This weekend -- a death and a prayer request

My husband's dad passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack today. My husband is not a believer, nor was his dad. It will be hard to go through all this with my little ones and help them grieve their grandfather and still not confuse them in their beliefs.

So, although this blog isn't really a place I'll usually use for disclosure of intimate family stuff or for prayer requests, I'm making an exception with this post! These are my prayer requests tonight:

1) God's comfort for my husband and his family

2) God's wisdom for me in what I say and what I don't -- to them, and also to my boys

3) My husband's salvation and for God's purposes for him to be fulfilled

4) God's help for my little boys in figuring out what He wants them to know at 5 and 6 about death and about salvation and about heaven, and, again, for wisdom for me!

5) That I'll be able to sleep and able to get up tomorrow and be focused on the Bethel class orientation I am leading at 10 a.m., despite family drama this weekend in this and in other things

Thanks so much!!!


"Can I Get a Witness" and "Thankful"

For a few weeks I have been thinking about the lyrics to a song called "Thankful" by Caedmon's Call (album: 40 Acres (1999)):

You know I ran across an old box of letters
While I was bagging up some clothes for Goodwill
But you Know I had to laugh at the same old struggles
That plagued me then are plaguing me still

I know the road is long from the ground to glory
But a boy can hope he's getting some place
But you see, I'm running from the very clothes I'm wearing
And dressed like this I'm fit for the chase

'Cause no, there is none righteous
Not one who understands
There is none who seek God
No not one, I said no not one

So I am thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own

'Cause we're all stillborn and dead in our transgressions
We're shackled up to the sin we hold so dear
So what part can I play in the work of redemption
I can't refuse, I cannot add a thing
'Cause I am just like Lazarus and I can hear your voice
I stand and rub my eyes and walk to You
Because I have no choice

I am thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own
I'm so thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own

'Cause by grace I have been saved
Through faith that's not my own
It is a gift of God and not by works
Lest anyone should boast

I am thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own
I'm so thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own

And, as much as I am very much a Calvinist in my theology, I have been troubled by the chorus "I am thankful that I'm incapable of doing any good on my own".

The ironic flip side is that I was troubled by the opposite problem in the sermon at St. Andrew's this weekend. Jim Birchfield preached a great sermon on the start of Acts and a vision for outreach and service that our church does not live up to, but that is the goal of many of us. The sermon was "Can I Get a Witness?", and he did say that Jesus' words state that we will be His witnesses, rather than being a request that we be witnesses. But then the sermon set a vision in front of us of what that could look like for us . . . and I was troubled that it seemed the call to action was to do those things without an emphasis on the fact that those things only happen with effectiveness when the Holy Spirit is doing them through us.

So I'm back at my wonder at that paradox . . . that I am helpless to love Jesus and to follow Him unless the Holy Spirit breathes life into me and uses me on any given day, but that I do have a choice, and am held accountable for it!

And the picture that brought a bit of new clarity to it to me recently was watching the drama of marriages and dating relationships that I see in the lives of some of my friends and family. The passion there -- and the tedium and dislike there at times -- is both "done to them" and chosen by them. When they "fall in love" -- for the initial start of the relationship or in the ebbs and flows of an on-going relationship -- it feels like something outside of them, like something "done" to them. When they choose to remain faithful to that love despite the pressures of real life, it feels like something they each are doing. But, in both kinds of times, it is both. There are things outside us and inside us that create passion, and there are choices we make in honoring and using that passion even when it isn't "controlling" us.

Our relationship with Jesus -- and with the Holy Spirit and the Father -- is a gift of God, and not by works, lest any man should boast . . . and it will consume us and transform how we act, just as every passionate relationship will. And then there will be times where the passion ebbs, and we have to "choose" to be faithful and in relationship with Him -- and yet that couldn't happen without His choice for us, could it?

So we are chosen and empowered and loved and used by the Triune God . . . and couldn't even respond in obedience to that without His empowering of each of us to do that. But we are responsible to turn to Him in joy and passion and participate! And if we don't, we are still dead in our sins.

And "I am incapable of doing any good on my own" -- and I am thankful that Jesus saves us and empowers us to be effective witnesses and to know the passion and the tedium of that calling. Who I am and how He uses me doesn't bear any kind of fruit when I'm creating the vision, writing the agenda, and then executing the plan. But when I yield to my lover, He does amazing things in giving me His vision, His agenda, and His plan to execute. And my motivation is Him -- so that brings a very different response when there seem to be roadblocks or challenges to my "mission".

Each of us -- and our community as a whole -- is called first to relationship with our God and with each other and with the world around us. Agape makes "being right" or "being Holy" or even "being useful and effective" take on a whole new Spirit.


The Acts of the Apostles

Our church has chosen Acts as our study for the fall. Our covenant groups will be going through it, and Jim Birchfield will be going through it on Wednesday nights in our large-group adult Bible study. He is also preaching tonight using the start of Acts as his text.

I have been going through it, too, and have been seeing the power there for salvation. The message of salvation there is not really "the 4 spiritual laws", is it? Nor is it the typical understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit or of the Church that we see in the confessions of reformed theology and in our practice in our denominations and congregations.

We have been given intimacy with a powerful triune God, are instruments in proclaiming the message of salvation, and are each a part of a powerful community. That should be reflected in our community, in our private and corporate passions and enthusiams, and in our individual faithfulness in the things that we're called to that don't touch anything passionate within us, but are just a required part of life.

I have a lot more to type here (about Jesus' time with us before the resurrection, about Ananias and Saphira, about Paul's faithfulness after God's dramatic action in his life, about women in the early church . . .) and am in a rare time of actual physical illness, where I am taking an antibiotic, running a fever, and let my kids survive the morning largely unsupervised while I slept until noon. Now I have to decide whether to keep my commitments for the afternoon and evening or to cancel them . . .

So, much more later this week, when I'm back to functional!


Living in the Wind

I woke up this morning with the realization that I am not a "lone mind" that can and should sort through reality myself and come to a thorough understanding of "absolute truth" in the way it exists as God Himself looks at this universe throughout space and time. I am a human, and am relational. My analysis and the abstraction and cataloguing of "propositional truth" depends upon what I have been taught and upon how well I have been loved.

(It depends upon how well I have been loved because our brains and souls do not function as they should in the absence of love. We are raised from infancy by a community that offers us love and nurture and protection to a sufficient degree for life, or we fail to survive. In the same way, our minds and souls require that we are surrounded by a sufficient degree of connection and love, or we fail to see reality in any way that resembles something functional.)

So, although I can go back and read philosophy and theology -- and I will, because I have an innate need to slog through it myself and arrive at my own conclusions as I add my analysis to what I read, and so that is part of the role I can play in the community of the Church -- I do not have to suspend an investment in "TRUTH as I know it" until I've done that analysis. My intuition of what is true can inform my daily choices and relationships and affirmations as I go. And all of that intuition is based on relationships -- relationships with those in close friendships to me, and "relationships" with those who are in leadership roles intellectually and spiritually in my community, both in the present and in the whole of our history.

And, of course, the relationship that ties all those relationships together is our devotion to the living CHRIST, who has not left us as orphans but has sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in us and among us, and who has taught us how to pray with power to His Father. All the other relationships stand or fall in light of our loyalty to our Triune God.

So my first task is a daily faithfulness to this Triune God, expressed in obedience to learning to love the people He brings into my life. And only as I fulfill that task am I in any position to work with propositional truth to aproximate some sort of abstract representation of our shared reality as I can express it in our shared languages. Systematic theology -- and every variation of philosophy -- is only able to approximate an analysis of "absolute truth" to the degree to which it is based on a perspective lived out in relationship with the only ONE who can actually grasp absolute TRUTH.

And He has given TRUTH to us in a person, so it is Jesus who I must pursue, not my own analysis. My analysis can be useful as His tool in the community He is creating, but not as an end in itself. He must be my purpose -- to know Him and enjoy Him forever.


A Changing Wind

My oldest is a first-year law student in a new state . . . and since none of his friends or family are in this new area of the country that he's plopped down into, he has time to talk to me. Lot's of time, and it's wonderful.

But it's also troubling. I am a reformed evangelical, and his faith and systematic theology do not fit into any neat category. And he is very well-read and has put a lot of thought into his world-view and philosophy and theology and practice . . . and is one of the few people in my life that can actually change my mind about what I "knew to be true."

So I sent him a book on reformed epistemology, and he never even mentioned getting it. I asked him about it today, and his response was a 45-minute lecture on epistemology and where reformed epistemology fit into that, and what his own basis to know or believe anything as true had become. (I said something like "I see" somewhere in there, and he talked right over it. My friends and family will probably see the irony in all that.)

But the problem is that he's blasting apart my whole structure that I'd constructed over the past 2 years, in terms of my way of seeing reality and my choices and God and the Bible. I can put it back together, of course -- and, of course, it is good for our systems to be challenged and for our only God to be the real triune God, and not our way of understanding Him. And the foundation -- for Mike, too, he says -- is still Jesus and my commitment to obedience to Him.

So back to the base of the whole thing one more time . . . with prayers that I'll be a bit closer to a working model of reality with this version of "what I know to be true." I do know that God is God, and that He doesn't change, how ever often my analysis does.

And most of what I do each day doesn't either. So time to get the little boys to bed!


The Grace of Shared Prayer

Prayer alone is important, and a self-rewarding discipline . . . but it's interesting that Jesus said "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them". More than one, less than 4? Hmmm . . .

And He said that if two of us agreed on anything on earth and asked the Father, He'd do it. . . . WOW!!!

And I have experienced the power in this. Thanks to my Mom for leading me in this since I was old enough to remember, and for her growth in prayer even now, and for her commitment to me there.

And thanks also to the friends who take time to pray with me, and for the power of their prayers in accord with mine. It is each of you who has been willing to pray with me over these last few years whom God has used to change my life, and you are still being used in amazing ways.

God really does answer prayer. How amazing is that?


The Gospel of Abundance

Two of the pastors in our church will be doing a series on Acts for the 14 Wednesday nights starting a week from tomorrow. They are both white men living in Southern California, and so I am sure they see Acts through different eyes than do women and minorities and those who experience more of the challenges of life economically and medically. But even they must see how radical early Christianity was as we see it in Acts, and so I am looking forward to a fall where they teach us and we all also go through Acts in our covenant groups.

The "health and wealth" gospel is a joke to serious students of life and scripture, but the gospel we see the Church living out in Acts is indeed a gospel of abundance. The abundance is just a shared abundance, and is an abundance of power, grace, and intimacy -- and not an abundance of the stuff that doesn't satisfy anyway. But our churches have so little experience of the abundance we do have available to us each day -- and right now, right here, as I type this and as you read this.

Intimacy ("fellowship") with God and with each other, and then all the skills and power and resources we need to go about being God's instruments to fully accomplish His purposes for each of us, individually and together . . . we do have a gospel of abundance!


Agape, Affection, Prayer, and Intuition

John Huffman preached on the 13th chapter of I Corinthians this weekend, as part of a series preaching through that whole book. We have heard the passage so many times -- and heard so much teaching on it -- that bringing anything new to it is quite a task. But he is a preacher by birth, talent, and experience, and I enjoyed him as always.

I don't know that I got anything new in terms of information or interpretation, but I do think we need to keep hearing that message over and over -- and he did that well. "All the good we do -- all the religious stuff we do -- is worth nothing if it is not done out of agape." And he followed it with the appropriate pastoral prayer for his own growth in this, and for all of us to grow in this.

I have been thinking about the power of the Spirit, and how much that power is tied to real affection, to prayer, and to intuition -- and about how much the power of the Spirit is agape. We tend to think of it as miracles, or as great preaching, or as some sort of spiritual ethos around a person . . . but it really does just boil down to the ability to see each person as God sees them - - with that kind of insight and affection and judgment and forgiveness and hope for the future.

And anyone who authentically has those eyes for the person in front of them cannot not convey real love and acceptance and hope and wisdom. And that is the source of real power relationally, and the motivation for our appropriate use of whichever of the spiritual gifts with which we each find ourselves gifted as we just live in that agape.

Most preachers talking about agape -- self-sacrificial love -- make it sound as though it is primarily an act of the will, and that a feeling of affection is optional, and not even really a benefit to the either the lover or the beloved, perhaps. But it isn't so. God created our emotions, and has His own, too -- or so our Bible tells us. And -- while our emotions are not to control us in the sense of us allowing them to drag us around life to our regret or against God's purposes or to the harm of others -- in fact our emotions are given to us by God in order to provide the energy to do all that He commands us to do, and part of our worship is to manage our emotions so that they do give us that energy for worship and obedience.

It is a fallacy of our therapeutic culture to believe that emotions are a sign of pathology and are best dispensed with. They are intended to give us life! "Faith, hope, and love" are not just cognitive! How do we do that? How do we manage our emotions so that they lead us with energy toward the will of God, instead of leading us away from His agenda and toward a downward spiral of sin and death?

Well, we live in relationship to Jesus and we bring an honest account of our emotions to Him in prayer, and we are honest about our emotions in appropriate ways in our other relationships, and we carry on a dialogue with God and with others about what we feel and what is true and about what perhaps our emotions tell us about what may be broken and needs to be fixed. And we feel our emotions. And we ask God to work through them where that is His purpose and to change them where that is His purpose. And we trust that, over time, that is exactly what He will do as we persist in that stance and in prayer.

But back to agape and prayer and affection and intuition . . . if I am in regular honest prayer for you for God to destroy the stuff in your life that's in His way and to do everything He wants to be doing in you and to do everything He wants to be doing through you for His best purposes to be accomplished, I cannot end up not feeling real affection for you, and I cannot end up not knowing a lot about who you are and how God is working in your life. My actual knowledge of you will be the beneficiary of a real interest in your life and the ways God is answering my prayer as I absorb the bits of information I get from you and others about your world. And my intuition about you will also be heightened by the Spirit's action in that regard.

So the prime source of agape is the Spirit's work in my life and His agape toward me . . . and that agape expresses itself first in intercessory prayer for others, which will bear the fruit of actions of real agape and emotions of affection and of a heightened knowledge of you and your life . . . which will circle back on itself to more of the same.

And that agape is not only our central ethic. It is the prime expression of real spiritual power. It is the mark of our community. And it is the power that changes us.


A Prisoner of Hope

I have been thinking more today about JOY, and about how depressing life is without it! We have a "home day" with my husband here, and I played a lot of my secular music as background music, since I want it to be a place he likes to be. But even though it was my music -- music I like! -- it was depressing. I had to switch to some things that reminded me of how full of JOY life can be!

I put on the newest Randy Stonehill CD, and love his lyrics as much as ever. I think many of you will get the joy in these lyrics, but I was trying to think of anyone close enough to me to bother to read this who would like the music. The only one who might have a reason to like it would be my mom. (Mom, remember driving home from Wheaton with me one summer and listening to a Randy Stonehill cassette the whole way back to Omaha?)

Anyway, here are the lyrics:

PRISONER OF HOPE by Randy Stonehill

I’m slow to learn, I’m slow to change
I find this roller coaster life both beautiful and strange
I try my best to sort things out
But at times I’m sort of clueless as to what this thing’s about
And I’ve been wrong and I’ve been used
But in light of the big picture I’m still peaceful and bemused

Prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be faithful
I’m a prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be grateful

I’m slow to judge, I’m slow to fight
I confess that my own track record is far from lily white
Sometimes I’m scared, sometimes I doubt
Sometimes I make such a mess I’m sure there’s no way out
And I have failed and I have cried
But at times I find it’s healthy when you dine on humble pie

Prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be faithful
I’m a prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be grateful

Bound for all eternity by this three chord rope-
Father, Son and Spirit-
I’m a prisoner of hope

Captured by a love I don’t deserve or understand
Held within the grip of these awesome, holy hands
You may say that this is just the dream of desperate men
But far from desperate dreaming, I am waking up again

Prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be faithful
I’m a prisoner of hope tonight
With a reason to be grateful

I am grateful for the people who love me, and for artists like Randy Stonehill who brighten my world, and for the writers and speakers who do the same!

Now I am off with my two littlest children to worship with all the wonderful, imperfect people who are part of the Saturday evening worshipping community at St. Andrews . . . .