Putting imagination to work

I woke up last night following a nightmare of my family being caught in a tragedy. It was one of those vivid ones where you are sure it was real for some time even after waking up. Usually my reaction to these situations once my mind is calmed down is to figure out the fastest way back to sleep, but last night the Lord directed my thoughts to those people who have endured my nightmare in real life. I prayed that God would give me more vivid nightmares if that’s what it took to help me imagine the lives of those struck with great suffering better than I do now.

Imagination seems to be one of the least used tools in the lives of Christians I meet. Those who use imagine God working in mighty ways are often cast aside as unrealistic or idealistic. People routinely respond to the tangible circumstances of the world as if they are the most real things in the universe when the Bible says that the things that are most real are the things we cannot see with natural eyes (2 Cor 4:18). Contrary to this thinking, the throughout the scriptures show us that imagination is a powerful force that can be used either to boost self-confidence (Prov 18:11, 1 Cor 8:2) or confidence in God (1 Cor 2:9, Eph 3:20).

There are several passages in the Bible that use the word “imagine” or “imagination” but we should think more broadly than that. Perhaps one of the best words to use as a pivot point for applying imagination to the Christian life is the word “consider.” When Jesus instructs his hearers to “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:28-29), he intends that we use our imagination. How did the lilies get to be more beautiful in appearance than even the richest and most opulent man who ever lived? We’re supposed to imagine the level of detailed care involved for God to have planned out and then executed his plan to make these flowers so beautiful so that we can truly appreciate God’s wonderful care for his kids who are often tempted to be anxious.

When the apostle Paul says “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11), he means for us to use our imagination. We are to imagine what it would look like if we were truly dead to sin and it had no control over us because of the life of God in us. What specific things would we stop doing? What specific things would we start doing? What would an ordinary day in my life look like? Imagine it and then go use the faith God supplies to live like that.

When the author to the Hebrews says “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:3), he means for us to use our imagination and make a comparison between how Jesus suffered mistreatment and how we suffer it. We are supposed to wonder what it was like for him and what was his motivation and his fuel. It’s only after we use our imagination to get a fuller appreciation for what it was like for the creator of the universe to be abused by his own creation that we gain the fuel and motivation we need in the gospel to prevent weariness and a desire to quit.

As we train our imagination to work for the Kingdom rather than for our flesh, we receive other benefits as well, especially in how we might live out the one another commands. An obvious place to start is Hebrews 10:24 where we are commanded to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Imagination is our helper because not everyone we know will be stirred up in quite the same way that we are. Think about your friend, spouse, child, or parent. What kinds of things do they pursue? What is it that they love? What motivates them to act under normal circumstances? How could you present a current problem or need to them in such a way that the gospel’s demands of them are more vivid than they would be to a generic person? Creatively loving, encouraging, admonishing, comforting, serving, and even forgiving one another begins with a godly use of imagination. That’s what I hope my vivid nightmare will produce in me as I try to comfort those who are dealing with situations I have not faced in real life.

We are not supposed to read the Bible like we read the newspaper. Be creative about using your imagination with the Scriptures. It will help you to grow in love, grace, and discernment more than you can imagine.

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Putting things in their place

In my last post, I commented on a quote from Corrie Ten Boom to urge Christians to consider the ways in which they were devoting large segments of their lives to things that may be okay on their own but have grown too significant. I’m sure there are hundreds of good things that we could let become ultimate things if we are not careful. This is why Solomon gave the stern warning, “Above all else guard your heart, for from it flows the wellsprings of life.” (Prov 4:23) Jesus echoed this idea when he said “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21)

What follows are some practical tips to help diagnose whether this could be true of you. Could you be, as Corrie Ten Boom said, rearranging pictures in a house that is burning down with people inside?

Get out more: Conservative evangelicals are generally a white middle/upper class bunch and it is possible and even probable that most will avoid being challenged with seriously struggling people in their context. The middle and upper classes have the means to hide or drown their struggles so unless you do something differently, you can live your whole life thinking everyone is pretty much okay. This is true in the church as much as among unbelievers, and is the basic definition of the Christian bubble. I think it’s even more powerful in the “good churches” that tout themselves as better than the others because of (mostly correct) doctrinal distinctions, but have the boomerang effect of shaming struggling people into silence.

Get out more effectively: Once you decide you may be affected by the Christian bubble, come up with a plan. You don’t have to sell everything and move into our neighborhood to start coming out of the bubble (but you are welcome to do that). The Bible is clear that people around you are hurting and if you simply engage them on a more than superficial level you will begin to see it. This means you may have to say no to some of your “Christian” stuff or personal time but it’s really the only way you’re going to do it.

Read the Bible differently: One thing that God used to motivate us was simply reading the Bible to look for God’s attitude toward struggling people. God spends a lot of time talking about people exploited by leaders, and many of those groups continue to exist today. God does care about widowed, orphaned, materially poor, shamed, outcast, and lonely people differently and his promises to them reflect their actual condition. It could be that you are God’s

Ask different questions: If you’re going to do #3, you’re going to have to ask different questions. Rather than reading Matthew 25 and explaining why it doesn’t apply to you, you will need to ask how it does apply to you. When you read about God’s care for widows, you will need to ask whether obedience and love demand you get to know a widow on more than a surface level and start caring for her. As you struggle through Leviticus in your annual reading plan and get to 19:34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and kyou shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God, you will have to ask yourself whether you know strangers in your context and how you will mirror God’s love and mercy toward them. You can’t just assume someone else is doing it because for the most part, they aren’t.

Stop comparing yourself to others: This one came back to the front of our minds recently when my wife and daughter read the biography of Keith Green. It’s easy to think of the progress you make as monumental when you compare yourself to people whose eyes are not yet open to this need. Keith Green is an encouragement, but he is not the standard. Jesus, who left heaven and perfect fellowship in the trinity and constant, pure praise of angels to die for people who would reject him is the standard. Christian literally means “little Christ” so we should always be evaluating our lives relative to his example and nobody else’s.

Leave the Republican party behind: I saved this one for last because it will offend the most people. GOP does not stand for God’s Own Party. It does not represent Christianity well, and given its current standard bearer the trajectory is getting worse. I think Wayne Grudem is right when in his book Politics (which was excellent) he said the traditional GOP party platforms were more in line with the Scriptures about 75% of the time when compared to Democrat positions, but that doesn’t mean we walk in line with the GOP no matter what. The American political process tends to favor extremists in the primary system which means you’re never going to find a 75% Republican who lines up with the Bible well on everything. Marco Rubio, a 93% Republican, got run out of the presidential race because he wasn’t Republican enough. We need to be a people that engages politics on the basis of our Christian witness rather than political affiliation. Much harm has been done by people professing to be Christians blindly posting stuff on social media by right wind websites without doing any fact checking. If these stories end up to be false, and many of them are, we are bearing false witness.

What to do when the house is burning…

Kristen has been especially moved by the love of Christ shown in Corrie Ten Boom. If you are not familiar, Corrie (15 April 1892 – 15 April 1983) was a Dutch watchmaker and Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, is a biography that recounts the story of her family’s efforts, as well as her time spent in a concentration camp.

Here’s the quote…

When a house is on fire and you know that there are people in it, it is a sin to straighten pictures in that house. When the world about you is in great danger, works that are in themselves not sinful can be quite wrong.

What is moving to us about her life and what this quote sheds light on, is the fact that many Christians are spending their lives on trifles when people are in grave danger. This is more true today that at any point in my life when there are tens of thousands of Christians going to Christian conferences, joining Christian education movements, participating in Christian book clubs, and generally living in a happy little Christian bubble.

A friend who has been a Southern Baptist leader for 20 years reminded me today that only 5% of professing Christians will ever share the gospel with an unbelieving person. That, dear reader, is a life committed to rearranging pictures while the house is on fire. Is it that the other 95% are bed-ridden? No, they are spending all their energy on things of questionable eternal value. They are doing what Corrie described as straightening the pictures in a burning house.

Imagine that you walk up to a house on fire. Inside you hear people screaming for help. There is a young mom struggling for air holding two small children out a window. Outside there is not just one but several fire brigades and 20 or 25 firemen in full gear washing their trucks and arranging their hoses. They tell you it’s important to have the fundamentals right and to get to know their equipment well. What would you think? You would be out of your mind with anger because while it is important for a fire department to maintain their equipment and improve their preparations, their job is to rescue people in danger. To be fully dedicated to the lesser thing and ignore the mission is a catastrophic failure of calling.

I’m afraid this is where we are in the church in the west. I say this with no great joy and with the admission that I am not doing all that I can do either. Not that many years ago I was one of those people living in the Christian bubble. (Ironically, you tend to not see the bubble until you get out of it even though it has taken over your whole life.) We must focus on saving those on their way to destruction, and risk our lives doing so. The house is burning and the pictures don’t really matter that much.

In the next post I will share some of the things that can help us focus on the rescue mission.

 

Two Voices, One Reminder

This week I got a reminder from someone who loves me and desires God’s best for me that it is very possible when someone is highly committed to something to use language that makes it seem that everyone should be equally committed to precisely the same thing. That is not what I do believe, but since communication involves both a sender and a receiver, it’s important to consider this kind of feedback.

I got a second dose of that this morning while reading my latest “stretch” book, “I Must Resist, Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” Rustin was a black, gay, communist turned socialist, conscientious objector, civil rights leader whose career extended from the 1940’s thru the 1970s.

He had heavy Quaker influences and objected to all violence to achieve political ends. This meant that at his draft hearing he refused to go to war but also refused to participate in the alternative but still war supporting camps the government made available for conscientious objectors. He was sent to prison and worked hard to bring change to a prison system that was still segregated in every way possible.

He would often get in trouble there – sometimes unnecessarily. Once, his friend and mentor A.J. Muste sent Rustin a stinging rebuke of how he was allowing himself to get in the way of their mission. It rang true to the dangers I face as well, although in a very different context. The entire letter is worth reading for those pursuing humility, but here’s one part:

A third consideration – you want to hang onto shreds of self respect, and that means you want to continue to feel superior to somebody at least, because it is by  comparing itself with other people that the unregenerate self manages to keep a good opinion of itself. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” So you have a mental image of certain people as conspirators, bureaucrats, etc. Toward the individuals on whose faces you plant these masks you can be haughty or arrogant. You can completely forget the complexities of their task, the opposition which they may have to encounter.

Rustin’s friend was saying that part of the job of someone trying to bring systemic change is to empathize with those who have not yet changed in the way Rustin wanted. As I think about what I see as conservative evangelical churches contentedness in being a white, middle class movement I also need to consider how hard it would be on a church leader who genuinely felt like a directional change was necessary. Doing so will not only grow my heart for those brothers and sisters and remind me that at one time I was one of them, it will put me in a better position to help them anticipate the practical challenges they might face and overcome them.

(The book has been really interesting and I’m looking forward to finishing it and writing the review.)

I Need a Rest – NOT

A friend said something on FB yesterday that seemed a little off. He loves Jesus a lot and has been a blessing to me in many ways so I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just not as precise as he could have been.

Men w small kids:Your wife really needs a 4-hour block of time weekly to herself. Time to “be”not just grocery shop. Will u do this for her?

All I said was “We should be careful about using the word “need” for things God does not call a need. Things can be advantageous or beneficial without being a need.” It brought the predictable response that rest is needed and even the Bible supports the idea of taking a break. (The reality is that it seems like most of the time the Bible talks about “rest” it is referring to heaven either literally or allegorically.) These things have some truth to them but in a leisure soaked society it is useful to filter them through the Scriptures with some questions.

Am I spending and being spent for the Gospel?

Paul said his goal was to spend and be spent for the gospel (2 Cor 2:15). He said he did it gladly. This is a guy who was shipwrecked, stoned, beaten with whips, hunted and abandoned over and over. Was he looking for rest? No, he was looking to give every ounce of his being over to the cause of Christ and he was joyful in doing it.

A lot of people I meet who “need” a break are spending and being spent chasing the middle class, white American dream of a nice house, two or more cars, educational achievement, soccer camps, and whatever else they see on TV or Amazon Prime. People like this don’t “need” a rest in any biblical sense of the word. They need to use that same level of ambition on pursuing Jesus before they can claim any biblical basis for rest.

Am I seeking refreshment in the ways God has provided?

John 15 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. The basic idea is that Jesus is supposed to be the vine that provides us nourishment, life, and purpose. The way to access that is to abide in, or remain connected to, him. People who are exhausted because they are not abiding in Jesus should try that first before they start demanding rest.

Or consider Hebrews 12:3, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Here, the author of Hebrews says that one key to not growing weary (needing a rest) is to actively consider what Jesus endured as a fuel and motivation for further gospel centered action on our part. The verse before this says that Jesus endured dying on a cross for the joy he got from it. It’s hard for me to reconcile this with the “need” for resting from things like a job in an air conditioned office, caring for kids that love you, or even building up the body of Christ.

Is the rest I am seeking drawing me closer to Jesus or my creature comforts?

I’ve heard many people talk about how Jesus took times by himself to rest and that is certainly true. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is that when Jesus did this it was to get alone with his Father. For example in John 6:15 we read “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Here Jesus got away not because he was focusing on himself but because he was focused on the Father’s mission for him. In Luke 6,  Jesus spends the entire night alone praying before calling the Apostles. His “me time” deprived himself of sleep before he deprived others of his presence. Even in the well known Psalm 23, David enjoyed the green pastures and still waters but he enjoyed the God who provided them much more.

What happens when my rest is interrupted?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Gospels and one thing that is impossible to miss is that Jesus almost never actually rested. Even when people notice how much he “needs” a rest and make provision for him, it is often interrupted. So in Mark 6, when people are convinced Jesus needs a rest and shuffle him off in a boat, how is he going to respond when the crowd literally runs along to shore to intercept him again at the other end? Is he going to pout or retaliate or whine about not getting his “me time?” No, he sees this crowd so hopeless and lost and gives up any idea of rest because of the great compassion he has for them. Rather than rest, he teaches them late into the night then organizes the biggest buffet in history feeding something like 20,000 people.

Am I letting God determine the right rest?

One of the concerns I had over the way my friend phrased his post was that he was dictating a particular type of rest that would be uniformly applied to all moms of young kids. Not only is this “need” impossible for any single mom to ever achieve, it just isn’t right to declare one particular type of rest like this because even if the Bible does say rest can be a good thing, it never gets very precise about what that looks like. God seems to know the right kind of rest and can supernaturally intervene to provide it. One comment from a dear sister made it seem like unless her husband had chipped in and helped her when she had four kids under four, God would have been utterly helpless to meet her needs. While I’m grateful this man cared for her well, I have to lovingly say her God is far too small if she can only imagine one way that he is able to provide for her well being.

If I believe in rest, what am I doing to make it possible for others?

I hinted at this above, but my friend’s comment is very  white, middle class. In my church context, very few moms of young kids have this option. I wonder for those that do, are you finding ways to use your blessing to be a blessing? Parachuting into a poor community is generally a bad way to minister, so are you going to find a semi-permanent way to serve these moms who almost certainly need a rest more than you do?

What I’m not saying…

I’m not saying rest cannot be helpful or that husbands should never look after their wives in this way. Looking after the well being of your wife is one obvious way husbands can love their wives as Christ loves his church. But doing that well means you will study your wife to see what it would look like to care for her in particular. Maybe my friend’s post is a helpful starting point, but it should not be an ending point. Based on the marriage counseling I’ve done, many stay at home moms would prefer a reliable 30 – 60 minute break when their husband gets home from work more than a single four hour block of time once per week. This is an issue that a married couple should discuss themselves rather than follow a well meaning but ultimately arbitrary mandate. And while you are having that discussion, talk about how you can serve those moms with young kids who may be divorced, abandoned, or widowed and have no husband to help them.

Receiving the Kingdom like a Child

I was mentioning to someone yesterday that my blog has become a book review site. This is extremely embarrassing for a self-proclaimed non reader so I felt compelled to write a bit about the passage we will be looking at during the Living Stones gathering today, Luke 18:15-17.

In the passage, people are bringing their kids – even infants – to Jesus. The disciples around him seem to think the kiddos are a distraction from important work or something and try to keep them away but Jesus tells them to knock it off. But He doesn’t stop there. He uses the presence of the kids as an object lesson for a couple of really important points about following Him.

First, he says the Kingdom belongs to “such as these.”  The NLT captures the idea when it translates the phrase “For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom belongs to these actual kids, but to people who resemble them in some way.

He explains it further in his second statement, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Jesus is saying that the only chance to receive a place in His Kingdom is to do it like a child. How does a child receive stuff? I don’t think any of my kids ever was skeptical about a gift. I don’t think any of them ever suspected that when I offered to take them for ice cream that I was secretly going to take them to a trash dump. On Christmas morning not one of them ever pulled out the FBI’s bomb threat checklist to inspect the presents we had prepared for them. They received the gifts with joyful expectation and trust.

This passage is more than that though. When we look at where it is – placed right between the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector and the account of the rich young ruler. Luke wants us to see that part of receiving the Kingdom as a child is that we receive it consciously knowing that there is nothing we did to contribute to it. Unlike the pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 and the rich young ruler in Luke 18:20-21, these little children wanted Jesus knowing they added nothing to the process. Luke paints the picture vividly by telling us even infants were being brought. What did the 9-month old contribute to his encounter with Jesus? Nothing. And that’s one of the big takeaways from Luke’s presentation here. There is nothing the pharisee, the rich young ruler, or anyone else can do to make themselves good enough to deserve the Kingdom of God.

This is great news. It means that no matter how bad someone is, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater. Since we contribute nothing to the Kingdom equation, nothing we do can eliminate us. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Apostle Paul who called himself a violent persecutor of the church that hated God. God not only saved him from his sin, but raised him up to write half the New Testament. Why did God do it? Was it to show everyone how good you could be if you just put your mind to it? No, according to Paul. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1:15-16)

The God of the Bible is patient with those who refuse His rule and opens His Kingdom to all those who will put on the humility and empty hands of a little child. If it sounds too good to be true, you need to know that it is really that good.

Thanksgiving in Zephaniah

We spent our Thanksgiving service thinking about the idea of thanksgiving from the book of Zephaniah. I got the idea because Zephaniah 3:17 has been such an encouragement and cause for thanks in my own life, I wanted to spend more time tracing where it came from. We made the point that since thanksgiving requires an acknowledgement of a benefit received or promised, the degree to which you see yourself benefiting from God’s work on your behalf will determine your level of thankfulness

The book is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah during Josiah’s reign. The first two chapters are pronouncements of judgment on first Judah then on the nations surrounding her. One of the things that struck me was that God’s judgment began with Judah, and the prophet spent as much time pronouncing judgment on Judah as he did all the other nations covered combined. The other thing that seemed really important was that according to 1:12, God’s judgment was not just directed at those who violently opposed Him but those who were simply ambivalent toward Him. All those who did not respond to God’s goodness with thanksgiving were equally doomed.

The reason for thankfulness is that God has made a way of escape from His judgment. Last week as we were discussing the persecuted church around the world we mentioned that God only promises escape to those who seek Him (Heb 2:3), and the escape from persecution might just be death, so we continued by asking what kind of escape had God provided for those who trusted Him?

The answer is twofold. First of all, God provides an escape that includes far more than just a lack of judgment – it includes great blessing. God does not just restore sinners to a “fresh start” where they can start digging their hole again, He actually grants them His favor by giving them the status of Jesus. He takes away both His judgments AND Judah’s enemies, and when He’s done he hangs out with His people (v15). We looked at several verses in chapter 3 that show us that it’s actually God who is doing the work to restore these lost sinners (esp. 3:9-13). He is the one who gives His people a pure heart with pure speech, and unites us and removes our shame. And it’s not because we’re so great that we deserve it – the passage describes those over whom God rejoices as lame, outcast and shamed (3:19).

So when God rejoices over lost sinners turning to Him with loud singing (3:17), He is actually rejoicing over Himself and His work on our behalf. When you consider how necessary it is for God to work in this way, it’s not hard to acknowledge the benefit those who put their faith in the one true God have received. That’s the key to growing a thankful heart.