Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hope (Advent)



During Christmas, we talk about a Messiah, a King and Savior who was anointed or appointed as our deliverer. There are a lot of things that need fixing in the world – the song rightly included a whole list of things that Jesus fixed while he was on earth – but the most important thing is that “the child you delivered will soon deliver you.” All of his miracles, as wonderful as they were, served to confirm that He had the power to deliver us from sin and the spiritual death that comes with it. [1]

What should we expect this deliverance to look like in my life and in the world around me?  When I pray, “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done,” I have a pretty good idea of what I think that ought to look like. But does my expectation align with reality? What will a world look like in which Jesus is the Messiah, King and Savior?

I ask these questions because they are intertwined with our Advent focus today: hope. How can we understand and experience a godly hope in this life?  In order to answer this question well, we need to understand what it means that Jesus is the Messiah and what kind of hope he meant to bring, or we will experience a lot of frustration and anger because we have false expectations about what a Messiah will do.

So, let’s do history.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Reflecting The Glory Of The Lord

“A glass can only spill what it contains.” - mewithoutyou

That’s not bad insight into life. We often hear the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out,” but that’s true of good things as well. Jesus taught this clearly:
"The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” (Luke 6:45)
You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize this. What we pour into our lives is what will eventually pour out of it in some way. It’s one reason people are increasingly talking about the power of entertainment.  There are ways to filter it – there’s a lot to be said about learning how to read, listen and watch as a Christian who listens and sees through the eyes and ears of Jesus – but in some fashion, what comes in will come out.
  • CNN’s Health section online featured an article entitled “Should Smoking Trigger an R rating?”  The author noted, “For every 500 smoking scenes a child saw in PG-13 movies, his or her likelihood of trying cigarettes increased by 49%.” [1]
  • The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported: “Youths [12-17 years old who viewed sexual content on TV] in the 90th percentile of TV sex viewing had a predicted probability of intercourse initiation that was approximately double that of youths in the 10th percentile... Exposure to TV that included only talk about sex was associated with the same risks...”[2]
What we dwell on matters. There is a reason Paul wrote to the Philippian church to focus on things that were good, true, and lovely (Philippians 4:8).  The idea of this verse is not that we retreat from anything bad – we would have to live in a bubble – but that we actively pursue a mental and emotional diet made up of predominantly wholesome things.

We all fill our glass with something. The words and actions and attitudes that overflow will reflect the abundance of images and ideas with which we have filled ourselves. In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes a similar claim:  We will become what we see. He uses the analogy of a mirror reflecting, but the idea is the same.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Aliens And Strangers

John 15:18-19 "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” 
John 17:16 "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
Philippians 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
Hebrews 11:13-16 “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” 
1 Peter 2:12 “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 
Ephesians 2:19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
There is no escaping the idea that followers of God should not feel at home in this world. That doesn’t mean the world is not meaningful, beautiful or enjoyable. It just means that there must always be a godly discontent with the cultural status quo; a holy conviction that this world is broken and in desperate need of redemption; an abiding sense that we are what Moses referred to himself as: ‘a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus 2:22).

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Heart Attack Six Months Later: The Unexpected Turns Continue

I'm not sure why I am surprised that this post-heart attack road is taking some unexpected turns.

My counselor reminded me that the stages of grief are relevant. I had not thought of it that way, perhaps because this experience feels so different from when my dad died. Several days after talking with my counselor, I was on a panel for a local organization called Michael's Place to discuss finding hope after loss. While going through the things that helped me then, I realized that I was taking the same steps since my heart attack. Hmmm.

One of the key things I did then was to write as a way in which to process everything bouncing around inside; I wrote, then rewrote, searching over and over for a way to say it that was ever more honest. I didn't realize it in the moment, but in hindsight there was something about bringing my grief into the light that robbed it of its power. There's a good process that begins simply by identifying and acknowledging all the things that brew inside. I made my writing public after several years, hoping that a public discussion could build an open community of broken and mending people who could be honest about life.

This post is in that tradition. There are differences, of course, because the situation is different. I'm not looking to rob grief of its power this time. I'm looking for clarity and direction to emerge from the mists of the emotional and mental fog that has lingered. Some of you have already responded to what I've written with stories of your one recovery from heart issues. Perhaps this post can help us to continue to do life together with a little more comfort and hope than before.



* * * * *

I am wrestling with the idea that this heart attack was an answer to prayer. Writing that publicly makes me a little nervous, so please stick with me as I explain. Biblically speaking, there are three possible causes for my heart attack.

First, perhaps it’s just life in a fallen world. Though God created all things good, the world is currently in a broken state, 'groaning' in anticipation of an ultimate redemption (Romans 8:22). That means stuff breaks. Things decay and rust. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is in full force. Sometimes this manifests in the fallout from moral evil in which people bear the consequences of their own sin as well as the sins of others. Sometimes this manifests as natural evil (hurricanes, disease, drought) as a deeply broken world stumbles toward a future in which creation will be returned to its original glory.  It may well be that my heart attack is just a reminder that we live in a world that exists between its good beginning and its glorious remaking. 

Second, perhaps it's a reminder that evil is more than just a theoretical absence of good. In the Christian worldview, there is a supernatural realm in which evil is embodied in beings that desire to further the chaos and brokenness of a fallen world. We live in parallel worlds, one physical and seen and one spiritual and unseen, and they intersect at times and in ways we usually don’t see and rarely comprehend. It could be that the evil that haunts the earth (the Bible gives the primary entity the title of "The Satan") seeks to ravage and devour that which is good - in this case, the goodness of bodily health. The Bible does not require that explanation, but it certainly allows for it. 

Third, the Bible allows the possibility that God actively caused it.  The Bible is clear that God does not tempt us to sin, but he does send us trials and temptations. We are going to get pruned (John 15) not because He dislikes us, but because He loves us (Hebrews 12:6). Think practically: a parent who never disciplines his or her children does not love them. A lack of discipline is an abdication of parental responsibility. I discipline my boys because I want them to grow up to be men. 

The idea that God is behind this for my good has biblical precedent. God desires our holiness above all else, and if we must be stripped of our comfort and happiness to build in us His holiness, that is a far better scenario than gaining the world and losing our soul. The idea that God may be the source of our pain may be a tough concept. I don't mean to make this post cumbersome, but I think I need to note a few passages of Scripture that must be considered as part of this discussion:
  • “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,  so that man can find out nothing that will come after him." Ecclesiastes. 7:14 (NKJV)
  • “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed?" Lamentations 3:38 
  • “Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die.”  Ezekiel 3:20
  • “'Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips."  Job 2:10 
  • “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things."  Isaiah. 45:7 
  • "The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.” Isaiah 19:22
  • "The LORD said to him, 'Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?'" Exodus 4:11
  • “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." Acts 2:22-23 
  • "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your [God’s] power and will had decided beforehand should happen." Acts 4:27-28
  • "Jesus commanded Peter, 'Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” John 18:11
  •  “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, 'My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, 
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.' Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:5-11
So, which one of my three options is the cause of my heart attack? I don’t know. I want to say that clearly. I don’t seek to find a devil or an angel behind everything that happens. With apologies to Calvinists everywhere, I am not ready to say that God's sovereignty means that God actively causes every individual thing that happens.

However, I am in the process of considering that God not only allowed but may well have caused my heart attack. I certainly don’t mean to suggest this is always the case with sickness and pain. Frankly, I don't think it's the case with every situation of pain or suffering in my own life. I am just considering the possibility that in this case, God is involved in ways I must consider.

It would makes sense to me. I’ve been praying for most of my adult life that God would make me a man after His own heart. I’ve been asking him to make me holy, to humble me, to order my loves (as Augustine so famously opined), to cause me to decrease so that He can increase. I’ve been asking for God to step in, knock down my idols, and clean spiritual house.

I have to consider that God is honoring my prayer. Why? Because this heart attack is laying bare some real idols in my life: specifically, my idolization of my health and strength. If that makes me look shallow, so be it. I have to face this. As you read this, brace yourself. I hope this makes you face yours too.

There is a real possibility that I won’t be able to return to my previous level of fitness. That's a big deal to me. For perspective, my forties were the fittest decade of my life. I found Crossfit; I qualified for Regional Games three years ago (45-50 year olds) by making it into the top 200 in the world. Then my shoulder blew out (thanks, basketball) and about two years I had major shoulder surgery. A week before my heart attack, I did the last WOD of the 2016 games with my oldest son, compared my score to the ones posted online, and thought, “My shoulder feels good; most of my strength is back. I could shoot for the Games again.” A week later I was in a hospital bed.

You prayed for this, Anthony. You asked me to knock down your idols.

Is 'idol' too strong? Tim Keller offers a handy list of how to identify idols from his book Counterfeit Gods. Keller prefaces his list this way:  “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…

  1. I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  2. I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  3. I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  4. I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  5. People are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  6. Someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  7. I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  8. I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  9. I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  10. I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  11. I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  12. This one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  13. I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  14. My race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  15. A particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  16. My children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  17. Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  18. I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  19. My political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  20. I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

I wouldn't say that I think life has meaning only if #3, #4, #9 and  #20 work out well for me, but let's be real: if I thought people looked on my strength or my physical appearance dismissively or with disdain, I would be crushed. I don’t want to be the guy who walks into the gym and people think, ‘I’ll bet he used to be something.” Or even worse, "Good Lord. Put more clothes on." I want to be the guy people notice. I want to lift more than the guy next to me. An awful lot of my identity, confidence and sense of self-worth comes from my strength.

You prayed for this, Anthony. 

I’ve been asking God to create in me a clean heart and give me a renewed spirit. I meant painlessly (note to self: practice praying with more precision). I’m starting to think God’s granting me the dignity of taking my prayer seriously. To use a C.S. Lewis analogy, I thought God was going to simply fix up this shack of my life; it turns out that His plan all along was to make a mansion. That means He’s going to have to do some serious remodeling. Maybe destroy the idols hidden in the closets of my heart. Maybe even blow up the house. 



* * * * *

I've been saying that it was in March that my heart attacked me. I’m starting to think it‘s been attacking me for years, pummeling me with false loves and tainted longings, pumping pride and fear into my spiritual veins when it should have been sending humility and peace. Perhaps it was in March that the Great Physician stepped in with the local ones and began to fix my rogue heart. I would have preferred a less painful and traumatic approach, but I think I've already established that picking up on hints isn't really my strength.

Paul asked three times for his mysterious ‘thorn’ to betaken from him. God refused; how else would Paul realize that God’s grace was sufficient unless he was confronted baldly with his own insufficiency and sinfulness? Is this not one way in which God builds character? Do I think I am on some spiritual plane where God won’t have to deal as bluntly with me as He did with Paul?

“The Lord gives,” said Job, “and takes away. Oh, bless his name.” This is not just about trusting a sovereign God who is too mysterious for us to fully understand; this is about realizing that sometimes it is only in the taking that we understand what God is giving.

* * * * *

Is the idea that God is involved more intimately than I suspected just an attempt to find some grand spiritual meaning in order to find the comfort of an explanation? I suppose I could be. Maybe it is just life on a fallen planet. Maybe God has simply allowed the evil that slouches through the world to have access to my health for reasons I won’t understand in this life. Within the broader scope of possibilities that fit within a biblical framework, I must acknowledge that all three of the reasons I offered can and do occur. No one - certainly not me -  has the wisdom to weigh in with absolute certainty about what is the case in every situation.

Yet, I must consider that God loved me enough to stop my heart for the sake of my soul. Now, I am praying that, no matter the reason, He gives me the wisdom and courage to trust that even this can work for my good.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Heart Attack: Five Months Later

It’s been five months since my heart attack. My doctor has told me that my heart is completely healed; medically speaking, I am cleared to do whatever I want (including Crossfit again if I so choose). A lot that could have gone wrong didn’t. For that, I am profoundly grateful.

But in addition to the medical perspective on the status of my heart, there are other dynamics at work. I am learning that this kind of injury is a much more existential one. I’ve had two knee surgeries, foot surgery, and a major shoulder repair; I thought I knew what the path to recovery looked like: I take time off; I get out of shape; I ease back into life. All these are true once again, but now there is an internal complexity that is remarkably different from my other experiences.

Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. I have some trepidation about sharing this, but I figure - it's life. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last to experience the aftermath of a heart attack. Consider this my frank contribution to life together in hopes that we all can better walk through this beautiful and broken world. Anything helpful you wish to contribute in the comments section will add that much more.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Life God Grants In His Name (John 20:30-31)

“Jesus performed many other wondrous signs that are not written in this book.[1] These accounts are recorded so that you, too, might believe that Jesus is the Anointed, the Liberating King, the Son of God, because believing grants you life in His name.” John 20: 30-31
John had one goal: to convince his readers that Jesus was God in the flesh so that they would believe, because believing grants life in Jesus’ name. A couple questions come to mind: What life did he come to share? How do we know we are living in it?

That life’s ultimate and eternal expression will be life in the New Heaven and New Earth.[2] Throughout the New Testament, the writers cling to the promise of a heavenly reality where we see Jesus fully and we experience life fully. But that life also starts now. When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, he gave earthy examples about how life looks when God’s Kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Life granted “in his name” [3] happens now. We can participate now in a life in line with the character, nature and will of God. That’s a huge claim, so let's look at what Jesus said and did to get an idea of what that looks like.

  • he preached peace, hope, love, gentleness, kindness, and forgiveness.
  • he taught respect for authority even as he taught how to respond properly to corrupt or oppressive power.
  • he taught generosity over greed.
  • he argued that justice was important, but so was mercy.
  • he preached repentance and modeled forgiveness.
  • he claimed we could know God and know the truth about how He wants us to live in holiness.
  • he said that knowing this could set us free from bondage to sin and from eternal punishment for our sins.
  • he demonstrated that God loves the world, not just one race, class, or sex.
  • he treated even the most marginalized people with value, worth and dignity.
  • he said the world was broken by sin, but He could fix it – at great cost.
  • he explained that we were dead in our sins, but he could bring us back to life.
  • he proclaimed we could be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven now and for eternity.[4]

The word got out relatively quickly. In AD 100, there were about 25,000 Christians. In AD 300, there were about 20 million. As best I can piece together what historians have to say, the number of Christians went from about ½% of the populations they were in in AD 100 to 15% of the populations they were in by AD 300. Jesus was compelling; something about who He was and the life that He promised was motivating people to commit in spite of intense persecution.

In about 130 AD, Justin Martyr formalized what the early church was already noticing.  He noted that the Kingdom of God was exploding because followers of Christ were dong three very specific things: they were believing, belonging, and behaving.[5]  I want to revisit this today not as a formula that promises specific results, but as a model (just as the Lord’s Prayer is a model) for how God intends to mold us into the image of Christ so that our life is truly ‘life in His name.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Prayer (John 14-16)

“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”  John 14:13-14 

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John 15:7 

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” John 15:16 

“In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” John 16:23,24
* * * * * * * * * * 

Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples on prayer is pretty eye-catching: five times he says,  “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” I see three question begging to be answered: What does it mean to ask in God’s name; do Christians get anything and everything they ask for; and ultimately, how should we pray?

I am going to address this by walking us through what’s commonly referred to as The Lord’s Prayer. After my dad died, I really struggled with the concept of prayer. Lots of people had prayed – and felt really confident that God’s plan was healing – and yet he died. I spent years reading about prayer, talking with others, and regaining my footing in this area. The Lord’s Prayer was huge to me during this time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to pray or how prayer worked, but I knew Jesus said, “Pray like this.” So I did.

Jesus offered this prayer to his disciples as sort of a model. There’s nothing magical in the recitation of it, but in it we see foundational principles in how to pray, and why. Some have claimed we see the whole of the gospel message revealed in this prayer. Perhaps that is so. At the very least, this prayer offers some answers to the questions I raised earlier.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

In This World You Will Have Trouble: The Reality Of Persecution (John 15-17)



John 15:18 – 16:3 “If you find that the world despises you, remember that before it despised you, it first despised Me. If you were a product of the world order, then it would love you. But you are not a product of the world because I have taken you out of it, and it despises you for that very reason. Don’t forget what I have spoken to you: ‘A servant is not greater than the master.’ If they persecute me, they will persecute you… The time will come when they will kick you out of the synagogue because some believe God desires them to execute you as an act of faithful service.”

John 16:32-33  “Be aware that a time is coming when you will be scattered like seeds…In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order.”

John 17:14-14  “I have given them Your word; and the world has despised them because they are not products of the world, in the same way that I am not a product of the corrupt world order. Do not take them out of this world; protect them from the evil one.”
                                            _____________________________________

Jesus was speaking to his disciples on the night of his arrest. Basically he was telling them, Expect persecution.” He was right. Hebrews 11 gives quite a list of what happened to not only these disciples but many who claimed allegiance to Jesus: wandered in deserts and mountains, lived in caves, tortured, sawn in two, jailed, flogged, chained, put to death by the sword and stoned. They all were killed but John, who was terribly tortured and imprisoned.

In this specific warning to his disciples we see a broader warning to all who will be his disciples. We may not all experience the exact persecution the disciples or the early church did, but because the Kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the Kingdoms of the World, those who love the world will despise followers of Jesus; the church can expect to be despised, broken apart, scattered and persecuted. Though Jesus has overcome the world, “in this world you will have trouble.”  “Trouble” of some sort is clearly a reality that has haunted followers of Christ throughout history, including what is happening to the global church today.