November is the beginning of the holiday season with the great American feast day showing up on the fourth Thursday of this month. For November’s Wisdom Wednesday, I will highlight four aspects of Christianity that I am thankful for based on the writings of the Ancient Church Fathers.
And how, you say, can faith increase? It does so when we suffer something horrible for the sake of faith. It is a great thing for faith to be solidly established and not to be carried away by some sophistry. But when the winds assail us, when the rains on every side and the waves follow on one another, that fact that we are not shaken is a proof that faith grows, grows abundantly and becomes more exalted.
-Chrysostom Homilies on II Thessalonians 2
In the gospel accounts recorded in the New Testament, we are given several accounts of storms. Winds whipped up on the Sea of Galilee as the disciples of Jesus tried to make their way across the body of water. These violent winds caused their ship to take on water and provoked despair in their gut. While I’ve never been in the belly of a ship during the turmoil of a tsunami, I can only imagine what it would be like.
In my mind’s eye I picture the scene as the storm that struck the ship early on in Life of Pi or the squall captured in Perfect Storm. How terrifying?
Jesus once described another storm in relation to how foolish and wise people act. A fool will take short cuts and will build their house on the sand. While it might be easier to work on the malleable soil, nothing of worth will last. Instead it’s the wise that will do the work and lay a sure foundation for their home.
In that passage Jesus told the people that the storms of life will come, it will hit the homes of both the wise and foolish. It will hit both those who respond to the words Christ and those who reject his words. The promise of Jesus is that those who place their hope in him will not have their life destroyed, even when the storms hit.
I am thankful that in Christ we can have an assurance of salvation, even in times of turmoil. As the great church father wrote above in a sermon on II Thessalonians, faith in Christ will help us withstand the winds whipped up in life. If we build our life on the rock of Christ, then we can withstand the hurricanes that make landfall on our souls.
What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you care for him?
I usually take the aisle seat when I fly, but every other flight or so I get stuck in the middle. This last trip from the east coast I was directed in all three legs of my journey to select either the middle or the window seat. Tough choice, right?
I sat in that window seat and looked out at the passing world below, and from so high above, I was reminded how truly small I am on this planet. Conversely, it also reminded me how treasured I am on this planet.
There was green grass down there, watered by the rain and there were birds getting their fill from the gracious hand of God. I thought, if he cares for the lilies of the field or the sparrow on the tree branch, how much more will he care for you or me?
To be honest, I am feeling nervous, nervous moving from Southern California to San Francisco and to start something new with my family. I remember reading in Genesis how God called Abram out of the home of his father and told him to hit the road. Abram went on the promise of blessing, on the promise he would be cared for, even when things seemed sketchy.
I have found that God calls us as followers of Jesus to step out in faith sometimes, even when the path seems a little foggy. God likes to surprise people and he’s in the business of asking them to trust him.
If God cares for the birds of the air and if he knows the number of hairs on my head, then he just might provide when things get sketchy or when the shadows close in once again.
Friends, I feel as if I’m falling sometimes. Not down the stairs, but free falling from a plane.
OK maybe that was too dramatic. Let me put it a different way.
Have you seen the opening sequence for Mad Men? That one when the man is falling down endlessly. In my mind and situation, the freefall happens in slow motion and it’s uber-dramatic (since I’m into drama…). Fortunately, I am not the only one who has wrestled with this feeling.
Henri Nouwen provided an image that I’m holding onto in this stage of my life. It really has helped me so far these past few weeks as many changes are happening at a rapid pace. Nouwen provided an image of a trapeze artist as the center of hope.
Think back to the last time you went to a circus and try to remember the thrill of watching people fly through the air. The flyers flip and twist only to be plucked out of the air by a patient person on the other side. Back and forth, flipping and swinging, the trapeze artists performed seamlessly without a plunge to the net below. The act was pretty incredible, don’t you think?
For Nouwen, he sees a connection between this art and the Christian life. He sees how we are the ones who are flying through the air, propelled up and then dragged back down by gravity. Does that sound familiar?
As the flyer soars through the air, all they can do is throw out their hands and trust that the other person will catch them. They need to trust in the other person and rely on the fact that they will grab her or him before the fall back to the ground below.
The same thing can be said for those who are in Christ. All we can do is throw our hands into the hair and trust that the One who is true to his word will catch us before we fall.
So the next time you feel as if the ground you were standing on was suddenly pulled out from under you, throw your hands up in the air. That’s all I can do sometimes, and I hope it might bring you a bit encouragement as well.
Instead of falling to the ground like the Mad Men intro, I’m going to trust that Christ will catch me before I fall. For he is faithful, even when I am faithless, and I trust that he will pluck me from uncertainty.I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in Psalm 121
Believing is important. Signing off on a belief though is not necessarily the most important thing.
In other words, we don’t have to get everything right. Getting everything right is not necessarily the most important thing for a follower of Christ.
If I can be honest for a moment, I want to state for the record that I am big into believing someone when it comes to Christianity. But belief in this context is not necessarily about passing a theological pop quiz on something or the SAT for Spirituality. No, belief is placing your trust in someone— trusting in Christ. It’s like placing your trust in the strength of a chair when you sit down after a long day.
Even when it comes to believing in something as sure as a chair, sometimes you can have your seemingly routine faith shaken. There are moments when your confidence in a chair will be shaken, that’s what happened to me a couple of years ago (*cue flashback sequence*).
One day a co-worker played a practical joke on me and wedged a sharpened pencil into my chair at work. It was meant to be spotted before I sat down in the chair, after all who doesn’t spot a brand new pencil on their chair? Answer: This guy.
Even though he tried to stop me from sitting down, this practical joke turned into a stinging pain. Thankfully, there was no major damage besides my ego, and now it’s pretty funny to remember. However, it took me months and months to rely on chairs again for places of comfort and safety. I lost my hope in chairs, if you will, and had to check every chair I sat on for many months. I could not simply sit down and relax without thinking. No, I was not confident in the reliability of chairs and was worried that another sharpened No. 2 pencil could be lurking on every park bench and sofa.
Even though my faith was shaken, I still had to sit. It is true that I have a standing desk at work now, but I simply cannot go through life standing for decades. No, I needed to develop an assurance in chairs again (seriously though, this event really made me hesitant to sit down!). Chair by chair, I relearned to trust in chairs again (quit laughing!).
See, I don’t have to get everything right. I don’t have to get my theology right or develop a rational approach to chair sitting. At the risk of sounding absurd: I had to put my trust in chairs again. Certainly, having sound theology or a sound rational approach to chairs might be important, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is belief in Jesus, having a trust in him even when things get shaky.
Perhaps you haven’t had a pencil situation. Maybe, it’s more along the lines of trusting in God– trusting in him when all is lost. I hope and pray that you might consider giving it another shot. During tough times, when my faith is shaken, I look to the Psalms. I read those ancient songs and poems, for they express the emotions of humanity in raw form. They express anger, sorrow, loneliness, joy, and despair. Even though every emotion is on display, the common theme through the entire songbook of Israel is that the writers placed their trust in the LORD.
Even when things got dark. Even when things got shaky, they trusted in the LORD.
I hope you might consider becoming big on believing, even when things get dicey.
Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.
-Pope John Paul II
Do you ever find yourself abandoning hope in the moments chaos and despair? Do you find yourself ever waking in the middle of the night and not knowing how you’re going to get through the stormy night of your soul?
Dear readers, in those moments of darkness don’t give in. Don’t abandon yourself to despair.
If you are in Christ, you have a different song. Not one of dead-ended sorrow, but a song that is rooted in the triumphant hope of Easter. When darkness rolls into your soul, when storm clouds appear on the horizon, cling to this reality. Cling to this song, even when it doesn’t seem real.
My church, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, provided this incredibly encouraging note along this line:
“Easter provides the certainty that allows those who find life challenging to keep walking in faith while they wait for a spouse to marry, a new job, to finish that last class before graduation, or to anticipate a friendship to be reconciled. Easter-faith is backbone and joy for the journey– it changes everything!”
Trust in the risen Christ. Trust that he will provide, even when you cannot see how. Believe me, I’m there in the dark clouds, but this all I can hold onto. I will hold onto this reality, for I am an Easter person, and Easter faith will be my backbone. For the LORD, the covenant keeping God, will provide.
How do you not abandon yourself to despair?
Have you ever had those moments where you were put on the spot and had to say something? Only, when you were in that tight place, you froze and said nothing. Or maybe you said the exact opposite of what needed to be said. Isn’t that an awkward feeling?
For me, I remember being asked a question about Jesus, and being in a large group it was a little unnerving. I choked, didn’t really say a whole lot and the conversation continued onto other things. To be honest, it plagued me for a bit of time and I felt like I turned on my faith.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar situation confront you. You might have said exactly what needed to be said, or maybe it went down a trail that was completely unexpected. But if you have ever been in a place of denying or choking in the moment, I have good news for you.
You are not defined by your denial.
We are told that Peter, days after the resurrection story in John, was fishing out on the sea. He and his crew were doing the same thing they’ve always done and caught zero fish. Then emerged some figure on the distant shore, and this figure yelled out at the group. Faintly hearing the man, the crew listened and tossed the nets onto the other side of the boat. They caught so many fish that the net could not even be dragged into the boat!
Now, what would you do in this situation?
We are told they realized that it was Jesus, the one who was brutally executed days before this. Somehow by the power of God, he was raised three days later in bodily form.
After hearing the command, and then seeing the large amount of fish, Peter jumped into action. Peter, hearing the voice of the rabbi he followed for years, couldn’t wait for the ship to make its way to the shore. Instead, he dove into the sea, racing towards the shore.
I imagine a scene where Peter emerges from the sea dripping wet, and the other men sailing not too far behind. Then Jesus punches Peter in the face.
Oh wait, he didn’t do that. Oops.
Jesus didn’t react how I would have. No, Jesus called them into a private meal, he called them to share breakfast with him. It is here, in this scene on the beach, that Jesus spoke directly to Peter. He confronted him about the denial, but notice it’s not in this brutally condemning manner. He is telling him, “Peter, your past denials do not define you.”
Jesus did not forget the denials, he didn’t whitewash them. No, instead, he did not allow those to be the frame of reference for Peter’s life. Jesus is reconstituting Peter into a different story, one where he was a brave leader in the Early Church. One where he faithfully followed Christ, even if the result was being crucified upside-down. Simon Peter did not lose the chance to live up to the meaning of his name, and be the rock that we see in Acts.
For us, dear reader, we are not defined by our past. We are brought into the story of faith, the story of the Kingdom of God.
You are not defined by your failures or denials. No, you are defined by the Risen Lord and who he says you are. If you are in Christ, then you are a child of God, and you are not defined by your past, you are defined by the righteousness of Christ.
How do you cling to this new reality- this new story?
I once heard a Jewish speaker and a Christian man on two separate occurrences speak about the necessity of being good. If you want to get right with God, then you need to be more good and less bad. Not a bad system, right?
Personally, I like to think that I’m good. I like to picture myself stopping for someone in need when I am able. I like to think that I would meet someone else’s needs and that I’d let people into my traffic lane on the 405 (yes, the 405, you non-Californians).
My dirty secret is that I don’t go the extra mile on a daily basis, I don’t stop for others at a drop of the hat, and I grudgingly let others into my lane (only if they might dent my car if I don’t brake). Truth be told, I have issues!
The good news is that I don’t have to go up to God with a chart showing my gold stars or a screenshot of how many ‘likes’ I have. In fact, the good news is when I go down and down further into my issues and baggage that God is there.
This shocking, counterintuitive, and revolutionary good news is that in my greatest moment of despair, failure, sin, weakness, losing, failing, frustration, inability, helplessness, wandering, and falling short that God meets me there.
He doesn’t meet us on the ground level or basement.
I’m talking about the bottom of the deepest, darkest coal mine. God meets us in the inner recesses of that mine and whispers comfortingly: “I am on your side.”
God meets us there, in the bowels of despair, and he takes us by the hand and leads us out of that darkness.
Being led out of the dark into the light. God meets us in ordinary times, as I mentioned in the last post. God is with us, and he meets us in the darkest corner of our lives and demonstrates that he is for us. That, my friends, is news you can use.
(2nd of 3 parts on Rob Bell’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About God)
One day, death shall slip away into the sunset.
One day, death shall die.
This week certainly holds a paradox. Tomorrow night, the Church throughout the world will remember the night when Jesus was betrayed. The Church will remember the Last Supper and subsequent betrayal. This feast that Jesus took part in would have been rooted in the Passover narrative. His disciples heard the story for years when God acted to bring his people out of bondage in Egypt. He brought them out, guiding them with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He led them and protected them even when they wanted to rebel. Even when they wanted to go back to the land of chains.
There was a new chapter being written in this book of redemption though. There was another meal being used to reinterpret the story of Egypt. There was another feast meant to point his friends towards another act of redemption. God had indeed come down to lead his people, this time it would be to defang death and to offer life to the community of the redeemed.
One day death will die, but that promise only comes through one man’s death. While sin and death came through Adam’s disobedience a long time ago, this “new Adam” (as one New Testament writer puts it) would bring in new life through an act of obedience. While Adam’s act of eating something (a natural part of life) brought on death, Jesus’ crucifixion would clear a pathway for life. This paradox makes my head spin sometimes, but you know what? We don’t have to fully understand this to be a part of the community of the redeemed.
Death shall die, my friends. For those who are in Christ, the sting of death has been removed. I hope you join this family, all you need to do is trust in the words of Christ and believe that God raised him from the dead. Through one man’s death, all men and women are offered life.
Aren’t you grateful for that paradox?
I was asked recently to explain how I know that I am a Christian. Talk about a high-stress question! It took me a little bit of time to think through my answer, but I was able to articulate it this way. I wrote to them this,
“I know that I am a Christian because of the completed work of Christ and my trust in his redemptive work on my behalf. I know that I am in Christ not because of some formula or particular prayer, but in the promise of redemption through a living faith in Jesus. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that I know that I am justified and sanctified.
“Being an evangelical Christian, is more than just passive experience. It is embodying a life coming into alignment with the Kingdom of God, being conformed into the image of Christ. And it is through this that I know that I am a Christian. Jesus has promised salvation, and this assurance is grounded in the promises of Scripture and is confirmed in the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.”
The faith of the Christ-following community hinges on the fact that Jesus once died, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven. That is why Holy Week is so very important to the life of the Church. This zeroes in on the time Jesus spent in Jerusalem in his final week, starting with his glorious entrance on Palm Sunday and culminating in his horrific crucifixion on Good Friday.
As the week soon turns to betrayal on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) and the brutal execution of Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, on a Friday afternoon, I hope that you know that you can have an assurance of salvation.
I hope and pray that God will be with you during this heavy week.
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you
must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
I will more than likely fail miserably in the near future. Wait, scratch that. I will fail miserably in the near future. Probably within the next few hours of this post going live. You see, my friends, I screw up. I screw up a lot. Even though I have a nice watch and nice socks, I don’t have my act together.
I don’t have any imaginary sin, as Luther would suggest. I don’t have any imaginary faults. I have told lies, and I will tell lies in the future. Hatred, jealousy, lust, and pride have all been marks of my life. And those traits are just a portion of the strong sins I frequently bear.
But you know what? Christ is stronger than any of those. While my sins may be bold, the salvific grace of Jesus is bolder. He is the victor over sin, death, and the world’s spirit. Whether or not you are in Christ, you will sin. But, my dear friend, I would beg you to trust in Christ all the more.
Count on Christ, and Christ alone. Trust in him, and him alone. For he is the sole way to redemption and he is the victor over sin and death.
And that, my friends, is boldness that you can rely on.