Gentleness, Grace, Humility, and Wisdom

Some of the greatest joys in doing youth ministry come from watching as fruit is born in the lives of young men and women.  When students begin to love someone they wouldn’t have before or put off an entrapment of the old Adam to put on Christ, I am overwhelmed by the Spirit’s goodness to me in allowing me to be witness and participate.

There are also many pains that come from being involved with students.  Recently there has been a new student coming to our youth group who has some emotional problems as well as extreme social awkwardness.  To be quite frank, during the lesson he was loud, boisterous, and random.  Many in the group were appalled by his lack of “religious etiquette,” and as such snickered behind his back.

During the following week I spent some time investigating this guy and getting to know him.  After hearing his story and finding out what had  been going on in his life for the last couple of years, many of the problems and awkwardness were quite understandable.  I don’t know if when I was 14 if my dad would have committed suicide, my grandfather whom I loved passed away, and my mom went to jail (and was still there) I would have been in much better shape.  So, I began to trickle some of his story to some of the students in order to have them embrace this guy and love him despite his gritty exterior.  It worked.  The guys really stepped up to the plate and made this guy feel like he was a part of the group.

However, there were still some that decided they would still use him as the butt of all their jokes and make him an object of scorn.  Of course, I never saw any of this, but the reports were trickling in.  There was division happening right there underneath my very eyes.  Just in case the reports were true (you have to weigh the many stories when dealing with middle school girls), I spent some time before Sunday School one morning to reiterate what it means to love God and love neighbor.  I urged the students, with the help of the youth student leaders, to remember to show Christ to this guy.  Again, I thought the result was that this young man was being embraced by the group.

Still, reports came in.  Now being added to the mix was “those over there act all Christian and when they leave youth they don’t act Christian, so I am not going to come any more.”  No Pastor wants to hear that, so I began to investigate.  I found out that all the tales seem to revolve around one individual, whom I have had problems before with gossip, slander, and malicious speech towards others.

Before I could address the matter, she came to me after youth group the next Wed in tears.  The lesson was on the ninth commandment, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  She confessed her sin and how hateful she had been and was being.  We urged her toward the cross, to see Christ, his death, and resurrection.  She left being grasped more firmly by her identify in Christ and trusting in his sufficiency.

Instead of rejoicing, complaints still flooded in, including, “I don’t want to be where people are like that.”  I had the same question for these and I had for the complaints about the young emotionally disturbed young man,  “Where do you want them to go so you can stay?”  Scarily, the answer we are forced with is hell.  In essence, “I don’t want them here because they are so (fake, sinful, or your favorite “others” distinction)” says, “Go to hell, I don’t want you here.”

I was shocked by this realization.  Namely, because I myself fall prey to this thinking.  I tend to be more harsh toward cultural Christians.  I find myself more accepting of the crass, weird, and raw and more sarcastic toward the refined, cultural Christians who say, “I’m going to leave, because I don’t like them.”  Is this not the same attitude from me?  Where do I want these cultural Christians to go if not here to be grasped by the same Gospel that made the lame walk, the blind see, the DEAD RISE?  Am I not saying, “go to hell?”

So, Matthew 11 came to mind and I have been reflecting on Jesus’ words there and wanted to share.  Matthew 11:25-26 reminds me that all the wisdom, knowing, degrees, job status, fame, or whatever will not make Jesus more clearly perceived.  God himself reveals who Jesus is.  It is not something we arrived at.  Rather, it is something that takes us and makes us new.  Its the voice in the void that says, “let there be new life!” and there is and it is good.

Matthew 11:27 reminds me that Jesus knows the Father and the Father knows Jesus.  No one can see the Father unless Jesus shows them, or they get a degree from Seminary, or go to church their whole life, tithe all the time, never cuss, never lust, have 2.8 children, and vote a certain way.  No, Jesus reveals his Father to whomever he wills.  It is an act of grace and grace alone.  My Master’s of Divinity educated self to the middle school girl in my youth group we were just discussing, all of us only see the Father through the grace of Jesus ALONE.  This instantly takes the “us vs. them” attitude to the grave.

How did I receive?  Pure gift.  Who am I to distinguish now, since I have arrived?  I heard a pastor say once that we are merely beggars telling other beggars where we found bread.  Grace, gift, mercy, from the Father above through his Son, here on earth, applied to us now through the Holy Spirit.

Finally, Matthew 11:28-30 reminds me to resist the urge to be harsh and brash with those who are not like me.  Jesus is gentle.  He is patient.  He is making a new creation.  And there’s a secret I easily forget:  I am one of them also.  I heard Thabiti Anyabwile say during a sermon on race once, that I think applies here also, that as Christians there is no us and them, rather there is us.  Us sinners saved by grace.

My prayer for my group is that the Spirit will reveal the gospel to their hearts.  That they will grow in humility, as they see how unworthy they were of being called.  And then, love one another, so that our group becomes a sanctuary for the restless, the down cast, the emotionally disturbed, and yes, even the cultural Christian.  May God’s grace transform us all that Christ may be seen among our neighborhoods, cities, and among the nations.

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Calling Something What it is Not

I was recently listening to a devotion given at FCA where the majority of my high school students attend.  The speaker was very articulate, she had good volume, and captivated her audience.  The subject of her devotion was #hash-tags.

She began by defining what a hash-tag is and how we get #hash-tagged by people around us.  She reminded us that unfortunately we begin to believe these hash-tags.

The gears of my mind began to crank and it made me reflect on what theologians and pastors refer to as imputation.  This young woman was teaching the students about imputation.  Calling something what it is not.  In her own manner she was expressing her growing understanding of a truth that is at work all around us.

She discussed the various hash-tags used in High School.  People get hash-tagged ugly because they don’t wear the right clothes.  They get hash-tagged stupid because they don’t take the “smart people” classes.  She argued that we begin to believe these hash-tags and live according to them.

She’s right!  What we are labeled we become.  A pastor shared that he was labeled as a trouble maker when he was a kid and as such all the teachers treated him that way.  He began to think that’s all he was and lived as such – a doofus trouble maker.  We see this all  the time in children, at work, or wherever.  A child may be slower than the rest, but the teacher believes in them and treats them as smarter, brighter, and with dignity.  The child becomes smarter, brighter, and dignified.  People “live up” to the labels put on them.

As I reflected afresh on this truth I began to think of what God call’s us – his label for us.  There are many, but they can be boiled down essentially into two – #rebel or #restored.  The first hash-tag we most definitely live up to.  We live “our way, right away” with little to no thought about those around us, let alone the Author of the story who has us as a supporting character exposing the various aspects of the main character.  This is not the way we were created to be, so are #rebels in the Author’s kingdom.

But, there is another hash-tag the God has for us.  Those whom Jesus has called he has restored into good standing in the kingdom.  As such, God calls these whom his son has called, #restored.

This is the hash-tag that we have problems with if we have been united to Christ in faith.  God calls us redeemed, righteous, restored, adopted, heir, etc.  But our actions look like #rebel and we are afraid that #restored is just dreaming on God’s part.

But here is the the beauty of imputation.  God calls us #restored because as we learn to trust what he says and not how we feel or perceive, we begin to live out of our new label.  The Spirit works in the lives of #restored to bring about change from what #rebel was.

This is the struggle of the Christian’s life.  Trusting what God says or what we think and feel.  Learning to see as God sees in where our struggle comes from.  This is what imputation bears out in the life of the believer.  It grows what God has called us despite our own perceptions.

Looking over the Cliff

Chasing Wind

I was recently asked to comment on the impact of violence in video games, movies, and television shows among students in our culture.  As I thought through the issue and the ways the questions were asked, a thought emerged to the surface.  By examining this lone issue and making a huge deal out of it, I think you miss the bigger picture.  May I ask the question, when behaviorism has ever worked without mammoth effort to compel certain actions?  Or course violence EVERYWHERE has impacted students, but so has a slough of many other concerning issues.  Who has the time and energy to pursue battling all of these issues?

I would submit that these issues are streams of a larger flood that has washed our culture away.  We need to look at cutting these streams off by considering the flood and damming it up there.  The bigger issue that these symptoms flow from is none other than the prevailing idea that “I can do whatever I want whenever I want, and I will do what makes me feel good.”  Sex makes me feel good and violence allows me to feel powerful, in charge, authoritative.  There are other sub-issues of course, but these two I see in daily student ministry constantly.

So… how do we “dam” up this flood?  I see good news and bad news.  Let’s get the bad news out there.  You can’t.  I can’t.  We can’t.  Let’s be honest.  The flood is too strong, the current too powerful, our dams will be swept away with MAYBE a flinch or two.  Some may argue that I am being defeatist or fatalist or whatever.  Perhaps.  But then again, show me where I am wrong.  May I point out an example?  The DARE program.  Where is it?  When I was in school, it was EVERYWHERE.  I knew my DARE officer by name.  I don’t hear of it anymore.  I see the DARE police car drive by in town, but drugs are still as abused as ever.  Please understand that I am not in any way bashing the DARE program.  I loved it and learned a lot from it.  But it has to be admitted, that it still fails.

With that said, I don’t want to wallow in despair forever, because there is hope.  The root of this behavior is in the heart: what a person wants and desires.  The natural hearts seeks to please itself and build a kingdom for itself, make its own name great.  There is only one type of transplant that will effectively kill this vile, selfish weed – the new birth Jesus discusses in John 3.  The power to “dam” up this tide is found in the gospel alone.  Paul reminds us that the gospel is the POWER of God.  It gives people a new heart with new desires.  We must appeal to what people want and desire.  We must show them the conclusion of what they are recklessly pursuing – namely the futility and finiteness of their wants and desires.  As strong as those desires are, they are still far to weak to do what we expect them to do: give us satisfaction and contentment forever (CS Lewis).

I cannot teach without appealing to affections.  Behavior comes from the heart and as such I appeal to their hearts – to be grasped by the gospel.  Gazing at the cross and seeing what Christ has done affects a new life that produces fruit.  As we learn to love what God loves and hate what God hates, the things that we once hungered for diminishes.  All of a sudden the desire for violence and gore, for lust and sexual gluttony, diminishes and fades in-light of true satisfaction.

Be warned.  This is hard and time consuming.  Hard because you have to think differently and hard because you have to trust God alone to do what he alone is able to do.  Time consuming because we are addicts and we must be weaned.

God grant us grace to see as you see and love as you love – one-way.

Corrupted Hearts Abuse Anything

In Acts, Peter is given a vision.  In the vision, a sheet comes down filled with all sorts of unclean animals.  Peter is told to take and eat.  Of course, he balks.  Then, he is told not to call unclean what God has made clean.  (Acts 10:9-16)

Jesus, when speaking to the crowd, says that what goes into the mouth does not defile a person, but rather what comes out of it.  The heart’s intentions and thoughts are broadcasted through the mouth.  Out of an evil heart comes all sorts of sinful actions and words.  (Matt 15:10-20)

The writer of the Proverbs says to keep your heart with all diligence, because from it flows a man’s life.  (Prov 4:23)

Jeremiah says that the heart is deceitful above all things and that it is desperately sick.  (Jer. 17:9)

I was reflecting on these passages after I remembered a t-shirt that was worn in Happy Gilmore.  It said, “Guns don’t kill people, I kill people.”

There was the simple truth proclaimed in a silly movie.  Man takes whatever instrument he can at his disposal and uses it to defy the Maker, the Creator, who rightfully exerts his will on his creation and fashions it as he sees fit.  In and of ourselves, we cannot abide there being a Sovereign God.  So we abuse, out of a broken, bitter, vile, heart, whatever we can in God’s creation. We want to suppress our acknowledgment of his existence, because his existence is a judgment on us.

The first thing that comes to mind is the use of alcohol.  Drinking these types of beverages makes one instantly unholy, unwise, sinful, or whatever emotions are stirred up with its use.  I have heard people rant and rave about the evils of alcohol.  I have heard people speak at length about the folly and lack of wisdom shown in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.  I have heard people say that men called into ministry of the church have no integrity if they drink a beer or have a glass of wine.  I have heard people say that if you drink, you are not a Christian.

Families have been destroyed through the abuse of alcohol.  People have been hurt, abused, killed, because of the use of alcohol.  This is of course why it is such an emotional issue for so many people.

I am not going to debate the use or non-use of alcoholic beverages as a recreation.  That’s not my point here.  What concerns me, though, is the object of the ranting, raving, long speeches, and emotional heat.  That object: alcohol.

Alcohol in an of itself is not the problem, nor has it ever been.  The problem is people.  We are broken.  We abuse anything and everything.  Just as guns don’t pick themselves up and kill people, it is sinful men and women that take these things and use them to destroy, maim, and numb themselves against God’s image as seen through fellow creatures.

The heart of men, apart from the resurrection work of the Spirit, is what produces abuse.  We rant and rave against alcohol, but don’t apply this hatred of an abused substance consistently to other life destroying, family sundering abuses that are just as common and just as corroding.

What about the abuse of work?  Men and women who are addicted to work?  They spend every free moment they can at work or thinking about work.  They use it as an escape from family life in the name of “providing for my family.”

What about ESPN?  Men and women who are addicted to sports?  They spend every free moment keeping up with stats, news, scores.  They spend large amounts of money on cable/satellite, tickets, jersey’s, or whatever else?  During the weekends, their families are neglected and even treated harshly if they get in the way.  It consumes everything, like a drunk man stumbling down the street, but somehow this is a more acceptable and wise abuse.

What about hunting and fishing?  What about cars?  What about movies?  What about video games?

These are just some things I was reflecting on.  Its out of the heart sinful things come, not because someone sipped on a beer for recreation, watched their favorite team play all weekend, or went hunting for a few hours in their free time.  These things are made sinful by us abusing them, not the use of them in and of themselves.

 

 

The Crimson Monks

The smell of wood burning greets my nose as I close the patio door behind me, heading to my favorite swing.  The wind blows large chunks of clouds through the sky and as I sit and examine my back yard.  In a trance, I realize I am witnessing a rhythmic dance of swirling and twirling, weaving and flipping, reds, browns, oranges, and yellow splotches.

The wind is icy and makes me pack my scarf tighter.  Don’t you just love the first time in autumn you get to don your scarf?  It’s an instrument of surety that fall has dawned!

Is it just me, or do the colors of fall seem more vibrant with a grey backdrop?  As I sit to read in this colorful and intoxicating scene, two crimson hooded monks exit the same door I have just closed, running with glee towards the swirling ocean of leaves that are ebbing and swelling across the yard.  Their delight pouring over as their little legs propel them, the younger, as usual, tells his older brother from behind, “I will beat you!”

I learned once where cappuccinos received their name from.  A dollop of steamed foam would be added to the top of espresso.  This “cap” was triangular and pointed and brown, very similar to the hooded monks who had made their abode near these coffee epicenters.  Thus, the name “Cappuccino” was born.

That’s how my sons look with their crimson jackets with the hoods up.  My little red cappuccino monks begin to throw handfuls of leaves into the air and onto each other.  Then, they begin to “rake” the leaves with their feet into a small pile, where the oldest is instructing the younger that they will jump into it when it is big enough.

They call for me to come join them.  I look at my book that I just opened then back to them.  These times are rare.  The choice is simple.  With a short sigh, I close my book and tromp out to “rake” leaves with my boys.

We laugh, we play, we compete for the largest leaf, and genuinely enjoy each others’ company.

Thank you God for little crimson monks, crisp fall days, moments that remind us that we were made for something greater.  Thank you for affections that run deep in light of your truth.

A Father’s Joy

The fall colors seem to explode with vibrancy, clothed in a gray sky backdrop.  Autumn commands your attention with such a setting, especially with an icy wind breathing down your neck.  The cherry on top, is reading a vivid poem about an autumn day in England, while your children laugh and play after a week of sibling rivalry wars.

Ah, the serenity and peace.  The low rock wall retainer provides a place to sit and observe, as well as a castle wall, a path to traverse along a cliff overlooking a roaring ocean, or a barricade to keep the dragons in their own vile land.

Today, it is a path.

I hear my oldest son say to my younger, “Alright Son, let’s go meet this new man.  Hello Sir,” he says as he walks up to me.

“‘ello” I say in my best British accent.

“This is my son, Josiah, and I am Jeremiah, what’s your name?” he says.

“The name’s Gregor,” I respond.  “What can I do for you?”

“We are trying to get into the church you’re sitting in front of.”

“The church?  Why are you going there?” Gregor asks genuinely.  What will the Father tell me?

“Well, I work there.” he says after a pause to consider this question.

“Work?  What do you do?”

“I don’t know.  I just started.  I will tell you after I am done.”

“I’ll be ‘ere.” says Gregor.

A few minutes later, the father and the son come back.  “I found out what I am doing.  I am teaching people about what God’s says.”

“Oh?  And how do you know what God says?” Gregor sincerely wants to know.

“Well.  He says, “tree” and one pops up.  Whatever God says happens,” the Father replies.

“So… whatever God says comes into being?”

“Yes!”

“How else does God speak to us?”  Gregor is really enjoying what the Father is  saying.  “What about the Bible?  Is that God’s word to us?”

“Yes.  God has told us what he says in the Bible.  That’s what fathers do.  They teach what God says so that people will know.  Duh!”

This father was filled with humility and awe.  How gracious is my Father in heaven?  A beautiful fall day  for my outer man, and a nugget of joy for my inner man.

With a sigh of joy and contentment, Gregor returned to the house to grab some hot coffee and to share his joy.

Family Laughs

Last night during dinner, after the three-ring-circus of getting the boys’ hands washed, dried, getting them to sit down, and making sure no one and nothing was missed during meal-time prayer, we each took time to talk about our day.  It was during these conversations that I asked my youngest if he would share with the rest of the family what we had picked out for dessert.  His eyes glazed over as he seemed to journey back into another age.  Immediately upon this reflection, his hand went to his chin as he seemed to stroke a non-existent beard.  He said, “hmmmmm…”, then with genuine earnestness, proclaimed the prize of his brief meditation, “I don’t remember.”  We all burst out into laughter.  After waiting for a more thoughtful response, it was so funny to have such a reply.  We all took turns during the rest of the evening making sure we stroked our beards and thought profoundly about questions asked of us.

As Cindy and I reflected on his behavior, she assured me that he was just being like his daddy.  I was thinking about her insistence that I was the model for this behavior, and had to lower my hand from stroking my non-existent beard to inform her that assuredly she was wrong, just in time to “eat my own words.”

Chuckling about the episode today, my thoughts swirled toward the Father.  “You therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  My son gets some of his behaviors from spending time with his daddy.  By watching, talking, listening, and experiencing life together, he learns what his daddy is like and desires so much to be like his imperfect father.

God, let me look to you, listen to you, talk to you, experience life with you, and know you, that I might be more like you.  You made yourself into a man.  Oh, that I would look to your Son, Jesus.  I want to be like him.

As I stroke my non-existent beard, God draw my heart and thoughts to your Word, that my life would draw others into knowing who my Father is.

Good Literature

I purchased The Molehill, vol. 1 from http://www.rabbitroom.com and received it in the mail on Friday.  I have already read a handful of contributions to the journal and love it!  The vividness, the life in the words, the seriousness, the playfulness, the wit, the humor, the cleverness in crafting words so well have really engaged my mind and heart.  I really recommend this work to everyone!  I can’t wait to finish it and pass it along for the next person to enjoy!

Proverbs 14:12

This morning I was reading and reflecting on some of the Proverbs, asking God to speak to me through his Word.  Several Proverbs popped out, but 14:12 stopped me.  It is underlined in my Bible, so maybe that added some emphasis for me also.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (ESV).

Another passage that came to mind in reading this is Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (ESV).

Put these two together:  There is a path, a way, that seems right in a man’s heart (which deceives you more than anything else in the world or outside the world; it is sick and twisted; you cannot plumb its depths of corruption and trickery), and this path, this way, leads to death.  Its destination is YOURS and MY destruction.

The nasty part about all of this is that it is not another person’s heart leading you astray and to ruin, it is YOUR heart, it is MY heart.  This led me to consider a couple of other passages about what my heart likes to latch itself onto.

Isaiah 44:9-20:  Isaiah says that my heart wants to worship something.  It wants to worship anything other than God.  It deceives me into taking the work of my hands or life, and worshiping it.  I create something using the creativity that is part of my nature because it is part of God’s nature in me from theImago Dei.  I then use what I have created and treat it as if it is my god and can deliver me and bring me comfort, when it is like a card house, ready to fall at any time.  I work to create my own city, my own empire, and like a beach before a hurricane, when the storm comes, my god, my empire, my city, is destroyed.  My idol cannot save me from the Creator.  BUT, my heart deceives me to make me believe it is true.  I was made to worship.

Jeremiah 2:11-13:  John Piper uses this text in a sermon I listened to a few times.  God’s complaint against his people through the mouth of Jeremiah is that his people have committed two evils.  1)  They have forsaken Him, the fountain of living water.  2)  They have dug their own wells that are broken, that hold no water at all.  Piper describes it like this: the people have turned away from a steady, bubbling, river of fresh, clean, pure water and with their back to it, dig into the dry, cracked, sand, and lift it to their lips and say, “Oh satisfy me!  Satisfy me!”  Our hearts trick us into thinking that the dry, cracked dirt is the quenching water that satisfies thirst.  My heart makes me try to find satisfaction and joy in this world as an ends to itself.

The problem with our hearts is that since the fall of Adam and Eve, it has wanted us to be god.  So… according to Paul in Romans 1, we use the very things God has given us to reflect his glory to try and reflect our own.  Trees, sunsets, beaches, stars, moons, planets, beautiful poetry and stories, fine wines and beers and coffees, birds, lovers, oceans, ideas, etc etc etc become our tools.  We pursue our joy in pleasure in them for the sake of joy and pleasure.  BUT, life is not generated by these things.  These things point to the Life Generator.  We are poor gods trying to be satisfied with something that was never created to satisfy.  Oh satisfy me!  Satisfy me!!!!  Like a frustrated child trying to put the triangle piece into the circle opening, our efforts are vain, leading even to death as we pursue life in these temporary satellites, thinking they are the true emitters and not merely the things that relay the truth.

Oh deceitful hearts that lead us to death!  Friends, this is where an early death is crucial.  The place where Jesus died, the cross, is the death of our deceitful heart.  In the cross alone is an early death for this deceitful worm found.  Romans 7:24-25a, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”   In his death, our death is accomplished.  In his resurrection, our life is promised.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death.  God grant me faith to trust my death to the cross and hope in the life given through your resurrected Son.