Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Fast

Today I am starting a fast. Not the normal “no food, no alcohol, no sugar, no (fill in the blank)” but a “no criticism” fast. I am going to take a break from reading, listening to, watching, and perhaps more importantly, engaging in anything of a critical nature about another person. Now I am not talking about the normal feelings of anger and disappointment that naturally arise if privy to some deplorable act of wanton evil or hatred but I plan to be intentional regarding my exposure to the news as well. 

What is fueling this withdrawal? Is it that I have grown so weary, indignant, and even jaded by the streams, no rivers, of hate and vitriol that flow, almost uncontrollably, from every news outlet, fake or legit? Well, that is certainly part of it. However, what really makes me sick, right now at least, is me. I am making myself weary, bothered, indignant, and jaded. Perhaps it is that I have been swept up by that delicious tide of judgment-fueled discontent that can feel, at times, quite pleasurable. It’s actually alarming to think that it can often be pleasurable to go on a rant that is so ridiculously self-righteous, so ludricously sanctimonious that, if I saw what I was thinking in print or, even worse, watched myself uttering these things as some talking head on social media or a news show, I would be shocked. Shocked! The irony of it all is that I have become one of those people that catalyzes my own ranting! Helpless, I tell you. Just plain helpless. Well, not exactly, but it sometimes feels that way.

It even goes deeper, actually. I have recently appalled myself at just how unrestrained and indulgent I can be when in most areas of my life I exhibit a fairly good level of self-discipline. Not about to catalogue the good, the bad, and the ugly, as it's none of anyone else’s business (for the most part) but the fact is that I have come face-to-face with the hideous figure of myself as a person who has such a vast array of short-comings in so many fundamental areas that it is actually silly for me to criticize someone else for, well, just about anything. I am dropping the stones and determined to start with the figure staring back at me from the mirror and not concern myself with anyone or anything else in this regard. This is not meant to be some overly self-indulgent exercise in the sense that I am simply sinking deeper into the muck that is me as if more "Lake Johnny" swims are not potentially problematic since that water can be both choppy and murky. Rather, the goal is that by avoiding expending as little energy as possible on the failings, perceived or otherwise, of other people and instead bringing to bear whatever strength, resolve, wherewithal, and effort I have into dealing with my own putrid lack of charity and self-control in certain areas, I hope, and actually think it will, result in me becoming a more pleasant, agreeable, and helpful person. At least that’s my desire. Pray for me, please. I need it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Nearness to God

There are seasons in life when we, or those close to us, experience waves of affliction or crushing circumstances that are like a relentless series of hammer blows. A few days ago I prayed with a gentle-spirited fellow in his golden years who had recovered from an inexplicable incident of cardiac arrest that has robbed him, at least for the time being, of the proper function of his vocal cords that has rendered his voice as hoarse and gravelly. Though not complaining or resentful, he expressed a sense of confusion as to why he was not able to engage in one of his life’s loves, which was to sing in his church's choir. He asked, “Is God mad at me?" I encouraged him with the thought that this is no indication of the Lord’s displeasure with him. The fact is that for the person in relationship with God through faith in Christ there is nothing he can do to make God love him more or less. On the cross Jesus did that which grants a person the favor of God that cannot be earned but only appropriated through genuine and authentic faith that results in change that manifests in a life ordered in reference to God’s plan for living. His circumstances are quite simply symptomatic of a world, and all in it, that is subject to a systemic brokenness that resulted from the rebellion of our ancestors long ago that has, to a certain extent, defaced the original creation and the image of God in man. The fabric of the cosmos has been broken such that we are no longer in the perfect environment tending the perfect garden but actually now dwelling in bodies that are subject to decay and vulnerable to all sorts of threats, from within and from without. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most vulnerable thing in the world.” We had wonderful fellowship and words of consequence were exchanged. Onward and upward to victorious living, right?

Well, within an hour this man experienced yet another incident of cardiac arrest and was whisked away to the hospital in an ambulance, with his son at his side. His utter bewilderment and despondency was broadcast on his bruised and battered countenance when I arrived at the hospital just an hour later. What was I to say now? What words did he desperately need to hear? Were words what he needed? Perhaps lob Romans 8:28 and Micah 7:7-8 (please read, meditate upon and take these passages to heart) in the hope that the thoughts would serve to summarily dislodge his doubt, perplexity, fear and natural inclination toward resentment? Of course, words are to be gently, lovingly and carefully uttered at these moments but what is truly and desperately needed is the presence of God with and within a person. The psalmist spoke of such when he wrote, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds (Psalms 73:26, 28 NIV).” It is also important and helpful to note that God, in His loving and merciful involvement with and over people, is the one who initiates the contact and nearness to Him and that it is very often through those in whom He dwells. For the Christian, the magnitude of what emerges from and attaches to the truth that a person is in a sense the repository of the very presence of God (1 Cor. 6:19, “temple of the Holy Spirit") cannot be overstated and should actually catalyze a whole host of responses - from joy to inspiration to a discernible call to duty. One of the key responses for me to take ownership of is to be willing to engage in the ministry of presence with those who are wounded, hurting, perplexed, discouraged, and questioning whether God even exists or, if He does, whether or not He cares about them. It is the case, for which the Bible clearly testifies, that often the Lord manifests His own presence through the calm, loving, and steadfast presence of those who are His.

With that acknowledged, there are times when the Lord will prompt a thought to be shared that is helpful to both the one speaking and the receptor. What the Lord laid on my heart to convey to the injured fellow was the thought that he should recognize and reflect upon elements of his latest challenge that seemed fine-tuned for him to make it through - his neighbor right beside him when he fell; a nurse, who had just joined the gym, was a mere few feet away from him and was then able to administer the first aid that undoubtedly resuscitated and kept him alive until the paramedics arrived. This is indicative of God having a plan and purpose for him that will be even more profound than singing in the choir, as wonderful as that can be. His new choir loft has been the gym where he has inspired members and staff alike with his seemingly indefatigable and resolute spirit. Even in his distress he was singing. Let me explain. As I prepared to leave the facility to head to the hospital I had a brief conversation with a shaken staff member who up to this point has perhaps not been introduced to or familiar with the concept of a personal God who desires to be involved in someone’s life. When recounting that it just so happened that this exceedingly competent nurse was right there and almost assuredly saved the man’s life, this precious person breathed a sigh of relief looked up and said, “Thank you!” I immediately seized on the person’s own words and gently asked, through a smile, “Thank who?” Immediately there was a smile, the sort of which indicates an understanding of the point I was gently telegraphing and we had a pleasant, though wordless, moment. This was how the Lord was giving voice to a man laying on the ground with his heart stopped and his face bloodied. A voice was bellowing from the prone. It is often God’s way. I was able to share this with the man as he sat in his hospital gown and he quietly was taking in the notion that his circumstance could very possibly be that which ignites an eternally significant faith response in someone in whom there was previously no spark. During a visit the next day we even discussed how his choir loft for the next week or so will be his hospital room and the audience will be the nurses, doctors, specialists, and visitors with whom he will interface. He will sing a song of deliverance, faith and joy in the midst of a brand new defibrillator residing in his chest cavity and a slightly new shape to his pretty, little nose thanks to the plastic surgeon. It is certainly not easy to establish a new normal on the heels of the disruption of calamity that perhaps can lower or abate what were previous capacities to engage and enjoy certain aspects of life. However, among the many profound promises Jesus made was that He came in order that we would be both liberated (John 8:32,36) and able to experience life in all dimensions at its fullest (John 10:10). Of course, viewing life through the lens of the message of and about Jesus Christ is that which offers clarity to what is truly freedom and abundance. Suffice it to say that the gospel teaches and invites us to understand that true abundance and freedom often take shapes and forms that differ, sometimes nuanced and sometimes radically, from what our natural eyes and inclinations expect. That is a discussion for another time.

So back to the words of Psalm 73:28, "But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge…” How does this speak to the manner in which my friend will best walk through what appears to be his new “compromised” self—no singing; routine appointments to check on his new cyborg body with a battery operated device standing by to shock his heart should it encounter another arrhythmia? What of the rest of us who feel as if we have been and continue to be under siege in so many areas of life? Each and every person, if she lives long enough, will experience what looks and feels like a constant frontal assault by a regiment of highly trained, highly-motivated special forces ninjas bent on our total destruction. Will the well timed and well-intentioned words of a friend provide the comfort and remedy necessary to get us through? Certainly they will be, as the above story illustrates, used by God to help and strengthen but ultimately that which is needed is closeness to God in a way that transcends mere human articulation. A somewhat limited and crude, in a manner of speaking, analogy that is nonetheless pleasantly helpful is how our irrepressible French bulldog, Jiggy, is always situating herself in contact with my wife or another of us in the house. When she lies down she wants some part of her body to be in contact with some part of yours and it almost always has nothing to do with her wanting you to talk to her. It’s not that you can speak words that will then have everything make perfect sense to her but simply that she is so close to you that she can feel you. Just feeling you comforts and blesses this little, simple-minded creature. This underscores how it is vital for the Christian to take to heart and thus take measures to simply be near to God. This is key to enduring the calamities that just do not make sense. Just as Jiggy draws near to me or Jill just to be close to us despite the fact that we cannot really speak the words that answer every question and spell out exactly how things are or will go, so should we draw near to God and allow the closeness to Him to position us to draw strength from His warming and powerful presence. It is then that such proximity leads to us eventually hearing or sensing something that is comforting and instructive in terms of what to do or where to go next, which comes in the form of what is written in the Bible, the words of a loved one, or the whisper of that still, small voice in the core of your soul to which only He can reach and touch. Indeed, in the closeness to God there are moments when His voice will resonate deep within and provide the sort of peace and comfort that comes from no one or nothing else. Such is representative of the goodness and kindness offered to anyone who will be open to and seek after Him.

For those yet to have such an experience and who doubt that it is possible or even rational to think this way, my gentle invitation and challenge is to first doubt your doubts about the existence of a loving God who has not only a keen awareness of who you are but a desire to be involved in and through your life—the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly times and circumstances we all inevitably face. Only through being connected to God can a person truly flourish in the face of the interminable challenges that surely blast away at us and those we most love. Believe that the Intelligence that created a perfectly ordered universe containing thinking, loving people who are free to choose how they live actually has you on His mind, desires to be in an intimate, personal relationship with you and, by taking the form of a man, made this possible. That is your first step but know that He has already taken the initial step toward you. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Brush Strokes

Conversations and dialogue with loved ones who are resistant to the gospel should be like the gentle brush strokes on a painting. Instead of rigid and hard points like a hammer and nails building the framework of a house they are the touches forming a picture that use different tones, shading, and color. The hope is to effectively paint a picture, if you will, of a worldview that most effectively aligns with and accounts for historical narrative and is relevant to human experience on a personal and communal level. This often and most profoundly takes shape not through the presentation of the faith propositions pertaining to the gospel but in the manner in which the follower of Christ lives life and faces various circumstances alongside and in front of those whom she is trying to reach. A life that is Christ-centered and bearing the fruit of the transformation that is set in motion by what the Scriptures refer to as the “new birth” appropriated by genuine and authentic faith in Jesus and applied by and manifesting in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is the most effective tool in the effort to draw someone into the movement that is following Christ. This is due in part to the fact that most people want or need to see how such faith is contextualized to and takes shape in real world experience. In other words, “What difference does it make whether or not I believe in the spectacular truth claims of and about Jesus Christ?” In no way should this be taken to mean that accurately and passionately proclaiming the gospel is optional or of lesser importance than living in an exemplary manner. Quite to the contrary, the message of salvation in the name of Jesus Christ is not something that is arrived upon intuitively and, due to its inherent exclusivity and the challenges to embrace its supernatural elements, is actually provocative to the point of offensive to what many consider to be modern sensibilities (1 Cor. 1:18). Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of those around us are simply not familiar with precisely who Jesus claimed to be, what he claimed he came to do, and why, as Christians maintain, this has an inescapable bearing on each and every human being on planet earth. This underscores the vital nature of engaging those around us with the essential and non-negotiable aspects of the gospel message (Rom. 10:14-17), which requires a willingness to have conversations whereby we can present and make a defense for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). Perhaps it is on this point that the analogy of constructing a house is appropriate in that it mandates a systematic plan and approach whereby one can, after completing the building, invite another to make the decision to move into and then live in that house. Incidentally, this is akin to the idea that the New Testament presents of faith as far more than mere intellectual assent but something into which a person is willing, in a manner of speaking, to throw herself into and then live.

With that said it is my ongoing experience that reaching those most dear to and with whom I do life most closely more resembles the deft, subtle, and even nuanced touches of a painting than it does a building project. I have had the privilege of observing my wife apply a patient and yet persistent diligence to her paintings that can perhaps be characterized as an exercise in measured and properly restrained passion for the work. She takes her time carefully sketching out the figures that serve to underly the presentation and then goes about mixing and applying the proper colors, tones, and shading, which often requires gentle adjustments and reformulations of that which ultimately goes from pallet to canvas. The tempo and pace of the work may vary and it is not without some frustrations and the occasional setback but what remains steadfast is her passion for what the finished work will be and the best way for that to become reality is patience, focus, calmness, vision, and the gentle strokes of a soft brush. So it should be that as we endeavor to share our faith in Jesus Christ with those for whom we have a crushing burden that we embrace the vital nature of learning how to leverage and then enable the passion for the effort that starts with and emanates from a steadfast faith in and approach to engaging life in all dimensions with reference to the Lord. This, in turn, manifests in and enables us to apply and experience the coalescing of the necessary patience, focus, tranquility, and vision to the work. There will be times when the effort seems futile and almost unbearably frustrating as the application of colors and tones just do not seem to be taking the proper shape. These are the moments that we must remind ourselves that it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit upon and within our loved one that is going to be what enables him to experience the new birth and truly flourish as God’s adopted child and image-bearer. We are simply doing our part and playing our role in the process of God’s grand redemptive plan for the human race and it is a marvel that he is not only pursuing others through us but in the process making us more like his Son.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Urgency, not Complacency

Many of us have had conversations with friends or family, churched or unchurched, over matters of faith during which the issue emerges of how to account for those throughout history, including the present, who have not been nor ever will be reached by another person with the message of faith in the God of the Bible. Of course, since Jesus’ time on earth the message proclaimed by Christians is that it is only through genuine and authentic faith in him as the one whom God the Father sent to act as our substitute (2 Cor. 5:21, 8:9) that a person is reconciled to God and becomes an adopted and beloved child to him. So, what of those around the world in the generation contemporary to and immediately following the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ? What of the vast numbers of people scattered around the globe that were born, lived and died in the first few centuries post those events that were never reached by missionaries with this message? What of those this very moment that have no awareness of the truth claims of and about Jesus Christ? Does this apply only to those of other or absolutely no faith tradition in the sense that their insufficient exposure constitutes a level of ignorance that is more accounted for, understandable and perhaps even excusable than those living in places that have a discernible Christian presence such as in the West?

What of those in our midst that have breathed the air of a culture that has had and continues to have some sort of Christian influence in the form of church buildings, neighbors and even those in public discourse who are outspoken in regard to faith matters? Are they to be viewed as more culpable than someone living in a remote world outpost, tribe or village that has never heard a Joel Osteen sound bite, a recording artist thanking Jesus for her Grammy, watched an NFL star pointing to the sky and pounding his chest after powering his way into the end zone or a political candidate relating her affinity for the Bible? What criteria should be applied to how “safe” someone is in regard to exposure, or lack thereof, to the plain gospel message? It is arguable that many in our own life spheres have never been engaged with the gospel in a manner that comprehensively and adroitly harmonizes passion and rationale. What of the skeptic who might be aware of basic faith assumptions posited by Christians yet was raised in a home that was either casual about or even hostile toward anything appearing to have even a hint of supernaturalism within its foundations? It is contended by Christians, including myself, that Christianity provides the most reasonable explanation for how the world is in all of its dimensions—existentially, personally, socio-culturally, morally and experientially. Philosophers use the term abduction to refer to an argument form that trades on giving the best explanation for a state of affairs, given the appropriate criteria, which is often called "the inference to the best explanation.”[1] It appears to me that the Christian worldview most accords with the way things are as it best meets the most fundamental challenges that invariably besiege any comprehensive truth claim, which are how such measures up in terms of logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and experiential relevance. What of our neighbors who live, work and/or recreate alongside of us and even within sight of our churches, billboards, and ministries, yet have never sat down with an informed and biblically literate Christian to explore matters associated with ultimate authority, transcendent and absolute truth, the viability and veracity of the Bible as an historical document and the truth claims of and about Jesus Christ? Is their proximity to Christians and the message of the gospel rendering them more responsible than those less exposed to such? 

This can quickly turn into a complex and multi-dimensional issue that engages the various facets of theology: biblical, systematic, historical and philosophical. It is vital for the Christian to consider biblical theology as the fertile soil from which the other disciplines are cultivated and emerge, so we must always ask, “What does the Bible say?” In light of the clear mandate of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8) and the Holy Spirit through Paul (Rom. 10:9-17; 2 Cor. 5:18-20) Christians must diligently and relentlessly engage others with the truth claims of and about Jesus Christ in a manner that serves as an invitation for them to join the movement as his followers. This requires not only proclamation of the gospel such that the truths are linked to the heart and life of the hearer but doing life in front and alongside of a person—often referred to as incarnational apologetics—in a way whereby she sees what Christianity looks, smells, sounds and even feels like in practical rather than merely conceptual terms. Living out and proclaiming the gospel in word and deed (1 John 3:18) all over the world in every life sphere that she inhabits should be the default for every follower of Christ. In fact, it is appropriate to view one’s “habitat,” as it were, as a strategic placement by the Lord in order for her to be salt and light such that others become worshipers as part of the movement that is Christianity (Matt. 5:13-16). The biblical narrative is so abundantly clear on this point that belaboring the issue is unnecessary. However, the original question still nags, doesn’t it? What of those, whether an “unreached people group,” as defined by evangelical missiologists, or those in our midst who have never been truly engaged with the gospel message? Is there a threshold for exposure to the truth claims of and about Jesus that determines a person’s accountability and need to specifically confess and follow after Jesus by name? 

Back to the Bible! The New Testament is consistent and crystal clear that it is only through faith in Jesus Christ as savior that one is in relationship with God and assured of both a new ultimate and everlasting destination in his kingdom and a new life on earth as one flourishing in all dimensions (John 1:12, 3:16, 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 3:21-26, 10:9-10). The exclusivity of the gospel as the only means by which a person becomes connected to God and experiences intimate relationship with him is the central theme of the New Testament. It is important to note that the requisite faith as referenced in the biblical narrative goes far beyond mere intellectual assent or cognitive movement. The Greek words for “believe” are much stronger than the English words as they indicate synonyms such as surrender, commit, trust—an action whereby one puts himself into what he believes or holds true. Thus it is that faith in Jesus Christ that coheres with the biblically grounded truth claims of and about him should necessarily bring about ongoing transformation in the way one approaches all areas of life. The New Testament prominently features the call and challenge of the gospel as the provocation to believe in (not merely that) Jesus Christ is:

the one in whom a person must believe in order to experience the new birth leading to eternal life (John 3:3,16)
the light of the world and bread of life—the ultimate means of clarity and spiritual nourishment, respectively (John 6:35, 8:12)
the exclusive means of connection to God the Father (John 14:6)
the good shepherd and the only gate through whom one enters into salvation (John 10:9-11)
the only name by which humanity is saved (Acts 4:12)

The fact is that the New Testament data points to and declares the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the means by which a person becomes not only connected to God but indwelt by him and thus experiences abundant life in all dimensions, now and for eternity. The attempt to advance a contrary notion must be undertaken more on the basis of theological deduction as opposed to purely exegetical induction, which opens the door to heterodoxy. Still, the issue pertaining to the disposition of those in the world who never hear the message is, on certain levels, puzzling and even troubling. For the submitted follower of Jesus Christ this will inevitably manifest in a burden for those in our life spheres and around the globe who are not aware of or privy to the gospel. The assertion that this is a non-negotiable and rudimentary aspect of being a Christian is not difficult to defend, though it is readily admitted that the specifics of how this universal tasking takes shape in the life of each follower varies. Of course, not all Christians are called into the field as vocational missionaries but all are to be living, breathing and willing testaments to that which ultimately aligns with truth. On a collective basis the church should approach the call to evangelism with a relentless fervor and a sense of ferocity all the while taking to heart that, as John Piper says, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man."[2] It is because of our view of God as ultimate that we should be about the business of drawing people into the movement as worshipers and followers of Jesus Christ, which is all to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:12,14).

With that said, the fact remains that the earnest, intentional and strategic efforts to reach all people groups with the message of Jesus Christ have yet to be fully consummated. The Joshua Project, an organization that monitors and publishes data pertaining to the propagation of the gospel around the globe, estimates that of the world’s 16,319 people groups 6,571 remain unreached as defined by lacking enough followers of Christ and resources to evangelize their own people.[3] A fundamental threshold used to classify a people group as unreached is one wherein there are less than 2% of the collective that would be considered evangelical. Note that this translates to almost 3.1 billion people, which is more than 42% of the world’s population. This is a staggering number, the sheer magnitude of which is almost mind-boggling. Are almost half of the people on planet earth relegated and destined to an eternal existence apart from God having never been engaged with the truth of Jesus Christ? Does the Bible, especially the New Testament, provide any means by which a person not reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ can still turn to God in faith and repentance on the basis of natural revelation such that she is granted grace? As mentioned above, the clear testament we have and that to which we grant ultimate authority on all matters is the Bible as the inspired word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). With that in view it is helpful to give heed to the axiom that states, “Where the Scriptures are silent, it is unwise for us to make definitive pronouncements.”[4] This can go both ways, of course, and some consider it prudent to assume a posture of “humble agnosticism” in regard to how God might deal with those who, despite the most ardent efforts of Christians that are genuinely resolute and perhaps even desperate to reach them, heretofore remain unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ. For instance, Harold Netlund articulates a position that theologians such as John Stott and Millard Erickson find to be worthy of consideration when he writes: “It seems to me that the wisest response to this perplexing issue is to recognize that we cannot rule out the possibility that some who never hear the gospel might, nevertheless, through God’s grace, respond to what they know of God through general revelation and turn to him in faith for forgiveness. But to go beyond this and to speculate about how many, if any, are saved this way is to move beyond what the Scriptures allow.”[5]

The above is certainly an appealing line of reasoning but the fact remains that there is no truly definitive New Testament basis for which to apply dogma to this position. What is beyond dispute is that Christians are to follow the clear edicts and example of Jesus and the New Testament writers by inviting all people to have an encounter with and become a follower of Christ, which necessarily precludes an approach to the task of making disciples that is marked by even a shred of apathy, complacency or passivity. In the final analysis it appears to be the case that assuming a posture of “humble agnosticism” in regard to the specific question posed in no way, shape or form abrogates the Christian’s responsibility to apply and maintain a sense of diligence bordering on urgency to make those around us and throughout planet earth aware of the truth claims of and about Jesus that emerge from the biblical narrative, which extends to them and all dimensions of living, in the hopes that they will become his followers and worshipers. Quite simply, it is the mission, duty, privilege, honor and joy of each and every Christian to participate in what God the Father is doing to reconcile man to himself through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011) 7341. Kindle.
[2] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 11.
[3] Joshua Project, “Global Statistics,” last modified September 5, 2015, accessed March 22, 2016,
[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 500.
[5] Harold A. Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 323.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Living like a human is easy

I had the privilege of spending the day with my daughter today. Well, technically she is my daughter-in-law but I find that designation to be way too formal as it seems to say, “By law I have to consider her to be my daughter, but…” This young woman is of such high caliber in every respect that any father of a son would take measures to have her join the clan. We actually flew to another hemisphere to whisk her away and bring her back to our shores, so we walked the talk on that one. Perhaps a bit bias? Absolutely, positively and not backing down one bit! Yes, she has Van der Merwe blood coursing through her veins, but now she has Armstrong blood coursing through her heart as well. On the heels of a wonderful daddy-daughter date going to the mall, visiting my son (her husband) at his office, and then walking around a quaint city block for some Starbucks coffee and a veggie wrap before dropping anchor at a fine public library for some studying and writing, one might consider this to be some self-centered and even shameless gloating. Quite to the contrary, I assure you. 

In the time we strolled around the city and in the car between our various stops we had invigorating and energetic conversations about life and faith. In the normal course of our chat my daughter made remarks that I found to be not only instructive, but challenging and inspiring. The thoughts she conveyed are not only worth knowing, pondering, and practicing, but are worth sharing with others as well and that is precisely what I am doing.

The first emerged while we were discussing how difficult it often is to walk through the days and weeks living up to the standards of the faith in regard to conduct, mindset, and heart attitude. During the conversation she said, “It is so easy to just live as a human instead of trying to be like Jesus. We often take the easy way out instead of trying to do the hard work of acting like Jesus did when he faced people and things in life.” Though not an entirely new and novel idea it nonetheless brilliantly boils down what is the essence of being a Christian. This young woman understands and has succinctly articulated the fact that Christianity is a movement whereby those who follow Jesus intentionally engage life in all its dimensions by trying to act like him and do so on the basis that they believe he rose from the dead and thus validated all his truth claims. She also understands that it is not easy to do that every day and in every way. It is difficult to employ a consistent psychology of deprivation in regard to certain indulgences whether they be physical, emotional, relational, or material. As a follower of Jesus Christ one is called to relinquish her rights to many things that, in her humanity, are natural and powerful inclinations. For instance, how easy is it to withhold forgiveness and mercy from those who have wronged you in some way? For the human it is all too easy and the path of least resistance because it is one of the default postures due to how humans are wired to cling to resentment and hold grudges. However, followers of Jesus Christ are called to “...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV).” It goes without saying that this takes intent and consistent effort. However, it is also worth pointing out that Christians refer to this as “grace-driven” effort in the sense that one’s ability to put the list into practice is not based solely on one’s intense striving to do so, but through the movement of God the Holy Spirit within her to enable such to occur.

As an illustration of her observation that it is far easier to just live as a human as opposed to being like Jesus, she describes the experience of leaving South Africa to come to the U.S. She said that it is natural to begin adapting to and assimilating with the various socio-cultural aspects, including linguistics, basic customs, and other elements. She further remarked that it would be harder to live in the U.S. if a person were determined to speak Afrikaans, her native tongue, and approach all aspects of society and culture from the standpoint and mindset of a South African. There must be the intent to adapt and blend in with things to a certain degree. This thought emerges from and coalesces somewhat with the earlier observation that we as Christians are in a sense foreigners and even exiles here on planet earth (“...and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Hebrews 11:13, ESV). The application here is that we must be careful to not take the easy way out by simply adapting to and assimilating with everything around us and thus become more like the world than like the one from heaven, which is our true home. Of course, it is important to point out that there is a sense that we are not to assume some sort of disengaged and dismissive posture toward those in the world around us such that we are not able to relate to and communicate with them. It is certainly the case that learning how to contextualize the message of Jesus Christ in a way that it is linked to the life and heart of the person hearing it is essential if we are to reach our communities with the message. And the primary way this occurs is by first unconditionally and relentlessly loving those among whom we live, work, and help. It is only then that one earns the right, if you will, to discuss and even advance one’s faith assumptions as a set of propositions for discussion and consideration.

With that said, the lesson to be applied from my daughter’s analogy is that, with regard to adapting to and assimilating with the world’s patterns in respect to many aspects of conduct, attitude, and mindset, Christians must be careful to struggle against and make war with the natural inclination to do so. Nothing extreme or radical here. Just an interesting and helpful perspective on the matter that is worth taking into consideration. Then again, just about everything my daughter says is worth noting and considering. Just sayin’...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Comfort in the Midst of Change

It is the case for all that life is at times hard and perplexing. Things change and sometimes this occurs suddenly like the onset of a violent storm emerging on the plains with little warning or an earthquake that seems to split the earth. For most the storm and earth shaking come by a phone call or the relay of a message from a loved one, business associate, financial advisor or physician. The disruption that naturally occurs not only can damage sensibilities but leave deep scars that manifest most heavily beneath the surface down into the heart as, once the dust has settled and the winds died down, one engages or even confronts what is now the "new normal.” It goes without saying that even the most seasoned, devoted, and faithful Christian experiences crises that stagger him to the point of bewilderment and despair rendering him in a state of desperation that can seem to persist. In these instances there arises the need for a remedy that transcends merely situational and circumstantial resolution but a means by which she can just come up for air and escape the bondage that is crushing anxiety and dread. In such moments, or even extended periods, it is helpful to take to heart the following chain of thoughts anchored to Jesus’ statement, “...Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Luke 21:33, NASB).”

The words recorded for us in the Bible can, by virtue of the fact that He spoke them, be counted on and trusted to not only endure but be practically applicable for all times and for all peoples. Thus the Scriptures provide a means by which we are able to engage life in all its dimensions as we embrace the promise that what God has pronounced and accurately recorded and preserved for us will outlast even heaven and earth. So, what words are needed in the context of seeking comfort in the midst of change?

"Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you,  for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10, NASB).”

He is with you. Do you believe this? Do not, like a bird constantly scanning space for threats, look around just waiting for the calamity that you “know” is about to crash into and lay siege to your life and/or your loved ones. He is already aware of the threats and since He is God (and all that entails) the fact is He can do something about it or, perhaps even more importantly, He can something about and to YOU. Like what? Perhaps turn me into an indestructible warrior able to vanquish every foe and conquer that which vexes me? Perhaps at certain times I just might be enabled to put on my Joshua, David, and Samson, but most often not. It is usually the case that what He does is enable me to endure and be shaped by these challenges. How? He will strengthen you. He will help you. Do you believe this? Note that He says, “surely” He will do these things. He will uphold you. Do you believe this? Note that He again says, “surely.” Note also the mention of His “righteous right hand,” which, in the broader context of Scripture, is a reference to one endowed with the authority and power to accomplish what it is he or she wants done. This is ultimately inferred upon Jesus as the One seated at the “right hand of power” (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:69), which can be taken as follows:

A Christian is one who, through grace, is connected to God by the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. Because of this a Christian is in relationship to God the Father as a child (Romans 8:15-16, Galatians 4:6) and to God the Son as a brother/sister (Hebrews 2:11, Romans 8:17). Add God the Holy Spirit dwelling within this person and it is the case that God has some sort of comprehensive, inside-out grip on her.

Why is it that we often lose sight of or the feel for this? We are frail people still occupying the groaning tents (2 Corinthians 5:4) that, due to man’s rebellion and fall, are subject to the weaknesses that encompass and sometimes engulf a person’s mind, will, and emotions as they also do her body. In light of this one can find comfort and strength by meditating upon and then praying in accordance with that which flows from the following two passages: 

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah (Psalm 46:1-3, NASB)."

A clear case of “cause and effect” emerges in these verses. If we truly believe that God is our place of protection, as it were, and the very source of strength and help, we are able to experience and endure the seasons whereby the very landscape of our lives changes without being crippled by anxiety and dread. Are the changes outside of God’s sovereignty? Of course not! However, the most calming aspect is not simply that He is over all things but that my understanding of and embracing the essence of the gospel - He loves and cares about me even if I cannot understand how my circumstances are part of and fit into His perfect plan. Another essential aspect of the gospel is that ultimately it is God, through the Holy Spirit, working in us to enable us to even have this mindset and it is not just our intent and resolve, which are subject to our weaknesses. 

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit (Jeremiah 17:7-8, NASB)."

Note how the thought emerges that it is the Lord as the object of our faith and not just how able we are to employ trust that results in us having fruitful lives even in the midst of broken, disrupted, drought-stricken seasons. It is important to bear in mind that this should in no way lead to a sense of complacency or passivity in regard to the life of a Christian. To the contrary, the preceding thoughts should serve to provoke us to take measures to order all dimensions of our lives in accordance with His ways and this requires what can be considered as an "active submission.” In other words, we are to be intentional in regard to the lens through which we view our life and circumstances, what voices we listen to, and that we stand and do life shoulder-to-shoulder with those doing the same.