Saturday, October 21, 2006

Encouragement from Ephesians

In the book of Ephesians, Paul is especially concerned that the church in Ephesus understand the truth... the truth about their spiritual legacy, current state, promise and inheritance - and that they live up to it.

It's great to know that reality isn't just what we see and experience... there's far more going on, and at stake, than we can see with our physical senses. There's so much truth in this book to discuss, but this afternoon - especially in light of what I've been writing about - this small phrase is a huge encouragement to me:
"...for He Himself is our peace..." (Eph. 2:14)

No matter what anybody tells you, no matter how far or wide you look, no matter how hard you try, there's only one place to find peace - it's in Jesus alone. In His person, experienced in relationship with Him. How easy it is to get distracted, to look elsewhere... and miss the benefit we're supposed to be living in.

When it's all stripped away, it's just Him. What a miracle that He does this for us!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Thoughts Following This Week

One of the things I love about the Bible, and one of the reasons that it grips me, is the brutal honesty I find expressed in the lives of those described. I mean really - would any sane person trying to sell a new philosophy or religion actually have put some of the stuff in the Bible in their religious writings?

Let me be more specific: This last month has been awful. (Just be thankful you can skip over it here, and not hear me whine about it!) Anyway, especially this last week, we've been on a roller-coaster of emotion... I'd like to say that "I'm experiencing blissful happiness and tranquility" in the midst of life's difficulty, but I'm not. I've gone to bed at night feeling like I'm not going to wake up. My wife and kids are tired of hearing me say that I'm having chest pains... each day has felt like a different, more painful hit than the day before.

And I know I've said this before (somewhere), but the problem for me is that I want to be in control - and the difficulties I wrestle with are all totally beyond that. Sometimes I wish I could trade difficulties with someone who's having them directly (like a personal illness, business failure or other pressure), because I'd be able to do something about that! But God seems to know precisely where I need breaking, and off to the land of "beyond-my-control" I find myself.

We're thrilled with the news today about our son, and I don't want to take anything away from that. The same person who called me today with good news called my wife last week with very confusing and disturbing news. So it's hard to feel like "its over" - you just never really know. (It's always that way, isn't it? The calm of "ordinary" life can be disturbed - no, shattered - by a thousand things we can't -or won't - begin to comprehend.)

Back to the Bible, though. That "overly-honest" stuff? One example that caught me this evening was the book of Lamentations. I really feel like posting all of it. Here's a guy who most churches would send off for therapy (or at least to a men's accountability group) quickly, just to get him to shut up! But he captures the feelings I have had, sometimes expressed wandering the house in the middle of the night, when he says this (in Lamentations 3)

"I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long..." (v1-3) "He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked..." (v.7-9) "my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, 'My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD'. Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me." (v.17-20)

Ok, that's not too "celebratory." And in our hearts, we all know that place - and that it's a lonely place to be. Even though we've all been there, evangelicals "aren't supposed" to feel that way. We're supposed to be up, happy and smiley. "Doesn't Jesus want you happy, healthy and fulfilled?"

Actually, I don't think so. At least not the way that it's generally described to me.

It's possible to feel down, depressed, even crushed... and still be walking in God's plan and purpose. Maybe that's what the writer of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) was confident of when - even in the midst of that level of discouragement and pain, he could follow immediately with this thought:

"But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (v.21-23).

In the ups and downs of life, I love the FACT that regardless of my circumstances - regardless of anything, even the crushing weight of life's darkest days or problems, God's love and mercy are both immeasurable and unending. He sustains even when you're dying inside. What a mystery... but what a promise and a truth.

Many people have seen difficulty beyond anything I've known, so I'm not the expert. But no matter, I've got to decide daily whether I'm trusting in God's faithfulness or in my circumstances. And like the author of Lamentations, those two things sometimes seem very much at odds in my life.

A.W. Tozer wrote about seasons of life like this in his book "That Incredible Christian"... he said this:

"To do His supreme work of grace within you He will take from your heart everything you love most. Everything you trust in will go from you. Piles of ashes will lie where your most precious treasures used to be.

This is not to teach the sanctifying power of poverty. If to be poor made man holy every tramp on a park bench would be a saint. But God knows the secret of removing things from our hearts while they still remain to us... now under the careful treatment of the Holy Spirit your life may become dry, tasteless and to some degree a burden to you...

While you life in this state you will exist by a kind of blind will to live; you will find none of the inward sweetness you had enjoyed before. The smile of God will be for the time withdrawn, or at least hidden from your eyes. Then you will learn what faith is; you will find out the hard way, but the only way open to you, that true faith lies in the will... And you will learn, probably to your astonishment, that it is possible to live in all good conscience before men and God and still feel nothing of the "peace and joy" you hear talked about so much by immature Christians...

Slowly you will discover God's love in your suffering. Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing. You will learn from yourself what all the schools in the world could not teach you - the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure. You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death and, what is more important to you at the moment, the fear of life." (emphasis added)

Tozer goes on to warn his generation - soaked in the promise of wealth and prosperity - about the timeless truth of this thought. It is honest, real and - in my life, sustaining... through ups and downs. It's also a message sorely needed to be proclaimed in a world full of "Joel Olsteen-type" religious blather.

For us, today's crisis has passed. While we're grateful (even celebrating!), the next one may be waiting in hours, or delayed indefinitely. But for me, whatever comes, I'll choose to seek to echo the author of Lamentations when he said - in an act of "willful" faith during a period of crushing defeat:

"'The LORD is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD." (3:25-26)

It is. So I will.

Good News...

We got the good news this afternoon from the surgeon's office... the biopsies on our son are negative - no indication of any spread of melanoma! We're to be grateful in all circumstances, but its easier to be so in this one.

"...The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:4-7

Ok, I'm working on my part... but Jesus seems to keep showing up to do His. More later tonight...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Helpful Observation

Back from the hospital after a long day... we're hopeful that all will be ok. The comment to my last post from Shiloh Guy was very helpful and an encouragement to me (assuming you discount the nice things said about me!), and reminded me of something important to add to my one-sided conversation here.

I've been writing about discipline, and how I'm trusting God's purpose and plan in all of the circumstances of my life - even the bad ones. But it's so normal to ask "why?" For example, why does my young son suffer? How can a father even begin to comprehend suffering of that nature - so far out of my control - how can anything good be found there?

C.S. Lewis' book A Grief Observed is a treasure of honesty in the midst of suffering; so personal that Lewis published it anonomously. Towards the end of the record of his wrestling with God following the death of his wife Joy, he made a statement which resonates with me tonight - when I'm thinking about today's "why" questions:

"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'no answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand.'

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical questions are like that."

I'm not sure about the percentage he mentions, but I think Lewis was on to something important. I thank God that His ways are higher than mine... that He has a greater plan and purpose than my mind can comprehend.

I don't want to stop asking questions. And life cries out sometimes with them... But I don't have to be overwhelmed by them. We do really "see through a glass darkly" now.

So while many of my questions are unanswered, I still find comfort in the character of our God... I believe that He's worth loving, following - and even trusting - regardless of my understanding of the path along which He's leading me.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Discipline of the Lord (Part 2)

(Hey, here's a new look to the page... but the same old pablum from my wife's husband... )

'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.'

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I'm continuing to wrestle with this passage. I'm finding that it is incredibly comforting to know that God has a plan for my life that even contemplates painful circumstances. And a number of circumstances in our lives lately have been painful:

  • The loss of my wife's mother
  • Extended family difficulties
  • Painful church experiences

And now, we've discovered that there is the specter of uncertaintly over our youngest son, a cancer survivor 12 years ago, now diagnosed with melanoma. Is it ok? Is it not? A roller coaster of emotions as we sort through encouraging and confusing information. Oh yeah, and the waiting... that's fun too. Surgery tomorrow, learning about things like "wide local excisions" and "sentinel node biopsies" - chest x-rays, a call from the surgeon to "go get a CT scan, we're not worried, but the radiologists see some things not normal for a 12 year old" - call to the oncologist, etc., etc.... blah blah blah. Ecch.

So, I've been thinking: Is it the Lord's discipline that I'm feeling? Is it sin (personal or corporate)? Is it merely the random difficulties of life common to all in a fallen world? And whatever it is, how am I supposed to react?

My answer? I don't know. I can't figure it out. My perspective is so temporal... so parochial. Maybe more to the point, I don't even think I'm supposed to know. The Bible says that I'm supposed to "trust in the LORD with all [my] heart, and do not lean on [my] own understanding." (Prov. 3:5) So I'm trusting, and have decided that no matter what, I'll learn what I can during this season of life.

That's why the commandment in this passage is gripping me: "Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord."

The Greek compound word here (I'm told) means "to have little esteem for something, to think lightly or make lightly..." (BDAG). I'm coming to understand that this is my natural bent, my first reaction to difficulty - I have "little esteem" for it. I mean that I don't see any redeemable good in the problem and I want to make it go away. My mindset is that life will be ok again when this bad thing is removed - it never should have happened. I'm regarding it lightly... refusing to see that a good and loving Father may be allowing - or even causing - the circumstance for my good.

Discipline takes many forms in my house. It's corrective (when one of my kids have broken the rules), but sometimes its just training... building them up, preparing them for greater work ahead. If you go through life never having to do a chore, how do you get prepared to hold down a job? (By the way, I'm not accepting comments from my kids on that comment).

I'm coming to see the issues in life as God's discipline - whether corrective or proscriptive, my perspective is to see that - no matter what - it can be good. Even when it hurts like crazy at the moment.

Two weeks ago, our basement took on a little water for the first time in 12 years. While I was writing this, the service people we called finally showed up, and told me that I've got a huge mess (lots of contorted faces, hand-wringing and big dollars under discussion). I've got to say that while I'm not totally convinced I need the bio-hazard services into my home in the next 24 hours, I am increasingly convinced that God means it when He said through Paul:

"...And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What if He actually means it? :) Thinking about it all, I'm deciding this: I'm going to see God's good hand in all that life throws at me - even the bad things. "Though he slay me, I will hope in him..." (Job 13:15). I've decided that I'll trust the loving character of my Father in heaven, and not "regard lightly" the discipline of the Lord.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Discipline of the Lord (Part 1)

All around me, I'm surrounded by people who tell me about God's "blessing" in their life:

“God's blessed me with a wonderful wife and four kids...”
“God's blessed me with a great job...”
“God's blessed me with a new car...”
“God's blessed me with good health...”“
God is so good... look at what He's given to us”!

It's enough to make you stand up and sing "and now I am happy all the day!" Ugg.

You see, I grew up in a church culture that equated peace and comfort with God's blessing. It was home of the “Gospel of the Big Offer”: Jesus wants you happy, Jesus wants you fulfilled. Don’t you want the good life? Come to Jesus, and everything will be all right!

How unsettling, then, are the words of the Holy Spirit through the writer of the letter to the Hebrews!

For me at least, life isn’t what my little sub-culture promised. Frankly, it’s a lot harder than I ever thought, and for some people I love, it’s even harder for them. In my family’s life, the last month has been especially hard, with more difficulty than we ever anticipated around us… the kind of time where you don’t want to tell anyone just exactly how bad it really is, because no one really wants to know anyway. Anyway, in light of all that, I've been thinking a lot about Hebrews 12:5-11:

“... And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

This passage has really hit me, and there are so many things that are helpful to me here. I thought I’d post on them one at a time, but here's the first thought that was really refreshing to me:

The Lord disciplines.

I know that's not too profound, but it hit me. The Lord? The God of the Universe? HE actually disciplines?? Well, I guess He does!

It’s this whole topic of discipline that I’m wrestling with. Now I have some understanding of discipline – I have kids (hey, I even was a kid once!) Thayer’s and Smith define the word, in part, to mean:

“…the whole training and education of children (which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment)… and whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, esp. by correcting mistakes and curbing passions…instruction which aims at increasing virtue and chastisement, chastening, (of the evils with which God visits men for their amendment)” (emphasis added)

I’m ok with instruction, and even commands and admonitions. But reproof? Punishment? Chastisement? Chastening? Evils – “which God visits [on] men”?

With my kids, I understand that discipline may take the form of be correcting mistakes (punishment, consequences, etc.), and it may be building on strengths (chores, additional responsibilities, teaching, etc.). The kids may or may not like it or even get it at the time. But the goal is to train them up to maturity. And the methods God uses in my life may also be something I understand or beyond anything I like or want at the moment.

I don't know what you think, but this isn't exactly good news at first blush. I wasn't too fond of discipline as a child, and my taste for pain hasn't exactly grown. But the more that I think about it, the more powerful - the more life-changing this thought seems to me - and also, by the way, the more completely foreign to my thinking and practice. You see, even as an evangelical Christian, I've spent most of my life trying to avoid the Lord's discipline and, when I've thought about it at all, I've generally thought wrongly about it… for example, I’ll say:

  • “Is God in control?”
  • “What’s gone wrong in my life?”
  • “Why is this happening to me?

Like a lot of other truth, of course I know this. But when difficulty comes, I've got to admit that my first emotional reaction is that the trouble is outside of God's plan - maybe even outside of His control. "Where are you God? Can you help me now?" My heart reaction is that something is desperately wrong - that the trouble experienced is outside of God's plan and purpose.

But what if it isn't?

What if the difficulty I or my loved ones are experiencing is exactly what our loving, gracious, consistent, beneficial, all-knowing heavenly Father actually intended to happen?

I know that “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” I'm not saying that God is the author of evil, and I’m not up for the argument about the origin of evil, pain and suffering. I’m confident in the nature of God and His character to not be wrestling with that – I know that He’s good, loving, kind and compassionate to His children. But it seems clear that none of the circumstances in the life of a believer escape the notice - and control - of the Lord. What else could a beleaguered Paul mean, for example, when in the midst of talking about "the sufferings of this present time" he says that "...all things work together for good" for those who are love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 12)?

So when bad things happen to me or to those around me, is it possible in 21st century America to think that God may be using, or even causing the circumstance for my good – as discipline?

James MacDonald said once that “God’s discipline is painful circumstance brought or allowed into the life of a believer by God to change their character and their conduct.” As I get my mind around this, I’m beginning to feel more of the purpose – and the goodness of God - in life’s difficulties.

So, in the midst of a tough time of life, when I don’t know what I’m supposed to learn or the precise cause of all of the difficulty, I’m looking for the Lord’s hand and His purpose. I’m actually beginning to feel that it’s ok that The Lord Disciplines. Life isn’t out of control, and the pain I experience has not escaped His notice. Far from that, it’s all from Him, part of His plan for me, and even for my benefit. So the very things that humanly should bring me a heavy heart are becoming the things I rejoice over, because they are useful – helpful… yeah, even good, because I know that God’s discipline is an indication of my son-ship, and a tangible evidence of God’s mercy and perfecting love in my life.

So if it’s God I’m dealing with, who am I to regard lightly anything coming from Him – even discipline?