Sunday, September 27, 2009

Naive Attempts at Joy

Phil. 3 1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you...

Phil. 4 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

I give in. I want to write original thoughts on this blog, but I repeatedly spend my entire week meditating on the truths of Scripture presented during this current sermon series on Philippians. In today's sermon, our pastor shamelessly repeated insight offered by Tim Keller on our naive attempts at joy and how they fall short repeatedly to what Scripture offers us in terms of true joy. After very insightful analysis of our attempts to find joy and why they repeatedly fail us, I was ready for the answer--rejoice IN THE LORD. Meditate all day every day (you can never think on it enough) on the depth of who Christ is and what He has accomplished for us on the cross. If you ever think you've plumbed the depths of Christ and need to think on something else, you have set yourself up for joyless living. And there is no way back except focused meditation on Christ, His life, the cross, His resurrection, the spiritual benefits secured for us for eternity by His life and death (Ephesians 1) and so forth.

I found the sermon's analysis of our primary and secondary attempts at joy particularly insightful. It nailed me (and most everyone else I know). It certainly nailed the culture in which I live in the pacific northwest. Here is a summary.

First, we have all had fleeting moments of joy. We know it exists. But its fleeting nature leads us to two responses. For some, we do whatever we can to reproduce it. In more traditional cultures, we embrace the roles we think we are supposed to fulfil believing that doing those roles well will bring us joy. In more progressive cultures, we reject roles and seek to do whatever we desire. I'm not talking about debauchery, but about serious attempts to find ourselves, our individuality, and so forth by pursuing whatever personal goals we think will give our lives meaning and joy. Both fail us. We may have moments of fleeting joy, enough to whet our appetites and tease us knowing there must be better, but never enough to satisfy. Then comes our secondary attempts at joy. Traditionalists may reject their traditions. Doing what society expected didn't bring me joy so screw them! I'm going to find my own way, do what I want. And sometimes, those pursuing the progressive mindset of finding their own path will switch to more traditional roles with equal futility. But the most destructive secondary strategy of all is this--we resort to cynicism. You want joy. Life constantly disappoints. Growing up means you finally accept that joy is an elusive fleeting feeling subject to hormones and stress. It isn't real and only uninitiated fools still try to find it in life. These are the people who slowly decay inside, becoming harder and harder because that's the only way they know to deal with the bitter disappointments of life.

But there is another way, radically different from all strategies discussed above. First, this way believes that joy is real and available. It isn't putting on a happy face, but a real, deep, hopeful peace that perseveres even when you are in jail about to be put to death for your faith in Christ, trying to encourage those worried about you, watching your life work at various stages of disarray (as the author of Philippians was at this moment). And this joy is found in one singular place. In the Lord.

Now "in the Lord" is a simple prepositional phrase. But it's a loaded statement. It's a deep, profound concept. And if you know the phrase but are unfamiliar with the joy Paul says is available in that phrase, I encourage you in several ways.

1) Meditate on Ephesians 1. Paul gives a succinct summary here of the depths of our spiritual blessings in the Lord.

2) Take a couple of months in your devotions to read through the gospels. Remember that this joy is singularly available in Christ. Park on Him for a while. Pray that God would connect all that you have IN THE LORD with this sustaining hopeful peace called joy in your life.

Joy is available. But only in one place.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

God's Good Undershepherds

Phil. 2 19I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. 21For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

25But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.

I hope I don't seem like a broken record repeatedly recommending sermons. But the Lord has used this particular sermon series from Philippians to draw me to Himself again and again. In this sermon from Phil. 2, the pastor deals with the characteristics of good shepherds, those leaders in our lives serving under the One Good Shepherd ministering His gospel to us. First, he points out how we all long for spiritual parents to speak into our lives. No one's problem is that they don't want guidance. No one wants to be an orphan. The problem is that we've been burned by leaders and therefore we don't know who to trust and then close ourselves off to our need for someone to speak into our lives. Pastor Haralson makes two good points here. First, God's good undershepherds are recognized by their humility, not their giftedness. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Beware the shepherd whose personal burdens and needs drive the agenda or eclipse the needs of the sheep. When the needs of the sheep must submit to the needs of the shepherd, this is not leadership like Christ (or Paul or Timothy or Epaphroditis). Second, when God has brought the humble undershepherd into your life, like Paul's words of Epaphroditus, welcome them with joy and receive them with honor. The imperfect but humble undershepherd still exists! God didn't abandon us to only poor leaders after Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus passed on. And it is to our BENEFIT not detriment to receive them and honor them in the name of Christ.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning Obedience through Suffering

Hebrews 5: 8 Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.

I don't think there is a more perplexing verse in Scripture than this. Jesus was sinless and perfect. How did He LEARN obedience?! But for this post, I want to put aside questions that deal with the interplay of His humanity and divinity and instead focus on the simple idea of learning obedience through suffering. What does this verse indicate to us about the interplay of suffering with God's sanctification in our lives? In Hebrews 5, Scripture just briefly touches on this idea. But in Hebrews 12, we get a deeper look.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

I've mentioned in earlier posts the encouragement I receive from this cloud of witnesses. There are the Biblical witnesses listed in Hebrews 11. But I can add some modern ones that encourage me as well. Joni Eareckson Tada, Corrie Ten Boom, Elizabeth Eliott ... . What is it about these ladies that has set them apart for peculiar ministry and makes them effective witnesses from the sidelines of the character and worth of God? No one wants to say it, but it is their suffering. Joni Eareckson Tada has had a lifetime of physical suffering. The tragic murder of Elizabeth Eliott's husband set the stage for her ministry. And Corrie Ten Boom is known for the shame and betrayal she endured at the hands of so called Christians for her compassion toward Jews in the holocaust. Suffering. Pain. Betrayal. And sometimes that betrayal seemed to come from God Himself.

3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives."

Do not regard lightly God's discipline. Do not be weary when He rebukes and chastens you. Remember first that God's discipline is not punishment. It's not that you stupidly missed some lesson He was trying to teach you the easy way. If I've heard it once I've heard it a 100 times from friends going through trials--"I just wish I could learn whatever God was trying to teach me so that He could stop this situation." And they wrestle in frustration trying to figure out what magic action or attitude from them will suddenly release them from their struggle. But that misses the entire point of discipline, God's proactive training in righteousness. He's killing in us our affection for this world and its attractions. He's preparing us for eternity. But though we want the physical stamina to be ready to run the triathalon, we don't want to learn endurance through long runs day after day after day. But there is no other way to learn endurance. If you want Christian maturity, there is no other way to learn it. You must suffer. You must endure. You must experience the testing of your faith for the long haul. I submit that there is no other way to become conformed to the image of Christ.

7It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

You are enduring for the sake of discipline, i. e. training in righteousness. And God does this for ALL His children. Don't envy those who seem to not be enduring hardship. I won't draw too much in the way of conclusions from this verse on the fate of those who seem to have it easy, but suffice it to say, God disciplines ALL His true children.

9Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

That we may share in His holiness! We are conformed to the image of Christ through suffering and the endurance of discipline. There is something about the exposure of sin and lack of faith that can ONLY come through extended suffering. God exposes to us parts of our character and shows His adequacies in comparison to our complete inadequacies in a way we can never get through success or accolades or times of plenty.

11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

The peaceful fruit of righteousness. I want that. This is why we shouldn't despise painful times of endurance--LATER it will yield the beautiful golden fruit of enduring peace based on authentic righteousness. How wonderful! That is the best of fruits indeed.

If you are in a season of suffering and endurance, here is my encouragement.

1) Look to Jesus. Every moment of every day when the mental battles threaten to crush you, think on Jesus. This world is not your home. Jesus is your Bridegroom, and He looks on you with love, mercy, and grace in your time of need. Think of Him ministering to the woman at the well. Reread the story of His love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus or His rebuke of the accusers of Mary Magdalene. Hang on to Him mentally, and do not let go!

2) Do not DESPISE God's discipline. Recognize it for what it is--not God's punishment of you, but His training of you which ALL His children must participate in.

2) Open your hands in acceptance and ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE TRAINED BY IT. For me, this acceptance isn't a one time thing. I have to weekly (or daily) literally open my hands to God and accept those things He has allowed into my life to train me in righteousness.

3) Then get up and go forward. The end of this section of Hebrews words it much better than I ever could.

12Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

Some people don't want to hear this. They can't handle the truth. But if you would like to read more from authors who get this truth, I recommend The Path of Loneliness by Elisabeth Elliot and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sick and Tired

I am pretty sick. I have an infection that is not responding (at least not yet) to antibiotics. I have never felt quite this much pain. Thankfully, I have a very attentive doctor and a clinic with Saturday and evening hours and health insurance. Nothing like going through something like this to make you thankful for what you have. I'm also learning some things. I'm learning to let go of what I can't control. I'm learning that even though my husband's standard of house organization isn't the same as mine, I need to be very thankful (instead of grumbling that the recycling hasn't been emptied) for all he gives to let me be sick in peace. I'm also blessed today to realize that I had not one, but two sets of friends willing to take my kids for the day so I could just rest. The friend who watched my boys today sent them home with a meal for me tonight. What a beautiful gift through Christian community! I really felt loved both by God and my sisters in Christ. It's amazing all that one act of sacrificial service to another in the Body of Christ can communicate about God's love and the gospel to someone who is suffering.

So that's what I'm learning and the ways God is giving me grace through this. On the other side, I am in a good bit of pain and don't seem to be responding to those things that should be helping. I appreciate the prayers of the readers of this blog. If you are one who lifts up others in prayer to God, please add my name to your list.


Monday, September 07, 2009

What's the opposite of grumbling?

Our church is going through a series on Philippians. Last week, our pastor preached on "do all things without grumbling and questioning" from Philippians 2. Having been raised in the church, I've heard a number of sermons on this passage that amount to the pastor (or college president or missions leader) bludgeoning the listeners over the head with the verse because someone dared to question some decision he made. But this week, I heard this verse preached in context of the whole message of Philippians and really in context of the whole message of the Bible. My pastor's gospel-centered look at this verse this week resulted in a profoundly different response from me. I have actually listened to this sermon three times and replayed parts of it even more. In a brief 26 minutes, God spoke to me through His word in profound ways.

If you are struggling with a loss or lack in your life and tired of the weak Christian response of just buck it up or count your blessings, please listen to this sermon. I can't recommend it highly enough.