Wednesday, May 27, 2015

To pursue joy or happiness...

          When I was in college, I had New Testament Survey at 7:45 in the morning. I was not then, and am not now, a "morning" person, and found it difficult to be awake, much less cheerful. You may appreciate then how hard it was to sit under my professor’s relentlessly cheerful and joyful sweep through the New Testament over the next 4 months! But I learned something from her; joy is not a creation of circumstances, the result of being consistently entertained to death. Joy is the creation of a life satisfied with God's goodness and grace, confident in hope of new mercies.
            Joy is often confused for happiness. In America happiness is one of the pursuits guaranteed under the constitution of the United States (though happiness meant something in 1776 which it does not now mean).
            We American's pursue happiness, primarily through overindulgence. We fear boredom and silence more than death; so we glut our senses with movies, TV, theme parks, road trips, the internet, sports and casinos until our wallets are empty, our eyes bloodshot and our brains and emotions numb.
The problem is that happiness as a pursuit leads to unhappiness.  We were not created to be happy.  We were created to experience joy. Joy is the creation of a life satisfied with God's goodness and grace, confident in hope of new mercies. Listen to this:

"When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them.' The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him." Psalm 126

            Did you notice the repeated emphasis on joy? This Psalm dates from the time after the Jewish exiles returned from exile in Babylon, their circumstances anything but easy. And yet, there is joy bursting through at every turn. Why don’t the majority of humans experience this? As Eugene Peterson, writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

        "We cannot make ourselves joyful. Joy cannot be commanded, purchased or arranged. But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. One of the certain consequences of such a life is joy, the kind expressed in Psalm 126." (p. 97)
            Pursue the God who gives joy, and the pursuit of happiness will take care of itself. God invites all to the table of grace; rest assured that joy is there in abundance for all who will seek Him, who is Joy itself!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

When the man of God doubts...

As a believer, I find the stories of the Bible more real than I am many times. For instance, I carried for many years an irrational fear that my lack of faith caused God to punish my brother who suffered from cancer - and the rest of my family - by not healing him of the tumor and instead causing him to undergo a surgery that removed his knee and replaced it with a straight metal rod. This twisted belief had a perilous logic to it that afflicts me to this day - my lack of confidence in Gods power, demonstrated by the tiny kernel of doubt that asked "What if God doesn't heal", caused my brother pain. I suspect that I'm not the only one to ever feel this kind of guilt, and find it a relief to discover that even biblical Giants of faith had their moments of doubt - and were not punished for it, and neither were those they cared for.

Case in point, Elijah; in I Kings 17, the prophet is in hiding from Israels King, who wants to kill him. Elijah is first fed by ravens by a stream, and then sent to Lebanon, to shelter in the home of a widow with one young boy (7-16). All is well for the prophet, the widow and her son - the little they have is miraculously stretched by God each new day - until the boy gets sick. He dies, and the widow in her grief accuses Elijah of being sent by God to punish her for her sins by killing her son (18).

Outwardly, the prophet seems unshaken: he simply asks for the child's body, carries it to an upper room, and lays it on the bed very calmly. But I wonder what was going on in his mind during that long climb to that upper room? For he then cries out, "O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?" (20) There in that upper room, so unlike the one that served Jesus' disciples as a crucible, and yet so much alike, Elijah faced the crisis of whether God could be trusted or not to do good, and a crisis of faith doesn't get much more desperate than that. It's at that moment of wavering - does God plan evil, and not good? - that if God were to "smite", smithing should start.

But that is not the God of the Bible. It is the God of my deepest fears, doubts, failures, mistrust and let downs - but it is not God in reality. This God is big enough to be doubted by those he loves, to be rejected by His own - and refuses to become the kind of God we expect. He waits for us to find the bottom of our faith, as He did with Elijah, who cries out to God for the life of the boy; God answers, the child lives, and the widow finds faith (21-24). But as you read the rest of 1 Kings, you find the prophet continues to doubt, continues to question God, even as he stands up to the world for Gods cause.

So the real believer is not always answered with fire and resurrection, as Elijah was, but the real believer honestly faces the hard reality of life, and the unpredictable nature of Gods sovereignty in it, may lose heart, may even question Gods basic goodness - and yet obeys. I may never know the whys of unanswered prayer and unexplainable tragedy - but I can trust this God, big enough to not be threatened by my desperate doubts, close enough to see past them to the child he called out of darkness into light. And if you will try, you too can find this God...even if you never feel Him near until you stand in his presence by faith in Christ.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


"...note this curious mark of our own age: the only absolute allowed is the absolute insistence that there is no absolute." Francis Schaeffer wrote these words nearly 50 years ago from a mountain in Switzerland, and what he saw then has become only more clearly part of our lives as believers now in the early 21st century. How this works in my own life is this: will I let the pressure to not offend anyone (which seems to be the only "crime" left that our majority culture considers to actually be offensive) keep me from living the reality of what I say I believe: that Jesus really is "the way, the truth, and the life"? That "No one comes to the Father" except through him? (John 14:6) After all, saying such a thing so categorically could really anger someone, and maybe cause them to unfriend me on FB...they might even say some snarky things about me on social media that might hurt my feelings. For fear of being thought of badly, I could choose to let slide the absolute claims of Jesus. And yet it is those very absolutes that have changed the world for good. If I say I absolutely believe these things to be true, I am I willing to accept the way they will mark me out from the rest if the culture? And if I say, "absolutely", I am I being flippant or consciously choosing to stand with the God I say I will follow to death, even if it's on social media?