Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Unbind him

This weekend, I was reading in the Gospel of John. In particular, I was praying and reading as I was struggling with the realization that the next day was the 6th anniversary of my mom's passing. As I was reading I got to the passage speaking of Lazarus' death. Jesus spoke to Mary and Martha (and anyone else who was listening) about the realities of what death is and is not. He makes astounding claims about who he is, in particular his claim that He, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus laid claim that everyone who lives and believes in Him shall never die. Huge promises in light of the reason he had been summoned to this place. Great words of comfort when we think of loved ones who have passed in this life, but,  who we can have faith, are living still. The passage gave peace and joy to my spirit and I was grateful.

My eyes continued down through the passage that morning, and as I continued to read this account, something new came through as I read the raising of Lazarus at the words of Christ. It wasn't the power of Jesus words, calling forth life where before there was death, it wasn't the intermingling of strong faith and doubt at play in the loved ones who were gathered. This particular morning, it was the words Jesus spoke to those who were gathered, after Lazarus had emerged alive from his grave: "Unbind him, and let him go."

Its a story of rebirth, regeneration, at the word of our Savior. We lie, dead, lifeless, rotting away under the death linens of our sin. We stink of flesh that has died, is dying, and will die. A dead man thinks no thoughts of life, of God, of anything... and a dead man cannot bring himself to life. But at the call of the Great Shepherd his sheep awake. No matter how far away, how far gone, how tightly wrapped, His sheep hear His voice and come forth. We walk out of the tomb, knowing nothing yet of being alive, knowing nothing about why we walk, knowing only that our God has called us forth and we can do nothing but come out. We stand, wrapped in the burial clothes, stench emanating from our every wound, filth dripping. We are wretched, depraved, debauched, and utterly untouchable, let alone unlovable. Useless, worthless, but somehow standing, and alive. We stand with no knowledge of what to do next, just as Lazarus stood at the entrance to his earthly tomb.

What Jesus does next is massive. He did not look at Lazarus and demand him to go get cleaned up, scrub away his dirt, put on his best clothes, and then come back. He didn't  command anything of Lazarus in that moment. He spoke to those who were there: "Unbind him".

Those who stood alongside Jesus, whom John had just written showing some of them as having great faith in Christ. Jesus' followers, disciples, and friends, they are the ones who received a command from their God. "Unbind him", unwrap his bandages, cleanse his wounds, do not turn up your nose at his stench, and stand far off as though you are afraid to touch him. You claim to love me, and you claim to have mourned over this man's death. Here he stands before you, called from death to life by my word and through my love. I love this man, I wept over his death. If you love me, you love him, and if you love, you obey. Prepare this once-dead man for life.

It was a teaching for the Church. It is what we, as believers who claim to love Jesus, and thereby claim to love what Jesus loves, who are being commanded by our God. We should expect to encounter not only dead people, but even more so to see previously dead sinners taking those first, unsure, stumbling steps back into life. We are expected to be at their tombs, grieving the depth of their depraved deaths, calling of Jesus to come, knowing that, as Martha stated earlier, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." Saying, Lord, I know you have power over this, and if your will is for this dead man to walk, he will walk. We as the church should not be surprised to see people walk out of their graves, still wrapped in their death. And when we see this happen, we should not fumble around and wonder what we are to do for this newly regenerated life. Jesus told us what to do: "Unbind him and let him go".

It is the work of those who love and follow Jesus to embrace regenerate people, no matter the stench, the filth, the debauchery that encircles them. We are to walk up to them, remembering the days we stood still wrapped in linen, just emerging from our tomb. We should remember the sting of the cleansing salve that was lovingly administered to our wounds. We should tread with grace as we prepare this brother or sister for life. We should heed the teachings from Paul to the church at Ephesus that Christ is the example of how we should love, through His love for the church, sanctifying her by the washing of water with the Word.

Lazarus walked out of his tomb at the call of Jesus. He stood, unable and without knowing of anything else he could do. He simply responded to the command to come out. And as he stood, Jesus commanded his people to do exactly what Jesus himself does for the church, he commanded them to unbind him, clean him, wash over him with the water of the word, allowing the Spirit to do it's work. Having been raised by the Spirit through the word of the Son, by the power given by the Father, Lazarus now stood. Jesus then extends the blessing of this work to his people, allowing them the opportunity to now do for someone else what had once been done for them. All of this to emphasize one over-arching reality:
"So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around that they may believe that you sent me.' When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out.'

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Risk in the Christian life

i had the opportunity to share with a group of men this evening. I enjoyed the chance to speak, and I wanted to share the manuscript of what I spoke on. Of course, I lost my place part-way through, so a lot of this didn't get said the way I had planned it...

As men, we take risks. We are wired to be risk-takers. Its bred into us through our ancestry when risk was a necessary means by which we protected and provided for our families. This inherent adrenaline-loving, risk-seeking, inner-primal urge that we have is a God-given reality in our lives and should be handled carefully in our pursuit of Biblical manhood. When combined with our natural man, our sin nature, this desire for the thrill of risk can often be the fuel behind our sinful desires and actions. For me, the thrill of risk, and the desire for every more dangerous undertakings fueled a life aimed at and entrenched in sexual immorality of many flavors. The continuing fight of putting to death these sins makes me immeasurably grateful that my salvation is not based upon any one act, or any gathering of actions in my life, but is secured solely in the blood of Christ. To quote Spurgeon, “I am grateful that God chose me before I was born, because he surely wouldn’t have accepted me after.”
Maybe your flavor of sin is different, maybe you look at people like me who struggle with what I do as being gross, or degenerate, beyond help… but I posit to you the realization that the force that drives my struggle is not so different from what drives yours. You like the taste of risk, it somehow energizes you, makes you feel alive, makes you feel like a man. But how could something so inherently ingrained in our being, so hard-wired into what we are as men, how could it be so bad? What is its purpose in our lives? If we reason out the logic Paul puts to the Romans in chapter 8 of his letter to them, if all things happen to the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose, and if we identify as being those who love God, and we see ourselves as belonging among the count of His elect, then why do we have the earnest desire in our heart to engage in risky behaviors? CS Lewis states a similar question in his book Mere Christianity much like this, “if I possess in my being a desire for something, then there must be a reason for and a way to satisfy that desire.” So, this desire for risk exists, and we seek out ways to satisfy the desire, yet nothing does. So, Lewis goes on to say, “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” So, therefore, we find that we have a desire for risky behavior that needs to be satisfied, and we have sought out worldly pleasures to satisfy that desire, and we have fallen to sin… but because we love God, and we are called according to His purpose (Namely the purpose in transforming us into the image of Christ), then there must be something that can satisfy our manly urge for risk, and it must not be anything of our world.
 How do we find that which will satisfy our desires, if that satisfaction must be found outside this world?
We need to do a couple of things, 1) resist our natural male urge to forge ahead on our own; and 2) seek a community of men who can help you as you go.
When I first began trying to climb out of my own sin-drenched pit of despair. I worked hard to make sure no one else knew what was happening, or what I was going through. It was a sad, lonely, arduous pursuit. All I knew was my goal was to stop what I was doing and seek after God. It wasn’t until I had been further broken through an epic failure of trying hard that I finally opened up about my struggle. I did this first to my wife, who tried her best to be understanding and supportive. In the end, she gave me some of the most difficult and best advice possible, she told me that I needed to bring it to my men’s group. At this time in my life, I was present in my men’s group, but not deeply engaged. But she was right, as great as she had been with it all, she isn’t a man, and she didn’t understand what I needed. Through allowing myself to become open, vulnerable, and transparent with these men, I found something new, a different kind of risk, and one much more in step with the picture of Biblical masculinity. Having a group of men who know my particular predilection proclivities, and being known at a deep level and cared for deeply by these men became something new to me that I never realized I needed before. In giving up the lonely fight, and locking arms with my brothers, the Spirit was able to work through this ministry to aid me in putting to death the sins of my darker nature.
As the desire for the old risks began to wane, I found in myself a discontentment starting to grow. I needed risks, that part of my created being still needed to be satisfied. I knew what the longings felt like, I recognized the need, but rather than run to the old attempts of fulfillment, I now had the counsel of men to seek out how to fulfill the needs of my manliness. I walked onto a limb and began leading the group sometimes, and from there, leading discipleship classes, sitting on church committees, and from there seeking other ways to build on new, refreshing ways to take risks that were actually glorifying God, and seeking to advance His kingdom. But, parallel to the way these behaviors respond and react in sin, I started to feel like I needed more risk, I wasn’t finding contentment even still. Then an opportunity to join a new group of men came along.
Early in the development of this group, we were sharing with each other prayer requests. Real stuff that this group was going to specifically pray for in that moment. I mentioned the growing disquiet in my spirit that God seemed to have something different for me, and that my preoccupation with what this change could be had caused a great deal of the discontentment in my job and life in the recent times. What I wanted more than anything was a clear vision for what God would have me to do in this life. This was another time in my life that I learned that you shouldn’t ask God a question unless you really want to know the answer. Having recently finished reading John Piper’s “Desiring God” I was certain of a few things: 1) I wanted to experience the fullness of Joy that is offered only at God’s right hand; 2) I needed to be certain that God was the supreme treasure of my life; and 3) I was falling short of both 1 & 2. This new small group selected a few books to get started on, one of which was a book on my shelf at home that I had never opened.
“Don’t waste your life” by John Piper. I made the mistake of trying to read this book at work one night, and found myself in tears. Piper was using the Word of God, and the truths of the Scriptures to speak directly into my soul. I read as he laid out a framework for fulfilment in our life’s work and marrying that work with the work of God. I screamed at the book, demanding that it just tell me where and how to find that! I needed it! It was the refreshing spring of water for my risk-parched soul, where could I find it?!?!
Piper went on to explain the steps of living a life that is not wasted. And he settled on the words of Paul as he proclaimed one of his more famous arguments that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Piper worked through the logical progression of the necessity of Christ being treasured above all things, and the logical inference then that if Christ is to be magnified above all else in our death, he must be supreme over all things in our life. As though that statement wasn’t stirring enough, Piper goes on to list things in our life that we must be willing to give up in favor of the glory of Jesus; in order that our life be lived as it should be, in order for life to not be wasted… the pathway out of discontentment would take us to a place that requires that the glory of God be treasured above all things: our job, our friends, our money, all things that I generally have no trouble cheering on, but then Piper said something the undid me that night: A life lived to the fullness of joy, means a death that is preferable to hugging your children. Somehow, in this moment, God cleared some fog, if I truly desire to live a life of true joy, if I wanted the best life for my family, my kids, myself… I needed to be able to say that to live is Christ, to die is gain. I needed to be able to say that as awesome as my kids are, their sweet embrace is nothing compared to the eternal glory of the only begotten of the father. I needed to understand that the best thing I can do for my kids is show them that Christ is supreme in my life and that I am willing to anything God calls me to do to advance His glory and His Kingdom on this earth. Because they need to see the life of their father displays that:
The beauty and reality of Jesus, His atoning death upon the cross. The propitiation of my debt, and the fulfillment of my ransom completed by His life, death, resurrection, and ascension is so monumentally glorious that I am called, compelled, into a life that says: if today I die, I will rejoice in an eternity spent in the loving presence of my Lord. And that eternity is so immeasurably glorious that it is better than a lifetime spent here on earth.
The beauty and unashamed, unbridled love by which our children hug and cling to us is a sweet foretaste of the totality and perfection of the unconditional love that God has for his children. In the moments of deep satisfaction in the embrace of our children, I am getting a glimpse of the eternal embrace my father has for me.
My kids need to see that I not only ascent to a head knowledge of the glory of God, but that that glory is truly worth something to me. The works of the Spirit through the ministry of John Piper’s words and the ministry of the men in this particular small group helped me to work through these tumultuous realities. The solution was to start doing things in my life that everyone, my wife, my kids, my friends, my employers, strangers would look at and say, “The only explanation is that there is something that that man values more than anything else. And that something must be Jesus.”
So, to that end, at the beginning of this year, I was able to travel to Cuba. I was going to engage in the most basic, New Testament style of work. Knocking on doors and proclaiming the name of Jesus to any who will listen. Completely, utterly outside of my introverted, discipler comfort zone, I was going to try to evangelize. My wife and I sat down with our kids, and (as we often do) discussed with them the Apostles’ words concerning Jesus as they goal of all that we do, and that we must go into the world and preach His name that the sheep who are scattered and not of this fold would be gathered back with the Good Shepherd. We explained to them that it was one thing for us to tell them these things, but we are also called to be doers of the Word, not just readers. So, we went. We shared the Gospel with the lost, with the confused, with the poor, sick, and needy. We showed them love and grace, we extended mercy where we could, and we advanced the Kingdom. It was awesome, I highly commend the trip to anyone.
But that was not all that God had been showing and teaching as John Piper continued to kick me in the gut. Cuba was a short-term burst… God was working something else within our family. Last year, our church partnered with a missionary and his wife who are planting a church in Seattle. Looking for the opportunity to embrace the un-wasted life, we will be relocating our family to the Pacific Northwest as well to be of any help and assistance with the planting of the church, ministering to the people, and hopefully reaching the nations through daily life in an international city. It is yet another opportunity to show our kids the reality that Jesus is worth more than anything else, even the comforts of home, the friends of a lifetime, and the family we grew up with. We don’t know at all what Seattle will bring to us, only that it is the next stone in the path that God is leading us down. To which we say, wherever He calls, we will go. We don’t know where, when, or anything else, but we know that the glory of God is beyond worth whatever we have to give up to serve him. It is a risk, just as it should be.
We, as Christians, are blessed with the endowment of the Holy Spirit. We have the counsel of God made evident through the witness of the Spirit, with the Law and Will of God etched on our regenerate heart. Thus, we do not face the risky decisions of this life unarmed. We are able to make calculated risks for the advancement of the Kingdom. We are not called to be the bringers of victory or the cause of defeat, we are called to be the obedient servants. We are co-laborers, adopted sons, and agents of an eternal kingdom.