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." --- 


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Number Your Days




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 2 of 3.

--- "Cause of death? Life. May it be the truth." --- 

A THOUSAND YEARS

You may have heard the verses in Scripture that attempt to explain the unexplainable in reference to how God is not bound by time. The Apostle Peter says, “Do not overlook this one fact brothers, with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This Psalm says, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”

Often, we think of this concept in how short life is. And we should, because it is. N.D. Wilson, author of Death by Living, which I will be quoting at length in this series, helps us realize the fragile shortness of this life:

“The world never slows down so that we can better grasp the story, so that we can form study groups and drill each other on the recent past until we have total retention. We have exactly one second to carve a memory of that second, to sort and file and prioritize in some attempt at preservation. But then the next second has arrived, the next breeze to distract us, the next plane slicing through the sky, the next funny skip from the next funny toddler, the next squirrel fracas, and the next falling leaf. Our imaginations are busy enough capturing now that it is easy to lose the just then.”

And elsewhere Wilson continues:

“No matter how many pictures we take, no matter how many scrapbooks we make, no matter how many moments we invade with a rolling camera, we will die. We will vanish. We cannot grab and take hold. We cannot smuggle things out with us through death. Go to an estate sale (if you dare). Look for photos. Stare at boxes full of vapor untreasured. Leave quickly. But this shouldn’t inspire melancholy; it should only tinge the sweet with the bitter. Don’t resent the moments simply because they cannot be frozen. Taste them. Savor them. Give thanks for that daily bread. Manna doesn’t keep overnight. More will come in the morning.”

Does that view of life change the way you live?

But it goes both ways. To God, our life is immeasurably long, and therefore immeasurably valuable. Stephen Carnock says the following:

"If a thousand years be as a day to the life of God, then as a year is to the life of man, so are three hundred and sixty-five thousand years to the life of God; and as seventy years are to the life of man, so are twenty-five million five hundred and fifty thousand years to the life of God."

Does that view of life change the way you live?

THE YEARS OF OUR LIFE ARE TOIL AND TROUBLE

Many of us are in denial about the fact that the years of our life are full of toil and trouble. But we might as well admit it and get on with it. I think we would enjoy everything more if we did. We may live vacation to vacation, or weekend to weekend, and never really reflect on the hard times and admit that they characterize more of our life in total. To reflect on them and admit this does not present a hopeless situation, as counter-intuitive as that seems. It actually presents a remarkably hopeful situation. It is the difference between leaving a funeral forcing your mind to think about something else, because the reality is too hard, and leaving a funeral thinking more about death – even your own death – than you did when you came, and rejoicing in that and in the context of a miracle that there is historical proof is true. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, which means that his promise that we will too, if we believe in him, can be trusted. It will be fulfilled.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:12-26

But in the meantime, we have toil and trouble. People we love die, and we will one day die. N.D. Wilson drives home this point with such a helpful perspective:

“I will labor to live with the joyful fury of a child, but I will be exhausted. My body will decay and break. That part has already begun. I will grow weak, but with the memory of strength, reaching for strength that should be there and is now gone.

“In the end, I will face the greatest enemy that any man has ever faced. And I will lose.

“Our challenges always build. A ninety-five-year-old man sits in his chair with a wandering mind because a century cannot pass without many blows. That much life is heavy for the strongest shoulders. A young man might feel bold; he might feel courageous, gambling with life and death. And he might be courageous. But he trusts his strength; he feels as if he could fight, as if he could run, as if he has a chance. He may even choose his danger.

“It takes a different kind of courage to face death when you cannot run, when you cannot fight, when you are pinned beneath heavy decades, beneath the weight of life – when your faith really must be in another.”

Is your faith in another?

 NUMBER OUR DAYS

The Bible, and this specific passage (Psalm 90), tells us how we are to handle this toil and trouble. It says we should number our days. What on earth does that mean? Let’s see, 365 days in a year, I’ve lived 33 years, that’s 12,045 days, since my birthday in January. I don’t like math, and can never remember which months only have 30 days, so I won’t complete the formula. But you get the idea. Is that numbering my days? The number of my days is twelve thousand and something. There, I have numbered them, and if you insist, I will keep track on my iPhone from now on.

That is silly. Numbering our days means a lot more than counting them. Maybe it would be most helpful to clarify some things that numbering our days does not mean.

First, it does not mean get to retirement as soon and successfully as you can. Wilson says:

"There is a school of American thought that suggests we are supposed to live furiously and foolishly when young, slave away pointlessly when adults, and then coast into low-impact activity as soon as financially possible. Isn't that just a kiss on the lips (from a dog). The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty."

Second, it does not mean live for yourself in selfishness. Wilson says:

“They had reached their deaths by living. So will we. How much of the vineyard can we burn first? How fast can we run? How deeply can we laugh? Can we ever give more than we receive? How much gratitude can we show? How many of the least of these can we touch along the way? How many seeds will we get into the ground before we ourselves are planted?”

“Shall we die for ourselves or live for others? For most of us, the question is rarely posed in our final mortal moment (although there is glory when it is). Death is the finish line of this preliminary race. Shall we cross the finish line for ourselves or for others? The choice isn’t waiting for us down the track. The choice is now. Death is now. The choice is here.

“Lay your life down. Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breath is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain – they can carry nothing to the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. With an average life expectancy of 78.2 years in the US (subtracting eight hours a day for sleep), I have around 250,000 conscious hours remaining to me in which I could be smiling or scowling, rejoicing in my life, in this race, in this story, or moaning and complaining about my troubles. I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths to my wife and children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live. And, like Adam, I will still die in the end. Living is the same thing as dying. Living well is the same thing as dying for others."

So what does it mean to number our days? More thoughts from Wilson:

“If life is a story, how shall we then live? It isn’t complicated (just hard). Take up your life and follow Him. Face trouble. Pursue it. Climb it. Smile at its roar like a tree planted by cool water even when your branches groan, when your golden leaves are stripped and the frost bites deep, even when your grip on this earth is torn loose and you fall among mourning saplings.”

“Grabbing will always fail. Hoarding always fails. Living to live always reaches inevitable and pointless Darwinian burnout – bigger fears, deeper mortal panic. Live to die. If you do, inevitable success awaits you. If you were suddenly given more than you could count, and you couldn’t keep any of it for yourself, what would you do? That is, after all, our current situation. Grabbing will always fail. Giving will always succeed. Bestow. Our children, our friends, and our neighbors will all be better off if we work to accumulate for their sakes. If God has given you a widow’s mite, let it go. Set it on the altar. If God has given you a greater banquet than you could possibly eat, let it go. Set it on the altar. Collect a ragtag crew and seat them. Don’t leave food uneaten, strength unspent, wine undrunk.”

Did you hear that? Living to live always reaches inevitable burnout, bigger fears, and deeper mortal panic. Living to die leads to inevitable success. I wish we heard this more often at funerals. What does it mean? It doesn’t make sense if you are afraid of dying. But why would you be afraid of dying if you knew you were going to rise? There are so many implications of this way of thinking. Ultimately, none of them are relevant if you aren’t saved. And I so badly want them to be relevant for you. What does it mean to be saved? What must you do?

“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.” – Romans 10:9

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ – Acts 16:25-31

Believe! Confess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead! Because He is and He did.

So what then are the implications of “living to die”, or this way of “numbering our days”? According to the Psalmist (Moses) in Psalm 90, one implication that he at least anticipates is gladness even in affliction. Another is the favor of the Lord. There are others.

“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” – Psalm 90:15-17

To be continued...

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Matter of Death and Life




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 1 of 3.

--- "Cause of death? Life. May it be the truth." --- 

Spring, and specifically the month of March, has been very significant for me in my adult years. In a positive sense, it is the month of my wedding to Katie, and it will forever be remembered and celebrated for that. I will never forget the early blooming of Spring and 70 degree weather in 2012 for our wedding day, and the late snowstorm a year later in 2013 on the same day of the year. March is mysterious, but in this sense wonderful. It includes the best day of my life so far! It also includes our honeymoon to Antigua, and this year our 2nd anniversary trip to London and Paris!

In a negative sense, or perhaps I should say, in a humbling sense, it is also a season in which I have been to a lot of funerals, and experienced a lot of death. In most cases, unexpected or early death. Not a coincidence, I don’t think, that it is March or April where we remember and celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through faith in whom we can experience death to sin and receive new resurrected life as well. The Apostle Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Amazing. Ultimate life to our dead mortal bodies someday, and spiritual new life to our existing living physical bodies right now. If…the Spirit of God dwells in us.

Does this Spirit dwell in you? Are you sure?

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

The words of Jesus here are penetrating: do you believe this?! Do you? 

On March 12, 1999, a high school classmate and friend, John Stewart, collapsed and died during a Regional final high school basketball game. He was 18 (so was I). I found out in the parking lot after the game. We thought he had just fainted.

On March 2, 2001, my Grandpa Elliott passed away after a difficult stretch with dementia. I was in college, and remember sitting in the 2nd floor room of my fraternity house looking out the window as I talked with my dad various times towards the end. But I don’t remember too much about the circumstances specifically around the exact time of his death. I remember making the decision not to come home from school during his biggest struggles, which though difficult, at the time I think was the right one. I remember many things from childhood about him. I remember standing in line with my brothers and cousins waiting for my share of the regular “giveaway”. My grandpa collected and traded many things in the antique variety. I am blessed (or I’ll let my wife choose the word) with his sense of nostalgia. And, of course, I certainly will always remember the legacy of the man who was my grandpa. My livelihood and my family will be forever indebted to him for the company he founded and the example he left. I love hearing stories about him in his prime, of which there are many, especially around Foamcraft.

On March 26, 2005, a fraternity brother and brother in Christ, Brett Hershey, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was 23 (I was 24). I was alone in my parents’ house when a family friend called for my dad and told me the news.

On March 27, 2008, the father of a girl I was dating at the time lost a long and courageous battle with lung cancer. They lived in St. Louis and she called me as I was driving to work.

On March 13, 2014 – this year - a longtime co-worker at Foamcraft, Inc., Gene DeRose, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. My dad told me through tears, while he was on the phone with my brother, as we were walking through our plant in Elkhart, Indiana. We drove home that afternoon to be with the corporate staff at Indianapolis.

Gene was a quiet, friendly man. He did his job well, kept mostly to himself, but was amazingly pleasant to be around. His laugh was contagious and it included a shoulder jiggle. I wish I had it on video to remember. He was extremely well-traveled. Born in Sri Lanka, where he still has family, he came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and attended Indiana University, my alma mater. He has a brother who lives in Australia, and their whole family made trips there, and elsewhere, often. I wish I had inquired more about his trips, and in general spent more time with him. He was only two offices down the hall from mine, and I passed it multiple times per day. We always could chat about Indiana basketball, in many cases in the last several years, about what was going to happen with it, but also about some good times. Recently I remember him telling me about his white-water rafting adventure in New Zealand, where he was extremely reluctant to go and amazed that he survived. I asked whether he was glad he did it, because now he had that experience and conquered the fear, and he said, “No!”, and preceded to laugh and jiggle, and I then did the same (minus the jiggle). I still can’t believe he’s gone. It was after Gene's death that I finally decided to pick-up and read Death by Living, which had been on my radar since the previous September. Though I never had a spiritual conversation with Gene, regrettably, his approach to life resonated a lot with the content of this book, and will always be an encouragement to me.

These dates do not include other times in April and May, which I now still consider “Resurrection Season”. Of course, it should not only be a season, but these experiences remind me of the miracle especially in Spring, where by the grace of God we see the very same reality in the grass and flowers and trees.

At the end of May 2005, the younger brother of my fraternity brother, friend, brother in Christ, and roommate at the time, was killed in an alcohol-related car accident. He was a passenger. It was the day of the Indianapolis 500, and I got the call as I was dozing off after a long day at the track. I spent the remainder of the evening into the morning with the family, present without the foggiest idea what to say.

On April 12, 2008, my Grandma Elliott passed away with my dad by her side. He was driving home from dinner with his sister and providentially decided to stop by the hospital to see her. I was in the car with my mom and aunt and uncle, in Florida celebrating my Grandpa Gibson’s birthday, when my mom got the call. I’ll never forget calling both my brothers that night to give them the news.

Reflecting on these experiences, especially the most recent (Gene), I am humbled by God’s grace to me. These experiences were not the same as others I know are in front of me. That is to say, my relation to these dear people was not closer than the immediate family and closest friends. My grieving was significant, yes. But someday I know my relation to the deceased will be closer yet. Still, God has showed me HHHHis grace profoundly in my young, na├»ve, and at first unbiblical attempts to find meaning, comfort, and hope in these times. The clearest way He has done this is by leading me directly to specific passages in Scripture. After Brett Hershey died it was Philippians 1:18-26. That one was immediate. It is for your sake that I remain!

Since Gene died, over these several weeks, it has been Psalm 90. I wanted to share it in its entirety, because it is more valuable than anything I could say:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades away and withers.

For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

What is incredible to me is not only the truth, comfort, and hope in these types of passages, but also the connection to the reality of resurrection, more clearly seen because of the time of year, and the circumstances surrounding when I have focused on them, namely death. Everything connects to the resurrection. The resurrection changes everything. The resurrection is the only source of comfort and hope that we can have. It is the source of life we have now. If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, we (those who believe He did) are most to be pitied, and, we will not ourselves rise. If the bones of the man Jesus Christ returned to dust, what of our bodies after death? The resurrection is everything. Did you know that? Do you believe that? Jesus says that He is the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believes in Him even though he dies will live. What does that mean? How can that be?

To be continued....

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