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Friday, June 26, 2020

Freedom

The freedom of adults

    Thinking about freedom as the Fourth of July approaches. Wondering who has greater freedom, children or adults? Most kids would say grown-ups do. They can go wherever they want to, whenever they want to. They can spend their money any way they choose. They can stay up late and watch whatever TV shows and movies they like best. They can tell their children what to do and enforce obedience.

    Most adults would say we do. We can choose our careers and employers and spouses. We can decide which house to buy or which apartment to rent. We can move to any part of the country or the world. We can buy the clothes that we like and the car that fits our wants and needs. We can determine what and when and where to eat. We can vote.

    But those freedoms are far more limited than I ever thought they would be as I was growing up. Even if I’m able to get a college degree, I might not find a job in my field. The man I fall in love with might not love me back. I might not have the money to move where I want to or to buy the house or car that I’ve got my eye on. And do I really have that many options in voting?

The freedom of children

    What did Jesus mean when He said to become like little children? I’ve always heard that He meant to have a childlike trust in God. But maybe another way to look at it includes relishing the freedom that childhood brings.

    In some ways, children have more freedom than adults do. Kids are free to live in a house that someone else has provided. They don’t have to do the math to figure out whether they can afford it, or decide when it’s time to replace a worn-out appliance, or oversee the cooking and cleaning and yard work.

    Children are free to eat the food that someone else has purchased and prepared. They don’t have to make sure they have the ingredients and the pans and the dishes and the skills and the time and the money to put that meal on the table.

    Children don’t have to plan for their futures yet. They have a natural trust in the adults who care for them that frees them from anxiety and worry. They don’t have to go looking for love—it’s right there in their homes.

    The younger the child, the more freedom they enjoy in expressing their emotions. As we grow older, we learn more appropriate behavior, more self-control, more restraint. A baby cries vigorously when he’s hungry or wet or tired. If a three-year-old is equally dramatic, we call it a tantrum, an unacceptable form of expression.

    Children are free from the anxiety and stress of having to be the strong one in the family. When my friend’s marriage ended due to her husband’s adultery, she felt an intense pressure to be strong for their kids. She didn’t have the freedom to pour out her grief, her bitterness, her pain to the same degree that they did. She knew they needed to be able to vent all their emotions to her, including their anger and disappointment for any mistakes that she might have made in the marriage. But it wasn’t a two-way street.

Becoming a little child

    Can I become like a little child in God’s eyes in the sense of experiencing the freedoms of childhood? I have some responsibilities for meeting my own needs and ministering to others, but do I take on more burdens than He intends for me to bear?

    Just as adults provide the necessities for their children, God cares enough to meet my daily needs (Matthew 6). I have a part in making that happen, in the same sense that children often contribute to the household in whatever little ways they can. But I can be free from the anxiety of worrying about tomorrow.

    I don’t have to go looking for love, the way young adults search for a life-long romantic relationship. I’m free to rest in the joy of knowing the surpassing love of Christ. It’s with me wherever I go, whatever I do.

    I can express my emotions freely with God. This is a tough one. I began learning from a very early age when and where venting is inappropriate. But is it ever inappropriate with God? Evangelically-correct believers often say yes. The Israelites complained to Moses when they ran out of water on the way to the Promised Land. Their grumbling was described as testing the Lord (Exodus 17:1-7). Therefore we should never complain.

    But God knows our thoughts and our hearts. If I’m feeling secretly resentful about the conditions in my life, I can never hide that from Him, no matter how hard I try. I can pour it out freely to Him, as a child voices his disappointments and fears and anger and everything else to a trusted parent.

    If I’m truly abiding in Christ as I do this, I’ll learn and grow from the experience. My emotions themselves will mature. I’ll become less susceptible to disappointment and fear and unhappiness. But as long as I’m living in this body, I have the freedom to bring all my cares and feelings to Him. As Sam Williamson writes, “God rebukes Israel for grumbling to each other, but he actually gives us words in the Psalms to say those same thoughts to him.”

    I have the freedom to be weak. I don’t have to be the strong one who has all the answers, who makes all the right decisions, who takes charge in difficult situations. God can handle that. I have the responsibility to do my best to follow His leading, but He is so much stronger and wiser than I will ever be.

    I am a child in relation to God. As my parents cared for me when I was young and bore the weight that was too heavy for me, so my heavenly Father provides for me and frees me from the responsibilities that I can’t handle. I still have to carry the part of the load that belongs to me, but Jesus says that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). My tendency is to magnify that burden with anxiety and self-importance, instead of resting in His assurance that the truth will set me free, and that in Him I can be free indeed (John 8:32, 36).

Friday, June 5, 2020

Sing Unto the Lord a New Song

Two songs, two styles

    Sang two songs back-to-back in virtual church on Sunday: “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).” “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is all about God. His faithfulness, His unchanging nature, His compassion, His eternal nature, His mercy, His provision, His love, His forgiveness, His peace, His presence, His cheer, His guidance, His strength, His hope, His blessings. This faithfulness is “unto me,” so the song has a personal application. But the main focus is on God, not on us.

    Then there’s “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).” For the first three stanzas, I’m mainly singing about myself. I bless the Lord, I worship, I sing. There’s only one mention of God’s character—He’s holy. It’s not until the fourth stanza that we sing about any of His other attributes: His rich love, His slowness to anger, His kindness, His goodness. The words say more about me than about Him. Is this really worship?

    In “Changing Churches,” I wrote about the struggles seniors face today as the songs they know and love are being replaced and forgotten. I freely admit to my preference for the old hymns, but it’s not just an unfounded bias or my discomfort with change (which I also freely admit to). I have a real concern about what we’re communicating. Are we here to glorify God for all of who He is, or only for what He does for me? This issue becomes even more urgent in times of nationwide suffering, as with the devastation caused by the current pandemic.

    And yet, some of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) that we’ve used in church in recent years has had a powerful impact on me. Much as I’d sometimes like to, I can’t just rant about going back to the good old ways from the good old days. I’ve been forced to recognize that there is a time and a place and a purpose for most CCM, including “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).”

    The book of Psalms is a compilation of songs and prayers that the Jewish people have used in worship for thousands of years. While many of them provide a more in-depth description of who God is and what He’s done (like “Great is Thy Faithfulness”), some of them simply voice the worshippers’ awe and joy as we praise Him, without providing details about His character (like “10,000 Reasons”). God chose to include both kinds in His authoritative Word. And all of them come from a deeply personal perspective, which is more common in CCM than in the old hymns.

The ministry of the hymns

    During my first depressive episode many years ago, the theology presented in the hymns was crucial to keeping me strong enough to resist the draw of suicide. I needed to know who this God is that I was depending on to see me through. I needed to know the richness and depth of His character. I needed to know that He transcends all my understanding and all my expectations. I needed to know that He has a greater purpose that goes far beyond my little life, even as He treasures and watches over that little life. Then I could know that He is big enough and powerful enough to handle something as dark and scary as suicidal depression.

    Putting this theology to music added a dimension that’s missing in the spoken or written word alone. I was often so moved by the lyrics and the melody combined that I couldn’t sing for the lump in my throat. I grew in strength and in my relationship with God as a direct result of those hymns. Today, in the crisis triggered by the coronavirus outbreak, we need this kind of strengthening.

The ministry of CCM

    Yet at the same time, I was listening to the CCM of the day on Christian radio. It ministered to me in a different way. It wasn’t as heavy on theology, which is probably why we weren’t using it in church, but it expressed much of what I was struggling with and helped me to work through it. Another source of growth.

    Fast forward to more recent years. We first sang the CCM song “Jesus Draw Me Ever Nearer” shortly after I’d been blindsided by the situation that I described in “Wounded by God.” God seemed so far away. My greatest need was for Him to draw me nearer and nearer. I wasn’t getting there by my own efforts or through the usual Sunday morning worship. Suddenly, with these words, with this song, I had a much-needed breakthrough.

    The opening verse of “Jesus Draw Me Ever Nearer” created a vivid mental image of being lost and alone in the middle of nowhere during a torrential downpour. That’s how I was feeling when the pastor introduced it. That’s how many are feeling today. It reminded me that, even for a Christian, sometimes life is hard work. Sometimes we have to “labor through the storm,” and it’s okay for us to admit that. The evangelically correct tend to deny it.

    Like many of the psalms, this song is a prayer. It’s a means of pouring out our souls to God in pain and supplication. It confirms that my heart’s testing will continue right up to the moment that I die. It’s not a request for relief from the struggles, but a desire for His presence and my growth as they continue. The theology of suffering, the crying out in sorrow, the pleading for His help and guidance—all set to music that amplifies their message—met my need better than any of the words I’d been trying to come up with on my own.

    A few weeks later, we sang “Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)” for the first time. It starts off with a calm and easy reflection on God as our Light and Sword and Shield, along with the question, “Whom shall I fear?,” repeated for emphasis.

    Then it bursts into the confident declaration that I’m surrounded on all sides by God’s presence and His armies of angels. The melody powerfully supports the message, communicating certainty and strength. At that point, at that time, I desperately needed to be reminded of that strength. Many people need that same reminder right now.

    In His wisdom and grace, God used these two CCM songs to comfort and sustain me in a special way. But even after all these years of thinking and praying through the issues in the “worship wars,” I still struggle with the conflict between the older hymns and the newer “praise and worship” songs. I struggle with that label, because praise and worship should be God-centered and God-focused, and so often the lyrics are more about me than they are about Him.

    Yet He can obviously use even our flawed attempts at glorifying Him through music. (Has any song sung in any church ever been perfect?) No matter how much I’m tempted to grumble and criticize on the outside, deep down inside I’m truly thankful for both hymns and CCM, and for the ways that they’ve both helped me to grow in Christ over the years. I pray that they would both continue to minister to worshipers around the world as we labor through the storms brought on by COVID-19.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Granting Grace

Admitting my ignorance

    Several months ago, a life-changing thought came to me: I don’t know it all. I can’t keep up with the enormous amount of information being produced every day, every hour, every minute. Therefore, I don’t have to have an opinion on every controversial issue, major and minor, that’s tearing our country apart. Living in a democracy, it’s important for me to learn enough to vote wisely and to speak up or take action when God leads me to do so. But I can’t have a well-informed, up-to-date, rock-solid knowledge of every single subject. My human mind is far too limited for that.

    That little thought was so liberating! As an American who has the right to vote, the right to speak freely, the right to protest against my own government, I’ve grown up in a world where I’ve felt pressured by others, and by myself, to know all the pros and cons in every situation so that I can make a fully informed choice.

    But I don’t have to do that. I can listen compassionately and with a biblical mindset to different viewpoints and, when appropriate, say, “I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. I can see the good and the bad on both sides.” The pressure is off.

    I’m thankful that that thought came when it did. I’ve had several months to apply it, to retrain my thinking, to refrain from making judgments in certain situations. To be comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.”

Facing issues raised by the pandemic

    Then came the coronavirus pandemic. How am I to live in this nation of “stay at home” supporters vs. “reopen the country” rebels? As usual I can see both sides. I don’t want my loved ones who are vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 to be recklessly exposed to it. Therefore, everyone should stay home.

    But that’s leading to increased poverty, increased scarcity, and increased hunger. It’s leading to an increase in mental health issues even among those who have never struggled with them before. It’s likely to lead to increased deaths from suicide and untreated medical issues. Therefore, everyone should be free to go where they please.

    Which side do I stand on? Neither one. Now more than ever I realize how little I am capable of knowing what’s best for all concerned. Our world hasn’t seen anything like this for more than a century. No one can look at past experience and state with certainty what will work and what will only make it worse.

    So what am I, as a Christian attempting to follow God’s ways, supposed to do?

Granting grace to others

    Grace is the key. As God offered grace to me by sending His Son to die for my sins, I can offer grace to others.

    Locally, I can treat those I encounter every day with dignity and respect. I can wear a mask and maintain a six-foot distance when I’m out in public. I can graciously listen as others express their fears and doubts and anger and opinions without having to inject my own point of view.

    I can reach out to friends via email, text, or phone. I can be mindful of those who are alone or who have been through a recent loss or trauma. I can pray for people I know who are having an especially difficult time with the current restrictions. As I walk through my neighborhood, I can greet others cheerfully, pausing and talking to the ones I know and the ones I don’t know yet, rather than hurrying home to attack the next item on my to-do list.

    On a larger scale, I can pray for God’s grace and peace and comfort for the millions affected by this pandemic. Those who are hospitalized by the coronavirus. Their caregivers. Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The newly unemployed. Those suffering from addiction and other mental health issues. Those who are unable to leave a care center or prison as the illness runs rampant through the buildings. Those who are homebound with an abuser. Those who are seeking spiritual answers in their fear and uncertainty—that they would find the truth in Christ.

    But the most important lesson that I’ve learned from my earlier thought is that I can extend grace to those who have the fearful responsibility of making the decisions that will determine who lives and who dies. Whatever road we follow, whether it’s requiring everyone to continue staying at home or allowing everyone greater freedom, people will die as a direct result. I don’t have to agree with my leaders’ politics or personalities. I don’t have to support their campaigns or overlook their faults.

    But I can graciously obey the orders that apply to me, thanking God that I’m not the one who has to bear the terrible burden of giving those orders (Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1-2, Hebrews 13:17). If I feel led to question them, I can graciously contact those in leadership and present my concerns with humility and gentleness. When talking to others, I can graciously refuse to tear down those in positions of power who will have to live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of every decision that they make. I can graciously assume that they’re concerned about doing what’s best for the country, even when two different politicians present two completely opposite solutions for how to do that. By God’s grace I can pray for them to do what’s best, and trust Him to answer my prayers.

    Yes, I sometimes need to speak up or resist when wrong is being done and abuse is occurring. Yes, there is a time and a place to express my opinion about the issues facing my country. But maybe, just maybe, a better option right now is to admit how little I know about handling a pandemic and to extend grace to those around me and to the politicians who face a complicated and deadly situation, whose decisions will lead to the loss of lives no matter what they do, who bear a burden as heavy as any load that any leader has carried in many years.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed

    Jeremiah’s emotional observation of Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Babylonians: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1). My mind instantly lights up with vivid news images of the empty American streets as we attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

    The only word I can think of to describe this time that we’re living in is “overwhelming.” The changes have some so quickly, so suddenly, and struck so deeply at every aspect of our lives. We don’t have time to process one change before another one comes along. Like being hit by an enormous wave before we’ve recovered from the effects of the last one. And we don’t know what the future holds once the worst of the pandemic passes. How many of those treacherous waves are roaring toward us in the unseen future?

    (The root of the word “overwhelm” is “over the helm.” The helm is the ship’s center of control, so “overwhelm” is a word picture of a massive wave striking in a way that endangers the very control of the ship. Feeling overwhelmed is like that.)

    I sit down to pray and I don’t know where to begin. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the needs and the pain. Lost jobs. Thousands of deaths. Hospitals filled and overfilled with critically ill patients. Shortages of medical equipment and protective gear. The increased risk of violence for vulnerable women and children who are now isolated at home with their abusers. Recovering addicts and those suffering from mental health issues cut off from their sources of support. Prisoners and many seniors unable to leave their close quarters where the virus can quickly spread. Sales of both alcohol and firearms skyrocketing. It’s overwhelming.

Grieving losses

    “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” The barren streets of Jerusalem symbolized the loss of Israel’s most precious community. Not just the location of many of their homes, but of God’s temple. The holiest place in the world. The place where the Lord would meet with His people, accept their sacrifices, forgive their sins. Where they would celebrate with joy in remembrance of all that He had done for them in the past. Where they would find hope for their future.

    Just as our desolate streets symbolize our losses. Our loss of income and prosperity. Our loss of social interaction. Our loss of direction. Even emptiness can be overwhelming.

    After Jerusalem was destroyed, the people were carried off to Babylon in captivity. Thus the vacant streets. They mourned and wailed as they went, and continued after they arrived. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion [Jerusalem]” (Psalm 137:1). The book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s expression of his overwhelming grief for himself and his people.

    We need to grieve as he did. We need to lament our losses, not just as individuals concerned about self, but as members of our families and of our local and national communities. We need to weep over our deserted streets.

Finding hope

    But with all its heavy heartbreak, Lamentations also contains the verses that inspired the comforting hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Who would have thought that one of the most depressing books in the Bible would voice some of the most encouraging words of hope?

    “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:19-23). Jeremiah uses the present tense to describe his remembering and his downcast soul. The bitterness and the gall don’t end when he calls to mind his reason for hope.

    In the same way, even though our streets are empty, even though we continually remember the afflictions, even though our souls remain downcast, we can call to mind our reason for hope. We can adjust our perspective to see, as Jeremiah did, that it is because of God’s great love for us that we are not completely consumed. That our Lord’s compassions never fail. That they are new every morning. That His faithfulness is great.

    It reminds me of Habakkuk 3:7-8: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

    I could understand Habakkuk saying, “Though all these things are happening, yet my faith will not be shaken,” or, “yet I will maintain my hope in the future.” But “I will rejoice in the Lord”? “I will be joyful in God my Savior”? That’s so much harder. So much more unrealistic.

    And yet there it is. Joy in a time of destitution. Rejoicing even though his entire world has fallen apart.

    This is the hope that we have in Jesus. Hope that we can grow into that maturity that has learned how to rejoice in the Lord (not in the circumstances), how to be joyful in God my Savior (not in other people).

    Sometimes I have that joy. Even in these days of feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of it all. Sometimes I can experience the reality that the joy of the Lord is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10, written soon after the exiles had returned to their desolate land).

    But at other times I rest in the comfort of knowing that Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Sometimes the best I can do is endure, knowing that the joy is still before me, that it will come at some future point. And that’s okay, too.

    As an American, I seem to believe that at any given moment I’m either happy or sad, life is either good or bad. That’s how we tend to view the world. But the reality, demonstrated over and over again in the Bible, is that life isn’t always that simple. Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Nehemiah all got this. They all mourned, they all wept, they all struggled to understand how the Lord could allow the suffering that they witnessed and experienced. And yet they expressed their faith in a loving God and their joy in their Savior, even in the full awareness of the pain of their circumstances and the grief in their souls.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Jesus Was Heard

God hears my prayers

    “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus, God the Son, poured out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, begging to be spared the torture of bearing our sins on the cross. Not just once, but three times (Matthew 26:36-44). And He was heard by the one who could save Him from death.

    Doesn’t that imply that He was saved from that death? Anytime someone tells me that God heard their prayer, they always mean that He did what they asked Him to do.

    “My son was suffering from a life-threatening illness, but God heard my prayer and healed him.”

    “I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent, but God heard my prayer and provided the money that I needed.”

    “I really wanted that job that I applied for. God heard my prayer. I got the offer yesterday.”

    Have you ever heard anyone say, “I prayed for God to save my friend’s life. He heard my prayer and said no”? I haven’t.

    That’s why I need this passage from Hebrews. “The one who could save him from death” heard Jesus and denied His request. If God could be so intent on doing what’s absolutely best and right even in the face of desperate pleas from His own Son, maybe I can trust Him to hear me and love me and hurt for me—and still do what’s best and right in every situation. Even when the answer is no.

    God has turned down so many of my appeals for help and healing in the last several years. It can be discouraging. I find myself waiting for the next shoe to drop, hesitating before asking for His intervention, expecting Him to deny every request. That’s my natural response.

    But reading that Jesus was heard restores my weary soul. Sometimes just being heard is a great blessing in itself. Sometimes having someone who listens ministers to me more than having someone who fixes all my problems. Being heard, even without receiving any answers, brings its own strength.

    Jesus was heard. I will be heard. That can be enough.

Even when I fail

    Then I move on to the next statement in the Hebrews passage, “because of his reverent submission.” Uh-oh. Does that mean that I have to be just as reverentially submissive as Jesus was, or God won’t listen to me? That could rule out a lot of answers to my prayers.

    I do my best to accept that He knows better than I do and that He loves me even more than I can imagine. But it will never be possible for me to exhibit the same reverent submission that Jesus displayed. Does that mean that God will close His ears to me? I’ve always had this fear, partly based on this verse, that if I don’t pray just right, God won’t listen to me.

    But now it hits me. Anytime I’m facing the impossible, I have to rely on His grace alone. Jesus had to be perfect in all that He did, including the way He dealt with His coming death, in order to provide an acceptable sacrifice for our sins. Anything less, and there would have been no resurrection. The privilege of bringing my needs to God is based on Jesus’ perfection, His reverent submission, not mine. Even when I’m at my worst, in His grace God will hear me.

And provides the best answers

    It doesn’t seem as obvious to me, but God also answered Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer on Easter Sunday. The gist of His request was that the Father would do whatever needed to be done to provide for our salvation. That’s exactly what He did. It involved an agonizing sacrifice on Jesus’ part, which He had asked to be spared from. But the ultimate result was exactly what Jesus wanted most. The resurrection proved that His sacrifice was exactly what was necessary to accomplish God’s purpose.

    With the toughest prayers that I send up to heaven, I’m usually aware of needing to ask for God’s will, not mine, to be done. (I don’t always remember to attach that thought to my simpler prayers.) But when He says no to my specific request, do I see the less obvious—that He has said yes to a greater good, the good of doing His will to accomplish His purposes?

    I don’t want to sugarcoat the pain here. I don’t want to tell a child that his father died because God needed him in heaven or because life on earth really is better without him, as I’ve heard some Christians say. That’s not the God of the Bible.

    As I try to wrap my mind around the issue of good and evil and suffering, my best understanding is that it was incredibly precious to God to create beings who could freely choose to worship Him or to deny Him. He knew the only way to do that would be to open the door to evil. But He also knew that the good to be accomplished would be far greater than all the evil Satan could muster.

    When bad times come into our lives, God doesn’t just sit up in heaven watching lazily, saying, “No big deal. I’ll make something good happen to balance it out.” No. He feels the grief at least as much as I do. And the anger. He is not indifferent to evil and hardship.

    But He overcomes that evil with good. For every pain and every sorrow, God offers Himself to His children, as Jesus offered Himself on the cross. He comes to us with tenderness and mercy, with kindness and love. He binds up our wounds and cradles us in His everlasting arms. This is the good that comes from, and far outweighs, the suffering.

    In the process, He restores and transforms our lives, as He restored and transformed His Son’s life on that first Easter Sunday. Because we live in a fallen world, a greater good is accomplished as a result of affliction than we could ever experience without it. If we’re praying, as Jesus did, “Not my will but yours,” that prayer will be answered abundantly more than all we could ask or think. The pain will be real. We will fall on our faces and cry out in agony, as Jesus did. But in God’s timing we will be lifted even higher as a result of the ordeal, just as Jesus was.