5.21.2012

The In-Between Places

Here are just a few facts about me. I grew up as the oldest of four siblings in Kansas City, MO. I attended Central Bible College in Springfield, MO, where I met the love of my life. In our thirteen years together, we have walked through some very deep waters, but came out loving Jesus and each other more. We have one son, Evan, who turned two about two months ago. We believe him to be the answer to many, many prayers, and the fulfillment of God's promise to us for a son.
If I were to use two words that I think characterize my life, I think they would be authenticity and hope. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses"--the folks who have walked the ancient road long before us. But, some of these folks were less than perfect. Included among them are Abraham and Sarah, who both sought to bring about God's plan for their lives using their own resources and efforts. We also find Moses (Heb. 11:23), the man who murdered an Egyptian. Then there is Samson, who had a weakness for beautiful women that cost him the very presence of God in his life. The list goes onto include Rehab, a prostitute who had heard about the works of God and chose to believe him for her own life; Gideon, who was so frightened, he was found by the angel of the Lord hiding in a barrel; and finally, David, the adulterer and murderer.


The point here is that those who have walked the ancient road walked imperfectly; they exercised poor judgment, exhibited inexcusable behavior and were outright rebellious. Things aren't much different today. We all walk that road with areas of deep shame and brokenness; some of it because of our own poor choices and some of it because of the sins committed against us. I believe that for God's people to walk and live in freedom, there must be a level of authenticity about who we are and the hang ups in our lives that hold our hearts captive. Scripture reminds us that it is the truth that sets us free and that Jesus himself is Truth. So, Jesus and his work at the cross are the only things that will set us free, but first we must be honest about our desperate need for his work. The cross demands that we stand in truth, exchanging our shame and brokenness for the hope of Christ.


Scripture tells us that "hope deferred makes the heart sick" (Prov. 13:12). Living without hope is the antithesis of the cross. For one to live hopeless is to live without the power of the cross. This is where the community of faith comes in; we hold on to hope and believe God for those in our community who have been brave enough to confess their sin, but still feel the weight of shame and brokenness. We pledge to be a safe place; we take seriously our responsibility to hold one another accountable and up in prayer until the day comes (and it will come) that they are able to walk freely from the "stuff" that has had them entangled.


I believe with every fiber of my being that this nothing the work of the cross can't do, undo, fix, break, heal or restore. I believe that as men and women confess the things that hold them hostage, they will begin to experience freedom the comes only from standing in the shadow of the cross. I also believe that for this to happen, the body of Christ must express the same love that has been expressed to us in Christ to those who are broken and lost. We love them, pray for them, encourage them, and believe the God of the Bible to act on their behalf--noticeably and mightily.


So, when it comes down to it, the legacy I want to leave for those who will follow me are deeply loving those whom God has put in my life and holding fast to hope for those who are in the "in between" places.

1.13.2012

Tell the Truth


In all of our Evangelical rhetoric clamoring for morality and “holiness”, there seems to be one aspect in particular that tends to be ignored : the truth. By this I am not referring to the the claims of Christianity compared to those of Islam, Buddhism, or any other religious group. I am talking about speaking honestly about the vices that we struggle against in the secret places. While we rant and rave about politicians and Christian leaders whose personal failures are exposed and played out before the whole world in the media, we conveniently overlook (or hide) the skeletons hidden in the dark closets of our own lives.
For all of our protests against those who interpret Scripture as non-literal or question its authority, we seem all to eager to overlook those passages that call us to the same level of accountability we expect from others. When we look at passages such as James 5:13-19, we hail v. 16b which says, “…the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV), but all too conveniently disregard the rest of the passage. As it happens, in this particular section James urges believers to pray for a number of reasons: first, if they are in trouble; second, if they have joy; third, if they are sick in body, and finally for confession of sin and the restoration of those within the community of faith. Yet, for many Evangelical Christians it’s as if the exhortation to confess our sins isn’t even there. Alternatively, we are quick cast judgment and retaliate against those who openly reveal an ongoing battle with their own humanity. We demean them from our pulpits and in some cases, even dismiss them from leadership to make an example of them, saying to those in our congregations that sin is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. In many instances, we isolate and abandon those under our care during a time when we are most needed in an effort to send the message that God does not tolerate sin nor should we. While the intention might be to “glorify God,” our actions and attitudes do anything but when we inflict further harm on people by refusing them access to the cross and community.
James paints a very different picture of things ought to go. One definitely gets the sense that James recognizes the difficulties that arise when people come together to form a body of like values and faith by giving instruction on how to live and worship together in wisdom and peace. They are to value and esteem one another by not showing favoritism based on material possessions and to be humble and patient in their relationships with other members of the community. They also are to pray for and encourage one another to adhere to the truths that define them as Christ followers. James even goes so far as to tell his audience to “confess their sins” to each other, not for the purpose of separating sheep from the goats, but to restore all of those involved.
There is a part of me that wonders if we have missed James’ message, making the Church a place where confession carries with it the fear of redress and exile. I have to wonder would it look like if we extended grace to one another, making room for the lucid admission of personal shortcomings and the healing that accompanies it to flow freely? What might it look like if every member of the Body were honest about the battles we face, anticipating the prayers, encouragement and yes, even accountability of others in our circle of faith?
What if leaders and parishioners alike told the naked truth about their struggle with unbridled passions and allowed others to hold them accountable in the spirit of grace and mercy? We are all adulterers, idolaters, addicts, prone to gossip and gluttony. Every one of us has a human nature that wrestles with lust, hatred, anger and unforgiveness. How different might the Church look if we refused to isolate others who admit what is true of all of us: we’re all terrible, nasty sinners loved by God and saved by grace?
How would “church” look if, instead of putting a big red “A” on anyone that doesn’t look or act in a way we find appropriate, the church actually became a safe place to authentically and transparently follow Jesus without the fear of being shamed or rejected? What if we all admitted that every one of us has baggage and is in need of the the healing that comes with confession and including others in our struggle to overcome the things that entangle us? What if we stopped bashing and accusing gays, feminists, pro-lifers and anyone else we disagree with in the pulpit long enough to make known the mercy of Christ and the power of the Cross that is available to anyone who asks?
What if, even for a moment, we all just told the truth?

1.08.2010

A Call to Remember and Obey...

"After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who neither knew the Lord nor what he had done for Israel." Judges 2:10, NIV

This isn't the first time I've read this passage, but I suppose it's the dawn of motherhood that has given me cause for another look. This verse not only indicts an entire generation for not knowing Yahweh, but also seems to imply the previous generation fell short of their responsibility to instruct their children in the ways of the Lord (Dt. 4:9-14). Their children didn't know about Yahweh or his mighty deeds on behalf of Israel because (at least it would seem) they weren't told. Scripture goes on to describe the consequences of not knowing the Lord, saying,
Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the people around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Asheroths. In his anger against Israel, the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Judges 2:11-15
Now that's some serious stuff! Because of their godlessness, an entire generation provoked the Lord's anger, actually resulting in him working against them. But what's also striking to me is the thought that perhaps some of this could have been avoided if those who knew better did better. By that, I mean it occurs to me that if those parents and grandparents had fulfilled their obligation to tell of Yahweh's great deeds, could Israel have circumnavigated some of the disaster they faced? Could it be that the previous generation shared some of the responsibility for Israel's failure to remember Yahweh? One might think so. Now, not for one second am I saying that there isn't any individual responsibility for some of the decisions that ultimately led to the trouble Israel faced. There comes a time in a person's life when one must choose for himself the god(s) he will serve, however one must also not overlook the significance of influence and experience to make those decisions. In a crude manner of speaking, I suppose it could be described as providing the raw materials from which an individual is able to pull when making life choices. In Israel's case, those raw materials began with knowing Yahweh and all he had done for their forefathers.

As we await Evan's arrival in a few short months, I can't help but stop and reflect. One day Evan grow up and be responsible for making his own good choices, but until that time, we have been given the responsibility of remembering Yahweh and observing His commands as a means of providing Evan with the raw materials to do the right thing when the time comes. We are charged with not forgetting what our eyes have seen and to teach these things to our children so that they might not be a generation who provokes the Lord's anger. To avoid this makes us complicit in the needless disaster the will inevitably find them. My prayer is not only that Evan will become a man who is wholeheartedly committed to the ways of the Lord, but also that God would enable us as his parents to provide him with the raw materials to become just such a man.

12.15.2009

Affirmations

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from a very good friend faced with making some difficult decisions. As she shared the details with me, she ended by recounting a recent conversation she had with the Holy Spirit. While seeking direction for her life, she was taken back to Jeremiah 29:11, "...for I know the plans I have for you...to prosper you and not to harm you...to give you a hope and a future..." She took solace in the understanding that God was a step ahead of her weaving together the details of her life; somehow this thought brought a renewed sense of comfort and hope. In all honesty, as I read the e-mail the first time I found myself sighing, inwardly shuttering at the cliche thought that "God was in control and in the end all will be well." In fact, I withheld my response to avoid interrupting the apparent work of the Holy Spirit in her life. What I didn't count on was the work of the Holy Spirit in my own life that morning.


For the better part of two years now I have wrestled with the concept of a God who loves and predestines, but still allows terrible, hurtful things to happen in our lives. The sovereignty of God has offered absolutely no comfort, but instead has only complicated matters. Before you offer some cliche response, let me say that I understand "free will" and "he works everything together for the good of those who love Him...", yet daily I returned to the same questions, "Where where you?" "How could you?" "How can I ever trust you again?" And, each day ended the same as the one before: silent. Maybe it's because I wasn't listening or looking in the right places for the answers to my questions. Maybe it's because I was so angry at God that nothing He had to say satisfied me. But, the list of angry accusations seemed only to grow longer as time passed. Perhaps most difficult was now the "safe" place I had known all of my life no longer seemed "safe"--at least as I saw things.


Yet, as I returned to the prophet Jeremiah's words, penned during a time of deep personal and national tragedy, I too sensed the prompting of the Holy Spirit to consider his message. Unlike my friend, it wasn't the thought of God's personal involvement in the details of my life that brought comfort. Instead, I became aware of God's good intentions toward me. Probably much like Jeremiah and the deportees in Babylon, I couldn't help but question God's motives and His intentions for all that had been happening in my life. Everywhere I looked things challenged what I understood to be true about Him. Things that were once clear now seemed hazy and nothing was making sense. Again, maybe it's because I wasn't listening or looking in the right places, but nonetheless hopelessness and despair were becoming my constant companions.


But there was something compelling about Jeremiah's message. It was while witnessing one of the greatest tragedies of his nation's time that the prophet was able to hear the heart of his God for His people. It wasn't to leave them in absolute desolation as it may have appeared on the surface. Nor was it to abandon them in the land of their enemies. It's true that they were in Babylon as judgment, but it was never God's intention to bring harm to them. Instead, His plan was to restore His people to true relationship with Himself. Doing this was a painful process. It required the dismantling of false theologies and the dethroning of false gods, but this was all done with the anticipation of His people being all He had called them to be--unashamedly His. (It's no wonder they called Jeremiah the "Weeping Prophet." Part of me wonders if he wept as he wrote these words to the people of his time. I can't held but wonder if he was overcome with a sense of awe at the mercy of God and the very fact that this wasn't the end of the road for his people.)


As I considered Jeremiah and his words, I sensed the Holy Spirit reminding me that while at times things seemed to the contrary, God's motive has never been to destroy me. His intentions have never been anything more than dethroning the false gods and silencing the voices of the so-called prophets so that I could see him more clearly. It hasn't been about "using me for His glory" or "shaping character", although I certainly believe those are both valid outcomes from His work in my life. It has always been about making me unashamedly His. Does that mean I believe He is the author of all that has transpired in my life? No. Does that mean I have an answer as to why things have transpired as they have? No. Does the betrayal and disappointment make any more sense today than it did they day they happened? No. Do some of those deep places ache any less? Not really. Yet, "I call this to mind and therefore I have hope"... Just as He was ever-present in Babylon, He has been ever-present in my dark places. Just as His intentions were good toward His people in Babylon so many years ago, His intentions toward me are good today. He isn't my enemy, lurking around dark corners, waiting to ambush me when I least expect it. His motive isn't to exploit my weakness or to leave me collapsed under the strength of His hand. Instead, He is the One who has seen my trouble and grief (Ps. 9:14) and has come to break the arm of the Wicked One. He hasn't ignored my cry (Ps. 9:17); instead He has offered me His strong right hand for encouragement. He has not left me abandoned as a child without a father. No, He is the Defender of the Fatherless and Oppressed. He has not stood far off, hiding himself in times of trouble; the Lord is King and the nations will perish from His land. The hope for my future lies in the truth that He has come to end the reign of terror (Ps. 9:18) that has made me a captive of Fear, Anger, Despair and Disappointment.


Today, I'm not sure I'll ever have the answers to all of my questions or even solve the great mystery surrounding God's sovereignty. But, what I can do is find comfort in knowing that He has not come to leave me broken, but to "give me hope and a future."