Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wisdom from Richard Lovelace

The cross [...] is the perfect statement both of God's wrath against sin and of the depth of his love and mercy in the recovery of a damaged creation and its damagers. God's mercy, patience and love must be fully preached in the church. But they are not credible unless they are presented in tension with God's infinite power, complete and sovereign control of the universe, holiness, and righteousness. And where God's righteousness is clearly presented, compassionate warnings of holy anger against sin must be given, and warnings also of the certainty of divine judgment in endless alienation from God which will be unimaginably worse that the literal descriptions of hell. It is no wonder that the world and the church are nor awakened when our leadership is either singing a lullaby concerning these matters or presenting them in caricature which is so grotesque that it is unbelievable.

The tension between God's holy righteousness and his compassionate mercy cannot be legitimately resolved by remolding his character into an image of pure benevolence as the church did in the nineteenth century. There is only one way this contradiction can be removed: through the cross of Christ which reveals the severity of God's anger against sin and the depth of his compassion in paying its penalty through the vicarious sacrifice of his Son. In systems which resolve this tension by softening the character of God, Christ and his work become an addendum, and spiritual darkness is complete because the true God has been abandoned for worship of a magnified image of human tolerance.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Responsibilty V

Concluding our section on responsibility it’s important to take a good look at the dangers of the call. What we’ll see, even in this brief look, is how invasive the threat (world, flesh, and devil) can be. It can even thwart a God-given impulse to serve and lead.

The first danger to the life of living out the call is arrogance. When you see your gifts flourishing, when people constantly compliment it’s tempting to begin to think too highly of yourself. Jesus, in His third Beatitude says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Many commentators have observed that true meekness is not self-hatred, but rather a true understanding of the self. It is an awareness of yourself not just in your giftedness, but also in your rebelliousness. When you understand your whole self and see it in light of God’s white hot holiness, you begin to become meek. But then recall the cross, the fact that though you are unquestionably rebellious you are also irrevocably loved. What you’ll find is that your heart begins to be stirred with a ‘mysterious confidence.’ You’ll be confident but not arrogant. You’ll be meek, but not saddened. Practicing meekness is the surest way to guard against arrogance and arrogance is one of the quickest ways to destroy an effective life of living out the call.

The second danger to the life of living out the call is envy. We’ve all experienced this. The seemingly powerful minister is nervous and anxious, thus envious of the housewife or the plumber. The plumber or the housewife who desires the illusive ‘more’ is envious of the powerful CEO. Envy has an insidious ability to erode our effectiveness as we pursue our call, our responsibility. You might think of Peter who in John 21 after Jesus says gives him the call: “ Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him,“Follow me!” (John 21:18-19). It’s Peter’s reply which illustrates the envy: Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:19). So often when the Lord calls us and sends us we look to our neighbor and ask “Lord, what about him.” This envy takes our focus off of our God-given direction and sends us into competition, a perfect foothold for the enemy.

The third danger to the life of living out the call is sloth. We all know people who have “greatness in their bones”--they’re exceedingly talented but exceedingly lazy. Sloth plagues Western society. You can just look around. Idea implementation consultation has become its own business. The dark-side of the American dream is an infatuation with the wealth without a desire for the work. A friend of mine says, the major human problem is not a lack of information but a lack of execution.

Sloth is often inspired by a deep fear creating an unbiblical sense of inadequacy. Rather than “it is better to have tried and failed than not tried at all,” we believe “it’s best to avoid failure, even if it means not trying.” The Philokalia, an ancient Eastern Orthodox text, describes sloth as dejection. A sense of dejection often carries with it a sense of uselessness. This is, as is perhaps obvious, again the work of the world, flesh, and the devil.

Sloth can also be the result of a lack of inspiration. When there is nothing compelling us to greatness, greatness is hard to imagine. That’s why it is ever-important to fix our eyes on Christ; when we see Him as He is we will necessarily be inspired. It’s important to remember that sloth, historically, has been understood as one of the seven deadly sins. We typically don’t see constant inactivity as a sin, but that may be because it is so common, and after all, how could something so normal be a sin. In any event, from a historic and biblical perspective, sloth is deadly. When sloth infects calling the tsunami destroys the buildings. When sloth infects calling the earthquake flattens homes.

Responsibility Exercise

Calling, Confidence and Ministry Exercise

Fredrick Buechner writes: “God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great need meet.” This means that we shouldn’t blindly pursue our own ‘gladness,’ yet neither should we emotionally respond to going after the first of the world’s needs that strikes us. We should prayerfully seek to find the intersection of our gladness and the world’s need. That is where calling rests.

In the following Paul encourages Timothy to be reminded of the truest part of himself, the place God wants him to do life and ministry from... read the passage slowly...

Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. (1 Timothy 1:18-19)

1. Paul refers to a prophecy that was made about Timothy. Prophecy, very simply, is about truth--God’s truth. Someone had opened God’s true plan for Timothy to Timothy. Has something like this ever happened to you? Think about seasons when you have thrived. When you have experienced the ‘deep gladness’. Think about times when you’ve been encouraged by others, whether seemingly ‘prophetic,’ or a simple compliment. List some times below.

2. Paul gives Timothy an “instruction” (the Greek word is closer to “command”) to Timothy in light of his calling. Command and calling are connected. God doesn’t command us to live outside of the calling. Reflect on the list above, times people have encouraged you, times of deep gladness. Now put yourself in Timothy’s place. What would Paul be commanding you to do?

3. Spend a few more moments continuing to reflect on times when people have encouraged you, or said something ‘prophetic’ about you.

4. Paul commands Timothy to live in light of his calling so that he might “fight the good fight” or battle well. What is the battle in your life? Try not to focus on the constant hang-ups you have (pride, lust, etc.), rather focus on how God might be using you to push back the darkness for God’s Kingdom. How do your gifts intersect with the world’s need, as that need is expressed locally.

5. Prayerfully read over the above verse 2-3 times. Also read 1 Peter 4:10-11, and Joshua 1:9.

6. Write out some ways that you can respond to the command to live out of your calling locally.

Responsibilty IV

The Spheres of Responsibility

Calling, properly understood, is fundamentally connected to the social spheres we inhabit. We might even refer to all the spheres in which we live as “spheres of responsibility.” A father has his children, a teacher her students, etc. But there are also other spheres of responsibility related more directly to a person’s particular call.

However, it is important to continually heed Os Guiness’s counsel “Our calling is the sphere of our responsibility but we are not responsible to our calling. We are responsible to God, and our calling is where we exercise that responsibility.” Before we talk about spheres of responsibility it’s crucial to remember that we are only responsible for all the social spheres we operate in because we are first responsible to God’s call. Our responsibilities are a response to a call.

That said, take some time to think through all the different spheres of responsibility in your life (e.g. the work-place, family, ministry, other volunteer commitments).

Responsibility III

Discerning Individual Vocation & Responsibility

The author Fredrich Buechner describes, “God calls you to the place where your great gladness meets the worlds deep need.” I love this quote because so often I see people who blindly pursue their own great gladness, ‘their bliss’ as another author says, without consideration for the world and it’s great spiritual cavities. Also, I see people, good people, who watch a documentary on West African genocide, environmental degradation, or the plight of the urban poor and feel emotionally compelled. One pursues their dreams without regard for the world; the other neglects their gifts for the sake of the world. God’s call seeks out the nexus between deep gladness and the world’s need.

Let’s return to the story of Moses. Because he was adopted by Pharaoh at a young age and was therefore familiar with the inner-workings of the Egyptian leadership, but still an Israelite, he was uniquely suited for his role in God’s deliverance of Israel. God used who Moses was to answer the cry of the Israel. We might also think of Nehemiah who was uniquely fitted for rebuilding Israel because of the leadership he had learned while in exile, as the king’s cup-bearer. While it might not always be our deep gladness it is the fundamental intersection of our giftedness and the world’s need, most often as it’s expressed locally.

William Wilberforce wanted to be a Pastor. He had recently come to a real and personal faith in Christ and was wanting to do all he could to serve God. He was also suited to be involved in the government. He came from a family, he had the opportunities. It was John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” that told Wilberforce “It’s hoped and believed that God has raised you up for the good of the nation.” It was only a bit later that Wilberforce begin to sense that God was calling him to remain in politics to seek the abolition of the slave-trade. Early on in this journey of discernment he wrote a letter to John Wesley asking for guidance. The following is Wesley’s response.

Dear Sir,

Unless the divine power has raised you to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a "law" in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?
That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,

Your affectionate servant,

John Wesley

I personally wrestled with finding the nexus, the intersection between my ‘bliss’ and the world’s deep hunger. For the longest time I wanted to become a writer. I was able to get published at a fairly young age in small variety of literary journals. I was excited with my success. In addition to the excitement friends, professors, my parents, they were all encouraging me to go forward with pursuing a life as a writer.

I began to fashion some future for myself where Kandice and I lived in some urban studio with a artsy loft in some hip part of a hip city. I’d drink too much coffee, get published. Kandice would take pictures. It’d be grand. I applied to an incredibly academic MFA program on the east coast. I didn’t get accepted. The disillusionment that accompanied that experience didn’t send me into despair, rather it sent me into a hunt for the intersection of personal bliss and world’s need. Was it in continuing to pursue a life as a writer? Was it back into ministry?

It was in this time of discernment where I felt God say, “I am calling you to teach and build up.” This was both encouraging and challenging. I felt that what that call meant in my immediate situation was to not pursue the idealized writer’s life I had once imagined. What was clear to me was that involved ministry. What also became clear to me was that in order to be taught I needed to commit myself to a season being taught. Off to study theology Kandice and I went.

Those nine words I sensed God saying to me in that particular time of discernment now function as a filter for all I pursue or say “yes” to. When I’m presented with an option I ask myself it it participates in my sense of call: as a Christian, as a Father, as a Husband, and also as one who has been called to “teach and build up.”

Responsibility II

Biblical Vision of Vocation & Responsibility

There are two aspects of vocation and responsibility that apply to all Jesus-followers, simply because they come directly from God’s own word. The first is what is often referred to as the “cultural mandate” others have called it the “cultural commission.” It comes from Genesis 1:27-28, “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them; and God blessed them and said unto them; be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” As biblical scholar Klaus Bockmuehl explains, “The cultural commission consists of procreation, and stewardship over the earth and its creatures.” With the above list we have the basic building blocks of culture, creation and pro-creation.

The second aspect of vocation and responsibility that applies to all Jesus-followers is the great commission. This is the natural out-working of the great commandment (to love God and neighbor). If we fulfill the great commandment we live into the great commission. While the cultural commission applies to the building blocks of what we might call ‘secular’ culture (though that’s not entirely helpful) the great commission applies to creating godly culture, the Kingdom of God. Irrespective of a persons individual call and/or giftedness the cultural and great commission are responsibilities of the Christian. Here it is important to remember that we are responsible for because we are responsible to God and His truth.

A further observation would be that seeing the great commission as a responsibility places the lost within a Christian’s vocational horizon. Too often we see the lost as a threat, biblically understood they are a part of the city we are seeking to protect from the threat of the world, flesh and the devil. All Christians, Christian families, churches and para-church organizations need to wrestle with this conundrum. If we are responsible, in some way, for the lost how does that affect how we do life and ministry?

Responsibility I

Last week we talked about the threat to the spiritual life. The earthquake, the flood, the tornado of that threatens to destroy our areas of personal and spiritual responsibility. This week we’re talking about the “responsibility” of the spiritual life. This is the city that the threat threatens.

Before we talk about responsibility we have to acknowledge how our culture currently views responsibility. A significant amount of people my age see responsibility purely as a burden. It might evoke a memory of tedious chores and dutiful drudgery. The hero of my generation is he or she who is liberated from responsibility, someone who can go off on their own, travel the world without any traditional responsibility.

There is still a loud voice in our world advocating for responsibility. It was in 1948 that the world council of churches coined their slogan “a responsible society.” And in 1994 the Republican Party had the “personal responsibility act” in their contract with America. Religious people often talk about taking responsibility and secular people often talk about taking responsibility. Oftentimes when we do speak favorably about responsibility we use guilt or a forced sense of obligation to compel people. It doesn’t take much to see how these two approaches to responsibility are related.

What do we, as Christians, make of this? If there is a real threat, there is a real responsibility. If there is an earthquake than there is need to protect people from that earthquake. But so often we follow our culture into either valuing the liberation from responsibility or a form of responsibility which is motivated through guilt and forced duty. The cure for this is in returning briefly to our section on glory. If God’s love is the catalyst for a God-focused life than guilt and forced duty shouldn’t be a method of motivation we either respond to or employ. Remember it was at the burning bush that Moses realized his responsibility, prior to that his responsibility was tending sheep. Os Guiness articulates this well when he writes, “Apart from the call there is no responding and thus no responsibility.” Responsibility must, at a fundamental level be a response to a previous encounter with a living God. If it isn’t it will be dead moralism rather life-breathed God-inspired action.

Another way our culture has come to understand responsibility is through the terms “responsibility for,” rather than “responsibility to.” We hear a lot about what we should be “responsible for” rather than who we should be “responsible to”. This, in essence, strips the relationship away from duty. It focuses on the “what” without the “who.” It yells exodus and takes away the burning bush. Again, dead moralism is the result.

Hopefully it’s clear, any talk of responsibility should be rooted in a response to God.