Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have moved all the blog posts and will start actively blogging on the new site:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Parable of the young son

I decided to write this up as its own parable.

Once there was a man who worked at an insurance company as a programmer. He was an expert in statistics and computer science, and ran ever more complex actuarial studies on a massively parallel super-computer.

One day, his young son asked him what he did all day when he went to work. He thought and thought about a way to explain to him what it was he did, and he simply could not think of a way to explain what he was doing in a way that his son could comprehend. So he told him what he considered the most basic and actual truth about it:

"I make money."

Satisfied, the son went on to play. Months later, his mother happened to take him up to his father's office so they could go to lunch. Starry-eyed and excited, the son tagged along. When they arrived at the father's desk, he asked, "where do you make the money?! Confused, the father answered, "Well ... right here." The son answered, "but, where do you melt the metal? Where do you stamp the designs? Where do you keep all the money after you make it? I want to see!"

Laughing, the father pondered how to answer. How to explain that he got paid for his work, and his paycheck was electronically deposited into their bank account? He said, "Honey, it isn't like that." And they went off to lunch without another explanation.

Now the son is grown, and he still doesn't understand what his father was doing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Parable of the two young music students

Once there was a great music teacher who only took a few of the most gifted and promising students. One of his students was a very disciplined young man, hard-working and eager to please. He had not at first wanted to play, but he realized it was something that pleased his mother, and because he desired to please her, he worked at his studies very hard. Every morning he would wake before dawn, practice his scales and finger exercises, and slowly perfect certain passages in the grand classic he happened to be working on. All marveled at his dedication and devotion. In the evening, when others of his peers played outside, he again pulled out his metronome and worked at perfecting the most difficult passages.

The great teacher recognized his discipline and talent. There was technicality and even a clean perfection to his playing that was rare.

The great teacher had another student who was also quite gifted. Although his parents balked at the trouble and time and expense of bringing their son to the lessons, he begged them and insisted against their wishes that he be allowed to take lessons. He too woke up, and from an instinctive and raw appetite he played every chance he could get. He imitated songs he liked from movies and recordings from all styles, and was constantly making up songs and trying his hand at everything he heard. In fact, often his parents would argue with him to stop playing so much because his obsession was intrusive and bothersome. His obsession was anything but discipline, because he would often ignore his other chores and duties, even his personal hygiene, in his insatiable need to constantly play.

In the lessons, the teacher had trouble getting this other student to discipline himself to practice the finer points of playing more difficult passages. However the music teacher was gracious enough to realize that a different approach must be taken to lead this student to greatness. In fact, although in certain ways this student's playing was undisciplined and even a bit sloppy, there was a joy and life to his playing which hinted of true greatness. There was a truth and presence and ease to his playing, a natural musicianship that was indefinable.

The disciplined student went on to a prestigious music academy, where he played Mozart and Bach at music juries where teachers scribbled criticisms as he played. He did indeed receive the highest grades. Occasionally he played at recitals, and eventually he became a piano teacher and a professor of music at the academy. The other student travelled around the country, playing small concerts at bars and outdoor festivals.

Often what looks like success is only a prison made of fear of the opinions of others. True love counts the opinions of others as nothing, and though imperfect and humble of appearance, is impelled by real desire.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts to my mystified friends

This is a note to the mystified reader who wonders how an otherwise intelligent guy ended up not only as a Christian, but as a person seemingly obsessed with some kind of controversy about some fine point of faith that seems frankly irrelevant.

I am not out to convert you. I might be out to convince you, but there isn't a person on earth who doesn't hold some kind of opinion and who doesn't want to be persuasive. There is a difference between respectful persuasive intelligible dialog, and weird angry evangelistic fervor. I'm posting this as a public service so some of you who don't get this can understand where the heck I'm coming from. It is supposed to be respectful and persuasive.

First, I do not believe the earth is 6000 years old. I do believe in Biblical inerrancy (the whole Bible is true) but you have to understand that there is room to think straight within that world. Look at it like this: if the story of the creation of the universe and all of life was written initially in the language of ultimate science, and was fully accurate, no one in antiquity could have even begun to understand it. Even today we couldn't understand it. However, it was not written this way.

Here is a way to understand this. My father was the manager of a large insurance office when I was young, and was an expert in worker's compensation claims. As a child, I asked what he did when he went to work. He said, "I make money." I pictured him melting down copper and pouring it into little molds making coins. When I went to visit his office, asked to go see where they make the money. They laughed, and I was confused. Was he lying or inaccurate? Was he trying to mislead me? Of course not. He simplified his answer because he could not explain worker's compensation and the complex machinations of his office and how they used an IBM mainframe computer to run actuarial numbers or whatever to a 6 year old. I completely misinterpreted his answer in a literal way that wasn't even close to accurate.

Genesis 1 is a one chapter rundown of the creation of the universe and all of life on earth. Not only is it meant to be intelligible to mankind in antiquity, but it is only one chapter. It sets the stage for a much more focused and larger story, and the larger story is really the point. Let's face it, the details of Genesis 1 don't even make sense. It says there was evening and morning, and even vegetation, before there was a sun and moon. That just doesn't make any sense. Does this mean I don't believe? No, it means I am a 6 year old trying to understand the creation of the universe, and I am getting a 6 year old answer. The fact is, the universe exists, and was somehow created. The actual details of what really happened in what order in concert are still way beyond our comprehension. Thus, I put Gen 1 in a right perspective. It is true, it is even literally true, but it is an explanation of an unspeakably complex thing written in a way that is minimally intelligible to all people from antiquity forward.

This brings up another point for my mystified friends. Belief doesn't mean you can't doubt things, you can't think for yourself. There is a place to say honestly, Genesis 1 sure is weird in its details, but I still believe it. You can put things on the 'I don't get this' shelf, without throwing the whole idea of belief and faith out the window. You say, I have trouble believing that a perfect and good loving God could have ordered his people to commit genocide down to the last Canaanite man, woman, and child, when they entered the promised land. I have trouble with that too. I don't get it. I don't even like it. In fact, it makes me sick, and I have some serious questions for God when I get up there. It calls His justice and mercy and goodness into question. I would be a fool to cover this over and pretend I just 'believe' without having doubts about this. I DO have doubts about this. However, I still believe. Where John the apostle says 'God is love' and that 'in this is love, ... that God loved us ... " and all of that, I believe it. Some of this weird stuff, I don't get, and I think I am allowed to believe and to hold out with some doubts. Any Christian that won't own up to having doubts is not very well grounded in the truth of their beliefs.

In fact, one of my favorite guys these days, Peter Rollins, has this byline on his blog: 'to believe is human; to doubt divine" - go check it out:

Here is another thing for my mystified friends to understand. This is such a huge point. When you think of Christians, or the Christian community, you think of the absolute buffoons on television or whatever. No one I know or love is like that. You think that the Christian church is all wrapped up in right wing politics and a weird and harsh form of American patriotism. I lean to the left politically, and I'm concerned for the environment, and I don't poo-poo climate change! Yes, and there are MANY others. There is a huge world of extremely intelligent and extremely large-minded people in the Christian community. There are people on the very cutting edge of culture and thought, who are the people you really ought to be listening to. Can you imagine if all Germans were judged by their association with Naziism? It is no service to anyone to judge or ignore or write off THE GERMANS because of WWII. It is no service to anyone to judge all of christendom by the Spanish Inquisition, Robert Tilton, and that crazy church down the street. There is a gargantuan world of people with great free-thinking principled lives that are part of Christendom that you would probably love to sit down with for a few hours to sip coffee and really talk to.

Finally, the whole point of this blog, the scandal of grace, is that most people outside the church, and a lot of people inside the church, don't get that the point of Christian faith isn't to trick you into being more moral. It is about believing that even when you are not perfect, not moral, not successful, even then you are deeply and truly loved and cared for. When you have problems and grief, there is somewhere to go with that. It is about a love and a joy that cannot be taken away, about significance that cannot be lost. It is about being freed from having to engineer your own significance and success and fulfillment. I have to say, if I am trying to persuade anyone of anything, it is to invite you to try jumping in, the water feels GREAT! Don't let legitimate doubts about a few weird things in the Old Testament prevent you from experiencing what C.S. Lewis called being "Surprised by Joy." If I said anything to you, I would say, I really love walking in this way. I still have plenty of problems, plenty of frustrations, plenty of failures, but I also have an assurance that it will all work out and that God is truly with me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Justification Equation

I was listening to an excellent teaching by R.C. Sproul, and he came to a point where you can hear him cracking the chalk against the blackboard decisively with this equation:

Faith + Works != Justification ('!=' is programmer shorthand for 'not equal')
Faith = Justification + Works

How the dust was flying! You can hear people starting to cough. You gotta love him!

He is talking about assurance, as in, being assured that you are really a Christian, really eternally and forever under grace, eternally out of condemnation. If we add works to the wrong side of the equation, we remove the possibility of assurance. Assurance, he says, is a crucial element of our sanctification, and I would have to agree with this.

If we have come to a point, and it is settled, that Christ has truly justified us, that our sin cannot ever come between us and God, and that it is out of our hands to spoil that, we enter a new dynamic. No longer do we labor. No longer do we strive. No longer do we worry. What we DO is no longer part of the equation which leads to justification. Thus, what we do becomes motivated from a very different place. We no longer act from fear, no longer perform based on an attempt to justify ourselves.

We always couch this in religious terms but I believe this is true across the entire spectrum of human experience. Just as Solomon writes:

“And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:4, NASB.

All men, believers or not, religious or not, in their field of endeavor, strive for significance and skill as a means to significance, a means to self-justification. Even as we talk, make jokes, do business, work, recreate, form important relationships, we strive for significance with each other. In our minds, significance is earned by our deeds, our cleverness, our greatness in business or debauchery or pleasure or skill with words or music. I must craft my own importance because it is up to me alone to do so. I am constantly on the lookout to be more clever, more successful, more insightful, happier, with better pleasures and appreciations, to prove my significance.

In Christ, this is completely turned around. We are justified as a gift. We are declared significant carte blanche. We no longer need to become great at anything to prove our significance - we simply ARE significant. We are declared just. Any attempt to water this down, to obscure it, to blunt it, only takes us back to the fruitless land of doing things to prove our worthiness.

The flesh rebels at this. The flesh wants to act, to do things, to prove significance. The flesh doesn't rebel at the law, it loves it. The question isn't law or sin, the question for the flesh is really which law to revel in. Either a law of religious leanings, or a law of partying, or a law of violence, or whatever. Every community has its rules for belonging and honor, its rites of passage. You can feel yourself recoil at the idea that you need do nothing to be significant, to be justified.

However, under this new dynamic, under a decisive declaration of justification, we act and work and do things from a wholly different impulse. Under grace, whereas works are no longer necessary, works appear as fruit:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NASB.

So, we can come around and say, am I acting from faith? It is the right belief, a real assurance of justification, that leads to the right fruit. Works exist in both equations, but if you put works on the wrong side of the equation, you nullify grace. Do you see that? If you have faith in the work of Christ but still have the notion that you have to do stuff to earn justification then it nullifies Christ's work because you are still the one justifying yourself. This has drastic consequences to your works, because they are motivated by self-justification and not as the fruit of love.

When Christ justifies us, all of our human endeavor comes from a wholly different place. We joke differently, because we do not need to pose as a clever person - we already have an assurance that we are completely justified.

Do a mental experiment with me. Just pretend that no matter what, I mean NO MATTER WHAT, you were the very apple of God's eye. If you just got out of an orgy and smoked illicit things and did every debaucherous selfish act you could think of, you could immediately still pray and God would send you a million dollars dropped right out of the sky. How would you live? Would you still orgy-ize and smoke things? Would you keep asking for a million dollars?

Let me pose this to you: it really IS like that. We really have passed out of judgement, and as Peter says,

“... seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” 2 Peter 1:2, 3, NASB.

A million dollars is nothing more than a burden to manage, and a facade of fake wealth. You can't eat a million dollars. Jesus fed 5000 with a few fish and loaves. Money is nothing but a tool, and it is far from the only tool of provision. Sin is unfulfilling and rotten. So since we are justified no matter what, we are now free to look at the world with a right mind, a free mind. If EVERYTHING is permissable, and EVERY RESOURCE is available to me to do so, then the only question is, what greatness, what humble peace, what sweet loveliness, does my justifier have in mind for me today?

Here is my advice to you my esteemed reader: put works on the right side of the equation. As Peter says,

“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” 2 Peter 1:10, NASB.

Be assured that you are justified by Him, you are significant already in the eyes of God. Live from this position of strength.

Monday, September 20, 2010

John the Baptist and Jesus

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.” Luke 1:5, NIV.

Here we have a pretty obscure verse that shows us something very profound. John the Baptist is descended from the Levitical priesthood, and thus represents the Law. Both his mother and father were full blooded descendants of Aaron. Aaron was selected as the first priest, so saying they are descended from Aaron is saying they are high-pedigree priests:

““Then bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest to Me--Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons.” Exodus 28:1, NASB.

They are known as Levites because Aaron was descended from one of Jacob's sons, Levi:

“Then the anger of the LORD burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.” Exodus 4:14, NASB.

““And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, that there may be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.”” Numbers 8:19, NASB.

However, Jesus is not descended from the line of Aaron, but from the line of Judah.

So, when John baptizes Jesus, we have Jesus submitting to and fulfilling the law. John baptizes as one who represents and is under the law, for repentance from sins. As we look through John's ministry we see that it has to do with declaring the need for repentance, thus representing the law.

However, John himself says that he is subservient to Jesus:

““a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Mark 1:3-7, NIV.

“John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven. “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full. “He must increase, but I must decrease. “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. “What He has seen and heard, of that He bears witness; and no man receives His witness. “He who has received His witness has set his seal to this, that God is true. “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” John 3:27-34, NASB.

So we have the one who represents the law, preparing and making the way, and pointing to Christ, saying publicly that he is less than Christ. This is a picture of the law acting as a tutor to lead to God's work of grace, and of the law being less than grace.

“John *bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” John 1:15-18, NASB.

What this says to me is that the idea of law being an agent which cannot produce righteousness but which leads one to grace, is a message that God spoke even in the grand sweep of long Jewish lineage over thousands of years. The message of grace is His message, His primary message, a message He planned from the very beginning, and which He is using the Jewish nation and the grand sweep of history to teach us.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Love is eternal because it does not depend on attributes

This is a response to an absolutely fascinating post by a guy named Peter Rollins. You can and should read his original post here:

It really got me thinking about some of the foundational aspects of grace and love, so I wanted to post my response on my own blog as a matter of record.

I really enjoyed this. I heard a radio DJ in Vancouver BC read the jacket notes after playing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, talking about his Idee Fixe - that it was about a love so great that it pined eternally and forgave everything. I can't stand Berlioz, but I walked on clouds for days thinking that this is the kind of love God has loved me with. It is ironic that for most of us, the great love of God seems to be a vapor compared to romantic love, whereas romantic love is actually only a shadow or icon of the love of God for us. It is also another reason why in Christ we leave the universe of requirement and enter the universe of grace. Under law we maintain relationship by maintaining the necessary attributes to prevent rejection. Grace goes beyond accepting relationship based on adherence to certain traits, and enters into love based on pure identity. We become His sacred x, his pearl of great price for which He sells all else.

As to the criticism that it seems specious to define love as only that which loves always without defining attributes, this is actually the strongest idea in the piece. If love depends on attributes, it is not love but earned credit. If it does not need attributes but is based entirely on identity, then since nothing can be earned, nothing can be lost, and it becomes eternal. This is why, when Paul lists his huge list of unpardonable offenses in 1Cor 6 (aberrant sexualities and slander and greed and such), he follows immediately with "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable." The relationship which is defined by admiration of attributes is subject to a perfection of behaviors, but the relationship which is defined by grace is defined by pure love based on direct identity.

Thanks again, loved the ideas in this one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Letter to the North American Church

There is an event called "Eighth Letter" where writers are encouraged to write a letter to the church in North America.

A site listing many other contributions can be found here:

I think it is a cool idea and I think anyone who is following my blog knows what I would say. However, on reflection, and after reading around the blogosphere about what people think the North American church needs to hear, I came to some thoughts about the matter. So, here is my letter:

Dear North American Church,

I have heard SO MANY terrible things about you! Everyone I talk to, Christian, agnostic, and atheist, seems to think that you are the most flawed institution ever. I am certain that you are the root of all prejudice, hypocrisy, greed, heresy, small-minded ignorance, and petty fear. You are too inward, too materialistic, graceless, homophobic, too easy on sin, you avoid hard issues like eternal hell and damnation, you're seeker-sensitive instead of Christ-sensitive, you're culturally irrelevant, and on and on and on. You are hopelessly out of touch with real scientific truth, and are full of morons and stupid people who won't even acknowledge the obvious truth of evolution. Most of you probably believe the earth is 6000 years old and flat. In fact, the AMERICAN part of the North American church is the worst; the Canadians are a little better. The Mexican church isn't really part of North America is it? It's more like South America, they are there for youth mission experiences. Since they are kind of third world, their weird supernatural voodoo religious leanings are OK since myths are a help to primitive peoples. Maybe at one time you, the REAL North American church, were great, except for all the killing of native Americans and such, but now you have descended into a morass of complete and hopeless evil and worthless impotence and irrelevance.

I am here to criticize this criticism on your behalf. Yes, it is a bit surreal, but I am going to go with it. I am a little tired of all the self-proclaimed prophets and apostles constantly prattling on about their little soap-box issues, which may or may not be valid points, as if their criticism is the problem with THE ENTIRE CHURCH.

Here is a news flash: the church is full of sinners. After Christians come to Christ, they are still sinners in need of mercy. You, the North American church, are full of people who don't really know what they are doing. Every single one of them. Including your members who so easily criticize what you are trying to do. Your best pastors have trouble juggling multiple competing issues and directives in a balanced way, and not every pastor is perfect. So even if they have a clear and right mandate from the Holy Spirit, they are not perfectly executing on it. Is there not grace and patience for that?

The old zeitgeist was that you were hopelessly culturally irrelevant, were not enough about relationship, and were not seeker sensitive. The new zeitgeist is that you are trying too hard to be seeker sensitive, are too hipster, are too frank about sexual matters perhaps, and are not reverent and even liturgical enough. The church should be more timeless.

Here is the real point; when your leaders criticize this way, they begin to define themselves by their criticisms, and the times when they need to be more seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant, or timeless and non-hipster and reverent, they have been so vocal against the idea that you can't really step into that paradigm. If they would shut up they might have more options in following the leading of the Holy Spirit as things develop.

So, if your vision and the mandate you believe you have is to be seeker sensitive, then for God's sake be seeker-sensitive. Perhaps listen to this criticism and see if there is any way you might improve, but realize that God terribly loves you and is far more committed than the critic to seeing your vision and ministry succeed.

If your particular congregation is middle class and affluent, and is basically inward and not into helping the poor, you come under fire from the people who say that your problem is that you are callous and inward and unconcerned about the unfortunate. Well, maybe you are truly guilty of this. Your members did not join you because they were fired up about helping the poor now did they? Are they going to hell for this? Are their wounds and concerns and problems any less? Maybe you want to lead them to more concern and work for the poor, to be less busy toward some lesser concerns. But they have families and children and jobs and it isn't so easy an issue. Is there grace enough to let them fail and to lead them into true relationship with the Father and into true concern for all people, including the poor?

Here is the point. The real message of the church is grace. It doesn't mean there aren't problems in the church. It doesn't mean the church is doing it right at all. Look at it like this: my wife is fantastic. She isn't perfect, but I am not going to be happy about it if someone is going to go on and on and on delightfully pointing out her flaws so they can look smart. They don't look smart when they do that. They look like a self-aggrandizing malicious fool. And this is what most of these criticisms of the church look like.

So, to the critics who lead the church, I say, stop it. These are all difficult issues in a very difficult modern environment, and we are more than ever under fire. If you want the church to be like this or like that, say so with respect for the dignity of the church. Hipster seeker-sensitive churches or liturgical churches or whatever may not be your style, but they are doing what they think is best. Maybe you think that most churches in North America don't do enough for the poor and prisoners and such; how can you best influence them? Personally I think most churches don't emphasize grace enough, but you know what? They mostly believe in grace to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to helpfully and GRACIOUSLY speak into their environment in a way that they can receive it.

Almost all North American Churches:
1. Care about seeker sensitivity somehow, and want to welcome non-Christians
2. Have a degree of timeless reverence
3. Have a concern for the poor and downtrodden
4. Believe in holiness and repentance
5. Hold to the essential doctrines of the faith
6. Truly believe in the grace and mercy of the Father
7. Are locally and globally missional, to some extent

So, to the leaders in the church, if we are going to speak into churches, we need to realize that no pet idea or doctrine is going to cover every congregation completely. The very impulse to get down to the beating heart of the best criticism of the church is damaging. The first thing to realize is that God loves every human, however flawed, and God especially loves His church. He calls it His bride. He knows about the flaws. He also loves that certain people have enough passion and thoughtfulness to think about the church in such broad terms. However, the idea that it is somehow helpful to go on pinpointing what is wrong with the church, setting ourselves up as some kind of infallible judge, is harmful not only to the church, but also to the criticizer. Sure the church has a degree of "cognitive dissonance", but honestly is this confined to the church? The commands of Jesus are meant to be almost impossible to keep. Why is it shocking that people 'claim' to follow Jesus and do a poor job of it? Of course they do a poor job. We are all sinners, flawed and lazy and incomplete and misguided in many ways, in need of a savior. He is here to forgive, to bless when there is no merit for it, and to lead us truly and with grace and dignity to better pastures. It does no good for us to turn around and stand our ground and yell at the sheep for being lost or out of the pasture. We completely miss God's heart for His church this way. Instead, speak grace to His church, with a sensitivity to His heart for His bride. We cannot see what the church is like until we at least try to see the church with His eyes, and His eyes are full of love and hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

worshipping when you're wounded

I decided to post my sermon notes for this message so I can get some comments back and new ideas from everyone. It is kind of a loose amalgam of blog post and brief speaking points, but I'm throwing it out there anyway because I'm out of time and I have to go to work. Sorry for the fact that some of this is as yet half-baked.
1. Introduction to grace and suffering

We have come to characterize the Christian life as a response to the initiative of God. God tremendously and strongly loves us, and we begin to learn to respond in kind. Our response to God's initiative of love is our worship. There is another factor, however. When we are having trouble, when there is affliction or injustice or chronic hardship in our lives or in the lives of others, how can we intelligently interpret that as God's initiative of love and grace? In other words, if God is gracious and loving and wonderful, why am I having such problems? Why am I hurting? Why am I so wounded? How can so many of the NT authors reflect this idea:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance." James 1:2

"... we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations ..." Romans 5:2

They must be crazy or delusional, because no one in their right mind rejoices in tribulations. I want to show how the right thinking about grace can make this truth really live and breathe for you, and how you can interpret grace and worship into your real life with all of its disappointments, problems, hardships, and afflictions. Beyond being delusional, the NT authors found a source of strength and joy which no circumstance on earth could overcome. This is certainly the same frame of mind and the same power which God wants to show us how to walk in now. Affliction is absolutely guaranteed for 100% of humanity, but our response to it is the real wild card.

1.2 The universality of suffering
Anyone on planet earth who breathes is experienced with affliction. Certainly the birth experience itself is shocking and afflictive event. We all expect death to be traumatic, and as Billy Graham has said, one out of one people die. The minute we wake up every morning we begin to commiserate with Leo Kottke's song:

Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And you crawl out of bed and you crawl out of bed
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed

And there's tears in the bank and the credit card
In the back yard, in the back yard, in the back yard
If you look in the mirror it's your father's face
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed

1.3 Extreme examples of grace under affliction
Let's take a look at what Paul call's 'momentary light affliction':
“Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, NASB.

This is some pretty serious stuff. We know also that Paul had a chronic condition of some kind, a lot of people think it was his eyes:

“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Galatians 6:11, NASB.
combined with this:
“And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me--to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NASB.

Paul was no stranger to serious chronic affliction, punctuated with bouts of acute affliction ranging from hunger, exposure, physical torture, and much much more. It is important to understand that it is this man, the same man in the same book who wrote out this impressive list of afflictions, wrote of 'momentary light afflictions.' How could this possibly be?

It is a matter of comparison. If you compare your afflictions to other people whom you perceive to have less affliction, or to previous times in life when you seem to remember having less affliction, happier times, your present affliction will seem all the more to carry a tremendous weight. It is this inner perspective, this inner comparison of the mind, that makes the affliction all the harder to bear.

1.4 Woundedness - woundedness is a special case. Affliction is a present pain, that may soon go away. Tribulation is an outward circumstance that makes life difficult. But woundedness is a result of our own sin and the injustice of others, that has harmed us on the inside. It is an internal scar that we carry with us. It is chronic, and often it is something that no talk, no counsel, sometimes even no prayer, can seem to touch.

1.5 Owning your wounds: Brothers karamazov quote: "It is Rachel of old," said the elder, "weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother's grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin."

When Jesus was weeping and sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, who was going to come up to Him and say, "cheer up Jesus! Have a positive attitude! It will all work out! Where's your joy brother?" We are not to put on some false joy when we are hurting and wounded. It is better to own our grief, to allow ourselves to really be hurt. Comfort can come, dignity can come, when we realize that the cross we bear is a real cross, and the pain we experience is important to God. when we come to a Christian assembly, and only put our best smiling face forward, and in all our relationships never reveal our wounds, we never enter true fellowship.

2. Your personal suffering is important to God
It is thus important to note, that none of this says that your affliction, your present tense difficulties, are nothing. They are real. They are true. They are pressing. They are a cross which kills. You are an unsung hero bearing under a difficult weight. As Peter says:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6, 7, NASB.

This word, He CARES for you, in the Greek, means something very strong. It doesn't mean, He has some distant and vague feeling of pity for you. The tense is this: "it is a deep burden to Him." He sees, He carries the burden of it, it is an emotional and important thing to Him. He knows that it is difficult for us to see that these things are fleeting, and a beautiful heaven is coming soon.

When I went to Auschwitz, I saw the picture of Christ dying on the cross that the Christian brother scrawled on the wall with his fingernail. It was 25 years ago, and I remember it clearly to this day. (A detail of this picture is at the top of the blog post.) It is one of the world's great canvases, created under such demonic stress of evil and torture that one cannot even imagine it. Here is a man who knew that he would die, who possibly knew that he would be experimented upon alive by Dr. Mengele, and who looked to the suffering of Christ for solace and believed. For the longest time, I would look at this canvas in my mind, and think that compared to such suffering my own problems were of no account. I have come to see that this robs me of the dignity of my own cross. The artist of Auschwitz does not serve as a club to beat me over the head and tell me that my sufferings are nothing and that my weaknesses are unforgiveable; this is a disservice to the power of this artist's courage and faith. Grace says, find inspiration that the comfort and strength you find from God in your present hardships, will continue right up to the worst evil.

For each of us, our woundedness takes its own shape, and our woundedness is very precious in the eyes of God. This is the important kernel, the core message, of this post. Grace means God cares, God loves, God sees, God understands our pain. Worship is expecting this compassion, pressing in to God's perfect heart, while in the present tense affliction still presses on us.

2.1 The importance of our unique individual suffering
- Edith Schaeffer's book on affliction, example of the guy on his death bed, and how important it was for him to persist in saying God is good from that place. He was the only person in history with his history and demeanor and particular affliction that could declare the praises of God from that place of difficulty and faith. The critical warfare is an individual's worship under fire. Our worship under affliction weaves a vast tapestry which together is a beautiful thing from the perspective of heaven. A tapestry looks like a tangled mess underneath, but is beautiful on the viewing side. Life on earth is the tangled mess side of the tapestry.

2.2 Suffering as an opporutnity
it is the fleeting opportunity of praise in the midst of difficulty which is our tiny window of opportunity to exercise real powerful faith. It is the truly deep place of fellowship with His sufferings. Also, you are going to have to walk through the affliction one way or the other, should it be with faith or without?

3. Close look at the verse:
MOMENTARY affliction: it is not forever, even chronic affliction. The years pass very quickly. Eventually and sooner than later we will be with the Lord in heaven. Just like the school child can't imagine they will ever graduate from high school, and the teenager can't imagine that they will ever really find their soul mate and get married, we can't imagine that our presence in paradise will ever be real, but it will. Then, even our most persistent affliction will be seen for what it really is -> MOMENTARY.

LIGHT affliction: we've all said, I can't go on like this. But it depends on what you're comparing it to.

IS producing for us: not at some imaginary point, but NOW.

ETERNAL WEIGHT OF GLORY: What story or movie unfolds without some kind of challenge or problem? What hero is there who doesn't face impossible odds? The most amazing stories come out of the WWII period, because it was a time of intense suffering and thus a time of big heroes and a time when people's tenacity and strength were really tested and proven. In the end, though we think it is the good times, the prosperity, the peaceful times, which will define us, it is actually the worst times that define us. This idea is only a partial shadow of the real truth, that our afflictions are creating a lasting and extremely substantive glory. Like Jesus, we will be honored and even praised and known by our wounding, our scars.

4. Conclusion:
4.1 How not to take this
God is not about putting us constantly under affliction. We are not weird medieval monastic masochists, delighting in flogging ourselves and taking ridiculous vows of poverty and silence and constant fasting. There is no glory in suffering, there is glory in grace and overcoming faith. God does not delight in our suffering. He delights in our liberation, our joy; but there is a special beauty in His compassion for us and our beautiful response under affliction. Sometimes suffering is an instrument of healing from Him, a way of speaking through discipline when we have become deaf to other forms of revelation. This is not always, and is perhaps rarely, the real source of affliction. Many times it is the result of the sins of others, or even worse, the result of our own sin. His love is not some trick message to give us a psychological crutch in times of affliction. He obviously wants us to have life and have it abundantly. There is no doubt that most if not all of us have been terribly wounded by the circumstances of life, and He has a real desire and an agenda to heal us and move us from our Egypt of bondage through the desert of transition to the abundance of the promised land. In affliction, faith says that God is yet gracious, God cares deeply for me, and there is yet hope that a greater life awaits me. There is power to have joy and truth in the present, to worship God in spirit and in truth, in the midst of our woundedness. Our woundedness, our affliction, is our big fleeting chance to worship God in faith. It is our big and temporary chance to shine as true saints, to do the thing that distinguishes us as believers, when it appears unwarranted.
4.2 How to take this
“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2, NASB.
Jesus did not really find pleasure or joy in His suffering. He suffered with the understanding that it was for a PURPOSE, that it was for the joy set before Him. His suffering was accomplishing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. He was all about the joy set before Him. He didn't like suffering. He trusted the Father's plan and compassion; He made His request known (please take this cup away from Me!), but He submitted for the greater joy. This is also His design for us.
4.3 Prayer and ministry time; the focus is on worshipping, not for His wonderful attributes that kind of have nothing to do with you, but being cognizant of His deep burden of care for you,of the reality and dignity f your problems and woundedness.

Peace to everyone who reads this.