Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vain Imaginations

Kids all over the world play make-believe, pretending that they know how to fight fires or shoot bad guys or discover buried treasure. I put myself into anything that I read in books or saw in movies. There were quests to complete, rare elixirs to obtain, princesses to rescue. It was cool until about halfway through elementary school. But for those of us who didn’t play football or street hockey very well, we had to continue this childhood hobby much further into our lives.

Then came adolescence. Many young men and women probably carried their day-dreams and fantasies seamlessly into the hellish experiences of puberty. For some, they might have considered it the only way to endure those awful days. In their heads they were attractive, or brave, or loved, or cool. They could smack the jukebox with their open palm and play the hit parade. They could get a room full of people to orbit around them like metal shavings and a magnetic pole.

I had come to believe that life in my head was as real as, well, reality. So when I started a band at the age of twelve, nothing sounded better than our version of Ramones and Toadies songs. It may have been barely listenable. But in my head, we were hot stuff. No question. We’d play the hippest parties and girls would finally like me. Which leads to another disparity between life in my head and life in the real world. When I met a pretty girl, I’d have figured out the rest of my life with her before I even knew her last name. But why was that important if we were going to get married anyway? Her last name would eventually be Kallman, right?


This used to happen all of the time. Now, I try to remind myself of all the times fantasy and reality didn’t resemble each other. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever have happy endings to stories, but it keeps my expectations in check. Besides, thinking about all the great stuff that could happen takes up so much time and brain activity that I could easily miss what I should have paid attention to at the present. Allowing my imagination to develop into expectation gives opportunity for disappointment.

My baby sister graduated from college a few weeks ago. The school invited her to give a speech at their final chapel meeting. She spoke of a day when she walked through some woods telling God all the reasons why she felt angry. When she came to the end of her list, she realized that she wasn’t angry at all. What she mistook for anger was really disappointment. She was disappointed that her life didn’t happen the way she thought it would. Now, my sister is happy. She has good friends and her wedding is scheduled this summer. But growing up was pretty hellish for her. It could have been easier. She probably didn’t imagine those fifteen awful years. At the end of her speech, though, she spoke of how God pointed out the ways He used those hardships to make her a spiritually mature woman.

If we know that God has sovereignty in every moment of our lives, then we can still trust Him when the times are tough, keeping our eyes open for how He will use the situation to glorify Himself. And when He moves in unexpected ways, we won’t necessarily have our expectations blinding us.

I love the Jewish people. Ever since I went to Israel in 2000 to help Ukrainian Jewish refugees, serving them helped me understand the roots of my own faith. I met a man there. He would have coffee with my family and I nearly every night. One day, my parents asked him how he could know so much about Jesus, and how Jesus kept the Torah, but still not accept Him as the Messiah. What was keeping him from believing? He said, “The dead were supposed to rise when the Messiah came.” Someone replied, “But some of the dead did rise and interact with many people in Jerusalem.” He said, “Yes, but not all of the dead.”

He told us that every righteous Jew was to have risen with Messiah when He came into Jerusalem. Almost like an army following him in procession. The Jews expected the Messiah to overthrow Rome and act as a political ruler in Israel. In fact, they expected a lot of other things from the Messiah. But Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, which had no borders or political structure as they knew. When Pilate interrogated Him, Jesus said in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The Jewish people didn’t see Jesus as Messiah, but as an apostate blasphemously claiming to be the Son of God because He didn’t show the signs they expected. In Matthew 12:38-40, “some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” This last bit refers to His death and resurrection. The Jewish people got a sign, but one they didn’t anticipate or understand.

Pilate thought Jesus was a foolish man, delusional, but not dangerous. Paul echoes both the Jewish and Gentile reactions to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23. “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”

I often wonder if these expectations, how we think God should act, sometimes gets in the way of our seeing how He does and will act. If I were in Jerusalem during Jesus’s ministry, would I have known that He was the Son of God? Or would I have stuck to how I imagined the Christ would come? Even now, when God moves, am I paying attention to what He’s doing at present, or am I waiting on something that only exists in my head? Is it possible that my expectations of God have become an idol that gets in the way of my relationship with God?

I’ve said it many times. I prefer a God who surprises me. Not all the surprises are new cars or mysterious checks that cover rent. If I’m trapped in my daydreams, trying to live my fantasies (religious or otherwise) out loud, I could miss some awesome moments in my relationship with God. I want my hopes and dreams to have their proper place instead of confusing it with reality. I want to be humble enough to admit that I don’t have God figured out. If I expect something to turn out bad in a situation, I want God to prove me wrong. If I expect something good, then I want Him to do something better.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Short Commercial.

The second edition of my book, Stark Raving Obedience, is now available.

In it, my father and I propose that God still speaks to people today on an individual basis. But how can you discern whether that's really God talking to you, or just your own head, or something else all together? And if God asks you to do something that seems crazy or stupid, would you be willing to obey?

You should be able to see the introduction and first chapter here. Those were my first few posts.

If you are interested in reading the whole book, you can buy directly from me for $15, or you can visit www.hearinggod.org and do that paypal business.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Triumphant Chord – Thoughts on Motive and Grace.

(A guy named Adam left a comment on the tithing post, and I promised to give a response in the form of a post. Adam, I hope I’ve given a worthy answer.)

Over the course of time, I’ll use a lot of the same words to describe God. This can be credited to the fact that, while God is infinite, I am finite and unable to properly describe His complexity. Any Bible teacher will use pictures to portray the different facets of His character, including the writers in the Bible. God is our father, our Lord, our shepherd, our shield, our loving provider, etc. In some periods of our life, we ascribe one of these aspects of God to the situation and assume His attitude accordingly. In terms of sin, we imagine that God is our dad. We just broke a window playing ball in the backyard and He’s going to be pissed when He gets home. Then in terms of repentance, God is like our mom reassuring us that dad really isn’t that mad, that He forgives us. Then she gives us a popsicle and sends us back outside to play.

The fact is that we can’t always assume how God feels about a situation. For example, in Jeremiah 25:9, God calls Nebuchadnezzar “my servant”. This came as a shock, I’m sure, to the Judeans. They were God’s chosen people, but here He was calling a pagan imperialist his servant as if he were chosen instead. In Isaiah 44:48 and 45:1, God calls Cyrus, king of Persia, his “shepherd” and his “anointed”. Calling a goy (a non-Jewish peron) anointed, “messiah” in Hebrew, must have really spooked the Jewish people. It spooks some Christians, too, when they realize the connection. This isn’t to say that Cyrus was THE Messiah, but God chose him for a special purpose in the history of His people.

There you have two examples of people who didn’t serve God, and yet God used them. In the case of Nebuchadnezzar, he devastated Jerusalem and killed a lot of people. When thinking about God as a loving parent, this looks confusing. When thinking about God as the Righteous Judge, it makes sense, but then He seems cruel.

Sometimes God is just God. In some circumstances, there are no sufficient comparisons that exist to explain Him. I love this part of God, the inexplicable God, because it means He’ll still surprise me. On a recent family road trip, my mother brought a pile of book-on-tape. For a majority of the drive, we listened to The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien. This extensive mythology begins, like other mythologies, with the story of creation. Creation is represented through a song. God comes up with a melody, a theme, and invites his angels to help build the song. Then one particularly prideful angel has creative differences and tries to make the song dissonant. Instead of letting this jerk ruin the song, God reinvents the theme so that the song resolves out of the dissonance. The magnificence of His resolution causes the whole of heaven to fall down in worship.

I could have wept at the lesson in this nerdy fantasy book. No matter how much evil tries to screw up the beauty of God’s creation and order, He’ll always turn it around and make it good. I often talk about the story in John 9:1-3. “As He (Jesus) passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” God didn’t strike this man with blindness as punishment, as the disciples thought. And they had a right to think this way, because their question came from laws in the Torah. But God is more than the Judge. He is also the Redeemer. Surprise! The song just resolved into a major key again.

Now when he writes in Phillipians about those teaching the gospel for selfish reasons, Paul acknowledges the fact that God will use everything for His glory. If these teachers tell people the truth, then the truth is heard and God is glorified. Their motive can be inconsequential for the result. Now, their motives don’t please God and they risk His judgment for their actions, but I seem to remember a parable where Jesus spoke of weeds planted among a field of wheat. Instead of tearing out the weeds, and thus damaging the grain, the master of the field waits to separate the good from the bad at harvest time.

As a believer, I grieve that weeds are in the field. At the same time, I am thankful for the good that I see growing in the same field. In everything, God will be glorified. I think Paul also talks about this in Romans when he says that sin allows for greater measures of grace, although people shouldn’t sin as if it enhances grace. What a remarkable thing if one of those selfish teachers suddenly heard the truth in his own teaching and came to know Christ!

So don’t worry about the hearts of others. Pray for God’s glory to be done in everything, and it will come. The Farmer will eventually separate the wheat from the weeds, and the Master Composer will finish His song with a triumphant chord.