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Friday, November 30, 2018

Wounded by God

My wall

    Bad news. The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in a precious young loved one. It hits me hard. It takes my breath away. It throws me into a spiritual tailspin. The main impact is feeling like the God that I’ve trusted for years has wounded me deeply.

    I know I need Him now more than ever, so I follow all my usual practices—worshiping, studying His Word, spending time in fellowship with other believers, praying, walking in obedience to Him. But suddenly there’s this wall between us. I throw it up quickly and I build it out of solid materials. I don’t really want it there, but I can’t help feeling incapable of taking any steps to remove it.

    Over time God patiently tears it down. At first, brick by brick. Through new songs in church that express exactly what I need to say and hear. Through deeper insights into His nature and character. Then, suddenly, after three long years, as I’m struggling spiritually with yet another undeserved catastrophe in the same young person’s life, through supernatural, peaceful acceptance that far transcends all my understanding (Philippians 4:7).

My resentment

    This peace comes out of nowhere and it envelops me on a level that I’ve never experienced before. It’s all God’s doing. It’s not denial or psyching myself up in an effort to ease the pain. The pain is still there, but so is the peace. And it lasts. Day after day after day.

    I’m marveling over this unexplainable, unexpected blessing a few weeks later. Praying, thanking God, praising Him for knocking the wall down flat. Then the words enter my mind uninvited, unintended, “Help me to forgive You.”

    Whoa.

    Wait.

    No.

    How could I ever think such a thing? (Is it too late to take it back, God? Can we just pretend You didn’t hear that?)

    Me forgive God? He who is without sin, without the capability of ever doing evil? He who is all good, all wise, all the time? He who is love (1 John 4:8 and 16)? He who sacrificed so much to save us from those filthy, stinking, rotten sins that make our lives so miserable? Me forgive Him? How backward is that?

    And yet that’s how it feels. Like the pain runs so deep that of course He must have done something terrible to me, something wrong, something evil, something that I have a right to either forgive or continue to hold against Him. The god I want to worship wouldn’t do this to me.

    It’s not like I’ve been shaking my fist at God these last three years. I know Him well enough to firmly believe that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). He has touched my heart in some incredible ways since my rebirth. But the sense of being hurt by Someone that I’ve dedicated my life to has permeated my relationship with Him. He’s now bringing me face to face with the fact that I’m still harboring resentment against Him. The bizarre idea that I need to forgive Him.

My toxicity, God's grace

    A post on my favorite website, The Babylon Bee (featuring Christian satire), describes how, after reading some self-help psychology, God realizes that, for His own good, He should set more boundaries and cut ties with toxic influences, which of course means destroying the entire world.

    My response the first time I read it was the recognition that I need to love people with the love of God. I need to stop considering anyone toxic and unworthy of my love and friendship. I’m too quick to judge and too quick to walk away. That’s not what God desires from His people. He sets the standards and provides the example for me to follow.

    But in the midst of this gracious blessing of peace and contentment, glancing again at that headline reminds me of just how holy and perfect and pure God is. When I’d discovered the article, under the surface a little voice in my mind was arguing with the statement that human beings continually choose to rebel against Him. Surely that doesn’t include us Christians. Surely we’re not so bad that we could be considered toxic. Would He really have to destroy the whole world, or only those who refuse to believe in Him?

    Now, with this horrifying thought that I hold God in such low esteem that the restoration of our relationship actually requires my forgiving Him, I know that I am one of those toxic people. Ouch.

    The article reminds me that in my fallen, sinful condition, God’s love for me is pure grace, totally undeserved. That’s hard to believe in a culture that constantly bombards me with the message of my great worth. I’ve been a dedicated, growing Christian for all these years. Surely I’ve earned His respect and love.

    But no. Here I am, unable, even at my best, to offer Him anything but a toxic relationship. And here God is, not destroying me as in the Bee article, not cutting me off anytime I fail, but loving me, blessing me, walking with me, knocking down the wall between us. Forgiving me.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Matrix

The choice

    We’re preparing the family Thanksgiving dinner, four of us ranging in age from about thirty to sixty in the warm kitchen as the others mill around the house, when my niece brings up the subject of The Matrix. It’s a 1990s movie about Neo, an apparent twentieth-century man dissatisfied with life in general. He can’t put a finger on it, but something about the world doesn’t quite seem to fit. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s right.

    Neo’s entire environment, as he sees it, is actually an illusion. He’s living in a futuristic world where machines have taken over the planet. They’ve relegated humans to the status of batteries, providing power for the machines. To keep their captives’ brains occupied, they’ve created “the matrix,” a virtual reality so real that men and women, who are confined to small liquid-filled tubs, believe that they’re walking, talking, working, marrying, living, and dying in contemporary America.

    But a small band of renegades has somehow become free of the matrix and is on a mission to defeat the machines and liberate mankind. Anyone who shows an unusual perception of the incongruities of their lives is contacted by this group. After being presented with a brief explanation of the actual state of affairs, they’re given a choice of two pills. One will allow them to remain in the matrix with no memory of the encounter. The other will release them from their tub to join the fight against the machines. Neo takes the second pill.

    Here on Thanksgiving Day, my niece poses a question: Why would anyone choose to enter a world of suffering and fighting when they could simply continue to live in the unreal world of the matrix? The other two family members agree that they would also remain in their tubs. It seems so obvious to them.

The shock

    I’m stunned. I know the movie emphasizes the difficulty of making the transition from the matrix to the real world, but that’s because the victims have been living in virtual reality for so long. It’s a shock to them to discover that what they’ve always believed to be real isn’t.

    In contrast, we’re discussing the options from a distance. We can see both sides clearly: on the one hand living what appears to be a relatively comfortable life, but is actually an illusion to distract us from our slavery; on the other hand facing reality, as unpleasant as it may be, and fighting for the freedom of people everywhere. Isn’t that one of the things we’re so thankful for on this day—those who’ve fought so we could be free? Sitting in the theater watching the movie for the first time, I’d assumed that everyone in the audience was identifying with Neo and crowd, wanting to be just like them.

    I can be so naive.

    But this is America! Americans, of all people, thrive on freedom, on autonomy, on my right to make my choices about my life. We idolize, as few cultures do, those who free the oppressed. What’s happened to my country? Intelligent, successful Americans are standing here telling me that they would choose to live a meaningless life in slavery to the enemy, supporting an evil empire rather than fighting it, if that involved less suffering than the alternative. How many other Americans feel this way? And what does that mean for our future?

The reality

    In sharp contrast to my family, when a Christian friend and I first saw The Matrix, it triggered an ongoing conversation about the greatest realities in life. Which is the more real, the more permanent world—the physical one or the spiritual? As in the movie, we face a choice. We can deny the greater, spiritual reality and commit our lives to our own comfort and security (take the first pill), or we can serve God and others regardless of the cost (second pill). Which option does the Bible demand of us? Which will have the greatest impact, not just in this life, but for eternity?

    And yet here are three Christian relatives saying they would deny reality rather than face a life of suffering. No apologies, no regrets. To them, it seems like the most logical thing to do. If I’m a bit frightened about the future of our country based on this conversation, I’m even more frightened about the future of Christianity in America. By some standards, my relatives would be considered pretty good Christians. They serve in their evangelical churches, they give generously, they treat others with kindness and respect.

    Sure, they have their shortcomings, but don’t we all? The youngest haven’t followed biblical standards of sexual ethics. But how many Christians among their generation wait until marriage anymore? Does it really matter? And yes, they put a great deal of value and emphasis on money, youth, and appearance, but is that really so bad? How can they be witnesses to the world if they can’t relate to it?

    Is this living the Christian life? Serving self, serving desire, serving the need to belong. Avoiding suffering if at all possible. What did Jesus say? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). We are called to give up the comfort of the matrix, the illusion that this world can satisfy all our desires and needs. To willingly, gladly, joyfully stand for what’s right when we have the opportunity, even it involves suffering.

    How many other good American Christians are choosing the comfort of the matrix over truth and sacrifice, even as they offer thanks for those who make the better choice? Is this the norm or is it the exception? Is it getting better or is it getting worse? What does that mean for our future?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Changing Churches

Suffering seniors

    Things I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard:

    ● Committed Christian baby boomers, the backbone of evangelical churches for decades, joining the ranks of the unchurched and the church-shoppers. Or switching to more liturgical churches, with their greater sense of reverence.

    ● A local evangelical church demanding that every activity must be intergenerational. Never mind that the older folks have long periods of lonely availability during the daytime and hesitate to drive after dark, while the younger ones work all day and can only participate on evenings and weekends. Seniors have been forbidden to gather without younger generations being present. Result: Older members have felt unwelcome and unheard, and have left.

    ● Men and women in their eighties and nineties sensing that their lives are no longer valued by the very churches that they’ve supported for years. That which was most precious and meaningful to them within those churches has been discarded, leaving them feeling like they’ve been discarded, too.

    I don’t think our worship leaders realize how much real suffering they’ve brought on our seniors with the radical changes that have occurred in the last twenty years or so. Based on the biblical model, they expect mature Christians to graciously accept the authority of the pastors and elders when decisions are made. Those who complain or criticize are seen as selfish, disobedient, and unwilling to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    I think these leaders are honestly seeking to please God and are trying to do what they believe is best overall. But the pain is there and it’s often unrecognized. It’s not just a matter of stubborn resistance springing from rebellious hearts, although I’m sure that happens in some cases. For many, though, important theological issues are at stake.

God's expectations

    One assumption made by those who support more modern worship styles is that God doesn’t care how we worship Him. Style is irrelevant in His eyes. But if that’s true, why was He so specific about how the Israelites were to worship Him when He brought them out of bondage to Egypt? Part or all of the following chapters provide His specific instructions on worship: Exodus 25-30 and 39-40; Leviticus 1-8, 16, and 22-23; Numbers 15, 18, and 28-29; and Deuteronomy 12 and 16-17.

    Was the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? No. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Psalm 102:27, James 1:17). How we worship matters. It matters to God. It should matter to us. One weakness in today’s evangelical churches is the lack of a theology of worship that is based on examples of worship in the Bible.

Our focus

    What is it about modern worship styles that mature Christians object to? One big issue is the focus on self, which naturally leads to less emphasis on God—who He is and the deeper reasons for worshiping Him. If I worship Him solely for what He does for me, as much Contemporary Christian Music seems to imply, what happens when He doesn’t live up to my expectations? I have nothing solid to stand on during the tough times. In contrast, many hymns of the past praised God’s unchanging character and nature, His working throughout the world and throughout history, His thoughts and ways that reach far higher than satisfying the needs in my little life.

    It’s been ten years or more since I heard a derogatory comment on National Public Radio about those “narcissistic evangelicals.” First I was startled and offended, then I was embarrassed and humbled by what I knew to be a somewhat accurate assessment. Roughly ten years before that, Christianity Today ran an article in which they stated that there were more songs starting with the letter “I” in the contemporary files used in evangelical worship services than with all the other letters of the alphabet put together. What happened to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

    Many seniors struggle with this stress on self and lack of emphasis on God. At a time when they’re suffering multiple losses—family members and friends, mobility and independence, physical health—they have an increased need for a transcendent God who rules the universe and whose love and justice extend far beyond simply pleasing individual human beings.

    I don’t expect our churches to turn back the clock as far as worship styles are concerned. Every era, every generation, has its flaws and shortcomings, including those found in the ways Americans worshiped in the past. While I pray that we’ll find a better balance in communicating both the intimacy and the transcendence of God, this is primarily a plea for mercy and compassion and healing after the pain inflicted on our seniors for the last two or three decades. A plea for a greater understanding of that pain and its origins, and for attempts to be made to treat our seniors with greater love and respect.