix us."  We want therapists to "fix us."  We want to fix ourselves.  So, we relentlessly pursue our goal.  Our focus is predominantly performance-based.  And when God doesn't fix us, we become angry with Him or decide He does not care.  When therapists don't fix us, we find another or slump in despair, believing we cannot be fixed.  And worse, when we cannot fix ourselves, we attack, condemn, beat on, punish, and isolate ourselves -sabotaging the thing we truly need: true closeness with God and others.

When the cry of our heart is "fix me!", we dictate the terms of the relationship with God (and with others).  Have you noticed that?  And why doesn't God comply?  Why doesn't He answer our desperate demand to have our person flaws and foibles and shortcomings fixed?  It seems like He doesn't, at least not to our satisfaction.  Why could it be?  Could it be that God doesn't want to settle for that?  Could it be that God doesn't want a relationship that is not really a relationship?  Could it be that what God desires is closeness -the very thing you are avoiding with your demanding attitude?

Yes, being free from your problems, from your flaws, from those things you struggle with which make life so difficult, might solve some things.  But it is a pretty low goal.  It is a goal that God really doesn't care much for.  After all, He could have "fixed" us in a myriad of ways.  But He didn't.  Instead, He chose to come down to us.  To stoop to our level, if you will.  He entered our world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.  Could it be that He chose this way to redeem us because it is the only way to break down our constant need to climb our ladders and avoid the very thing we need most -closeness with our Maker?

This is what is so insidious about religious moralism.  It is easy to see that outright sin, like committing adultery or murdering someone or stealing, would separate us from God and get in the way of a relationship with Him.  But religious moralism, trying to relentlessly "fix" ourselves morally and spiritually, creates the same problem in a less obvious way.  See, it looks like we are being close with God.  It looks good.  It looks all spiritual.  But you aren't close with someone you are trying to buy off with your good deeds.  You aren't close with someone you are trying to placate in order to keep yourself from being punished.  You aren't close with someone when you hope to manipulate their blessing by your behavior.


True Closeness

But God did come down.  God did stoop to our level.  Jesus is "God with us."  He did walk in our shoes.  He did enter our suffering.  He did bear our sins by dying for them.  He did rise from the grave for us as the first of a new creation.  And He sent His Holy Spirit to be with us.  And by His Spirit, He created His Body here on earth -the Church, the body of all believers all over the world.

By grace alone through faith alone we belong to Jesus and become part of this new creation.  We are accepted by God purely as a gift, by what Jesus did on our behalf.  Our flaws and sins are covered by His blood.  All obstacles are removed.  Obstacles to what?  To merely being forgiven and accepted?  No.  Being justified, accepted, forgiven, and reconciled to God are but means to an end.  What is the goal of all of these things?  We get God.  We get closeness, true closeness, with God.

And in this new creation, we are told there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free.  What is the purpose of that?  Is it just a nice thing to say?  No, it is so that all the world's performance standards and ways we classify ourselves as better or worse than others come to naught and we are enabled to just be -to be close, to be in community without the strife and without the competitive, self-serving, comparative individualism. 

Can you remember back to when you were really little?  Maybe you didn't have true closeness like that.  Maybe you remember wanting it but not getting it.  All of us missed it in some degree because we all have imperfect parents and siblings and friends and teachers who need Jesus just as much as anyone else.  But some of us missed that more than others.  And over the years, we have become jaded and dull to the idea of true closeness.  What is it even?  We certainly don't know.  We gave up and settled for "fix me."  We became fixed on performance to deal with the pain and anger and difficulty in life.