A Blizzard from 30,000 Feet, or Why We Go to Church

The blizzard hit on Thursday and it snowed hard through Saturday night. By early Sunday morning it was obvious we weren't going anywhere – in our Chevy Blazer, that is.  

I was about eight years old living in Evergreen, Colorado. Our little Baptist church was several miles away by road, but just a mile cross-country. My sister and I were bundled up and donning our cross-country skis, and through about four feet of snow made the traverse to church.

I love my dad's heart in how he led my family to church that day. It is true that we could have taken a day off and God wouldn't have thought less of us. But when the "hurdle" of the blizzard loomed in his way, my dad immediately decided to jump it rather than allow it to stop us. I have no idea what we did in church that day, but my dad's leadership left a firm impression on my heart that church is of great importance.  

But why is it important? To answer this question, I'd like you to come with me to look at life from the 30,000-foot view.

Up here at 30,000 feet, we see a battle between two kingdoms. We are born into the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). When we are converted, we are transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Two kingdoms – that of darkness and that of Jesus Christ – are at war with each other. 1 John 5:19 states that we (Christians) are from God, but the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, Satan.  

Let’s swoop up just a little higher in this big picture. Someday you and I will be dead. When the reality of an eternity of life with God or death apart from him smacks you in the face, what of this life will matter? I sometimes wonder if at that moment I'll experience some sadness at the realization of the sheer magnitude of time I squandered in meaningless pursuits of comfort and pleasure.  

Most of our lives look like this:






We separate our time and resources into categories, and we proudly display God as the biggest one! The problem is that this lifestyle fails to account for the war we're in. Our travel circle or our work circles don’t have too much to do with God. 

Does your life reflect the fact that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one? That everywhere we go two kingdoms are at war? Satan prowls around like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) looking for someone to devour. He is extremely opposed to the advancement of the Gospel. 

I wrote in my last post that we all worship something. Whatever we long for most, desire to talk about the most, that is what we worship. We must engage our whole selves in declaring God is greater than anything else. The enemy is violently opposed to us making that declaration. He will do anything to get us to compartmentalize our lives and dilute the message.

Life should only have one compartment; everything else is just a subset:






In this life, God calls us out of our comfort zones and onto the front lines of war. Don’t misunderstand, though. I’m not talking about being at a church building 24/7 or everyone becoming pastors and full-time relief workers. The battle rages all around us, not just in the unreached people groups across the world. 

The front line of the war is in the heart of every single person. 

At work, it may take the form of a war between integrity and dishonesty, or laziness and diligence. With your neighbors the battle might be covetousness vs. generosity. Are you selfless in your home? Are you merciful? Are you humble when you play sports, or do people see arrogance and pride?

God put you exactly where you are, and your chief occupation in this war is to make much of Jesus. Place your value on pointing everyone straight to Him as you joyfully declare that He is greater than anything else in your life. Everything you do should make Him look awesome to those around you!

In this world we will have trouble, but take heart! Jesus has overcome the world! He has chosen to show his strength in the unlikely, broken, misfit group of weak failures called the Church. We fight in this war by surrendering our whole lives to him; by resting in the fact that we have been redeemed, and by seeing the Gospel for the good news that it really is: that God loved us so much he conquered death on the cross so that we could be rescued into an amazing and full life with Him.

My dad understood this war the morning we strapped our skis on and went to church. That day he magnified Jesus in the front-line battleground of my eight-year-old soul.

I don't go to church because it's the right thing to do, or because it makes me feel good. I show up on Sunday morning because that's where my army battalion is. I show up every week because my struggle isn't against flesh and blood, but against the powers of the dark world and spiritual forces of evil. On Sunday morning I get to stand in the ranks of God's army, wearing the armor of God, together standing our ground against the flaming arrows of the evil one.

I'll leave you with a "big picture" thought that captivates my heart: "Little children . . . He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

Confessions of a Reluctant Extrovert

 

One thing that I am learning about myself, often painfully and reluctantly, is that I just might be an extrovert. This is only notable because I have considered myself an introvert for as long as I can remember.

The thing that I don’t often let people know is that I am a “hopeless romantic.” I am not completely sure what is always meant by this term, but for me it means that there is something appealing about deep emotional battles and even deep pain is acceptable, should it reveal something good and right. Poetry speaks to me very vividly. The irony is that I am not very prone to show great emotional response or excitement, even though it simmers under the surface. For me, this always meant that I must be an introvert: I am most genuine in my own thoughts and in those times alone with God. 

As long as I have considered these things, I always thought that when I had a long day, the best thing for me, the thing that would bring me the most encouragement, would be time alone to “decompress,” as my wife and I are fond of saying. The problem is that as I am alone with my thoughts, all the struggles of the day seem to compress into those simmering emotions all the more. My attempt to respond to life, as a good introvert should, seemed to lead to very strange cases of melancholy. What could an introvert do? Maybe it’s not that simple.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages the saints to not “neglect” meeting together as is the habit of some in the church (10:24-25). For the introvert it is easy to “neglect” meeting with fellow saints. When my identity becomes a narrowly defined personality trait or tendency, it is easy to neglect the richness of the life God has called me to. These labels for the way that we tend to be can often excuse our sin, and become the basis for so much of our pride and self-righteousness. We relish our unique personality traits rather than looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Instead I look to Chris the introverted, intuitive, abstract thinker, enemy of God before he was reconciled by the blood of the cross.

Knowing my natural tendencies is a good thing. God has created me uniquely, and he knows me better than I know myself. But, were I to truly realize my natural tendencies, I would still be a slave to sin. The Lord has encouraged my soul, heart, and mind more in my interactions with other saints, His Body, than ever before. I have to truly consider others better than myself when I step into social situations that I would normally shy away from. That simple obedience and self-forgetfullness is truly life-giving. God wants to pierce through tidy little categories that we like to create about ourselves or others. He is the answer, not any system of social psychology that makes much of us. 

God does not call us to anything but joy in His glorious presence. Any aspect of myself that I think I am sacrificing to attain that is a welcome exchange. Oh God, that you would show us the reality of that exchange.

So sings he, charm'd with his own mind and form, 

The song magnificent-the theme a worm! 

Himself so much the source of his delight, 

His Maker has no beauty in his sight. 

See where he sits, contemplative and fix'd, 

Pleasure and wonder in his features mix'd; 

His passions tam'd, and all at his control, 

How perfect the composure of his soul! 

Complacency has breath'd a gentle gale 

O'er all his thoughts, and swell'd his easy sail: 

His books well trimm'd, and in the gayest style, 

Like regimented coxcombs, rank and file, 

Adorn his intellects as well as shelves, 

And teach him notions splendid as themselves: 

The Bible only stands neglected there- 

Though that of all most worthy of his care; 

And, like an infant, troublesome awake, 

Is left to sleep, for peace and quiet sake.

– William Cowper, “What is Man?” (excerpt)

 

 

The dearest idol I have known, 

     Whate'er that idol be; 

Help me to tear it from thy throne, 

     And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with GOD, 

     Calm and serene my frame; 

So purer light shall mark the road 

     That leads me to the Lamb.

– William Cowper, “Walking with God” (excerpt)


The Beautiful Hero: Seeing All I Was Meant to Be in Jesus

 

A good book and a good quiet time intersected for me last week. Summitview’s Aspire class recently read Gospel-Centered Discipleship by Jonathan Dodson, and I am going through it with a group of leaders from another church, as well. In it, Dodson speaks of the importance of delighting in God as a motivation for our Christian life, then quotes Jonathan Edwards as saying:

 

The first foundation of the delight a true saint has in God, is his own perfection; and the first foundation of the delight he has in Christ, in his own beauty; he appears in himself the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely. (Gospel-Centered Discipleship, 77)

 

If Jonathan Edwards is right, and our first foundation of delight in Christ is seeing that He is altogether lovely, do we ever get to that? I'm not sure the typical Christian has the automatic response of "lovely" to his image of Jesus.

But in a recent quiet time, I read the last two thirds of the book of Judges. So many broken men leading the nation of Israel, or corrupting the nation of Israel, or both. Weakness, failure, lust, greed, ambition. There are no heroes, no clear bad guys. Just the sad state of pathetic human lives, dysfunctional families and selfish culture. Just a mess, really. And though God was at work in and through those people, their individual daily lives rarely reflected much that looked like God. And of course the book of Judges ends on a very sobering, and all-too-relevant-for-today point in Israel's history. Actually, the whole Bible is a story of broken people, broken leaders and broken nations. And all that's there looks strikingly like an honest view of my world.

Except in one life. One life in the Bible is different. Starkly different. Jesus’ life. Jesus was not only an instrument of God's will, like Gideon or Samson or Ehud, but Jesus' life looked like what I kept hoping to see in those other men, and in myself. Jesus was not broken. Jesus was good. When there were opportunities for lust, He loved instead. When there was a door for greed, He closed it and gave. When ambition and power were offered again and again, he just walked away. He was different than anyone else has ever been. He was perfect. Even in the face of death, He would not change. Everything that looked good in Jesus was good. Jesus was real.

In Jesus was Life, and that life was the light of men. He is the light of this world. Though I am nothing like Jesus, yet in Jesus I see the real me, or all that was meant to be me, but never is. In that life I see what God has made me to be. Jesus is the beauty of God made visible, the beautiful expression of all the qualities that we all were intended to shine forth. Jesus is altogether lovely. He is God, He is my Savior, and He is good. I do delight in Him.

Which makes His call to me most wonderful. He asks me to serve Him. The One who is beautiful asks me to be loyal. In light of all the other broken, foolish things I serve, my heart cries out that this Man, this good Man, deserves my allegiance. Though many turn away to serve other gods, may I not loose sight of the One who is worthy, and who invites me to follow. May I be true to the One who is true. May I always see, in all its glory, the privilege of being called to labor in His service.

When we see the life of Christ in its true contrast to all others, our heart speaks the word "beautiful.” It is a beauty that brings joy into the heart and humility deep into the soul. It truly is a profound motivation to serve and follow Him. Seeing that beauty is what must be fostered in our hearts and in our churches. We will honor what is beautiful to us.

The Sting of Death

 

I have been a pastor for nearly two years, but just last week officiated my first funeral. While shepherding people through various life difficulties can be a profound challenge, perhaps nothing is as challenging as navigating through the questions and emotions that accompany death. What made the experience even more difficult was its emotional proximity, the deceased being my grandmother and the funeral attendees being my extended family, most of whom I suspect lack saving faith. Words are difficult to find when speaking to a crowd like that, and I’m not sure if the words I shared had any effect in initiating the kind of spiritual transformation that I desire for them. Nevertheless, it reminded me of a resolve that was initiated in my own heart nearly fifteen years ago in the wake of the death of my grandmother’s husband, my grandfather.
 
It was during the Spring Break of my junior year in college that my grandfather succumbed to a fast moving lung disease and passed into eternity. I was twenty years old at the time and had been a Christian for about eighteen months. The realities of eternal life and eternal death had become real to me, but only in theory. Death now tested those realities to see if they had a home not only in my head, but in my heart as well.
  
My grandfather could be described as a religious man, in that he weekly attended church, but his religion was never a topic of conversation. My mother recounts that when she was growing up he made it clear that politics and religion were not to be spoken about, so in my year and a half of Christianity, I had never had a spiritual conversation with him and had little idea of whether or not his religion reflected a genuine saving faith.
 
His illness came on very quickly, taking his life in a little over a week. As I mentioned, it was over Spring Break so I was able to travel to Albuquerque to see him for the last few days of his life, but by that time he was drifting in and out of consciousness and no longer possessed the state of mind needed for spiritual conversation. When he finally died, it shook me to the core. I had to ask again all the questions I had been asking for the last year and a half, but this time they had a face to go along with them.
 

After his death, I developed a resolve never again to let a loved one pass without at least having a conversation with that person about what awaited on the other side of death. In the following years, I initiated conversations with my grandmother about her eternal destiny. She was fairly responsive and agreeable to the gospel, although I must admit that I’m still unsure if she possessed an authentic saving faith, or if she was just courteously agreeing with her suddenly spiritual grandson. My hope, of course, is that she experienced true salvation and is now in paradise with her Savior. But regardless, her death is far easier to accept knowing that she at least had the gospel clearly placed before her. That was something I could not say about my grandfather.
 
Still, although I can honestly say I presented the gospel to my grandmother, her death exposed something in me. The resolve that was stirred following my grandfather’s death has ebbed and flowed over the years and has probably waned in recent times. As I looked at the faces of my family at the funeral, I realized that I have not had that crucial conversation with most of them. My hope is that the words I shared at the funeral will stimulate many of them to seek the answers to the big questions of life, but if nothing else, they stimulated me to renew the burden I had as a young Christian to ensure that each of the people in my immediate circle is given the opportunity to receive the gift that takes the sting out of death. May we all remember the reality of eternity, not merely in theory, but in such a way that we are burdened for the souls of those most dear to us.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1Corinthians 15:54-58)


Photo credit: "I Sting" by Matt Reinbold (on Flickr)

Don't Go On Eating Your Dinner



My husband and I have recently become very interested in historical and current events/cultures from around the world. He daily reads up on world news; 

we've begun studying political maps (re-learning things that I’m certain I was taught in seventh grade Geography class); we bought a huge world map and hung it in our living room, and we've been watching movies about other nations, world history, etc. 

A week ago, we watched Hotel Rwanda. This is a true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed more than a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda.

About halfway through the movie, there’s a scene in which an American cameraman gets footage of the genocide in Rwanda. Paul is extremely thankful and expresses his gratitude, certain that when world powers see the horrible violence occurring in Rwanda, they’ll send help. 

The cameraman replies (he breaks the third commandment in the quote … I’ll just fix that for him), “I think if people see this footage, they'll say ‘Oh, my gosh, that's horrible,’ and then they'll go on eating their dinners.”

Oh my goodness! Do you think that’s what people would do – If they saw footage of unbelievable violence, children bleeding, people being beaten to death, people in absolute anguish? 

It breaks my heart to realize how easily my heart can fall into that place of apathy. There are people being persecuted in very similar ways even today… and even more worthy of my thought, care, and action – there are billions of people destined for an eternity separated from God and all that is good. What is my response when I’m confronted with this knowledge?

During a recent quiet time, I was moved by the truth presented in Matthew 13 – As Jesus explains what He meant in sharing parables about separating the good from bad in harvesting wheat and in fishing. He explains:

the Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will weed out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear... This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This is the first time I’d imagined what it will be like when this division between believers and those who don’t believe happens. Jesus tells me that I’ll be safe with Him. What about all the people I know and love who don’t cling to that promise? I've asked God since that morning to help me remember that day is coming; that my prayers, my thoughts, and my actions would be filled and motivated by a deep desire for people to find refuge in their Savior before it’s too late.


Photo credit: "Globe" by Steve Cadman (on Flickr)

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