Learning to Trust in the Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without the delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability–and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually–let them grow, let them shape themselves, with undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Instagram, Hashtags, and the Things We Communicate

There’s a search feature on Instagram which tells me that there are more than 40 million pictures tagged with the word “blessed.” They boast about meeting celebrities, getting a new tattoo, and finishing a morning workout with a protein shake. In our world, to be “blessed” is now equal to being famed, fortuned and favoured. But is this really accurate?

In my first year of college I noticed that students had an incredible capacity to adjust their lingo in order to fit in to their crowds of choice. But let’s be real: this isn’t something that only happens on college campuses. In the Christian subculture, we “share testimonies,” feel “convicted,” pray for a “hedge of protection” and “seek God’s glory.” Not that these are wrong things, or bad words — actually, most are derived from biblical principles – but one of these phrases has been so badly misused by Christians that it has led media icons, rappers, and movie stars to co-opt it to communicate something totally un-Christian; I’m thinking of the term, “blessed.”

Now that life on social media is such a predominant part of Western culture, we should perhaps be reminded of the implications of hashtags and rethink whether tagging a picture of front row seats at a Taylor Swift concert with #blessed is a good idea.

Here are four questions to consider before using the term “blessed”:

1) What are you trying to communicate?

Many assume that to be “blessed” has one very obvious meaning: to be fortunate or favoured. But if we’re honest, our use of #blessed has much less to do with God than it has to do with us. We use #blessed to highlight the most trivial events of our lives: made it to class on time, found a new outfit on the sales rack, on a vacation my parents paid for.  I’m not saying God can’t be at work in those situations. But by trivializing the idea of being blessed, we’ve allowed an important word to be co-opted and be detached from its true Christian value. Biblical blessing has much more to do with Jesus, his way and his message than it does with our daily pleasantries.

2) Why are you trying to communicate it?

My opinion on technology and social media is that, like all created things, they are good. In fact, their existence attests to the ingenuity and innovation that reflects God’s creative image on earth — man is called to join God to create ways that brings flourishing. Your media feed can be used for practicing gratitude and even experiencing a truly human connection (don’t tell me the slideshow of your grandma shared by family members didn’t make you shed a tear!). On the other hand, it can easily be used as an opportunity to brag about your life. Let’s be honest, telling the world how awesome you are through social media and adding #blessed doesn’t automatically suggest that you are thanking a higher power. Who’s getting credit here, God or you?

3) Gospel consistency: Does it line up with what Jesus said?

If you’re hashtagging #blessed whenever your life is going great, you’re saying something about God: you are saying that he’s only working when things go well. But, isn’t he at work in your life even when things are going terribly? Isn’t he at work even when you’re stuck in traffic or doing dishes?  People never Instagram sadness or trauma, or the mundane—but according to the Christian faith, God is at work blessing you right in the middle of it. According to Jesus, it’s the meek, the mourners and the merciful who are blessed, not the ones who got a free latté upgrade at Starbucks. The meek, the mourners and the merciful (and all the other beatitudes you may remember from Matthew 5), are blessed because of the person of Jesus as the king who is making all wrongs right.

4) Is my life being changed?

There’s an interesting use of the word “blessed” that you can find it in the book of Acts, in one of the first Christians sermons ever preached. Peter, we can say, used the term #blessed, but not like any of us do. In his sermon, Peter preached that Jesus was sent by God as a blessing that would cause us to turn from evil. The blessing that is in Christ is not a “my life got easier” blessing. It’s more of a “my life is being transformed” blessing: I’m not as greedy and selfish as I once was; I’m more giving and selfless; my world doesn’t revolve around me. Why? Because of Jesus. I am no longer defined by my possessions and circumstances because Jesus defines me by his love and leads me by his Spirit. I may not be perfect, but I don’t need to make up for my imperfection by boasting about abundance or fortune.

God’s love casts out the fear of being unworthy, so we don’t have to front. So the next time you hashtag your photos, put wisdom to work and interrogate yourself: what are you going to communicate, what are your motives, is it consistent with the Gospel, and are you being transformed by the ultimate blessing who is Jesus? Perhaps a better way to hashtag is not with #blessed, but with #thankful.

Thoughts on Art, Salvation and Being Human

The question of vocation has loomed over my head and heart for many years. I’ve heard that most people don’t discover their true vocation until their mid 30s, likely because they’ve reached a certain degree of self-awareness. I’m in my late 20s and fighting to discover where my heart is. I’ve heard it said that God calls us to things we love, and makes us love the thing he calls us to. Joy is a big part of the process. Someone asked me recently: when did you last experience joy? Sadly, I couldn’t remember. As I thought about it, I realized that one thing that gives me great joy is helping others discover their creative potential, whatever that may be.

A few months ago I taught a two-part series on salvation. The first part was more of a doctrinal survey, and the second part asked the question: what does salvation have to do with culture? What are we saved for? With help from Andy Crouch, I discovered that salvation has a lot to do with restoring our human, creative calling. Man’s ability to create was not lost at the Fall, but his motive for making was marred. After the Fall, Mankind explored his creative powers for his own glory—for violence, oppression, idolatry. Christ, the true Culture Maker and Redeemer, transformed a cultural symbol of violence and evil—the cross—into a symbol of victory, power, forgiveness and redemption.  In our being reconciled to God, we are being restored to our original human calling as co-creators with Christ in this great drama of redemption.

I am thrilled to help others find their creative gifts, move past the insecurities that inhibit them, and watch them flourish as they contribute to what God is doing.  Let’s move past the typical stereotypes of who an artist is and what art is.  If you’re a human, you are made in God’s image, and you were made to create–you are an artist. Cultivate those creative impulses and put them out into the world in a way that glorifies God—and by that I mean, in way that reflects his plan for a New Heavens and New Earth—one in which suffering, oppression and injustice are wiped away.

On Solitude: Starting the Year with God

 

Hey! I wrote an article and it was published on convergemagazine.com. Take a look here.

or read below:

The start of a new year can be both exciting and intimidating. It’s filled with hope for success and fear of failure. At the start of the new year we look for resolutions: we acquire more projects, more friends, more money, more triumphs, more of whatever will make us feel good about ourselves. Why? To resolve that question resounding deep in the depths of our psyche: Who am I? Am I funny, am I admired? Am I disliked, hated, or despised? Am I valued? Who am I?

On January 1, 2012, I left my home, my friends, and my family and moved across the country to a city where I knew no one. The future was promising: I could start new hobbies, make new friends, and change the way I dressed. I could redefine myself without having to answer to anyone. I’ve always been the independent type, so starting over alone was easy at first. But despite my introversion, I soon found that living alone, so far away from family and friends, is hard. It’s uncomfortable and it’s lonely. But, I’ve since learned, that that doesn’t mean loneliness is bad.

If we choose to, our loneliness can turn into the Christian practice of solitude, which can allow us to face the “Who am I?” question, not alone, but with God.

Solitude is not like a typical “resolution” which feeds our compulsion to find a sense of value in accomplishment. Rather, solitude is an awkward, nail-biting practice that forces us to meet the discomforting distress of our own sin. Like sitting in the dentist’s chair, in solitude, you sit in God’s chair, and He does the long, painful work of addressing your pains and needs. But it’s worthwhile: the Christian practice of solitude can foster Christian virtue and help reorient our affections for Christ. While solitude intensifies vulnerable questions of identity, Christ does His work to make us new.

Solitude may look different for everyone, based on needs and schedules, but here are eight tips on how you can make the most of a practice of solitude, and hopefully make the most out of the start of a new year.

1. Decide on a time.

I would advise everyone to yield a full 24 hours at least once a year, and at least one hour every week to solitude. If you can do more, do more. But, please don’t let the fear of not doing enough keep you from doing any at all — if you can’t afford 24 hours, find 12 hours, or six, or even one. One hour away from the usual grind is more rewarding than you might think.

2. Find an unfamiliar space.

This could be anywhere, really, indoor or outdoor. It could be in the forest, in a yard, or in someone’s home. Do you have a friend or family member who might have a space that you could use for an extended period of time? Or maybe you know someone who wishes to practice solitude as well — a good idea is to swap homes for the time devoted to solitude. Unfamiliar spaces are better than familiar ones because they take you out of your ordinary environment and the typical distractions. But, if you can’t find an unfamiliar space, a quiet space in your home will do fine. If you’re willing to pay, retreat centres exist for this very purpose. 

3. Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

Leave all digital technology at home, or in another room, far away from you. In solitude, we get rid of our infrastructures: no phones, no computers, no music devices, no projects to accomplish. Just a Bible and you: vulnerable, sinful, and broken.

4. Plan for snacks.

If you plan on taking a whole 24 hours, it might be a good idea to bring some food — but keep it simple (like a loaf of bread, or some granola bars). If you plan lavish meals you’ll find yourself looking forward to eating more than praying. If you can fast, even better.

5. Don’t give up.

In solitude, everything in you will want to give up — to get your phone, check your email, or just cut it short. DON’T! The struggle of solitude is an important part of the process. You need to struggle with your discomfort, you need to sit in the discomfort of sin’s reality and presence in your life and in the world. Ask yourself: “What’s making me so uncomfortable?” “Why am I so bored?” “What is so much more important than this moment right now, and why?” “What is God saying?” To practice solitude is to say, “I’m ready for the truth.” But the moment we catch a glimpse, we’re reminded of its pain, so we run. Don’t run, wrestle with it.

6. Solitude: Be with God. 

The most important part of the practice of solitude is your encounter with God. You can’t manipulate God, that’s for sure, but you can seek Him, and all the better if you do. There are no rules, and God can do what He wants, when He wants. So pray, and pray honestly — there’s no fooling God.

7. Make it a habit. 

Hopefully, a 24 hour period of solitude will propel you into the habit of solitude on a smaller scale. Practice the principles of solitude daily through momentary retreats and God desiring dispositions. A walk,  a minute of silence, or just turning off your phone are simple ways to remember God and cultivate devout dispositions throughout the day.

8. Get back to the world.

Getting back to the world and our community is an important counterpart to solitude. Solitude isn’t an escape or withdrawal for the sake of rest or renewal. Before His ministry with people, Jesus spent time in the desert, and it was only after 40 days of fasting and temptation in solitude that Jesus called His disciples. In solitude, God encounters us, convicts us of sin and compels us by His love; He defines our identity by His purpose and work, and through Him we no longer view our resolutions, activities and goals as “our own thing,” but rather, as part of the common vocation of the church of Christ, who makes all things new.

The Dark Night of the Soul

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

– Psalm 13:1-2

I have felt a longing which is difficult to put into words and yet which I can no longer restrain from articulating. It feels as though this longing has been with me too long. It feels like years long. It feels like a longing for the clarity of day, or for a satiating breakfast after sleeping in. I long for vision to see, imagination to create and courage to love. Perhaps it’s a longing for true intimacy, a longing for God himself, to be awakened by his Word, his Church, and his work in the world.

His Kingdom.

I know that God is not silent nor distant. But I, on the other hand, am deaf and blind, hearing only quiet tremors and seeing brief glimpses of his Kingship. I am listless, visionless, and shrouded in darkness. A deafening thunder and worrisome cloudiness drown out the tremors and glimpses of God’s person and work.

Do not be fooled, the Dark Night of the Soul lasts much longer than a night.

But, despite the failed attempts, the feeling of fatherlessness, the certitude of being unable to get through to God, the dark and the nights are for our benefit. St. John of the Cross calls it “sheer grace,” singing,

O guiding night!

            O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

            the Love with His beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her Lover

Prolonged night and darkness are meant to strip away the distractions that provide us with illusions of light and day—illusions of vision and hearing. The sights and sounds that we credit as meaning-giving are revealed for what they are—illusions. But with time, the illusions no longer satisfy the depths of our longing, or better, we realize that they never have.

So, God lovingly draws us into the dark night of the soul that we may see and hear him more clearly. And together with the Psalmist, we pray:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

    because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

– Psalm 13:5-6

Amen.

Praying Sacramentally

There are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

knowledge of the heart

Feeling loved is feeling understood

Who can know without knowing pain?

Who can know without being shamed?

Isolation is easy, not selfless 

not free.

But insecure, vulnerable, and weak;

this heart knows, this heart seeks.

it’s He who was slain, 

who knows from His heart,

captured and broken

a love torn apart 

A Conversation with Dr. JI Packer

Last week I had the honour of sitting and talking to Dr. JI Packer in a group setting. We sat in a circle and asked questions. I had many questions I wanted to ask him, and managed to ask him two.

My first question was with regards to what John Wesley called the “Second blessing” and quite similarly what Pentecostals call “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Dr Packer responded with great honesty and wisdom, claiming that he does not question the legitimacy of a “second” Spiritual experience and believes that they are quite normal. He was quick to remind us that the Spirit functions as a set of lens that bring greater focus to Jesus, and this is surely a good thing.

The qualm he did have, though, was that Wesley, along with certain denominations he chose not to mention, have made this spiritual experience —“baptism in the Holy Spirit” or whatever you may want to call it —a matter of doctrine. He then followed with some negative comments on Wesley’s dominating “follow me” posture in leadership – which ultimately bred much strife and disunity amongst fellow Christians and still does today.

My second question was with regards to a predominant problem facing evangelicals today, and over the past two centuries. That is the bifurcation and mutual exclusion of social justice and evangelism.  I asked Dr Packer what, if any, element of the Gospel needs to be centralized or recaptured in order for evangelicals to be zealous for both social justice and evangelism.

Dr Packer unpacked the problem, claiming that since the 19th century, liberal protestantism—fixed on finding its common grounds with secular humanists by elevating social justice—blamed the ‘conservatives’ for being only concerned with the ’soul’ of a person, and that stigma has stayed with us ever since. Conversely, what needs to be recaptured, according to Packer, is the reality of the Kingdom; what he described as the reality of the authority of Jesus. The kingdom is made manifest wherever Jesus is being followed. The Church, Packer stated, is one form of the kingdom, but there are many expressions of it, normally headed under the categories of loving God and loving neighbour.

on Spirituality

Spirituality is always in danger of self-absorption, of becoming so intrigued with matters of soul that God is treated as a mere accessory to my experience.  This requires much vigilance.  Spiritual theology is, among other things, the exercise of this vigilance.  Spiritual theology is the discipline and art of training us into a full and mature participation in Jesus’ story while at the same time preventing us from taking over the story

– Eugene H. Peterson

Barth on Prayer

“But theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer.  In view of the danger to which theology is exposed and to the hope that is enclosed within its work, it is natural that without prayer there can be no theological work.  We should keep in mind the fact that prayer, as such, is work; in fact, very hard work, although in its execution the hands are most fittingly not moved but folded.”

– Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 160.