Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Five O' Clock Shadow (of Death) in Light of The Cross

 Growing older is not upsetting;
being perceived as old is. 

- Kenny Rogers (perhaps the best beard ever!)

Christianity begins where all the religions of the world end, at death, and it starts with resurrection. 
- Author Unknown

Back when I worked in the restaurant industry in New York City I would dream of the day where, upon moving to Texas, I would finally grow a beard.    I'm kind of a throwback; I prefer Delaney and Bonnie to Justin Timberlake and The Allman Brothers to Adele.   I probably romanticize the times when beards and bell bottoms were the norm.   My mother-in-law tells me the 70's as a whole was a terrible period in American history and I should give up the "hippy" adoration.   But back to the beard....

For whatever reason God gave me a big, full beard.  I have a five o' clock shadow by noon every day.  I go through razors like toilet paper and it's frustrating to say the least.  My logic has always been, "Why Shave?  If the Lord put hair on a man's face, why erase it every couple of days?".   (Incidentally, in a show of striking partiality, my free-spirit logic does not extend to the other sex in general and in particular, my wife's underarms!)

When we got to Texas, much to Megan's chagrin, I grew out the beard but was horrified with the result.   Long grey hairs grew alarmingly faster than did all the rest and poked through the darker hairs making this 35-year-old look a whole lot older.

Consequently, what I expected to be a sign of freedom ("You can't fence me in!  I've got a beard!") turned into a sign of bondage to aging and, ultimately, death.  My grey hairs are an undeniable sign that my days are numbered.   So I tried to turn back the clock with a pluck here and a pluck there but eventually became frustrated and shaved off the beard to reveal the much younger man (for now!) beneath.
Sunday afternoon I came face to face with my inescapable future once again when Megan and I went to an Assisted Living Center to play music for folks whose median age must have been around 90.    We couldn't help performing with an extra dose of energy and I got the feeling they really liked it.  Though most of them were quickly rolled away back to their rooms a few stopped to thank us and share memories that our music and testimony had brought to mind.   With their quality of life rapidly deteriorating all they have left is the memories of feeling better, more autonomy and less dependence upon others for their very survival.

The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair. 
- Prov. 20:29

Caught somewhere between young and old, I celebrated my 35th birthday last week and though I've never been happier, I'm finally realizing just how fast life flies by.  I can no longer escape the evidence - the mirror doesn't lie.  All the good times we enjoy as family too quickly become memories and the hard times begin to build character allowing us to endure even more "curveballs" that life inevitably throws our way.

We're all dying - so what do we do with the reality that singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves says, "everything you love will be taken away"?  Magill! Your glass sounds half empty, you may say, but look at Solomon's proverb....

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. - Prov. 14:13

Tim Keller breaks it down this way....

This is true of everybody.  Why?  There is an existential angst that comes with living because everything your heart really wants out of life will eventually be taken away from you.   Consider a family sitting around a table.   Someone at that table will watch all the others die.   Your health will be taken away from you; your loved ones will be taken away from.  Everything.  One day it will all be gone.   There is a ground note of sadness that you cannot overcome. 
- Tim Keller, Sermon: The Wounded Spirit

"Christianity of all faiths", Keller, goes on to say, "is the only one that allows the believer to be intellectually honest about the reality of death" (i.e. not wishing it away or blowing out the desire for life).   Why?  Because our God actually condescended to participate in death with us and in so doing turned our experience of death upside down eternally.   The Roman Empire's practice of crucifixion made the cross a symbol of death the world over but in the heart of the Christian there is no more beautiful symbol for life everlasting.   Eternal life for believers was the net-effect of the cross.

There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls - C.H. Spurgeon

Even (and especially) in death Christians have a hope that surpasses pain and loss.   In dying we cross over into the arms of a God who sees us not as broken sinners but as redeemed joint-heirs to the kingdom, Children of God in Christ (Rom 8:17).

It's hard to imagine embracing death when "I've got an awful lot of living to do" but truly living means dealing with death honestly.   By God's grace He has provided us a means in Christ fearlessness in dying because we've been promised the same resurrected life that our Savior enjoys.   What else could explain the conviction to preach Christ-crucified that led nearly all of the early disciples to horrifying deaths and martyrdom?

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
   "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. - 1st Cor. 15:54-57

This hope inherent in the victory of which Paul speaks injects our living with both conviction and eternal gratitude leading to a purpose that can never be taken away: giving Glory to God - loving because we've first been loved (1st John 4:19).   We'd just as well get started doing now what we'll be doing for eternity*.


(* In eternity my beard will never grey - but even if it does, I won't care!)

Next Week...   

* Wednesday Men's Group - Kings Cross Wrap-Up
@ 2 American Center, 5th Floor (Ritcheson Law Firm) 

* The Magills at The Forge Bistro, Ben Wheeler, TX, Friday the 2nd - 7pm-10pm - get there early for a seat and dinner!

* The Magills at The Crossbrand Cowboy Church, Tyler, TX - Saturday Night the 3rd, 6:30pm and Sunday Morning 9am and 11am services

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Keep The Lemons....I'm Sold on The Gospel!

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. - 2nd Timothy 4:3

I have a friend who still shakes his head in amazement when recounting his experience selling cars.   He describes how his most frustrating days consisted of describing the attributes of vehicles to people who never intended to buy a car.

These customers would come and look again and again wasting the time of the salesmen with question after question.   Yet in the end they just would not be convinced to buy a car.

Another friend of mine recently recalled a long-famous car industry saying: "It's either the machine, the man or the money - those are the only three reasons why people don't buy a car".   He continued, "but most times it's just about the money".

There's an archetypal image in our consciousness of the used car salesmen that's not to be trusted.   Megan and I once went to look at cars and were struck with a deep sadness at the persistent quality of a particular salesman anxious to move cars in hopes of thickening the size of his paycheck.    We doubted his motives and consequently, didn't buy a car from him.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect - 1st Peter 3:15

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a sales pitch.   It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16).  But often times we tend to consider our part in The Great Commission like salesmen. We ask ourselves, "what are the attributes that we find most attractive about Christianity and what ways would The Gospel enhance a potential "buyers" life?".  

Pragmatism has long been an inhibitor to true Gospel-driven faith.   Tim Keller answers the pragmatist by saying, "The Gospel isn't true because it works, The Gospel works because it's true".   In other words don't come to Jesus Christ because of what you want Him to do for you (i.e. behavior modification, success, health, wealth etc...).  Come to Jesus Christ because of what He has done for you (forgiving sin and securing eternal salvation) and learn to trust God with whatever life you've been given as draws you into His holiness. 

When we preach The Gospel pragmatically we pray upon the listeners' immediate self-interests.  The danger here is that we can end up becoming more like Disney's Sly Fox (read: used car salesman) than the Son of God who brought about the salvation of His elect not with words but with a silent surrender of His life on the cross of Calvary.

The pragmatic strategy puts the onus on the receiver to make a decision based on the facts that are given to him.  Yet Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him". (John 6:44). 

These should be words of sweet relief to many of us who, without seminary training or extreme discipline studying the word, often find ourselves at a loss for words unable to recall the perfect scripture that will speak to others in their time of need or in the midst of their prideful disbelief.  

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. - 1st Cor. 1:17

Paul didn't talk people into faith in Christ.  He preached the Gospel.   The power was not in Paul's words but was and is in The Gospel itself.  Thank God that eloquence is not a necessary element for true reception of The Gospel.   How many of us get tongue-tied trying to articulately expound the truths of the faith?   The profound simplicity of The Gospel was made clear by the man who, though blind from birth, was given sight by Christ.   When the Pharisee's pressed him to explain the details he simply answered....

 “Whether he is a sinner (Jesus healed the man on The Sabbath when Jews were not to work but rest in accordance with The Law of Moses)  I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” - John 9:25

After this formerly-blind man received Jesus into his heart, Jesus said, "for judgement I came into this world that those who do not see may see, and those who see man become blind" (John 9:39).   Jesus used this healing to describe how we come to faith:  Jesus opens the eyes of those who are intellectually honest about their blindness.   After Christ's ascension He sent The Helper to open the eyes of believers to His presence within them.

"If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever; the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you." - John 14:15-18

Preaching the false Gospel of pragmatism is tempting those who "cannot see" to buy a lemon.   Sooner or later it will "break down" and they will resent "the salesmen" and the heretical Gospel they presumed to agree "to buy".   Realizing they've been sold a "bill of goods" many will become even more hardhearted towards Christ.  People need The Gospel and most often it's not what they want.
The truth is, in Christ, God has not given us what we wanted.   He has given us what we were too blind to recognize we always needed: Delivery from blindness to the love and forgiveness of God.   This is the "real deal" that has gone down.   This is no fair exchange.  We get life eternal with God and He got crucified.    Belief in Christ is the deal of a lifetime!

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. - 1st. Cor. 1:22-25

Only in the The Cross of Christ can salvation be found.  The Cross triumphs over all other worldviews turning upside down the wisdom of the wise (after all only a foolish God would begin a revolution by dying on a cross) and the strength of the strong (no savior would forgo social, political and military upheaval in this world in favor of death on a cross).

In gifting us with the recognition of our blindness, ignorance and weakness God is gracefully and mercifully drawing us to His Son, the true source of sight, wisdom and strength.

He has purchased us at a great price.  This is The Gospel and The Spirit alone reveals the truth of it to the heart of man!

Grace and Peace,

For an updated Clapton version...

This Week... 

* Wednesday Men's Group - Kings Cross Chapter 17
@ 2 American Center, 5th Floor (Ritcheson Law Firm)

* Wednesday - I turn 35!

Please pray as we are meeting with hurting couples and playing music for and sharing testimony with the elderly this week and weekend

Next Week...   
* Men's Lunch @ Dakota's in Tyler, TX - Mondays @ 12pm - Keller's Kings Cross - Chapter 16

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thirsty Yet?

He covers the sky with clouds, he supplies the earth with rain, 
and makes the grass grow on the hills.
- Psalms 147:8
This summer has been oppressively hot.  Drought is the word here in Texas.   The earth is groaning for a drink.  Unsure of their survival, this morning my plants, still enjoying another hour or so of dawn's dew, seemed to be bracing themselves for another scorcher.  We've just "enjoyed" 43 days in a row of 100 degree temperatures.   Most weathermen are not predicting any significant chance of rain until mid-late September.

Here in East Texas Lake Palestine is down 17 percent from last year and there are burn bans in effect all over Texas.   Farmers are praying for their crops while mothers whose children can't play safely outdoors pray for relief.   Even the swimming pools are brimming with hot water.   It is literally too hot in the hot tub!

Where is the relief in the midst of such thirstiness? We wait and we wait coming face to face with the frightening reality of our impotence to affect our desired end.   We are all at mercy of a God who sends rain on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45).

If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there's no danger that we will confuse God's work with our own, or God's glory with our own. 
- Madaline L'Engle, Walking On Water

Yes, Elton, there's a circle of life but this side of eternity it might just as well be called a circle of death.  Something is broken.   We look to the skies for clouds that might contain drops of rain yet what comes is just tease -- an isolated afternoon thunderstorm that only whets our appetite for what seems to never come.   What we really need is a downpour.   The earth here is literally dying for it.

This drought is further evidence of God's wrath against all creation.  In essence the curtain is being pulled back on what children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) deserve all the time.    But like a sweet storm God's Grace is coming in Jesus....

 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. - Roman 8:22-25

Do we complain or do we hope?  Do we grow in cynicism or do we grow in faith?

Complaining about the weather seems to be a favorite American pastime. Sadly, we Christians often get caught up in this ungodly habit in our society.  But when we complain about the weather, we are actually complaining against God who sent us our weather. We are, in fact, sinning against God. 
- Jerry Bridges

Ouch Jerry!  So I suppose we're to be thankful?  YES! As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus".

Receiving this drought as a gift seems counter-intuitive to be sure!  But we're promised that "God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes"(Rom. 8:28).   Not having our requests answered can indeed bring about a true yearning for the hope that is to come.
This momentary suffering can lead us to a deeper hope for the eternal end of all suffering.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. 
- Rev. 21:2, 4-5

John The Revelator was given a vision of all things being made new - the death of death and the beginning of life everlasting.  There we will drink and be satisfied, eat and be full.  In the New Kingdom flowers will never wilt and the crops will never die.   

But this side of eternity I look forward in faith to dancing like Gene Kelly (or not at all like Gene Kelly, but dancing just the same!) when God does send the rain.   It will be a foretaste of Heaven - a shadow of the true quenching that is to come.

I'm giddy at the thought of dancing in the streets with my wife and children when God finally releases the blessing that is rain.   When we are most unqualified, most undeserving, most unsuspecting, He showers us with His goodness and pours His grace into our heart creating a wellspring from within us.  

At an infinite cost to Himself He's rained down grace upon the earth most exceptionally in the cross of Christ.  He has created and meets a desire for rain in the earth.   And by His amazing grace, He creates a supernatural desire within us for Him and then fills us with His very presence satisfying our souls like flood waters covering the cracked, dry Texas earth.

It's coming.   I've got my dancing shoes on!

Grace and Peace,

This Week... 

Kings Cross Chapter 15
   @ 2 American Center, 5th Floor (Ritcheson Law Firm)

* Thursday: Megan and I celebrate 10 years of marriage - Thank You Lord!

* Friday: The Magills w/ The In-Laws and Outlaws at The Moore's Store in Ben Wheeler, TX - 8-11pm - Don't miss it!!!!!

Next Week...   
* Men's Lunch @ Dakota's in Tyler, TX - Mondays @ 12pm - Keller's Kings Cross - Chapter 13

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Reality Are You Living In?

In my constant quest for truth I am condemned to facts alone.
- Dawes, My Way Back Home

Texas Folklorist J. Frank Dobie's quote "never let the facts get in the way of a good story" seems disingenuous but who can argue that a good story is not always dependent on the precision of the facts surrounding the story?  

Lately I've been reading a book about writing song lyrics wherein the author uses a similar but far more precise quote that struck me as particularly insightful:  Never let reality get in the way of truth.   Wow!   What a mind bender!

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 
- Heb. 11:1

When do my circumstances become inhibitors to greater faith in my life?    Answer: When I allow my experience to dictate my belief. 

My senses are certainly a gift from God that can help me to process the unending external streams of information and my internal responses but when my faith becomes tied to my experiences and feelings it ceases to become faith.

What do our circumstances really tell us about the spiritual life?   R.C. Sproul described the problem of sense-perception recently saying, "we can have distorted perceptions of external reality and that makes basing our understanding of reality on our sense-perceptions something of a serious philosophical problem".   He continues....

Augustine didn't put sense-perception at the highest level of certitude by any means, but he wasn't prepared to simply jettison sense-perception as a useless enterprise either.  He understood something fundamental to humanity and that is that our only transition, our only link, to a world apart from our interior minds, our own thinking, is our bodies.  Our bodies are our only link with the external world.  - R.C. Sproul

For Augustine the highest level of certainty was centered around the search for supreme human fulfillment - The knowledge of God.  In essence Augustine believed that there was a perfect being who only thinks (creates) perfect ideas from whence truth springs forth.   What does this objective truth have to do with my subjective experience of it?

The problem with trusting my circumstances is that they are inextricably linked to my emotions.   When my "reality" satisfies my desires and expectations I find myself flying high.   Conversely when I'm dissatisfied with my "reality" I can be crushed and become despondent or angry.   Either way I am a helpless victim of my circumstances and my selfish heart.  (check the sad Dawes quote up top!)

Emotions, though they are indicators of reality, can be twisted by my unpredictable circumstances.  Emotions, like our circumstances, are constantly in flux.   Allowing them to guide our lives is tantamount to foolishly expecting a peaceful ride on an electronic bull with a intoxicated "carney" in charge of its erratic movements.

We must stress that the basis for our faith is neither experience nor emotion but the truth as God has given it in verbalized, prepositional form in the Scripture and which we first of all apprehend with our minds. - Francis Schaeffer, The New Super-Spirituality

For Augustine the mind can know nothing except insofar as God functions within it as "the great illuminator" (Sproul).   God has been made known to us in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ who said of Himself, "I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) 

On a daily basis we’re faced with two simple choices. We can either listen to ourselves and our constantly changing feelings about our circumstances, or we can talk to ourselves about the unchanging truth of who God is and what He’s accomplished for us at the cross.  Far too often we choose to passively listen to ourselves. We sit back and let our view of God and life be shaped by our constantly shifting feelings about our ever-changing circumstances.  - C.J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life

Thankfully God has provided a way out of the sinking sands of a life built on circumstances and emotions.   He has extracted us by the power of The Gospel.   We feed on that fact in our hearts by faith.  

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. - Rom. 12:1

I developed a picture to help illustrate what feeding on The Gospel (the indicative - i.e. what's been done) does to empower us towards obedience (the imperative - i.e. what we're to do).

The Holy Spirit drives The Gospel deeper and deeper into our hearts and we are drawn into participation in the death of Christ on the cross where we die to our flesh and simultaneously share in Christ's resurrection life.   In doing so we become living sacrifices!    The deeper God's vertical work of The Gospel goes into us, the wider He begins to move through us horizontally in our relationships.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 
- Gal. 2:20

God brings about The Dynamism of The Gospel within us through our faith which is a gift as well.  Are we not passive actors throughout?  Paul's language above details a complete cessation of the self that "He might will and act according to His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13) by His Spirit.  

Joe Friday from the popular 60's show Dragnet immortalized the words, "Just the facts m'am".  It's true that we do need facts and not just good stories (thank you very much Mr. Dobie!).  But there's only one fact that makes sense of our every circumstance and emotion: The fact that God loves us unto death in Christ Jesus.  

May we never let our individual realities get in the way of that forever-enduring and all-powerful truth!  


This Week... 

* Tyler Men's Gathering - 7am, Wednesday AM - Kings Cross Chapter 15
   @ THIS WEEK ONLY - THE EGG AND I, Broadway and E. 9th St.

Next Week...   

* Men's Lunch @ Dakota's in Tyler, TX - Mondays @ 12pm - Keller's Kings Cross - Chapter 13

* Thursday: Megan and I celebrate 10 years of marriage - Thank You Lord!

* Friday: The Magills w/ The In-Laws and Outlaws at The Moore's Store in Ben Wheeler, TX - 8-11pm