Thursday, March 22, 2007
Life in the Midst of Mess
By: Jan Winebrenner
Chapter One of The Grace of Catastrophe by Jan Winebrenner (2005) appears by permission of Moody Publishers.
God is what He is in Himself. He does not become what we believe. 'I Am that I AM.' We are on safe ground only when we know what kind of God He is and adjust our entire being to that holy concept.1
A. W. Tozer
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Desperation makes us do strange things—things like sit up all night in a cheap motel and read the Bible out loud.
It’s not something I’d usually do after a day on the road. On my best day, I’d probably watch a little TV, read a novel, then turn out the lights, and get to sleep early.
But let a catastrophe strike, and God has my attention.
Like the day my husband, Ken, and I set out on a cross-country move only to discover that the company transferring us to Texas had been sold. There was no job. That was the day we left town anyway—there was nothing to stay for. We were leaving behind an unsold house in South Carolina and heading toward one that the night before had just been flooded by torrential spring storms in Dallas. And so there we were: no job, two houses, and a truck full of furniture rolling along somewhere on Interstate 20.
That’s the same day we were burglarized in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Thugs now owned the few things we’d been reluctant to trust with the moving company, if they hadn’t already discarded them in a Dumpster. Gone was Ken’s wedding ring, his briefcase, our Bibles, clean clothes to change into, my special treasures, including six chapters and all my research and study notes for a book I was writing.
After doing an inventory and filing a police report, we climbed into the car and continued our journey west toward whatever fate awaited us.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt more forlorn.
It’s been a few years since that miserable, chaotic time in our lives, but it all seemed so recent when I read Charles Colson’s words:
Life isn’t like a book. Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived out in the midst of that mess.2
Looking back, our lives couldn’t have been messier.
We had been stripped down to nothing in less than twenty-four hours. Our ideas about God were being challenged at the most basic level. That day, huddled together in a motel room in a Dallas suburb, we reached for the Gideon Bible in the drawer of a tacky nightstand.
We had nothing else to reach for.
The Most Important Question
That night we sat for a major exam in “Practical Theology.” And the first question on the test:
What do you really believe about God?
That’s what catastrophe does for us, isn’t it?
It forces us to confront our beliefs, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time.
It forces us to admit that maybe, when it comes to what we say we believe about God, we’re frauds. It forces us to see where our trust really lies.
It forces us to face what we really believe we can expect from the God we call our Father.
All through that long night, Ken and I wrestled with these questions. We discarded what we thought were the wrong answers and pulled out what we thought were the right ones. And then, the next question loomed: How does that belief affect your life in this mess?
Which, of course, begs the next question: Does what you say you believe affect your life at all?
These were the questions that most needed answering—not, what will we do? Or, where will we live? Or, how will we live? And the answers would reveal the truth about us—if we really believed what we had for years claimed to believe; if the knowledge we held of God was biblically accurate, or false; if we were living authentic lives of faith.
What We Really Believe
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The difference between a great Christian life and any other kind lies in the quality of our religious concepts . . . i.e., what we think of God, what we believe about Him.”3
Nothing so challenges us to examine what we believe about God like catastrophe.
That our idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. . . . Often only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.4
We face difficulty, and we have to ask: Do we really believe God is strong and faithful? We face pain and illness, and we wonder: Is He as good as I’ve always been told to believe?
Death comes, and weeping, and we ask: Is heaven a reality? Is prayer effective? Does God really hear? The struggles and disasters of our lives prompt us to ask these questions, and dozens more. Every tragedy, every crisis, offers us this:
It can be a means of grace—an instrument used by God by which we can cease floating passively on all manner of external attractions. It is by the grace of catastrophe that people sometimes come to themselves and see what is before them as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable our own sovereign seeing.5
It is the testimony of the ancients, as well as contemporary saints, that the greatest lessons of faith have been learned against the backdrop of suffering. The theology we say we believe takes root in soil watered by tears and bears fruit in lives characterized by peace and righteousness, lives that delight in the person of God Himself.
The “grace of catastrophe” comes through in places where our theology is tested, our faith forged, our knowledge of God made personal and practical, and our love for Him impassioned.
On the Brink
John Piper wrote, “Every moment in every circumstance we stand on the brink between the lure of idolatry and the delight of seeing and knowing God."6
Our stance is never more precarious than when we are in pain—any kind of pain. The voice of God whispers in our souls, “Love Me, worship Me, trust Me.” But His soft words are hard to hear over the raucous voices in our culture and in our own hearts—voices that shout at us to berate God, to ignore Him and move on in search of other comforts, if there be any—any that don’t wear off after a few minutes or hours.
Still, Jesus calls us to come close, to cuddle in His love and rest in the certainty of His goodness and His sovereign power. He invites us to take comfort in all that He has promised to be to us—savior, friend, healer, lover.
This is the challenge we face with each day as we step out into life.
Will we seek God and take our refuge in Him when our path is littered with broken dreams? Or will we turn elsewhere? We have only these two options when catastrophe strikes. If we choose God, then catastrophe becomes for us a special grace-gift, ushering us into the place where we can experience God in ways we never before imagined. We find ourselves poised on the brink of life’s greatest discovery: that God is the ultimate presence in the universe, and that knowing Him, interacting with Him, by faith, is more satisfying, more exhilarating than anything the human heart ever hoped for or imagined.
“What do unwounded servants do? They become arrogant, join country clubs, sell out to middle-class mediocrity. . . . Only the protected have the privilege of making theology a discussion; the endangered cling to it and weep."7
When we are wounded, hurting, crying in our pain, our theology—what we believe about God, about His kingdom—becomes suddenly very significant, very practical. We don’t have the luxury of keeping it superficial. The truth of God’s power and love and goodness, the truth of who we really are in Christ, the reality of His purposes for His people, the church, is suddenly relevant in ways we didn’t consider in easier, more comfortable times.
We have no room for arrogance—the arrogance of certainty—when the unimaginable happens to us. Now, when our own souls are aching, we are suddenly haunted by the trite answers we so blithely tossed at others in their times of sorrow and fear.
It becomes painfully obvious to us—we don’t have the privilege of making our theology a mere discussion. What we believe about God is now suddenly more important than anything else we will ever believe. It is more important than the doctor’s opinion or second opinion. It is more important than a judge ’s ruling, more important than class rank, salary, retirement portfolio, or any of the other things that concern us in the course of our seventy-or eighty-odd years of life on this planet.
Theology, for the struggling disciple, is more than theory, more than a stimulating topic of discussion. It is more than the text of Sunday school curricula, more than the subject of a sermon. Theology is the truth that hauls us up out of the chaos and into the place of comfort in God’s arms. It is the message that gives us courage to keep on living when everything in our lives seems to be decaying and deteriorating.
It is the truth of God, revealed in His Word, spoken in our hearts by His Spirit, lived in front of us by the incarnate Son that lifts us up. Without it, “we remain little people with little concerns who live little lives and die little deaths."8
1 A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1964), 27
2 Charles Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 218
3 A.W. Tozer, The Divine Conquest (Wheaton: Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1950), 4
4 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge Of The Holy, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 10
5 Eugene Peterson, Living The Message (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 181
6 John Piper, The Legacy Of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, Good News Publishers, 2000), 70
7 Calvin Miller, Into The Depths Of God (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2000), 144
8 Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 49
Thursday, March 15, 2007
by Brian Jones
The Bible assures us in Psalm 34:18, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted."This makes me think of my final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. In order to graduate, I had certain required courses. "Educational Psychology," not the most exciting course in the catalog, was one. The first day of class, Dr. James Loder, the professor, cheerfully introduced himself and shared his personal story of faith. Four minutes into his passionate story, he started to cry and I thought, This guy's a Presbyterian-I didn't think Presbyterians cried! I was instantly drawn to him.
Dr. Loder shared the story of how he, his wife, Arlene, and their two daughters were driving near Kingston, New York, when he pulled over to help an elderly woman fix a flat tire. Without warning, another car whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel crashed into the car Dr. Loder was fixing and shoved it on top of his chest. In spite of his injuries, he never lost consciousness. He watched as his wife, barely five feet tall, placed her hands underneath the bumper and miraculously lifted the car off his chest, breaking a vertebra in the process. Dr. Loder later recalled in his book The Transforming Moment:
As I roused myself from under the car, a steady surge of life was rushing through me, carrying with it two solid assurances. First, I knew how deeply I felt love for those around me, especially my family. My two daughters sat crying on the embankment, and a deep love reached out of me toward them. The second assurance was that this disaster had a purpose.
With that conviction he was quickly rushed to the hospital where, as he was being wheeled into surgery, he invited the surgical staff to join him as he sang a few lines of the hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus." With medical treatment and lots of prayer, he fully recovered, losing only part of a thumb.
Dr. Loder described to our class how that incident marked him as a follower of Jesus. Rather than assuming God had left him, it became a moment that enabled him to sense God's presence in a way he had not experienced up to that point.
Perhaps you recall from your days in high school or college the teachings of psychologist Abraham Maslow and his "hierarchy of needs." Maslow was obsessed with discovering which situations in life enable someone to become fully alive as a human being. He called such situations "peak-experiences." Essentially, what Maslow argued is that a person cannot reach a state of "self-actualization" until certain basic needs have been met. He illustrates this with a diagram in the shape of a triangle with food, water, and oxygen on the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Maslow argued that a person can't really think about personal fulfillment if she doesn't have food for the day. However, give that same person a good job and a roof over her head, and then she will have the personal energy and ability to think about things such as purpose in life. In order to experience a spiritual or emotional revelation of sorts, Maslow argued, you must address the basic struggles of life first.
The problem is that a three-thousand pound Oldsmobile falling on a man's chest doesn't fit real well into Maslow's neat triangle. Nor do tumors, bankruptcy, or other painful scenarios Christians tell me have drawn them closer to God. Jesus would say that Maslow has everything backwards. It's not when you are at the top of the triangle that you feel God's presence; it's when you are at the bottom.
Check out Brian's new book Second Guessing God: Hanging On When You Can't See His Plan at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0784718415//102-5931980-7277732 or your local bookstore now! (all proceeds donated to the church Brian serves)
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Lately I've been reading his book entitled "Soul Cravings". The book is written more like a journal, and the short chapters are referred to as "entries". Here's a portion of entry 22, called "Standardized Testing." It really made me think- perhaps it will do the same for you.
My only request is that you read through it all before you decide what you think. Thanks!
"Ironically, one of the very things that should draw people to God has actually repelled them from Christianity. Over the last two thousand years, the Christian religion has abdicated its unique view of the individual and has fallen in line with every other world religion. It's easier to run a religion if you can standardize everything, including the people...
If you were to interview people who have come out of churches and have no intention to return, you'd find some common themes. One of them is the controlling nature of the churches they came from. Somehow we've equated conformity with holiness. Spirituality is more identified with tradition and ritual than it is with a future and a hope. Too often discipleship equals standardization. It's almost as if God's solution to the human problem is cloning, making us all the same, extracting from us all that is unique, destroying that which makes us different.
The tragedy, of course, is that this has nothing to do with Jesus. It would be an understatement to say that Jesus was unique. Even if he were not God, he would have been history's most extraordinary human being. He was a nonconformist; He was anti-institutional; He surrounded himself with outcasts; He was everything except what they expected. Jesus' life was a model of uniqueness, and his movement was nothing less than that. The people he chose to entrust his message to had to have been the unlikeliest of candidates. They were nothing if not unique. The son of a carpenter gave the responsibility that would typically be entrusted to priests and theologians to an unqualified group consisting of fishermen and even a tax collector. Furthermore, his inner circle also consisted of a woman who was once a prostitute. From background to temperament there was nothing about Jesus' disciples that reflected conformity--neither did his message.
When Jesus spoke to the crowds in what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount, he described the masses in a way that no one else saw them. The thousands who pressed against each other to listen to the teachings of Jesus were the social outcasts of their time. They were the unwanted, the poor, the criminal, and the sick. Yet when Jesus described them, his words were filled with both affection and admiration. "You are the light of the world," He told them. Their lives should not be hidden, but open for the world to see.
These masses were the invisible.
They were part of the countless number of people who are lost in the shadows of great civilizations. They were the throwaways. They were seen as liabilities, burdens to society, but not to Jesus. He saw them as lights hidden under a bushel. He know that there was something deep inside them waiting to come out, something beautiful, something breathtaking...
"You are the salt of the earth," he also told them. But here there is a different danger. When salt loses its flavor, it has no value... I think a lot of the people listening understood that. In fact, they had probably experienced it. In the sight of those who were powerful, they were considered worthless... But they themselves may have been their own worst enemies. If they did not recognize their own worth, if they relinquished the uniqueness of being human... they were like salt that had lost its savor.
You may not agree with this, but you should take time to consider it. While religions have historically tried to make us the same, Jesus call us to be different. If you have ever experienced this, you know your soul bristled at the demand to quietly get in line and conform... There is something inside you that resists surrendering your soul to legalism. The good news is that all that time it wasn't you fighting against God; you were fighting for what God has created you to become.
To come to God is to discover the uniqueness of your being.
When you come to God, you begin a process that re-creates you from the inside out. You begin a journey that is nothing less than life transforming. While there are some things we will share in common, the journey God has prepared for you is uniquely yours with him. Don't be confused by this--everything around us pushes toward conformity. Whether it's communism or Islam, Calvin Klein or McDonald's, we are all pushed toward standardization and quickly find ourselves as assembly-line humanity.
We have to choose..."
Taken from Soul Cravings by Erwin Raphael McManus. Copyright 2006, Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, TN
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
(These are taken from George Barna's book entitled "Revolution". Copyright 2005 Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Carol Stream, IL. p. 33-35.)
- Eight out of ten believers do not feel they have entered into the presence of God, or experienced a connection with Him, during the worship service.
- Half of all believers say they do not feel they have entered into the presence of God or experienced a genuine connection with Him during the past year.
- Only one out of every four churched believers says that when they worship God, they expect Him to be the primary beneficiary of their worship. (Most people say they expect to get the most from the experience.)
- The typical churched believer will die without leading a single person to a lifesaving knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ.
- Only 9 percent of all born-again adults have a biblical worldview--meaning that less than one out of every ten Christians age eighteen or older believes that absolute moral truth exists, believes that such truth is contained in the Bible, and possesses a handful of core beliefs that reflect such truth. Those beliefs include a certainty that the Bible is accurate in its teachings; Jesus lived a sinless life on earth; Satan is real, not symbolic; all believers are responsible for sharing their faith in Christ with others; the only means to salvation is through God's grace; and God is the all-knowing and all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules it today. The other 91 percent of born-again adults possess a patchwork of theological views and rarely rely upon those perspectives to inform their daily decisions.
- When given the opportunity to state how they want to be known by others, fewer than one out of ten believers mentioned descriptions that reflect their relationship with God.
- Fewer than one out of ten churched Christians donates at least 10 percent of their income to churches and other nonprofit organizations. (More than one-third claim to do so.)
- In a typical week, only one out of every four believers will allocate some time to serving other people. Most of that time is dedicated to volunteering in church programs that serve congregants; little effort is invested in serving needy people outside the congregation.
- Fewer than one out of every six churched believers has a relationship with another believer through which spiritual accountability is provided.
- A large majority of churched believers rely upon their church, rather than their family, to train their children to become spiritually mature.
- Apart from church-based programs, the typical Christian family spends less than three hours per month in endeavors designed to jointly develop or apply their faith.
- Most Christian parents do not believe they are doing a good job at facilitating the spiritual development of their children.
I hope this information grabs your attention, but I also hope is doesn't defeat you. We can never forget the impact of a single life that chooses to truly live for Christ- it can't be calculated. That is where I hope we will leave our investment.
In Him We Live,
So, welcome to the best answer I have come up with so far. I don't really have a plan or a format for how these postings will work. The length and frequency of updates will likely be as random as the content itself, and will probably just be listed by date. So, you may at times find that these extras tie in with the main blog's current post, or become the inspiration for future entries. But it's just as likely that they will simply be an odd collection of things that have caught my attention recently.
My goal here is to share some things that I have found interesting, inspiring, or challenging (I'll probably share my opinion, too). If you are looking to dig a little deeper, I hope this helps.