Thursday, March 31, 2011

Suds in the Bucket: My philosophy of work

My little sister's Spanish spoils

My hands spent a lot of time in soapy water today.

My little sister returned from a college trip to Spain earlier this week, loaded down with souvenirs for all, plenty of chocolate, and a bag of new dresses (courtesy of a monetary birthday gift from our grandparents).

Since my sister had several assignments due this week, I offered to wash her European-bought clothing. I then began rifling through the garments, looking for care labels.

The tags all boasted exotic origins -- Spain, France, and India -- and the fabric content was printed in wonderfully foreign words, including seda and viscosa. As I examined each dress carefully, I realized only one had a care label. Three of them were made of fabric I had never heard of. 

With the help of Google Translate, I realized I was dealing with silk, rayon, polyester, and one unknown. The safest way to clean these is to wash them by hand. So, I headed to the kitchen this morning loaded down with a bag of dresses, hangers, and my laptop (for laundering tips and some music streaming). 

It took me a bit over an hour. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I've always really enjoyed housework, especially when I can take my time to do my job well. I love that when I'm finished, I always have something visible to show for it. And for the most part, it's low-stress work that doesn't require a lot of mental involvement, so it gives me plenty of time to think and pray. 

Today as I was plunging dresses repeatedly into the sink (and humming along with Sugarland), my mind turned to the idea of menial labor. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of menial is:
1: of or relating to servants : lowly
2a : appropriate to a servant : humble, servile
2b : lacking interest or dignity 
Why is it that we divide work into such categories? Isn't there dignity in all kinds of work, provided you do it well?

Bob Thune, pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska, took up this discussion in his recent Gospel Coalition article "What Are You Called to Do? A Theology of Work."
Someone pointed out to me an interesting fact: the root of the English word vocation is the Latin verb voca, which means “to call.” The linguistic evidence shows that at some point in history, people thought of every type of work as a “calling.” Whether you are a minister or a mechanic, you do not work because it pays the bills, or because it’s personally fulfilling, or because it justifies the money you spent on college tuition. You work because it glorifies God.
As a woman, the subject of menial labor is a sensitive one. The culture as a whole pressures women to escape the "confines" of home and find fulfillment through their careers. We are often told that housework and diapers are beneath us. We shouldn't settle for servile work, but pursue something with interest and dignity.

Yet, someone has to do the "menial" work. Someone has to wash the clothes, cook the food, and vacuum the floors. If we don't do it, we have to hire out -- take the clothes to the cleaners, order take-out, and call a cleaning lady. The assumption is: I'm above this sort of work, but another person isn't.

Something in me rejects this idea, dripping as it is with false pride. It is true that some work requires specialized skill. It is true that some work requires innate talent. But it is also true that even the the surgeons and master painters need hot meals and clean homes. Society is lit up not only by its moons but also by its billions of twinkling stars.

I'm not sure where my life's path will lead me. But I do know one thing -- I will always enjoy housework. And like all work, it will bring glory to God. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again'

A couple months ago, I started reading through C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. I never read them as a child, though I watched all of the old movies. Like the real Lucy to whom Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the book I am currently reading), I am now "old enough to start reading fairy tales again."  It's been very slow going, as I don't make much time for pleasure reading these days. But the moments of quiet when I have wandered into Narnia have been sweet indeed.

Last night I read Lewis' description of the coming of spring to Narnia after the long reign of the Witch.
Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow. Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down onto the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops.

Soon there were more wonderful tings happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers -- celandines.

The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing. ...

Only five minutes later (Edmund) noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree -- gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious then the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then as if that had been a signal there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds' music, and wherever Edmund's eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feather with their beaks. ...

There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travelers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travelers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path. ...

Miles away the Beavers and children were walking on hour after hour into what seemed a delicious dream. Long ago they had left the coats behind them. And by now they had even stopped saying to one another, "Look! there's a kingfisher," or "I say, bluebells!" or "What was that lovely smell?" or "Just listen to that thrush!" They walked on in a silence drinking it all in, passing through patches of warm sunlight into cool, green thickets and out again into wide mossy glades where tall elms raised the leafy roof far overhead, and then into dense masses of flowering current and among hawthorn bushes where the sweet smell was almost overpowering.

They had been just as surprised as Edmund when they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May. They hadn't even known for certain ... that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia. (123-127)
As I read Lewis' exquisite description of life returning to a dead land, I couldn't help but wonder what it will be like when the True King of this world returns. No one knows when this will be or what trials will proceed His coming. But when He does come, I wonder if it will be something like spring returning to Narnia. Though, indeed, it will be even more glorious.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the LORD, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:7-9 ESV)
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:6-9 ESV)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Give us this day...

Give us this day our daily bread...  (Matthew 6:11 ESV)
Last Sunday, my church continued it's series on the Lord's prayer, using N.T. Wright's book on the topic. This week's sermon focused on the phrase "Give us this day our daily bread," examining the text from a variety of perspectives.

I enjoyed the sermon very much as a whole, but one portion in particular encouraged me. As the teaching drew to a close, Dr. Bolger outlined four ways that this phrase is significant. The first two were familiar, but at the same time, they were just what I needed to remember.
What does Jesus mean by "daily bread?" What is the significance of praying for "our daily bread?" 
1. Our natural longings and desires for "bread (and all the human needs it symbolizes) are not "evil" or "wrong."
2. It is right to pray honestly for our specific needs, not just general requests. We pray to "our Father." Our prayers hsould not only be for "spritual" things.
Bolger reminded the congregation that our loving Father knows all of our deepest desires and longings. He said that it is appropriate and right to pray and ask Him to "satisfy our desires for love, for marriage, for children, for success, for comfort, for fulfillment, for peace, for (whatever we desire), in (His) way and in (His) time."

I thought of the many areas of my life where I already have my "daily bread." I have a comfortable home, food on the table, a loving community. And I thought of the areas where I still am hungry. My family is still renting in town, though we have been trying to buy in the country for several years. I'm still single, though I have been praying for marriage for a long time. I still go through times where I struggle with worry and anxiety, though I've prayed for God to help me walk in an attitude of peace.

As I listened to the teaching, it was comforting to remember that we have a Father who sees these longings. It's encouraging to remember that His Son taught us to pray for Him to meet these needs.

It's not that we treat our Father like a genie, expecting Him to give us what we want. We begin the prayer to our Father in heaven with praise -- "hallowed be Your name" -- recognizing His glory and the honor He is due. And then, we pray for His will -- "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

It is only in this context -- recognition of our Father's glory and desire for His will above all -- that we can pray for our daily bread. We can trust that He will answer our prayers, though perhaps not always in the way we expect.

And at the same time, we remember that our Father has already answered our prayer for "bread" in the gift of His Son. We celebrate this gift, every time we eat the bread and drink the cup.
The Eucharist is both the highest form of prayer and the answer to our prayer. In receiving this symbolic feast we say "thank you." In receiving this symbolic feast, our deepest needs are touched as we taste the goodness of God's kingdom. (Bolger)
We will never have our hunger completely filled until the return of our King. But until He comes, we can trust in the providence of our Father.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Face of a Safe Church

Photo by Mary and her camera via Flickr

Yesterday, I read one of the final chapters in Cloud and Townsend's Safe People, titled "Where are the safe people?" In this chapter, the authors give practical advice on finding safe relationships.

It would seem that the obvious place to look for safe, healthy friendships would be the church. Cloud and Townsend, though, write honestly about the imperfect state of the church. They explain that people are often looking for a church with good doctrine but don't think to assess the relational health of the body. To help people in their search, the authors outline the characteristics of a safe church.
Safe Churches
One place where we can find safe people is in churches that have a safe character as a group. Many churches have good orthodox doctrine, but they are not bodies where relationship is really preached and community is formed. Safe churches, however, have the following qualities:
  • Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are to be treated.
  • Truth is preached without compromise, but also without a spirit of law and judgment.
  • The church leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and need to grow and are open about their hurt, pain, failings, and humanity. Instead of "having it all together" and being insulated from confrontation and change, they are in a process of healing and opening up to their own safe people for support and accountability.
  • The church uses small groups to touch people's lives, and sermons focus on community in the body of Christ as well as doctrine.
  • The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous religious Pharisees.
  • The church, instead of being a self-contained unit and thinking it has all the answers, is networked into community, availing itself of input from other sources such as churches, professionals, and organizations. 
  • The teaching has a relational emphasis as well as a vertical one. relationship between people is seen as part of spirituality as well as relationship to God.
  • The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process.
  • There are opportunities to serve others through a variety of ministries.
Churches have personalities and cultures, and it is possible to find churches that fit the above characteristics. (164-165)
Having had some very negative church experiences myself, I related to much of what the authors write. As I read their description of a safe church, I realized that many (if not all) of my bad experiences took place in unsafe churches.

I also felt very thankful as I read through the list. About five years ago, God brought me to a safe church. At the time, I didn't even know what I was looking for. But God knew what I needed, and He has brought much healing into my life through the fellowship I now have.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hated Messengers to the End of Time

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matthew 10:24-25 ESV)
My reading in Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship today focused on Jesus instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. The chapter, titled "The Suffering of the Messengers," dealt with the hard reality of the life of discipleship. One passage in particular stood out to me:
The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the divisions which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. 
The Cost of Discipleship was first published in 1937, during the height of Nazi Germany. Roderick Stackelberg, in his Hitler's Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies, quoted Hitler as saying in 1941 that religion "must rot like a gangrenous limb" (137). In his world, Bonhoeffer accepted the reality of discipleship -- he would be hated.

Today, 70 years later, we live in a world not unlike Bonhoeffer's. Earlier this year, a British court ruled against allowing a Christian couple care for foster children due to their religious beliefs (read about it here). Last fall, Apple made news when it censored an app from the Manhattan Declaration supporting traditional marriage (read about it here).

But like those who have gone before us, we can take hold fast to Christ's word's of comfort to his disciples. After He warns them about what to expect, Jesus says:
So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:26-33 ESV)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Love Consumers: David Lapp on courting in the Google age

As a single woman navigating the world of relationships in the 21st century, I was intrigued by the tagline of yesterday's Boundless article -- "Courting and choosing a spouse in the age of Google." I quickly clicked my way to the Webzine and found myself reading the opening paragraphs of "What If She's Not the Right One?" by David Lapp. The article resonated with me on many levels, especially Lapp's assertion that we have become consumers of relationships.
As one of America's top marriage therapists, William Doherty notes the market model has increasingly invaded every sphere of life — including marriage. Whether it's at work, church or marriage, Doherty suggests that "[i]n a generation we have moved rapidly from being citizens to being primarily consumers." In other words, we've moved from being citizens of marriage who ask, "What can I do for my marriage?" to being consumers of marriage who ask, "What can marriage do for me?" The problem, as Doherty notes, is that consumers are inherently disloyal which is why it's so rare for us to stay at one job for a long time or even to stay in one church for a long time. When one takes that consumer attitude into marriage, the consequences are pernicious. Instead of asking how he is called to sacrifice, he says "I deserve better."
The consumer understanding of marriage distorts what marriage is really about: a gift of self. Marriage isn't a supermarket of goods, ready-made for our consumption. If the supermarket down the street stops selling our favorite ice cream, no problem. We buy ice cream at another supermarket. But marriage is a vocation more rigorous — and more heroic — than that of the consumer. It's more like a garden that calls us to pick up a spade, get our hands dirty and — after much patience and persistence — to enjoy the fruit of our labor. Even then, with growing a garden, sometimes crops wither. But it doesn't mean we abandon the garden. It just means we plant the seeds again and keep tending the garden.
The culture of casual dating has been criticized for years. Speakers like Joshua Harris and Eric and Leslie Ludy founded their early careers on the promotion of courtship, an alternative to the norm. Teen after teen signed up for the "road less traveled" on the way to relational fulfillment and marital bliss. But the ship that promised smooth sailing turned out to be sinkable after all. Disappointed and disillusioned, we gaze at our floundered Titanic and wonder what went wrong.

In truth, we needed to change some of our methods. But simply shopping at Courting-Mart instead of Date-Way isn't going to do much good. We need to stop being consumers and, as Lapp says, start becoming lovers.

So how do we get out of the consumer mindset and start loving people? Lapp suggests that we stop seeing people as means and start recognizing them as ends. 
(T)he mystery of marriage invites us to adopt a particular orientation in dating, a way of discovering the person — their unique personality, life dreams, character, quirks — that does not reduce the person to a means to our own fulfillment, but encounters those qualities in “Ryan” or “Ashley,” a distinct person who is an end. Rather than primarily seeing Ashley as a way for me to feel good about myself, I see her as a person with whom I can share my life.
Gary Thomas caught his readers' attention with the subtitle of his book Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More That to Make Us Happy? I had friends balk at such a suggestion. We may not want to admit it to ourselves, but many of us think marriage is about me.

So, when it comes time to choose a spouse, we do so subjectively. We think mostly about I. Am I attracted to this person? Do I have chemistry with this person? How do I feel around this person? Can I have fun with this person? Can I accomplish my goals with this person?

Instead of getting to know another person, we get to know me around that person. Rather than looking for someone to love, we look for someone through whom we can love ourselves. And in doing so, we reduce love to narcissism.

Lapp writes that marriage calls us to something more.
(M)arriage calls us to discover the other person. And that process of discovery may involve asking difficult questions about the truth of the other person: “Has Ashley indicated by her character that she will respect the integrity of what marriage is and love me for better or worse, for richer or poorer, until death do us part?” “Has she demonstrated by her conduct that she will be a loving mother to our children?” There is a subtle — yet vast — difference between a discernment that asks, “Will she be a loving wife and mother?” and “Will she make me happy?” The former is a discernment focused on the objective truth about the other person, whereas the latter is a discernment focused on how she makes me subjectively feel. Lovers should ask hard questions of each other and of themselves. But, again, that’s all a part of discovering a person — a person who is an end, not a means to our own happiness.
As Christians, we are called to die to ourselves and live a life of love, for God and for other people. In marriage, we are given the opportunity to display this kind of love daily in the tangible act of living as husband and wife. When we lose ourselves for another, Lap writes, we gain what we were looking for all along.
Marriage is heroic in that it calls a man and woman to give the gift of “I” — a gift so radical that it constrains our choice, but also so creative that it creates a “we” (the one-flesh marriage union) and other little “I’s” (children!). The decision of marriage at once narrows the horizons (you can’t marry anyone else) and extraordinarily expands them (you raise your own family).
In other words, in marriage, we discover another paradox: the paradox of gift. The paradox is that in giving the ultimate gift (our self), we gain what humans throughout the centuries have described as “the meaning of life” (the love of one’s spouse and children). When it would seem that we lose ourselves, we find ourselves.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Practicing Hospitality

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:9 ESV)
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35 ESV)
There is nothing like gathering with friends around a kitchen table, sipping coffee and nibbling on homemade treats. Indeed, hospitality is one of life's greatest joys. It is little wonder that scripture commands it. Our good Father knows how to give good gifts to his children.

Though the door to my bedroom is shut, I can hear a chattering din emanating from my little brother's room. A family of nine are here for the afternoon, and the kids are making much over the game of Life and the box of toy dinosaurs (several of which make mechanical roaring noises every few minutes). Further off, I can hear the ebb and flow of the grown-ups in the living room, sharing life and it's ups and downs.

Several years ago, my family discovered a little book titled The Hospitality Commands by Alexander Strauch. In it, Strauch examines how we, as Christians, are called to love each other.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to be a close-knit family. We are to be together, love one another, and care for one another. We cannot do this when our doors are closed. Hospitality, then, is a beautiful expression of our transformed lives being offered wholly to God. ... The New Testament does not suggest that only certain people or certain cultures have the ability to show hospitality. Rather, it portrays hospitality as an essential part of brotherly and sisterly love and Christian community. (34)
Personally, one of my favorite parts of practicing hospitality is cooking for other people. In honor of our guests, I spent the morning making some Danish Pastry Apple Bars. I'm looking forward to slicing them up this evening.

For now, I'd better get back to our guests.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Keller's 'The Prodigal God:' I have been the older son

In the first post of my Lenten series, I gave this definition of the season: "Lent is the season of the Christian year during which we take time to recognize our sin and tocelebrate God's all sufficient provision in Christ."

This is the 13th post of my project, though as I look over the content of the last couple weeks, I realize this series is very loosely defined. But this self-imposed discipline of daily blogging has done what I hoped -- it's helped me reflect more on what God is teaching me, and it has motivated me to make time to write. This Lenten discipline has also turned my mind to the past months, and to all the ideas that I simply didn't follow through with.

In January, I finished Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. I'd heard all kinds of buzz about it, and I had been enticed by the warm tones of the inviting cover for some time. When I read it, I thought over and over, "I need to tell people about this book. I need to write about it. Everyone should read it -- it is just what the American church needs!"

But the book went back on the shelf, and I went back to life. And while I told several friends about it, I never wrote about what God had taught me through Keller's book.

The Prodigal God examines Jesus' parable traditionally known as "The Prodigal Son." Keller begins his work by defining prodigal, a word that many Christians know but few actually understand. We typically confuse it with rebellion, uniting the behavior of the second son with the parable's title. But the definition of the word is quite different. It means "recklessly extravagant" or "having spent everything." While it is true that the son spent all his worldly wealth, Keller takes a deeper look at the father in the story, who is recklessly extravagant in his love for his sons.

There is much I could say about this little book, but in keeping with the season, I want to share Keller's thoughts on what it means to be lost. Much of what Keller says is provocative, but this passage I found particularly so.
Two Lost Sons
In Act 1 (of the parable), in the person of the younger brother, Jesus gives us a depiction of sin that anyone would recognize. The young man humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control. He is alienated from the father, who represents God in the story. Anyone who lives like that would be cut off from God, as all the listeners to the parable would have agreed.
In Act 2, however, the focus is on the elder brother. He is fastidiously obedient to his father and, therefore, by analogy, to the commands of God. He is completely under control and quite self-disciplined. So we have two sons, one "bad" by conventional standards and one "good," yet both are alienated from the father. The father has to go out and invite each of them to come into the feast of his love. So there is not just one lost son in this parable -- there are two.
But Act 2 comes to an unthinkable conclusion. Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father's feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. We can almost hear the pharisees gasp as the story ends. It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.
Jesus does not simply leave it at that. It gets even more shocking. Why doesn't the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: "because I've never disobeyed you." The elder brother is not losing the father's love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it's the pride he has in his moral record; it's not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.
How could this be? The answer is that the brothers' hearts, and the two ways of life they represent are much more alike than they first appear.
What did the younger son most want in life? He chafed at having to partake of his family's assets under the father's supervision. He wanted to make his own decisions and have unfettered control of his portion of the wealth. How did he get that? He did it with a bold power play, a flagrant defiance of community standards, a declaration of complete independence. 
What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too wanted the father's goods rather than the father himself. However, while the younger brother went far away, the elder brother stayed close and "never disobeyed." That was his way to get control. His unspoken demand is, "I have never disobeyed you! Now you have to do things in my life the way I want them to be done."
The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father's authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled -- but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father's heart; both were lost sons. (33-36)
In this passage, Keller looks past the simple action of the story and examines to motives of both sons. Here is the richness of Jesus' story, the truth for those with ears to hear. The way of the younger son leads to death, but so does the way of the older son.

I have always leaned towards the way of the older son. Reading Keller's words, I reflected on my life. Why do I obey?

Is it because I love the Father? Or, is it because I love the Father's blessings? Or, is it that I fear the Father's wrath? Or, is it that I love the pride that comes with good performance?

If I am truly honest, I have to say all of the above have been the answer at times. But thankfully, over the years, God has humbled me, showing me that my good acts did not always come from a good heart. I still occasionally slip into performance-oriented self-confidence and reward-based thinking, but my Father has invited me to the feast of His extravagant love. At Jesus table, I'm learning to live in love of my Father.

The twist of the story is that the more blatant sin is easily repented of. The younger son knows he is lost, and he has the sense to go home. But the older son remains lost because he thinks he is home already. 

How many members of the U.S. Church think they are home when in reality they are lost? And how can we help them to be found?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Your Kingdom Come in Us

Photo by lifecreations via Flickr

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21 ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)
Over the last couple months, it seems like I've had several reoccurring spiritual themes in my life -- one being the role of the Church. In February, a book by N.T. Wright reminded me that we are a Kingdom people. Eric Bolger's book on intercession reminded me that we are a kingdom of priests, called to mediate God's blessings to the world. Two weeks ago, my church began a series on the Lord's Prayer, using another of Wright's books. Last week, the sermon looked at the phrase "Your Kingdom come," and the teacher encouraged the congregation to think about tangible ways we can fulfill our role in God's Kingdom work. This begins with prayer, as I was reminded yesterday afternoon by Bonhoeffer in his The Cost of Discipleship, but it doesn't end there. What begins on our knees flows into our feet and hands, as we become the means by which Christ feeds His sheep. This dynamic was put beautifully by Drs. Cloud and Townsend in their Safe People:
There is a great misunderstanding today about the role of the body of Christ. When people are hurting they do not think of turning to the body of Christ as God's agent to answer their prayers, to heal them, and to help them develop. We often want to pray and have God miraculously show up himself and make things different. We pray about depression or some character trait and want Jesus to appear in a white robe, touch us, and make us mature.
The incredible thing about this wish is that Jesus has appeared! He did appear on earth "in the flesh" as John 1 told us earlier. And in this appearance, he modeled for us the love we should have for one another, and he told us to become a body, or church, where we can know and experience his presence through union with him and with each other. It is in church that we fully know and experience his touch on earth today.
The problem is that we think he has abandoned us and that we can only truly touch him through mystical union. Although direct mystical spiritual union with God is certainly primary and important, the Bible does not separate our relationship with God and our relationship with people in his body. In fact it says that if we do not have good, loving relationships with people, we do not know him either (1John 4:20). What many Christians do not understand is that relating to each other is a spiritual activity
We too often think of our spiritual life as just being with God, but he tells us that spirituality is a life of love both with him and with each other (Matt. 22:37-40). We need to include in our evaluation of our spiritual lives the question, "How am I doing with other people? How are my relationships going?" Often we get caught up in thinking that service is the only indicator that we are growing spiritually, when in truth our human relationships are always one of the key indicators of our spiritual life.
Jesus came down to earth not only to save us bet also to show us how to love God and others. The church often emphasizes our relationship with God and de-emphasizes our relationships with other people. But the Bible says that both are important; we really cannot have one without the other. (147-148)
When we encounter suffering, too often it seems we tell people to go to God, to pray more and read their Bibles. This is good, sound advice. But why do we stop there? Why do we not add, "Is there anything I can do? Would you like to get together and talk over some coffee? Could I bring you a meal this week? Can a call you tomorrow and see how you are doing?"

Isn't this how we treat those we truly love?

Monday, March 21, 2011

WSJ: 'Is Happiness Overrated?' Why, yes

From the Pew Research Center via WSJ

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ The U.S. Declaration of Independence
While skimming my Twitter feed last week, I came across an intriguing tweet by Christian author Gary Thomas: "'Is Happiness Overrated?' I think this WSJ article supports the premise in Sacred Marriage."

Following the link, I found myself looking at the recent Wall Street Journal article "Is Happiness Overrated" by Shirley S. Wang. 

Wang reports that researchers have found that pursuing happiness as defined by pop culture does not have the health benefits once thought:
Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as "eudaimonic well-being." ... Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness. ... In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.
In fact, having eudaimonic well-being may make the difference between life and death for some:
Over a seven-year period, those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease compared with those reporting greater purpose in life, according to an analysis published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. The study involved 950 individuals with a mean age of about 80 at the start of the study. ... In a separate analysis of the same group of subjects, researchers have found those with greater purpose in life were less likely to be impaired in carrying out living and mobility functions, like housekeeping, managing money and walking up or down stairs. And over a five-year period they were significantly less likely to die—by some 57%— than those with low purpose in life.
It's not that our founding father's didn't know what they were talking about when they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Over the centuries, the definition of happiness has changed. Wang explains part of the confusion:
"Eudaimonia" is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as "happiness"—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is. Some experts say Aristotle meant "well-being" when he wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia by fulfilling their potential.
The U.S. founders would have understood happiness in a way much more closely connected with Aristotle's "well-being" than the hedonic version touted in today's culture. Wang writes:
For instance, symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations.
It's not that hedonic happiness leads to health problems. Rather, our culture's obsession with it has led us away from that which truly fulfills.
The two types of well-being aren't necessarily at odds, and there is overlap. Striving to live a meaningful life or to do good work should bring about feelings of happiness, of course. But people who primarily seek extrinsic rewards, such as money or status, often aren't as happy, says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.
So should we all toss our toys and head to the mission field to gain longer lives? Not necessarily. From a Christian perspective, it's not surprising to see that legalism doesn't pay. Nor does simply pursuing happiness via good works.
Simply engaging in activities that are likely to promote eudaimonic well-being, such as helping others, doesn't seem to yield a psychological benefit if people feel pressured to do them, according to a study Dr. Ryan and a colleague published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "When people say, 'In the long-run, this will get me some reward,' that person doesn't get as much benefit," he says.
As a Christian, these finding aren't surprising. Serving ourselves hurts us, and that's why Jesus offers a better way. I am reminded of the story of the rich young ruler.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22 ESV)
In light of the research, Jesus' answer to the man is interesting. After addressing basic moral behavior, Jesus advises the man to give up his material wealth and follow Him. Jesus points the man away from hedonic goods and offers him purpose. Sadly, the man doesn't take His advice.

The gospel calls people to a truly healthy lifestyle. Jesus tells people to lay down their lives, pick up their crosses, and follow Him. He offers purpose and a life filled with meaningful activity. And he commands us to take our eyes off ourselves and look outward, loving God and loving others. 

Research indicates that walking in Jesus' steps leads to life. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Knowledge According to John Bunyan

Today's reading in The Pilgrim's Progress took up the discussion of knowledge. It often amazes me how much knowledge is devalued in today's church. The culture at large seems to respect it at some level. But we in the church have somehow separated faith from knowledge and in our zeal for one have lost the other. We did this for good reason, for knowledge doesn't save. But without knowledge, what hope do we have? Bunyan works out this discussion beautifully in the following passage.
For knowledge, great knowledge, may be obtained in the mysteries of the gospel, and yet no work of grace in the soul. Yea, if a man have all knowledge, he may yet be nothing, and so consequently be no child of God. When Christ said, "Do you know all these things?" and the disciples had answered, Yes; he addeth, "Blessed are ye if ye do them." He doth not lay the blessing in the knowing of them, but in the doing of them. For there is a knowledge that is not attended with doing: He that knoweth his masters will, and doeth it not. A man may know like an angel, and yet be no Christian, therefore your sign of it is not true. Indeed, to know is a thing that pleaseth talkers and boasters, but to do is that which pleaseth God. Not that the heart can be good without knowledge; for without that, the heart is naught. There is, therefore, knowledge and knowledge. Knowledge that resteth in the bare speculation of things; and knowledge that is accompanied with the grace of faith and love; which puts a man upon doing even the will of God from the heart: the first of these will serve the talker; but without the other the true Christian is not content. "Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart." (Ps. 119:34)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bonhoeffer and the Burden of Self

This afternoon, Bonhoeffer reminded me of a lesson I long have learned but forget again and again. The burden of me is heavy -- too heavy to bear. But the yoke of Jesus is light, for He bears it with me.
For God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh, he bore the cross, he bore our sins, thus making atonement for us. In the same way his followers are also called upon to bear, and that is precisely what it means to be a Christian. Just as Christ maintained his communion with the Father by his endurance, so his followers are to maintain their communion with Christ by their endurance. We can of course shake off the burden which is laid upon us, but only find that we have a still heavier burden to carry -- a yoke of our own choosing, the yoke of our self. But Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them -- and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one's way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and who walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lorica of St. Patrick

Photo by Southern Grace Photography
In honor of St. Patrick's day, I thought would share his Breastplate Prayer, also known as his Lorica. Though St. Patrick's day is typically associated with good luck, the man himself put his faith in Someone much stronger.
The Lorica of St. Patrick

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation

~ St. Patrick (ca. 377)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

N.T. Wright's 'The Lord and His Prayer'

My church is going through N.T. Wright's The Lord and His Prayer over the season of Lent. I started it this afternoon, and already the book has been a blessing to me. For today's post, I thought I would share a passage from the end of the chapter titled "Our Father in Heaven."
At the end of John's gospel, Jesus says to his followers: As the Father sent me, so I send you (John 20.21). We live between Advent and Advent; between the first great Advent, the coming of the Son into the world, and the second Advent, when he shall come again in power and glory to judge the living and the dead. That's why Advent is sometimes quite confusing, preparing for the birth of Jesus and at the same time preparing for the time when God makes all things new, when the whole cosmos has it's exodus from slavery. That apparent confusion, that overlap of the first and second Advents, is actually what Christianity is all about: celebrating the decisive victory of God, in Jesus Christ, over Pharaoh and the Red Sea, over sin and death -- and looking for, and working for, and longing for, and praying for, the full implementation of that decisive victory. Every Eucharist catches exactly this tension. 'As often as you break the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim, you announce, the death of the lord -- until he comes' (1 Corinthians 11.26).We come for our daily, and heavenly, bread; we come for our daily, and final, forgiveness; we come for our daily, and ultimate, deliverance; we come to celebrate God's kingdom now, and pray for it soon. That is what we mean when we call God 'Father'.
And as we do this, as we pray [the Lord's] prayer in this setting, we begin to discover the true pattern of Christian spirituality, of the Christian way of penetrating into the mystery, of daring to enter the cloud of unknowing. When we call God 'Father', we are called to step out, as apprentice children, into a world of pain an darkness. We will find that darkness all around us; it will terrify us, precisely because it will remind us of the darkness inside our own selves. The temptation then is to switch off the news, to shut out the pain of the world, to create a painless world for ourselves. A good deal of our contemporary culture is designed to do exactly that. No wonder people find it hard to pray. But if, as the people of the living creator God, we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters; if we take the risk of calling him Father; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God. And we then discover that we want to pray, and need to pray, this prayer. Father; Our Father; Our Father in heaven; Our Father in heaven, may your name be honoured. That is, may you be worshiped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed. And as we stand in the presence of the living God, with the darkness and pain of the world on our hearts, praying that he will fulfill his ancient promises, and implement the victory of Calvary and Easter for the whole cosmos -- then we may discover that our own pain, our own darkness, is somehow being dealt with as well. 
This, then, I dare say, is the pattern of Christian spirituality. It is not the selfish pursuit of private spiritual advancement. It is not the flight of the alone to the alone. It is neither simply shouting into a void, nor simply getting in touch with our own deepest feelings, though sometimes it may feel like one or other of these. It is the rhythm of standing in the presence of the pain of the world; of bringing those two things together in the name of Jesus and by the victory of the cross; of living in the tension of the double Advent, and calling God 'Father'. 
Jesus took the risk of referring to God obliquely. In John's gospel, one of his regular ways of talking about God was 'the Father who sent me.' He wanted people to discover who the Father really was by seeing what he, Jesus, was doing. When we call God 'Father', we are making the same astonishing, crazy, utterly risky claim. The mission of the church is contained in that word; the failure of the church is highlighted by that word. But the failure, too, is taken care of in the prayer, and on the cross. Our task is to grow up into the Our Father, to dare to impersonate our older brother, seeking daily bread and daily forgiveness as we do so: to wear his clothes, to walk in his shoes, to feast at his table, to weep with him in the garden, to share his suffering, and to know his victory. As our Savior Jesus Christ has commanded and taught us, by his life and death, even more by his words, we are bold, very bold, -- even crazy, some might think -- to say 'Our Father'. 
~ N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (20-23)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gluttony and the American Church: How would Jesus eat?

Historically, the season of Lent has been a time of reflection. That’s just what I was prompted to do after reading and discussing an article posted by a favorite social networking site.

In his Dallas Observer article How would Jesus Eat?, Dallas Theological Seminary graduate student Jared Binder calls out one of the American church’s pet sins: gluttony.
There’s this thing in the Bible called gluttony. The Bible says it’s a sin. But we don’t like to talk about that particular sin. We prefer to point a pudgy finger at others and decry the evils of drugs and alcohol, pornography, abortion and homosexuality. Compared to those, gluttony is just a little sin. … This “little” sin of gluttony is killing people by the hundreds of thousands every year. Obesity has now surpassed smoking as the No. 1 health threat in America. It can be directly linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type II Diabetes, acid reflux, sleep apnea, heart disease and many forms of cancer.
The whole of Binder’s article is quite bold, and by the looks of the article’s comments, he got himself into some very hot water. But then, that’s typically what happens when you tell the truth.

And the truth is, the church has failed to image Christ. Binder writes:
Jesus called us to be salt and light in the world. That means we are supposed to be the standard of what is right and good. This is one area where we as a church are failing miserably. We need to get serious about the obesity epidemic and stop waiting on science to develop a miracle cure. We need to take action before it is too late.
I think part of the reason we have become so detached from proper stewardship of our bodies is that we in Western culture have been so inundated with dualistic Platonic ideas about the body and soul. Paul confronted this problem with the Corinthian church, where some had rejected a bodily resurrection. We, like the Corinthians, don’t realize that scripture teaches that our wholes selves – including our bodies – are eternal.
And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? (1 Corinthians 6:14-15a ESV)
I like the way the ESV Study Bible commentary puts it:
Jesus’ resurrection was only the first step in the general resurrection of God’s people that will occur on the last day. Jesus’ body and the believer’s body, therefore, are eternal, for God will also raise us up; the eternal nature of the believer’s body should affect his or her present behavior.
Because the Corinthians were as confused as we are today, Paul was very clear about the importance of the body:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV)
We, as Christians, are called to be image-bearers of Christ on earth in our whole persons. We do not glorify God with our bodies when we treat them poorly.

J. Paul Sampley’s commentary 1 Corinthians puts it this way:
How is God glorified in the body? The rest of the letter is an elaboration on that notion and a demonstration of it. As will become evident, glorifying God ‘in your body’ will at once mean (1) that individuals exercise stewardship of their own bodies, their very selves, and (2) that collectively the believers live lovingly and in an edifying fashion with each other as members of one body that is Christ’s.
To be clear, I’m not saying everyone who is fat is a glutton. There are some hormone conditions that cause obesity (several of which run in my family). However, I do think that everyone who is overweight needs to take seriously their responsibility before God as stewards of the life He has given them. They need to consider not only the damage they are doing to their bodies, but also the example they are setting to others.

I can say all this because I know first-hand how hard it is to keep weight off for some women. I have a terrible metabolism. I have to eat like a bird and exercise like crazy to stay in shape. But by the grace of God, I have learned how to discipline myself in this area.

Also, we need to take seriously our health, regardless of how we end up looking. Thin people are damaged by junk food, even if they don’t get fat. People with hormone issues may have to discipline themselves without the reward of weight-loss. After all, having a nice body isn’t the goal. Developing a godly character is. As Binder said:
The Bible teaches us another way of fighting overindulgence. It’s called temperance or self-control. The Bible calls temperance a fruit of the spirit. When is the last time you heard a sermon about being self-controlled in your eating and disciplining your body through exercise?
The goal of such stewardship over our bodies is to glorify Christ, who bought us with His blood. We therefore live for the glory of God:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 ESV)
If we are to do everything to the glory of God and in the Name of the Lord Jesus, then I think we should take our lives very seriously. It was this sort of contemplation that inspired the now cliché mantra: What would Jesus do? But in all honesty, how else should we live? How else should we do everything in Jesus name?

So, with Binder, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, “How would Jesus eat?”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hiding from Myself

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16 ESV)
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)
This afternoon, I read a chapter in Bonhoeffer's  The Cost of Discipleship, titled "The Hidden Righteousness." As Bonhoeffer does throughout his work, he touches on the very heart of Christ's teaching. After citing the above scripture passages, Bonhoeffer reflects on their seeming paradox: "From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship? Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves."

Rather than attempt to paraphrase Bonhoeffer's words, I will reprint a portion of the chapter here.
All the follower of Jesus has to do is to make sure that his obedience, following and love are entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated. If you do good, you must not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, you must be quite unconscious of it. Otherwise you are simply displaying your own virtue, and not that which has its source in Jesus Christ. Christ's virtue, the virtue of discipleship, can only be accomplished so long as you are entirely unconscious of what you are doing. The genuine work of love is always a hidden work. Take heed therefore that you know it not, for only so is it the goodness of God. If we want to know our own goodness or love, it has already ceased to be love. We must be unaware even of our love for our enemies. After all, when we love them they are no longer our enemies. This voluntary blindness in the Christian (which is really sight illuminated by Christ) is his certainty, and the fact that his life is hidden from his sight is the ground of his assurance. (Bonhoeffer, 159-160)
I've struggled with perfectionist tendencies for most of my life. I've always hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and the longing to become "good" in myself has been an ever present temptation. Too often, I have given in and tasted of the fruit -- unseen pride and abundant guilt.

Failing to hide my righteousness from myself always leads to disappointment, as my own goodness can never compare to that of my Lord. My hunger and thirst can only be filled when I look at Him alone, when I do not let my left hand know what my right hand is doing.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Waiting with Japan

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:19-25 ESV)
Yesterday, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The quakes, aftershocks and tsunami waves have wreaked havoc on the country, destroying cities and causing wide-spread power outage. CNN reported the death tole was officially 686, but well over 10,000 people are missing.

What can be said about something like that? There are no words.

Jesus brought us hope, but we still live in the world -- a world in bondage to corruption. In times like this, we grieve. We groan with creation. And we look ahead to the return of our Savior.

We wait for it with patience.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Walk on, to yonder shining light

The Man ... looking upon Evangelist very carefully; said, Whither must I fly? Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide Field, Do you see yonder Wicket-gate? The Man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt though see the Gate; ~ John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress
Several days ago, I woke up before daylight. I looked at the clock, which told me there was about another hour before sunrise. Yet, I could hear birds singing. They could not see that it was morning, but they knew it was coming. So, they sang.

I was rather tired, so maybe that is why I was so struck by the faith of the singing birds.

Yesterday, I began reading John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The story begins with a man struggling under the burden of his sin. He is told to go to a certain gate, which he can not see. Rather, he must walk towards a light that shines from it. He takes on faith that the gate will actually exist.

For me, faith is so often a given. Like the blue sky and green grass, God has always been there. I've always known that there was a gate. Like the birds, I always have believed that morning is coming. But I haven't always sang about it. Nor have I always walked towards the light. Like Christian, too often I take my eyes off the light and look instead for a way to be rid of my burdens -- my worries, my fears, and sometimes even my hopes.

But we don't have to see the gate to walk towards the light. We don't have to know how everything is going to turn out in the end.

We can walk on. And we can sing.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

More than a Greeting: The Lord be with you

And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you!” And they answered, “The LORD bless you.” (Ruth 2:4 ESV)
Tonight I read a chapter of Eric Bolger's Journey into Intercession. The chapter (Day 16 of The Old Testament Journey) references Eli's blessing of Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, where the priest says to them "May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD."

This simple blessing was a prayer, an intercession of Eli to God on behalf of these people. And God heard, answering Eli's request by blessing Elkanah and Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.

Bolger reflects on what the passage teaches Christians today, all of whom are called to be priests, as Eli was.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)
One of the primary duties of a priest is to intercede for his people before God. That is the calling of all who follow Christ. We are to walk in the steps of Him who is the Intercessor for the world.

As I read tonight's chapter, I felt ashamed. I have failed so utterly in this calling.

How often have I hurried to do for someone myself without asking God, who is far more able, to do for them?

How often have I doled out advice without praying God's guidance on someone?

The author continues to urge his readers to intercede for people in the seemingly small yet powerful way of blessing them. Scripture is full of examples of such speech, which often comes in the form of a greeting:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:2 ESV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:2 ESV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3-5 ESV)
Why do we settle for so many meaningless social greetings? Hey! Hello! What's up? How's it going? Why do we send people away with Goodbye instead of The Peace of the Lord be with you?

Why say nothing when we can give someone so much more than a greeting?

As for me, I want to remember who I am -- a priest of the Most High God. By the grace of the true Priest, may I speak as He would have me.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14 ESV)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday: I am dust

By Southern Grace Photography
Candles fluttered softly, illuminating the sanctuary that was only dimly lit by artificial lighting. The elements of the Eucharist waited on the alter, along with two white porcelain bowls of ash.

All was quite when I walked in, but soon acoustic music softened the hushed air. I sat quietly, watching the pews slowly fill. Most faces I recognized. Several I did not -- but that is typical for special services.

Soon we were called to worship, first with song and then with scripture reading.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
  and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
 (Joel 2:12-13 ESV)
Mourning. That is the heart of the Lenten season -- mourning for our sin.

We were called forward, and one by one we walked to the front of the sanctuary, where we knelt while one of our leaders dipped his thumb in a bowl of ashes -- an ancient symbol of mourning -- and drew a cross on our foreheads.

Later, we knelt as a congregation and corporately repented for our sins. Afterward, we broke bread and gave thanks to God, for His forgiveness.

According to the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary, the word Lent comes from the Middle English lente, which meant springtime. Today, it is identified with the season in the Christian calendar: "the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter observed by the Roman Catholic, Eastern, and some Protestant churches as a period of penitence and fasting."

In the liturgical calendar, Lent comes after Advent/Christmas (celebrating Christ's birth) and Epiphany (Christ's life), and it is followed by Easter (celebrating the Resurrection) and Pentecost (the gift of the Holy Spirit).

Last Sunday, one of our elders, Dr. Eric Bolger, taught a sermon on preparing our hearts for Lent. I like the way he defined the season.
Lent is the season of the Christian year during which we take time to recognize our sin and to celebrate God's all sufficient provision in Christ. 
During Lent, we mourn for our sin, as well as for the sin of humanity. We fast, and we grieve. But as Christians, there is joy in our mourning, as we look forward to the hope of the Resurrection. Indeed I am dust, and to dust I will return, but that is not the end.

As a part of my Lenten discipline, I'm going to update my blog every day with something God is showing me through this year's observance.