Drift

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I LOVE SURFING. It’s true. If you follow my Facebook page or Instagram posts, this is old news to you. There is an addicting and intoxicating sensation involved in riding a board on a wave in the ocean. Feels a lot like flying and it is a very freeing experience where there is so much focus involved that all the other things of life bead off you like drops of water until all that is left is you and the ocean and if you are fortunate, that addicting feeling of riding that wave which surfers refer to as “stoke.” Some days you are catching waves and paddling back out behind where they break and catching them again and simply doing this constantly, but most days you have to wait a bit on your board for the sets of waves to come and you choose the best looking surfable wave that will provide you with the most enjoyable ride in that set, paddle into it, take off, and off you go. Surfing can be frustrating at times though because on days where the surf is good, the current is also often pretty strong. You don’t see the current but it acts like an invisible wind under the water because that water has to get back to the open somehow and it often feels like a fast moving river under what can appear like no movement on top of the water. This is part of what makes surfing one of the most difficult sports to learn because unlike snowboarding, everything is moving around you.

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So, some days, you see where the waves are breaking and after reading the water paddle to what may appear to be the perfect spot, then, as you stare off into the horizon and see the sets coming, you get excited as they get closer only to find that you are no longer in the perfect spot to catch any of those waves in the set and you miss them all because you are out of position. What happened? It’s called drift. You felt like you were stationary in the water on your board, laying or sitting on your board, not moving, but in reality you are sitting on top of a moving river of side current which because you weren’t anchored to the sand/rock bottom has moved both you and the board away from that perfect spot. There have been so many times where I have paddled to the proper spot to catch waves, but then had to wait for the sets of waves to come, and then once they’ve come I’ve found I have moved up the beach and out of position to ride any waves.

The point is you can’t just sit there in the water, but you have to constantly work to ride the waves. You have to constantly be paddling just to stay in place or else you will drift. I was sitting on my board in the water last week and thinking how similar this is to how we live as Christians. We like to do all the work necessary to become Christians, to become a part of a church, to get to know about all the Christian disciplines and great Christian authors, and we expend a lot of work to become a Christian and as a new Christian, but often in our lives we become complacent and we just sit there in the pew expecting the miracle of life transforming sanctification to just happen when in reality we aren’t expending any effort whatsoever to make it happen. This is why we can feel like we are on top of our spiritual life game at one moment (the perfect spot) and then find suddenly that we’ve drifted away from our relationship with God and that joy and excitement that was once such a part of our lives and faith has become distant (we’ve drifted up the beach). Part of the problem is that we feel that we can be “on top of our spiritual life game” at all, that we get it, that we are enjoying the fruits of sinless, righteous perfection obtained in Jesus Christ at the cross, that we are “good” in our Christian life. It’s when we feel that everything is good though, that we are actually drifting in our faith, in our relationship with God, whether due to spiritual pride about ourselves or a lack of effort used to maintain that relationship with God in the first place.

You see, for the Christian, it can be confusing and feel wrong to put so much emphasis on work in the Christian life after so much Reformation thought has been expended, not to mention much of what the Apostle Paul has said, to boast in the grace of God in Jesus rather than works, God’s righteousness versus our effort (i.e. filthy rags). We read as Christians, and I am guilty of this too, passages like Ephesians 2:9-10 which read:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast…”

Ephesians 2:9-10

This has been one of the most meaningful and transformative passages of Scripture in my life. However, I have often been tempted to neglect what comes just one verse after in Ephesians 2:10 where Paul writes:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Ephesians 2:10

Now, this does not mean that we are saved by grace but now that we have been saved by the Gospel of Jesus, we live by works and trust in that. NO! It means we are saved by grace and sustained by grace, however, we are saved for good works. We are not saved to sit and wait for Jesus to return, we are saved to love, specifically, to love God through Christ and to share that love with the world. So, we can read our Bibles, we can pray, we can go to a worship service with our church, we can go to community group, we can participate in helping to serve those meals for the poor in our cities and that work in the shelter, but we need to remember a couple things:

1) The good works that we do in serving God and others will not save us. Christ has already done that in His life, death, and resurrection. Only God’s grace in Jesus received through faith is saving from the punishment and condemnation of sin.

2) Although the good works we do to serve God and others will not save us from our sins and weren’t intended to, we need them because we were saved not by but for good works, and if we trust in God through Jesus Christ, then we believe by faith that our joy is tethered to God being glorified in our lives. So, the good works we do are to be done for the glory of God and we are to find joy in doing good works not because we are saving ourselves or bolstering our spiritual/social egos, but rather we are living in light of our created purpose by God in Jesus Christ and we are finding our fulfillment not in the things we do nor in our circumstances but in God alone through Christ alone. Like a marriage relationship, when you are in love with someone and you have to do a chore or task for that person, when it is done out of love it is a joy and pleasure because you are serving the other person and that service is an expression of that love rather than merely doing something for its own sake. So it is with our good works as we love God and others.

Our lives as Christians require effort and we don’t need to fear works when we trust in the grace of the cross of Christ, for we have been saved for good works. Therefore, we need to be careful as Christians that we don’t allow our fear of trusting in our works as opposed to the finished work of Christ to negate our responsibility as Christians to fight for holiness and godliness in our lives, lest we drift. Matt Chandler spoke some years ago at a conference and shared a quote in his sermon Grace-Driven Effort by D.A. Carson that has stuck with me over the years which reads…

“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. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God

When you find yourself wondering what happened to that joy that you once had as Christian, when you feel that you feel distant and removed from God in a way you didn’t used to be, perhaps it is because you have drifted in your spiritual life and taken the great endeavor of work required to live as Christian in a world that is hostile to God for granted and forgotten how unnatural it is for us as human beings to live the Christian life. It is not easy because we are all naturally sinful. It is hard because it means paddling against the current of our culture and the world. However, if you want to find that sweet spot of joy like you once had, perhaps it means you need to reevaluate your life and your priorities and that maybe you have taken the work required to maintain a relationship with God in Jesus for granted and you have since become lukewarm in your faith.

When you want to make going to the gym a habit and staple to your life, you have to maintain it. It is difficult at first, but after a couple weeks it becomes easier and a habit. What would it look like if you focused just for 2-3 weeks on re-engaging with your relationship with God in Jesus, spending time in prayer intentionally and spending prolonged, un-hurried time doing a devotional in the Bible? It may seem forced and difficult to maintain at first, but after a couple weeks you may find that it becomes easier and that you have made it a habit, and you may just rediscover that sweet spot of joy that you’ve been longing for in your faith.

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Life in Transition…

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From March 2011 until May 2016, God used me to not only pastor an older church, but to help revitalize a struggling, declining church and part of that process was to work with a larger church to help envision and found a new church altogether in place of the previous organization. I declined the offer to become the campus pastor of the new church to candidate elsewhere, and since have been applying to new ministries, entertaining some offers, declining other offers, working in a coffee shop, filling in preaching for multiple churches, and while doing all I can largely waiting on God to show me where I am to go and what I am to do next.

This season of my life has been restful to some extent from what had been a busy and challenging first pastorate in a difficult context. Not preaching each week was something that took some getting used to and to some extent, I am still not comfortable with it. Like eating and sleeping, preaching for me had become one of the routines of my life. It wasn’t a labor or a chore or a burden, it was a delight, and a delight that no doubt I had no trouble spending much time laboring over the Word in order to exegete a text and do my best to practice expository preaching. It is different when you fill a pulpit for another pastor as you have more time to prepare and plan in advance, whereas typically you have just a few days between sermons. I have made strides to better myself as much as I can in this season of rest in my life, getting into the best physical shape of my life and enjoying a new hobby – surfing.

It’s in the midst of this restful, yet, busy season of my life that this blog has been neglected to some extent not because I have desired to stop writing but because mundane matters such as regular hourly jobs combined with preaching and exercise have made it difficult to find any time to step back and reflect and write, as I so often enjoy doing.

It is within this season of my life that I have been drawn to Genesis 12, Abram’s call by God to leave his country Ur and to go wherever God wanted him to go. I do not presume to equate myself with such a giant in the biblical world as Abraham and his significance for Israel and Christianity. I do, however, identify with his being called by God to leave a place of comfort, a place of identity, a place of familiarity, and to simply trust God’s Word about where it is he would go next. It is a feeling that I felt when I first moved from the lower Midwest to New England, nearly 2000mi, back in March 2011 after having been called to pastor a church on the south coast of Maine about an hour north of Boston between December 2010 and February 2011. The decision to consider such a call was something that I began thinking about in September and October 2010, but the church flew me up for a candidating weekend of preaching and leading the worship service and visiting the area in early December 2010 and decided they wanted to move forward in calling me as their pastor after that weekend, barring an official church vote which didn’t come until February as the winter prevented the predominantly older members from having a meeting for some time. The winter in New England 2010-2011 didn’t end until late May that year making St. Patrick’s Day mid-winter. I drove a U-Haul truck with my car in tow on a trailer nearly 2000mi in snow through every state along the way to New England. I didn’t have a place to stay when I arrived and unloaded my things in the church building basement temporarily and stayed in a member’s home for the first couple months.

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I remember that first feeling of thinking of myself as a pastor and that first Monday after my first sermon as a pastor in the office trying to wrap my mind around the reality of being a pastor and what I would do to fill the time. Then, years later, I would wonder on a Monday how I could find a few extra hours to get something done. It’s funny how much things change. We all face uncertainty in life whether it be moving out of the house for the first time, getting married and beginning to live with someone, getting a new job, figuring out how to finance a house, or becoming a father/mother for the first time. It is terrifying and exciting at the same time. There’s a part of you that feels you don’t know what you are doing and another part of you that feels as though everything will be okay, and those parts live in tension together somehow. The current season of my life feels again as the experience I had graduating from seminary, working at a coffee shop, wondering and waiting where God was going to lead me next, and then trusting Him when He called me to New England.

Think about Genesis 12 for a moment, but first, consider Abram and his family had lived in Ur of Chaldees for generations. That was their home, where they belonged, where they had roots. Everyone they knew was there, everyone they loved and cared about there. Their work, home, livelihood was tied to that place. They knew nothing of God. They had their own gods, of which the god of the moon was considered central to life in Ur. We know from Joshua 24:2 that Terah, Abram’s father, and Abram worshipped idols, and considering God’s people had a recurring problem later on with worshipping idols associated with the moon and stars, it is likely that Abram was a moon worshipper in Ur prior to God “showing up and showing off” as a former professor used to say.

Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

(Genesis 12:1-4a)

Can you imagine now, for a moment, what that must have been like when Abram was going to leave his country, his home, his religion, his people and friends, many of his family, and trust in God who he didn’t know and go to a place that God hadn’t yet revealed to him?

People talk about the later trials and tests of Abraham and of course, the difficulty, yet, willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, yet, something that is amazing to me is Abram’s willingness to trust God with only His Word and go from his home to a place yet to be revealed to him by God. How difficult must that have been? Would you do that today? Would I?

I think about how foreign and challenging some of the trials and tests by some of the more famous characters in the Old Testament, but something I’ve been wondering about is how different a challenge and test they are from what we as Christians are called to do. Abram was called by God to go from his home and trust God’s Word, God’s promise. There is another place in Scripture where God calls people to leave a place of comfort and familiarity, and to trust His Word.

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

(Matthew 28:18-20)

Jesus had already called the disciples from their family and their work to follow after him for several year, now, Jesus was sending them out, not to their ordinary lives to live as they lived before following Jesus but as Jesus’ disciples both back to their ordinary lives to live as His disciples making disciples and out into the world. They were not alone in going out into the world to make disciples, they had God with them and God’s Word to comfort them and guide them. This commission is something that is given to all Christians. We are called to leave our places of comfort and to trust God’s Word in our lives. That may mean going to some far off place, like when I left for New England, or it might mean going much farther, and it might mean going to a place of discomfort in a conversation with your neighbors, co-workers, or around the dinner table at home.

The emphasis in Matthew 28:18 is not on the “going” even though it is a front-loaded word in the Greek, but the emphasis is on the verb “make disciples” to which the “going,” “teaching,” and “baptizing,” all participles are linked. However, that is not to empty the importance of the word “go.” There is an uneasiness to going. We would much rather stay in, especially if you’re an introvert. You would prefer to stay. “There’s pleasure in going on a vacation, but there is a peace about returning home, isn’t there?”

We like the comfort of home, but sometimes we can like the comfort of home and the familiar too much. We can find the routine of our lives to be a place of safety, instead of a place of mission, an uneasy and uncomfortable mission that may put us in places of uncertainty where all we can hold onto is the certainty of God’s Word.

In light of our preference for the routine and the comfortable, we need to challenged every now and then to “get out of the boat,” but this is not a simple call to a lack of complacency in life, rather a call to refocus our affection and attention on Jesus, to place all of our trust in Him so that we can get out and follow Him in our lives rather than shrivel back into the boat in fear.

I imagine Abram must have felt the temptation to shrivel back into what he knew, what was comfortable. What is remarkable about Abram wasn’t that he had this profound and robust theology of God or that he was so incredibly moral that God singled him out of Ur and out all the world for that matter because Abram wasn’t chosen because of anything he did and he didn’t have a robust or even an orthodox theology of God when God called him for he didn’t know God, what is remarkable and exemplary in a radical way reiterated throughout the Bible about Abraham was that Abram believed God’s Word and trusted God to literally go where he knew not to do what God would call him to do. It is that kind of radical faith, that incredible trust that makes Abraham stand out in the Bible to the point that others regularly reference Abraham’s faith and even reference God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…”

We read these stories from the Old Testament and maybe we even get their point to some extent, but often times we fail to apply it to our lives and context. We feel that it is too removed culturally and historically from our place in life and the world, and we dismiss it with a head nod as we would agree with the principle of a well-intentioned children’s story. We talk about our high value of Scripture and it’s authority over our lives, but we fail to live up to our lofty ideals more often than not in practice. We are the hypocrites. We are the Pharisees. We are the ones who, as American Christians, think we “get it” when it comes to the Bible and theology, but in reality we haven’t put what we believe we have already learned into practice and in committing so grave an error have deluded ourselves into thinking we have learned something when in fact we haven’t. If anything, we have learned how to behave as moral agents in a world marred by the chaos and disintegration of sin and broken relationships and lives, but our morality not flowing out of the love of God but the desire for praise of man only moves us so far out of our own comfortable lives before we shrivel back into the dark corners of our wicked hearts, scared to expose what truly lurks in those corners to the outside world, lest someone “really” know us.

We are broken creatures. Our brokenness doesn’t amount to vanity in reading and applying God’s Word to our lives, but acknowledging our brokenness means being honest and humble about who we are and how we are to live in the world, and who we are to live for. Matthew 28:18-20 is a Sunday School passage that has been memorized by many, but understood by few, and practiced by even fewer. We have been quick to equate head-knowledge with heart transformation, but have fooled ourselves in walking the path of the Western Enlightenment which was all about the ability to reason devoid of all religion and the heart. We want respect for our faith in the watching world amidst a culture that no longer values faith having been shaped by the Western Enlightenment and cherishes religion as much as or slightly less than a children’s nursery rhyme while we have disengaged the heart from true discipleship in order to blend in better with our modern world in which we inhabit. We have given credence to the false caricatures of American Christianity and religion about the church seeming to care more about itself than the impoverished, hurting, bruised, and broken in our communities. Maybe, if we’re honest, we have given credence to the desire for people to say, “We like Jesus, but we don’t like His church.”

Perhaps, we can dare to endeavor to engage our culture differently? Perhaps, we should begin by re-evaluating our understanding or lack thereof of familiar passages of Scripture such as Matthew 28:18-20? What would American Christianity look like if we went to passages like Genesis 12 where Abram is called to radical faith in God seriously and didn’t so easily or quickly dismiss them as modern-day Marcionites with manners (“Oh, that’s the Old Testament, we just need Jesus and the New Testament.”) or modern-day Pharisees who believe they know it all yet fail to understand what Christianity is truly about when it is staring them in the face?

If we find ourselves in places where we are comfortable and unwilling to move closer to get to Jesus lest our proverbial boat be rocked, maybe we should ask ourselves what is it in our lives that we are valuing and treasuring more than Christ and in turn repent of those things and turn back to Jesus? Times of transition are seasons of life that everybody faces, and like myself, I pray that for you they may be times to re-evaluate your life, what you treasure and value, to refocus your attention to Jesus who deserves our gaze, and to dare to get out of that comfortable place you’ve found in your routine of life and dare to take God’s Word more seriously, love more boldly, and move closer to Jesus.