Friday, May 29, 2009

The Talk of Heaven

My favorite #2 daughter said something to me today that is patently untrue, completely unsupported Biblically, and was definitely very biased hyperbole. But it made me cry and soothed an ache I'd been secretly nursing since the day before (she had no idea of that) because she had a true and valid point.

I bought her a book by John MacArthur for her birthday called Twelve Ordinary Men and Twelve Extraordinary Women. (I do take issue with the idea that the women get to be called "extraordinary." They were just as ordinary as the men were! Maybe he applied that adjective only because they tend to be overlooked as important representatives of faith. But still…)

So, we we've been doing a little tag-team reading. Of course, one of the first ordinary men John MacArthur examines is the disciple, Peter, and it turns out Peter was quite a leader. JMA writes,

But with all his brashness, Peter had the raw material from which a leader could be made. Better to work with a man like that than to try to motivate someone who is always passive and hesitant. As the familiar saying goes, it is much easier to tone down a fanatic than to resurrect a corpse. Some people have to be dragged tediously in any forward direction. Not Peter. He always wanted to move ahead. He wanted to know what he didn't know. He wanted to understand what he didn't understand. He was the first to ask questions and the first to try to answer questions. He was a man who always took the initiative, seized the moment, and charged ahead. That's the stuff of leadership. (p. 43)

Good for Peter, bad for me. I've never fancied myself a leader by any definition. I am, without a doubt, the antithesis of a leader, and, for the most part, I've always been okay with that. That is, until I read this paragraph. Passive and hesitant? Yep, that's me, and for my effort I'm compared to a corpse. Dislike change of any sort? Yep, that's me too, which leaves me needing to be "dragged tediously in any forward direction." Inquisitive? No way. I'm content to let things be what they are without the compulsion to understand them or change them. I never take the initiative, have never seized a moment and make it an iron-clad rule of life to never charge ahead, unless it's with VISA.

Incidentally, neither have I ever been so rude as to discredit anyone for having leadership qualities, as those with said qualities seem duty-bound to discredit those of us without them. I once worked for a company that took all its employees off-site one day for a personality analysis seminar. I don't remember exactly when we answered the requisite endless stream of questions – maybe we had already answered the questions beforehand -- but I do remember having the personalized graphs and tabulations all ready for us. And after many assurances that promotions and performance reviews would not be based on the results (which itself aroused suspicions), they put the "ideal" personality model up on the overhead projector so we could all see where we fell short and how we should try to change ourselves. I was flabbergasted. It takes a lot to outdo me when it comes to being dumb about people, but they managed it on that day.

I'm going to give John MacArthur the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn't denying the beauty of all the personalities God created just because he extolled the leadership qualities in Peter. But I have to admit that this paragraph bumped around in the vast empty caverns of my cranium for a few days like an unwelcome guest, causing me to question how God could ever use the likes of introverted and unsocial me to glorify Himself.

That unwelcome and deceptive guest would probably have left all of its own accord and been happily forgotten, except that it found a friend. I happened to run into and exchange pleasantries with an old acquaintance at Home Depot the other day. She had been involved in Women's Ministries at my church at the same time I was, and when that group disbanded all the members found places to serve elsewhere in the church that seem to suit their gifts. Well, all except me. My service right now is in an area in which I am not gifted and don't like very much. My "gifts" don't seem to be very much in demand, leaving me actually a little suspicious that they don't really exist. Maybe it's had something to do with not taking the initiative, not seizing the moment, and not charging ahead, but that turn of events (along with a sordid history of the same) left me with a nagging sense of uselessness that I have studiously ignored over the years. Running into this gal, however, caused these "happy" (tongue in cheek) thoughts to resurface, where they immediately befriended the "happy" thoughts from JMA's paragraph about Peter. Having found each other, they frolicked about and made much more noise in my head than I'd like to admit.

I apologize for subjecting you to the dirty laundry of my soul. But it is necessary for you to know my frame of mind if you are going to appreciate my reaction to what #2-daughter said.

It turns out, and I've known this, that she herself has struggled on and off with the banality of my life. In other words, she doesn't want to be like me. She wants to do "more" with her life than graduate from college, and then throw all her studies away to be a stay-at-home mom. My understanding is (and I qualify this because I might not be getting all the nuances of her thinking just right – but this is my understanding of it), that in light of this dilemma, she was impressed by something she read in a book called The Heavenly Man, by Paul Hattaway.

The Heavenly Man is a biography of Brother Yun, an illiterate Chinese peasant who became a Christian through a remarkable conversion, and how he went on to share the Gospel to thousands of other Chinese peasants, establishing underground churches throughout the country. It's also the story of his dicey relationship with the Communist Chinese government, who, shall we say… frowned on his activities. At one point in the book he knows that God is telling him to run away, and fast. But he ignores God because he doesn't want to leave the work he's doing in that city. His wife wakes him up in the night with another urgent appeal to leave right away. But he refuses to go. As a result he is indeed caught, imprisoned, beaten and tortured.

Eventually, he is miraculously rescued from this imprisonment, which is a story I'll leave for you to discover yourself, since you're undoubtedly opening another window even now to order the book online. But the lesson he learns from this is that God does not want his work as much as He wants him, his heart, his worship, his obedience. He learned that he had been making an idol of the work God gave him to do; that he was loving the work more than he was loving God Himself.

Well, #2-daughter very astutely applied this lesson to herself and her waffling thoughts about what she wants her future to look like. She says, "For example, take you, Mom." And I'm thinking, here we go again – more about me and my loser self. (Even good teenagers are hard, aren't they?) But she says – are you ready? She says, "I think you're the talk of heaven. You've kept your marriage together for 20 years, you've raised four great kids, and you remain passionate in your walk with the Lord."

The talk of heaven. Isn't that silly and wonderful, both at the same time? She has no idea how all my insides erupted into tears when she said that. (Only a few threatened to spill over.) I went from useless to the Kingdom, to being the talk of heaven. Affirmed by my teenager, of all people, so there must be some truth in it!

But do you see what I mean? It isn't really true. I'm not the talk of heaven. But she, I believe, was coming to the understanding that the Christian walk is about doing the work God has laid out for us. Not building some glorious shrine in His name with our work or service or sacrifice. It's about keeping our eyes and our hearts fixed on His face, about walking step by step where He tells us to go, doing what He tells us to do. I believe that's what I have done with my life, and the result is not remarkable in a worldly sense. But I trust, I hope, God has been pleased. I want to please Him more than I want to build something glorious in His name.

Within an hour or so of this conversation I happened to read John 17, where Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion. And I was struck by verse 4 where Jesus says, "I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do."

That's all I want from this life. I want to glorify God on this earth. And I want to accomplish the work He has given me to do. Not anyone else's work, not any work I dream up for myself, not the hallowed "achievement of personal goals" so my life can be fulfilling. I want to accomplish the work He has given me to do.

With that in mind, with my eyes fixed on His wonderful face, with my ears attuned to His quiet voice, all my personal inadequacies become irrelevant, don't they? What a relief! That is freedom.

So let my personality assessment graph be lopsided, let me possess ZERO qualities of a leader, let me not find a place in my church. I'm too busy to worry about that – my plate is full with the work God has given me to do, and it takes all my focus to do it well.

Thank you, Lord!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zero Tolerance

So he wants to be a Baptist. Baptists have it right, #1-son says. Whoa, buddy, we're talking mega-legalism there, I tell him. Yes, I know, he says. How many Baptists do you know? he asks me. But, Mom, you don't even know legalism until you know a Baptist, he says. And they have it right. Zero tolerance for sin, that's what it's all about. None of this grace business, none of this wishy-washy, namby-pamby, I'm okay-you're okay business. None of us are okay; let's get that straight right off! These are the ideas he's toying with. (Is that still Christianity, by the way?)
This has led to some stimulating conversation around here lately. Really, it has been fun. He's a great kid, earnest and contemplative, sincerely trying to noodle out certain disparities he sees between the Word and Christianity as he's seen it lived out in his young life.
And I'm not really a Baptist-basher at all. As it happens, I'm also not quite as sheltered as #1-son thinks I am, and some of my favorite people are proud Baptists. They remain staunchly devoted to their tradition, but even they freely admit they were raised in an atmosphere of crazy legalism.
So, we've been talking lately about the tension that exists between legalism in the Christian walk and grace. It can be a fine line, I'm realizing. There's a subtlety between the two that has more to do with heart than law. In my opinion, he is tending toward legalism – harsh, condemning, lacking in grace and compassion. And I'm thinking that in his opinion I must be fat, lazy, unrighteous and ungodly, lax in my acceptance of worldly ways. Okay, maybe not lazy. But definitely not uptight enough. (He loves his mom and wouldn't say these things. I'm extrapolating a little from other things he's said.)
On the other hand, he knows sin when he sees it. And those "certain disparities between the Word and Christianity as he's seen it lived out" are undoubtedly an indictment of me and his dad. I can't pretend there isn't sin in my life, so let's get this over with.
I overeat! There, I said it.
But wait, how can this be? Do I not know that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in me, whom I have from God, and that I am not my own? (1Corinthians 6:19) And if I'm an obedient child, why would I be conformed to the former lusts which were mine in my ignorance, rather than like the Holy One who called me, be holy myself also in all my behavior; because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.' (1 Peter 1:14-16) And if I love Him, will I not keep His commandments? (John 14:15) To be a believer in the Lord Jesus is to have zero tolerance for sin in our lives. We must not dilute the message of Christianity; we must not allow the infusion of humanism or pervert the faith for the sake of making it palatable to a weak and self-indulgent culture. Obedience is the goal. No excuses.
Oh dear. I know. I know these things are true. And if I really understood the gravity of my sin, if I could claw through the layers of apathy resulting from years of turning a blind eye to this sin, I would be paralyzed with self-loathing.
So where does that leave me? What do I do now? Well, I could jump right to the ending point, where I know I'll end up at the end of the discussion anyway: "I'm forgiven! Grace, baby! That's why Jesus died, so I'm okay!"
But this is exactly why, having been raised in non-denominational churches, #1-son now eschews the whole non-denominational movement. And he does have a good point: we tend to skip over the sorrow-over-sin step, jump right to grace and forgiveness, and then we pretend we're experiencing the joy of the Lord. At that point it also becomes a bit of a farce to say we're awash with compassion and grace for the sinners around us. We've skipped over the parts of the journey that fill us with joy and make our hearts overflow with compassion for other sinners – the part where we're broken over our own sin.
Let's go back to the point in the discussion where I'm paralyzed with self-loathing over my bad eating habits. Actually, let's start a few steps before that: let's begin where I recognize my sin but am not yet willing to change my ways. Rather than jumping to the end where we know the right answer like circling the right letter on a multiple choice test, take a little time with me while I hang out in that uncomfortable place. Let me meditate on the tender love my Savior has for me, on His faithfulness, His concern for me and His constant presence, as that of a best friend. Even as I stubbornly pursue my rebellious course, let me keep eye contact with my Savior today. Let me experience His tender love and commitment to me as I disobey. Let me feel His hurt with Him as I choose a bowl of ice cream over loving Him through obedience. Let me hear His gentle voice, never condemning, always patient, always close, even as He watches me sin, let me hear Him whisper, "I will never leave you, little one." What happens to a sinner's heart on a journey like that?
I contend that only a heart that has been on that journey can know the joy of Jesus and feel compassion for other sinners, because it has been bathed in undeserved compassion itself. The rest is just cheap Christian jargon – we talk about joy and compassion because we know we're supposed to be filled with it, but it's just claptrap. Over time our actions and words betray the reality: we are not experiencing the kind of joy and compassion and peace we talk about. We've looked at the outside of the package, we've been told there's joy inside so we like to talk about all its wonders, but we haven't opened it yet to experience personally how great it really is because we resist honest and painstaking confession of our own sin.
We prefer to let our minds dwell on the large portions of the Christian life that we do keep under control: for myself, I don't lie, swear, steal, or commit adultery; I don't drink too much, I work hard, I pay my bills, I bathe everyday and wear clean underwear. I even make my bed and pick up after a messy family. How much more could possibly be expected of me? But sometimes I resist engaging in any extended conversation with God about the nuts in my life that are too hard for me to crack on my own. In the depths of my heart, I know what He wants to talk to me about. And when I'm willing, we can have the kind of conversation I outlined above about my eating habits. It'll be great. In the meantime, He continues to love me, to never leave me, to bless me in ways I could never deserve.
It's the Holy Spirit who nudges us in those tricky places that we'd rather ignore, those parts of the Christian life we have a harder time getting under control on our own. We do need to run to Him with our sin. We do need to bury our face in His bosom, ask for His help, and listen to His still small voice offer words of assurance and wisdom and correction. But in the end, I put very little confidence in my own ability to conquer my flesh. This is His work. He knows exactly where the real issues reside, and He can reach those deep places in my spirit that give rise to obstinate sin in the first place.
But rather than run to Him, we more often either ignore our own sin (much preferring, after all, to enjoy the lofty discernment of other people's transgressions), or we jump straight to cheap grace. Either way, we miss out on an opportunity for wonderful intimacy with Jesus.
In addition, we end up confused about what appears to be a tense dichotomy between grace and legalism in the Christian walk. Doesn't that tension evaporate in the face of meaningful, intimate, daily dialog with Him? Either one by itself is a deficient rendering of Christianity. Both are shallow and result in a lackluster, lifeless, powerless, and joyless caricature of the real thing. We need to obey, and we need to accept forgiveness for our weaknesses, all in the context of loving interaction with God.
So, he can be a Baptist, if that's what he ends up choosing. There are definitely worse things for a couple of sinful people like me and his dad to have turned out. (I'm only poking fun here, folks. I love my Baptist friends.) He'd be a great Baptist. He'll be a great Christian of whatever sort he chooses. And I'm confident God will work mightily in his life, that his love will abound more and more with all knowledge and discernment; I'm confident he will approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)