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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Smoldering Wick (part 4)

I “successfully” delivered my sermon yesterday at Lucas Grove Baptist Church in Upton, KY. I will post the sermon manuscript soon. In the meantime, I thought it would be good to reflect a bit on the process, now that I can look back on it.

First, in the final days before the sermon it became clear to me that this sermon was more like a prayer more than a lecture, and it felt more directed to Jesus than to other people. I pictured him among the congregation, wearing a warm smile as I attempted to make sense of my life and pour it out to him. It almost felt like the kind of message I would want delivered at my funeral.

The physical and emotional toll was not as great as I expected it to be (as it was the last time I preached 6+ years ago). Whenever I used to preach (probably 3-4 times in my entire life!) I would be exhausted in body and soul, experiencing deep emptiness for several days. I think this difference might be related to my following realization.

I don’t think I was doing it to prove myself; there were no big-wigs to impress and no names to drop (they probably wouldn’t recognize the names anyway). There were just simple country people hungry to hear from God and eager to love one another. I and my family felt very welcome. Indeed, the issue of whether or not there will be an opportunity to build my reputation will be a decisive factor when I consider accepting such an invite in the future. This little broken sermon - delivered in a little quiet country church, where there is no chance of being made famous - has some incredible appeal to me. It feels like the only safe context in which “I” could preach.

On Saturday Cheri and I experienced some intense warfare in the midst of some pretty profound failure on my part. The result, by God's grace, was to free me from any belief that good performance on my part would make the next day's sermon effective or life-giving. It was also clear to our entire family that love and brokenness defeated Satan's ploy, at least in this instance.

Lastly, I just wanted to note that of the several people who talked with me after the service, Brother M stands out (don’t want to use his name). He is clearly in a very dark place with a load of suffering far outweighing mine. He took heart from my sermon that maybe there is a fresh way to look at his struggles and at God. I was very encouraged by this. I lingered with this brother for 20-30 minutes, prayed with him, and we began our drive home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lord, Redeem the Puritans

I came across a deal today to pre-order this new Systematic Theology by Beeke & Jones that draws exclusively from the Puritans. It’s 1200 pages long and being sold at Monergism Books for a 42% discount for $34.99 (sorry, sounds like a commercial). Amazon has it listed for pre-order for $60!

After reading the .pdf sample I realized how great a treasure this potentially could be. The problem is, I’ve not been interested in reading Puritans much since I finished my Masters Thesis on Jonathan Edwards in 2001. I continued to read Edwards and other Puritans for a while, but when the “Dark Night” began a couple of years later I couldn’t maintain such intensive reading. Plus, because they were all the rage at the time, the Puritans became symbolic of the Seminary world that had contributed (directly/indirectly) to a great deal of pain in my life. They became painfully symbolic of the shallow arrogant spirituality that I saw in the professors and students who flocked to them for instruction.

Maybe it’s time I’ve given them another chance. I’d like to see them redeemed in my life. I have swung from the extreme of “They are everything we need!” to “I don’t need anything they have to offer!” Somewhere, in my heart, I believe there is a place for a much more humbled and realistic appropriation of the Puritans. They were far from perfect, but they still have much to offer – even to ragamuffins like me. Their spirituality is what drew me to them in the first place, and that is what I still find appealing.

Looking to find a balance, I decided (after talking to my wise and beautiful wife) to buy this as an act of faith; it will be her Christmas present to me, which she will hide away until December. It may sit on my shelf for a while, but buying it is symbolic of my desire to re-appropriate the Puritans and somehow redeem this painful part of my past.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Grasping for Handholds

I’m still trying to recover from yesterday’s experience of “the bottom falling out.” These episodes don’t happen as often as they used to, but when they do they’re doozies! It’s like a firestorm in my brain, with tsunamic (is that a word? if not, it should be) feelings of oppressive darkness.

What I’ve learned about these times is that something gets triggered in me, something painful, and an entire slough of well-worn neural pathways in my brain get activated, very strongly so. Rarely can I tell that this is is what is going on; all I know is what has been triggered. It is viscerally real to me at that moment. Eventually I hope to maintain more objectivity, detachment and differentiation during these times, but haven’t been able to yet.

One of the problems in recovering is that these triggers are linked to specific assumptions that I allowed to define me at a very wounded time in the past. What else could I do? I was just a kid, trying to survive. I can’t get too angry at myself for “letting” these things take hold – esp. since they helped me survive trauma. When they get triggered they come back with the full force of the day they were established, and they define me now just as they did then. For example, the terrible feelings of being a boy of 9 trying to deal with my Dad’s abandonment becomes who I am right now at age 42. Again, my goal is to one day be able to better recognize when this is going on, objectify it so that I can separate my sense of “self” from it, with the goal of inviting God into it.

Back to these assumptions I mentioned; some might rightly call them lies. For example, one of the most ancient ones for me is that “I am worthless.” I saw this play out in the last few days, and I can still feel the effects (and appeal). To tell myself (or one of you to tell me) that “this is a lie! Don’t believe it!” is not as helpful as one might think at first. Though true, it doesn’t address the fact that there is a very strong narrative at work in which these assumptions make sense. In other words, not only do I need to challenge the assumption/lie, but also the narrative or story in which that assumption finds a home and is actually coherent. You see, I can look at my life through a certain interpretive grid and the statement “I am worthless” makes sense; it’s actually supported by evidence. What I need is not just sound bites of truth, but a better story.

What I’m realizing is that to confront these lies I don’t only need to try to cling to truth but also through the power of the Gospel and with the help of the Spirit and Christian friends confront and heal that overarching narrative in which these lies live and make sense.

So far, not much progress in doing this. But I take some encouragement from the fact that I can write a blog like this which shows some level of differentiation and objectivity going on inside.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Valley of Death

Not sure what good it will do to write some of this stuff down; it probably won’t be very coherent but I’m always spouting off about honesty so . . . .

I’m feeling very low right now, a complete loss of heart. I feel extremely heavy and sad (with occasional flashes of rage). Not sure which I want more – to die, or to encounter God. Swearing at him doesn’t seem to help, though I shed some tears this morning on my walk, so maybe that’s something.

Trying to trace how I got here is difficult, if not impossible. I had a lot of social interactions this weekend that left me a bit drained, but not too badly. I don’t do well in “small talk” type situations, but I try not to disengage too much.

I took part in a discussion group on law/grace dynamics on Friday night that left me doubting that I had anything worthwhile to offer the group. I was foolish enough last week to begin thinking that I had something unique to contribute to the world!

We visited my friend’s church in rural KY yesterday (where I’ll be “preaching” next week). The fellowship was sweet but my friend was too damn eloquent and smart, and I began feeling deep doubts about my being able to fill his shoes in any competent way.

Thinking more about these two events this morning led to an avalanche of sadness, grief and rage, shredding my soul. I look around and see no place at all where my “self” matters – I think any Joe Schmuck could come in off the street and do ANYTHING I do but 10x better – a better husband, father, teacher, pastor, whatever.

Trying to lift up the pain to God, but frankly I’m pretty pissed off at him for my life.

As for comments, please refrain from giving advice (Hold your tongue, Bildad!). I’m not in the mood.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Smoldering Wick (part 3)

[This is a continuation of my “Smoldering Wick” series, as I reflect on the process of an upcoming preaching event. I’m finding that it is a kind of outworking of my theology of Scripture, preaching and brokenness and how they relate.]

When preparing a sermon, it’s typical and helpful to think through these questions of the text:

1) what is the problem that the text poses?
2) how does the author go about solving that problem?

This is how I was trained to think, and there is definite value in it. By itself though, it is found wanting. What it assumes is that there is always a clear-cut process from point A to point B. In the case of 2 Corinthians, it would be as if the apostle Paul were saying something like this: “Brothers and sisters, you can avoid discouragement and loss of heart if you follow these three steps.” Such formulaic understandings of spirituality inevitably fail, and I don’t think the text of Scripture supports them.

What I would argue is that even if a text presents steps to follow or imperatives to obey, it is all in the context of the assumption that change only occurs in encounter with the living Christ. So, one of the things I think Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians is that there are clear pillars given us in the New Covenant that we can rely on to “not lose heart.” But it is simplistic to think and preach that that is all he is saying. There must be more; the text must usher into the presence of the Author, if the “spirituality of the text” is to find a home in our lives.

2 Cor 3:18 reminds us that change, healing and redemption occur in a relational gazing, or intimate conversational relating to God. The resources of the New Covenant make this relationship possible, but they are not the end; they are the means that get us there, so that we are free to open up to God in all our rawness, broken and surrendered before all the resources of God made available to us in Christ.

Building on this, I need to say that exegesis (exposition/explanation) of the text must be accompanied by an exegesis of the heart, both in the preacher and in the congregation. We don’t just need to know God, we need to grow in knowing ourselves. We don’t just need the text explained and applied to us; this is just one side of the conversation. We bring a particular “self” to the text in response. Thus, we need help exegeting what is in our hearts and souls, in order to respond to the Word of God from where we actually are, not from where someone else is, or where we “should” be. This is one of the biggest weaknesses in current evangelicalism (where I call home); we have focused intensely on proper exegesis of the text, and rightly so. We love God enough to get his words right. But it is dangerously ignorant to think that the “stuff” we bring to the text doesn’t affect how we read and apply it. Usually this stuff just flows like underground sewer pipes, controlling our viewpoint far more than we would be comfortable realizing. Religious false selves specialize in keeping this stuff hidden.

All that to say this, profound in it’s simplicity: only our actual selves can encounter the actual Jesus in the text of Scripture. Too often our reading or hearing of Scripture involves false selves relating to false gods, eg., our religious false self relates to the God who demands our performance above all else.

Lastly, I want to say that the act of coming before the text does not change us. Coming before the text is an intentional act of presenting ourselves before God (Rom 12:1-2) and trusting him to do what he wants, say what he wants. Even if we are not in an immediate specific situation where a “clear application” can be made, we can intend to become the kind of people that react that way from the heart, by the Spirit when the time comes.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Loving the Broken Church

As I was preparing myself to join with other believers yesterday, I was getting frustrated as I thought of the shortcomings of the church and how I didn’t expect much encouragement or support. As I thought of this a few resolutions came before my mind and heart that brought me encouragement and hope (with a little dose of rebuke!)

I realized that:

1) I was being unrealistic in my expectations. Every church is a broken church and not ideal. Too often I have related to the ideal church to the point that I have missed the glory of Jesus in the messy reality of the people before me. How many opportunities have I missed in relating to real people? I think here of the people in Corinth who gave Paul such head and heart-aches. How come we forget about the Corinthians when we are idealizing and romanticizing the first century church? Lord help me. Not only was I being unrealistic but hypocritical to the extreme. Here I am, aware to an extent of deep brokenness and inability in me, and I'm judging others for their brokenness??

2) Further, instead of thinking of what I can “get,” I need to think and pray through why God planted us in this particular context of people. What can I give? Somehow, this little assembly needs us. Humbling to think about.

3) Sometimes the brokenness of a local church is not found in the obvious outward signs - crumbling relationships, addiction, conflict, etc. Oftentimes in the N. American context a church’s brokenness is found in its inability to see just how broken and needy it really is (wasn’t this one of the chief charges of Jesus against the churches in Revelation?).

It is easy for us to love the ideal church - the one that we want/need it to be or think it ought to be. Rarely do we see the church for what she is, with all her blemishes and disfigurement, and choose to love her as she is. Each unique assembly is uniquely screwed up, uniquely disfigured by sin and by wounds. In the midst of the disfigurement is the resurrected Christ, giving life and forgiveness, and upon His presence we put our hope, not on fixing what is broken. We are broken and beloved together.

Ultimately, we love the broken church because this is the only church that there is.