Monday, March 28, 2016

Knocked Down

     I remember it well. It had all happened so fast... the guy I was competing against had come over the top of my kick and caught me with a hard right hook to the nose that sent me to the mat. I'm a light fighter, so knocking me down isn't generally too hard. But this time, my world went black for a moment before I hit the ground, and I could already feel the blood welling up in my nostrils.

     I remember somebody trying to help me up and knocking his hand away cause I could already feel the blood coming from my nose. It was bleeding, a lot. My head hurt, and I already knew I was losing the fight. But I still remember the referee walking over leaning over me and saying those words, "Do you want to continue?" I remember my coach asking how much time was left on the clock. And I still remember what went through my mind and what came out of my mouth.

     My mind thought, "There's no way you can win this fight. This guy is beating you every which way you can turn. His legs are longer, he's kicking harder, he's kicking higher, he's faster... no way." My mouth, very rebelliously, said, "Heck, yeah." I don't use that word often, but it did kinda slip out in the adrenaline high of the moment.

    In the Bible, we meet a great warlord named David. We meet this ancient warrior as a teenager, a sheepherder. Yet even as a sheepherder, we see the seeds of his raw courage and great strength. When a lion steals a lamb, this teenage David does not run for his father's servants. He runs after the lion and kills it personally. When a bear steals a lamb, David does not carry the story home so his dad can deal with it. He personally chases the bear down and kills it. This is a teenager I wouldn't want to mess with.

     Just a few short years later, we meet still teenage David standing in a valley, facing a 9 foot tall giant of a man... and David does precisely what we'd expect of a lion-slaying, bear-bashing warrior: he knocks the giant down and cuts his head off with his own sword. Seriously, it's hard to get any more epic than killing the giant with his own sword and then holding up his bloodied head for your and his army to see. It's impossible not to look pretty downright scary in that pose.

     We see the warrior mature into a trusted officer until we hear women surrounded the road that he travels on the way back from his victories, singing, "Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands." I think I've made my point. David is a tough guy, a strong, able warrior, a soldier who literally has thousands of warriors who have died at his hands. But I'm not done describing him yet.

     This David is set up by his prospective father-in-law, baiting David with his love for Saul's daughter, Michal (hmm, none of us have ever heard of over-zealous fathers now, have we? :), tempting him out to do battle in order to see him killed. David beats the odds, killing twice the number of Philistines necessary for him to win his lady-love. This dude is... well, tough. One more step... when David is finally chased out of the capital, he soon gathers a group of rough criminals, men on the run for their lives. These men rally around David and make him their leader. Picture a gang... when was the last time you saw a gang of men choose a scholarly looking dude with glasses and thick books as their leader?

      David was the toughest of the tough. He was a bloody man, a warrior who killed thousands of men. A fearsome warlord, a hard leader, at times a tyrant, a murderer, a rough man.

     "I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears, I drench my couch with weeping." Yes, this was the same guy. The same man who walked into a valley against a raging giant with just a leather sling and mocks him, taunting him before the world, is the same man who writes that he can literally wring water from his bed at night from the sorrow and darkness of his heart.

     If you ever thought it was a sign of weakness to feel darkness, despair, or weakness, I hope that thought just got blown out of the water. It's a sign of humanity that even the strongest, boldest men can experience. The pain is real. The pain is palpable. And that's okay. We get knocked down. We find solace in the darkness; or more frequently, we find more loneliness there. We know the smell of the mat and the feel of blood, our blood. We know the crush of defeat sometimes.

     I won the fight that day. It was my glove that was raised at the end of that match. My face and uniform were still bloodsplattered, I was sore, I was weak, but I won. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't all fun. It was pain and fear and blood and sweat.

     Something, something gets us through those dark times. Something gets us back off the mat. Something makes us look up at life beating us bloody and say, "Heck, yeah, I'm getting back up." Something makes us stand back up, knowing we'll get hit again and again, knowing we'll get knocked down again.

     "Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning." You remember camping as a kid, particularly without a tent? Every noise, every rustling leaf, every shadow, every movement is a bear a pack of wolves, or a sasquatch. Or possibly an ax murderer. But worse... the night lasts forever. It is a scientifically proven fact that nights spent outside in the woods without a tent last an average of 12 hours longer than a night inside a house.

     The night lasts forever! Every noise, ever sound in the wakeful silence jerks our sleepless open again. It never ends. But morning! You remember that first ray of dawn that topped the hills or cut through the trees around you? You remember how eagerly you peered at it, checking and doublechecking to see if you were seeing the real thing?

     And you remember how the pack of wolves turned into a pair of chipmunks, and the fearsome sasquatch became a raccoon passing through camp? When the night is over, the light dawns with all its awe and splendor, giving us the warmth, the light, the hope that we need to keep going, to feel safety, to know hope.

     There will be sadness. But there will be a morning! There will be a shout, a sound of victory, of hope, of joy! If we endure the darkness and the night, the morning is there! If we pull ourselves off the mat, if we wipe the blood on our sleeves and tighten our gloves and reset our mouthguards, we can make it. We can make it through the night... and the morning waits.

     There will be a morning. There will be a morning. Oh, no doubt, the night is dark and foreboding. There is sorrow there, none will argue. But when the night is over, the victory of the light and the sun is clearly seen, flooding our lives with hope and strength to continue on. Hold on for the morning, friend. Get back up, stay strong, and hold on for the morning!

Sunday, March 20, 2016


    All my life, I have had, consciously or not, the notion locked in my brain that God's will is this isolated path, His best for us, that we can only discover through prayer and concentrated searching. This was not something I remember my parents teaching, but more of a recurring theme I heard spoken of and referenced as a given fact in my circles and the speaker's I commonly listened to growing up.

     Several months back, my brother described the opinion brought out in the book Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. I have not read the book, so I am not trying to speak for DeYoung, but from what my brother described, I was intrigued. The path he started me down has really changed how I see God's will and leading in my Christian life and in my life ahead.

     For years, I had considered my future something God had planned how He wanted, and it was my responsibility to find that path or else miss "God's best" (if you grew up in the same conservative circles I did, you'll recognize that phrase) for my life, settling for the "good". So I had sweated and prayed and concentrated and thought about who I would marry and what I would do for work with more than a little fear.

     What if I got it wrong? What if I married a girl who was not God's best for me? How could I know what the best was? What if I went into missions when God wanted me to be a pastor or a counselor? Questions like these literally drove any kind of peace of mind far away when I would consider the future, because the future was not hopeful. It was scary! There was one right way and a hundred wrong ways, and God wouldn't tell you what way was right! He would lead you through subtle signs and small indications... always very vaguely described by those who had already passed this point when they tried to encourage you.

     But what I had never bothered to do was examine Scriptural precedent for this kind of view of God's will. Honestly, I'm a little ashamed with myself for not having done this years ago instead of waiting until I was nearly graduated from high school and on to college before doing this! Where in the Bible was this notion of God's will I'd heard mentioned all these years?

     Prov. 3:5-6 was always hailed as the passage of Scripture that outlined this kind of thinking, and at first glance, they did seem to say that, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." Now, in the KJV where I memorized this passage, v. 6 is rendered, "He shall direct thy paths." Subtle word difference, but a major difference in application. In the one, you are walking down a path and as you yield to the Lord's wisdom and bring yourself into subjection to Him, He makes your way clear. In the second, He is pointing to a particular path to go down, seemingly.

     But honestly, this passage was not such an open and shut statement as I had thought. V. 7 adds some wisdom we rarely touched on, "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil." This verse seems to further interpret v. 5-6, showing us what it looks like to trust in the Lord and to not lean on our own understanding; namely, walk humbly, recognizing our own ideas, logic, and reasoning should be in subjection to God's Word, fear the Lord and place ourselves under Him, and reject evil. Those are the three applicable ways to live out v. 5-6. this is how you demonstrate trusting in the Lord with all your heart.

    Honestly, the way I had interpreted this passage before made no sense. Did I really believe Solomon was telling us to forget logic and through reason to the wind? Secondly, if we truly are to disregard our own thoughts and minds and instead obey this mysterious will of God that He reveals when we ask Him and ignore our own reason, why are we only applying this on major areas, such as college, career, or spouse choices? Why aren't we doing this when we order lunch at a restaurant or select our clothing for the day?

      I can tell you why I was only doing it in the big things. Because the way I had trained myself to see God's will, God had decided on the best for me, one particular spouse, one particular job, and everything else was less than best. But I had not taken that all the way to its logical conclusion because if I had, it would have been utter foolishness. Surely God gave us minds, logic, and reasoning powers for a reason! Surely He didn't intend for me to make my clothing choices for the day after 30 minutes of prayer for guidance!

      I believe the Bible sets forth a very different story of God's will; namely, that God is a very big and extremely sovereign God who is not limited to good, better, and best. As we go through the Bible, instances are extremely rare of Bible heroes coming to God and asking Him to point them a route before they act. Instead, they ask for wisdom (refer back to Prov. 3:5-7 where it says to trust God rather than our own wisdom) from God to supplement their own and then make a reasoned choice as to what they believe is best.

     Before I have people thinking to themselves that I am saying we should just make major life decisions with no prayer or meditation, I would like to clear this up. I believe prayer is excellent and necessary before this major decisions. But God never intended us to wait on Him to reveal His will before we act. Biblically, since the days of Urim and Thummim when God's will was clearly shown by division of lots, I cannot think of a single case in which God's will was relied on to be shown, particularly not in the NT since the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1 shows the dealing of lots to select a replacement apostle, but since then (and the anointing of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2), the will of God being revealed clearly to a human seems to be rare and supernatural.

     For example, Philip's being led away into the wilderness is recorded as a rare and spectacular event, actually miraculous. According to my former worldview, this was the norm. God was expected to reveal my life decisions by leading, something the NT seems to treat as a miraculous occurrence. Another example would be when Paul is planning to proceed to Asia Minor, and God is specifically said to have withstood him and instead sent him a dream to commission him to Macedonia instead.

     These two examples of revelation of God's will are spectacular, not the norm. They are specifically named and detailed while we know now details about how Paul chose his other missionary routes for a specific reason: namely, this was uncommon. It was worth writing down because it was out of the ordinary! Apparently, Philip was much more used to going about his ordinary business than he was to be sovereignly directed by God to go this way or that. It was unusual enough to be worth noting.

     Paul going into Macedonia... this is the only occasion we see where Paul's route is influenced by God. No other time is spoken of, implying that this was the great exception to the general rule. Paul, someone very in tune with God's desires for him, was simply making plans as usual for leaving Troas and going on to another city, until God actively stepped in and miraculously stopped him. However you see this, it seems to imply that God's will is something that is (while sovereignly decreed in heaven) left open for us on earth; that is to say, there is no one best or one route which we must follow to be in God's will.

     As long as we are walking in obedience to His Word, we are in God's will. One of my favorite examples of this is Nehemiah. The book of Nehemiah is scattered with prayers, quick, desperate cries for help or wisdom... but never asking for God to reveal His will. Nehemiah simply asks for God to give Nehemiah His compassion or to remember him so Nehemiah can make the wisest, most informed choice he can. Nehemiah prays while making educated, logical decisions in leadership, without any prayers for God to point him in a direction or requests for guidance.

     So... what does all this mean? Basically, God has given us desires, interests, passions, and gifts. We use the logic He has give us and the wisdom we request from Him to make a wise, educated decision for a life partner, career, or church. He may close doors, He may, like in Paul's case, send undeniable leading a different direction. But our default should be to choose our courses of action based off what God has already given us, not off subjective leading that we sweat over for years.

     In a practical sense, I've struggled with the idea of how to discern who you are to marry or what you are to do or where to go to college and how to read God's mind on such things. That pursuit is over as of today (actually yesterday when I finally sat down and articulated all this to myself). I'm going to use the principles in God's Word and the logic and the transformed mind He has given me to choose a life partner, life's work that aligns with the gifts and passions He created me with, and a college that fits my beliefs and my desire for the future.

      God gave us gifts and passions as guiding lights toward areas that glorify Him and fulfill us. Those are ways of discerning routes toward His service. He doesn't have this one path and twenty dummy ones set up just to challenge us and throw us off the scent. He's not playing games. He's given us wisdom and skills to serve Him more ably! His will isn't found in dreams or crystal balls. As we conform our lives to Him, we naturally follow after where He would have us to go.

Monday, March 7, 2016

This Do in Remembrance of... Self?

    I've sat through a lot of communion services in my life. Baptist ones, non-denominational ones, Presbyterian ones... But the common thread I see running through the vast majority of these services I've been in has left me frustrated. After getting a frustrated email from a friend last night pointing out the same thing in her church, I thought I should address this issue yet again.

     The pastor somberly reads Lk. 22 or 1 Cor. 7, then every head bows to silently pray after a somber warning to examine yourselves for your worthiness to approach the table and the dire warnings against partaking unworthily. With heads bowed and somber warnings flickering through our minds, the piano softly begins to play hymns that speak to us about the pain and sorrow of the cross, the sorrow of Christ in the grace, while we rush through the list of our sins of the week and frantically repent, then finish with a blanket repentance for any we may have missed. The ushers quietly pass the plate, and each of us silently takes our cracker with straight faces and sad looks.

     Holding the cracker, the pastor leads us in a serious prayer, pointing us to reflection on how great our unworthiness is before God and the greatness of His pain on our behalf. Then, if you're anything like I was, you finished communion with yet another promise to God and challenge to yourself to work just a little harder this week and be a little more holy.

     Now, there are several issues with what I just listed above. Two blatantly stick out to me as the two I'll address today. First of all, why did I just make it through two paragraphs describing our communion suppers and only mention the name of Christ once? Sadly, this is becoming more and more common in our communion services. It is becoming entirely possible in our church to come together to celebrate our Lord's death and leave having celebrated ourselves.

     Ourselves? Is that too blunt? Maybe we're not Christ-focused, Taylor, but surely that's not the same as coming together to celebrate ourselves! I disagree. I would like to yield that our communion suppers have become more and more self-focused examinations than Christ-exalting worship. At the very time we are called together to come in remembrance of Him, we instead come together in remembrance of ourselves.

     Why do I say this? Very simple really... if you spend more time on the point to examine yourselves than to rejoice in the atonement that's ours, the focus of the table has become ourselves instead of Christ. When we are examining our sins more than we are rejoicing in Christ's payment for those sins, we have replaced the true purpose of the table with an improper focus.

     Our self-examination should remind us of our sin... in order to put our eyes back on Christ as my Savior and my atonement! The self-examination's purpose is not to resolve my sin issues before coming to the table; that is the antithesis of what the Lord's Supper does represent. Christ's atonement comes to us while in our sin, not waiting for us to resolve it. We come to our Father's table as saved sinners, saints who still sin and still have sin in our lives, and we come to the table to rejoice in the resolution of the sin in the blood of my Savior, not by my continued penitent prayers!

     Secondly, we lack one of the things we most should desire at communion: joy! Communion, while I can understand a degree of seriousness and somberness as we remember the pain and agony of our Lord, is a proclamation of Christ's victory over the sin in my life and a celebration of my freedom in Him! What is symbolized by the table and is recalled to my memory by it is the greatest victory and the greatest joy of my life! This is not a time for sadness or somber guilt and shame. It's a time for reckless joy and unadulterated amazement and awe in the greatness of my God's grace!

     Communion is not a time of guilty examination in order to clean up my life in order to make myself worth of the table. We examine ourselves, an examination that points us on to Christ, and then rejoice in His perfection and imparted righteousness for me! We do this in remembrance of Christ, with Him as our aim and our glory, not in remembrance of myself and my guilt. Any examination of my own failure simply becomes impetus to thrust me further into fascination with God's incredible grace and thankfulness for His death on my behalf.

     Communion is about Him. It's not about my short-comings. It's not about my sin. It's all about Christ. My sin and my shortcoming's only purpose is to drive me further into recognize how great my Savior is! Let the Lord's table be a joyful celebration of His goodness, not a laborious exercise in self-improvement.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

When Your Heart Aches...

    I haven't written much over here, for a couple reasons. First, I've felt rather distant from God the past couple weeks and haven't felt much like telling others how to feel close to Him when I didn't (and don't) myself. Secondly, one particular relationship has really been causing me to struggle and fight for joy and to trust in God's sovereignty in my life and in all the aspects of my existence.

     Last night, the suffering was real. I had watched a dear friend endure, and I felt their pain keenly. After I hung up from the Skype call, I got up and paced around my room, frustrated and utterly helpless. My frustration quickly turned into just complete anger with God and frustration at His sovereign hand.

     And then I saw something... I was watching a sermon by Francis Chan, and I saw a banner hanging behind his head that read simply, "Until the fame of Jesus fills the earth." And as soon as I saw it, I saw the raw conviction wash over me. I do not exist for my pleasure or for my convenience. I do not live to lead a pain-free life followed by my perfect life with my perfect wife and perfect kids in my perfect little house in my perfect city. I am created to bring glory to my Savior through every event of my life, every hardship, every pleasure, every sorrow, every friendship, every pain, until the fame of Jesus fills the earth.

     As I looked for something, anything to give to my struggling friend, I ran across Heb. 12:1-3. I love this passage so much, because it is so clear. It is one of the clearest examples of Christ as the source of my strength in the Bible. "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." 

     Alright, y'all. Everyone, nose to the grindstone. Get to it. Shed all your baggage and run the race before you. Don't complain, don't show weakness, don't stumble, get to it! Umm, no, not what God says.

     "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart."

     If anyone reads you verse one alone, they are leaving you helpless, like tossing you off a pier into a raging ocean without knowing how to swim. Heb. 12:1 means nothing with v. 2-3, like telling a toddler who can't run yet to finish a marathon. How? There's no way!

     V. 2-3 give us the hope to complete v. 1. Without it, v. 1 leaves us completely hopeless, trudging along an endless trail of "try harder, do more, run faster". There is no empowerment, no hope, no strength in that message. But the Hebrew author doesn't leave us there. He gives us hope.

     Fixing our eyes on Jesus. Consider Him. This is the critical step to running the race with endurance. Our endurance can only come from eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, considering Him at every turn, infatuated with His love and overwhelmed by His grace. Without that backdrop, our running the race with endurance is simply a never-ending facade of struggles disguised as strength.

      But instead, the Hebraic author points us to Jesus Christ as our everything, the author and the finisher of our faith. The one aim and desire of our hearts, the One we desire above all else. When all else loses its joy, and when everyone we love or desire turns against us, we fix our eyes on "Him who endured such hostility by sinners against Himself". He is our Model, our Father, our Lover, our Joy, our Hope, our Strength, our Beauty, our Righteousness, our Perfection, our High Priest, our Justifier, our Redeemer, our Purifyer. He is our everything!

     Running the race apart from complete fixation on Him ends in disaster. Any pastor, teacher, friend, or authority who tries to rally you to run the race without pointing you to Christ is telling you to run a marathon with no legs. My challenge tonight to all of you whose hearts are aching is to look to Christ. Fix your eyes on His beauty, His goodness, His love, and His sovereignty. Consider Him, rerun the gospel through your mind, refresh the things you know are true to yourself throughout the day, forever pointing yourself back to Christ as your Hope and your Strength.

     Life hurts. It knocks us down sometimes, and sometimes there are friends to stand over us and sometimes it feels desperately alone. But in those times, Christ is our strength and He is our hope, the only way we can stay afloat in the whirlpool that threatens.

     "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart."