I’m kind of a tech geek. A videographer by trade, I’ve also found myself on the business side of Photoshop crafting countless sermon slides and church program brochures. By far, the most common stock image we use in the Church is of some person standing on top of a mountain with their arms outstretched in exultation. They’ve conquered the impossible peak, and now they’re either, a) enjoying the fullness of life Jesus promised in that one glorious moment; b) worshipping God in the splendor of his creation; or c) celebrating the tangible reality that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength – in particular, climbing this mountain.

The message we send through the use of this imagery is that this is the kind of life God wants you to live. Successful and free. Celebratory and worshipful. God wants all of us to climb our metaphorical mountains and find freedom from the trials and obstacles in our life. And to a certain extent I think that’s true, but it fails to tell the whole story.

Jesus went up on a mountain and stretched his arms out wide, but instead of smiling silently and embracing the accomplishment of conquering the hill, he screamed in agony as the Roman soldiers pierced his flesh with spikes. Rather than drinking in the scenery and breathing in the wildly fresh mountain air, he drank bitter wine vinegar and breathed his last. And it is this, the image of the broken and dying Son of God, not the conquering hero of the stock photograph, that God intends to be normative for those who would follow Jesus.

The real deal we make with God when we answer his call on our lives is to willingly enter into redemptive suffering. That is, after all, the essence of the cross. The call of Jesus is not to find success or fulfillment, but to take up our own crosses and follow him; that is, to live lives that reflect the crucifixion and resurrection (the Gospel!) of Jesus our King. This is the deal that God makes with us, the one that Jesus talked about again and again, but that we are angrily offended by whenever it manifests itself in our lives.

In my arrogant sense of entitlement, I thought the rules didn’t apply to me. I thought that the process of church planting, because it’s so inherently difficult (especially the way I decided to do it), was suffering enough. I thought the mere act of pursuing my dream of Ember Church was all the redemptive suffering my life required. My cup would be full. So when my son’s issues surfaced, I took offence at God. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was already carrying my cross! (Although now I can see that the pursuit of one’s dreams is far different than carrying one’s cross.) I was doing God’s work, so God was supposed to take care of me.

The reality is that God was, and is, taking care of me. He was helping me to understand, to truly know, both his own son and mine. The deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory. The paradigm of true Christian faith isn’t the victorious and exultant climber atop the mountain; it’s the broken and bloodied Son of God stuck to the cross atop the hill. We who minister in this kingdom should expect our lives to more often reflect the latter than the former.

There’s a book that I’ve been wanting to read for several years called The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith, so when the life group that Breena and I recently joined decided to start going through it together, I was very excited. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it was very insightful, and I hope to use this blog to post some of my thoughts and reflections on the book.

The thesis of the book is this: Transformation happens through training my soul. (20) Transformation is a vital part of life for the Christian, as God both promises and commands it in Scripture. It does not happen magically, however. Rather, it demands our full participation, though perhaps in a way that is different than you or I would expect.

Smith tells of a “false narrative” that almost all of us believe. That narrative is this: We change by our willpower. “When people decide to change something, they muster their ‘willpower’ and set about trying to change some behavior. This nearly always fails.” (21) It fails, he says, because the will actually has no power. The will is the human capacity to choose. (22) The will is not something that acts or has power. Rather, the will responds to outside agents, and there are three primary agents that influence the will: the mind, the body, and the social context. (22) In other words, we make choices based on the input we receive from our minds (I’m turning left on this road because I know my destination is in that direction), our bodies (I eat lunch because I’m hungry), and our social contexts (I cheer on the Buckeyes because I grew up in Ohio). Change, therefore, happens not because I muster up the strength to make a new choice, but because the influencers on my will are somehow modified (I learn new things, I exercise, I make new friends). “When new ideas, new practices and new social settings are adopted, change happens.” (22)

Rather than reinforcing the old narrative of willpower, Jesus created a new change narrative: We change by indirection.

If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. …We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change.” We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things – and we can – then change will come naturally to us. This is why Jesus said his “yoke” was easy. If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult. (22-23)

The first step toward change is to examine the fundamental narratives (stories) you believe to be true. How does the world work? Who am I? Who is God? Answering these questions, and ones similar to this, will help you to verbalize the narratives you believe. What are the fundamental narratives you believe to be true? Let me tell you mine.

One of the narratives that I’ve believed (in my heart, not necessarily in my head – and that distinction is important) is this: God makes prosperous the lives of those who step out in faith for him. I do not mean by this that all pastors and missionaries will be financially prosperous, but that their lives will be free from certain troubles and trials, like family health issues, necessary but inescapable debt (perhaps from medical bills), unjust job loss, and ministry failure. (Basically, all the things that have happened to me and my family in the past few months!) I have believed that bad things only happen to God’s servants because of discipline or punishment, and not as the natural course of living in a fallen world.

Besides being a demonstration of poor theology, my narrative is wrong in one rather large way. Can you spot it? Although God is the subject of that sentence, my narrative is fundamentally about me. I, and the quality of my life, are the center of that story. It’s all about me.

But Jesus’ narratives are fundamentally about God.

“God is good.”

“God is beautiful.”

“God is agape love.”

Perhaps the first thing that you and I need to examine is the subject of the stories we believe. Are we believing and telling and living stories about God, or stories about ourselves? “In order to change we first have to change our minds. …Adopting Jesus’ narratives is a way we come to have the mind of Christ.” (26) The world that Jesus saw and experienced was as broken as our own, but at the center of it all he could see, not himself (though he is God), but his Father. Jesus saw the truth, testified to the truth, and told stories of the truth. God is the truth, and in order to be set free by the truth we must learn to live and believe the narratives of Jesus.

What are the narratives that you have been believing and living?

 

This idea of being a parable of Jesus has been haunting me for the past week. What is that supposed to look like in my particular context? How can I be the visible description of the invisible Jesus in the face of job loss, a child’s overwhelming illness, and the death of a church? How can I be a parable of Jesus today, when life is as it is, and not as I wish it were?

At times like this I look to the words of Paul in Philippians:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

There’s a key phrase in there that often gets overlooked: I want to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. I’ve always thought that the way in which we participate in the sufferings of Jesus is through persecution. The suffering is inflicted upon us by an outside, human force that stands in opposition to the kingdom of God. While this is certainly a huge part of what it means to participate in the sufferings of Jesus, I’ve become convinced that it’s not the whole story. In the absence of persecution, we can sometimes take on the suffering of Jesus by becoming, as he was on the cross, Godforsaken.

It’s important to remember, here, that Jesus didn’t sin or do anything wrong that brought upon his Godforsakeness. That Godforsakeness was a part of the Father’s larger plan, and was soon followed by the resurrection, and an entirely new way of being Trinity. In the same way, we don’t necessarily do anything to bring about Godforsakeness in our lives; it can be (and I say “can be” because it is certainly possible that we are so stubborn in our sinfulness that God “gives us over to the desires of our hearts”) a part of the Father’s larger plan to create a whole new way of being human, that is, becoming like Jesus.

God has not forsaken you because you or he are unfaithful. On the contrary, God’s distance in the midst of our suffering is a part of his redemptive plan that always pushes toward resurrection – to new life arisen out of the ashes of death and decay. As Paul says in Romans 5:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope.

God’s aim in all of this is to produce, in you, the power of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of your own resurrection. Therefore, whatever suffering you are enduring now, know that God may feel distant, but he is not absent. You may be forsaken now, but you will not be forsaken then. Only persevere. Take courage, and be faithful. God is faithful even when it seems that he is faithless, and the stories of God’s faithfulness belong to those who persevere through their Godforsakeness and into their resurrection.

Ralph, a family friend since before I was born, sent me an excerpt from a book he’s reading called The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen. He knows a lot of my story, particularly the part of the story that we’ve been living for the past six months or so. Between Zeke’s epilepsy/autism, losing our church, and then losing my job, our family has really been through the meat grinder. I have often been left scratching my head, wondering where, exactly, God has gone to. Had I done something wrong? Had I veered off course while he kept going? Had I unknowingly broken his will and sinned? I didn’t think so. But I still had no explanation for why I felt so Godforsaken.

Then Ralph sent me this excerpt. It has been a long time since I have so deeply resonated with something.

To understand Godforsakenness we must rehearse briefly what has been said [earlier in the chapter] about call. Initially we hear God calling us to ministry, and we make covenant with him to follow the trail toward pastoral ministry. We undergo a process of preparation, sometimes rigorous and difficult. In it we learn to listen to Scripture, to listen to a person and to listen to God. At ordination the church formally recognizes our call and blesses us with the power of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. We begin our ministry, and we encounter many things. We work hard and have some successes and some failures. We find through difficult experiences that we have been made for this work. Our hearts are filled with compassion for people, love for the gospel and endurance for the painful parts of the job. We feel God at work in us.

Then one day, for unknown reasons, God just isn’t there anymore. The Presence that has guided and strengthened is gone. Our covenant with God feels broken and void. The Scriptures stop comforting. Every page condemns! We continue to read out of obedience, but the Word becomes the letter that kills.

Pastoral skills become worthless.

The church is no longer a warm, nurturing environment where friends gather. The church expels us from the secure womb. Evil rages against us. The boundaries of the church are not walls keeping evil out but a boxing ring keeping evil in, so that it can come back and strike us again and again and again. We can’t run.

I’m up a tree. High, far out on a fragile limb I cling. I climbed out there because God said that he wanted me there and that he would be with me. Now the limb is cracking off the trunk. God isn’t there anymore.

The picture changes like a dream. I am not out on a limb, but strapped to a tree. I am hanging from a tree. I am dying on a tree.

Pinched in God’s vise [an image he used while discussing how to make flies for fly-fishing], dangling helpless, I am made into the bait of God. But for whom?

Nobody pretty wants me now. The world wants winners. Nothing succeeds like success. Look good to attract the good-looking. Die to attract the dying. Suffer to know the being of suffering. Cry out to know Jesus’ crying out. Hear the blood of the innocents screaming; searing pain rises from blood-soaked dirt.

Only now am I a parable of Jesus Christ. [He said earlier that Jesus is a parable of God–that just as parables describe something visible so that we can understand something invisible, so Jesus becomes a parable of God. But then we become parables of Jesus, showing others what’s invisible (Jesus) in our own visible lives/stories.]

Jesus cried out, on the cross, “Eli! Eli! lema sabachthani!” This means, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me,” and is a direct quote of Psalm 22. I don’t think he was just quoting Scripture for fun, or to fulfill prophecy. I believe that Jesus cried out in guttural anguish, and the first words that came to his mind were the first words of this dark psalm. The Son of God was Godforsaken in his most desperate hour.

If I am to become like Jesus, then doesn’t it follow that I must also become Godforsaken? If Jesus was the visible description of the invisible God (a living parable), and now is invisible himself, then that leaves it to us to become parables of Jesus. We must become the visible descriptions of the invisible Lord, and in order to fully incarnate this reality, we must suffer. We must, like Jesus, become Godforsaken.

God forsakes us, not because we’ve sinned or left his will, but precisely as an act of his will, in order to bring us into fuller empathy for and identification with his son. It is for this reason that we must learn to embrace our exile, to press into the Godforsaken present in which we find ourselves in these dark days. There is no use in trying to get things back to where they were before. The important thing is to face the current reality with courage and faithfulness, so that we can say to Jesus on that day, insofar as such a thing is possible, “I understand.”

For more thoughts on this topic, check out the post A Suffering Participation.

Yes, I’m writing a book. No, it will probably never be published. But that’s okay, because I’ll just self-publish it and buy a copy of it on amazon.com.

Anyway, I wanted to post a short chapter that I wrote to the blog to get feedback from folks. I suppose this is as good a way as any to determine if I’m on the right track or not.

The chapter is a reflection on the first sermon I preached at Ember, called The Divine Interruption. The sermon is based on Jeremiah 1, and you can listen to it in the sermon player on this blog. (Just scroll all the way to the bottom.) But you don’t have to listen to it to get this chapter.

So if you take the time to read this chapter, would you mind taking a few extra minutes to give me some feedback in the comments section? Honest feedback (positive or negative) only, please.

•••••
Racing Horses | Chapter 3
Reflections on The Divine Interruption

God is with those he calls. That was the lesson of the previous chapter, which was also the sermon I preached at the first worship service of Ember Church. That is an important truth to remember because when the storms of life come it will be the first thing you forget. When life gets hard, harder than you can bear, your first temptation will be to rage at God, “Where are you?! Where did you go?!”

The second temptation will be to question the veracity of your calling. “Maybe I was never really called to this,” you’ll darkly wonder. You will doubt your calling because the cruelty of your circumstances tells you that God has abandoned you. “If God is with those he calls, and God is obviously not with me, then I am not called.”

I wrestled with both of these temptations in my dark hours, often bouncing between the two in some sort of sadistic game of existential ping-pong. I would rage at God for disappearing when I needed him most, and then I would passive-aggressively despair that I was never truly called to ministry in the first place. Maybe I’m not even saved! Back and forth I would go, spiraling ever downward into an internal chaotic darkness.

The moments of clarity would come, however, when I remembered this message in conjunction with God’s undeniable call on my life. Despite my present circumstances, I could not doubt what God had done in my life up to that point, nor could I deny the deep draw to ministry within my soul. If I’m not teaching a class or preaching a sermon, then I’m writing a blog. If I’m not discipling young believers, then I’m thinking about what I would say to young believers in different circumstances. Ministry is something I can’t not do. It is God’s call on my life, and no amount of ministry failure can undo that calling.

Knowing that I was called then, it naturally followed that God was with me. I couldn’t deny the exegesis of the passage. It was clear as day in the words God spoke to Jeremiah. Perhaps that episode where God called Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry was a one-time, unrepeatable event. Even so, the principle behind God’s promise to be with Jeremiah and to rescue him is undoubtedly general, and applies to all ministers of the Gospel. Sometimes you need your head to pull your heart back from the edge of the cliff, and this was certainly one of those times for me.

Falling

At the beginning of the first chapter I wrote that Ember’s death felt like a failure, like I had stepped out in faith and fallen flat on my face. In the previous chapter I wrote that when you step out in faith it is not solid ground onto which you land, but rather the arms of God into which you fall. So which is it? Did I fall on my face, or did I fall into the arms of God? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.”

I fell on my face in the sense that Ember didn’t work out like I had hoped or planned, and the death of Ember was very painful for me. I also felt like a bit of a fool, seeing as how I couldn’t make the church thrive and survive, despite the near impossible circumstances. There’s a part of me that believes that, now that I’ve failed as a church planter, I’ll never be able to get another job in ministry again, and that I don’t even deserve one.

On the other hand, I fell into the arms of God in the sense that I was depending on him at a level I hadn’t experienced before. Even though God didn’t come through for me in the way that I wanted him to, my faith has been deepened. You never really know how sweet the still waters are until you’ve passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I also found, by laying Ember down, how redemptive failure and suffering are kingdom victory. I discovered how trials can be grace.

Is it possible that God would let us fall on our faces in order to teach us to trust him even more? I think so. In ways that seem backward and counterintuitive to us, stepping out in faith and falling on our faces is the same as falling into the arms of God. There are times when failure is the purest grace we can receive.

Success and Faithfulness

Success isn’t the point. It has never been the point. The metrics of the kingdom of God are in conflict with the metrics of the evangelical church. When Jesus says, “few are they who find [the path to life],” how can we obsess over how big our churches are? Shouldn’t we assume that the majority of the people who are already within our churches are doomed to spend eternity apart from God?

But I digress. Faithfulness is the point, not success. And it’s at least possible that some of the most faithful saints were also some of the most spectacular failures – so much so that we may have never even heard of them. If God has called us to an impossible task, then success is removed from the equation and all that is left for us is to be faithful.

In my experience, faithfulness meant laying the church plant down and becoming more present to my family in their time of need. Even though it was obviously the right decision, it still felt like failure. I suppose faithfulness will feel like failure sometimes.

Isaiah the prophet likely experienced this. God even prepared him for it by telling him, right from the beginning, that the people won’t listen to him and they won’t change their ways. We learn at the very beginning of Jeremiah’s book that he failed, too. After all, if he had succeeded in bringing Judah to the point of repentance, they would not have been sent into exile in Babylon. In fact, none of the prophets were able to stem the tide of God’s judgment against his people. In that sense, they all failed. Even Jesus failed. He was unable to convince the leaders of Israel that he was the Messiah, and in the end he found himself friendless, crucified like an enemy of the state.

You might be saying to yourself, “But that was the whole reason Jesus came – to die for our sins. He didn’t fail. He accomplished precisely what he set out to do.” That’s true, but how many of our congregations look like Jesus’s congregation? By our own Western, consumer-driven standards, is not the lonely figure of a crucified man the very definition of failure?

Every person – all the prophets, and even his own Son – that God sent to his people failed according to the world’s standards of success and failure. I think we ought to be paying more attention to that reality than we are. I think that ought to tell us something about what it means to succeed and fail in the kingdom of God. As I’ve already written, I believe that redemptive failure is kingdom victory. Our goal should not be to succeed on behalf of God, but to be so faithful to his call and mission that when we fail (because we will) our failure will be inherently redemptive, thus bringing about tremendous kingdom victory in the spirit of the Gospel, the crucifixion (redemptive failure) and resurrection (kingdom victory) of Jesus Christ.

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