Reflections on the End of Overnight, Personal Shortcomings, Resurrection, and the Scandal of Grace

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For the past year and several months I have worked overnight at the Knoxville Rescue Mission. It has been rewarding, challenging, and a source of no small amount of frustration. I’ve read approximately forty books, drank hundreds of cups of coffee, lost over six hundred hours of sleep, and portions of my beard have turned white. I’ve cried a lot, cussed a lot, prayed a lot, cleaned up a lot of bodily fluids, handled a lot of used needles, and lost my temper more than once. Over the course of the year I’ve counseled with about ten men, and seen perhaps five others find permanent housing. I’ve shared the gospel probably a thousand times, and rejoiced with those who have found new life. I’ve sat with folks as they shared their stories of addiction, abuse, abandonment, and fear. I’ve shared my own story of addiction and recovery. I’ve looked a guy in the face and told him to stop manipulating women and get right with God; I prayed with him as he wept tears of repentance. I’ve had countless men come up to me and offer me prayer and encouragement that I didn’t expect… I’ve been shown grace upon grace beyond anything I could have imagined. I’ve been angry with God, intoxicated with his love, stunned by his relentless grace, and enraptured in his Spirit. I’ve build friendships with co-workers of a depth that goes beyond anything I’ve experienced up until this point. I’ve learned just how desperate I am for grace.

Starting next week I’ll have the opportunity to change shifts. Up until this point my interaction with guests has been largely limited to a few hours in the morning, my new shift will be very different; I’ll be engaging with our guests from the time I show up to the time I leave, during the busiest portion of our day. I couldn’t be more excited; I couldn’t be more apprehensive.

I know my frailty: “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:18-19). My fuse is short, my patience is thin, and my gut reaction is to bully and intimidate when people refuse to comply. When I have the space to stop, think, and pray before I act, I find grace from the Spirit to act with temperance and compassion. But when the pressure is on, I find my sinful nature stronger than I care to admit. Yet even in the midst of this, I encounter the astonishing kindness of God as one writer puts it:

[D]espite my own experiences of personal rejection and my years of theological education, countless prayers, an ordination, and a life centered on serving the church, I still have the same personality I was born with. I am often impatient and cranky. And my first response to almost everything is “f-you.” I don’t often stay there, but I almost always start there. I’m still me. Yet the fact that I manage to now move from “f-you” to something less hostile, and the fact that I am often able to make that move quickly, well, once again, all of it makes me believe in God. And every time, it feels like repentance (Pastrix, 192).

God has used this past year like a blazing furnace, and refinement has been the inexorable result. I look about 4 years older than I should because of it, I’m sure, but I’m a better man, a better husband, and better minister for it.

Without a doubt, a faster-paced, higher-pressure environment will bring it’s share of new challenges. Inevitably, I’ll get more things wrong than I will right. And doubtless I’ll spend more time praying for repentance and saying, “sorry for being an a-hole” than I will anything else. But God is a God of resurrection. And the beauty of all this is that as he does his work of resurrection in my life, I’ll have the privilege of seeing him work resurrection in the lives of others. Prayer will be my consolation; his Spirit will be my strength.

At the end of my morning meditation, I’ve taken to praying this prayer I stole out of an Eastern Orthodox prayerbook. Though a lot of Orthodox theology is questionable at best, and their obsession with asceticism occasionally makes we want to vomit, I am constantly in awe of the repository of wisdom in their prayers.

Here it is:

Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And you, yourself, pray in me. Amen (Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret).

May God teach all of us of our frailty and our desperation for him. May he demonstrate in our lives our constant need for resurrection; may we follow in the footsteps of Jesus with the Spirit as our guide and the gospel on our lips.

The way of Jesus is difficult, and the gospel is disturbing. It is not for the faint of heart or the self-assured religionist. It is for those who are poor in Spirit and weak in faith; it is for those know they are sick and in need of a cure; it is for sex-addicts and alcoholics, the abused and ashamed, murders and thieves, gluttons and drunkards, hypocrites and fools… people like you. People like me.

It’s been a long journey. It’s been a good one. Here’s to road ahead.

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A Brief Reflection on Convictions, and a Less-than-brief List

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The Reflections

I’ve been accused on occasion of not having convictions. What is usually meant by this is that I don’t have a particularly strong feeling about the issue (usually theological) that the person I’m talking with thinks I ought to have. For a long time this bothered me, I beat myself up about it. I studied and strived and tried the best I could to nail everything down. I let this drive our search for a church home. I obsessed and worried and exhausted myself.

Of course, from the outside the problem with my little story is evident: my wearisome search was–and is–driven almost entirely by fear of man. I have been almost exclusively concerned about what others think, how someone else will view me, what someone else will say… even going so far as to use someone else’s categories to define what I should and should not have convictions about.

Unhealthy at the very least, a lie from the pit of Hell at the most.

So what would happen if I refused to let other people’s opinions and my own fear of rejection drive the way I shape my convictions? I imagine I’d have significantly more peace and contentment in life. More importantly though, I would be free to be truly myself, making decision based on my own values, passions, and needs, as well as the needs of those I love. To use biblical language, I would be free to follow Jesus wherever His Spirit leads me. Not longer a slave to people-pleasing, I’d be free to live as a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).

This recognition was a huge step for me, and it paved the way for a further realization: I actually do have convictions, and some of them I hold to quite ardently. The thing is, sometimes my conviction is that one of the issues someone else wants me to take a stand on isn’t important enough for me to feel the need to. In other words, sometimes refusing to take a stand on an issue I consider secondary is a conviction in and of itself.

What are my convictions, then? I drew up a list, more for myself than anything else. It’s a fairly long list–though by no means exhaustive; I don’t expect anyone to read all of it. There is value, though, in writing something down and posting it in a public place. To start with, I have found that codifying something in writing helps me outline my thoughts more clearly. Formationally, publicly posting a list of my convictions would have some personal and symbolic significance; here is an attempt, at least, to make a clean break with my slavery to other’s opinions and desires, and to step out on my own in pursuit of truth… in pursuit of Christ.

As an aside, it was actually quite a relief to realize that I do have convictions–and quite a few of them, at that! I’ve long been haunted by the Scripture that says “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). If I am able to see both sides and find that I can go either way, does that mean I’m being “tossed about?” Does that mean I’m still a child in the faith, lacking maturity and discipline? Because I’ve been part of various church traditions at different times–partly out of a desire to please someone else, partly out of genuine search for something–or Someone–good, true, and beautiful, does that mean I am “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8)? Well, to the extent that I’ve allowed the Enemy to gain a foothold in my life and steal my joy, yes, perhaps. But in another sense, perhaps not. Perhaps this is the path I had to take to make my faith my own. To learn self-differentiation. To search out what I truly believed, rather than relying on the faith of my parents, friends, in-laws, mentors, or pastors.

Over the course of this journey I have discovered many beautiful things and many broken things, many things that are profoundly right and many things that are profoundly wrong. More than anything else, perhaps, I’ve seen how desperately we–the hopelessly fractured Christian community–need to learn from one another. There are some things espoused or practiced by Christians in other traditions that I simply cannot and will not tolerate: they distort the gospel. But there are other things in those traditions that are to me echoes of Eden… they point me to the beauty of the Trinitarian God of creation and stir my heart to worship.

To be honest, we still haven’t found a “church home” in the traditional sense. Given the events of the past year some may say that’s perfectly understandable, we were wounded deeply–betrayed, even. But we have found a people to call home; a group of Christians from a couple area churches that meets on Sunday nights. We’ve never set foot in either of those churches, but that doesn’t really matter. We’re welcome and we’re loved. We eat together, pray together, open the word together, and cry together; for the moment, at least, that is more than enough for me.

The List

A note of introduction before I dive in. I’m slowly learning the importance of valuing my own story… all of my story. This list is a snapshot of where I’m at in my faith right now, at 9am on April 26th, 2017. This could change significantly and if nothing else it will become more nuanced. If it didn’t, there would be cause for concern; it would mean my faith has stagnated and I have ceased to wrestle with difficult ideas or engage with opposing viewpoints.

Alright, without further ado, and in no particular order:

  • I like the idea of a fourfold source for doing theology–often referred to as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” It consists of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience, roughly in that order, Scripture being the preeminent and final authority for all matters of Christian faith and practice.
  • Creedal issues are fixed, at least for me… I believe in the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus… his literal life, death, resurrection, ascension… and so on.
  • I believe in the importance of personal faith, and that we are made right with God (justified) by sheer grace alone–there is nothing we can do to earn it.
  • I believe that somehow, in some way, Jesus’ death did away with our sin and reconciled us to God. Various explanations of how exactly this works have been proposed… I say pick one that makes sense to you. The point, at least for me, is that he did it; our sin is paid for, our debt erased, our redemption secured.
  • I believe every Christian is filled with/sealed by the Holy Spirit at conversion, though they may experience subsequent “outpourings” at various times for various reasons as God sees fit.
  • I believe all of the charisms listed in Scripture are for today, including the so-called “sign gifts.”
  • The method and mode of church government is not particularly important to me. I’m more concerned with whether the leaders are called of God, biblically qualified, gifted for their roles, leading exemplary lives worthy of emulation, and accountable to a person or group outside of themselves–possibly even outside of the congregation.
  • I believe it is important that ministers be well-educated and trained for the work of ministry. That said, I think the idea that you need a Master’s degree to be a pastor is absolute hogwash.
  • I believe in two Sacraments instituted by Christ: Baptism and Communion. Regular reception of Communion is important to me–it must not be an afterthought and it must not be hastily thrown together! We have no biblical command here, but my preference is for reverent, weekly celebration. I am also drawn, however, to the idea of quarterly reception preceded by an extended time of self-examination (as was the custom of the reformers). Furthermore, I believe that Jesus is present with us at the Lord’s Table through his Holy Spirit.
  • I currently prefer that baptism be administered to believers upon their profession of faith. However, as with many things, I have spent a good deal of time digging into the other side, and I can see the beauty, formational value, and yes: even the biblical precedent for baptizing the children of believers. I think it is truly a blessing when a child is baptized into the community of faith, and I believe God often uses that as conduit for his prevenient grace, preparing the heart of that child–even before it can speak–to receive the grace of God in the gospel.
  • I believe in the absolute necessity of God’s grace to draw us to salvation. Without his opening our eyes, wooing us, calling us, we would never come.
  • I have no idea how the whole predestination thing works out, and honestly, I’m content to let it lie. Suffice to say that I love him because he first loved me, and he set that love on me for whatever reason before the foundations of the world were laid. Before I was even born he knew me in the most intimate, personal way, and he has always known that I would be his. That, I think, is enough for me.
  • I do not believe that God ever abandons or forsakes those he has called his own. Can we forsake him? Maybe… we’re weak… all the more reason to throw ourselves upon his grace daily; he alone is able to keep us from falling.
  • I believe that when we place our trust in Jesus alone for salvation we are clothed in his righteousness. Now, when the Father looks at us he sees us like he sees Jesus: his perfect, spotless, blameless, child. I cherish this reality.
  • I believe corporate worship–expressed through song, prayer, preaching, and the sacraments–is essential to the Christian life. I believe corporate worship is primarily for believers, not for unbelievers. When we gather together to worship God we are an outpost of the Kingdom on earth. Any philosophy of ministry that tries to make an non-Christian feel comfortable in such an environment is deeply flawed. Welcome, yes. Comfortable? No, it should feel foreign. It should feel strange.
  • I believe that the gospel eradicates social, economic, and racial barriers. Therefore I believe the church should value social justice just as much as they value foreign missions and evangelism. Jesus has a special affinity for outsiders and outcasts. Because of this, Christians should be on the front lines when it comes to things such as racial reconciliation, refugee relief, and addiction recovery.
  • I believe we genuinely are at war with spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Though Satan is a defeated foe, he still has outposts in our hearts and in our world. Part of the Spirit’s work through the church involves tearing down those remaining strongholds of darkness and re-claiming them for the Kingdom of light. That’s why we fight to end human trafficking and at the same time fight to uproot the evil in our own hearts.
  • I believe the ideal of the Christian life (unattainable as it may seem at times) is a life lived free from bondage to willful sin, walking in perfect, unbroken fellowship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. While most of us will only get the smallest taste of this sweet communion with the Triune God–at least, this side of the New Creation–it is nevertheless our aim, our dream, the longing of our hearts… something to work towards with all our might as his Spirit works in us.
  • I value human creativity and ingenuity… we are, after all, made in the image of creative God. I therefore embrace the arts, sciences, and humanities as valuable sources of wisdom and beauty that often reflects the wisdom and beauty of the Creator. Though often a point of controversy, I believe that disciplines such as psychology do indeed have something of value to offer to Christians. The Bible is sufficient for everything it claims to be sufficient for; it does not claim to be a biology textbook or the ancient near-eastern version of the DSM-5.
  • I am holistically pro-life: I oppose poverty, war, addiction, abortion, and the death penalty with all my heart.
  • I believe God’s intention for marriage is one man, one woman, for life. I not, however, ignorant of the complexity or ambiguity surrounding this issue. Whether we are dealing with divorce and remarriage, or homosexuality, Christians absolutely must learn to let their words and actions be governed by grace and compassion. Beyond that, we would be wise to actually hear out those we disagree with, mustering up as much objectivity as possible, and no matter what we must always bear in mind that we are not simply dealing with some “hot-button” issue here. We are dealing with people made in the image of God. So, can you be gay and follow Jesus? Unequivocally, yes. Will it be confusing and complicated? Equally unequivocally, yes; but I’m here to walk with you through it.
  • I firmly believe that Jesus will return to judge evil, and those who have rejected him will have to give an account for themselves. I don’t claim to know the exact nature or extent of “eternal punishment.” Nor do I know what God will do with those who were never given the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. I do know this, though: God is good. God is just. God is compassionate. He will do what is right.
  • The role of women in ministry (according to Scripture) is, I believe, ambiguous at best. This is another area where, having done a bit of digging, I can see a good argument for either side. It’s also important to note that this isn’t a simple liberal/conservative matter; you have faithful, Bible-believing Christians on both sides who want to uphold Scripture and be faithful to the gospel–the only differences between them as far as I can tell are the conclusions they reach in the end. As such, I consider this very much a secondary matter. Someone told me the other day that 1 Corinthians 14 teaches us that women pastors are rejected by God because they have rejected the biblical teaching on gender roles. Again, hogwash. First of all that’s a blatant twisting of 1 Corinthians 14, second, I honestly don’t think God cares that much about the gender of the person ministering. He may have cared a bit more in the 1st century A.D. when women were fairly uneducated and easily susceptible to false teaching, but I have my doubts that the Scriptural prohibitions were intended to be permanently binding at all times and in all places, especially given the prominent role we do see women playing in the NT advance of the gospel. Once again, the calling, character, and competency of the minister is far more important to me than their gender.
  • I believe we ought to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, according to Jesus’ command. Therefore I believe intellectual honesty and rigor, emotional engagement, and active service should be a priority for every Christian.
  • I believe sectarianism is dangerous; an attitude of isolationism only leads to harm.
  • The Scriptures were written by people, to people, for a specific reason, in a specific culture and time period. We must interpret them with care. Nevertheless, they are inspired by God and are absolutely binding when rightly interpreted and discerningly applied.
  • Though Scripture can only have one objective meaning (from which we derive doctrine and practice), it may have many subjective meanings (or applications) as the Spirit speaks through the word to individuals.
  • Because I affirm the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, I also affirm the value of expository preaching; the preacher’s message ought to be governed by the Scripture preached, not the other way around.
  • I value and cherish the classical spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and meditation, fasting, worship, and service. I see these disciplines as essential for growth in intimacy with God and the formation of Christ-like character.
  • I believe God values feasting as much as he values fasting.
  • I believe God’s grace to be inexhaustible; absolutely no one is beyond his reach.
  • I value the use of strong hymnody in public and private worship. The songs we sing embed in our hearts the faith we confess… we ought to sing truths worth celebrating, and sing them with gusto!
  • Finally (for now), I believe that community is vital for the Christian life. Without it, we starve ourselves spiritually, stunt ourselves emotionally, and exhaust ourselves physically. Without community, our souls shrivel up and die.

A Favorite Psalm, a Favorite Song

When things fell to pieces at our last church, my beautiful bride gave me a CD as a gift. It was Sandra McCraken’s album entitled simply Psalms. While the whole album proved to be an endless source of peace and comfort in that time, Send out Your Light based on Psalm 43 is one I find myself returning to continually.

Psalm 43 (ESV)

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
    against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
    deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
    why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?

Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.