Showing posts with label Discipleship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Discipleship. Show all posts

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Praying Threats Against Evil Men

This week, I saw evil, clear and real and personal—the kind of evil that enrages, that enflames the kind of deep and violent anger that I rarely experience for any reason. I learned of circumstances that touched a friend's life, and wrath burned in me.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.

Of course, I have been angry many times in my life—but nearly all of those were times I was angry on my behalf, or even selfishly angry on the behalf of those I was close to. Rarely, I have been angry because of injustices or people's apathy toward the things of God—but even those, I am afraid, were tainted by self-righteousness: that sort of smug pride in how I cared more or was doing more than they were. This was different. There was nothing about me in it—simply fury that someone could do such a thing, especially to someone so deeply vulnerable and helpless to resist.

For the first time, I think I glimpsed a little bit of the fiery, righteous anger of God at sin and injustice and evil. He hates it. Time and again the Scriptures affirm that God abominates injustice, abuse of the poor and weak, and those who take advantage of those with no defense. He is incensed by murder and rape and torture and every unnecessary violence of this world.

Driving home, yesterday, I was praying for God to show His grace in this circumstance. All week, I have thought about what that prayer means. The God we serve, after all, is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

That's a wonderful and terrible passage, the foundation of all God's subsequent revelation of himself. It calls us to stand in awe: he is slow to anger; he overflows with steadfast love and faithfulness; he is merciful and gracious; he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin but he does not clear the guilty; the sins of the fathers have deep consequences in their families.1

God's great mercy on display here is sobering. You see, the way my wrath remained unrighteous and unlike God's, at least initially: it was not tempered by loving kindness and mercy. I simply wanted God to strike dead the man who did this evil. Now, in part, that is a righteous desire: it reflects just how deep God's anger burns against those who sin—all those who sin, more on that in a moment—and how fierce his judgment against evil is and will be. Nevertheless, there is more to God than his righteous anger.

The same who God who pulled me out of my sins and opened my eyes to the light of his glory and goodness when I was six or seven can save this man from his sins and open his eyes to the light of the glory of God. Had I committed smaller evils? Yes, of course: I was a child. But I was a sinner, through and through. I was selfish, self-righteous, angry, and prideful, to name but a few of my many faults. God is still saving me from those sins and more besides; they may no longer have dominion over me, but I certainly run back to them frequently enough that you'd think they and not God were my true heart's desire.

All of that to say: God's mercy to me is no more deserved than it would be toward this man who has done this great, wrath-enflaming evil. God's anger does burn hot against this man, far hotter than my anger burned even at its hottest. His anger is a searing, destroying flame that punishes evil violently and completely. Lest anyone complain: that is a good thing. Think how outraged we would be if a human judge sentenced a convicted serial rapist to a stern talking-to and a few weeks of community service! The abortion of justice is a terrible thing—not something we really want in God. Our tendency in the other direction is ultimately because we don't want to acknowledge that his justice necessarily includes all of our sins—not just Hitler's or Dahmer's.2 No, God's anger is a good thing, as is his judgment against sin, precisely because it is fierce and terrifying.

But God's mercy is a good thing, too—and here, too, we run off into the weeds, because we think his mercy should only be offered to those above a certain moral level. In other words, we think we deserved God's mercy by being better people than the Stalins or Ted Bundys of the world. We are wrong, and praise be to the God who makes no such distinctions in his offer of grace. All of us are undeserving wretches, saved only by grace of God in the death of Christ, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Not one of us has a better claim on the forbearance and loving kindness of God than this evil man does, because every one of us is evil. We have no grounds for self-righteousness; our rightly angry prayers in circumstances like this must always be tempered by the unmerited favor God poured out on us in all our wretchedness.

So yes, we can and should pray for God to do justice against evil, but we must also pray that in his mercy God would redeem those who do evil. Over the course of the week, my prayers about this unquestionably evil man became, "Oh God, restrain him from evil. Save him, send to him to jail, or strike him dead: let him do no more evil. In your mercy, please draw him to you and redeem him, restoring the many relationships he has destroyed. But protect those he has hurt, and never let him harm them again." It is not a perfect prayer, but it is the best I can do at summing up the tensions that run so deep here. It is a prayer for mercy and salvation, but also a prayer for justice, and above all a prayer that evil would be ended—in whatever way God chooses.

How would you pray here?

1For some helpful discussion of the hard parts of this passage, see John Piper's sermon, The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious [transcript available]. He concludes: "[God] simply lets the effects of the fathers' sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible."

2Note that I have in view here not those who object at a deeply thought through philosophical level their opposition to hell, etc.—though they are still wrong—but the general population's outlook on hell, which essentially reduces down to, "But that would make God mean!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Real Reason I Write

Self-exaltation is, I think, the single most common sin in the world. Idolatry is the root of every other sin, and self is far and away the most common target of worship directed away from God. Modern America's particular brand of this sin is our obsession with fame. This particular brand of idolatry has seeped into many corners of the church, as well as culture at large. We live in an age that glorifies people with big personalities and bigger followings; quiet faithfulness is not terribly interesting or laudable from the eyes of most American Christians.

Men like John Piper or Matt Chandler (to name but two of the more popular preachers for the Reformed crowd) find themselves the center of attention, emulated and even adulated by crowds of young Christian believers. Evangelicals in general see big churches (and correspondingly, popular preachers) as the ultimate measure of success. Popularity is the barometer of God's blessing.

This view is deeply contrary to the gospel, which points us again and again back to God's greatness and worthiness to be worshipped—and which highlights how our self-worship destroys so much. To be perfectly fair to men like Piper and Chandler, they handle all the fame well, doing their very best to point all the glory back to God. Yet as Piper himself has acknowledged in a very public way, fame can be poisonous. It puts the attention on us instead of God; faithfully and consistently turning that attention toward God is difficult enough when it is only external—but our deceitful, wicked hearts are harder still to turn toward him, especially when the praises of man sound strongly (and sweetly).

Blogging, interestingly, fits right in this same vein. A friend of mine, Wes Martin, noted recently that the lure of fame has a particularly insidious temptation for those of us devoted to sharing Christ-exalting truth on our blogs. On the one hand, our goal is to edify other believers, stirring them up to follow Jesus more faithfully and wisely. On the other, popularity is always tempting us. Sometimes it is the overt and obvious temptation to write something provocative just to get more hits, or not write something controversial to avoid offending others. At other times, though, it is the quiet sin of pride at advancing the kingdom of God—and being known for it. We want the kingdom to advance, but we want it to advance through us, with our name being known and honored for the part we played.

As I have passed 5 years of blogging, and am quickly closing in on the end of this 25-day-long experiment—as I near a year of work on Pillar on the Rock—I am deeply, intensely aware of this struggle in my own heart. Over the course of the last year in particular, since I actually began tracking the traffic to my sites, I have wrestled with the question of why I care whether I have many readers. (And I do. I care a lot sometimes.) I have to constantly ask whether my desire to see these sites grow, especially Pillar, is rooted in selfishness or in the love of God. Sometimes, to my shame, it has been the desire to feed my ego, not to see others edified and my Savior glorified.

I want this blog to grow. I want Pillar to reach a wider audience. In large part, those desires really are because I believe the things I write about are important—and of course, I believe the things I'm saying about these topics are accurate. (Here, too, is a temptation toward arrogance and ego-stroking: do I write simply because I think I am the only voice saying these things, or because I overvalue my own wisdom? The same temptations rear their ugly head.) In part, however, I recognize that I write because I want people to like what I have to say, and accordingly think well of me. I want my wisdom extolled. I want my words to be widely appreciated.

In short, I am guiltiest of all: I use posts that allegedly make much of God—sometimes posts that really do make much of God—to make much of myself. The real goal is Chris-glory, not God-glory, however much the words on the page may run the opposite direction. My heart is wicked and prideful. In myself, I twist even the things of God to my own ends.

With Paul, I am left saying,

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25)

Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus: he will deliver me from this body of sin. Amen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Do Duo Devotions Diligently: A Challenge to Married People

One thing Jaimie and I have slowly been working out since we got married (and even before) is how to seek God together. Both of us generally have fairly solid devotional lives: though not without our ups and downs, we both regularly read and memorize Scripture and pray. It is far more challenging to know how (and when!) to seek God as a couple. Individually, the pattern is simply: read the Bible and pray, and work on Scripture memory and pray more throughout the day. As a couple, however, we must set aside the time and work out a plan for what we will do.

(It is important, you'll note, that we each have strong walks with God ourselves. While we can support each other immensely in our walks with God, we can do so only insofar as we know Him ourselves. As ever, the Christian walk stands in tension: we need to pursue Jesus as individuals, but we do so in community.)

In the first year of our marriage, we began by praying together every morning before I left for work. That went well for a while—until I started leaving earlier and Jaimie started getting up later. The result is that we usually don't see each other until after I get back from work; aside from phone calls or text messages, the first time we actually communicate is late afternoon! Obviously, the original plan wasn't working. It also didn't really include much time spent on Scripture, and even when it was working, the time was much too brief. (I eat quickly.)

On our one-year anniversary, we made a point to review the year: what had we done well, and what had we done poorly? We also discussed the areas we wanted to work on in the year ahead (this year)—and one of the areas was our joint spiritual lives. It is important that we lay a solid foundation here now, so that by the time we have children (God willing!), we are already established in our familial walk with God. Children will simply be integrated into an existing pattern; we will not be struggling to figure it out then. (Actually, we still will, as we'll never have been parents before... but hopefully not as much as if we had no experience in pursuing God as a family!)

As the spiritual leader, the responsibility for coming up with a plan, or at least leading the discussion on a plan, fell to me. Over the next few weeks, I mulled over a few things, was Providentially guided to a few good articles, and prayed over how to do this well. The plan I came up with—the plan that we have been following since then, with varying degrees of success—looks like this:

  • Sunday: We take a walk, usually spending the first half just chatting about various aspects of life and being silly, and the second half talking about spiritual things we've been considering—new things we've learned about God, desires we have for the church, etc. We have a two mile loop, which makes for a comfortable half-hour walk: plenty of time for good discussion.
  • Monday: We pray. Our focus is on our marriage, each other, our families, and our very best friends, PJ and Katie, with whom we are as close as family in many ways.
  • Tuesday: We pray again! This time, our focus is on our spheres of ministry. In Jaimie's case, that includes the woman she is mentoring, her friends and acquaintances from class, and the foreign families she has met by riding the bus to and from OU (really neat people, and a great ministry opportunity). For me, it includes coworkers, my work on Pillar, my service on the worship team at church, and the younger man I mentor.
  • Wednesday: We briefly discuss the things we have been learning in our devotional material throughout the week. One of our goals is to have at least one concrete thing we have learned that we can share during this time—whether something new we learned about God, or an application for our lives. That challenges us to be more proactive in our own devotionals.
  • Thursday: We pray—can you tell we think prayer is important? Our focus on Thursdays is missions and ministries we support. We have a number of friends on the mission field, we are privileged to support people on staff with various campus ministries and mission teams, and there are many unreached people groups in the world—we try to pray for each of these categories.
  • Friday: We take some time to focus on our marriage. Normally, I prepare a question to ask. Sometimes we get to it, and sometimes our date night conversation naturally turns to marriage-oriented conversation, obviating the need for a prepared question.
  • Saturday: We study Scripture together. Right now, Jaimie is using a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, so we simply go to wherever she is reading and work through those passages together—it would hardly be fair to ask her to do double reading on Saturdays (especially given how much the plan demands). We have also done book studies together in the past—something we're looking forward to doing again in the future.

We're getting close to hitting every one of those days; doing so is one of my goals for this week. Stop back by in a week and see how we did.

Obviously the schedule has some flexibility to it; this is a general plan, not a definitive roadmap. Right now, date nights are usually Friday nights, so that's when we discuss marriage issues. However, that's already a change from date night being on Thursdays as it was until a month ago, and the schedule changed accordingly.

This schedule works for us. Different couples can and should figure out different ways to pull this off. Every night might not be an option, for various reasons (though I would encourage it if at all possible—it does wonders for your togetherness). Different times of day, and different emphases, may be necessary. The main point is that you shouldn't be drifting along, thinking a mutually beneficial couple-oriented devotional life will just happen. It won't. You need to work to make this happen, whatever the details look like.

Men, the responsibility most of all falls on you here. Most women I know would love for their husbands to step up and take the initiative to set aside even one chunk of time every week for spiritual things. The reality is, if your wife has to initiate it all the time, she is going to be frustrated and you are probably going to feel nagged. If you initiate it, your wife will appreciate it and you will have the fulfillment of doing what God calls you to do. It may not always be what sounds most fun, and it has a cost in time and energy, but the rewards are immense. Your marriage will be stronger and your own relationship with God will be deeper.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Xanga Posts and Maturity

In yesterday's post, I referenced my first blogging efforts—and in order to link to them, went and found said earliest entries. They provide both a certain amount of humor, because I really was a typical freshman in many ways: big eyes at everything going on in college, overly dramatic responses to the events of my days, and overwhelmed by amounts of homework that would later seem trivial. Not to mention: I took myself far too seriously. (I wonder if, reading this entry five years from now, I will think the same of myself now?)

There is opportunity for serious reflection, as well, though. On the one hand, I am very much the same person I was then in terms of personality. I am still interested in a wide variety of things, I am still deeply passionate about the things of God, and I can still get very riled up about issues I care about. On the other hand, I am very different than I was five years ago (as not only my old blog entries but also everyone who knows me can attest). To all of you who knew me then: thank you for tolerating my many idiosyncrasies, follies, and rough edges, and for loving me despite them. I am who I am today in large part because of the ways God used you in my life in the intervening years.

It is sobering to realize how mature I thought myself at the time, in comparison to how immature I really was. Again, I wonder: will I think the same of myself now when I look back in five years? The answer, I am afraid, is probably.

Having a record of the past, of who we were and how we thought in the past, can be incredibly instructive—and incredibly humbling. If I grow was much in the next five years as I did in the past five (and God willing, I will), I will unquestionably look back on many of the things I say and do now with regret or embarrassment. I will be able to recognize then foibles and sins that now do not even register on my radar. If nothing else, the number of posts I had to smile at in chagrin as I read yesterday should remind me not to be overly confident in the things I am thinking and writing today. They, too, are subject to the revision and correction of the Holy Spirit, and so while I hold my views confidently, I should also hold them humbly.

That sort of humble confidence seems to be one of the areas many Christians struggle. We tend on the one hand toward confidence in our own wisdom, unbridled by humility, and on the other to think humility means holding our views so loosely they could be shaken free by a gust of Oklahoma wind. (Okay, bad example; Oklahoma winds can be downright tornadic. You take my meaning.) We should hold our views with confidence when we have taken the time to carefully orient ourselves to what Scripture says, but with the humility to admit that just as we have changed our minds before, we may do so again. We are not infallible. At the least, quick perusal of those early posts and some of my later views on things will certainly serve to highlight my changing views over time.

This sort of confident humility allows us to speak boldly and courageously in a gracious, gentle way. One of my greatest weaknesses is a tendency to communicate my views passionately but not courteously. Even when I think my tone is expressing mere intensity, it can often be mistaken for anger, anger at people, anger even at the people I am addressing. Clearly, I have a great deal more growing to do. In this, as in all things, I am thankful that the Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us—because 23 years of life have taught me just how futile self-improvement is.

Sometimes I may indulge in a bit of meta-discussion of the post. It should prove insightful. Today, for example, you'll get to see everything I wrote before I came up with anything meaningful to say.

Day 2 of blogging every day this month. Day 2 isn't hard. Day 24 probably will be. [Ed. note: given the below, that's an amusing opening.]

I had about three post ideas today, independent of the suggestions offered in response to my last post (which were good ones). Unfortunately, I lost all but one of them—a problem I have had before, and that I have even still failed to find a good solution to. Calling myself isn't an option, because I can't call my own phone number without it going directly to checking voicemail. Leaving myself notes is impossible in many cases because many of my best ideas come when I am driving. Perhaps I can start coming up with mnemonics. Thoughts?

Thanks to the time I spent writing the previous paragraph, my brain was able to retrieve another of the ideas. So now I will write about that. And stop talking about writing about it. Alas, now I am writing about writing it. And the circle continues. Metacognition, and meta-function in general, are topics I plan to tackle in a fair amount of depth. Just... not today.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Technology, Distraction, and Pascal

Justin Taylor just posted a helpful reminder that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. The last few years have seen a flurry of articles proclaiming the myriad ways that Google Is Making Us Stupid. While there is probably some truth to that, as I have written myself, the ultimate source of those problems is not new, but age-old and an unchanging fixture of fallen human nature. We distract ourselves because we fear what we would see if we did not. From Taylor's post:

Pascal, to my mind, has written the most profound reflections on God, man, and “diversion.” I’d recommend getting Peter Kreeft’s edition, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees , where the relevant thoughts are all gathered in one section (pp. 167-187). Kreeft writes that when he teaches this material, his “students are always stunned and shamed to silence as Pascal shows them in these pensees their own lives in all their shallowness, cowardice and dishonesty.”

Here is one line from Pascal (from #136) that it worthy of a lot of meditation:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

Taylor also quotes Douglas Groothius at length, and the full post is well worth your time. It left me thinking: how often do I distract myself, and how often do I allow myself to sit in the quiet and ponder reality?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Smile Power and a Shirtless Biker Dude

Two observations from my day:

There is a woman I work with, probably in her mid to late fifties, who is easily the loveliest woman her age I have seen. It's because she smiles so much. Every time you talk to her, no matter how hard her day or week or month is going, she smiles. She faithfully asks how you are doing, and wants to know the answer. She will sympathize if something is wrong, laugh with you at something funny, and rejoice with you when things go well. She radiates joy, and it has left a decades-long imprint on her face. I have no doubt she will still be beautiful when she is 80.

Most of us struggle to hold that joy for a few hours, much less days or weeks or months. This woman, I know from conversation, finds her joy in Christ and in living well. It shows. I find myself both humbled and encouraged by her example. Would we were all so joyful! The more we find our hope, our satisfaction, and our happiness in God, the more we will reflect that same glorious spirit. Perhaps in three more decades, I will have learned to smile that much as well.

Motorcyclists, on the whole, comprise about the same spectrum of intelligence and aptitude for safe driving as other drivers—although perhaps with an emphasis on both extremes. The best motorcyclists are some of the most careful, conscientious drivers on the road. They signal assiduously, move predictably, and give plenty of space. By contrast, the worst motorcyclists are dangerous, unpredictable, and generally a picture of stupidity. And they never wear helmets. In driving 45 miles a day, I have of course seen plenty of motorcyclists.

Today, however, the stupidity topped the charts. A man rode his cruiser down the road, wearing nothing but his shorts, a pair of sandals, and his sunglasses. (His overly large gut made the picture even less attractive than you could imagine.) I imagine the feeling is fairly exhilarating. Of course, the feelings caused by an accident would be far more powerful than that brief thrill. Would we were none of us so foolish—but I think, in many ways, we often are, flirting with sin as we do, baring our chest to out of misplaced pride in our own strength.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theology, Practice, and Time to Think

About a month ago, I decided to (temporarily, but indefinitely) stop listening to sermons. My brain had simply overloaded. I had listened to a sermon a day (and sometimes more) with very few breaks since I started my job in late July. That's a lot of sermons. I found myself with two problems: more teaching than I could process, and an increasing tendency to zone out while listening.

Around the same time I started thinking about how little time I had spent just thinking recently. One of the best avenues for thinking for me is to listen to good music. Whether the music challenges me directly with its lyrics, or simply provides a sonic environment in which my thoughts flow more naturally, I contemplate more when I am listening to music.

Finally, I realized (again!) that all the good teaching in the world profits very little unless it is applied. It is possible to have too much teaching. This runs contrary to the normal thought patterns of those of us who deeply value Scripture and teaching. That valuation is well deserved: the preaching of the word of God brings life to the hearers, is the means God has ordained for the spread of the gospel, and is utterly necessary in the life of churches and individual believers. But we can inundate ourselves with teaching, giving ourselves no opportunity to process, meditate on, and apply what we have learned.

So I am on a hiatus. I've been listening to a wide variety ranging from Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band and Page CXVI's Hymns to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to the best classical CD I own, Great Recordings of the 20th Century: Elgar and Vaughan Williams. You should own at least one of those (and better yet, all of them).

I have also taken days to simply be silent: to think in the relative quietude of a moving car. These are also helpful. Silence and time for thought are rare in our culture; we have to actively cultivate them if we wish to enjoy their fruits. We need to shut out the constant cacophony sometimes; never has any generation lived with such a constant stream of input of every variety, with little filter and no ceasing. In consequence, we find ourselves perpetually distracted, trading some of the best moments of life in exchange for a constant flow of sound and sights.

As I spoke with a coworker yesterday, I remembered how my parents enforced a time limit on my computer use as I grew up, insisting that I spend time outside instead of allowing all my time to drain away. It was a good decision on their part. I have much stronger memories of those mandatory outside times—riding my bike around our culdesack or then-unfinished roads in our neighborhood, skinning my knees, being Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia (with Beth and Abi as Susan and Lucy respectively), and lassoing fenceposts in the backyard—than of any video game I have ever played.

We can lose those better, more human moments if we submit ourselves entirely to the lordship of the screen. I am hardly advocating that we stop using computers and technology, that we stop using our screens, that we stop listening to sermons or to music—I am, after all, writing these thoughts in a blog post. These are all good things; we should enjoy them and give thanks to God for them. However, just as it has been profitable for me to take a hiatus from the constant flow of sermon content, sometimes it is profitable to take a hiatus from all content and simply be.

What about you? What distracts you, overwhelms you, demands your attention constantly, and pulls you away from the human side of life? How do you fight it?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writing and Idolatry

Even as I worked to redesign my blog yesterday, I continued to contemplate the issue of voice in my writing. Part of the answer struck me at church today. (Conviction struck me a moment later as I realized I was thinking about blogging instead of worshipping God.) I realized that, especially at Pillar, my writing over the last few months has moved in a very systematic direction. Lists, four-point analyses, and carefully organized paragraphs have become the norm for me. Even now, writing here, I find myself moving that direction. Systematic approaches are not in and of themselves bad. To the contrary, they are often very helpful for quickly navigating the content of a blog.

However, my writing flows better when it flows. If you will allow me the metaphor: I can sometimes forget that I am a musician as well a programmer with a physics degree. Writing is not merely a problem to be solved; it is also an activity to be enjoyed. Words are not merely a means to the end of communicating content, at least for me: they are also a source of beauty and joy. When content eclipses beauty as the goal of my writing (or, frankly, vice versa) bad things happen. The time I spent learning to write technically was good, and I will never forget my physics professor's quiet amusement at the language in the first draft of my capstone paper. That said, a style that was horribly inappropriate in the context of a scientific paper may not be inappropriate in the context of my personal blog or even a more tightly focused platform like Pillar on the Rock.

In my mind, these past few days, Pillar on the Rock has come to represent a number of challenges facing me. The first was my search for my voice, and my recognition that writing for Pillar has changed my writing—and not always to the better. Of course, the problem is not the blog itself, but how I have allowed my goals to decide (and not merely influence) my style. I hope to change that over the next few weeks and months.

Similarly, I recognized today that I have allowed my work on Pillar to channel my theological interests and passions in a particular direction. Again, this is not anything intrinsic in the blog; it is my (very bad) tendency to allow a project to dictate my overall direction. In this case, my focus on church has distracted me from the very reason I was passionate about the church in the first place: my passion for the glory and supremacy of God himself. As I have written before, when anything takes the place of God himself as our chief passion or greatest love, it has become an idol. That means that healthy churches can easily become an idol, and there are few more dangerous idols I can conceive of. Striving for churchly goodness without God's glory as our only real aim will lead us to tear the body of Christ down faster than any imperfection would.

Of course, if I return to the original topic of this post, then I must admit that writing well is as apt to become an idol as doing church well is—and the consequences would be no less disastrous. Writing well is a good goal. But it will remain a good goal only while I strive to point not to the quality of my own writing but to the glory of the one who spoke the world into existence. He loves words, so I should love words too—but I should love the Word far more.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Glory unfurling

One of the mysteries of my life is my friendship with Stephen Carradini. I met him within fifteen minutes of his arrival on campus at OU his freshman year, and he stuck to me like Velcro. Nearly every experience I had in college he repeated in one way or another. Despite our myriad differences in background, opinions and relationships, God has ordained that the major strokes of our lives run in parallel, with Stephen just far enough behind to watch and learn from my successes and failures.

As Stephen himself commented to me recently, he lives my life.

I have rarely seen such a simple, perfect picture of the sovereignty of God. In the three and a half years since we met, God has consistently put me in positions that I found frustrating, painful and inexplicable—until months later, when Stephen invariably found himself in the same straits, and I could lend an ear and sometimes a hand. I rest on God's sovereignty because Scripture declares it, but I find it easier to believe because I have seen it.

Jaimie recently spent some time reviewing old journals and observing how God has answered prayers she offered up half a decade ago. Though we are not to live in the past, we are to remember it and savor God's works. When the present grows dark, God's past faithfulness comforts us. He has saved us and cared for us before, even when we could not see.

The months since our wedding have been a time of upheaval, struggle, fear and pain as Jaimie battles depression. She's winning, by the grace of God. And joy has filled our lives. We love being married. Day by day we see God's goodness more plainly. Whether it is in a quiet evening spent reading together, the wondrous dance of married love, or the hours we have spent crying and praying together, we remember that the Holy Spirit is working for our good. We hold to that truth with all our strength; sometimes we have nothing else.

Day by painful day, I see Christ's image growing in Jaimie. I see her slowly freed and gradually perfected. I see her face unveiled and the glory of our Savior unfurled by the breeze of the Spirit in her heart. Suffering is producing joy inexpressible as He forges us into complete dependence.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

179,676 Days

For years, I've promised to write a Reformation Day post. Every year, I've failed. This year, I've made no such promise, but here I am succeeding. Irony, thy name is Chris Krycho, at least for the next hour.

492 years ago—179,976 days, including leap years—Martin Luther nailed up a list of issues he saw with the Catholic church of his day on the door of a Wittenburg church. What followed was one of the most momentous changes in the history of the church, and indeed the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I sit here today, typing away, because of Martin Luther and the men that followed his lead. They shook the world, both for good and for ill.

I am grateful for men like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. I walk with Christ because these men were as faithful as they could be to the Bible. They took it as their authority, let it rule their doctrine and their lives. They were horribly imperfect men; from Luther's anti-Semitism to Calvin's failure with Servetus, they stumbled along the way. I find it encouraging that these men, sinners all, were used powerfully by God. He is not limited by our weaknesses.

One could say many things today. For my part, I want to focus in on one thing I think the reformers themselves did very well that Protestants have generally done quite poorly ever since: reform.

The Reformers' name isn't a misnomer. Luther and Calvin both deeply valued unity, and wanted an internal restoration of the church they loved. By all accounts they were grieved that their own excommunication was the result of their efforts. They fought hard for what they believed was true, but they also cared deeply about following Christ's commands that we seek unity. For too many Christians since the Reformation, schism has become the easiest out when a doctrinal difference appears. Instead of asking whether or not we can find a way to either resolve the difference or live with the difference, we simply split and go our own way.

Worse, schism has become such a norm that churches have split over the proverbial carpet color. Instead of being a people known by their love for one another, Christians (at least, of the Protestant fold) have become a people known for their divisions. When any given topic has the potential to produce church-splitting conflicts, we are not modeling the love of Christ. We need to learn right practice as well as right doctrine from the reformers. Yes, we must hold fast to right teaching, to sound doctrine, and to the primacy of Scripture. We should not be afraid to call heresy out for what it is. At the same time, we need to be careful not to call heresy things that aren't, and we need to show grace to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We must strive to reform our churches instead of splitting them.

When Christ is rightly esteemed, we have a much better grasp on just how unimportant things like our own decor preferences are. When He is understood to be the center of and the aim of all we're doing, our own ministry aims must be subsumed to the greater goals of the church. When Christ crucified and come to life again is our gospel, we understand that many of our doctrinal differences are simply unworthy of schism. Indeed, only heresy is worth a violent separation, and few doctrines are worth any separation at all! I may not be a Presbyterian, for example—I'm not much one for infant baptism!—but I certainly ought to have close fellowship with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ. We have much more that unites us than separates. We shouldn't paper over our differences, but we can treat them as what they are: trifling, compared to our unity on Christ and His work. When issues arise in our own churches, we should work with all of our power to resolve them or to come to a place of amicable disagreement. If at long last we should come to the conclusion that it is best to go our separate ways—e.g. over infant baptism—then it ought to be done with the deepest charity and the most heartfelt affection. When churches do separate, they ought to do it with love for one another and with the aim to continue in fellowship and in cooperation for the gospel.

Happy Reformation Day. Keep reforming.

Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria.
By Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, glory to God alone.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Five 100-word thoughts

Things that passed through my head today that I thought my be interesting:
  1. A snippet from the Today show this morning that I caught while waiting for new tires: a couple expecting a child... to be born from another couple. Both couples were using in vitro fertilization because they could not conceive naturally. The doctor made a mistake and implanted the wrong embryo. Now one couple is carrying the baby to term (praise God!) and giving it back to his parents. What exactly does that mean? It’s a confusing, painful mess for everyone involved. Situations like this make me question the wisdom of in vitro. There are no easy answers here.
  2. In a Christianity Today interview published last Friday, Kara Powell argued that the age of age segregated ministry is over, or should be. A few highlights from the interview, especially the last one:

    • Now we tend to think that we can outsource the care of our kids to... the youth and children's workers.
    • Teens should not only be the objects of ministry; they need to be the subjects of ministry as well.
    • Tenth graders study Shakespeare. What are we offering them at church? Nothing comparable...
    •'s also very important for parents to share about their own spiritual journeys with kids.

  3. God’s grace is a pretty stunning thing. As the author of Hebrews puts it: through death He overcame the one with the power of death (the devil) and delivers those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. That’s huge. I can’t conscience dropping penal substitutionary atonement in favor of Christus Victor, but we must remember: Christ’s life and death did more than eliminate sin’s penalty! We should revel in His victory, excited about His final triumph. Praise God: we’ve been saved from God’s wrath, death, fear, and Satan’s power, and to freedom, life everlasting, joy and love.
  4. Marriage is a delightful and painful treasure. Delightful, because every day is filled with companionship, love, and adventure. Painful, because I realize more every day how wicked I am:. Yes, wicked: I am self-absorbed, unkind, rude, thoughtless, harsh. Jaimie is a delight and a treasure to me, yet too often I do not show her the depths of my love. I am just beginning to grasp how immense a thing it is to die for her every day as Christ died for the church. I desperately need the Spirit’s help to love her well. On my own, I fail horribly.
  5. In a pair of sermons on Luke 18, Matt Chandler (lead pastor of The Village Church in Texas) absolutely hit the ball out of the park. He looked at the text hard. The result: a solid scriptural rebuke to our self-reliance and our love of anything other than Christ. Topics covered: A Pharisee with a theocentric prayer who missed justification because he thought his God-given works saved him. A rich man who was still looking for how he could find eternal life in religion. And God’s way. Give them a listen: May 28 and June 7.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Process Carefully, Joyfully: thoughts on reading well

Reading well is a skill, and it requires practice.

I've spent much of the last week thinking both about both the books I've read and the process of reading. In that time, I've read books ranging from Truth and Trolls to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and from The Shadow Rising (a fantasy novel) to Billy Graham's Angels. There's a lot of good material in every book I've read, but there's been a lot of bad material mixed in. Sorting it out requires attentive thought. I thought I might share some of my approach, in the hope that it'll help others. The following list is hardly comprehensive - and I'd love to hear any thoughts or suggestions, as well as references to similar lists! In no particular order (except for the first and last):

  • Nearly every book you will ever read has something you can learn. There may be a few exceptions out there, but I've yet to find one, and I've read some absolute duds - the sort that should never have made it to an editor's desk, much less off of it. The trick is recognizing which parts of the book you should walk away with. Our basic assumption should be that we can learn something from the book, so we should also be asking what as we read. That will look different with fiction than with nonfiction, of course, but it's applicable to either.

  • Read humbly. Don't think you know everything. You won't learn much otherwise. That means depending on the Holy Spirit to teach, no matter what you read. (This is a big one for me, and one that I'm learning a lot about right now. Human judgments are quick to err without His help.)

  • Deciding what to take away from any book requires thought. The amount of thought may vary, but there will be some no matter what. We have to decide what is valuable, what is not, and what is merely neutral. In some ways, the question is the hardest for the best and worst books. In the worst, the temptation is to simply dismiss everything the author says: when so much is obviously wrong, it's easy to think that everything is, but that's not necessarily true. The challenge with the best books is precisely the opposite: to carefully decide what is not good when so much is. No author's words are gospel. All books - good and bad, well-written and poorly alike - must be tested against Scripture.

  • Sometimes we learn negatives rather than positives: don't do this, avoid that, this is heresy and worth refuting. Even if that's all, you've still learned from what you've read. It wasn't necessarily a waste of time. (That being said, I don't advocate spending most of your time reading heresy!)

  • On that note, think about how you spend your time. You don't have much, so spend it carefully. Make good use of breaks and vacations.

  • Read widely. Don't limit yourself to one genre, or even one overarching category. Lovers of fiction, make yourself read some good non-fiction - and you non-fiction purists, make a point to pick up a novel on a regular basis. Our imaginations and our intellects both need training and sanctifying. Read yesterday's best-sellers as much (or more!) than today's - don't fall prey to temporal arrogance. Read old novels and new ones, church fathers alongside the current preachers. Two applications of this: I'd like to read more short stories, since basically all of my fiction reading has always been novels, and I want to start reading the church fathers at length.

  • Read with pleasure. Don't make yourself trudge through book after book you can't stand. There are certainly times when we should read books we don't particularly enjoy; it is good to challenge ourselves and expand our boundaries (see above). But reading should also be a source of joy and delight. Light, "popcorn" reading is sometimes a great help here, and I make a point to sprinkle light-hearted fiction in amongst my diet of Dostoevsky, Piper. etc. As much as I enjoy the heavy hitters, they can become tiring after a while. A good dose of Robert Jordan from time to time helps reinvigorate my desire to read harder things, as well as being fun in its own right.

  • Form and content don't always match up perfectly. I've read well-written books full of heresy and doctrinally sound books that should have been rewritten from scratch. I've read novels with well-written characters but terrible worldviews, and vice versa. (I'm sad to say I've found more Christian novels in the "good worldview, bad writing" category than not. If someone knows of any really good modern Christian novelists, I'd love to hear about them.) If we're going to be good readers, we need to be able to recognize the good parts of bad books, and vice versa. If the prose is bland but the story compelling, learn from the narrative and leave the prose behind. If the form is fantastic but the content heretical, recognize both for what they are. (This is another good place to practice discernment in how we spend our time.)

  • Read Christologically. Whether novel or theological treatise, whether Christian or pagan, look for the marks that God has left on the human heart. Look for Him in books on marriage and in mystery novels. Look for Him, and if you do not find Him, then you have real reason to criticize. You may be pleasantly surprised to find Him where you did not expect, though you may also be sad not to find Him where you did expect.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Scriptures

No, the topics here aren't related. I'm simply discussing two different passages that strongly caught my attention while reading tonight.
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, "Great is the LORD!"
Psalm 40:16

That's a striking exhortation. David calls all those who seek God to rejoice in Him. He encourages everyone who is pursuing God to be glad in Him. He insists that we proclaim God's greatness. In short, he commends a life lived with joyful adoration of our King. Equally compelling is David's proclamation, earlier in the same psalm, that he delights to do God's will. Delight is a strong word - our hearts should leap to obey our Savior-King. That they do not simply reminds us that still the old man wars for dominion. Pick up your sword and fight, oh spiritual man. You will have the victory - and you will have true joy.
Then His mother and His brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And He was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you." But he answered them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."
Luke 8:19-21

This passage is noteworthy in an entirely different way. It calls our attention to how radically different Jesus' loyalties are than our own. Over and over again throughout the gospels, Jesus made it clear that His first loyalty was not to His earthly family or any other human institution. Instead, He firmly fixed Himself on the will of His Father.

The words also hold out a promise for us: if we hear and obey the word of God, we have more right to be the "immediate family" of Christ than would His own mother if she did not. The Father has made us His children, joint heirs of the promise with Christ. How stunning!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Acts29 Church Planting Network

I just stumbled across the Acts 29 church planting network. I'm curious - I've heard them highly recommended by a couple of groups I trust. I can't wholeheartedly recommend them, as I've not done enough research. Their list of qualifications for church-planters is worth taking a good look at, regardless. It's thoroughly grounded in Scripture and quite practical.

One of the best chunks of the article:
In summary, only men of finest character are fit for leadership in God's church. What is not required according to the Bible is formal theological training, though such training can indeed be very beneficial. What is also not required is a salary, though an elder/pastor is worth an honorable wage (I Timothy 5:17-18). The issue of which men lead the church is of the utmost seriousness because the reputation of the gospel in the community and health of the church are contingent upon godly, qualified men who keep in step with Jesus and can lead the church to do likewise. In this way, the elders function as an accountable team much like Jesus first disciples and are therefore quite unlike secular notions of a business or non-profit organizational board. In addition to the qualifications of an elder, the Bible also provides the duties of elders/pastors.
  • Prayer & Scripture study (Acts 6:4)

  • Ruling/leading the church (I Timothy 5:17)

  • Managing the church (I Timothy 3:4-5)

  • Caring for people in the church (I Peter 5:2-5)

  • Giving account to God for the church (Hebrews 13:17)

  • Living exemplary lives (Hebrews 13:7)

  • Rightly using the authority God has given them (Acts 20:28)

  • Teaching the Bible correctly (Ephesians 4:11, I Timothy 3:2)

  • Preaching (I Timothy 5:17)

  • Praying for the sick (James 5:13-15)

  • Teaching sound doctrine & refuting false teachings (Titus 1:9)

  • Working hard (I Thessalonians 5:12)

  • Rightly using money & power (I Peter 5:1-3)

  • Protecting the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17-31)

  • Disciplining unrepentant Christians (Matthew 18:15-17).

I'd recommend you read the whole article. You might take a look around at the site, too, and let me know what you think.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Educated pastors?

Note to my readers: I write this blog primarily for the encouragement and exhortation of other Christians. While I welcome feedback from those who are not Christians, I'd appreciate it if you directed most if not all of that response through personal messages to me, so as not to distract from the real purpose of the post. Thanks.

Several times recently I've run into what strikes me as a very strange opposition to seminary training for pastors. The underlying idea, from what I can tell, is that (and I quote) "God doesn't call the equipped; He equips the called." Now, there's some merit to that statement - God does provide spiritual power and gifting we need when we calls us into a ministry. He certainly raises up spiritual leaders in places where seminaries don't exist, or where those that do exist are bad. I'm bothered, though, by the resistance to further education for those who will be teaching and shepherding the sheep.

I understand where the resistance comes from, I think. There is a swinging ball and chain of theology in Christendom, and it delivers as terrible a blow at the extreme of intellectualism as at the height of emotionalism. American believers have seen the coldness and death of intellectual congregations without emotion or application. Along the way, many have seen pastors arrogant and self-assured because of their seminary degrees, strutting where humility was needed. Years ago, the coiled spring exploded, and the force of that recoil is not yet spent. In many circles, the sin is not merely intellectualism but intellectual engagement. "Doctrine" is a scary word, "theology" a dangerous thing to be avoided. Most people in that camp probably wouldn't say it that way, but the undercurrent remains: there is a quiet but strong antipathy to the higher education of pastors and teachers.

There are a number of problems with this, but I'll stick to the one I think is the most important. It's not Biblical.

To set the record straight from the beginning, I'm not condemning pastors or congregations where the pastor doesn't have formal training. Many incredibly gifted preachers and shepherds don't. My concern is with those who reject seminary training for all pastors, seeing it as pointless at best and wrong at worst.

If we survey the patterns and directives of the New Testament, a pattern emerges very quickly in the lives of its leaders. Not all of the leaders of the church were "educated" men—but all of them were deeply educated when they began to lead in ministry. The disciple-apostles included relatively uneducated fishermen... who then spent at least three years immersed in ministry and training under Jesus Christ. Paul was one of the best young Jewish scholars of his day, with a classical education to back it up. His disciples, Timothy and Titus, both traveled with him extensively before taking on pastorates themselves. Both of them were instructed to teach sound doctrine. Timothy was explicitly told to study to show himself approved. James told the teachers that they were under a stricter judgment than the ordinary believers in the church.

My conclusion is that the New Testament quite firmly indicates that those with authority should be seeking to grow in wisdom and in knowledge. What that looks like for each pastor will vary immensely. Some will never go to seminary; some will spend a decade there. We need training in the Scriptures, in good doctrine, in disciplemaking, in worship, in teaching well. Where better to get it than from those who have gone before us?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Sufficiency of Scripture

What does it mean to say that we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? The term is common enough that it warrants definition. Inerrancy and infallibility are commonly discussed, sufficiency a bit less so. As far as theological battles go, it's deeply tied to the other two, and so isn't as hot a point of contention. For our lives, however, it's just as important.

If Scripture is sufficient then the Bible says everything it means to, and what it doesn't say, it means not to say. When tied to infallibility, it means that structure and grammar, affirmation and negation, and even the topics chosen (yes, including Leviticus) are all important. It means that the Bible is enough for all the ways we need Scripture. Sufficiency complements infallibility and inerrancy: nothing needs to be taken away from the infallible and inerrant word of God, and nothing needs to be added to the sufficient word of God.

Belief in the sufficiency of Scripture has real, practical consequences for our Bible study. For example, if Scripture is sufficient, we should take from each passage only its own implications. God intended John 3 to be a conversation on belief, with consequences for our beliefs about justification, but Romans 8 to be an extended discussion on justification with implications for our believing. The story of David and Goliath is not about overcoming our mortal enemy, debt (or any other you can name), by standing up to it and being courageous; it's about God's anointed one coming to the rescue. When we read Scripture, we should take it to mean exactly what it says, and nothing else. Let the Scriptures speak as God intends them to, and do not force them to speak to topics they don't address.

How do we apply our belief in Scripture's sufficiency? By humbling ourselves as we come to His words. We come asking what the passage says. Then, after we have a good grasp on what it says, we may begin to ask what it means. Finally, having taken the time to do these well, we can ask how to apply that meaning to our lives. In all of this, the Word itself has primacy. Our emotions don't: they have to submit to what God says. When we look at interpretations and applications, they need to come out of the passage's content, not out of our circumstances.

I don't mean to say that there are not times when God speaks to us deeply through secondary or tertiary applications of a passage. I do mean to say that we ought to let Scripture mean what it says. For example, if I am reading Lamentations, I should recognize it as a dirge for all the calamities that overtook Israel for her sins. I should not make it an allegory for my daily ups and downs in the workplace. There may be some applications to my life, but they're not direct unless I'm witnessing the violent and wrathful judgment of God on everything I've ever known and held dear. When America is burning from sea to shining sea, cannibalism is rampant, and I am not only the only man willing to speak truth but also getting thrown in a pit to die for it, then I might find myself empathizing with Jeremiah. Not before. God certainly speaks through that passage, even to our (much smaller!) travails, but our understanding needs to be grounded in what it says, not in what we feel. He doesn't need our emotions to somehow fill in the gaps in the things He could have meant by the passage. If Scripture is sufficient, there are no gaps - He said everything He meant to say.

>Another trouble many of us have is that we jump immediately to the final step. "Life Application" is a good thing - good enough that I think failing to ask how to apply Scripture to our lives leads us down the road of academic abstractions that profit very little if at all. However, moving to application without good observations and interpretations is also a recipe for failure. Why? Because we can't have good applications without having good interpretations, and good interpretations rest on good observations. We must know what the passage says before we can have any idea what it means, and we must know what it means before we can derive any response.

I've also noted a tendency in myself and others to think that interpreting Scripture (finding out what it means) and applying it (finding out how it works in my life) are the same thing. They're not. Part of the trouble here is phrasing: "What does that mean?" and "What does that mean to you?" are very similar questions. Appropriately, though, they mean two very different things.

The process of approaching Scripture with its sufficiency in mind is straightfoward enough: Observation --> Interpretation --> Application, always in that order. How do we practice it? Let's return to Lamentations for an example, briefly looking at the book as a whole.

I observe how brokenhearted Jeremiah was for his people, even when they were attacking him. I observe how deeply full of wrath God was, and how patient to hold back such great anger for so long. I observe that the destruction visited on Judah and Jerusalem was very great. I observe that the depravity of man came bubbling up and was revealed in all its horror. I observe that God's greatest condemnation was for prophets and priests claiming His authority for their false teaching.

Then I begin to interpret. God hates sin - deeply, violently, angrily. He hates it so much that He would righteously visit incredible violence and terror on people rather than allow them to continue in it. He punishes sin - slow to anger He may be, but when His anger is kindled it is fierce and terrible. I thus also interpret that sin is more awful than I yet realize. I interpret that Jeremiah was so filled with God's love for his countrymen that, though he agreed that God's judgment was just, he was rightly grieved for their destruction. I interpret that God's salvation was Jeremiah's great hope for himself and for his people.

Then I apply: I recognize the evil of my own sin and depravity. I recognize that, quite literally, there but for the grace of God go I. I recognize that it is from those depths of sin and that depth of God's wrath that I have been saved. I recognize that I need a deeper love of my fellow believers and my fellow Americans and my fellow humans - a love that is like Christ's. I recognize that I need more gratitude for the salvation God has so mercifully granted me.

And all of those things come from the passage. Those are meaningful, real applications to my life. But they are drawn from the content of the passage, not imposed on it from my circumstances. To be sure, they may speak more or less loudly to my current situation. Sometimes it's the most tertiary applications that speak the loudest. God works that way, meeting us where we are and drawing our hearts after Him. For our part, we need to be faithful to treat His word with honor and respect. We need to remember its sufficiency. God has spoken, and His words are enough.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jeremiah, Lamentations, and prayers

Jeremiah (the book) can perhaps be summed up thus: God redeems through judgment and ransoms through suffering. The rhetorical questions posed in chapter 3 resonate through the entire book: their quiet but powerful statement that, all reasons so far as man can see aside, He will redeem and restore and forgive His people. There are both quiet foreshadowing (like anticipatory echoes) and forthright proclamation of Messiah to come. Glory!

In Lamentations there is a frightful but rightful weeping over all that transpired up to the fall of Jerusalem. Great grief, terrible in its depth - for God's temporary and temporal judgment was fierce indeed. (How much more so - and thus, how much greater the suffering of those subjecting themselves to it by willful sin - the unending, everlasting torment of Hell! This is a fearful thought indeed!)

[Oh God, let me grasp how grievous that punishment, and how glorious Your life, that my heart might rightly appraise the task of spreading the Gospel! Let me know both how terrible the bad news is and how very great (both of itself and in contrast) is the Good news! Let me live my life thus in light of Light and Life!l]

[Make my life a sacrifice to You.]

[Make my life a pleasing incense to You.]

[May my prayers accord ever with Your will. May they be bold and filled with power. May the change this fallen world!]

[May my words, spoken and written, and the testimony of my deeds, be a compelling and fitting call to Life: to a proper understanding and appropriation thereof by the redeemed, and to the attaining thereof by the lost.]

[Make my influence great, and make me nothing, for the sake of Your name, that Your glory be known in all the earth!]

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Missed notes

It is 2:22 am as I begin writing. Piano music by George Winston plays softly in the background. I have just finished - or rather, nearly finished - a quantum mechanics assignment, the final such assignment of my undergraduate career. Next semester the sole physics class I shall be taking is capstone; I will in a week have finished the coursework proper of a bachelor's degree in physics - no small thing, and certainly a thing not accomplished on my own merits.

And I find myself in a reflective mood. I suspect the music has much to do with it: long have I found George Winston's piano work to be among the best for inspiring quiet contemplation and thought. Not for nothing did I often model my early improvisatory playing on the piano after his playing. He captures ideas of seasons better than any similar modern composer I know of. Though not of great repute, though of simple style and developmental method, his works are of great value. They help me think.

In these hectic days, music that leads me to pause and ponder, to think... such music is a good thing.

This has been a busy and difficult semester, and it has flown by. It has been over three months since I proposed to Jaimie and she said yes, made me the happiest man in the world. It has been nearly a month since I finished the "final" draft of Destiny and Hope, my first orchestra piece in years. It has been four months, nearly, since classes began this fall, and it has been five since I last saw my family. I miss old friends that I see little of this year. I have learned how horribly selfish I am through the mirror that is my relationship with Jaimie, and I have seen God do great and mighty things in, between, and through us as a couple. I have seen my relationships with young men I care about deeply flourish in ways that surprise me, though it should not. I have been blessed to be a part of a ministry team in a ministry where God is moving - a ministry that, though my heart longs to move on to working in a church setting, is where God has put me, and where I thus work and work hard in this time.

God has taught me patience and endurance in some small measure this semester. More, He has taught me reliance on His grace in new ways, quieter and subtler than those that came before.

Often, come this time of year in this stage of life, it is easy to look back and see some grand sweeping changes in one's life, in one's character and constitution. Not so for me, this year. I see grand changes in my circumstances. Within, I see God working on my heart, less dramatically but for that the more deeply and more transformingly. He is rooting out sin, and driving me to my knees, forcing me to confront the terrible effects sin has, but more than that the evil that it is in and of itself. He has opened my eyes a little more to the sinfulness of sin. And He has continued to pour out His glory, to show Himself, to reveal just how great and how incomparable His splendor is. He has, in so doing, continued to transform my mind, shaping it to be ever more consumed with His agenda and His ends - to ultimately be utterly devoted to the glory of Jesus Christ above all else.

The OU orchestra recorded Destiny and Hope today. In that, in listening to them play and in listening many times over to the recording since then (12 times, according to iTunes), I catch a glimpse, though only the tiniest, of God's heart as an artist. I was awed as they played beauty where I had written beauty, as they captured quiet meditation and fierce pathos less than an hour after first hearing the piece. And I was sad, too, though not surprised, at how they missed notes. I marveled at how a single wrong note - an entry but a measure too soon, or a landing on a note a step too low - could destroy the carefully crafted beauty for that moment. I marveled, too, at how quickly they moved on once more into magnificent and compelling music-making. There is something striking and remarkable here: that we fragile little human people have been entrusted with the gift of reflecting the creative nature of God.

The universe sings. Most people thing such statements but flowery metaphor, but it's merely a statement of fact. (Perhaps merely is the wrong word.) Celestial objects, as they spin, have characteristic frequencies that correspond to pitches. I have often wondered, these last five or six years, if it would be possible, with some hard work, to synthesize from the relationship of perhaps the nearest 100 stars from the raw data into their connectedness and their musicality, and in so doing, to catch a glimpse of the symphony God has created for His pleasure. The stars never miss notes.

We, His great artistry, do. We live missed notes. We were made to reflect the very nature of God; His image is in us, placed there from the beginning. Now we are broken instruments, unable to be played properly; it takes the hands of a master maker to build us anew into beings capable of singing the Great Song.

My heart broke a little at every missed note, every gap in the music today. How much more does God's heart break when we miss notes with our very lives? How much greater is the the love - indeed, the Love - He has invested in us? And, as that orchestra did today, ought we not strive to play every note perfectly, to reflect rightly the intent of the composer?

I have missed many notes this semester. A recording would find my life a cacophony. Yet it would be a cacophony in which beauty emerges, not by the perfection of the instrument, but by the genius of the Maker whose instrument I am, and whose melodies and harmonies I seek to make my life's one song, as He remakes me to be a perfect instrument.

I pray you find yourself seeking harder after God Almighty in the days to come, that you are consumed once more with the mystery - for mystery it is - of the Lord of All come as a baby in a manger, the song of the heavenly host sung triumphant for the coming of God as a baby in a stinky manger. And I pray that you sing yourself the song of the redeemed, that you sing the glory of God with your voice and with your life.

- Chris

Destiny and Hope

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Go and tell

The first command Jesus spoke after his resurrection was to Mary Magdalene. Standing outside the tomb, weeping for loss and confusion, Mary asked the man she thought had moved Jesus' body where it had been put. The Man answered her by calling her name, and when she awestruck moved to cling to Him, He told her it was not yet time, and then spoke his first command as the Risen One: "go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (John 20.17). His very first command as the one who had made purification for sins (Hebrews 1.3) was sending Mary to tell the good news.

We see the same pattern in Matthew's account. Jesus appeared later to the other women who had come to the tomb, but who had not returned with Mary Magdalene, and told them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me" () His command was to go and tell. Tell what? That his brothers would see him, risen from the dead. These were his first words to his own mother!

Jesus' final words spoken to his disciples on this earth are recorded in Matthew 28 and Acts 1.
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and in the name of the Son and in the name of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you to the end of the age." (Matthew 28.18-20))
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.(Acts 1.8-9)

Jesus' resurrection carried with it immense consequence for the lives of those who believe in him. No true belief in Christ can but proclaim the good news at every opportunity. He is risen! We must grasp, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the magnitude of that news.

Imagine the women who went to the tomb that early Sunday morning, Jesus' own mother among them, sorrowful and yet still seeking to serve the one they loved by taking care of his body. They arrived to find the stone rolled away, the linens neatly folded, and angels inside telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead. They ran and told the disciples, all but two of whom dismissed the tale as rubbish (Luke 24:10-12). And then Jesus appeared to them. He was not dead anymore.

Read that sentence again. He was not dead anymore.

For anyone we love to be no longer dead but alive would fill us with joy incommunicable, would so overpower us that we would tell everyone we could find. Death overcome? A person who was undoubtedly gone now returned? This would warrant much attention in any individual.

But this was not just any man. This was Jesus Christ, the Messiah. This was the one of whom the Hebrew Bible spoke, the Man of prophecy, the Second Adam, the Deliverer, the Kinsman Redeemer. This was the reality of which there had been so echoes and shadows through history. This was the one in whom they had placed all their hopes and dreams, the one they believed would set them free.

He had died. He had been scourged within an inch of his life and then hung on a cross until he died. He was laid in a tomb, dark and cold.

And now... now he was alive.

This was news of incredible value, infinite import.

He told them to go and tell others.

They went.

So shoudl we.

Do we grasp the immensity of this news? Do we taste even the slightest bit the greatness of the proclamation for which we are trusted to be ambassadors? Do we live as though we really believe that Jesus Christ, for the joy set before him, humbled himself to take on a human form, to be marred beyond human semblance, and then rose again to life, conquering and sitting at the right hand of God? Do we?

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? Do you live it?

Faith without works is dead. Those who love Christ keep his commandments.

He said go and tell.

Go and tell!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Meditation on Sin and on Christ

I sit here and I do not know what to write. It is as though, having failed to exercise for a month, one attempts to run again and finds that much of one's endurance has faded. Like the body, the mind requires exercise. And mine has been exercised much, of late, about many things, but it has not gotten much exercise at all when it comes to writing. Much as I have longed to write, the time has simply escaped me. And I can feel it: I can feel the ways in which my mind, now a bit unused to creating with words in the same fashion, has altered, step by step and day by day.

And I see in that truth a metaphor for a greater truth. So it is with our walk with Christ, as much and more as it is so with our physical bodies and with our minds. We can so easily let our spirit atrophy, let our pursuit of Christ falter... and it is a slow creeping thing. The backsliding that we tragically see occur even in strong members of the body of Christ is never an instantaneous event: it is the consequence of a long and slow, a terrible and tragic slide that begins with one seemingly-small choice. The moment we choose to ignore a sin, to let it slide - the very moment that we have decided that one sin, no matter how seemingly trivial, is inconsequential or irrelevant or even simply not that important: that is the moment in which we begin a terrible fall.

If we do not repent of our sin, if we think it a light thing, if we call the destruction of it a pursuit for some other time, we fail to recognize sin for it actually is. The simplest "white lie" or the most heinous of human butchery alike defile the image of God in us; alike in kind though not in order, every varied kind of sin has at its heart - indeed, is at its heart - the disregarding of God himself, the failure to count him as being as worthy as he is. Each time we who are believers refuse to seek the active destruction of sin in our lives, we devalue the work of Christ on the cross; we devalue Christ himself, for it was his worth, not the cross itself, which makes his sacrifice so powerful. And to be scorning that sacrifice in any measure, no matter how - to human eyes - great or small is to be scorning Christ himself, to be calling him of little worth, to call the temporary pleasures of sin as being greater than the worth of God himself.

And this is a heinous crime. The worth of God is infinite, the worth of Christ, the image of the invisible God, is infinite, the worth of the Holy Spirit who has come from the Father to teach us all things is infinite; we scorn all three when we do not take deadly seriously sin itself - not merely its effects or consequences in our lives, but the sin itself. For we defile the image of God and refuse him the glory he is due for our lives; and we desecrate the worth of Christ as displayed in the incarnation, his life, and ultimately his death and resurrection; and we reject the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, without whom we would be blind to our sin and dead in our trespasses. It is no small thing to be grief to the God of all, the one who made all things and for whom all things were made, in whom all things find their purpose and their end.

So we dare not let sin take hold, we dare not let it have an inch. As the Puritan theologian John Owen wrote, centuries ago, if we are not killing sin, it is winning. That is - or certainly should be! - a truly horrifying thought. If every moment we are not vigilant and on guard against that insidious creeping, if we are not ever standing firm in the Lord and the power of his might, fully armored with the tools he has given us for the overcoming of sin, we will fall and fail. And it will be an invisible thing until the day in which we see that thing which we have coddled, nurtured, or simply ignored come bursting forth in all its terrible horror - and the ruin of our lives will be not merely consequence but also picture of the magnitude of the grievance that is sin. The destruction of our lives is not the reason we ought to fear and avoid sin: sin itself is the reason we ought to flee it. Its consequences in our lives are but the shadow of the great evil that it is - an evil so great that the only remedy was the death of one person of the Trinity. Sin is infinitely evil, for only a sacrifice of infinite worth could destroy it.

But praise be to God! We are not left to ourselves or our own devices, and we are not condemned to lives utterly foreign to their original design. We may be restored to grace: we may be restored to our purpose: we may bring glory to God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Father in Heaven has sent his only Son in human form to redeem for himself a people, and that Son took on flesh and counted the humiliation as nothing and obeyed the Father even to the point of death, and in His resurrection he purchased our souls with his own blood. And now we are being made again in his image, the dragon-scales being ripped from us by lion-claws as the Holy Spirit penetrates our hearts and minds and sets us free from the overwhelming power of sin.

Rejoice, oh you who believe! You have been set free from the bondage of sin and death. No more are you a slave to the sins that you have committed; no more do you wear the shackles of your great shame. Christ has come and now lives forevermore, making intercession before the throne of God on our behalf! The Holy Spirit now indwells you, fills you, makes you increasingly like Christ so that you may rightly be a mirror of the light of God in this world. You have been chosen and saved to be a part of bringing the Kingdom of God into a world that has known only hell, to be an agent of the coming of light into a place of utter and grievous darkness, to be an ambassador of the King to a world that has rejected him. And by the power of the Holy Spirit you can and will cast aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles you and run so as to win the prize that awaits you: the prize of the upward calling on your life of Christ Jesus! You have been redeemed, bought with a price incomparable, and now give glory to your God and King! Be holy, as he is holy, not of your own power or ability but by the power of God in you, as the Holy Spirit sanctifies you and sets you apart. Be obedient, for to believe in Christ is to obey him. Love one another, for in this the world knows that we are his disciples.

And praise Him every day, every hour, every moment: with your words, with your thoughts, with your deeds, with your life. Praise him for all he has done. Praise him for all he is doing. Praise him for all he will do. Praise him most of all for who he is: the righteous and mighty God is does save, the wrathful judge and merciful redeemer, the humble brother and the great king!