Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Stroll in New Jerusalem

“And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

Engage with me, if you would, in an imaginative journey.

Picture the heavenly city. That is the image Scripture uses of the end of the story – a great city, a New Jerusalem, descending to the earth. It is a city whose dimensions are as big as the whole world, a city where God is finally present with humanity and where the nations are gathered into God's new humanity. It is of course not a literal planet-sized city, but it does communicate the image of the new creation which Scripture imagines as our destiny.

What does the architecture of that city look like? Our instincts, I think, are to grasp for some single earthly example. Washington D.C. perhaps, or the Vatican. But remember, this is a city where all the nations have been gathered. It cannot look like any earthly city because every earthly city is but one thread, one sliver of human beauty. So imagine it as a city with all the grandest and best of all the earth's cities combined. Here is a dome; there, a minaret. Pillared porticos. Glass towers. Tight alleys full of signs where people laugh and dine and share together. Here is a building resembling an earth-hewn Ethiopian church; over there is a gothic archway. Every expression of structural design in all its diversity combining and colliding and joined as one.

What do the people look like? It would be quite the diversity crowd, a diversity we struggle to imagine. If we use just the world's demographics today, over half of the people in that heavenly city are Asian, but in all the diverse appearances found on that huge continent. 15% are white, another 15% are black, 10% are Latino and 10% are middle-eastern. But even that, of course, is misleading because those appearances have grown and changed over the centuries. (If those figures aren't how you picture the heavenly population, it is worth noting that they are far closer to the current makeup of the church than some of us realize, as I noted at the end of this video.)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Whate'er My God Ordains Is Right (Hymns & Songs)

(Over the years I've written - and continue to write - songs and retuned older hymns for church worship. I'm occasionally posting those songs here. If you're using them in a church worship setting, go for it, just please give credit and let me know.)

While the melodies can sometimes cause us to struggle, the texts of many old hymns have a depth, a diversity and a profundity which, too often, modern praise music lacks. This hymns is an example of that, and I recently reworked it for our family to use as we were confronting some challenging health questions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Showing Our Sin and Sadness

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)

Lent is a strange thing to our modern sensibilities.

We live in a world that glorifies strength. Or no, the world has always glorified strength, but our era of modern media has just made this more obvious. We are constantly confronted by the best looking, the most athletic, the smartest and most articulate people in the world – after all, they're the people we put in ads and on TV. We read books about life by people with talent and wealth we will never begin to approach. We live in a representative democracy where basically all of our representatives are millionaires. Because of this culture of strenth, we can have this sense that we need to look like such men and women ourselves.

The same thing can happen in the church. There are obvious examples – the television preachers and cults of personality that infect us. But it can manifest in subtler ways as well.

I remember, growing up in a certain strand of evangelicalism, being constantly warned about “hurting my witness.” Here's what that meant. We are supposed to tell people about Jesus. Obviously, one way to hinder that message is to do it in a way that is inconsistent with our lives. If we're selfish, faithless jerks, people probably won't believe us when we tell them this good news we've found.

There is certainly some truth there However, this idea of “hurting your witness” became something much more than that, both for me and for many others in the church. The problem, after all, is that we are all sinners. We will fail in all kinds of ways. We are weak.
So what I learned to do was to try to fake it. To hide my sin, to deny it and justify it, and to do that in the name of helping my witness. I would do everything I could to appear strong and put together because, I thought, that is what was needed for Jesus to be shown. My strength made Him look strong.

I recognize, now, how wrong that it.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is all about challenging that idea. Over and over, he sounds a different theme: that our weakness is, in truth, our strength. That we should publicly own and display our brokenness. Here's how he summarizes it in 2 Corinthians 11:30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
The passage above is just one example of that. Paul starts talking about this “thorn in the flesh” that he had. People speculate about what that was – an illness, poor vision, some besetting sin. I'm not going to engage in that speculation. What is clear is that this thorn in the flesh is a source of great anguish for Paul. He calls it “a messenger of Satan [sent] to harass me.”

Already, this is a big deal for Paul to acknowledge. In Corinth he is competing against these people he calls “super-apostles.” They are all about flaunting their gifts and their strengths. And they are seeking to discredit Paul's ministry. Yet here he is, talking about this thing he struggles with.

This theme only gets more striking as you keep reading. In verse 8 he tells how he repeatedly begged God to deliver him from this thorn, and God says no. So Paul isn't just telling people that he struggles. He's also saying, “My prayers? Sometimes they aren't answered.” Our instinct is to share the times God answers our prayers and to hide the times He seems to leave them unanswered. Paul, though, says “Let me tell you about this struggle where God hasn't shown up and delivered me.”

Why is he doing this? The answer rests in verse 10. God's response, instead of taking Paul's thorn, was to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” For Paul, the gospel is not about his power but about God's power. He doesn't see his strength as an aid to his witness but actually as an obstacle. Being strong in himself actually hides the strength of Jesus.

The gospel rests on God's grace. It is not a message about God saving the strong. It is not a message about God making our weaknesses disappear. The gospel is the good news that Jesus forgives our sins, that he rescues us when we are helpless, and that though He is working life in us, that work is still by His grace, not a result of how strong we are.
The gospel is the problem with that idea of “hurting your witness” in the way I internalized it. It says that I am a sinner saved by grace. The more I pretend like I'm not a sinner, the more I try to disguise my weakness – that isn't making Jesus look bigger. It is making Him look unnecessary.

That doesn't mean that we should live in hypocrisy, of course. We should be seeking after righteousness, and that should be something the world sees. But more than that, I am convinced that the best way to help our weakness is not by hiding our sin but by bearing our brokenness for the world to see.

When you sin, when you mess up, what communicates the gospel more - to try to hide and cover up that failure? Or to own it, to repent publicly and freely? Too often we do the first, but it is the second that will really show forth God's love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
This is one of the reasons I find Lent to be such a powerful time in the church. It is the moment when we are supposed to bear our brokenness for the world to see. This is the season where we focus on acknowledging our sin. On admitting our sadness. On owning our thorns in the flesh and our unanswered prayer. On confronting our mortality and weakness.

It is common in some traditions for people to receive ashes on their heads on Ash Wednesday and then to leave them on throughout the day. Some people are suspicious of this, and certainly it can be done poorly. There is a sort of Pharisaism that can creep into such religious rituals. They can be a way for people to declare, “Hey, I was at church today. How about you?”

But there is also something beautiful about it, I think. Here are men and women walking the streets, going to work and the store, marked by the cross on their foreheads. Carrying a visible declaration that visible declarations that “I am weak. I am sinful. I am frail. Christ and His love endures.” We should all metaphorically be doing that all the time. Going out as people of the cross, people desperate for the cross. Living in the world as those who desperately need Jesus.

That has real power. That is true strength Which is Paul's point at the end of this passage. “[W]hen I am weak, then I am strong.” He isn't just giving some meaningless aphorism. He is acknowledging a deep reality – that the more we own our weakness and cling to Jesus, the more powerful our witness becomes. The world is full of dressed-up religious hypocrites. That won't draw anyone to the cross. But what will draw them is what always has – people of humility, of repentance. People who bear their brokenness and so bear Christ's cross.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Blessed Are The Hungry

(This is a piece I first wrote some years ago. I'm trying to repost a few of them from time to time.)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”(Matthew 5:6)

I’ve always felt this was one of the rawest of the Beatitudes, and hence one which has often been stirred up in my heart. “Hunger and thirst” is no half-hearted language. Jesus isn’t talking about that 11:30am growl in your stomach or that midnight hankering for ice cream. It is a blessing on people who are aching, starving for something – for righteousness Matthew tells us, although Luke simply has Jesus blessing those “who are hungry now.” It is a blessing on the stomach twisting up on its own emptiness, a dust-choked throat and a swollen tongue. It is a curious blessing indeed.

What does it mean, to hunger and thirst after righteousness? It means first of all to make God’s ways our desires. This is the primary preacherly application, but it is true even so. It means that the gaping pit in our stomach is our sin, and that we long to replace it with the meat and potatoes of Christian discipleship. Jesus blesses longing for virtue, for obedience, for faithfulness in the face of temptation. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness defines our diet; it is passing on the sugar-puffed dainties of worldly vanity and the arsenic-laced morsels of sin because our appetite is for the hearty and heady fare of Christlikeness instead. We must desire to be conformed to His image; we must long for it like the man stumbling across sand dunes longs for a sip of water.

Yet if this is a part of the answer, the part we all nod knowingly to, it is only a part. Hungering and thirsting call us to consider their object, but also its absence. Those who Jesus blesses in the beatitude are not the satisfied but the starving. His promise is not for those who have arrived but for those who feel the weight of the journey. Jesus has no use for people who do not crave holiness, but neither does he cherish those who believe they have achieved it. Jesus is blessing those people, people like us, who fall short, who fail regularly, who hang their heads and beat their breasts and beg for mercy.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

He Is All That He Is

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
-Exodus 34:6-7

This is how God reveals Himself to Moses. It is a foundational text, quoted and alluded to repeatedly throughout the Bible. There is a lot you could say about it, but I want to focus on one aspect: it tells us something crucial about how we talk about God.

First, keep in mind that when you see "Lord" in those verses, that is Yahweh, the name God gives to Himself. While He uses it as a divine name, it is also a word in Hebrew, a word translated "I Am" or "I Will Be." This matters because, in passages like this one, it gives a specific twist to the language. God is stating "I am..." and then ascribing these descriptions, these attributes to Himself. So mercy and grace (and also justice, not clearing the guilty) aren't just ideas about some part of God; He is claiming that He is them. He embodies them.

To see why this matters, let's name the thing about this verse that makes us uncomfortable. We all like the first part of it, and rightly so. It is a beautiful thought that God, in the moment of His appearing, would declare steadfast love and forgiveness as the essence of who He is. Yet we often pause uncomfortably before the last bit of verse 7. Not clearing the guilty? Visiting iniquity of the fathers on the children?

Obviously some of that comes from a general discomfort with the idea of divine justice. It makes us uncomfortable, it sounds judgey (because, you know, in a proper sense it is), and it's hard to fit on a bumper sticker or inspirational Facebook meme. While that discussion about divine justice matters, we should save it for another post.

What I want to focus on is the second reason we struggle with how that passage ends - we don't get how it fits together. We have some sense that the first set of attributes, mercy and grace and love and faithfulness, might all in a sense be synonymous, or at least so closely related as to be saying roughly the same thing. We come to the last part, though, and we feel like there is some contradiction there. "Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty."

This tension confronts us in other ways as well. "God is love," 1 John 4:8 tells us. People often quote that, and even more reason from it to other ideas. "God is love," therefore He must do what I want. Therefore we must file off His rough edges. After all, that is an absolute statement. It's not just saying that God loves sometimes - it's saying that God is love.

The problem is, this isn't the only absolute statement you find in Scripture.  “God is holy,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 99:9). “God is just,” says Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:6). “God is a consuming fire, a jealous God,” says Moses. (Deuteronomy 4:24) All of these statements are given as equally full and definite. God is all of these things. Which of course hearkens back to this language from Exodus. "I AM a God gracious and merciful..."

What do we do with this tension? How do we resolve these ideas of God as love and holy and just and a jealous fire?

Our tendency is to "resolve" them by pitting them against each other. It's there in the simplistic way some Christians explain the gospel - "Because God was just, He couldn't ignore our sin, even though in love He really wanted to. So in order to keep the just part of Himself happy, God sent Jesus to die." Which isn't exactly wrong - there is a sense in which both divine love and divine justice are expressed in Jesus - but is incredibly misleading.

What we end up portraying is a conflicted God. A mirror, perhaps, for our own conflicted hearts. This causes two problems. One, it makes God less than the God of Scripture - this torn, hand-wringing being is hardly the perfect, glorious One who demands our praise. And two, we tend to inevitably take one side or the other. Ultimately, we feel, God must be either loving or just, either gracious or holy. Which leads us to implicitly deny that the other is the case.

The error in all of this lies with the original assumption - that there is a tension within God.

What is striking about Exodus 34 is that there is no hesitation on God's part before the last part of verse 7. Rather, if reads more like clarification. God starts by declaring His love - then, concerned it might be misunderstood, He makes clear that this love doesn't negate justice. The two are not contradictions or tensions - they are simply both expressions of who God is.

When we talk about God's attributes, we aren't talking about pieces of God. God isn't a committee of attributes, with mercy and grace bickering with justice and wrath until love breaks in to break the tie or something. God is perfectly Himself. He is fully each of those things - mercy and grace and justice and wrath and love.

Those words aren't ideas that have power over God. He does not think to Himself, "Oops, I'm not being very loving. Better work on that. Oh, now I'm veering to far away from justice. Time for a bit more fire and brimstone." God is God, and love is then a way we as human beings describe Him. It is really true of Him - He is really loving - but not because love defines Him but because He defines love.

All of which should remind us of two things.

First, we need to always be seeking to take God on His terms. He comes to us as He is, and it is the worst sort of sin to then seek to remake Him as we want Him to be. Indeed, when speaking about Him, we must alter our definitions of the words we use to accurately reflect it. If love means that God cannot be holy, it is our definition of love - not God's holiness - that must change. If our definition of justice doesn't allow God to be merciful, it is our definition of justice - not God's mercy - that must be reexamined.

Second, we need to be careful when we speak about God at all. Not that we shouldn't speak - we absolutely should. But all of the above is a stern warning against our own idolatry. Humans since the beginning have been in the habit of redefining God to make Him fit our own ideas. "Did God really say...?" asked the Serpent, and from that point on we have been tempted to make Him fit our preferences.

God is beyond our comprehension. He is perfect Being, and our words are only crude gestures at describing Him. Yet He is also who and what He Is. So we should never act like we've got Him figured out. Instead, we should be constantly seeking to let ourselves be challenged by Him.

This is the test we should apply to our hearts. When we are reading Scripture, our question shouldn't be "how does this prove we are right," but rather "how does this show us we are wrong?" When we think about God, we should be asking, "Does this make me unsettled? Does this transcend my comprehension?" If there isn't a sense in which it does, we should be very worried. Being comfortable with God, having Him all figured out - those are good signs we are worshipping not the God who Is but a god of our own invention.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Everything New (Hymns & Songs)

(Over the years I've written - and continue to write - songs and retuned older hymns for church worship. I'm occasionally posting those songs here. If you're using them in a church worship setting, go for it, just please give credit and let me know.)

A song about hoping in Christ's return and the new heavens and new earth.