Addie Zierman

Third in my series on contemporary writers

A Facebook friend linked to An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics, and I recognized right away a new voice in the chorus of God doesn't make all your problems go away at once. I followed her blog, and bought her book, When We Were On Fire, when it came out in October.

She grew up in the evangelical youth culture of the 90's, wanted to say and believe all the right things, then in her mid 20s found that didn't work out like she'd been told. Life was still hard even when you did all the things the church said you should do.

I recognized the rules, and clichés, and the unspoken assumption that transformation should be sudden and immediate and once-for-all. Do the right things and all will be well. But that’s not the Gospel, not the New Covenant, but the Old Covenant. What is the Gospel? God has provided a savior because we are not OK on our own. But we make it a new law. “Do these things and you will live.”

“O foolish American evangelicals,” Paul might write from heaven, “how you have turned aside from the Gospel to a different Gospel, one that is no Gospel at all.”

Surely  we haven’t paid enough attention to all of Scripture, to the promises God gave Abraham that took centuries to be fulfilled, the promises God gave to Moses and David that took centuries to be fulfilled. Why does God make promises knowing it will be a long time before he keeps them? But then, if God is always going to act quickly, would he make a promise? Why wouldn’t he just do it? I think the promises are given because there will be delay, and we must keep faith through the delay.

You feel your heart get still, and instead of the cynical voice in your head, you hear something else entirely. Something old and familiar. But there it is: Unmistakable. Beautiful. It sounds like faith and hope. It sounds most of all, like Love.
We don't get the happy ever after, all our problems solved in this life. But we get the assurance of being loved in the midst of this life, and the hope it will be better, because God is with us.

Sometimes the interesting thing in a book is not what it says but what it makes you think about. Reading Zierman's book, I asked why the evangelical church is so prone to cliché and platitude? I suspect a lot of it comes from our general culture. I think of one of my favorite books growing up, Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II. My favorite chapter came near the end, the story of the Marianas Turkey shoot. American engineers produced a fighter plane faster, more maneuverable and better armored than the Japanese Zero, and suddenly (it seemed) the American fighter pilot was on Easy Street, shooting down Zeros left and right, shrugging off the rare moments when a Zero got a shot at them. And that was the message, it may be hard going at first, it may require courage in those early days of defeat, but then end will come. The engineers will figure out what you need to make victory easy. So when that kind of thinking met the Gospel, of course I thought once you come to Christ, God's power will make everything easy. We grow up knowing in our American souls that real change has to be rapid and total. But what does Scripture show us? God's timeline involves long periods of waiting.

Ann Voskamp

Second in the ongoing series of influential contemporary writers

If I’d been thinking more critically, I might never have taken a second look at One Thousand Gifts. I saw it reviewed on Goodreads -- three of five stars. (A good review, or a “meh -- decent but not exciting” review?) But I took it as good, and looked it up on Amazon. And the preview got me.  Thanking God might be a dull concept, something I already know about, right? But it's hardly going to be a book of platitudes when the writer describes mourning the death of her sister in childhood, If she learns to thank God after that, she might have a story to tell. So I purchased the book to read on another trip to Uganda, and started reading it on the first long flight (Detroit to Amsterdam). On the one hand the concept still seemed routine, and the examples seemed repetitious. Surely one could easily complete a list of 1000 gifts in one sitting if you concentrated. Thanking God for every atom in your body would get you into the billions times billions.

But the book also got me thinking deeper, looking beyond the immediate. We had bulkhead seats, so I looked at the airplane door just in front of us. How detailed the manufacturing must be, and how often the air seal must be tested, for it to feel so routine to be flying through the air with an unbreathable and lethally cold near-vacuum just outside.

I reread it again on another trip to Uganda. Voskamp’s struggles with the meaning of her name, “Ann” meaning full of grace, and feeling she lacks grace resonates with me. I take up my list I’d started of named gifts and decide to continue. Restarting the list opens my eyes anew to the wonders around me -- renewed wonder at colors, and shapes. It is this world, and none other, that God has made, and it is good. God surely loves details, for he’s made so many of them.

Another significant thing I learned is to give thanks even for hard things. She writes of Jesus giving thanks for the bread at the Last Supper, thanking even for the suffering he will endure.

I realize too there is something old and familiar in Voskamp’s message. Back in 1975, I’d appreciated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounting his discovery of God in his Gulag years. “I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: ‘Bless you, prison for having been in my life.’” So thank you, Ann Voskamp, for reminding me to thank.

The joy of the Lord is my strength

For years this was one of those clichés I knew but didn't really believe or think about. One of those texts printed on plaques and posters, vaguely soothing because it's familiar.

Then I discovered the paradox; how one could examine the promises of God, and also examine the messy circumstances of our lives, even if the two were in contrast there was hope as I cried out to God to fulfill his promises in my here and now. And I began experiencing a lot more joy than I'd been used to. This familiar but not understood phrase began to mean something. There is joy, and getting it, living in it enables you to cope with a lot. Like I wrote in the book, joy is like an emotional oven mitt. Open your heart to joy and it protects you from feeling burned by life.

Two days ago, I came across this verse in its context. Nehemiah 8:10. The people of Jerusalem have gathered together and Ezra the scribe is reading the law out loud. Many people are mourning, probably thinking of all the ways they had not kept the law. Nehemiah says don't mourn, rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So even then, under the Law, there is grace. Don't be discouraged by what you have done or not done, rejoice that God is at work in you. How much more can we rejoice that God is in us, knowing Jesus has come and brought the New Covenant to us.

Lisa McKay Wolfe

I'm starting a new series of posts on writers I admire. 

In 2009 I saw My Hands Came Away Red, on our library’s new fiction shelf. I read the blurb and grabbed it, because it seemed different than the standard template for Christian novels: Protagonist far from God, life falls apart, comes to faith and life comes back together. I read it and loved how the heroine has hope without the standard “happy ending” – her teen mission trip ended in disaster, she still feels underwater but trusts she is rising.

I recommended it to my wife, then we recommended it to our church book club, who also liked it. It reminded me of the little known novel by Elisabeth Elliot No Graven Image. It too is a tale of a missionary effort ending in disaster where the heroine comes to find her worth in God, not in her missionary success.

 I've written about my love/hate relationship with the typical evangelical happy ending (first time, second time). My conclusion, Christian stories should have a happy middle -- we're still in a mess but we have hope in the mess. The conflict between God's promises and our actual circumstances drives us to prayer, and out of prayer comes calmness and peace. The image of Cori underwater, but rising, continues to evoke this concept.

In 2012 I started following the Lisa McKay blog, the struggles of expatriate life in Asia has a familiar tone. When Love at the Speed of Email comes out, I order a copy, among several books I picked to stock up of my Nook for three weeks in Uganda. On the way to Uganda, we sample the delights of our newest favorite place in Europe, the KLM elite lounge in Amsterdam; free food and drinks, and one last hour of free Internet access before Uganda where we have to pay by the megabyte to connect. One last chance to play a Facebook game, but I didn’t linger there very long. What else to check out while I have free access? I thought of Lisa’s blog – was there an update about her broken foot? I go there, and read about another medical hardship --husband Mike needs back surgery immobilizing him for a month. Then she writes about Romans 8 “All things work together for good.” The verse makes her angry, but also gives her delightful hope.

 “Yes!” I say in my heart, “She’s got it.” The promises are disappointing when we want instant results, but bring hope for long term needs. That’s why I wrote a book about Jeremiah’s promises of the New Covenant but kept it from having a typical evangelical happy ending, and why I titled it “Covenant of Hope.” That’s why I elaborated a doctrine I’ve called “Faith and Reality”, or “Faith and Circumstances;”  how we should scrutinize with great attention the promises of God and at the same time scrutinize with great attention the circumstances of our lives, and accept that tension between the two happens all the time.

So maybe I hadn’t been crazy to put Lisa McKay on my list of influential women writers after only one novel. And on the flight to Uganda, I dove right in to“Love at the Speed of Email” and was impressed with her thoughtful mind and her emotional honesty. And what better place to read Love at the Speed of Email than on an international flight?

Lisa got it again in writing about an informational banquet about the sex trade. How dare she worry about what to wear and enjoy the rich dessert so much when so many are suffering? And yet that is too easy a drama to make the story about. She highlights one statement from the presentation: “hope chases us,” and realizes that is the message, not hopelessness and cynicism because one is unable to fundamentally change societies to end this plague, but that individuals can find hope in their circumstances and choose to change, and other individuals can find hope in seeking to help other individuals. Husband Mike gets it too, rejoicing one afternoon in joy, a respite from the usual struggles of being viewed as a living vending machine or seeing suffering that you cannot begin to cure.

 So here’s to Lisa McKay Wolfe, one of the founding mothers of the league of women that now dominate my Feedly feed, holding up the gospel of the happy middle, that real life is complicated and messy, yet God is with us in it and we can find hope and joy.

What I wish I'd learned while I was single

Before meeting my wife, I had several lonely years. The loneliness was painful and I didn't know how to deal with it. When I look back on those years, I wish I could have understood that to feel loneliness is not a sign of failure. Sometimes I felt my faith had failed. Should I feel alone while "walking with Jesus?" Sometimes I felt God had failed me, when yet another potential romance ended. I knew I was timid in potential relationships, but I felt I had reached out, so why hadn't one of those worked?

If I could go back in time, I'd tell my earlier self to read Psalm 22; and realize it is not just a prediction of Jesus' suffering on the cross, but a real moment in David's life when he felt alone and cried out to God. He was not losing his faith, he was faithfully presenting to God his feelings of loneliness. God is with us, even when we don't have what we want, even when what we want is a good thing.

Dogs and the love of God

We said goodbye to our dog of eleven years back in June. These last two months two friends shared their grief at saying goodbye to a beloved canine. In the back of my mind I've had this thought that mourning a dog was excessive. "Just a dog, after all." But recently the thought came to me that people who mourn for their dogs are echoing the love of God. God loves us, gets emotional about us, and no angel dare say: "Why such a big deal. Just a human!"

I have another dog memory -- before Happy (2001 to 2013) we had Didi in the 90's. Didi was very affectionate, sometimes annoyingly so. We could never teach her not to jump up on us when we came home from the office. We'd come home, she'd bound forward to meet us, and jump on us with her eyes gleaming with happiness that we were home, and we'd say "No, no, down, Didi." Day after day. But I saw that her jumping was her expression of affection for us, that our coming home was the high point of her day. And my annoyance at being jumped on again would fade.

I was patient with Didi because I focused on her love for me, not on her failing to learn how I wanted to be loved. Much greater is the Father's love -- patient with us in our imperfections, loving us even when we do not love him.

The Happy Middle

A while back I wrote about my dislike evangelical stories with trite happy endings. Stories where the protagonist doesn't know God or has walked away from God, goes through crisis after crisis until they come or come back to faith, then all their life comes together smoothly, better than ever before. I don't like these stories because I don't think they're true.

But there is a paradox. How can a story about the Gospel not have a happy ending? The Gospel is the mother of all happy endings. We were dead in our sins, now in Christ we are alive.

But most often in this life, we have to wait for the fulfillment of all God has promised us. For now, uncertainties and personal messes continue. We have only the promise that it will get better, while our present is still messy, complicated and awkward. 

Most stories in this life have a happy middle. People cry out to God in pain or difficulty, God doesn’t remove the pain or difficulty, but the people find hope in his promises. The seeming contradiction between the promises and their circumstances drives them to prayer, and out of prayer comes calmness and peace. I call it a middle, because one looks forward to God fulfilling the promises in a greater way. But it is happy, because in that way beyond human understanding, knowing the promise brings assurance, even when it is not yet fulfilled. Blogger Addie Zierman calls it the "hard, beautiful middle of faith." 

Actually I've felt the happy middle concept for years, without putting a name to it. My two favorite novels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle and Cancer Ward both featured a happy middle. In the first, Gleb Nerzhin leaves the almost paradise of the special camp for an ordinary camp, but is at peace because he feels he has done the right thing. In the second, Oleg Kostoglotov leaves the hospital, his cancer largely cured, but not necessarily totally; but he still has exile and gives up hope in either of his two love interests from the hospital, but he too is at peace with himself. 

Philosophy and Scripture

Philosophy strikes me as thinking like a detective in a mystery --or maybe more like a geologist. You see a complex, intricate structure. How did it come to be? You figure out how impersonal forces could have acted to produce it.

But Scripture assumes another kind of mystery. A great powerful and loving being that we cannot see, hear or feel (except in rare moments) follows an intricate plan. He has shown us the overall character of this plan, but He doesn't show us the details. And our task is to hold onto what He tells us about His nature and the goodness of the plan, when we cannot figure it out and are tempted to believe there is no plan, only chaos.

What Will Jesus Do?

A colleague shared this week a new riff on the popular 90's slogan, What Would Jesus Do. He says he doesn't ask "What would Jesus do in this situation," but instead "What will Jesus do?" I like this.

I realize I have long felt discomfort with the slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" Yes, in part because I don't want to become a radical disciple, like the slogan might suggest. But also I don't like the impression I see in the slogan that Jesus is simply a model for how we ought to live, a standard of behavior. Jesus did what he did to change us, to renew us. We cannot just will to do what Jesus did. We need Jesus to come into our lives and make us the people that will do what He did. I believe we still need that day by day even after years of being in the church.

In my Father's house

We often encourage ourselves with Jesus words in John 14. "In my Father's house are many rooms," (John 14:2). "Think of all those rooms," we say, "think of all the time the Father has taken to prepare a place for us. Won't it be grand?"

I think it will be grand, but I suspect looking forward to the architecture misses the main point. The other day I thought of John's words: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." I more often anticipate who I'll meet in heaven rather than what the houses might be like. But surely, of all the people I might meet, the most fascinating, most awe inspiring one is God himself -- the one who has done and said so many things that the earth could not contain the books. And who continues to do awesome and wonderful things.

I went walking one evening, and felt caught up in wonder. I'm going to meet God. Surely that is the great and awesome thing to look forward to. The thing that will make the struggles and messes and confusion of this life pale in comparison. Yes, remember the promises. Remember the good news. God is with us and abides with us.

Update:  Our pastor preached on this passage yesterday. He says the common understanding of this verse as promising each of us our own mansion in heaven is a misunderstanding of the text. The image from the culture of Jesus' day is a large extended family all living in the same dwelling -- when a son or daughter gets married, they get a larger room in the big house for their growing family. It is one house, the Father's house, and Jesus prepares a room in it for each of us. So the focus in the text is on our relationship with God, coming home to the big house where we have our room..

The Power of Grace: Can God really use that guy?

These days I've felt blah. I've been tempted to doubt God's promises. If God really wants to make me new, write the law on my heart, why am I still so mediocre? I woke up this morning with thoughts like this, and reminded myself I need to keep believing in the covenant making and covenant keeping God.

Then I go browse my Feedly list. And there's a blog post called The Power of Grace. Oddly, it's from that guy I've been thinking I could drop from my feed. First, his links are almost all videos. I like blog posts that are texts. Dare I say I like my blog posts the old fashioned way, ones I can read not listen to? Second, and more seriously, the guy is the local scandal of this week.

I'm curious so I click on the link. I'm pleased it isn't a link to a video, and I start reading.
When it comes to grace, people usually go wrong in one of two ways. We either think that we’re too far gone for it and dismiss it.
Or we take it for granted and abuse it.
They both view grace as weakness.
Grace is power. It is power to save and to transform. To cover all of our sins  and remove them from our lives. To get you off the hook and to get you into the zone of transformation.
Grace isn’t just a cheap perfume you splash on to cover the stench of your sins. It’s the power to change your life from the inside out.
It felt like God speaking through the page to say "Yes, do keep trusting in me. I can change you." And I respond, "But God. Why are you using the guy building himself a 1.8 million dollar house to tell me this?" In my mind's eye I see a knowing look from God, and I answer my own question. "Right. You use imperfect people. I'm supposed to know that. Thanks for the reminder. I really am glad you do."

I read Steven Furtick's blog post again. Grace is the power to change. Grace is looking into the reality of my life, and not being dismayed when the forces of evil and the forces of mediocrity look like giants. Not being dismayed because I often don't really want to change. But God promises change. And I should believe his promises.

And I'm reminded to pray for Steven Furtick. The 1.8 million dollar house still feels suspect to me, but I think he is serving the Lord and speaking the truth. May his ministry continue. May God's wisdom speak to his heart and lead him to change his mind if building that house isn't the best use of his income.

Brother Furtick, if you read this, I do want to bless you. You've blessed me with your blog posts. Not just yesterday's blog post, you've had other good ones over the years.  This one and this one are the main reasons I added you to my Google Reader some years back. I pray that God continues to bless you, and Elevation. May He keep using you to speak of grace and truth, and may He keep guiding you in your private and public life to model that grace and truth.

May we all keep on believing in God's grace, the power to get us off the hook and into the zone of transformation.

Reasons why we don't pray more about our problems

  1. We're not sure God's really there. Or if he is there, is he close enough to care?
  2. We don't want to change.
  3. We think we should have changed already, so we're on our own until we "catch up."
  4. The issue facing us feels too big for God to handle.
  5. The issue facing us feels too small for God to care about.
  6. The issue is not our fault. It's "those people" who should do differently.
  7. Since God hasn't fixed this already, we think he does not want to do anything about it.
Which one comes up in your thoughts?

For me, it is probably #7. But Jesus reminded us that we need to be persistent in prayer. 
"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up."

Andrew Murray on the New Covenant

I started reading an old book the other day, Two Covenants by Andrew Murray.

He says if the New Covenant is to be better than the Old, it has to provide for man's obedience. "The New Covenant provides a guarantee, not only for God’s faithfulness, but for man’s too! And this in no other way than by God Himself undertaking to secure man’s part as well as His own."

This reminds me of what I'd thought and written about the New Covenant in Covenant of Hope. The old covenant failed because we couldn't keep it. "Do these things and you will live" is not enough. We need God to do in us what we cannot do in ourselves. 

Business class and the hope of heaven

Last week it happened:  upgraded to business class for a nine hour flight across the Atlantic. Wonderful seats -- fifteen or twenty different adjustment points, enough legroom that my feet only gently contacted the edge of my own space, I could even lie almost flat if I wanted to sleep. A personal video screen probably larger than the screen of my laptop, and fully touch sensitive as well. A four course meal, or should I say five course? The ice cream sundae and the fruit and cheese were served all together, but wouldn't that count as more than one course?

Around the sixth or seventh hour, I still felt as enchanted as when we'd started, and I even felt a mild regret that the flight was not longer. This morning it is still pleasant to remember -- I think of C. S. Lewis' comment that the great desire we have for things to go on forever in our lives shows that we were meant for something more than a temporal, limited life. This pleasure suggests I was not meant to be jammed into a narrow seat row for hours at a time -- what a startling thought!

This could be my favorite air travel story for years to come. It is a story that does not center around conflict, like most stories do in our world. Should there a literary genre of people experiencing conditions so much better than they are used to, and celebrating this? Is this the stories we shall experience in heaven?

But really heaven is not about comfort or architecture (as impressive as those may be). It is primarily about seeing God. The intangible God hidden from view. God with us, yes, but it requires our faith, our ability to cling to a truth despite what our immediate perceptions would tell us. In heaven, faith will become sight. Then we shall see him face to face, and when he appears we will be like him.

God wants to make me new?

God wants to make me new. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory,” That sounds pretty crazy. I want to laugh, like Sarah laughed. My mediocrity is way too tall and imposing. A solid wall rising up to heaven, like the wall of Jericho, like the Berlin wall. But those walls came down. Can I live in hope that this wall will come down?

After writing this, I still feel the unnerving sense of uncertainty between two worlds, what I know and what might be. Who am I? Reluctant to change because I’m afraid?

Scripture talks about transformation as though it is finished, a done deal. But it also says over and over again that newness is an attitude we have to take up, a calculation we have to make, something we need faith for (and faith implies something we don’t see yet). And this seeming paradox makes sense, it is how God’s promises often work. He makes a promise, so we can be assured that He will do it, that is the finished aspect. But he makes a promise because the time has not yet come to do what he promised. That is the waiting in faith without seeing aspect.

Some of the promises of newness

Jeremiah 31:31-34: God will write the law on our hearts, we will all know him, and won’t need to be taught to know him. (Jeremiah wrote this as a future promise, but Jesus brought the New Covenant).
Romans 6:2-4: In Christ’s death we died to sin, and rose again to new life.
2 Corinthians 5:17: Anyone in Christ is a new creation
2 Corinthians 3:18: We all reflect the Lord’s glory and are being transformed into his likeness.
Gal 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.

Some of the reminders that newness takes time.

Rom 12:1-3: present yourselves as living sacrifices, do not conform but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Romans 6:11: Consider (calculate) yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God.
2 Corinthians 5:2: We groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling
Gal 2:20b: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God,” If it is by faith, it is not by sight.

Prayer for the suffering

Lord, open their eyes to see the compassion in your eyes.

The story behind this:

My mother in law passed away in November 2007. My wife and I went up for the funeral, and stayed for two weeks as she began putting her mother's house in order. On my first day back at work, I thanked my supervisor for letting me stay away for two weeks, and told him about the funeral, the grieving and the celebration. Another colleague listened to our conversation, and I was struck by the compassion in her eyes. Weird, I thought, sympathy without words actually happens. I'd thought it was a literary cliché, a cliché from the kind of books I don't like to read much. But in real life, it's actually pretty neat!

A year and a half later our son was in a bad road accident while we were traveling in California. We got the phone call from the police that he'd been airlifted to the hospital. As we booked a quick flight home and hurriedly prepared to drive to the airport, wondering just how bad things might be, I thought of my colleague's compassionate glance and wished I could sign up for another one. Then as we got on the plane, a new thought came to me. James says that all good gifts come from God the Father. So that meant that the glance of compassion I still wanted but couldn't have because my colleague wasn't nearby, really came from God. What I'd appreciated in her eyes that day was a reflection of the compassion in God's eyes, if I could see them. That was a comforting thought. And ever since, in times of sadness, I've thought about God's compassion as I saw it reflected in my colleague's eyes that day. (As it turned out, our son had broken legs and a broken finger plus a dislocated elbow, but no head injuries and no internal injuries).

Another aspect of this story came to mind a couple years later. One of the common generalizations about men and women is that men always want to fix a problem, while women want compassion. We men are supposed to learn to listen to our wives and respond to how she feels, not just suggest how to fix it. But what, I thought, do we want God to do? God, revealing himself as "he" not "she," should be a fixer right? And who could be better at fixing things? Don't we always pray for a quick fix? An instant healing, a new job right now! But what if God chooses to not fix all our problems right away, but expresses compassion with us as we endure the problem?

So I pray for those in distress, that the eyes of their hearts would be opened to see God with them in their distress.

When prayer feels unreal 2

Yesterday I remembered a time in prayer when I was honest about not feeling fervent, and God welcomed my honesty. I remembered last night a thought from Psalm 25. The first verse says (in some but not all translations) "To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul."

Yes, to the Lord, I lift up my soul. My soul as it is, not the soul I should have, not the soul I'd like to think I have or want others to think I have. But the one I really do have, with its warts and imperfections, ego, selfishness and pride. That is the soul I've got, that is the soul God has resolved to transform. He knows how much is yet to be transformed, and does not view finishing the task as impossible or even arduous.

Sometimes prayer feels unreal

At another prayer meeting someone prayed so earnestly. “We’re yours Lord, we just want to belong to You, You alone.” And I was quiet. Do I really want first and foremost to live for God and not myself? I wasn’t sure.
As I went home I did open up to God. “Lord, I’m willing to make a few sacrifices for your kingdom. I went to that prayer meeting didn’t I? I’ve gone to some other meetings, I’ve taken a few risks to try to serve you. I've worked in hard climates for you. But don’t ask me to do anything really painful, like getting tortured or imprisoned. Then I felt a flash of joy, as if God whispered “Thanks for leveling with me. I knew it already, but thanks for not pretending.”
But as I write this I'm wondering, shouldn't I be willing to do anything to serve God? I do sense in me a longing, a readiness to press in closer to God. Lord, enlarge and strengthen this longing to be closer.

Prayer: when the familiar isn't boring

Group prayer can feel routine. A couple weeks ago, I was feeling bored as our prayer meeting started. Then we rea some familiar passages about the importance of prayer. Nothing new, but afterwards, I felt content, perhaps even "strangely warmed", to a small degree.

There is a mystery. The words of Scripture are not just words, but are pointers to God, life himself. I think he came to us and gave us a fresh bit of life last night as we read together. And I had asked for that. I had written on my yellow prayer request card that we'd be encouraged and inspired again for prayer.

That night I hadn't wanted to pray. I'd thought I had nothing new to say, that there was no point in me saying the same things once again. But I was reminded that night how the familiar, the "same old" could still bring life.

A dangerous flaw

Too many evangelical churches have a hidden weakness. A gap in their armor through which a fiery dart could come, burning to ash their treasures.

 The evangelical church is rightly concerned for the Gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ has come and brings grace and mercy for anyone who has failed. God loves you, no matter what you have done or not done. Turn to Jesus, live life in relationship with him, accept that his death and his resurrection are the answer to anything and everything that afflicts you, because in him you are made new. This is not illusion, but truth. Jesus does come healing, transforming and making new.

 But the fatal flaw is to expect Jesus to make you new in an instant. You realize your need, you bow your head and pray the prayer, come forward and say the words and now rejoice in the promises and the peace with God. You know you are broken and needy, and you are grateful for a new chance, for Jesus coming and meeting you when you needed his help. But you also look around the church and see the confident smiles of people who have come for a while. "Then, I was a sinner like you," they seem to say, "but now I am new." And you notice that messages and prayers always assume that the needy ones are those outside. So then you're in the church for a year, two years, five years, and wonder when the complete change will arrive for you. When can you too look back on a fallible past, comfortably different from your almost infallible present. You still struggle, but how can this be? Didn't Jesus make all things new? Didn't you believe, come forward, receive the promise? Are you the only one still struggling? What is wrong?

 Another part of the myth: There must be certain sins almost unknown among the truly born again. No depression or bitterness or unreasonable anger, no alcoholism nor drug dependencies, no struggles over sexual purity, no abuse of children. No people who live just to control things and have everything their way. How can those things be among people made new? At least among those who really believed and prayed the prayer right and have joined the right church.

 How long does Jesus take to make anyone new? How long did it take God to deal with sin? Eighteen hours, right? Late Friday afternoon he said "It is finished" and gave up his spirit to the Father. They took him down and buried him, and Sunday morning before dawn he was alive again. That is one perspective. But look again. It took three years of public ministry before that Friday afternoon came, and it took thirty years preparing for those three years of ministry, and it took centuries of prophets and priests and kings leading up to the fullness of time when God With Us could be born in Bethlehem; and before that centuries of judges and prophets from Moses' time until David's time, and centuries from when the first promises were made to Abraham until Moses came to deliver the people out of Egypt. And on this side of the resurrection, almost two thousand years of "these last days" waiting for the promise that he'd return on the clouds of heaven as they'd watched him go away into heaven. We like to think the default moment in the Old Testament is Moses parting the waters and leading the people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And the default moment in the New Testament is Jesus on the cross saying "Father forgive them," then dying and rising again a few hours later. But the most common experience before Christ or after Christ has to be knowing that God has made promises, remembering that he did something powerful, and waiting for God in power to act again and finish what he started. Completion not now, but in an indefinite future we don't know when it will come. All we have is the promise it is coming. So we live with patience and longsuffering enduring the present mess because we know while no end may be in sight and it's been all we've ever known, it is not permanent. If God makes all things new in a short time, why do the Scriptures talk so much about patient endurance? If God changes everything for anyone who truly believes, why does he commend the faith of those who didn't see what he had promised (Heb 11:35-40?

So let us take up the shield of faith, faith in God and his promises, faith that we don't have to pretend we are all finished now, faith that God has still more to do in us and we don't know when he will do it, but that is OK because he has promised he will do it.

Another paradox of faith

Scripture informs us that the greatest and most powerful being in the universe loves us and is on our side. Yet it clearly states that this great powerful and loving being is not supremely concerned about our ease and comfort. The great lover of our souls sometimes is disturbingly slow in giving us what we want. Worse, he sometimes gives us the exact opposite of what we want. The most deserving soul that ever lived had his life cut short by a wicked and barbaric execution. Yet then he came out of the grave. In our lives God can demonstrate great power and intricate planning to suddenly lift us safely out of an impending disaster, or cut short a major or minor trial. Other times he leaves us in the disaster with only a promise that it will be better in the end, and a surprising calmness that as bad as this gets, the promises are still precious. Why make promises when he could just deliver us? Because he wants to give us the experience of clinging to the promises when we don't see him at work. What then is prayer? Going to him with all the messiness of our lives, acknowledging that the messiness is greater than our ability to distract ourselves or keep going in our own willpower, to celebrate the certainty of the promises while embracing the uncertainty of how those promises will be implemented in our here and now. And we give thanks for the unique and unpredictable path he's led us on up to now. And worship, for his greatness and love and perfection can never be celebrated enough. I've looked at the promises and thought I shouldn't have problems. Then I've looked at my problems and thought the promises couldn't be true. The best is to look at both problems and promises, remember God is with me, and ask him what he is going to do this time.

Emmanuel Road, Emmaus Road

God is with us. That's the key point. Walk the Emmanuel Road.

But it feels like Emmaus Road.  We don't recognize God with us. We don't have what we want, and things aren't pleasant. In fact, we may be miserable. How can God be with me and let this happen? Because when we recognize he is with us, and lay our discomfort and misery at his feet, he enables us to bear it.

Sometimes "road" is the hard word. We want to arrive. We want to have arrived. We don't want to admit we're not there yet. But God talks a lot about being with us while we have yet to arrive. So we have to accept we're on the road.

Sometimes grace is a process

God wants a relationship with us, he wants us to keep coming back to thank him, to ask him. to be with him.

God can make instantaneous changes. By one word the Red Sea was parted and the people made their way across, by another word the sea closed back and Pharaoh and his army drowned. By one word the storm was stilled, by another word Lazarus was raised.

But he doesn't always bring instantaneous change.  Look to Scripture. How long it took from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to David, from David to Jesus.

We must believe both in the God that can change in an instant and the God that brings change over a long time.

Not "It" but Him

I drove to our church prayer meeting wondering what I should pray for. No current crises in my life, I had the leisure to be philosophical.

What the church in America really needs, I thought, is more realistic faith. Faith to understand the promises of God don't mean we'll always have a happy ending in this life. Faith that understands we will have real problems in our lives that really hurt -- but that God is with us when they hurt. That's what I decide to ask prayer for.

At the meeting our leader read a devotion that took this thought to a new level: Himself by A. B. Simpson.

I often hear people say, "I wish I could get hold of Divine Healing, but I cannot." Sometimes they say, "I have got it." If I ask them, "What have you got?" the answer is sometimes, "I have got the blessing", sometimes it is, "I have got the theory"; sometimes it is, "I have got the healing"; sometimes, "I have got the sanctification." But I thank God we have been taught that it is not the blessing, it is not the healing, it is not the sanctification, it is not the thing, it is not the it that you want, but it is something better. It is "the Christ"; it is Himself. 
Yes! The great mystery is Christ in us, the hope of glory. Jesus is the "Yes" to all the promises of God. The Christian life is about being with him, him being with us and us being with him.

But how quickly we forget and think of an "it". If only I had this, if only I knew this, if only I could do this, then I'd be happy, content and at peace. But he gives joy, contentment and peace, they don't come from our circumstances.

Prayer is not like calling the help desk

I call the help desk when the product or the documentation fails. It should just work without me needing to ask how.

But our life in God is not supposed to "just work" without us asking for help. Our life in God is our life with God, with our Abba Father, our elder brother who laid down his life for us, and the Spirit living in us.  The best part, the key part of this life is the relationship. We're supposed to call him, praise him, interact with him, tell him where we are, listen to his responses. In short, we should be with him.

God exists and cares for me, shouldn't that be enough?

O my soul, how quickly you lose sight that the Maker of all things has chosen you, has adopted you as his son, and plans to truly do you well.

Why then are you so eager to dream of earthly fame, why do you so crave recognition?

Oh Lord, thanks that you have mercy on my silly heart. Thanks for continuing to remind me that you are there and reward those who keep on seeking you.

This came from a quote from Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ:
A man who loves You and recognizes Your benefits, therefore, should be gladdened by nothing so much as by Your will, by the good pleasure of Your eternal decree. With this he should be so contented and consoled that he would wish to be the least as others wish to be the greatest; that he would be as peaceful and satisfied in the last place as in the first, and as willing to be despised, unknown and forgotten, as to be honored by others and to have more fame than they. He should prefer Your will and the love of Your honor to all else, and it should comfort him more than all the benefits which have been, or will be, given him (3:22).

Was Jesus an extrovert?

Of course, I'm tempted to respond. But then I wonder.  I've just read Susan Cain's book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, where she says that our culture has idealized extroverts since the mid 1800s. She thinks the evangelical church does this more than the general culture.
If you don't love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It's not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.
So I wonder, what does Scripture say? Jesus spoke to large multitudes frequently, something (humanly speaking) no introvert would ever do. But he also went away by himself to pray for hours at a time, something no extrovert would do.

Maybe the fully divine and fully human Son of God has all the strengths of both extroverts and introverts.

Work, a curse or a blessing?

Is needing to work a result of the Fall? I don't think so. I have thought for years now that when God made humankind in his image (Gen 1:26), in the context it means we should be creative and make things. God has been making all kinds of things all through the chapter. When he says he will make us in his image, isn't being creative a huge part of it? Adam was placed in the garden to cultivate it. When the Fall came, the work of cultivating the ground became much more difficult, but the role of cultivating was there before the Fall.

The problem is like a lot of people, I really act like work is a curse. I really like being entertained. I spent a good while last night listening to old song parodies from the 60's. Now I can say that I was celebrating the creativity God gave to Allan Sherman, but really I was being passive. I suppose I should remember Romans 7:24. Who will deliver me from all the rotten things about being me? Jesus Christ.


I saw God once. I saw the Father looking at me, his eyes full of compassion. He didn't need to say anything, I knew he was with me. I knew the gift of his presence, coming down from on high, undiluted, undiminished, far beyond "just enough." The lavishness startled me, I thought it was more than I needed that day. And perhaps it was, but the memory has sustained me for several years. So God had more in mind than just that moment, but moments yet to come.

How did I see? By the eyes of faith, by remembering the promise that all good gifts come from above. I took my best memory of compassion from a fellow pilgrim, and recast it. That was good, but merely an echo of God's compassion. Not one moment that can never be repeated, but an ongoing reality of God inviting me to lay my heart before him, God already knowing the labyrinth of my feelings and not rejecting me for the mess but loving me in the mess.

Last week I saw and I celebrated with friends who held to the promises, who prayed and sang to God with us, the great Emmanuel, in their time of loss. I celebrated the new Covenant, that God gave us more than insight and rules how we should live, he came down and lived among us, so that he can circulate his life to us.

Hard promises

Ann Voskamp writes about hard thanksgivings, giving thanks for all things, even sufferings. As Jesus did, giving thanks for the bread as he broke it and passed it to his disciples, knowing his body would soon be broken for them.

It came to me today there are hard promises in Scripture as well. For instance, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted." Lord, I don't want to mourn, I'd much rather be happy, happy, happy, all the day long. But if I really believed the promise that God will comfort, I won't be afraid to mourn.

What about my dreams III

 A friend on Facebook replied to my post about dreams with the words "Never hold back on dreaming dreams before the Lord." This reminded me of something I had thought about saying but hadn't. Since prayer  is a place where we can be emotionally honest before God, we should offer our dreams to God. Even the dreams that are obviously wrong.

I have dreams and desires that are obviously wrong. All too often, I show that what I want most out of life is to be entertained and distracted, to simultaneously be the center of attention without really having to do anything. What about that dream? There is actually a very large grain of truth in it. In God's story, I am chosen and significant, not because of anything I have done but because God chose me. (And not just me, he chose anyone who will come). But yet God also wants to share his character with me, and that involves doing hard and difficult things, sometimes without recognition or outward signs of blessing.

I had a literal dream in my childhood, actually a nightmare. A deep powerful voice said to me, "This is God. Do the right things, or I will send ten thousand meteors to destroy the earth." I woke up terrified. But when I look back on that dream years later, it's clear that wasn't really God speaking to me. The role of the man whose righteousness saves the world from destruction had been assigned already, two thousand years before I was born. (Well, nineteen hundred and some odd years before, to be precise). That's one dream I am glad to abandon.

Earlier dream posts:
What about my dreams II
What about my dream

What about my dreams II

My friend and colleague posted on Facebook yesterday a comment about God and dreams."Your dreams don't trump Gods agenda. What is necessary to be joyful in the face of this reality?" he asks, then concludes that we can be assured that God loves us and wants to bless us beyond our dreams by giving himself to us.

Good thoughts. In faith, we hold our dreams loosely, because God may have something better than our dreams. I've also just finished reading the Joseph story (Gen 37, 39-50). Joseph dreamed of his brothers and his father bowing down to him. A very selfish dream, but God chose to fulfill it (after Joseph endured a great deal of suffering), because it also fulfilled God's greater plan.

So I think we can offer our dreams to God, knowing he looks kindly on us and will do great things above all that we might dream, imagine or ask for.

My first post about dreams

No magic key to faith

In my Christian life I've had two problems with the idea of miracles. First, like anyone growing up in our secularized culture, I thought miracles were not possible, the stories of them were made up. But that issue was substantially resolved within the first year of coming to faith. I realized that the belief that miracles never happen was a presupposition of naturalistic thinking, and was not necessarily proven.
Then came the second problem. When I accepted that God exists and the miraculous is possible, because God can choose to intervene in his creation, why aren't there more of them? Why aren't all my selfless prayers answered? I pray for people, God rarely intervenes to draw them to himself. I pray for evil governments to be overthrown, or for dictators to repent; and that doesn't happen. (Once it did, the USSR gave up on its empire in Eastern Europe, then disbanded as a Communist country, and now there is greater freedom throughout those lands). I pray for friends with life threatening illnesses, and most of them have gone on to be with God. (That too is a form of healing, a better healing really than a healing in this life, but still a disappointment.)
I began to think that there was some secret key to making Christianity really work the way it should, where it becomes substantially problem free and miracles become routine. I hung out with charismatics at one time, and thought maybe the key was their baptism in the Holy Spirit. But while I still appreciate the energy and excitement they bring to worship, that didn't make “it all work.”
This quest for the magic key was in my mind as I started writing Covenant of Hope. When I began, I was thinking perhaps Jeremiah’s promise of the New Covenant was the magic key. Maybe we were supposed to pray for God to write his law on our hearts, and then the magic would happen. I was going to make that happen in the story, and wondered how I could do that when it didn't really work like that in real life. Perhaps my story would end up as a subtle critique of Christianity – “if Christianity really worked, church life would be like this. But we all know church life is not like this, therefore Christianity must not work.”
But I came to the conclusion that there is no magic key, or perhaps I should say the magic key is to trust God and his promises, accepting that the promises often clash with our circumstances. We shouldn't conclude that the clash means the promises are not true, but cry out to God and ask for his help to address the clash between his promises and our circumstances.

1000 thanks

Back in January, I read Ann Voskamp's book, 1000 Gifts. She talks about the importance of giving thanks, as the book grew out of her resolve to start a journal of things she was thankful for, and found the practice renewed her heart.

I've begun practicing what she talked about, keeping a journal of things I'm grateful for. I'm only at 106 but the practice has made a difference in my heart. I do feel more cheerful, more at peace. In some ways the practice feels artificial, I could in one blow arrive at billions upon billions (all the subatomic particles in the universe God created). So I list things, ignoring the question "why this thing and not these others," and feel blessed in the listing.

You don't expect a book on thankfulness to plunge you right into the depths of human tragedy, but in the first chapter she describes grieving when her young sister was accidently run over in their driveway, and also a brother-in-law losing two young sons to a rare disease. But those tragedies are what drove her to wonder about life with God, what to do when it isn't at all a "I met Jesus and now life's wonderful" story.

I'm reminded of a favorite quote from years ago. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago talks about his coming to faith in God in Soviet prisons, and concludes the chapter with "Bless you prison, for being in my life." He came to be thankful for the hardest thing in his life, because God brought blessing in it.

Faith when things still haven't changed

My latest blogger discovery, Addie Zierman, penned a brilliant image this week. She's writing about the long winter in Minnesota this year (some places have even gotten snow in May).

The first warm day comes only four days after that Third Snowstorm. In the span of half a week, we move from boots to sandals, from winter coats to pale toddler tummies bare in the backyard.

The trees are still stripped bare and there are no buds anywhere that I can see. The grass is patchy and snow-burned and sharp.

I’m amazed that it can look so much like winter and so much like spring at the same time. And at the same time, there’s something that feels profoundly true about that to me.
 So much like winter, and yet like spring, if you look. Aslan is on the move, the thaw has begun. But there is still a lot of snow, Aslan hasn't come yet.

That was Abraham's story. God promised many descendants, yet Isaac came very late in life. David was promised an eternal kingdom, which later split in two. The promises are great and precious, yet there is so much "not yet." May we keep hoping and trusting.

Promises and circumstances in conflict

Don't we need to pay close attention both to God's promises and to our circumstances? God gave us the promises so we can cling to them in faith. He allowed our circumstances so that we might learn to cling to the promises.

Tension between promises and circumstances runs throughout Scripture. God promised Abraham that he'd be the father of a great nation. Yet he had a long wait until Isaac was born. David was anointed as king by Samuel, but he had many years of running from Saul. Habakkuk cried out to God because the kingdom was corrupt, and God's response was to bring on the Babylonians.

But our tendency is to do away with the tension by ignoring or disbelieving the promises or our circumstances.

We may disbelieve the promises. If the promises were really true, I wouldn't be in the mess I'm in. Therefore the promises can't be true.

We may ignore our circumstances. Maybe if I ignore the mess, it will go away? Maybe I'm supposed to pretend everything is OK?  Or maybe there is some secret to making the promises really work -- a special prayer, a different church, a new doctrine, something to turn on the magic wonder working power so all major problems go away and I won't be bugged by them.

But suppose God wants us to understand he is with us in precisely these circumstances he's given us? Yes they are messy and painful, and a superficial look at the promises suggests they shouldn't have happened. But look at the people of faith in Scripture, did they not have to wait many years, and even then not see the promises fully fulfilled?

How should we pray?

Our prayer meetings usually become lists of people in crisis. People who have lost loved ones, people in the hospital near death, or other crises. I was wondering how this fits with how Jesus told us to pray. What does he tell us to pray for? "Father, give us what we need today. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who've sinned against us." 

I'm wondering, when I go to prayer meeting and say "Let's remember Joe in the hospital," and don't mention that I'm feeling grumpy about stuff at work; or don't admit I focus on entertaining myself much more than I do on being like Jesus in my world, am I missing the point? Am I thinking we only need God in the crises, not in the everyday messes? That I'm managing my life OK, it's only Joe that needs help?

Or am I thinking that God has only a limited ability or desire to answer prayers, and Joe's cancer is a higher priority than my messes? Scripture does tell us to bear one another's burdens, so putting Joe's burden ahead of mine is probably a good thing. But if I never mention my burden, maybe that isn't a good thing. Because prayer is not a lottery with only a few winners.

Compassion for others worse off than ourselves is a good thing. But the airline safety talk always says to put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else. If you pass out trying to help someone else you haven't helped them. Is prayer like that? If we don't bring our own needs and life before God, we can't really help others? I think that could be the case. I think we need a balance of praying for ourselves and praying for others.

Pleading for the world

Abraham pleaded for Sodom, "Far be it from you to kill the righteous with the wicked. Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"

I think, in light of Jesus, one can cry "Shall not the Savior of the world show mercy?"

God, rescue the victims from this murderous world. Deliver the murderers from their desire to murder, from their twisted perception that murder is necessary and good.

Truth like a river

I'm thinking of the old song "I've got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors sets the captives free." That is a pretty radical statement. It comes out of Scripture: the river of life flowing out is from John 7:38, and the healings and opening prison doors comes from Isaiah 61 .

But when I sing that song, it doesn't feel radical. Those words have become too familiar. The situations where I remember singing it were lighthearted in tone, a fun tune without thinking about the words. Like one might sing "I've been working on the railroad." You know you don't work on the railroad, you have no ambition to work on the railroad and no guilt for not wanting to work on the railroad, and perhaps don't even know anyone named Dinah, but the song is a fun song to sing.

I remember years ago a worship leader making the surprising statement that we shouldn't sing Christian songs if we just wanted to have fun singing and be a bit silly. We should sing songs like "I've been working on the railroad." When we sing songs about God, it should be because we really mean them. Now I might push back on that statement some today, because I think our relationships with God should involve all our lives, even the lighthearted silly moments (which are not sinful to have). But I think there is a danger in enjoying Christian songs or sayings because they're familiar, without thinking about what they mean.

John 7:38 and Isaiah 61:2 reveal a surprising, startling, awesome truth. Out of me, in me, comes the Spirit of God, who does bring healing and liberty. I'm thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's riveting line: "Bless you prison for being in my life." I'm thinking of healings and resurrections, some which come here and now, some of which we wait for, and our here and now is transformed by the faith to wait, if we accept it.

The Bible in 40 days

In early Lent,  I read about a challenge to read through the entire Bible in the 40 days of Lent. The notion intrigued me, so I took it on. My Bible has 1220 pages of text,  so that meant just over 30 pages a day.

It often felt like I was going too fast. I read over many familiar and beloved passages without even noticing them. I may not do this again.  But I did notice a few things doing this:

1) It reinforced the conclusion I'd come to that waiting is part of God's promises. Thinking about the centuries between Abraham and Moses, then between Moses and David, then from David and Solomon to the exile, then to the time of Christ, seems to suggest a pattern. God proceeds slowly to work out his plan. Wondering why the plan takes so long is a common concern. It certainly isn't that God needs to rest between  major events, or needs a long time to prepare all the details. And it doesn't seem like progress is linear either. When "now is the time," God can act quite quickly. But I think, as unpopular as the idea is in our American culture, the default experience of faith is waiting -- knowing God has acted in the past, knowing he will act sometime in the future.

2) I got a new respect for the Books of Chronicles. I had an attitude in my heart that these two books were less complete and more biased than Samuel/Kings. One sign of bias I felt; Chronicles omits the whole scandal of David and Bathsheba (except for one hint in 1 Ch 20:1). But as I skimmed through Chronicles, I did notice the story of David's census bringing a plague on the people (1 Chr 21). That too was a scandal, David's disobedience bringing judgment on the nation, perhaps a greater scandal. And Samuel/Kings doesn't cover it.  So these two accounts of David's life complement each other.

3) How short the New Testament is. I've known for years that the New Testament isn't really half of the Bible, much less than half. But going by the page count, it isn't even a quarter. (1220-950 = 270 pages, one  quarter of 1220 pages is 305).

4) That the New Testament brings a major shift in emphasis. The Old Testament is predominately about the nation of Israel, about the patriarchs, then Moses, then the judges, kings and prophets. God does deal with individuals, but the central thrust is about the nation. Then in the Gospels, the focus is on Jesus reaching out to individuals, and forming disciples to reach out to other individuals. The individuals are supposed to form a community, so I wouldn't say it is individualistic. But I think there is a shift of emphasis.

5) There are many more miracles in the Gospels than there are in any part of the Old Testament.

One surprising difficulty. I had expected that 31 or 32 pages of Leviticus or Deuteronomy would feel like tough slogging. But the hardest book to go through 31 pages at a sitting was Proverbs.

Margaret Feinberg, who apparently launched the challenge, talks about what she learned here.

Short thoughts

God loves us and has a wonderful ability to bless our here and now.
Sometimes God blesses us by removing a difficulty. Sometimes he blesses us by giving us peace in difficulty.
God is about something bigger than us, but there is great goodness for us in it.
If left to ourselves, we will miss the blessings. 
God can make more of me than I can make of myself.
I don't have to have the things I want to be happy.*
The things I want often won't make me happy.
Getting what we want may not be a blessing, it might be a trap.
If I can't be content with the things I have, will I be content with the things I want?
The secret to contentment is first to have faith in God and in his blessings, and second to give thanks.
The default life of faith is not to see God deliver you from all your problems, but to see God encourage and strengthen you to trust and bless you through your problems.
We often think we couldn't possibly be in the situation we're in if God's promises were true. But this situation is where God wants to demonstrate how he keeps his promises. 
God really wants to bring peace and contentment  and good character to our hearts. Any other objective we have misses the point.
God knows how messy our hearts really are. He still insists on bringing peace and contentment to them.
God does not want to act once to make us happy ever after. He wants to act again and again to bring us blessings each day.**
We need him to act again and again. When we aren't happy ever after, we haven't missed something.
When other Christians act like they are happy ever after, they're probably faking it.
If you think admitting your imperfections gives God a bad name, think again. His specialty is helping imperfect people.
If you think that the Gospel of grace is for people outside, and once you come inside you need to learn to do the right things, reread Galatians. You're believing in an altered Gospel.
Lamenting our circumstances is not lacking faith. It is the life of faith.
God's great plans involve using us. He is not concerned how much more efficiently he could do things by himself without us.
What he most had to do on his own, because we couldn't help at all, he did by becoming one of us.

*Not original with me. I read this on Facebook.
**I know Christ's death and resurrection was a one time event that changed everything. I'm talking about how we discover and live out what that event means.  We don't experience it as a one time discovery that changes everything in our hearts and circumstances, but as a progression of learning to hope, trust and confide more and more from day to day.

Grace as a process: why is it hard to understand

Why is the evangelical church so fond of quick fix theology, the "before and after hoax?" I'm sure there are many reasons. Here's one big reason, I think we're already hard-wired from our culture to believe it.

In my childhood, the book I loved best was Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II. And my favorite chapter in the book was about the Marianas Turkey Shoot. In the first couple of years of the war, American fighter pilots had great difficulty because American planes were slower and less maneuverable than the Japanese Zero. They had to figure out tactics (like starting above the Japanese Zeroes and diving down on them) to overcome this. Then in 1944 the American pilots got a new plane, the F6F Hellcat. It was faster, more maneuverable than the Zero, but it was also more heavily armored. So in this battle air combat for the Americans became easy -- they could catch the Japanese planes before the Japanese could catch them, and if a Japanese pilot got lucky and hit a Hellcat, the armor absorbed the damage. That's why I loved that chapter, after all the dangers of the earlier chapters, the Good Guys now had it easy, thanks to technology.

This is the basic Gospel of our time. Technology will make life easy. It has in many ways: microwaves, washers and dryers, computers and Internet. But technology doesn't make life effortless, and it never will.
And God's power, much greater than technology, doesn't make our life effortless either.

Grace for the process

I've known this for years, and yet its still a new concept: The Christian life is a process, not a one-time event.

I was thinking about Addie Zierman's phrase, the "Before and After hoax" and how the evangelical church is too prone to talk about the Christian life as conversion then happy ever after. Before, I was lost, totally miserable. Then I came to Christ and my problems went away.

Scripture does say we were dead and now we are alive in Christ. We are new creations. But I think that the newness, the aliveness is something we have to work out, something we experience step by step. Scripture also talks about faith in something we don't see, and about not giving up when we encounter fiery trials to refine and deepen our faith. Romans 6 talks about us being dead to sin. But Paul says in verse 11 to count ourselves dead to sin. Being dead to sin isn't something that just happens. We have to count on it, exercise our faith that this promise is true despite what our hearts say about it, and ask God for help.

That's what I tried to say in Covenant of Hope. There wasn't a single prayer event that in a single stroke healed the division and brought Stonegate church back together as it used to be. But the promises of God invited prayer, invited Ralph and Jim to cry out to God that this isn't how the church should be, and over time, sanity did return.

The great leap

It happened again this morning. After  blogging last week about Addie Zierman's story, the cynic burned out by the church's superficiality, I heard another story. A young woman gave a testimony about seeing church leaders from the inside, and realizing they only appeared to have it all together. "They weren't any different than me, just better at hiding it." But the church expected everyone in leadership to be perfect. So they faked it.

It strikes me there is a great gap in our thinking when this happens. We know and proclaim the Good News, God has mercy on the broken and invites sinners to come. Don't clean yourself up first, come. Let God clean you up. But then comes the undocumented shift -- you've received grace, you've been cleaned up, now go and do the right things. God's reputation as someone who can handle broken people and bring them back to yourself depends on you being perfect, flawless in your behavior.

This just doesn't add up, if you think it through. If God can heal and transform the broken, why do we expect our leaders to be perfect? Do we think the healing and transformation should be instantaneous? Did that happen for Jesus' disciples? For Paul?

Let's not forget who we are

Addie Zierman has a follow up post to her open letter to the church from the cynics. In dark times of her life she felt suspicion from evangelicals. "Perform! Prove your faith to us all over again." When she spiraled downward "the Church People smiled empty smiles and spoke empty words." 

I think we evangelicals need to remember who we are. We should not be defined by our doctrinal positions or by our political stance or by our favorite hymns or how often we are at church. We should be first and foremost the people who know that we were helpless to know how to live, how to save ourselves, and we met a very powerful and very loving friend who did for us what we could never do for ourselves. And we should be ready and eager to express that this same friend is willing and ready to meet anyone else in the dark moments of their life, and bring them into the light.

We should also be willing to admit where there is still darkness in our hearts. We have met the Truth, and he is for us, but still we struggle and long for what we shouldn't have, and only keep going by his faithfulness to keep with us.

Addie Zierman's follow up post
Addie Zierman's open letter to the church

Why does the church do this?

Addie Zierman has a follow up post to her open letter to the church, where she says the cynic she was mostly talking about was herself.
But then she came home, and the Church People smiled empty smiles and spoke empty words, and she spiraled. They joined an evangelical church. A house church. Another evangelical church. All those buildings, all those people, all that hot dish -- and still, she was a ghost.
One night as a last ditch effort, she went to a Beth Moore Bible study, and she needed someone to look at her and see it. She needed them to say, "Are you OK?" But instead they said, "If you were a fruit, what would you be?"And while they giggled and said orange! and raspberry! and pear! she slipped out early, drove home fast and furious, too mad to even cry.
I started wondering why the church does this. Why, when we all proclaim our allegiance to a Savior that comes to seek and to save the lost, who accepts anyone and invites us all to come, do we forget all that and set up a new set of rules to demonstrate that you really know God and are theologically sound and a trustworthy person -- and then say explicitly or implicitly, "do these things, and we'll accept you."

I thought at first maybe we were too fond of the stories where God makes a swift move and the problem goes away. The disease is healed, the new employer calls out of the blue the next day, or the enemy bows their head and accepts the Lord. I'm not sure that is the whole story.

Could it be we still haven't fully accepted the Gospel? Specifically, we haven't accepted the bad news that makes the Good News so good. We really need him. We're messed up without him. We'd like to think we got back on our own feet, maybe. We'd like to think that that desperate moment when we knew all we could do was cry for mercy happened oh so many years ago, and we've advanced so far now. Now we're almost arrived, we're mature and we know how to live. Do we subtly think the plea for mercy because we were so far beyond ourselves was a phase we went through, now we're out the other side, and we can tell ourselves what we need to know now? And all we need now is our standards of behavior, and our complete doctrinal statement?

But if we understood deep down that God loves us and wants to make so much more of us than we can make of ourselves, we could look at desperate people and know what to say. "It's OK, he loves you, and I do too."

The dangers of being too positive

Evangelicals tell and retell stories about dramatic changes and sudden answers to prayer. They're great. I had this need, I had this problem, I prayed, and God answered! The solution appeared! But how often do we talk about those other problems, problems that hang on for years, challenging us when we pray to keep on asking and not give up?

I thought of this when reading Addie Zierman's recent blog post. It is an open letter from people who left the church to the church.
"Once, we believed quickly and entirely, our faith in the church people and in God all tangled into each other. We believed that you who loved God would be different, and no one ever confessed that Christians are broken too ... We are constantly aware of the darkness: yours and ours. The whole wide world, broken and dying, hurling herself into the abyss."
"We need you to sit with us in the mad season for as long as it takes. We need to hear your stories – the messy ones, the hard parts. We need you to tell us the pain of it without skipping ahead to the happy ending."
"Maybe we can face our darkness if you are honest about yours."

She says its hypocrisy to keep silent. I'm not sure its deliberate hypocrisy, at least not for many of us. But if we only tell the stories of God working rapid transformation, we won't talk about hanging on and being faithful with a problem that doesn't go away.

Is waiting part of God's promises?

It seems that way.

  • God promised Abraham his descendants would occupy the land. But he and Sarah had to wait long years for Isaac to be born. 
  • God promised Abraham his descendants would occupy the land. But they still had to go through years of captivity in Egypt.
  • God promised Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. But Isaac had to pray to God so that Rebekah would conceive. (Gen 25:21)
  • Moses believed God would deliver the people of Israel through him. But the call to go to Pharaoh didn't come until he was 80. 
  • God sent plague after plague. But Pharaoh hardened his heart, then God hardened Pharaoh's heart so he wouldn't let the people go. 
  • God gave the prophets promises of a coming Messiah. But the people had to wait for centuries. 
  • We've been in the "last days" for nearly two thousand years. 
So why is it so surprising when we have to wait, when we're confronted with circumstances that seem to deny the promises of God?

Emotional honesty vs complaining

“Do not complain,” the preacher said this morning, “have a positive attitude. Complaining brings you nothing.” She told how she was complaining often to God and to a friend about her boss at work, and she was not making progress. Finally her friend encouraged her to stop complaining and to trust God, which she did. Her boss noticed her changed attitude and asked what was different.
As I listened, I thought of a question. When is emotional honesty with God complaining? I looked again at her text, from Philippians 2. “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” The verb “do” impresses me. I can be emotionally honest, pour out my heart to God and express my frustrations and distress, then arise from my prayers and go do what I have to do in the situation I have to do this in without complaining to anyone else.
I also thought how in Psalm 22, David begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he moves on to “You are enthroned as the Holy One, you are the praise of Israel.” David pours out his heart, but does not contemplate only his distress, but reminds himself who God is. Another thing to remember is to be thankful. We may be in distress, let us acknowledge to God that we are distressed, but let us also remember to give thanks for what he has given us. Is the stressful circumstance the only thing in our lives? No, there are many good gifts as well. But the complaining spirit ignores the good gifts, and sees only the one thing that is painful or lacking.
I think we can even give thanks for the problems and stresses in our lives. God works in all things for good, even though not all things are good. Paul says in Ephesians to give thanks for all things (Ephesians 5:20). Jesus gave thanks even a short hour before his arrest.