Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stacking Stones


After God miraculously stopped up the Jordan River so his people could at long last enter their promised land, he commanded Joshua to collect twelve stones from the temporarily-exposed riverbed. These stones, which represented the twelve tribes of Israel, would be stacked into a monument on the other side. Most of the Israelites who passed through the Jordan were born in the wilderness (You probably remember how their parents were barred from the land due to rebellion and unbelief). Second generation Israelites had only heard the stories of how God had dramatically rescued them from bondage in Egypt. So this became something like their very own Red Sea crossing. In the years to come, they could return to this location to look at the memorial and remember God’s provision. Their future children could run their fingers along the smooth stones taken from the floor of the Jordan and ask what it was like to see God roll the water back like a scroll. God knows the fickleness of human memory. He knows how easily we forget and how our hearts inevitably wander. The truth is that faith is unavoidably tied to memory, and sometimes our memory needs a little help.

I’m very sympathetic to honest skeptics (I’ve written elsewhere about my own perpetual journey through doubt). But when it comes to this sort of doubt, the kind that predictably emerges from our own forgetfulness, we have only ourselves to blame. If we’ve experienced God’s hand in our lives at some point, yet failed to document his faithfulness for future reference, then we’ve recklessly squandered his revelation. We’ve essentially been lazy with his grace.

I keep a journal, what I call my “faith book,” that acts as one of my more meaningful stacks of stones. It has something like a dozen entries. Only what I consider to be the most remarkable events make it in. When my memory fades, as it often does, I flip through this little book. It’s helpful to have my own voice, a younger me with a closer vantage point to the actual event, always ready to rebuke my unbelief. What was once clearly “miraculous” to us can sadly become merely “coincidental” if we fail to leave a record when everything is still fresh in our minds.

One of the stones in my “faith book” was given to me on December 6th, 2012. I was washing dishes on a Thursday afternoon (I know this because I wrote it down) while my one-year-old daughter took her daily nap. I had been volunteering with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on a local college campus, and I had the opportunity to attend their upcoming mission conference in Saint Luis (Urbana is a massive international event that only takes place every three years). I couldn’t afford the travel expenses, though, so I would need to raise the funds if I was going to be able to make it. I sent out letters to my friends and family telling them about the exciting opportunity and inviting them to consider partnering with me financially. I put together a website with updates about my preparation for the conference and showed examples of the custom portraits that I was offering to sponsors (I was pretty sure the portraits would create some interest since I had worked as a professional artist in the past).

With only a few weeks until the conference, and despite my best efforts, I hadn’t raised a dime. I had been unsuccessfully looking for work, as well, and my wife was expressing serious doubts about the trip. I stood at my sink that Thursday with a sense of total defeat. Had God actually wanted me to attend this conference, I wondered? It had seemed so clear that he did. Did he care that I was spiraling down into a dark place? Was he even there (yeah, it was a pretty bleak day)?

Try me,” is what I heard, “see if I can’t provide.”

It wasn't audible. The best way I can describe it is as a familiar voice in my head that I can clearly distinguish from my own. I recognized it as him (Being a skeptic by nature, I fully realize that this explanation is weak at best, but it's the only one I have). He was inviting me to ask anything of him. Now I'm familiar with the Scripture that warns us not to put God to the test, but I tell you he seemed to be giving me a blank check. I've never had an offer like this from him before, and I can't say that I've ever had it since. With a heart still lingering in unbelief, I said, “it would really encourage me if I could get $50 toward my trip.”

Shortly after, my daughter woke up, and I took her for our regular walk around the apartment complex. We stopped to pick up the mail on our way back. My heart must have stopped when I pulled a $50 check out of an envelope addressed to me. The person who sent it, someone I hadn't even told about the mission conference, wrote a note along with their contribution apologizing for the “small amount.” Tears came to my eyes at the thought of God's grace. He doesn't owe me anything—certainly not another proof of his love.

I realize that the letter was obviously mailed before I made my specific request, and, of course, there was a human being who wrote the check and put it in the mail (More often than not, this is his way). But to this day, I'm absolutely convinced that any amount I had asked for would have been waiting for me in that envelope. The rest of my needed funds came in the last few weeks before my departure. The money was never an issue.

Christians tend to romanticize an imagined sort of spontaneous faith that doesn’t require any maintenance or reinforcement. But there’s a practical side to sustained faith that looks less like walking through a miraculously parted river (which, don’t get me wrong, is awesome when it happens) and more like humbly toting around heavy stones and then taking the time to stack them into monuments after the river has resumed its course. Genuine faith, the kind that’s useful in the real world, is typically built on the less flashy pastime of simply leaving a record for yourself and others. I'm certainly thankful to the writers of Scripture, who amidst shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonment, and exile took the time to leave us monuments. As a result, we now all share their Spirit-breathed stack of stones. So make time to properly document God’s handiwork in your own life. Take time to stack some stones.

I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds. Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.” —Psalm 77:11-14 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Requiem for a King


Saul, Israel’s notorious first king, is usually remembered for his role as the “bad guy” in King David’s epic story. He of course tried countless times to snuff out the shepherd boy who God had appointed to replace him. But people often forget that before he became the villain, he too was chosen by God (1 Samuel 10:24). His is a tragic story of a sometimes great leader with enormous potential who was ultimately overcome by his own insecurities, doubts, and fears.
Saul was tall, dark, and handsome (1 Samuel 9:2). He was every inch the picture of a king. He was also a fierce warrior with numerous military exploits to his name. God used him mightily to deliver the people of Israel from foreign oppressors. And to his credit, Saul had the courage to show up for his final battle, even knowing in advance that it would certainly end in his defeat and death.
From early on, Saul was unsure of himself (1 Samuel 9:21, 10:22). He had a less-than-accurate, understated perspective of who he was, who God had made him to be. When Samuel told him he would be king, for example, Saul insisted that the prophet had the wrong guy, that he was a nobody, and that “[his] family [was] the least important of all the families” in his small tribe (even though the text specifically says his father, Kish, was “wealthy” and “influential” – 1 Samuel 9:1, 21 NLT).
God fully equipped King Saul with his Spirit, gave him a “new heart,” and changed him into a “different person” (1 Samuel 10:6, 9). He had everything he needed to succeed, but time and time again he kept reverting back to the insecure guy who once hid among the luggage, frequently preoccupied with what people might think of him. He “felt compelled” to break God’s command when things seemed to be unraveling (1 Samuel 13:12). He was “afraid of the people” and sometimes allowed himself to be carried along with the prevailing streams of public opinion rather than holding fast to God’s instruction (1 Samuel 15:24). “Although you may think little of yourself,” said Samuel in his final rebuke, “are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17).
Eventually, God revoked his life-giving Spirit, and Saul was overcome with depression and fear (1 Samuel 16:14). He spiraled down into a place of total darkness and basically lost his mind. At perhaps his lowest, he ordered the murder of 85 innocent priests and their families in a desperate effort to retain control of a kingdom that God had already given to another. He finally died on the battlefield, hopeless and alone, his enemies closing in around him, and left with the crushing knowledge that his three sons had been cut down.
Samuel was so deeply moved,” following God's rejection of Saul, “that he cried out to the LORD all night” (1Samuel 15:10-11). After delivering God’s message of judgment to the wayward king, “Samuel never went to meet with Saul again, but he mourned constantly for him” (1 Samuel 15:35). Samuel’s gut-wrenching response to Saul’s fall is very sobering, I think. Without it, we might be tempted to breeze right past Saul’s story on our way to King David. He can easily become a one-dimensional villain in our minds, a footnote in the narrative, simply a faceless antagonist standing between David and the throne. But if we deny Saul his humanity—his initial potential and the nature of his brokenness—we run the risk of missing his costly warning.
Saul’s low opinion of himself wasn’t a sign of humility. It wasn’t a virtue. It was rooted in his unbelief and maintained by his failure to fully grasp that God had chosen him, empowered him, and assigned him a task. Saul didn’t wear the crown because he was great. He wore the crown because God is great, and he ultimately lost it because he couldn’t connect the dots. It wasn't that he thought too little of himself. On the contrary, he thought too much of himself (or too often of himself). Saul’s fixation on his own inadequacies (that he wasn’t good enough, that he’d eventually be found out, that he’d lose it all to someone better) and his resulting jealousy and paranoia was evidence that his hope wasn't in God. His hope was in himself. His fears, which sprang from his self-reliance, became self-fulfilling prophecies. In the end, Saul fell on his own sword.

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul... How the mighty have fallen”

From the “Lament of the Bow,” a funeral song composed by King David, recorded in 2 Samuel 1 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bread of Life


Jesus is a master communicator. He is known for, among other things, his clever and concise story explanations for complex things. He would regularly draw out the inner workings of his listeners’ hearts—even exposing areas of which we ourselves were previously unaware—with accessible, yet provocative, parables about everyday life. With this young Galilean, you didn’t need to be an elite theologian or have a PhD in eschatology to get a taste of the kingdom of God. Jesus would explain it in down to earth, blue collar terms that resonated with his disciples and took root in their hearts. This talent for simple and effective communication is especially seen in Jesus' use of food and drink to convey the core of the Gospel—namely, that he is the Bread of Life.
After miraculously feeding a crowd of over five thousand people, Jesus explained to them that he was the “true bread from heaven” sent to satisfy their hunger and to give them life (John 6:32-33). He likened himself to the mysterious manna that God provided to the Israelites in the wilderness, and he claimed they would need to feast on his flesh and drink his blood if they wanted to live. This bizarre declaration wasn't any less jarring in Aramaic. There’s no linguistic nuance or cultural filter that makes his sentiment any more palatable. Jesus’ apparent invitation—no, insistence—that his followers cannibalize him was received as both disgusting and insane. Many of them left over this sermon. Even the Twelve were shaken but ultimately had “nowhere else to go.”
Later in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus repeated this earlier controversial sentiment. He retooled the Passover meal, that was first enacted on the eve of the Exodus, in order to celebrate and declare an even greater deliverance. The Lord's Supper is one of two rituals that Jesus personally instituted among his followers (interestingly, his diverse body can rarely agree on the meaning or mechanics of either of these two rituals. In many cases, we've allowed practices that were originally designed to unite us to instead divide us). There are quite a few indicators that throughout the 1st Century Church the regular celebration of the Lord's Supper became the main event when the people of God would gather.
Breadcrumbs Leading to Jesus
Bread (a staple food item that represents basic sustenance in most cultures) is an essential element of human life that comes from outside of us. Like oxygen, we need it to survive, yet we can’t produce it ourselves from within.
God has designed human beings with an internal mechanism that reminds us of our need for this external sustenance. Dirt, rocks, sticks and such won't do. Only food will satisfy our hunger.
However, the bread won’t benefit us until we consume it. And it won't force itself down our throats and into our stomachs. We must decide if we will eat or not. In fact, we might have quite a bit of observable knowledge about bread and the human digestive system, but it's the one who partakes—even if they know nothing of how it works—that actually benefits from bread (and, in the end, has a greater sort of knowledge about bread).
Once we eat the bread, our body begins to metabolize it. The bread essentially becomes a part of us. It nourishes us and fuels our body from within. It gives us life.
And lastly, the bread is destroyed in the eating. We can't have our bread and eat it too. The bread simply won't survive its encounter with us if all these other things are going to happen.
Everything we've just considered about bread is of course obvious. The benefits of eating and drinking are intuitively understood, even by very small children, and, as previously stated, can be experienced apart from knowing how it all works. This is exactly the point. This is why it becomes a powerful, easily repeatable, and readily accessible picture of what Jesus has done, and is doing, in those who call him “King.”
Pass the Bread
In many cultures, breaking bread together is a very intimate communal activity. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we preach the Gospel to our brothers and sisters, to ourselves, and to not-yet-believers who are looking on. As the Apostle Paul says, we “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In this way, it’s both a declaration and an invitation—a family meal with much room still at the table.
It's not uncommon for the person officiating the celebration of the Lord's Supper, after they've explained its significance, to instruct not-yet-believers in attendance to let the elements pass them by. These uninitiated folks are usually told to come find someone after if they want to hear more about the Gospel. I think this common church practice misses the purpose of what's actually happening in the ritual. The Gospel is being proclaimed. That's the point of it all. If someone in attendance suddenly believes the Gospel message that we're collectively celebrating and declaring, even if they didn't believe only seconds before, they should be invited to respond by partaking (if you're from a tradition that would require baptism first, very well. I'd agree that baptism is the prescribed first response to the Gospel and the other ritual commanded by Christ. But make baptism readily available, and resume the family meal only after it's done). You don't present a Meal, describe how incredible it is, and then quickly whip the plate away from your dinner guest.
Our reluctance to let just anyone participate in the Lord's Supper is I think rooted in Paul's stern warning to those who would partake in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27). If you look at the context, though, Paul was addressing a church that was making a mockery of the sacred ritual with their hypocrisy (he wasn't forbidding the newcomer who has yet to procure their PhD in soteriology). On the one hand the church at Corinth was declaring their faith in Jesus' Gospel by participating in the meal, but on the other hand they were completely contradicting the implications of the Gospel by excluding people who were running late to the gathering or weren't able to afford the fixings and so on. Basically, they turned what was meant as a unifying family meal into a free-for-all exhibition of human selfishness and divisive prejudice. As Jesus pointed out with his story about the unforgiving servant, we can't receive forgiveness from God and then withhold forgiveness from others. That's not how his Gospel works. Freely extending forgiveness is just one example of how a truly transformed person will naturally live in Gospel truth. Anytime we partake of the Lord's Supper while actively denying through our rebellion the Gospel that the meal illustrates, we're “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). We're essentially making a statement that we don't in practice believe. We're taking his name in vain and trampling on his spilt blood. So we ought to “examine” ourselves before we eat and drink of the meal (1 Corinthians 11:28). Anyone who finds that they don't actually believe the Gospel (regardless of whether or not they say they do) should refrain from participating in the Lord's Supper. If we find that we do believe but are currently out of step with Jesus' Gospel then we must first acknowledge our inconsistencies and realign ourselves with our King. And whether we're responding to the Gospel declaration for the first time or for the ten-thousandth time, those who have been born of God will respond with repentance and then partake with gratitude.
Fortunately for us once-rebels, Jesus offers himself to all. His words of life are for anyone “with ears to hear,” and he invites everyone who is “hungry” and “thirsty” to be satisfied in him. He's given us a simple yet profound demonstration of his good news, something we can be reminded of often (since we typically eat at least three meals a day) and something we can in turn share with those who will be hearing it for the first time as we welcome them to our table. Jesus truly is the Bread of Life. Eat up!

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” —John 6:51