Friday, May 26th 2017
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Dark Nights of the Soul

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A Couple of Unsolicited Thoughts while Everyone is Talking about Depression…

This week while depression and suicide are consuming so much public and private dialogue, I feel compelled to add one or two grains of sand to the beach of unsolicited thoughts. The first is, quite simply: dark nights of the soul are profoundly real and they are not confined to those who are selfish, foolish, or faithless. Dark nights of the soul are the substance, not the exception, of the Biblical story and they are experienced indiscriminately by the faithful and the foolish, the sinful and the sincerely obedient. I am not here to enter the fray of the current online battles over the cause of deep depression. Is it sin? Is it sickness? Is it DNA or disobedience? Does it require correction or chemicals? I don’t know. I have thoughts, but some of them are probably wrong.

I have had potent seasons of profound depression. Dark nights have sometimes consumed me. And as a pastor I have counseled many others experiencing the same. Do I and they need correction or care or simple comfort? I am not sure. Most likely gracious portions of all of the above. What I do know is that the dark nights are real, not imagined, and often experienced as chains more than choices. I also know that dark nights appear to have driven many of the Biblical heroes of faith into seasons (at least) when it seemed (in the words of Job) that it would have been “better never to have been born.”

This reality is why we of Christian faith often find it easier to relate to and empathize with the honest ache, unmasked sadness, and ironic laughter of a Robin Williams, than with the frequently trite, over-simplistic, even burdensome definitions and solutions of Christian voices and authorities who throw around answers like we aren’t all still trying to figure out the right questions. Our worldview may be greatly different than Mr. Williams but we know how he felt and we too, in our struggles, cringe at the “friendly” fire of over-confident “Christian” theories.

I will regard with weight and respect the dark nights of both those who share my faith and those who do not, as long as it would be possible to spend a year of Sundays in a “Dark Nights of the Soul” sermon series, without ever leaving the Bible.

Where would such a series start and when would it stop, when texts and stories and examples are as abundant as the tears of hurting people:

Dark Nights of the Soul…

When All Visible Joy is Removed: Job      
When People Disappoint Us: Paul, Hosea, etc.
When Fear Rules Us: Peter, Abraham, etc.
When We are Sure We are Alone: Elijah, David, Paul, etc.
When God Himself Blesses Our Enemies: Jonah
When Death seems More Real than Life: Thomas, etc.
When Thorns-in-the-Flesh are Inoperable: Paul
When Our Sin Alienates Us: David,Peter, etc.
When Failure and Rejection is Guaranteed: Jeremiah, the Prophets
When Circumstances of All Kinds Run Us Over: The Psalmists

Of course there’s the whole “No good deed goes unpunished” sub-series on the Dark Nights:

When Faithfulness is Brutally Crushed — you know: Job, Joseph, Daniel, the Prophets, Stephen, Paul, etc. — to say nothing, yet, of Jesus.

Then there are the additional sub-series options like:

When the Prime of Your Life is Lost in Obscurity: Joseph, Moses, Abraham, John the Baptist, etc
When Children Grieve Us: Adam, Abraham, Noah, Isaac, Samuel, David, Solomon, etc.
When Life Doesn’t Get Easier Until You Die: [Where do I start this list when, in the words of Hebrews, so many “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them.”]

And then there is Jesus. Each of the above injustices, abandonments, and trials were His companions. He did not sin nor distrust His heavenly Father; yet in Gethsemane he was utterly wracked by the crushing sacrifice-of-love before him. He pleaded for an alternative, yet with submission. He was mentally, emotionally, and physically broken to the point of blood-like sweating and collapsing paralyzation. He grieved the inattentive, disregard of his sleeping friends. He was indeed “stricken, smitten by God and afflicted…a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”

I don’t have many answers. I am not sure I will be free of dark nights in this lifetime. I am grateful for the transparent testimonies of those before me and around me. I know that there are not full solutions that are not centered on the grace and hope of God through Jesus, but I also cannot help but take note, that in the long list of Biblical dark nights above, nearly every crushed soul was offered grace, hope, promises, and a big view of a loving God rather than judgments, ultimatums, or calls to morbid introspection.

So, comfort, care, humility, honesty, tenderness, and tears seem to be where we must start; so that — along the way — we might direct our souls and those of others toward the incomparable hope and happiness of our suffering, victorious, redeeming Savior.

 

 


Battle Begun

Big, Brash Gospel Friday 0 Comments

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! …Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”


Patrick Henry - March 23, 1775

Christians have often been at war.

Past and present there has been much talk of battle. There have been military crusades, religious wars, and even assaults of persecution – in the name of Christ – by Christians upon Christians.

Spiritual warfare has been a common theme, framed variously as being in battle with Satan and his principalities and powers, in battle with the unbelieving world, in battle against lies and error, etc.

Tragically, there has also been no shortage of warring among believers. Conflict between and within churches is nearly normative.

Here is the thing, though: Christians speak frequently and forcefully about this or that battle at hand; but it appears to me that we rarely are suiting up for the things most worthy of a fight.

Truly, we have spiritual enemies that war against our souls; but in that conflict we fight a defeated foe, who has already been crushed by Christ, and our Lord has also equipped us with Gospel-armor so that we need not fear or dread the enemy’s fiery darts.

Yes, when Harold Camping declares, against clear Biblical warning and after previous false-prophecies, that Christ will definitely return on May 21, 2011 we should defend the truth and shoot down error. And again, when Rob Bell (essentially) denies the reality of eternal hell and makes the Gospel of Christ optional for eternal life and joy – we should battle for the truth and against error.

There are, in other words, a number of realities in the lives of God’s people and His Church where it is fitting to speak of and engage battle, but I still believe that we often choose the wrong battles and fight these with the wrong mindset and strategy.

You see, the battle for the Gospel and our expectant, extraordinary life in the Gospel, isn’t particularly the fight with our defeated enemy. It is even less a war with unoriginal, run-of-the-mill, fairly self-evident false teachers like Rob Bell or Harold Camping. And we are not at war with the people of the world. We battle against the lies that bind their souls, but we are called to engage our world-wide neighbors with compassion and kindness – offering to them the very grace to which we ourselves so happily cling.

Rarely and selectively do we read “fighting words” from Jesus or the Apostles.

They fire few if any arrows at the evil rulers of their day, they are far from preoccupied with the utterly defeated principalities and powers, they straightforwardly dismiss or dismantle the useless philosophies and religions that surrounded them, they never approach the surrounding sinners and lost souls with anything but compassion and caring offers of forgiveness and hope.

They unleash tongue-lashings and choose to square up for a fight when they are confronting those called and commissioned to proclaim God’s mercy and message – when these folks – instead – rob God’s children of grace, freedom, and joy.

If you want to invoke curses, judgment, mockery, and language of rottenness, doom, death, and emasculation from mouth of the Savior or Paul or John – add works or requirements to the gift of grace, constrict a Christian’s freedom or liberty of conscience, call the Lord’s people to pay more attention to sin than victory, to debt than reward, to guilt than glory, or to sacrifice than joy.

If we want to draw holy fire, we must only use the position or the pulpit of spiritual leadership to manipulate, control, or condescend to those in our care. We simply need to use guilt trips, selective affirmation, or spiritual authority to make folks do what we want, serve our ends, or fill our offering plates.

If the model of Christ and His representatives is our guide, there are few ways to make the godly go to war with you. It won’t work to be Nero or Nietzsche or an unrepentant neighbor. You will need to take the path of narrowing grace or limiting the freedom or joy of God’s people by being a Pharisee, a Galatian Judaizer, or the Apostle Peter in Galatians 2.

If you would go to battle, go to battle for the radically free grace of God, for the relentless promise of joy, and for (in the words of Steve Brown) the scandalous freedom that our Savior fully purchased and purposed for His people.

I make a habit of calling folks primarily to faith and hope and joy and an insatiable appetite for the treasure that God is and gives. Generally, I believe that we are called far more often to think and laugh and feast and sing and announce the extravagant gift of saving grace – than we are called to arms.

But here I plead for us to battle with tenacity and relentlessness:

Fight for a big, bold, unaltered Gospel and for the freedom and joy of God’s people. Resist legalism in all its forms. Oppose authoritarian, controlling, or manipulative leadership. Let no one rob you or others of a free conscience, nor let them compel your service or collect your cash by guilt-trips or misuse of Scripture.

In the fight for grace and freedom it is pointless to cry, “Peace, Peace!” because the battle is already begun and Christians in many places are losing it for lack passionate voices standing and fighting on their behalf.

On the face of things, there have been in recent years a number of encouraging theological and spiritual trends in the Church. But I cannot ignore the reality that the heartening rise of grace theology, “Gospel-centeredness,” and Biblical eldership structures in influential Christian circles is far too often being accompanied by rising authoritarianism, legalism (both overt and subtle), theological dogmatism, sin-preoccupation, and a kind of spiritual-correctness that regulates God’s people according to artificial and human definitions of the current Christian subculture.

Increasingly, in dynamic and influential ministries, there is tightly enforced theological-correctness, educational-correctness, family-methodology-correctness, political-correctness, and much more. These forcefully (even if unofficially) hang over the heads of those who long to be fully received and respected in these Christian communities

Somehow a thoughtful recovery of much of the truth of God and His Gospel of grace has been linked and used to build and promote corporate, administrative, formulaic redefinitions of “the local Church.”

In a similar way, hip, cookie-cutter church plants have widely replaced serving and growing the Lord’s kingdom by recognizing, mentoring, and raising up deep souled, family-delighted, truth-hungry, impassioned teachers and preachers of God’s great Word and grace.

These patterns seem intimidating and nearly invincible, with many confident, popular voices continually and inflexibly advocating for the new “right” way to do church and grow churches. It is also unsettling and unnerving to our thinking and resolve when so many methods, formulas, programs, and Christian practices or positions are grouped under “Gospel-centered”-type headings that seem to suggest a disregard for the Gospel and grace itself if you question the many attachments and add-ons of the prevailing “Gospel-centered” model and worldview

Warm, engaging, organic communities of Christian fellowship, family, and witness seem to be faltering under the pressure of strident, self-assured ministry models that are successfully gathering Christians into clone-like church plants or giant ministries with worldwide reputations. If this concerns you, please do not simply comply or assume the futility of resistance and don’t be content that things have (on a certain level) gotten better than they were in quite recent decades.

Be thankful for all that the Lord has done and is doing through so many folks. Appreciate and affirm what is good, but don’t let anyone hijack and reshape our rich heritage of faith in a way that leaves us standing outside, appearing to oppose the very things we value most.

As much as possible live at peace and enjoy the life of grace. Focus more on what is good than what is wrong. Live with warmth, unity, and respect among fellow-believers, even with our many different perspectives and convictions.

Do all this and then, when the grace of God or the freedom of God’s people are diminished – join Paul, who without a blink or a pause saw Peter’s legalistic attitude and leadership and announces, “I withstood him to his face.”


What’s up with the Bunny?

Big, Brash Gospel Friday 0 Comments

On a winding, other-worldly stretch of country road, not far from here, there is small, aged church and a shadowed, rickety church cemetery that look like they belong in Sleepy Hollow.

Beside the cemetery is a simple two-story structure labeled “Church Office” and in the upstairs window is a chilling sight. (Behold the photo.)

This scene returns each spring as Easter Sunday approaches, and for years now it is our family’s simple tradition to mumble “What’s up with the Bunny?” each time we pass.

Now, I have no habit or inclination to rail on about “the godless, pagan origins” of Christian holidays; but I must ask: am I alone when I shout, “Christ is Risen!” and hear His people respond, “He is risen indeed!” and haven’t the slightest corresponding thought that I should start painting eggs and getting my reservation nailed down for the visit of a large, walking, (at-least-mildly) creepy Bunny?

What’s up with the Bunny?

So, is Easter named after Eastre, the great Mother-God of pre-Christian celtic paganism or after Ishtar, the ancient Near-Eastern goddess of fertility? An odd question to have to ask, don’t you think? The one thing we know is that the term Easter and much that is associated with it has no roots in Christianity or the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Both Eastre and Ishtar (like other proposed candidates for Easter’s origin) are surrounded by extraordinary, fantastical stories of fertility and new life, deaths and resurrections, rabbits and eggs, and Spring equinox celebrations.

Ishtar Day was long celebrated on the first “Sunday” (or first day of the week) after the first full moon after the Spring equinox. Records describe grand celebrations filled with bunnies (fertile little critters that they are) and eggs that represented the moon – Ishtar’s fertilized ovum…you get the point.

This is where I’m supposed to go ballistic about godless, pagan origins and false religion – right?

Well, I could, I suppose. Anything that distracts from the incomprehensible offering of Christ’s death and the stunning glory of His resurrection should be hastily thrown out of the way. I would be content to never see nor hear of another Easter Bunny or Easter egg, but I am amazed and moved when I think of what even these inexplicable Easter additions and trappings reveal.

You see, all of the Easter-origin theories are rooted in ancient stories of death and new life. Ishtar claimed to have been conceived by an immaculate conception and the stories that surround her (like several other ancient myths and expectations) proclaim the rise of a savior or redeemer, who would die and come back to life.

Enemies of Christianity point to this with rolling-eyed mockery and declare that our faith is nothing true or original. It simply mimics countless “other myths” that were around long before. But these stories fascinate me and draw from me happy praises to our gracious Lord and His Christ – because centuries before the Savior appeared, the Hebrew prophets announced the One who would not only die and live again, but also would fulfill the “desires of all nations.”

How extraordinary now to look back and read desperate tales of long past peoples who could find no hope without anticipating new life and a dying and living Redeemer. What great work of our Lord’s common grace wrought this expectation and longing in tribes from pole to pole?

In my personal opinion and practice, when Resurrection Sunday rolls around, I need and want nothing more than singing, shouting, spellbound celebrations of my dying Savior and my resurrected King! Nothing will replace or supplement sharing these world-shaking memories with brothers and sisters in Christ – who like me have been given a splendid life, a breath-taking hope, and a glorious, long, new creation future through Jesus Christ alone.

The victory and power of the Resurrection is the power of our new birth, the source of our sanctification, and the substance of our future hope of resurrection and eternal life. In many Christian circles this glorious event is tragically overlooked or given little more than a token nod.

We must re-visit our New Testament friends. These folks were irrepressible people of the resurrection. I believe that I could make a solid case that the Christians of the first century – had they been into religious jewelry – would have hung more empty tombs than crosses on chains around their necks

All this to say that, for myself, I’d rather run after the living Christ than run down a creepy bunny – so I’ll preserve my spiritual activist energies for other things. For example…

Today is Good Friday 2011 and in honor of this day of holy remembrance you will find a beautiful scene on your Google page recognizing…Earth Day.

This is a battle of spiritual faiths. One rests its hope in the eternal new creation of a crucified and risen Savior and one ties its hopes to a crumbling old creation – which itself groans in anticipation of a supernatural redemption that its own worshippers ignore (Romans 8:20-22).

Even the fertility mother-gods were a step closer to grace and truth than the raw materialists of our day. And they didn’t have the Scriptural record and the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their rearview mirror.

It could almost make a thoughtful Christian yearn for some good, old-fashioned pagans – celebrating fertility, bunnies, and all manner of other nonsensical things – because they couldn’t shake a deep longing for a new and everlasting life through a dying and living Savior.


Thirty Easy Ways – Number 22

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thirty-ways-to-raise-a-pharisee

One day Jacob was cooking a stew.

Esau came in from the field starved and said to Jacob,

“Give me some of that red stew-I’m starved!”

Jacob said,

“Make me a trade: my stew for your rights as the firstborn.”

Esau said, “I’m starving! What good is a birthright if I’m dead?”

…That’s how Esau shrugged off his rights as the firstborn.

Genesis 25:29-34

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Thirty Easy Ways to Raise a Pharisee

Number 22

Teach them that their desires are their spiritual enemies.

A number of times, in various ways, the Savior simply asked:

“What do you want?”

And when folks tell Him their desires, He never (never.) tells them to want less.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth” a good monk or Pharisee might quote, “where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal.”

“But,” Jesus said, “lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and thieves don’t break in and steal.”

Crave the best things and don’t let the brief gratification of lesser things rob you of the great stuff.

And if treasure is available, abandon your trash, with light-hearted and expectant laughter, to get your hands on the real, permanent wealth.

Jesus said:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” – Matthew 13:44

All Gospel changes in our lives are treasure transactions. Glad, easy decisions that make us chuckle and say, “My Ford Focus for your Lamborghini – I don’t know…I’d have to think long and hard about giving up my Focus!”

There are no exceptions – not one time where our Lord says, “I want you do such and such, even though in the long run you will lose something good or be less happy.

Never. Not once. No exceptions to this remarkably extravagant rule.

We’ve really messed this one up. I’m tempted to use stronger language.

For centuries the world has assumed that following our faith is a fool’s errand designed for masochists and self-absorbed monks. Why wouldn’t they, given the wonderful mix of martyrdom and moral superiority that marks most “Christian” confrontations of the world?

C.S. Lewis offers a strong antidote to this wretched thinking (he made a habit of this):

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Stifle your desires or tolerate small, easily-satisfied desires and you will find yourself (and your son or daughter) easy targets for wasted lives of sinful indulgence.

Enlarge your desires and demand that your joys be both permanent and satisfying and you will find no alternative but to run hard after the King of grace and His gifts.

If you want to groom your children into self-satisfied, ultimately-impoverished Pharisees:

1. Warn them of the danger of wanting too much pleasure.

2. Teach them to sacrifice for God

These are fertile soil for both rebellion and religion – both of which are deadly.

Pharisees, legalists and religious people of all sorts are preoccupied with what God requires and expects of us instead of what God longs to give us. They assume that God needs something from us, rather than that we desperately and hungrily need everything from Him. They think that God is more honored by our hard work than by our hunger for Him. They function on the assumption that God is a kill-joy and that He wants us to avoid punishment by learning to abandon pleasure.

Rebels smell these same slanders against God’s extravagant grace and simply say, “Not interested.”

And why should they be?

Even our everyday parental instructions of wisdom and righteousness (when true and Godly) are rooted less in sin-management and behavior modification than they are in vision-casting and pleasure-protection.

Does your daughter crave popularity and get easily drawn into vanity (or self-pity)? Don’t tell her that acceptance and beauty don’t matter. Share with her the treasure of being loved and embraced by God and point her to the beauty that the Savior is crafting in her for a future unveiling. Compare cheap gawking to eternal admiration.

Is your son struggling with lust? Don’t tell him to stop longing. Give him something worth longing for! Magnify the wonders of sexual intimacy and the delights of God’s gift of marriage. Envision in him a future worth wanting and guarding and waiting for – then enjoy your wife deeply in his view (or your words won’t ring true).

If we portray faith and faithfulness more like monastic vows of self-flagellation than as the magnificent value of wise and patient investment, our children will seek out alternatives.

Monks or heirs of heavenly wealth – which of these propels the soul toward grace? And which of these magnify the grandeur and the goodness of God?

Teach your sons and daughters the insanity of Esau.

Don’t get all spiritual and tell them how fleshly and ungodly he was. (Though true.) Get right to the point and tell them that he was an idiot, a moron, a joy-crushing fool. He gave up the wealth, honor, privileges, and future of an ancient first-born son, so that he wouldn’t have to be hungry and wait for dinner for a few minutes.

Healthy, strong desires drive us to the Gospel. Pray for the Lord to plant demanding desires in you and your children that can’t easily be satisfied

Vigorous, not-easily-satisfied desires also propel “sanctification” or Godly change in our lives. (More on this in the next couple of weeks.)

In Galatians 5:16-17 Paul says: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit lusts against the flesh.

Lust means “strong desire” and in Scripture (believe it or not) “lust” can either be for evil or for good.

So the flesh has strong desires that can kill the soul.

And the spirit has strong desires that can kill the flesh.

Apparently the right kind of vigorous, insatiable strong desires are exactly what we need.

With this paradigm-shift out on the table we really must explore how to encourage real spiritual growth in our children.

So please tag along for the next couple of weeks, as we consider Treasure-based transformation and how it is that we and our children will really grow and flourish in the Lord.