Thursday, October 31, 2013

More than a costume

Like most kids, I loved Halloween when I was younger. There was the candy, obviously, but also the costumes. Surprisingly, I can only remember two of the costumes I wore as a child. 

The first I remember because it was the go to costume in our house on many occasions – the hobo. The reason was simple enough. Dressing up as a hobo required little to no preparation. Put on some of dad’s old clothes. Smudge some of mom’s mascara on your face to look like you just spent a rough night out by the tracks. VoilĂ ! You’re a hobo. 

The only other costume I remember wearing was a Luke Skywalker costume. This wasn’t any Luke Skywalker, this was Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Fighter Costume. You know, the orange jumpsuit costume. I remember this costume for one reason and one reason only – it was awesome! It allowed me to pretend I was something far more than a six year old boy – I was a rebel fighter pilot zooming through space to help defeat the evil empire!

It’s amazing how our clothes can change the way we perceive ourselves. We know that to a degree, we are the same person beneath our garments. But what we wear can cause us to lean into a certain way of being. Dress like a hobo and you just might find yourself acting like a hobo. Dress like a hero, well, you just might find yourself filling the part. There’s a reason we get dressed up for work or for competition or for an important event like a wedding or a funeral. Our clothing often helps us live appropriately in the moment in which we find ourselves.

It’s no wonder that the Bible often uses clothing as a metaphor for the Christian life. The apostle Paul was especially fond of this image. He challenged the Romans to “put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). He encouraged the Colossians to “clothe [themselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience . . . and over all these virtues put on love which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14). To the Ephesians, he returns to the image of armor, inviting them to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13).

At first glance, images like the armor of light or clothes made out of things like compassion and kindness, might feel like nothing more than a costume. When we attempt to put them on in place of our normal clothes of selfishness and sin, we might feel like we are just pretending to be something we are not. Remarkably, Paul claims these things are no costume. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has purchased these new clothes as our regular wear. If we’ll consciously put them on each morning, we’ll find ourselves leaning into the very life for which we were redeemed.
So go ahead and get dressed up both today and every day.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mug Shots vs. Family Photos

Over the last couple of weeks, several websites have come under fire for what some critics call extortion. These sites publish mug shots to the web and then charge people to have the photos taken down. The cost to have your mug shot taken down ranges from $178 to $399 per site. With four major sites in operation, getting a picture removed might cost someone as much as $1600.

Supporters of the websites claim that they are providing the public with an essential service by making public information more easily accessible to employers and concerned citizens. Critics argue that the way these particular webpages publish the information unfairly shames those who have been arrested but not convicted. For example, thanks to these sites, a person’s mug shot will often show up in a search engine’s results even if they were never convicted. This might lead a potential employer to wrongly conclude the person has been convicted of a crime.

I for one am glad that God is more gracious to us than we often are to one another. When it comes to our spiritual mug shots, not a one of us can take solace in the fact that our charges have been dropped. We are all guilty as charged, and yet, according to the scriptures, there is not a heavenly version of Christ Jesus has already paid the price to have our mug shots taken down. No matter how much our sin increased, God’s grace abounded all the more (See Rom 5:20). The only pictures of us in God’s kingdom are the ones a Father keeps of his children.

In a world that almost delights in shaming the guilty, it’s no wonder that some people struggle to understand the biblical assurance that God's love is a love that keeps no record of wrongs. Take some time today to sit with this glorious promise of God in Isaiah 43:25, “I am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.

Ponder, too, how might God's love shape our love of neighbor - even the one's with mug shots?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Learning to Listen for the Common Good

When I sit down with couples who are either married or thinking about marriage, one of the first things we tend to work on is the ability to listen attentively to each other. Listening attentively is more difficult than it sounds. Usually, when we are speaking with another person, our brain is preoccupied with what we want to say or accomplish in the conversation. As such, we often barely listen at all to what another person is saying. We catch words or phrases and assume that we know what they mean. “After all,” we think, “haven’t we had this argument a thousand times before!” While we look like we are listening, what we are usually doing is formulating our own response to what we think our spouse or significant other is saying.

Inattentive listening is disastrous for resolving conflict. How can we resolve a conflict with another person if we don’t actually pay attention to their point of view? Even more disconcerting, inattentive listening is devastating for the ultimate welfare of a couple or family. We can only have long term relationships with people we actually know. To know someone, we have to listen to them.

In marital counseling, we practice this by having one partner say out loud what they want or wish the other person would do (or stop doing) and how that would make them feel. The other person then, in his or her own words, repeats back the essence of what the other person is saying without jumping ahead to a response. The point of the exercise is to practice active listening. Active listening seeks to understand before it responds.

The practice sessions can be pretty funny. People have a hard time actually listening to their spouse or fiancé and not jumping to a response. Some remarkable things start to happen when we actually stop and listen to the other person is really saying:
  1. We often find more common ground than we anticipated. 
  2. We often find that what the person really wants is something we are glad to give them.
When we listen to each other in this way, we move from having winners and losers in our relationship to seeking the common good. The common good is a concept that has a rich history in Christian teaching. It is the idea that when society benefits as a whole, its individual parts also benefit. This is why we have public schools and public health programs. It’s why we work together as a city to promote, say, downtown businesses or the park system.

Seeking the common good is rooted not only in logic, but in the biblical story. In the passage we’ll be looking at this weekend, Jeremiah does something incredible, he tells the people who are being taken away into exile to seek the prosperity of Babylon, to pray for their captors, and to wish them well, for when they prosper, so will the exiles (see Jeremiah 29:4-7). Far from looking out only for themselves, the Jewish exiles were to look out for the welfare of their enemies! This is a radical example of seeking the common good.

Lately, in our country, we have been struggling to seek the common good. Instead, we primarily have wanted to seek our own way and our own will in the political process. This is true of Republicans and Democrats. It seems apparent that this is a way that leads to disaster for all of us. Our political opponents aren’t going anywhere, and yet, we have stopped listening to their concerns. In truth, both political parties have important concerns. Finding a solution to the enormous debt our country continues to build is a significant concern, but so is finding a way to make health care accessible to every person in our country.

My guess is that in reading that last sentence many of you have already fast forwarded to your particular party’s talking points. Such limited forms of communication have us like a couple fighting the same fight over and over again – stuck with no hope for moving forward. Perhaps, it’s time to go back to the basics. I don’t know if our politicians will do this, but we sure can. When is the last time you sought out a political opponent and asked them their opinion and then actually listened? Listening isn’t only helpful for seeking the common good, it’s essential!

If you don’t actually know any members of the opposite political party, that might be part of the problem. I’d encourage you to cross the divide by personally getting to know someone who doesn’t vote like you. At the very least, read some articles by thoughtful members of another political persuasion. So long as we are in this only to win it for the people who think like us, we’ll all be losers. When we learn to see our opponents as people with whom we are in this together, like it or not, then we might just have a chance.

If the Jewish exiles could seek the welfare of Babylon, surely we, as the citizens of this country, Democrat and Republican and anything in between, can seek the common good of the place in which we live.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Save us from the maddness.

During a week in which most news about the government shutdown has simply reported that there’s no new news to report, one person is making headlines for his provocative words on the floor of the Senate. No, there’s no renegade Senator deviating from his party’s talking points. Instead, Barry Black, the Senate Chaplain, has started praying morning prayers that have turned this normally tame ritual into the talk of the town. Last Thursday he prayed:

Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness. We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcoming, our smugness, our selfishness, and our pride. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown, transforming negatives into positives as you work for the good of those who love you. We pray in your merciful name, amen.
Yesterday’s prayer was even more pointed as he blasted those responsible for the shutdown over the fact that death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers have been delayed by the shutdown. These have been impressive, prophetic prayers, and both Democrats and Republicans have taken notice. Some have even responded favorably to his prayer. Of course, by favorably, I mainly mean, they think the prayer is spot on for the other side.

We’re like that aren’t we? We love to hear words of condemnation from on high, so long as they are aimed at our opponents. Just so we’re clear, such a response is not actually responding favorably to the Lord’s correction. Our first words upon hearing a tough word from the Lord should always be words of humility: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Smugness? Hypocrisy? Pride? It’s not just politicians who need to confess such things. Far too often, those words also describe me.

Have mercy upon us, O God, save us from the madness, indeed.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Freedom to Play our Best

It may still be 97 degrees outside, but the fall semester is now in full swing at both church and school. That means among other things that football, soccer, volleyball, piano, ballet, etc. are all up and running once again. Last week a great blogpost was making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter concerning “What Parents Should Say as Their Kids Perform.” The author, Tim Elmore, works with student-athletes at every level of sports, and he notes that the best intentioned parents often do things that actually stymie their son or daughter’s ability to perform and enjoy performing. You can read the article for his full analysis, but I love his conclusion. The absolute best thing a parent can say to a child before, during, or after a game/recital/etc. is “I love to watch you play.” Isn’t that terrific?! I love to watch you play. What a profound way to express your unconditional love for your child. These words don’t tie your love to your kid’s performance or success, just his or her participation in an activity he or she has chosen to try.

What could be more liberating than to know that another person simply delights in our presence and participation in life? I’m a grown up and I wish I had someone who would tell me, “I love to watch you play.” Oh wait, I do. The Bible promises that “The Lord takes delight in his people” (Ps. 149:4). His love isn’t chained to my performance or my success. His love is instead tied completely to the fact that he has made us and we are his. Which means, I need not be afraid of disappointing God. I need not play it safe when it comes to trying to follow him in this world. I can play freely. As a follower of Jesus, that means I can do my very best at loving deeply, forgiving liberally, and sowing generously knowing that when I come off the field, God isn’t going to nitpick my performance, he’s going look at me his child and say, “I love to watch you play.”

“The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” – Zephaniah 3:17

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughts on the First Day of School

I know it doesn’t make me sound very cool, but I always loved the first day of school. Seeing my friends, the new school supplies, even the new classes all filled me with a great sense of joyful anticipation. As a kid, your job is to learn, and I loved learning. Part of that was the fact that I had such good teachers through the years. Not only did they know and care about the information they were teaching, they also knew and cared about me. Next to my own parents, it was my teachers that helped me realize “I matter in this world. There is someone who cares for me.”

It’s become popular in recent years for some Christians to lament the fact that God has been taken out of the public schools. At best that’s shortsighted talk. At worst it’s really bad theology. God sure doesn’t need state sponsored mentions of his name to show up in a place. I’m not even sure what God thinks about state sponsored prayers. After all, Jesus once said, when you pray, go in your closet and pray, but that’s a conversation for another post.

As far as schools today go, here’s a truth that should not be forgotten. As long as God’s people are participating in the public schools as teachers, administrators, coaches, janitors, aides, and students, God is still there. He's there in every private prayer uttered on their lips. He’s there in every student that delights in learning about his world. He’s there as teachers care for students from every social class, religion, and race. He's there as teachers teach those students to discover their God given ability to learn and grow. Friends, God is still in our public schools. In fact, he never left.

Our schools and our teachers have enough mean-spirited critics. Let’s not be one of them. Instead, let’s celebrate our schools as places of learning for all people. Let’s champion them as places where different kinds of people practice what it means to live together in peace. Let’s talk about them as partners in building better communities. Let’s pray for them as the place where a number of God’s people go each day in order to live out their faith. Let’s trust that our schools are still a place where God does some of his absolute best work.

I wonder, does God get filled with joyful anticipation on the first day of school? I still get excited on my kids' first day of school. My guess is, God does, too.


A prayer for the first day of school:

Lord, whether they be in public or private schools, urban or rural settings,
I lift up a prayer for the teachers, administrators, aides, janitors, coaches, and students
     as they prepare for a new school year.
May they know that the tasks of teaching and learning are holy, God-honoring tasks.
May the joy of learning about science or mathematics or literature fill their hearts with an even
     deeper longing to learn about the God who has made the world about which we learn.
May our teachers not lose heart as they contend with the overwhelming social needs of students,
     the often frustrating political bureaucracy that means to help but doesn’t,
     and their own personal struggles that often must take a backseat to the students’ needs.
Give our teachers eyes to see the victories they achieve every day as students learn their material,
     yes, but even more so, their place in this world as ones who are loved.
May our brothers and sister in Christ who fill the halls of our schools everyday go forth
     as lights in the darkness, so that others might discover your love in them.
In the name Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Putting for lots of dough or putting others first? (Sorry, couldn't resist)

Just in time for Father’s Day, I read a great story about Phil Mickelson, the golfer, leaving his practice rounds at the U.S. Open in order to fly back to San Diego for his daughter’s eighth grade graduation. She’s speaking at the ceremony, and he didn’t want to miss it even though being there put him at great risk for missing his opening tee time this morning. After yesterday evening’s ceremony, he flew overnight to the tournament arriving at 4:30am this morning, less than three hours before is 7:11am tee time!

This isn’t the first time Phil has been willing to alter his golf plans for his family. In 1999, he was in contention at the U.S. Open, but was ready to leave at a moment’s notice if the news came that his wife was in labor with their first child (this same daughter!). His beeper never went off during that tournament, and he lost in a playoff to the late Payne Stewart, but Phil experienced an unforgettable moment, nonetheless. Upon winning, Stewart, who would die in a plane crash just a few months later, grabbed Phil, looked him in the eyes, and said, “You’re going to be father. There’s nothing as special as that!” Phil, who has won several majors since (but not the Open), apparently agrees.

It is one thing to say that people matter more than things, more than work. It is another thing altogether to put it into practice. The trouble is, most of us don’t face these monumental kinds of decisions each day. Instead, we encounter a thousand smaller decisions – family or work; a neighbor’s need or my own comfort; a stranger’s problem or keeping my schedule on track. One decision at a time they don’t seem like such a big deal, but put all together they determine what kind of person we actually are. Do we really put people first? Especially those closest to us, like children or spouses or parents for sometimes it's easy to presume upon those we love and assume love us? Or do we only give lip service to the fact that the people in our lives matter more than jobs, schedules, or possessions?

At the end of the day, it’s our actions and not our words or even our feelings that tell the truth about who we are.

So what can you do today to help another human being know, you matter to me?

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” - John 13:35.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wherever you are, be all there

Summertime. We’re just a few days into the summer and I’m remembering all the reasons why I love this time of year. While my schedule looks much the same, my family’s schedule has relaxed immensely. As a result our evenings together are more leisurely. Because the kids are now out of school on my day off (Fridays), our weekends feel extra-long. At least for now, I mean that in a good way. Soon enough, I might mean that in a different way! It’s funny how quickly what we long for can be something we long to be done with!

It reminds me once again that lives tend to occur in seasons. Some seasons of life, it’s all you can do to simply keep up. During other seasons you find yourself wishing for more to do. Whatever season of life we happen to find ourselves in, we have a tendency to quickly wish that we were somewhere else. One of the greatest lessons of life is to learn to be present wherever you happen to be.

The missionary Jim Elliot once said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I like that, even if I struggle to live it. One thing that has helped me learn to live it a little better is to ask myself at the end of each day, “Where did I most sense God’s presence today?” And also, “Where did I struggle to be aware of God’s presence today?” The difference often has to do with whether or not I am living in the present season or attempting to fast forward (or rewind!) to some other place.

Is your life hectic? Learn to find God in the chaos. Is your life a bore? Learn to find God in the slowness. Wherever we are, God is there, too. We can find him if we look. To see him, though, we have stop gazing at the place we wish we were and start looking carefully at where we are.   

Psalm 139:7-12

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Salvation: The already, the ongoing, the not yet

As a pastor I encounter two prominent mistakes that Christians make in regards to their salvation. The first involves the Christian who doubts his or her salvation because of the ongoing struggle with sin in their lives. The second involves the Christian who has no issues with the continued presence of sin in their lives because they consider themselves “saved.” The first error misunderstands the power of God’s grace. The second error misunderstands the purpose of God’s grace. Both errors misunderstand that our salvation involves an already, an ongoing, and a not yet aspect.

Justification: The already of our salvation. The Bible teaches us that when Christ died on the cross he made a way for our sins to be forgiven. In fact, in one sense, our sins, all our sins, past, present, and future, were forgiven on the cross. That forgiveness becomes a reality in our lives when we profess faith in Jesus Christ, so that once we become believers we can talk about having already been justified (see Romans 5:1) To be justified means that our sins are no longer counted against us. See Romans 3:24-26, 4:25, 5:1-21.

Sanctification: The ongoing work of our salvation. If justification is being saved from the consequences of our sins, then sanctification is the process of actually being saved from sinning. Sanctification occurs in the life of the believer through the work of the Holy Spirit and involves our growth in grace and holiness as we are transformed ever more into the likeness of Christ. See 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11.

Glorification: The not yet of our salvation. In Romans 13, Paul encourages believers to wake up from their slumber because, “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” He doesn’t mean that these believers have not been justified or that they are not being sanctified. He simple speaks of another aspect of our salvation that awaits the day when Christ returns and makes all things new, including us. This aspect is called glorification. At the resurrection we will be given new glorified bodies, and we will reign with Christ and glorify God forevermore. See Hebrews 9:27-28; 1 Peter 1:3-5;

Understanding the three aspects of our salvation helps us resist the doubts that creep in as we continue to struggle with sin. This struggle does not undo our justification. Understanding the three aspects of salvation keeps us from becoming complacent about sin, for the purpose of God’s grace in our lives is to save us from sinning so that we might be transformed into the image of Christ. Even when the going gets tough, we can press on trusting that our salvation will one day be complete when we Christ comes in glory and we his followers are glorified in him.

So which is it? Are we saved? Are we being saved? Or will we be saved? How about yes to all three.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Learning to Lament: lessons from Eugene Peterson and a coffinmaker

The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

The spate of tragedies this spring has me pondering the role of lament in our lives and in our worship. We modern, western folks are not so good at lamentation. In his book, Leap Over A Wall, Eugene Peterson writes that the ancients understood that in order to truly embrace life we must embrace death. One of the ways we embrace the reality of death is through thoughtful lamentation. Far from glorifying death, lamentation declares that life matters.

Our culture promotes "getting over" grief as quickly as possible. Through denial or distraction we attempt to deny the reality of death. Peterson writes, "The societal affect is widespread addiction and depression. Addiction is our most popular method of denying death. Addiction, ranging from workaholism to alcoholism (and I would add addiction to entertainment), preocuppies us, drugs us, with the impersonal so that we lose the capacity to deal with the personal details and intimate feelings of loss."

In contrast to this, David responds to the death of his best friend Jonathan, and even his enemy Saul, by facing their deaths head on. At the news of their deaths, David took the time to write a sweeping lament in their honor (found in 2 Samuel 1:19-27). It's notable that in his grief David took the time to give expression to his grief in poem. Writing a poem takes time. Writing a poem is not the best way to "get over" one's pain quickly. Writing a poem recognizes that there may not be any "getting over it" in the way so many people foolhardily talk about the grieving process. Peterson writes that slow, purposeful lament "notices and attends, savors and delights - details, images, relationships. Pain entered into, accepted, and owned can become poetry. It's no less painful, but it's no longer ugly."

Death is a part of our human story. Not the whole story mind you, but part of the story nonetheless. We will not be fully ourselves by avoiding the topic. Peterson concludes, "Lament is a bridge from life to death to life. A failure to lament is a failure to connect. If we refuse to learn Davidic lamentation, our lives fragment into episodes and anecdotes, a succession of jerky starts and gossipy cul-de-sacs. But we're in a story in which everything eventually comes together, a narrative in which all the puzzling parts finally fit, about which years later we exclaim, 'Oh, so that's what that meant!' But being in a story means that we mustn't attempt to get ahead of the plot - skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament - making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it - is a primary way of staying in the story. God is telling this story, remember. It's a large, capacious story. He doesn't look kindly on our editorial deletions. But he delights in our poetry."

What are ways that you practice lamentation? Have you ever written a song for the dead? I was impressed by the story of the coffin maker above. Poetry can take so many forms.


By the way, Peterson's book is worth picking up even if all you read is the chapter on grief. You can get it at the new FaithVillage bookstore.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Better than safe

In his book, Just Courage, Gary Haugen, president and CEO of International Justice Mission writes about how we mess up our children when the only thing we want for them is their safety:
After we have poured into our children all the good food and shelter and clothing, after we have provided them with great education, discipline, structure and love, after we have worked so hard to provide every good thing, they turn to us and ask, "Why have you given all of this to me."
And the honest answer from me is, "So you'll be safe."
And my kid looks up at me and says, "Really? That's it? You want me to be safe? Your grand ambition for my life is that nothing bad happens?"

And I think something inside them dies. They either go away to perish in safety, or they go away looking for adventure in the wrong places. Jesus, on the other hand, affirms their sense of adventure and their yearning for larger glory.

Just take Jesus’ interaction with his disciples on the evening of his resurrection. They are huddled in a room behind locked doors, praying, “Lord God, keep us safe.” They had reason to pray such prayers.  Their leader, Jesus, had been crucified just a few days before. That alone was enough to make them think they might be in danger too, but that very morning, a handful of the disciples had seen Jesus’ empty tomb, Mary Magdalene even claimed to have seen Jesus alive! The talk of resurrection was all about town, and the Jewish leaders were in a huff. They had killed Jesus to quiet the crowds. Now the talk was louder than ever. The disciples could only imagine what the Jewish leader’s next move would be. Imagine they probably did. They imagined crosses and stonings and all sort of torture and abuse. That is why the doors were locked and the prayers were fervent – for safety and deliverance from harm. 

Of course, if there is anything the gospel teaches us, it is that locked doors are no match for God.  To the disciples’ amazement Jesus shows up right in their midst. Remarkably, his appearing is not to assure them of their safety. He promises them peace, yes.  A second time, even, but the rest of his words reveal that the peace Jesus gives is not the absence of conflict but rather the deepest of assurances in the midst of the greatest of trials. For far from coming to rescue the disciples from danger, he shows up in that locked room in order to unlock the doors and send them into the dangerous world in order to carry on his mission of forgiveness and reconciliation: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” In essence, he was filling their lives with purpose, and a life filled with purpose, whether we realize it or not, is never safe. It is, however, a life filled with God’s presence. Who of us could ask for more than that?

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it – Matthew 16:25.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

When obedience leads to a desert place

Every life has them. Valleys. Dry spells. Seasons of doubt. Times when we don’t feel God’s presence. Times when it’s difficult to tell if our lives are bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Times when we wonder if God’s kingdom exists at all. Sometimes we find ourselves in these desert places because of our own sins. Remember Moses in the desert? Not the Moses leading the Hebrew children through the wilderness – we’ll get to that. No, before that. Moses’ first desert experience. After he’d killed the Egyptian, what did he do? Exodus 3 tells us that out of fear for his life, he went for a self-prescribed exile to the far side of the desert. Other times, it’s not our sins that bring us low, but life’s circumstances. Like Hannah, our barrenness knocks us to the ground so that even our cries for help are mistaken for drunkenness.

In both cases, such seasons of doubt can be debilitating. But while the pain is great, we usually understand the reason for our desert experience – whether it be our own sins or the result of living in a sinful, fallen world. There are still other desert experiences for which there are less clear cut reasons. For instance, the desert we are least prepared for, is the desert that comes as a result of faith. We assume that if we follow God in faith, our experiences with God will be fresh, intimate, and rewarding. And yet, throughout the scriptures, there they are – places where obedience leads individuals or even whole peoples out into the desert.

That takes us back to Moses and the Hebrew children. We often think that their wilderness wonderings were the result of sin. And to a degree, we’re right. They did wonder in the desert for forty years because of their sin, but friends, it’s the length of the wondering that was affected by their sin – not the crossing of the desert in the first place. Even if they’d trusted God completely, the journey from the bondage of Egypt to the promise of the Holy Land would require a desert crossing.

The more I read the scriptures, the more I study the lives of the saints, the more I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that obedience rarely takes us straight into the promise land for there almost always seems to be a desert between the Egypt of our bondage and the Israel of God’s promise. Think about it. Obedience is what landed Joseph in jail after he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Obedience and faith got Daniel in the Lion’s den before it got him out.

Obedience led the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, across the seas.  Instead of a ministry of fruitfulness, he found a life of despair.  First his wife died in child birth, and then only a few months later, the baby, Maria, died as well.  Swamped with waves of spiritual despair, he lamented, “God is to me the great Unknown.  I believe in him but I find him not.”

In a similar fashion, Mother Teresa, late in her ministry confessed to her spiritual mentor, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing.”

These great saints are in good company. For obedience likewise led Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, out into the wilderness to be tempted and then down the lonely road to a barren cross to be crucified. It was there he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If Jesus experienced times in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, should we, his followers, expect anything less?

By faith . . . they wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect – Hebrews 11:39-40.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Who we are becoming

Over the holidays, I picked up a discounted copy of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. There are few things I like more than a bargain book! The Writing Life is a meandering look at the life of a writer. At one point, she talks about the importance of keeping a schedule. I’ve heard other writers speak to this, which seems counter intuitive. We non-writers tend to think creative types are at their best in moments of spontaneity, but Dillard and other writers often argue that those moments of spontaneity show up most often when they are hard at work in pursuit of the writing life.

“How we spend our days,” Dillard writes, “is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” In other words, if you never schedule time to write, you never will. But if you are disciplined and follow a schedule of writing, you will, little by little, become a writer. How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives.

Too many of us fritter away our days on trivial pursuits. We know all about the Kardashians and have the high score on the latest video game, but our deepest desires remain beyond our grasp. Dillard has captured a basic truth of life, not just the writing life. We don’t become anything worthwhile by accident. We must work at becoming those things we wish to be. Want to end this life as a person of prayer? You must schedule time for prayer and then stick to your schedule. Want to be a person who is giving? You must plan on being a giver and then follow through. Want to be a person who knows the scriptures? Have a plan for reading the Bible every day. There are lots of them out there. Sure there will be starts and stops. You will mess up. That’s not fatal, so long as you don’t give up.

Those who have been saved by God’s remarkable grace have been saved not simply from our sins, but for his divine purposes. Some of us have been called to be writers, others artists, some teachers and others prophets. All of us have been called to be good friends, faithful servants, and eager students of our Lord. Let us not waste our lives on trivial pursuits. Let us cast our nets for the catching of our days. For how we spend this hour and that one, isn’t just what we’re doing, it’s who we are becoming.

 “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

“As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).