Sunday, August 16, 2015

Raise Your Heads




This past Christmas I received a gift subscription to The New York Times. I have done my best to read it and keep up with the news. In college a professor said to read the paper every day, even if the stories don't always make sense, because eventually the dots will connect and it will be like an epiphany. I either misunderstood or he was crazy. It is not that easy.

Usually, I am about a week behind, but I push through and read from the paper daily. The old phrase, "that's yesterday's news" has gained new meaning for me. Indeed, it is a little embarrassing to be at Starbucks with a paper under your arm as you purchase your coffee, and the barista asks, "Will that be all? Should I include the paper?" And you respond, "Well, no, this is from my house. I can prove it with the date right here. Hey, did you hear about this Donald Trump guy? I guess he's running for President." Who knew that was not breaking news anymore? Actually everyone knew.

Which begs the question, how does everyone know everything that's going on all the time? I have been diligently reading The Times for 8 months now, and even though I'm a week behind, isn't that better than someone who's not reading any paper at all?

My wife was telling me about this story the other day where a NAACP chapter president had been posing as an African-American for years. I was like, "What? Where did you hear about that? I haven't seen anything about it in the paper. Meanwhile, have you heard about this ISIS thing? Pretty scary stuff."

Then someone told me about an incident with a lion named Cecil. My ignorance on that one is more understandable because I skip the funny papers. Must be a new character or something. Maybe I should just check out this Internet thing. So far I've been neutral concerning the net. I digress.

INTERPRET THE TIME

Dr. Richard Swenson in his book, Margin, claims, "A single edition of The New York Times contains more information than a 17th century Britisher would encounter in a lifetime." Even if an exaggeration, that is incredible. Apparently though, there is a middle ground between a 17th century Britisher (Englishman, I think?) and someone who is gaining a lifetime of knowledge daily. I don't want to be the Britisher, but I don't need to be the super-human. Balance is key.

Reading The New York Times has been a fascinating experience, especially because I consider myself extremely conservative politically and especially theologically. If you didn't know, The Times comes from a liberal perspective. The experience has made me more alert and discerning. It has also made me more compassionate and sympathetic to thoughts and people I disagree with. David Brooks (whose columns are worth the subscription) talks about a rare quality called "opposability", and defines it as the ability to hold two opposing views in your mind at the same time without going mad. I think I have developed this skill more strongly, and hopefully can see it in others as well.

At the end of the day, this experience has given me a sense of urgency to know how to interpret the present time. Jesus said to the crowds in Luke, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming.' And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat,' and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

John Calvin says in his commentary to 1 Peter, "Hence at the very beginning he proclaims in express words the grace of God made known to us in Christ; and at the same time he adds, that it is received by faith and possessed by hope, so that the godly might raise up their minds and hearts above the world." More on 1 Peter later.

Later in Luke, Jesus says, "Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads; because your redemption is drawing near."

My conviction, then, from this experience is to know how to interpret the present time, and to raise up my mind and heart above the world. Why? Because my redemption is drawing near! How? Great question. I see a four-step approach to interpreting the present time.

START WITH SCRIPTURE

This is self-explanatory, yet I struggle with it. In the morning it is easier to check my phone or pick up last week's paper than to open the living Word of the God of the universe. Why do I do that? Don't do that. Scripture is too powerful and too important for us. Physically and spiritually we won't function long without it. We have to start there.

GET YOUR NEWS

Some people would say, in order to simplify your life, you should stop reading news, either on your phone, your computer, or physical newspapers or magazines. I am not convinced this is a good idea. Perhaps as a fast, it makes some sense. But in general I think it is dangerous and unnecessary to just give it up. And I think some people say this but still are gaining the skinny on every event in the world somehow, so the advice is hard to take seriously. When I think about "getting my news", I want to try to do so in categories. It is not possible, for me at least, to know everything about everything. But if I can know something about what is going on in my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and the world, I think I'll be in a good position to understand the times and be engaged in the world, so that I can love and minister well to others. Michael Lindsay talks about having "a liberal arts approach to life", which means being knowledgeable about various topics to be relatable and in a position of influence. As I read the news, what is it telling me about:

- The impoverished and afflicted?
- The economy?
- The marketplace?
- Entertainment (including sports)?
- The Church?

That is still a lot. But I think it is important and possible to be informed in all of these areas if we are to understand how to interpret the time.

GO BACK TO SCRIPTURE

This is probably the most important step, and the most difficult. The reason we need to raise our mind and heart above the world is to see our redemption drawing near. To do so, we don't want to ignore what is going on in the world, but instead interpret what is going on through the lens of Scripture, with our heads raised to the joy set before us beyond this world. Nothing will ultimately make any sense outside the lens of Scripture. People who don't go back to Scripture to help them interpret events are the same people who throw their hands up and say, "I just don't know anymore. The world is crazy." God forbid that we should be that way! Instead may we hold up the paper in one hand and the Bible in the other, pointing people to the one who came into and endured the craziness, without sin, died for our sake, and rose from the dead to give us hope.

What should I make of the events I've been reading about for the last 8 months? What does the Bible say about them? What do they have to do with the gospel? What do they tell us about eternity?

- Senseless violence of ISIS and Boko Haram
- Global migration crisis
- Earthquake in Nepal
- Riots in Baltimore
- Shootings in Charleston
- Society-changing Supreme Court decisions
- Political announcements
- Crisis in Greece
- Nuclear deal with Iran
- Climate change
- Minimum wage debates
- Free trade agreements

If I continue reading the paper as I have - the subscription has expired but is still coming so we'll see - I'm sure I would have a similar list of different events. The 17th century "Britisher" may not have gained as much information on a daily basis as we do, but he also knew that the world was a mess. "Tonight, on earth, it is total confusion", says Alistair Begg. This is the state of things. But our God is in full control, all the events in the news have purpose, and the Bible gives wisdom to help us endure and interpret them. In the process, God creates in us a longing for our redemption that is drawing near, and a passion to share this news with others. I have a lot of work to do in this area. Would you join me diving into Scripture to know how to interpret the time, so we can more effectively follow Jesus?

SEEK HELP

Finally, God has blessed this generation with individuals who can help us with this process. I will name two: Albert Mohler and Janet Parshall. There are others, but through their podcast and radio show alone, not to mention their books, they give great guidance in how to understand the events of the world from a Christian worldview. Mohler's podcast is called The Briefing, and Parshall's radio show is called In the Market, on Moody Radio. Their voices are timely, winsome, and biblical.

In summary, start with Scripture, get your news, go back to Scripture, and seek help. May God help us as we follow Jesus in this world with our heads raised.

Now, I am going to go back and catch up on my papers. I heard something about a video by a woman named Veronica who wants me to be mindful about going into the ocean. Not sure what that's about yet, but I have a trip to Florida coming up so I better be prepared. #WatchTheOceanFromADistance

"The strength of the good solider of Jesus Christ, appears in nothing more, than in steadfastly maintaining the holy calm, meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amidst all the storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts and events of this evil and unreasonable world." - Jonathan Edwards

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grieving as a Grandson



These are the thoughts shared at my Grandma's Celebration of Life service, June 25, 2015

I am indeed humbled to be able to say a few words about and in honor of my sweet Grandma Gibson. I confess that I had thoughts prepared, and I did so because my Grandpa asked me to. Though I'm not under any illusion that this will be easy. So I'm counting on you to bear with me and even help me through it.

I thought it would be good to speak as if I'm inviting you into my own grief. In other words, perhaps my approach to grieving, spoken out loud, can help and encourage you, as you remember her with the smile that we all know she wants for us right now.

Two words immediately came to mind as I considered sharing: gratitude and hope.

GRATITUDE

I am deeply grateful to God for the life of my Grandma, and the time we all had with her.

There are infinite stories and moments that could be shared, and I really can only mention a few. My hope is that they will spur you on to remember many on your own. Don't limit yourself to just a few!

There memories are really characteristics of my Grandma represented by individual moments; characteristics represented by moments. Again, these are only a few.

First, she was others-centered. She considered others more important than herself. I know this was displayed in her selfless care for my Grandpa. For me, I'll never forget as a youngster, at the funeral of her mother - Great-Grandma Ward to us - during the service she turned around in the pew and, perhaps noticing my sad, confused, or scared face, she grabbed my hand with a smile and told me it was going to be ok. I was reminded this week that I was 7 years old at the time. Amazing love and empathy at her own mother's funeral.

Second, Grandma was joyfully content. Just a couple weeks ago, at my parents' house for a great summer day with family and friends, I remember her and Grandpa sitting on the screened-in porch, a little away from the action outside on the deck. but close enough to enjoy the presence of family with the utmost contentment. She displayed this so well because she truly was content and full of joy with life. I don't think I ever shared a meal with her where she wasn't absolutely delighted with the food and company.

Third, she was generous. She and Grandpa faithfully supported a golf marathon fundraising event for a college ministry that I have participated in for several years. I have a sweet memory of an unexpected call from her after the event last year, where she said that she received this nice thank you note from this nice young man, somewhat loosely connected to the same ministry, but somewhere overseas or something, and who obviously wasn't me. She wanted to make sure their gift to me was received. We both got quite a laugh out of the mix-up, and fortunately, I was eventually able to get it straightened out.

Finally, my Grandma was so loving and faithful. I'm sure most of us can remember a "dancing moment" with her and Grandpa, and I certainly remember a very special one at Katie and I's wedding, but more recently, I'll never forget their spontaneous dance at their 65th wedding anniversary party last year, after my dad cued up their wedding song. It was a classic tear-jerker moment.

There are so many more. I encourage you to reflect on them and write them down!

There is a book that has helped me greatly in the past as I have dealt with death and loss. It is called Death by Living, and it is about how our lives are meant to be spent, our lives are what take us to the end, and life is ultimately what causes our death. I wanted to share a few quotes because they remind me so much about my Grandma.

"Live hard, and die grateful."

"May your living be grace to those behind you."

"Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake."

What a wonderful wake that is left by Ramona Gibson.

HOPE

But as we remember her with gratitude, it is still hard that she is gone. So where is the hope? Is there hope? Yes. There is...a sure hope. Because this is a celebration of life. It is a celebration not only of past life, but also of future life! I know of only one source for this hope.

I need to hear the words of the Apostle Paul, who says, "For we know that if the tent that is our earthly body is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens... So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."

He continues, "For the love of God controls us, because we have concluded this: that one (that is, Jesus) has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

What a sure hope! Died for our sake. Raised for our sake.

Paul also says, "But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."

I don't want to be uninformed about my Grandma, or myself eventually. And I don't have to be. So I ask myself out loud so that I can ask you also, Joey, do you grieve with no hope? The answer is no!

Paul continues, "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep."

Jesus himself says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?"

So I ask myself out loud, Joey, do you believe this? Yes, I do!

Paul also said that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Joey, do you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? And the answer is yes, I do!

As I personally grieve during this time, my belief compels me to share. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul says to Timothy, "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."

And then he says, and I say along with him, "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost of sinners, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life."

There is great hope in the eternal life offered to us! And it is an eternal life into which we will be physically raised and live together in peace and joy forever - where the dwelling place of God is with us, and where he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away. The tears, the crying, the pain, the death - all gone!

So as we reflect on the life of Grandma Ramona Gibson, and her wonderful attributes that are so worthy of imitation, my prayer is that we all may live in such a way that - like her - our life ultimately causes our death, so that then, in Christ - like her - we may come to life again.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

What Do You Think?



"You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are." 

Said D.A. Carson at the recent THINK conference at my church. The conference was entitled: The Weeping Prophet: Jeremiah Confronts the 21st Century. His point, I think, was that it matters what you think about! Because it becomes who you are. What does your mind first go to at a red light? If it goes to the restaurant you are going to that night, you might be a foodie. If it goes to the movie you just saw, you might be an entertainment junkie. If it goes to God and His Word, you might be a dependent sinner drawn to the grace of God. Do you see? This is not an ultimate criteria, but helpful in taking your pulse. I am often thinking about new restaurants to go to, and may even be labeled a foodie. But that is not all I think about! What follows here are highlights from this conference, given to me by the Holy Spirit in a merciful evening of rest and clarity following the last session. I hope that these points can be powerful and applicable regardless of your attendance or attentiveness at the actual conference.

THE BIBLE IS ALIVE

By alive, I mean living, and active.  How can a book be living? Are we talking about like the Monster Book of Monsters from Harry Potter, the one once you open tries to chomp on your fingers, destroying the pages of itself in the process? No, no. We need better mental pictures than what movies and culture can give us. How can a book be alive? It can be so by its ability to feed your soul, on the spot, without limit, day after day and hour after hour. You can't see your soul. A doctor is not going to be able to locate it for you, and sadly, he or she is not going to be able to diagnosis when it is hungry. But you know you have it, and it needs nourishment. What kind of attention are we giving to this need? We have hungry souls! What amount of time are we dedicating to address this hunger?

T. De Witt Talmage said, "I know that young doctors, young lawyers, young accountants, young mechanics, young merchants, have but little time for general reading. If so, then spend more of that time at the fountain of divine truth from which nearly all the books have been dipped that are worth anything."

Yes! But oh, how I struggle with this. Between the free subscriptions I have randomly received to the New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., paid ones to Harvard Business Review, Christianity Today, and then general reading in books (which I so enjoy) and blogs, all in the midst of marriage, family, work, church, and leisure, how am I going to spend necessary time in the fountain of divine truth? Carefully and intentionally, God-willing, because it is the most important thing I could be doing. But there is so much to read! Many, perhaps, do not consider this the dilemma that I do, or don't even notice the amount to be read. It has helped me to make a reading list, but even that could be improved. Tony Reinke in his book Lit! has helped me realize I can read multiple books at once, and should always be reading fiction. C.S. Lewis is famous for highlighting the importance of reading the old books, in his introduction to Athanaisus's On The IncarnationRick Warren has said that of the books you choose to read, you should read 25% from the first 1500 years of church history, 25% from the last 500 years, 25% from the last 100 years, and 25% from the last 10 years. Someone, though I can't remember whom, said that if you love to read you need to acknowledge the fact that you will never read everything you want to read, and that shouldn't be depressing but liberating.

Yet, all of this helps only with the reading that should be secondary, by a mile. Carson said, "There is nothing more tragic and damning than the refusal to listen attentively, faithfully, and obediently to the Word of God." How am I going to do this if I am spending the majority of my limited time to read on current events, business strategy, and man-spoken books?? Do I not realize what I am reading when I open the Bible?! 

Walter Maier, in The Lutheran Hour, says, "This is Christ's Word, the entire Scripture, composed by almost half a hundred writers, completed in fifteen long centuries, written under the most varied circumstances - this vision on the seashore of a lonely exile, this letter in the confines of a martyr's prison, this history on a caravan wearily jogging its way across the desert, this psalm under the starlit heavens of Judah, this song in the captivity of far-off Babylon - a book to which many men and many countries and many centuries have contributed, but which, from the creation of Genesis to the beautified visions of paradise in the Apocalypse, is pervaded with a marvelous unity, the dominating message of sin and grace, the assurance of a loving Father's gracious redemption of His children."

Carson also highlighted Deuteronomy 17:14 and following, and the laws concerning Israel's Kings, whereby they were required to copy out the Book of the Law by hand. They were not able to "download it from the cloud without the words passing through anyone's brains". How far is this from our approach to Scripture!

"A voice says, 'Cry'! And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All flesh is like grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." - Isaiah 40:6-8

The Word of our God will stand forever. 

HEALING WOUNDS LIGHTLY

"Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed. Have you not just now called to me, 'My father, you are the friend of my youth - will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?' Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could." - Jeremiah 3:3-5

"They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD." - Jeremiah 6:14-15

God is very serious about healing. He is serious about the sin that requires it, and the method and completeness by which it comes. God forbid that we would heal each other's wounds lightly, that we would minimize, cover-up, or too quickly move on from the wounds that our sin causes. God forbid that we would ultimately die because of our worldly grief, rather than being grieved into repenting, which leads to salvation, and without regret! God forbid that we would withhold or shrink the whole counsel of God in order to be accepted or unoffensive!

This is important for evangelism. John Wesley in his Letter on Preaching Christ, talked about this in the context of preaching more law until someone was fully convinced of their sin. That could be a while, you know? George Whitefield, perhaps more strongly, emphasized this in his remarkable sermon The Method of Grace:

"Before you can speak peace to your hearts, you must be made to see, made to feel, made to weep over, made to bewail, your actual transgressions against the law of God....But further: you must be convinced of your actual sins, so as to be made to tremble, and yet you may be strangers to Jesus Christ, you may have no true work of grace upon your hearts."

More than that, conviction must go deeper, he says, to an acknowledgement of the foundation of all your sins, namely, your original sin. Then! he says, "You must not only be troubled for the sins of your life, the sin of your nature, but likewise for the sins of your best duties and performances." But then! he continues, "Before you can speak peace to your heart, you must be troubled for the unbelief of your heart." He is still not finished unlayering the conviction we need to heal our wounds completely. "Once more then: before you can speak peace to your heart...you must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ."

That is a lot of layers! We are in significant danger of healing others' wounds lightly, and our own. This is also important for daily Christian living. I remember reading John Owen years ago and lingering over his exhortation to "not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but hearken to what God says to your soul." I don't think I ever understood completely what this meant until reading Jeremiah, the inspired Word of God that is the food for my soul. How could I understand this apart from the Bible? How could I hearken what God says to my soul by reading John Owen? No offense to a mighty saint of God. That would be like eating a newspaper article about food rather than eating the food itself. Owen says that our peace must be "attended with the detestation and abhorrency of that sin which was the wound and caused the disquietment." But those are big words. 

Don't get me wrong, Carson, Wesley, Whitefield, and Owen are all very helpful here. But listen to the Word of our God through the apostle Paul, written to the Corinthian church a second time after calling out in them significant sin (so applicable to us):

"As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death."

How do we know we have godly grief?

"For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment!" The NIV says, what "readiness to see justice done."

We know we have godly grief when we have earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and readiness to see justice done, which is ultimately about powerfully and authentically leaning into Jesus who is the just and the justifier. What a valuable lesson I need repeated to me every day! Don't heal your wounds or others' wounds lightly!

A good reminder in this effort is that the Bible is not about us. The world does not revolve around us. Seriously. Reading the Old Testament reveals acutely my focus on self. Just like the people of Israel. Just like those whom Jesus was addressing that were worried about food and clothing. I really do worry about food and clothing daily. That wasn't just a parable, you know? And I worry about a lot of other things. Reading the Old Testament also reminds me that God is a God of self-focus, so I certainly shouldn't be, because I am not God. He wants it and He deserves it. Carson said, "It is an act of great kindness and mercy that God demands Himself at the center, because it is for our improvement, not His." 

MIND RENEWAL

I am what I think. I think, therefore I am, the philosopher says. One thing about the Bible is that it includes so much actual content to be thinking about. Narratives, poetry, theology, exhortation, imperatives, and so on. Silly of me to open the Bible every morning, pray over it, consider how to specifically apply it that very day, and then move on to other things in my mind. 

My morning usually consists of making coffee, waking up my sleeping beauty, and then drinking that coffee as I read and pray and think. Then, usually, nature calls because of the coffee, and from there I shower and get ready, and drive to work. The time in the bathroom, the shower, and the car on the way to work is crucial thinking time for me. It can consist of 45 minutes to an hour in total. I'm just being real. What do I think about? 

There is not an exact formula here, but I have noticed when I lose control of my mind during this time period, not taking my thoughts captive to God, things of God, and things in His word, my whole day can be affected. This does not always mean thinking about Jeremiah and the Babylonians, say. In some cases it the best days where I am thinking about work and meetings or tasks in front me during this time, if I do so without worry but with eagerness and motivation. The worst days are when I think about this same content but do so laden with anxiety. I don't want to go to that meeting. I don't want to finish that project, and open the can of worms connected to it. Etc. See, taking your thoughts captive I don't think means only thinking specifically about what you read that morning. It could! But if the Spirit of God dwells in us, than we should be able to live with the truth of His Word in us even as we do normal things. So the challenge for me is to determine whether I am thinking normal, necessary things within the context of the truths of Scripture that govern everything. Or have I moved on from God for the day and am only thinking about the normal things? How do I know the difference? How do I know if I've moved on? One way I know is if I'm anxious instead of eager towards my day at work. Or if I'm irritable. Or if I'm adverse to being around people until I've "woken up". And so on. Do you see?

Rick Warren, in an otherwise excellent sermon called "The Battle for Your Mind" said that as a church we are teaching people too much. We are giving so much content and application that they can't be expected to process it all and have it lead to life change. Between the Sunday morning sermon, a Bible study, a weeknight class, and morning Bible reading, the amount of applications a normal Christian is grappling with is overwhelming, Warren implies. 

I disagree. In my experience it takes hundreds of pages, hundreds of truth statements, hundreds of applications, for one or two life-transforming gospel truths to stick. If it were not for the amount of content, I don't think I would discern the few ground breaking truths or applications that lead to actual life transformation and mind renewal. Maybe that is just me. But when I think about the wisdom from the Spirit and the mind of Christ, spoken of in 1 Corinthians 2, I am confronted with infinite knowledge and omniscience. I don't think the way God speaks to us through His word is by focusing on one miniature truth or application this week, and then another one next week. I believe He speaks to us through a hearty sermon on Romans 8 one week, and then an equally hearty message from Romans 9 the next week, with other study, meditation, and community discussion in between. As we drink from a fire hose of God's word through a given week, it is better to say at the end, "Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" Instead of merely, "this week I will try to think about God more on my lunch breaks."

Because, in my experience at least, God will give amazing practical application and specific mind renewing truth in the midst of your posture of dependence and awe at the depth of His knowledge and being. Even if only one sermon out of twelve has something you will remember in a year. Or one bible study out of twenty gives you a lasting spiritual nugget. You are not going to just get lucky and happen to listen to that one sermon that had the memorable point, or just randomly show up the night the bible study was really awesome. We have to have our minds open and hearts broken and ears ready during all the overflow of content, so that God can bless us with His presence and His truth in His timing.

I made a list the other day of 10 truths or application points (I'm sure I could come up with a few more with time) that I could explain as turning points in my walk with Christ. This is in more than 10 years of being a Christian. These are things that I know I will remember for my entire life, and without them I would not have the assurance, maturity, clarity, faith, or abiding union with Christ that I do today. And do you know how many sermons I've heard and books I've read and studies I've been a part of in that time?! I am so excited to put myself in the path of God's unsearchable knowledge day in and day out, and week in and week out, so that I can have maybe another dozen of these kinds of truths or application points at the end of my natural life.

"Do not be conformed, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

This type of transformation through this type of mind renewal, requires enduring more content and Biblical truth about the omniscient God of the Universe from sermons, books, Bible studies, and spiritual conversation, than our feeble brains could ever possibly handle, so that a few life-altering truths get through. 

What do you think?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Chronicles of Gratitude



As he tends to do, the God of the Universe led me to a specific passage of Scripture this Thanksgiving season. In response, I thought I would do what I tend to do, that is, write about it. The passage may not be one you have looked at in awhile: 1 Chronicles 29. Get your Bible!

I'm learning more and more that gratitude is the key to joy. Gratitude is necessary for a godly life. I shouldn't need to exhort you to be grateful. My Facebook feed is evidence enough that I don't need to give a theological discourse as to why gratitude is important, as valuable a reminder as that would be. We agree, and especially on Thanksgiving we show it. We have a lot to be thankful for. A lot! Family, friends, shelter, food, jobs, resources, you name it. My struggle is making it a consistent part of my life leading up to, and flowing from, a holiday that has not always existed, you know. The Pilgrims did not invent thankfulness. My God tells me in his word that gratitude is a basic characteristic, perhaps the starting point, in a life that is pleasing to him. Who knew that an otherwise obscure passage could help us with gratitude? That is rhetorical. God knows. In this case, I now know in a more practical way three components of gratitude: the why, the what, and the how.

WHY BE GRATEFUL?

We mostly have this one covered. Unless, you only feel thankful, or express thankfulness, on Thanksgiving. Be honest. In April or May, do you reflect on why you should be grateful? How about January or February when you have a flat tire on the side of the road and there's six inches of snow on the ground? Is there a fundamental reason to be grateful that applies to all circumstances? In 1 Chronicles 29 (go read it!), I see several, all of which I will classify under the sub-heading: Realities.

Realities

In the second part of verse 14, David acknowledges in his prayer, "for all things come from you". You can never repeat this concept too much. All things, they come, from God. All good and perfect gifts. All things. What do you have that you haven't received? The fundamental reality that all things come from God makes it possible to be grateful in all circumstances. Without God we wouldn't have a car at all, let alone four tires that 99% of the time have plenty of air. Without God we wouldn't have the means to have a cell phone and a AAA card, or a spare in the trunk, or a friend to come help us. We know all this. Are we grateful?

In verse 15 David says we are strangers and sojourners. We don't belong here and we are wandering around. Aimless. Given that reality, how remarkable is it that we have a home? How about a community? A stable job and safe work environment? A church? A place to rest and relax? Restaurant options to serve us food? Hotels that give us a place to stay and a comfortable bed? Seriously. We are strangers on a journey, yet we are not all on the side of the road scraping to get by and barely surviving, and we really should be, were it not for a gracious God.

At the end of verse 15 David reminds us that our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding. Our days on earth are like a shadow. How long do you notice or linger over a shadow? Do you ever reflect as you are looking at a shadow of a tree or something else, "I bet this shadow has lived a lot of life. I bet this shadow has really traveled the world, enjoyed food and culture, and had lasting friendships. I bet this shadow has a loving family and has nurtured future generations of shadows to live and prosper and contribute to society. I bet this shadow has left a legacy of love and compassion, and written books to tell its story." Silliness. I have never read a book written by a shadow, and I read a lot. You've already noticed and ignored like ten shadows since I started this paragraph. They are all gone now. And we are like that. Yet, we experience all these wonderful blessings and opportunities in our shadow lifetime. That is incredible! How grateful we should be?!

WHAT IS THERE TO BE GRATEFUL FOR?

Again, we probably have this covered, but I know for me I need to go back and read this passage and this blog when its not Thanksgiving season, and there are not unspoken contests to post the most unique "I am thankful for" picture on Instagram. #GratefulGram.

Blessings

King David has made great preparations for the temple for his God, the temple that his son Solomon will officially build. He acknowledges that all the resources he has prepared come from God anyway, and he presents them as an offering to God in his preparation. They come from God, so he offers them to God, and they eventually will build a house for God. All for God because it all comes from God. Pretty clear. Even for us, this is understandable. We are thankful for the food we have, and the water we drink, and the house we live in, and the warm bed at night, and the kitchen table, and the lamp (I love lamp), and the comfortable couch (#FoamMatterstoGod), and all the rest. We are thankful for things, yes. But what from this passage can we learn to be grateful for that maybe we wouldn't otherwise be?

In verse 1, David mentions two things that are close to my heart, and even I neglect to give thanks for like I should. The first is "work that is great". My spiritual tagline (hashtag) is Work Matters to God. By this I mean that I strongly believe that our daily work, our vocation, matters to God because it allows the community to flourish, it allows people to have meaningful work to use their God-given abilities, and it lasts forever. So being thankful for work is easier for me, and perhaps for you. How about work "that is great"? Are we abundantly thankful for the fact that our work is challenging? We have the capacity in our brains and the strength in our bodies to do some pretty amazing things. If you are in the medical field, you facilitate healing for fellow human beings. If you are in law, you interpret ridiculously complex regulations and in so doing bring about justice. If you are in business. you integrate people, ideas, equipment, and materials to create, form, and deliver usable products and services to everyday life. If you are in education, you creatively and diligently transfer information, skills, and behavior to impressionable, young minds. If you raise children you have the full responsibility for the nurture and development of little people who have total dependency on you. Do you appreciate the challenge and the greatness of your work? Are you grateful?

At the end of verse 1, David mentions the palace, or temple that he is building. Consider it the specifics of his work. He says it will not be for man but for the Lord God. His work has everlasting purpose. So does yours. Did you know that? Can you explain it? Are you grateful for it?

HOW TO BE GRATEFUL

This passage has helped me see how to be grateful in four specific components.

Attributes

Acknowledging the attributes of God, and saying them back to him in prayer, is such a powerful starting point. Reflect on his attributes, and gratitude should absolutely come natural. Look at verse 10-13. Speaking to God, David says yours is the greatness, power, glory, victory, and majesty. Yours is the kingdom. Riches and honor come from you. In your hand are power and might, and you make great and give strength to all. Any one of these things, let alone a dozen or so, could fuel your prayer for hours and overflow your heart with gratitude.

Requests

I never think about the fact that asking for more is a way of showing gratitude for what I have. And I guess it depends on what you ask for, and your heart in the asking. But David clearly presents his requests to God, asking that God would forever keep the purposes and thoughts in the hearts of his people. He asks that God would grant to his son Solomon a whole heart to keep commandments, statutes, testimonies, and that he would build the palace he has prepared for him to build. We can show gratitude by making requests to God. That is so helpful!

Offerings

I gather that most people use this passage as a classic instruction on stewardship, or giving, as they should. It is impossible to read this passage and not see the generosity and joy that David and all the people experience in giving to the Lord. And it should be impossible for us not to be abundantly generous as an overflow of our daily gratitude. After all, it all comes from him!

Praise

I would be remiss to ignore the verses of praise in this passage, specifically verse 9 and verse 20. "With a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord. David the King also rejoiced greatly... And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and paid homage to the Lord." Praise is the most basic way to express gratitude. We can never do it too much!

Long post in two words: Be grateful! I know I am. Happy Thanksgiving!


Monday, June 30, 2014

Death by Living




This represents thoughts and highlights from the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson, personalized, and alongside meditation in Psalm 90. I am greatly indebted to Wilson for his words, and to my Lord always for His word. I pray that it would be encouragement to and motivation for you. This is part 3 of 3.

--- "Cause of death: life. May it be the truth." ---

GLADNESS IN AFFLICTION

Being made glad in difficult times may not seem like a positive implication of numbering our days and making the most out of life. How about just taking away the difficult times? How about just not taking away my friend? But when you understand that affliction is inevitable, and not meaningless, then the fact that God is willing and able to give us joy and gladness in these times is incredible. God gives us the means to not mope, or lose ourselves in despair. He gives us joy and gladness! And not just for a time or a season, but for as many days as we are afflicted! That is what the Bible says. Even if it’s all of them.

What would gladness look like in the loss of Gene, for example? For me, it comes when I remind myself that even in the affliction, even in the sadness, there are things that are true and unchanging, and that are good. That is not just a mental or intellectual assurance. It comforts my entire being. If it doesn’t yours, consider the alternative. What if there was nothing sure, no truth or concept of reality that could always be reliable and a foundation? What if the bad times were meaningless, and had no end? God forbid.

One thing that is true and unchanging is that the love of God is steadfast. Persistent. Unwavering. Firm. It endures our doubt, unbelief, and emotion. That is a really good thing.

Another thing is that Jesus rose from the dead, and if we believe in Him, we will too. Even death has been swallowed up. What could create more gladness than that? I’m not talking about happiness, I’m talking about gladness. See the difference? You can be unhappy and glad at the same time. Biblically you are called to be. Gladness is more important than happiness. It lasts. Gladness in affliction, especially death, does not mean forgetting the situation or acting as if it’s not that bad and instead focusing on brighter things and “moving on”. It is bad. It is horrible! How are you going to “move on” from it? Where are you going to go? Death is the most tragic and unnatural reality in the universe. This shouldn’t be forgotten. It is the bad news that makes the good news intelligible. I have found that those who have the most difficulty with it are usually those who try to forget it or expect time to heal the pain of it. Healing does come with time, but ultimately it is not the time that heals but something else. Someone else. Time cannot remove the sting of death. What can? Who can?

"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:50-57

FAVOR OF THE LORD

Gladness even in shocking loss, such as with Gene, can come from God himself in unexplainable ways. We don’t have to try to muster it up on our own strength. He shows us His favor. He is always showing us His favor. When the sun comes up, when the rain falls, when we order food at a restaurant, God is doing something for us. When we drive home from a funeral, we are still breathing, our muscles are still functioning to put pressure on the accelerator, and shift to the brake. What is our posture at this point? Is it thankfulness? 

Living to die vs. living to live is in large part a mindset, though it affects every part of us and not just our minds. Take for example two different ways to react driving through difficult circumstances, whether traffic or dangerous weather. Living to live consists of our entire focus being on our situation, perhaps the frustration of it, or the fear, and more concern with getting to our destination than with other people or with God, who controls all of it. Living to live is trying to find a way around the traffic because in that way at least we feel like we are in control (I do this all the time to my shame), but finding more traffic on the alternative route. Burnout, fear, panic. Living to die is practicing patience, contentment, gratitude, and generosity in the situation, even in danger, trusting God who is in control, and who, even if you die in that moment, will bring you back from the dead if you believe in Him. This doesn’t mean carelessness or inactivity in driving or otherwise. Ultimately, it is the way to success. Living to die is gratefulness and generosity, something like the following words from Wilson:

“When the snow flies in the headlights like stars at warp speed, when we stand next to danger we cannot control and feel its hot breath on our necks, when steam comes off of its sides and we can do nothing but hang on to the wild mustang, we are no more or less in God’s hands than we have ever been.

“How many cars have you ever passed on the road? How many headlights have snapped by you going the opposite direction? Millions. How many potential fatalities exist on every drive that you have ever taken? Hundreds (even on the short ones). We paint a line (sometimes) and agree to stay on opposite sides as we hurtle along in tons of metal flung by explosions. We fly through the sky strapped to turbines screaming with power and expect to coast down safely on the air.

“We live on a ball of molten rock hurtling through outer space, invisibly leashed to a massive orb of flame. It is steered by Whom?

“How many super-volcanoes have wiped us all out? None. How many earthquakes have killed us all? I’ll still here. You? How many could have?

“As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger than our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God? We are always in His hands, but we often feel like we are in our own. We can’t thank Him for every breath and every heartbeat, but we can thank Him every day for not splatting us with the moon or letting us drop into the sun.”

“When a drunk crushes some family, some mother, some friend; when a story ends, then we wake up. Then we turn to God with confused expressions, wanting to know why He was sleeping in the boat.

“He brought us here from nothing; is He ever allowed to take us to an exit? His own Son died young; do you think He doesn’t understand? Moses didn’t see the Promised Land. Samson died blind in the rubble. Stephen beneath stones. Paul without a head. Peter upside down. In a bed or on the battlefield or on asphalt in shattered glass beneath a flashing light, we are God’s stories to end. How many drunks has He spared you from? Thank Him before you ask to be spared from another. How many breathes have you drawn? How many winter winds have tightened your skin? How many Christmases have you seen? How many times has the sky swirled glory above your head like a benediction?

“See it. Hear Him. Thank Him. Ask for more. Search for moments in your story for which you can be grateful.”

That, is living to die. That, is death by living. And that, in light of the reality of resurrection, and our sharing in it if we trust in Christ, seems like the best, most helpful, and wonderfully exciting approach! May our life cause our death, so that then, we can come to life again.

--- "It is our living that takes us towards the end." ---