Thursday, April 23, 2009

Foolish Forfeits

Rest is a thief. It robs you of self-pity, worry, guilt, anxiety, doubt, fear, and control. I kinda like to hang on to those things sometimes. My dad has been in the hospital for over a week now with various problems that kept him in ICU. He got out of ICU after they got a handle on the critical issue of renal failure, and we thought he was recovering. But yesterday, the word came that he has colon cancer. My grandfather wrote on his facebook status (yes, my 83 year old grandfather is on facebook) this phrase, “rest is the highest form of faith.” I’m wondering if sometimes I don’t want to have faith. So I choose not to. It means letting go of all those other things. It’s even laying down my right to have other people fret over me. It means I can’t make it all about me anymore. I would forfeit peace for pity.

I just thought of the Jars of Clay song that says, “Don’t trade our love for tea and sympathy.” It talks about giving up on a miracle for the sake of getting a little sympathy, trading in possible victory for a little commiseration and condolence. Maybe we don’t want to trust God for the miraculous, not because we don’t think God will do it, but because we know that by God doing it, we will be robbed of the things we hold most dear – tea and sympathy. Fear. Control. His Kingdom for a donkey! His glory for a rag!

Oh the muck that rises when the rake of suffering dredges the soul!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pavlov, God, and Holiness

This concept of grace first, then holiness is taking root in me. In my theology class today, the topic was sanctification. Though several views were presented, I walked away with some valuable confirmations of what I believe. One was that God pursues us relentlessly for ongoing transformation. So we can confess our inadequacy and inconsistencies openly to him because that’s what he’s already working on, and we can’t work on those things with him until we admit them (and working on them without him is futile). Once we admit them, he can empower us toward holiness. I was reminded that God does the work, and our part is to cooperate.

In a way, sanctification is all wrapped up in views of sin and sovereignty and all that. A little over a year ago I started asking, “what is up to me and what is up to God?” For most of my life I saw sin as simply a choice, an act of my will. But if sin is merely my choice, then holiness too, it seems, is my choice. This looks a lot like moralism and can so easily morph into self-righteousness.

I was reading about Pavlov and his dog earlier this semester, and I started thinking about how behaviorism looks a lot like how I used to view “relationship” with God—except instead of recognizing myself as the one responding instinctively like a dog, I was Pavlov—the cause, the mover. God was Pavlov’s dog. He responds to me based on my actions. I’m good (I ring the bell) and God will respond accordingly with the outcome I want. Only he didn’t. Not consistently. So I stopped believing, really. I didn’t stop believing in God, but I lowered my expectations of God and tried to answer my own prayers. I believed in my own power to change myself, to make myself holy through my own will and choice. I thought spiritual transformation was more about what I do than what God does.

But when I view sin as pervasive depravity that affects all of me (including my choices)—a disease, a pollution—I recognize that there’s no way I can cure myself or make myself holy. All I can do is cooperate with the work God is already doing and revealing. Admit, surrender, and receive. He does the work. I cooperate. This week, he’s working on my Pavlovian notions about holiness, grace, and sovereignty…

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. (I Thessalonians 5:23-24)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Grace and Cigarettes

I’m thinking of taking up smoking as a spiritual discipline. Maybe I’ll sit with God and have a cigarette. I’ve just been very struck this week with my need to embrace my humanity, my limits, my imperfection. It’s so easy for me to get into a brand of Christianity that is all about image, saying and doing the right thing, having it all together. I think of the saying, “don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do,” and I want to radically break out of a Christian culture that would whittle the Christian life down to that.

Most Christians I know don’t think that way, but I just don’t get enough reminders sometimes of my need for Jesus, my humanity, and my brokenness in the Christian culture. Sometimes it seems more like it’s not okay to be a sinner …or a smoker. Often I experience an expectation of perfection—maybe it’s just my own expectation of myself. I wonder if a cigarette with God now and then could be the reminder I need not to bow to those impossible expectations, but to breathe in grace (and tobacco ...and toxic chemicals).

I think my problem comes when I regard holiness over grace. Only through grace can we ever be holy, so a pursuit of holiness must never come first. (And I’m not convinced that holiness has anything to do with not smoking, not swearing, not drinking, etc.) I wonder what it would be like if churches looked more like AA meetings sometimes—no pretense, everyone aware of their own failure, confessing openly, admitting our need, holding each other up, but full of grace and understanding for everyone’s broken condition.

I want to love and accept others as Christ did, but a preoccupation with personal holiness prevents that. I have such a hard time loving people when I’m perfect. My desire for perfection makes it impossible to love because love is messy. Perfection is my point of need. And it is the very thing that keeps me from admitting my need. I am resistant to receiving grace because I don’t want to need it—to be limited and imperfect. So, I don’t want to be human. I want to be God. How like Eve. How human.

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9:12-13

John MacArthur on smoking, drinking, etc.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Cross or the Palm Branch?

How do you respond when you expect a certain gift, but instead of the gift that you want, you receive the gift that you need?

I was asked today to consider why we don’t celebrate Easter every day, and I had to admit that for me it is often because I want salvation on my terms instead of what is offered. Then I started to wonder if, perhaps Palm Sunday is often more of a reality for me than Easter Sunday.

As Christ entered Jerusalem days before his crucifixion, he was welcomed and honored with a fanfare of palm branches. The palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory in the Roman Empire, used in celebration of military success. I don’t think this symbolism was lost on those gathered to pay tribute to the long-awaited Savior—the one they had been expecting—the one who would bring salvation from the Romans, the one who would bring peace and power through a political reign. As they hailed him that day, they were not anticipating his imminent death. They expected a different Kingdom, a different salvation, a different peace than what Christ offered that week. I imagine that when he did not meet their expectations, many were disappointed, maybe disillusioned and even angry. Perhaps their expectation prevented them from receiving the gift. It was what they needed not what they wanted.

It seems that I too want to choose what I’ll be saved from. I want a salvation that is easy, that gives me rights and privilege. I want a Savior who meets my expectations, who fixes my problems, and gives me what I want. I resonate with what David Benner writes, “We want a spirituality of success and ascent, not a spirituality of failure and descent. We want a spirituality of improvement, not a spirituality of transformation. But the way of the cross is the way of descent, abandon and death. This is the foolishness of the gospel.”

If I’m being honest, often it is my expectation of God’s gift that keeps me from celebrating the true gift. He offers what I need instead of what I want. And what he offers is actually better than anything I could conjure or imagine I want. But I have to let go of my expectation of what is good if I’m to accept God’s gift—if I’m to see the goodness of his gift. It is the gift of life. I have to lay aside the palm branch that represents my conception of what God’s Kingdom should be in order to take up the cross.

He is not the Savior I want. He is the Savior I need.