God is up to something good

I was recently at a Barnes and Noble, relaxing with a crossword puzzle and a black French Roast.  I would occasionally glance up and look out over the rows of shelves containing their wealth of words and wisdom.  On one such glance I saw a table with books piled up; in the middle was a short sign that read “New in History”.

My first thought was how that’s an oxymoron.  History has already happened; there’s nothing new about it.  But of course, it referred to history books just newly published.

It reminded me of a phrase or way of thinking we occasionally use to generate fresh interest or enthusiasm in ministry settings: “God is up to something new” or “God is doing a new thing.”

I get it.  Like the would-be readers of these newly released history books, an individual or community is experiencing God’s grace in a way that feels refreshingly new and they’re rejoicing in this.  That’s only right; it’s good to rejoice. That being said, this idea could benefit from some unpacking.

We like new things. New phones, new clothes, a new car (and its new car smell), starting a new job, ringing in the New Year, turning over a new leaf. Why? Besides the sparkliness it brings, new things make us feel like we’re making progress. Change is good, we say. It moves us forward; so we make a change here, a change there, and soon we feel we’re making a difference. But we also say that the more things change the more they stay the same. That’s the idea that if things keep changing, eventually they come back around to what they were. What good is a rotating merry-go-round of new changes if they inevitably never affect a perpetual newness?

This is why it is best not to measure God’s work by its shininess or sparkle, but by the consistent vitality that has always characterized his goodness. Salvation is the rhythmic goodness of God at work in history, an ancient wonder that constantly renews.

Why might this be important to clarify? As with every new thing, our faith will experience the fervor of a honeymoon phase(s), then transition into a variety of seasons. The newness we felt will eventually feel old, possibly making us feel our faith needs an upgrade; then upgrade after upgrade. It’s a recipe for an anxiety-riddled faith. In such seasons, we will need a foundation reminding us that whether old or new, it is always God’s goodness at work, and that God’s goodness is always enough. In that reminder we find joy, peace, and rest in the God who, through old and new, is always up to something good.

How Nathan’s approach comments on David’s leadership and safeguards our own

Most know the story of David and Bathsheba. Not so much seducing Bathsheba as conscripting her into his bed, King David took another man’s wife for his own gratification. Not just any man; one of his soldiers, Uriah. Upon learning Bathsheba was pregnant, David tried covering it up by inviting Uriah home from the battlefront on a weekend pass to be with his wife. When Uriah’s commitment to king and country would not allow him to, however, David returned him to the front and had his commander Joab place him in the thick of the fighting to be killed. David was then legally able to take Bathsheba as his wife.

In the wake of this incident, there’s a detail that might seem to underline just how diluted David has become; when Nathan approaches David to hold him accountable, he’s unwilling to be immediately honest with him. Instead of coming right out and taking him to task, Nathan tells David a story about an exploitative landowner. Once David’s ire is up, only then does Nathan end the pretense: “You are the man!”

When Jesus’ disciples once asked him why he speaks in parables, he said “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand”. In a sense, parables are for those who don’t get it or are on the outside of things. Considering David’s actions, it must have seemed to Nathan that with righteousness and truth no longer compelling David, perhaps a parable would. So instead of straightforwardness, he strategizes.

What might Nathan’s approach here say about what David’s leadership had become?

First, it says God’s spokesman didn’t trust David enough to be immediately straight with him. David had broken at least three of the commandments by coveting, murdering, and stealing (not to mention making Joab his accomplice); these are not the actions of a man who is handling truth well.

Second, it says that David’s actions have both grievously undermined God’s intended reputation for Israel as a righteous people and David’s ability to integrally represent and lead them in that pursuit.

Third, it says that rather than gratefully receiving what God would gladly give (2Sam12:8), David’s actions more closely align him with the kind of exploitative king both Moses and Samuel warned Israel about (Dt17:14-20, 1Sam8:10-22). David’s actions have exemplified why having “a king…like all the nations” was never a good idea. If Israel’s best king is doing these things, what will their worst kings do?

And fourth, Nathan’s approach suggests David’s sin had dimmed his wit. His discarding of God’s commands had made him one of those leaders you have to warily beat around the bush with, hoping it finally dawns on them how foolish or incompetent they have become.

Nathan’s approach ultimately demonstrates not so much how his relationship with David has changed as how David’s relationship with God, Israel, his family, and even himself has changed. The seriousness of those changes would be gradually seen in the consequences that would follow (2Sam12:10-15).

To avoid consequences in our own lives and ministries, it may benefit us to ask what these observations might correspondingly mean for those of us in Christian leadership.

First, it challenges us to pause and examine our relationship with those whom we work and serve. Are they comfortable around you? Enough to be straightforward with you? If not, why? While it could be their own insecurities, could it also be you? Are you willing to ask them about it?

Second, attitude reflects leadership. Like Israel’s relationship with their kings, a congregation’s atmosphere and tone suggests what kind of influence their leaders have actually had in the long term. For better or for worse, a congregation is always a reflection of its major influences; in part that means you. Consider your congregation; how has your influence shaped them into what they are? Has it helped or hindered their journey in becoming what Christ has called them to be?

Third, it reminds us that we cannot cultivate Christian community by utilizing the methods of a fallen world “like all the nations”. Consumer marketing, hierarchies, pandering, and power moves will not build Christ’s church. We cannot arrive at God’s desired destinations unless we’re moving along God’s directed avenues.

Fourth, disengagement diminishes our wit. Whether concerning God, his commands, the role he has given us, or the people our role affects, disengagement detaches us from reality, disrupting our ability to wisely process that reality to distinguish right from what’s wrong, which finally dissipates our resolve to do what’s right.

If you observe David’s life after these events, his actions here can be seen as an inciting incident that would sow great trouble for Israel. His abilities to govern the kingdom, parent his children, command respect, and inspire godly devotion were considerably diminished. Even David and Bathsheba’s son and grandson, Solomon and Rehoboam, would partake in similar actions that eventually resulted in Israel being ripped apart. David’s actions certainly speak to us of what not to do.

But it is Nathan’s example that speaks loudest and clearest to the reader. It’s interesting that even though David was chosen by God to be king, there was still the need to safeguard Israel’s holy conscience through the prophetic office. It’s an indication that despite the royal framework put in place at the people’s request, it didn’t supersede the undergirding covenant already in place between God and Israel. Nathan is the agent of this covenant and its holiness.

Nathan’s example is therefore a safeguard to us as well. Nathan shows us that godly leadership doesn’t begin by leading followers to God, but by following God ourselves. In challenging the man after God’s own heart by following God instead of the man, Nathan demonstrates that it’s the LORD’s edicts and not the leader’s example that is to command our loyalty, hold our heart, and inspire our actions.

 

 

Why the prodigal son needed his older brother

Monday night I watched the season three finale of “Better Call Saul”, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s wonderful prequel series to their incomparable “Breaking Bad” series. Through consistent simmering narrative, we gradually learn what is pushing the likable elder-law lawyer Jimmy McGill towards becoming the amoral scumbag Saul Goodman who protects and defends Albuquerque’s criminals. Naturally, it has to do with his relationship to his brother. His older brother, Charles McGill, a brilliant and well accomplished attorney, has bailed his younger brother out of more trouble than he’d like through the years. After years of frustration and resentment towards Jimmy for bending and breaking the rules to get ahead, as well as for being their mother’s favorite, Chuck uses his career and knowledge of the law as a way to hold Jimmy to a higher standard. But when Jimmy makes an honest effort to do better in life by becoming a good lawyer and man, Chuck’s resentment spills over as he believes his brother doesn’t deserve either. He grows dismissive of Jimmy, hindering his every honest effort, while condescendingly explaining he only wants what’s best for him.

In Monday night’s season finale, his journey to the dark side got a big push. When Jimmy tries to make amends with Chuck over a recent discord, in a moment where Chuck’s own life is falling apart, Chuck goes off. He tells Jimmy “Why have regrets at all? What’s the point? You’re just going to keep hurting people. This is what you do. In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you; you can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it, embrace it. You don’t have to make up with me; things are fine the way they are. The truth is, you’ve never mattered that much to me.”

The sad irony is that for all of Chuck’s speeches of how the law is something to be respected and handled by good people to keep the world in check, his own resentment and disparagement may be precisely what drives Jimmy to become the criminal lawyer who would enable so much pain and sadness.

Why am I going on about a TV show? It made me think of the “prodigal son” parable. You know the story. Having demanded, then wasted his father’s inheritance on frivolities, the younger son realizes his mistakes, is ashamed, and returns home simply hoping for the mercy of a job. Instead his father gracefully restores him to sonship, celebrating with a feast. The older brother refuses to participate, telling his father that all this time he stayed, worked, and has never been celebrated like this. His father tells him “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”

Obviously the father wants his older son to understand grace, but why? To simply enjoy a party? Perhaps, but for a much broader purpose. How the older brother reacts to his younger brother would set the tone for all that would happen after. The father has already set a public tone of grace; if the older brother’s reaction contradicts that grace, it will have a damaging impact on the tone his father set, as well as the already damaged younger brother. If we were to let the story play out logically, one day when their father would no longer be there, the whole estate would belong to the older son and the younger brother’s fate would greatly depend on his older brother. How would he then treat him? His father wants him to get grace now so he’ll give grace later; that by the time comes when his younger brother is at his mercy, he’ll have chosen to embody the grace they both learned from their father by building him up rather than breaking him down.

Like the younger brother we all feverishly want something that’s ours, something that gives us meaning, a place or group to belong, a chance to become someone that others value. The younger brother would come to eventually find all those things at home, through a reality perpetuated in the grace given by his father. Would his brother continue to build on that? Jesus never says, perhaps because he wants our lives to be the answer to that question.

Manifest Hero

A father is not
Just a guy with some kids
But a man who bestows
The know-how to live
He’s generous with time,
He serves in his strength,
Through the wisdom he wields
We’ll grow to have what it takes
He gives us the courage to
Be bold and be strong
To pursue what is right
And abstain from what’s wrong
When the storm clouds are gathered
He is first into the fray
Giving light to our night
While guiding our way
When our hearts are downcast
And can no longer cope
He’s the manifest hero
Who exemplifies hope

A father is not
A guy who’s just there
But a man whose presence
Fills the spaces laid bare
In his hands there is healing
In his heart there’s resolve
He brings mercy and grace
To the sins he absolves
He facilitates peace
With the calm of his head
And the temperance he keeps
Leaves no room for dread
With a patience that’s gentle
And a might that is kind
His demeanor is what we hope
The world will soon find

So as we listen for the beat
Of our father’s steady heart
Knowing its rhythms will
Show ours where to start
May this man for all seasons
Who looms large in our minds
Make us manifest heroes
To love those in our lives

An illustrative encouragement for God’s wonderful women

Several years ago I was a cabin dad at a week of youth camp at Rock Lake Christian Assembly. The theme that week was the “armor of God”, Paul’s illustration in Ephesians 6:10-17. Each day began with an assembly where the campers would be shown a movie clip that helped illustrate the particular armor piece being focused on that day. For example, a clip from Clint Eastwood’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was used to illustrate the “breastplate of righteousness” (bonus points if you know the scene). I remember the camp dean remarking later how it was difficult to find movie clips for certain armor pieces. In the years since, my mind occasionally recalls his remark and subsequently tries thinking of certain films that might help for future illustrations.

Last week, the superhero genre’s newest and brightest cinematic gem, “Wonder Woman”, was released to glowing reviews and reception. I saw it with both my mom and sister; not only one of the best superhero movies released in a while, it was one of the most encouraging and uplifting of any movie I’ve seen of late. I’m not going to talk about the movie, but just wanted to comment on something.

Wonder Woman’s outfit has become more than a comic-book costume; it has been remodeled after the armor of Greek warriors. A few days after watching the film, it occurred to me that most of the time in ministry settings when we’re attempting to illustrate the armor of God, the illustration is never that of an armor-clad woman. It makes me wonder if during all those times we were encouraging believers to “put on the full armor of God”, how often did the women and girls feel empowered by the message being preached at them. I’m not saying it wasn’t; just that illustrations must serve the message. “Wonder Woman” helps provide that message.

Knowing one’s value and significance is no small thing. We want God’s women and girls to know they are included in God’s call to arms. We don’t want them to fear, as Tolkien’s Eowyn did, “A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

I want my mom and sister, the women of our churches, and my future wife and daughter to know they are free to fight the good fight with as much sacred fury as they can muster. That while the insignia upon their brow proclaims salvation and the eagle etched into their breastplate screams righteousness, their boots that were made for marchin’ will move them through desolations as they bring peace, their lasso will bind falsehoods, and by taking up shield and sword, they wield faith and fiery goodness.

Paul writes “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm.” God made his women to be strong and mighty. Their every courageous effort to press further into Christ pulls them deeper into that for which they were designed to demonstrate and we would do well to celebrate—God’s strength and wonder.

“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

What is the purpose of prayer?

Over the past year, I have prayed for several people fighting illnesses. A number of them did not make it. All were committed Christians. One, a pastor’s wife, shined God’s light into a great many lives. Upon hearing of her death, I remember thinking if God didn’t heal such a woman, what hope would I have were I in a similar situation. With each passing, I struggled with what felt like a combination of health anxiety and a faith crisis. Through time and prayer, I eventually moved through it. In recent days, however, the struggle has returned.

Last August Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim and Christian author and apologist, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. As he proceeded to undergo radiation, with so many praying, things seemed hopeful. But recently he learned the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and, while options are still being discussed, things are not looking great. I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for him and others in similar battles. For myself, I feel all prayed out. A frustrating, panicky question has started to emerge in my mind—“why pray if God would say no?”

Yes, the attitude of prayer is guided by Jesus’ words “not my will, but Yours be done”. We try to maintain this attitude before God through all our prayers, but I wonder if we’re able to fully appreciate this attitude unless we are possibly going to our death. In these prayers, people are not asking for a job promotion, relationship, or certain conflict to work out; people are asking, begging God to not let them die. To let them live. What good is prayer if God would say no to that?

While attempting to navigate and struggle through this subject and its inherent sadness, probably not as much as so many others have and do, my thoughts gradually turned from “why pray if God would say no?” to “what is prayer’s overall purpose?”

As Jesus prepares to go to his own death, he tells his disciples in the upper room “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

We know this passage; we cite it often to God when we want something of Him. But is there more to it? Jesus’ comment here occurs between two segments of a larger conversation stream.

The first segment is a series of comments (John 14:9-12) wherein Jesus reveals he is the image of the Father (v9), is speaking the words of the Father (v10), and is doing the works of the Father (v10-11). And just as he is able to do these things because he abides in the Father, Jesus also goes on to say that after he leaves, whoever believes and abides in him will continue in his work (v12). The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s salvation work being carried out on Earth through the Son, and those who continue to abide in him as his Church body.

So in v13 when Jesus says “whatever you ask in My name, that will I do”, it is on behalf of the Father’s salvation work being facilitated through Jesus that he answers those prayers—“so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. God will answer our prayers in order to support his Christ-centered salvation work continued through the Body of Christ because they are how the Son now glorifies the Father.

The second segment is a series of comments (John 14:15-26) in which Jesus conveys that for the sake of living in holy behavior (v15), our lives are being immersed into a Trinitarian reality (v16-26); an existence that consists of living to glorify the Father by abiding in the Son through the operative power and guidance of his Holy Spirit. Participating in the Father’s work of exalting the Son requires a holiness born in the Spirit. The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s sanctifying work being carried out through the Spirit within Christ’s Church body.

How is this related to Jesus’ preceding prayer instructions in John 14:13-14? The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is the Father’s answer to our prayerful requests to continue in His salvation work of exalting Christ. The purpose of praying and asking in Jesus’ name is to get us in on the Father’s salvation work in Christ by first getting us in on the Father’s sanctifying work in the Spirit.

Are we to petition God? Yes. Are we to ask God for provision? Yes. Are we to ask God for healing? Yes. Can we trust God? Yes. But over and beyond, the purpose of prayer is not as much about getting or being given something as it is about growing into and becoming someone. Prayer is a privilege given us to bring us into God’s abiding presence. We pray because prayer is formational; prayer shapes Christ in us. Prayer takes us beyond ourselves and plunges us deeply into the presence, perspective, and personhood of Christ.

How might this message edify or encourage? For the Christian believer who is nearing death, the one who still has years to live, or one who is all prayed out, Christ-exalting, Spirit-formed prayer expands our perceptions to see that the magnificent work of God fills a span of time whose vastness is far greater than that of our own years. The work of God is transcending history, transforming life, and ultimately, translating existence into Christ’s newness. God’s salvation and sanctifying work is never finished; it was ongoing before our birth and it will outlive us. Prayer places us into his work as participants, to become a people whose lives are conformed to Christ. And after our time is over, our prayers keep us connected to this work that is greater than ourselves, for a plea from our spirits to God’s Holy Spirit does not die with us; it continues on through the work for which it has pled.