This is the Day

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.
 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
 On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
    here is where your proud waves halt’?

“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
    or shown the dawn its place…Job 38:1-12

I have had an unreasonable amount of anxiety about the end of summer and return to the overly full schedule of the school year.  I don’t feel like I can sustain its pace and feel a mixture of fear and guilt that I have allowed our days to look as fast paced and absent of space for stillness, slow relationships, contemplation, unhurried living.  It feels like we have fallen prey to an American norm that is dehumanizing in its demands.

And then God reminded me that I did not author our schedule, He did.

How quickly I forget His sovereignty.  How quickly I forget His design.  How quickly I assume the power to thwart His will or to resist it.  How quickly I assume life can be lived apart from Him, as if parallel.  But good and evil, righteous and wicked, are all subject to His domain.

Practically, what this means for me is that I can trust today to His good purposes.  Nothing will occur today that He hasn’t approved.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Gen 50:20

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. Acts 2:23

Even our deliberately wrong behavior, unexcused and identified for its wicked intent, is under God’s authority and made subject to His work of redemption in us and the world around us.  Can I not then trust Him with arguably milder seasons that seem stressful to me?  His rescue and intention, after all, is often not to snatch us from the fiery furnace but instead to be present with us in it.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Col. 3:15

What if each new day I could be ruled by Christ’s peace rather than my anxieties?  What a better boss of me to whom I should submit, peace rather than fear.  What if rather than just a happy old song, I really grabbed hold of the truth that this is the day that the Lord has made and therefore I can be glad and rejoice in it, no matter what it holds?

Find Rest, My Soul

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God? Psalm 42:1-2

As I stand before the Atlantic Ocean’s waters, even in tributaries that meet its vastness between the islands and wind their way through the marshes, I find myself gulping down its beauty as if it were possible for me to consume it.  There is a greediness I feel, as one desperately malnourished who knows this feasting hall is just a short stop, like Bilbo’s moment in Rivendell.  I want to stay, sitting before it in solitude without ever having an end to the opportunity, as it offers me the deep rest and peace that seem so elusive throughout the rest of the year.

I began this summer so tightly wound from a school year that was unrelenting in its demand of my time.  Truly, an overwound clock whose coils were a slight turn from splitting and popping out.  Such absolute stillness, lack of hurry or demand upon my energies, if available, were obscured from my view.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
    my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him;
    God is a refuge for us. Psalm 62:5-8

I find rest in God’s extraordinary creation, but rarely do I find it in Him alone.  This is surely not because it is not there, with Him, in Him.  But what is the answer?

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:3

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[a] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  Romans 1:19-20

The beauty, rest and peace that engulfs me in natural settings is merely the physical manifestation of God’s nature – the nature of Who He is and what the person and work of Jesus has provided.  Sitting before Him, like what I feel alone in His creation, I am free from the burden of any demand.  I am free to sit in silent wonder, just like at the beach, for no other purpose than to heal, to breathe, to feel, to be stilled and gentled, to become human again when all other forces conspire to make me mechanical.

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.  Matt. 11:28-29

White Guilt

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,the Lord of glory.  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. James 2:1-10

I am partial to what is most familiar to me, to what is most “natural” to me, to what I have been conditioned to consider “best.”  But, like fashion choices, what I am certain is very attractive is horrifying ten years after my moment of great pride, and plain disgusting twenty years later.  Even with this knowledge of perspective, I persist in believing that from where I stand, my judgment of what is superior is failsafe.

God wasn’t making up stuff when He told us not to judge or show favoritism because He knows we can’t recognize value with our spiritually blind eyes.  Incomplete sanctification leaves us in the “not yet” of cognitive infallibility.  One of the most pernicious handicaps is the human’s fierce commitment to innocence when confronted with our guilt.

We who have self-consciously believed the Story of Scripture, that humanity who was created to image the perfections of God instead became captivated by worship and service to our own image, should not be shocked by indictments of our resulting failure to be to the world the breath of life we were intended to be.  Not that its easy to see our offenses or worse, to have them pointed out like the discovery of a kick me sign on our back we didn’t know was there, but we at least theoretically welcome the opportunity to have them removed.

Why then, I wonder, if we are willing to face and name with specificity our sins, in faith that they are covered and taken by Jesus in exchange for his righteousness, (our anger issues, our addiction to work or porn or food or intoxicating substances, our selfishness and laziness, our gossip and slander, our aversion to authority and so many other ways in which we place our own power and comfort and image over the health and well being of others), do the white brothers and sisters have such an aggressive resistance to naming how our whiteness has perpetuated a global favoritism that has excluded all of those with pigments that disqualify them from privileges we never earned?  Why is this particular effect of the fall one we are collectively so unwilling to acknowledge when we claim to understand that sin in it all its forms preceded us in Adam and is beyond our ability to correct?  This one indictment, that we enjoy a sense of safety, prosperity, cultural dominance and political power that has been born from a division of classes of people that God never acknowledged, is one that on the whole we who identify as white defensively argue our innocence. And my innocence does nothing to make my black friends feel safe around police or free to wear a hoodie while walking through an affluent neighborhood, or comforted when watched more closely than the white customers in a store.

So dear reader, if you are willing, can we examine the issue of favoritism as a starting place?  How about with speech…”The King’s English” is the corrective to the American black vernacular.  We show favoritism to this manner of communication and call it “correct” and those who use it “articulate”, though we find Australian or Jamaican English charming.  We show favoritism to straight hair over “kinky curly”, one style of music is deemed “sophisticated” while hip hop as genre, regardless of lyrical content, is deemed “crass.”  The white normative is so unquestioned that we feel it necessary to identify our “black” friend/classmate/teammate but do not identify another as our “white” friend/classmate/teammate.  Volume of voice and use of space in a room, whether that is in conversation or in worship, are judged favorably according to cultural norms though there is no implicit value in the spectrum.  Or how about the assumption that white favorites are probably everybody’s favorites…like Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift.  Until we look around and see the crowd, it may never occur to us that its no longer segregation keeping the fans looking so homogenous…but maybe, like the earlier discussion of perspective, everyone isn’t as impressed with “us” as we are.

This systemic oppression and favoritism is not something we can just fix nor is it something, if we are willing to see, that we can engage in and be “righteous” independent of Jesus.  Like every other aspect of being broken in a broken world, only Jesus can reverse the damage done and regenerate the life has been lost.  But also like our many forms of addiction, the first step which goes a very long way, is naming the truth about our problem.  We can’t then run off and correct centuries of man made hierarchies and the deeply embedded effects of those beliefs in all areas of society, but like all other areas of sin, we can look more fervently to Jesus to change us and enable us to love others as He has loved us.

Resisting the Death of Self

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20

This verse from Galatians was one of the first I remember memorizing in high school, at a Young Life camp, and it seemed like the most profound directives for my life and identity.  My life is no longer about me serving me, but about my identity hidden in Jesus.  Recently reading Tim Keller’s small book about the gift of self forgetfulness, I realized how inflated my ego is, and how the root of much of my anxiety, sadness and frustration is my enslavement to my self-importance.  It occurred to me that all the many ways my ego is attacked and my over-inflated sense of importance is punctured, might just be the intentional means God is using to “kill” me.

I used to love John Baptist’s identifying words to the Pharisees, who were interrogating him and his ministry.  He kept responding with “I am not” as a way of making it clear that God was God and he was not God.  This was the clear call for the Christian, to make it clear to oneself and others that there is a God, He is GOOD, and I am not that God.  I guess the problem is that I don’t really trust that.

The fierce commitment to my self-importance is based upon a deeper belief that I am more important than others and should be honored above others, respected and appreciated above others, looked up to by others.  Its quite the opposite of dying to self but is instead self-preservation and glorification.  It doesn’t trust God’s call that we die to live.  Therefore, my restlessness, anxiety, constantly trying to figure out the plan for my life, how to be happy, how to find my perfect fit, is actually my refusing to die, resisting the death of self, not trusting the life promised on the other side.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  John 12:24

The end goal isn’t some horror movie or Kool Aid drinking cult, but instead the end goal is flourishing life that surely isn’t found in self-preservation or self-serving, ego driven glory seeking. But my anxiety about trusting God to be God rather than myself is real.

When I had knee surgery back in 9th grade, I was truly mortified about being undressed under that sheet heading into surgery.  As the anesthesia was pumping through my body, I wouldn’t succumb to its sweet sleep until the nurses assured me the sheet would stay over me during the surgery.  I was so worried about my pride that the work needed on my knee was not my priority.  Fighting the sleep was nauseating and uncomfortable, much like my current fight to preseve my sense of self-importance rather than trusting that God’s purposes are far grander than my own.

Joseph sat in prison for years, certainly not feeling all that special or beloved by God.  But he couldn’t have known that his death of self (his own father convinced he was really dead) would save the nation of Israel and many others.  It comes down to trusting God, and I apparently don’t.  I need to succumb to the sleep of self-glory, trusting His glory will be far better than whatever I am trying to grab for myself.

Racial Injustice and the Gospel

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.   John 13:34-35

Over a decade ago, working at a large church in Atlanta, a colleague and I were told we couldn’t address racial reconciliation issues because we were to preach Christ alone.  As a reformed theologian, I appreciate “Christ alone” when it comes to salvation, justification, and sanctification. It is by His work alone, and our faith that He has completed that work with nothing that we can add to make it more complete, that we are restored to peace with Him and to one another.   But as my current pastor says, that Grace frees us from worry, not from work.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  1 John 3:16-18

We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

However I feel about the existence of racial inequities in 2017, there are enough voices of people of color saying that is what they are experiencing that not to listen, not to seek to understand, not to read the stories and thinkers of color, is a deliberate choice not to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters of color.  If I react and make it about me, with an irritation that a burden has been placed on me that I didn’t invite and defensiveness that I am innocent, I am ultimately more concerned with self-preservation than laying down my life.

The truth is, in America and almost every country in the world, people with white skin are treated as superior to people with dark skin.  In Uganda, a country whose citizens were originally 100% dark skinned and today continue to be predominantly so, in every clothing shop we passed, we only saw white mannequins, because white mannequins sell more clothes.  The amount of money spent and long term damage caused in the process of straightening naturally tightly curled or kinky hair is often done in response to a standard of beauty that diminishes one ethnicity for the escalation of another.  These are daily experiences that don’t even touch upon the criminalization and therefore dehumanization of dark skinned people, the sense that they are inherently more likely to be dangerous or licentious.

And who has perpetuated these biases and who has the opportunity to change the narrative?

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Matthew 23:11-12, 23-24

This isn’t a pet cause, something that some people are into but all don’t need to be.  This is what God’s people are called to work for…dying to self so that others may live, giving up our comfort so others may find relief, being quiet a moment so others can speak, sitting down so others can stand up.  God’s body is equal parts of all His people, created in His image, to image Him.  That is not how the world has distributed dignity, honor, resources, power or respect, but it is the way God calls His people to image Him.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev. 7:9-10

This is the very heart of Christ alone.