Christian Life ...

Christian Life ...
Christian life is meant to be a life of bearing much fruit. What does that look like? How do we get there? This blog will record thoughts and meditations about living a life striving to be a fruitful branch.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sword and Shield

Spiritual life is filled with us and downs. The trials and triumphs are a part of humanity. We all feel the weight of life and the effects of sin in the world to some extent or another. But one of the most visceral and universal of it's effects of this on any individual soul, is self defense. Human nature tells us we fight for what we have. Then we defend what we have and what we do. The idea that we are self made. It's what makes us fight and why countries start wars with each other.

A general review of the Old Testament reveals God trying to instill the fact that He is in control into the consciousness of his people. One of the best examples of this is the story in Exodus 17 when the Israelite's were fighting against the Amalekites and only when Moses kept his hands in the air did the Israelites did they even stand a chance. They may have been the people fighting, but God was defending them. If Moses set aside his prayerful posture the homeless wandering travelers he was leading, predictably, did not fare well against an army. But Moses lifting his hands held high to God (which he even needed help with) was enough for the Israel to overcome the Amalekite forces.

From this story I pull some applications. As a child of God, he is in control. While I am not personally fighting a war, I can still know God as my defender. At least, I can know that He will continue defend the me that He created, that is to say the me that is in right relationship with Him.

As a Christian I find myself constantly drifting a little bit here and there from my avenue of growth to becoming my-heavenly-self. While, I'm not fighting for my life or wandering through the desert, that sometimes does sound like a pretty good metaphor for my faith journey. While the Israelites grumbled because they didn't know where they were going and they didn't fit in anywhere, I grumble mostly because a deep-seeded desire to be understood. Frequently, when I feel misunderstood I get defensive.

One summer, I gifted a Catholic Miraculous medal at a inter-denominational church camp. A young Catholic man had just shared his testimony of God's faithfulness and he gave them out in handfuls to everyone who attended his seminar. This challenged me. Hearing truth about God from a from a theological point of view that differs from one's own is always challenging. Simply put the medal was almost too much. If you don't know a miraculous medal is a charm to be worn as a necklace. It has been, for lack of a better term, baptized by Catholic priests in different bodies of water and prayed over, so that the one who wears it would carry with them prayers of safety and well being. I wear it most days now not as a miraculous charm that will keep me safe and well, but as a symbol of the power of faith and prayer. and a reminder of my safety and security in Christ.

These days I wear this on the same string as an old cross necklace formed in the general shape of a sword. This specific charm was given to me by my aunt and, by her report, could date back to 16th Century England. It's really dense and heavy. I first started wearing a cross in the shape of sword years ago. The charm was store bought and cheep and look more like a sword. At that time it represented the sword of the spirit from Ephesians, where Paul uses the metaphor of the armor of God and in it the sword, the offensive weapon represents the spirit and Word of God. I saw the cross in the shop and thought of that passage and what it would mean to where a symbol of my savior, his identity and words around my neck and resting against my heart and it was really compelling.


It's somewhat funny that even though I know the symbolism of these charms around my neck and put them on almost daily that, recently, I have failed to live my life taking their sentiments to heart. I don't believe that a symbol can magically make me well or defend me, or compel me to think in any special way, but I'd forgotten the purpose of wearing the necklace. It's internal. It's the way I think. It's they way that I posture myself. It's my attitude.

Fear and anger are constants for everyone. They frequently, one way or another, go hand and hand. The Israelites were scared as lonely desert wanderers and because of that, they got mad at God. When I become afraid that I'm misunderstood, or for some reason un-understandable, I put up my defenses. I raise my sword and shield. When we as humans feel afraid, we react to attack, defend or isolate. In my own daily life, I battle the choice to grumble and revolt. I want to clench my fists and fight more than I'm proud to admit. I hate when people are in pain. I hate when I feel that passion is being misconstrued or that I am being misunderstood. I raise my shield and draw my sword. I close myself in isolation and I push people away. These attitudes are like poison to the idea of being a fruitful branch.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I am not my own defender. I am not meant to fight all of the battles in the world. I shouldn't fear misunderstanding, but simply do my work and live my life with integrity, as a follower of Jesus. God is my defender. He is my sword and shield.

Lord, help me to take my place as Your servant. Help me to see as You see. Help me to serve the people I meet. Lord, help me to forget defensiveness and aggressiveness as a reaction to fear or frustration. Instead, give me wisdom, Lord, to find the right words to speak and the right steps to take. You are my shield and defender. I lay down my emotional desire to fight and life my hands to You. Amen. 


Monday, September 17, 2018

The Veiled World Seen Rightly

In Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest devotional for September 12th is about going through spiritual confusion. As I read this, I was struck by it's resonance with my spirit. It was odd to me because I don't feel particularly confused at this point of my life. I'm newly married. I've held the same job for nearly four years, my church is vibrant and growing and things are really quite good. Here's the post which can be found at utmost.org:


September 12th
Going Through Spiritual Confusion
by Oswald  Chambers
There are times in your spiritual life when there is confusion, and the way out of it is not simply to say that you should not be confused. It is not a matter of right and wrong, but a matter of God taking you through a way that you temporarily do not understand. And it is only by going through the spiritual confusion that you will come to the understanding of what God wants for you.

The Shrouding of His Friendship (see Luke 11:5-8). Jesus gave the illustration here of a man who appears not to care for his friend. He was saying, in effect, that is how the heavenly Father will appear to you at times. You will think that He is an unkind friend, but remember— He is not. The time will come when everything will be explained. There seems to be a cloud on the friendship of the heart, and often even love itself has to wait in pain and tears for the blessing of fuller fellowship and oneness. When God appears to be completely shrouded, will you hang on with confidence in Him?

The Shadow on His Fatherhood (see Luke 11:11-13). Jesus said that there are times when your Father will appear as if He were an unnatural father— as if He were callous and indifferent— but remember, He is not. “Everyone who asks receives…” (Luke 11:10). If all you see is a shadow on the face of the Father right now, hang on to the fact that He will ultimately give you clear understanding and will fully justify Himself in everything that He has allowed into your life.

The Strangeness of His Faithfulness (see Luke 18:1-8). “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Will He find the kind of faith that counts on Him in spite of the confusion? Stand firm in faith, believing that what Jesus said is true, although in the meantime you do not understand what God is doing. He has bigger issues at stake than the particular things you are asking of Him right now.

Still the ideas of this devotional resonated so deeply in me as mysteriously as pure truth. To be a fruitful branch we have to abide in Christ. That's the pure and simple idea of this blog and this text expresses how God's ways may sometimes be a mystery to us. We may be shrouded in confusion. We both may feel that God is far from us.


When look back at my past I remember how the veiled plan of God, the delayed answer of prayer, appeared to me. The limitation of my understanding drove me both to crippling fear and doubt. But the picture above reminds me of a turning point. It was around March, about five or six years ago, and I found myself in a major funk. I got up on a day off, shaking the metaphoric dust off my feet, to go on a cold walk around Lake Harriet near my home in South Minneapolis. I remember just sitting on the cement behind the iconic band-shell, looking out onto the foggy frozen lake. At the time it was a stunning replica of what I felt my future looked like, cold, grey and uncertain. Cross country skiers and winter winds had carved vague paths through the snow covered ice that winded out into the foggy oblivion with destinations uncertain. From hindsight, this is a good memory. The image of that foggy vista struck me in my spirit and called to honest prayer. In that moment, the season of spiritual confusion changed from being a hindrance to my spiritual growth to being fuel for it. As Chambers would say I hung "on with confidence in Him". Recently at Resurrection Minneapolis Church in South Minneapolis, Pastor David Berge gave a sermon on doubt. Take a listen here if you wish, its content definitely informed some of the base for my processing of this post. The idea at an absurdly basic level is that it is critically wrong to think of the church as a doubt free zone. Faith and doubt are not directly exclusive of each other.

 

Based on this, I come to this question: what is spiritual confusion? It's not just when negative stuff happens to us, or when we are in a period of doubt. The craziness about the life in Christ is that there is power in both good and bad to distract the people of God form kingdom work. Like Chambers said, "it is not a matter of right and wrong", but of God using circumstance to mold us into greater understanding. To put it plainly, during this season of my life in which I find myself so content, there's danger that I may fall into the spiritual confusion that I am in control.
 
This is where the picture above is a bit misleading. Using fog as an image of spiritual confusion elicits thoughts of fear. It's mysterious, constraining, and therefore naturally aligned with the forces of evil and chaos. It's not individual. It just happens and humanity has to deal with it. The words Chambers chooses  in bold headings of his text are, shadow, shroud, and strangeness. These images are metaphoric to our perception of God. The last part is where the truth comes in. God is God as we are not. Our sin separates us from him and he is strange to us.


We don't see the world like God sees. We don't have his vision. We see the world through a veil. It's a part of the human condition that our vision is imperfect. However, how it's how we think about that veil that leads us in how we react to spiritual confusion. We can misconstrue our limited vision and understanding as a shroud that is meant to constrict us, or we can carry on where we are as people created by God, limited in our very existence. The idea of a veil brings to mind another symbol. That of marriage. In the bride bridegroom relationship of the church and Christ, it makes sense that we the church are veiled. We are covered and we have the promise that the will of Christ the bride groom that when he returns to earth we will be made one. The concept allows us to think of this veil of human limitation and our earthly frustrations as fleeting and temporary. It's the concept of one of my favorite hymns: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. "And the things of earth will grow strangely dim" doesn't completely mean that the time we spend on earth is not worth our consideration but instead that it will pass.



In reading the Text from Oswald Chambers, I am struck by how even through now there is so much good and positive in my life, I have been seeing the world and misjudging my own spiritual need. I've not sought God's word with the same fervor as when I was in darker times. Instead in my comfort I've fallen into an unexpected state of spiritual confusion. I find myself grumbling again when little things don't go my way. This text has called be back to the right understanding of my veiled perspective. Even in this good time, I am not good or responsible for the gifts of security and joy giving relationships I have been given by God. Instead I come to the same conclusion as when I walked home from the foggy and frozen lake. Lord, You are in control. I will seek You still. Lead me in Your ways, for the good of Your Kingdom. Amen.



 

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Towel or the Crown

“Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." -John 13:12b-18 (ESV)
Foot washing is an intimate and disgusting business. There are many times when I am hesitant to wash my own feet much less someone else's. Feet get stinky and gross quicker that other parts of the body. I'd rather pass.

This past Sunday, July 15th, 2018, Matt Anderson, new Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Local Mission at Resurrection MPLS, in Minneapolis, MN spoke and in his message, which should up loaded for listening on sound cloud if you follow Resurrection MPLS, he talked about a major problem in the church: a lack of discipleship.

Matt referenced Dallas Willard who calls this folly in the church the Great Omission, referring to the how missing the mark on discipleship goes directly against the great commission after all Christ called his disciples to make disciples of all nations.

Do what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ. Pastor Anderson opened the question up to the congregation and the answers were, student, following, or devoted follower. He defined a disciple as an apprentice.

That to me is an interesting angle. An apprentice follows around a master of a craft and learns from them by following what they do. If we are to also be disciples of Christ what does this passage say about how we should posture ourselves.

As Christians in this day and age we have to be aware of the different influences we have around us. We have influences of our surrounding culture and psychology that effects the way that we behave. On major force in our culture and its psychology is the enlightenment and it's emphasis on knowledge. For that reason, this era in the church is all about studying deeply and feeding the spiritual intellect. With our subconscious guiding our focus to knowledge, we can lose sight of the mission and heart of the matter. In seeking after knowledge we align ourselves more as a disciples of the Pharisees who Jesus sparred with than Christ himself.

In John 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet and they are completely stunned. He uses it as an example of how they should be too. He tells them to serve others to pick up a towel. There's tons of commentary and thought about his passage of scripture, regarding Peter's response and what Jesus was saying to his disciples for this this purpose right how, I just what to apply this to what it means to be a follower of Christ today.

At the Project Timothy conference I wrote my last post about, a leader talked about choosing to reach for a towel instead of a crown. So much of the time when we are striving for knowledge we are really seeking recognition. Or we get turned off to the nudgings of the spirit because they don't seem to be the great things we feel called to do. Seeing a crown is seeking recognition or seeking self elevation, and Christ has none of that. When he picks up a towel and moves to wash his disciples feet he's doing the work of a lowly servant and he explicitly calls his disciples to do that same workIf we are to be disciples called to disciple others we must actually practice doing what Jesus does. That's what an apprentice does. They watch what the master does and then they work on their craft until they figure it out. A lot of the time we find the spirit calling us to do something, start a ministry, pray for a person, help this person with what they need, and we miss it. Maybe it feels like too much of a hassle or it would disrupt our schedules. Maybe we're afraid that we'll look foolish or the experience will be awkward. It's as if we are so special that we cannot be bothered by the problems of the other. Instead of reaching to take  action we reach up to adjust the crown on our heads that may have been knocked crooked by suggestion that we should alter our course.

I know I'm guilty of that.

Christ did not for one minute think about his own good, instead he always looked to the Father for direction which always lead to look to the other first. We must practice reaching for a towel instead of a crown. We have to be okay with letting our plans get changed when there's work to be done and people the spirit prods us to serve. We can't allow the awkwardness or the fact that we may not be well received turn us away. That's just stinky feet. It's part of the business.

Lastly, as apprentices, we are not masters and when we are called to create disciples I hit a bit of a barrier because it seems pretty evident that we are looking at the blind leading the blind situation if I step up to action. Leave room in your practice for grace. We learn from scripture that church leaders are not perfect. Paul literally murdered Christians and admitted to a thorny hindrance that bothered him until death. Peter denied Christ three times and had numerous experiences where he totally misunderstood the scope of the mission of Christ. As apprentices of Christ we are never done learning. Paul says,"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1), and that should be our aim as disciples that make disciples. While we seek Christ we seek to look to others to lead them to Christ.

So in our everyday life let us remember that practicing our faith is truly all that we can do. We must look to Christ and the Spirit within us to alert us to a moment when we have the option to reach for a towel or a crown. Let us follow Christ, and lead others to him by acting sacrificially, wrapping the towel around us, humbly stepping into the role of a servant, and, though it may be stinky, doing the dirty and personal work like washing feet.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Ish Happens ... How Do We Deal With It?

On Thursday, June 28th I drove two and a half hours north to meet my wife at a leadership conference put on by the Duluth Vineyard Church. It's a yearly conference called Project Timothy designed for high school age youth who commit to taking on leadership positions in their youth group and/or church. My wife was their with two awesome girls from the youth group she started a few years ago. Coming from a more main line protestant back round, I am impressed by how Vineyard Church has built upon the idea of the priesthood of all believers. They are cultivating leadership all over the place. This conference was an example of the fruits of their efforts, as eighty plus teen agers filled with the Holy Spirit were going deep, learning how to preach, teach, serve and pray in power. The Spirit stirred up the hearts of these youth in Duluth, encouraging words lifted spirits, prayers touched hearts and bodies were healed.


While I was only there for the final few days of the week long conference, the Spirit also worked on me, filling me with great and mysterious comfort. It came with one of the first things I heard as I entered the conference. Just a few moments after I sat down the speaker said "Sometimes, life is hard and we have to deal with it." I laughed out loud because of how much I needed to hear that, and it brought to mind the tiny little morsel of scripture when Jesus says:


"In this world you will have trouble..." - John 16:33b



This is a great example of how the Holy Spirit moves in people. The words aren't special but the concept struck me to the core at the very instant that I was able and ready to hear it. It's all upside down, though. How can I be mysteriously comforted by the blunt reminder of the inevitability of trouble? I think it's because the Holy Spirit was alerting me some lies I have been believing. Lies can creep into our world view and choke out our fruitfulness.


I know deep down that I can't expect life to be easy, but I still find myself easily frustrated when things don't go as I expect or trouble comes. What is and isn't fair and just has always been really important to me and It's not limited to what I experience.


Frankly, I haven't experienced a lot of trouble in my life. I've been fortunate to live a life free of a lot of personal trauma or trial. But even when I come in contact with someone who has been dealt a difficult hand, I begin the following mental process. I posture that God didn't design for this bad thing to happen to someone. It's wrong. It's bad. I recognize it to be the result of sin in the world, and I feel a weight jump on my back like a back pack full of bricks. Understand, I'm not equating my burden to their experience, far from it. I'm not struggling under the weight of pain, illness or poverty, just the weight of my thoughts and emotions. But even this makes my heart rate quicken and my muscles strain, as I try to thing through all of the things I could try to do to help the person. As I strain against this weight that is undeniably less than the experience of the person with whom I'm empathizing, I feel weak and frozen to action. When this happens I tend to fill up with bitterness and rage.


Is it wrong to not want trouble for myself and for the world? No, and empathy is a virtue, but circumstance are much of the time out of our control. We can only control what we do and how we respond when we encounter trouble. It's the same idea found in my post If:Then. While it is human to feel, and ultimately Godly to hate the trouble in this world, for fruitfulness to be possible we have to check our attitude and focus. When I acknowledge the weight of the injustices I encounter, anger truly isn't a sinful response. Bitterness and rage is where it crosses into sin.


If we continue with the last part of John 16:33, we read:
"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."




Here's where it's very important to remember the nature of the bible as an historical text, each individual piece of it has it's own historical context and intent. The Gospel of John is a theological account of the life of Jesus. It's not designed to be a transcript of Jesus' conversational life or a directly historical account of what happened durring Christ's ministry, but is instead written to explain who he was and the kind of things that he said. This is a representation of the story of Jesus the man, within the context of His theological person, one-third of the eternal, omnipresent, creator of the universe. This role of Jesus, the God man and savior, has now and had at the time the book of John was written, overcome the world by His death and resurrection.


As a person of faith, I look back in context to learn more. In the preceding portion of John 16 Jesus is reporting to the disciples of the bad things that will happen to Him and how disparagingly they will behave. He says, all these bad things will happen. He even says they will have very personal struggles, and then he says:


"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."



Peace!? Is that really what you're saying Jesus? Peace can be defined as freedom from disturbance. Freedom from disturbance cannot come with ... disturbance. A better definition is tranquility. That is being calm even when things are hectic. Tranquility in the human spirit is the opposite of turmoil.


My life, and my reaction to any trouble, trial or injustice has lacked tranquility. I find myself thrust into turmoil. I find myself believing that the weight of these troubles, trials and injustice, is my responsibility to carry and since I am far too small to carry it, I almost break down. Selfishly, I cry out because I feel unequipped, unable in myself to fix the problem. I get bitter and angry and self centered, unless I remember the words of Jesus ... "take heart. I HAVE overcome the world".


By the grace of God, I have not lost track of this and when I remember it my hope is restored and I am lifted from my turmoil. But still on that Thursday evening, the mysterious comfort wasn't tranquility. I heard the message with my brain but it had yet to reach my heart. So, during the evening ministry time I asked another adult leader for prayer for help managing the anger and bitterness I experience.


"What do you need from Jesus, Mike?" He asked. I was puzzled by this request. I didn't really know what to say. "I don't know," I said. "He's already done everything I need." Here my brain was talking but not my heart. The leaders pushed me to think more. Eventually, I relented and said that I need to feel the peace that I know Jesus has given me. As he prayed peace over me the image of Jesus as the good shepherd came suddenly upon my minds eye. The Shepherd was effortlessly carrying a full grown sheep over it's shoulders. The figure was strong, fully in control and extremely gentile with His sheep. I felt some weight lift off my shoulders. My muscles loosened up. Here I was driving myself to anger and bitterness from struggling under the weight of burdens I wasn't meant to carry. Christ is carrying us. He is supreme over the ish of the world and is there to support those who are in need.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30




This scripture hits on this on two levels. Christ is there for the broken when they come to Him.


But it's also in the co-laboring. The one who is in control, the good shepherd who is strong to carry all our burdens when we are in need, is with us through His Spirit to work with us. As the branch must find nourishment from the Christ-vine, we must constantly be looking to Christ. We must be fixed to him in order to do kingdom work.


I pray as co-laborers in the Kingdom of God, we would destroy these lies that's keep us on the sidelines, fruitless as a withered branch in the burn pile, that we trouble means we've strayed and/or that trouble is ours to fight alone. I pray that we would know that the ish in the world is not what God has intended, and he has overcome this world of sin and death. I pray that we would remember that with him we can work to bring life and love into the world, but it's not by our strength. We were not made for that kind of weight. We were made for relationship with our creator.