The Stories We Tell

I’m a talker and that is an understatement.  I have a lot of words that tend to be downloaded on the first person I really want to “connect” with relationally.  The thing about connection, however, is that it implies a two way exchange.  My one way dumping of thoughts, stories, experiences and monologue reveals that the other person involved is really only as necessary as their fascination and delight in all that I am “sharing” with them. 

I attended a ministry presentation the other night of an organization I really like.  But the entire time I was there, the stories were about the people who were serving, how they were change makers, how they had blessed this town and that person and how we too should consider doing big things for God.  This came on the heels of my reading a charge from a Christian author to “start living in such a way that we could hope to hear God tell us ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant!'”

Am I suggesting that we shouldn’t?  Not necessarily, but I do find it interesting that while Jesus and God are mentioned as the ones we are doing it for, there is little other mention of their work in these stories.  The stories, like mine in my own living room, are all about the things the storyteller accomplished or said or observed.  But, I never heard how the person and work of Jesus was necessary for the actual accomplishment. 

How did God change the heart of the storyteller through this experience?  What did they begin to believe about God through this ministry that they had not really believed before?  How did these events and projects show them more of their need for His grace and how did His grace cover that need and effect genuine change?  How did their ministry increase reliance upon the person and work of Jesus and decrease reliance upon self?  What insufficiencies in their own character, vision, understanding, relationships, abilities were exposed by this experience and then releived by the sufficiency of His grace?  2 Corinthians 12:9

Without the person and work of Jesus, (the only person and work for whom “Well done my good and faithful servant” ultimately applies because He is the only one able to say, “It is finished!”), the only counsel being offered from one believer to another is “do what I did” or “do more and try harder!”  Am I still working to hear God say “well done” about my efforts and achievements, or do I believe Paul when he said that “in Him we live and move and have our being?” (Acts. 17:28)  Do I believe that it is God who works in me to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil. 2:13) or do I really think I’m acting independently and surprising Him with helpfulness for His Kindgom?  God made Him who had no sin become sin so that I may become His righteousness.

My story can either highlight His willing me to act (which means overriding mine) and His acting in me for His good purpose, because every particle of my being and moving and living is now to be hidden within the completed work of Jesus, or my story can tell of my will, my acting, and the apparent bonus righteousness I expect to receive on top of what has already been secured and promised me in Christ Jesus.  Is there bonus righteous in addition to what Jesus earned from fulfilling every letter of the law and crediting it to us?

Oh would I, would we as believers, begin to see God as the author and perfecter of  faith and not our own wills and works. 

These are the kinds of stories (those of God’s authoring and perfecting) that require a group telling and actually build faith because its in relationship that we see the heart changes God is most interested in working.  Maybe the tale won’t be about the house I built for the poor family but will be my friend telling how I was more pleasant to work with because God had changed my need to micromanage or had made me more patient or less irritable when frustrations occured on the work site. 

“Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.'”Psalm 126:2

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

Scotty’s Prayer About Who/What Brings Us Peace from 2/7/10

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…” Luke 19:38-42

Dear Lord Jesus, the ache within our hearts for peace is unrelenting. Let me get specific, the ache within MY heart is unrelenting. Though I already rest in you-plus-nothing, for my forgiveness and righteousness, I still get sucker-punched by the tantalizing illusion that peace can be found in something or someone else.

Some days, Jesus, I’m just like Esau. My peace-pangs take over and, in the moment, I’ll gladly settle for a bowl of hot portage over the hope of a future banquet. The provision of a snack-in-hand blinds my eye, deafens my ear, dulls my taste buds to the sumptuous fare of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb… the only Day when my longing and demanding heart will be fully set free to delight in you. “Maranatha!” Even so, Lord Jesus, come… hasten that Day!

Some days, Jesus, I get lost in the world of “if only.” If only there were no tensions in any of my relationships, I’d be a happy man. If only the phone wouldn’t ring again, demanding a little more of me than I have to offer, I’d be fine. If only I lived somewhere else… worked with different people… had a different body… had more money… had less hassles… had a different spouse… had never been deeply wounded… were twenty years younger…

But right now I hear you say to me, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…” Indeed, Jesus, you alone… this day and every day… are the Prince of Peace. Only in union with you… only in communion with you do I find the true and sufficient peace for which I long. “Ain’t no rock gonna take my place…” I gladly cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, for you, Jesus, are the king of glory and grace.

Until the Day of consummate peace, continue to free me from dangerous illusions and please steer my feet away from the path to the dark forest of “if only.” So very Amen, I pray, in your passionate and persistent name.

Scotty Smith
Pastor for Preaching, Teaching and Worship
Christ Community Church, Franklin, Tn.

Treasure

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21
“Out of the overflow of the mouth, the heart speaks.” Matt. 12:34

This first verse is not rocket science.  We can see it in other people easily.  For example, my children might find their newest toy (or costume or balloon) to be their greatest treasure (for the moment) and woe to the person who interferes (or breaks or loses) that treasure.  Because their heart’s affection has been so placed upon that thing, their response to other people is directly influenced by the way that other person respects, cherishes and honors that treasure.  We quickly forget that people are more important than stuff when the stuff becomes the treasure and the treasure is threatened.  And, what my heart most treasures is more easily exposed by my words and actions than I like to acknowledge.

So, when I gave the example yesterday of trying too hard to embody the Gospel, my sweet husband rightfully pointed out that it sounded like I was confessing my greatest sin to be loving Jesus too much – how lame.  Give us something good like gluttony or addiction or adultery…not the Hillary Clinton confession of “I just care too much!”

What nobody could really know outside of my own realization, though, is that insight given to me from the outside wasn’t that I love Jesus too much but that my treasure wasn’t Jesus at all.  I love me too much, my voice, my ideas, my thoughts, my perspective, my experiences and my communication.  Like a salesman who may have a great product but is so aggressive and so focused on the sale rather than the person’s need, my treasure can easily be my ability to communicate and not Jesus or the person in front of me who He loves far more than I do.  When it turns out I have communicated poorly, been misinterpreted or even had something ugly yet true seen by others that I couldnt’ even see myself, it becomes clear from my immediate disorientation that my treasure has been threatened, may be broken or lost.  I panic, get irritable, feel a sense of loss and condemnation because my heart has been wrapped around a treasure that does perish, spoil and fade. 

Yes, even ministry and the communication of the Gospel can become an idol, a Jesus replacement, a source of self-righteousness and is easily my treasure far more than the One about whom it claims to be.  But because its such a good thing, it is so much easier not to see how I take it and treasure it more than the person and work of Jesus Himself.  I begin to look toward my visible/tangible accomplishments as the source of life and for my sense of well-being rather than to the Giver of Life.  I begin to find my righteousness in service (teaching, adoption, racial reconciliation, neighborhood, school, relational health, reputation, etc.) rather than in the only One who clothes me in His righteousness alone.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Phil. 3:8-9

Help My Unbelief

When I posed the questions last week (Checking into the Hospital), inviting close friends and family to identify the “blind spots” of my faith and where the Gospel still (yes, until the very end) has redemptive work to do in me, the responses varied.  The initial questions about the exercise itself that came in e-mails in conversations included dismay that I would want to focus on the negative, make people tell me what they didn’t like about me or point out my imperfections when “you have so much that we all love about you” and besides, we all have flaws so no need to drag one another through the mud.  Whats the deal with all this sin talk anyway?  Lets just focus on God’s grace and love!

Hearing the discomfort with acknowledging sin reinforced how little we are comforted by grace.  The “ouch and ahhh” of the Gospel, (thank you Anne) includes “Ouch!  My SIN!” and “Ahhh…His grace flows down and covers me.”  The need to avoid talking about the specifics of my flaws only exists because I am not convinced that the person and work of Jesus really is sufficient to relieve me (or my love ones) of the guilt and shame of my sin AND to bring about the progressive transformation into His image.

So, what if we think of it differently.  What if we begin to hear talk about sin not with the goal of condemnation but as opportunity to believe this Gospel more than we honestly do.  Consider this example:  A man is on a cruise which cost him every penny of his savings.  Because he has no more money, he sits in his cabin during all the meals eating the crackers he packed for the trip.  Would it be negative, shaming or mean spirited for another passenger to let him know the lavish meals in the dining room were included in his fare?  Would it be “nicer” for them to leave him alone to his sorry, stale, dry crackers when he could be feasting on every delicacy known to man and already paid for by his boarding ticket?

When my specific sins are identified, my specific areas of unbelief are also identified and I am invited out of my lonely room with “stale crackers faith” into the dining room feast of more delicious, mouth watering, belly filling belief in the true God.  For example, my sin of anger usually comes when I can’t control something.  The Gospel reminds me that God is in control so I don’t have to be.  When I start to believe the outcome rests on me and what I can see, I start to sink in the water and curse at everyone as I am going down.  My sin exposes my unbelief and the Gospel shows me Who better to believe in than myself, to trust in than myself, and to feast on rather than my stale crackers.  Why would I not want more of that?

Let me give you an example from one of the responses:

5. Where do you see that I am trusting myself for my well being more than trusting my Father?
I think that you want to “embody the gospel”, which is a great aim, but sometimes you try too hard to make people see the gospel, rather than trusting that God is working on them in his own time.
The ouch of the Gospel (the bad news) is that I try to hard to make people see the Gospel.  I am not believing God can do it without my help.  I am not trusting that He will do more and better for His Kingdom to come than I can.  Rather than loving the people in front of me, they feel attacked, feel patronized, feel stupid, feel unloved, feel like a project, feel like an obstacle to my agenda, and who knows what else.  My unbelief is exposed by the fact that I am trusting my own ability, my own sheer will “rather than trusting that God is working on them in his own time.”  The Ahhh of the Gospel (the good news) is not only that His grace is sufficient to cover over my offenses against people in this respect, but it then invites my faith to grow in trust that He is able to draw men to Himself, to open eyes, give sight, wisdom and understanding.  Its His story, they are His people, and I am invited to trust Him to effectively work it out in those I love rather than believing it depends on me and must happen this very minute.   Ahhh, I can rest in that trust and then love freely because the outcome is in His hands, not my striving.

Until I am shown my blind spots, I am missing out on those opportunities to believe more about His person and work.  I want to know where I am settling for my own person and work (where my dry cracker meals  expose my sin and unbelief) instead of enjoying and filling up on the feast that has already been provided!

If we claim to be without sin, we decieve ourselves and the truth is not in us.  1 John 1:8

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.  So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.  Gal. 3:23-24

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful…For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7: 13, 22-25

I do believe in the person and work of Jesus on behalf, but I still need so much help with (and awareness of) my unbelief!

Refiner’s Fire

I have no idea what decade that song came out (Refiner’s Fire), but I picture myself singing with eyes closed, earnestly begging for God’s fire to purify my heart, let me be as gold, and purest silver…I want to be holy!  (As the song’s lyrics go, anyway.)  But the minute agitation comes, whether from life’s attack on me or my attack on others, its interesting how quickly I seem to forget that deeply felt plea.

This weekend, I listened again to a podcast of David Powlinson’s counseling class through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation.  This particular lecture was on prayer and is one I should be reminded of it regularly.  He described the typical prayer requests that people receive and give (health/sickness, salvation of loved ones, job responsibilities, employment and finances, relationship struggles, etc.) and noted that they are almost exclusively for the situations people are in and for those situations to be fixed or have a certain outcome.  Its not that these types of prayers do not have Biblical precedent, but they are not enough in themselves nor the foucs of God’s redemptive emphasis throughout history.

What we ask for most in prayer is that God would in some way effect change in our circumstances.  Rarely do we request prayer for God to change us through our circumstances.  Rarely do you hear someone say, “I am going in to have surgery next week and it has made realize that I am really fearful.  Would you please pray for the surgeon’s hands, of course, but would you pray even more that God would increase my belief in His control over all things, no matter the outcome?”  Or how about, “I’m just feeling really depressed.  My job is sucking the life out of me, I don’t feel like I have any truly deep friendships and all I do is eat to escape these heavy feelings.  I’m realizing that I am looking to all these things for peace and satisfaction and even validation of my existence and they just can’t provide it.  Would you please pray that in the context of this down place where I am, I would begin to know the satisfaction of God’s love, presence and purpose in a way I never really have believed it before?”

At some point in our Christian experience, we genuinely ask God to make us more into His image, more like Him, less of us and more of Him.  So, He brings the refining fire either by life’s mundane and menial tasks which threaten to suck the life out of us or by the monsoon events which threaten to drown us.  In either case, the goal is the very desire we most want:  (James 1) to be complete, perfect, not lacking anything…Jesus.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:25-28

But I much prefer to ask you to pray for my circumstances because that is safer, less invasive, and less threatening.  We can all keep our eyes a nice distance away from the real elephant in the room, which is my faith.  My faith which is full of doubt, full of demands and almost exclusively full of me.  Just like the Pharisee, my greatest concern is for the external rather than my own heart.  The ironic thing, as Powlinson pointed out, is that when we start praying for heart changes, we actually see God at work more visibly, effecting change that no program or resolve of the will ever could. Rather than a community of despair which is created by a faith placed in external change, a community of faith is grown as God’s power at work inside of us is seen and praised!

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:11

Its not that Jesus can’t calm the storm threatening to capsize my boat.  But thankfully, He is so much more interesting in “stilling” the waters of my heart, so that like Him, I too can rest peacefully in the boat regardless of the weather.  Can I begin to see my circumstances, from the monotonous daily grind to the more visible situational churnings, as the context for God’s redeeming work in my heart?  Can my prayer requests begin to express just enough belief about God’s sovereignty and commitment to my heart that they would begin to focus more on the improvements needed there rather than simply desired in my circumstances?

The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. 1 Sam. 16:7

“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.” John 16:33