Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Knowing, Trusting, Entering

In the third chapter of A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God, Tozer highlights a serious danger to our churches that is as true today as it was when it was first written in 1948: “The world is perishing for
lack of the knowledge of God and the Church is famishing for want of His Presence.” (pg 27) There is a lot to digest here with respect to what keeps us from entering into the presence of God, but that will have to wait until next week. Instead I want to suggest that one of the things that causes the latter (want of his Presence) is a consequence of the former (lack of the knowledge of God). How much do
we take for granted evangelical language like when we “came to know Christ” or sing songs like “I’ve got a friend in Jesus”? A relationship requires more than meeting someone a single time, and
deep relationships require knowing someone intimately.

And so I believe one of the biggest obstacles to authentic Christianity in our churches is this lack of intimate knowledge of who God is. Books have been written on this very issue with respect to the Son (The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancy for example), the Holy Spirit (Forgotten God by Francis Chan as one), or the Father (Praying the Names of God by Ann Spangler to round out the list from my personal bookshelf). But how many address the Triune God as not of singular characteristics of one of the three, but the perfection that comes from the whole? (And I believe Tozer recognized this when he later wrote The Knowledge of the Holy.) Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the very nature of God, or his majesty, or even of his infinite love and justice?

A couple paragraphs in this chapter stood out to me that I think need to be shared in their entirety:

Who is this within the veil who dwells in fiery manifestations? It is none other than God Himself, “One God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” and “One Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father,” and “the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” Yet this holy Trinity is One God, for “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the glory equal and the majesty co-eternal.” So in part run the ancient creeds, and so the inspired Word declares. (pg 27)

What a broad world to roam in, what a sea to swim in is this God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is eternal, which means that he antedates time and is wholly independent of it. Time began in Him and will end in Him. To it He pays no tribute and from it He suffers no change. He is immutable, which means that He has never changed and can never change in any smallest measure. To change He would need to go from better to worse or from worse to better. He cannot do either, for being perfect He cannot become more perfect, and if He were to become less perfect He would be less than God. He is omniscient, which means that He knows in one free and effortless act all matter, all spirit, all relationships, all events. He has no past and He has no future. He is, and none of the limiting and qualifying terms used of creatures can apply to Him. Love and mercy and righteousness are His, and holiness so ineffable that no comparisons or figures will avail to express it. Only fire can give even a remote conception of it. In fire He appeared at the burning bush; in the pillar of fire He dwelt through all the long wilderness journey. The fire that glowed between the wings of the cherubim in the holy place was called the “shekinah,” the Presence, through the years of Israel’s glory, and when the Old had given place to the New, He came at Pentecost as a fiery flame and rested upon each disciple. (pg 28)

Is this the God you came to know when you accepted Jesus? Is this the God you know now this very moment? If so, are you living like you believe this? A couple things stand out- since God is eternal, time exists in Him not the other way around. And because of this, he has no past and no future and knows the result of all things.

I was just reading in Sheila Walsh’s God Loves Broken People about trusting in this aspect of God to carry us through our trials. We can plaster Romans 8 on a bumper sticker, but do we actually live as if it is true? Do we honestly, I mean honestly, believe that God works all things out for the good? As I type, New Orleans is flooding under yet another hurricane. That same hurricane, then as a tropical storm, pummeled Haiti with rain, ruining the makeshift tent cities and undoing much of the relief efforts there. Meanwhile political talking-heads jockey for position as voters concern themselves with
the economy, finding a job, and wondering how they are going to pay their bills. On whom is our faith based? We are surrounded by sickness, addiction and trauma that have ruined peoples’ very lives. Or has it?

Because we don’t really know God, it is hard to put our trust and faith in him. And because we struggle to trust him we allow all the circumstances above, and even inconsequential things like a tough day at the office or the kids fighting over a toy, to stand in our way of entering into His divine presence.

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Political Expediency, Todd Akin, and the Religious Right

As the days become shorter and begin to cool, it can only mean one thing. Summer is drawing to a close. And being an even-numbered year, that also means election season is right around the corner. Election season, in other words, when I am usually embarrassed to call myself a Christian.

This election cycle is holding to form with the latest soundbite flub of Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin. In case you haven't heard, Akin made a comment about "legitimate rape" not causing pregnancy because a woman's body automatically shuts down its reproductive ability due to the trauma. When I first heard this, I didn't blink and I didn't flinch. I just chalked it up as a politician trying to score some pro-life points. But the statement itself did not phase me. I am a data-nerd so I take any claim by a politician without data to back it up with a grain of salt. So I was surprised to see so much backlash come against Akin. Did he say something stupid? Absolutely. Should he be vilified for it? No, but...

Like I said, it's election season and there's this thing called political expediency. You might also hear discussion on electoral math or listen to prognosticators speculate who will gain or lose seats in Congress to maintain, or regain, control of one or both houses. This is the time of year when logic is set aside for the sake of votes- see Palin, Sarah. (And let's be honest, doesn't most of the pandering for votes by either party defy logic?) So political expediency demands that Akin take the fall for his comments for the greater good of his party. Is that right or is that fair? Well it doesn't matter in the cutthroat world of politics.

But then something strange happened. I knew we were in trouble when I saw the headline, "Kirk Cameron defends Akin". After first asking myself why I should care what Kirk Cameron thinks, I was compelled to click on the link to find out why exactly Cameron was stepping into this political mess. Come to find out, Akin is a favorite of Conservative Christians (somehow I failed to get that memo) so it was only natural during an interview with Cameron on something completely different for the hosts of the Today show to ask him about it. Cameron's comments opened the door for the Religious-Right to come out to support Akin in defiance of their party's wishes.

First Kirk Cameron, then Mike Huckabee and David Barton (really?). Although they have the platform, it is important to note that not everyone who calls themselves Christian agrees. And now there are children conceived by rape and mothers who are the victims of rape stepping out to add their voice to the debate. So now the debate is no longer about an abstract theory, but about real people.

What worries me about this whole ordeal is the precedence it sets. I knew Christian Conservatives were a significant voting block to be pandered to, but I did not expect them to wield this big of a stick to get their way. This also doesn't help the perception that Christianity is anti-science. Add crazy fertilization science to the growing list of anti-global warming, anti-evolution, anti-sun being the center of the Solar System, and so on. Meanwhile this anti-everything faction of the Republican Party is risking derailing the party altogether. Remember what I said about political expediency? Well you can forget about that when these Christians get a bur in their saddle.

And I'm again reminded why I loathe this time of year.

"But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless." (Titus 3:9)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Tyranny of Things

I was going to go a different direction with this post, but re-reading the second chapter of A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God this statement stood out to me: the tyranny of things.

In the context of the things of this world displacing God on the throne of our hearts, Tozer writes, "Our Lord referred to this tyranny of things when He said this to His disciples, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.'" (pg 18)

Of course these words of Jesus from Matthew 16 are familiar to us. Toby Mac even had a best-selling song from the following verse about gaining the world but losing your soul. But maybe we have become too familiar with this verse; so familiar that we miss just how radical Jesus' teaching is. That's why the word "tyranny" stood out to me. We know Jesus sets us free from sin, but he also sets us free from things.

How many times does Jesus call others to give something up? In the other example of Jesus talking about finding your life only to lose it in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is following up on the offensive statement, "anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37) When Jesus called the first disciples, they gave up their careers (Luke 5). Other examples: the guest of honor must give up the seat at the head of the table (Luke 14), the rich young ruler must give up all his possessions (Matthew 19), the worshiper must give up their gift at the altar to be reconciled with others (Matthew 5), the sinner must even give up body parts! (also Matthew 5). Luke doesn't mess around, quoting Jesus saying, "any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:33)

The life of following Jesus is one of ongoing sacrifice. I was meditating on this the other day in the context of Jesus ushering in his Kingdom. He calls us to a life of slavery where we give up all of our rights, all of our possessions, all of our dreams, all of our things, and submit to his Lordship within the walls of his eternal Kingdom where he provides everything we need. We even give up our citizenship and call heaven home.

So we are given two choices- a life where our things mean nothing, living in the Kingdom under the Lordship of Christ, or a life where we are under the reign of the tyrant of all our things. There is no middle ground. Tyranny or Lordship, things or Christ.

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jesus Wept

Where is God when...? Why does God allow...?

The hard questions. Stumbling blocks for many to believe in a benevolent creator, awkward for believers whose faith intentionally ignore the question. The easy answer is to simply say, I don't know. Truth is, only God knows what and why. But it is foolishness to think we are the first to ask these questions.

Jesus was confronted with these questions while he was still walking the earth. In John 11, we read of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Most of us easily remember how the story ends, but we forget the suffering that came before. When Jesus was told Lazarus was sick, he waited two days to do anything about it. Ever have a prayer go unanswered? Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, must have felt like many of us do: maybe Jesus didn't get the message; maybe Jesus doesn't care as much as we thought; maybe Jesus is just too busy.

So when Jesus finally does arrive, Lazarus had been dead for four days. How do you think Mary and Martha felt? I can imagine them approaching Jesus and through their exhaustion and tears lashing out at him in despair. The Bible sensitizes the scene with both women stating, at different times, "if only you were here..." as a passive-aggressive rejection of the Lord's timing.

When we ask the hard questions, we often think God doesn't understand. But he does, because he went through it himself. While standing before friends and onlookers, hearing the weeping and wailing, Jesus was overcome with emotion. Most Bible translations say Jesus was "moved" but the word in verse 33 describes anger or the snorting of a horse. Jesus was more than moved. As Shelia Walsh puts it in God Loves Broken People, "This was the Son of God raging at the pain that Mary and Martha, that [friends and family], that you and I have faced or are facing right now."

So how did Jesus respond? With the shortest verse in the Bible. He wept.

Yes, this was a lesson about the resurrection of the dead. Yes, it affirmed Jesus' authority even over death. But it is something more as well. Jesus is showing us that on the other side of all the suffering, after all the questions, there is life.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Catching Squirrels

(Apologies for the late post. I wrote this on the plane yesterday but was more jet-lagged than usual last night and I'm just now waking back up)

How do you catch a squirrel? They say if you hide a nut behind a small hole the squirrel will reach in for the nut and get stuck. Its closed fist will be too large to pull back through the hole, but the squirrel is not smart enough to let go of the nut to get free.

We are a lot like that squirrel, and the world has figured out how to trap us. How easy is it to reach in to grab things, unwilling to let go for our own good? It starts young- right after learning dada and mama, the next words out of a young child's mouth is usually mine or more. We put on diapers with popular cartoon characters, is if it makes any difference to the kid. And then the toys come- every birthday, every Christmas, and every excuse in between- Easter, Valentine's Day, even a natural part of development like losing a tooth is followed by a visit from the tooth fairy, bringing money.

We are raised to want more and more. And it isn't limited to children's toys. The iPhone 4 isn't good enough, you need the iPhone 5. Never mind that your old TV was a 36 standard-def, you need that 60 inch high-def plasma. Got in on the ground floor of HDTV? Upgrade your 720p to 3D. Meanwhile I type this on my iPad after reading the second chapter of A.W. Tozer's Pursuit of God via my Kindle App.

I have a lot. If you're reading this on a computer screen or a portable device, you have a lot too. So the hard question we need to ask ourselves, is if our hands are stuck in the hole? Recently my wife and I were looking at ways to trim our budget. I wrestled with the thought of giving up my iPhone and XM radio. I just couldn't do it. Why? What am I going to miss out on? We've already had to implement a no-phone rule at dinner. I probably wouldn't be losing anything, rather gaining otherwise wasted time.

Tozer writes, "Things have become necessary for us, a development never originally intended. God's gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the monstrous substitution." (pg 18) He them goes on to remind us of the example of Abraham, who was asked by God to sacrifice- put to death- that what meant the most, his son Isaac. Instead of protesting, asking how he could live without, he obeyed. God spared his son and blessed Abraham for learning this hard lesson. Tozer continues, "the words "my" and "mine" never again had the same meaning to Abraham." (pg 21)

"Mine" still means something to me. It's amazing how much I can hold in one hand while it is so hard to pull it from the trap.

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hero

If you were to write your autobiography would it be thriller or a comedy? If you were the center of your own story, would not every hurt and every wrong would paint you as the victim? Who would be the supporting cast? What role would they play: encourager, enabler, persecutor? In the climactic finale, who would be the hero?

The truth is, if it were up to us we'd be the heroes of our own story. After all, the story is all about us, right?

But we've come to learn the story isn't really all about us, is it? So then, who's the hero?

The world is in need of a hero. Is it the hero to save us? The hero that is ordinary? The hero of the day? Or is it the hero who was famous for nothing?











(I forgot how much I love that Metallica video. It shows just how desperate the world is for a hero.)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Thirst

My mom is from the Southeast so we would regularly fly out over the summer to spend a week with her family. I remember nearly every trip getting migraine headaches that would lay me up in bed for a day. I would attribute it to the heat and the humidity, but then I took a trip to cooler climate and suffered the same malady. What was common was that I would feel this way the second day after flying, so I figured that maybe it was the recirculated air on-board, or the pressurization of the cabin. But I later learned it was dehydration. Spending 5-6 hours on a plane drinking nothing but free soda and no water has that effect. Since coming to that realization, I now will only drink water on-board and make sure to drink at least another liter of water every time I fly. And I haven’t had such a headache since.

“Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.”
(Psalm 1:1-3)

It is funny to look back and recognize that I physically felt ill just because I was thirsty. And because I was filling my body with junk disguised as refreshment, I didn’t recognize my need for pure water.

A.W. Tozer writes “Christ may be ‘received’ without creating any special love for Him in the soul of the receiver. The man is ‘saved’ but he is not hungry nor thirsty after God. In fact he is specifically taught to be satisfied and encouraged to be content with little.” (Pursuit of God, pg 12)

We are fooled into thinking we are spiritually satisfied by church attendance or religious participation. Meanwhile our souls ache inexplicably. We fail to recognize the thirst that God himself has placed in us. “The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after him.” (pg 9)

It would be easy to jump on my soapbox and compare religiosity to the nutritionally vapid soda from my personal experience. What is interesting is that nearly 70 years ago, Tozer observed the same thing. This is nothing new and whatever I write on some blog is unlikely to change that. Instead I need to look inwardly at my own thirst, and my own temptation to drink deeply from that which does not satisfy.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2)

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

In the Beatitude above it is in vogue to translate righteousness instead as justice and miss the point of personal sanctification. The Amplified Bible expands righteousness as "uprightness and right standing with God." The Message Bible  talks of having a "good appetite for God." The temptation, besides an outward focused "justice" is a works-oriented trying hard to do good definition of righteousness. I like the idea combining the two translations above as simply having an appetite to be with God.

My soul thirsts for God. I am hungry to be with Him. Where can I go to satisfy my appetite and be filled? My temptation is to look around and try and find some program, some activity, some quick-fix to my spiritual longing. Tozer addresses this too, "The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart." (pg 15) Simply put, man created religion to satisfy the need to seek out God and his holiness. But it is man-made and can never satisfy. So for every failed method there is an improved program. For every campaign that falls short there is a new marketing program. For every book read and put down there is another best-seller to take its place.

I cannot be satisfied by what the world, even the religious world, offers. Only God himself can satisfy my soul. Only God, God alone. And so I begin this book in The Pursuit of God.

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Running for the Glory

Sunday I watched Usain Bolt prove again that he is the "fastest man in the world" as he won the Gold medal in the 100 meter dash at the London Olympics. As a former sprinter myself, the 100 meter dash is my favorite Olympic event (with the 4x100m relay close behind). To the winner goes the lofty title above; it takes a special kind of ego to compete at that level.

My interest in the race goes back to Carl Lewis' four-medal showing in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and it wasn't too long after that I laced up my first pair of cleats with him as my inspiration. Since then records have been set, broken and set again, runners disqualified and medals stripped, unlikely heroes crowned, and of course the heartbreak of missing the medal podium by a literal hair (again, Tyson Gay came up short- just 0.01 second behind US teammate Justin Gatlin).

But the drama of this race did not begin in 1984. Of course we could obviously go back to Jesse Owens' performance in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin before the critical eyes of Adolf Hitler. But I want to go back a little further to the 1924 games in Paris.

Not long after Bolt crossed the finish line in Olympic-record time, I put in my DVD of Chariots of Fire. If you're not familiar with the movie, it recounts the efforts of Great Brittan's track and field team, specifically sprinters Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, as they prepared for and competed in the Paris Olympics. I've talked about Liddell's story before, but watching the movie while the London Olympics unfolded before me took on added significance.

One of the key plot points in the movie, and in Liddell's life, was his refusal to run in the 100m dash because the preliminary heats were held on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. While this is a true story, the movie adds and extra level of drama by portraying Liddell as surprised to learn this on the way to Paris, when in fact he knew months in advance. Also not portrayed in the movie was that he also refused to run 4x400m relay for the same reason.

Bolt won his Gold medal on Sunday. Imagine, for a moment, Bolt refusing to race because it conflicted with his religious convictions. He would have been widely criticized as fanatical and his absence would have created a worldwide scandal. Perhaps Liddell wasn't a runner of the same notoriety, but he was considered the fastest man in England. Liddell did compete in the 400m dash as a back-up event, and though he held the English record for the 440 yard dash he was not expected to seriously compete at the Olympics. Surpassing everyone's expectations, he won gold, setting a world record that would hold for 12 years. So competitively, Liddell was on par with Bolt.

We've heard the soundbites from athletes grateful for their performances thanking God and giving him credit and praise. But what if Gabby Douglas or Missy Franklin went a step further and refused to compete on a Sunday? It is nearly unthinkable. Yet some Jewish athletes choose not to compete on Saturdays and all will refuse to compete during Holy Days. Likewise Muslims will also not compete during their Holy Days. Imagine Christian basketball players sitting out every Friday during Lent (it is during March Madness after all) and when would the NFL play if most players took Sundays off?

A lot is made of the culture war in America on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, but if we look just at holiness- being separate from the world- it appears to me that we've already lost as competition and fame have won out over our convictions. (How many in your congregation miss church on Sundays during softball or soccer tournament season?)

Right before Liddell ran in the 400m finals, a note was handed to him quoting 1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honor me I will honor." As you watch the Olympics ask yourself, who are you honoring?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Chicken With a Side of Politics, Business, and Religion Causes Indigestion

One night while I was in college, I was pulling an all nighter with some friends when the munches came. So like any other college student, we debated what brand of cheap pizza would torment our stomachs in the morning. "I will not eat Domino's" expressed one friend. She then explained how the CEO of Domino's donated significant money from the company's profits to pro-life groups. It was also right around this time that Eddie Vedder wrote "pro-choice" on his arm with a sharpie prior to playing a song on MTV. You might say this was a coming of age moment for me. No longer were brands apolitical. Even favorite musicians had an opinion; often strong ones at that. The innocence was gone.

At this time I identified more with the College Republicans than with campus ministry. The Michael P Keaton capitalist in me recognized that a private company had the right to spend their profits however they wished, just as consumers had every right to not give those companies their patronage. Musicians could hold an opinion, and listeners could choose not to buy their albums.

With this attitude in mind, I really wanted a Chick-fil-A sandwich yesterday. One, because I happened to be traveling in the Southeast and there aren't any restaurants back where I live. And two, I thought it would make a good anecdote for this post. Unfortunately, my terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport didn't have one, so I settled for pizza instead. From Pizza Hut, not Domino's.

To be honest, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to wade into this debate. The doctrinal and political leanings of Chick-fil-A’s president Dan Cathy are not news. And I think this whole firestorm has been fed by fuel poured on by the media. Yet the heart of the issue is right in the wheelhouse of the theme of this blog- in our democratic, capitalist society, what is the best way to stand up for our convictions in the public square?

In the context of the Freedom of Speech, Cathy didn't do anything wrong. But was it the wisest approach?

Jesus was relatively apolitical. When the Pharisees tried to trap him into speaking out against Rome, he turned the tables on the instead. Paul wrote about soldiers who don't concern themselves in political affairs while instructing Timothy to not get wrapped up in useless quarrels and debates.

In practice I think this would allow for financial support for causes when done in private, or vocal support when independent of business. I think you get yourself in trouble when you mix the two. But then again, I think it gets messy when you mix religion and politics in the first place.

Yet you could argue this is a moral issue, not a political one. But if it were not for the politics, would we even hear about this? And since Cathy so strongly supports "traditional marriage" is he as vocal opposing divorce? Or warning against workaholism? So how should he have expressed his convictions and how should we, as Christians have responded?

Others have written plenty on this already. Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Alise Wright, David Kenney are just a small sampling. And Get Religion has done an excellent and thorough job scrutinizing the media attention this has received. (In order, Where's the Beef, The Internet Honors Stupid Stories, The Media's Irrational Fear of Chick-fil-A, Shocking AP Quotes, Hating on Chick-fil-A)

Please review these viewpoints, the pros and cons of boycotting or “eating mor chikin”, and tell me what you think the most Christ-like approach would be.

Update: A friend of mine, who also happens to be gay (yes, it is possible for a conservative Christian to have gay friends; shocking, I know!) posted this link showing the "Top 50 homophobic Chick-fil-A tweets" on his Facebook account. I know this is polarizing, but does it necessitate this kind of response? Warning in advance, the language in those tweets are beyond crude and definitely NOT Christ-like.

(Hah! I just noticed a typo of financial was auto-corrected to fanatical, completely changing the point of that sentence. Typo corrected, carry on)