Saturday, January 12, 2019

Pastoral Prayer - Extravagant God

O Extravagant God,
You give us so much. You not only provide our daily bread but innumerable joys as well. The warmth of our beds and homes. The excess of food in our pantries and refrigerators. So many clothes that we need to get rid of some. Jobs and friends. Art and music. The sound of laughter. Automobiles. The squirrels that play in my back yard. The crystalline blanket of a world covered in snow.

Every day of life speaks to Your prodigal generosity. You give us so much. We thank You for these uncounted blessings, and we confess that we do not count them as we should.

Nonetheless, we come and ask that You would continue to provide. Our blessedness doesn’t remove our need to trust You for tomorrow, and we pray that You would teach such trust to our hearts. In those ways where we are anxious, remind us that You are a God who provides. In those areas where we are struggling, give us the strength and courage to continue in faith and follow Your wills.

More than that, teach us to recognize in Jesus Christ the true bread and drink that we need. Do not let us become satisfied only with the things of this world; teach our hearts to be satisfied ultimately in Him. Show us the true life that is His life, the true grace that is His death, and the true power that flows from His resurrection. Give us a holy discontentment with the things of this world and a holy longing for a relationship with You through Him.

As You so meet our needs, teach us also to meet the needs of others. Teach us to be Christ’s hands providing them bread for today. Teach us to be Christ’s ambassadors, showing them that what they truly need is Him. Teach us to have hearts of humility, seeing in the neediness of others a pale reflection of the neediness with which we come before You.

Likewise, Father, feed those whose needs weigh heavily on our hearts. Give peace to broken relationships. Give healing to the sick and suffering. Give encouragement to the battered and strength to the stumbling and rest to the weary by Your Holy Spirit.


Do all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, the ultimate embodiment of Your extravagant love.
AMEN

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Work That Endures

“For behold, I create new heavens
    and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
    or come into mind…
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
(Isaiah 65:17, 21-22)

I am sitting in my car watching construction workers framing out a building. I feel a twinge of jealousy for their work. Not that I desire it in the present – I love what I do. However, I am reflecting on the reality that, come the resurrection, they will have 50 years of skills to bring to the table and I’ll need to find a new career.

The same thought struck me as I overheard a conversation between two women about one’s college-aged son. He had decided to study the visual arts. They obviously disapproved, wishing he had pursued a field that would make more money. One part of me knows the feeling and shares the practical concern; another part, though, has to wonder. After all, on the new heavens and new earth, his vocation will pay great dividends. If he had become a doctor or a lawyer, while he might cash in during this brief mortal span, I suspect in the New Jerusalem I’d meet him in vocational retraining classes.

The Christian hope has always been for an embodied eternity. We were created to work; we will continue it after Christ returns. That is one of Isaiah’s core images of God’s coming restoration – “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” In glory, there will be construction workers and farmers, those who embody God’s stewardship and shaping of the earth.

Likewise, when Christ returns and the church is unveiled like the descent of a heavenly Jerusalem, we are told that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into [the city].” (Revelation 21:24) This, of course, means that there is still a government in new creation, much to the disappointment of a few of my more libertarian friends, although it’s task will presumably be somewhat changed. Likewise, the kings’ “glory” is almost certainly a picture of treasures and great works of art, the continuing cultivation and creation of beauty. God is the great Creator; those who most share His image through their creativity will certainly be esteemed.

 It is we preachers and doctors, psychiatrists and police officers who will be left scratching our heads. In a world where God is immediately present, where diseases physical and mental are gone, and where human evil finds its end, all of us will have to learn to drive tractors or study astrophysics or find another trade. (Or more than one – given eternity, you can spend a million years on your craft and still have innumerable millions more for new pursuits.)

This does not, of course, mean that those jobs aren’t valuable in the present. They matter immensely – we are not resurrected yet, and our broken bodies and minds and souls all need care. We should accord all careers much honor in this age. However, the eternal perspective is essential because it upsets much of what we wrongly value both in the world and in the church.

In the world, we tend to hold in highest esteem those who help us live in denial of our fallen condition. This is certainly true of things like medicine, which we value not simply because it models care but because it helps us live in denial of our own mortality. It is also true, for example, of the “financial professional.” We compensate them lavishly, and in return, they allay our anxieties and promise us comfortable retirements. In that coming world, there will be no fear. In it, we will engage in fruitful, restful work for a billion billion years and be more alive, not less, as we ready ourselves for the next billion to come. The more we contemplate that future, the more we realize how broken the present truly is.

In the church, meanwhile, two millennia of spiritual professionals have peddled a vision that makes their jobs the highest aspiration of the faithful. They tell their flocks that what lasts for eternity is souls, and therefore that all labor is waste if it isn’t for the immaterial. What a rude awakening it will be when we rise from our graves and discover that this world and our changed-but-human bodies endure just as long as our souls! Again, this doesn’t mean the spiritual doesn’t matter – the care of souls is a noble calling. It is, however, no more noble than the tilling of the earth or the spreading of pigment or, for that matter, the collecting of trash.

Which is really the point I am trying to make. Many of the vocations that will be most honored after the resurrection are those we give the least respect to here. Not all of them: technology is also an expression of divine creativity, so at least some of our Silicon Valley engineers will continue in their pursuits. However, the technologist will be forced to recognize that they matter no more than the janitor; the rocket scientist and the beekeeper will sit down together in mutual admiration. This is the culture of the New Jerusalem.

This should be the culture we seek in the church as well. If that is where we are headed, we should measure our present communities against it. Where we fall short, where our culture makes us look down on certain callings, those are the places we should seek to live differently. As the arts are devalued in the name of crass commercialism, we should be havens and patrons of those arts. As the physical work of the earth is devalued in the name of the bottom line, we should be voices defending and honoring those with callouses on their hands. As the secular work of many is made to seem less Christian than those in the ministry, we should be reminded that they are doing work that endures.


Meanwhile, when I rise I plan to try my hand at being a carpenter. Or maybe I’ll learn the violin.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Joy to the World


This year, my distaste for many Christmas carols has been especially pronounced.

Grinch that I am, I have never been a great lover of holiday music. Sure, the melodies bring fond memories of childhood. However, the lyrics leave much to be desired. That is certainly true of the secular holiday jingle, just as commercialized and fake-snow-dusted as the rest of the season. It is also true of much Christian holiday fare. While there are exceptions, few of the familiar Christmas hymns have much depth to them, and some contain downright falsehoods (baby Jesus definitely cried, the magi were neither three nor kings, etc.) They also tend to lean toward the saccharine rather than the substantial.

That general grumpiness has been sharpened this year as I've walked through the season weighed down with my wife's progressive struggle with cancer. We exchange haunted glances in even the sweetest moments, uncertain of whether we will get to do this again. I lie awake and stare at mortality and feel, down in my guts, how absolutely helpless I am before it. As a consequence, my threshold for sentimental tripe is especially thin.

While that is generally true, there is one song that has the capacity to break through my foul disposition and draw a grin. It has this power, not due to familiarity or melodic grandeur but because it actually speaks hope to people like me. It is, I have long held, the best familiar Christmas carol, perhaps one of the greatest hymns ever written. If the title hasn't given it away, it is Joy to the World by Isaac Watts.

Let me explain why.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing.


First off, right up front, we get the correct proclamation. Too many hymns focus only on the baby; Watts understands Scripture's emphasis that what matters is that this is the birth of a king. "The Lord," God Himself in His glorious power, "is come." He has come in the form of Jesus the Christ. "Christos" isn't a Greek last name but rather a title, "Anointed One." Jesus is the Messiah, the divine-human king come to fulfill all the wildest hopes of Israel for the line of David, to rule the nations and usher in peace and life. While this kingship has a personal dimension ("Let every heart prepare Him room"), it also has a cosmic one. All of creation is joining to sing in joy at His birth.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

Here we continue the theme of kingship, but now the king has been coronated and is reigning. Jesus was laid in a manger at His birth, but today He sits on a heavenly throne ruling over the universe. As a result, humanity is drawn to offer Him praise. More than that, as we are compelled to worship, so also all of nature echoes with the sound of it, joining us in our chorus.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
This is the money verse. Creation, up until that first Christmas, was all an outworking of one story. Humanity rebelled against God, and as a consequence sin and sorrow spiral outward in a cycle of destruction and death. We are cursed, and the world along with us, because of that sin. The thorns of Watts' lyrics call back to God's curse upon the ground, in which fruitful labor now becomes painful and resisted by the earth.

Yet the kingship of Jesus is at hand, and so the curse is beginning to come undone. The blessings of His reign are flowing outward. Sin and sorrow do not dominate anymore. The thorns and thistles do not have the last laugh. Instead, Christ's rule is spreading redemption out until every last drop of sin's consequences is undone. If the curse is found anywhere, to that place His blessings will come.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

That is the story begun at Christmas, and that story is continuing. Jesus Christ is ruling the world with truth and grace. People from every tribe and tongue and nation are being drawn to His banner, claiming His name and following Him. That is true right now - we celebrate this Christmas alongside 400 million African brothers and sisters, 70 million in the persecuted Chinese church, 30 million Indians and another billion-and-change believers of every language and culture and ethnicity imaginable. While the nations might seek to oppose this spread of the kingdom, even in their resistance they cannot help but prove the power and glory of Christ's righteousness and love.

Christmas is not a warm reflection on a postcard nativity scene. It is the celebration that an atom bomb of hope was detonated in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The curse is shriveling up before the onslaught of His blessings. The Lord has come into His creation, and He is at work saving that creation from all the ravages of sin. 

We must rejoice, this hymn reminds us, not because Christmas is some "magical time of the year" that makes us forget our struggles but because our sorrow is a beaten enemy. Sin wounds and weighs us down, but it is also in retreat. Christ came and dealt the serpent its death blow, and while it still thrashes about in rage, its doom is sure. When He returns, all that is evil will be cast out of this world and life will pour out in its stead.

Jesus is reigning, and His kingdom is growing, and while in this age there is still much broken about our world and about our own hearts, the One on the throne will ultimately prove His righteousness and love are greater than the brokenness. Nothing, not the schemes of nations, not the power of the grave, not my wife's cancer or my grief, is greater than that reality.

The Lord has come. The curse is broken. What is wrong is being undone.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Pastoral Prayer - Incarnate Love

God of Lovingkindness,
You have loved us with an everlasting love. Before the world was made, You fixed your love upon us. You planned our salvation in Christ before our sin. You chose us before we chose you. You worked faith and repentance in our hearts, called us by Your Word and by the moving of Your Spirit, justified us because of what Jesus Christ had done. You continue to work in us now, covering our sins and working in us to sanctify us by Your Spirit. You will continue this work, carrying it on to completion in glory, where we will dwell forever within Your love.

Father, help us to recognize that this is true. We struggle to believe it for some many reasons. Our guilt makes us feel ashamed. Our sin warps our affections. Our fears cloud our vision. Our bitterness blinds us to our blessings. Our halfheartedness dulls our desires. There is much in us that keeps us from feeling the glorious weight of Your affection for us. Break through the shadows in our heart by the power of Your Spirit. Let us taste the transformative power of Your love for us.

Father, as we are loved, so teach us to love. Let Your goodness to us draw us to adore Your greatness. Teach us by Your love to love You. Let Your mercy and kindness draw us to show the same attributes to the world. Teach us by Your love to love others.

Help us in this Christmas season especially to recognize the love at work in Jesus Christ. What a thought, that You would leap down from Your heavenly throne and take on the humiliation of becoming one of Your creatures. Teach us in Your incarnation of the depths and the certainty of Your care for us. Teach us also in it how to carry Your presence to others, helping them to see Christ in the ways we care for them.

We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, Your Word made flesh, Your covenant faithfulness come as a human being,

AMEN

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

35


Birthdays are a difficult thing to celebrate
When they might not come again.
The future extrudes into the present,
Obscuring the past,
Turning joys to impediments
And making this poem a challenge to write.

I am grateful for your voice,
For the particular color of your irises,
For the children that woke us this morning,
For the whisper of your touch;
Grateful for the ways you’ve softened me,
Sharpened me,
Shown me wounds and been their balm.
Yet enumerating your goodness
Feels like listing coming griefs,
So I am not dwelling so much on that.

Instead, I find myself reflecting
On your coming birth day,
The first’s inversion,
When reconstituted fingers
Part the earth’s cold womb,
Incandescent life squints our eyes
As they blearily regard a world made young,
And the wheel of mortality completes its turning.
Perhaps we will mark that date, now shared,
With candles, lusty singing, and champagne
Until its memory fades
Into unblemished aeons.

For now, I rest my hand on your belly
To feel the rhythm of your sleep.
I bite my lip until I taste this dying blood
And whisper in your ear,
“Resurgem.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Job of Uz, After the Storm


Job surveyed his fields
Thick with lambs and oxen.
His children skipped between them,
Dodging mudpies,
Singing tunes of praise.
Yet with the bounty intermingled
Ghosts of other sheep
And other children.

The Lord has given, Job thought,
But he has also taken away.

In life’s spring
We might be faithful.
A young man can keep his way pure.
Yet it is purity born
From an economy of oblation,
Somewhere between a handshake deal
And the good-natured arguments of friends.
Job was such a boy no more.

Purple clouds were swelling in the distance.
Job called his sons and daughters in to feast.
“God is good,” he told them
As they bowed around the laden table.
God is good.
He believed it,
But it was a goodness more alien
Than youthful piety could comprehend.

Outside the thunder stuttered syllables.
His sons dickered over veal,
Debating what was just and what was fair.
The lightning spoke a truer word.
Man does not argue with the whirlwind.
Our lot is necessary praises,
Creaturely humility,

And the consolation of friends.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Plea: Stop Parenting

I remember recently, at a park, watching two parents. One of them was standing back and enjoying seeing her children play. They would call to her from their perches atop jungle gyms and halfway up trees, she would smile and wave, and then she would go back to her book. The other parent was following his child, who was roughly the same age, around like a hawk. He offered a litany of warnings - "Be careful. Don't go too fast." - and hovered below whenever the child's feet left the ground. At the same time, he kept shooting dirty looks at the first parent, clearly bothered by her apparent lack of care.

I am in no way judging either parent. I don't know their stories. However, it seems to me that they characterize simple pictures of two much larger realities. Parenting, in our culture, is something that many people discuss doing well. There is a lot to learn from such discussions. However, what bothers me is that too often in a rush to stress what we should be doing, we fail to recognize how in many ways good parenting involves doing less. There are times when the best thing for our kids is to stop parenting.

In what follows, I want to discuss a few of the things I have come to believe we need to stop - or, at least, do less of. In every case, they are things that are understandable. Like we said, our desire is to parent well. However, they also lead to behaviors that can actually be destructive to our kids.

Stop Keeping Them Safe
Nothing more clearly fits the category of "understandable but destructive" than our approach to our children's safety. Like any parent, I've had those nightmares. Those stomach-in-the-throat moments when you start imagining the terrible things that might happen. The impulse to try to protect our children at any cost makes perfect sense. However, it can also turn us into the things they need protecting from.