Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Good Soil

I wrote a while ago about my basil plant. I have an update and an analogy to the faith.

Last I shared, the woody-stemmed, larger plant was blossoming. The smaller one wasn't doing as well. Both of those produced smaller leaves, but many. But that was about it... my plants plateaued at this stage for months.

I saw a basil plant at the supermarket. It was in the tiniest little pot, but there were lots of shoots and these big leaves. I bought it and replanted it in more soil. It was fine for a couple days, but then it all started to wilt. My new plant died. Now, all that is left are these trimmed stems, turned dry and brown.

Meanwhile, I decided to pay more attention to my faithful plant. I decided to give it more soil, like I did the failed, new plant. I found a bigger container and added more soil.

Something profound happened. The thing exploded, again! Except this time, the leaves grew so much larger. I got out of my plant (grown from seed) what I desired from the one I bought - these substantial leaves!

Not only that, but the smaller plant within the same pot as old faithful, is doing just as well as its bigger brother.

What can be learned from this? I am reminded of a parable Jesus gave. Mark 4 describes how the Kingdom of God is like one who sows seed, and some falls upon the road, some among the rocks, some among the thorns, and some among good soil. The seed upon the road is snatched up by birds; the rocky seed sprouts quickly, but wilts with no substantial roots taking hold; the thorns choke out the growth and the good soil flourishes. This is a metaphor for hearing the Word of God, his gospel, and how our environment affects what response we have to it. I have heard the gospel and for years, I have grown, only to be hindered in some way from thriving. I see how my choices, those things I CAN do, in my freedom, still are not beneficial, though perhaps permissible (1 Cor 10:23). I CAN surround myself with things, and gadgets and flood my eyes with titillation and distraction. But they do not edify. They are thorns. When I sit among vile things, numb to their influence, I rest upon rocks, and His good news will not amount to much, but wither.

Unless I transplant myself among good soil.

I did this with my plants, and they flourished. I gave them a more suitable environment to thrive and grow, bearing good fruit. Why can't we do the same thing for ourselves? Why can't we change our environments to better receive the good news of the Word (John 1:14-17)? What's stopping us? Our selfish pride, not wanting to be told how to live? Fear that the gospel may take us places we are uncomfortable in, losing control of what mundane lives we can live apart from God?

I noticed that in these last couple weeks, I have watched significantly less television. And I've been full of joy! I received more out of television that entertainment. I received a spirit of timidity and sloth, lust and loneliness. I can easily isolate myself in front of a television, and never have to deal with life, people, relationships, work, study, etc. It's an escape from reality, and as long as I plug myself up to its incessant flow of content and flickering images, I can ignore reality. Wow, what abundant life that offers (John 10:10)!

Now, there are other vices in my life that choke out my flourishing. I'm seeing how my compulsion to check Facebook is drawing me into similar patterns as television did (and still does when I feel particularly lazy).

My questions are these: What in your lives prevents you from flourishing? Could you benefit from new scenery? What can you strip from your lives to foster new growth and break free from stagnation and puny fruit? What thorns choke life out of you and need to be removed from your lives?

Are you going to act upon this and thrive?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Born of the Spirit

"Everyone born of the Spirit is blown by the Wind..." -- Jason Upton

I was running my fourth lap around the lake when I passed up, for the second time, an elderly man walking with two canes, named Carroll. I jogged twenty yards past, and felt compelled to stop. Asking if I could walk with him, we continued to around the lake chatting.

I'm glad I didn't keep running. We talked about nature (moose), gardening, television, his wife volunteering at the library, his recent hip surgery, my seminary education... and how his knee is in need of surgery/replacement. At the end, I asked if I could pray for his knee, and we did.

Let me tell you. I could tell that meant a lot to him. He mentioned once how he and his wife went to church, but he started confessing after the prayer his faith in Christ with much humility and gratitude to God!

We need to voice our faith with confidence. We need not be ashamed of the God who saves. We need to be willing to go wherever and do and say as the Spirit compels us.

Have you been blown by God somewhere or to someone recently?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Heaven on Earth Glimpsed

I've been having one of those weeks, where things are just making sense. And it isn't so simple as to say it is just this one way, excluding this or that. I am experiencing the joy of the LORD, and it is as if in His grace, the mysteries of the universe are revealed. If I could sum it up, it is paradox; God is both thoroughly pleased with the unfolding outcomes of His providence and the world's response, and at the same time, righteously angered and vexed with the rebellious and ignorant ways of humanity. I think this is possible because God is infinite and beyond time as we experience it.

I want to share a vision I believe God to have given me in grace, and I hope it edifies those who read this to better grasp the majesty of the Great God. I need to set the vision in context, however, which I will do now through narrative.

My journey of discovering God is going on its thirteenth year. Many of those years have been spent bouncing back and forth between treasuring the grace poured out on me (and fellow believers that we could even know Him) and writhing in the torture of not being able to offer up the level of devotion and honor due Him. This more unpleasant aspect of the Christian journey has found a new dimension of brilliance after spending a season discovering a most true and wonderful aspect of God: I had revealed to me the glory and majesty of God, grasping more fully the splendor of His Holiness. Do YOU comprehend what it means for God to be fully separate and other than you and I? We commit a grave error and dishonor to God when we consider Him altogether like us (see Psalm 50, and note the attitude of God in His frustration and anger toward an irreverent people). No, I'm serious. Stop and read it. I want the gravity of such a posture with God to settle into the depths of your soul. You should feel convicted and and undone, much like Isaiah felt before God (Isa 6).

This season of my life was the most profound I had experienced up to that point. God is OTHER. He burns with an intensity of glory that kills those not extended Christ's covering. To this, we should appropriately fall to our knees (and even face) in awe, fear and reverence to God, as I continually do. But that is not all.

In continuing the story, I must share how these newly discovered gems of truth quickened me and those journeying with me to action, as the Word of God must do. A quick tangent: Imagine God in the midst of creating, speaking things and life into existence! What power is behind the words of God uttered from Him! What transformative and creating power does the Word of God have in regards to us as we receive! Ponder that for a moment. God's Word was having an effect on us who were seeing glimpses of God's majesty, and it was profound. We were given eyes to see how God was and how the world was, and the natural response was to grieve the state of the world, even the Church, as she is still in a state of harlotry, just like Israel before the time of Christ's first coming. We grieved and were compelled to cry out for justice to be done God by crediting Him the glory due His Name. We thought this looked like separating our flock from perceived dangers of spiritual harlotry, that we as a church would not contribute to the state of adultery by partnering with churches with particularly controversial positions on things like abortion and homosexuality. Some of my friends, I fear, are stuck in this position of writhing for fear that they will be judged harshly by a wrathful and glorious God who is serious about the state of sin and the wrong actions born out of that state, if they do not devote their life to warning others of this character of God. While this is true and God remains a God of wrath, I have yielded to God's outpouring of revelation and sense the picture is much more grand than that. I think it was this sentiment that caused alarm and hesitation in the elders of our church to oppose my group and the things we urged to happen. It was a messy and destructive process. Grace should have been extended more liberally on all sides. I pray God redeem and create new life out of the rubble. I pray all sides trend slowly and lightly forward, speaking in humility and receptive to the truth the other side can and does speak for the other. The truth is in both sides, which ties into the vision given me. I'm not there just quite yet, however.

It was my mentor, Jerry Nelson, who I believe summed up well the next chapter of my journey, which I find myself in now and further offers a unifying truth to these two sides of the faith. He said (and I paraphrase) that what is most glorious about our God is the fact that in His Holiness and intense Glory, God is with us and offers the opportunity of relationship with Him through the Son's sacrifice. Immanuel is extending mercy to a depraved people despite how egregious our state is for Him. Remember, God is infinitely perfect and without wrong, without flaw or defect. Our very nature is compromised and it would go against the very nature of God to associate with us if it were not His nature to love gloriously and perfectly. It is for His Name's sake that He relent (Isa 48:11).

You see, what the elders of my church have steadfastly proclaimed and find foundational is the fact that God is loving and gracious and adamant at pursuing us for relationship. We too, can express our devotion to God through relationship with Him and one another. This is all very biblical and beautiful. And you must also see that my small group who had revealed to us the splendor of God's majesty, on an ontological basis - His very essence - was discovering and responding to truths that are very much biblical and beautiful. Even our warnings and desires for pursuing holiness (i.e. separateness) are biblical. What once was seen as contradictory in my eyes, how my elders either had it wrong and my small group had it right, or vice versa, I see that way no more. Now, I see, as in a vision, the persons of our God like a many-faceted jewel, sparkling brilliantly from one vantage, at which the sight makes you lose your breath and you can't help but fall to your face in worship, for He is that gloriously majestic and beautiful. Only, circle about the Jewel, which is our God, and from that vantage you behold a whole different scene, with wholly different truths, yet equal in importance though different in response. It is the same God, but more complex than our minds can conceive. He truly is infinitely Holy and Glorious, full of Grace and Love, wrath and mercy.

Let me tie this to a couple parables that Jesus shared:

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had bought it" (Matthew 13:44-46).
Upon beholding God, we experience a revealing of truths: of Him, of our world, and of a proper response aligned with such profound insights, and we are much like the man and the merchant in that such a treasure as God demands response, only there is not one right response. Just like the man is compelled to purchase property (where the treasure is amply located), the merchant is compelled to purchase a pearl, the object of his desire. Depending on one's vantage, a proper response may look differently than what another's response should be. You may need to buy land to build a church to serve God. You may have to adopt an orphan girl and name her "Pearl." It's going to look different depending on where we are with God. The coherence of responses, though, is that sacrifice and self-denial is required. Both the merchant and the man had to sell all that they had. We cannot only partially turn away from our worldly lives, not in the end. The more we gloriously search out the matter of God's persons (Proverbs 25:2), the more we realize we will never be the same. Sanctification is to be conformed to His likeness; do not forget that. God is jealous and will purify His Bride.

Realizing these things this week has been like entering the throne room of God, despite physically being bound to this fallen world. Heaven is a lovely notion, a reality not yet received. It has been glimpsed, however, and it steadies me for more abuse until He takes me home, into His Arms.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Theological Calibration on Life

So, I'm a seminary student, and part of the curricula is to engage in a mentoring program that fosters character growth spiritually. I chose this semester to work on that aspect of faith for the Christian regarding confidence and identity, where the believer not only knows about God's grace, but responds to Him with adoration and service. I described it as actualizing the Scriptural description of being "more than [a conqueror.]" Romans 8:34-39 says this:

Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I wish to start my calibration from the Scriptures with this truth from Paul. We can have the confidence that Paul had (and exhorted the Romans to have) because Jesus intercedes continually for us, who trust in Him. It says that in Hebrews 7:25 as well: "Therefore he [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." The love of God rests on the Son; the love of God is in Christ Jesus! So if Jesus is interceding and acting as a mediator between us and the Father, then who or what can separate us from the intimate love our gracious God offers us? The answer is nothing!

I need to own this more than I do. I often fall into thinking that my sin separates me from God. That even sounds biblical. But the truth is that I have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and He dwells in me. In grace, He reveals truth to me and patiently waits for me to truly own it. I can grieve the Holy Spirit in me and silence Him for a time, but grace trumps sin. That is, in part, the gospel.

I started this semester more energetic than normal for me, and sought to completely alter my character, eliminating my flaws through a systematic evaluation of every lie and stronghold from the Enemy. I based this off of 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, where it says, "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." I do recognize that many of the character flaws I have are due to me agreeing with the lies that intend to deter me away from God (at least from my perspective). I planned to use this semester to attack every thought and test it to the knowledge of God, to see if it was contrary to Scripture.

Well, that got exhausting and lost a lot of steam after a few weeks. That, and the excitement wore off. I still think it is a valid and useful practice and that I need to do that often, but I realize now that I was operating more out of my own ability and strength than allowing the Holy Spirit to simply nudge me when I was buying into a lie. I whole-heartedly believe that God gave us the Spirit in order to serve us. He receives great joy from doing so. How often do we feel like a burden to God for being such a mess? I feel this way, as if God will breathe a sigh of relief when we finally arrive and no longer sin. What a lie! My heart, please understand how treasured I am to God!

One thought I have taken captive was this great plan I developed for myself to realize a more godly character. I developed an ideal Michael in my mind as to what I would be like fully living for God. This Michael was joyful, inviting, assertive and outgoing, readily eager to share the good news of Jesus as God with us. I imagined that I needed to be a bubbly extrovert...

I'm not a extrovert. I can't muster it. With the help of my mentor, I began to realize that there are some aspects of my personality that do not need redeeming. I do not need to operate by default as one who pursues strangers for the gospel. This is not to say that I am off the hook from God ever wanting me to serve in that role, but I don't need to become one who feeds off of such interactions... quite the opposite occurs, in that it takes a lot of energy to play that type for me. That yoke would not be too easy.

So what of one of my goals to initiate conversation with random strangers with the intent of sharing my faith (at least twice a month all semester)? I had the grandest intentions... but whenever I found myself in a cafe` or bookstore around such people, it felt disingenuous in that I would more be serving my needs, in fact I'd be using them, to "better" myself. A forced gospel presentation is not authentic and edifying, it is means to a selfish end, if not motivated out of a genuine love for neighbor.

Also, as I found from Scripture, those encounters I imagined having are out of context with where and how the disciples witnessed. Throughout the account in Acts, when Christ's apostles and others were sharing the gospel, there was occasion for it that was fitting to the environment. Peter and others taught at the Temple almost exclusively. In that culture, religious centers acted as a recreational hang out, and the topic of discussion was religion! If I were to intrude on the man at the coffee shop, interrupting his reading to force God on Him, I would not be aligned with the Scriptural model given me. Now if this person was reading a Bible or some other Spiritual literature, and looked perplexed, I have more of a legitimate context for engaging in conversation, as there is a logical link.

So, I am in need of adjusting me contract goal to better suit my purpose. I need to be willing and available for God talk, but within an appropriate context. I have the thought to offer a Bible study and meal at my apartment once a week to my neighbors, the vast majority I do not know or interact with. By offering such fellowship, I anticipate it would meet several needs for my neighbors, and there would be no pressure or awkwardness to respond to a piece of paper. Who knows how many might need and want social interaction who otherwise gets very little? Who knows how many might have questions about God? Who knows how many might just need a meal?

This might flop, but I'm going to give it a try. The point is that I try to be a person I would want to encounter. I feel compelled to share what hope and joy I receive from God, and alleviate the hurt of this world by offering guidance toward the Cure. Is this not the Great Commission, to immerse and submerge and dunk everyone in the Name and subject of the Triune God, to His glory?