Thursday, May 26, 2005

Climbing the Crane

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant . . . (Psalm 119:176)

About a mile down the road from our church is a construction site that yesterday became the scene of a high stress, high drama, high profile stand-off. Carl Roland, on the run from police in Florida, climbed the 18 story crane on the construction site late yesterday. As of this writing he’s still there. It’s been more than 20 hours. A densely traveled part of Peachtree Road has been closed, engendering very little sympathy for Mr. Roland.

Watching the T.V. news footage, I’m not surprised that Mr. Roland is up there. I’m surprised that he was able to get up there – but he’s a desperate man. The fact that he’s 18 stories above the ground, threatening to take his own life, that doesn’t surprise me. What I find remarkable is the fact that he’s not the only one up there. Not far from him is a police negotiator, a person who was doing his job, got a call and found himself going up the 18 story crane, sitting up there at significant risk, trying to bring Mr. Roland safely down.

I ask myself: would I go up there to do that? I know the answer: not likely. Of course, I’m not a professional police negotiator – but that’s no excuse. I am a pastor. And if anyone should be willing to go to great lengths to retrieve and bring back a lost soul, surely it should be a shepherd, one who follows the great shepherd Jesus.

Grace means Jesus seeking us. We’re the desperate ones, trying to get to something that will save us or trying to escape a past that threatens and accuses us. Our running isn’t nearly as dramatic as Mr. Roland’s crane climb – but there we are nonetheless. Like Carl Roland, so many are simply stuck, immobilized. And Jesus comes to us.

Jesus lived his life to show us that this is God’s heartbeat toward us. Jesus didn’t set up shop and wait for folks to find him. He didn’t teach only those who managed to get to where he was. Jesus went seeking. He told stories to make this clear to us; lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. He made a plain statement of his purpose: “the son of man came to seek and save that which was lost.”

I’m not nearly as much like Jesus as I’d like to be. And I’m more like Carl Roland than I care to admit. That fact alone reminds me how much I need grace. I need Jesus to come to me. I need compassion and mercy, especially when I don't deserve it.

The final verse of Psalm 119 is a peculiar conclusion to a (very) long meditation on God’s word. This Psalm is written by one who loves God’s law, who is committed to living as the law instructs. These are the words of one who has memorized and pondered and applied the teachings of Torah. And yet, at the end of this lengthy exaltation of God’s law, the Psalmist ends with confession. “I have strayed.” This confession leads to a request. “Seek your servant.” In other words, though we love God’s law and do our best to live it, we stray and wander. Unless God seeks us and brings us back to himself, we’re lost.

We need grace. Perched high on cranes of our own making, we are sought and found. Jesus finds us, sits patiently with us. I want to be more like him. I’ll start here on the ground, and maybe (by grace) work my way up those 18 stories.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

"But You"

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever (Psalm 102:12)

Speaking the word “but” is like highlighting everything that came before it and hitting “delete.” Chances are your experience verifies the eraser-like power of the word. Maybe the words have been spoken to you – usually some kind of affirmation, followed by the word “but” which renders all that was previously spoken null and void. And maybe you’ve spoken the word yourself, trying to come across as supportive, trying to come across as the good guy, only to utter “but” and torpedo everything you said along with your supportive good guy persona.

In our conversations, “but” diminishes, takes away, makes less or puts down. Not so in Psalm 102.

Right in the middle of Psalm 102 there is a hinge phrase, two little words that lend strength to the prayer and embolden the one praying. Two short defiant words: “but you.” In a Psalm that is 28 verses long, this powerful little conjunctive comes at verse 12, right near the middle. It is at this point, with these words, that the prayer turns a corner.

Before the text of the Psalm begins, there is a prescript that gives us a clue as to what we’re reading and hearing. This is “a prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.” The words of the prayer unfold the affliction with vivid imagery, describing conditions not unfamiliar to many. These are the words of a person who cannot eat and cannot sleep. They seem to be wasting away and all they see around them is ruins. They know the pain of hostility and conflict, the derision of an enemy. The tears flow freely. And to top it off, the one praying implicates God. “You have taken me up and thrown me aside.”

Then the hinge. The prayer turns a corner. After eleven verses of rehearsing the anguish and describing the affliction, the person at prayer utters two words that jerk everything into a new context, two words that move from simple description of suffering toward definition.

“But you.”

Here the affliction is coupled with affirmation. “But you, O Lord, sit enthroned forever” (v. 12). These words do not negate the affliction. There’s nothing magical here that makes the suffering go away. Nor is this denial. What “but you” does is place the affliction in a larger context. The experience of the one praying is understood in light of the presence and ultimate purposes of God. These two small words are steely, determined and defiant. The suffering is real, but it isn’t the most real thing about life. God is enthroned forever. God will arise and have compassion. God will rebuild what has been ruined. God sees what’s going on and he hears the anguished groans of those who suffer. This is real, the most real thing in the life of the one praying.

There are plenty of times when we want to pray, but don’t know how (Romans 8:26). Strangely, these are often times of affliction. It seems like suffering would push us to fervent prayer – but it doesn’t always work that way. In our distress, we bog down and lose words. Even Jesus, before his crucifixion, struggled this way. “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?” (John 12:27). Psalm 102 helps us by giving us two words.

“But you.”

Faith seems to hang on these two little words. Without them, we truly become “unhinged.” Pray the Psalm, or pray like the Psalm. Rehearse the affliction, ask the questions, wrestle with the implications, don’t hold back tears – it’s all prayer.

And in it all, when other words fail, be bold in this declaration: “but you.”

(Suggested reading: Mark D. Roberts, No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer).

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Finding Troas

. . . they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas (Acts 16:7-8).

Something’s not right. That’s what we conclude when our plans don’t unfold according to our timelines and charts, or our dreams and hopes and fantasies. Plans aren’t always written and calendared. They may exist in our minds without having ever been fully articulated to another living soul. Whether on paper or held in some deep inner place, we know when they aren’t happening. And our first thought is that something has gone wrong, a deviation from the good and right and normal.

The apostle Paul knew better. Look at this episode from his second missionary journey – a journey that was reasonably planned. Paul had planted churches. Now it was time to go back and check on them. Not a bad plan. But then this:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:6-10).

What’s going on here? They were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” as they sought to enter Asia. When they tried to enter Bithynia, the “Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Their plans are thwarted. Whatever is happening, we know that this isn’t simply bad luck or bad timing. The text is clear that the Spirit is involved in this. Suddenly the larger story begins to emerge. In a dream Paul sees the outline of a new plot, a different story. A man of Macedonia beckons Paul, “come and help us.” Now there’s a new plan. This is where the Spirit was leading all along.

What strikes me about this passage from Acts 16 is the remarkable absence of angst in the story. The events are narrated in a matter of fact way that gives no hint of frustration or regret or worry. Had I been Paul, or a member of Paul’s team, I would have lost sleep thinking about the new believers in those regions who needed to be tended to and discipled. I would have stewed for days in frustration over the failed or failing plan, perhaps trying again and again to make it work, pleading in prayer to understand what was going “wrong.” Maybe Paul or his companions did some of this too. Doesn’t sound like it though.

During my seminary years I served a small congregation in southern Oklahoma. I would drive every weekend from Fort Worth, Texas to the church field – a two hour trek up I-35W. One Saturday in early January, just after leaving the city limits of Fort Worth, an ice storm moved in, raining wet ice that started freezing to my windshield and then to the roads. By the time I had entered Oklahoma it was dark. My wipers were useless against the freezing rain. My tires weren’t holding the road so well. I’m from Georgia and Georgians have no idea how to navigate these conditions. I managed to pull off the interstate and beat the truckers to the Holiday Inn. I called a church member to let them know I wouldn’t be making it up for Sunday’s services. I should have been thankful to be safe and in a room with heat. But I wasn’t thankful. I was angry at being stuck in a hotel room. I couldn’t go where I wanted to go. I couldn’t get to my congregation. I couldn’t go back home. When I tired of feeling anger I moved on to self pity. I was alone in southern Oklahoma.

That night at the Holiday Inn I had no dream or vision, no one calling me to a new ministry on the other side of the Red River. I can’t honestly say that I ever glimpsed the larger story. I don’t claim to have some insight now into that event that I didn’t have then. Perhaps what God wanted to do with me was show me his awesome power in the storm. I think I missed the chance to worship because I was angry. Maybe the Spirit had a message for me that weekend: “You’re not the savior. They’ll be fine. It’s not your church.” I missed that too. I think I spent more time watching TV than praying.

Somehow Paul found the road to Troas. In Troas Paul was perfectly positioned to go over to Macedonia. Troas is where the outline of the larger story emerges. It is the place where we catch a glimpse of what God is doing around us, a place where we receive what God has next. The same Spirit that kept Paul from entering Asia and Bithynia was certainly leading him to Troas, preparing him for the dream and the call to Macedonia. You make your way to Troas with prayer and by grace. Those who cover their plans with “if the Lord wills” are most likely to find Troas.

So if we follow the counsel of James and cover all our plans with “if the Lord wills,” we had better pray believing. We need to believe that God will in fact do what he wills – and that means that what seems like a failure or deviation to us was in fact the plan from the beginning. We just had to get there. We had to find our way to Troas.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How To Use A Palm Pilot

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
(Proverbs 16:9)

“We live the given life, not the planned”
(Wendell Berry, )

The small screen in my hand went blank and then displayed a message that I didn’t understand, but which I knew was bad news: “Fatal error.” There were some brief instructions about pressing a reset button. I followed those instructions carefully, but to no avail. When the little device in my hand came back on, every thing I had recorded on it was gone. It was as if my life had vanished, a kind of electronically induced amnesia. When my palm pilot went blank, I momentarily forgot everything I was planning to do that day, everything I had planned for that week. My carefully scheduled plans were erased. After my initial panic, I managed to recover most of that information by hooking up the handheld device to my computer – but the lesson had been learned. Plans can be lost in an instant.

The name says it all: “Palm Pilot.” Palm is the center of my hand. It suggests a firm hold on something. Pilot suggests one who guides, drives, controls. The “palm pilot” places the direction of my life squarely in my hand. Calendar, clock, memo pad, to do list, phone directory, it’s all right there. And it works pretty well – until the fatal error comes and exposes the fragility of our life management program and the tentativeness of our plans.

To live yielded before God does not mean refusing to own or use a palm pilot. It does mean being able to recognize the myth such a device can create – the myth of having my plans firmly in the center of my own hand. To live yielded and surrendered before the Lord is to hold our plans loosely.

There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about this. All people, regardless of their faith, know that plans can change or fall apart. We begin learning this early in life. I can remember a childhood Christmas Eve when my father (a pastor) received a call at my grandmother’s house about the impending death of a church member. The annual ritual of dinner and gift opening was interrupted for us. We made it through the meal, then we left the gifts we had brought for the clan, we loaded their gifts for us into the car, and we headed back to South Carolina.

Of course, the interruptions that disrupt what we’ve carefully planned don’t always come as fatal errors. Sometimes our agendas are altered by surprising and delightful opportunities. That might mean receiving tickets for a game at the last minute when a friend is suddenly unable to go; it might mean the offer of a new position in the company. Whether by tragedy or opportunity, the reality remains the same. Our well ordered lists and carefully crafted schedules are ever vulnerable to something beyond us. We do well to hold our plans loosely.

This is the counsel James gives in his letter to the Jerusalem church. James urges his congregation to live with constant humble awareness of the “something beyond” their plans and goals and ambitions. He calls them, in the midst of their plans, to deal with God.

Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.

Three quick observations:
1. Making plans isn’t the problem. The text says nothing to discourage well made plans for ordinary affairs like business and making money.

2. Even when we plan well, we have no idea what will happen tomorrow. Our life is short and so is our reach.

3. Therefore, the way to plan is to hold all things subject to the work and will of God. Go ahead, plan your work and work your plan. But hold those plans loosely.

What appears to us as a fatal error may in fact be the work of divine guidance and providence. More on this later.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Navigating By Sight

We live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7)

So what was it like to be Jim Schaeffer and Troy Martin on Wednesday afternoon of this week? There they are, comfortably seated in their Cessna 152 aircraft, making their way from Pennsylvania to an air show in North Carolina, no doubt reveling in the blue skies that canopied the eastern seaboard that day.

That revelry must have been deep. So deep, in fact, that they flew into restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. So deep, in fact, that they didn’t respond to radio contact warning them away from the area. The flare rockets being fired in their direction must have been a rude awakening. Down below, the city of Washington D.C. was slipping into 9/11 dejavu. Laura Bush and her guest, Nancy Reagan, were wisked to a special bunker. Senators and Congressmen went scrambling out of chambers. Tourists were running . . . I have no idea to where. Yes, the security measures were implemented successfully, but you can tell from the TV news clips that the freak-out factor was measurable.

And high above it all sit the baffled aviators.

After the “little plane that could” had been forced to land and investigations had been launched, Kevin Madden of the U.S. Justice Department offered a simple explanation for what had gone wrong: “They were navigating by sight and got lost.”

I don’t know the first thing about aviation, but that explanation doesn’t surprise me at all. The entire story calls to mind the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:7. “We live by faith, not by sight.” In scripture, navigating by sight is simply not reliable.

What is truly remarkable about Paul is that for him, the unseen world was the real world. He didn’t place too much stock in what he could see or in the way things appeared. He didn’t dismiss the seen, but everything he saw was defined and understood in light of another reality – an unseen world. Earlier in the same letter Paul gives us more insight into this and how it actually impacted his life. In 2 Corinthians 4 we read that for Paul an outward (physical) wasting away is matched by daily inner renewal. The troubles of the moment are achieving an eternal glory. For him, the seen world is temporary, fleeting, passing away. The unseen is the real deal – and that’s what determined how he lived. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.”

I’d like to learn how to live that way. Honestly, I’m more inclined to navigate by sight. Maybe you are too. The problem is, that way of living inevitably leads to an unintended destination. The destination has various names: despair, hopelessness, resigned cynicism. The seen world can’t be ignored or denied – but it can’t be fully trusted either. Paul didn’t live in denial. That man was firmly grounded. But he didn’t get his answers from the seen world alone. He fixed his eyes on what he couldn’t see. But what does this mean?

I’m not entirely sure, but I believe Paul’s understanding of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit is a large part of the answer. To have the Spirit is to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:10-16). Having God’s spirit is different from having the spirit of the world.

If you’re navigating by sight, eventually you’ll see something that leads you to some faulty conclusions. But with the mind of Christ at work in you by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may see something far more real than meets the eye. So, with Pentecost Sunday approaching, pray for the Spirit’s work in your life. Seek the Spirit and the mind of Christ. Fix your eyes on what isn’t seen. There’s an alternative to navigating by sight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Go Ahead . . . Jump A Wave

. . . live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17b NIV)

Holiness is a nearly ruined word. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote that one of Satan’s most subtle and effective tactics in waging war on faith is to take a perfectly good word and ruin the meaning of it. It works. At the top of the hit list these days is the word “marriage.” But that’s another blog for another time. Right now I’m thinking of a far more familiar word that’s becoming increasingly strange to us. Holiness.

A couple of things seem clear to me: First, like it or not, this is what God calls us to be as his people. An entire book of the Old Testament, Leviticus, addresses God’s desire for holiness with excruciating detail. Get past the peculiar instructions for bringing a variety of sacrifices, and the book boils down to one repeated theme. “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1). In the New Testament, Peter writes a letter in which he reaches back to his Hebrew scriptures, lifts that very verse, and applies it directly to Christian congregations (1 Peter 1:15). Writing to the very troubled church in Corinth, Paul reminds them that they are “called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). “All those everywhere” includes us. We’re called to be holy.

The second thing that seems clear to me is that holiness isn’t held up in an explicit way as the aim of our lives. It’s not that we don’t believe the scriptures. We readily acknowledge that holiness is important. We just don’t like saying it. The word is damaged. It doesn’t get us pumped. No one walks around church on Sunday asking their Christian brothers and sisters about their progress in holiness. That was fine for the Puritans, but we’ve gotten beyond that. The word suggests to us a kind of stodginess. Holiness isn’t daring or bold. It’s snug and smug. Who really wants to be holy?

I realize there are theological dimensions to holiness that need to be kept in mind – that holiness isn’t something we do or attain as much as it is something God gives to us in Jesus Christ. But discussions of imputed righteousness aside, holiness is a way of living and being in the world. It’s not a theological construct. It’s a way of raising children and driving in traffic and dealing with the bored, tattooed kid working the drive-thru window. So what does it mean to be holy? How do we recover the adrenaline of the word?

Almost two years ago Marnie and I were at a conference at Myrtle Beach. The kids were with us, and at the time the beach activity of choice was jumping waves. This meant little hops as the dying “wave” ebbed up on the shore line. Hardly dangerous activity. But my little ones were already exerting independence. They didn’t hesitate to venture out to ankle depth, then knee depth. My insistence on holding a hand was not well received. It was September and hurricane Isabelle was brewing out in the Atlantic and moving to the Carolina coast. You’d have never known that a storm like that was headed our way. The weather at Myrtle Beach was beautiful, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time before things got ugly. The only question was how ugly things would get. In these conditions, “wave jumping” seemed a little riskier. My favorite part was when my kids went running out of the ocean.

There were two very flawed ways to respond to my kids wave jumping adventure. On one hand, we could have just stayed in the condo. After all, we had an excellent view of the ocean. On our balcony we could feel sunlight and breeze. We could avoid the unpleasant feel of sand collecting in especially unpleasant places. Yes, the condo balcony is a safe place to be. No waves to worry about there.

Another response would be to practice X-treme parenting. Send them out to the waves and doze in the beach chair. One good lung-full of ocean water will teach them. They’ll learn.

What we’ve done with holiness seems to err in one of these directions or the other. Some well intentioned believers think that being holy means keeping a safe distance from the threats of the world and the culture. There are plenty of Christians who have settled into their place on the condo balcony. They can see the world, but they really don’t have to deal with it in all its grittiness. They are safe and they are clean – but frankly, they aren’t having much fun. All that Psalms talk about joy and gladness doesn’t seem to faze them. They are after holiness, and they find it by staying removed. Observant, but not influential.

Other followers of Jesus have lost any real sense of what holiness means and requires. They’ve thrown themselves in to the waves of culture headlong. They don’t have the foggiest idea that there is such a thing as a rip tide. There seems to be no recognition of the ocean’s power.

A truly holy life can’t stay in the balcony, and it can’t ignore the power of tides and weather. A holy life knows how to both enjoy and respect the particular conditions found in the world. Holiness gets in the water, jumps the waves – but it knows where the dangers lie, times and places when the surf isn’t friendly. In the event of a rip tide, a holy life knows what to do. It has the strength and presence of mind to swim hard along the shore line. It doesn’t panic in the current.

This sounds like what Peter had in mind when he addressed his congregations as strangers and exiles in the world. They were not at home in the culture surrounding them, but over and over again Peter calls them to a holy life, reminds them that they are a holy people. He urges them to live exemplary lives among non-believers. This is what the Jesus was after when told us to be salt and light. This kind of holiness is powerful. It puts steel in the Christian life.

So go ahead. Jump a wave.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Crawfish Bible

. . . they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11).

I learned how to eat a crawfish this past weekend. This was the real thing – no utensils, rolls of paper towels, mounds of crawfish dumped on a table with carrots and onion and garlic and potatoes mixed in. Protocol was simple. Stand at the table and plunge your hand into the heap, pull out a crawfish and eat it.

I was tutored in the basics: (1) Pull off the head of the crawfish (2) suck the juice from the head of the crawfish (3) Find the meat in the tail of the crawfish. Eat. Repeat. Step two was presented to me as optional. I declined to ingest anything from the head of the crawfish.

Crawfish are ugly. There’s nothing about them that makes you want to eat them. But if you can get beyond such superficialities, they’re actually tasty. I enjoyed eating crawfish. My problem with eating crawfish had nothing to do with the unfortunate ugly crustacean. My problem was me. My skill level in actually getting meat from the crawfish was such that significant labor was being invested with little reward. At the rate I was going, I would need most of the night and an entire tub full of the creatures in order to get a meal.

My lack of skill became clear to me when Virginia – one of the hostesses and a former resident of Louisiana (enough said) – demonstrated proper crawfish eating technique. She actually extracted enough meat from the tail of the crawfish to qualify as a genuine “bite” of crawfish. Her expertise left me wondering, “how’d she do that?” I had no idea how to get that much of the “good stuff.” My well intentioned efforts had not produced the same result. In my hands, the crawfish was a resistant and stingy critter, unwilling to yield its delicacies. In Virginia’s hands, the crawfish was a brittle treasure chest, easily cracked and plundered.

It occurs to me that what I experienced with eating crawfish is not unlike what many people experience with the Bible. For some, the very sight of the bible is off-putting. The stark black leather cover with the gold embossed letters that read HOLY BIBLE doesn’t strike people as a can’t-put-it-down page turner. For others, efforts made to actually read the bible have not been well rewarded. If one happens to attempt to crack open the King James Version, the likelihood of returning for second and third helpings diminishes significantly. The “good stuff” is trapped beneath a shell of Elizabethan English. Sometimes the English is perfectly readable, but historical distance renders the Bible inaccessible.

The joy of my life is helping people learn how to feed on the scriptures. The Bible is food for the soul. The Psalmist said that God’s law was like honey on the lips. There is a Hebrew word for “meditate” that also means “to chew on.” Reading the Bible is like what a lion does as it hovers over it’s prey. God’s word is delicious.

Not enough people know this. My job as a pastor is to do for them what Virginia did for me. I love to gather folks together and plunge into the text of scripture. I enjoy helping them see what’s there, how much good meat there is to be found in these pages. And eventually, I’m hoping that they’ll no longer need me to do this for them. They’ll be able to do it for themselves, and then they’ll gather others and show them the same thing. The Bible is good food.

In order to feed well on the Bible two things are required:

First, there needs to be an appetite. Part of the reason I enjoyed eating crawfish, challenging though it was, was that I was hungry. I was ready to eat – so every little bit was good, and it was worth the effort. When it comes to the Bible, some develop a taste for it over time. Others are in a state of soul hunger that sends them to the pages of scripture with a kind of ravenous eagerness. For them, it’s like raiding the refrigerator late at night. Either way, the delicacies of scripture will not be found apart from an appetite, a hunger to hear a word from God.

The second thing needed is simply repeated exposure. I think the main reason Virginia was able to do what she did with a crawfish was that over the years she has eaten alot of crawfish. She has picked them up over and over and over again. She knows what to look for, how to hold them, how to get them open. The more you eat them, the more you know about eating them. The more you eat them, the more you discover about what’s good and what isn’t. Veteran crawfish eaters are more likely to suck the juice from the head. I want to read the Bible that way. I want to get every drop of what’s good from every book, every chapter. This is a lifelong endeavor.

Crack your Bible open and search for the good stuff. Come to it hungry and don’t get weary. Keep coming back and feeding on it until your soul is full – and then come back for more.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Why Can't Life Be Better?

He has also set eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

But our citizenship is in heaven . . . (Philippians 3:20)

Two nights ago there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth when my daughter’s bath time arrived and she was sent upstairs to get ready for bed. The pain was evoked by the fact that her older brother was allowed to stay downstairs and finish his project for the science fair. Never mind the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to play and have fun. Whatever he was doing, he was not getting ready for bed, and this struck my daughter as grievously unfair.

As she cried and carried on dramatically (she knows how to work it) she voiced her protest in the form of a question that caught me by surprise. Through the tears she asked “why can’t life be better?” Talk about drama. My first impulse was to laugh. Where did this come from? From where I sit her five (almost six) year old life looks pretty good.

After a moment I responded, “Anna, that’s a really good question.” I didn’t actually attempt to answer the question, and my word of affirmation did little to alleviate my daughter’s distress. But I meant it. The question is a good one, and it’s a question that never seems to go away. Whether we’re five or eighty-five or anywhere in between, we ask that question. Why can’t life be better?

There are several possible answers. One good answer is “life isn’t as bad as you think it is right now.” Another version of that answer is simply “get a grip” or “get over it.” We need to be told that at times. A second possible answer is “life can be better when you decide to do something about it.” Abbreviated: “stop whining.” This challenges us to assume some measure of responsibility for our lives and our circumstances. We need to hear that too.

But there’s another answer to the question that helps us understand why the question never goes away. Why do we live our days with a gnawing sense that somehow life could be better? And why do we feel this even when we know we’ve got it pretty good? How do we treat this persistent low-grade discontentment?

No doubt, a short-term mission trip to a disease ridden and poverty stricken part of the world cures us for a while. We get clarity for just a moment on how silly and insipid our woes are when we place them in a global context. But that cure doesn’t last long. We get home and get back in to our lives and the dis-ease creeps in again. There’s something lacking in us. Sure, we’ve got it good – but couldn’t it be better?

The reason for our continual relapse is that we are homesick. There’s something deep inside of us that was designed for perpetual thirst in this world, in this life. It will not be fully quenched or satisfied here, and the reason is that the only thing that can quench it remains beyond us now. Our true home is heaven, our citizenship is there, and we were made to be there with the creator and lover of our souls. We were made for something else.

We can choose to live our lives in denial of this or in rebellion against it. We can keep chasing the one thing that we are certain will do it for us. That could be anything: career, marriage, money, a doctorate, a doctor, a diet. The object of our pursuit is elusive and chameleon-like. As we walk through our days in this world the target keeps changing. And when we attain what we were after, it doesn’t take long for the question to come back. Why can’t life be better? In search of the answer, we set our sights on a new target. We don’t always accurately diagnose our homesickness.

The bed-time bath-time crisis is now forgotten. But someday, for a different reason, my daughter will ask that question again. I will too. Sometimes we’ll need to just get a grip and move on. Sometimes we’ll need to stop whining and take a risk in making life better. But whatever we do in response to the question, we’ll need to recognize our homesickness and remember that God has placed eternity in our hearts. St. Augustine nailed the reason for our restlessness, and he also named the cure. We were made for God, and everything here is making us fit for our true home.

(Two good books that say it better than I could hope to: Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst and Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen.)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Batters and Theology at Turner Field

They spoke against God saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out and streams flowed abundantly, but can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?” (Psalm 78:19-20)

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . . “(Luke 12:22).

This past Friday Marnie and I went to our first Braves game of the season. I’m indebted to my friend Brent for a number of blog-worthy ideas from that game. His insights and ideas started me thinking, and here’s what stood out in my mind:

Whenever a Braves batter comes to the plate, there is usually a snippet of music played – something like a fanfare for the athlete. I don’t know if each Braves player gets to select his own fanfare or if something is just played at random. Regardless, there were two players in particular whose music got my attention, maybe because they were next to each other in the line-up.

One player was Julio Franco. As he came to the plate the music being blasted into Turner Field was an old Twila Paris song, “God Is In Control.” The lyrics assert that God is in control and because of that “we believe that his children will not be forsaken.” The bold declaration continues. “There is no power above or beside him we know (oh-oh-oh) God is in control.” So-so music; good theology, especially for Turner Field.

The next batter was Andruw Jones. The air was then filled with a hip-hop style tune with a pounding rhythm and a repetitive lyric. Over and over the song said “Get out da way, get out da way, get out da way.” This song got the crowd ramped up. I actually enjoyed it – what little I heard of it. But the difference between the two songs was significant.

One song exalts God, the other exalts self. One assumes a posture of humility, the other assumes a posture of pride. Here, as the batters came to the plate, was the fundamental question of human life and how it is lived. One way gladly acknowledges the sovereign presence of God in the world. The other way seeks to be acknowledged and feared. C.S. Lewis rightly observed that pride is a deadly sin because it looks down on everything and everyone around it, and when you’re looking down you can’t see what’s above you.

Psalm 78 narrates the experience of God’s people in being delivered from slavery in Egypt. The drama in this Psalm is their repeated failure to remember or believe that God is in control. Even after the plagues, even after receiving water from the rock, even with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, they keep forgetting. They panic. Sure, God came through back there, back then, but what about now? He gave us water from the rock, but what about something a little more filling? Can he spread a table in the wilderness?

And God, in his patience, answered them over and over. He gave them food. He spread a table for them. These gifts didn’t exempt God’s people from God’s discipline – but his discipline and his gifts were evidence of a single truth: God is in control. God will provide.

What often looks like pride in us is actually born out of our anxieties. We’re not sure God is control. More honestly, we say God is in control until God does something we don’t like or don’t understand. Then we say “get out da way” and we busily set about the task of making things right, taking care of the situation.

Knowing that God can and will means living with both confidence and humility, holding the two together. Those who say “God is in control” can’t be passive. Those who say “get out da way” can’t be arrogant. We’re involved, but not in charge. Jesus used the example of the farmer who works hard to sow seed, and then works hard to harvest the crop, but who doesn’t really make anything grow. The seed grows by itself in the dark of the earth whether the farmer sleeps or works (see Mark 4:26-29).

Both Franco and Jones swung their bats hard. To any observer, there was no notable difference in what they did – but maybe those songs offered a glimpse into the difference between how they did it.

So how’s your swing?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28).

I learned something about pressure yesterday, and I learned it from a plumber named John (you can find him in the phone book under “John the Plumber.” No kidding.). John was in our home to clean out some slow drains. While engaged in that task, his diagnostic skills kicked in as he listened to various sounds from the plumbing fixtures in our bathroom. “You’ve got too much water pressure in your house. I’ll check that before I leave.” I was skeptical. That sounded like one more little thing for John the Plumber to do and thus charge me for.

I took John to the basement where he hooked up a small gage to some kind of knob on my hot water heater (forgive my ignorance of technical terminology). He showed me the reading – 120 pounds per square inch. He then showed me a pipe in my basement that supplies water to the house. On it is a device called a “pressure regulator valve” – or “PRV.” That piece of equipment clearly indicated that it was designed to regulate pressure to somewhere between 25-75 psi. My PRV had quit working. It was not doing what it was supposed to do. There was far too much water pressure in my home. John the plumber explained that eventually this level of pressure would take its toll on something in the house – a washing machine line, the kitchen sink, the line to the refrigerator. Something with water in it would burst, and it was a question of when, not if. The pressure was too much for the house to bear for long.

If in no other way, here is how people and houses are alike. Intense pressure soon will take its toll. In houses pipes burst and people have their own way of doing the same thing. We vent anger at people who don’t deserve it, usually children or a spouse. Sometimes we don’t vent at all. We shut down, shut out, pull within ourselves. Maybe we work harder, move faster. Sadly, we may choose to regulate the pressure with some other defective measure – a little more drinking, a little more mind numbing television. The truly unnerving thing about the water pressure in my house was that I thought everything was fine. Pressure can build without our knowing it, and this means we can easily ignore it.

The way to fix a faulty PRV is not by eliminating all the pressure. The water isn’t really the problem. In fact, no pressure in the pipes means no clean clothes, no showers, no dishwasher, no sprinklers. The absence of pressure is not good. Astronauts in space workout daily so that zero gravity will not destroy muscle tone. A string on a guitar that is absolutely free of tension will never make music. Seeking the removal of pressure isn’t the answer.

What we need is a good PRV - a way to regulate and harness the pressure that’s there. Pressure rightly controlled can do powerful things. The apostle Paul, in a moment of genuine transparency, admits his own experience of pressure and anxiety. The pressure came from seeing people come to faith in Jesus, gathering them into small congregations, putting leaders in place, teaching them, and then moving on. Paul’s concern for these churches was parental in nature and he lived with a constant sense of pressure for their well being and their progress in the faith (see 1 Thessalonians 2).

Paul didn’t respond to the pressure by getting away from it all. In fact, the passage in 2 Corinthians 11 shows him intensely engaged: hunger, prison, beatings, constantly in danger. High pressure to say the least. What regulates the pressure? What keeps Paul from caving in or cracking up? The answer is grace. Paul embraced the pressure, and he knew his limitations. His own weakness, his fragile self, was the key to discovering the power of grace in his life. Paul lived every day on the strength of this promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

In another letter Paul said that where sin abounded, grace abounded even more. Where there’s plenty of sin, you’ll find enough grace to cover it. The same is true for pressure. Where there’s a lot of pressure, no matter its source, there’s enough grace to cover it. It’s God’s PRV. And it never quits working.