The Gift of Isolation

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When Kay and I were married, we received a wedding gift that we, well, didn’t know quite what to do with. It was a large, very colorful ceramic rooster! I’m sure the givers thought this was a unique and beautiful gift but, frankly, we didn’t know where to put it in our little apartment. To this day I’m not sure what happened to it! Did we “misplace” it or did we re-gift it?

When we think of gifts, it’s usually with the idea that the gift is valuable or wanted. What do we make of a gift where the giver has a wonderful idea in mind but the receiver is confused or doubts that the gift is in fact good? As many of us are following the instructions to stay at home while COVID-19 runs its course, it was met by me with with a certain level of unwantedness. I was busy doing ministry, I had good things to do, I had a schedule, a rhythm. All of it seems to be an unwanted interruption in my life.

Yet, using our imagination, could it be that even isolation is a gift from God? Henri Nouwen in his book The Inner Voice of Love wrote that we may find our, “loneliness not only tolerable” but possibly even profitable. How can our isolated loneliness profitable? It feels very unproductive, stagnant, even boring. What do we have left other than to find new ways to consume entertainment through Netflix?

We are reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16). Our Lord was not unfamiliar with isolation and the loneliness that accompanied it. So Jesus took advantage of those solitary times as an opportunity to open His heart up to the Father’s love. We can follow in His footsteps by even reading, reflecting and digging down into some of Paul’s prayers. For instance, in Ephesians 3:16-19 we read,

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (NIV)

It seems another gift we are given is a gracious mirror into our own hearts. Isolation feels abrupt and harsh but it’s only because we have filled the void with everything except the Giver of Life Himself. It’s in isolation and loneliness we start to see the ugliness of our own heart – crankiness, bossiness, anger, fidgetiness, inability to keep thoughts, anxiousness, bent in on oneself, and more – seem to all point to the clear fact that we are not as put together as we wanted others to believe. The question in isolation is often, “What do I do with me?”

God’s gracious gift in the isolation, even the tears that come with loneliness, are an invitation to have Him fill the deepest longing of your heart. It’s a beckoning call to believe in the gospel – that there is nothing that can remove God’s personal presence from our lives (Heb. 13:5). None of us would choose what we are going through. But given that we have the same resources Jesus had in relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit, we can take our situation and ask Him what He wants to do during this time. We might have tears of lonely sorrow but take heart because God wants to work profoundly at a heart level in all of us.

“I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son

My Thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians… Go See It!

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A few nights ago we went with good friends to see Crazy Rich Asians. Think about it but 2018 has been the year of two definitive “ethnic” movies – Black Panther and now Crazy Rich Asians. Both are redemptive in the sense of giving voice to a group of people who have felt not only left out of the mainstream but stereotyped in movies or, even worse, whitewashed. Here are a few thoughts why it’s an important movie and why I would recommend it (spoiler alert!).

I think it’s really important to keep in mind that what made movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians a success is the script. Before everyone goes over the top and says this ushers in a new day of movies that represent minorities, remember it was the foundation of a great script then actors/actresses and a director that made these movies stand out. Just like Joy Luck Club and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were touted as game changers only to be met with years of drought, it takes good material to start with.

Second, while it’s a rom-com, unlike many other movies, it’s incredibly nuanced with culture and identity issues. It’s not just a movie about girl gets guy, but girl wrestles with issues surrounding her identity as someone who has roots both in traditional culture but also modern culture. This is the story of Asians who were born in the states but have to jump the cultural fence at times trying to hold to both a traditional and a modern cultural identity. I would recommend people seeing the movie simply for the experience of tying to understand the Asian experience of what it must be like to have to live in two worlds.

What is a person’s identity? Everyone in all cultures and all time periods takes an identity from someone or somewhere. In the movie it’s found in the statement made by Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who is fiercely protective of her son. At one point she tells the protagonist, Rachel, “You will never be enough.” How a person answers this crucial question depends on the source of their identity. Identity in traditional cultures was not discovered. Instead, it was “told” to you by your elders, by your extended family or group, and by society. It might not have come in words but it was something that simply understood. For Asians, who we are (our identity and if we are enough) comes from outside of us. Eleanor’s words reveal the traditional way of identity formation coming from an external source. Not only was Rachel “not enough” with her socioeconomic standing but also the family baggage she unknowingly was bringing along, and finally the coup de grâce that she was not Singaporean.

In contrast, the modern way of identity formation is to receive an identity from without but rather from within. In the movie, it’s seen as “following your passions”, another way of saying to follow your heart. What Rachel arrives at might seem odd to most people as she straddles both traditional identity and modern identity. She experiences an “enough-ness” from her mother who flies to Singapore to console her broken-hearted daughter. But she also looks within to gain pride and conclude she is enough. The director Jon M. Chu says the staircase scene where Eleanor says “‘You will never be enough’… tapped into something very true for Constance (who played Rachel), and I think she had a very difficult time doing that take over and over again. When we watched it back, people were crying on set.”

The search for identity is pervasive today and everyone is engaged in a quest to answer some fundamental questions. An identity is what grounds you even in the face of challenges. It answers the questions, “Who am I?”, “What purpose am I here for?”, “Am I enough?”, “What is the good life?” Even if a person is not intentionally engaged in the quest, culture de facto is forcing a narrative upon people in such a way that leads them to adopt an identity. The story of many American-born Asians (myself included) is the pull between a traditional identity and a modern one and Crazy Rich Asians is a picture of that struggle between identity poles.

The movie gives you an opportunity not only to understand the Asian experience but to reflect on how it is that you gained your identity, if you can articulate it all. How has the core of who you been formed so that when everything is stripped away or difficult times come there’s something substantial still there? It might be worth thinking and talking about and that’s what good movies do!

What Do We Mean When We Pray, “Give What You Command, Command What You Will”?

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If you’ve been around Calvary Church for any time, you will know that Augustine’s famous prayer, “Give what you command, command what you will” is mentioned often. What did Augustine mean when he prayed this in his spiritual classic, The Confessions? While I won’t cover it here, in his later book, The Gift of Perseverance,Augustine actually admitted he wrote it to irritate a theologian named Pelagius. The church later branded Pelagius a heretic!

It’s important to understand what follows. The longer quote is “Give what you command, command what you will. You order us to practice continence.” (Confessions,29.40) It might be helpful to start with the definition of “continence” and it’s not the problem associated with wetting your underpants you get older…

The Greek philosophers understood continence in terms of self-control that was self-empowered. When Augustine speaks of continence, he speaks of it as something that is done by us yet it can only be done as we first bring ourselves to God in need to receive His power (2 Tim.1:7). In other words, you must show self-control but it’s only through your openness to God’s empowering that you can then show restraint. Augustine goes on, “A certain writer tell us, ‘I knew that no one can be continent except by God’s gift…’”(Confessions, 29.40).

What are you restraining then? Continence is being empowered by God to restrain yourself by gathering your soul in unity (re-collection) and not be torn apart by desires/emotions pulling you in all directions. This should speak volumes to we modern people who somehow are seeking an identity lived out in a bundle of desires and emotions that pull every which way. Desires and emotions are often good things, as many are real human desires. However, we always have to remember what sin does by infecting good desires, warping them so they become all important. We seek to fulfill these desires in the wrong way, at the wrong time, toward the wrong person, with too much strength, and toward the wrong end. As a result, we are a conflict of desires (inordinate or excessive) and somehow the desire for God gets submerged in the whirlwind.

So we can understand Augustine to be praying, “Lord, I am open to your divine work, empower me to do what you command. Now command whatever you will. You command me to be continent” (2 Peter 1:5-7). The power God gives us through His Spirit’s work in our lives is intended to enable us to re-collect our fragmented selves into a whole. Soren Kierkegaard spoke of this as, “Purity of heart is to will one thing” or “to will the one will.” Continence is how God works in you to re-arrange your desires through self-control so that your will becomes aligned with God’s. This is aimed toward the end of loving God for who He is and not for anything else (pleasure, answer to prayers, out of a sense of duty, etc.). Rather than using God as a means to get something else, continence is intended to help us lean into loving Him as the sole good in our lives (Psalm 73:28).

 

 

In short, Pelagius maintained that God’s grace is helpful to make obedience easier, but it was not a prior gift absolutely necessary for obedience. Now you get into questions of how deadly was Adam’s sin and what did sin do to a person? How you answer the question demonstrates how important God’s grace was in salvation.

Yes, Augustine had a serious problem with sexual desires. His book, The Confessions, really is about God taking a person who was broken only to redeem and renew him through conversion. However, the problem is when Christians speak of continence today it’s usually limited to the area of the sexual. Particularly, the Catholic understanding grew to be continence was synonymous with celibacy. Continence is at least relevant to sexual desires but it’s much bigger given that our desires have a much greater range.

Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

Post MLK50 Conference Thoughts: Courage for the Journey

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mlk50_conference-thumb540x360I just returned from a conference in Memphis that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel. I was just a boy when Dr. King was assassinated so it was my own personal dream to be there on the 50th anniversary. The conference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I was in the place where the hopes of the civil rights struggle was simultaneously dashed yet rose from the ashes to gain momentum as a movement while a nation grieved. The conference was about keeping in step with what MLK’s radical vision based on a robust picture of Genesis 1 and the dignity afforded human beings because of the Imago Dei.

One virtue repeatedly spoken about from the platform was love. It is on account of His love for us and our love for Him in return that we embrace real unity and not just a fake unity that neither listens to the other side or makes others act like the majority culture in order to be accepted. What was unspoken and yet undergirded many of the messages was the virtue of courage. While we don’t speak much of courage today it is probably one of the most needed virtues. C.S Lewis writes,

Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.

Lewis’ point is that courage seems to be this “pivot point” that must be embraced in order express the other virtues. For instance, you must be courageous to love or you can’t be humble unless you are courageous enough to leave your ego behind. Courage is what emboldens you to lean into something of value, to gain more character than you currently have, or to create something of lasting value.

Courage as a virtue was originally thought of as an elite virtue. It was a virtue that was set aside for the warrior class who fought and protected. However, in a Christian understanding, the virtue of courage, according to Thomas Aquinas (the great medieval Doctor of the Church), is not so much bravery in battle but rather enduring and moving forward in life in light of Christ’s victory. In this way, courage is “leveled” in that it is the everyday man’s virtue and not just for the warrior elite. You and I have every opportunity to be courageous in a day when, dare I say, cowardice has more influence particularly.

From experience it takes courage on all parties’ part to lean into the conversation on race and not just back away from the table. Ambrose Redmoon wrote,

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

What’s at stake is the beauty of Christ’s bride the church as a diverse body of people. As far as I know, the gospel really is the only reasonable binding force that on one hand says your racial identity is not what’s ultimate about you while on the other hand offers this picture of the Kingdom as radically diverse with all people grounded in the work of Christ. That’s worth leaning into…

Am I Enough?

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Let me take a final brief excursion. I’ve written about spiritual practices, both rhythms and regimens, how they do not directly cause growth but rather put us in the stream of God’s grace so the Spirit can do His work in our hearts to transform us. I referenced Dallas Willard saying, “God’s address is at the end of your rope”. What did Willard mean and how does this connect with the spiritual disciplines?

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 writes in the midst of experiencing a mysterious “thorn” where he pleaded with the Lord to remove it from his life. In God’s sovereign and good response was the ongoing presence of the gracious gospel. We know this because scholars mark these words in red, meaning these are the words of the Lord Jesus Himself! The answer is His continuing grace is sufficient for everything. This grace saved us and this grace is sufficient for us to stand on in the present.

Unlike the current mask we wear that gives the impression of power, being enough, having our act together we use to get through the Christian life, Paul actually says the Kingdom of God is the opposite. When we embrace our weakness, our finitude (I’m not omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, all-loving, etc.), and our brokenness, that is where true power comes from.

When we jump into these spiritual practices they have the effect of confronting false beliefs we all have. For instance, take the good Christian who acts out of their strength. They give this sense that they have it together and if they are broken, they mention it only in the vaguest of terms. While they might share a belief with you that God is sufficient for their needs, in actuality the deep belief they have in their heart is they are sufficient and it’s demonstrated every day in how they approach life and others. This is psychologically unhealthy as it causes a person to “split” between the public and private person. But it also unwittingly presents the gospel as “works righteousness” as one carries this tremendous burden to be sufficient in life. God’s shocking word is our sufficiency comes from Him alone (2 Cor. 3:9 ESV).

What the spiritual practices do, particularly the abruptness of the regimens, is confront the “beliefs” we tell other people with the real beliefs that are deep in our heart. They lead us to embrace our weakness taking apart the belief that somehow I must carry the burdens of the world on my shoulders. Take fasting for example. The point of fasting is not to fix. The point of fasting is to put ourselves in the position of realizing our real hunger is not merely for physical food but to be nourished by God’s sustaining and abiding Word (Matthew 4:4).

Fasting clears us out and opens us up to intentionally seeking God’s will and grace in a way that goes beyond our normal habits or worship and prayer.

Just as a person knee-jerks the response of self-sufficiency in life, fasting re-trains us by putting us in the midst of the gospel, that Jesus is completely sufficient to meet our needs. He is the source of life we should hunger for.

So when Willard says, “God’s address is at the end of your rope” what he means is God shows up when you realize that you are not sufficient the entirety of your life. In fact, you’re not sufficient for your spouse’s or your kid’s life. The sooner you embrace your insufficiency you will be in a place to actually grow. Contrary to the popular belief of “I am enough”, you really aren’t enough. The spiritual practices disrupt, they confront and take us apart, and they reveal our deep belief that we think we are enough by carrying the weight of life. His good work actually begins when we are weak and empty, at the end of our own ability to manage, control, and fix ourselves. That is what we partner with when it comes to the spiritual practices!

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Spiritual Practices as Regimens

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imagesRecently I spoke to a group of leaders at church about how people grow to become more like Christ as they follow Him. What makes “discipleship” hard to implement is people fall along a diverse spectrum of spiritual maturity. You have “beginners” not just in terms of new Christians but also those who simply haven’t thrown themselves into the means of grace to help them grow. As I mentioned in the last blog, we want to help these people jump into practicing basic rhythms in their life.

But then you also have seasoned Christians who have known and walked with the Lord for years who readily practice the rhythms of the Christian life. Yet, many will describe their growth as a Christian as stagnant with a great temptation to settle as if that’s as good as it gets. This is where the regimens come in! Regimens are those spiritual practices that are best done in short spurts because of their intensity. Now allow me a bit of a rabbit trail…

In 313 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued an edict that Christian worship would no longer be considered a criminal action. This effectively ended the persecution of Christians. But some of the early Christians noted that persecution brought with it a built in mechanism for spiritual growth. When your life is on the line, you tend to get real clear on what’s worth giving your life to quickly discarding comfort. So with the end of persecution some of the early Christians, the Desert Fathers, retreated to the Nile desert region in Egypt and embraced “asceticism” or giving up bodily comfort and material possessions as a way to “re-create” the effects of persecution.

“Now that the Church and the State were at peace, the idea of martyrdom… [gave way to the ideal] of asceticism [as] a substitute for the shedding of blood”

As I have thought about it, this is similar to what regimens do… they re-create the effect of “turning up the heat” as a way to point you to the gospel so your character is forged by the Holy Spirit. In reality, this is what trials and difficulties do in general. Again, if the spiritual disciplines/practices are intended to get us to the end of our own resources to declare our utter need for God’s grace, the regimens are short-term, abrupt, “disruptive” practices that reveal our hearts and point us to God’s gracious love while having a refining effect.

Regimens would include among others solitude, silence, fasting, simplicity certain types of prayer, contemplation, mission, and secrecy. In the future, I plan to spend a bit of time unpacking a few of them. A wonderfully complete resource to pick up would be Adele Calhoun’s book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. There’s a bit more in it for us to master, but there’s something helpful for all of us no matter where we are on the spectrum of maturity.

Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p. xxvii

Spiritual Practices as Rhythms

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So where do we start in the process called “sanctification”? How do we start growing to become more like Christ in real, deep spiritual maturity? D.A. Carson wrote

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.

It takes training (1 Timothy 4:7-8) on our part and a person should understand that growth is necessarily connected to a kind of training. The opposite would be true – one cannot have any expectation of become more spiritually mature if spiritual practices are not part of their life as one doesn’t automatically “drift” toward maturity.

But this training is going to look different than, say, training to be an Olympic athlete or training to stop smoking. This training (or better yet, re-training) is actually to not to directly appeal to our will to change ourselves – “Stop it and start loving people more!” To put it another way, the disciplines themselves do not change us. Rather they open us up to God’s grace and power, making Jesus more beautiful so the Holy Spirit can enlarge our heart in character transformation. This training is more about using our will to offer/present ourselves to God – “Here I am. Change me.” The goal is not to try and fix or change ourselves – that is the role of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:7). The goal is putting ourselves in the stream of God’s grace as we open our hearts to Him through spiritual disciplines or practices.

In this way the training has to do with getting us to the end of ourselves in order that we might be filled through and through with Him. Another way to put this would be the spiritual training practices are intentional ways that we get to the end of our resources to fill ourselves, to control, to manipulate, in order that God’s Spirit might then work in our hearts to confront our poor beliefs and emotions, making us aware of our sin, then empowering us to live out the virtues. Over time this is how our character is changed. Dallas Willard was fond of saying, “God’s address is at the end of your rope” meaning God often does his best work when you are at the end of yourself. Every single spiritual discipline is intended to put you in that place.

What are these spiritual disciplines or practices? For the sake of simplicity, the spiritual disciplines/practices can be broken into two categories: rhythms and regimens. Rhythms are those practices that are regular occurrences – daily reading of God’s Word, prayer, fellowship/togetherness, Sunday worship/sabbath, talking to others about Christ (evangelism) as well as more neglected practices such as giving, hospitality, and service.

Again, these rhythms are intended to get us to the end of ourselves. For instance, when we read the Bible it’s not really for more information. In John 6, Jesus just issued some very divisive words about who He was. In short, if people were not going to share in His death and resurrection they would have no part of Him. When people heard Him say that they were to eat His body and drink His flesh, they not only didn’t understand it but they were shocked and on that day many ceased to follow Him. When Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave, Peter said, “Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is the heart of a disciple – one who approaches the Bible every day with the heart attitude of, “Lord, where else will I go? You alone have words that drip with a quality of life that I desperately want.”

The same could be said of prayer, worship, giving, etc. They all are regular ways of confronting our own self-sufficiency and leaning on His power, strength, and grace in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The point is not in what manner you should start the rhythms. The point is to start, get going! There are resources for how to read the Bible devotionally each day, but the point is to start even if it represents a small step.

D.A. Carson, For the Love of God