What if The Gospel is Greater Than We Imagined?

One of our readings in preparation for the third gathering of the Apprentice Experience is The Magnificent Story: Uncovering A Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan Smith. I am so privileged to actually know Jim and to have shared meals with him and chatted with him about his work and about some of my meager efforts at discipleship and spiritual formation ministry. This is a guy who had Rich Mullins as a tenant in his house and was designated by Dallas Willard to write a Curriculum of Christlikeness.

But after reading The Magnificent Story, I am especially blessed to be associated with his ministry as a participant in the Apprentice Experience. This book, though not shy on theology and some scholarly heavy lifting, does for the Gospel what Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy did for the Kingdom of God. If you thought you knew all their was to know about the Gospel, Smith would say that you have just been exposed to a reduction and not the magnificent story full of goodness, beauty, and truth. He looks at reduced gospels such as the social gospel or the penal substitution gospel as important theological points but because they are reductions have become distortions that are doing more harm than good. As an alternative, Smith emphasis the Trinity as something we lose when our gospel gets distorted. He also mentions things like the miracle of creation, incarnation, and the great end of the story when we will see the new heaven and the new earth.

I have been exposed to Smith’s writing enough to know that he is not interested in hype. His book, though a departure, in many ways, from tried and true narratives coming out of evangelical circles, is meant to expose people to the vast expanse and wonder of God and his work on earth. He is not trying to present some counter view just to sell books or create a social media buzz. He has felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to write this book and the two books that will follow this one – The Magnificent Journey and The Magnificient Mission.

Our culture is so full of outrage, so full of narrow-mindedness, so full of criticism that I wonder if we are allowed to enjoy anything anymore. Smith reminds us that God and his work is worth enjoying and is intended to be enjoyed and now is the time to start enjoying God’s magnificent story.

 

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What I Would Tell My Twenty Year Old Self

I am 42-years old. I now have a daughter who is a Freshman in college. I recently tried to write some things to her detailing what I wish I knew entering college. That got me thinking about myself as a young person and what would have been important to know when I was 20-years old. Here is a portion of that list.

'I_Can't_Grow_Up'_mural_in_Manhattan_created_by_Baron_von_Fancy

  1. Pursue Christ not feelings. I once spent time at a lake talking to God about all that I wanted to experience. I began most of my sentences with, “I want to know what it feels like to…” Looking back on that now, I am frightened by my foolishness. By God’s hand I didn’t fall into some self absorbed, emotion only fueled existence that only sought feelings at the expense of the transforming power of Christ and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Christ is much more worthy of pursuit than my feelings. The latter is a dead end.
  2. Being a Contrarian has its limits. I am one of those people who in a room full of liberals will be the most conservative in the room or in a room full of conservatives will be the most liberal in the room. I am not intentionally trying to be difficult, it is just that too much blind consensus makes me uncomfortable. So, in the evangelical world that I grew up in and continued to partake of in college, I tended to narrow my faith to a set of beliefs that were more personal preference than a soul stirring philosophy of life. More a reaction to what I saw around me than a productive sense of direction. In a way, I had been guilty of the same problems I saw in my evangelical circles. In an effort to be reactionary against what I thought were a narrow set of beliefs, I had built up my own reduced version of beliefs. The depth and breadth of the full gospel were lost to those I was reacting against and to myself.
  3. Change is Possible. Twenty plus years later I am a different person. Many people hold back on this Growing Up in Christ thing because they don’t really think that change can happen. I can say that Christ has transformed my life but at 20-years-old I would have been skeptical. Today, I am a friendlier and more patient person. I am less selfish. I don’t let anger and bitterness consume me. I am more genuine and less likely to embrace falseness and pretense. Lust doesn’t have the hold on me as it once did. I understand more of the heart of Christ and have been able to learn from him in a variety of ways. It is not as important for me to always be right. Christ can change lives. It has happened to me.

The Christian Life: Unfiltered

Scripture says that the one who has loved one another has fulfilled the law. Any other commandment is summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

The sum of God’s purpose for human beings is to love one another. No filter is needed. You don’t have to run this through a denominational filter, or a political filter, or a theological filter, or a family filter, or a social media filter. This is a biblical directive, it is right there in black and white. The mark of Christianity is whether we are loving our neighbor as ourselves. You don’t need someone to tell you what this means and whether or not one thing counts as loving your neighbor and one thing doesn’t. If you are a Christian and you don’t know what love looks like, then you might need to start your faith over.

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This past week in Houston, there have been many signs of this kind of love for neighbor. Volunteers in boats are saving people from their washed out homes, public service personnel are risking their lives and maybe even the protection of their own home and possessions to help others. And we are celebrating these acts of sacrifice and love. The stories about heroes are more present on social media than stories of destruction or loss. We can’t get enough of it. Why? Because, deep down we know the goodness that is found in this kind of love. We recognize the purity of helping another person simply because they need help.

May Christians return to this truest mark of the faith. Let us put away all of our filters that give us convenient excuses for not doing God’s will. Life is too short to not love, to not practice goodness.

Let us live a filterless life.

 

One Place Where It Didn’t Help Me To Be White

Despite my shortness and my whiteness, my sport growing up was basketball. I loved the action meshed with specific skills meshed with constant competition. I was good enough to play on varsity at a large high school and then to play at a small non-scholarship college.

One of the reasons I progressed as a player was the fact that I played against tougher competition. That usually meant playing against and with players of a different skin color, specifically black. Marcus, Maurice, Chinda, Tyrone, and Sedrick were names of some of the players I commonly played against.

Tyrone was one of the best players to ever come out of our town. He was a quiet guy who had the physical skills to score while also being a presence defensively and under the basket.

I had been away to college for a few years but when I was back over Christmas Break or Spring Break I would go to a local gym for a noon basketball run. These games were pseudo organized; but usually if you wanted to play you had to be picked up by some players who needed an extra hand to make a full five.

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Though I had been around this gym my whole life this was an adult crowd who weren’t too impressed by my stature and color. Even though it was my turn to get into a game some maneuvering would inevitably happen and my turn would get overlooked or I would just simply be denied access to the game. In the eyes of those present, I was too white, there was no way I was going to be any good. Until Tyrone showed up.

Tyrone knew me, knew that I could shoot, played hard, would get him the ball and would be deceptively good when the game needed me to be. While all of the other guys were finding ways for me to not get on their team, Tyrone always managed to include me on his squad. And then we would rule the gym. With these games, if you win you get to stay on the floor and another team gets a chance to beat you. If you are successful, you might play three or four games in a row and never have to sit out. We consistently won and I got to ride Tyrone’s coattails.

In this environment, I was the one that was being overlooked and judged based on my skin color, I was the one that didn’t get a fair shake because of ethnicity. I needed Tyrone to recognize and understand my talents and to see me as an asset to the success he was trying to accomplish and to pick me. This made me want to play harder to show my worth and to live up to Tyrone’s expectations of my contributions. Working together we accomplished more than we could on our own.

I in no way want to equal this one experience to what many African Americans have faced their whole life, but I want to show the value of moving beyond our superficial way of thinking.

If our thoughts just stop at skin color then we will never see the potential in a person, we will never recognize true talent in a wide variety of areas, we will never get to work together. Everyone talks about creating conversations or building dialogue with those of another race and this is no doubt helpful but conversations end and dialogue moves on to another group.

What we need is to recognize the unique talents and skills that can be found in any culture and blend that with our own talent and skills to create a better neighborhood, a better church, a better school, and a better society.

Tyrone did it for me. Who can I be a Tyrone for?

What about you?

 

Our Societies Biggest Blind Spot

I have seen some incredulous reactions over the last week regarding Charlottesville, Virginia. People are shocked at the fact that 50 years since the civil rights movement there are still white supremacists and Nazis. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

You see, 50 years ago there was legislated and structural racism. There were laws in place and public policies established that segregated and limited the rights of black people. These laws and policies were largely removed 50 years ago.

What we are seeing now is the limits of legislated measures. You can’t legislate the heart and when people still harbor hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and condescension in their heart things like Charlottesville can occur. The problem is, those that want to fight against racism have very little to work with because this issue is a heart issue and not an institutional issue. Reducing this whole problem to the simple removal of controversial symbols and statues may help but it still does nothing about the heart.

Part of the problem with the secularization of society is that the heart is barely acknowledged. Character is old-fashioned and considered naive and child’s play. These things are pushed to the side so we can tear down some statues and blast someone on social media. No one, not the KKK, not the Nazis, not the Antifa, not the Religious Right wants to deal with matters of the heart. Why? Because this is too hard. It is easier to join a mass bombardment of tweets than take the time, the silence, the prayer, and the work to change the heart. Also, one would have to acknowledge our own limitations and our own lack of imagination and compassion to develop a society or community that govern effectively. Dallas Willard says that, “there are no human solutions to human problems.”

civil rights

So rally if you must, post something on Facebook if you need to, try to legislate something good for all but until we acknowledge our need for God and begin to rely on the leading of his Son to transform our heart and create in us a version of himself, we will be looking at the same problems, or worse, 50 years from now.

This is why I care so much about Growing Up and helping myself and others find transformation in Christ. It is only in Christ that we find solutions, we find change, we find hope, and we find a vision for the future.

Jeremiah 29:11 And Being Where We Don’t Want To Be

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Jeremiah 29:11-13

Rightly or wrongly, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most quoted scriptures of the 21st Century. Bible scholars will look down their noses at those of us who use Jeremiah 29:11 out of context and don’t understand all of the political and historical background surrounding Judah and the loss of its best and brightest in the Exile to Babylon. But what makes verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and its wonderful follow-up 12 and 13 so profound is that I don’t have to know the context in order to gain truth and inspiration from it in a variety of ways.

As I have studied this passage and the entire chapter, what I realized is that those in exile were in a place they did not want to be – physically and spiritually. They thought they couldn’t experience God where they were because, in their minds, God could only be found in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were told by a few false prophets that they would be leaving soon, and they took a “what do we care” approach to their existence in Babylon. Why should they even try to make a living or contribute to society in this God-forsaken place if they would be soon exiting? Jeremiah, delivering God’s message, tells them otherwise. In the lead up to our passage, they were told to get married, plant crops, be good citizens, and try to prosper, even pray for the city they have been forced to.  God is asking them to trust him because he knows the plans, and they are good. He is asking them to seek him, even 800 miles from home because they will find him even there.[1]

My wife, Leah, was not in the country when my father died on July 8. She was in Zambia, Africa on a mission trip. She was in a place she wanted to be but not at that moment in time. In our fractured conversations over the phone, she asked me, “What do you want me to do?” She was hurting and emotional and wanting to help, but I didn’t want her traveling 7,000 miles by herself and my Dad wouldn’t have wanted that either. I told her, echoing the words of Jeremiah 29, to do what she was called to do: to serve the kids in the orphanage where they were staying, to share Christ’s love to the Zambian ladies they were on retreat with, and to boldly deliver the gospel message of Jesus. I believed and tried to express to her that we have to be faithful to our calling and to trust that a faithful God has the plans in place that would prosper what she was doing while allowing her to find God in the midst of such disconnect and distance from the one’s she loved.

On the night my Dad died, after a session led by my wife, 22 ladies gave their lives to Jesus. God was moving because Leah decided to prosper where she was planted and live up to the calling that brought her to Africa. She had every right to check out, to take an emotional break, to say everything was too much, but that was not why she was sent to Africa and that would not have been what my Dad would have wanted. She, in the midst of pain and uncertainty, sought God and found him in Zambia.

I was also in a place I didn’t want to be.. Who wants to watch their father die? But as my mom, sister, and I held hands and prayed over my deceased father, we had the assurance of all of the great promises of scripture, including Jeremiah 29:11-13. Even in our pain, we knew we had hope, and we knew we had a future. And as we sought God, he listened to us and came to us.

As verse 14 states, “I will be found by you, declares the Lord.” Are we willing to be found by God no matter what situation, good or bad, we find ourselves in?

[1] Peterson, Eugene. Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best. Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2008.

My Tools For Overcoming Grief (Part Two)

In the last post, I discussed a few items that have helped me as I work through my grief in the loss of my father. Today, I mention three more that have been instrumental in restoring some sense of balance and stability in a challenging time.

Fasting –

Scot McKnight, in his excellent book on Fasting, makes the case that the Biblical point of fasting is to have an intentional spiritual response to a sacred moment. I thought of this as I was trying to think of ways to work through my grief.

The death of my father was a sad sacred moment that I needed to fully acknowledge and commemorate through my actions. So, I marked out a couple of days on my calendar, told my wife what I was doing, and went for it. It was kind of a forced way of remembering my dad.

So many times we choose to try to forget or even hope that we wouldn’t think about our loved one so much. I chose to make every hunger craving or pain an invitation to think about my Dad, his life, his legacy, and our times together. To thank God for him and to seek out God’s comfort in my sad reality.

fasting

There are many things I could say about these two days but they are hard to express. The main result was a balancing of my physical, spiritual, and emotional states. My physical side needed to be more tied to my spiritual rather than my emotional side – more faith and less bitterness, more trust and less anger, and more outward focus and less self focus. My spiritual side needed to go deeper and further rather than staying on the surface where my emotional side could take over. And my emotional side needed to find the healthy emotions such as love, hope, peace, and joy and not dwell on anger, bitterness, and envy.  My time of fasting helped bring more balance to these states.

Talking –

There are some people who will tell you everything they possibly can about a situation they find themselves in, whether you asked them about it or not. I am not one of those people. I assume most people don’t want to hear it so I don’t bother; they would rather talk about themselves than listen to me. But, in the face of life and death, I couldn’t play my usual, “I’m okay,” game. It would have been an obvious lie.

So when people ask me how I am doing regarding my Dad’s death, I try to express more of what is truly going on. I will speak about how difficult it has been, the things I have learned, the challenges of the particular moment, and what has been hard moving forward. A few friends from work have asked me for lunch and I have taken the opportunity to elaborate on the challenges of the summer and how I am trying to move forward. Though I do not like talking about myself for long stretches, it has been rewarding to be open and honest about what I am going through and sense the legitimate concern and kind words of a friend.

Dancing – 

In the last post, I mentioned how the Psalms have been helpful to me in dealing with my grief. Psalm 30 includes a line that reads, “You turned my wailing into dancing.” I don’t know what kind of dancing the Psalmist was thinking of when he wrote that but my kind of dancing included Kool and the Gang.

I had bought a CD of Kool and the Gang’s Greatest Hits for one of our daughters who enjoys a little funk in her music selection. One day as I was returning from work, a little beat down from the day and my circumstances, I hear that my daughter is playing the CD in the living room. Instead of dragging all of my stuff to my room and trying to decompress on my own, something moved me to dance to the music. It was spontaneous, fun, goofy, and a great relief. It was also a sign that I don’t have to be ensnared by sadness forever, that God is providing moments of joy and fun and that it is okay to let loose every now and then.

 

My Tools For Overcoming Grief (Part One)

In the weeks since my dad’s death, I have tried to do a spiritual check in on myself and recognized that I am struggling. I am out of balance. I am stretched thin and lack a lot of stamina when it comes to spiritual things. I am barely able to provide emotional awareness to my family and I tend to turn in on myself instead of look outward for much needed companionship and support.

I am grieving, I know, and I am not just being hard on myself or trying to rush the grieving process. But, if there is something that I can do now to keep myself from sinking too far into despair or bitterness, I need to try it. If there is something that would be beneficial to me, even in the midst of a dark time, there is no reason to wait. Despite the hurt and difficulty, God wants to help and desires that I seek out means to allow his grace to come crashing through like a tidal wave.

So, I would like to share with you the tools I have used to help me get through my grief. If you are struggling with anything, perhaps some of these tools might be beneficial to you as well.

The Psalms –

Two Psalms in particular have risen to the surface of my awareness. In one of those times when particular passages get mentioned in multiple venues and contexts, I figured I needed to pay attention to Psalm 30 and Psalm 77. In Psalm 30, there are lines like, “weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning;” and “you turned my wailing into dancing, you removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy.”

Psalm 77 begins with…

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
    at night I stretched out untiring hands,
    and I would not be comforted.

but later says …

I will consider all your works
    and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

Eugene Peterson says that all prayer ends in praise. Many Psalms were reminders that I can’t just remain in my sadness and despair. There is a time and will be a time when I need to consider all of the Lord’s work and begin to turn my tears into joy. The Psalms can guide me through that.

Music –

I have always been encouraged, convicted, and inspired by music. I look back on dry periods in my spiritual life and can recognize that there was a consistent lack of music.

For several weeks, I was having to drive three hours back and forth from my home to where my parents live. That gave me many hours to listen to music and to find comfort and peace there. I found myself gravitating towards the texture of the music rather than the content of the lyrics. I needed sounds that were comforting and uplifting in a sad sort of way. I know, a very specific formula. I found it in a collection of 6 songs by Andrew Bird. Many of his songs, and the way he uses instruments, just wash over you and then carry you away to a reflective place. I was in a reflective mood and needed to tap into this side of me.

 

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard –

Throughout this summer, I have been reading this classic by my hero, Dallas Willard. I have read it several times since 2002, the year it came out, but this time was different and it was incredibly comforting and motivational.

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If you haven’t read it, Willard describes the vision and the means for having Christ transform all of the parts of the self including our thoughts, emotions, will, and social dimension. With each description and process for transforming a certain part of myself, it was easy for me to evaluate what progress I have made in 15 years. Then you throw in being in the arena of struggle, pain, service, and loss, and it is like a Minor League player stepping up into the big leagues.  There was no denying my progress and also where I needed to improve. I saw areas where God has done some amazing things in my spiritual growth but I also saw some areas where I have neglected to do my part and little growth had risen to the surface. I was comforted and convicted at the same time. That is a great place to be in your spiritual life.

Next time: Three more tools for overcoming grief.

 

Blogging In Crisis

How do you write when you would rather just sleep?

How do you write when everyday you feel like you have just been run over by a bus?

How do you write when you have been drained of every ounce of profundity or insight?

How do you write when just getting up in the morning to go to work is your greatest accomplishment for the day?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have gotten off my usual pattern. For months, I would put out two blog posts a week. I haven’t been able to do that this summer. I lack the mental, spiritual, and physical capacity at this moment to keep to that schedule.

All of my posts recently have centered on my dad’s illness and death and my part in that equation. From a spiritual sense, that is about all that I can address right now. Before this summer, I would have post ideas brewing days before and when it was time for me to write something, my thoughts would be primed and ready to go. But lately, the only thought I have brewing regarding this blog have been, “I hope I can get at least one out this week.”

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I haven’t lost my morning routine. I have remained consistent, yet not up to date, with my Apprentice Experience reading. I even exercise regularly. But expressing myself beyond my rawest emotions and most evident reflections has been difficult.

I write this not as a way to whine or to elicit sympathy but to tell you part of the toil that struggle and grief can take on a person. I also write this to give you a marker for how I am doing with my grief.

When I get back to two posts a week and can start writing about subjects that don’t involve disease, struggle, and death, then you will know I am doing better. I am just not there yet.

Where Is God When It Hurts?

During the final months of my dad’s life, I learned that God takes care of you even when you think he isn’t taking care of you.

There were many prayers for my dad, and myself, that went unanswered. Prayers for his healing, prayers for his ease of mind, prayers for an easier situation for my dad, as well as for my mom and my sister and I. Those prayers seemed to go unanswered.

But all around the situation seemed to be evidence of God’s care for us in profound ways.

One such incident occurred the day I returned to work after a few days of helping my Mom care for my dad. These few days were some of the lowest points in the slow awful process of his cancer. He had become non-communicative and his attempts to walk and conduct just the most routine of movements had become almost impossible. We were forced to start looking at options for care outside of our own capabilities.

I was beat down and frustrated and helpless. Still, I had to work and fulfill my duties of my job.

A computer in our area was not logging on correctly and the usual fix was to climb underneath the computer station and start to mess with the chords. As I was doing this, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I saw that it was a torn out piece of paper with some words on it. I figured it was just trash and would quickly discard it. But, I did take a look at the writing and noticed these words:

“Cast all of your worries on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

Who knows how long that piece of paper had sat there, maybe weeks or maybe even months before I found it. And for me to find it at one of the lowest points of one of the lowest moments of my life was no mere coincidence or good luck. God was providing for me, was encouraging me, and was reassuring me of his great care.

Carillon_de_Taninges

Wikimedia Commons

When my dad died, my wife was out of the country on a mission trip. The care and love that she received from the local believers in Zambia demonstrated that God’s love and provision is available half way around the world. The day he died, 22 girls at a Girl’s Retreat, which my wife help lead, sought and received Christ’s gift of salvation.

In the absence of my wife and her present support, three of the staff members of our church drove 170 miles to attend the funeral. Also, three colleagues at work made a similar trip to demonstrate concern, compassion, and support. Two of my longest and dearest friendships were represented and found me before the funeral to bring me encouragement and comfort.

I could go on and on in demonstrating how God was present and moving during this time.

Sometimes, as we look for God’s big miracles we miss all of the thousands of little miracles all around us. My dad was lost to us too early and under great strain and suffering. There is no denying the awfulness of his disease and what it did to his mind and body. I don’t understand why it was necessary for him to go through all of that and why we had to watch it happen. But in spite of that grim reality, I saw God work. I felt God’s comfort. I experienced God’s provision. I tasted his goodness. God was with me and with my family and with my wife. He never abandoned us.

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

—Frederick Buechner, Godric, 96.