Category: Christian Life


From the Mouths of… Puppets?

I was talking with God this evening about sin and reconciliation, and He ended the discussion in a surprising way, which He often does. Sometimes, conversations with God can be funny, hilarious even, and sometimes they can be convicting. This one should have been the former, but it was definitely the latter. So here follows our conversation, as best I can transcribe.

“Lord, I know you’ve removed my sin from me. You’ve taken it, and I don’t have to bear that weight. But sometimes, it’s really hard to feel that way.”

“I know. It’s true though. They’re as far from you as the East is from the West–from one scarred hand to the other [a la Casting Crowns].”

“I still don’t know how You can use a failure like me.”

“You’re not a failure; you’ve simply failed some times. It happens; look at Peter.”

“Yeah, but he only had three years with You before that, and he didn’t even have the Spirit at that point. I’ve been with You longer than I can remember.”

“Peter was in my presence almost constantly for those three years. He talked with me, walked with me, and ate with me. Yet he still denied that he even knew me.”

“And You still brought him back.”

“That’s grace. And look what he accomplished after that.”

“Yeah, but, God, I don’t think I’m cut out for the kind of huge impact Peter had. I don’t think I can do those kinds of things.”

[Immediately, I heard Yoda’s voice in my head:] “That is why you fail.”

The conversation ended there, and I was left stunned, with a feeling of awe that God really can speak to us through anything. When the Lord of the Universe is speaking to you through a two-foot-tall green puppet, it’s pretty convicting. There’s a feeling of “If you won’t listen to my Word, I’ll still get through to you.” And somehow, knowing that it’s really His voice and not that of Frank Oz lends a bit more gravitas to Yoda’s words.

Now, if God starts beginning conversations with, “Hi-ho,” I’ll know I’m in trouble.

Be Strong and Courageous

I haven’t written much here lately. Partly, that’s because (in real life) I’m a very introverted person, and I’m currently directing a play (the Broadway musical “Annie,” opening December 2), which uses up most of my people-interaction quota every week. Partly, it’s because my job situation has been pretty uncertain, and between getting work done for the start-up publishing company (where paychecks are inconsistent) and looking for a job (to find consistent paychecks), I haven’t had a lot of time for writing. What time I have had for writing has been taken up by the book I’ve been hoping to have out by Christmas, which is looking more and more unlikely. And then there’s the fact that everything I’ve been wanting to write here has been basically the same: what God has been teaching me.

While I know that the lessons He teaches me aren’t necessarily (or ever) for my sole benefit, they aren’t always useful for others. And since I keep having to relearn the same lesson, I think it might get boring for readers having to reread the same message. I know I sure get bored learning it over and over—you’d think I would stop making the same mistakes!

So what have I been learning? Well, there have been many, many lessons on perseverence, which, in case you didn’t know, is only developed in trials. As a godly friend said to me, “It’s never real unless there are tears.” Yes, I have cried quite a bit over the last year. There have also been an awful lot of lessons on… wait for it… patience. You know, when you’re looking at the bank account and wondering when that promised paycheck is going to arrive, it’s not all that comforting to read 2 Peter’s “we know that with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Okay, that’s referring to His patience in waiting for sinners to repent, but context isn’t comforting at those times, either.

Another thing I’ve learned: one of the downsides of having faith is that sometimes I really want to doubt. You can’t imagine (or maybe you can, if you’ve experienced this) how annoying it is sometimes to have practically no idea how things can possibly work out, and yet still be confident that they will. Can you believe that I’ve actually wanted to worry? Sure, there have been plenty of times when I have worried, but there have been quite a few when I’ve found myself unable to.

Today, though, was a different story. Although I struggled to get out of bed, I went to my Diehards Bible study at 5 a.m.—there were only three of us today; we must be the Die-really-hards. During the study, I referenced Matthew chapter 6, where Jesus is telling us not to worry. The anti-worry message wasn’t my point, but I still read it. Then, immediately after the study, I got into my car to head home. On the way home, what did I do, but start worrying—and about food and clothes, the very things Jesus mentions!

Now, what’s been really amusing over the last few months is how God has encouraged me every day. He uses little things: a song lyric stuck in my head at the opportune moment, a prophetic word from a friend, a smile from my wife, a dog barking. Today, He used a potato.

I must admit, our larder is pretty bare these days. We’ve learned to survive and be content with very little, so very little is what we have. I mean, after the three-week fructose fast last month (we were actually sabotaged halway through the third week), I now get a ridiculous amount of joy by simply eating a tomato. But today, I was craving something starchy to go with eggs, and all our bread had decked itself out for Christmas yesterday (though green and white mold isn’t actually all that festive). So I was actually getting depressed about breakfast. But God turned on the light in my head, and I suddenly remembered the potatoes in the pantry. Fried potatoes and eggs, oh joy! Like I said, little things.

Then I got a one-sentence email from a friend who is one of my actors, saying that last night’s rehearsal was good and thanking me for the hard work on the show. It’s incredible how much that one sentence meant to me. It seems my friend is following God’s pattern. The little things mean a lot.

 

And that brings me to the point I really wanted to make today.

What is encouragement? We often use it to mean helping someone to feel better or cheer up. But that isn’t what it means at all. Encourage uses the same prefix morpheme as embolden, enshrine, or enamor. The morpheme en- or em- means to put into, to cause to be, or to provide with. You could even say to inspire. Thus, encouragement is the act of inspiring courage.

So when I say that God has encouraged me, I don’t mean that I was sad and He made me happy. I mean that I was losing the battle, and He gave me courage to keep fighting.

We all fight battles every day. They might be physical, emotional, or spiritual. They might be at home, at work, at school, or in our minds. We battle against our sinful nature, spiritual forces of evil (believe me, there is a real devil), and the corruption of the world. And, though other people are not truly our enemies, it can certainly seem like we battle against them too.

So let me encourage you today. Whatever battle you are fighting, you CAN win. Keep in mind, though, that you will need reinforcements; that’s why God gives us His Holy Spirit and the people around us.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. —Joshua 1:9

Life in a Jobs-less World

What worth is there in one man’s life? Does each person’s life matter equally? What is the measure with which each life is weighed? Such questions are inevitable whenever an icon passes away. And while we Christians believe we know the answers, we don’t always act like we believe those answers.

Steve Jobs died yesterday, and the world mourns for him. His name was known far and wide, high and low. His contributions in the worlds of technology and business–specifically, the way he made technology fashionable–will never be matched. Before Steve Jobs, computer nerds

Yet, after all is said and done, he was still just a man. His end was the same as the end will be for the rest of us. So why should there be more mourning for his passing than for the little boy who just starved in Uganda? Or for the woman who just died of disease in India?wore pocket protectors, carried bulky calculators, and spoke a dialect of English so incomprehensible it might as well have been Khamkura. After Jobs, they wear designer blue jeans, carry sleek iPhones, and set the standards of verbal communication. You might say that because of Jobs, it’s now hip to be square.

I guess a friend of mine said it best on facebook yesterday, when he posted about his grandmother’s passing: “I just found out my grandma died this morning. Rest in peace… You will be missed.” Then, an hour later, he commented, “I guess Steve Jobs also died today. But I doubt his tamales were as good as grandma’s.”

Each life is valuable and should be cherished. One makes great contributions to the world of technology. Another makes great tamales for her grandchildren. Both matter equally.

So as we all remember an iconic and influential man, let’s also remember those whose only influence was on the lives of their children, or those who never had a chance to influence anyone at all.

Why Do You Serve?

I received an email from my church today, and I assume everyone else who serves in any ministry and holds a valid email address did as well. It was a generic thank-you-for-serving message with an additional request. The church is holding its annual ministry fair this weekend, and they are apparently putting together a multimedia presentation that will include quotes from members. So this email asked for a one- or two-sentence response to the question “Why do you serve?”

Well, if you know me, you know I’m slow of speech and fast of finger–I am not of many words when speaking, but I find it very difficult to avoid being longwinded when writing. Two sentences wouldn’t have been nearly enough. So here’s my response to the question.

It’s the wrong question. The real question is, “Why don’t I serve more?” I mean, there are so many needs to be met in the church. There are always holes in the tech department, nursery, children’s ministry, facilities, you name it! In fact, I sometimes feels like the only places where I serve are the ones that don’t really need me. There are plenty of bass players (more skilled than I) to fill the worship team schedule, lots of people audition for Christmas Dessert Theatre every year, the choir would still be strong without me. (I do assuage my conscience by serving in children’s ministry.) I know that some people appreciate me serving where I do, but it sometimes feels like there is more need in other places.

Shouldn’t everybody? After all, the Bible is pretty clear that Christians are supposed to be serving. Over and over, we are told that the greatest shall be the servant of all; that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works; that our leaders prepare us for works of service to build up the Body; that faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows. Philippians 2 is one of my favorites: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who… made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…”

I am grateful. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: we show our gratitude for living by living rightly (“by not being Oscar Wilde”). God has given me so much, especially through this church, and I am more grateful than I can say. So if I can’t say it, I might as well try to show it. If I’ve received a blessing, I should strive to multiply that blessing to other people. You know, we only truly love God when we love people.

You may be thinking, But I serve in other places! The Bible doesn’t limit us to serving only in the church. It’s true, and good for you for serving people outside the church! But we are called to serve within it.

So what do you think? Where are you serving, and how would you answer the question?

Let the Redeemed Say So

Our pastor preached on Hebrews 10 last weekend, highlighting the holiness of God and the importance of getting rid of habitual sin.  This was a message I’d been longing for, as you can tell by some of my past posts.  I started writing him an email to thank him for preaching it, and the following is what came out:

Thank you so much for preaching that message last weekend!

That “spiritual steak and potatoes” was exactly what I’ve been craving for months.  Even as I felt the atmosphere in the room get heavier, I found it hard not to smile.  Inside, I was jumping up and shouting, “Yes! Preach it!” (It crossed my mind to actually do that in the service, but I didn’t think people would quite understand.)  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone preach about the majesty and holiness of God, and I think many (especially American) churches have lost the reverence and holy fear that those qualities require of us.  I feel we shy away from those attributes because we’re afraid (with the bad kind of fear).  We fear to think of how God truly sees us, so we have to keep preaching on His love, mercy, and grace.  Don’t get me wrong–those attributes are essential, and I am SO grateful for them.  But we tend to lose sight of God’s holiness, justice, and power.

Like I said, I think we’re afraid of how God really sees us.  And I think that stems from an improper view of ourselves.  We are constantly taught that we are “sinners saved by grace.”  And that is true, to an extent; that is not all that we are.  The most awesome thing about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is that by His actions, we are redeemed.  God doesn’t stop with forgiveness.  He redeems us and sanctifies us.  He became sin for us–He took all of our sin.  Once we’ve been cleansed by His blood, He no longer looks at our past sins; He has removed them as far as the east is from the west.

Once we have accepted His forgiveness and His transforming power, He no longer sees us as sinners.  He calls us saints and His children.  And that is what He calls us to be.  The whole reason He can call us to be holy is that He has removed our sin, which means we don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) carry it around anymore.  As a friend of mine says, “When you’re climbing a mountain, you don’t look back except to see how far you’ve come.”  God says to us–and this is the whole point of Hebrews 10–“I have transformed you.  Start acting like it.”

The Fear of God

You can find the same link on my Twitter feed via @Image_Journal, but since it gets updated far more often than this blog, here’s the link again: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-02/expect-whirlwind

It’s an amazing article on the same feelings I’ve been struggling with.  Have we lost the fear of God in our worship?

I find it significant that all the newer versions of “O Worship the King” have changed the lyrics.

O worship the King,

All glorious above,

And gratefully sing

His wonderful love.

That last line used to read “His power and His love.” Don’t take my word for it, though. Go open one of those dusty old chunks of bound paper… what were they called, again? Oh yeah, hymnals.

I can appreciate that some people really love “praise songs,” and I am afforded plenty of chances to “prefer others” (as our pastor is wont to say) by participating with them. And God is certainly working on me to get me to look past the song and find Him.

But at what point do I lose sight of the fact that “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31)?

The Peace of God

I read a Facebook post today from my friend Isaac about dwelling in God’s peace.  I think it’s worth your time.

 

Answered Prayers

God, you astound me.  Why do you care?  I mean, I’m so small; I shouldn’t even be worth your time.  How can you even hear me when there’s so much other noise in the world?  Why would you even consider anything I ask you?  Why would you even want to listen?  But you do.  And you answer–the little things and the big ones!

You brought COTN into Haiti a bare two months after I asked you (I don’t want to question your methods, but I wouldn’t mind an explanation of that one someday).  Nin had cancer, but she seems fine now.  Through jobless times, you’ve provided for Bizzy and me financially–we’ve never even missed a payment on anything–and you’ve even allowed us to increase our giving!  You constantly protect us.  You replaced our Xbox for two dollars.  You gave me a dream job and let me help make others’ dreams come true.  You’re causing our company to grow when people are getting laid off everywhere.  You kept the power on last Monday night until the cornbread was finished baking.  You brought the power back Tuesday and kept it on.  When the water shut off Thursday morning, you provided wonderful friends to share Thanksgiving with, who brought us water in whatever containers they could find.  Then you brought the water back Friday morning.  And you worked out all the details so the Greens could sign their contract today.

You’re so awesome, and just saying that doesn’t come within a parsec of what I really mean (which is not even a shadow of what I should mean if I really understood what I was trying to say).

And I don’t deserve these blessings.  In fact, I deserve curses.  But you bless me anyway.  I don’t understand, and I know I don’t really ever seem grateful.  But I do notice.

As Bryan Duncan would say, “Thanks for letting me share… Amen.”

I was talking with three of the guys after Bible study this morning, and our conversation touched on worship styles.  One of them mentioned that “the worship is better” at our church’s Saturday night services than the services on Sunday morning, and the other two agreed.  By that, they meant that the music is louder, with more “hard rock” feel, and they rarely sing any hymns (those they do are even more modernized than the ones in Sunday’s “Contemporary Christian Music” style).

Worship is more than music.  This is not my main point, and I merely mention it for clarity.  My use of the terms “worship” and “worship style” in this post are limited to music.

I countered to my friends with the statement that “better” is an opinion, and the style of worship I prefer is not a style that is or will ever be found in our church.  “Mentioning that you don’t sing hymns,” I said, “is not a way to encourage me to attend.”  If I had my druthers, we’d have an organ, and the choir would sing amazingly complicated chorales every week; they would wear robes, and we’d pull out those dusty old hymnal books.  But that will never happen.  For one thing, there’s no money for an organ.  For a second, our choir director holds the opinion that choir robes are of the devil.  (I’m exaggerating a bit there.)

His point is that he doesn’t want a separation between the choir and the congregation; people serving in worship ministries are no better than anyone else.  We’re all just parts of the Body of Christ, using our gifts as we’re able.  And that is a valid and excellent point.

My concern is that maybe we’ve lost something along the way.  There’s a big part of me that longs for the tradition, the ritual, the “smells and bells,” as it were.  I wonder if, in our quest to make God accessible and known, we may have lost God’s holiness, His separateness, His other-ness, His incomprehensibility.

Have we lost the sacred?

Frequently in our churches, we speak of God’s love and mercy.  But rarely do we hear of God’s power and righteous anger.  How often do you hear the story of Christ forgiving the woman caught in adultery (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)?  And how often do you hear the story of Christ clearing the Temple (“My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves!”)?  In fact, how often do you hear the name “Christ”?  In our rush to claim, “Jesus is my homeboy,” do we forget the perfect holiness that Christ calls us to?

I’m not trying to say that He is two separate personalities.  In fact, just the opposite.  I’m trying to say that He is One and maybe we are polarizing our view of God, that maybe we need to remember He Himself is “more than we could ask or imagine.”

I love my church, and I accept that they choose to worship in the way they do for very good reasons.  And I will worship along with them and also support their leadership–even if I might prefer some different style (perhaps especially so, but that’s a topic for another post).

But I still feel we’re missing something.

What about you?  How do you balance this tension between the familiar and the sacred?  Does it even occur to you?