Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pondering. Praying.

Let's be honest here: most Christians would rather get an hour long deep-tissue massage from Ironman when his repulsor blasters are malfunctioning, or pet a cat, or pour Tobasco sauce in their eyes, or do anything else rather than pray.

Actually, that's not true. I could only do 30 minutes, not an hour.

Or perhaps a more accurate statement would be, "most Christians would find it easier to endure [insert something horrible and outlandish here] rather than pray". Biblically, we read that this should not be so; but practically, I think we can all relate to this inner tension - a desire in our renewed selves to pray, but the overpowering resistence of the old man against our spiritual endeavour. In the Christian there is a Spirit-born desire, in the core of his being, for prayer. We know that prayer is powerful, that it is effective, and that it is essential to a flourishing Christian life; we know that it is a spiritual weapon with which we wage spiritual warfare; we enjoy theorizing what it would look like to lead a life of deep prayer; we study and analyze the great prayers of Scripture, from Nehemiah to Jesus to Paul, in order to correctly formulate prayers; we read the literature from those great Christian mystics who have reckoned prayer as necessary for spiritual life as their very breath for physical. But then...

...we don't pray.

Let me make it more personal. I don't pray. At least not very often. You may pray on a regular basis, and if you do, I commend you for it. I really hope to be like you one day very, very soon. Surely you are seeing God move in your life and in the lives and situations of those for whom your are praying. Surely God is manifesting himself to you through those intimate times. If that is you, I beg you: press on! Keep praying! Do not grow weary in performing labor that sends ripples through the fabric of the spiritual realm! God hears your prayers; indeed, he even inclines his ear towards the prayers of the righteous person. So please: don't stop. Please continue to set the example for weaker brothers and sisters; for those who are struggling; for me.

So, if I'm not praying then what am I doing? What else is there to do? Well, I am a ponderer. I ponder things. I get an intense joy out of thinking about things deeply, mentally disassembling every cog, wheel, bolt, and spring of a matter in order to understand its inner workings and thereby form my own opinion of and more thoroughly appreciate that matter in its entirety. I especially enjoy pondering theological matters, as theology is an attempt at describing God and everything that is related to him, which is...well, everything. In him we live and move and have our being; he holds all things together with the word of his power. If God is the reason for all of the existing universe, then I can't see there being any other subject as being more worthy of my intense, focused pondering.

Pondering, thinking, meditating; whatever you want to call it, the activity that takes place in the grey matter between our ears has a significant place in Scripture:
  1. The one who meditates on the laws of God are compared to a tree who is planted by streams of water, whose leaves never wither and whose branches bear fruit in its season,
  2. We are encouraged by Paul to dwell on heavenly things, things that are just, lovely, pure, excellent, and worthy of praise,
  3. Paul also tells us in Romans to be transformed by the renewal of our minds,
  4. Peter likewise places a large emphasis on the thought life in 1 Peter, and
  5. In one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, we are told to love Yahweh our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
The Christian life is one that is lived and fought primarily in the mind. It is the thought life of the believer that often determines whether a particular skirmish - with the flesh, with sin, with the devil - is won or lost. It is with our minds that we mull over and analyze and understand the precious truths of Scripture. For example, when I come up against a battle with my lust, it is with my mind that I dwell upon the verses that deal with lust and sexual immorality; it is with my mind that I understand the perverse nature of pornography, and its correlation with the sex trafficking industry and other sexual crimes; it is with my mind that I perceive the pain that my lust brings to my wife, and the offence that indulging in lust causes God. I then determine that gratifying my lustful desire is not something that is beneficial for anyone. It is with my mind that I am able to receive information in order to make use of it.

But to only think is not the full picture of the Christian life that we are given in the Bible. It is prayer that calls down fire from heaven; it is prayer that changes the hearts of kings and rulers; it is the prayers of the righteous that God responds to and delivers them out of their troubles, it is prayer that heals men of sickness and demonic influence. And yet not prayer, but the God to whom we pray.

With our minds we can do the work of a tactician, correlating information to make a plan; but it is with prayer that we invoke the presence and power of God to set that plan into action. A plan is great, but what good is a plan if it is never acted upon? Jesus said, "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (John 13:17). And how can we do divine work without divine power? We can't. And because we cannot, we pray that we might be able to. By his grace, God responds if what we are asking him to accomplish is in accordance with not only his nature, but also his will.

What am I saying? In a nutshell, just this: I tend to think a lot, but I pray very little. I reckon that if I had split my time 50:50, or even 70:30, between thinking and prayer, I would have experienced much more victory, power, growth, and maturity in my life than I have thus far.

My desire is to pray more. Not to show you that I am a spiritual person, or to make you esteem me any higher. No, I desire to pray more because it is in the presence of God that we are humbled and made to be a more useful tool in his hand; I desire to pray more because I desire to accomplish his will here on this earth; I desire to pray more because for the rest of eternity I will be in his presence, and if that will be my position for eternity it makes no sense to not be in his presence now. If we cannot enjoy the presence of God on earth, what makes us think we will enjoy it in heaven?

If, when you think about prayer, a back rub from Ironman still seems like a better alternative, then I pray that God would meet you in those moments and show you the value of prayer. It is my prayer that we would not only do the important work of pondering, but also the powerful work of praying.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Belief in Christ vs Belief in Belief

Today, on Facebook, well-known pastor, author, and conference speaker John Piper wrote:

One cannot be wholly believing while watching oneself believe. Hence assurance comes not from looking at faith, but Christ.

I don't agree with Pastor John on everything, but he is most definitely a brother in Christ, and God has most certainly given him a great amount of wisdom, and for that I am very thankful. This sparked a conversation in the comment section (as his posts normally do), among which was this question:

So-my question is how do we look at the book of James and 1 John where works are an essential fruit of true conversion, but still look fully to Christ for assurance. How do we keep that in perspective?

That is a wonderful question, and one that deserves much thought. This was the response that I offered:

"Belief" assumes an object, and for the Christian, that object is Christ. We have the God-given ability to think about what belief & faith are, but when our belief & faith become the object of our belief (if that makes sense) in place of Christ, we crash and burn because our belief is no longer "plugged in" to the One who provides us the strength to endure in that belief. Our own belief is limited in its sustaining power, so making belief itself the object of our belief seals our failure. Our belief, then, depends on Christ to endure through all adversity and trascend through all time, because Christ himself endures, transcends, and is forever.
To put it analogously, imagine a tree that has the ability to walk back and forth on the earth. This tree can inspect his fruit and know that it is there, but cannot depend on the fact that fruit is there right now to mean, of necessity, that fruit will be there later. Why? If he travels across the land, and takes nothing but the fruit of his branches to eat on his journey, he will be sorely disappointed when he reaches up to his own boughs to discover that his fruit ran out. Instead, he must keep depending on the presence of the farmer, the water, the right weather, and the nutrients in the soil; he must stay rooted in the presence of the farmer to continue bearing fruit. The tree is us, staying rooted is our belief in Christ, wandering & eating his own fruit is believing in our own belief and what it produces, and the weather conditions, soil, water, and farmer are all Christ. If Christ is present and our belief is in him, we can be sure that fruit will likewise be present.

Perhaps I'll develop that concept into a poem or a short story...

I don't know if the commentor ever saw my response, or if he ever will; but if he did I hope it was edifying, and I hope that this also provides clarity for any of you that likewise struggle with the balance between the presence of works and faith in Christ. This obviously is not the final say on the matter, and I am by no means a theologian (many of which disagree about this very thing), but my prayer is that it may ease some minds as they are turned back to Christ again.

If I do end up writing a story, I'll be sure to post it here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

My Letter to August

First of all, I realize I'm a little old, at 23, to be writing a letter to Santa. Much older than the average believer, I'm sure. I hope, because of that fact, that you will actually pay closer attention to what I have to say rather than dismissing it.

Second of all, I know this is a little early in the year seeing as it's August, but I figure this is when you probably get through a bulk of your letters. Or maybe, if Arthur Christmas is any indication of the truth, you have a team of letter readers and responders. In any case, closer to Christmas seems like the time to work out Present Delivery and other important logistics. I hope this isn't a bother.

You see, Mr. Claus, I absolutely love Christmas. I've already been listening to the season's music since the beginning of July. It's a time that I hold fondly in my heart, and that I think about quite often. I'm going to be a first-time-father in October, and I can't wait to introduce my little girl to one of my favorite times of the year. My wife and I have many traditions we hope to introduce to her, and I can't wait for her to grow up and understand how important you are, sir.

I don't write this letter to ask you for something (at least not something for myself), but instead to apologize, to thank you, and hopefully to encourage you.

Mr. Claus, I'm sorry that, especially here in the United States, there is so much obsession with "stuff". It must be hard for you to slog through the affluent areas of the country & world, knowing that the poorer areas are barely being thought of, let alone taken care of. There are certainly organizations and individuals that care deeply about those places, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
I'm sorry that we have forgotten the spirit of the season and have traded it for something that looks like Christmas, but has had the true meaning carved out by consumerism and replaced with vain materialism.
I'm sorry that your name, which once stood for the protection and provision of young children (among others), is now the hallmark of a consumer's holiday.
I'm sorry that we have missed the point of what you did: you gave, not on the basis of a child's relative "good"-ness or "bad"-ness, but out of a zealous compassion that was stirred up by the child's need. You set an example for us, patterned after the One whom you followed, and we've missed it.
I'm sorry that people reject the Object of your passion, the Inspiration for your actions, and the Source of your joy, the joy that now permeates and characterizes the season. I'm sure this reality hurts your heart.

But thank you for continuing to do what you do despite people's rejection of the One in whom your heart delights so deeply.
Thank you for quite literally being a saint.
Thank you for your service to and love for our Lord Jesus.
Thank you for taking such special interest & care of children (and others).
Thank you for allowing the overwhelming compassion & love of God to shine through your life.
Thank you for being a tangible expression of the care of God to those that have never experienced it.
Thank you for manifesting God's heart to those that don't know him or believe in him.

And now I have one Christmas wish, Mr. Claus: seeing as I already have my two front teeth, all I want for Christmas is for you to keep pointing people to our Savior. Keep giving, keep loving, keep making people warm and joyful, and keep introducing people to the true origin of these things, to the One who is the source of every good and every perfect gift: God in Christ.

Thank you for taking time to read this letter, Mr. Claus. May you have a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year.

Monday, August 5, 2013

I'm gonna die.

...Is that morbid? Perhaps.
What's even more morbid is a Google Image search for "death". Don't try that one if you're home alone.

You see, I was looking for a picture that I feel resonates with how I view death, a topic that seems to settle on my mind quite often. The morbid, grotesque, and caricatured anime renderings of death don't sit well with me. I view it more like...sunset on an autumn day.

In autumn, darkness blankets the sky at a noticeably earlier time of day; most plant life has reached its prime, is bearing or has born its fruit, and is now beginning its steady descent into the barren winter months; shadows slip out of hiding and join together in a haunting dance, happy to be rid of the sun's all-revealing light; details that were once razor sharp become eclipsed, made dull by twilight's softer glow; vivid oranges, yellows, and reds burst forward, a desperate swan song before being enveloped by the cimmerian all points towards the nearing, inevitable end of the day.

Death, the end, is something that my generation doesn't think of enough. Well, allow me to re-phrase...we think about it plenty, but we don't think about it happening to us. We are inundated with death from sensationalist media, from film and entertainment, and from music (Neyo advises: "...for all we know, we might not get tomorrow / let's do it tonight..."), and from games. We are told stories about mass killings, terrorist bombings, black-hearted murders, and medical failures. We have laws against drunk driving, texting and driving, driving without our seat-belts, and a multitude of other distractions while driving. Why? Because we could die. Any one of those reports, stories, or broken laws could be us. But when we say "us", we have managed to somehow dissociate our individual selves from that pronoun, and in doing so we dissociate from the subject the pronoun was being linked to: death. "That news report could have been me, but it wasn't," our subconscious speculates, "and since none of those reports have ever been me, they probably never will be." Subconsciously, we falsely affirm our own immortality. So now when we say "us", we really mean "everyone else". Death affects people, but not me. It may come to a family member, but not to me. It might happen to a friend from high school, but not to me.

Furthermore, we have developed the ability to suppress our subconscious musings, never allowing them to bubble up to the surface, never thinking them on a conscious level. If someone asked me, "Nathaniel, have you ever thought that others may die, but you never will?", up until the last few years I could honestly answer, "No, I have not". I had never thought that phrase to myself. At least, I hadn't until people that I knew started brushing against death, while others fully embraced it. A handful of examples from my life:

  • An acquaintance from high school, Richie Herskowitz, died from Cystic Fibrosis before he could celebrate his 18th birthday. He was the youngest ever recipient of a double lung transplant when he was only 6 years old. 

  • My grandfather almost died last year at age 75 when his gall bladder died and festered, without his knowledge, not long after a triple bypass surgery. The infection threatened his liver, stomach, and kidneys, but the doctors caught it before it caught him.

  • Another acquaintance, that I met and spent time with on my summertime visits to California during high school, got involved with people that he should not have and was recently (within the last few months) shot and killed execution style in a field. If he had not taken the bullet himself, harm would have come to his grandmother, wife, and baby daughter.

  • One of my favorite pastors, Bob Jennings, a man that I regard very highly, died this last November from pancreatic cancer. Reading his journal from the time he was diagnosed until he was on his death bed really affected me. There was a weightiness to his words, a vivid understanding of his own mortality, that shook me to the very core of my being.

In a moment of revelation, after pondering the death that had touched my life, it hit me like the proverbial sack of life-snuffing bricks: I'm gonna die. Not now, perhaps, and not even in a week or a year; but soon, very soon, I'm gonna die. "I am about to go the way of all the earth..." (1 Kings 2:2). All the earth is headed that direction, without exception, without partiality. We all die. Even you, friend, and even me.

In light of that reality, what matters should we be concerning ourselves with? Is all existence temporal and finite? Are all things truly vanity? Or is there something beyond the grave, that transcends death itself? If there is, that is what I want to concern myself with.

That something, I believe, is Christ Jesus and his kingdom. When my name is forgotten from history, when every last person I knew and who knew me has likewise died, and any memory of my existence has faded from the earth, Jesus, who brought all things into being for his pleasure and glory, remains. How many billions of people have walked this earth, breathed the same air, drank the same water, and then passed into obscurity? But Jesus was before time, is present in time, and will be forevermore. He holds all things together by the word of his power, and before he brought me into being, Jesus was there. When I fade, Jesus endures.

If Jesus is what matters, and he, his kingdom, and his people are the only things that last beyond the grave, then why not labor for the death-defying matters of a Christ-centered eternity?

I fear I will reach the autumn twilight of my life without ever having flourished, without ever having done anything that was lasting, and with the shadows skipping and leaping around me, that I will slip into the darkness of night. I fear my leaves will fall from barren, fruitless limbs. I fear that no harvest will have ever been reaped from my life.

I don't fear being forgotten; I fear not being worth remembering.

I look forward to being with my Savior, and I know that for me, when I fall asleep on this earth, I will wake up in Christ. But I pray that, in the meantime, my existence will not be a waste of time, a waste of space, or a waste of life. I pray that when I reach my autumn twilight I will happily embrace the falling darkness, knowing that the sun has set on a life well-lived, and that the next light I see will be his presence on eternity's horizon.