Showing posts with label Reflections. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reflections. Show all posts

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?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Exercise (and Pain)

It's stunning how much a difference it makes to stop working out for three months. I was planning on being in good enough shape to run a half marathon this spring. Then I got mono. (Too many of my stories still end that way.) As a consequence, I spent over three and a half months not exercising. This week, I started again—and it's hard.

Admittedly, I am young and it will come back relatively quickly. Also: it is considerably easier than it would be had I not lost almost 15 pounds in the intervening timeframe. (Proof, if you needed it, that a healthy diet goes farther faster than any of the weight-loss diets do. All I did was shift my eating patterns slightly and cut out most second portions of dinner. Three months later, here I am.)

Even with those extenuating factors, however, it is frustrating to be back at square one. Tuesday I ran three quarters of a mile. I also did forty crunches, fifty pushups, and ten pullups—split in half, before and after the run. Then, today, when I went to work out again, I hurt, a lot. Now, that's not a surprise: the first day one starts exercising again (really, the whole first week) involves much higher amounts of pain as one's body readjusts to working out. What was surprising was the numbers of each activity that were so tiring.

When I began working out regularly in January, before I came down with mono, I had had a similarly lengthy period of absence from exercise. I weighed much more than I do now. I was nonetheless in much better shape: I could, from the start, pump out 40 pushups in a row. (I'd say "no sweat," but suffice it to say that the opposite ends up being true for me.) I could crank out fifty crunch-situp-things (halfway between the two is my usual technique). I could run two or three miles. It hurt a little, but I was in decent shape.

Why is this transition so much harder? The answer is actually quite simple: before, I was still active for the intervening period, even if not exercising. Mono forces you to either rest or stay sick—so I sat in a recliner for a month. Even after being cleared from bedrest, I spent a great deal of time resting in a prone position. One result of this laying about was that I got better. I've been feeling good for a few months now. Another, more unfortunate result, is that my muscles atrophied—a lot.

So now I start from much farther back than I would have had I not been laying about. The months ahead—as I aim again for that half-marathon goal—will undoubtedly be slow going. That said, I suspect the worst weeks will be these first few as I remind my body that it's not a recliner potato.

Spiritual takeaway: don't do this in your spiritual life! When things get rough, when you get "sick," so to speak, you do not have to "rest" in the same way. To the contrary, the harder our lives become, the more immediate benefit we find in pressing in after Christ. I would go so far as to say that this simple fact accounts for many of the challenges we face in this life. When we let our pursuit of Christ slip because we are tired, frustrated, or otherwise emotionally put out, we onlymake it harder when we start up again.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Planting Seeds Under Fluorescent Lights

I am running data—for the fourth time—bored out of my mind. Stare at the screen; wait for the numbers to reach 100; check the results—and repeat. This is not what I dreamt of doing with my life. It still isn't. Somewhere beyond the gray skies and fluorescent suns of this box that is my current vocation is a life of purpose and meaning. Or perhaps it is in that box: finding little ways to knock metaphorical windows in a building that has only one of the physical variety. Maybe purpose is not something that awaits discovery; maybe it is found instead in devotion to excellence and doing work well, wherever we are. Maybe dream jobs are as mythical as their name implies. Maybe I would still have days of boredom and frustration were I doing exactly what I think would bring me fulfillment.

God has made us uniquely, called us peculiarly, and shaped us strangely (so to speak). The deep-seated discontent that sometimes rustles under a bed of fall leaves, sometimes threatens to shake our walls down entirely, is a good thing. We would accomplish little, and strive for nothing, if we were always content to simply drift along with the ocean of humanity surrounding us. As a definition for our days, however, discontent fails quite pathetically. What it begins it has not the power to finish. Fires burn on oxygen and wood, not a continuous supply of sparks. If we are to meaningful lives, we will have to find purposes that are deeper and truer than a persistent unhappiness. Sojourners we may be, but we are in this land until the days of our journey are finished.

God is enough, I remind myself. He satisfies like nothing else: not work, not friendship, not food, not sunsets, not sex, not music, not marriage, not anything under the sun. This gray box can rot, or it can flourish. Perhaps my purpose, for now, is simply to nudge it toward greenery in human form. Black text on a white terminal window: the process advances to 23%.

God is enough.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Veritas, Os Guiness, and Good Speaking [sic]

Tonight, I had the pleasure of sitting down at OU's first Veritas Forum, hosted by a number of collaborating campus ministries and local churches. The speaker was Os Guiness—probably the single most eloquent and cogent speaker I have ever heard in person. Undoubtedly, the British accent helped his speech sound "cool" to our American ears, but the fact is, he spoke without pause for nearly an hour, without notes, in the most concise, coherent way I have ever heard.

Speaking well—rhetoric—is a lost art, sad to say. Perhaps some of us will learn it from our elders and resurrect it. Memorizing quotes and a detailed outline, and then speaking with words that carry power and persuade by being well-chosen is hard work, but well worth the cost.

One of the things that impressed me the most about Guiness' presentation was the way he very carefully addressed himself to an audience used to thinking in postmodern terms, without endorsing the terms of postmodernity. He spoke in a language that my generation would clearly understand, without for a moment compromising on the essentials of the truth. This, too, is an art largely lost to us—and I wonder if its loss is not for many of the same reasons as the loss of rhetoric?

We no longer know how to speak well because we no longer know how to think well. We know longer know how to communicate well because we no longer know how to think about others well. This, of course, has ever been a rare art—but it will only grow rarer as we cease to see its worth.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Eyes open to hope

I love the little moments when God stuns me with an old realization again. I hate how my profession can become no more than words as life's sameness exacts its daily toll from my hands. It is as though I have a bank of passion, which is filled in quiet little ways—conversations with friends that remind me that I am not alone, a morning watching the sun come up behind thick clouds, long deep meditations on the word of God—and drained by nearly every circumstance I face in my days. Not because they are bad, per se, but because they bear so little resemblance to the world that I desire to see.

The weather outside all day has been beautiful. Gray skies have let rain seep down at intervals, soaking the earth in fresh moisture without the tumult that inevitably leads to floods around here. But were this weather to remain, day after day after day, it would soon take a very heavy toll on my spirits. I grew up in one of the sunniest places in the whole United States—with mountains and high blue skies with pillared white clouds. Too many days of rain depresses me, not because I dislike rain (quite the contrary) but because there is an unchangingness to it.

So it is with life. I struggle, not so much with the truly hard things, but with the ordinary things that simply continue on. Passion is sapped so easily by the ordinary toils of each day, while it remains strong and sometimes is even fueled by adversity. Few things, in my admittedly brief experience, so quickly sap the human soul of its vitality as feeling that one is trapped in a meaningless existence, doomed to drag one's limbs forward day after day toward nothing.

Thankfully, God perennially reminds us that it is not nothing toward which we are striving. We are not without hope, even when the skies of our lives remain overcast for years—because we live in the light from his grace having appeared, looking forward to the time when his glory will appear. We have promises that we can rely on, knowing that God does not lie.

Thus, I find more and more that my day to day tasks and chores must be approached eschatologically. When I live my life in sight of heaven, cognizant that the apparent meaninglessness of much of my time is, in fact, pointed toward the great end of knowing God (the very definition of eternal life), I recognize that even those tasks which are hardest to bear do in fact have worth and meaning. When I run the race not looking at the ground beneath my feet, changeless and even, but straining to see the goal that awaits me, I find that those changeless steps each has a purpose, however small. It is when I believe that the purpose of each step is itself that I falter and stumble. No runner finishes a race by thinking of how glorious his next stride will be—he thinks of the prize that awaits at the end for having run well.

So we run with eyes full of hope, and we learn to delight in long days of rain as well as bright days of sun—because we know that both are pointed not toward themselves but toward God our Savior's ultimate appearing to finish what he has begun. We can live lives that are unexciting, mundane, and meaningful. Indeed, that is what most of us are called to do—and we ought to be grateful for days that are unexciting and mundane just as we are for those that are thrilling. The fact that excitement makes it easier to give thanks simply means that it is more important to work at giving thanks when our lives are not exciting.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The first late night in a while

Perhaps I'm simply odd, but there is a part of me that very much enjoys staying up late writing. (Of course, that's the same part that is tempted to spell "writing" as "righting," so perhaps I am crazy.) Watching my wife work, I increasingly recognize that perhaps this is simply an oddity of writers.

I am rarely up this late anymore, thanks to the demands of a regular-hours job (and trust me: that is a good thing). I do occasionally miss the flexible schedule of college, especially as I often had the freedom to stay up late writing (or composing) and thinking. The only reason I am able to be up so late tonight is because I have lab time scheduled late tomorrow evening (from 7 to 10 pm) and I am only allowed to work 4 hours a day, tops, right now.

Whether because my brain is simply in a more meditative mood thanks to the late hour, or for some other reason, I find that I do much of my best reflective writing late at night. I also do some of my best composing late at night. A few years ago, I was working on a very tight deadline on a composition project and spent a number of late nights churning out the notes. The music I put out ended up being my single favorite chamber piece I composed in all of college, though I wrote it in less than 3 weeks. Similarly, many of my favorite blog posts over the years were published after midnight.

I am not the only person to find late hours productive. In addition to my aforementioned wife, I know that many writers have historically found the night a good time to work, as have many of the great men of God. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that there are far fewer distractions available late at night than there are during the day. The world is a far quieter place—even in our technologically humming age—when the sun has gone down and the rumble of traffic has died to a minimum. A little gentle music (or simply the steady pulse of a clock's ticking) and the tapping of a keyboard or the stroke of a pen are very beautiful things indeed.

Jaimie and I were discussing Karl Marx today, as she's been reading his work for a "Books of Western Civilization" class she's enrolled in. It struck me that the Marxist countries have never really known what to do with their artists, except use them as propagandists... and the reason is simple: Marx's philosophy had no room for art. For all his rejection of the symptoms of modernity's emptiness, he only substituted one form of utilitarianism for another. Just as capitalism has little understanding of the value of art in and of itself, tending either to ignore art or abuse it beyond recognition, socialism finds no room for art that is not directed at some societal end.

Stephen Carradini shares one of my great passions: to change the world with art. It is harder to do than one might think... world-changing art is rare. I would argue it is rare for at least three reasons: first, that world-changing art must be exceptional in merit; second, that it must challenge its audience without so deeply affronting them that they ignore it; and finally, that it must say something ultimate, though its subject is usually incredibly mundane. Whether world-changing art is beneficial or not largely (perhaps entirely) depends on whether its author is working within a Christian framework (though whether he or she is doing so consciously is another issue entirely).

Sleep calls me, but art calls me as well. I wonder: is this the perpetual dilemma of every even slightly artistic soul, to be torn between health and the mad rush to create? If so, perhaps it is no coincidence that our Creator-God rested when he had made all that is.


And yes, I am self-aware enough and thoughtful enough even at this late hour to recognize that one consequence of writing so late (especially being out of practice as I am) is that the post above is essentially a series of small non sequiturs.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Faithfulness, Dependence, Transcendence

In what has become one of my favorite passages in Scripture over the past two years, God appears to Moses atop Sinai and reveals himself in a stunning way: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness..." (Exodus 34:6).

It seems fitting to me that one of the definitive descriptions of God has defined this last year of my life. In every area, I can proclaim God's mercy, his faithfulness and his steadfast love. From providing a wonderful job to healing the depression Jaimie has struggled with, and from our marriage to our church community group, God has shown himself incomparably faithful.

More than that, though, he has demonstrated time and again in my heart that he is loving and merciful. On days when I was weary, he succored me. In the depths of fear, he comforted me. When tormented by my sins, he rescued me. He is the actor, author, subject of the sentence—and I am but the object.

The revelation of God's faithfulness, love, mercy and goodness has a counterpart in our utter dependence. This has been a strange and beautiful transformation: in knowing God more deeply, learning who and what I am as well. He is the completion of all our stories. Our lives have no meaning apart from him.

I am not saying simply that God gives our lives meaning; I am saying that He gives our lives.It is not merely that he gives us air to breathe: he is the air we breathe. Without him, life is not, and in Him life is. The more I come to understand this, the more I live. The most joyous moments of our lives are those when we cast ourselves most thoroughly onto Him and grasp most fully that He is our only strength, our only hope and our only life.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A man like David

I'm back, and life is at last settling down into something of a normal routine again. I'm posting twice a week for Pillar on the Rock, and trust me when I say that writing two posts a week is a lot more manageable than doing the web design. I was spending 10-20 hours a week working out kinks on the site design back when PJ and I were getting it ready to deploy. The four or five hours a week I spend writing, editing my own and PJ's posts (he edits mine), and posting links to them on Twitter and Facebook seem pretty trivial in comparison. Now the holidays are over, I'm back at work, and our personal lives have settled down a bit, at least for now.

So here I am, in the few minutes I have before heading off for worship practice, tapping away at my computer on my own blog. A shock, I'm sure, to my many (ahem, not-so-many) readers.

It is, as ever, difficult to express just how much change a year brings. Certainly this year brought more than most—transitions out of college and into marriage and the working world being chief among them—but every year has its share of challenges, victories, and changes. I spent less time writing poetry and music this year than in any year since high school, and I missed both. I missed spending long hours late at night tapping away at my blog, too, in some ways. Yet I would not trade my life now for the one I had before in any way. Though I sometimes wish for more hours to read and write and compose instead of programming, I count myself the most blessed of men for the wife God has given me and the life He daily provides. Besides, programming is a good job.

My resolutions this year are few and simple: diligently study the word of God, by His grace kick a couple of troublesome sin habits in the face until they truly yield, and read a lot of good books. My goals are a bit broader: they include studying Greek at least once a week and composing equally often. My desires, from playing guitar to ranking up in Halo online, well... we'll see.

This I know: God will do mighty things this year, even if I can't see them. I'm going to content myself with learning, as best I can, to be a man like David. Early in his life, a man said of him: "[He] is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him" (1 Samuel 16:18). That seems a worthy goal to me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving

I sit here typing on a nice computer, listening to music given to me, with my beloved wife near and my in-laws working hard on Thanksgiving dinner. (I'd help if I could, but there's simply not that much room in the kitchen!) We are free to travel as we wish; we can buy whatever books we want without censors restricting our access. Nothing hinders the free practice of our faith.

We have much to be grateful for.

On Tuesday, Jaimie and I went shopping for some Christmas decorations for our house. As we walked into Hobby Lobby, we were confronted by seemingly endless shelves filled with paper and wreathes and lights and trees: a monument to the insatiable commercial appetites of our culture. We live in an age driven entirely by consumption. Our world spins on selfishness. We take one day to reflect on the good things in our life, and offer gratitude to some abstract deity who we ignore the rest of the year. Then we glut ourselves again in cultic worship of our real sovereign: shopping.

Capitalism is not inherently evil—man is. We may have forsaken the Olympians, but in their place we have raised a more fearful colossus: greed, exalted to high heaven like a new tower of Babel. And we have called ourselves wise.



[A day later]

Along the way in this life we find ourselves in circumstances that leave us straining for understanding, wondering at the plan of this one who is nothing like a genie in a bottle. The night before Thanksgiving, a 17-year-old young woman of my acquaintance died of cancer. How is her family, including one of my very best friends, to have said, "Thank you" yesterday?

We can give as many pat answers as we like about the years they did have with her, that they were together, and so on. The pain remains. A family spent Thanksgiving grieving. What do we say to them? What do we say to everyone who prayed? That we should be grateful for God's not acting?

Yet here, as everywhere, we are to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). How does this work? Honestly, I don't know. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Traveling thoughts

This past week, my beautiful wife and I visited Colorado. One of my good friends from high school was getting married on Friday evening. The wedding stirred up a number of thoughts in me.

I thought a bit on how much has changed since high school as I saw a few friends I've literally not seen since graduation day four and a half years ago. I though for longer about how much I have changed in that time, and how much God has done since then. There have been some deeply transforming periods of time in my life, some painful and others joyful. Most of all, I've seen the faithfulness and the deep love of God as He has transformed me. He continues to do so; I learn a bit more every day about dying to myself and living for Christ, and about walking as well as talking out this faith.

The pastor at the wedding was Lutheran, as are the friends who got married. I am not. Yet I have to say that the man's teaching on marriage was some of the best I've heard, and he brought the focus back to Jesus over and over again. It's always such a joy to be reminded that the Church is indeed a body, whole and complete. We have our differences, some of them profound, but we are part of one universal whole that lives and breathes in Christ. No matter what our disagreements with other believers, it's essential that we remember that we are united in Christ. There must be a deeply irenic spirit among us in our interactions, no matter how deep our disagreements. There are lines drawn, of course, beliefs that we hold place one outside the framework of true Christian profession. It is not wrong to call a cult or a heresy by name. Yet we must always remember that God's truth came not in judgment for this age, but in "grace upon grace" (John 1:16). We should strive to model Christ's grace to all who we meet, and above all to be a picture of His love as we interact with other believers of whatever stripe. My friends and their Lutheran pastor, all of whom I have many theological disagreements with, are my brothers and sisters, and I love them. Now, I only need to learn how to love them as Christ does!

As we descended on our flight back home, we came through two and a half layers of cloud. There was a beautiful moment as we passed through the first layer and then were flying between it and the second when we could see all the way to the clear sky between the layers. Then we plunged again into cloud, and there we stayed for some very long minutes. I was reminded, as the plane bounced to and fro, as I caught my wife's nervous eyes, and as I prayed, that we were no less safe in that moment than in any other. We really are resting in the hands of Almighty God every moment of every day. Even in those troubling minutes before the clouds broke and we could see ground only a few hundred feet below, we were as safe as could be. Should our Father wish to take us home, no effort of ours could stop the plane from falling, and should He wish us alive, the plane would land whatever our fears. It is a comforting thing to know that God is truly all-powerful and good. We can rest then in His will, assured of His hand in all that passes through our lives. What hope, to know that God Himself is orchestrating our days! What comfort in the midst of affliction to remember that we are bought with a price, and that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Life right now

LIfe is interesting for me right now. I'm working 8 hours every day, newly married, and involved in ministry at church. I'm reading as much as I can, writing on a semi-regular basis, finding time to practice piano and study Greek from time to time. I'm busy, though hardly as busy as I could be. (That's intentional: Jaimie and I made a point to take the first year with a minimum of commitments so we can focus on learning to love each other well. It's a Biblical principle, in case you think I'm crazy.) It's an incredibly joyful season in my life. It's also proving to be a very challenging season.

Jaimie is going through a difficult season. I'm learning how to walk well with her in the midst of it. Marriage is, lest anyone deceive you into thinking otherwise, hard work. As men, we get to die for our wives as Christ died for the church. That's an every day task, sometimes an every hour task - not a when-I-feel-like-it task. It's certainly easy enough to say that I love Jaimie enough to die for her, but to actually do it every day takes the grace of God. It's more than I can do on my own. (I should note that I think she needs just as much of God's grace to walk through every day beside me!)

We've set up our house, and it's quickly become a home. More than merely a place to sleep, our apartment has become a place of rest. I can't express how much a blessing that is: I spent four years in the dorms at OU, and while they were fruitful and wonderful years, they were also long. OU was never home like this apartment is. There are a lot of reasons for that. My wife lives here with me, and a good family makes for a home very quickly indeed. It is ours; while we share walls with neighbors, we do not share bathrooms or living rooms or any personal space at all with them. We have spiritual authority here in a way that we did not in the dorms. So, we have a wonderful home.

I am learning a great deal right now. Much of God's sanctifying work in my life is through marriage and Jaimie; most of the rest is quiet, underlying growth I can feel the Spirit accomplishing. A little more each day, I learn to live with my eyes set on Christ and the gospel. He shows me my sin more clearly, and reminds me that He has delivered from darkness to His kingdom and His "redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14). I get to listen to a sermon every day on the way to and from work, and I've learned a lot from Godly preachers like John Piper and Matt Chandler. I've learned as lot, too, from Bruce Hess and Mark Robinson, who teach at Wildwood, and Dick Stewart, one of the elders there. I thank God for His work in our church, as I do for faithful friends that He's surrounded us with.

My heart is joyful and hopeful in this season, though sometimes troubled and tired as well. No circumstances are more powerful or stronger than our mighty God, and it is on Him, His love, His grace, His salvation that I am learning to lean. My own strength fails, but His mercies are new every morning and His love is steadfast and sure.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mundane divinity

I was thinking yesterday, as I drove home from spending the evening with some friends, on how easily we undervalue the mundane. I run in, and have run in, a lot of very "intentional" Christian circles. We all place a strong emphasis on intentionally seeking out and engaging with others for the gospel. We tend to think in terms of living with eternity in mind. We strive to use our time in spiritually significant ways. That's a good thing, on the whole. There is certainly no lack of laziness and apathy in the visible church in America, right now, so intentionality can be a healthy counter to it.

On the other hand, I spent most of last week working, both at work and at home. I spent a good deal of time investing in my relationship with my wife, and a little with church friends. On the whole, however, I don't think the week qualified for "spiritually significant investments," at least from the outside looking in. On Saturday alone, I spent nearly 11 hours working on a blog design template for a project a friend and I are looking to launch sometime in the next month or so. The rest of the week looked similar. As you can imagine, there wasn't much conversation there. Neither did work afford many opportunities for deep discussions this week.

In short, my days were thoroughly mundane.

So, riding home, I was thinking about how I spent my time. I could easily make an argument about how the project I was working on was directed at a good spiritual goal. That's true, and it's an argument that holds water, as far as I'm concerned. But what about the time that I spend that isn't on that project? What about the time I spend writing code at work? What about all the hours I sunk into physics homework during the four years I spent in college? Could I have made a bigger difference in people's lives with an easier major? Could I have at least had more time to spend with people with an easier major, and could I now without this project? The answer to both of those last two questions is almost certainly yes, in some sense.

All of that begins to miss the point, however. We are called to glorify God in all of our lives. There is no separation in the minds of Biblical authors between the spiritual and the mundane, no Platonic or gnostic schism between the world of the divine and our own. There is just as strong a call to honor God in our daily activities as in our ministry activities. We are certainly called to minister to those around us. The need for clear proclamation of the gospel could hardly be clearer and could not be deeper. Churches have many holes in ministry that could be filled.

Yet that is certainly no different than it was at any time in the past two millennia of Christian history, or indeed since the beginning of time. Nor is God's sovereignty lacking, nor His ability to communicate to us through Scripture.

Three points that bear consideration as we think about what to do here:
  1. Work was instituted before the fall. Adam was set to tend the Garden of Eden before the serpent ever tempted Eve.

  2. Nearly all believers in God throughout all of history have been ordinary working folk. Only a very small percentage have been called to vocational ministry.

  3. Jesus spend over a decade of his life working as a carpenter in a little village in the backwaters of a small Roman province. I've no doubt there were "spiritual" things in that time, but the Son of God did no public ministry until His late twenties or early thirties.

My conclusion? —that perhaps God does not make the distinction that we tend to between mundane and spiritual activities. He calls us to excellence in all things, whether working for a paycheck, serving those in need, or discipling a younger believer. All of these have value before Him. I do not think that it is of no eternal consequence to provide for my wife, do good work for my company, and demonstrate character and integrity in my work. The consequences are different than for leading a Bible study, certainly, and we cannot let the mundane overwhelm the spiritual. Neither, however, can we cause our valuing the spiritual diminish our joy in and valuing of the everyday. It is spiritually significant to do work well, to study well, to fold laundry well, to do whatever it is that God is calling you to in this moment well.

We are not called to all do the same one thing well. Rather, we are called to do whatever one thing God has set before us well.

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!


Sunday, September 6, 2009

The purpose of the Church

A brief quote from J. Gresham Machen, back in 1933, on why the church exists:
The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life--no, all the length of human history--is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that he has revealed himself to us in his Word and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth--no, all the wonders of the starry heavens--area as the dust of the street.

"An unpopular message it is--an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life." (From Selected Shorter Writings, edited by D.G. Hart, 376)


Reminds me of several things. First, that the purpose of the church is not to save children from AIDS or to end all poverty, or any other earth-oriented cause, however noble. It will do those things, but as a reflection of its real purpose, not as its actual purpose. That's where the social gospel goes wrong: it sees the church's task as the accomplishment of all good ends here and now. In reality, the church's goal must always be to make Christ known and to show how very deep our need for Him is. All those other things will come as part of that, but they are not it, and can never replace it. When they do, the church falters.

I'm also reminded of just how much I want to read some of J. Gresham Machen's writing; every time I run into it, I appreciate the things he has to say. Add one more to the already very long reading list. It keeps growing...

HT: Kevin DeYoung @ DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed: What Is the Responsibility of the Church?

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.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Marriage

I find it difficult to put into words just how much has changed since last I sat and began to write in this virtual space.

In many ways, of course, I'm the same as ever I was. (Including, probably, a hint of verbosity. See?) At the same time, I've changed. I'm not who I was, never will be. I'm married, for one thing - to the most beautiful woman I've ever met. It was a marvelous ceremony. It's been a better marriage.

Not perfect. Never that. Though my marvelous wife (I rather delight in saying that, you'll find) is certainly a better woman than I deserve, God sees fit day by day to supply me with grace enough to serve her, and grace enough to serve a little better than the day before. I begin to see and understand, just a little, how a life with a family will transform my understanding not only of service to others but indeed of service to God. (Being married hasn't changed my delight in use of non-colloquial words and phrases, either, you'll note.)

Many of those who follow this blog were at my wedding - and it was a delight to see you there. For those of you who were not, however, I'd like to share here the Scriptures that God laid on our hearts as we prepared and that we had read aloud in the course of the ceremony: selections from His everlasting word that, we thought, helped paint a picture of how great this mystery is, and then comment briefly (yes, briefly; don't laugh!) on why these verses. Some of them may be obvious, others less so.

Genesis 1:27-28
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”


Genesis 2:18-24
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.


Song of Songs 4:9:
You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;
you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.


Song of Songs 5:16
His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.


Song of Songs 8:7
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.


Song of Songs 8:6
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.


1 Peter 3:1-2,7
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.


Matthew 22:30
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.


Ephesians 5:31-32
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.


Revelation 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”


Revelation 19:6-9
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”


There is a flow here - a flow from the moment of creation, when God made man not to be alone, to the shocking close of history, when God comes to dwell forever with man whom He made. These passages also tell us something incredibly important about what exactly marriage is: a picture of Christ and the Church He came to redeem to Himself, that He is redeeming to Himself.

Marriage is not, as we all too often proclaim, some eternal state in which we will remain for all time. It is inherently temporary, because it does not exist merely for its own sake. It is meant to be a glorious, shocking truth that represents a far greater Truth. The unity of man and God through the redeeming work of Christ is a deep mystery. Then again, so is marriage.

How can two people from completely different backgrounds leave behind their families and become one? And how is the becoming one flesh - joining together in every possible way - even possible? How is it that our joining in marriage is not merely a lifelong commitment to mate only with each other for social stability but a real spiritual unity that transcends the mundane and reaches to the deepest parts of our nature? It certainly does. Jaimie and I have already experienced ways in which our being married ties us far more closely than ever we were before. Most of all, we affect each other spiritually. It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, a mystery.

God, in His wisdom, has chosen to use this mystery to help us understand a deeper puzzle yet: How can immortal, omnipotent, omniscient God who knows us, our thoughts, our deeds better than we ourselves, relate to us? How can we and He who are so very different ever be joined in any degree of relationship? How can His transcendence meet our very thorough smallness? How could there ever be more to that relationship than distant dictator and abject subjects? How could there be intimacy? Most especially when we are so abjectly fallen, so utterly depraved in our thoughts that we run to every kind of evil whenever we can!

No, this marriage is a temporary one, so that we can glimpse the greater one that awaits: the union of God and man, Christ and His Bride. There will be, as there was in our wedding, a feast to whom all are invited. There is only one acceptable garment at that feast... the garment provided by the Lamb that was slaughtered, choosing from the foundation of the world to redeem us to Him, to make us His, to cover our transgression and make us white as snow... white as the dress a bride wears to her wedding. Our righteous deeds, prepared for us by God, will be the shining linen worn by the Church as a whole as she joyfully runs into the arms of her God-King on that last day.

This is what our wedding and our marriage are about, not some nonsensical idea of eternal bliss together. We will strive every day to be a faithful picture of Christ and His Bride. I will strive to die for Jaimie as Christ died for the church. And we together will be part of His church, striving ever to purify her for the day of His return, starting with our own hearts and reaching out to every man, woman, and child that He places in our path.

Our marriage is about the good news that Christ has redeemed for Himself a people who will share all eternity with Him.

Our marriage is about Him!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Trust

It's been a while. No apologies, though. I've decided to stop feeling guilty about how much I'm not writing and to simply enjoy writing when I am in the mood. And right now, I'm in the mood.

You might be surprised to find a recent college graduate (praise God!) up at midnight tapping away at the keys of his laptop, pondering his life in front of the whole world. Doesn't work call early? you ask. Funny you should bring that up. It doesn't, because my only job right now is finding a job. Well, that's not perfectly true, either. I have a couple jobs. First is chasing Christ wholeheartedly. Always that, always first, always most. Second is building my relationships with others in a way that reflects Him - with Jaimie, with my family and hers, with friends at Wildwood, and soon with neighbors. Third is finding a job. Interestingly, I've been recognizing even more of late just how deeply tied all the other tasks of my day rely fundamentally on my walk with God. Do I put Him above all else, or do I put everything else first?

"Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil."

Prayer. It's a funny thing. God answers every single prayer we pray. People usually think God doesn't answer their prayers. That's silly. The real problem is that people expect that they're praying the right things -- that what they want is in accord with their Father's will just because it's what they want. In other words, they expect God to say yes, and if He doesn't say yes, then He hasn't answered. Which is, of course, nonsense, but rather attractive nonsense to our sinful nature. We wouldn't usually put it in those words, but it's how we operate. It is, thankfully, not how He operates: for our good and His glory, He often says no.

Oftentimes it's not difficult to see why, looking back. I look at the young women I was interested before I met Jaimie, look back and her, and thank God from the depths of my heart that He always said no before her. I ached from His noes at the time, struggling to see a reason for them, fighting to believe that His plans really were better than mine. They were, of course. They always are. Even when, unlike my example above, it's harder to see -- as it often is. Some things we may never have an answer for: God's reasons may remain ever mysterious. Are we okay with that? Are we okay waiting to see the final fulfillment of His promises, and to rest in the assurance that what He does is good?

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create...

They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord."

A good deal of relationship is trust: trust that the other party in the relationship will be good on their word. Whether that's a business arrangement or a marriage, it's still true. There's more than an intellectual assent to the idea that the other person will uphold their side of things. Trust is as much a deep emotional commitment as it is intellectual assent, because when you trust someone with anything, you bare your soul a little bit. You leave yourself open to being hurt, betrayed, left hanging by your fingernails at the edge of a chasm.

And all the more so when it's life itself you're trusting, and God you're being called to trust it to. Faith is so easy: it's not of us, a gift of God given freely, and a good thing, too. Because faith is hard - impossibly hard, harder than any of us could ever manage. The dead infant, the slow creep of dementia, the blow of a stroke at 45. We ask why, cry out to a God we think isn't there, and get no answer. No answer we want, that is.

He does answer, of course. He tells us that it is for our good and His glory, that all things work according to His purposes.

So we come full circle. I'm looking for a job. Not finding one, either. Though I've been looking since August, looking hard since November, I've had only one interview, and it went nowhere in a hurry. I'm marrying in 53 days. I have bills to pay: rent, utilities, a car payment, and -- very soon -- a few student loans. The questions rise. Will God provide? Will He take care of me? Will He take care of us? Will the bills get paid? Will we have food to eat? When will it happen? Why is it taking so long? Why are all my efforts seemingly in vain?

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The real question? It's whether we believe Him. He's already answered.

Do I put Him first? Do I seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, trusting Him? Do I, no matter the circumstances, rest in the Truth that took on flesh, or do I flail about in a panic, relying on my own strength to accomplish these tasks?

Every task I am set is ultimately answered only in Christ. He provides, not me. He takes care of Jaimie, not me. He sets the course of my days, and no other.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A difficult faith

I have rarely in my life been as utterly exhausted as I am right now. Even less rarely has my faith been so deeply tested and challenged. It's a truism among Christian circles that one should never pray for increased patience - and I'm finding that the corollary with faith has deep grounding. I prayed for increased faith about six months ago. The intervening months have comprised the most emotionally distressing, taxing, and intense time in several years, and in some ways in all my life.

Not least because all of this is external. When last I was going through a profound shaking in my life, it was very much internal. The problems were starkly set before me and their cause my own sin: a very simple situation. The problem could be resolved by dealing with my own sinful heart, and so it went. Conviction, repentance, and slow but steady sanctification - with many an up and down along the way, to be sure.

Now, though the depth of the struggle is internal, the circumstances are not. The problem is not some single deep-seated sin issue in my heart. Nor are the circumstances within my grasp. When, two years ago, I was walking through a deep testing and refining time, God moved in my life. He changed me. Broke me and made me new again, better than before. It was beautiful, marvelous, and thoroughly life-changing. And it was me, which meant that I had to be an active participant in the process, though walking in His strength and relying on His guidance and wisdom. Not so the present. Now, I can do nothing that I have not already done. I can accomplish nothing. I am helpless to affect my circumstances beyond what I have already done.

And so we come to the crux of the matter. Real faith. It's a meaningful trust in God, or despair. It's in moments like this that faith becomes alive, rather than simply words we speak or thoughts we think. Now our "faith" becomes obedient belief, and so produces life. If it does not, it proves itself no faith at all, a dead husk that is but a cruel mockery of true life.

No other alternatives exist. There is faith, and there is despair, in whatever form it may take. One may choose pointless hedonism, utter nihilism, or any part of the range between the two: it matters not, all is pointlessness and folly if there is no God, or if He is not loving and good. There is nothing if there is no God, because what does exist is purposeless and meaningless if He does not exist. The best efforts of philosophers all fail: no middle way awaits for those who would somehow avoid the "folly" of faith or the willful ignorance of atheism. God is, or He is not. If He is, then He is Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit - or He is not. Syncretism is nonsense, pantheism folly, Taoism in all its myriad forms but ignorance enshrined as virtue. And relativism is nihilism wearing what appears to be a pretty dress until you realize there are more holes than there is dress.

Faith, then, is the only reasonable option - but emotions rarely brook dissent from reason. What then do we say at the moment of decision between trust and despondency? How shall we be encouraged when all hope seems vanquished by the slow creep of life over our dreams like vines on a wall? When will light break over the horizon?

We must choose. To not choose is to choose: it is to choose an unending death of the soul, a death the body will catch up with in some 70 years at most. Faith, then. Faith in Christ Jesus. Faith that His word is true, that it means something.

Faith is hard right now.

God is good. He is kind. He provides everything we need, and He does so in perfect timing. He loves us. He cares for us. He is our shepherd, and He delights to save us and feed us and guard us. He is.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen... And without faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He is and that He rewards those who seek Him.

- Chris

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dealing with hard questions

There is a deep tension in Christianity garbed in modernity. We struggle to find the balance between clear proclamation of truth and a heartfelt expression of love to lost people who surround us. We wrestle with the necessities of the church's engagement with culture and politics and the church's need to present the gospel in a winsome way. At the most fundamental level, we struggle with letting the good news of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection be the stumbling block that it is, while ourselves not being a stumbling block. And it is good for us to struggle with this tension.

An example (and not a pretty one, but hear me through to the end): the clear teaching of Scripture is that remarriage under nearly any circumstance is sinful. Jesus said, "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" (Matthew 5.31-32) He followed it up some time later thus:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19.1-9)

Jesus Himself - the one we most often think of as the great voice of compassion of the Scriptures, the one who indeed is mercy and love incarnate, clearly says that remarriage under any circumstances except sexual immorality and remarries is committing adultery. Adultery is soundly condemned throughout the Scriptures - from Genesis to Revelation, and in a considerable majority of the texts. It is indeed one of the metaphors God used most frequently in the Old Testament to speak of Israel's unfaithfulness to Him. So the teaching of Scripture is that divorce is allowed because of the hardness of men's hearts and a few other circumstances - sexual immorality and abandonment being the main examples. Only in the case of divorce for sexual immorality is remarriage allowed Biblically.

With that as context, we now must face the question of how to handle that topic as the church - Christ's representatives in this age. We are left with a tension that at first seems difficult to resolve: there are people in our churches who have divorced and remarried and built new families. What do we tell them? How do we show the love of Christ to them? There is no question that we are called to pour forth love and to encourage single parents and members of blended families. At the same time, church leaders, especially teaching pastors, are responsible to clearly proclaim God's teaching on the matter and to enforce it. (I do not believe, for example, that a pastor should perform a second marriage unless the divorce was for adultery: the pastor is responsible for his sheep, and as outlined above, Scripture is clear on this issue.) At the same time, believers are commanded to love one another. We validate our discipleship to the world by the way we love one another - or invalidate it by the way we don't. We are left with a question that, in worldly terms, has no answer. Somehow we must simultaneously love with open arms those who have remarried and proclaim the sinfulness of remarriage. And there are many such questions - the most current being homosexuality or abortion and the church's response to them. It is hopeless.

But we do not operate in the wisdom of this world. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us all things - and the answer has already been given, if we but by His grace remember it.

Christ Jesus is the answer to this question, not only in His way of life but in His suffering and His victory. We may forthrightly proclaim the most difficult of Biblical doctrines because we are assured of the truth of the gospel. We may tell the broken prostitute who took up her trade because she saw no other alternative: Yes, this was sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the man who is regularly behaving unethically in his business: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the homosexual: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price. We may say to every man alive: every lustful look was adultery. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to every person living: you have sinned, you have desecrated the image of God in you, you have rejected God Himself. And with tears in our eyes as we remember all that He has delivered us from, we may say:

Christ has paid the price!

For every sin, for every transgression, for every failure, the price has already been paid. We bring no condemnation, because in Christ there is none. In due time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Me. You. Every person living.

Therein lies the answer to the tension, to the question - to every difficult question that confronts us today. Our answer is in Jesus Christ Himself. We speak the truth clearly. All of it. We clearly declare what sin is - and then we clearly proclaim the reality of salvation in Jesus Christ. Where grace is proclaimed without the declaration of the evil of sin, people see no need for repentance. Where sin's horror is proclaimed without the saving power of Jesus Christ, condemnation reigns. Where both the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the grace of God are proclaimed, there is life.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

American dreams

There is something in me that simply cannot be expressed, but comes welling up whenever I read stories like Tang Xiaozhao's. There is something about every story of people saying, "This is wrong, and that is right, and I'm willing to fight for it." There is something about every story of people yearning to break the chains of tyranny and have freedom. There is, in short, something about the American story and the way that it continues to prove a model - however broken - for millions around the world.

People love America. Plenty of people hate America's actions. Very few hate the idea of America. Tyrants do, of course. But the people? People love the idea of America.

America as it was meant to be, you understand: not this self-consumed and bloated picture of consumerism, but the land of noble people who will put others ahead of themselves and the good of their country above their own advancement. It's never really been that. But it has been the hope of that.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride form land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, you rpoor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus' Statue of Liberty-seated words still move me, and deeply. Not because America is any of those things. But rather because there is something in the image painted in them that is far deeper than America. There is, you see, a promise of a better country - a really better country, where every man is every other's equal, where freedom is more than an unvoiced dream, where every man is every other's brother as well as neighbor, where justice is actually done, where pasts are washed away and every man has another chance.

America has never been that - not in its best moments, and certainly not in its worsts.

But people keep dreaming of America as what it dreams of being.

I figured out why.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in my heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11.28-30

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to reeive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11.8-10

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a temptest and the sound of a trumpet a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them... But you hve come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gather, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel... Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12.18-19,22-24,28-29

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to e a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
nor more shall be heard it in the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
Nor more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who doe snot fill out his days
for the young men shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for liek the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
the wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,"
says the Lord.
Isaiah 65.17-25

People are dreaming of a city with foundations. They're hoping for a kingdom that cannot be shaken. They're looking for heaven. People love America because in the dream of America - only in the dream, but very deeply in that dream - there is a taste of heaven, a taste of what we long for, what we were made for.

All we dream of in America will be so far surpassed by heaven that we shall look back on it as but the shadow of an echo of a quickly fading dream.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. An dI will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31.33

My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Ezekiel 37.27