Friday, July 01, 2011

Parenting: The Joyful Impossibility

It was eleven o'clock on a Sunday night and I was pulling out of the grocery store parking lot exhausted and overwhelmed. After we’d put our four children to bed later than we’d planned, Luella discovered that we had nothing in the house to pack for lunches the next day. With an attitude that couldn't be described as joyful, I got in the car and did the late night food run. As I waited for the light to change so I could leave the parking lot and drive home, it all hit me. It seemed as if I’d been given an impossible job to do; I’d been chosen to be the dad of four children.

It’s humbling and a bit embarrassing to admit, but I sat in my car and dreamed of what it would be like to be single. No, I didn't want to actually leave Luella and our children, but parenting seemed overwhelming at that point. I felt that I’d nothing left to face the next day of a thousand sibling battles, a thousand authority encounters, a thousand reminders, a thousand warnings, a thousand corrections, a thousand discipline moments, a thousand explanations, a thousand times of talking about the presence and grace of Jesus, a thousand times of helping one of the children to look in the mirror of God's Word and see themselves with accuracy, a thousands "please forgive me's" and a thousand " I love you's." It seemed impossible to be faithful to the task and have the time and energy to do anything else.

Now I'm about to write something here that will seem counter-intuitive and quasi-irrational to some of you, but here it is. That moment in the car that Sunday evening was not a dark, horrible moment at all. No, it was a precious moment of faithful grace. Rather than my burden getting heavier that evening, in a way that was personally significant and life shaping, my burden lifted. Do I mean that suddenly parenting got simpler and easier? By no means! But something fundamental changed that evening for which I am eternally grateful.

There are two things that I got that evening that changed the experience of parenting for me.

1. I faced the fact that I had no ability whatsoever to change my children. In ways that I’d been completely unaware of, I’d loaded the burden of change unto my shoulders. I’d fallen into believing that by the force of my logic, the threat of my discipline, the look on my face or the tone of my voice, that I could change the hearts of my children, and in changing their hearts, change their behavior. Daily I would get up in the morning and try to be the self-appointed messiah of my children. And the more I tried to do what I have no power to do, the more it angered and disappointed me and frustrated and discouraged them. It was a big mess. I was a pastor, yet I failed to see that in my parenting I denied the very Gospel that I tried to faithfully preach Sunday after Sunday. In my home, as I tried to produce change and growth in my children, I acted as if there were no plan of redemption, no Jesus the Christ, no cross of sacrifice, no empty tomb, no living and active Holy Spirit. That evening God opened my eyes to the fact that I was asking the law to do what only grace could accomplish and that would never work.

I began to understand that if all my children needed were a set of rules and a parent to function as a judge, jury and jailer; Jesus would have never have had to come. It hit me that the fundamental changes that needed to take place in the hearts of my children, at the deepest level of thought and desire, which would then lead to lasting change in their behavior, would only ever happen by means of the powerful, forgiving and transforming grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I began to realize that as a parent I’d not been called to be the producer of change, but to be a willing tool in the powerful hands of a God who alone has the power and willingness to undo us and rebuild us again. But there was a second thing I got that evening.

2. I faced the fact that in order to be a tool of grace, I desperately needed grace myself. In a moment of confessing and forsaking my delusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency, where I faced my weakness of character, wisdom and strength, I admitted to God and myself that I didn't have inside me what it takes to do the task I was called to do. I didn’t have the endless patience, the faithful perseverance, the constant love and the ever-ready grace that were needed to be the instrument in the lives of my children that God had appointed me to be. And in that admission, I realized that I was much more like my children than unlike them. Like them, I am naturally independent and self-sufficient. Like them, I don't always love authority and esteem wisdom. Like them, I often want to write my own rules and pursue my own plan. Like them, I want life to be predictable, comfortable and easy. Like them, I would again and again insert myself in the center of my world and make life all about me.

It hit me, that if I were ever to be the tool of transforming grace in the lives of my children, I needed to be rescued daily, not from them, but from me! That's why Jesus came, so that I would have every resource that I need to be what he has chosen me to be and do what he has called me to do. In his life, death and resurrection I’d already been given all that I needed to be his tool of rescuing, forgiving and transforming grace.

That night I began to find joy in the impossibility of it all. The task is way bigger than our ability as parents, but we’re not our children's messiah, and we’re not left to the resources of our own character, wisdom and strength. Our children have a Messiah. He is with them and working in and through us. The wise Heavenly Father is working on everybody in the scene and he won’t call us or them to a task without enabling us to do it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Nowism of the Gospel

Pastor, do your people have a gap in the middle of their Gospel; understanding more about salvation past and future than they do about the spent benefits of the work of Christ in the here and now? Permit me to explain.

Jason sat in front of me with the head-down, humped-shouldered posture of a confused and disappointed man. It wasn't that Jason's life had been a sad narrative of personal suffering. Sure, he’d faced some hard things, but they were the typical things that you face when you're living in a world that’s been broken by sin. It wasn't that Jason was alienated and friendless. He was surrounded by a group of less than perfect, but pretty faithful companions. It wasn't that Jason was impoverished or homeless. No, he had a decent job and an adequate condo.

Jason's problem was that he was lost in the middle of his own faith. It had become harder and harder for him to connect the beauty of what he believed to the gritty and often difficult realities of his daily life. Jason's problem was that he carried a gospel around with him that had a great big hole in the middle of it.

Jason could explain to you what it meant to say that he had been "saved by grace," and he knew that he was going to spend eternity with his Savior. His problem was in the here and now. Day after day, in situation after situation and relationship after relationship, Jason didn't carry with him a vibrant and practical sense of the nowism of the grace of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jason believed in life after death, but he desperately needed to understand life before death; the kind of radical life you’ll live when you understand what Christ has given you for the life he has called you to right here, right now.

Let me suggest four critical aspects of the nowism of the gospel (there are more) that Jason seemed functionally blind to.

1. Grace will decimate what you think of you, while it gives you a security of identity you've never had.

Grace will expose your sin, but it won’t leave you without identity. Grace had liberated Jason, but he didn't know it or live like it. He’d not only been forgiven and empowered, but he‘d been given a brand new identity. Jason had been freed from looking inward for his identity. No longer did he have to measure his potential by his track record or the size of the problems he was facing.

His potential was as great as the grace of Christ. He’d been freed from looking outward for his identity. No longer did he have to search for identity in his relationships, possessions or achievements. Jason had been freed from looking horizontally for what he had already been given vertically.

His sense of self was no longer rooted in what he could earn or achieve, but in what he’d already been given in Christ. The problem was that he didn't know it, so he was on a constant quest for meaning and purpose, looking for identity in places that could never deliver.

2. Grace will expose your deepest sins of heart, while it covers every failure with the blood of Jesus.

No longer did Jason have to work to excuse, deny, rationalize, or minimize his sin. No longer did he have to exercise his inner lawyer when someone pointed out a wrong. Because of the cross of Jesus, Jason could admit his weakness and failure before a holy God and be utterly unafraid. And if a holy God had accepted him as he was, why would Jason fear the opinion of others?

Jesus took Jason's rejection so that he would never see the back of God's head. Grace had freed Jason from having to prove to God, himself and others, that he was righteous. Jason's hope and security was no longer in his own righteousness, but the righteousness he’d been given in Christ. The problem was that he didn't know it, so Jason careened back and forth from fear to pride, swindling himself with self-atoning excuses and defending himself to others.

3. Grace will make you face how weak you are, while it blesses you with power beyond your ability to calculate.

Grace does require you to admit how weak you are, but it doesn't leave you there. The cross not only dealt with the guilt of sin, but with the inability of sin as well. In this broken world of regular difficulty and constant temptation, Jason did feel weak and unprepared, so he lived more out of fear and avoidance than with hope and courage.

Jason had not only been granted forgiveness, he’d been filled with power; power beyond his ability to calculate. (Ephesians 3:20, 21) The problem was that Jason didn't know it, so Jason gave into things he had the power to defeat and he avoided things he had the power to conquer.

4. Grace will take control out of your hands, while it blesses you with the care of One whose plan is unshakable and perfect in every way.

Jason had some kind of distant belief in the sovereignty of God, but it was almost completely separate from his everyday experience. He lived as though he had no idea that Jesus was ruling over all things for his sake (Ephesians 1:20-23). So Jason was constantly dealing with the frustration of trying to control people and things which he’d little power to control.

He spent way too much time calculating the "what ifs" and regretting the "if onlys." He seemed as if he didn’t know that his security and rest were not to be found in his ability to predict the future and control the present, but in the faithful love and expansive wisdom of his sovereign Savior, Jesus, so his living was always more anxious than restful.

You see, Jason didn't need more grace. No, he needed to understand and live in light of the grace he‘d already been given. Jason was a grace amnesiac and so he lived as if he was poor, when grace had made him exotically rich. He lived as if he was weak, when grace had made him strong. He lived as though life had no plan, when, in fact, he’d been included in the unalterable plans of the God of redeeming grace.

Jason had a big hole right in the middle of his gospel, and because of that, he didn't live out of the freedom, beauty and security of what he’d been given right here, right now. What about you? What about the people you serve?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Love Warns, Love Rebukes

I really wasn't very thankful and I should have been. My mom was very consistent and persistent in doing two things with me again and again; warning and rebuking. Again and again as I was getting ready to leave the house as a teenager, mom would warn me about the dangers and temptations of life in a fallen world. I didn't really appreciate her moral mini-lectures. I’d stand there impatiently or remind her that she had said the same thing to me many times. I saw these times as an imposition, a hassle that stood between me and the planned activity of the evening.

She was also very committed to rebuke. The word itself doesn't sound very kind. But it is. Rebuke is meant to help you see yourself with accuracy. When I had failed or been disobedient, mom was very faithful in getting me to consider why I had done what I had done and what I could have done instead. In those moments I often saw her as picky and judgmental. I would argue with her; activating my inner lawyer and rising to my defense. I often refused to look at myself with accurate eyes.

I look back on those moments now and understand what mom was doing. She was loving me. It was love that motivated those many warnings and love that propelled her to want me to learn from my errors. If she had stood by before and after in silence, it would have been sure evidence that she didn’t have a heart of affection for me. There are many instances of divine warning in the Bible and as many instances of divine rebuke; all motivated by faithful, gracious, redemptive affection. I want to look at one of the most startling with you for a moment.

Mark 9:14-29 records Jesus coming down from the mountain of his transfiguration. There before Peter, James and John his humanity is peeled back and his divinity is revealed in stunning glory. His role in God's plan of redemption is also revealed as he stands with Moses and Elijah as the ultimate fulfillment of all of the visions of the prophets and of every requirement of the law. Immediately, as Jesus comes down from this moment of high holiness, he is greeted with shocking, distorting, destructive evil. A father has sought the help of Jesus for his son who is under the control of an unclean spirit which is doing everything it can to destroy the boy.

I am deeply persuaded that these graphic descriptions of someone who is under the control of evil are meant to sit in the Bible as concrete and specific warnings to us of the life-distorting, destructive evil of evil. You see, here is our problem; we don't always see evil as evil. There are times when evil looks downright attractive and beautiful to us. A man lusting at the mall doesn't see dangerous, destructive evil. No, he sees beauty. Someone gossiping on the phone doesn't experience the danger of evil, but rather the excitement of being in possession of secret knowledge. The child who has taken the cookie he was instructed not to eat doesn't feel the danger, but is taken up with the flavor of his purloined treat.

So we need to see the destructive evil of evil again and again. We need to understand that evil is never good. It never produces life. It never leads you toward what is good, right and true. It is always dangerous. It is always destructive. It always leads to death. Because of the ability of what is very bad to present itself as very good, we need to be warned again and again.

At the bottom of the mountain Jesus walks into an argument and when he asks what the argument is about, the father of the boy with the unclean spirit says, "I asked your disciples to cast out this spirit and they were not able." Later in the passage Jesus tells us why; the disciples actually tried to deliver this poor little boy without praying. Let it sink in. They didn't pray! You read it right, they didn't pray! They tried to defeat the powerfully destructive evil that had taken over this boy in their own strength. Did they really think they had that kind of independent power over evil? It's shocking!

Jesus' rebuke is brief, but stinging. He's essentially saying, "When will you realize that you have no independent, self-sufficient ability to defeat evil on your own; none whatsoever! This is exactly why you need the powerful grace and glory that was revealed on the mountain just a few hours ago."

Now don't be too quick to condemn the disciples. I think there’s a whole lot of prayerless Christianity in the church of Jesus Christ. I think we often try to defeat, in our own strength, things that we’ve no capacity whatsoever to defeat. We attempt to do, in our own power, things that we have no ability to do without empowering grace. A husband and wife will attempt a difficult conversation without prayer. A dad will attempt to have a constructive talk with his rebellious teenage son, but it never hits him that he should pray first. A student tries to matriculate his way through a secular university without prayer. When we face temptation we try to muster up the strength we need not to give in, instead of running in weakness to our gracious and powerful Savior.

You see, if you had the ability to defeat evil on your own, Jesus wouldn't have had to come to live and die for your sake. So prayer reminds you of the lesson of his coming and calls you to abandon your reliance on you and rest in the power of the One who invaded your weakness with his grace. And it’s important to remember that the evil which most often troubles and defeats you is not the evil outside of you, but the evil inside of you. If the evil inside is your biggest problem, then you need to pray for rescue again and again and again because you have no ability at all to escape you! The rebuke for prayerless self-reliance is one which each of us needs again and again.

So, because we don't always see evil as evil and because we try to defeat it again and again in our own strength, your Lord will come to you again and again with warning and rebuke. His gracious warning and rebuke are for your protection and your rescue. Anytime your Lord opens your eyes to see evil for what it is and anytime he exposes your self-sufficiency for what it is, he’s wrapping arms of faithful redemptive love around you. Love warns, love rebukes. Each expresses the fatherly grace of your faithful and persistent Savior.