Sunday, July 27, 2008

worship with a Kleenex

I attended a memorial service for Ben yesterday, a service that served both as a worship event and a time to reflect on the extraordinary life of young Ben Entwistle. I'm having trouble dislodging an image from the service from my mind. It's something that I will cherish for some time.

As we sang, a woman a few rows ahead of me lifted her hand in a gesture of worship. In her hand was a crumpled facial tissue.

Our posture in this life was captured in this image. We worship. We recognize God's worth. Yet (often at the same time) we cry.

We sorrow, but we have hope in the sovereign grace of God. We are never very far from pain, but we can rejoice in the hands of a savior whose hands also bear the marks of pain.

We worship....anyway.

We cry.....but not as those who have no hope. We have a savior who joined us in our suffering and we worship in response. But often, in our hands we hold the evidence of our own struggle.

Our hearts were heavy for the loss of our dear friend and for the void left in the hearts of his family. We cry, wondering why things could not have been easier another way. But we rejoice in our Savior, thanking him for a life lived without reservation, one who obviously touched and inspired so many.

When we finally surrender and worship from a platform of pain, we may find new strength from the suffering hands of our God.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tribute to Ben Entwistle

I wrote about Ben in my book "Breathing Grace" telling the story of Ben's struggle with endocarditis in 2003. Ben was a rising junior at Covenant college, a member of the varsity soccer team. We remember Ben as a sensitive, caring young man with an infectious zeal for life. I watched him play rugby at the RVA alumni game two weekends ago and Ben never gave less than 100%.

Ben died this week after suffering complications of a second bout of fulminant endocarditis (heart valve infection).

In wake of this tragedy, we ask God, "why?"

This is adapted from "Breathing Grace."

We cry in our pain, demanding answers and God closes the heavens. We believe answers exist, but for much of our suffering, God’s answers seem hidden, his love remote.
Trust only on sunny days is not trust.
Faith is moving forward at midnight when the sun is hidden from view.
We search the book of Job, looking for the answers for our pain. How could God in His love have allowed such catastrophe and suffering?
We read, searching with Job, the answer to the why question. Why am I suffering? But the answer never comes, at least not the answer we want. Not even when God speaks from the whirlwind. Look at God’s answer and count the number of questions God returns to Job. I did and lost count after sixty.
The bottom line? God is God. I am not. He wants my trust in the midst of my pain. He gets to be the one to ask the questions. Not me.
For us, He does not promise relief. Instead, He gives His presence.
He does not often answer why. Instead He asks us, “Who is God?”
God wants to deepen, stretch, and strengthen our faith. Unfortunately for us, deepening involves exposure to dredging tools, stretching involves tension, and strengthening means painful exercise.
Why is a question without a definitive answer for my parents or anyone else experiencing catastrophic loss. We can gather explanations into a blanket around us, but ultimately, we will find comforting warmth only in a faith that says, “I will trust without knowing.” For my parents, why-answers offer some comfort, but in the end, there are no good explanations for the death of a child. The only real comfort comes with releasing the need to know. We find comfort only when knowing that God knows is enough.
A theology that masquerades as a gospel of grace, but doesn’t deal with the difficulty of suffering isn’t only inadequate. It’s dangerous. Proponents of prosperity doctrine build unsteady scaffolding around gullible believers. The scaffolding collapses when the winds of adversity rise. When pain occurs, those taken in by this teaching are left feeling guilty and wondering where their faith has failed. They question God’s love, not understanding that God’s love was hidden in the pain.

The journey to the Promised Land doesn’t end with deliverance from bondage and neither should our theology.

The deception inherent in the masquerade is exactly because it’s what we want to believe. We cling with veracity to teaching which promises health and riches. We would like to believe that the story of Exodus ends with the celebration on the Red Sea shore. Out of bondage! But that’s only chapter fifteen. There was desert ahead: trails, suffering, longing for the good old days, and forty years of wilderness.

Mountain climbers discipline their bodies with vigorous exercise in preparation for summiting the earth’s highest peaks. After months of training, they make their assent in stages, stopping for time to acclimate to the thin air with reduced oxygen.
Times of suffering are tantamount to spiritual mountain climbing. We need to prepare for these times with the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and time spent in solitude with the Savior.

Here's to Ben, walking by sight. Face to face with Jesus July 15, 2008.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rift Valley Academy Commencement Message

OK, I was invited to give a challenge to the graduating seniors at RVA on July 12 and this is what I said:
I’d like to welcome our guests, RVA staff and administration, families of our graduates. Mortals from the class of 2008, congratulations. You made it.

A story is told of two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What is water?"

At some point in everyone’s life, thunderclouds roll in. A crisis looms. The bottom falls out. Pain happens. For some of you, it happened yesterday. For others, it might not be today, tomorrow or even next week, but sooner or later outside RVA life is going to hit hard and fast. I’m not talking about missing a bus or failing a test. I’m talking about a crisis of soul-crushing, God-questioning agony. In those times, I need you to remember two things, two things that will help you survive out there in the great big ocean.

Two facts. They may sound simple, but I’ve spent my whole Christian life, grappling with these two basic truths. And I expect that I will continue to struggle with these two, every day. And when I finally get it, I’ll be whole. Now, this isn’t a doom and gloom message—dealing only with the times when life is filled with hurt. It’s far bigger than that. Knowing these two things is the beginning of getting the whole Christianity and abundant life thing.

I’ve made this simple because I know that after high school at RVA, a few of you are sensing that your brain is full. I get that. So this will be straightforward.

Point number one: You (and I) are small. Little. Small fish in a vast ocean. That’s it? That’s the first profound truth that’s going to help me when the bottom falls out and life hurts? That’s it? I’m small?
Yes. That’s exactly it. We’re little. Let me see if I can get this to resonate with you. In a way, all of the blessings of God hinge on this: our understanding that we are needy creatures. Not seeing our smallness is the essence of pride and that is at the center of our sin problem. We want to operate in self-sufficiency, outside the reach of God. We’re small, yes, insignificant, NO WAY. God loves us and that validates us, even though we are small. The problem is, we bristle against smallness. From the very beginning of life, we want to be, and in many ways view ourselves as the center of the universe.

Let me tell you a story. When our second son, Evan, our graduating senior, was three years old, he participated in a small Christmas play put on by the children in our congregation back in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. He was an “extra,” a part of the angelic host. He was assigned a supporting role. You parents know what I’m talking about. If you don’t get to be Mary or Joseph, a shepherd, or at least a wise man, you get relegated to the angelic host or even worse, made to crawl around on all fours with some sheep wool on your back as a part of the animal-supporting cast.
But Evan didn’t understand his role as lesser. He didn’t see it that way at all. As the children acted out the manger scene, instead of staying off to the side, stage left with the rest of the extras, Evan quickly manipulated his way front and center right behind Baby Jesus. There, he happily observed the inner sanctum of the blessed family. This was new: Joseph, Mary, Jesus…and Evan. Imagine a new slant on the nativity set…you’ve got a little Joseph, Mary, baby-Jesus and angel Evan. There he was, Evan and baby Jesus. Like this: tight. Had he even heard the story? He was too young to read the script, but I’m sure I’d read him the Christmas story a few dozen times by then, so he should have known. There is no mention of an extra angel inside the animal shed. It was so typical of his self-confidence. Why shouldn’t he be in the center? After all, he had the cool white angel outfit complete with cardboard wings, didn’t he? He looked good. He couldn’t have imagined that his place should be anywhere but right in the middle of the action with Joseph, Mary and the Godchild, Jesus himself.
But soon, as the play continued, Evan made a second strategic move. He walked to the very front of the stage facing the audience, filling his lungs to make a proclamation. Now, he was in front of all the action, upstaging even the holy family who quietly acted out the scene behind him. This was a director’s worse nightmare. As an actor, Evan had gone rogue. This was an impromptu takeover and the director was going to have to move quickly to take him out. The only angel with a speaking part was Gabriel and he didn’t just pop in during the manger scene. This was a disaster. Evan was trying to rewrite the story, the events surrounding the biggest happening in history with him playing a lead role.

Isn’t he just like all of us? We bristle against being small. No one wants to be an extra.
Just then Evan raised his voice loud enough for us to hear near the back of the building. “I just want my mom!”
With that, he launched himself off the stage and ran back the aisle to plop his angelic backside on his mother’s lap!
Evan went from center-stage confident to needing his mommy in warp-speed.
Silly? Not for a three-year-old.

You see, suddenly Evan realized he was little. And he needed his mommy. That’s a good place for us to start, too. We are little. Knowing that is one of the keys to walking in the power of the grace of God. If you think you’re big, you’ll miss out on grace, because grace is poured out on little folks who don’t deserve it. That’s the essence of grace. It’s love-undeserved. But if you’re full of your own bigness, you’ll never qualify as a grace-recipient.
In the book of Corinthians we read,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Said another way, “For when I am little, then I am big.” In another place he says,

“We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

Wow. We have the big in the little. Don’t run away from this fact. When you go out from RVA, don’t pretend to be something you’re not. The world doesn’t need more spiritual Christians or talented Christians. What the world needs is honest Christians. Real. Transparent. In Rom 12, we read, “Let love be …” what? Polished? Showy? No, “genuine.” God doesn’t get any glory by plastic smiles or a Christian acting as if he or she has all the answers. We need to be Christians who are big enough to say, “I’m hurting,” “I don’t understand,” or “I just don’t get God.” After all, he’s beyond being “getable.”

The psalmist says,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?”
Psalm 8:3-4

We know from powerful telescopes that there are billions of galaxies beyond our own, each with literally millions and millions of stars. The Perfect Spiral Galaxy was so named because it lies perpendicular to our own and when viewed through a telescope, it forms a near perfect spiral. This galaxy is over thirty million light-years away. That’s a number so large, that I can’t even begin to get my brain around it. Light travels at 186,000 miles each second. Two second pause. Light just traveled 372,000 miles. Two second pause. Light just circled the earth 15 times around the equator. Do you get that? In one year, that amounts to a distance of 5.87 trillion miles, the distance of one light year. Allow light to travel at 186,000 miles per second for not just a two second pause or for one day, one week or even one year, or even for a thousand years. Let it travel 186,000 miles per second for over thirty million years and finally, it would reach the Perfect Spiral Galaxy.

The Bible tells us that

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
John 1:1-3
“…all things were created through him and for him.”
Colossians 1:16

Jesus was not only present at creation, but from these verses we know that he was involved in the creative process. Not only did he create our earth and the Milky Way galaxy, he created the Perfect Spiral Galaxy and a billion others.

So Jesus is big. That’s my second point. Point one: we are little. Point two: Jesus is big. I told you I was going to keep this simple. We tend to think of Jesus as just starting out on a cool night in Bethlehem, but he’s been around for eternity past.

Try and get this and it will absolutely blow your mind. He spoke and stars spewed forth. On the surface of each star, each sun emits so much energy that it’s like thousands of the most powerful nuclear weapons exploding each second. Over, and over and over. Continuously. And he just spoke and they happened. Does this jive with your image of Jesus?

One of the dangers of growing up at a place like RVA is that we hear of Jesus so often that we are at risk for complacency. We yawn in the presence of God. Chapel, Bible classes go from being get-tos to have-tos. Worship becomes a quiet time where I can contemplate my business rather than adoration of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Even phrases like that are threatened with emptiness. I’m hesitant sometimes to use phrases like, “Praise the Lord,” because I’ve heard it become sermon-filler rather than heartfelt expression. Amen? Praise the Lord? We’ve grown bored with majesty. Sure he knows everything, created everything. He loves me. Yawn. How dare I? How dare you?

As you leave RVA, resist that. Resist that with every fiber of your being. Because that’s what it will take. Remind yourself of his majesty. Everyday.

My prayers have gotten weird lately. It sounds a little silly, but words fail me when I think of how to talk to a God that spoke stars into existence. If he is that powerful, normal adjectives in any human language don’t cut it. And if his name represents all that he is, just saying his name is a form of worship. Jesus. And to make it personal, I just refer to him with the personal pronoun, you. “You.” That’s it. Because I can’t say anything else. But spoken in that context, the pronoun refers to the biggest, most powerful and loving force of all time. So I just whisper, “You.”

I don’t have any trouble admitting that sometimes I feel I don’t know God at all. I’m like a little fish and he’s the ocean. He’s been all around me, all my life. And yet I go about my life in oblivion of his presence and I ask, God? What’s God?
The last thing you need is for me to stand up here and acti as if I’m another Christian with the inside scoop on God. You say, “certainly you’ve got the scoop, you’re an author, you’re a missionary.” Careful. Get off of that pedestal quick. If anyone ever wants to put you on a pedestal, use it for one thing: to lift up and treasure what is truly big. Build your pedestal out of one thing: love.

Louie Giglio said something. Sin is making me big, God little. Sin is nothing more than trying to make the little big and the big little.

Think with me for a moment about a concept I’ve been developing. I call it the domestication of Jesus. We domesticate Jesus any time we bring him down in our minds and tame him, acting as if he exists to serve us rather than vice versa. That sounds ridiculous at first, but it is exactly what I do over and over, every day, when I fail to realize how big he is and how small I am.

So here we are, small and needy and we’ve invited this huge, powerful, indescribable Jesus into our lives and then what do we do? What do I do? In effect, when I go about my business without acknowledging him, perhaps only giving him a few moments of communication before I eat or a few hours on Sunday, it’s as if I’ve traded his ruling scepter for a mop or a broom. Yes, I’m content for him to clean up after my sin-mess. Forgive me…and then stand over there in the corner quietly while I go about running my life. Forgive yes, be Lord, no. In effect, many Christians have invited Jesus into their lives and then expect him to be content with a domesticated, fenced-in, predictable existence. We want divine-vending-machine Christianity. I ask. He delivers. That’s a domesticated God and I don’t want any part of serving a little God like that.

Can you imagine being privileged to be visited by the world’s most powerful person, a king or a president, and you usher him or her in and let them sit at your kitchen table and then you go about your business and don’t talk to them at all? Or worse, you talk and then cut off the conversation before he or she has a chance to express what is on their heart? OK, my comparison doesn’t make it, because God is infinitely more important, powerful, loving and gracious than a man.

I domesticate Jesus in so many ways. When I’m anxious, I’ve domesticated him. How? Because I’m acting as if he’s not big enough or powerful enough to handle my problems. When I feel guilty for my sins, I’m domesticating him because I’m not trusting that his Cross was powerful enough to erase my shame. I do it in a hundred other small ways. Every day.
Folks, this is ludicrous. I’d never invite the Lord, creator of the Universe into my life and then hand him a mop and ask him to serve me! But that’s exactly what I’ve done.
Have I forgotten who I’m dealing with here? This is Jesus, who speaks and stars happen, not some cuddly, wimpy God who only exists to kiss away my little life-boo-boos.

Graduates. Think about this as you leave this place. Just two simple facts. You’re little. Jesus is big. Things get messy when we see ourselves as big and Jesus as little.

The implication of this is HUGE. And wonderful. With the big inside the little, you become the answer for the world. What the world is looking for is hope. I like what Pastor Crumley said on Easter Sunday about hope. He quoted the verse that says now these three remain, faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love. He said love might be greatest, but called hope a close second. That’s because it’s what the world is looking for. Remember what Paul said, it’s Christ in you, the hope of Glory. That’s it. Hope is what the world is looking for and you’ve got it, in the form of the greatest power, the greatest love-personified in the Universe: Jesus. In you.

That’s it. With the big inside the little, you become the answer for the world today.
Crisis will come to each of us. The bottom falls out and life hurts. If you know you’re little, you won’t rely on yourself. If you know God is big, you won’t despair because faith is birthed where our vision of Jesus is accurate, free of domesticated images. We have the big in the little. That is our hope.

At RVA you’ve experienced a little of what some have called, “the bubble.” Well today we’re here to celebrate the popping of that bubble. As you leave this shelter, I urge you to find a faith that will celebrate the bigness of God. Relish in your own smallness and therefore your own inability to get a God who is so big. Find a faith that is big enough to ask what is God? Where’s God? Find a faith that is honest enough to admit you don’t get a God like we serve.

Find an intimacy with God where words fail and all you can pray is …. “you.”

Friday, July 4, 2008

How BIG is Jesus?

I'm going to say something crazy. I think my Jesus is way too small.
Offensive statement, I know, but hear me out. I'm not talking about the real Jesus when I say he's too small, just the inadequate image of him that I'm acting as if exists.
Let's start with the facts. I know from John chapter one that Jesus ("the Word") was present from the beginning of time and was the creative force behind the Universe. "...without him was not anything made that was made. (1:3)
Consider something we know about the Universe. Thirty-two million light-years away is another galaxy (one of billions) that is perched at a beautiful 90 degrees to our own, giving us an awesome view of the "swirl" and thus our scientists call it "the perfect spiral galaxy."
Light travels at 186,000 miles a second. Take a breath and pause for two seconds. Light just traveled 372,000 miles, a distance equal to traveling around the earth 15 times at the equator. Wow. Now figure going that fast for not two seconds, two years or two thousand years or even two million years, but travel at light-speed for 32 million years and you'll finally arrive at the Perfect Spiral galaxy. I can't begin to wrap my small brain around such distance.
Yet Jesus spoke and stars and galaxies like the Perfect Spiral Galaxy just appeared!
I'm getting ready to make yet another transition from Africa to the US for furlough. Dare I get anxious over not knowing the future? What do my anxious thoughts speak to others about my concept of Jesus?
Is he smart enough, big enough to create and run the Universe? Or too small to handle my worries?
What if I feel guilty about some past sin? What does that say about my concept of Jesus?
Is he big?
Or have I underestimated him yet again?
Who is Jesus to you?
Cute little Baby in a manger?
Or Lord of the Universe, the one who spoke and stars appeared?