Tag Archives: discipleship

Trust is Given

Trust is Given (1)

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the interwoven themes of accountability and community. If you talk to anyone in ministry, they would say that both are essential for having a growing relationship with God and with others. And one of the virtues at the center of both of these discipleship ingredients is trust.

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Redeeming the Law

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For most of my life I was not a Christian. Though my family celebrated Christmas and Easter when I was growing up, we didn’t really attend church. For us, life was about being a good person and trying our hardest. Which is why, when someone finally shared the Gospel with me it was revolutionary. It showed me that being good isn’t good enough, because though we try hard, we ultimately fall far short of our own standards of goodness, not to mention God’s.

But the good news of Christianity is that we have a Savior; one who came to save us when good just isn’t good enough. Jesus lives the life we should have lived and dies the death we should have died, so that we – imperfect people that we are – can have new life with God. So that we can stand in His perfect, pure, and holy presence as His beloved children. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our imperfections and our shortcomings. He sees the perfect life of Christ.

And for all of us who fall short, that is the best news in the world.

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Why We Still Need the Church

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“Whoever seeks Christ must first find the church. Now the church is not wood and stone but the group of people who believe in Christ. Whoever seeks the church should join himself to them and observe what they teach, pray, and believe. For they certainly have Christ among them.”

~Martin Luther

There is a popular trend in the social media sphere that has really been picking up steam in recent years. No, I’m not talking about Snapchat or Dubsmash. I’m talking about the tendency by many to attack and criticize the church. And while, in some ways, criticizing the church is nothing new, what surprises me about this trend is that the ones leading the way this time around are Christians.

In fact, it is a rare week that I don’t see some article or blog post about the ways in which the church is failing to reach the young, the old, the hipsters, etc. Likewise there are countless “Things the Church Should Stop Doing” posts and top ten lists. I know because I’ve heard the gripe-fests, read the blog posts, and even tweeted and re-tweeted a fair number of them.

But I would argue that while the church is imperfect, that is also the very reason we need the church.

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Who is Doctrine For?: Theology in the Life of the Church

DISCLAIMER:  The following post is rated “Looooong” and may not be appropriate for people with short attention spans :p

This past quarter I took a course in Systematic Theology.  Honestly, it has been one of my favorite classes.  The readings have been great, the lectures engaging, and the assignments thought provoking.  We’ve addressed topics like Christian ethics, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, the sacraments, death, and resurrection.  For an egghead like me, this kind of stuff gets me excited.  I have been on cloud nine all quarter because I am in nerd central and I love it.

However, the other night Jenny and I were talking and she said something that really struck me:  “I feel like you are immersed in this subculture and you’re starting to speak a language that I just don’t understand.”  Her words really hit me.  I had to slow down and ask myself the question:  “Who is all this for anyway?!”  If I’m spending all this time (and money) learning theology, but it is not translating, then why am I doing it?

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Marriage: What’s the Point?

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This post is one half of two posts that Jenny and I are writing on the nature of marriage. You can read the other half by visiting Jenny’s blog: http://morethansuburban.blogspot.com

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”
~Genesis 2:18

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
~Genesis 1:27

Recently Jenny and I were blessed and privileged to attend the wedding of two of our friends.  As we sat there watching them make their vows to God and one another we couldn’t help but think back on our own wedding and the five years of marriage that we have enjoyed since.  But what stood out to both of us, more than anything, was how incredibly God-centered their ceremony was.

Over the past five years Jenny and I have attended more weddings than we can count.  However, very few of them were so focused on the Gospel as this one was.  Sure, they cited Scriptures like Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 in order to highlight the commitment that they were making to one another.  But even then, these passages were drawn upon to highlight the couple and their vows.  Not so for our friends.  In their ceremony it was clear that marriage wasn’t really about the two them.  It was about God.  And everything from their Scripture readings to the songs they chose to the prayers they prayed was focused on the story of salvation and how a Christian marriage is meant to highlight and celebrate the gift of grace that we have through Christ.

It was a beautiful and powerful ceremony.  And it got us thinking:  How do we define marriage?  Is it a promise of faithfulness between two lovers?  Is it a lifetime commitment; a covenant?  Is it a social contract, complete with benefits and obligations?  Is it a right?  A privilege?  What does it mean to be married?  In recent years these are questions and positions that people in our society have debated and fought over.  And while a marriage may be a promise, a commitment, a social contract, for the Christian marriage is something far more.  A marriage is ultimately meant to bring glory to God.  But what does that mean?  That is what this post is about.

Marriage in Creation

You see, in the beginning, when God first created humanity, He said that it was not good for man to be alone.  And so he created woman.  Scripture tells us that, when the man saw the woman, he said:

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man.”  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

(Genesis 2:23-24)

And so man and woman were created for relationship with each other.  But that is not all.  For Scripture tells us something else.  It says that:

God created making in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

(Genesis 1:27)

What we see in these two verses is something truly profound.  What Scripture tells us is that, in marriage, God brings these two halves of the human race, male and female, into a dynamic relationship which reflects His image in a way that neither of them could have done apart.  They move from being two individuals into one.  And in this dynamic union they reflect the image of God; the one being who is simultaneously a unity and a community.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing eternally as one.  The same and yet distinct – different and yet one – a Christian marriage between a man and woman points us to the character and nature of the Triune God.  Christian marriage was meant to reflect this beautiful and loving relationship within the God-head and so bring Him glory.  This is why it tells us that, in the beginning:

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

(Genesis 2:25)

Safe and affirming, beautiful and loving, marriage was a gift given by a loving God to the creatures made in His image.  And when a man and a woman live out this calling to harmonious and dynamic unity, they give glory to the God in whose image they are made.

Marriage Torn Apart

Sadly, this was not to last.  We read that, in an effort to live their own way and define their own lives, men and women both have rebelled against God.  They put themselves on the pedestal of their lives and, in so doing, broke not only their relationship with God, but their relationships with each other (see Genesis 3). And since that time marriages have been marked by strife and division.  What was once meant to reflect the loving nature of our God is now marked by infidelity, jealousy, mistrust, heartache, and unmet expectations.  We see it everyday.  I doubt there is any one of us who has not, in some way, been touched by a marriage torn asunder.  Whether we saw it in our parents, witnessed it in the lives of our friends, or experienced it personally in our own relationships, divorce is an all too common occurrence.

But even in marriages that have not ended in divorce, the strife and pain of Sin are all too present.  There have been countless times in our five short years of marriage that Jenny and I have found ourselves angry with one another and at odds because of selfishness, stubbornness, and petty frustrations.  Marriage is not easy.  It is hard and, at times, painful.  I think it is safe to say that marriage is no longer what God intended it to be.

Marriage and Salvation

So can marriage, broken and marred as it is, still glorify God?  By the grace of God, yes, it can and it does.  One of the things that I find interesting in the writings of the New Testament is how marriage is talked about and where marriage imagery comes up.  It is worth noting that Jesus uses marriage and the wedding feast to talk about the kingdom of God (see Matthew 22, Matthew 25, Luke 12:35-37).  But what is even more striking is how, in foretelling the return of Christ, the Bible speaks of it in marriage terms.  It reads:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

(Revelation 21:1-5)

What we see in these passages is that God’s redemption of mankind is likened to a marriage ceremony, one in which He is seeking out his wayward bride and lovingly restoring the relationship that has been broken (see Hosea 2:14-23).  The final picture of redemption is the wedding feast, a celebration of the reunion between Creator and created, between God and His beloved people.

And the apostle Paul tells us that it is this seeking and reconciling work of God that is now to be reflected in human marriages as well.  In writing to the church at Ephesus, he talks about marriage in the following terms:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also much love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

(Ephesians 5:25-33)

Paul tells us that Christian marriages are ultimately intended to point to the saving work and immeasurable grace of God in Jesus Christ.  That these marriages, even in their shortcomings, are to be places of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.  In doing so, they bear witness to the grace of God in Christ.

Again, I can’t help but reflect on the past five years of marriage with Jenny.  For all of our shortcomings and struggles, there has always been grace and love extended.  Though we may fight and snipe at each other, we also know when to say we are sorry and ask for forgiveness.  Likewise we learn to extend grace and bear with one another in love.  We do this not because we have a stronger marriage than others, but because we know, each and every day, that we are sinners saved by grace; cherished by God even when we are at our most unloveable.  And we pray that our marriage, more and more, reflects the power of the saving work that Christ has done in our lives.  Furthermore, it gives us hope and points us forward to that day when the wedding will be consummated and the kingdom brought into its fullness at the great wedding feast of Christ.

In the meantime, Christian marriage stands as a testimony to the ongoing work of God in the world as he pursues his beloved bride.  Just as it was intended to bring God glory by bearing His image perfectly in the beginning, so it now glorifies God as Savior and Redeemer in a broken world.  Whether in good times or bad, marriage is meant to give God praise.  That is the purpose of Christian marriage.

And so, we say congratulations to our friends, we pray for the marriages in our lives, and we long for and look forward to the day when we will see the Bridegroom face-to-face at His wedding table.  Praise be to God for the gift of marriage.  Amen.

For some thoughts on Christian discipleship and marriage, check out the other half of this reflection by visiting Jenny’s blog:  morethansuburban.blogspot.com

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We Don’t Need Another Manual

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18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
~Matthew 28:18-20

Flavor the the Month:  Discipleship

If you were to survey the largest church leadership conferences in the United States from the past 12 months, odds are that the major theme of the conference had something to do with discipleship.  From Verge to Exponential, there is no doubt that discipleship is the flavor of the month.

I find this shift encouraging.  Having worked in a mission-minded college ministry for so many years, it is exciting to see churches operating less like corporations and more like indigenous missions agencies.  I believe that this shift in the Western church is a helpful corrective to the insular, institution-driven models which have, for so long, quenched the fires of evangelism and mission.  Furthermore, this renewed emphasis on discipleship and mission is so widespread that it appears to be less a part of the latest fad and more a reflection of the Spirit-driven nature of church responding to the call of the Great Commission.

Consuming Discipleship

However, one of the things that I am worried about is the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of this shift.  Nowadays I can’t turn around without running into another book on discipleship.  There’s David Platt’s Follow MeMike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture, and Francis Chan’s Multiply.  There’s Jim Putnam’s Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual and Greg Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship.  The list is large and continues to grow.  Leave it to us Americans to take an awesome idea, package it, and sell it for the greater glory of God.  (And yes, I did just link all of those to Amazon.  You are now free to indulge your shopping impulse).

Now I genuinely believe that these authors have a deep desire to help men and women grow to maturity in Christ and that these books are not written for personal gain.  However, what I see when there is this explosion of books is a mad dash to buy, read, consume and regurgitate without thought to the consequences and without critical reflection on Scripture and our own contexts.  We end up going and attending conferences with these authors, spending money on airlines and hotel rooms, eating out, eating in, and buying more books, all in the name of advancing the cause of discipleship.  Finally, if any of this is actually applied, it is applied by buying more books, giving them to more people, and telling them to go and do likewise.  The result:  cookie cutter disciples being cranked out by the latest book buying craze.

Now all of that sounds rather cynical, but for the record I write this as someone who has partaken.  I am just as guilty of following this model as the next pastor and for that I must repent.  The reality is that we spend so much time reading and talking about discipleship that we miss the point:  to help people to grow into full maturity in Christ.  And the truth is that we don’t need another manual to help us do this.  Why?  Because we already have the one manual we will ever need:  Scripture.

Spending Time with The Rabbi

What I find interesting about the vast majority of these discipleship books is how they all center around one simple idea:  look at what Jesus did the in gospels and do likewise.  That’s it.  Jesus not only came and died for us, but he also modeled for us how to live.  Furthermore, when he gives the Great Commission to his disciples he is essentially telling them to do exactly what he did with them.  “Go and make disciples…baptizing…and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  Jesus makes clear that his intention was for them to follow the example that he had laid down.  So, I think the challenge for us is to set the manuals down for a while and to just spend time with our rabbi.  Jesus shows us how to make disciples in the way that he taught, and he invites us to join in him in that process.

So here is a challenge for all of us:  before picking up another discipleship book or training manual, spend some time in the gospels and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did Jesus help people grow spiritually?
  • How did he help shape and form his disciples as people?
  • What were Jesus’ rhythms of life with his followers?
  • How did he teach, both in word and deed?

I think we will be surprised by what we find.  Furthermore, this approach puts us right where we need to be:  at the feet of Jesus, watching what he does and learning from him.  My hope is that this will be the key to our discipleship; that we will be trained in the way of and formed by Christ himself, and sent to help others do the same.

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION:  As you read the gospels, what have you learned about how to make disciples?  What has Jesus taught you be his example?

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A Prophet’s Life Verse

This week I have had the privilege of posting on one of my favorite blogs:  “Release the APE”.  I’ve re-posted the piece here, but I encourage you to head over to their website and check it out for yourself.

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Since becoming a Christian I’ve heard lots of people talk about having a “life verse”.  Usually it is a passage of Scripture that they feel embodies their own journey with God.  It could be something that they received at their baptism or during confirmation, but whenever they discovered it has (hopefully) become a motto for how they live as a follower of Jesus.

For a while I was unsure whether I had a life verse or not.  There are tons of passages in the Bible that I love, but a “life verse”?  I wasn’t too sure about that.  And then I attended a staff training event with InterVarsity.  During one of our sessions together we were encouraged to pray for each other.  Eventually it was my turn to be prayed for by my team, so I sat in the middle of the group as the others gathered around and began to pray.

Suddenly, one of them said, “I’m getting the sense that I should pray a verse over you.”  And this is what she read:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  “Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.  Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant.”
~Jeremiah 1:4-10

I wish I could say that it was a lighting-bolt moment, a moment when the heavens opened and I heard the voice of God.  But honestly, I walked away thinking, “Wow that was cool,” and pretty much forgot about it after that.

That is until I began to transition off of IV staff and into pastoral ministry.  I was taking a look back over my 6 years with InterVarsity and saw a theme:  everywhere I went I was uprooting and tearing down, building and planting.  With each ministry assignment I was questioning old ways of doing things, offering up new and different paradigms, and calling out systems and structures that hindered our witness and were stalling people in their walks with God.  Without realizing it, this verse had become my life verse.

For those who have the prophetic edge to their ministries, I believe that this verse contains within it some important lessons.  But the one that I want to really hone in on is verse 10:  “I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  Often, the prophetic calling is described in light of the first portion of this verse:  uprooting and tearing down.  Prophets are talked about as those people who stir things up, get things moving, and critique established structures and paradigms.

As such, being a “prophet” has become pretty sexy in our postmodern, post-churched society.  Nowadays anyone who has an opinion or a bone to pick is a prophet.  In fact, I think being prophetic has started to become a code word for simply being a jerk.  The truth is, just because we have a critique does not mean we are serving in a prophetic way.  Too often would-be prophets have simply absorbed our surrounding culture’s disdain for the church and cynicism toward any kind of structure.  Such an attitude is not redemptive and ultimately does more harm than good.  I say this as someone who has fallen into this trap so many times that I’m a bit embarrassed.  My first two years with InterVarsity I was, for lack of a better word, a jerk.  There was no humility in my work.  I was constantly cutting down what others had to offer.  I was being an idiot.

The truth is, the prophetic calling does involve stirring things up, getting things moving, and critiquing established structures and paradigms.  But it involves something else too:  building and planting.  Prophets are not people who are obsessed with attacking the status quo.  Prophets are people who are captivated by a greater vision of what could be. This is where their desire for movement and change comes from.  It is a putting off of the old ways of the world in the pursuit of the new ways of the Kingdom of God.

The image of building and planting is a powerful one.  Like trees planted near sidewalks, prophets break up the concrete as new roots take hold and the tree expands.  Prophets cultivate the growing of the kingdom of God and, as such, will critique and question things that would seek to hinder that growth, whether within or outside of the church.  But such critique is not malicious or self-serving:  it is always in service to the greater glory of God.

The reality is that being a prophet is hard work.  You can’t just come into a church or organization, spout off your angry platitudes, and run.  You have to commit to the long haul.  Uprooting and planting takes time, patience, gentleness, wisdom, and insight.  It takes submitting ourselves to the timing of the God who calls us.  And it often means that we need to know when to speak and when to listen.  We do all this so that the church might grow, not so that it will be torn down.

This is a calling that will take a life-time to learn.  It will be filled with disappointments and frustrations, difficulties and challenges, hurt, anger, pain, rejection and so forth.  We will make mistakes.  We will hurt others.  We will fall on our faces more times than we can count.  But it is also a calling filled with joy, excitement, and new life as we participate in the work God is doing in making all things new.  That is the life of a prophet and it is a life worth pursuing.

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What Does the Next Generation Want from Your Leadership?

AND book coverI have been reading the book AND:  The Gathered and Scattered Church by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay for our church’s strategic planning team and I came across one page that really struck me.  It spoke about what the next generation of church leaders wants from the present generation of leaders.  I was so moved that I literally highlighted the entire page, partially because this is exactly how I feel as a young pastor, but also because it is a reminder of what I need provide the next generation as I grow as a leader.  Here is what it says:

“Let me give you a few hints as to things that the next generation of church leaders probably don’t want or need from you:  your building (if it carries a big mortgage), your debt, the unchurched culture’s present level of disrespect and disdain for the church, and your parishioners’ apathetic consumer tendencies.  Younger leaders won’t want our iron-clad denominational loyalties, outdated ministerial codes of ethics, insensitive and unrealistic success measurements, or lengthy academic requirements that make them put real life and ministry on hold for a paper degree.  They won’t have much use for our massive wood pulpits, our pews, our individualistic communion trays, or our choir robes.

But here’s what they do want from us:  they will want your Bible commentaries and some use of your buildings, as long as it doesn’t carry a lot of cost or control over their lives.  Other than that, and a little cash, what they want most is your expertise, your mentoring, your encouragement, and a chance to hear the stories that will inform and inspire their leadership roles.  They want tangible memories of how you modeled sacrifice, humility, teachability, risk, and courage in the face of ecclesial political pressure.  They want to be inspired by how you gave away ministry, prestige, and power.  They want to be entrusted with levels of responsibility that make them desperate for God’s help.  They want freedom to invent new ways of cultural engagement, discipleship, and teaching without being belittled if they fail.  They want you to trust them to know how to reach their own generation.  In short, they want a concerned but nurturing coach and someone after whom they can pattern their faith and leadership.  The biggest gift you can hand down is faith.” (Halter and Smay, pg. 199)

Powerful words to live by and strive for.  Thanks to the teachers and mentors who have poured so much into me over the years.  You know who you are and you mean more to me than I can express.

PS Buy the book.  It is worth the read:)

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Where Does My Help Come From?

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“I lift my eyes up to the mountains – where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
~ Psalm 121, a song of ascents (NIV)

Shortly after graduating from college I spent a couple of months working for Family Christian Stores as I was fundraising to go on staff with InterVarsity.  That summer Joel Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now had just been released and covered our bestseller and newest releases shelves.  It was my first introduction to the health-and-wealth gospel and I was bothered by what I read.  But what was more disturbing than this was how many books on our shelves also peddled this same kind of feel-good Christianity.  The message coming from each of these books was essentially this:  trust in Jesus and all of your financial and material dreams will come true.  The problems with this message are too numerous to count, but among them is this idea that a life of faith in Jesus is all comfort and candy canes.

That is why Psalm 121 is so important.  It hits on a vital truth about the Christian life.  Along the journey of faith there will be many moments when the road will become difficult.  Jesus never promised us comfort or wealth, and there will be times when God will call us to go places or do things that, if we’re totally honest, we would rather avoid.

In these times it is tempting to look for safety and security in other things.  The writer of this Psalm highlights this when he says, “I life my eyes up to the mountains – where does my help come from?”  The mountains, or “high places”, were the locations upon which people would have built altars to their gods.  It was on these places that people would offer sacrifices to their deities in order to receive security and blessings.  The mountains were the places for idol worship.  And so the psalmist’s eyes look to those places as he wonders, “Where does my help come from?”  There is an inner plea, a desire for safety and security, as he walks this pilgrim road.

And yet, as if having an internal debate with himself, he is reminded of the truth:  “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  The psalmist knows that, ultimately, his security and support can only be found in God.  While the world looks to the idols that it has made (wealth, fame, careers, relationships, success, etc) for comfort, help, and strength, the psalmist sees that such things will ultimately let us down.  Our security comes not from the “high places” of the world, but from the one who made the world itself.  It comes from God, who alone holds all of creation together.

Furthermore, the psalm writer reminds us that God not only holds the universe in the palm of his hands, but that he also cares fro and watches over each and every one of us.  Though he rules over the whole created order, he is not a disconnected despot, but is a loving sovereign who cares for and watches over his children.

This message is a vital one for the disciple of Jesus Christ.  There will be many moments when we are tried and tested by the difficulties and storms of life, for we are not immune to such struggles.  Like anyone else, the Christian is tempted to look to man-made answers and solutions in order to find a sense of assurance.  That is why we must be reminded that we are following the one who is able to meet every need.  We follow the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, and he will provide for us.

On a personal note, this is a comforting and reassuring word for me.  Jenny and I have been tempted, many times, to find our security in worldly things.  We followed God into ministry:  first with InterVarsity and now in pastoral work.  We knew that, in doing so, our incomes would be limited, but we were happy to do it because we were excited about the calling that he has given us.  And yet, we presently struggle with the reality that, even after several years of trying to build up a down payment on a home, we still cannot afford to live in the very community in which we minister.  I know…first world problems, right?  Still, as a single-income family we often feel the pressure of paying off college loans and building a home for our children, and it’s has been very easy to get frustrated and discouraged.

But then, we look back over the years and we see the hand of God, our provider.  We are reminded of the generosity of our parents, who have shared their homes with us so that we could continue to save and pay down debt.  We are reminded of the blessing that we have in our church family, which has cared for and supported us in more ways than we can count, not least of which involves bringing me on staff.  We are reminded of how these blessings have allowed one of us to stay home and personally raise our children during these crucial early years.  The truth is, God has been very good to us.  While we have had to adjust our timelines and expectations, God has shown us that life is about the relationships around us, not the house and the picket fences.

Whatever difficulties we face, whether small or large, it is important to remember that the Lord walks with us as we continue to pursue his calling upon our lives.  Where does our help come from?  It comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

“The Christian life is going to God.  In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same diseases, are buried in the same ground.  The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will guard us from every evil, he guards our very life.”
~Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pgs. 44-45

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Christmas Reflection: What Obedience Really Costs Us

*What follows is a re-print of an article that I wrote for RELEVANT Magazine‘s website in honor of Christmas.  I encourage you to read the post there and LIKE it on Facebook as well as contribute your own Christmas reflections in the comments below.

(c) Jyoti Sahi; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, my family didn’t start attending church until I was a freshman in high school. As a result, my exposure to the Christmas story was limited to what I saw in paintings, statues and holiday stamps. I’d seen many pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, but these images always struck me as a bit odd and otherworldly. Here was Mary, this mature, peaceful woman in immaculate robes, holding a very adult-looking Jesus with a tiny, restrained half-smile on her lips—like the Mona Lisa dressed in religious garb. These pictures shaped my view of Mary as someone wholly unrelateable and distant, an obscure figure only revered in Catholic circles with very little relevance to me, a young, evangelical Protestant.

But then, several years ago, I encountered a very different kind of painting. It was an image created by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi entitled Dalit Madonna. In it, Sahi depicts the Virgin Mary as a dalit, cradling the baby Jesus, with deep love and affection in her eyes as she looks down upon her infant child. Her hands and feet are dirty and calloused. And yet, the love this mother shows for her baby envelops her and the child in warm light. I was immediately taken by the beauty of this painting and the touching intimacy it depicts.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term dalit, it referes to a group of people in India more commonly known as “untouchables.” Some Westerners have mistakenly called the dalits the lowest caste in Hinduism. However, this is an inaccurate assessment, for the dalits have traditionally been viewed as living outside the proper caste system. They serve in labor industries deemed too defiled or unclean to be attended to by proper Hindus.

Fortunately, there have been many movements within India to eradicate this discrimination, including efforts by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great friend and advocate of many untouchables. However, dalits are still looked down upon in more rural settings, and social stigma continues to be attached to the term.

As I reflected more on Sahi’s painting, I could not help but think what it would have been like for the historical Mary, giving birth to her son in first-century Judea. In the Bible, we read that Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel before her official marriage to Joseph and told she would bear a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High.” What’s more, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).

On the one hand, this was the most exciting news Mary could have heard. After all, the Messiah was believed to be the heir to the throne of David, the greatest king in the history of the Israel. Many of the Israelites in Mary’s day, living under Roman occupation, hoped the Messiah would come and free them from the political oppression of foreign rulers and usher in an era of prosperity and peace. No doubt, Mary believed much the same thing and desired to see a day of freedom for her people.

However, Mary also knew that to accept the angel’s message was to accept a social stigma. You see, she was already betrothed to Joseph. This meant that they were legally husband and wife with the exception of sexual relations. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well aware the child to be born was not his (see Matthew 1:18-19). As such, Mary would have been labeled an adulterer. As some people are labeled dalits in certain parts of the world, so Mary would have been labeled sotah, the ancient Hebrew word for “adulteress.”

In his book The Real Mary, Scot McKnight writes about the dangers Mary would have faced as a woman with an illegitimate child. He reminds us that, if she were openly accused of adultery by Joseph, Mary would have faced death by stoning. Yet even if Joseph did not bring charges against her, she would have been stripped half-naked and forced to stand in the center of her village to endure the verbal ridicule and scorn of her neighbors and former friends. Likewise, Mary would have known what would be at stake for her child.

McKnight highlights the realities Mary would have faced:

“She knew villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child and he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question … She knew that he was legally required to divorce her. And one more connection for Mary was that he could leave her stranded with the Messiah-to-be without a father.”

All of this is affirmed by the biblical text. Christ, at one point, is mocked as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), a clear reference to His lack of a legitimate father.

Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Like the dalits of India, she would become an outcast, an untouchable, one whom people would regard as disobedient to God and a traitor to the acceptable standards of behavior set out in “proper” society. However, not to receive this message would have been to turn away an invitation from God to participate in His plans for the world. What would she choose?

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word'” (Luke 1:38).

Mary chose to obey God. In the face of certain rejection and a difficult life ahead for her and her child, Mary knew God and knew He would provide for them. Furthermore, she was faithful because of what was at stake. Though she could not anticipate just what kind of life Jesus would lead, she knew the Messiah would bring the salvation promised by God. She desired, more than anything, to see this salvation brought into the world and was full of faith that God would act through Him to that end.

As we approach the Christmas holiday, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.

I also see in this story an invitation to re-examine how we approach the untouchables in our midst. The truth of Mary’s story is that God often works through the outcasts and the marginalized. And yet, as Christians, we often miss this.

Whether we face rejection for following Christ or are seeking to care for the outcast and unseen in our midst, it is important to remember Mary’s story: the story of her faithfulness, the story of God’s untouchable servant.

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