Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Workin' My Way Back

What would you tell someone who feels far from God? How would you encourage a friend after they've confessed their cold and distant heart? Have you ever felt that way? Have you found yourself so far from God that the thought of picking up your Bible seems hypocritical, like just going through the motions? Is the distance so far that you can't trace your path back? Is the silence thick?

One writer encourages praise - even when you don't feel like it. The psalmist writes "Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!" (Psalm 150:1) I often wonder what the psalmist experienced prior to writing this. We know that this is a congregational hymn that Israel sang in praise to God. But when the author sat down to write, what was going on personally? Had he come out of a great battle victory? A sweet time of prayer, or an answer to a desperate plea? Had he experienced a friend coming near in a time of great affliction, providing for him what he could not muster up for himself? Or, had he realized once more God's great love for him in the face of his great sin? Somehow I doubt he wrote this as a result of someone telling him to praise God, even if he didn't feel like it. 

A friend recently shared with me how after weeks, maybe months of going through the motions, he began reading the Bible again for the sheer pleasure of it. He said he's been devouring it. I listened, so grateful and happy for him, yet envious. I want that, don't you? The questions is, how? How do I get from here to there? Because quite honestly, the rift seems too wide - the way back seems out of reach. One thing is sure, though. I feel like I must do something...anything. I have this nagging sense that something I've done (or not done) has caused this apparent break with the God I profess to love. Therefore, I just need to start doing (or not doing) whatever it was I was doing (or not doing) before. I have believed what this songwriter confesses;

I'm workin' my way back to you babe
With a burnin' love inside
Yeah I'm workin' my way back to you babe
And the happiness that died
I let it get away
Paying every day
(The Four Seasons)

Although my theology assures me that in Christ, there is nothing I must do to earn God's love, nearness, or kindness, I quickly leave that behind during times like this when I feel empty. I know what you're thinking, I shouldn't rely on how I feel. Easy to say, harder to do. I have this overwhelming sense that surely, something I have done has caused this gap. And now, I'm paying for it.

During this season of spiritual emptiness and confusion, I am left with faith. And faith alone is enough. There are plenty of people ready to give advice on "what" to do, how to do "it", and when "it" should be done. However, I'm not convinced that working my way back to God is what's needed. The gospel assures me I don't have to fake it til I make it. Instead, I can rest, wait, and count on what God has done. To believe in what he has promised, and to trust in the truth of what he has said...

"The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing." Zephaniah 3:15-17

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Healer of Messes and Madness - A Sunday Morning Reflection

Every form of sin and its consequences, sickness and disease of every kind, addictions, broken relationships, insecurities, distorted sensuality, hatred, lust, pride, envy, jealousy - all these, on and on, were experienced and carried by "a thing despised and rejected by man" (Isa 53:3) who knew that nadir of an agony such as no man as ever dreamed. Christ on the cross: inconceivable what he went through as he hung naked and nailed to the wood.

No one ever died as Jesus did, because he was life itself; no one ever was punished for sin as he was - the sinless one. No one ever experienced the plunge into the vacuum of evil as did Jesus of Nazareth. It will never be given to any human to understand the pain behind the words "My Father, why have you abandoned me?" or the agony of that death, not simply accepted in patience, but endured screaming to God. And yet, it was "our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured." (Isa 53:4)

There can never be another healer in the mess and madness of our postmodern world, because no one else has been there. Only Jesus Christ, "a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering," has carried our pain into the peace of grace. He has made peace through the blood of his cross. ~ Brennan Manning
(excerpt taken from The Wisdom of Tenderness-What Happens When God's Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives)

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Hebrews 4:15-16

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cotton Candy for the Bad Kids

What is at the root of sin?

All sin comes from a failure to believe the gospel. In the moment of temptation, I fail to believe that God really is as good as he says he is. 

I fail to believe that in the midst of my badness, God came to rescue me because of his great love for me. It sounds too good to be true. Often, I am not even thinking about God or his goodness to me. Instead, I am intent on running my mouth about you, rolling my eyes at you or slicing and dicing you in my heart. It is amazing to me how quickly I can go from talking about the gospel and rejoicing in the good news to utterly abandoning it in thought and deed. I am the school girl in the classroom with hands folded on the desk. Ten minutes later I'm in a mad dash to the playground ready to bully anyone who gets in my way. Do you ever feel that way? A bit schizophrenic? Here is how the bible describes it:

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other... Galatians 5:17

The crazy part is I actually believe I'm the good girl. I believe I am the one sitting at the desk with her hands neatly folded, not bothering anyone around me. You see, I may not actually be the bully on the playground who is hitting and kicking others but my heart is full of crazy, judgmental, and condescending thoughts towards those around me.

It's what makes the good news of the gospel so spectacular and so shocking. First, it reminds us that we are all bullies. We are bad kids intent on getting our own way even though we may look like good girls and boys. Second, Jesus came for bad kids. That's all of us. Folding our hands while we sit quietly does not fool anybody, especially God. He sees our hearts - he created us and knows our inmost being. This is the shocking part - he loves us anyway. Fully known and fully loved, that's us!

Do you remember cotton candy? The glorious pink puff of sugary goodness all wrapped around a paper stick? Pure heaven! As a kid, I could never imagine anything else so wonderful, so absolutely perfect.

I know analogies break down at some point, but I think that is what God is like. His grace is like getting a big puffy pink swirl of cotton candy after a playground fight. The "bad kid" walks away victorious. Smug and dirty faced, he continues to taunt from afar. Then God walks in with glorious sweet good news! "I know who you are and I know what you've done, and I love you." 

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us Romans 5:8

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Kind Of Christian God Would Want

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.

Psalm 15

I used to believe the answers to these questions were simple. In fact, I did not give them much thought. I naturally assumed this whole psalm was all about me. Who else would it be about? I had come to Christ and I knew the Lord. He was changing me from the inside out. To the question, "Who shall sojourn in your tent", I replied, "Me, I will!" I just knew I had what it took. I was getting better, and surely I was just the kind of Christian God would want. I was going to church and reading my Bible. I even worked at a church! How much better could I get than that - daily sacrificing for the Lord! That is how I measured my "goodness". I was actually a few steps ahead of those who did not spend their every waking hour in ministry! Surely I was "in".

Fast forward several years. A broken and restored marriage, financial devastation, and parenting regrets all helped to open my eyes - and my heart. Crushed and beaten by life's reality and hardness, I needed what I could not muster up. Goodness. I needed what I thought was so easy before - righteousness.  I was desperate for what I could not give myself - grace. All my failure, all my weakness, and all my arrogance was all I had to offer. Not only could I not stand, I was too ashamed to even try and climb that holy hill. There was not one good thing I had to offer, nothing that could prove myself worthy. That's when God spoke, reminding me of the glorious good news of his Son. God loved me and sent his son for me. He came to die for me that he might save me. He has given to me his perfect record. It is the glorious exchange - my sin and shame for his righteousness.

And so, the question remains; Who shall dwell on your holy hill? 

It was Christ who dwelt on God's holy hill, climbing his way toward his own crucifixion. It is Christ who walked in perfection - blameless among men. It is Christ who is Truth. He alone committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. Only Jesus does no evil. There is no reproach with him, in fact he approaches sinners - the vile and despised. Jesus, very God, swore to his own hurt. His unchangeable just wrath was satisfied by his own sacrifice. 

He who has done all these things cannot be moved.

It's all about Jesus. It always was.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Quick, Leave! Before You Get Hurt!

Author and seminary professor Steve Brown was our guest preacher at church yesterday. He told a first time visitor sitting in the front pew that she should run away before she gets hurt. You are probably thinking what I thought at first - that is not the most welcoming way to greet first time visitors! His point with telling her that was to reinforce his message that we are all screwed up - every one of us. And by the way, those of us in the church are especially difficult because of our self-righteousness and hypocrisy. We pretend that we are fine, we believe we are better, and we can't possibly see how we are more sinful than those "outside" the church. He told her we are mean and judgmental. If you have heard Steve Brown, you know he did it with humor and gentleness, but he could not sugar coat the truth of what he said. I am sure that at some level we were all wincing, because we don't want to admit that what he said holds water. But, it is true...I will hurt you, and you will hurt me. I have hurt you, and you have hurt me. This is not just some flip admission of guilt. It is at the very core of who we are - people who are bent on our own selfish ways. 

He talked about people who are transparent and "real". The truth is, they are phony too. There are "real" things we will share, but then there are still secrets we will never share. How transparent is that? I confessed sin to a friend yesterday and she appreciated my realness. I get that. However, my realness only goes so far. There are some things I will never share with you. That pretty much makes me a phony - I admit it.

No matter what friends say about you being authentic, you are a phony  ~ Steve Brown

He went on to speak about the beauty and transformative power of the gospel among people who know they are screwed up and admit it. He told her, "get past the speed bump and you'll be fine." I took that to mean that once she realizes her own mess and all of our own messes, she will find herself in a community of messes - all falling on Jesus as our righteousness alone. That is true freedom! Because really, I'm exhausted trying to keep up the about you?

The good news is this:

You are really and truly and completely free. There is no kicker. There is no if, and, or but. You are free. You can do it right or wrong. You can obey or disobey. You can run from Christ or run to Christ. You can choose to become a faithful Christian or an unfaithful Christian. You can cry, cuss, and spit, or laugh, sing, and dance. You can read a novel or the Bible. You can watch television or pray. You're free...really free. ~ Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom

Monday, July 8, 2013

Church - The New Kingdom, Not The Perfection Of The Old

Sometimes I believe that my church, or the local church, should be better than it is. Sometimes I am disgusted by my behavior and the behavior of others. I think, surely we are called to be more united, more loving, more supportive, or more submissive. 

However, that is not what unites us as Christians - especially in the church. If we have to depend on our love for one another we will all be in trouble. If this whole thing is riding on our tolerance or our unity, it is doomed. Thankfully, God made another way:

"The church is the one place on earth where Jew and Gentile belong together - not because they obey one law, but because they have the same minister/slave, the crucified Christ. Paul's final appeal is to this church which Christ serves as the fruit of faith: "welcome one another" (Romans 15:7). The church is the new kingdom, not the perfection of the old, and so the welcome is neither based on human virtues of acceptance nor of tolerance - nor even of love, but upon having the one, true preacher who takes away the sin of the world."

~ Steven D. Paulson, excerpt taken from Lutheran Theology

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Did You See The Way I Grabbed Onto That Life Preserver?

I enjoyed the precursor to this book a while back, and I was excited to read the complete edition of Grace in Addiction when it was recently published. It is a gem. 

With the precision of a surgeon, author John Z. dissects the step program of AA and skillfully proves his thesis that "AA and traditional Reformation Christianity make sense of life in a way that is relevant to every person." 

The following is an insightful view of the correlation between the two:

"An important issue for AA is the problem of agency: in other words, is the emphasis placed on the individual's initiative or on God's work upon the individual?

For starters, it should be understood that the "work-related" terminology of the Twelve Steps can just as easily be interpreted as a descriptive tool, rather than a prescriptive one. In other words, the working of the Twelve Steps is what happens to the person who finds God's grace, rather than something that precedes the attainment of grace.

'Grace' here simply refers to a wholly undeserved gift, one which provides an irresistible and radical reorientation of the recipient's life. The movement of grace often happens with our consent, 

but it never happens on our initiative.

Perhaps an analogy will help make the point:

Imagine that you are riding on the deck of a cruise liner in the middle of the night. Suddenly, you slip on the slick flooring and find yourself tumbling overboard, into the cold dark waters below. You begin to flail in the choppy sea, kicking and trying to scream for help. Unfortunately, you're a poor swimmer and can barely keep your head above water, much less get your voice to project enough to be heard by the passengers and crew still on board. Miraculously, one of your shipmates spots you and yells to the captain, "Man overboard!" The crew makes the proper adjustments, and after not too long the ship pulls within reach of you. A life preserver ring attached to a rope is thrown down form the deck, and it mercifully lands in front of you, just as your strength is failing.

You grab onto it with both arms, finding immediate relief...

...Imagine now that you finally have gotten your voice back...Here is what you say:

Did you see how I grabbed onto that life preserver like an expert? Did you notice the strength of my biceps and the dexterity in my wrists? I was all over that thing!"

Would not the people hearing this think you had lost your mind? Your statement misses the entire thrust of what had just occurred, which was - pure and simple - a rescue...

...sadly enough, some form of the above tends to be our response to most of the good things that happen to us. Winners of poker games always believe they won by skill; losers tend to believe they were the victim of bad luck. Our careers, our children, our relationships; the human race has an incredible talent for focusing on its own role in the things of life and minimizing its culpability in negative things. Religious people are not exempt from this phenomenon. In my experience., while Christians often talk loudly about God's power and grace, their rhetoric just as often betrays a secret belief that their own initiative and willpower played a decisive role - "did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?"

In AA, we have been disabused of our romance with our own willpower. The manner in which it failed was dramatic, poignant, and explicit. 

As much as the Twelve Steps ostensibly emphasize action, the entire process is conditioned by profound dependence upon grace. Most alcoholics end up in AA after years of trying to cure themselves with self-help - indeed, self-help's failure is a starting point for AA. In this sense, it is desperation and not virtue that fuels one's engagement with the AA program. The step-'work' happens reflexively in the one who knows his need for a rescue. To the extent that we honestly recognize our powerlessness to rescue ourselves, the message of grace breaks through by assuring us that we don't have to save ourselves." (emphasis added)

Excerpt taken from Grace in Addiction by John Z. (pg. 23-25)
View his talk at the 2013 NYC Conference

This is the good news of the gospel. We don't have to save ourselves. A Rescuer has come to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

And there is salvation in no one else 
Acts 4:12

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I've Got No Strings

The classic and familiar Walt Disney film Pinocchio, is based on a tale written by Carlo Lorenzini, better known by the pen name Carlo Collodi, who was an Italian children's writer. He is most associated with his world-renowned fairy tale novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, about a wooden puppet who wants to become a real boy.

In this iconic story, a puppet comes to life and dreams of becoming, in essence, free. Bound by strings and a puppeteer's hand, he can only do what other's tell him to do. Many words have been penned to highlight all the morals of this story as well as countless analogies to Christianity, so I'll forgo those discussions here.

I am simply captivated afresh by the boy's newfound freedom towards the end of the story. The Walt Disney production does a fantastic job of portraying his sheer delight at his freedom, and the audience's delight at his human-ness. Rather than finding fault with his clumsiness and weakness, they joyfully receive him. It's almost as if they are one with him now, acknowledging their own clumsiness. It seems that instead of laughing at him, they are laughing with him. 

That's what true freedom does. With liberty comes the freedom to be who we really are, in all of our human weakness. 

The bonus? It allows other people to be who they are in all of their human weakness. Liberty is infectious. 

This is the gospel - no strings attached. It comes to us with no conditions and no manipulation. No longer controlled by the law we were once tied to, the gospel frees our bound hearts. In Christ, we can be freely us. Human. Free to admit weakness and clumsiness and to be loved and accepted. 

Having been set free we can now declare; I had strings but now I'm free, there are no strings on me!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Will Longer Skirts Protect Our Sons?

I wrote a post recently about modesty entitled "Will Longer Skirts Protect Our Daughters". An interesting conversation ensued regarding our young men and their struggle with immodestly dressed women in our culture. Sadly, many notions about this topic are are so ingrained in us that it's hard to get outside of them and see the gospel.

First - A Disclaimer

I have written about how I would like to say that I raised my son differently (here), but the truth is I fell into this thinking myself. Immersed in Christian culture, I had a right desire to train up my son but wrong theology with which to go about it.

I made secondary things primary and the primary thing (the good news of Jesus Christ) I made secondary.

I was the mom who faithfully taught the principle in this cute song we all know:

O Be Careful, Little Eyes
O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There's a Father up above
And He's looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see

The principle goes like this: Knowing that God is watching you, you should watch what you look at. That's called fear based behavior modification. I should know, I was pretty good at it. But,

using God and the bible to get kids to straighten up and fly right always ends in pride or despair.

Some kids can do it for a while, or at least pretend. They are the self-righteous obnoxious kids no one at youth group wants to be around. Other kids are crushed by the weight. They either don't try at all, or give up exhausted and burned out. These are the kids at youth group who are actually refreshing to be around.

There are two beliefs that always seem to float to the top of this discussion.

1. Many Christians have bought into the lie that young women are responsible for causing young men to stumble because of their immodest dress. This is a huge burden that women were never meant to bear, and sadly, the church has done an excellent job at crushing young women with this ridiculous notion. The bible makes it clear we own our sin. Making women responsible for a man's sin is like saying the way I display my jewelry in the front window of my store is responsible for the robbery a thief committed the night before.

2. Young women cannot (and were not meant to) protect our young men from the onslaught of sensual images found in our culture today. The way a young Christian woman dresses is the very least of their worries. Young men in the world today will get an eye full from billboards, movies and magazines. Just stand in line at your local grocery store and take a look at the magazine racks. Not to mention that just a click on their phone leads to all things immodest on the Internet. [Sidebar - if you are raising young children, the truth is that they will view pornography at a surprisingly young age. It is not a matter of if, it is just a matter of when. Deceiving ourselves into believing that "our kids" won't do those things is just that - deceit. They are no different than every other kid on the planet - curious, tempted sinners.]

If you are a woman reading this, please know that you are not responsible for how others react to you - period. The.End. This is a hurtful, burdensome lie that crushes and shames hearts. I am sorry if you have been on the receiving end of that crap.

One True Protection

So often when the subject of modesty comes up, the gospel is nowhere to be found. We end up offering a list of rules to follow or a reminder of the ones we've broken. Neither holds any power for real change. Our young men will sin in this area - that's a fact. Trying to keep their eyes from seeing bare legs and shoulders is not the solution. Giving them the good news of the gospel is.

When (not if) they sin they can know that "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12).

When they are overwhelmed with guilt or temptation remind them that "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Rom 8:1)

When they are struggling with questions about God's love for them and their own salvation, tell them that "Having been declared righteous, then, by faith, we have peace toward God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:1)

They can know that because Jesus was perfect for them, they are free. Free to love and to live in the righteousness of Another on their behalf. "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:1)

Reassure them that in moments of struggle and temptation Jesus is praying to the Father at that very moment on their behalf. "Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." (Rom8:34)

Jesus walked this earth and faced every temptation known to man and yet he was without sin. He knows our failings and our weaknesses. 

He is our brother and our friend who sought us out at our worst in order that he might bring us his best. 

We have forgiveness, peace and reconciliation with God. Jesus has saved sinners - rescued us from the dominion of darkness and raised us to newness of life with him. This great power that raised us from death to life is the same power that protects us now and always.
Power, protection, comfort and mercy is ours, in Christ.

Give your young men that gift of freedom. Point them to who can save them. People, clothes and boundaries are powerless. 

They don't need more rules, they need a Savior.