Monthly Archives: March 2014

He Won’t Be A Means To An End

My last post was mostly written on a Sunday morning. I had made it to worship practice, but quickly realized that the grief, guilt, and deep sadness that I was wrestling with was going to leave me completely incapable of keeping things casual. There was no way I was going to be able to sing a lyric like “Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on when we will be forever with the Lord. When disappointment, grief, and fear are are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored. Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last” without completely breaking down. As I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Shorter Catechism about public displays of emotion, I left church and went to the coffee shop. (Sorry if that’s not very Jesusy. It’s where I was at.)

When I finished writing, I got up and stretched my legs. “So, You want to be everything I need,” I said to God. “That sounds pretty great, and right now I’m even feeling like I could believe it enough to trust-fall backwards into Your arms.”

I felt Him smile.

“So,” I said, ruining the moment, “how do I get access to this provision?”

I felt Him just look at me intently with a half-smile, waiting for it to sink in.

“Oooh … I’m still doing it, aren’t I?” I dropped my head.

Then He said this:

“I do not dwell in temples made with hands. I need nothing. Worship is what you owe me, but it doesn’t add to Me.

“Everything that is in the earth and in the heavens, visible and invisible, all things, all powers, all authorities were created by Me and exist for Me.

“I am the beginning and the end. I am before all things, and it’s only through Me that they hold together.

“I give life, breath, and all things to all people. By me rulers reign and decree justice. The hearts of kings are like water in My hand. It is in and through Me that you live, and move, and have your very being.

“I am able to do so far beyond anything it could possibly even occur to you to think to ask of Me.

“I am.

“I will not be a means to any end in your life but Myself, Rick. Anything else would be less than what I have promised you.”

I cried in the coffee shop. No one seemed to mind.

I am beginning to know Him. I am beginning to believe. I am beginning to be slowly persuaded that He is really able to sustain and grow the fledgling faith I have in Him, and that He will continue to sanctify and make me more like His Son. That’s what I want.

I’m trying not to want less by adding more.

Nothing But You

I’m a verbal processor. Frequently things come out of my mouth/fingers when I’m talking/writing to someone that had never occurred to me before. I often find myself listening to things I’m saying for the first time, and thinking “That’s interesting.” One such instance happened recently as I was praying for a friend of mine. In the middle of the prayer, I said this:

“Give him the courage to follow You with no promise but You as reward.”

I remember stopping and lifting my eyes. I stopped and wrote it down, realizing that I’d just prayed something for a brother that I desperately needed for myself. I strongly suspect God was being sneaky.

I am so not there right now. I know that I should be, but I’m not. That’s terrifying.

I am not content to give everything I have to follow Jesus with no guarantee of anything from Him but Jesus Himself. There are so many things I add to my list of requirements.

Friendship/Intimacy. I don’t have her anymore. No one to go home to and tell my day’s stories to. I don’t have anyone to share life with, to share space with. I’m not looking for a lover. My heart belongs to one woman. I just need people I can do life with. I need guys with whom I can wrestle through the difficulty of this season. Guys for whom the demands of career, family, kids, or other life activities hasn’t rendered genuine brotherhood an unrealistic drain of resources. I want to walk closely and intimately with other men who want to push me toward Jesus and want me to do the same. I need that.

Stability/Comfort. I’ve got nothing. I live in the corner of a friend’s basement. I drive a borrowed vehicle. I got fired from my last job because my boss was insane and thought the universe was telling her to protect herself from me. I need a job. But, I’m 44. Could the job be something that might conceivably be in an area of marketable skill for me? Could it be something that could possibly be construed as career potential? Could it be something that would build my portfolio? Something that would grow me as an artist? I feel like that’s all I really have. Do I have to go to work at Starbucks?

Restoration/Respect. I feel shame and guilt everywhere I go. I haven’t tried to hide what I’ve done. I guess it’s good that I don’t really know how to do that. But I feel the looks. It’s probably partly projection, but the behind-the-hand whispers are sometimes almost audible. “Poor Rick … If only he’d been able to resist temptation … He really screwed his life up … He’s so broken and needy … It’s sad, but he has no one to blame but himself … etc.” I feel the judgement. Not the kind that looks like wagged fingers and public condemnation. More the type that comes from withdrawn connections, less frequent phone calls, aborted weekly meeting commitments, and awkward silences. It’s a double edged-sword of shame and frustration. I feel frustrated that I can’t find the help I feel I need, while also feeling intense shame that I even need it in the first place.  Can I ever be respected again? Can I be restored? Can I get back to that place of people looking at me and not pursing their lips and shaking their heads?

God, help me. I don’t value You above all else. I am not content to chase after You and leave You to fill in the blanks on everything else. There is so much I feel like I need that I insist that You bring with You in order for me to sign off on this whole “surrender” thing. I have to know that You’re going to meet my needs in ways that are sustainable and viable for me. I have to know that it’s going to be just a little bit about me. I have to know that You’re not going to lead me into even more uncomfortable waters. God, the level of pain and shame and fear and heartache is already at the point where I don’t know how to bear it. Please tell me You won’t give me more. Please tell me that from here on out, things will get easier. Please.

Even as I write that all out, I strongly suspect that Your Holy Spirit is praying something very different for me. It probably goes more like “Help Rick to see the mind-numbing value of what is being offered to him. Help him to see that when his Maker comes down and says ‘I want to provide personally for everything you will ever need,’ that it means more than any temporary fixes and fleeting hole-filling activities could ever hope to signify. Help Rick to understand that anything that You don’t offer and provide is something that will kill his soul instead of save it. Help him to rest in your ridiculous, nonsensical love for him, and to trust in Your completely sufficient mercy, grace, and provision. Right now, he’s not able to do that. Do it for him.”

Probably You should listen to His prayer instead of mine.

Things I Don’t Believe

I got word a few hours ago that a friend of mine is dead.

I don’t know much more than that. He was an internet buddy, a connection made through a mutual friend. I’ve known him for years. We weren’t close, but we spoke pretty often. He was always an encouragement to me when we did connect. I spoke to him last about a week and a half ago. I was in a pretty dark place. Evidently, so was he. He obliquely mentioned a cancer diagnosis, but when I tried to follow up on it, he deliberately changed the subject and asked how I was doing. I made a mental note to ask about it next time we talked, and proceeded to talk about me. (Those of you who know me won’t find that shocking.)

He struggled with addiction, chronic illness, and depression. He was a broken man who was deeply in love with Jesus. He realized that his only hope, in this life as well as the one to come, lay in God’s ridiculous, senseless love for him. The last time I spoke to him, he laid aside his suffering to try and hold mine for a few minutes. I let him.

I don’t know if he died of cancer, of an overdose, or because he took his own life. I have no idea. I’m not going to try to tell you his story. I’m not qualified. I didn’t know him that well. I’m going to try to tell you why I’m so disgusted with myself right now.

I am growing increasingly repulsed and furious at the idea that you can hold to a belief about God solely in the theoretical abstract, while never really allowing it to make any practical difference in your behavior. I am getting weary of holding up under the weight of a reality characterized by half-measures of commitment to truths about our faith that never seem to create lasting change in the functional outworking of day-to-day life.

I’m weary of people whose compassion for those struggling with habitual sin is not mitigated by the reality that God has forever forgiven their own cosmic treason and made relationship with Him possible through the death of His perfect Son. I’m tired of those who have been at the Prodigal’s welcome home party long enough that they’ve genuinely begun to believe that God looks more favorably on their struggles with pride, dishonesty, and selfishness than He does on more pigpen-smelling struggles like sex, addiction, and alcohol abuse. I’m repulsed by the mentality that greedily sucks in grace and mercy and forgiveness and unwarranted favor and unconditional love and never looks for ways to be a selfless conduit of the same in the lives of people God has so clearly placed in their lives. I’m disgusted by the kind of person who could know deeply the importance of sitting on the ash-heap with someone, yet use the last earthly conversation with a suffering friend talking about their own mess and putting off dealing with someone else’s to a more convenient time.

There’s a phrase for the kind of beliefs that don’t translate into action … they’re called “things I don’t really believe.”

 

Peterson on Snake Oil

“The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities … we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.”

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction

Jesus Wept

Waves of emotion rolled through him, the kind of emotion no man born of woman could have known before. Anger that burned with an undying fire. Sorrow that endlessly ached for the realities of brokenness and darkness. Joy that ever whispered silently of a day when death would die … a day that was coming far sooner than any of the mourners gathered could have known.

He heard the quiet sobbing, the tired cries of grief four days old. He saw them watching him, the silent accusation in their eyes no quieter than the unmistakable point of the words that still hung in the dusty air. “If you had been here … if you had come when we called …”

He turned to look back at Martha, saw the grim resolve in the set of her jaw. She had been steeling herself against the agony for days, but there was still a little hope there. Perhaps senseless hope, but hope nonetheless. He looked back to Mary, met the fierce intensity of her leveled gave with one that spoke a compassion flesh had never felt. Her lip quivered with barely restrained ferocity, love, fear, and pain. His eyes started to fill.

He dropped his gaze. He looked at the dirt at Mary’s feet, dirt she would return to one day. Cursed earth. Earth that had already claimed his friend.

“Where is he?,” he asked her, his soft voice breaking. He started to cry, tears running down his face into his beard.

One of the mourners saw, and turned to her friend. “Look, the Master really loved Lazarus,” she said, following the crowd as they began to shuffle toward the tomb.

It’s my favorite moment in the New Testament. I know it probably ought to be something in Romans. Even if I limit it to the gospels, it probably ought to be the Resurrection or the Ascension. But this is the moment I pick. Jesus, Theanthropos, the God/Man … crying. Why? He knew He was about to rip his friend back from death’s cold grip. Why did He cry?

Was it because he saw and felt the grief of people He loved? Was it because He knew that Lazarus’s resurrection was only a tease, that he would have to suffer that cruel fate again? Was it because he was overcome with anger at sin and death itself?

I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s knowable. But today, this story whispers a new comfort to me.

Jesus, God incarnate, stands in front of a tomb and cries. He walks out of heaven and into the earthy work of art He painted, sits down on the ash heap of our suffering, and He weeps. Yes, He comes to redeem. Yes, He comes to undo sin and death and darkness. Yes, He comes to show us a better way. But let’s not miss that in the process, He stands before us and looks us in the eye as we suffer loss and heartbreak.

What He says to us in that moment perhaps doesn’t speak as eloquently as what He does not say. He doesn’t say:

“Suck it up.”

“This is your cross to bear.”

“You should be over this by now.”

“If you really trusted Me, this would be easier.”

“The consequences of sin suck. Sorry.”

“Isn’t this all a little bit you-centered?”

“Could you try NOT being so broken?”

“Have you tried chamomile tea?”

What He does say is “You’re going to have hard times here, in this world. But I have overcome the world.”

And He weeps.

Near to the Brokenhearted

I’m going to preach to myself a bit. Feel free to listen in.

One of my heroes tweeted this just a few minutes ago.

Tullian Tchividjian Tweet

If Tullian’s isn’t a familiar name to you, I would strongly urge you to get to know him. He’s a successful author and conference speaker. He’s Billy Graham’s grandson and the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. But he’s not a guy unacquainted with brokenness. He doesn’t have a super glitzy past. He’s been places and done things. It’s because of this that when he speaks to me of God’s “One Way Love” for me — His completely unconditional acceptance that disregards my sin in favor of Christ’s sinlessness credited to my account — I listen more attentively than when I hear similar things from shiny, golden people. (Clicking on the graphic above will take you to a collection of his blogs for The Gospel Coalition.)

The message was one I needed to hear today. That’s a really sanitized way to say it. It hit me like a life-preserver, honestly. In the last week, I’ve almost shut this blog down at least three times. I’m nearly 75% convinced right now that the ideas I write about, while theoretically and biblically sound, are utterly unrealistic in any sort of practical application. I guess I just continue to find far more evidence that it won’t work. I had a 4.5 hour phone conversation this week, one where I really opened up about some of my past and struggles. The unmistakable response was that I should suck it up, keep it to myself, and abandon the idea that I was ever going to find a community to proactively help push me toward Jesus. No one wants to know about deeply dark struggles, Rick. It’s not fair to tell them and place the weight on them of figuring out a response.

Sometimes I get tired of admitting that I’m struggling again. “Again?” Sometimes I get tired of admitting that this is a nearly perpetual struggle for me. I long for a community that walks and wrestles together … really together. I know the guy I had the marathon phone session with isn’t alone. I’m sure I have a lot of friends who wish I would abandon this idea. People for whom it’s awkward and difficult to really reach out and grab hold of someone’s messy hand. Particularly the hand of one who keeps needing it. I know this is hard. I get it.

I know how pathetic this sounds. I probably won’t even re-read it before I hit “publish.” It makes me sound weak, helpless, and needy. In short, it makes me sound like all the things I am. That’s why I almost shut down the blog. I’m tired of looking like what I am. I’m tired of not being able to pretend I’m “shiny.”

Okay, enough of that. Here’s the preaching.

Tozer has a quote I found recently that I also grabbed hold of like a drowning man. It says “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Here’s the quote in context:

The flaming desire to be rid of every unholy thing and to put on the likeness of Christ at any cost is not often found among us. We expect to enter the everlasting kingdom of our Father and to sit down around the table with sages, saints and martyrs; and through the grace of God, maybe we shall; yes maybe we shall. But for the most of us it could prove at first an embarrassing experience. Ours might be the silence of the untried soldier in the presence of the battle-hardened heroes who have fought the fight and won the victory and who have scars to prove that they were present when the battle was joined. Thus, it is necessary for God to use suffering in his holy work of preparing his saints, it is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.

A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous

God, I hope that’s what’s happening. I hope You’re doing all of this for some reason. I’m so tired of hurting.

What if it’s just blind, legalistic consequences of sin? What if it’s just brokenness for the sake of brokenness? I’m not sure I can face the long view with that sort of prognosis. Yeah, we all want to gently speak to the righteous sufferer … “Hey, God uses all things to work out His eternal glory and your eternal good.” But what about the sinner? What about the guy who’s suffering because of his actions? What about the guy that wouldn’t be where he was if he hadn’t done bad things? What do we say to him?

I’m just going to end by saying these things to him (me), and continue to hold out hope that God was talking about him (me) when He said them.

 

For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.

Psalm 72:12-13

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-5

 

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

I Peter 5:10

 

The Lord sustains all who fall
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food in due time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.

Psalm 145:14-19

 

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.

John 12:24-26

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Sometimes, on days where I’m feeling pretty lonely, one of my heroes shows up and tells me I’m not crazy. It helps a bit. It actually helps a whole lot.

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Clicking the picture will take you to an article on the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship website. Scroll down to the second video. It’s 4:40 long. It’s beautiful.