Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spiritual Fervor

Where is our spiritual fervor in this generation? Where are the children of the most high God praising Him and serving Him with their whole hearts? Is there even such a thing as spiritual fervor anymore, or have we reduced faith to gnosis (knowledge) and kept it at a safe distance from our hearts?

Chances are, the phrase spiritual fervor brings to mind images we would associate today with pentecostalism, or something of that nature. Why has spiritual fervor been co-opted and associated with one particular expression of the faith, though? Why do most of the terms we use to describe the elements of Christianity and/or faith become associated with one particular expression and lose their meaning for the whole of Christianity?

Spiritual fervor is not the sole property of the pentecostals! If that were the case, spiritual malaise would naturally be the sole property of everyone else. But yet we still cling to such skewed notions of common descriptors of Christianity.

Spiritual fervor is present through all aspects of the history of our faith. From the Nazirites in Numbers (chapt 6) to John the Baptist, the early church in Acts, and the subsequent martyrs we have a picture of what it means to have spiritual fervor. Even the "dark ages", as we modern westerners like to call it, was replete with persons of intense spiritual fervor (see: st. francis and thomas aquinas).

So why have we come to associate spiritual fervor with only one expression of faith? Maybe it's because we have a warped view of what spiritual fervor is really all about. After all, most of us probably have a negative connotation of spiritual fervor anyway. But what if it is the one thing we are lacking in the Church in the west? We have all this gnosis, all this head knowledge about God, about theology, about how to balance faith and praxis. We live at a time of unrivaled educational opportunities, yet our numbers are declining with each generation!? Why?

Lack of spiritual fervor. Our faith barely informs how we live and treat other people. We have become so acquainted with our position of cultural power that we have lost the ability to understand suffering and humility. We are so trapped, now, by being powerful and being relevant that we've totally chucked out the Gospel (the euangelion: good news in greek).

The Psalms have a lot to say about spiritual fervor, as do the Prophets and the entire New Testament. Spiritual fervor exists when complete devotion to God meets humility and submission to His Lordship in our lives. Faith gives us hope, and in faith we have the love of God poured out on us from above.

So spiritual fervor is not a crazy, out-of-body experience (a notion we still cling to, given to us by plato and his followers) that causes us to become so entranced with the spiritual that we lose sight of the world. It is the opposite. Spiritual fervor is embedded in the love of God, the love shown to us through Christ, and that love came down from heaven to change the face of the earth forever.

Neither is spiritual fervor a sort of social gospel, where we make it our mission to establish a visible kingdom where wrongs are righted and justice is served (doing good is wonderful, but it is not our starting point, God must be our starting point, otherwise we will run out of gas). Spiritual fervor gets its energy from God and gives fresh eyes with which to see the world. Spiritual fervor recognizes that God is in control, that He is present through His Spirit wherever there are believers, and that the victory is won in Christ Jesus.

So spiritual fervor has more to do with balance than it does with hyper-extremism. But it is a weighty balance, one that has such faith in God and His plan and promises that we are loosed from the chains of our own selves. Christ unlocks the prison door and calls us into new life with Him, where we learn to submit to Him and obey His voice and His teaching in our lives. This is certainly something that would lead to spiritual fervor, right?

But maybe we don't really see the Gospel as heavy and as important as it really is. Maybe we see Christ as just another item to collect, a genie who will bless us along our own way. Or maybe we just want to get eternal life-insurance. But when our eyes are opened to see the awesome, amazing, and astounding transformational power of Jesus Christ to deliver us from our lives of sin and death, we should get a little glimpse of what it means to have spiritual fervor. Is our conception of the Gospel big enough? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ can transform lives?

Maybe it's time for a new conception of spiritual fervor.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rediscovering the Weekend

Very rarely did I get regularly excited about the weekends when I was an undergrad. Sure, I looked forward to Saturday and Sunday, but they weren't a whole lot different than the week days. College was like one big giant weekend (at least for the first two years!), so the weekends kind of diminished in their significance for me.

Now that I'm at seminary, weekends are like a lighthouse on a stormy night. I get really excited about the next weekend the minute the last weekend ends. I look forward to the time to rest, to sit back and do some of my own reading, and most of all, to spending lots of quality time with good friends.

Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying the rest of the week, too, but it's hard to remember much about it when it goes by so fast and I'm spending most of it with my nose stuck in a book. We were made to work, and to find fulfillment in our work. But work's wife, rest, insists that we take time to appreciate her as well.

Along with my rediscovery of the Weekend, the Lord is helping me rediscover a lot of things in my heart that I've left in the dusty parts for too long and haven't dealt with. Things like trusting Him with every day. It's easy for me to get in a routine and get so comfortable in that routine that I barely recognize the Sustainer and Giver of each and every day. Things like slowing down and listening to what people have to say and seeking to encourage others through both just the physical presence of listening as well as through carefully selected words as well.

These are good things to learn, and I'm glad that the Lord has not given up on me and is still teaching me these things.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


For one of my classes this week we read a short story from Wendell Berry entitled "The Boundary" along with a chapter from Leviticus (19) and a short snippet of commentary on that text. It was quite an interesting combination of readings. Wendell Berry, the poetic storyteller, and Leviticus.

But they are more alike than I thought. I've always had this terrible idea of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, like they are these horribly depressing and boring books. But that was because I had never really read them! I've had these preconceived ideas in my head without even giving them a chance. It took a professor assigning them as required reading before I woke up to the realization that these books are incredible!

While Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were for my Old Testament class, the Wendell Berry book was not (even though that would have been awesome). But the way they intersect is incredible. Berry has a wonderful view of what it means to be a neighbor, a citizen in a larger community. It's nestled in all of his stories, and especially so in "the Boundary", the story we read for class.

His whole notion is built around the principle that we cannot do life without each other, that we intrinsically need each other. And I wholeheartedly agree, especially from the viewpoint of the post-modern, 20something who lives in a suburb largely disconnected from the kinds of notions Wendell has of land, family, and neighbor.

To Berry, land, family, and neighbor are all interconnected in the tapestry of life. You couldn't take one away without the rest of the threads all coming undone. And it's the same message you get from Leviticus. You can't do life without other people! The materials in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are all about Israel's relationship to God and Israel as a nation. They follow the ups and downs of this nation who were given laws by Yahweh but repeatedly failed to trust God and follow the commands.

Many of the laws are about how Israel's people are to treat each other, and it's an amazing view into the role of justice and equity in a community of people who otherwise would be striving for their own success apart from the betterment of the community. It really gets you thinking about how we treat each other nowadays. No, we aren't Israel, and largely we've written off these "ancient" laws as irrelevant to us, but we would really do well to re-examine their significance for our lives as people trying to live out the dual commands of loving God and loving neighbor.

Choosing love. Choosing to stay together when the going gets tough. Choosing to confront instead of passively letting emotions turn into monsters. These are the things of community. Tough things. It gave me so much to think about. Thank you Wendell Berry and Leviticus!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

this is no paper-plate hope, it is Real hope

Where have you lost hope today? Where in your life do you feel despondent, unresponsive, unable to see the hand of the Lord working? I think if we’re all brutally honest, not a day goes by without some area or another of our lives being affected by temporary hopelessness. You might say, wow, that’s a strong word to put on it: hopelessness. But really, that’s what is happening, even if it is just a momentary thing. It’s not just other people that struggle with hopelessness, people without Christ, but more often than not it’s we, the believers in Christ, who struggle the most with hopelessness.

Throughout the storylines of the Old Testament Israel repeatedly loses hope in God. Reading the Exodus narrative and Jeremiah or Isaiah show Israel on this roller-coaster-like faith journey. One minute they are up, doing the will of God, following and obeying His commands. Then they turn aside and turn inward to themselves (see: Aaron and the golden calf, ex. 32). They lose hope. It’s not the nations outside of Israel that have lost hope, because they have never had it in the first place. And it’s the same with us today. It’s not the unbelievers who struggle the most with hopelessness, because they have never tasted true hope found in Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have met the all-powerful Living God and have let our lives remain the same.

In my last post I mentioned how we can let our sinfulness become the controlling narrative of our lives. How when we focus so much on ourselves, it leads to us filtering our lives through ourselves and not through the lens of God and His promises to us. I think this is especially problematic for those of us who are more introspective in nature. Even good, healthy introspection, examining one’s heart, can turn into unhealthy self-centeredness if it is not done with God’s grand narrative as the backdrop.

When we take away the promises of God and have no framework of His amazing faithfulness, we are left with only ourselves, and that’s enough to make anyone hopeless. It’s the controlling narrative of God’s faithfulness, though, that has guided the Church ever since Jesus came and declared the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Think of those lengthy Psalms (104 & 105, for instance) which retell the story of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think of Isaiah 40, where God, through Isaiah, reminds the people of Israel that he has never left them, that He does not grow weary, and that He is their everlasting God.

Remembering the faithfulness of God gives us hope for every aspect of our lives. By meditating and dwelling on His faithfulness, our fluctuating levels of self-confidence turn into complete God-confidence. We do not live in the power of ourselves, but in the power of God, so how much confidence we feel in ourselves doesn’t matter anymore. God-confidence chooses to remember the faithfulness and the promises of God, giving us hope and boldness in the name of Jesus Christ. God-confidence was a central ingredient of the Church in Acts. It ceases to matter if one person has more ability than another or if one person seems to continually make the same mistakes. God-confidence washes away our self-centered attitudes about our lives and puts the focus back on God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ, which turns our despondency and hopelessness into life-changing and life-giving hope.

What does this entail, though? How is this kind of God-confidence something that can become the controlling narrative of our lives? There’s no quick solution here. It comes down to absorbing oneself in the Word of God, His eternal promises and plan of redemption. It comes down to choosing to worship and pray, even when we don’t feel like it, knowing that God is not interested in our ideas of efficiency. He just wants us. All of us. Here we are, much like Moses felt right after God told him he would be the one to go to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelites. But it’s God’s response that matters, and it is a response that has resonated throughout the Scriptures to bring hope and promise to lives that otherwise are broken and despondent:

“But Moses said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He (God) said, “But I will be with you.” (Ex. 3:11-12)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

a new way to do life

I'm really enjoying my seminary experience so far. The studying is rough, but it's really cool to be digging in the truth of God so intensely. It's kind of like trying to eat a 20oz steak for every meal. Think about that one for a while...

Usually I leave class thinking about something the prof brought up, and the past few days it's all run together, centered around this question: Do I live like I really believe in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ?

Here's the deal: we can get so caught up in our doctrines of total depravity and how sinful we are that we let that become the controlling narrative of our lives. Day after day we become so caught up in me, me, me that we forget that true discipleship is following Jesus Christ. Certainly part of following Him is denying oneself and taking up our crosses. And we must constantly be aware of our neediness before Him (John 15).

However, if we become too engrossed in our sinfulness, we totally miss out on Jesus and the work that He has done and is doing in us. This is no cheap prosperity gospel, where all we have to do is ask for the blessing of the Lord. Neither is this a name it and claim it short equation for always being upbeat in the faith.

The life of Christ was marked by humility and power, woven together so beautifully that it is hard for us to understand how they can exist together. Jesus died on the cross for our sins; an agonizing death that should bring us to our knees in gratitude. But the story is not over with His death. We are Christians because of His resurrection. And it is in the resurrection where we find the strength to live in the now and not yet.

We live in a broken world, where the doctrine of sin is the most empirically verifiable fact. But thanks be to God that He didn't leave us in our sin. He redeemed us through Jesus, the Christ, and His Kingdom has come to the earth! That should wake us up in the morning. It's certainly what gave the early Church, as seen in Acts, the motivation to be so bold and courageous with the Gospel.

We fall down more often than we succeed. In fact, we make the same mistakes over and over. But the power of Christ to change lives and change hearts is still as real as it was in the pages of Acts. The power of the resurrection should so invade our lives that it transforms how we do our Christian faith. We serve Christ in faithfulness, because He is the source of faithfulness. We choose to follow Him the hard way, because He has surely shown us the right way to live. But we also fellowship with the most powerful force in the universe, the power of Christ through the working of the Spirit in our lives.

It's not easy, and Jesus didn't say it would. Some days will be harder than others, and most will include pain and sorrow. But those are not places to dwell in: Christ is risen! Let that be the framework for how we live as believers. Christ is risen! And He loves us. Oh how He loves. And it's a love that in all the history of the world is impossible to contain (see: martyrs)

What is our response to the wickedness, despair, and hopelessness around us? The resurrected Christ, who redeemed us and offers a new way to do life. A life of continual redemption; discipleship to Christ. I want in.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

He'll take care of the rest

This morning it was difficult to get out of bed. I could hear the plink, plink, plink of raindrops falling outside my window, and it was clear that the sun had already decided against waking up. Precedent had been set, so I had a choice to make.

Well of course I got out of bed. But why was it so hard in the first place? Usually it's not a big deal, but today was just one of those days. Maybe it's the fact that I had a hard time falling asleep last night. It's usually not very hard for me to fall asleep, especially after long days at school and at the library studying. But last night my body and mind couldn't get on the same page, and as a result my mind raced right on by as my body called out for sleep.

I was thinking about something that is very simple to say, but is so nuanced once you start thinking about it and going deeper. I was thinking about this question: what does my life say? What is the message that my life is speaking? Is it a unified message, or is a discordant cacophony of mixed messages?

I want my life to speak of Jesus Christ. In all my life, every aspect, I want to point to Christ. It seems so simple, and in a way, it really is: look to Christ, continually, submitting to Him and obeying Him each moment of the day. But therein lies the difficulty. My selfishness wages war against this lifestyle of submission and obedience, and more often than not wins out. It's in the little things, the seemingly small and meaningless decisions of the day that the battle is won or lost. What I choose to think about when no one is around. What my heart holds dear and longs for.

Being a good person on the outside is not the goal. It's too demanding, and there is no fulfillment, because fulfilling the self with more self is like pouring water into a bottomless jar. I was not designed for moralism divorced from Christ. I was designed for Christ, for direct intimacy with Him, which produces the fruit that other people see.

So it comes back to the small, daily decisions, which no one but God sees. These are the crucibles where I grow, where I learn the way of faith through obedience and submission to Christ. I may not understand why it is so difficult, volitionally, to choose against seemingly innocuous things, but in my heart I know what the Lord requires of me.

It's not that playing the xbox is wrong, or watching television, or surfing through my favorite websites, even. It's not that these things in and of themselves are wrong, it is the wisdom of knowing what place they have in my day. The battle is not so much against the things I know are wrong, clearly wrong, but it's against the things that really are not bad in and of themselves, but which push me towards mediocrity, laziness, and complacency.

I need rest. I need time to relax and just hang loose. But wisdom is knowing when I need to drop those things and sit a while with Christ, resting before Him and letting Him breathe His Word and Spirit into me afresh. Daily submission and obedience to Him, even when I don't feel like it, and even when I don't even think I need it.

So what is my life saying? Well, I'll try to follow the advice of Jesus himself: "seek first the kingdom of God". And, as Keith Green liked to say, "he'll take care of the rest".