Friday, December 28, 2012

The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: A Book Review

Review of The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: Grammar, Syntax and Diagramming By Douglas S. Huffman

Students who have experienced the value of learning NT Greek are also aware of the constant need of help and motivation for staying in it. The radar is always on, scanning for resources or techniques that will make things easier, simpler and more memorable. Learning any language involves staying familiar with the rules and vocabulary by which that language operates. Such steps are necessary in learning a language foreign to our own, due to it being enmeshed in an equally foreign worldview and culture.

Huffman’s book offers a great deal of help in keeping the Greek student familiar with these realities. It has the rare ability to combine simplicity with depth, thus promising to be a useful aid for years to come.

Size and Format – it is designed to be a nice companion to the common size of the Greek New Testament, making it appealing to keep them together. Further, it is full of charts and colorful text and diagrams that make it appealing to look at and not only useful.

Audience and Purpose – Huffman’s stated goal is to help 2nd year Greek students develop further in the language. This is important to realize, because without the guidance of a seasoned mentor the book will have limited value. Like a specialized carpentry tool, its full value cannot be appreciated until a master serves as a guide to its uses and limits.

Preachers and teachers will find the diagramming sections especially helpful in developing outlines for teaching the New Testament. Any help in connecting teaching outlines to the actual text are always sorely needed and greatly appreciated.

As for this writer, who seems to remain “perpetually rusty” in Greek, I have hope that this tool will help sharpen my skills and help provide the motivation necessary to get back into it. Thanks to Kregel Publishers for the complimentary copy of the book for review purposes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Meditations

Some great quotes to fuel meditation for the season of Christmas:

Infinite and yet an infant.
Eternal and yet born of a woman.
Almighty, and yet nursing at a woman’s breast.
Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms.
Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon

That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle?

—Thomas Watson

Man’s Maker was made man
that the Bread might be hungry,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired from the journey;
that Strength might be made weak,
that Life might die.


And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.”
John 1:14)

HT: Justin Taylor

Christmas Eve Invocation

O Holy Night,
that deepening darkness above and around,
light-pierced and silence-shrouded,
out of which little children are called in
and seeking shepherds are sent out.

O night of nights,
you spread across heaven
and touch the earth,
surrounding God's people,
capturing us in a moment of time,
like a globe protects a flicker of Light.


Draw us in,
hold us together
while we wait for the birth of the Light of lights,
the One who will guide us into the world anew.

From Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent, by Pamela C. Hawkins, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2007), 104.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

God Is In The Manger

Fellow ragamuffins, I wanted to make you aware of a free resource available (through 12/31, I believe) from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Advent reflections titled, “God is in the Manger.”

Don’t be afraid to start an Advent devotional at such a late date; I started listening to the devotionals on my morning walks last week, and I can listen to 4-5 days worth in a 30 minute walk. Plus, his reflections go past Christmas into Epiphany.

He wrote these reflections near the end of his life while in prison, so weakness, poverty and suffering are constant themes. I’m finding it very encouraging and I hope you do too.

Finding God in the Hobbit: A Book Review

Hobbits are everywhere these days, it seems. Due, in large part, to the recent release of part 1 of Peter Jackson’s portrayal of the novel The Hobbit on the big screen. I have yet to see it, but I was given the opportunity to review a book related to the subject and would like to share my thoughts here. Tyndale House Publishers has graciously provided me a complimentary copy of this book.

Finding God in the Hobbit, by Jim Ware takes the reader on a devotional journey through the pages of Tolkien’s classic novel. Ware has unique insight in the writings of Tolkien and it shows in the insights of this book. Each chapter reflects on a particular scene from The Hobbit and points out universal truths that we can all benefit from.

I found this book a surprisingly welcome companion during the season of Advent. I can think of no better companion than a Hobbit as I make my way to the stable at Bethlehem. Hobbits are indeed the chief characters of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They have always fascinated me with their earthy childlikeness, simplicity of perspective and way of life. Bilbo Baggins would find himself far more at home in the Bethlehem stable than he would in the glorious Inn, where places were reserved, I’m sure, for the wealthy and powerful of this world. This has helped me own my humanity, my own earthy brokenness, which helps prepare the way to receive Christ in new and deeper ways.

The great strength of Tolkien’s writings (and Ware, his disciple) is that he tells stories in such an imaginative way that reader participation involves not only entering the world of middle earth but learning to see reality itself in terms of story. All good stories, in my opinion, will help us live our own stories more faithfully and truly. Ware’s thoughts on The Hobbit are a great help here. He seems like-minded to Tolkien, which makes him particularly qualified to serve as a guide through his writings.

Too many Christian interpretations of Tolkien (and Lewis) are sentimental in their attempt to force an allegorical interpretation. Some try to see Jesus in every character and circumstance. Tolkien never intended this, and I’m grateful to Mr. Ware for pointing this out. Ware comments, “Tolkien understood, as many of his readers and critics did not, that it is one thing to concoct an allegory and quite another to reflect universal principles and eternal realities in a timeless tale. . . . Through the ruse of an entertaining and imaginative tale, Tolkien drew back the veil of familiarity and boredom that covered my school day existence and revealed the world to me in a new light, as a land of perilous beauty and wondrous delight, a place gloriously haunted by the Presence of a Person ‘who is never absent and never named.’” (165, 168)

Ware further develops this point by quoting Tolkien’s Letters, “. . . each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.” (165).

Overall Ware’s book is a great read and I highly recommend it! His work reminds me of the words of another blogger, David Mathis, who said, “Finding Jesus in The Hobbit doesn’t mean shoe-horning Gandalf or Bilbo or anyone else into some Christ mold, but following the story, truly tracking its twists, feeling its angst, and knowing that the “turn” — the Great Unexpected Rescue just in the nick of time, the place where our souls are most stirred and relieved and satisfied — is tapping into something deep in us, some way in which God spring-loaded us for the Great Story and the extent to which he went to reclaim us. (12/13/12 Blog titled,
“How To Watch ‘The Hobbit’”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When Advent Fails

In an earlier blog, I noted the connection between Advent and Lent, and today I found another author doing the same thing (but saying it better!). Thomas McKenzie over at the Rabbit Room has written a wonderful blog titled “When Advent Fails.” I encourage you to read the entire thing, but here is my favorite part:

What happens when excitement and expectation ends in disappointment and calamity? What do you do when your Advent ends not in Christmas but in Good Friday? Expectations are not always fulfilled, hope is sometimes dashed. Sometimes this results in loss of life, as happened to my friends. Sometimes the loss is not as tragic, but no less real. Relationships end poorly, jobs fall through, dreams are not realized.

When someone is in the middle of their suffering, it is easy for an outsider to say “God is still with them.” That is true, and it is the message of Advent. Christ is with the suffering, the broken, the mourning. He knows what it means to endure horrific evil, and so he is the ultimate source of comfort and healing to the hurting.

At the same time, suffering does not always move quickly to hope. Sometimes hope is put on hold and mourning drags on. For those who are in the middle of their pain, God must be mediated in the silent affection of other human beings. Christ is incarnate in the tender compassion of the friend who says “I don’t understand it either” as he bursts into tears. The Christian who can set aside her need to control, her desire to “make it better,” and can sit in the awful pain of her friend becomes Jesus to that friend.

For those of you who are suffering right now, let me say a couple of things. Your pain is real and it has meaning. I encourage you to feel what you feel, to be as angry and sad and overwhelmed as you are. In the middle of your pain, please know that there is still hope for you because of Christ. I pray you will reveal your suffering to other people who can sit with you in the midst of it. I hope you will find some hope in this Advent, and in the Christ who has not given up on you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Becoming Children Again

Advent Reading: Psalm 131

(ESV) O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.

(The Message) God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,

   I don’t want to be king of the mountain.

I haven’t meddled where I have no business

   or fantasized grandiose plans.

I’ve kept my feet on the ground,

   I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.

Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,

   my soul is a baby content.

Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.

   Hope now; hope always!

This Psalm provides a place for me to bring my thoughts on childlikeness and its relationship to Advent.

Have you noticed than in many of the great Christmas movies and TV Specials that it is children who get it and not the adults? Think of The Santa Clause, Elf, Polar Express, and Miracle on 34th Street to name a few of my favorites. In these stories, the children have not been “corrupted” by the complexities and troubles of adulthood and are able to see and enter into the “magic of Christmas” with relative ease. Of course, most of the time this has to do with belief in Santa Claus, which many Christians feel uncomfortable with. But I wonder if there is some value to that in the symbolic world in which children dwell, the world we feel pulled to every Christmas. Let’s remember that Narnia was a world ruled by deep magic as well as by children.

I’m not so sure we need to work so hard to separate the “magic of Santa Claus” from what God did in Jesus in Bethlehem. When C.S. Lewis received a letter from a concerned mother who was worried about her boy being more fond of Aslan than he was of Jesus, he replied that to be fond of Aslan is to be fond of Jesus. Lewis understood that the mixing of metaphors and reality in the imagination only serves to prepare one for the life of faith. Perhaps the same could be said (with certain qualifications, of course) about the “magic” of Christmas and of Santa Claus. This figure (with some historical basis in St. Nicholas) is the symbol of goodness and generosity, fueling children’s imaginations about having dreams fulfilled (sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?).

Christmas calls us to become children again. Perhaps this is also why Christmas is so painful for many of us - our most treasured dreams (for love, acceptance and fulfillment) were crushed when we were children. Speaking for myself, this season calls out to the wounded child in me to come to the stable and dream again of someone good enough and strong enough to make sense of my life and to take care of me; I am called to let go of my “grown up” despair and trust mystery again.

I’m trying, but it’s so difficult! To feel the awe and wonder of a child is in the same breath to feel the loss and abandonment of an orphan. The empty stable, waiting for the Christ child, is an apt “symbolic world” right now for me. It is where I go to converse with God in the dark. It is a womb groaning for birth; a tomb longing for resurrection.

Let me close this piece with the lyrics from one of my Advent companions, Jason Gray. It is from one of his new songs, “Children Again:”

We found one in a closet and one in a drawer

There’s no hiding place we won’t find anymore
We’d shake every present for any small clue
Of what lies beneath the words “from me to you”

But for every present left under a tree
There are things that we hoped for and never received
And the years and the yearning can make us forget
To be filled with wonder instead of regret

But Christmas is calling again
Leading us to Bethlehem

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, but a baby
Can make us all children again

When you want to forgive but the wound is so deep
And you ache for forgiveness for the secrets you keep
When the flower of your heart only feels like a thorn
And you long for the child that you were before

Christmas is calling again
Leading you to Bethlehem

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, but a baby
Can make us all children again

Afraid to be strangers
We circle the manger
And kneel down beside it again
But he wishes that we would crawl in

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, that a baby
Would ask for our hearts made of stone
And then give us a heart like his own
If we let him, he will begin
To make us all children again
We will be children again

God wrapped a gift that he hid in the world
Deep in the womb of an innocent girl
But when we were ready and on a dirt floor
Love found a way in and left open the door

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Something Hardly Noticeable

After a hard week of soul struggle, I don’t have much to write today. This reflection from Henri Nouwen for the second Sunday of Advent blessed me greatly, so I wanted to pass it along.

"A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him . . ." (Isa.11:1-2).

These words from last night's liturgy have stayed with me during the day. Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness.

I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the "shoot that shall sprout from the stump."

When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence - the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends - I will always remain tempted to despair.

The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.

iGracias! - A Latin American Journal (December 2, 1981) © Henri J.M. Nouwen. Published by HarperCollins. Reprinted with publisher's kind permission.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Practice Resurrection, a Book Review

My dear friend, Andy Hassler, a scholar of the heart and the Scriptures, has posted an online book review of Eugene Peterson’s work Practice Resurrection. I think any reader of this blog would appreciate and benefit from this review.

Here is my favorite excerpt:

Peterson argues that maturity happens only within the real, often harsh, conditions of life. To be sure, there are moments of great glory. But too often these are overemphasized, and the patient work of God in the present, the broken, the ordinary, and the mess of real life is underestimated and ignored. "The way to maturity is through the commonplace" (p. 182).

Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent Repentance

My advent reading today (day #2) was Mark 1:1-8.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
    “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way,
    the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
        ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make his paths straight,’”
    John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
  (Mark 1:1-8 ESV)

My first thought was, “How is this part of Advent? How does this prepare me to receive the incarnate Jesus?” It quickly became clear to me (in a “duh!” moment) that it makes perfect sense. Repentance (symbolized by John’s baptism) clears away clutter and makes the path straight for Jesus. Obstacles are removed and space is created by repenting of those things that keep me opposed to grace.

For me, I am repenting (present tense because I’ll have to do it all Advent long) of an elusive self-hatred that has been tolerated and even cherished by my ragamuffin self for far too long (more on this later). I am also repenting of all my attempts to make life work and to make my life “make sense.”

This message of Advent repentance reminds me how much Advent has in common with Lent. It is a period of pregnant waiting for life to emerge out of death and barrenness (remember the conditions in Israel when Jesus came? things were bleak to say the least). Whether it’s the womb of Mary or the tomb of Golgotha, we wait in the midst of sorrow, loss and powerlessness for the Author of Life to speak resurrection, to speak life. Advent, like Lent, is not a time (predominantly) for joy and celebration, but reflection and lament. The season of Christmas (like Easter) is the time for celebrating.

For me, the image of the stable is increasingly becoming where I wait and try to give voice to the pains and sorrows that reside within me but have not yet been given a chance to express themselves. I imagine I arrive there a long while before Mary & Joseph are forced to rest there after being rejected at the inn (more on this later too). As I wait I let the dirty, smelly and earthy place fill my senses and shape my waiting into a place into which Jesus can come for me (not for the world, but for me specifically).

My self-hatred shows up in this scene as a berating Pharisee barring the entrance, constantly telling me I’m not worthy of God’s coming, that I’d better give up and just leave, because no one will ever love me. Again, this is where repentance comes in for me. By God’s grace, I need to kill this Pharisee/older brother/self-hatred that bars my entrance into my own humanity. If I can’t get past him, then I won’t be able to own my true humanity before God, I won’t be able to own who I really am (and am not) before God. If I can’t do that, I’ll miss the coming of Jesus entirely. God help me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Preparing for Advent

The season of Advent is nearly upon us, beginning this Sunday (Dec 2) and ending with the season of Christmas (Dec 25). Advent simply means “arrival” or “coming” and it refers to the first coming of Jesus into our world.

As I began to think about Advent and what it means, several images have lingered before my mind. Let me put them before you and then offer a few thoughts.

What do these images provoke in you? To me, they communicate warmth and kind of a “utopian perfection” revolving around Christmas. The first is from Martha Stewart and the second from Thomas Kinkade, two of the leading purveyors of this view of Christmas. I think it’s safe to say they reflect something of what we want for ourselves and for our loved ones during the holiday.

What about these images?

The first shows the arrest of Martha Stewart in 2004 for charges having to do with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and insider trading. The second is a news headline about Thomas Kinkade’s cause of death, a drug overdose. These realities don’t seem to fit with the utopian ideals by Stewart or Kinkade. What went wrong?

What do I intend by putting these four images before you? Which of these pictures is closest to reality? More specifically, Christmas reality?

Too much of our Christmas preparations have to do with trying to construct a utopian ideal of some sort – but does our preparation have much to do with reality, with life lived in a broken world? Which place are we seeking to celebrate Christmas? The Inn or the stable?

Eugene Peterson reminds us,

“One of the seductions that bedevils Christian formation is the construction of utopias, ideal places where we can live totally and without inhibition or interference the good and blessed and righteous life. The imagining and then attempted construction of such utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Utopia is, literally, ‘no-place.’ But we can live our lives only in actual place, not in an imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned place.” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 73).

I will write more on this later, but I would argue that we need to fight against utopian images of Christmas and move in to the dirty smelly stable where Jesus will actually come. This is where reality is. The paintings hanging on the walls of the stable are those of the latter set above, not the former.

“We are the identical stuff with the place in which we have been put. God formed us from dust, from dirt - the same stuff that we walk on every day, the same stuff on which we build our houses, the same stuff in which we plant our gardens, the same stuff over we which construct our roads and on which we drive our cars.” (Peterson, ibid., 76)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grief and Gratitude

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself wavering between two worlds: Grief and Gratitude. I am thankful for so many things – my wife and kids, my job, our home, Jesus and all that he has done for me, our family and friends, etc. I want to continue to grow in gratitude for these things and so much more! But I am also aware of grief. All the many disappointments I have experienced, crushed dreams, broken promises, betrayals, abandonments, sin and deceit, seem to be closer to the surface, clamoring for attention.

For many of us, Thanksgiving (and the Holidays in general) stir up painful memories and identity issues having to do with our families. Most of us visit with family during this time (busiest travel day of the year is today!), which involves renewing relationships but also fresh provocations of areas of pain. We get so easily “categorized” by our family back into our primordial roles, and we relate from that place, so easily forgetting who we really are.

I often spent Thanksgiving with my Dad, so I am especially aware of the pain in my relationship with him, which still feels fresh even though he has passed away. I feel a double abandonment when I think of him; the first when he left us when I was 9 years old, and the second when he died a few years ago without resolving much in our relationship.

To ignore either of these realities will mean I become less than human. This Thanksgiving, I grieve and I give thanks. How else can you live in this world and retain honesty?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Hear Voices

[sorry for the choppy nature of this post; it retains some of the character of "book notes." I tried to smooth into more of a coherent piece, but I fear it retained some of it's choppiness!]

After recently re-reading several chapters in Christian Spirituality: Five Views I began imagining a conversation in which each of these views (Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, Contemplative and Pentecostal) was given a voice, perhaps sitting around a table drinking coffee together (or beer, depending on your view!). Some voices have better biblical support, some views get human experience better, some views understand limits better than others, etc.

A few paradigm questions that I asked while reading:

can we see these views developmentally, meaning, that we need different ones at different times/seasons?

can they be in dialogue with each other within our souls, or must we “pick one”?

I came to see these views more as different streams of truth and grace to learn from, rather than choices that a “consumer” might make. Some are clearly more biblical than others, so I don’t want to diminish that, but that is not all there is to say about a view.

Alongside a conversation, (and at the risk of oversimplification) I thought of a metaphor of building a house in which each of these views plays a part. It helped me understand and integrate this book into my mind and heart.

The foundation is mostly laid with the Lutheran View. It is solidly built on the person and work of Christ, apart from me and my performance. Unconditional acceptance and justification forms the foundation of my life.

The Reformed view forms the other part of the foundation, as well as the surrounding frame. It is more firmly based on Christ and Scripture, and expands and creates most of the house structure (supports, walls, etc.). The biblical doctrine of union with Christ is at the heart of this view.

But with the first two views, the house is still cold and lonely (good night, how can they both miss that love is the fulfillment of the Law??). More is needed!

I see the remaining views filling the house with relational depth and warmth:

The Wesleyan view fills it with zealous love for God and others, bringing warmth and passion. Outside the structure though it loses much of its winsome power.

The Contemplative view deepens the love and warmth that the Wesleyans bring, touching the deepest parts of our being with the love of God. We experience union and communion flowing from a relationship with Jesus.

The Pentecostal view brings us clarity and focus, reminding us that the love, power and life that fills the house is none other than the Spirit of God.

Though the strengths and weaknesses of each of these views is debatable, I have concluded that I need all these voices for a healthy robust spirituality!

Still Alive and Kicking

I’ve been absent for a while, partly due to a busy schedule, but more to do with my “writers well” drying up a bit. I can’t write “on command,” but when inspiration hits.

The past few weeks have been pretty dark for me, as I discover deeper and more subtle forms of self-hatred ruling my inner world. I hope to write on some of that eventually, but for now I just wanted to say I’m still here and wanting to write, but haven’t found the hope/inspiration/strength to do it yet! I may throw up some things I wrote in the past month or two but haven’t posted yet.

Peace, and I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Daily Prayer

After facing some new forms of attack from the evil one, I’ve returned this week to using a daily prayer that John Eldredge has published at the end of most (if not all) of his books. I’ve never encountered anything like it that does such a good job of getting me immersed in the gospel and staying and fighting there. It’s great for receiving who God is and who I am in Him.

I post it here in the hopes that others might benefit from it too. You can also download a .pdf version or a Word version.

My dear Lord Jesus I come to you now to be restored in you, to be renewed in you, to receive your love and your life, and all the grace and mercy I so desperately need this day. I honor you as my Sovereign, and I surrender every aspect of my life totally and completely to you. I give you my spirit, soul and body, my heart, mind, and will. I cover myself with your blood—my spirit, soul, and body, my heart, mind and will. I ask your Holy Spirit to restore me in you, renew me in you, and to lead me in this time of prayer. In all that I now pray, I stand in total agreement with your Spirit, and with my intercessors and allies, by your Spirit alone.

[Now, if you are a husband, you’ll want to include your wife in this time of prayer. If you are a parent, you’ll want to include your children. If this doesn’t apply to you, jump to the paragraph after this one.]

In all that I now pray, I include (my wife and/or children, by name). Acting as their head, I bring them under your authority and covering, as I come under your authority and covering. I cover (wife and/or children, by name) with your blood – their spirit, soul and body, their heart, mind and will. I ask your Spirit to restore them in you, renew them in you, and apply to them all that I now pray on their behalf, acting as their head.

Dear God, holy and victorious Trinity, you alone are worthy of all my worship, my heart’s devotion, all my praise, all my trust and all the glory of my life. I love you, I worship you, I trust you. I give myself over to you in my heart’s search for life. You alone are Life, and you have become my life. I renounce all other gods, all idols, and I give you the place in my heart and in my life that you truly deserve. I confess here and now that this is all about you, God, and not about me. You are the Hero of this story, and I belong to you. Forgive me for my every sin. Search me and know me and reveal to me where you are working in my life, and grant to me the grace of your healing and deliverance, and a deep and true repentance.

Heavenly Father, thank you for loving me and choosing me before you made the world. You are my true Father—my Creator, my Redeemer, my Sustainer, and the true end of all things, including my life. I love you, I trust you, I worship you. I give myself over to you to be one with you in all things, as Jesus is one with you. Thank you for proving your love by sending Jesus. I receive him and all his life and all his work, which you ordained for me. Thank you for including me in Christ, for forgiving me my sins, for granting me his righteousness, for making me complete in him. Thank you for making me alive with Christ, raising me with him, seating me with him at your right hand, establishing me in his authority, and anointing me with your Holy Spirit, your love and your favor. I receive it all with thanks and give it total claim to my life—my spirit, soul, and body, my heart, mind and will. I bring the life and the work of Jesus over (wife and/or children, by name) and over my home, my household, my vehicles, finances, all my kingdom and domain.

Jesus, thank you for coming to ransom me with your own life. I love you, I worship you, I trust you. I give myself over to you, to be one with you in all things. And I receive all the work and all of the triumph of your cross, death, blood and sacrifice for me, through which I am atoned for, I am ransomed and transferred to your kingdom, my sin nature is removed, my heart is circumcised unto God, and every claim made against me is disarmed this day. I now take my place in your cross and death, through which I have died with you to sin, to my flesh, to the world, and to the evil one. I take up the cross and crucify my flesh with all its pride, arrogance, unbelief, and idolatry (and anything else you are currently struggling with). I put off the old man. I ask you to apply to me the fullness of your cross, death, blood and sacrifice. I receive it with thanks and give it total claim to my spirit, soul and body, my heart, mind and will.

Jesus, I also sincerely receive you as my life, my holiness and strength, and I receive all the work and triumph of your resurrection, through which you have conquered sin and death and judgment. Death has no mastery over you, nor does any foul thing. And I have been raised with you to a new life, to live your life – dead to sin and alive to God. I now take my place in your resurrection and in your life, through which I am saved by your life. I reign in life through your life. I receive your life – your humility, love and forgiveness, your integrity in all things, your wisdom, discernment and cunning, your strength, your joy, your union with the Father. Apply to me the fullness of your resurrection. I receive it with thanks and give it total claim to my spirit, soul and body, my heart, mind and will.

Jesus, I also sincerely receive you as my authority, rule, and dominion, my everlasting victory against Satan and his kingdom, and my ability to bring your Kingdom at all times and in every way. I receive all the work and triumph of your ascension, through which you have judged Satan and cast him down, you have disarmed his kingdom. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to you, Jesus. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to you, and you are worthy to receive all glory and honor, power and dominion, now and forevermore. And I have been given fullness in you, in your authority. I now take my place in your ascension, and in your throne, through which I have been raised with you to the right hand of the Father and established in your authority. I now bring the kingdom of God, and the authority, rule and dominion of Jesus Christ over my life today, over my home, my household, my vehicles and finances, over all my kingdom and domain.

I now bring the authority, rule and dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fullness of the work of Christ, against Satan, against his kingdom, against every foul and unclean spirit come against me. (At this point you might want to name the spirits that you know have been attacking you). I bring the full work of Jesus Christ against every foul power and black art, against every human being and their warfare. I bind it all from me in the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and in his Name.

Holy Spirit, thank you for coming. I love you, I worship you, I trust you. I sincerely receive you and all the work and victory in Pentecost, through which you have come, you have clothed me with power from on high, sealed me in Christ. You have become my union with the Father and the Son, become the Spirit of truth in me, the life of God in me, my Counselor, Comforter, Strength, and Guide. I honor you as my Sovereign, and I yield every dimension of my spirit, soul and body, my heart, mind and will to you and you alone, to be filled with you, to walk in step with you in all things. Fill me afresh. Restore my union with the Father and the Son. Lead me in all truth, anoint me for all of my life and walk and calling, and lead me deeper into Jesus today. I receive you with thanks, and I give you total claim to my life.

Heavenly Father, thank you for granting to me every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. I claim the riches in Christ Jesus over my life today, my home, my kingdom and domain. I bring the blood of Christ over my spirit, soul, and body, my heart, mind and will. I put on the full armor of God – the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel, helmet of salvation. I take up the shield of faith and sword of the Spirit, and I choose to wield these weapons at all times in the power of God. I choose to pray at all times in the Spirit.

Thank you for your angels. I summon them in the authority of Jesus Christ and command them to destroy the kingdom of darkness throughout my kingdom and domain, destroy all that is raised against me, and to establish your Kingdom throughout my kingdom and domain. I ask you to send forth your Spirit to raise up prayer and intercession for me this day. I now call forth the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ throughout my home, my family, my kingdom and my domain, in the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, with all glory and honor and thanks to him.

Safe and Holy

An excerpt from Beautiful Outlaw, by John Eldredge:

This is why we accept the false reverence—it’s like having a relationship with someone out of state. It doesn’t intrude into your life like a spouse or a good friend does. There is safety in the distance. We secure ourselves against a fuller experience of Jesus’ presence because he is so unnerving. There is no faking it in the presence of Jesus; there is no way we can cling to our idols and agendas. We sense this intuitively, and so we keep our distance without really looking like we’re keeping our distance. By using false reverence. “The Good Lord” probably isn’t going to show up at your New Year’s Eve party.

So, when it comes to experiencing more of Jesus in your life, much depends on what we are open to experiencing—what we have been told we can experience, and, what we are comfortable with. Are you willing to let Jesus be himself with you? (p. 202)

This reminds me how often Brennan Manning calls us to know Jesus on his terms. The beautiful thing about the gospel is not that we CAN’T “fake it” in the presence of Jesus; the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to anymore. He is at one and the same time, the safest and the most holy person we will ever experience. We don’t usually equate “safe” with “holy” though! To find safety we often have to go to places and relationships of low expectations like bars and movie theaters. What would it look like to know & experience the most holy, risen Jesus Christ as our safe place of refuge?? Revolution.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: The One Year Be-Tween You & God Devotional for Girls

For review purposes, Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of The One Year Be-Tween You & God Devotional for Girls by Sandra Byrd (2012). I picked this book to review because it is aimed at girls ages 9-14, and my oldest daughter is right in that range (age 10).

Each day’s reading begins with presenting an issue or question that is relevant to girls. Then a discussion follows of how one might go about answering this question, followed by a Bible verse and a summary application point. The layout of each day lends toward its accessibility, a mixture of substance and clarity. The size and color of the devotional also make it attractive for this age group.

What I like about this devotional is that it has provided the backdrop for some really good conversations with my two daughters (age 10 and 8). It uses words and illustrations that easily translate into a young girls’ experience, making it an easy bridge to cross in relating God’s word to each situation. My daughters (esp. the oldest) have seemed to really enjoy it too.

I have two criticisms, but they are relatively minor. First, even though we’ve only gone through about 3 weeks worth of readings, there have been several times that I wished that more were said about how Christ and the Cross addresses these questions. My wife and I make a point to try and relate as much as possible of our family’s day to day lives to the saving events of Christ and the Cross. I wish the devotional supported us better in this task. Second, I wish there were more tools and suggestions to explore our daughter’s heart, and not just deal with surface behavior. It does touch on this, but not enough in my opinion.

Finally, I asked my oldest daughter to write down some of her thoughts and impressions:

“It helps me think through my faith, helps with normal Christian girl problems. It’s not too serious, has some funny things in it; these things help me relate to what they are saying. I like the “How About You” section, because it communicates with girls. I kind of like the whole book because not only is it my favorite color, but it kind of speaks.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2 ESV)

After preaching recently, I have a new understanding of this text. Early on in the preaching preparation process I realized that I did not have it in me to pour hours upon hours into this the way I used to. If I were to have anything useful to say, I would have to choose a text I’ve been ruminating on and marinating in for a long while. It seemed to work, as I was able to draw upon deep resources of reflection to put together a sermon on 2 Cor 4:7-5:5. I prepared, I put together thoughts into something bigger than the parts, but it never became “frenzied.” I never felt the pressure to read all the commentaries, consult the greek and find creative illustrations, probably because I knew from the start that I didn’t have the strength to do so. It was either going to be birthed out from me as an organic overflow, or it wouldn’t be birthed at all.

This dynamic is redefining my model not only for leadership opportunities, but simply of life as well. It ties back to the way we read Scripture and the way it forms and shapes us. Being “ready in season and out of season” means being increasingly saturated in the text and imaginative worldview of the kingdom of God so that when an opportunity presents itself, we are able to step into it with the truth, love and power of God. His words have become enfleshed in our language, behavior, thoughts and aspirations in such a way that they work themselves out in us living our day to day lives - “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10 ESV).

Perhaps our frenzied efforts to “get prepared” are more of a reflection of our own commitments to looking good and appearing smart, rather than actual God-saturated preparedness. The latter is much more organic, relational, and focused on process. The former is task driven and focused on end results above all. Such a teaching or preaching event can only be judged by “What did it accomplish?” and  “Were people saved, encouraged or convicted?” Such questions assume that there is a clear way to evaluate “success.” What often appears to be a response to God’s word on the surface often turns out to be nothing but pretense, a show we put on for others and for ourselves to convince everyone that we’re better off than we really are. In contrast, questions for a more organic process might be “What were you aware of during the process?” and “Where is God at work?”

I’m not sure what this means for the preacher or teacher who has to get up in front of people week after week with fresh messages. Perhaps it simply means a shift in understanding the preparation for such talks - do you really have to consult every commentary? Why do you feel such pressure? For myself, perhaps this just means that I am only qualified to preach about every 6-7 years, because that’s how long it takes for me to prepare!

This piece from Henri Nouwen helped me a great deal during the sermon preparation, and continues to speak to me:

"Often we're not as pressed for time as we feel we're pressed for time. I remember several years ago becoming so pressed by the demands of teaching at Yale that I took a prayer sabbatical to the Trappist monastery at Geneseo, New York. No teaching, lecturing, or counseling -- just solitude and prayer.

The second day there, a group of students from Geneseo College walked in and asked, "Henri, can you give us a retreat?"

Of course at the monastery that was not my decision, but I said to the abbot, "I came here from the university to get away from that type of thing. These students have asked for five meditations, an enormous amount of work and preparation. I don't want to do it."

"The abbot said, "You're going to do it."

"What do you mean? Why should I spend my sabbatical time preparing all those things?"

"Prepare?" he replied. "You've been a Christian for forty years and a priest for twenty, and a few high school students want to have a retreat. Why do you have to prepare? What those boys and girls want is to be a part of your life in God for a few days. If you pray half an hour in the morning, sing in our choir for an hour, and do your spiritual reading, you will have so much to say you could give ten retreats."

The question, you see, is not to prepare but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that, when someone who is drowning in the world comes into your world, you are ready to reach out and help. It may be at four o'clock, six o'clock, or nine o'clock. One time you call it preaching, the next time teaching, then counseling, or later administration. But let them be part of your life in God -- that's ministering."

--from "Time Enough to Minister" by Henri J.M. Nouwen in Leadership (Spring 1982) Quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, Upper Room Books, 1983. Pp124.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Light for This Lost Boy? (2)

Well, by grace the story continues! As I reflected on yesterday’s blog, I feel some shame over how weak I was, though that shame is slowly fading into the background as I find some perspective on things.

I realize now several things. First, my “lost boy” was indeed strongly provoked, but what was also provoked was the orphan’s false god, which happens to look a lot like my Dad who valued image, power and success above all. He is the “corresponding” false god to my false self, who always abandons me. Judith Hougen talks about this dynamic in her book Transformed Into Fire.

The false god of my father who despises weakness and worships images of strength resonates with the god I encountered while at Seminary, which is why either trigger can be very strong. On Thursday night I felt the pain of the lost boy not in the context of the Jesus I have learned to love and trust, but the false Jesus of performance and power; it’s no wonder I felt so alone and rejected, looking to Andrew Peterson to fill the void.

As I listened again to the entire album this morning on my walk, I felt reconnected to my lost boy in the presence of the true Jesus of mercy, truth and compassion. The false god dissipates like so much mist.

We are currently celebrating my oldest son’s 14th birthday (Samuel), and all this turmoil has cast additional light/darkness on my role as father (how can such a broken son be a father??) I am reminded here of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book, The Return of the Prodigal Son which describes the journey of the lost boy not just resulting in being a found boy, but maturing into a good father.

Lastly, I’d like to share a song I wrote a couple months ago in direct response to Peterson’s album. It’s called “What’s a Boy To Do?” written with some help by my ragamuffin pastor/best friend, Chad Lewis. Be merciful as you read it, it’s among my first attempts at writing such things!

There was a little orphaned boy
growing up in Oregon
His daddy left him when he was 9;

His mom had to work two jobs just to make ends meet
oh, he’s left alone again
abandoned again

He looked to his older brother for some strength and hope
but he had none to give
both just trying to survive
doing everything they could to survive

Working so hard to be somebody
desperate to be loved
what’s a boy to do?
what’s a boy to do?

This boy grew up and became a man
tried to hide the little boy living deep inside
though the wound inside his chest wouldn’t go away
he hates this little boy to this day
when will it be safe to go out and play?

Working so hard to be somebody
desperate to be loved
what’s a boy to do?
what’s a boy to do?

Jesus entered the scene in 1989
though he’s been working for a long long time

The man wanted to believe that everything was fine
that the pain was washed away that day
but the little boy was still there
wounded, bloody and afraid
desperate and afraid

Working so hard to be somebody
desperate to be loved
what’s a boy to do?
what’s a boy to do?

Jesus offered a new way of seeing
all this pain, all this pain
can become something new
He holds the boy in his arms

He puts back together
what everyone thought was lost
The lost little boy comes home
he comes home and hears the amazing words

Don’t have to work to be somebody
you are desperately loved
you are my boy
you are my child

Don’t have to work to be somebody
I give you my name
and you are loved
so desperately loved

Friday, October 19, 2012

Light for This Lost Boy?

Cheri and I attended Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy concert last night (10/18) at Southern Seminary. We saw him last November with some dear friends when the Behold the Lamb of God tour had come through town, again at Southern, and he has been a constant soul companion since. Light for the Lost Boy has spoken more deeply and strongly to me than any of his other albums, so I was anticipating a great time of drinking in God’s grace through his songs & stories. There was some of that, but at the end I limped out the side door feeling great pain and no relief. I was a lost boy again, and I was overwhelmed by the dark pain of that reality.

Peterson is one of a small group of singers and storytellers that creates safe and sacred space for me - a grace-guarded place to work through things and bring them before God. This is what I try to do in my writing, by the way, for myself and any other ragamuffins who happen to stumble by. This is also what I look for in what I read and listen to.

I feel like the boundaries of my sacred and safe place were lost a bit last night. I have long identified my “lost boy” as an orphan that I’ve experienced from an early age. I have great difficulty receiving love and forgiveness, feel compelled to protect and preserve myself at all costs, all the while hating myself with a frenzied passion at times (this dynamic always reminds me of the relationship between Gollum and Smeagol). This orphan inside me is my own lost boy that so connects with Peterson’s album. I have wept many times while listening to it, and it has sparked an unusual amount of the Spirit’s activity in my soul, resulting in writing songs myself to try and express it (maybe next post I’ll share one).

As my wife and I experienced the concert, I felt the pain of the lost boy provoked within me but for whatever reason (the environment, my own baggage, etc.) I was unable to bring that pain to Jesus for redemption and healing. I left feeling more lost than ever, as if the darkness was much bigger than I thought and I was far more lost than I realized inside.

This is the Seminary where my lost boy was deeply exposed over 10 years ago. When I tried to make sense of it, there was no help to be found in either category or language in the Seminary culture in which I was enmeshed, so I had to look elsewhere. That said, this part of me always hurts when I brush by an element of Seminary culture, a reminder of something still deeply broken.

I feel like a turning point last night was in his last song, Don’t You Want to Thank Someone which indeed is a fitting and compelling end to the lost boy’s story. I was mostly in touch with pain by that point. Though I was trying to find a way toward hope, I began spiraling down quickly. The crowd around me started getting louder and more boisterous as each line of victory was sung, completely muting out my favorite line,
Maybe it's a better thing
A better thing
To be more than merely innocent
But to be broken then redeemed by love

Now I don’t blame my dear brother Andrew with whom I am fairly sure we would be good friends if the Lord brought our paths together. Nor do I blame Southern Seminary. What this is all really about is the lost boy. What I should (oops I just should on myself) have accounted for is how powerful a trigger being at Southern still is for me, and arranged better support for myself. I don’t think I can go to a concert there again, without a solid group of fellow ragamuffins to hang out with. I would rather drive 200 miles to see Peterson at another venue than do that again.

At the end I longed to find a way to personally connect with Andrew. This felt foolish and lame, but I just wanted to look him in the eyes and say “Thank you. Your songs have helped me survive.” Perhaps it was just an inordinate need of affirmation that was misdirected toward him, I’m not sure - maybe just the lost boy begging for daddy’s affirmation. I didn’t see an immediate opportunity to meet him, so I just slipped out the side door as fast as I could, feeling very broken.

Unfortunately, the album has been tainted for me by all this “stuff.” As I listened again this morning, some of the power seems to have been lost for me. I have hope that I will be able to hear it again on its own terms, with the help of separation of time and distance from the provoking event.

In the meantime, I’m trying to put the broken pieces back together of my safe and sacred place. This blog is working toward that.

[see part 2 for more of this journey] 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

God’s Glory in Our Weakness: A Sermon

This is my sermon manuscript from preaching this past Sunday 10/14. This was in response to an invite from Brandon Sehein, pastor of Lucas Grove Baptist Church, an amazing brother with whom I can discuss Thomas Merton, Brennan Manning, the musical genius of Megadeth and Metallica and the fascinating world of Ninja Turtles and Transformers, all in one conversation at the Abbey of Gethsemani! The Parallel Readings were read at different points in the service before my sermon, telling a wider story from the Scriptures. I basically read from this manuscript, with some ad libbing here and there. My primary research sources were The ESV Study Bible, The Message Study Bible and the commentary on 2 Corinthians (NICNT) by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes.]

God’s Glory in Our Weakness
Lucas Grove Baptist Church, Upton, KY
Text: 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5
Parallel Readings (in liturgy)
OT - Isa 57:14-16
NT - Romans 8:18-25; 1 Cor 1:26-31 Psalm 102:1-17 

Introduction: The Story I think God is telling with my life . . . I am humbled and honored to be here in fellowship with you brothers and sisters, sitting before God’s word together. We join a living stream of thousands of years of community response to God’s saving actions and words in Christ. I have great affection for your Pastor, and am blessed to see the mutual affection you all share.

As we think for a while about God’s glory in our weakness, I thought the best place to start, for me at least, was my own story; specifically, the story I think God is telling with my life. My family and I moved to Louisville in 2001 so that I could begin working toward a Ph.D at Southern Seminary. We had moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, where I had become strongly convinced and convicted that the church needed faithful men to preach and teach. I felt called and gifted for such a task.

God had some different purposes, however. Unknown to me, the story I was writing was not big enough for what God had in mind. As I was studying in 2002-2003, different parts of my life began to erode away. I lost the ability to read, think and write in abstract ways, all things essential to a student’s life. Simultaneously I was racking up thousands in student loan debt. I limped through my last semester and decided maybe what I needed was a break. A break I’m still on, by the way!

Out of school and working full time, I still held out hope that I would one day return to Seminary. The erosion within continued and deepened, though, causing me to question whether or not I had ever been called here in the first place. I questioned lots of things during those first several years after leaving Seminary, and many questions remain unanswered. I became desperate to understand what was happening to me, and I felt a great deal of shame for being so weak! Our church at the time offered little help in this, so we sought fellowship elsewhere, where people might embrace the mystery of suffering a bit better. Once we found a community where we felt more loved, accepted and safe, I began to read authors who spoke about aspects of life with Christ that were formerly unknown to me, aspects like brokenness, suffering, mystery and how God forms us. These brought me a great deal of hope, but eventually I lost the ability and desire to read much of them either. I had to live a spiritual life I never would have chosen; I had to focus on survival, just getting through each day, more or less for the last 10 years.

As I have tried to understand what God was up to, one of the things that has helped me a great deal is looking at the life of Paul at Corinth. Paul is usually portrayed as such a high performing Christian leader that I rarely feel connected with him. That’s not true of his letters to the Corinthians. In teaching the messiest of first century Christian communities, Paul was at his most broken, raw and vulnerable. In Paul, the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings became something real and tangible, inviting me to understand myself and my story in similar terms. 

Context of 2 Corinthians This letter was written about A.D. 55-56, about a year after 1 Corinthians and a year before the letter to the Romans. Paul is writing to Corinth for several reasons. At Corinth a group had arisen to challenge Paul’s authority, claiming to be “super-apostles” who possessed the true signs of an apostle. They said of Paul, that “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV). By saying such things they meant to erode support for Paul and gain support for themselves.

Paul says of himself, "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2:1-6; cf. his catalog of sufferings in 2 Cor 6 and 11).

These super-apostles basically argued that Paul suffered too much to be God’s apostle. He was too messy to be a pastor! These super-apostles, much like the North American church of our day, enshrined strength over weakness, end results over process and certainty over confusion.

In response, Paul unpacks several themes that refute these impostors while encouraging the body not to lose heart over what they suffer. Paul declares, for example, that God is our sufficiency, so it’s OK to be weak (3:4-6). The defense of his ministry and it’s validity is very odd - instead of pointing to scores of converts saved and institutions built, he outlines his weakness, his shame and his sufferings. In the midst of this litany of disgrace, Paul shows that the New Covenant in Jesus meets and transforms us. This is the covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31 and elsewhere where God writes the law on our hearts and offers forgiveness of sins and knowledge of God in new and deeper ways. Indeed, I think we shall see that the biggest requirement for accessing the provisions of the New Covenant is weakness and shame. 

Read 2 Cor 4:7-5:5

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV)

It is important to note how many references to the body run throughout this passage. Indeed, bodily weakness is at the core of our humanity; we have very real limits and if we don’t pay attention to those limits we pay the price! Further, we easily forget that we are made from dust. We come from dust, and we return to dust.

The treasure that Paul speaks of is revealed in verse 6, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This treasure is kept hidden, as it were, in vessels of clay so that its beauty and power might clearly to be seen as from God, and not ourselves. We easily get this mixed up, and think that the power resides with us! But as suffering and limits slowly pry our hands open, as we embrace our limits and let go of the illusion of control, the treasure can be seen. When we try to hide our weakness and cover our shame, the treasure is obscured.

I love how honest Paul is here! He openly says that he is, currently - afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Being beat up and shredded is his current experience as a Christian. Have you felt like that? What do you do with those feelings?

Perhaps the glory and power of the New Covenant is not found in victory over brokenness and sin; perhaps it is found in encountering the risen Christ in the midst of our brokenness and our sin, finding unlimited acceptance, radical forgiveness and unfailing love.

If this be the case, then our attempts at self-promotion through looking strong and having it together actually negate the grace and promises of God and will surely cause us to lose heart, because nothing of strength and perfection can be maintained for very long.

As Paul considers his afflictions, he is quick to say that he has learned (emphasis on “learned,” meaning it took time!) not to lose heart over these things, that though these things are true, he is not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed. He explains how death and life can coexist by talking about our union with Christ.

In the mystery of that union, we carry in our body the death of Jesus, meaning, I think, that as our bodies decay, suffer and eventually die, we mirror something essential about the death of Jesus. This is so that the life of Jesus (the treasure) might be made manifest in our bodies as well. I don’t pretend to fully understand this, but I take comfort from the fact that Jesus shares in my sufferings in a way that only He can because of his suffering and death. I also take hope that because I am in him, my sufferings will never be final or fatal, that one day life will overtake death in me, and eventually the treasure will be housed in a body that will never die. 

4:13-15 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:13-15 ESV)

Here Paul is referring to Psalm 116:10, which says, “I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted.” Faith and confidence in God gives us courage to be honest about our sufferings. There is too much teaching and practice out there that seems to say that if you believe in God, your language is always rosy praises. Here we need to remember that much of the Bible is written in the form of Lament, a form used by believing faithful people to express their painful human experience before God.

The older we get, the more our needs increase; as our needs increase, so does grace increase. As grace increases, so does thanksgiving and glory to God, who is more and more clearly our treasure. 

4:16-18 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

O beloved, I am ashamed to admit how often I lose heart! To lose heart means to give up and to despair, even of life itself. I’ve been there - several times even this week! In one instance I felt hopeless when I thought of my participation in God’s community. All my words, all my efforts to help others felt like more than worthless, and I despaired once again of God ever using me. It even caused me to despair of life. Two other pressure points where I often lose heart are finances and in physical limits and deterioration. I have great difficulty sometimes integrating my increasing physical weaknesses into God’s Story; It usually just makes me feel ashamed and alone (another example: parenting).

Maybe you’re there today, or have been recently. Take courage that you’re not alone. Even Paul said, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV)

What does Paul offer us here to combat loss of heart? He offers us perspective, a way of seeing our suffering and our pain though entirely different eyes. According to Paul, whenever we fail, whenever we mess up, whenever we are wounded, forgotten, unemployed, abused, overlooked, injured, betrayed or abandoned, God uses this event to work for us something eternal and glorious. He calls these afflictions “light” and “momentary” working for us an “eternal” and “weighty” kind of glory that cannot even compare to life on this planet. What is this glory? I am not entirely sure, but I think it ties back to the “treasure” in v.6. A glorious experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ, who suffered before us and in our place. The children of God who suffer more here, will have greater treasure with God there. 

5:1-5 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ESV)

Continuing to give us a new perspective on our suffering, Paul returns to the body. The body is central to the spiritual life! These “jars of clay” fail and crack so often, serving as a constant and ever-growing contrast to the ever-renewing Spirit of God within us. When God brings comfort and encouragement to one of his suffering children who has lost heart, it is truly a miracle of resurrection!

1. How can we become the kind of people who glory in our weakness?
Try and imagine what kind of person you would need to become to embrace your sufferings and limits as gifts instead of curses. How would this person respond the next time there is a financial shortage? physical sickness or injury, or worse, cancer?
Later on in 2 Corinthians Paul describes a shift that occurred within him that was key to his moving from avoiding his weakness and begging God to remove it to embracing it as gift and boasting about it. We need to remember he had had his “thorn in the flesh” for about 14 years by the time he wrote this epistle.

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. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV)

Only when we acknowledge and own our weakness before God are we ready to be changed by it through grace, and change usually looks different than we think. It doesn’t necessarily mean less pain or less struggle. It usually means greater comfort in the knowledge of Jesus our fellow sufferer in the midst of our pain. It also means greater acceptance of ourselves as broken and dearly loved. This is easier said than done, to be sure.

Weakness is the only doorway to grace and life. This is the way of the Cross, the way of Jesus. The way of the cross in our souls is the way of taking us down, taking us from places of attaching our identity to images & illusions of strength, power and maturity and instead attaching our identity to places of weakness, brokenness and inability.

“For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:4 ESV)

Many of us have strong identity attachments not only to strength and worldly power and success, but conversely in our weaknesses we feel strong attachments of shame, guilt and rejection. In my case, the circumstance of poverty is strongly attached to the experience of being abandoned by my Dad, so it is a weakness I try to avoid at all costs. God keeps inviting me back there though, and reaffirming his love and grace. Slowly it is becoming a safe place, a grace-gift instead of curse.

This is the way God works. God takes us right to the place of our weakness and pain that we try desperately to hide from and cover up; this feels so cruel, and we deeply question the heart of God. But, as he holds us there in that place, not allowing us to run far from our weaknesses, always bringing us gently back, so gently; as we remain in that place with Him and we realize that His love remains strong and tender in that very place, undeterred by our shame and weakness, we slowly, so slowly, become convinced in the deep that God’s love is good and faithful and is able to define us. Then and only then, can we conceive of a way of life that boasts of weakness; only then can we begin to imagine a version of ourselves that rests, is content and even rejoices in inability, insecurity and need; for we have discovered there the treasure hidden in a field, the love of God reserved for the broken, the power of God reserved for the weak.
If Jesus comes to us in weakness and brokenness, how can we come to him any other way? 

2. Listen to the story God is telling with your life.
Frederick Buechner said, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)

If we listen, I believe we will hear a story of God meeting us in our weakness and showing his power and love. To the extent that have trouble hearing this, to that extent we need a new narrative; a narrative whose value system is based on the Kingdom of God and not on that of this world.

Jesus is telling a story with our lives. He edits and rewrites what we bring to the story, which is often a very painful process, because as characters we feel such radical changes will cause us to lose our security as “selves” or characters.

If you are willing, please close your eyes and allow your mind to settle on an area of weakness in your life; perhaps an area that you have recently felt pain and shame over. There is no longer any reason to run, hide or cover this. The Lord knows and sees - you are fully known and completely loved. He is calling to you in that very place. Spend a minute talking to him about this; if you can, surrender it completely to him and ask him to manifest his grace and power there. His grace is sufficient for you, as it is for me.

Take 15-30 seconds of silence and reflection

Beloved, do you know how radical this is? If we embrace this narrative, it changes everything. Every institution, relationship, ideology, theology or spirituality that enshrines power and strength is threatened by this reality.

As for myself, I didn’t realize how attached I still was to images and ideals of strength and power until I began to prepare this message. God is breaking me with greater grace. May the Lord bless and keep you as you seek his face. Amen.

addendum - “loss of heart” in the Scriptures - Numbers 11:14-15; Job 3:3-4; 10:18-19; Ps 32:3-4; 88:3-7; 1 Kings 19:3-4; Jonah 4:3; Jeremiah 20:14-18; Matthew 26:37-38; 27:46; 2 Cor 1:8