April 24, 2014

Hope

Trouble always comes. No matter how hard we try to plan around it, to avoid it, to run from it, our circumstances will not go as we had wanted them to. What matters, then, is what we do with it - how we live within it. We can spend our time laying blame for our suffering - this person or people have wronged me - but that is playing the victim, and playing the victim is no way to live. We can blame God, but God is always with us, the One who will never abandon us, who will even pursue us when we run away. No, playing the victim only damages us further; though we may have been wronged, we may have been hurt by someone else, playing the victim is the way that we continue to hurt ourselves after the fact.

Mourning, on the other hand, is important in times of trouble. When we have lost something significant and have no words that seem adequate, Paul writes that the Spirit will intercede on our behalf, that our groans are too profound for words. As a musician, this makes some sense to me - sometimes, a song comes that has no words, that is only melody and texture or guttural cry, that an emotion can only be expressed without words.

Sometimes, words only confuse the issue.

When we mourn, we work through our grief and begin to let go what we have lost. God looks at a much longer picture than we do; He is always working toward that new creation, a brand new day where all things will be restored. Paul writes that we need to take the same far-reaching perspective. What we go through right now is going to end as only God can end it: with joy.

So why fear what is coming? If God is working for the good of His whole creation, we can endure, we can take each challenge as it comes. This does not mean we don't suffer, this does not mean that we do not mourn; this simply means a shift in our perspective at what is happening. As I wrote earlier, trust does not come easily in such times. But we hope because we don't yet see that end; trust comes because of such times. The very absence of triumph means we must hope, because it means God's not done yet. We have every reason to hope, because our God is so much bigger than our pain; after all, He is the One who created all things. Joy can be had in the midst of the desert.

So what do you see? Do you see the world turning against you, or do you see a chance for God to work? Do you see the overwhelming odds, or the victory that's coming? Do you see only fear and death, or do you see the hope of new life rising from the ashes?
Now I’m sure of this: the sufferings we endure now are not even worth comparing to the glory that is coming and will be revealed in us. For all of creation is waiting, yearning for the time when the children of God will be revealed. You see, all of creation has collapsed into emptiness, not by its own choosing, but by God’s. Still He placed within it a deep and abiding hope that creation would one day be liberated from its slavery to corruption and experience the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that all creation groans in unison with birthing pains up until now. And there is more; it’s not just creation — all of us are groaning together too. Though we have already tasted the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are longing for the total redemption of our bodies that comes when our adoption as children of God is complete — for we have been saved in this hope and for this future. But hope does not involve what we already have or see. For who goes around hoping for what he already has? But if we wait expectantly for things we have never seen, then we hope with true perseverance and eager anticipation.
A similar thing happens when we pray. We are weak and do not know how to pray, so the Spirit steps in and articulates prayers for us with groaning too profound for words. Don’t you know that He who pursues and explores the human heart intimately knows the Spirit’s mind because He pleads to God for His saints to align their lives with the will of God? We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work toward something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan. From the distant past, His eternal love reached into the future. You see, He knew those who would be His one day, and He chose them beforehand to be conformed to the image of His Son so that Jesus would be the firstborn of a new family of believers, all brothers and sisters. As for those He chose beforehand, He called them to a different destiny so that they would experience what it means to be made right with God and share in His glory. 
So what should we say about all of this? If God is on our side, then tell me: whom should we fear?
[Romans 8:18-31, TVT]

April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day





Happy Earth Day! I hope you'll take some time to listen to the Creator today, He who has blessed us with such an incredible world. Take care of it, my friends, and anticipate the day that the Creator will come and live with us once again ...
So God said, "Now let Us conceive a new creation—humanity—made in Our image, fashioned according to Our likeness. And let Us grant them authority over all the earth—the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the domesticated animals and the small creeping creatures on the earth." So God did just that. He created humanity in His image, created them male and female. Then God blessed them and gave them this directive: “Be fruitful and multiply. Populate the earth. I make you all trustees of My estate, so care for My creation and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that roams across the earth.” [Genesis 1:26-28]

April 21, 2014

Voopa

Author's note: I started writing this about a day after the whole "controversy" started over the movie that was just released. After a lot of thought, I didn't post it immediately so I could be more thoughtful about my words. I'm glad I waited; the words have evolved a lot, and while it seems no longer "relevant" in terms of timeliness, I hope they are still edifying.

When Liz and I were first married, she somehow convinced me to volunteer in the children's wing with her for a month. We were assigned to the 3's and 4's class. I was not yet a parent, had very little experience with children, and so I wasn't really sure how she'd roped me into this (Liz had been a children's director and had loads of babysitting and nannying experience, so at least the kids had that going for them). And while I did ok, I learned that I would never be a successful children's pastor. I'm ok with that.

But I'll never forget the Sunday we taught the kids the story of Noah's Ark.

We started with some ark-related activities - a water tub with some boats they could drive around, animal coloring sheets, that sort of thing. Finally, it was time for the story. We had done pretty well - most of the kids were sitting on their carpet circles and were listening intently. But as Liz got to the part where the sky opens up and the rain starts to fall - I kid you not - there was a huge boom of thunder outside and it started to pour rain.

You can't plan that kind of awesome.

While I was a rookie with kids, even I knew enough to keep my mouth shut from pointing outside and saying "hey, kinda like that guys!" I really wanted to, but I didn't. Of course, we hadn't finished the story yet, and evidently most of the kids hadn't heard this one before, because their imaginations kicked into high gear. They kept asking if we were all going to die, if they could see their parents one last time, and why God was angry. And of course there was

so

much

weeping. 

Somehow, Liz got their attention and finished the story as quickly as she could, to get to the rainbow and the promise at the end, and after that I think we were ok. But it was a sobering reminder to me of why the story of Noah is not to be trifled with. Why we teach this story to little kids, I'll never know. It's a very dark story, full of evil, death, and tragedy. It's not a story that allows us to maintain our innocence of the hard things of the world. But I suppose it has some (potentially cute) animals and a boat. See, the kids understood - they hadn't been spoiled by the way their parents and grandparents would downplay the death of the world and instead focus on the cute animals. They hadn't yet learned that the story of Noah doesn't happen anymore, that epic floods and giants and miracles and tragic heroes just don't really happen in our world because the Bible is really just a collection of moral stories that help us learn to be good entitled pain-free american citizens ... 

... right?

Despite what we say so vehemently to the contrary, we western evangelical adults often behave as if the story of Noah was just a myth, a legend, a fable.

I'm not going to comment about the Aronofsky film that just came out, because despite that I've read interviews with the director and I've talked with trusted friends who have seen it, I myself have not. What I do know is that the Biblical text is written as a midrash and is thus fairly sparse in detail (what did they actually talk about for a year in the ark? or before that, for that matter). I do know that the flavor of the story of Noah is meant to be dark, sinister, conflicted, hard. Yet I've read versions of this story that leave out the death of the world entirely, that talk about the rain coming and the family surviving as if they're the only family around. The story of Noah is not cute, it's not funny, and it's not even really that exciting; it's a tragedy. It's depressing. For most of it, it should make us wonder about the character of the God we follow.

It's a story that should bring us to tears.

But when we get to the end, God laments the death, laments the return of chaos, and promises that this will not happen again. At the end, we see that the heart of God burns for ALL of His creation, that God Himself weeps for those who have perished, and so in the midst of death and chaos, God restores all things again; the waters recede, the chaos is once again pulled back, and life is restored to the land. His passion for Justice does not have the final word; His heart for mercy does. The human race is spared, despite that Babel and Exile and Calvary are still yet to come.

Because then comes Abram and Sarai. Then comes Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. Then comes Moses and Joshua and Rahab. Then there's Deborah and Samuel and David and Solomon and Micah and Esther and Isaiah and Nehemiah and so many others. And of course, then came the ultimate example of this, a life lived so fully in the character of God that He couldn't even remain dead.

Then came Jesus.

It's a story of a God who won't simply let His creation die, though that might by itself be a Just thing. No, at His very core, God is one who redeems, restores, re-creates, rebuilds. God is the One who pulls back the waters of chaos time and time again so that His creation may have life.

April 20, 2014

Resurrection Sunday

May resurrection be made real once again today. May death rest peacefully in its grave, for we no longer must fear it. May the Kingdom of Jesus come awake among us - Christ is Risen!

April 18, 2014

Trust

Worship (v): to offer oneself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to a merciful God (see Romans 12:1-2)

It is no accident that Paul begins Romans 12 with the reassurance that God is merciful. Remembering God's mercy, or "in view of God's mercy," we are to make ourselves as living sacrifices. Our whole lives require a re-orientation if we're to get this right. Offering ourselves up as sacrifices, even living sacrifices, means that we are now at the mercy of God - every part of our lives are open for His use; every decision, every relationship, every resource.

So worship - true worship - requires an extraordinary amount of trust.

By Paul's definition, I can't worship God if I'm holding something back, because that's not all of me. Trust is scary; people who place their lives or their families or their jobs in the hands of God have lost them. Our individuality is not the only thing at play here, the Kingdom is far bigger than any one of us. Let's face it, it's a risk; we don't know what God is going to do with us once we give our lives to him. There are a lot of reasons to hold something back; I don't want to lose my wife, or my kids, or my job, or my friends, or my house, or my stuff, or my security ... simply, I don't want to lose my self-made identity. I hold on to all these things because I like them, because they matter to me, because I've worked so hard to get those things.

But Jesus says, those who lose their lives find them.

Jesus says that it takes trust in order to truly live. When we hold onto everything so tightly, we're not really alive. Paul observed that when people gave their lives to Jesus, when they let go of everything - when they worshipped - they received back far more than they gave. People that give up everything are transformed into new people, better people, people of a Kingdom made to bring Heaven on Earth. 

If our lives are lived in worship, we model the Passion of Jesus. We don't have to trust blindly; Jesus did it first. Jesus trusted the Father, and said, "not my will, but yours." And so can we die to ourselves, to the things we've created for ourselves, to the things we've decided are most important in this world, trusting that God will start over with us. We can trust that He'll take the lives we've laid down and re-create them stronger, purer, brighter, more true than we ever could have been before. We emerge from our watery graves new, whole, clean.

That is another reason we gather every week: to share those stories. In singing, in hearing from the scriptures, in our conversations with one another, we hear more stories of how God is worthy of our trust, and we are able to encourage others to trust a little more. Because when we gather together, trust comes easier. We can hold up those who don't have enough trust to keep going, who the tides of life have worn down, who hear the voices from the outside screaming of their supposed madness. And together we bury our pride and our insecurities in the presence of God and are again reborn.

We are, after all, a Resurrection people.