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.

To Be Hunted

260f7c21241f149e84fc30fc8087e844I’m pretty much a nerd. At best I’m an old soul. I guess that’s why I really enjoy watching the BBC’s many fantastic documentary series’ on animals and nature. Planet Earth and The Human Planet were both incredibly beautiful. Most recently I’ve been watching Life Story, a series focusing on the different phases of life within the animal kingdom.

In one of the episodes, an unsuspecting impala is stalked by two young cheetahs. The impala is exhausted after the weeks of fighting that precede mating season and seeks a moment of repose in a stunningly beautiful patch of trees (imagine the dramatic music starting to build).

In the quintessential stalking scene (which are of course the favorites in nature documentaries) the stealthy cheetahs creep steadily closer to the grazing animal. He picks his head up once or twice to look around but doesn’t seem terribly bothered, not knowing he is in his final moments of life. The cheetahs strike and…well, you know the rest.

I love these shows because they move me to worship. For example, did you know that meerkat colonies have a leadership structure based on those with more wisdom and experience? Or that hermit crabs line up by size and do a “house trade” for bigger shells when a new one washes on the shore? How about an octopus that can use an abandoned coconut shell as a shield against predators? I watch all of these creatures with their complex patterns of survival, leadership and courtship and think “Wow…God designed all that!”

As I was watching the poor impala in his imminent demise, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. He may just be a creature of pure instinct, but I wonder if there was a thought in there somewhere. Did he know he was being hunted? Did he think about the danger that was lurking? Does an animal’s life flash before his eyes in that dramatic chase?

As modern Americans, most of us don’t face the daily reality that we may be killed by hostile predators. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like physically, but the Bible does tell us that we are being hunted by a powerful enemy. 1 Peter 5:8 says “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I don’t know about you, but don’t often live like that is real.

There are seasons, however, when the reality of the prowling lion comes piercing through. You know the lion is real when you’re running for your life. Recently I have felt that spiritual weight in some ordinary situations and some (painfully) unusual ones. To be a Christian is to be hunted. Signing up for God’s work means you have a target on your back.

The good news is twofold: (1) we know we have an enemy so we, unlike an instinct-bound animal, are able to discern when we are being stalked and take the appropriate action; (2) we have a victorious Savior who has already decisively and finally defeated our enemy. Thus we can fight (or sometimes flee) without fear of being completely destroyed.

I guess you never know where God might speak to you, even in a nature documentary. So don’t forget you’re in a fight. Take shelter in the only Hope you have for survival.

 

Metaphor: Hillsong vs. Hymns

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Despite what the title implies, this post is not an “epic battle of hymnody.” I was talking to a young worship leader recently about how I choose songs for my worship repertoire, and thought I’d share my answer to his question here. There are many ways in which leaders choose songs. Some use very detailed and helpful tools for evaluating songs, such as this handbook and rating system that helps identify the theological, lyrical, and musical strength of particular songs. Some use hymnals or the CCLI “top” lists to choose songs. Others just go with their gut.

Whatever method you use, at some point every leader has to decide what to include and what to exclude, based on certain factors. One very prevalent consideration is the use of metaphor.

You may remember from high school English class that a metaphor makes a comparison without using “like” or “as.” Metaphor can be used in a single line of text or can be the central idea around which a song is built (more on this later). When we sing that God is our rock, we aren’t saying that we literally worship a geological formation of minerals, but that God is as strong and secure and steady as a rock. You get it.

The Bible is rich with metaphor and we should not be shy about using this tool. However, there are some cautions to keep in mind. First, we need to be aware of the context in which we are using metaphor. To use the above example, I would probably not use a rock metaphor for God if, say, I were on a mission trip ministering to people who worship rocks and trees. The use of that metaphor for God might be confusing.

Second, we want to be careful not to assume too much about how our hearers are understanding our metaphor. This goes back to context. When Jesus is identified as the perfect Lamb of God, ancient Jews would have immediately understood this to connect with the religious sacrificial system of their time. Today, however, the metaphor of the Lamb probably needs a bit more explanation for it to make sense to people. So we need to look for ways to make metaphor more effective by helping people understand what we mean.

In my conversation with my young worship leader friend I compared two songs and the strengths and weaknesses of each. I’ll share some of those thoughts and let you decide who wins. Begin!

Oceans” by Hillsong United is one of the most popular songs in recent years. Masterfully melodic and beautifully performed (usually), this song rivals the best that Coldplay has to offer in taking listeners on an intuitive, emotional journey from start to finish. As the title suggests, the song is built around the metaphor of an ocean (or oceans). The metaphor is used in a negative sense, with the oceans being obstacles and oppositions to overcome and rise above:

I will call upon your name

And keep my eyes above the waves

When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace

For I am yours and you are mine.

The strengths of this song are undoubtedly its artistic creativity, aesthetic beauty and dynamic builds and crescendos. In the right context, the song is a powerful exhortation to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord and embrace the challenges we face as opportunities to grow (one instance stands out when this song was sung at a funeral for a dear friend. I couldn’t sing through the tears). However, when considering how we might use this song for corporate worship I would suggest that there are a couple weaknesses. In the first line of the song the lyrics speak of being called out upon the waters, walking “where feet may fail:”

You call me out upon the waters

The great unknown

Where feet may fail

And there I find you in the mystery

In oceans deep my faith will stand

This hearkens back to Peter’s “get out of the boat” episode in Matthew 14. But this is a somewhat incomplete comparison to Peter’s experience, thus assuming that listeners will fill in the details. The song lyrics do not specify why we would walk on the waves, except that perhaps we want to overcome our challenges (who wouldn’t want that?). In the Matthew 14 account, Peter steps out of the boat because he sees that Jesus is walking on the water. He is able to walk on the waves only as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus rather than “above the waves.” So the song is a little confusing. If I’m a completely ignorant listener (I don’t know the story of Peter), I probably think that determination is what keeps me above the waves, not keeping my eyes on Jesus. I also probably think that I, the ever-present subject of so many songs these days, am the most important part of the equation. This lack of clarity, along with the vague references to who it is we are singing to/about, make the metaphor a little less effective (I won’t mention the fact that this song tends to feel really good emotionally but is in fact a prayer asking God to lead us into challenge and difficulty with our eyes on him, which doesn’t usually feel good).

Let’s compare “Oceans” to a redux of a classic hymn “Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus,” recorded by the folks at Sovereign Grace music. This song also uses an ocean metaphor, but in the positive sense. Instead of being a formidable obstacle to overcome, the ocean represents the incomprehensible scope of the love that Jesus has for us:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!

Underneath me, all around me, is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward, to your glorious rest above.

The strengths of this song are the lyrically beautiful and comprehensive description of the story of Jesus’ love for his people (the gospel). The song celebrates not only the fact that Jesus loves us, but goes on to explain the why and the how of that love:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Spread his praise from shore to shore

How he came to pay our ransom

With the saving cross he bore

How does (or did) Jesus love? The cross, a definitive past reality that affects us in eternity. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ work didn’t end at the cross, but he continues to stand as our intercessor and advocate:

How he watches o’er his loved ones

Those he died to make his own

How for them he’s interceding

Pleading now before the throne

While this song is strong melodically, it probably doesn’t earn as many points as “Oceans” in musical dynamics (but more complicated isn’t always better). Some may point out another potential weakness as the somewhat archaic “hymnish” language and some complex theological concepts that are presented and will need more explanation. While I’m at it, I personally like when songs reference the Trinity, the beautiful gospel reality that the Father sent Jesus and we participate in and experience his deep love by the Holy Spirit. This song focuses mainly on Jesus without much mention of other members of the trinity.

Now these are just some thoughts, and I reminded my friend that no song is perfect. Every song (and style) has strengths and weaknesses. If you try to fit everything important in a single song you would either end up with a really long song or one that no one would want to listen to (not to mention sing). There are so many great songs out there that you will probably, like me, have a harder time choosing which ones to leave out.

The point is we need to think about what we are singing and try our best to mean it when we sing it and teach it when we need to (which is most of the time). Choose well!

 

 

(image credit: http://benmulligan.com/the-bay-in-black-and-white/)

The New Clericalism

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I’d like to follow up my previous post with some more thoughts on where we find ourselves in history as North American Christians. I believe that our time closely resembles the time of the reformers, and because of that the church is in need of some prophetic voices. Thankfully, they’re out there if we know where to look (and listen) for them.

James White, one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Christian history, notes that in the middle ages monastic life was the center of social stability (James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 77). In the medieval period, the church experienced an explosion of growth for several reasons. Crusades, conquests, and colonization caused the spread of western civilization to farther reaches of the known world. In these newly formed communities, to use White’s language, the monastery was the center of society. Monasteries were guardians not only of faith and devotion to God, but of education and learning itself.

The positive side of monastic life was that monks had one occupation: worship. Their lives were spent in constant prayer, meditation, and devotion to God. The monk’s average day would be dominated by prayer and study, with monastic orders assembling for prayer at all hours of the day and night (times decided by the monastic prayer “offices”). This lifestyle produced a wonderful devotion to God but was unrealistic for most people outside the monastery.

The monastic life developed into the founding many cathedral schools and universities. Again, White sums it up well: “The thirteenth century saw major contributions of scholastic theologians in helping the church to make up their minds about what Christians experienced in worship” (White, 77). White continues by saying that, despite the development of doctrines concerning Christian faith and sacraments, the negative side was an emphasis on the intellect in Christian and sacramental practice. The way was being paved for the coming age of Enlightenment, where Reason and Intellect reigned supreme.

Note here the schism that is created by a society of people who have nothing to do but study the scriptures, pray, meditate and think about all things theological. Add to that schism the gap between the educated and the uneducated, a gap that was wide indeed in the middle ages. You can see why worship became a spectacle to be observed rather than an event to participate in.

Before I get too far into criticizing modern education as we know it, let me point out the obvious: I wouldn’t be writing this (and you wouldn’t be reading it) if these developments in education and literacy hadn’t occurred. So for that we must be grateful. Further, the contemporary equivalent to medieval monks might just be scholars and ministers, people who, in the eyes of the general public, have “nothing better to do” than to “sit around” and pray, meditate, and study. If so, I’m part of that group.

So I am by no means condemning education or a religious devotional life. I would simply like to call into the question the gap that this creates between “us” and “them,” the ones who “get it” and the ones who “don’t.” The constant flow of the gospel is inward to our devotional and educational life, and then outward to the cultures in which we live.

The heart behind the reformation was to close this gap between the educated (and religious) “elite” and the “common” person. Thus Luther and others argued for a worship service (mass) in the common language, for songs in the language (and well-known tunes) of the people, and most importantly for the scriptures in the language of the people.

The reason I believe this is needed once again in our time is because of what I’m calling “new clericalism” happening in the church today, gaps between the “religious elite” and the “common” person. This happens on two levels. One level is the Christian subculture of “Christian-eze,” language and products that are meant only for consumption by people on the “inside” of that subculture (Christians). Perhaps at a certain point in our history the Christian story was pervasive enough for this not to be divisive, but that time is passing. Christendom (the widespread acceptance of/knowledge of/practice of Christianity) is ending in America, and many would say it has already ended. We need to restore the lingua franca that helps real people know what the real God is really saying to them.

The second level of this clerical divide happens within the church itself, with the proliferation of so many “professional” pastors, speakers and musicians. Again, I want to be careful here because I am a huge fan of excellence and quality. Let me be clear: We should work our tails off to sound great when we sing and play and to communicate effectively and powerfully when we preach. But isn’t there a point when the divide becomes so great it becomes unreachable? If our sermons, sound or music is so polished, precise and sterile is seems more robotic than human, isn’t there a disconnect? Consider the difference between putting a quarter in one of those antique self-playing pianos and hearing someone play a piece using their developed skill. Mistakes? Maybe. Heart? Definitely. Despite the latest (or oldest) “robot with a soul” film, robots can’t be people. Unreachable runs the risk of being unreal to people’s real lives.

So what I’m arguing for is a way of being Christian that models the incarnation. Jesus came and “took on flesh,” wrapping himself up in the language and way of life of people. I want to see a restoration of these “common” preachers, speakers and musicians. This means working hard to reverse the all-too-natural human tendency to create a divide between “the stage” and “the people.” Singing in church isn’t a concert, so we ought not work so hard (or spend so much money) to make it one. Preaching isn’t a spectacle of your skill as a scholar or speaker, it is in fact worship. Bob Webber writes, “Preaching, of course, is what we do in worship. We proclaim God’s story, remembering his mighty deeds of salvation” (Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 177). I think we need more men and women who represent God with excellence but with authenticity and a closeness you can feel and touch. Isn’t this what was said of the disciples when they stood before council in Acts 4, that they were common men touched with the power of the Holy Spirit? By the Spirit’s power, let’s close the gap.

The New Illiteracy

6a00d83451d81c69e2016303b25796970d-400wiIn the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant reformers turned the tide of Christianity.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others boldly stood up and spoke out to influence change in the way the Christian church operated. One of the complaints of the reformers was that people who attended worship didn’t understand anything happening in the service. At that time the Catholic mass was in Latin, so unless you spoke Latin (and hardly anyone did outside of the clergy), you were there to basically observe the worship events and receive a vaguely understood “blessing” of some kind.

If you know any church history, you know that many of these errors were corrected through the translation of the mass, the Scripture and the songs into the vernacular language of the people. These reformation efforts have resulted in several centuries of people coming to church and at least having the ability to understand (access) what was going on.

Historians please forgive me: I am painting with very broad strokes for the sake of time. But here is my point: I believe that we are once again, like the reformers, living in a time of what I will call a “new illiteracy.” We have some work to do to overcome this obstacle.

 

Many evangelical churches operate on this assumption: people are repulsed by religious language and religious tradition that they do not understand; thus we must formulate our ministry and programs around what they can understand. This of course comes from a wonderful desire to make church accessible, and it is a work that must be done. Christian worship must be contextual to be effective. But, like any good thing, we can go too far. When taken the extreme, this desire to “meet your audience” results in what has been called the “attractional” or “seeker” model of ministry. While there are many denominations that have been formed around this approach, much of the church in America has been affected.

For example, I have attended many churches with services like this: you walk in to a worship space and there are some announcements on screens or music in the room; there is a song set sung about/to a certain “you” and “your love” and how it “never lets go;” more announcements; a forty minute “talk” about how to live a better life as a parent/citizen/worker; prayer and offering; dismissal (“have a great week!”).

I am at risk of sounding overly critical here, but this is not my intent. I do not mean to disrespect or discredit my fellow laborers in the ministry of the gospel. There are many positive traits to this style of ministry and many who have come to faith as a result. My criticism is meant to identify an assumption that is being made in this model.

Perhaps a limited analogy will help: Let’s say ministers are math teachers. If we assume students don’t like math but are still forced to come to math class, our job as math teachers would be to make math more interesting, more applicable to the lives of our students (so far so good). But if we stop talking about addition, subtraction, equations and fractions, hoping our students will pick up math skills by osmosis, we start running into trouble.

Back to ministry now. Should we assume that people know who this “you” is that we are talking about and singing about or that they will eventually figure it out? Can we assume that people understand why this group has gathered in this place, or what it means to follow Christ as a disciple? I’m not sure they do.

I fear that, just as in the time of the reformers,  church-goers do two simple things: they come to observe what is happening (the production) and to receive a blessing of some kind (this blessing may be a piece of advice on how to be better at “x,” or a positive feeling as a result of the experience. This is evident by the common post-church conversation, “what did you get out of it?”).
People need to have the gospel intelligently told to them, the story of God who creates, redeems and recreates the world (and the entire cosmos), in a language they understand (their context). If that’s not happening, we in ministry shouldn’t feel like we are succeeding, no matter how many people show up.

As America becomes an increasingly secular society, it seems clear to me that what is needed is not less of the language and ritual that makes Christian worship distinct, but more of it–a LOT more.

When we gather for worship, people need to understand why we are here – that God has made us a people in Christ and we gather as a response to his call and command. People need to know who this “You” is in the songs that shows us love and accepts us as we are, that it is none other that the Triune God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that this love that He has shown came through a brutal and tortuous cross that killed God’s only Son. People need to know that they have a part to play in this gathering, in the telling and unfolding of this great story, and that when they leave they aren’t simply scattering to random places to “do their thing,” but are actually sent out by God to do his work in the world. How will they know unless we tell them? We need to say the why, the what and the who, and we need to say it over, and over, and over again.

I am not an advocate for returning to religious abuses or empty tradition. But we are living in a time of rampant and increasing illiteracy to the things of God. Not to mention that as Christians we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next person. My prayer is that as ministers we are diligent to KNOW the Story and TELL the Story as we gather to DO the Story in worship.

The Ways We Self-Destruct

Rooftopping-walking-on-the-edge-of-buildingHave you ever walked on a dock with your phone, keys and wallet in your pocket? What do you instinctively do? Clutch the stuff that matters to you so you don’t lose it! This is a strange feeling if you consider the rationale. The contents of your pockets have (probably) never just jumped out and inexplicably ended up on the ground (or in this case in the water), and yet you are sure that this will be the one time that it happens. Laws of physics? Forget ’em!

Or how about when you are on a high building or up a mountain? You may not have a history of just randomly losing your balance and careening towards a precipice, but when you’re up high it’s a real possibility. More than just fearing that these things will happen, there seems to be some sort of magnetism drawing you to the real possibility that something can go terribly wrong. Sometimes the mind can’t handle the line between what we love and what we would feel if we lost it.

The point is, I think we are all a little self-destructive by nature (some of us are a lot self-destructive). I think that at the core this is a result of our sin nature. We inherently resist what is best for us. We just can’t help it.

This is a fact that is extremely frustrating. Example: There is no longer any need for medical science to prove that sugar is bad for you. Refined sugar is a toxin that the human body doesn’t actually need to survive. It does more harm than good. Does that stop me from eating cheesecake? Heck no! In fact, it makes me want to eat more. And since I ate too much cheesecake, now I really need to exercise. Again, no scientific proof is needed to convince me that this is necessary. But I resist it, preferring instead to do anything that involves…not moving. Same goes for everything from flossing to praying. I know I need it, but I just dig in those heels and bite my lip.

Why is this? Sin. When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God, the curse of sin entered into the creation. The same disease that led to their demise lives in us. No longer do we depend solely on God to give us all we need. We think we know best what’s best for ourselves. But we don’t.

This comes into sharpest relief for me in my time off. Sabbath is a struggle for me (another part of my “I know best” complex), not just because I stay pretty busy with tasks most of the time. The real struggle is not to stop working my “job” and do something else, but to actually choose the things that are good for me. Good things are life-giving. Bad things, well they just suck the life right out of you.

If you get to Monday morning feeling like you need another weekend, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes we pack our days “off” with so many things that we end up losing instead of gaining. Instead of making new rules for ourselves (“Ok then, I won’t go do anything!”) there is a different way to get back where we need to be. The way is the gospel.

It begins with this simple admission that the gospel brings us to: I can’t do it. In a word: surrender.
I can’t choose what’s best for me because, left to my own devices, I will self-destruct. The good news? Jesus not only chose the best for me but is the opposite of me: He is, by nature, constructive rather than destructive. He makes all things new (Rev. 21:5). We live into the gospel when we live into Christ, who knows the best things for us and can restore our soul (Ps. 23). We have to stop striving and trust in him. Harder to do than say.

In Jesus’ redemptive work he reversed the curse of sin, meaning that the “I know better” disease can be defeated by a “He knows best” heart of faith. So the only work I have to do to overcome this tendency is to go to him to get what’s good for me. Abide in him, walk through the day with him. He is a good Father and gives good gifts (Luke 11, James 1:17).

The best times for me are times that God ordains, so the question of the ages is why do I keep running away, thinking I know what’s best? There are traces of the sin disease still in me, and only through a constant feeding on the Daily Bread do I have a chance to survive. Without it, I self-destruct.

What are some ways that you can go let Jesus show you what’s best?

 

 

Image credit: ilovetoronto.com

The Worst Version of Myself

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This past weekend I spent about nine hours under the hood of my car. I received the bad news that my A/C compressor needed to be replaced a month or so ago, and rather than pay the thousand or so bucks they wanted to do the repair, I decided I would buy the parts and do it myself to save a little money. People do crazy things to save a little money.

Summers here are hot, so I knew I couldn’t just go the old 4/70 route like I used to (that’s when your A/C system is four windows down, driving seventy down the road). Never having done this repair before I did as much prep as I could and didn’t really expect it to take too long. After all, the instruction manual had all the steps laid out right there in front of me, and they looked simple enough (If you’ve ever done a major repair on your car, you know that it doesn’t take long before you want to hunt down the people who wrote the manual for mocking your pain while insulting your intelligence.).

Things were going smooth until the first hiccup. Then the second, and then the third, and so on. All tolled I had to go out to the store five times for parts or tools, sometimes getting home only to turn right around and go back. That’s ten or fifteen minutes each way, so I spent at least an hour driving instead of working. I’ve had similar scenarios with home improvement projects. No, I can’t do it, and you’re really not that much help. I’m sure the auto parts store guys thought I was an idiot. We were basically on a first name basis by the end of it.

But actually I felt like an idiot, but not because I struggled to get it done. I was very quickly reminded how bad my temper is when things don’t go my way. I mean, it was bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to hear the things I was saying (and thinking) while I was in a tight squeeze or couldn’t figure out how to get to the next step. Anger (or rage?) rose up in me so quick I didn’t know what hit me, and that was surprising and disturbing. Suddenly there wasn’t much love, joy, or peace, and definitely no patience.

Here’s what bothered me: I don’t know if I was more disappointed or surprised. I’ve been following Jesus for some time now and I thought I would be better at handling a challenge like this. I expected at least some fruit to show up. Have you ever thought that? You react to something in a way that is so unlike Christ that you think, “Have I been paying attention at all…to anything??” This isn’t just true in a difficult project like a car repair for a quasi-mechanic, but in every area of life. I sometimes look around at my lack of ability to control my appetites, my desires, or my reactions and I have to be honest, I get a little discouraged that I haven’t been transformed a little more into Christ’s image.

As I’ve been reflecting about it though, I think I’ve only been seeing half the story when it comes to maturity. I have been thinking that as I mature as a Christian, God’s work in my life would change me as a person so that I become fundamentally different, who I am gets changed from jerk to non-jerk. In this line of thinking, the assumption is that more you walk with God and learn his ways the better your choices will be and the less likely you will be to react with rage when you don’t get your way. Makes sense, right?

Well, this view of maturity may be true to some extent, but it’s only half the story. There are other things at play. No matter how “mature” you think you are, you always reap what you sow. So if you’re not sowing to the Spirit like Paul says in Romans 8, you won’t get spiritual results when difficult times come. Doesn’t matter if that difficulty is disease or a long line at the grocery store.

I don’t think Christian growth works the same as physical growth. In physical growth, or the development of a person, you come into the world as the most dependent of all humans and your job is to grow to become more independent. Feed yourself, dress yourself, earn money etc. I would say that in Christian maturity it is actually the opposite. We come to God as rebellious children, desiring nothing more than our own independence and freedom. As we grow with him, our job is to become more and more dependent on him and less likely to depend on ourselves to make it all work.

That’s where I go wrong. I tend to assume that since I’ve been “in the game” for a while, I can make it happen on my own. I stop sowing because I assume I don’t have to. But walking with God is more about abiding that adapting. God’s plan is not to have me walk with him just long enough for me to learn how to do it without him. I’m not supposed to be an apprentice of Christ I am a disciple, and there’s a big difference. An apprentice learns from the master just long enough to strike out on his own and become a master himself. Apply this to God and it’s pretty ridiculous. Even if I could grow to the point that I didn’t need God’s help anymore, what happens after that? There is no other outcome other than I become my own god. Since I know that isn’t the plan, I have to go back to the fact that dependence is primary. I never outgrow my need for him.

Jesus said “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit.” If I find myself reacting to life’s circumstances in a less-than-Jesus-like way, it’s probably because I am not abiding in him. And if I’m not abiding, I shouldn’t be surprised when the fruit I get is nasty. For me and my sinful self, nasty is natural. I have to plug in to the source of the good stuff if I want to see it working in my life.

The crazy part is that God already sees the ugly side of me, and that’s the side he loves. It’s beyond incredible. The older I get the more I realize that God’s grace is the only thing that makes me different from the worst version of myself. It really doesn’t matter how long I have been doing this, in fact that thinking will probably get you into trouble really quick. Walking in the Spirit requires a constant awareness to where the Spirit is leading, and left to my own devices I go quickly (and embarrassingly) off the deep end. Even though I keep trying to make that terrible person better, at the end of the day I can’t win. Only Jesus can, and has, won that battle to make me something completely different in him. All I have to do is learn to stay right there where it’s his power and not mine.

 

My Lenten Journey

Ravi takes the cake with self-obsession (R)2

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. Historically, it was used as the final time of fasting and preparation for baptism by new converts to Christianity. Many of these new believers had been in catechism (instruction and preparation for new Christians) for one to three years! Their preparation climaxed in the Saturday night prayer vigil and the baptismal service just before dawn, and the new Christians would join the rest of the church for the service just in time to throw open the doors and let the first light of day flood in as they proclaimed “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”
Today many Christians engage with Lent by fasting from certain things like foods or activities, or by adding new disciplines such as silence or solitude into their routine. This is done to help us enter once again a time of preparation to enter into the story of Christ’s suffering and death, to renew our baptismal vows and to hear once again the glorious news that he is risen.
This Lent sort of crept up on me. I think it was a day or two before Ash Wednesday when I realized Lent was about to start and I had no idea what discipline I would engage in. I think that most of the time as Christians we hesitate to engage with spiritual disciplines because we are waiting for some sort of extra…something to tell us what to do. If we are honest we will probably only fast if we feel a strong sense that we are supposed to fast, that there is something we need to get out of it. Well, I didn’t have any sense of what I was supposed to do during Lent so I almost did nothing. But, at the last minute, I decided to take a lenten sabbath (take a break) from social media. Seemed easy enough. Shut off the notifications for Twitter and Instagram and away you go.
Like I said, this wasn’t the result of some strong conviction that I was being ruled by social media (although most of us are probably more ruled by it than we think). This was just a discipline that I (somewhat randomly) decided to engage with. You know what I found? The results have impacted me dramatically, just as much as if I had been told by thunder in the sky to get off social media. (This is an important lesson. The disciplines are their for us to engage with and gain from. They are opportunities that we can take advantage of. If we don’t choose to engage, we don’t get the benefits. But that’s another post.)
The thing about social media is that it is often self-promotion. We say to the world, “Look at my witty 140-character statement about so-and-so” or “Look at my food I’m about to eat” (side note: next time you go to a restaurant look around at how many people take pictures of their food when it arrives. It’s shocking.). Basically the message is, “Look at ME! Notice ME! Affirm (or “Like”) ME!”
You would think that giving this up would be a healthy way to notice myself less. But you know what I found? I noticed myself more, but not in the ways I expected. See, social media kept me distracted with little surface things like the sunsets I saw or the sound bites from my books. It never allowed me to see the depth of my real obsession with self. When you remove your options to self-promote (or read/see other people self-promoting), you start to realize the problem is actually deeper than you think.
Our problem is not that we are obsessed with instant photo filters or status updates, our problem is that our sinful hearts are backwards. We are hard-wired to put self and its needs right at the top of our priority list. Even though as Christians we have a new heart, I find that old habits die hard. It’s a constant battle to live into the change that God has already accomplished in me. To take my heart problem a step further, I will often use God as a means to glorify self. This is seen most clearly in prayer, as Tim Keller recently helped me see in his book on prayer. We pray most often when we are in trouble and when we want stuff. What is clear from this is that we are —I am, bought into the lie that if we had things we would be happy, or that if we were just out of this little mess we would be satisfied.
But isn’t it obvious that it doesn’t work? I wish my heart would see that it is. God in his gracious love so often will give me the things I ask for or help me out of the problem I have. No sooner does that happen than I find another thing to ask for or another problem that needs fixing. And on and on it goes. This Lent I have realized once again that what I need is to draw near to God himself, because it is only God himself that will satisfy my longing soul (Ps. 107:9). When I try to get away from myself, I run right into the depth of my own problem. I run into myself.
The glorious news of Lent is that Easter is coming, that Jesus has come. It is never fun to see yourself, especially when you realize that you are your biggest problem. But Jesus showed us that the way to life is through death. When Jesus shows me that I have made myself lord, I see quickly that I need his help to die to self. I need him to be Lord —in fact he must be Lord of all of me. It’s not pleasant, but it’s absolutely essential.
So regardless of if you have engaged in any “serious” lenten disciplines, draw near to God this Holy Week. Remember once again the vastness of Christ’s work to bring life out of death. I promise you that drawing near to God will be ugly at first. Not because God is ugly but because ugliness stands out in the presence of beauty. God’s perfection will always first make us see our flaws. But don’t give up. God has made a way for you and for me to stand in his presence with perfection. Jesus not only makes us perfect in God’s eyes, but his power changes us from the inside out to be what he has made us to be: imitators of Christ, who is the Lord of all.

The Flame of Sacred Love

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I had the chance to preach a sermon recently on some of the important aspects of biblical worship taken from Eph. 1:3-10. I closed with a prayer (hymn text) written by Charles Wesley that is very special to me.

I have actually never heard this hymn, “O Thou Who Camest From Above,” set to music. I heard it years ago quoted by another preacher and it made such an impact on me that I decided to memorize it so that I could pray it regularly. It has been a very stabilizing and encouraging part of my prayer life and has given me much-needed encouragement in some difficult seasons.

Now maybe you’re not the kind of person who likes old hymns or Shakespeare; maybe “thee” and “thou” aren’t words you typically use or like. But in case you’re interested, here’s a short editorial walkthrough of the hymn that goes a little further in explaining why these two short stanzas mean so much to me.

O Thou Who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,

Jesus, sent from heaven by God, came to make his salvation known to real people like us. The fire of holy love that is shared by the godhead gets ignited in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. We share in God’s love and have access to God’s power for life.

Kindle a flame of sacred love
Upon the mean altar of my heart.

Fire wanes and needs fuel to burn with strength. In prayer and worship we need God to breathe on that flame to kindle it to burn brightly. The “mean” or humble altar of my heart is the place that this fire burns. Undeserving as we are, with hearts full of wickedness and deceit (Jer. 17:9), God chooses to indwell us with the fire of his love and grace.

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

I resonate with the prayer asking God to keep my heart’s flame burning brightly, a flame that won’t be extinguished by the winds and rain of doubt or difficulty. This isn’t a source of pride or boasting, but it is a testimony to God’s glory. God is glorified by an acknowledgement of, and ultimately a returning of, his gifts back to him. As we approach God in humble prayer and passionate praise, the flames rise higher and higher from the heart-altar and return to their source—God himself.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

I love this part of the prayer. It’s asking Jesus to make possible the redeemed heart’s deepest desire: doing everything for his glory. In my working, in my speaking, and in all of my thinking, I want to have the praise and glory of Jesus as my ultimate goal. The fire needs to be guarded vigilantly and protected so that it continues to grow and develop.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make my sacrifice complete.

I am reminded here of Isaiah 6, when the prophet answered God’s inquiry with “Here I am, send me!” When we stand at the ready for God’s will, we are submitted to him and ready to be commanded to go, to stay and/or to do what he wants. But I don’t sit idly by and wait for “thunder from the sky” to direct me. I’ve heard it said, “Do what you know, not what you don’t know.” We repeat the acts of faith and love that we know to do—prayer, studying, Christian fellowship, acts of service, and many more. We continue this life of expressing love to God until the time to die has come. And death is not a defeat, but a promotion into God’s presence, a full realization of the mercies that have been guaranteed to us in this life (2 Cor. 1:22).

Maybe you could adopt this hymn as part of your prayer life and see what happens. You may find the “flame of sacred love” growing in heat and intensity as God’s Spirit responds to our earnest prayer.

 

-JV

 

Here’s the text in its entirety:

 

O Thou Who camest from above,

The pure celestial fire to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

Upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for Thy glory burn

With inextinguishable blaze,

And trembling to its source return,

In humble prayer and fervent praise.

 

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire

To work and speak and think for Thee;

Still let me guard the holy fire,

And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,

My acts of faith and love repeat,

Till death Thy endless mercies seal,

And make my sacrifice complete.