Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Things Go Awry

It was not an entirely good day for me today, and I will probably ramble in this blog, but I sensed that God wanted me to write anyway.

I lost my "peace" today, and the result was not pretty! I pinched my left index finger with some pliers I was using (big blood blister), I lost my temper more than once, at one point even consigning a washing machine to perdition, and generally went blustering about most of the afternoon and evening as I continued to try to get my new house fully habitable.

But in the midst of all my blustering God was remarkably close, and I knew it. How can that be? I was filled with anxiety and that led to my anger, etc. Isn't anxiety a sin? Doesn't God withdraw from us when we sin? If you are thinking that way then you don't yet get the good part of the Good News, my friend. :-)

Hmmm, where to start... Okay, let's start with anxiety/fear. I know that it came because at some point today I subtly but consciously made a decision to seize control of my life. I also know that it was partly due to the grief that hovers under the surface, ready to pounce on me at unpredictable times in unpredictable ways (especially today perhaps since it's a Saturday, the day that Jettie died). I also know that I am tired from traveling, fighting off a cold, etc. And so I got in quite a tizzy today as things piled up on me. But God was close at hand, even in my fear and anger. Yup, He lives right inside of me, folks, and He doesn't take a vacation when I lose my cool or take control of my life. And like any good Father or loving Friend, He enters into the painful things that cause my angst, waiting for me to calm down, slow down, come to my senses so that I will pause and listen and let His pursuing love catch me.

But isn't anxiety a form of unbelief and isn't unbelief a sin? Yes and no. Yes, our fears come upon us because we haven't yet fully learned to trust God, and yes, Father is always inviting us to live closer to Him so that we don't get afraid. But to categorize that kind of fear as sin misses the point of the relationship God desires with us. God wants you back when you turn from Him and do your own thing because of fear. He's already taken care of sin so that He can have you back the moment you turn around (and remember, He never really "leaves" since He lives inside you by His Spirit!)

I haven't found it helpful, when anxiety is great within me, to focus on my failures or add the worry about sinning to my other worries! Besides, all of our sins (past, present and future) have been forgiven already so that our way to Father's heart is always open. (Confession is important, so don't panic and start quoting 1 John 1:9! But confession is for our benefit--to remove the relational separation we experience because of our sin.)

So Papa was close to me all day today, even in my fuming and fussing (and even in my swearing!). Yes, He desires better for me, and I will walk in that more and more as I live in His love and learn to respond more quickly to His overtures the next time I get all wound up.

"when anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul." Psalm 94:19 (Not "you told me I was sinning and to knock it off!")

I'm just saying...

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How Did Jesus Learn?

The little boy ran to his father's workshop, tears streaming down his face as he held the tiny bird in his trembling hand, "Daddy, the little sparrow died! Daddy, it hurts. Why did it have to die?"

The father paused in his work and gathered the little boy into his arms. "I know you are sad, little one, and I am sad with you. But God caught the little sparrow when it fell, little one, and He will catch your tears and help you not to be sad anymore. Why don't you ask Him what He wants to say to you about this?"

The little boy stayed for a while in his daddy's embrace before he answered, "Thank you, Daddy! I feel so safe in your arms. I was afraid, Daddy, and sad, but I am safe in your arms. And I think I will ask Abba what He wants to say to me, too."

Later, as the child was alone, He stilled His heart and said to His Abba, "Daddy, the little sparrow died! Daddy, it hurts. Why did it have to die?" And His Abba answered Him, "I know you are sad, little one, and I am sad with you. But I caught this little sparrow when it fell, and not a single little creature is ever forgotten by me. Don't be afraid, little one."

Years passed, and the time came when the child, now much older, stood by the lifeless body of His daddy. Through his tears, He heard His Abba's words, "I know you are sad, little one, and I am sad with you. But I caught your daddy when he fell, and He is with me now forever. Don't be afraid, little one. I will catch your tears, and I never forget those I love."

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Luke 12:6-7 NIV)

How did Jesus learn the remarkable truths that He shared with such absolute confidence? How did He learn that His Abba noticed even the death of a sparrow? How did He learn that His Abba would always provide for us? We sometimes forget that He learned these things the same way you and I get to learn them: by living life with Abba!

I wonder if Jesus knew that His Father cared about the death of a sparrow because of an event in His childhood similar to the one I just described. I wonder if He knew about Father’s provision because of all His years as a carpenter, learning by experience to trust that what God's word said about His Abba's faithfulness was true. I wonder if He knew about Father’s compassion for the sick because of conversations He had with His Abba during the years He wasn’t yet released to heal the sick and felt His heart breaking as He watched people succumb to the devil's attacks. Yes, I think that is the case. In fact, I am sure of it. God's word gave the foundation and language for truth, but Jesus learned about His Abba's heart and nature (the truth) by going through life in Abba's embrace, experiencing truth rather than just recognizing it as fact.

Why is this important to you and me? Because we learn the same way--that will never change. Because learning these kinds of life lessons, although aided by instruction, requires time living "loved and listening." Jesus was tempted to worry, just like we are. Jesus was afraid and tempted to question His Father's care, just like we are (Hebrews 4:15). But it was His ongoing experience of His Father's character that led Him to the perfect trust that kept Him without sin.

Trying to live by principles and instruction without the experience and time with Abba just doesn’t work (for many reasons!), yet many western Christians seem to think that instruction alone (or instruction plus good feelings) will change them. Jesus never intended for His teaching to be sufficient in and of itself, but rather intended for it to bring His hearers closer to His Father. Instruction provides the foundation and the framework for us to recognize and understand who God is (and sometimes what He is doing) but it cannot replace our experiencing who God is as we live out our lives with Him. Even in ordinary life this is how it works. Someone may say to us that they can be trusted or that they are capable, but we don’t really know that it's true--we don't really know them--until we see them live it out, as we experience over time the truth of what they say. Think about this, and I am sure you will not only "get it" but also hear Papa speaking to you about what this means to you.

For me, what it means is that John 1:18 takes on new meaning to me now. Jesus "lived in the Father’s lap" (a literal translation) continuously while He was here on earth, and it was in the Father's embrace that He learned the truths that He so confidently taught others. We can do the same--indeed, I am convinced that it's the only way really to "learn."

Leaning into Father’s embrace,

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Written Law Kills...

"The written law kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIRV)

Many years ago, my sister was part of a women's Bible study composed of both long-time and new believers. One day one of the new believers, a fairly young woman, I think, shared with the group that she was in a very (physically) abusive marriage and asked for the counsel of the group about what God had to say about her situation. From what I recall of the story, at least some in the group told her that she needed to "submit" to her husband and trust God to give her grace, etc. My heart breaks even 30+ years later as I finish this story: the young woman went home so depressed that she took her own life. "The written law kills..." I have yet to hear another story that better illustrates how true Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 3:6 are!

I still cannot think of this story without grief and anger. No wonder the Apostle Paul was so vehement in his attack on legalism and so vigorous in his defense of the Gospel of grace! And we all know that this story, although extreme, represents all of the kinds of death that living by the law always brings, even when advocated by sincere people. "The written law kills..."

So how can we avoid falling into the trap of legalistic thinking? And how can we avoid falling off the other side into "cheap grace"? Goodness, those questions are way too big to be answered in one little blog entry! Indeed, much of my early writing in this blog (about intimacy and living loved) is part of the longer answer to this question. So today I simply want to throw out a few simple thoughts about how to approach scripture and not end up in death-dealing legalism.

In a nutshell, any interpretation of scripture that violates the character of God as revealed in other places should be suspect. Biblical passages are always understood in context, and the largest context of all is the nature and character of God as revealed throughout the entire Bible and especially in Jesus. (Remember, the Bible is not a rule book or book of principles but a revelation of God's character as seen most often in the stories of His interaction with people).

As a specific example of how this approach works, let's go back to my sister's tragic story. First Corinthians 13:4-7 reveals God’s character (God is love), and one of the phrases there says “Love (God) is kind.” Is it kind to tell an abused woman, “Submit to the abuse, live in this relationship, or if you sever it, you can never marry again!”? Good grief! Does this sound kind to you? Yes, there is suffering in this life, but nowhere in Scripture are we told to deliberately expose ourselves to pain that we can avoid. When it is unavoidable we can be assured of His grace to endure (I think of Paul's and Peter’s words to slaves, etc.), but if there is a way to escape, it’s healthy and “biblical” to escape it. Remember, God’s preferred method of changing us is kindness, not pain. When pain is unavoidable because we live in a fallen world, God will give grace and even use that pain, but we should never think that He needs pain to mature us nor that we need to help Him out by seeking out pain! Any good parent understands this! Discipline is the necessary but less preferred approach to maturing our children. And we are imperfect parents at best, yet we know this.

How this principle of interpretation plays out in my life is not subjective, however. People can go down strange paths when they use their "feelings" about what God is like to interpret Scripture! So how this works in my life is that when I run across something that seems at odds with the larger context of God's nature, I stop and ask Him, "What am I missing here?" Often His response is to tell me to check my assumptions and also check out the other contexts of the passage, especially the original context in which the passage was given. Interestingly enough, when we do this regarding an abusive marriage, a very strong case can be made for divorce as a discipline for an unrepentant abuser. This to me sounds much more like the heart of a gracious Father. (Before you get all nervous or upset about this statement, check out the compelling research of Dr. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church. The author explores the texts usually used to condemn women to staying in abusive situations in light of the cultural and theological context of the original hearers of the New Testament. His discoveries and conclusions may surprise you.) Please note that I am not devaluing marriage or suggesting that we don't attempt reconciliation. I am talking about situations where repentance is not forthcoming (defining repentance here as something lived out and not just talked about) and where the abuse is continuing.

"The written law kills, but the Spirit gives life." Freedom from the Law is scary, isn't it? In some ways, it's far easier to live only by principles rather than under the gentle but compelling leadership of Holy Spirit. But life is not found in laws or principles, life is found in living loved and surrendered to, and saturated with, God's Spirit. And when we live in that manner, grace is not scary nor is it cheap. Rather we see life springing up where death once reigned. I choose life!

Treasuring His word (with humility, I trust),

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Freedom of Simplicity

Many years ago Richard Foster wrote a book entitled, The Freedom of Simplicity, and I have borrowed his book title for this week's blog.

I have continued to learn lessons as God has led me through my grief (today marks 3 months to the day that Jettie graduated), but I am weary of writing about me, and I have found that I am at last able to think fairly clearly again and wanted to share from my heart about something I think is becoming increasingly important for believers as our world heads towards economic collapse: the freedom of living simply.

But first, for those who want a really good article on grief (triggered by the loss of a family pet), check out a recent blog by Wayne Jacobsen by clicking here. And for a great article by my friend, Steve Hill, about the primary place of relationships (not theological boxes), click here.

The apostle Paul, writing towards the end of his life, writes some amazing words about the freedom he had discovered in living simply. In Philippians 4:11b-13 he says, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

I could write a lot about this passage, but today I just want to point out that Paul's ability to live content in any circumstance stands in sharp contrast to what many of God's people today. Many believers I know are looking at the increasing signs of financial collapse in our world with the same kind of fear as those who don't know the Lord. Others are "stockpiling" and "hedging" so that they can be okay even when collapse happens (few with this mentality seem to be stockpiling so that they will be able to share with others--hmmmm.) Others are teaching that no matter what happens God will be sure that His people will be financially prosperous (something I find hard to believe since even in the present circumstances that isn't the case, and many who are prosperous seem unaware of how to live generously).

What's up with this fear and/or self-orientation? Paul's words tell us that it is possible to learn to live contentedly regardless of whether one has abundance or barely enough. But what is it we have to learn? Paul tells us, doesn't he? Earlier in this same letter he had told the Philippians what the simple focus of His life was, the "one thing" that formed the center of everything in His life: "I want to know Christ..." (Philippians 3:10a), something that is echoed in 4:13 where Paul's ability to be content grows from the strength He finds through Jesus.

So how does this relate to the phrase, "the freedom of simplicity"? Just that the inner simplicity of making relationship with God the one pursuit of life (rather than pursuing financial security or any other distracting thing) brings with it freedom from less important things, things that Father has promised to care for anyway. And growth in truly knowing Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always brings growth in childlike trust. The more you know Him, the more you will trust Him, period! And trust, of course, is the secret to living without fear regardless of circumstances.

But I will be the first to admit that I am not there yet, not where Paul was when he wrote these words. But I derive hope from the fact that this was written towards the end of Paul's life and he says, "I have learned." This means that living life itself, as it's lived out in relationship with Jesus, will bring us to increased simplicity and therefore increased freedom from fear/anxiety. Or at least that's what I think :-)

I could write more, but I close with my own prayer to Father, "Papa, please help me to simplify my inner life, so that my outer life may also reflect increasing simplicity and the winsome peace that it brings. May my increasing simplicity in every area of life be a compelling invitation to those around me to consider life simply lived in you!"

Tom, one of Abba's little boys