The Garden of Gethsemane

If you’ve been to Israel, you know that there’s no place in the world quite like it. Jerusalem was one of my favorite parts of our visit. Going to Jerusalem feels a little like going to the top of the world, because since the world began this little patch of land has been right at the center of the action.

Just to the East of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, a very significant little hilltop. Many believe that it was there that Jesus ascended into heaven (although the gospels are unclear on the exact location), and Zechariah 14:4 prophesies that Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives and split it in two on the “day of the Lord.”

If you stand on the Mount of Olives and look down in the valley in between there and the Temple Mount, you will see a grove of olive trees. Olive trees are  not an uncommon sight around Jerusalem, but this particular grove of trees is very special. This is the garden of Gethsemane.

Because of the many centuries that have passed and the fact that there are so many “olive gardens” around, it is difficult to know the exact spot described in the gospels where Jesus went and prayed before his arrest. But we can be confident that the spot was very near the garden site identified today. Our group gathered in a fenced-in area adjacent to the traditional Gethsemane spot to pray and reflect. 

As I looked around at the trees, it was very easy to imagine Jesus kneeling
next to one of them, grasping the knobby, porous and almost perforated trunk, crying out to God to take the cup of suffering from him. How striking the contrast between the peace of such a beautiful place and the anguish that Christ felt as he prepared to bear the weight of sin.

The fascinating thing about the word Gethsemane is that it actually means “olive press.” Because olives were (and still are) such an important in Israel, it made sense to have an olive press near the place where the olives were grown. After the olives are harvested, they are taken into a building or cave where they are crushed to a pulp with a stone wheel and then placed into large, circular bag-like baskets. The baskets are then stacked up and pressed by a large beam that can be attached to varying stone weights, thus extracting the oil from them. The first press is the purest and most precious oil, and each subsequent press is of lower quality. While olive oil is used for cooking and other general use, it specifically prescribed for use in worship in the Old Testament. Consecrated oil was used for anointing, for incense, and for lighting the lamps that burned in God’s house.

Here’s the kicker: Do you know how many times they press olives? Three. Do you know how many times Jesus went away to pray in the garden? Three. You see, Jesus wasn’t praying in a random place outside the city before he went to the cross. God in his sovereignty was giving us another picture of what Jesus was about to do through his death: be utterly crushed on our behalf so that the anointing of God could rest on us, so that the incense of our prayers could be heard, so that the light of the gospel could shine on us.

Jesus struggled over the weight of the crushing as it pressed upon him, but he chose it willingly. He submitted to the Father’s will to be crushed for the glory of God to be shown in salvation. As I stood there in the garden I marveled at the weight of standing in this place. If you look up towards the Temple Mount you can see the East gate where the soldiers would have come with torches to arrest him. It’s no surprise that they found Jesus praying there, or that he knew when they were coming to get him. He could easily see them coming down the hill to find him. He had time to escape, and certainly could have if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He was pressed until nothing was left.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5

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Life in Living Color

 

After reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, an eye-opening read on how our brain’s are being hard-wired by distraction for shorter attention spans (and what to do about it), I decided to “quit social media” for a while. I went about eight weeks with no Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. At first, it made me fidget every time I had a spare moment. What was I supposed to do at the stoplight?? But in the end I found it very liberating.

Obviously, you probably found this post by clicking a link on social media, so I do still have somewhat of a presence on social media, mostly so I can share blog posts. But my experiment has left quite an impression on me, one which still has me “surviving” without Facebook, Twitter or Instagram apps on my phone. I find that these apps (and sites in general) are real time suckers which add little to no value to my life.

I have found that the absence of Instagram has been especially interesting. First, I don’t have to risk thumb arthritis scrolling the endless tripe of throw-away photos from people I barely know. But I’ve noticed that when I’m not preoccupied looking at scenes through my phone’s screen, I stand out. I took a walk on the beach the other day and saw an incredible contrast between those who were trying to get a picture to post and those who just…walked and enjoyed themselves.

I think, in our obsession with pocket photography we’ve devalued the photograph. It used to be a monumental family event to “get our pictures taken” at holidays. I would hate to be a photographer these days, simply because EVERYONE thinks they know how to take great pictures because they know how to apply a filter on Instagram (not even close).

Here’s what’s tragic: When we make every moment an “Insta-moment,” things that are meaningless are exploited as if they have meaning, leaving us really confused. We start to think that everything is important, which means nothing is. I hate to break it to you, but your burrito isn’t that awesome; Your hair is just as good as it was yesterday; That shirt you are so proud of today will be hated tomorrow. And why should I care that you got a pedicure?

Not only are un-important things deemed important, things that are meaningful are exploited as if they are only useful for getting attention.  We immediately cash out the value of a moment by throwing it onto a self-glorifying web page. How many meaningful moments have you missed by framing the right shot on your camera? Have you just sat and taken in the deliciousness of your steak instead of pausing while it cools to share with the world that you’re “having a great time”? Have we lost the ability to just enjoy things?  What if you just told people what you had for dinner?

I was recently at a conference where some “famous” pastors spoke. After each session, several people lined up to meet and talk to the speaker and to (I hope) share how his message or ministry was especially impactful. I usually avoid these lines because I know that, if I were that guy, I’d probably be exhausted and hoping the line would end so I could go get some dinner.  But because particular speaker has made quite an impact on me, I decided to wait in line to shake his hand and thank him for what God has done through him. Do you know what almost every person in front of me asked to take a picture with him?

Now I’m not trying to assume a bad motivation on their part or a superiority on my part because I didn’t take a picture. But don’t you think it makes that brother feel a little more like an artifact than a person, like a tourist destination or famous building? If I visit the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower I may take my picture in front to show that I was there. But don’t you think that meeting a person should be about more than who will be impressed or envious that you shook their hand? Isn’t it more about getting face to face and having a real interaction with another human? A sincere “Thank you” or a thoughtful question seems like a great way to honor that person and get to see a deeper level of who they are. All a picture gets you is a few likes and comments from people who barely care and won’t remember that it happened in ten minutes.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, in addition to sucking away our attention and stealing our enjoyment, our social media obsession can make us forget our humanity. It can make our brains think that connection is about likes and photos and not about words, hugs, listening, smiles and all the things that only us humans can do when we are face to face. You are not a machine, and your life consists of more than the digital inputs and outputs across however many hundreds of wires and servers.

I dare you to take a risk and start to enjoy the steaks, sunsets and smiles on a soul level. Start slow, and see what happens when real light breaks through.

(If you want to watch a Tedx talk from Cal Newport on this subject, click here)

The Western Wall

As I started to unpack in an earlier post, my recent trip to Israel was nothing short of amazing and at the same time totally overwhelming. When I was preparing to go on the trip, a lot of people told me about the powerful emotions they experienced in various places. Everyone had their favorite place, but most of them said seeing the tomb was their most impactful experience. Having no context for visiting such a monumental place, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and tried not to think about what I would feel.

You should know that I’m not a super emotional person; I rarely cry, and my highs aren’t super high and my lows aren’t that low (this great in some ways, awful in others). But I also have this weird thing that I do internally when I am about to experience something that could be exciting. For some reason, when I am looking forward to something I try to push down my emotions as much as possible so I don’t set myself up for disappointment. I know it’s messed up, but it’s been my modus operandi for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure how I got into the habit, but I do know that my efforts quite often backfire: I tend miss out on feeling anything significant because I have suppressed feelings so far down in order to play it safe. Like the dog hiding a bone so well even he can’t find it, it’s a distorted way to try to manage my own expectations. There was a little of that going on in this situation.

As we toured the sites in Israel, I quickly realized that even though I didn’t know what to expect, my actual capacity for being impacted by the things I was experiencing was extremely limited. When you stand in front of several fire hydrants a day to get a drink, it’s hard to take in the exact characteristics of the water from each. Most of the time I was thoughtful, observant and reflective, just trying to take everything in so I could sit and soak in the impact later. Except at the Wester Wall.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one of the most intense places in the world. It is as if the ancient rocks are nervously looking around because of the tension they feel. Herod the Great (who rebuilt the temple around 40 BC) had the brilliant insight that the topography of a mountain is not ideal for supporting huge stone structures. So he essentially surrounded the mountain with a giant retaining wall and built a flat courtyard on top for the temple buildings. This platform is what is known as the Temple Mount.

When the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the temple in 70 AD, the temple buildings were destroyed but the structure that supported the temple (retaining wall and courtyard) were left intact. In later years Muslim occupants of Jerusalem built huge structures on this mountain, one a mosque and another a shrine that is the most prominent feature in any photograph of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. The top of the Temple Mount is thus owned by Israel and controlled exclusively by Muslims. That pretty much sums it up.

You have likely seen pictures of people praying at the Wester Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. Devout Jews from all over the world travel there to see, touch, and pray next to the only standing rocks that were closest in proximity to the temple (and thus the Holy of Holies). Not the wall of the temple itself, but the wall of the temple mount that is nearest to where the temple probably  stood. It is a visceral place. You can hear praying, singing, and yes, even wailing. Many people write down prayers on little slips of paper and stick them into the cracks of the wall.

So there I was, plain old emotionally-suppressed me, walking up to this wall when I was overcome with emotion. I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the collective feeling of longing that hung palpably in the air around me. Maybe it was the density of hundreds of years of pilgrims having stood in that spot before me. Maybe it was the tragic sense of futility in the midst of the most extreme devotion. I stood there at the wall, put my hand on the stone, worn smooth by millions of hands, and hot tears formed in my eyes. I was at a loss as to what to say, but I managed to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the only thing that seemed appropriate in that moment.

It was hard to walk away from there. After lingering for a while in the sacred air, I walked up the ramp to rejoin the group. I’m still puzzled about why it hit me so hard. Jesus didn’t (“according to tradition”) heal someone in that spot. There was no specifically historical reason to feel impacted. Just the sheer weight of it all coming crashing down in an instant. I think the feeling that stands out the most is gratitude. I’m grateful I got to stand there in such a special place and pray a few less-than-adequate prayers. Some people dream their whole lives to do that. But I’m grateful mostly for the living hope that I have in a living God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful that God is faithful to his promises and has taken up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful that he hears our prayers and is our refuge and strength.

Singing Different Words

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Singing songs isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t really like the song. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to put so much time and effort into learning a song you don’t like because it’s not over once you sing it. The time you spent preparing for it seems to blaze that song forever into the hard disk of your brain.

I used to tease my friend and fellow worship leader Lisa about songs she was trying to learn by intentionally singing the wrong words while she was working on memorization. For some reason she didn’t see the humor.

Words Matter
Words really matter in songs, and especially in worship songs. The songs we sing in worship are essentially prayers that are sung to God, about God and for God. It’s not an “anything goes” exercise. There are words in worship that are right and others that are wrong, the same way it would be wrong of me to praise my wife for her beautiful blue eyes. Why? Because her eyes are brown. The words we sing are not only expressions of our affections and intentions toward God, they are statements of belief about his character and works that inform and reinforce our understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

I have probably developed the reputation of being a hyper-critical lyrical analyst among those who know me and work with me, but I don’t really care. I promise I don’t mean to be overly negative or needlessly obsess over semantic trivialities. But I can’t in good conscience turn a blind eye to something so important and dismiss it with “well, the writers probably meant this…” or “don’t sweat it, people will get the overall point.” Words matter, and they matter too much for us to be careless. If worship leading is a pastoral task (which it is), and we are teaching and discipling people as we lead them in song (which we are) then James 3:1 applies: we as worship pastors will be held accountable for the words we are putting in people’s mouths (and hearts) to sing to and about God. Theologian Gordon Fee has famously said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.”

Worship Shapes Us
One scriptural example of this importance can be found in Psalm 115:

Their [the unbelieving nations] idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
   noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
   and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:5-8

In other words, whatever we bow down to (or put “before all things” in our lives) will shape who we are. If you worship an idol that can’t hear, you will lose your ability to hear. If you worship a blind idol, you will eventually become totally unable to see. We become like the thing we worship.

When we read statements like these about false gods, we can also infer that the Psalmist means to say the opposite is true of God: God does speak, he does feel, he is not the work of human hands but is the One who made human hands. Worship him and you can grow to become like him. Worship shapes who we are.

Two Examples
Because the words we sing in worship are so important, pastoral leaders want to be selective about the songs we choose. What is popular isn’t always what is best. When you listen to a song with a theological filter, you begin to recognize traits in songs that are helpful and others that are either overtly wrong or at least could be misleading. The last thing we want to do is contribute to a skewed view of the nature of God. We’re all doing just fine with that on our own! But what do when you come across a very well-written song that declares powerful truths in a beautiful and engaging way, but has one line that ruins it for you?

We only have two options: either we don’t sing the song or we change the lyric. If a song has a lot of personal pronouns (“I” or “my”) we might just change those to “we” or “our” to help stress the corporate nature of the Bride of Christ. More emphasis on We are the collective body of Christ instead of “it’s all about me and Jesus.” Probably the most well-known example of this is the song “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan:

        Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
        And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

As this song grew in popularity, many people wanted to sing it in church but were uncomfortable singing about a “sloppy wet kiss.” Thus the alternative lines “beautiful kiss” and “unforeseen kiss” were used to replace the undesirable lyric.

I personally don’t find this line offensive or distracting and certainly not theologically inaccurate. The lavish nature of the love of God expressed in sending Jesus to earth can rightly be compared to a passionate kiss. Because this love was (and is) radical, no holds barred, holding nothing back. But some find it distracting and want to change it. No problem.

A similar and more recent example (although I only know of one church so far who has made this change…ours) is the song “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong. I find this song to be incredibly powerful and full of rich truths about the person and work of Jesus. But there is one line in the song that throws a theological red flag:

        You didn’t want heaven without us
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

The issue here is the implication that the purpose for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was that he was lonely. And it all hinges on the little word “so.” So let’s think about it: Did (and does) God want us in heaven? Yes! Did Jesus bring heaven down to us because we could never get there on our own? Yes! Praise God for the gospel! But was the reason God sent Jesus to earth his desire for us? Nope. I hate to burst your bubble, but if we terminate the purpose of God in salvation on ourselves or even the world, we miss the mark. God did not create the world or send Jesus out of a want or a need or any lack whatsoever. His work in creation and salvation was and is out of an overflow of his goodness and love and for the display of his glory. The chief end of God is his own glory. Period. Isaiah prophesied of this purpose:

 “I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
  everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:6-7

Jesus spoke of this purpose as he prayed:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

John 12:27-28a

Paul preached of this purpose in the gospel going out to all the nations:

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Romans 15:8-9a

Because of the preciousness of this truth that God exists for his own glory, we chose to change the lyric of the song:

        You’re ever faithful to your promise
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

This song is a wonderful gift. We felt that making this change would allow us to enjoy the gift that God has given the church without risking confusion or misdirection as we celebrate and delight in God’s redemptive purpose (worship). Does it seem like a lot of trouble over one little word? Maybe. But I assure you it matters.

Motivation matters just as much as action. If someone gave you a new car, wouldn’t you want to know whether they were doing it to bless you or because they were trying to blackmail you? When we understand that God does all things for his own glory, it does not make us unimportant. When we take ourselves out of the center and put God there, it frees us to worship because we rightly see ourselves in light of who God is. It increases our awe and our joy that God would invite us to join him in the experience of his glory. God is for us because he loves us. He’s just not about us. He is, and will always be, all about his glory. And how do we see his glory?

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:6

Jesus Walks

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Some things are hard to explain. Before I got married, I would often ask people who were married how they knew when they met “the one.” The would say things that barely made sense: “When you know, you just…know.”

Before I had children I didn’t understand what it was like to love a little human more than your own life. People would say things about how it felt to become a parent, especially the feeling when seeing their child for the first time. I probably just stared blankly at them. Then, on one sunny morning in July of 2013, it all made sense. When I looked at my daughter for the first time, I finally understood the phrase “love at first sight.” There are lots of things in life like that. In case you didn’t know, going to the Holy Land belongs on that list.

Before going to Israel, I wouldn’t have had much to say to someone who had been there. I probably would have stared blankly at the ever-so-cliche phrase that I have now repeated a few dozen times: “You just have to go.” Oddly enough, I had never thought much about going before I went. But the experience can only be described as life-changing.

How do you explain the things that defy explanation? All you can do is try. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that my functions of articulation all but shut down. For me, that’s a strange feeling. If I put thought into something I can usually find words for it. But lately I’ve struggled to express the important things because the weight of all the feels presses so hard against the bottleneck pathway from heart to brain to mouth (or hands) and I get stuck. I guess it’s like the old expression: The best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (DISCLAIMER: I have never eaten, nor would I ever attempt to eat, an elephant).

It’s funny how perspective changes everything. You can live your whole life thinking you know what good food tastes like, which is obviously those special occasions when you go to Ryan’s all-you-can-eat buffet. And then one day you go to Ruth’s Chris and your eyes are opened. “Good” suddenly has a different meaning. When you see Israel for yourself, your perspective is radically changed. I’ve spend a lot of time reading the Bible over the years, and I’ve always felt like I took it at face value, like I believed what it said. But when I saw those sights and stood in those places, I realized that there was more theoretical distance in me than I imagined, more space between what I understood and what I knew. Sometimes the gap between concept and reality stares at you with incredible severity.

One of my favorite movies is the classic comedy The Three Amigos, starring Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Actually, you should probably stop reading this and go watch it. In the movie, three has-been movie actors get mistaken for injustice-fighting heroes and are called on by a poor village in Mexico to defend them against their local guerrilla bully named “El Guapo.” The irony of the situation is hilarious: the actors, although in immediate mortal danger, think they’re filming a movie. Because they don’t see the reality, they face off against the bandits with a careless bravado. It’s easy to be brave when you’re pretending.

Things come to a screeching halt when one of the (real) gunfighters fires a shot which grazes the arm of one of the actors (Steve Martin) and suddenly he sees the truth: this isn’t a movie. The danger is real. In an unforgettable scene, Martin walks up to the other two actors and says,  “Uh…This is real. They’re going…to kill us.” And everyone starts to cry.

It may be a crass comparison, but I stood in so many of those sacred spots in the Holy Land and the phrase that kept coming to mind was “Uh…this is real.” I thought to myself, how could I have been so careless, thinking I understood so much more than I do? When you look out at the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus walking on the waves, it changes your perspective. When you see the garden where he prayed before his arrest, the reality comes crashing in: this is real. HE is real. A real man walked on these real streets and really died to rescue the world from sin.

I’ll be digesting the experience for some time, probably for the rest of my life. You’ll probably see a few reflections on this site as I process my thoughts. I can tell you two things: I’ll never read the Bible the same way, and, of course, you have to go.

Leadership Is Not A Personality Type

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Since I’m on this journey to know myself better and become more effective, I’ve been thinking a lot about personality types recently. There are many tools to determine how and why we display certain behaviors in our life and work: Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder, DISC, Enneagram, and so on.

Regardless of the type of test you take, it’s really important to know yourself and put your natural strengths to work for you. If you don’t know (generally) what your results are for these types of tools, I’d recommend searching the internet for a free assessment and see what comes up. Understanding who you are is the first step to living in the fullest potential of who God made you to be.

One of the most helpful tests is the DISC test, which measures four types of personality behaviors: Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness (S), and Compliance (C).

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If you did a survey of many of the top business and church leaders, you would find that most of them have a high “dominant” personality. Dominant leaders are usually go-getters, confident, good decision makers, and like having the reigns of control. This makes them great at starting companies and leading organizations.

But what about the rest of the population (including me) who have other personality types? Does that mean you can’t lead? No way! The good news: leadership isn’t a personality type. 

You might be more of a “steady” person, or maybe you like to follow directions rather than telling others what to do. That doesn’t mean you can’t lead others. Being a good leader is about knowing your strengths, caring about people, and taking responsibility. It’s not about being bossy or mean or even charismatic.

Know your strengths: A leader knows his or her strengths and operates from those. I have a friend who just isn’t very good at organizing the little details of a project. Instead of pretending to be something she is not, she has people who are very detailed come and support her in her role. Leaders are self-aware without being insecure, knowing that everyone has weaknesses and that’s ok.

Care for people: Leaders, by definition, put other people ahead of themselves. People who simply use others to get what they want aren’t leaders. Leaders want to use who and what they are to benefit others. You don’t have to be out in front of people to care about them. Sometimes the best leaders aren’t even on most people’s radar.

Taking responsibility: Leaders go first. In fact, that’s what “leader” literally means. It doesn’t take a certain type of personality to notice a problem and be the first to step forward with a solution. Any personality can own up to what’s wrong and try to fix it. Boldness and initiative aren’t bound up in extroverted personality types, they may just express themselves differently.

No matter who you are, you can step up and lead. You have an arena of influence and you have opportunities for making the world around you better for the sake of others. Find a way to leverage your best gifts and go lead!

My Rebel Heart

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/peajayhow/11513173615
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/peajayhow/11513173615

It’s not easy to admit your faults. I think that most of the time we live our lives (unconsciously or otherwise) trying to avoid taking a long and hard look at ourselves, warts and all. The problem is we simply can’t escape ourselves. Everywhere I go, there I am.

I’ve shared a little in a recent post about how God has been inviting me into greater authenticity through some personality/value/strengths assessments. It is difficult to see ourselves in this light at times, because these tools are (generally) objective and don’t lie. You may try to alter your personality to avoid how you’re wired, but it doesn’t change who you are. It’s like looking in a mirror…before you’ve done your hair and shaved. What you see is what you get.

And let’s not sugarcoat it: it’s not just “flaws” or “weaknesses” that you see. Any time I look at myself and invite God into the process, what I see is not just my weakness but my sinfulness.

One of the massive things I’ve uncovered in this season is an undercurrent of rebellion against authority. This one runs deep in our human DNA and goes all the way back to the beginning. At the heart of the sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience – rebellion against God’s right to decide what they could and couldn’t do. We follow suit and buck against authority almost every chance we get.

God has better things for us. But this one is tough for us Americans living in the twenty-first century. We live in a context that generally rewards rebellion as “individualism” and “self-expression.” Don’t like your boss? Quit! Don’t like your church? Leave! Don’t like your president? Complain! In fact, many go way beyond complaining. Some of the most hateful language can come out of the heart of someone claiming Christ as Lord, simply because of a difference of theological stance or political philosophy.

God has helped me to see that I have lived in un-addressed rebellion in much of my life, mostly in the way that I posture my heart toward authority. Looking over my past, I can’t think of a boss, pastor or leader that I have served under that I haven’t at some point and on some level despised in my heart and thought “I could do that better.” That attitude leads to criticism, coveting, and isolation. It eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the relationship breaks down.

Here’s the reality: Everything looks easy from far away. My pride has a really high opinion of me, too high in fact. I start to believe that I’m smarter, more gifted, or more capable than another human simply because I can see their weaknesses. I forget that I have my own weaknesses in spades.

How quickly I can forget that God is the one who puts people in authority (Rom. 13:1, 1 Pet. 2:13, 1 Tim. 2:2) and requires me to submit. God appoints leaders, not me. God wants me to trust him, and he puts authority in my life to teach and grow me. When I refuse to submit, I shortcut the character growth God is trying to produce in me.

Of course there are times when submission is not godly, and there are authorities who abuse power and need to be removed. But I’m not talking about dictators here, but people in my world that I just might not like that much. I’m not called to act as an agent of justice toward a person who is just…not like me.

The freeing part is that when we submit to the authorities God has placed over us, we live life in his economy, the way he designed us to live. Walking in obedience to the way God wants us to live opens up all kinds of doors. I will see people in a different light when I understand that their place of authority is one thing, their personality is another. God uses all kinds of people to do his work, and I won’t agree with all of them. God’s church is a body, and we all have different strengths. God’s not interested in me making everyone like me, he wants me to be more like him.

Maybe there’s someone in authority in your life that you struggle with. I’d challenge you to do the wrestling with God required to walk in obedience and let him use that person to make you more like Christ.

God Speaks in Vision and Pain

Image credit: http://www.dianacastillophotography.com/LANDSCAPE/i-qNfrjGW
Image credit: http://www.dianacastillophotography.com/LANDSCAPE/i-qNfrjGW

Have you ever wanted to hear God speak? It seems I find myself in that place quite a bit. Sometimes I feel like all I do is go through my routine, checking things off of my list while periodically “checking in” with God to make sure things are “all good.” That’s not much of a relationship. God designed us for much deeper fellowship than that. I need to be reminded of this often.

I read this this morning from Job 33:14:

“For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it…”

The verse grabbed my attention because I want to hear God speak to me. Elihu, the speaker in this passage, goes on to describe the first way God speaks:

“In a dream, in a vision of the night…he opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man.”

So the first way God speaks is through dreams and visions. It should be noted that the context of this conversation is to try and figure out why all the bad stuff has happened to Job. His friends, all with varying opinions, try to counsel and advise Job on how he ended up in such a mess.

So the “speaking” here is really an intervention. If God really wants to get a person’s attention to warn him, Elihu says he will use a dream.

The second way God speaks is found in verse 19:

“Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones.”

Second way God wants to get our attention according to Elihu? Pain. The example here is physical pain, but any sort of pain will do. I have found pain to be extremely clarifying. Pain forces us to seek deliverance, and will ultimately bring us to seek God.

Let me clarify: I don’t think I can make a definitive theological statement that God always speaks to us through dreams and/or pain. Nor can I firmly assert that all dreams or all pain are sent from God to warn us about our pride. Sometimes we get hurt and it’s more about us that God (i.e. you stub your toe); sometimes a dream really is bad Mexican food.

What strikes me though is that the antitheses to dreams/visions and pain are distraction and comfort, and how we go to such great lengths to be sure we always have both.

I read recently that the CEO of Twitter asked a friend, “Do you remember what it was like to be bored?” These days distractions are endless and easy to come by. If you’re in line at the store or sitting at a red light, distractions are easier than ever to come by. Quiet, concentration and focus are some of the more precious commodities in our information age, and even still we tend to avoid them. Unfortunately, these are often required to hear God speak to us.

Pain is even more distasteful. We not only avoid pain at all costs, we avoid discomfort. I burn the inside of my mouth and think I should take a sick day. Our idea of pain is uncomfortable benches at a sporting event or AC that isn’t working at full capacity.

But discomfort raises our awareness of something no one is exempt from: need. We are all in need of deliverance, and the comfort of avoiding pain won’t do the trick.

Now, I’m not advocating that you should start basing your life decisions on your dreams or order a bed of nails from Amazon.com. Both would be…extremely inadvisable. But maybe our response to the words in this passage could lead us to run to God when we need direction or deliverance, instead of believing that something or someone else can fill the need. God is our loving Father, Path-director, and Comforter in all pain and sorrow. Let’s live like that’s true.

Fasting as Worship

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There was a time in my life when a friend of mine jokingly told me “you should do a fast from fasting.” He meant well. I was in a season where I had several times of fasting right after another. What’s worse is I tend to be a perfectionist, “rule follower” type personality. So, although I may resist a fast at first, when I get into I get REALLY into it. Something about me loves the challenge of restrictions. Yeah, it’s weird.

But after some time away from the discipline, I have once again jumped in during our church-wide Daniel fast for the next couple weeks. Once again I’m struck by the way that “following the rules” isn’t really the hardest part (and isn’t even the point). The difficult part is really the internal wrestling that I go through, not so much making the choices to eat differently. I’m surprised (although I shouldn’t be) at how much of a whiner and complainer my flesh really is. “Gimme, gimme, gimme” is all I seem to hear.

Fasting is a very valuable spiritual discipline. It is a mechanism by which we let go of some distractions in order to reach out for more of Jesus. It can reveal just how entrenched we are in our habits and comforts, relying on them instead of relying on God to sustain us. The slide into idolatry is a slow creep, and it’s helpful every now and then to push the “reset” button and declare once again with the Apostle Paul, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).

Because it wars against our tendencies to be idol-worshipers, fasting is really an act of worship. Fasting helps us to broaden our perspective of what worship really is (not just singing, not just something we do when we go to church). In worship we honor God for who he is and what he has done, and we say a deeper “yes” to Him in our lives. By saying “no” to things that distract us, we make room for his voice to speak louder to our hearts. We clear the way for the searching light of the Holy Spirit to shine on our hearts and show us where Jesus isn’t before all things, and make the adjustments so that he is first. As a friend of mine says, “worship is really about the first-ness of God.” He’s right.

Fasting is a lot like going to the dentist. For many of us, the very idea is appalling. We resist it because we think we don’t need it. But, like so many other things in life, we can’t experience the benefit of the discipline just by thinking our way through it (“Hey, I’m doing pretty good therefore I don’t need to fast”).  We have to walk through the self-imposed trial in order to see our true need for Christ.

I’d encourage you to take a step and set aside some time to fast. It doesn’t have to be anything radical. A fast from anything you rely on, no matter how small, will help you see yourself and God more clearly, and God will be faithful to guide you deeper into relationship with him.

Remembering John Berlin

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It’s hard to summarize a life, especially one that meant so much to you. But my friend John Berlin had a life worth celebrating and I want to tell you why.

I could go on for days about John’s childhood and the thousands of stories he told about swimming, canoeing, fist fights and car wrecks; I could tell you all about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, or his experiences in Viet Nam, his failed marriages (yes plural), or his many corporate careers; I could tell you about how he found recovery, found Jesus, and found a woman he would be crazy in love with right to the end; I could tell you about the stacks of poems, stories and novels he wrote and was constantly sharing with those who would listen. He had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I’ve ever known.

But his unique experiences aren’t the most important thing about him. To be sure, I had the benefit of hearing many of the stories and gleaning wisdom from those experiences, but John was one of my dearest friends, and just knowing him was its own kind of gift. He was wise and discerning, hilariously sarcastic, but most of all he loved people deeply.

I’ve known John for over half my life. My first real memory of John is from when I was about twelve. John and Audrey came over to take a family picture (Audrey is a gifted photographer), and I remember that we all could barely stand up because John had us laughing so hard (holding a tin-foil covered sheet pan to reflect light in our faces).

John and his wife Audrey have been a constant source of joy and blessing to my family for about as long as I can remember. He was my mentor, spiritual father, and dear friend, the kind of person you call when you’re stuck and you don’t know what else to do.

John gave me more gifts than I can count, but three stand out to me: the gift of wisdom, the gift of belief, and the gift of love.

The Gift of Wisdom. I think I was fifteen when I asked John to be my mentor. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I needed one. He asked me to help him pull carpet at a rental property he owned, but in reality we sat on two folding chairs and talked about life. I told him my life story (which wouldn’t have been that long), and he told me a little about his own life (although I would find out much more in the years to come). We had a connection because of a similar wiring, and John had an uncanny ability to tell you all about yourself. He taught me the power of just being with a person–he’d invite me to tag along on seemingly random errands, which always turned into quality time and great conversation. I could ask John anything about anything, and I knew I would get a straight answer.

Years went on and we would stay connected through meals, phone calls (when I was living in other states) and emails. Later we worked together for a few years in one of John’s little companies. He would tell me things like “You can’t think your way into good living, you have to LIVE your way into good thinking,” that were drilled into my head by repetition.

Regardless of what project we were working on he would ask, “Jonathan, what is our job?” And I knew the answer was not “we fix glass,” or “we build beautiful windows,” but the answer was “we are problem solvers.” John taught me the power of staying in the solution instead of staying in the problem, a lesson I think about almost constantly. He had a spiritual gift of discernment, and could see into situations in crazy ways. He not only passed on this gift to me by osmosis, but would pray that God would give me wisdom and discernment as well.

The Gift of Belief. John was a musician, and music was something we had in common. He loved classical music and would often be “blasting Bach” the way teens would jam to their favorite rock band. He played guitar and led worship so worship was a great subject of conversation in our times together. If I led worship somewhere, he would often come to that church if for no other reason than to support me.

One of the most precious memories I have is of our “art nights” that the Berlins would host at their home. We would have dinner and talk and then everyone would share something beautiful that was meaningful to them. John would read a story or a poem, others might share things that meant a lot to them, but eventually there was music. The music was always special.

We would sing songs that we loved by James Taylor or Van Morrison, but eventually we would worship together. It was always a sweet time of worship together in the living room or the porch.

I think it was on one of those occasions that John brought out his 1965 Gibson acoustic guitar for me to play. I was playing a pretty crummy guitar that someone had given me (long story), and playing his guitar was an incredible difference. The guitar has amazing tone (as old guitars do) and it plays like a dream.

I played a song or two on it and John said “Jonathan, I want you to have that guitar.” I was speechless. I didn’t understand why he would give me such a gift. He went on, “I’m giving you this guitar because I believe in you. You have a gift. When you sing, I can hear your heart’s hunger for God. So I want to give you this guitar as an investment in that gift. Don’t ever lose that when you sing in front of people.”

The only thing he made me promise is that I would never sell the guitar. No worries there, it has priceless sentimental value.

The Gift of Love. Of all the things John gave me, the most precious gift was love. Throughout all of our experiences, I knew that John loved me and was for me.

He demonstrated love in his marriage and set an example that I always wanted to follow. He loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself, even when it wasn’t pleasant to hear it. When I would call, he loved me enough to tell me he loved me, and thought about me all the time. He helped me get ready for being married, and gave the best (and most genuine) advice for loving well.

I will miss having John in my life, but I have great peace knowing that he is with the Lord. John went through so many incredibly difficult health scares that I often worried that we would lose him. But I’m not worried now, nor do I have any regrets. I decided a long time ago that I would take every chance I could to tell him how much he meant to me, and how much his impact on my lives on in how I lead others. I told him that many times, that he made a huge difference in my life and I’ll be forever grateful for him. I know without a doubt that he knew how much he meant to me. He has left a beautiful legacy that lives on in those he loved.

John went to be with Jesus on Thursday night, but I know I will see him again. And I know he’s cheering for me and for all of us who loved him, as we press on toward the goal of the prize he has now attained. He lived long and loved well, and I’m proud to have been his friend. We’ll sing together again someday soon. As the song says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”