Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Defining Spirit of Authentic Discipleship

“Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus’ cross falls across our lives in the form of failure, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one; when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems a hostile, menacing place – at those times we may cry out in anguish, “How could a loving God permit this to happen?” At such moments the seeds of distrust are sown. It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us… I can state unequivocally that childlike surrender in trust is the defining spirit of authentic discipleship. And I would add that the supreme need in most of our lives is often the most overlooked – namely for an uncompromising trust in the love of God. Furthermore, I would say that, while there are times when it is good to go to God as might a ragged beggar to the King of kings, it is vastly superior to approach God as a little child would approach his or her papa.”

- Brennan Manning, from Ruthless Trust

What You Appear To Believe

I was up reading before the rest of the house was awake this morning. I’m reading Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love (and I couldn’t possibly over recommend it). He was talking about the Law and referenced Romans 2:15:

“… they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them …”

The point Tchividjian was making was that “the law is a universal human reality. Conditionality is written into the fabric of every society and relationship because it is written into the fabric of every heart and mind.”

He slowly disrobes the Western ideal and ethic and reveals it to be nothing more than a legalistic screed that could be summed up simply as “Don’t mess up. There are no second chances.” Every time we turn around we are bombarded with another image, another “role model,” another standard we will never meet. We are sold the lie that a better body, a better car, a better house, or even a better wife will finally make us feel significant. It was this little snippet that Tchividjian wrote that really got me thinking, though:

“People themselves can represent the law to us (and us to them!). For example, a particularly beautiful or successful person next to whom we can’t help but feel inadequate. Or maybe a boss whose very presence makes us feel like we’re not working hard enough, no matter how many hours we put in. They are not the law, but that is how we perceive them.”

I realized as I was reading how much I fall prey to believing lies like that.

Everyone, believers and non-believers alike, knows the problem. We know that we don’t measure up. It’s a universal awareness. We all know that we’re class A failures, that despite our very own best efforts, we barely make it off the finish line before face planting … again and again and again and again. Our deepest insecurities and fears always live in these corners of the heart. We are not good. We do not do good. We cannot.

Everything up to here is true. We have correctly diagnosed the problem. We really are that broken and helpless. But the horrific nature of the lie that we’re sold makes us believe that we’re the only one. We’re terrified of being found out, of being fully known as a failure. So we hide. We bury our true selves beneath layer after layer of pretense and posing.

We start this as kids, telling other members of our recess playground community that yeah, of course we’ve done things that we know we haven’t. We lie simply because we are completely convinced that if we were to appear weak/inexperienced/uncool in that moment, it might somehow make our mask drop and we might be discovered as the losers we know we are. As we “mature,” nothing really changes much from that initial model of social transaction. We get a little bit more sophisticated with our methods, but the heart of the exchange is the same.

We all know that the masks and lies and misdirections we hide behind are false. No matter how many long years we’ve been wearing them, inside we still know it’s a costume. But we completely lack the ability to really believe that’s true of others. We know that our facades are fake, so it should stand to reason that the one the guy I work with throws up, or the one that the lady in my moms’ group shows, or the one that my friend wears every Sunday morning to church … it should make sense that theirs are artificial constructs also.

But in those moments of conspiracy, where we’re all putting our best foot forward, full of fear that we’ll be seen and known, we agree to believe each other. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that I don’t believe my mask is real. It doesn’t even matter that, at the heart of things, I don’t really believe my friend’s mask is real. It only matters that right here, right now, he appears to believe that his mask of constructed personality and identity and worth is very real. It also matters that his mask looks better than mine.

This is what we do to each other. And I participate in it almost every Sunday morning of the world, in the one place where real vulnerability should be safe.

Faking it is not a victimless crime.

Holding out for Grace

“At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

- Bono

Stop It!

I like thinking about grace and conditions. One of the things I love most about the gospel is that it doesn’t have any. You will search the Scriptures in vain for hoops that you have to jump through in order to be worthy of grace. Except for one hoop. That one hoop is “surrender”. I have to give up.

I don’t want to get into a discussion about what comes first, the surrender or the grace to surrender. I just want to focus for a moment on the idea of giving up itself. I think, as with most things that God thought up, I tend to want to add a lot of unnecessary mess to the equation.

There’s a hysterical Bob Newhart sketch where he plays a therapist dealing with a woman who can’t stop thinking about being buried alive in a box. (If you haven’t seen it, go watch it before I ruin the punchline.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw)

Everyone back? Newhart’s delivery is always brilliant, but this bit is both hysterical and poignant for me. I don’t for a moment believe that all people who need therapy should employ his methods, but I did think of this sketch yesterday when I was talking to a friend over tea.

I think I add a lot of requirements to surrender. In doing so, I add a lot of steps to the gospel.

I know that I’m broken and hurting, so I add time for healing. “No, no,” I say. “I’m going to surrender, but it’s not realistic for me to just do this cold-turkey. I need to take some time to get ‘okay’, then I’ll dig into this surrender business.”

I know that I’ve got a lot of history not surrendering, so I give myself time for negative momentum. “I’m full-on going to surrender, I really am. But this bad habit/unhealthy pattern/self-medication/etc. has been going on for a decade or more. It’s gonna take this ship a while to turn around and point the other direction!”

I know that I’m weak and that I’ve failed in the past, so I put myself on probation – or I try to gradually roll out the surrender. “This is definitely what I need to do,” I tell myself. “Surrender is the only option, but I need to prove myself. I’ll implement full surrender in three months if I can perform well enough to convince me that this time it’s gonna stick.” Or I say “Full surrender right now, given my proclivities, isn’t realistic. Let’s shoot for 37% surrender, and if that works well for a couple of weeks, I’ll dial it up.”

I was reading Pascal’s famous quote the other day about how all men seek happiness above all else. He ends his thought by saying “The will never takes the least step but to this object [happiness]. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” I know that I do the things I do because, ultimately, I want to. I know that my avoidance of surrender is no different. I run from it for all kinds of reasons. I’m afraid of what living without the comfort of sin will feel like. I’m offended that I have nothing to bring to the table, that the gospel does all the work for me and treats me like a beggar. I like carrying bitterness, picking at the scars of old wounds until they bleed fresh, and know that giving up means letting go.

There is no preparation required for surrender. There is only surrender. There is no getting ready, there is no setting your affairs in order, there is no “one more time”, there is no management of it. The great theologian Yoda hit the nail on the head (inadvertently) when he says “Try not! Do … or do not. There is no ‘try’!”

Just stop. Stop moving in the direction you’re moving. Stop behaving the way that you’re behaving and give up. Quit. Just stop it!

I was thinking of it yesterday specifically in the light of relationships, which is where it comes home to roost so often for me. It was almost like I heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me in the words of Newhart’s Dr. Switzer.

“God, you don’t understand how much he/she/they hurt me … “

“Stop it!”

“I’ve got so much history/baggage/pain/etc. I don’t know how to …”

“Stop it!”

“If they/she/he would only …”

“Stop it!”

“I’ve failed so many times before.”

And then I hear him slowly and gently smile. “I know,” He says. “We’re one time closer to the last time. Stop. Quit. Don’t take one more step in that direction. This is the first day. This is where you start. You don’t have to prove anything to Me. You don’t have to do penance. There’s no amount of grovelling or guilt or hoop-jumping or even successful running from sin that’s going to impress Me. I’m only pleased by your complete and utter dependence on Me. I’m only pleased when you recognize that total surrender to Me is all that will satisfy. Surrender to me. I love you.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, July 31, 2012.

My Father’s Pilot

One of the things I will be doing frequently on the blog is posting things I’ve previously posted elsewhere. This one was from the original blog, was posted November 2, 2010, and was a response to a call for definitions of the gospel.

There are few people who have shaped my view of God and the Gospel more than this next contributor.  I learned from at his knee, and occasionally across it.  This is my father.  His name is Wayne Sams.  He lives in Springfield, MO.  Please join me in suggesting that he write a book some day!

We often use the expression – “now that is good news.”

It was just yesterday (as I type this) that a very good friend of mine, Brent Hulett, left a work/mission assignment in the Middle East.  When it was time to head back home to his family in Florida he caught a plane out of Dubai headed for JFK International Airport to catch another flight south to Florida to his waiting family.  All unknown to Brent his life was hanging in the balance.  Indescribable enemies were threatening to blow up planes with packaged explosives one of which was believed to be on his plane.  However, the plane landed safely escorted by fighter jets courtesy of the United States Air Force.  Now that is “good news.”

There’s lots of good news actually.  I cease not to marvel that I have lived this far into the 21st century.  When my Dad, in his preparation for a ministry assignment, wanted to find a good definition of, let’s say, the word “gospel”, it took my Dad hours of study gleaning bits and pieces from several different authors in several different books to come up with an answer.  It took me 30 seconds to type in the word “gospel” in “Wiktionary” to come up with:

Old English godspel (corresponding to good +‎ spell, i.e. “good tidings”), used to translate ecclesiastical Latin bona annuntiatio, itself a translation of Ecclesiastical Latin evangelium / Ancient Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion, “evangel”), literally “good news”. Compare Old Norse and Icelandic guðspjall.

Call it laziness or whatever name you want, but to be able to sit on my couch in my pajamas, with a 5 pound electronic magazine and have immediate access to a virtual library of congress at my finger tips, is marvelously “good news.”  In just a minute or two I’ll push a button and send this document postage paid to the publisher.  Done!

I did nothing to sit where I sit as the calendar pages are turned.  I’m just here.  And I’m glad.

So, this is the picture that I see as a somewhat decent picture of the good news that is the Gospel as Christians use the term…

I’m still sitting on the couch in my pajamas – hey, it’s Saturday and it isn’t noon yet.  Some centuries ago, an indescribable enemy was responsible for designing a somewhat explosive package called sin that my ancestors took on board.  It was passed along from father to son (sorry about that Rick) and from mother to daughter.  And without exception, I and all my cousins – even the in-laws – have embraced the package.  We sinned.  I sinned.  I didn’t want to but I did.  I wanted to quit but I couldn’t.  I could tell you more, but it’s a mess.  Going over it again wouldn’t make you or me any holier or happier.

But here, as I try to wrap words around it, is my understanding of where I am today.  I lean back in this flight this morning trusting the Pilot to bring me to my desired haven.  I’m as guilty as sin because I have sinned.  I’ve pretended otherwise and was arrogant.  I was a humble preacher and missionary and I was quite proud of it.  I’ve picked at moats in the eyes of my brothers and sisters and told them that what they saw in my eye was a gleam – it was a beam.  I have spit shined my halo – there was lots of spit and no halo.  In fits and starts I’ve worked hard at this job of being holy.  I pushed, as it were, very hard on the seat in front of me to make sure this trip ended in heaven.  No matter that my pushing and cajoling my fellow passengers was not helping them or me either.  I gave other passengers important lists of things they should and should not do, what they should and should not wear on the plane, how they ought to act and not act.   Most of them wanted me to just shut up, lean back and trust the Pilot.

This flight isn’t over.  I still get a little panicky when I see a passenger that just doesn’t quite have the look of a Delta passenger, Pan American passenger, or a United passenger (choose your own denomination).  I expect many of them get a little nervous seeing a passenger like me riding along age spots and all, bald, criticizing the other passengers – still at times pushing and shoving the people around me — still in my pajamas no less.  If someone deserved to be kicked off the plane – it is I.

But here’s the fun conclusion of this.  As unworthy and as unlikely as it seems, I’m very much on board.  The price of this passage was prepaid many years ago, interestingly enough, by the Pilot’s Son.  I’m learning to trust this Pilot who has promised us a safe landing.  I sense the presence of heavenly escorts off the right wing and off the left wing.  I sense the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But if I did not sense a thing – and frankly there are seasons that I do not – I know we will land safely.  “Now THAT is Gospel. That is Good News!”

And so it begins … again

I tried this once before. When I first launched this blog in 2010, I said this in the introductory post: “I feel completely unworthy to talk about something on which I’m so clearly not an expert.”

If I felt “unworthy” then, the idea of me writing about the gospel now is sort of a bad joke. In the three+ years that have passed, lots has happened to illustrate the fickle nature of my devotion to the pursuit of Jesus, the Gospel incarnate.

Some things are still true. I’m still overwhelmed by the power and the beauty and the scandalous offense of the gospel. I still want to be turned inside out, inconvenienced, horrified, and forever changed by its lifelong pursuit. I want to be more desperate to know Jesus tomorrow than I am today. I want to chase the truth.

So, this will be my place for asking the questions. This will be where I wrestle with the answers. This will be where I come undone.

This is the journal of my time on the potter’s wheel. This is the sinner’s gospel … again.