19 May 2015

made and being made

Several years ago Loretta Lynn was known for singing Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die. While it appears as a simple country song, the message below the surface is quite compelling. It speaks to the human condition that we often want the rewards without enduring the work or suffering. There are many aspects of life – especially the spiritual journey – that can be described with this sentiment.

Recently I had a friend who was being challenged greatly through his work. One particular day was incredibly difficult, and his leadership was being put to the test. Seeking to encourage him I said, "Hang in there. These are the days that make you."

Probably he needed to hear that, although in that particular moment he might not have wanted to hear it. This is because it is sometimes difficult to hear this type of encouragement in the midst of struggle. But it is also because there is an internal struggle within us that We all want to be Made, but we don't want the process of Being Made. Just like the man who wishes himself to be physically built, but who refuses to train and exercise because it is too hard, it is commonplace for us to desire strong character without ever having to be challenged in such a way that grows that character. My friend was going to be stronger if he strove to get through that particular day, but he wasn't enjoying the process of growing in his leadership character.

It is not that we must enjoy the difficult experiences that make us grow – in fact, it is often the most painful moments that grow us the most. Rather, it is for us to embrace the challenges with the presence of the Spirit that will shape us into the person God desires.

This is the growth of character, and it is becoming lost on a generation of Christians who too often shrink at the first moments of trial. Here we have an example of social culture overriding church culture, where the message of the cross is relegated to the back while we take the more convenient route of instant gratification. If believers no longer wish to engage the difficult days then how will we develop as people of the gospel? Without working through the moments that allow us to be shaped by the Spirit, how will we carry the truth that is able to transform the world because it has been forged by the presence of Christ Jesus in our lives?

Instantaneous character development doesn't happen. It isn't a thing. We might wish that we could swing through some drive-thru on the way home and pick up a little bit of character from the value menu, still making it in time for our favorite show, but it simply doesn't happen like that. This is one way in which we die so that we might participate in heaven. It is possible. In fact, it is what God desires from us, as he has given us the ability to embrace a life more abundant. To be made we must endure the process of being made, often referred to as sanctification ... if we're doing it right.

09 February 2015

glimmers of the missing jewel

I know of a woman who is quite skeptical of religion. She was facing a personal crisis when someone told her that they would be in prayer. She was thankful for this, and replied, "Kindness and empathy are my religion."

Of course, a worldview such as this is riddled with problems. But I am beginning to wonder if the modern church has much more to offer than this. The church isn't a threat to our culture. We have become good at creating warm spiritual experiences, but not encounters with the living God.

Every week churches are filled with men and women who are dealing with life – many ups and downs, successes and failures, highs and lows are dragged into a worship service, each looking for a context. If the writer of Ecclesiastes is so certain that God can make everything beautiful in its time, then the search for meaning is naturally found within us. To ignore this inner longing is to be unfulfilled and incomplete. Some will try to find this within good sentiment and happy thoughts, perhaps even in the beauty of nature. (Again, these are problematic statements that could each be examined on their own.)

But what is the current state of our modern worship? Has it become overly concerned with self and emotive experience? Are we looking for a spiritualized warmth rather than a transformative encounter with the Almighty? The words to our music says much, and so does the posture of our worshipers. Much of what we say and sing are about our place in the world, and our ability to be happy about ourselves because we attend a church service. Our posturing often looks more like we are a part of a social club than the body of Christ.

A. W. Tozer once said: "Now, worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We're organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but here's one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We are not cultivating the art of worship. It's the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it."

Elsewhere, on the same topic, he writes, "Now it is possible to have religious experience without Jesus Christ. It's not only possible to have religious experience, it's possible toe have worship without Jesus Christ."

These are serious statements – even more so by the fact that we are now experiencing the fruit of those realities within the church, and in the world that the church is supposed to be influencing. While visiting a local church recently for Sunday service I had to ask: What is different between this worship setting and the thinking, 'my religion is kindness and empathy?

If we are willing to take an honest look, we might be surprised to discover how much similarity between these two experiences there really is – not what ought to be, but what really is.

I do not wish to be overly critical of the church, and it is not my intention to throw stones at the many people who are trying to be sincere in their faith and worship. There is far too much of that going on, especially in the blogosphere ... and by people who have no intention of helping the church improve. I say all of this because I am passionate about the church and its worship before God. I want to be a person who challenges the body of Christ to become more devoted to a transformative experience in the presence of the divine. I wish to see God's Spirit give new birth to men and women who approach him with great expectations of his power.

But this will never happen if we keep God sitting next to us as a friendly figure who shows us kindness and empathy. He must also be the transcendent Maker of Heaven and Earth that shakes the world by his very presence. In our communion with him we must gaze upon him in awestruck wonder, never falling for the sin of becoming overly familiar with his intense holiness. The Bible has much to say about God being unapproachable that we dare not think that we do him any favors by showing up to sing a few songs and toss in a few dollars. The cost of our communion is in the blood of Christ, and that can never be reduced to a warm and fuzzy spiritual experience without damage being done to the faith that is supposed to be transforming us.

Simply, this is a statement of concern for the current state of the church. I believe that we can be doing better – all of us, even the ones that are getting it right. But to consider that our churches have now put together some of the most artistically advanced worship experiences in the history of the world and still exist with such little impact on our culture, might make us begin to think that the quality of our content is far behind the quality of our delivery.

21 January 2015

discipleship and the experience of god

A friend of mine serves as a military chaplain, and has found himself in some harrowing situations as a minister of the gospel. Having surveyed the eyes of young men and women, many the furthest they've ever been from home, he concluded about his work: My mission is to prepare men and women to die. Some might say that is rather stark but, in a very real sense, there is truth in his words. I wondered how true that it is for any who would work in the field of ministry. Then, as I am prone to do, I thought about the inverse – what if it is our role to prepare men and women to live? Perhaps we will uncover other aspects of our role by examining from that direction.

These two assertions demonstrate two real pieces of Christian mission. The whole, however, must be located within the context of discipleship – Great Commission stuff, making disciples of all nations. One of the challenges this has presented to the church throughout the years is defining discipleship – what parameters are contained, and what work does it entail? The two perspectives listed above – that we prepare people to die, that we prepare people to live – are simply aspects of a larger story and mission. Discipleship is primarily about preparing men and women for an experience of God, and this is an important reality for the church to consider.

Scripture has many eschatological metaphors and images, but only two fates for humanity regardless: some will be granted eternal life and some will face eternal destruction. It's that simple, and repeatedly so. But the end of all things is centered around the return of Christ and the coming of God to his creation – the restoration of heaven and earth to what it was always supposed to be. So, we can rightly say that the world is heading towards an experience of God. Which then means that the work of discipleship is to prepare men and women for an experience of God.

If we take the exodus event seriously, then we ought to notice that what happens is because of a direct encounter with the divine presence. "On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD" (Exodus 12:12). Although it is often casually commonplace to think that the Passover was the moment when some sort of angel-of-death goes through Egypt, but the biblical account knows no such entity. In reality, it is the presence of God himself that goes through the land – holiness meeting with unholiness, bringing destruction on that which is impure (at least, in a limited sense to the firstborn in this instance). The same presence which destroyed evil brings release to the children of God – if they have the blood over their homes.

The same theme runs throughout Scripture, and is true of our lives as well. We are all heading towards an experience of God which will either destroy us or give us life. This should give shape to the work of discipleship if the church is to be serious about preparing men and women for an experience of God. There are two levels at which this works:

First, discipleship is about making Christ known. When speaking of Jesus it is necessary to give a complete picture. This means that we must include the parts that are difficult to explain, that are hard to live with, and which are almost offensive. Although every culture would seek to wish certain aspects of Jesus away, we must encounter him as he is found in the Gospels, despite our own desires and sensitivities. He speaks not only of love and forgiveness, but of judgment and consequence. He comes with a challenge and a message that is life-giving, and life-demanding at the same time. We cannot make disciples of Jesus if we do not present the Jesus of the Gospels. The commitment of faith is the first step in following Christ.

Second, discipleship is about moving individuals towards Christlikeness. Every person exists in relationship to the Cross of Christ, and the main objective of discipleship is to move individuals closer to the cross. I doubt that an adequate definition of discipleship can be any more precise than that. This will allow for grace and salvation to work together as well, for what may be a significant move for one person might not be a fruitful step for another.

I once spoke with a woman who worked with at-risk youth, spending a great amount of time with girls who were in poor socio-economic and familial situations. Having built up a relationship with one particular girl for some time, the youth worker challenged her on some promiscuous activity. After some time went by, the girl returned and said that, because of her relationship with Jesus, she had decided that she would only have sex with one person, if they were truly in love. Although many would think that this wasn't much of a commitment, for her it was a breakthrough in her spiritual journey. And discipleship happened ... because of a commitment to Christ she moved towards Christlikeness.

This is the faith and fruit of discipleship – to know Christ and to be shaped into his presence with each new day. In this way we relive the exodus narrative with each life – being protected from destruction, delivered into a new freedom, and then shaped into the people of God. We will move through deserts and stop at mountains of God, growing and failing along the way. Before us is the promised land of a new heavens and earth, and the presence of Almighty God. To this end we make disciples of Jesus, the Lamb who makes the story possible.

06 December 2014

nativity: 8

Signs and Salvation.

One particular thread of this story takes its shape, as many stories do, a long time ago in a far and distant land. Although we cannot always go all the way to the very beginnings of this grand story, we do need to look back a long way in order to capture the true meaning of what has been passed on to us today. This piece calls us to step into the ancient city of Jerusalem – a long time before Christ was born.

Here we find the king of the southern nation of Judah, standing alone against the impending armies of Assyria. They had already poured over the nation's borders, but were yet unable to take the city of Jerusalem. Surrounding Zion, it stood there as a stronghold, kept by the promise of God that they would not be overcome by the foreign invaders. And there, in the middle of the city, alone in the palace, was one man – King Ahaz. This was his moment of decision, his pivotal stand in history. So far, he was floundering in the face of this crisis. He was not like his predecessor, Uzziah, who had stood firm in his kingship against the armies that would have destroyed Judah. Instead, Ahaz was presiding over a time of failure of faithfulness of God's people, and hope was struggling to stay alive.

As a second wave of invaders, with new resolve, came rushing across the border, the prophetic voice came to King Ahaz, assuring him that this conflict would not be decided by military might or political cleverness. This battle would rest upon the Lord's people to trust that he would accomplish what he had promised. We find this part of the story in Isaiah 7, where the prophet meets the king at the end of the Upper Pool, an aqueduct that was part of the survival plan for the impending siege on the city.

Those closest to the king wanted him to play politics, to make an alliance with those who were threatening the country – an appeasement. Even to the north, Israel and Ephraim had joined with the Assyrians, and the king's advisors told him that it was time to either join with them or die. Enter Isaiah, who emphatically reminds the king that this is not the path which Israel's God has made for his people. They are to find their security and salvation in him alone, not in their own military power or political gaming. The word of the Lord is that the surrounding nations are nothing more than smoldering stubs – their combined might would soon be stamped out. The issue is not one of politics, but of faith.

In his attempt to persuade Ahaz to do nothing (politically), Isaiah instructs him to ask the Lord for a sign – to look heavenward and see that God is indeed in this moment: Ask for his assurance, to know that the words of the prophet are true. But Ahaz will not do this, claiming that he will not put the Lord to the test. He hides behind religious-sounding language, appearing to understand the stories of Israel. His piety is a politician's show, and God calls him on this and provides a sign even in the face of Ahaz's failed trust. The sign is that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a special child (we have no reason to think that this prediction has anything other than 'natural' means of conception in mind). This child would be special, not because of his mother's circumstances, but because he will be the renewal of David's kingship in Israel – he will be (read on through Isaiah 9) known as Mighty God.

This child will be born into humble circumstances, sharing in the poverty of his people. But, he will rise to great prominence and power, and enact the dominion and dynasty of Israel's covenant and God's kingdom.

Unfortunately this sign does nothing for Ahaz, who continues on with his political gaming, all the way to disaster. He quickly discovered that some people simply will not be appeased, and some enemies are not to be trifled with. He grabs the tiger by the tail and pays the consequences. Nevertheless, God remained true to his word, and to the sign which he gave through Isaiah. He kept a remnant of his people and raised up other kings before Israel finally succumbed to destruction and exile, where they would remain for quite some time.

Into this story Matthew casts the hope for the people of God. He introduces a righteous man named Joseph, who was devout and upright and steadfast in the story of Israel – like his predecessor Ahaz. He was respected and well-known, and thrown into a story of disgrace and shame. Lying in bed that one night it the angel of the Lord who reminds him of the sign that was given to the people of God. Our very-familiar thought of virgin conception must have been overwhelming the first time he had to consider Mary's circumstance. In realizing that God's fulfillment of his promises is always greater than our expectation, Joseph remembers the significance of salvation that comes from this God-given sign, and the importance of trusting in the God who spoke it.

He embraces the story, and Matthew wishes for us to embrace the magnitude of what is happening. This is why he recalls the ancient words spoken by the Upper Pool in Jerusalem's time of distress – the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel (which means 'God with us').

This is more than a nice religious bumper sticker or kitschy holiday art pointing us to the interestingness of Jesus' birth. This is the long-awaited sign from heaven, given to a people in great distress and uncertainty, that God would be faithful to this promises – he will guide and guard his people. Centuries of reading Isaiah never quite expected this child to be divine (at least, not in this sense). But this is the work of God in the world doing incredibly more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

This child is Emmanuel. God with us. And this is how God came to be with us, breaking heaven into earth in a strange and powerful new way. This God with us enables us to approach the throne of God with great boldness, accepting the forgiveness of sins, and become children of God ourselves. The sign that has come has become the salvation of the world.

23 June 2014

of fads and harvest

There is a point in life where one is probably taken in to some sort of fad or trend - one which connects us to some larger culture around us.  For certain people, keeping up with trends is a way of life, something that they do naturally and as a part of their daily routine.  For others, fads are ridiculous and are to be avoided at all costs.  (Here is a catalog of fads found online)

I might suppose that most people aren't too caught up in fads and trends (at least, not consciously), but that every now and then something simultaneously catches our attention and a wider popularity.  And off we go.

Although I think technological gadgetry is quite magical and cool, and I am a self-diagnosed bibliophile, I can honestly say that I'm not really a trendy sort of a person.  I don't rush to the movies just because everyone else tells me to; as a rule, I ignore the "best sellers" that greet you in stacks at the front of the bookstore; and I am quite leery when it comes to trends within the church, mostly out of a conviction that marketing and gospel can quickly be at odds with one another.  So, I get a bit concerned when fads masquerade as spiritual moments and victories, all of which are (by their own devices) short-lived, leaving little impact in their wake.  The Christian entertainment industry seems to be the primary driver of these sorts of fads in our current culture, though pastors and other church leaders have certainly perpetuated the problem.

So, what am I saying?  Do I have a problem with The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind(s) etc?  Well, yes I do and no I do not.  It is not so much that I have a problem with Christian content being made into movies for either artistic or entertainment purposes, but these happen to be examples of Christian marketing outpacing the initial spiritual statement that was being made.  We poured out our collective souls during The Passion, made our marriages Fireproof, made our intellectual assertion that God Is Not Dead, and proved that Heaven Is for Real, all while telling everyone how they should not be Left Behind.  It seems that we have made quite the rounds in the Christian entertainment industry, yet very little (perhaps we might make the case that nothing) has changed as a result.

My point is that we have created these great marketing-based movements around a Christianized idea, which has relegated the core of the gospel to a fad.  And the gospel is no fad.  It is not something to be made hip for a while and then put away in some box of memories.  The gospel is dynamic and life-changing, and should be a foolishness that confounds the clever tricks of worldly wisdom.

I am confronted with one simple argument: Yes, but aren't we at least planting seeds?  What is the harm in placing the Christian message into the world?  To the latter, nothing - until it falls prey to the here-today-gone-tomorrowism of fads.  To the first question, aren't we setting the bar rather low for the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ?  It seems that there is a great amount of time, energy and resources given to the lowest-common-denominator of expectation here, and perhaps is the root of why our evangelicalism has become so shallow.  In other words, we do not have because we do not ask (Jas. 4:2), here applied to the dynamic and transformative power of God.  We do not truly experience God in our evangelicalism because we have not truly asked for his presence - we are aiming for the lowest level instead of living by faith.

Furthermore, I wonder about this notion of planting seeds, which again speaks to the lowest-common-demoniator of the gospel.  I fear that it has become commonplace for evangelicals to settle with planting seeds because we simply do not wish to do any more for the gospel than to throw money or sermons or books and film at our surrounding culture and call it a day.  This is the path of least resistance and least commitment, and we cover our lack of missional service with the spiritualized phrase of planting seeds.  Interestingly, Jesus told us that "the harvest is plentiful, but the  workers are few" (Mt. 9).  While we are supposed to be asking the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers to gather in the fields, we have instead decided that we needed to plant more seeds on top of the readied fields (because we know what our culture needs more than the Lord of the harvest).

Instead of seeing our cultural engagement as planting seeds, perhaps we should work at bringing in the prepared harvest.  There are many other spiritual and religious options that are not holding back from drawing people to themselves, and yet evangelicalism is so worried that this work is beyond what we can (or should) be doing.  This makes certain sense, if indeed we have surrendered our faith in the power of the gospel to transform.

In the end, this post is not a blanket dismissal of the church's engagement with culture that comes through the means of media.  I find that some of it is good and profitable for its various purposes, and there are many people who produce such things with sincere and humble hearts (and there are those who are simply making a profit for the sake of making a profit, which is exploiting Christian belief for monetary gain, but that can be addressed another time ... ).  My point is that we as a church ought to keep things in their rightful place, whether it is a piece of Christian entertainment, regardless of its value of edification, or our vocation as the people of God who hear his voice calling us to the fields ready for harvest.