Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.