The Journey of the Magi

journey of the magiAs anybody who has been on a long trip to a foreign land can tell you, these treks change you. You experience things on the journey, and encounter realities that reshape your understanding of the world. Eliot, as only Eliot could, peels the schmaltz off story the wise men from the East, to reveal the way their Journey to see the Christ-child must have changed them. Indeed, he points us to the way our own journeys ought to change us.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

–T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Soli Deo Gloria

An Infernal Mindset: The Son of the Morning

son of the morningI don’t know that many have undertaken the task of understanding the infernal mindset–getting into the Devil’s head, so to speak. It’s really seems like a rather distasteful exercise in one sense. The two that come to mind, of course, are C.S. Lewis’ portrait of a tempter in the Screwtape Letters, and Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Mephistopheles in The Brother Karamazov. I’m sure there are others, of course.  One thing that I’m quite sure I’ve never seen is what Oh Sleeper‘s did with the title track on their second album “The Son of the Morning”: put it to fabulously shredding metal:

The dominant voice is that of Satan himself, Lucifer, “The Son of the Morning”, addressing God, the “weak forgiver”:

“I am the rival. I am the one who speaks in whisper.
Hear me now, dear, weak forgiver.
Hear me now, weak forgiver. Hear me now…

Don’t send an angel to face the devil.
You’re wasting power on grace.
A maggot will always seek to feed from the grave,
where I’ll lead them and teach them to feast on the skin that defeats them, the skin they crave.”

Every night I start my rise, climbing high into the morning sky,
but soon after I lose your bride and I damn your son for stealing my light.
This world is mine…

They call me the son of the morning.
They call me the son of the morning.

I can mound all your fallen past the clouds as they roll in,
and when I do I will claim your throne through all these cowards you call your sons.
I am the lord of air and my dawn will last forever.
Go on pouring out because in the end I will have them.

I have to confess, I’m always moved by this song. Both in the blindness that I find mirrored in my own heart, as well as the goodness of God seen through perverted eyes.

Satan here is proud, the “rival”; a fallen glory, bitter with rage at the Son who “stole” his light. The Son of the Morning is a tragic figure–deluded, the bitter has-been, though eclipsed by the True Son, is still furiously trying to reclaim what he never had. He is, as I think my friend Morgan described him, a diva who cannot accept that all creaturely glory is but a refraction of the Glory of the Son. At its heart, the infernal mindset is a refusal to acknowledge our creatureliness and delight in the proper joy of creatures, which is to reflect, to bask, in the glory of the Son. We imitate the great thief when we forget our glory is not our own–we do not sustain ourselves.

The infernal mindset is also uncomprehending of the goodness of God. God is a “weak forgiver”, according the logic of hell, that does not recognize the cosmos–reordering power of the Cross. His grace lavished on sinners, is fruitless prodigality to the Accuser of the Saints. In his eyes, we’re nothing but perverted cowards that God shamelessly and foolishly calls “sons.” I’ll admit I’ve shed tears at those moments when I realize that, apart from the grace of God, he’s right.  And yet this is God’s plan–to take cowards, adopt them, and make them his courageous sons.

Satan’s is not the only voice we hear, though. The Lord is given a word to speak in the chorus:

“If you could see like me you’d see you haven’t won anything (anything)
If you could see like me you’d see, it’s by my grace that you’re breathing (breathing)
If you could see like me you’d see you haven’t won anything.
If you could see like me you’d see, your precious light is fading.
Your light is fading.”

This is the heart of the amazing delusion of Satan: it is even blind to the grace that sustains it. No, it is not special, saving grace, but more like the rain that God sends on the just and the unjust. If we could see with the eyes of God, we’d understand that it is still by his grace that the deceiver even draws breath. Thankfully, one day he will draw his last and his lies will come to an end. The Son has won an unshakable victory and the false, distorted light of the Morning star will pass from this world forever.

Of course these same words hold true for those of us who remain opposed to God, fighting him as his enemies, setting ourselves up as false suns in the universe of our affections. God graciously gives us space to breathe out defiant words. Thankfully in our case it is time to repent, draw near, and be converted from rebels to beloved children.

Soli Deo Gloria

Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt

barthBarth devoted one of his lectures that formed the basis of his little work Evangelical Theology to the subject of doubt as an obstacle to theology. Having given some thought to the subject doubt recently, I pulled it off the shelf and I found it worth briefly outlining.

Two Types

Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.

There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”

Three Sources

Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?

The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.

Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith.  Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.

The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life  is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience.  Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.

The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:

  1. No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
  2. He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihilthe power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely  ashamed of it.
  3. But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!

-Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.

The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Checking Out Churches? Don’t Forget the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ Test

Well, now that I have your attention, some of you may be wondering what the Jesus Drinking Game Test is and why is a college minister talking about it? (Also, whether I’m going to be fired in about two sentences.)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. (Acts 2:14-15)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” (Acts 2:14-15)

It all came up in a chat with my buddy, Andrew–a fiery, young, Welsh intellectual on the rise–when discussing church standards. Although staunchly Reformed, he keeps getting invited by his more liberal friends to their liberal mainline churches. Recounting one such experience he recalled: “I got drug to a new-agey Episcopal bible study where we did ‘centering prayer’ on ‘what God means to you, or however you perceive the Life Force.'” That did it for him. Now whenever he’s asked to check out one of his friends’ churches, “I tell them my rule: if I were to be drinking in church and take a sip every time Christ or the Gospel is mentioned, would I get tipsy? If not, I’d rather stay home.”

Now, make sure to note the hypothetical character of this test. Nowhere on this blog are you reading an exhortation to take flasks with you to church or play drinking games. For the record, drunkenness is a sin. (Eph. 5:18) Also, for my students, if you’re under 21 you shouldn’t even be touching the stuff.

The principle, however, is quite sound. As a baseline minimum, if you wouldn’t get drunk if you had to sip every time they mention Jesus or the Gospel in a church service, then it’s probably not a church you want to be going to. It might be a nice place, full of decent, moral people trying very hard to be good, have lovely children’s programs, lively social events, and a very nice pastor who is a great public speaker with a good amount of practical wisdom about your finances or dealing with conflict. All that taken into account, if this is not a place where Jesus’ Name is lifted up as the only one that saves, and the Gospel as the message that sustains, you should walk out and find another. Any church worth its salt will be drenched in Jesus and the Gospel.

Of course, merely dropping Jesus’ name and saying the word “gospel” in front of every other phrase is no guarantee of fidelity. This is probably another good reason not to be drinking in church–you want to pay attention to what they actually say about Jesus and the Gospel, measuring it against the word. (Acts 17:11) Still, for those considering a congregation to worship at, keeping the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ principle in mind isn’t a bad place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Keller, La Dispute, and the Promise of Covenant Love – Part 1

Regine Olsen

Sadly, everybody remembers her as Kierkegaard’s fiance and not the wife of her husband…that guy.

February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.

For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?

Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.

Works of Love and La Dispute
In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)

Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.

Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:

Oh husband, I could not control it
Husband, I could not abstain
One cannot stop the wind from blowing
Nor refuse the falling rain
Love stirred up a storm inside me
Wrapped its arms around my waist
I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry
There was nothing I could do
No, there was nothing I could
Sure as the rain will fall
Some love just fails without reason

(Last Blues for Bloody Knuckles)

Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.

Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)

Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love
Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.

Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.

Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.

So what does love have to be if it’s something I can promise? How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Marriage Is All About

image

Note the emotional tenor conveyed by the underline and punctuation. My wife is an expressive writer.

It’s February now, so thoughts of romance and love are in the air. As I think about my sweet McKenna I’ve realized that great moments have not been lacking in our marriage. She’s kinda the best for all sorts of reasons–one of which is her ability to constantly surprise me. This was easily one of my favorites so far. Admittedly I’ve only been at it a year and a half, but waking up to find this lovely little note on a Sunday morning, right before I had to get ready for church, was a humorous chance to be what I’m supposed to be as a husband–a sacrificial servant who dies to himself for the sake of his wife. (Eph. 5) And there was joy in that.

Obviously, killing one cockroach in the morning before work isn’t an extreme “death to self” moment. Yes, it was a truly GINORMOUS beast and put up a serious fight. At most though, I had to simply swallow the inconvenience of time wasted on a busy Sunday morning. Still, most of the time love looks like the little things. Yes, the dates, the romance, the big decisions, and all of the normal things that we focus on in a marriage are key, important, and foundational. And so is taking out the trash when she asks you the first time and cleaning up beard trimmings in the sink, even when you’d rather just sit down and watch TV, or read a book–without whining. In the end, it’s through the little acts of daily faithfulness and service that we honor God in our marriages.

As we look towards Valentine’s Day this month, a word to husbands: yeah, plan out the big date. Make it romantic–you know, put on nice clothes and stuff. Buy the flowers–make ‘em classy. Try going to a restaurant that doesn’t wrap its food in foil. And while you’re at it, kill a bug or two, make sure your towel isn’t on the floor, vaccum something–seek out the joy of serving her. I’m not great at this, but by the grace of God, I want to get better.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. It’s even worse when you’re ‘unique’. Paul David Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual; impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. –Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, pg. 164

unique2While it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair

I remember when this point flooded my mind with light in college. It was a particularly angsty time for me; school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I had just met my future, life-long friend, Kierkegaard and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death–probably my favorite of the pseudonymous works–and he was tracing the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our understanding of ourselves. In a particularly eye-opening section, he points out that pride can take many forms, even the devious negative pride of thinking you’re beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking that no one understands–not even God. I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse, post-Hegelian language to expose my folly–to prise open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained, beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be twenty again (shudders).

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that, in fact, people do understand. Maybe not each particular person knows your particular pain–the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless. Still, someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, and failed as spectacularly, maybe even more so, as you. The good news is that you’re not unique. You don’t have to grieve alone or heal alone.  

Jesus, the High Priest and Our Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this is particularly true for the Christian:

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(2:10, 14-18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside of us. In the Incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all that we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even then, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation–in order to resist it, he had to bear it’s full weight.) Jesus knows our pain. Jesus knows our suffering. He knows our struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, being human alongside of us, tasting the full range of human experiences and loss, even to the point of death, so that he could overcome it. Bottom-line is the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix it. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery, but a company, a whole world-wide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside of in the church. Your local church is full of ‘unique’ people just like you. People with deep scars that Jesus is healing, broken hearts that Jesus is mending, histories of slavery that Jesus is redeeming, and lonely silences that Jesus is speaking into. It’s kind of like I told one of my students the other day, “Everybody here has a story just like yours. It’s just the details that are different.” And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories, all the broken twists and turns, to speak grace into the lives of his children by His Spirit.

Break the Silence

Coming back Tripp’s quote, the point is you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin–you’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to somebody. Let someone in on your anger issue. Talk to someone about the family trauma that’s tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Finally admit to the absolute terror you experience whenever you think about your future. Invite someone to know where you’re really at. It’s only when we confess what’s truly going on in our hearts and lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort and the healing can truly begin.

The long and the short of it is you don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The Gospel means that you can be saved just like everyone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #11: God Listens to Prayer, But Don’t Expect Him to Obey

Time and again I find myself coming back to Luther because, even though he shoots his mouth off from time to time, you almost always come away with theological or practical wisdom you needed to hear. Take this gem of a quote on prayer:

It is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ, though he give not according to the measure, manner, and time we dictate, for he will not be tied. In such sort dealt God with the mother of St Augustine; she prayed to God that her son might be converted, but as yet it would not be; then she ran to the learned, entreating them to persuade and advise him thereunto. She propounded unto him a marriage with a Christian virgin, that thereby he might be drawn and brought to the Christian faith, but all would not do as yet. But when our Lord God came thereto, he came to purpose, and made of him such an Augustine, that he became a great light to the church. St James says: “Pray one for another, for the prayer of the righteous availeth much.” Prayer is a powerful thing, for God has bound and tied himself thereunto. -Martin Luther, Table Talk

Luther clearly lays out a couple of key points we need to remember to keep straight for the sake of our theology and just general spiritual life.

  1. I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    God is God. When you pray you’re making a request of your Lord, not commanding a servant. We often-times think about God and prayer as if he were our butler, like a divine Alfred (Batman’s butler/mentor) who manages to be very resourceful in helping us fulfill our missions out in the world. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. God is equipping and aiding us in being his servants, doing his will. You are not Batman. You are not the hero of your story–God is.  If we don’t get this straight, we end up thinking God failed us when it turns out he’s simply decided in his infinite wisdom that the “measure, manner, and time we dictate” are not the way that he wants to do things. God is not in your employ. He is not someone to be fired or reprimanded. He is not waiting for your year-end performance review. He really does know what he’s doing.

  2. God Listens. At the same time, God really does listen to prayers offered up through Jesus Christ. (John 14:13; 16:23) Whatever else we think about predestination and foreknowledge, we are told that God listens to our prayers for Christ’s sake. He has “bound” himself in that way, through his promises in Jesus. So many of us do not pray because we think God will not hear us. We think we’re too guilty, too small, too silly, too insignificant. Jesus reassures us that whatever might be true of us, in Christ, we are beloved of the Father and he will always hear us. (John 14:21) He is a God who keeps his promises, even if not always in the way that we expect them.

Luther tells us to keep these two truths in mind as we approach prayer. Between them we’re able to approach the God of the universe with the bold humility of faith–and that’s the goal isn’t it?

Soli Deo Gloria

Quit Limping–Choose Jesus

Speaking to the spiritual depthlessness with which his contemporaries lived, Thoreau wrote in Walden of the tragedy that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They give in, they resign themselves to life as it is, no adventure, no true life–mere amusements only. Despair becomes a fixed underlying atmosphere of the heart.

The unfortunate reality is that Thoreau’s description could easily be applied to contemporary American Christians with little modification. You see, most of them will live the majority of their lives with a limp.

A limp? What do I mean by that?

Can I just say right now how much I love cheesy, bible drawings? Great times.

Theological Dance-off
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel found in 1 Kings 18. In the ultimate theological showdown Elijah faces off against the false prophets in the Biblical equivalent of a dance-off, pitting YHWH against the false gods of the Canaanites, the Baals introduced by Queen Jezebel, in a literal trial by fire. Elijah would pray to YHWH and the false prophets would pray to the Baals, and whoever’s deity answered with fire to consume the sacrifice offered was the true God.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness of God administering a raw beat-down of a rival deity, what’s going on in the passage? Why did God feel it necessary to display himself in this way? Why set up a contest with non-existent gods? Why all the fireworks? What does he have to prove? Elijah’s question to the people reveals YHWH’s motive:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

See, the Israelites had a limp. Israel, as it often would in its history, had fallen into the worship of false gods. They were turning away from YHWH, the true God, and had begun to give themselves to gods that weren’t really gods, who hadn’t done anything for them, certainly hadn’t saved them, redeemed them out of slavery from Egypt, and wouldn’t be of any use to them in the future. As Elijah put it, they were “limping between two different opinions.” Elijah’s challenge was a call to make up their minds, make a decision and whole-heartedly give themselves over.

Life with a Limp
When you live your life wavering between two different opinions, you live it with a limp. You can never take a solid step–you’re always teetering, unsteady in your choices. It’s like someone who can’t decide whether or not to commit to a relationship. For every little word or date or occasion there’s tons of analysis as to the implications and so firm action is rarely taken. What’s more, the fruits of a decision are not enjoyed either–you get none of the peace of solidly saying nor, and none of the joy of fully being with someone–this is, in fact, what struck me about the passage.

I remember listening to a Matt Chandler sermon where he pointed out that for a lot of Christians, life is lived between sin and God. They’re Christians but their hearts drawn towards sin and so they never fully chase after God and enjoy the fruit of a full relationship with him. At the same time, they’re too scared to chase after sin and at least enjoy it for a while before it destroys them. They enjoy neither and live basically fruitless lives.

No wonder so many of us wonder whether the Gospel is real. We live our lives half-chasing everything else, never fully giving ourselves over to Christ but never quite chasing what we really want either. Our home is in the muddled middle of spiritual mediocrity. Don’t misunderstand me here–I am not talking about being some super-Christian who out-preaches Billy Graham, out-serves Mother Theresa, and makes Ignatius of Loyola look like a spiritual slouch. I am talking about living each day having turned ourselves over to Christ; waking up with his glory and grace at the forefront of our minds, not that job promotion, or my own wants. I am talking about time in Scripture that’s about knowing and communing with Jesus, not a ritual to secure the blessings of all green lights on the way to work. I am talking about a prayer-life focused on the Kingdom, not simply achieving the American dream. I’m talking about a church-life that is more than just showing up for an hour to “get fed” and roll out, but an active involvement in the community of God because we know that’s where life-change happens–in the worshipping community. I’m talking about all of these things and more.

The Choice
The point is you’ll never chase these things if your heart is caught between God and money, God and sex, God and comfort, God and anything else. You will not run. You will not experience the true freedom God has for his children. You will simply limp through life wishing there was something more and bitterly resenting God because you’re too scared to chase it.

The call now is the same as it was then: Quit limping between the LORD or the Baals–choose Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Nephew, Jack Emmet Stewart

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn just had a baby.  Jack Emmet Stewart was born on November 16th at 10:20 pm, weighing in at 8 lbs, 3 oz., 21 1/5 inches long. Jack is my first nephew and a handsome little guy.  Although he was peacefully asleep when I met him, I am convinced he could, if he so chose, destroy Chuck Norris. The awesome contained in this little bundle is hard to gauge at this point.

Now, I’ve been joking around for the last few months about how excited I am to be an uncle–all fun, no responsibilities. Well, not really joking, I meant most of it. Thing is, I’ve been praying for this little guy for a while now and, as the months have progressed, the reality of the responsibility I have towards Jack has started to dawn on me.

One of the first things I figured out I have to do is pray for him. That’s one of my main jobs now—I’m part of the Jack Emmet Stewart Prayer Team. (We are accepting all walk-ons at this point.) So, to kick it off, this is a prayer I’ve written for him:

Father, thank you for Jack Emmet Stewart. We’ve been waiting for him for a little while now. You’ve known about him for an eternity. We’re excited that he’s finally here, safe and sound. We know you have good things in store for him.

I thank you that from the first breath he took, he’s been a testimony to the Gospel. “Jack” means “God is gracious” and it fits—he is an unmerited gift of your kindness. “Emmet” in Hebrew is “truth, faithfulness”, and his arrival is a reminder of the fact that you are true and faithful. I pray that these twin truths would be the rails on which Jack’s life runs: your grace and faithfulness. Let him be ever aware of your loving-kindness, your ever-present help, your deep, deep grace—that you are faithful even when we are faithless.

There are so many things I would ask for him, things I will ask for him when the time comes, but for today I pray that you would bless him with:

Salvation- God, you are his maker, I pray that you would become his Father in Christ; adopt him by your grace. Let him come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon he could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having him as a nephew, I want him as my little brother in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who he is.

Strength- Jack has strong parents. Shawn and Val are, in their own distinct ways, two of the strongest people I know. It is often over-looked because of their great gentleness, but it is a deep, deep strength that comes from being firmly planted by the streams of your grace. I pray that Jack would be planted by those same streams, drink deeply, and be rooted in such a way that the storms, the tempests, the breezes, the dryness, the spring—all the seasons of life—would leave him unshaken.

Empathy- Let that same strength be a source of strength for others. May it come with the ability to enter into the feelings, the concerns of others without being overwhelmed by them. Bless him that he might be a blessing.

Creativity- Help Jack to see beyond the normal possibilities and fears that constrain most of us from living truly God-soaked lives. Form him by your Spirit into a man whose imagination is governed only by the reaches of your power and goodness. Help him to live in ways that amaze people, glorify you, and give Jack great, great joy.

 Joy- Give Jack a deep, cavernous joy–joy that revels in the beauty of creation, that takes in all that you’ve made and wells up with gratitude for the redemption that you’ve wrought.

Depth- Jack comes from a line of thinkers, let it be so with him. But Father, I ask that he not only have head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge—wisdom that comes from knowing his Father and the character of his Father’s world through Christ.

Assurance- Give Jack a deep assurance about who he is in Christ, the man who you’re making him into, with all of the particular gifts, talents, and personality quirks you’ve written into his spiritual DNA. Let him know down to the marrow of his being that his Creator and Redeemer did not make mistakes with him.

Community- Finally, gather people around Jack—family, friends, neighbors, and most of all the covenant community of the church—who can pour into him, protect him, encourage him, love him, correct him, affirm him, and constantly point him to Jesus.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria