Friday, May 24, 2013

Tell Me Your Troubles

[Forgive me if this post is a bit rambling; my mind feels shot. It’s been a long and difficult week.]

I found myself nearly snapping this morning over something trivial and small, raising a “red flag” as to my emotional and spiritual reserves. I quickly retreated into my tried and true sources of grace, and felt my soul slowly re-immerse in the reality of God and his commitment toward me. In one case, it was a recent playlist I made called “Tender Mercies,” filled with the most powerful and grace-filled songs I own. They wash over me and knit me back together.

The other thing I did was turn once again to the recollection of one of my favorite Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy. In particular, the scene where Shasta is travelling through the dark and a mysterious presence comes alongside him and says, “Tell me your troubles.” As Shasta pours out his heart, he is received with great compassion; in the context of this great compassion, a new interpretation emerges of Shasta’s life, offered by this Mysterious Other, that brings light into the darkness. I have written on this before, but wanted to reflect on it once again so I can draw strength from it. When I searched for the story on the internet, a book came up and I found myself captivated by the author’s perspective on this scene:

“…Shasta encounters Aslan again. Mired in that emotional letdown, that loss of purpose that so often comes with the completion of a long and difficult mission, he thinks of Bree and Hwin and Aravis snug in the Hermit’s house, and how long it’s been since he has rested or eaten, and he begins to indulge in self-pity for the first time in this story. He begins, in fact, to believe that he is the most unfortunate boy in the world.

“Tell me your troubles,” says Aslan from the fog. It’s one of those moments when the great terror of Aslan is overcome by his even greater compassion. Very few people have shown any interest in Shasta’s sorrows or fears or hopes. But this mysterious, giant voice in the fog does. Shasta tells of his difficult childhood, of his harrowing escape from Calormen, of the trouble he has had with lions.

The voice in the fog offers a different perspective on Shasta’s misfortunes: they weren’t misfortunes at all, but part of a larger plan. The lions on the road, the lion among the tombs outside Tashbaan, the lion who attacked Aravis, even the lion Shasta doesn’t remember – the one who pushed baby Shasta’s boat to shore at the Calormen fishing village – were all the same Lion. All of Shasta’s life has been lived under the protective paw of the Lion: the same Lion who now speaks from the fog.

When Shasta asks who is speaking to him, he gets more or less the same answer Moses got from the burning bush: “Myself . . . Myself . . . Myself.” Shasta has been speaking to the great I AM. He is no longer afraid, but still he trembles. He feels glad, too, in this awesome presence. Then a light dissolves the fog, and Shasta sees the Great Lion to whom he has been talking. He is more terrible and more beautiful than anything Shasta has ever seen.” (Jonathan Rogers, The Word, the Name, the Blood: Christian Meaning in C.S. Lewis’ Beloved Chronicles (Hachette Digital, Inc., Feb 28, 2009))

I take refuge under the giant protective paw of the Lion who walks beside me in the fog of my weariness, unbelief, confusion and limping faith. The only hope I have is that he holds me. The faithfulness of Jesus persists. This is the only safe place for me to pour out my heart, to tell all my troubles. Perhaps I will hear a new interpretation that will help me move forward. I will wait and see. If not, I am still safe under his paw!

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.” (Ps 91:1-2 ESV)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Court Is In Session

The Lord has gently put a finger on something in me recently, a profound lack of love for other people, especially fellow Christians. I’ve known of this for a long while, but my awareness of how deep and pervasive it is is painfully growing.

My confession is that I frequently “size people up” and dismiss them if they don’t immediately present something valuable to my interests. Usually this is directed toward 1) those who appear strong and who “don’t seem to get” the message of brokenness, i.e., they appear to have it all together by my estimation, or 2) those whose brokenness is different from my own narrow understanding and experience of it. An example of the latter would be that I usually feel great compassion for those broken or wounded by religion or the church, but typically feel no compassion for the homeless and poor.

Dallas Willard (Knowing Christ Conference, Feb 2013, lecture #3) talks about this horrible dynamic of “sizing people up” that results in either a response of attack or withdrawal, based on my “assessment.” If another is perceived as a threat, I likely will withdraw. The ultimate message I am communicating is that “you’re not worth my time.” Sometimes I will feel compelled to “attack” by seeking to impress the person with my knowledge and experiences. The message I communicate to them is that “look how blessed you are to be in my glorious presence!” Both responses dismiss the person as they are and establish myself in the place of God as I edit them out of my story.

The Kingdom of Jesus frees us from this pathology, as we are safe in the arms of the Trinitarian Fellowship and free to relate and love people where they are instead of where they “should” be. I can love as I am loved.

This thought attended a recent flash of awareness: The only people I have any right to teach or speak into are those in whom I delight, those in whom I feel genuine affection.

I’ve begun to think of Bible passages (NIV) that speak of Christians’ love for other Christians, such as:

1 Thess 4:9, Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.

Phil 1:8-9, God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight

Col 1:3-5, We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.

John 15:12-17,  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

There are many more passages that could be mentioned, like 1 Cor 13:4-7, but these have been forefront in my mind. I highlighted those portions above that are especially speaking to me, evidence of a process by which God teaches us (as his disciples) how to love one another as he loves us.

My first step is to acknowledge my lack of love and seek to be aware of the voices of criticism that swirl in my head as I relate to other believers. Then, hopefully I can quiet these voices and seek the Lord in confession and trust. He is the great lover of our souls, and I trust Him as my Master Teacher to teach me how to love as I have been loved. May God grant me great grace, for I am a great sinner.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: Charts on the Life, Letters and Theology of Paul

Lars Kierspel has done students of the New Testament a great service in providing the Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul. One of the most recent additions to the Kregel series of Charts on the Bible, Kierspel’s book continues to take the “chart book” genre to the next level. No longer are charts simplistic and for basic students; this series has shown that charts can serve more serious students with in-depth tools that are able to cover a wide array of issues and concerns.

The book is divided up as follows:

Paul’s Background and Context

Paul’s Life and Ministry

Paul’s Letters

Paul’s Theological Concepts

My favorite charts have to do with Paul’s Prayers (pp. 57-60), the snapshots of individual letters (pp. 109-140) and his key theological concepts (the entire section). I can see myself using these in my own devotions. Much of Paul’s writing easily lends itself to lists (esp. his lists of virtues and vices peppered throughout his writings).

Another great feature is the comments section at the back, where Kierspel tells us where he got his material, why he arranged it the way he did, and some cursory conclusions of the material. It is difficult to imagine any topic having to do with Paul not addressed in some form in this book. Both students and scholars will find it indispensable.

The only negative remarks I would have would be based on some typographical errors I found (and see other reviewers have as well). Overall, this book makes me want to teach bible classes again!

This review copy by Kregel Academic provided free of charge for the purposes of an un-biased review.

Book Review: Prototype

Jesus is our prototype for a new way to be human.

This is the thesis for Jonathan Martin’s new book, Prototype (Tyndale House, 2013). Jonathan pastors a group called Renovatus in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it is his passion to show in the book all the difference the resurrected Christ makes in the world through his people. In this goal Martin succeeds, as story after story is told to show how the life of Christ is enfleshed in his broken and beloved people and overflows into the surrounding neighborhoods. For the purposes of this review, I want to look briefly at each of the chapter headings and offer a summary statement of what is covered to show how they flow.

  1. Identity - do you know who you are? It is possible for us to become fully human in the precise ways Jesus was, but we must come to believe what Jesus believed so that we do the things he did. Jesus embraced his identity as God’s Beloved and by doing so became fully human. The path is the same for us.

  2. Beloved - “knowing how loved we are by God makes all the difference in the kind of people we will become” (31).

  3. Obscurity -  seasons of darkness and wilderness are gifts from the Father to expose how broken and beloved we truly are.

  4. Calling - his love makes us lovesick for him and for other broken people. We are called to share the love we have been richly given.

  5. Wounds - our wounds authenticate us and make us accessible, just like Jesus.

  6. Resurrection - the “life of the future” invades our present, with wonder and abundant life for disciples of Jesus.

  7. Sacraments - the resurrection is bodily and earthy; we are reminded that Jesus was a God we could touch and who could touch us, a mission carried on through his children now. We are Kingdom bearers as we touch and bless others, through things like baptism, foot washing, anointing the sick and celebrating communion.

  8. Community - we need each other; other Kingdom bearers touch us and draw us in to our own belovedness.

  9. Witness - we bear witness to how God is making all things new (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example). We must know our beloved identity (Beloved) because it is precisely our story to tell, our story that fits into the story of Jesus.

  10. Letter to a Ravaged Bride - a moving message written to the church from a participant and critic (Martin). This reminds me of what has been reported to have been said by Dorothy Day, “the church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

You can see the clear flow of ideas throughout this engaging book. I was richly blessed as several main themes seemed to deeply resonate with other things I’ve been thinking about lately, mainly from Dallas Willard, ideas about the Kingdom of God and how we are bearers of that Kingdom with incredible dignity. I also really appreciated the dual emphasis on our identity as “broken and beloved.” It is a missing category in much Christian teaching and ministry today.

I guess my only criticism would be that the book is pretty much only tangentially rooted in Scripture. I think it’s message is thoroughly biblical, but it’s rootedness in Scripture could have been more explicitly expressed.

Click here for a Q & A with the author

Click here for a sample chapter (chapter 1)

This book was provided free of charge courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers for the purposes of this review.

Friday, May 10, 2013

No Good Thing Does He Withhold From Us

For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Psalm 84:10-12 ESV)

Brokenness in my body in the form of tension and physical pain this week is forcing me to seek out places of safety and refuge, truths and experiences with God that will empower me to show compassion on myself as a broken and beloved man. Tension and physical pain always seem to provoke my orphan fears, and I easily and quickly become paralyzed. I also tend to get pretty frustrated with myself, that I’m “overthrown” so easily, hence the need to share the compassion of Jesus for myself. I seek out and find safe places in the company of a few fellow sufferers, but also in the poetic words of broken saints and songwriters.

One of these songwriters is Sara Groves. The song I’m thinking of is from a meditation from a Charles Spurgeon sermon on Psalm 84:11 above. Specifically, Spurgeon quotes Sir Richard Baker’s comments on this verse (slightly edited for emphasis):

Verse 11. No good thing will he withhold. etc. But how is this true, when God oftentimes withholds riches and honours, and health of body from men, though they walk never so uprightly;

we may therefore know that honours and riches and bodily strength, are none of God's good things;

they are of the number of things indifferent which God bestows promiscuously upon the just and unjust, as the rain to fall and the sun to shine.

The good things of God are chiefly peace of conscience and the joy in the Holy Ghost in this life; fruition of God's presence, and vision of his blessed face in the next,

and these good things God never bestows upon the wicked, never withholds from the godly, and they are all cast up in one sum where it is said . . . Blessed are the pure in heart (and such are only they that walk uprightly) for they shall see God.

From these comments, Sara Groves wrote the song, “Open My Hands.” Click here to watch the video, but spend time in the lyrics as well, soaking in what they are saying. They provide a place for us to open our hearts, hands and souls before our God who is always with us in the midst of daily life, in joy and sorrow.

I believe in a blessing I don't understand
I’ve seen rain fall on wicked and the just
Rain is no measure of his faithfulness
He withholds no good thing from us
No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I believe in a peace that flows deeper than pain
That broken find healing in love
Pain is no measure of his faithfulness
He withholds no good thing from us
No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart
I will open my hands, will open my heart
I am nodding my head an emphatic yes
To all that You have for me

I believe in a fountain that will never dry
Though I've thirsted and didn't have enough
Thirst is no measure of his faithfulness
He withholds no good thing from us
No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart
I will open my hands, will open my heart
I am nodding my head an emphatic yes
To all that You have for me

No good thing from us
No good thing from us
He withholds no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart
I will open my hands, will open my heart
I am nodding my head an emphatic yes
To all that You have for me

Suffering loosens our grip on what we think are the “good things” – health, wealth, success, etc. Trying to grip these things leaves our hands clenched, closed and unable to receive. When our hands are opened up we are free to receive the true good things of God – the things of His Kingdom where it “is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 ESV).

Let us be humble enough to lean into our suffering and receive what our good Father gives. Only when we are so blessed and broken can we can be given to hurting others, thus exposing the false kingdoms of this world, and overthrowing the wise and strong for what is foolish and weak. This is the way of Jesus, and the way he expands his Kingdom.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The Spirituality of Abraham

Eugene Peterson has once again seen something that has really gripped my imagination. In his lecture series on the Beatitudes, at the beginning of the second lecture, he talks about the contrast between the spirituality of Abraham and the spiritualties of Egypt and Chaldea.

God called Abraham (Genesis 12) out of the lands of Chaldea and Egypt, where monuments to human glory were prominent in the form of ziggurats and pyramids. Perhaps with the tower of Babel fresh in Abraham’s imagination, he undertook no such building projects throughout his sojourn.

Instead, Abraham dug wells. Largely unseen monuments of emptiness and absence, making space for fullness and presence. They were obscure but vital sources of life. These pillars went the opposite direction to the ziggurats, down into the earthy soil. He dug down instead of built up. Eventually, Abraham’s wells were filled in by the Philistines, and Isaac his son had to recover them to gain access to their fresh waters (Genesis 26:15-18). Isaac’s task is similar to anyone who attempts to re-gain spiritual vitality that has been lost (significant to Peterson because he likens the 8 beatitudes of Jesus to wells that have been dug but need to be recovered).

We see in Abraham’s way, his spirituality, the way of the Kingdom of God in all times and places. It is the way of the last over the first, the weak over the strong, in human terms. In contrast to human attempts to construct selves and spiritualities (ethics), Kingdom subjects create space for God to fill by simply presenting themselves to God in all ways, means and seasons that are possible for humans to do (Christian spirituality). Reflecting on this prepares us for the Jesus way, made known through the Beatitudes.

Friday, May 03, 2013

God’s Work and Our Work

I came across an article by Gerald May on the “Prayerfulness of Work” and was ambushed by the verse he had at the opening and was not able to read further (Psalm 90:17). I want to take a minute to reflect on this verse and the few verses preceding it.

First, a little background – I’ve been trying to “bring God into my work” with intentionality and concerted effort for the last month or so. Toward this end, I’ve listened to the audio version of Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God multiple times on my way to work with great benefit. This 17th century saint has helped me see and believe that I could perform seemingly mundane tasks with a joyful focus and adoration of God while doing it. It’s a continual struggle for me, as I ebb and flow from profound feelings of meaninglessness and insignificance in my work to an awareness of God-with-me as I work, bringing significance to whatever I’m doing with him. My sense of calling and giftedness seem to lie dormant and inactive while at my current job, provoking these feelings of insignificance.

On top of this, I realized this week that I’ve never had a job that I actually enjoyed; I’ve always just done what needed to be done to pay the bills. I’ve pretty much given up hope that I will ever be employed doing something I love or that allows space for the expression of what is deepest and truest about me. Part of me wonders if this is just part of life and that I should just get used to it; I am also aware of a self-hatred that I want to address that judges myself unworthy of such a gift. “God blesses other people with stuff like that, not me,” this part of me says.

I find myself fighting for vision to see God in my work, as he invites me to work with him and bring my work into his. This is God’s Kingdom in action.

That said, I can turn my attention to Psalm 90:14-17 and offer a few comments.

(14) Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
(15) Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
(16) Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
(17) Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! (ESV)

Verse 14 has always been a favorite one of mine; In this and the subsequent verse Moses is re-telling the story of Israel’s wandering rebellion in terms of crying out for a renewal in Yahweh’s love. The steadfast love (Heb. hesed) that God revealed to Moses in Exodus 32-34 shapes Moses’ prayer (and ours) into a renewed encounter with God. Once again, unless God reveals his love and mercy, God’s people will perish.

Verses 16-17 especially struck me as I thought about my work being brought into God’s work. Moses prays that God’s work be revealed, his glorious power made known. As I apply this, it helps me ask for God’s work to be revealed in my workplace. Find out where God is at work and join him there. If I don’t seek this, if I don’t ask for this, I will inevitably treat my work (what I do) as primary, and the only possible result of that is emptiness. It is orphan-work, work done by an abandoned one. It’s work where everything is up to me to make things work, to figure things out. It’s a horrible way to live.

In contrast to orphan-work is what I might call beloved-work. The beloved realizes profoundly the limitations endemic to any and all work outside the garden, and sees work as another opportunity for union with the Beloved Savior. The beloved observes, listens, seeks and asks. This asking and seeking pleases the Lord, and the result is that the “favor of the Lord” (lit. beauty, glory) rests upon us. With our work couched in an asking and seeking heart, looking to surrender our work to God’s work, we are then in a position to pray that he “establish the work of our hands.”

Calvin offers this comment on v.17, “Moses intimates that we cannot undertake or attempt anything with the prospect of success, unless God become our guide and counsellor, and govern us by his Spirit. Whence it follows, that the reason why the enterprises and efforts of worldly men have a disastrous issue is, because, in not following God, they pervert all order and throw everything into confusion.”

Our work is established as it is brought into his kingdom and his work. It is the work of the Lover and beloved, working together to shape created materials for good in God’s world, whether it’s crunching numbers, serving customers, changing diapers or crafting words.

Honestly, I’m not sure what this actually looks/feels like, as this is still fairly new to me. But I have learned enough to say that it emanates from an awareness of God-with-me, that he is with me in an interactive relationship offering help, guidance and wisdom as I do my work. The act of bringing my work under God’s may simply be this awareness enveloped by a general and loving sense of surrender of all that I have and am to Jesus and His kingdom.


Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Perfection of Imperfection

I found this devotional reading from Richard Rohr stimulating today:

I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever, and revealing them to the little ones.(Luke 10:21 and Matthew 11:25)

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.That might just be the central message of how spiritual growth happens; yet nothing in us wants to believe it, and those who deem themselves “morally successful” are often the last to learn it.

If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection (like God does), rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond any imperfection.

It becomes sort of obvious once you say it out loud. In fact, I would say that the demand for the perfect is often the greatest enemy of the good. Perfection is a mathematical or divine concept; goodness is a beautiful human concept. We see this illusionary perfectionism in ideologues and zealots on both the left and the right of church and state. They refuse to get their hands dirty, think compromise or subtlety are dirty words, and end up creating much more “dirt” for the rest of us, while they remain totally “clean” and quite comfortable in their cleanliness.

Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, pp. xxii-xxiii

What a great reminder, that God has chosen to “hide holiness” in imperfection so that only the little humble children can find it. Beware of cursing your imperfections, weaknesses and blights; God is there, calling you to holy ground. Can you see it? Can you hear him?

Lord, open my eyes and my heart to receive your holy love which comes not to my strengths, not to the place of my glory and successes, but to my weakest points of need, barrenness and sorrow. Thank you that you have designed things this way, so that normal people can get in on the life of God made available through Jesus.

Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.” (Matthew 11:25-26, The Message)