Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Prayer for Getting Out of Bed

God, I dreamed about her again last night.

She was so beautiful, trapped in my memory in incorruptible perfection. Her pixie face, her laugh, the hand gestures, the little smile wrinkles that have always been there at the corners of her eyes, her neck — God, she had the most glorious neck. It’s all these little things, these recollections and broken trinkets of our life together … like that little leather box she has with all the coins in it from all the places she’s been … I have these mementos. On mornings like this, I drag them out and endure the agony of running my fingers through them. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’m still crazy in love with her. I’m hopelessly in love with her, like a teenage boy with his heart wrapped tight around his first true love. I am endlessly in love with her, or at least with the frozen snapshot of her in my mind. I want so badly to touch her. I remember the last time I held her, there in the mediator’s office. She was so cold. so stiff, so determined in her anger to cut herself off from the possibility of feeling any future pain from me. I will always remember how her hair smelled that day.

I wish I could forget. I wish You could keep me from dreaming about her. That would be great. I wish my heart toward her could grow cold.

I need a job, God.

I overdrew my bank account yesterday. I got a check in, but not in time. Overdraft fees are an excruciating little garnish to the pain of being poor. I’ve only got a couple hundred dollars left. I’m down to eating one meal a day, trying to make it something as nutritious (while still cheap) as possible. I’ve quit going to the gym. I can’t keep training if I’m not eating. I can’t go to jujitsu if I’m not eating. I know that’ll make me sick quick. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

You said You’d provide for my needs. I need.

The van I’m driving? … the one that’s not mine, that’s borrowed, that I’ve driven for going on two years now? It’s not acting great. Definitely not bad for 207,000 miles, but 8° mornings are taking their toll. Every time I put in another application/resume, I wonder what will happen if they do call and I can’t get to the interview. A guy honked at me the other night as I was trying to baby it through an intersection. I think he thought I was just driving super slow to annoy him. As I backfired and shuddered my way through the green light, it didn’t make me feel particularly manly that I kinda started to cry.

I don’t understand what You’re doing. I mean I get what You’re doing, I just don’t get why I can’t be like everyone else. You call us all to surrender, right? You call all of us to throw off everything that might tie us down, every crutch we might lean on instead of You? I’m not special. Everyone gets that call. How come others get to hear that call from their office at their job, and ponder it while driving home in their own cars, to their own house with their own yard and picket fence. How come they get to thank You for Your provision at dinner around a food-laden table, and then lay down next to their wife, down the hall from their kids, and drift off to sleep while half-heartedly talking to You about it in suburban comfort?

I’ve told You before that if I survive this, I’m sure I’ll some day see this as mercy. Some day I’ll appreciate it that You have me on the “remedial surrender” plan, and don’t expect me to have to give up all the things that others have to give up. You’ve already taken most of those things from me.

Now You’re demanding the rest.

I feel like You’ve driven me to the edge of a precipice, thoroughly wrecked and destroyed my avenues of retreat, and then had the unmitigated gall to tell me that whether I jump and trust You to catch me is my choice. The real irony is that I’m standing here pretending like there’s a real choice to be made. There is nothing to return to. There is no path back. There is only the step into the dark unknown.

I know You exist. I know You are good. I even know that You love me with an everlasting love, and that You cannot change. I also know, like Rich Mullins said, that being loved by You is one of the most painful things that a human being can ever endure. My doubt today is pretty much all tied up in wondering if I going to be able to survive Your love. It hurts. It hurts like nothing ever has.

I don’t know how to surrender these last few things. We’re down to the level where my “need” for what You’re asking me to give up is so great that my fingers won’t voluntarily release them. You’re probably going to have to just keep taking things away.

I believe Rich was also right when he said that being loved by You, as excruciating as it will always be, is the only path to salvation. I know that what makes true faith theoretically different from all false hopes is that You graciously equip me to obey that which You require.

So, let’s try this: You keep utterly destroying me … and I’ll keep doing my best to remain utterly incapable of making anything good of myself. Deal?

I love You.

Amen

Wait In The Fire

I won’t pretend I haven’t been here before. This reaching up with quivering desperation, this staggering to my feet again (sorta) … it’s become a bit of a cliché. And frankly the cycle seems to be ramping up its frequency. The waves seem to hit now before I’ve really got my feet beneath me from the last time around. All the things that were true a week ago are still true … and there’s more.

Since then, my church has announced that two of our elders are stepping down from their positions and leaving Oak Hills. One of them was the music minister. There really isn’t a worship team anymore, also leaving is the keyboardist I’ve worked and sung with for more than a decade. One of them is taking with him his high school age son who I was really looking forward to getting to know. All of them friends, brothers and sisters. All of them my people. All of them leaving holes that can’t really be filled. I know that I ought to buck up and believe that we’ll weather this. We’ve weathered devastating storms before. Honestly though, I’m afraid. I’m afraid this could be the end for Oak Hills.

My ministry job … gone.

So many of my friends in Ecuador … gone.

Ecuador itself … gone.

My wife, my best friend, my marriage … gone.

Having a home, owning a car, being financially secure … gone

Had a job for two months, but now I’m back to the employment hunt.

Anyone who knows me at all knows just how much my church means to me. Oak Hills has been, for a decade and a half, a center around which community and worship and ministry and life have revolved for me. Now its future is shaky? What is God doing? What has He left me?

(I’m not sure when this blog switched from being an exploration of gospel themes and became my very public journal. Hope it switches back soon.)

I think I understand why the frequency of the cycle is increasing. I think it’s tied to what I wrote about here. I think it’s wrapped up in thinking that trusting God looks like a confidence that He’s going to fix my problems in a particular way, and being able to believe it (a.k.a. “trusting”) for a while, but then eventually getting broken down by the absence of things I think I need and going through my yelling at God phase again.

Had a conversation with my good friend Tank* a couple of days ago. He probably didn’t know what he was getting into. I let him have it. I was crying, ranting, sniffling, and probably making very little sense.

I felt like I had my hand in the fire, I told him. Maybe more than just my hand. There comes a point beyond which the avoidance of pain is no longer a higher cognitive affair. The choosing to yank your hand out of the fire isn’t so much a decision as it is an instinct. It hurts and it has to stop. It must stop. It cannot continue! I told him that I stepped back and looked at my life and the things that kept piling up and knew that I was past being able to juggle things. There are too many “things” for that. I’m now beginning to really wonder if the sheer weight of things will crush me. And, I told him, I feel like God’s asking me to keep my hand in the fire, to just hold it there. And I don’t know how.

He paused for a long moment and then responded in his typical fashion, gentle and affirming. He said “Gosh” a lot. He told me that he had no idea what I was feeling, that it had to be so incredibly painful. Basically, he said everything you should say to someone who’s in soul agony … right up to the point where he said something really offensive.

“Is the place where you find yourself,” he said. “Is it possible that it’s the answer to your prayer that the gospel become more tangible and less rhetorical? Is it possible that God’s answering your prayer, and doing it in you first?”

I wish I could tell you that divine joy flooded my heart instantaneously. I wish I could say that all of my struggles melted away into insignificance in the light of God’s consuming truth and glory. Honestly, most of what I felt was anger. Most of what I thought was “You can’t be serious!” The pain, God! The agony! I can’t possibly do this one more day!

But then I felt my Father’s whisper in my heart. I heard Him say, “Do you want to see if this thing flies?” It was as though I could hear a small smile in His voice. He wasn’t scolding me. He was trying to restrain His excitement, like He was finally revealing a surprise He’d been holding onto until just the right moment.

(I started speaking the words aloud to Tank. I’m sure he thought I’d finally gone over the edge.)

“Do you really want to see if this works? You’ve ranted and railed at your heroes, at Me, asking if it’s snake oil. You’ve questioned its viability, its ability to even exist in the real world. Do you want … to see … if it flies?”

“Because if that’s what you want, then we have to take off the training wheels. If that’s what you want, then everything that’s propping this up has to go. Every relationship that you lean on unhealthily, every institution in which you place ultimate confidence, every thing you run to instead of Me has to be removed from the equation. If you want this, every umbilical support line must be severed … or you’ll never know it’s really Me.”

I stood there at the edge of my abilities, staring into the void. I did the only thing I could. I shook with holy fear, and I cried, and I asked Him to hold my hand in the fire, to keep it there. Then I took a step into the dark.

The Sufi mystic Rumi taught about burning with divine love, letting your longing for God become this painful fire within you. He said that you must become so deeply surrendered to the conflagration that ultimately only God’s love remains. It is then, he said, that you will see the truth that the burning longing coming to life in your heart is not really yours at all, but is actually God’s longing for you.

There is a quote attributed to John Wesley. When asked about his philosophy of evangelism, he reportedly said “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” Perhaps the pain of the fire has purpose.

If there is anything in me that is blocking my Father’s longing for me, it would be cruelty for Him not to insist on its removal.

 

 

Re: Title … With apologies to Jeff Buckley.
* His name is David Tankersley, but it wigs me out to call him David. So I refuse. He’s “Tank.”

The Biggest Lie Satan Wants The Church To Believe

Christians often speak about grace with a thousand qualifications. They add all sorts of buts and brakes. Listen for them! Our greatest concern, it seems, is that people will take advantage of grace and use it as a justification to live licentiously. Sadly, while attacks on morality typically come from outside the church, attacks on grace typically come from inside the church. The reason is because somewhere along the way, we’ve come to believe that this whole enterprise is about behavioral modification, and grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing, so we end up hearing more about what grace isn’t than we do about what grace is. Some would even say that “Yes, grace but …” originated with the Devil in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3), that the biggest lie Satan wants the church to believe is that grace is dangerous and therefore needs to be kept in check. Sadly, the church has believed this lie all too well.

Tullian Tchividjian, in One Way Love

Lies I Believe: Something’s Wrong With Me

We all believe lies. We do it all the time. Sometimes we even believe lies, knowing full well that they’re false. Sometimes we do that because believing the truth is too uncomfortable or inconvenient. Sometimes we do it because the truth that we know somewhere in our hearts isn’t burning brightly enough to dispel the darkness of falsehood. That’s where I am today.

One of the lies I believe is that there’s something deeply wrong with me. Something that makes me deserving of every difficult thing that transpires. Something that justifies the reactions of those that recoil from the degree of my messed-upness. This has been a long-standing one for me, but something happened about two years ago that kicked it into high gear.

I was living in Ecuador. I was a missionary. I was working for a church doing youth ministry. I was also struggling with pretty severe depression.

I was working as part of a ministry team with four other guys who I would have told you were among my closest of friends and confidantes. As it turns out, trusting them to walk with me through my struggles was a very bad idea. As things got darker and more painful for me, they began to become more accusatory. A staff meeting one morning turned into an intervention where I was grilled for hours on why I wasn’t getting better. A week later, the group cancelled the scheduled staff meeting, met in secret on another day, and decided to fire me. They didn’t know how to handle a struggling Christian … particularly a struggling Christian missionary. We got paid money by our supporters back home to share the gospel with Ecuadorians, for crying out loud. We couldn’t be seen to have problems. When they fired me they told me that they had to think about how it made the church look. The pastor sent a couple of the guys I would have told you were friends of mine to my house to tell me my services would no longer be required, and to get my church key from me. Then the four of them just evaporated. They needed the problem that was me to go away. So they fired me and pretended I didn’t exist until I moved back.

That was the second most painful thing that ever happened to me. The first happened only a few months later.

When I moved back to the U.S., I was caught in the throes of depression and culture shock. I was looking for absolutely anything to numb the pain. My wife had just told me that she was going to take care of her and her struggles now, and that I was on my own to get my support from my friends. I did something stupid and sinful. In a paroxysm of grief and selfishness, I cheated on her. It wasn’t a relationship. It was a one-time physical thing. That doesn’t mitigate the horrific nature of it for a moment. I broke my vows. I was unfaithful to the only woman I’ve ever loved. I repented immediately. I begged her forgiveness. She asked me to move out so she could have space to work things out on her own. I did. She waited a few days and told me that she’d decided she had no intention of reconciling. I begged. She refused. I set up counseling. She went a couple of times and quit. I cried out for mercy and grace. She demanded what the law entitled her to have. She refused to believe that I could change. I had to go away. She had to be free of me. My divorce was final in June of 2013. I don’t know how to stop loving her.

It was the ultimate one-two punch. I was toxic. I had to be avoided at all costs. Grace and mercy didn’t apply to me. I got justice. I got what I deserved, and I knew I deserved it. My faith that the gospel is true of me started to take a hit. I was charged, tried, found guilty, and condemned. My sentence was to be set aside and not considered. The leadership team and elders of my church in Ecuador put me aside and walked on without me. My wife cut her losses, ended our marriage, and never looked back.

Yesterday, my boss fired me. She told me that she does things “by vibrations,” and that “the universe” was telling her that I wasn’t a good fit for her agency. She said that she’d been given a list of secret phrases and statements by the universe by which she would be able to identify people from whom she must protect herself and the company. I had used one of the phrases. When pressed as to what phrase I’d used, she said “Rick, you know I can’t tell you that.” She told me that she liked me and that she was happy with my performance and that she appreciated everything I’d done for the company, but that she had to let me go.

It just keeps going on and on and on. I’d hoped to end this post with something positive. Some turn-around that says “You know what? Something is wrong with me! I’m deeply flawed and broken, and I’m loved with an everlasting love by my Father anyway, and He cannot change!” Maybe I’ll write that post tomorrow. If this blog is for me to wrestle with the realities of the gospel and to try to apply them to my life and the way I live it, then this is one of the wrestling days.

Today the fact that I know those guys in EC responded sinfully to me doesn’t make a bit of difference. Today, the fact that in a perfect world, my ex-wife would have chosen to respond to me in a gospel-driven manner and that the same gospel that is true of me is true of her, isn’t getting through. Today, it doesn’t matter that my boss is clearly completely mentally unhinged and trying desperately to control her environment by removing any variables she doesn’t understand. It doesn’t bring me comfort. I’m believing the lie today.

Today I’m getting my butt kicked. Pray for me.

Michael’s Homegoing

My high school friend, Michael Wright, lost his long battle with cancer today.

I lost touch with Michael after high school. I wouldn’t have said that even back then we were close friends. We kinda ran in different circles. I remember enjoying working with him on projects. He was always kind and laughed often. I liked him. This is all sounding like the sort of thing you’re supposed to say after someone has died. I don’t want to pretend that he and I were bosom buddies, nor that his passing has somehow retroactively made him into a perfect Christian. My death certainly won’t have that effect on my history.

What I do want to say is that Michael’s example has impacted me profoundly. I think most people, when faced with the kind of struggle and pain he has been called to endure, run away from the world and hide. The majority of us circle the wagons, gather only comfortable people around us, and retreat. Michael didn’t.

What he did instead was to share every painful step of his journey with the world. He told us on Facebook about his good days and his bad days. He let us see his struggle and wrestling. He was open and honest about the process of trusting God in the middle of the darkest of valleys. Some of us probably often wished he wouldn’t be so transparent, quite so real. There were moments where I found myself wanting to look away, to avert my eyes. It’s hard to fix your gaze upon brokenness and still find reasons to praise. We want our world neatly packaged, and Michael kept tearing the wrapping paper off and showing us reality.

I’m thankful to him for that. I’m thankful for the lesson on turning to face the chaos and pain, and trusting that the One Who has called me will guide me safely through the storm. He has successfully guided Michael home. It gives me hope that He’s doing the same for me.

I Want To Be Joe

Had breakfast this morning with one of my brothers who lets me bleed all over him. I’m incredibly thankful for the handful of people I have in my life like that, especially since the last couple of weeks have been such a wrestling match for me.

This guy and I have both taken our “younger brother” turns, and were discussing today how ruthlessly the Father persists in running down the road and dancing at our welcome home parties … over and over again. The degree to which we have pressed against the limits of God’s mercy and grace has failed to find an end to them. The exuberant, nonsensical, sin-forgetful joy with which we are embraced and celebrated wets our eyes and begins to strengthen our resolve to please Him and chase after Him.

We were also, however, bemoaning how quickly after our returns we tend to turn into the older brother.

Yeah, I’ve just stopped running and I know the party’s still swinging, but I’m back now. I’m back and I want some credit for the fact that I could’ve been away longer/could’ve run farther/didn’t do it as bad as that one guy did that one time/etc. The stench of the pigpen is still on me, and I’m posturing already. I’m trying to revamp my reputation and standing by appealing to my track record.

My buddy captured it perfectly this morning when he talked about catching a glimpse of Joe Christian* through the press of people at the party the Father had thrown for me. Joe’s got that sheen about him, that Jesusy glow of churchy accomplishment. Maybe he’s a deacon or an elder, even. His kids are always perfectly turned out, and seem to sit very still and to listen very attentively. His ESV study bible probably has just the right amount of wear, and he carries a highlighter with him to every Sunday service. His handshake and his smile are practiced and smooth, conveying just the right amount of familiarity without really welcoming too much intimacy. He likely says things like “Better than I deserve” when you ask him how he’s doing, and peppers his small talk with the stuff of Spurgeon, Piper, and Keller.

All of a sudden, it occurs to me that I’m the center of attention at this party for all the wrong reasons. All of a sudden I want to be Joe.

Being celebrated is great, but it’s kind of embarrassing to be celebrated for how recently you were a really, really bad sinner. Wouldn’t it be better to be one of those holy folk standing around the fringes dutifully lending their contented, head-nodding approval? Wouldn’t it be better to stand in the middle of a group of admirers and talk softly about how great it is that the Prodigal is back, and how long you’ve been diligently praying for him? Joe’s the kind of Christian I want to be. How do I get to that side of the room? How long will I have to work, how many hoops will I have to jump through, to whom will I have to prove myself in order to get to where Joe is?

That’s the moment, for most of us, where we’re introduced to (or reminded of) the game.

See, Joe doesn’t exist. Joe is a construct. He’s an avatar, a personality created for the purpose of participating in an elaborate diversion and hoax. The person hiding behind “constructed Joe” smells of pig slop, too. He’s in just as much wretched need of unilateral salvation as I am. He’s in just as much need of a proactive and loving Savior. Joe’s just been doing this longer than me. Joe was once the center of the attention at a party to celebrate his return from rebellion and selfishness. Maybe it was his fourth or fifth time around. He was getting tired of failing, tired of going back to the same old sins. It was humiliating, his Father repeatedly weeping tears of joy, putting the ring on his finger, inviting all His friends for a dinner and a dance … again … it had to end.

There are really only two ways to end that cycle. One is by throwing myself, naked and helpless, on the ever-new mercies of my Father, and to let the joy of His everlasting, never-changing love begin to melt the belligerent rebelliousness of my heart into a real desire to follow Him. The other is by joining a conspiracy of plasticity that exchanges one form of brokenness for a less honest one, one that makes me think I might one day bring something to the table and impress my Father with the work I do around the place.

 

*All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any similarity between Joe Christian and any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (But you’re lying if you say it didn’t make you think of someone.)

Some Day, God … Some Day

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, trying to trust.

It’s Friday night and I really wouldn’t say I’m all that awake. To be completely honest, most of my last post was written weeks ago. This week hasn’t felt much like victory. I got some difficult news at the beginning of the week that’s been weighing on me heavily. There are people in my life that are hurting bad, and I’m not sure what to do. I’m lonely. I’m looking too far ahead, trying to figure things out, and I’m afraid. I’m hearing the familiar, shuffling footsteps of depression poorly shadowing my every movement. It’s always there, just behind. Perhaps just a bit closer now. It’s been a rough week.

I was praying on the way to work this morning, asking God to help me trust Him. I asked him to help me rest in His sufficiency. It “occurred” to me that often what I call “trusting God” probably really isn’t. The cycle looks like this: I’m in the dark, afraid, trusting my failing circumstances. I cry out for help, for mercy. God whispers His love for me, reminds me that He hasn’t gone anywhere. I feel better, until the next time. Increasingly, I find myself doubting, wondering if all I’m doing in those crying out moments is just recharging my leaky hope that one day it’s going to get better.

Today, I found myself looking honestly at the process and realizing that’s probably exactly what’s happening. (Stay with me.)

I think I am finding confidence in those dark times, but I’m not sure it’s a confidence in Christ. I think I might be simply reassuring myself that He’s going to offer a solution and fix my pain. I fool myself into thinking that I’m trusting God to fill those holes in my heart, but often all I’m doing is believing that God will eventually provide a substitute for the things that are lacking in my life. My ex-wife wants nothing to do with me, my relationships don’t fill the empty spaces like I (unreasonably) expect them to, I’m underemployed and living in a friend’s basement. So I find my confidence in a renewed belief that maybe someday God will bring someone into my life who will love me perfectly. Maybe someday all my problems will be solved because of a thing, a person, or a situation that will ease my suffering.

I think in those moments I’m not so much trusting God as I am trusting Him to one day give me something in which I’ll be able to find confidence and security.

I wonder if, in those moments, God is looking at me and asking me if I could just trust Him to be everything that I need … right now.

To Come Awake

A while back a good friend asked me a good question. He asked how I thought a growing love for Christ and a growing awareness of His love for me should affect my assessment of my place in my journey. In a culture that sees adversity as something to be overcome, that sees transformation in adversity as something you do in order to not have to suffer anymore … how does the gospel help you deal with adversity that seems to continue?

I thought it was a brilliant question. I waited a while to answer it. I waited until I felt more awake. Some days I’m just more awake than others. Metaphorically “awake.” I probably stole the idea initially from Buddhist/Hindu teachings on wakefulness, but I’m a firm believer that all truth is God’s truth, and that if I can glean something from the mouth of a speaking donkey, I can certainly do so from the teachings of an image-bearer of the most high God who just happens to be a Tibetan Buddhist.

I always throw in the caveat that I firmly believe that there is only one way to God, not many. I believe that Christ is the only hope humanity has. However, I believe that the gospel is not an exclusively Western thing, neutered and demystified to fit neatly into our academic boxes. I believe it is very mystically writ so large upon all of creation that its echoes shake and shimmy down the halls of every cultural and ideological system and construct. This desire to know and be known by our Maker is part of our DNA, and so is the promise He began to give us in the garden … that He Himself, for His own sake, would carry out our redemption on our helpless behalf and remember our sin no more.

“Awake” to me is a state where I’m looking more at Jesus than I am at other people, myself included. “Awake” is trusting that Christ’s assessment of my situation (both personally and globally) is infinitely more true than my own. “Awake” is really knowing that pain and suffering can be agents of renewal and genuine growth, even when they are stepping stones to more pain and suffering. “Awake” is being able to see the brokenness in those around you and to realize that the painful things they do and say come from a place of great need and not great malice. “Awake” is to let the gospel really begin to affect the moment by moment decisions you make about the world and your reactions to it.

Being awake is painful, though. It requires a great deal of us. That’s the messy reality of faith. Salvation is this beautiful free gift given to us when we were far too dead to be worthy or deserving of it. God makes the way possible, then applies it to us unilaterally, rendering us from death, alive … from total unconsciousness, awake. That’s the easy part, at least from our perspective. We have nothing to bring to the table, so we couldn’t really assist. Most of us are in total awe of that moment. Really seeing for the first time. Knowing colors and flavors we never knew existed, all our senses alive in the way only our Designer could bring them out. Quickly, though, we reach a point where most of us, if the truth were told, would really rather go back to sleep.

It’s a free gift, yes. But it will cost us everything. Everything. There is no corner of our life that will go unviolated. There is no closed up basement room full of filth that will not be opened to the light. The Holy Spirit will not rest until every nasty, wet, slimy chunk of black, slippery resistance is dragged shrieking into the front yard and tossed onto the funeral pyre of the “you” you thought you’d one day be.

I was talking to a friend about this a while back. I commented that we go from “destitute beggar” to “lawyer/accountant” pretty quickly when God starts putting His finger on our favorite pieces of filth. I go from prostrate on the floor clutching at the hem of his garment in abject poverty to “Now let’s not be hasty. Can we at least discuss this?” in about a half second. It’s easy, in the middle of the fire and pain to look at God and question His motives.

“Why are you taking the things away from me that comfort me?!”

“Why are you making my pain worse?!”

“Why are you demanding things from me that I don’t know how I can live without?!”

“My hopes and dreams and plans aren’t evil, why are you requiring that I surrender them?!”

In the fire, we can’t see it, but it’s compassion. God has a perfect idea in His perfect mind of a perfect “you” and He will relentlessly work until He brings it about. He does not demand that we surrender our plans as a test of our faith. He demands that we surrender our plans because He knows a.) they won’t work; and b.) even if they worked perfectly, they would accomplish a result far short of His perfect idea of the perfect “you.” He demands that we surrender our plans because He wants to do it for us, and needs us out of the way.

It makes me think of a Rich Mullins quote I saw recently. It said that being loved by God is one of the most painful things imaginable, but that it is the only way to find salvation. My thoughts above are at least partially a response to that quote, actually. God is at work in my heart and in my life. I know this. There has been a great deal of transformation. The problem arises when it’s not the transformation I want. Spiritual insight instead of what everyone around me would call “stability.” Wisdom instead of my marriage. A deep awareness of His capacity to provide for my physical needs instead of a lucrative job or a place to live.

The question then becomes whether or not I am willing to submit to the painful process He has sovereignly chosen to use in my life to sanctify me, to make me into his perfect idea of me. Not gonna lie, some days I don’t want to. Some days I cry out to heaven in exasperation and list all the things that define me, all the ways in which I fall short of where I think I should be. I tell God “This is me. This is who I am. I’m a wreck!” But even when I’m saying those things, I know that the twisted reality of it all is that I’m still staring heaven down, full of arrogance and pride.

I’m rejecting God’s assessment of me. I’m telling Him that He doesn’t get to define me, that I’ll take care of that.

Ultimately, I’m terrified to submit to hearing His voice tell me that I’m His beloved. I really don’t want to let Him define me as righteous, as blood-bought, as loved with an everlasting love by my Maker Who cannot change. I don’t want to surrender to it because that would be me admitting that I have nothing to bring to the table. That I have no bargaining position from which to exert leverage.

Even in the middle of my problems and my pain, I’m trying to establish my kingdom of filth and build up walls of excrement to keep Him out.

I’m trying to stop that. Love is changing my perspective by slowly exposing my objections as silly and petty.

He just wants to take my crap kingdom and knock it all down so He can build something glorious. Something so glorious, in fact that Lewis says if I could see it now I might be strongly tempted to worship it. He wants to do this because He loves me. And that’s what makes me love Him.

He has promised He will finish what He has begun. I’m just trying to stay out from underfoot.

My Blasphemous Prayers

C.S. Lewis has this short poem called “Footnote To All Prayers” where he talks about how all our communications with God are hopelessly idolatrous and muddied with self. I thought of it last night while talking with a friend about relationships.

“… taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts …”

This is all of worship, for me. I never sing a hymn without corrupting it with thoughts of the manner of my singing of it. I never give to those less fortunate without thinking more about the giver than the gift (to say nothing of the Giver). No matter how hard I try, I can’t finish any prayer of more than thirty seconds without drifting into moments of wrestling and anticipatory rehearsal that completely lose sight of my Source and trust my own planning instead. I cannot give, sing, pray, rejoice, weep, or love without infecting my efforts with ruinous “me-ness.”

All of life is worship. Perhaps no single element of the “non-Sunday” forms of worship captures my heart like that of true brotherhood, the pursuit of Christ-centered, gospel-driven, grace-focused friendship. I have a lot of good friends. I have been so very blessed to be able to walk alongside some amazing people. And I have loved all of them terribly. Really really badly.

I can’t seem to do it right. I’m afraid. I’m selfish. I put my needs before theirs, consider my wants more pressing. I doubt and question. I withdraw and hide. Just this week, I had to send two emails of apology to friends I now realize I had treated poorly years before. It made my shoulders sag to think that there may well be ways I’m treating friends right now that will require more letters of repentance in the future. Some times I feel so bad at it that I just want to stop, and settle into a life of relative solitude.

But Lewis calls me out. I never raise my hands to God without thinking about those beside me. But I still raise my hands. I never take the bread and the cup really resting in my status as “worthy.” But I push into the throne room nonetheless. I never love selflessly. I never love my neighbor truly as myself. I never love my brothers like Jesus loved me. But still I love. I must.

I don’t get to stop praying because I’m not good at it. I trust the Holy Spirit to interpret my distracted gibberish for my Father. I don’t get to stop singing praises because my heart can’t stay in perfect focus. I trust in God’s fatherly heart toward me that will hear my lisping wails and call them beautiful. I don’t get to stop loving because I can’t seem to love well. I must trust Jesus to love others through me and sanctify my fumbling attempts.

So, I get up, quietly whisper more apologies to ones I love that I’ve let down, and I try again.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, November 2, 2013.

In Which I Get Slapped Around By Bonhoeffer

One of my living heroes of the faith, Scotty Smith, tweeted this the other day:

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

Really?

I do love my dream of community. Holy crap, I love it a lot. I talk about it almost incessantly. Am I really “that guy”? Am I a destroyer?

Seriously, I’m not sure I really have all that many friendships anymore where I know how to talk about much else. I love … I LOVE to talk about the vertical realities of the gospel and the ways the sacrifice of Jesus frees us to live it out on the horizontal. It’s the purpose for this blog. It’s the topic of the book I’m writing.

I know hardly anything about sports. I have a black belt in jujitsu and also love my time in the gym. I suppose I’ve learned enough to talk a little intelligently about my areas, but they aren’t things I love to talk about. I was a voice major in college. I’m a graphic designer and photographer. I am fascinated by art and music and food and movies and culture. I like to pick apart literature and film. Conversations about these things are enjoyable, but they’re not the topics that I get excited about discussing.

Wow, could this sound any more self-congratulatory? I like to talk about the gospel. Well, of course I do! All good Christians should, right? I’m writing a blog post about whether I like to talk about Jesus for right or wrong reasons. That’s pretty self-righteous, right?

Here’s the truth. There are many reasons why I love to talk about gospel-driven community, and they’re not all as high-minded as I’d like you to think. Yes, I am captured by these ideas. I do believe that the vertical realities of our relationship with Christ necessarily must transform the horizontal outworking of the life we live. I am convicted that we have grown far too comfortable living in the gap between our own perceived inabilities and scripture’s clear call to freely shower those around us with forgiveness, mercy, and love. But I am also very, very selfish. I need this to be true, not because of some super-spiritual desire to see the Kingdom realized in flesh and blood, but because I actually need it. I’m lonely. I hurt. I struggle and suffer. I doubt. I need the Body. I need people around me. I need to be asked the hard questions. I need to be loved. I need people to chase after me, to insert themselves into my life. I need it. Some days … maybe most days, when I strive and wrestle for what I hope people will see as Christ-focused community, I’m probably really just looking for a place I can crawl into and escape the pain. It’s not about Jesus. It’s about me.

Here’s some more truth. I think it’s altogether possible that even when I’m talking about the gospel, I’m really not talking about the gospel all that much at all. I firmly believe that Jesus equals The Kingdom equals The Gospel. But grace-centered community isn’t the gospel. It will be an outgrowth of the gospel, absolutely. Jesus will draw a line down the center of our lives and show us both our horrific shortfall and be our ticket to perfect compliance. But community is only one part of that. The truth is that I’m very content to let every conversation about the gospel quickly fall into the well-worn groove (rut) of “How should we treat each other?/How should you treat me?”, when there are far more pressing questions that the presence of Jesus asks of me. There are far more uncomfortable questions. There are many tree trunks the gospel has yet to pry out of my eye.

So, Scotty and Dietrich, very much thanks for leaving me to wonder whether or not the whole idea of this blog was self-centered and blasphemous to begin with.

Just like the rest of my prayers.

 

What The Manger Means, Pt. II

I really had planned on writing a second post on this topic, talking about the horizontal implications of the Incarnation. Then I read this and decided I didn’t need to:

“Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world’s contumely and contempt, any token of that love of Christ which seeks to preserved, support, and protect life. Otherwise, however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord. God will not be separated from our brother: he wants no honor for himself so long as our brother is dishonored. God is the Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who became the Brother of us all. Here is the final reason why God will not be separated from our brother. His only-begotten Son bore the shame and insults for his Father’s glory. But the Father would not be separated from his Son, nor will he now turn his face from those whose likeness the Son took upon him, and for whose sake he bore the shame. The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man. He who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar.

There is therefore only one way of following Jesus and of worshiping God, and that is to be reconciled with our brethren. If we come to hear the Word of God and receive the sacrament without first being reconciled with our neighbors, we shall come to our own damnation. In the sight of God we are murderers.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from The Cost of Discipleship

The Way Out Is Not To Climb Up

There’s a mentality — a way of thinking about sin, hurt, and the world — that chalks most of how we live our lives up to whether we see ourselves as “victim”. The gospel is a stumbling block to that mentality, but not in the way I would hope.

This viewpoint tells us to deal with the painful realities of living in a broken world by being strong and able to overcome, by not seeing yourself as victim. The past is over. Don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself up and move on. The spiritualized version would say that it is God that enables you to be strong and overcome. But even though that sounds good, it misses one critical point being “the gospel”.

That critical point is that we aren’t victims, we’re perpetrators. There’s a story that’s told of G.K. Chesterton, who reportedly responded to a newspaper’s call for articles on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?” His four-word response: “Dear sirs, I am.”

The sin that lives in my heart is what’s wrong with the world. The seeds of every kind of murder, adultery, dishonesty, idolatry, and blasphemy dwell inside of me. The idea that we should fight against a “victim mentality” with positive beliefs about ourselves is upside down and backwards. The gospel say to us that we should fight a victim mentality with the realization that we are worse off than we think we are. This sounds so counterintuitive in the light of pop psychology and Oprah-esque religiosity, and it’s “foolishness” to us, as scripture says it will be. But scripture says it’s true, the way out is not to climb up. The way out is to surrender to the truth that we are far worse sinners than we’d ever dared imagine.

The good news in all of it is that God’s grace is more powerful than we’d ever dared hope. Scripture also makes it clear that we will only ever understand how great His grace and mercy are to the extent that we understand our need for it.

So, taking it back to the matter at hand, here’s where I think the breakdown happens. Let’s imagine a scenario where someone has wronged me. They have said or done something that has hurt me. Now I have a choice.

I can react with this “I’m not a victim” response. I can stand a bit taller, lift my chin, wipe the tears and believe that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I can refuse to think of myself as victim, because I’m better than that. I’m not what that person said I am. I don’t deserve to be treated that way. I’m good. I’m admirable. I’m worthy of being thought of and treated better.

Or there’s the “victim” reaction. It most often looks like anger. I draw inward, seething, feeling the sting and the weight of the offense. My whole world narrows to a singular point. Nothing matters but justice. Nothing matters but my hurt and how wrong my perpetrator is. I obsess over imagined revenge, rehearsing witty comebacks I could have said.

Both are sinful.

In the latter, I’m not embracing the role of “victim” at all. I’m taking over. I’m launching a coup. Even in the “poor me” posturing of climbing into dark holes in my psyche, I am declaring my assessment of the debt owed more valid than God’s. Even in my suffering and tears, I’m extending my middle finger to heaven and climbing onto the throne of my own heart, demanding to act as arbiter of justice in His place.

In the former, I deflect criticism and poor treatment that I don’t feel measures up to the high opinion I and others should have of me. I give lip service to having my self-concept rooted in what God thinks of me. But, most often I’m once again shoving the glory that is me onto the throne of my heart and adjusting the flood lights so that none of the rotting parts show.

In both cases, I know the truth. The truth is that my attackers fall far short saying something that really captures how bad I am. The truth is that I deserve to be treated far more badly than I was. I am guilty. I have done wrong. There is no mistreatment I will ever suffer that could balance the karmic scales for my sins.

What is needed in this moment is obviously not for me to focus on my own needs to the point that I lash out in anger and wallow in self-serving sadness.

However, what is needed is also not to simply set aside any temptation to think of myself as weak and to think of myself as strong and capable.

What is needed is for me to realize that I was granted God’s glorious grace and mercy when I was guilty of cosmic treason, and that I have the unspeakable privilege (and responsibility) to extend that grace and mercy to others on the horizontal level.

Forgiveness that is driven by a high-minded view of how I ought to act won’t last long. Forgiveness driven by abject gratefulness for the debt I’ve been forgiven will last for an eternity.

Changing Affections

“Seeking first the Kingdom” is about letting the gospel of the cross so change the desires and affections of my heart that the best things that an earthly kingdom has to offer grow grey and drab compared to even the least things in a world where He has made “all things new”.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, August 26, 2012.