Friday, October 06, 2017

Hard, bitter, costly . . . and good?

On Fridays my prayerbook leads me to pray for all those who are broken:  the sick, the enslaved, the troubled, the dying, and the like.  And then it closes that section with this prayer:

"Relieve and comfort them all, O God, and make us, too, to rejoice in every experience, however hard, bitter, or costly, by which we are schooled in humble faith and in charity with our fellow men."

I find this last petition to be a prayer I need to have on my lips constantly, as it is the one that is the hardest to learn.

I can easily pray for those who are broken, that God would  heal.  I can easily pray for those who are crushed, that God would lift up.  And I know that through their sufferings God will work good for them and for others.  I know this.  This is true. This is Biblical.

But when it comes to my own sufferings . . . well, I'd prefer to just avoid them.  No matter that I can look back and confirm that the lessons God has taught me through trial and tribulation have benefited others many times over.  No matter that can guarantee that the memory of my own personal suffering has on multiple occasions caused me to pause my busy day and grieve with another in empathy.  No matter that I can assure you that my once proud and haughty faith that sought to dominate others has been refined as through fire into a much more simple, humble faith that seeks to serve others.

All of these things I know.  All of these things I preach.  And yet, when I find myself under duress, I just want it over.  Over and done with.  No lessons learned, thank you very much. And if you please, God, just return me to my comfortable life.  Now, if you don't mind. 

Teach me, O Lord, to trust you in the valley of shadows as readily as I do in the quiet pastures.  Teach me, O Lord, to rejoice in the work you accomplish through suffering as readily as I do in the pleasant gifts you give. 

Teach me, O Lord, to pick up my cross and follow you.

Teach me, O Lord, to be a Christian.

Monday, October 02, 2017

How to be an amazing preacher . . . or not

Consider this a confession: 

Yesterday's sermon did not work well.

There, I said it.  I had an inkling of it going south earlier in the week, but thought that I corrected that in further edits and writing.  I thought it was going to turn out well.

But no.  I can only describe the sermon as a "hot mess" . . . except it wasn't particularly hot.  I cast the net too broadly, I failed to connect points logically, I focused more on the pretext of the sermon than the text itself.

I mean, it happens.  Anyone who does regular public speaking knows that the goal isn't to smash a record-breaking home run every time you step up, but instead to just consistently hit.  If you can nail a solid single every single time, that's actually quite excellent and admirable.  And almost immediately after preaching, I was doing a post-mortem in my mind.  I know why it happened.  I know what to do to prevent it from happening again.  I know all sorts of things and can identify all manner of problems and solutions, and still I kick myself for failing to be a star player.

Except, see, I'm not supposed to be the star.  The best pastors aren't stars, but shadows.  Because when you look at a good pastor--and I mean a really good pastor--your eyes will naturally slide off of him and onto the One who is the true source of light.  No pastor should ever outshine Jesus.  Every pastor should strive to stay in His shadow.

Oh, I like the spotlight, though.  The complement, the thank-you-for-an-excellent-sermon, the eyes upon me as the spiritual leader, the speaker of wisdom, the prophetic voice.  I love that.  But that part of me needs to die, and die repeatedly.

Because, you see, you need Jesus.

And I ain't Him.

And never will be.

So praise God for the one thing that I'm sure I was quite clear on yesterday:  Jesus Christ makes all things new.  Jesus Christ is the one to look for forgiveness.  For grace.  For renewal.  Jesus Christ is the one to believe upon.  Praise God that in the midst of a mess of a sermon, the one thing needful managed to still come forth.  Praise God that Jesus Christ and His Gospel was still, ultimately, the star of the show.

Lord forbid that I'd ever want to outshine Jesus.  Lord grant that I preach a serious clunker every now and then to be reminded of my proper place.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mercy, mercy, mercy

My prayerbook this morning spoke of mercy: specifically, the mercy of Christ.  And I prayed along with it that God would "give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy, and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, thy Son Jesus Christ."

Or at least I would have prayed that.  But as happens to you as well as to me from time to time, my mind latched onto one word, and as my mouth continued to utter on, my brain ruminated upon the word "mercy."

I wondered over that word, and I wondered over the meaning of it.  I wondered over the action of it.  And one of my earliest thoughts was that my understanding of "mercy" is often deficient.  My go-to knee-jerk understanding of God's mercy is that it is complete, freely given . . . but a bit grudging.  Here I come before God again, with yet another sin, asking Him again to have mercy on me, and the almighty Lord looks at me, identifies my sin . . . but then looks at Christ, sighs, and says, "Well, Christ died for you and for your sin, so I guess I have to forgive you.  That's the deal, after all."

I suppose if you only ever get that far in your understanding of God's mercy, you'll have enough to sustain you.  No . . . wait: upon further consideration, you might even be ahead of the curve, because there are many people who don't even have confidence in God's mercy to forgive their sins.  But the thing about that limited view is . . . well, it's so limited.  It limits God's mercy to something that is parceled out piece by piece.  It limits God's mercy to something that is fixed at a specific time.  It limits God's mercy to something that is only given as a response, and never as an impulse.

What is it about God's mercy that we want to limit it?

What if, instead of relegating God's mercy to something we go and get when we need it, we recognized mercy as something that He actively gives us throughout the day, every day?  When I wake up in the morning, it's a mercy.  I have work to go to--that's a mercy.  It's a mercy when I can comfort someone who is suffering.  It's a mercy when I can hear a sermon.  It's a mercy when I can    close my eyes again at night.  My lungs still take in air, my legs still propel me forward, my heart still beats . . . mercy.  Mercy.  Mercy.  What if we understood that God's love continually reaches out in mercy, and  in that mercy He only gives us good gifts?

What if we understood that God's mercy is without limits?  That it is flowing constantly, and to have "confidence in thy mercy" simply means, "Dear Lord, I know you love me, and I am confident that everything you give me is good."

There is, in fact, only one limitation to God's mercy that I know of: its source.  The mercy of God is not an abstract universal, but something that is concrete and specific; the mercy of God comes from Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ has won forgiveness for you.  This is true.  But instead of considering His suffering and death to be some sort of peace treaty (where two parties then agree to cease hostilities and agree to specific beneficial actions towards one another), consider Christ to be the one who reconciles you to God:  He restores you into God's good graces and ensures that God's good favor is upon you.

Jesus Christ is the promise that before God, you have mercy.  Mercy that is born of love.  Mercy that does not wait for us to need it, but mercy that flows and gives and acts.

Mercy that has but one source--Jesus Christ.
Mercy that has no limits.

Monday, September 18, 2017

If you're really lucky . . .

If you're really lucky, at some point you'll die.

I don't think you'll enjoy it much.  I know I didn't.  But I think that's rather the point.  Living for ourselves feels pretty dang good.  Protecting our own little interests, making sure we're in our comfort zone, manipulating God into doing what we want Him to do when we can, and molding an idol-God of our own design when we can't.

It's not just the uber-rich that do it.  It's the middle class that believes God owes them their comfortable existence.  It's the poor that believe God owes them a break.  And it's all because we want to be the ones who call the shots.

So we preen and we pout, dressing ourselves up in a mirror.  Preparing ourselves for our starring role in the long-running and much-beloved show, "The ME Story," where we might sometimes have to play the tragic hero that stands strong in the face of hardship, but ultimately who comes out on top.  We write the script, carefully crafting it give ourselves the best lines.  We direct the camera, making sure we catch our good angles.

But increasingly, the makeup can't hide the faults, and the lights do nothing but exacerbate the scent we knew was there all along, but tried to ignore.  It's a creeping, decaying scent.  Slightly sweet, slightly foul.  It's the scent of death.

Not the death of the body, though that comes to all of us in the end.  No, it's the scent of dying to self.

The idea of dying to self is repulsive.  Incomprehensible.  Somehow, the knowledge that we aren't quite so nearly wonderful as the part we play is a knowledge we'd just rather not have.  We'd rather spend a lifetime running from it.  Pretending we're living, but in reality just running from death.

Dying to self hurts.  It hurts like Hell.  I suppose because it is a bit like Hell: always wishing you could have your life back, always wishing you could have control, always wishing for a god of our own making to pop up and grant us our wishing desires.  Hell is always wishing . . . but never receiving.

But it is the process of dying to self that we learn to see the true God rightly.  We learn to see ourselves rightly.  We are not the star of the show, and God doesn't owe us diddly squat.  And if we're really, really lucky, we'll get the opportunity to suffer through the process of dying to self, of having layer after layer of puff and pretense pulled off.  We'll get tired of posturing and instead learn to pray.  We'll realize that dying to self is the only path to genuine life.

If we're lucky, we'll get so tired of the scent of death clinging to us that we'll look to Jesus, and in Him receive the fresh scent of new life.  Christ is no genie-in-a-box that grants wishes.  He is the One who died a genuine, painful, real death, who suffered genuine Hell, who died not just to self, but who died for you. For me.  For all of us.

And He is the One who alone sees you when you are dead and rotten and tired of your own stink.  He is the One who alone reaches down, who makes alive, who makes new, who makes right.  You can't see that about Him until you die.  Until you die, you still think He's a guy that owes you something.  Once you die to self, though . . . that's when you realize He's the God who gives you something.  He's the God who gives you Himself.  His life.

If you're really lucky, at some point you'll die.  I hope you do, because in dying to self you'll see Jesus, and He will finally cause you to live.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Love and Marriage" . . . Revisited and Reexamined

So, I wrote something yesterday, and frankly it's been gnawing at me ever since.

In yesterday's post "Love and Marriage . . ." I spent a lot of time speaking of the kind of love and faith I want.  Doing so was necessarily bad: it's what one of my friends would call a "from below" sort of post.  The kind of statement that is made by us human beings as we look up towards God.  And it was also a coram hominibus sort of post: the kind of statement that deals with living with our fellow man (or, in this case, living with one particular and delightful woman).  This is acceptable.

Also, too, this is my blog.  It's populated with things that have bubbled up in my mind and spilled out onto a keyboard.  Yesterday was a rumination, an internal dialogue that sought expression in words on screen.  I wouldn't claim for it to be a definitive and full theological statement, just a brief glimpse into a dusty corner of my brain-wheels.  This, too, is acceptable.  

But the thing that gnaws at me is that I sort of broke my own code.  It's one thing to think private thoughts, it's another to hit "publish."  Once you hit "publish" there's a responsibility.  And in my case as a pastor, a particularly keen responsibility to point towards Christ.  And yesterday didn't do that.  Not clearly.  I spent a lot of time using the word "I."  And again, that's okay and acceptable and even in some cases Biblical.  After all, faith itself ultimately comes down to an "I" statement: "I believe."  Right?

Well . . . sort of.  Faith also has it's proper object, and that is in no way the word "I."  Faith looks out, not in.  Faith looks outward for forgiveness, for help, for hope, for comfort.  Faith looks outward for righteousness.  Faith looks outward to Christ.  And when faith spends too much time looking at itself--any time faith uses the word "I" just a smidge too much--it becomes incurvatus in se: faith "curved in on itself."  And this is dangerous.  It is poison.  It is Narcissus who dies from staring longingly and perpetually in a mirror.

In the Scriptures, the one guy who uses the word "I" possibly more than anyone else is Job.  From Job's words we get some of the most beautiful statements of faith in the Scriptures, but we also see some of the most self-absorbed thoughts.  Job's "I's" are, for the most part, fixated on himself, on his troubles, even on his faith.  "I have been righteous," "I have been wronged," "I want to see God," "I want God to explain this to me."  And he spends the lion's share of the book bearing his name talking about himself.

But when God shows up to speak directly to Job, when God shows up to discuss just Who is God and who is not, when God shows up to declare Himself, it is then that Job adds a new word to his vocabulary.


"You, O Lord, are right."  "You, O Lord, are good."  "You, O Lord, are God, and on You, O Lord, is my faith now fixed."  Job has spent much time dwelling upon himself, having faith in his own faith, but now, having seen God and having heard His words, Job's faith once again looks outward to His Lord, His Redeemer.  Job's eyes once again becomes fixated upon God, and Job's "I's" finally come to be used as they should.  He adds his new vocabulary word and learns the properly focused "I" statement of faith: "I believe in You."

In all my musings, in all my self-reflection, I never want to forget the "You."  I hear God's Word, His declaration of Himself, and turning away from my own reflection I fix my eyes on Him.  "You, O Christ, are my Lord.  You, O Christ, are my Savior.  And in You, O Christ, do I believe."

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Love and marriage . . .

Old faith.  Old love.  More and more, I realize that those are the two things I want for me.

"Old" gets a bad rap, of course.  We use it in the sense of "old and worn out," of something that needs to be replaced with another newer, more vibrant expression.  To be young is to be alive, to experience life anew and afresh, to gape with wonder at the first kiss, to be over-awed at the first deep realizations of God.  And there are those who hearken to the siren song of "New!  Fresh!  Innovative!", who dread the commonplace, the settling-in. There are those who  are hungry to experience hunger once again.

I think I'd rather have something else.

Not stability, necessarily.  That word sounds almost like "stagnation" to some.  Not familiarity, either.  And certainly not comfort.  "Maturity" is a word that might get close, but it still fails to describe it.

I want the old love that comes from experiencing one woman in a thousand different ways over decades and decades of unfolding time.  The kind of love that remembers the first kiss, but delights even deeper over the 10,000th.  The kind of love that waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, but grows stronger and deeper because she and I have lived.  Life that fights and yells and loves and laughs and cries and weeps.  Love that comes from spending days not talking to each other and spending hours by each other's side without feeling the need for words.  I want the old love that has such a depth that it can be sensed, a near-tangible richness.  The kind of love that defines the very nature and understanding of "life" for children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And I want the old faith that comes from experiencing one God is a thousand different ways over decades and decades of time.  The kind of faith that returns again and again to the same Bible and delights over what has already been read a hundred times.  The kind of faith that waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, but over the decades grows stronger and deeper because Christ has lived in me.  Faith that has shouted in triumph and grown in wisdom.  Faith that has stared shell-shocked at tragedy.  Faith that has sat on the same wooden pews and sang the same hymns and prayed the same prayers without ceasing.  Faith that has decorated a joyous tapestry of life's goodness, and faith that has stood alone, wavering and shaken, when all goodness seemed to be gone.

And I get the sense that God can give those things, but He only gives them through the experience of time.  That perhaps the very discipline of enduring days of doldrums is one of the chief ways old love--and old faith--is formed.  Not in a moment.  Not through wealth, nor by poverty.  But through the very act of living with one woman and one God over decades and decades of time.

I get the sense that though Christ's grace is new every morning, we don't even get a hint of how deep and how wide it is until we've lived the one grace covering over a thousand different experiences.  That faith isn't always the life-altering experience of being plunged beneath icy waters, but sometimes it's a stale cracker and old wine in which we nevertheless have learned to say, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to me.  For living life with me, so that I may live life with you."

I want the kind of love you can't have if you trade it in for something else when you first start to notice it's getting old.

I want the kind of faith you can't have if you decide to clean your spiritual house and cast it off for a newer, fresher expression.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The church that never learns

You've probably seen the worst examples: There's a rally/march/protest of some kind, and it's getting media coverage.  The people there believe their cause is just, it is good, it is right.  And then a "Reverend" (quotes of irony most definitely intended) appears on the screen to proclaim that he stands as the representative of a church or church body, and that this issue is the moral responsibility of all people, but he says nothing that indicates he can confirm that from the Scriptures.

The other example has also been seen, but it's not typically as public.  That's because it's the quiet church that sits quietly removed from the street, and it's quiet members quietly go in and out.  The quiet pastor speaks only of spiritual things, of Heavenly goals, and the entire congregation quietly lifts their eyes unto Heaven, and so never sees the crushing need of their neighbor, who cannot even lift his eyes on account of the burden he carries.

Both are churches that have never really learned.

They've never really learned what it means to be church.

The church has an interesting task.  On the one hand, it has eyes only for Christ, and constantly turns to Him in worship and prayer.  On the other hand, it has hands only for the neighbor, the needy, and constantly turns to them in service and compassion.  Martin Luther used a powerful and brilliant image for this essence of church: he spoke of a throne upon which we view two different people.

Imagine you are wearing a trick pair of eyeglasses, and on them are painted a throne, a scepter, and a crown.  We look towards Christ, and we see Him as king.  On the throne sits Christ, and we gaze upon Him, bowing down before His majestic kingliness, and we hearken to His words and serve Him in the manner in which He commands.  Christ is King, and He is on the throne.

There's more to the church's worship than this gross oversimplification, of course.  Christ is not only King, but Savior.  Redeemer.  The Eternal One who shed his dying blood.  The Gracious One who covers and forgives our sins.  The Mediator that lives always to intercede for us before the Father, who eternally speaks into the Father's ear, "This one . . . this one is with me."

This is a far better picture of Christ the King, for He is not a king who lords His lordliness over us, issuing capricious commands that must be obeyed or else, but He is a King who gives and forgives, who provides for our deepest needs. A king who serves.

And in the excitement of seeing this King, of learning what He has done for you, of learning what He continues to do, you might very well turn to the person next to you and say, "Have you HEARD ABOUT THIS GUY???"

 . . . but you're still wearing the glasses.  And now you find yourself somewhat shocked to see that the person next to you possesses a crown, holds a scepter, and is seated on a throne.  The person next to you is a king, but a king who has needs, and those very needs command you.  Perhaps before all you saw was a coworker in khakis and a polo.  Perhaps before all you saw was a person with a different skin tone or an accent that was hard for your ears to grasp.  Perhaps before all you saw was a decidedly raggedy person with a sign saying, "Hungry, please help."

Perhaps before you saw the One True King all you saw were people who wanted a piece of you.  But now, having gazed upon the throne of the Living God, from whom you have received grace upon grace and gift upon gift, and all without cost or demand, the True King who is crowned with glory, whose scepter waves you into His presence, whose throne stands rightly at the very center of all worship in Heaven and on earth . . . having gazed upon Him, you now look upon your fellow human being and see that they, too, have become your king.

One King freely gives . . . the other king is freely given to.

One King supplies your deepest need . . . you supply the obvious needs of the other.

The Christian--the church--always stands before these two thrones.  When the church forgets one throne or the other . . . she forgets who she is.

The church that always seeks to be on the bleeding edge, who clamors and crows over the latest cause, the latest issue, the latest crisis, the church that always rushes ahead to the next cause célèbre, that church forgets it already has a cause: the cause of the Gospel.  That church haven't learned what it means to feel the disgusting burden of sin and to have been washed clean by Jesus Christ.  They have forgotten to stand quietly before the throne of their gracious Lord and Redeemer.  They have forgotten what it means to be the people who are redeemed.

But the church that never speaks of, never acts upon, never sees those issues, those problems . . . they have forgotten their place: a place in this world where the needs of fellow human beings command our service.  Service that gives even as we have first been given to.  Service that loves as we have first been loved.  They haven't learned what it means to live as the redeemed people of God.

Two thrones.  One for Christ.  One for our neighbor.  Both are an essential part of who we are as church.