Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Students here at Rockbridge have been practicing how to share the good news (gospel) by taking their peers through “proxe stations” which are simply interactive ways for people to experience both their need for Christ and the hope that He offers.
One student took someone through a station called Extreme Heart Makeover, which basically gives the chance for people to identify areas in their heart that, if given the chance, they would like remade – things like anger, pride, selfishness, etc. As the participant marked several heart areas that they wished were different, my student told them, in a nutshell, that the answer is for them to ask forgiveness, repent, and try harder to not do those things.
On hearing this, my firsts reaction was frustration, because “trying harder to not do bad things” is not really the heart of the good news. The gospel tells us that we are unable to do good, unable to remake our hearts, apart from Christ, and that God has freely given us the forgiveness to begin again and the power to walk in new ways as we trust His life in us. I cringe when people reduce following Jesus to “trying harder” or “doing better.”
But as we prayed for this student and I thought about the anger and the heaviness that I sensed in her, I realized that she must believe that her righteousness is based on her performance and that her fear of moral failure must mute her experience of the power and presence of God’s love for her.
And God brought to mind one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Psalm 199:32 – “I run in the paths of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” My prayer for her, and for myself, became a plea for God to lead us to an obedience that stems from an experience of His love and goodness. Running in His commands because of freedom, not in hope of attaining it.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
While it feels a little surreal to be here at Rockbridge, surrounded by college students and InterVarsity-focused ministry, my passion for college students and for the Gospel still burns, and I had the privilege of talking with one student for an hour or so today. He reminded me of myself when I was 22 – he longs to love Jesus above all things, is frustrated by recurring patterns of sin, and seems to believe that if he just tries hard enough, he can get the point of being good and acceptable to God. Worship is often not a joy for him but rather a tug of war between his wandering thoughts and his expectations of himself in that moment.
As I listened to him, I was thankful for his sincere desire to seek the Lord, but I was also tired for him, watching him work so hard to “get it right” for Jesus. Getting off of this treadmill of working hard is one of the joys of abiding in Christ. A strawberry plant doesn’t work and strain to make strawberries appear. You don’t hear peach trees screaming in the pains of childbirth as the fruit is formed on their limbs. Instead, the fruit simply comes as a course of nature as long as the branches stay connected to the vine. I can’t produce the fruit that I long for. I cannot make myself more patient or loving or peaceful. I cannot make people love Jesus. I can only abide in Christ, trusting Him to make good on His promise that if I abide in Him, I will bear much fruit – not produce much fruit but bear it - for the glory of the Gardener, the Father.
And so as I prayed for my new friend, I asked God to let him receive the life and love that Christ has for him and to rest in His finished, loving work. I believe in my heart that He will.
Monday, May 11, 2009
I am a branch.
This simple concept has been the most influential spiritual principle in my life for the past 10 years. In 1998 I was introduced to a book by Andrew Murray called "Abide in Christ", which contains 31 reflections on the parable of the vine from John 15. I have read this book almost once a year, and I continue to be refreshed, encouraged, and convicted by the freedom that comes from re-learning my position as one dependent on the life of God given through Christ.
The premise of Jesus’ parable is very simple – just as a branch is dependent on the vine for life and sustenance, so all people are designed to be dependent on God as our life in all things. And yet, like most of Jesus’ teachings, the simple becomes very profound if you consider its deeper implications.
It’s not just that I need Jesus for forgiveness of my sins. It’s not just that I need Jesus to help me when things get too hard. It’s not just that I need Jesus to understand hard passages in the Bible or to love prickly people. I need the life of God in every moment, and the degree to which I remember that truth and rely on Him is tied to the degree that I experience the power, joy, and peace that come with His presence.
It would be easy for someone like me to make this principle into a law, measuring constantly how well I am abiding or have been abiding, chastising myself for failing to abide. But that quickly becomes trusting myself or my ability to abide instead of trusting Christ. The truth is, I abide not because I am faithful or because I read a book or pray a prayer. I abide in Christ because of His work on my behalf, His life, death, and resurrection. Whether I am aware of my position in Him at all times is irrelevant to whether or not I am secure in Christ. But when I do pause to remember, in any moment, that I am in Christ and that He has given Himself completely to me, there is an awareness of grace in every moment and of a life that is deeper than my feelings or circumstances, and that brings great freedom.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Most of the time I am OK with who I am. I mean, I feel like I’m a good dad, learning to be a good pastor, and I have some good ideas about life and ministry. But sometimes when I am around people who are not like me, who think deeper thoughts and have more organized visions for life and ministry, I begin to wonder again if I have what it takes.
For example, the other week a local church told me about their new tutoring program that they were launching, complete with a leadership team of 12, a partnership with their neighborhood school, and a way to track the academic progress of their kids. I laughed and thought about how we started our program by handing out flyers at bust stops in my neighborhood, but behind that laugh was a sense of feeling like I didn’t do the program “right” or as well from the start. And even though our program currently has 50 kids and over 100 volunteers, a part of me still describes it internally as “rinky dink.”
Or riding up to an IV event recently, I was in the car with two extroverts, and I made a comment about needing time and pace to myself, and I realized, “I don’t want to be like that. I want to be the person who likes to be around people all the time.” Or sitting in a discussion with three friends who love to think deeply about theology, and thinking, “Man, the things I think about spiritually seem so simple.”
But my point in this post is not to whine about what I’m not or for people to tell me how great I am. It’s to address the lie that says who I am is not OK. The Lord has made me and gifted me to bring something to the table that others don’t and vice versa. Learning to abide in Christ, to trust Him as my life and my source frees me from having to be anything but who I am. Preoccupation with myself takes me away from preoccupation with Jesus, and for me, that is a quick road to a life that becomes all about me, which I have found to be no life at all.
Monday, May 04, 2009
But just like the Psalmist, we don't stop with suffering, but instead we move forward, remembering who God is. God is holy, and we worship. God is enthroned, and we worship. God has moved in the past and been faithful, and we trust.
We move on, praying on behalf of those who feel less than human, those who feel rejected and mocked, those who equate God's presence and favor with their performance, and we ask God to remind them of His presence, to reveal to them His constant love for them, even since birth.
We pray against fear, against enemies, against the lies of the evil one that attack and gore our faith. We pray against the things that feel to strong for us and those we know, and we ask that God reveal His goodness, that He bring us to a place of seeing that He has answered our cry in the cross of Christ and His resurrection.
And then we move to worship, instructing our soul in who God is: the God who listens and does not despise us in our suffering; the God who leads us into worship; the God whose name is sure; the God who satisfies the poor; the God who commands the worship of rich and poor alike; the God who will be worshipped by all the nations; the God who has done all that is needed to answer the suffering and brokenness of our world.
God doesn't always fix our suffering in the way that we want Him to. He doesn't always heal this side of heaven. He didn't spare His own son from suffering and death, and He doesn't always spare us. But the promise is that on the other side is life, life, and more life. Christ's suffering won life for the nations, for generations to come, and somehow in the midst of pain and struggle, the life of God continues to emerge, leading others to worship.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
She was a pitiful sight, sitting in her wheelchair just outside the hotel room – hair askew, left eye blackened from a punch three nights previous, wearing pajamas and no shoes. She’d been attacked in the camp where she lives, down by the railroad tracks, and now she was facing her last night at the hotel. I’d stopped by to bring her some clothes and food, trying to show her that I did care about her, even though I had no plan for how to help her. She had quickly left the transitional housing where we had placed her in March, and our church could not continue to pay for her hotel room. When I mentioned the possibility of going to a domestic violence shelter in a nearby city, she exploded. “I can’t go to another shelter situation! I’ve been out here in this chair for 10 years, getting murdered, and you want me to go to another shelter?!?”
She continued to yell at me. “What if I was your sister or your mom or your daughter? What would you do then!?”
“I’d bring them home to live with my family,” I thought, but I kept that to myself.
It seemed that what she really wanted me to do was find her an apartment and pay for it each month indefinitely, and I told her that I could not do that.
“It’s all about the money, isn’t it?” she continued. “Jesus didn’t care about money! Jesus cared about people! You can’t look at me in this situation and say you can’t do anything. You can’t be a Christian and leave me like this!” I told her goodbye and walked away, not sure what else I could say or why I should stay further.
My thoughts have been haunted by her in the days since. Should I have brought her home with me, moving my son into my daughters’ room to create a space for her? Didn’t the early Church grow because Christians would take in those that no one else loved or wanted? If anyone is the “least of these”, she is. The Lord has seemed strangely silent as I wrestled and worried, wondered and prayed. And sometimes I wonder if I’m cut out to follow Jesus in the hardest places of the world, because when I get there, I feel like I lack either the insight or the courage to act for transformation.
Friday, May 01, 2009
We can use this Psalm the same way that God's people have used it for centuries, praying its truths into our hearts and lives here and now. You might not be experiencing suffering right now in your life, but if you look at our world, I think you will agree that there are many people who, given their circumstances could very well wonder if God had abandoned them. We can pray the opening verses on their behalf, on behalf of the broken world. Those verses have been coursing through my heart and mind these past two weeks as I have looked around our city, watching the suffering of the homeless and of people in our church who have lost loved ones and who have lost jobs. Cancer continues to attack, death seems to be winning, and friends of mine are struggling to have hope and peace, struggling to engage God in the midst of pain.
Thursday of this week was a day that just pounded on my soul. Not for what was happening to me directly but for what was happening to people around me, near me, in my life. The day seemed marked by desperate situations, brokenness, confusion. It was cold and rainy, and the problems that kept coming in on my cell phone and to the door of the church were larger than I could fix and more painful than I could bear. And the question, "where are you, Lord?" seemed to repeat over and over in my head.
Whether you are going through the suffering or praying for someone else, we can cry out to God, asking where He is. As I studied this passage with some InterVarsity colleagues recently, one of my co-staff began to weep as she read the Psalm aloud, remembering the sufferings in her life and in the lives of those she loves.