Monday, March 31, 2014

Grace Wins Every Time

Sometimes it’s hard to be a Christian when so many under the same title fail to uphold its standards. Jesus himself made the standards of proper spirituality as simple as one word: love. 

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Why is it so hard for Christians to focus solely on love? With all our actions, words and motives, it is imperative that they are to be undergirded by love (see 1 Cor. 13:1-3). It is to be the tangible goal of our lives, allowing us to do the will of God in a practical way. Love is practical, and any notion to the contrary is a lie.   

The problem is that too many of us are caught up with sin. Are we to grow in grace, or dwell on the dangers of sin? 

“How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2)

“You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:11)

“Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

Clearly, sin has no place in our spirituality unless we are in the process of assessing it through the light of God’s grace and accepting our freedom from its grasp. Sin should never be left alone without the overwhelming presence of grace, as Romans 5:17 reads: 

“If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (emphasis added)

Those who only trumpet how dangerous the world, the Devil and our hearts are have no proper place in the Church unless they immediately negate those dangers with the freeing power found in grace. We ought to focus on the solution, not the problem.

Sometimes, as a Christian, it’s tempting to be the world’s outspoken agent by renouncing everything bad and sinful that the world does, but if we are to love the way Jesus loved us, I think that simply renouncing the world is a misdirection. We can’t always be telling the world how horrible they are. Although we tend to have a confrontational spirit towards everything that goes against God, we should never dump our anger on the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of our time. After all, Jesus was angry at his fellow men of God, not the “sinners” around him (see Matt. 9:10-13; 23:1-36). If we are to love like him, and show the world who we are, then we would wisely do the same.

An important part of the solution is upholding the art of dialogue, where we intently listen to others and openly discuss what our own faith means and why we believe it. Dialogue is severely absent from the Church’s interaction with the world. Instead of focusing on what’s bad, why can’t we support and encourage what’s good, and then dialogue our way to providing the fresh, freeing power of Jesus for those aspects that aren’t as good? For when we see something admirable about the non-Christian world, shouldn’t we see it as God’s hand at work? If so, let’s not ignore it.

In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul says, “I have become all things to all people.” When we dialogue, we provide the necessary level of trust and peace with our fellow humans to be able to share what Christ has done for us. Jesus himself reclined at the table with those who were not what we would consider “Christians” (Matt. 9:10-13).

I think we need to reserve our confrontational spirit for our friends in Christ, who ought to know better anyway (Matt. 23:1-36). The world needs grace, not condemnation; kindness, not threats of hellfire, is what draws people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Most importantly, we are all in need of grace whether we are a Christian or not (Eph. 2:1-10). 

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more...” (Rom. 5:20b)

“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:34, emphasis added)

Grace wins every time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wrestling with God

I’ve always wanted to die like Tristan Ludlow in Legends of the Fall. At the end, when he is an old man, a grizzly bear (symbolic of his inner turmoil, which was significant throughout the film) attacks him in the woods. The narrator says elsewhere in the film that “every warrior hopes a good death will find him,” and at this moment at the end, the narrator concludes, “It was a good death.”

Nothing chills me more than to have such a “good death.”

I may be speaking for myself here, but I can’t budge from the temptation towards wildness because it's a part of me. Perhaps God has placed such a wildness in me, or perhaps I am inclined towards such dispositions. Either way, this wildness can be used for good or for ill. When our wildness takes the place of holiness, similar to how Tristan allowed wildness to take control in Legends of the Fall, then renovation needs to be done. I believe that God is wild himself, and that he matches our rebellious wildness with his own holy wildness. 

“Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:3)

“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” (Gen. 32:24-25)

Did God quietly come to Job or Jacob requesting a quiet, civil chat over tea? Did he mind their feelings? 

God's not afraid to offend us:

“Go, and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 
Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.” (Isa. 6:9-10)

“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” (Matt. 21:12)

“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 9:41)

And how did people respond to Jesus’ offensiveness?

“When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” (Luke 4:28-29)

What about us? Will we let God’s offensiveness drive us to despise him? 

Are we prepared to spiritually wrestle with God?

The important thing about God’s offensiveness is that it never offends our identity; God only offends us for our benefit. He rightly targets those aspects of ourselves that is against his will and provokes them, dislodges them so that they'll rise to the surface. That way, we may hopefully see our faults and let God renovate us. 

Throughout wrestling with the things in ourselves that go against God’s will, we may feel like God is our enemy. I can imagine that Jacob’a confusion over his mysterious adversary was soon trumped by irritation after the wrestling match continued throughout the night, especially when his hip popped out of joint. And dont you think the moneychangers were offended by the toppling of their tables?  

We all have the choice to either reflect God's offensive ways, or bury it so it can incubate bitterness towards him. Did some of the moneychangers rethink their misguided establishment in the temple? We don’t know, but it’s possible. Did Jacob complain and hold a grudge against God because he hurt his hip? I doubt it (In fact, Jacob got blessed by God because of it; Gen. 32:29b). Did Job continue to pridefully assert his righteousness before God? Certainly not (see Job 42:2-3).

When we accept that God loves us and provokes the thorns in us only to remove them, we can begin to accept God’s renovation, which ultimately comes from thwarting and wrestling. It requires effort. God is not a comfortable little hobby, but a wild God who thwarts all selfish desires within us--and thwarting is not pleasant. God’s wildness should never fill us with fear because it will always be exactly what we need and it will come precisely when it's needed. No matter how uncomfortable it is to spiritually wrestle with God, it’s a reality in this world of sin. It's time to surrender and let God get his hands dirty in his ever-present chore of making us holy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Outdoorsman's Diary: Disc Golf and the Faith of Throwing

The snow is surely melting here in Minnesota, and as the sun destroys the towering banks aside the roads, I begin dreaming of my favorite sport: disc golf. The confident flight of a small circle of plastic is a sight I can’t turn away from. As Spring nears, I begin mapping out the holes on my favorite courses, imagining myself throwing professional-level throws through the fields and forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

I sincerely envy those in the South, who get to play disc golf all year long. Of course, I’ve stubbornly played here in the winter months, only to spend more time searching in knee-deep snow for buried discs than actually advancing down the course. It may be crossing the line as a Minnesotan, but sometimes I do enjoy a brown Christmas because that means more time throwing discs (then again, snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing, and winter camping would be left out...).

Despite how some pull corny life and spiritual lessons from their favorite sports, I find value in corny lessons that ring true. In ball golf, for instance, the grip of the golf club is perhaps the most important element if one wishes to achieve a good game, and so the devotional for golfers, written by Jim Sheard and Scott Lehman, is aptly named, “The Master’s Grip.” 

If it’s true, who cares if it’s corny?

I would say disc golf is riddled with life lessons, especially those that relate to living with an unpredictable God. The numerous elements that impact the flight of the disc is enough to make one pray for a miraculous throw. Despite the necessary training and skill required to make expert disc throws, there still remains a degree of luck on the disc golf course, and many throws are done out sheer chance due to thick undergrowth or tight fairways where tree trunks host an unforgiving path. It may get aggravating at times, but these hindrances make this sport fun. There is something exhilarating about throwing a disc out of faith, hoping to make an average shot look professional as it weaves through obstacles. Sometimes I think discs have minds of their own.

As we maneuver through the choices in our life, we may feel like we are throwing a disc out of faith. We can’t see a clearcut path to where we want to be, and all the difficult choices only make it harder to take a confident step forward. Sometimes we see a wide open path, and confidently throw ourselves through it, only to have a crosswind destroy its glorious flight. 

No matter what obstacles or unknown forces that life insists on placing before us, we know that God is the holder of the cards. Even though deciding on life’s choices can resemble blindly throwing a disc in the brush, God is wise and able enough to make our throws weave through obstacles. Sometimes our discs will crash through branches and prematurely fall to the ground, but perhaps our chosen paths are not what God desires for us. 

Like the disc golf course, life hosts obstacles and difficult decisions, and no matter how much skill we have, or think we have, it is ultimately God that helps us. He helps us practice and train, but he also helps us in ways unknown to us. Sometimes we think we get lucky, but I believe using the term, “lucky,” is only an opportunity to avoid crediting God. We must continue to throw ourselves down the path--or fairway--and have faith that God will direct us, no matter how frightening the obstacles may be.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Morning Visit (Part 1)

        The bacon was perfect, the eggs were fluffy, and the hash browns were tenderly warm and encased in brown crispness. Everything was seasoned to his liking, and nothing was out of place. His coffee sat on the end table to his right, tickling his nose with it’s aromatic steam. 
        He grabbed a slice of bacon and ripped off a mouthful. He then delicately grabbed his mug and introduced the coffee to the bacon. The salty taste of the bacon intermingled with the bitter liquid in a pleasant marriage. 
        He closed his eyes and wallowed in the atmosphere of the morning. It was a good day, and nothing interruptive nor bothersome would be allowed to dampen the mood.
        Then came the knocks on the door. 
        After the first rap, his body tensed with surprise, but after the continued knocks of the second and third raps, his body began to cramp.
        “I’m not home!” He made no effort to sound decorous. He shoved a spoonful of hash browns down without tasting it. 
        “Oh, of course you’re not!” Replied a man’s voice beyond the door. “To whom am I speaking, then? A phantom?” 
        “What do you want?”
        “I want to visit. Can I enter, Miles?”    
        Miles looked at the door with a quizzical look. “How do you know my name? Who are you?”
        “I am someone you can trust, and I know your name because I can be trusted.”
        He couldn’t follow the logic, nor did he care to try. “Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong house.”
        “I don’t make mistakes, Miles! I am at the right house at the right time to see the right person--you.”
        “Well, you interrupted my breakfast! That is not the right time.”
        “I wouldn't say that I interrupted,” the voice said. “I came to join you in eating breakfast.” 
        How presumptuous! 
        “Join me? The nerve!” Miles bemoaned.
        “Did you make enough bacon for me? I can smell it, and boy, do I like bacon!”
        Miles glared at the door. “All out of bacon, sorry. Looks like you’ll have to go.”
        After a lengthy pause, Miles began to think that the Annoyance at the door had left. He sighed and slightly relaxed his shoulders, which had still been tight since the Annoyance knocked. He ate a spoonful of eggs and forced a smile.
        Now...where was I....
        “Enough of this!” Shouted the Annoyance, who was still very present.
        The door burst open before Miles could break his contrived smile, and with such a nonplussed look he stared at the open door where the Annoyance stood silhouetted against the morning sunlight. 
        The door was locked. He broke it!
        “How dare you!” Miles yelled. “That’ll cost you.”
        “Cost me what? The door?” He inspected the door and lock. “Nothing’s broken.”
        “Yup. Now, may I come in?”
        “No! I told you already. How do you think I’ll let you in after breaking my door?”
        “I didn’t break it, and don’t worry, I won’t step on any toes.”
        “You’re already stepping on them," Miles complained. “Besides, what can you possibly offer me in return for your visit, anyway?”
        “What do you mean? Can I not simply want to visit? Must I offer something in return? Since when is a visit not a form of payment?”
        “You must have some motive.”
        “Well....” The Annoyance began. “I am here for one reason.”
        “Ha! I knew it! Ulterior motives.”
        “No. Please, let me explain.” 
        Miles raised his eyebrows.
        The Annoyance took a breath. “You need me.”
        “Excuse me? Does it look like I need you?” Miles waved his hand, pointing haphazardly around his home. 
        “Well, yes, actually.”
        “How dare you and your presumptuous insistence! I don’t need you--I don’t need anyone. Get out of my house!”
        “I’m not in your house yet, and in time, you will see that you do need me.”
        When Miles kept silent, the Annoyance continued his plea. “OK. How about I visit for a little while,” he glanced at the clock, “‘til 8, and then if you still want me gone, I will be gone forever.”
        “Deal! If that’s what it will take to be rid of you.” 
        “All-righty!” The Annoyance cheered. 
        He reached down and picked up a suitcase that was previously out of Miles’s sight and stormed in.
        “Make yourself at home.” Miles said sarcastically.
        “Why, thank you!” The Annoyance exclaimed. “I will.”
        “No! I meant....Oh, never mind.” 
        “Sounds good.”
        The Annoyance placed his suitcase on the kitchen counter, and began rummaging through the cupboards. “Where are your plates?”
        “The one to the left of the sink.” Miles said.
        “Thank you.” He opened it and sifted through the assortment of plates.
        “Just pick one!”
        “I’ve got to find just the right one. It affects the taste.”     
        Miles exhaled loudly and glanced down at his plate. There was a fly dancing on his eggs, and the bacon was now dry and looked quite unappetizing. The ketchup in the hash browns had lost its luster and it made the mix look like cat vomit. 
        His breakfast was now lost to the decay of intrusion.
        “It’s still good, just stir it up a bit.” The Annoyance said before he plopped down next to Miles on the couch.
        Miles eyed him closely while he shoveled up a spoonful of eggs. The man’s face resembled a clown without makeup. His protruding cheeks, round nose, enormous lips and brambly hair made him look deranged. If it wasn’t for his tainted mood, Miles would have burst out laughing at such an appearance.
        “So...what’s your name?” 
        “Your last name?”
        Smith bit into a slice of bacon. “Both.”
        Miles squinted. “You’re name is ‘Smith Smith’? Really?”
        He smiled, a bit of egg hanging from his upper lip. “Well, it’s ‘Smith S. Smith.’”
        “Let me guess, your middle name is ‘Smith,’ as well?”  
        “Nope. It’s Steve.”
        “Oh I thought for sure it would be--”
        “--No! Just kidding. It is ‘Smith’! You were right; how’d you know?”
        “Lucky guess.”
        Smith smiled. “Most people call me ‘Smith,’ though.”
        Smith continued tearing into his food. He bit into the bacon and then stopped suddenly. He took it out of his mouth and examined it before meticulously tearing off a chewy, fatty segment.
        “Yucky fat.” Smith replied in response to Miles’s confused look.
        “It is fat. That’s what bacon is.”
        “Yes, but it must be cooked, not raw. Want me to teach you how to cook it?”
        Miles stared at Smith’s food with envy. Those were his seconds, and now a guy named Smith Smith Smith was chowing them down right in front of him. 
        What a morning!
        Miles stood up to throw his breakfast away. 
        He was about to lift the lid to the trash can when Smith reminded, “I told you it was still good!”
        “Nope.” Miles opened the lid and swiped the food into the abyss. 
        Even the trash has had its breakfast.
        Still hungry, he went to the fridge and took out more eggs and bacon to remake his meal. He decided to skip the hash browns this time since the sight of the “cat vomit” deterred him from giving them a second chance. 
        He turned the stovetop on and went to the countertop to prepare the eggs. It was then that he was reminded of the suitcase’s presence, which had overwhelmed all available counter space.
        “Smith, why do you need this?” Miles said, pointing to the suitcase. 
        “You never know!” Smith said without taking his attention away from his hash browns.
        Of course. The ever-ready traveller. 
        The sunlight continued to shine through the window with it’s golden warmth, but Miles was no longer basking in it. He mundanely remade his breakfast and sat down at the table, away from Smith, with his eggs and bacon. He never even took a cursory glance at Smith. 
        From the couch, Smith sat in silence after he had finished his breakfast. He watched Miles swallow his last mouthful, and asked him, “So, now what do we do?”
        “I don’t know. You tell me.” Miles said without looking at him. 
        Smith jumped up from the couch and ran to his suitcase. “I thought you would never ask!” 
        His sudden move and alarmingly curious statement made Miles nervous, and he turned to watch him. 
        “What are you doing?” He asked.
        Smith didn’t reply. He opened his suitcase and smiled after looking inside. He then looked up at Miles with an overjoyed smile that creeped Miles out. “I thought you would never ask.” He repeated.
        Miles regretted letting Smith Smith Smith into his home. His morning was ruined, but little did Miles know that his whole life would shortly be ruined as well.

-------------------> Read Part 2 Here! <---------------------