Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sin at work in me

I am reading a book called The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church by Andrew Farley, and it has been amazing (I first got it free as an ebook and have now ordered it as a real book). I love any books that remind me of the exchanged life message, that remind me that my life is hidden in Christ, that remind me that I am not identified by my failures or successes but in Christ alone, and this one does it very well.

One thing that really stood out to me afresh was his development of Romans 7:14-20, in which Paul says that there is a foreign agent/power at work in me (and you) called sin, which is waging war against the life of Christ in us. This is different from a sin act or sinful things that we have done. And so Paul says, "Now if I do what I don't want to do, it is no longer I who do it, bt it is sin living in me that does it." Sin is in me, but it is not me. And so when thoughts and feelings come to mind that are contrary to the Lord's will, I usually feel like I have completely blown it, that I am destined to always fail and let the Lord down. The reason I feel this is that the thoughts and feelings sound and feel like me. For example, today during church I was thinking on the goodness of God's grace, the refreshment of the Gospel, and then out of nowhere came fearful thoughts about the guy from last Wed night, and then the shame of not trusting God as my refuge. I didn't want to have those thoughts. They just came, but they sounded like me - that was sin at work in me, trying to distract me from dependence on God and His love.

But Scripture is clear that I have died with Christ, and that I have been recreated with His life and His Spirit. And so I agree with Paul in Romans 7:20 that when I don't do the good that I want to do, it is not I but sin at work in me. And it is freeing to know that in my heart of hearts, in my truest place, I do not desire sin. My spirit agrees with Christ and loves all that is holy, right, and good. Because the temptations of sin sound and feel like they come from me, it sometimes feels like saying no to sin is saying no to myself. But as the author says, "As God's workmanship, our regenerated selves are not the problem. Sin is the problem, and our calling as new creations in Christ is to say no to sin and to say yes to who we really are."

So do I still sin? Of course. But I am realizing that the temptations and thoughts do not have to hold sway. They do not have to be obeyed or bowed down to. Instead, I can call them out for the lies that they are, no matter how real they feel, and I am free to live in my standing as a holy and righteous son of God, not based on my own works but on the life of Christ given to me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I Just Wanted to Preach It, Not Believe It!

Last week at our dinner for the community I preached on Psalm 46, which begins, "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea." That psalm had really been working in my heart that week as I had wrestled internally with questions of calling and direction, especially, "Be still and know that I am God."

As I preached, a woman who is a regular at the meal walked to the front and stood just below me, coughing a strange, disruptive cough. It wasn't a cough where she was sick - it was very intentional, and someone in the crowd said, "That's a demon." Not knowing what to do and lacking proper intercessory backup, I stopped and prayed quietly, and then finished up. That certainly rattled me.

Then a group of people showed up late for the dinner (we shut the doors at 6:20) and wanted to eat, and we usually don't serve those who come late. Among the group was a guy who has been fairly beligerent in recent weeks due to his involvement in a religion that is very anti-white (not Nation of Islam) and who thinks that our preaching each week is full of lies. As I foolishly engaged him in a small "discussion" of his theology, I was more and more frustrated, and finally I told him that in order to come and eat at the dinner, he needed to stop leading "Bible studies" at his table while the speaker up front was preaching. This didn't sit well with him, and as I walked off he said angrily, "That's OK, because your day is coming. Your day is coming." That shook me more.

Regular readers know that one of my biggest struggles in life is fear, and that fear often overwhelms and even cripples me. That was the case that night as I struggled to think about anything except what he meant by that threat and how he might carry it out. I called a good friend to talk, and when he heard what I had preached on that night he said, "Remember when Jesus was taken to the desert to be tempted? The first thing that Satan attacked was the word that Jesus had just received from the Father. God had just told Jesus that He was His beloved son, and Satan attacks with, 'If you are the Son of God.'" He reminded me that I had just preached on God being a present help in trouble and in the face of fear, and I had been attacked both during the preaching a just after it as well.

Psalm 46 is a great Psalm and there are times when I feel like things in my soul are crashing all around like the mountains, and I need to hear that God is in control. But for me and many of my friends in the church, it's not often that we are really afraid in a physical sense. We have fences and alarm systems and safe neighborhoods and we don't take many risks, if we are honest (and just because I live in Glenwood doesn't mean that I exclude myself from this statement). Moving Psalm 46 from a nice message for "those people" who are on the streets and facing danger all the time into the realm of my own personal, lived theology is harder than I thought. Do I really believe God is my help and my refuge? Am I willing to be still and know that He is God when my mind is racing with worry and irrational fear? I found myself praying Psalm 46 all day Thursday, calling my soul to believe the truth. I'd much rather get to test and live out messages about grace and mercy and hope than messages about trusting God as my shield and safety. But He knew that my night was going to go that way and this is a part of His process of maturing me, growing me in dependence on Christ for the glory of God. Cooperating might be hard, but it is good.

Freedom and the law

My friend Jenny has been asking some good questions of the Lord regarding the Law and the Spirit and recently in her blog she put some of them out there:

What exactly does Paul mean when he talks about sin "seizing an opportunity through the commandment" yet "the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good?" And isn't it possible to serve God with both the mind and body, rather than, as Paul states, "I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin?" Does the law refer to teh Old Testament or to legalism? Or both? And if Jesus is the fulfillment not the abolishment of the law, then what does that mean for me in regards to being free from the law?

I took some time today to think through these questions and here are my answers (and boy did they refresh my soul!)
When you said "isn't it possible to serve God with my mind and my body" I think you were referring to Paul saying "with my flesh I serve the law of sin" - flesh here does not mean literal flesh or body. Instead, flesh is our way of making life work independent of God. The flesh is any way of meeting our needs for love, acceptance, righteousness, peace apart from Jesus. So this can look like being the "good Christian" who always does what is right or it can look like being the party person who "eats, drinks, and is merry for tomorrow we die." The NIV usually translates "flesh" as "sinful nature", but that is a poor translation because it implies that we have a good nature and a sin nature battling out. No, we have on nature, Christ's. The flesh is our old way of making life work.

When Paul says the law (lowercase), he is referring to the Old Testament Law, both the Ten Commandments and then all of the other regulations that God added, and then also the regulations that men added in order to help them keep the God regulations. Legalism is a system by which we try to earn, obtain, or maintain right standing before God by our own efforts and ability to "do the right thing." It is self-righteousness, which is opposed to God, because God calls us to live only in Christ's righteousness. There is no one righteous, not even one, except Christ.

When Paul talks about the law seizing the opportunity in Romans 7, he is saying that the law did what it was and is designed to do - to put us to death and reveal our bankruptcy of soul apart from God in Christ. The commandment is good - it is a good thing to not covet (ref: Romans 7:7). Coveting leads to all manner of sin. The problem is not the law - it is holy and righteous and good. But the law can never make us righteous. It can only reveal the sin in our heart, and what the law really is designed to do is to lead us to Christ. Paul calls the law a tutor, which guides and holds our hand to point us to Jesus. Galatians 3:19-25 speaks to this - in fact, Paul asks the very same question that you ask, "What then is the purpose of the law?" Paul is asking this rhetorical question because he has just established that righteousness is given freely, not through the law. The answer to "what is the purpose of the law" is that the law was given to lead us to Christ. In fact, in Galatians 2:19 he says that through the law I died to the law (also see Romans 7:4)! (The whole letter to the Galatians was written because people in that church were being tempted to keep the law instead of living by the Spirit. Galatians would be a great book for you to read in this discussion.)

1 Corinthians 15:56 reveals clearly that the law can never help us defeat sin. Our tendency in the flesh when we struggle with sin is to try and set up laws and boundaries to make sure we don't do that again. But this verse says that the law actually empowers sin! Sin in us rises up and says, "Oh yes I can; you're not the boss of me!" It's like when you tell a kid not to look in the closet because there is a present hidden there - it's all they can DO to not, because the law entices their desires.

Jesus fulfilled the law because you and I never could. He put an end to the law through his life, death and resurrection - He obeyed the law perfectly, not just by the letter but by the intent behind it. He paid the price for breaking the law, which is death. And He rose that we might have a new way of life and righteousness -the Holy Spirit of God.

You are completely free from the law, because you have died to it. You no longer have to tithe, to observe the Sabbath, feed the poor, worry about whether your clothes are a cotton-poly mix, wear a head-covering, avoid pork, fast, sell all your possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus obliterated the law and replaced it with the Spirit. Now if you give, it's when and as the Spirit leads. If you feed the poor, it's when and as Christ in you leads. If you rest/Sabbath it's as a response to God.

Free from the law means free from the law - radically, completely free. Free to do whatever you want, even if it is sinful, actually (I mean, does free mean free or not?). But Christ in you is not sinful, and living more and more dependent on Him will lead you to live freely in holiness and righteousness, living out of your true identity. Romans chapter 6:15-18 talks about how we are now dead to sin (and to the law), and how our response to this is not to go and sin all the more but to rejoice and walk with Christ, letting Him lead us in loving righteousness.

We don't like living by the Spirit because it takes us out of the driver seat. We can't be in control and we can't measure our success in keeping the rules. The law will always be attractive to our flesh. (Derek Webb has two great songs about this -" A New Law" and "The Spirit vs the Kickdrum." Check them out on iTunes.)

Thoughts anyone? I'm getting free just typing this!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What a Life

Last week when I woke up on my birthday, I lay in bed for a few minutes, thankful for another year of life. And as I thought back over all I have been given, all I have done, I couldn't help but be extremely grateful to the Lord. I've been to 9 countries on 3 continents; seen the Tar Heels in four Final Fours; traveled to many awesome cities in the US (San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, San Antonion, New Orleans, Indianoplois, New York City); my three children are all healthy, loving, and beautiful; God has graced me with a wife who is kind, beautiful, and who has become my best friend over the course of our nine years together; I have friends near and far who genuinely care about me, asking me great questions about my journey with Christ and who help me to see myself in a less-critical light; I've been on a tremendous journey with Christ, learning more and more about His love and grace and how fully He has called me His own; wonderful parents and step-parents who have loved me from day one and who continue to encourage and support me; beautiful and kind sisters; an amazing in-law family; a wonderful ministry support team, some members who have given towards our IV support every month for 12 years; many trips to the Dean Dome and Kenan Stadium; a healthy body and strong mind; the chance to serve God as my vocation; transformation of sufferings, sin, and hardships into signs of God's goodness and faithfulness. It has been a wonderful life, and Lord willing, I'm just getting started. What a gift.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Celebrating the fruit of faithfulness

Six years ago we went from bus stop to bus stop, inviting kids to come to tutoring at Grace Community Church. I set up at the church and waited with two college students who were going to be our tutors, and no one came. Dejected, I went home, and as I was getting out of the car, three children came walking up the hill, an hour late but headed to tutoring all the same. We soon realized that our church was a bit too far for the kids to walk, and so tutoring moved to our living room, and we hosted a handful of children and a couple of college students each Monday to do homework.

Today, I will pull out of the Grace Community Church parking lot in a school bus bought for the tutoring program, and I will pick up 41 of the 52 children enrolled in our program, children who now come two days a week for homework helps and reading enrichment. Waiting on those 52 children each day will be 52 tutors, three Room Moms, several childcare workers (to watch the children of parents who tutor), and a full-time tutoring program director. They will spend half an hour playing on a donated basketball court, laughing and running and jumping, and an hour working with their very own tutor, and for some of them, it will be the second, third, or fourth year with the same tutor. We will have two high school seniors aiming for college, and over 20 middle schoolers. Over 30 young girls will stay after tutoring on Mondays for dance class, and it's possible that in the spring, we will offer our program on Wednesday with an arts enrichment focus, giving the young men something to do as well.

This is nothing short of the grace of God. God's grace to sustain Diane and Melissa and John and me during our first overwhelmed and clueless years. God's grace to provide Regin and her gift of infrastructure, and His grace to provide Suzanne and her gifts of creative education and passion for the kids. God's grace to provide salary for Suzanne, funds for the bus, snacks each week for each child. God's grace and love for these children to send hundreds of volunteers to them. God's grace to give us favor at UNCG, NC A&T, and Bennett College, connecting us with eager and gifted college students, including more and more African-American students. God's grace to provide adult tutors willing to take off of work early, to lug their young kids to Grace, to give of their free time. Amazing. And we have only begun to get good at what we do. Here's to a wonderful year this year.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Soul Weariness and Relearning Ministry, Part 3

When I was being introduced as the new Director of Outreach at our church, one of the pastors told the leaders of the church that he believed I was the person to take outreach ministry at our church to the next level. What he meant was that God was going to use me to do new things in outreach. What I heard was that I was going to produce lots of things for God in the area of outreach. And so I quickly relaunched one ministry and began pressuring myself to see transformation come at a more rapid rate in another. I thought that "next level" meant bigger and better. Now I am reevaluating, and I wonder if I even know what the next level looks like. I thought I had drawn a bead on the next level, that I knew what everyone needed. Now I'm waiting and seeing, unsure of myself.

I think what I really want is to not feel tired inside anymore. But I don't think getting rid of my weariness is best. Tiredness of soul is leading me to new places. It's forcing me to learn patience and to embrace the teaching of Christ when He compared the Kingdom of God to a seed. A seed is small. It's life begins beneath the surface. Nothing that the farmer does can make the seed grow. Often it seems like nothing is happening. But in time, life appears, pushing its way up through the soil. And then there is still more time before fruit appears, and still more time for the fruit to ripen, and how any of these things happen are really a wonderful mystery. And in order for a seed to bring life, it has to first fall to the ground. I think that something in me is dying, and in God's time, the seed that is falling is going to grow into something new.

I want to take Jesus as His word, rephrased so wonderfully in The Message: 28-30"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." *Matthew 11:28-30

Living freely and lightly in the unforced rythms of grace sounds great to me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Soul Weariness and Relearning Ministry, Part 2

I don't really know how I got to this place of soul weariness, but I don't think it is a bad place to be. I think that it is time for me to relearn and rethink what it means to be a minister, what it means to care for others. I think that it is time for me to listen more and speak less, to have more questions than I do answers.

But it feels like going 65 miles an hour and then throwing the car into reverse. It's opposite of my flesh, of how I have formed my identity in the Christian world. I want to be busy and important, and there is a perverse pride that comes with having too much on my plate. I relish being competent and avoid looking clueless at all costs. I look at some of my cohorts in ministry, at how packed their schedule is, full of events and people, and I find a desire to measure up to their standard welling up. But right now my soul can't put that desire into action. That's a good thing. I am in season of quiet and study, of waiting and relearning.

Last week I was at UNCG prayer-walking with two IV colleagues, and as we prayed, I kept thinking, "Maybe we should talk to this person or that person. Maybe we need to stop praying and start asking people what they think about the Lord. Maybe we need to stop praying and do something." But the Lord had led me to Psalm 40 before our walk began, and God began reminding me of the first verse - "I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry." And as I began to feel the urge to do something God told me to wait. He told me that if I needed to walk and pray the campus for a year, that would be enough. He told me that when He wanted me to do something, He would make it clear and that He would be the one to lead, guide, and initiate. My job was to wait and seek His face.

As I talked about this with a friend recently, he asked me why I so often felt compelled to make things happen, and I told him that sometimes I felt like if I didn't do something, who would, that I felt as though the Lord was asleep at the wheel sometimes. Now I know that most of you would never think something like that, and I certainly would not say that aloud, but my "lived theology" reflects that I think the world is gone to pot and it's up to me to fix it, with or without God's help. I know - arrogant.

And so I am learning to listen. I am learning to say no and to trust that I am no one's last hope. Right now I say no mostly because I am tired, but I find that as I say no, the needs are still being met. The Lord is showing me that He is the one who provides and saves, and as I listen to Him, I may be lucky enough to be part of His means sometimes.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Soul Weariness and Relearning Ministry, Part 1

Ever since GUPY ended I have been keenly aware of a weariness of soul that is not going away quickly. I'm used to being tired after a full summer, but usually have bounced back by now, and I feel that I am in a strange season right now. My job description has me in positions to regularly work with and care for the poor, but my heart wants little to do with the poor right now. I find myself saying no to most every request that comes my way, and I find myself cringing when I see someone in need sitting at the church. In the past my first reaction would be to try and help them (maybe fix them is a better phrase), but now I want to avoid them. With my spiritual tank empty and my physical tank slowly refilling, I have no desire to fix anyone and right now I don't believe very strongly that I could. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because there is no real power in me to fix anyone.

Part of me fears that my recent apathy towards the poor, even a disdain for the poor, has been lurking in my heart all along but I have simply been able to cover it up with conviction and energy and religion. When the tank is empty, when you can't fake it anymore, is what you find at the bottom of the barrel what was really there all along?

Another part of me feels like I am having to relearn what ministry is all about; not just ministry to the poor but ministry to anyone. For so long, I have equated ministry with fixing. How could I love someone if I didn't try to fix whatever it was that seemed to be wrong with them? It seemed unloving to simply listen, pray, and then leave them in the same state that I found them in. I think about one of our Wed night guests who is homeless. Each week they have the same prayer request for a job, shelter, good friends, President Obama, and world peace. There is only one part of that prayer request that I can affect right now - I could be his friend. But because I can't help with the job or shelter (or world peace), I shy away from this man.

Diane and I recently watched The Soloist, and near the end is a poignant scene where the reporter, who has been trying to fix the life of a homeless man for months, is told by his ex-wife to stop trying to fix the man and simply be his friend. I saw myself in that reporter, and I saw the great freedom that his ex-wife's advice offered. Freedom from fixing, freedom to simply love.

I wonder how firmly I really believe that God is the one who heals, fixes, brings growth? In my Stephen Ministry class, we have learned that we are the care-givers and that God alone is the cure-giver. My soul is so worn out from trying to cure that I am willing to let God take a crack at it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Who's the Nerd?

Today I was talking with some friends and was sharing about how many of my friends were nerds (note: a nerd is someone who is smarter than me and can run theological circles around me). Then I proceeded to tell them a dream I had the other night.

I had just finished a book called North or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson, which is a fantastic story about 3 young kids who have discovered that they are heirs to a long lost kingdom and are being chased by the evil leaders of their world. It is a non-stop adventure, and I highly recommend it (after you read the first story in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which you can find at your local library). I read the book in two days, reading late into the night, and so it was fresh on my mind as I went to sleep. In my dream, I was talking with NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd, and we discovered a secret scroll. Suddenly, the powers of darkness discovered we had the scroll and came to get it back. So Ricky jumped into his stock car and sped off, chased by the minions of darkness.

Upon hearing THAT story, my friends looked at me and said, "Who's the nerd?" Touche. (Side note: I have NASCAR dreams every few months or so, usually either involving me driving in a race or hanging out with Dale Earnhardt, Jr).