Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Luke 15

Taking our recovery group class through a guided meditation of Luke 15 tonight using The Message:

 1-3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." Their grumbling triggered this story.

 4-7"Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn't you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, 'Celebrate with me! I've found my lost sheep!' Count on it—there's more joy in heaven over one sinner's rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

The Story of the Lost Coin
8-10"Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won't she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she'll call her friends and neighbors: 'Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!' Count on it—that's the kind of party God's angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God."
The Story of the Lost Son
 11-12Then he said, "There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'

 12-16"So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

 17-20"That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' He got right up and went home to his father.

 20-21"When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'

 22-24"But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time.

 25-27"All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day's work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, 'Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.'

 28-30"The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. The son said, 'Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!'

 31-32"His father said, 'Son, you don't understand. You're with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he's found!'"

two of my favorite resources on this:

Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son

Kenneth Bailey resources page on the Prodigal story; he is a Bible scholar with intimate familiarity with the Middle Eastern culture and provides amazing insight into the text.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Spirit of "Phariseeism"

My friend and mentor, Eric Johnson, has some thoughts on sanctification that I've been meditating on in recent weeks (as far as I know, unpublished paper on Baptist sanctification):

"Were Christians thoroughly grounded in justification, there would be no defensiveness/hurt/anger when their sins/limitations are exposed (perhaps through criticism). This is because when one would confront such a person about some inconsistency (sinful or otherwise), they would be knowingly grounded in a perfect goodness established in Christ through justification. (Such a deep grounding will only fully happen in heaven.) Therefore, there are only two possibilities regarding the alleged inconsistency: 1) the accuser is wrong and the accused does not have the inconsistency (so there’s no need to be hurt/angry, etc.), or even better: 2) the accuser is right, but since the inconsistency is already taken care of in Christ and the accused is already perfect in Christ, the identification of the inconsistency can be received as a pure gift from God, to help the believer release that pattern that is inconsistent with their justification (thus furthering their sanctification).
Sanctification Alert: emotions of hurt/anger/anxiety in response to criticism are nonetheless very good! Because they signal to Christians their unknown (unconscious) self-deception regarding the independent establishment of their perfect goodness. To grow in grace Christians must develop and maintain an openness to these emotions regarding such matters. These emotions are the best signs of a remaining “spirit of Phariseeism.”

I'm trying to apply this to an at-times-crippling sense of failure as a parent, husband and father. I often feel immobilized by the overwhelming shame of my failure. When looked at objectively, it is rarely anything big. It is usually an awareness of my limitations, my inabilities, my failings, especially when comparing myself to others (I know, I know, foolish!). I am trying to learn to bring this entire dark cycle to Jesus, accept my failures/limitations and weaknesses as real, but not defining. They can be opportunities for the power of God's grace to be displayed (2 Cor 12).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stop Being a Pleaser

I have been looking for this quote from Henri Nouwen for a while, after a friend brought it to my attention a few months ago when I desperately needed encouragement. It's entitled, "Stop Being a Pleaser," and it's from his book of journal reflections: The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, p.5):

You have to let your father and father figures go. You must stop seeing yourself through their eyes and trying to make them proud of you.

For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these
self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self.
This feels like blessed fatherly wisdom for my soul right now. I am coming out of a month of deep depression where specific events and people completely dominated how I saw myself, and the message was clear: I am rejected.

I am fighting and clawing my way out of it, by God's grace. Reminders of my identity can be the most violent acts in the realm of my soul.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beautiful Word

Moses prophesied over the tribe of Benjamin saying:

       "Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him,
       for he shields him all day long,
       and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders." (Deut 33:12 NIV)

I have been living far too much of my days estranged from God, as a practical orphan and atheist. In this text I find my home, between the shoulders of God: in his lap and over his heart. All this because of Jesus.

I can rest secure in the Lord, for all day long he is my shield and fortress. Why do I hide from him??

Friday, September 18, 2009

Foundational Truths of My Life With God

I came across this again as I was preparing for our "Recovery Group" at church. I was teaching on the practice of the presence of God, and remembered this gem.

  1. God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see him.
  2. Coming to recognize and experience God's presence is learned behavior; I can cultivate it.
  3. My task is to meet God in this moment.
  4. I am always tempted to live "outside" this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God's presence.
  5. Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.
  6. Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.
  7. No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God's presence.
  8. My desire for God ebbs and flows, but his desire for me is constant.
  9. Every thought carries a "spiritual charge" that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.
  10. Every aspect of my life - work, relationships, hobbies, errands - is of immense and genuine interest to God.
  11. My path to experiencing God's presence will not look quite like anyone else's.
  12. Straining and trying too hard do not help.
Review these truths once a day for two weeks as you cultivate the practice of God's presence.

[from John Ortberg, God is Closer Than You Think, p. 27]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How Long?

Psalm 13 (NLT)
1 O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
      How long will you look the other way?
 2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
      with sorrow in my heart every day?

      How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

 3 Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
      Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
 4 Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
      Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.

 5 But I trust in your unfailing love.
      I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
 6 I will sing to the Lord
      because he is good to me.

Living in verse 2, would like to be in verse 5-6.

Elect Exiles

After my poor teaching performance last night in our Recovery group (a new effort in my church to reach out to the brokenhearted among us - it's pretty exciting!) I need some strong grace reminders of who I am, and that who I am in Jesus is not touched by my performance.

I came across these verses this morning in my reading guide:

1 Peter 1:1-2, "To those who are elect exiles . . . according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood . . . " (ESV).

I too am an elect exile, chosen by God yet in a world not my home. My chosenness should be enough to help me make it home without having my identity in Christ shipwrecked. An elect exile is a chosen and cherished ragamuffin.

Other descriptors from this text that arm me for identity:
  • God the Father knows me and chooses me before anything was made; He lovingly, savingly knows me before I could do anything good or bad; I am Beloved and becoming Beloved.
  • God the Spirit sanctifies me, sets me apart for Him, in a lost and lonely world; I am holy and becoming holy.
  • God the Son calls me to obedience and sprinkles me with his healing blood for every disobedience. I am an apprentice to Jesus, learning to live life as he did: truly human, filled with God.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Had another retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani this past weekend (my last one was at the end of July this year). It was a short one (Fri night to Sat night), and was largely overshadowed by an incident that happened at work on Friday that I couldn't shake. I was able to work on it though, as well as get some writing done.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

God's Grace Best Displayed in Human Weakness

[Blog post published on the Society for Christian Psychology website 9/5/09]

2 Cor. 12:7-9, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (ESV).

Paul had been blessed with spectacular revelations of God. These blessings could have become the foundation of his ministry. He could have held crusades throughout Asia Minor, purporting to share his awesome revelations with anyone who would listen (and pay) to hear them. To undermine prideful conceit in Paul, God sent another blessing, which Paul didn’t recognize as blessing at first sight, second sight or even third sight. It was, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in The Message, “the gift of a handicap.” This gift was weakness, specifically a “thorn in the flesh,” which could have been one or a combination of the following:

1) Paul’s inner psychological struggles, such as sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, painful regret over his past persecution, of the church, etc.
2) Paul’s persecutors who continued to malign him.
3) A recurring, potentially debilitating physical ailment, such as issues with his eyesight, headaches, malaria, etc.
4) Some other form of demonic harassment.

The fact that Paul calls it his “thorn in the flesh” speaks most likely to some version of #3, though it is easy to see how the others could also be involved as well. Regarding what these “weaknesses” are in our lives, John Piper comments that “They are circumstances and situations and experiences and wounds that make us look weak; things we would probably get rid of if we had the human strength” (sermon dated July 14, 1991).

Whatever it was, it caused Paul a great deal of discomfort and torment. There was urgency to his requests to have it removed. Paul pleaded three times for the Lord to take this thorn away. He desperately wanted deliverance, and he knew only God could grant it. But God had something better in mind for Paul and for us. God’s answer to Paul’s prayer challenged his desires to be sure. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9). God’s unmerited favor and unfailing love are sufficient for Paul to live the Christian life and to minister in Jesus’ name. It is the same for us.

God’s response to Paul is his response to our weaknesses too – his grace, his unmerited favor, his unconditional love, is enough, sufficient for us in the midst of weakness. God’s goodness, greatness and glory are best displayed against the backdrop of human weakness. This implies that the removal of weakness, albeit the “messenger of Satan,” would somehow detract from God’s glory, the display of his power. In fact, God’s power becomes enfleshed in our weakness - 2 Cor. 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (ESV). Indeed, 1 and 2 Corinthians are full of references to weakness being God’s way in the world, as opposed to the ways of beauty and worldly power (1 Cor. 1:25,27; 2:3,5; 15:43; 2 Cor. 12:9; 13:3,4,9).

We should further note that there could have been significant periods of time between Paul’s three requests, maybe days, weeks or years. There could also have been a significant period of time that Paul mulled over God’s response, taking it into the depths of his soul through meditative prayer until it became his genuine response to it as well. We are not told what the process looked like, but we are told that Paul concluded that his ministry, or rather, God’s ministry through him, was not to be based on displays of human strength, power, or having-it-all-together, but on human weakness. His boast was to be in his weaknesses because when he is weak he is strong in Christ.

There is no evidence that Paul ever received the answer to his original prayer. All evidence suggests that he continued to carry this thorn for the rest of his life. But the thorn had been transformed from a curse into a blessing by the word of God’s love. Many of our weaknesses and wounds are first received as a curse; they are painful reminders of the lies we have believed about our identity and serve to torment us of the same. But when brought to the Lord, and kept under the message of his sufficient grace, they can become messengers of truth, light and love, not only to us but to those around us.

Frodo Baggins received a fatal wound from the Witch-King on Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Although he was healed by the efforts of Gandalf and Elrond, the wound remained throughout the rest of his life in Middle Earth. It was no longer fatal, but served to remind him of an earlier, darker time when Hobbits were subject to attacks from creatures of darkness. Our wounds, our weaknesses also will likely remain with us throughout this life. What never happened for Frodo in his life can happen for us in the gospel. Our wounds can become the very basis of blessing for us and for others. What purpose our weaknesses and wounds serve for us and for others depends upon how much we believe and rely on the sure word of God’s sufficient grace. As C.S. Lewis wisely said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins: New York, 2001, p. 93).

Are we listening?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Spiritual Apartheid

Re-reading Judith Hougen's book Transformed Into Fire, and came across this idea this morning. The phrase is taken from William Shannon's book Silence on Fire, and it is "the mentality that sets God apart from creation" (quoting Shannon). Hougen adds, "Spiritual apartheid is the belief that God is more present and active in certain times and places than in others. We shut God out of our consciousness during those moments that we label as nonspiritual, which constitute the majority of our day" (p.188).

Her point is that we think of "sacred times" when God is present and active and "secular times" when he is not. Thus, we relegate whatever is mundane, earthy and boring to the "secular" and miss God. Since each moment is truly God-saturated and there is in reality no separation, what makes the "sacred" times different from the "secular" ones? "The difference," she says, "is our openness to his presence and our willingness to walk in awareness of God" (p.188-9).

I'm trying to fight the tendency today to settle for a workday devoid of God. I'm going to try to see each moment as sacrament, and to practice the presence of God.

Soul Bifurcation

Healing deep soul wounds and fragmentation comes from spending time in the healing presence of Jesus. The gospel makes this possible.

Going backward from this truth, we can see how damaging it is to form a defensive posture that bifurcates the soul to protect one's wounds. This usually happens automatically in us when we are young and need to survive early wounding, but we do it as adults too. We deem it dangerous to let our hearts "hang out there" and pull back from relationality and retreat into an enclave of functionality. We develop false selves of functionality that we can put forth to the world to earn acceptance, as our relational souls wither from the self-protective coffin we've created.

God calls us back to relationality, to come before Him and others and be healed in community, where our functionalities fall away as devices to define ourselves, and we embrace our identity as God's beloved. Over a lifetime, God "restores our souls" - he puts back together what has been separated and alienated, puts us right with him in Jesus, where we learn to become what we are in him.