Monday, December 24, 2012

Experiencing the Trinity on Incarnation Eve

What if the Trinity, instead of being an abstract and unfathomable mystery, is really something much simpler? What if, by presenting Himself as Three Persons in One, God is attempting to clarify rather than obscure His nature in the human mind? The more I think about it, the more I believe this is so.

In Genesis 1, we meet a plural God, Elohim. He is a God who is One, yet calls Himself  We. He talks to Himself and keeps His own counsel -- and one day He bends down to create a Them.

"Let Us make man in Our image... Male and female He created them."

Here we have the very first Us and Them in all of history. Yet it is God's intention that ultimately the Us and Them become One.

After Eden, we see God beginning to reveal His triune nature as he interacts with man. First, we encounter a cloud, a pillar of fire, a burning bush -- all of these indicate the presence of the Unseen God – God whose spirt-form can never be looked upon by mortal eyes. But there is a second Person -- the Angel (or more accurately, the "Messenger") of The Lord, who takes on a human appearance and walks and talks with men. This manifestation of God can be safely looked upon and even touched. Thirdly, the special anointing power of God is indicated -- the Spirit of The Lord, who comes upon men like Samson, Saul, David, and Elijah. He rests upon them, cloaking them with a special ability to carry out their calling; but He is free to leave if the heart of the anointed one is unfaithful to God's commands.

By dividing Himself into three recognizable Personalities in the Old Testament, God explains Himself thus to humanity:

"I am the creator, the lawgiver, and the judge. I am the lamp to light your way and the fiery fortress to shield your back. I am willing to speak to you face to face, discussing my plans with you like an equal or even wrestling you in the dim light of morning, striking hands in an agreement man-to-man.  I do not sit in lofty places issuing commands and keeping my distance.  I am the invisible Presence hovering around you, making you strong and courageous, able to carry out My will."

We could never have conceived of such a full picture of God's nature had He only used one of these three forms. If He were only fire, we'd be terrified of Him. If He were only a human face, we would fail to reverence Him. If he were only an empowering presence, we would claim His power for our own. But by being these Three-in-One, we begin to know Him for Who He is.

In the New Testament, the Triune God comes more sharply into focus. The roles become even more distinct and defined -- again, for the purpose of making Himself knowable to man and drawing man even closer into relationship with Himself.

The Self-Existent Holy One, formerly perceived as flames and thunder, is introduced anew as Father. The Messenger of The Lord, previously perceived as a mighty human warrior, condescends deeper into the human condition, and is begotten as a baby and called the Son.  He experiences human life from the inside out and explains to us the Father.  The invisible hovering Spirit, the external empowering Presence, is redefined by the dual metaphor of sperm and seed. He is now the germinating life of God Himself, implanted in a believing heart. He is the genetic material of God providing us with an entirely new nature which enables us to be called the sons and daughters of God. The Son cheerfully owns us as joint-heirs, taking His place of honor as the Firstborn among many brethren.

The Holy Trinity of power fiercely displayed in the Old Testament becomes a Holy Family in the New Testament -- a Father, a Son, and a Spirit who makes siblings of all who will receive Him.

Again, the Trinity is necessary to explain what God is to us.

The Father without the Son would appear to be merely a disinterested judge, punishing people for their sins. The Son without the Father could appear to be a great human teacher but nothing more. The Father and Son without the Spirit would leave us on the outside looking in.

Because God reveals Himself in a Trinity, we see a grieving Father who loves us all so much that He is willing to sacrifice His only Son, sending Him to die in our place. We see an obedient Son who propitiates a holy God with His own blood shed on our behalf. Most amazing of all, through the Spirit we see a way in -- a way to become partakers in the divine nature, members of the Holy Family, heirs to all the riches of God in Christ.

If God were not a Trinity, He could never illustrate so plainly both His nature and His intentions for His relationship to man. His character is too complex to be housed in one form, limited to one role, demonstrated in one manifestation. It took a community of Three to show us Who He is and how deeply He desires for us to live in relationship with Him.

Can there be any more spectacular words in all of Scripture than those of Christ in John 17?

21 May they all be one,
as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You.
May they also be one in Us,
so the world may believe You sent Me.
22 I have given them the glory You have given Me.
May they be one as We are one.
23 I am in them and You are in Me.
May they be made completely one,
so the world may know You have sent Me
and have loved them as You have loved Me.

When seen in this light, the Trinity ceases to be an abstract metaphysical mystery and instead becomes a precious and meaningful reality -- something meant to be experienced rather than analyzed and cherished rather than challenged. When we ponder these things, the greatest mystery is no longer the Triune nature of a single God, but rather that He would invite fallen mortals into that perfect Community – and that He would do so with eagerness and delight!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Worship: A Parable

And it came to pass that one Sunday morning two men headed out to their church to worship.

The first man arrived early, casting up a prayer of thanksgiving as he pulled into the parking space closest to the door. He entered the church with a spring in his step, his heart glad, expecting great things. He helped himself to a hot cup of coffee and carried it into the auditorium. He took his usual place in the second row and sipped his coffee as he perused his bulletin. 

Then he prepared his heart to worship with a silent prayer that went something like this: 

"Lord, I thank you for air conditioning and comfortable seats. I thank you for talented musicians and an eloquent preacher. But most of all I thank you for the warm, fuzzy feeling I get when I sit in your presence and bask in your goodness!"

The second man arrived at the church several minutes late. He parked at the far end of the lot and entered the building rumpled and hurried because he had stopped to help a stranger change a flat tire on his way. He headed for the refreshment table, but the coffee was gone; so he helped the women carry the empty pots back to the kitchen. He headed down the hallway toward the auditorium, passing the toddler room on the way. A quick glance through the window revealed an unusually large number of children and a rather haggard looking young couple supervising their play. Pausing, the man looked down the hall toward the auditorium. The music had already started and the worship team was leading the congregation in one of his favorite choruses. 

He looked back through the glass at the young couple in the toddler room and cast up a silent prayer that went something like this: 

"Lord, you know I love you; but I just can't go into that service and sit in a comfortable chair in an air conditioned room enjoying the music and the preaching knowing that these young people are struggling out here. I hope you understand. I'll worship you next week." With that he opened the door and asked, "How can I help?"

Verily I say unto you that this man and not the other truly worshipped the Lord that Sunday morning.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Act of Valor; Act of Love

Today is Palm Sunday – the beginning of the countdown to Good Friday – and I find myself consumed with thoughts, not of Palm Branches and people in sandals and robes, but of men in uniform, loaded down with weapons, covered in mud and blood. I find myself thinking of the movie Act of Valor.

In this movie, we are introduced to a team of Navy Seals. We get to know just enough about each one's family to care about the characters. We know that one in particular is expecting his first child with his young wife.

As the story unfolds, the Seals are sent on a series of missions. In the first, one of them is injured; and though it complicates the escape of the others, he is carried out unconscious by his friends. It is clear that Seals live by the motto, "Never leave a man behind."  

During their final mission, the Seals are working their way through tunnels in pursuit of terrorists. They turn blind corners and weave their way through a maze of hallways until they find themselves in an open room with a balcony. An unseen enemy tosses a grenade into the room where at least three of the Seals are standing. The young father-to-be sees it first. He cries out "GRENADE!"  while simultaneously throwing his body down on top of it. The explosion raises him two feet off the ground, but his body absorbs the full impact of the blast. His friends are safe; and he dies quickly, face-down in a pool of his own blood.

That scene became the entire movie for me.

Why did it move me so deeply?

 It wasn't because a man died. It was because a man laid down his life – without so much as a moment's hesitation. There were no "Hollywood embellishments" in which the man sees his pregnant wife flash before his eyes or thinks of the child that he will never know. He doesn't weigh whether it is worth it to sacrifice his life for the others. There is no, "But I need to live!" moment. He just throws his body on that grenade and dies.

So, why is this movie running through my mind on Palm Sunday?

When the movie was over, I could not leave my seat. I sat through the entire roll of credits. My mind was numb with profound emotion, such that I almost didn't notice the song playing behind the credits. But my subconscious jerked my conscious mind to attention when I heard the words, "No greater love has anyone than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends." The words Jesus spoke to His disciples so soon before His own death!

A cross on a hilltop is a foreign image to us in the 21st century. It may be that we have stopped feeling what we should feel when we see a cross or a crucifix. Perhaps, in our very modern desensitized state, it would help us to envision Someone throwing Himself on a grenade, giving His life for ours, dying horribly in our place. And doing it willingly, voluntarily, and without hesitation.

When I go to church services this Good Friday, I readily confess I’m going to be thinking of Act of Valor. I am going to be pondering the fact that the greatest act of valor is also the greatest act of love!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Geometry, Justification, and Other Closely Related Topics

Yesterday my mother and I were preparing a demonstration for a geometry class which we were going to be teaching together. We decided it would be interesting to prove the formula for the surface area of a sphere by showing the students that four paper circles could cover a rubber ball with the same diameter. We were very excited about it when we started the project. We had our ball and our compass and our scissors and our tape. We carefully measured and cut the circles then proceeded to affix them to the rubber ball. That is where the fun abruptly ended. Twelve paper circles, two tape-covered balls, and a pile of confetti later, we had pretty much determined that the formula for the surface area of a sphere was one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.

Finally, I tapped into my inner tangram and figured out a way to make our circles cover our sphere closely enough to vindicate the formula. 

As I reflected later on our bumbling attempts, it occurred to me that this wasn't the first time my mother and I had struggled to reconcile a theoretical truth with a seemingly contradictory reality. Over the years we have had countless conversations during which we struggled to reconcile God's glorious statements of truth about us with the balls of crumpled paper and tape that made up our daily experiences. For example, God says, "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away and all things have become new." But as we sat helplessly looking at the paper circles of bad habits, poor choices, pet sins, and chronic mistakes, it seemed they could never be reconciled with the "sphere" of a being a new creation!

God's statements about our holiness and righteousness in Christ sometimes appear to be as false as that formula did to my mother and me as we tried and failed repeatedly in our attempts to demonstrate it. But eventually, those paper circles did cover that sphere. We had to admit, the problem was never in the formula. It was in our attempts to appropriate it. 

God's promises are most certainly true and His statements trustworthy. If they do not appear true in my life right now, it is not because they are false. It is because I am not appropriating them correctly. 

But as I grow in grace and in the knowledge of God by walking closely with Him and persevering in faith, I will enjoy periodic moments in which suddenly something falls into place which was previously an impossibility. I will learn and experience growth. 

In spite of the fact that my Christian life has often seemed frustrating and hopeless, when I look back over the years I have to admit that I can see the progress. I can see promises realized and the theoretical made fact. I can see times in my life where positional truths became practical realities.

My mom and I triumphed over the surface area formula only to be stumped by the volume formula a few minutes later. In the same way, we may appropriate one of God's promises only to stumble over the next. This dynamic will never end this side of heaven. The important thing is that we continue to learn and make progress. 

Oh, one more thing: The thrill of seeing God's Word proved true in our lives is far greater than the thrill of seeing a mathematical formula proved true. That may be very hard to believe (especially for my tenth grade geometry students) but you can take my word for it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Last Towel

"What's that SMELL?" I complained to no one in particular for the third day in a row as I entered the bathroom.
I had scrubbed the fixtures, replaced the shower curtain, disinfected the surfaces, and even lit a candle. Nothing would get rid of that smell. Where could it be coming from?

 Then one day, I was scooping the dirty laundry from the bathroom hamper into the washing machine. The washing machine was getting fuller as I neared the bottom of the giant hamper. Finally, the machine was jammed so full that I could not fit another thing in it. But the hamper wasn't empty.

Coiled up at the very bottom was a stiff, nasty, old towel. My subconscious mind nudged me, and I had a thought. I stuck my head down into the hamper and then jerked it right back up again. Mystery solved. I had found The Source of The Smell!

Since my washing machine's capacity was slightly less than my hamper's, whatever was in the very bottom almost never got washed. This one last towel had been here for ages, stinking up the entire room because I never quite got down deep enough in my hamper to get it out and wash it. As I peeled that towel off the bottom of my hamper and threw it into the trashcan (it seemed like the only sensible thing to do at the time!), it occurred to me that perhaps this wasn't the only towel stinking up my life. Maybe, just maybe, there was something I'd allowed to fester in the bottom of the deep, dark hamper of my heart. Something that hadn't been washed in a very long time. Something that needed to be disposed of decisively and finally, like this towel that I was tying up in a plastic trash bag right at this moment.

I think if we're honest, we all have something like that. And the scary thing is, we know what it is. We know what it is, but we don't want to touch it. We spray air fresheners and light scented candles to mask the smell -- and that works for awhile. But over time, the smell becomes stronger and stronger and refuses to be covered up. It must be rooted out. It has to go! I've decided it's time to get rid of the last towel. I can't stand the smell any more, and I'm running out of candles.

Oh, by the way, if you are dying to ask me what my "towel" is, I have one thing to say to you:
Go find your own!!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Power of a Godward Gaze

The trainer at the gym was explaining how to do a kettle bell exercise called "the windmill". The exercise involved holding a kettle bell up in the air with one arm while bending down sideways toward the floor in the opposite direction. As he demonstrated, he made this statement: "Keep your eyes on the kettle bell. Your body will always exert force in the direction of your gaze."

In another session, we were doing squats with a heavily weighted bar on our shoulders. The trainer emphasized the same point: "Look UP at a point high on the wall and drive toward that point." I located an empty nail way up near the ceiling and fixed my gaze firmly on it. As I drove my heels down into the floor and pressed upward against the weight toward that nail, I thought, "There's a lesson in here somewhere!"

 Hebrews 12:2 instructs us to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith." It's a commonly quoted verse -- one we probably think very little about. But since tackling a serious exercise program at a gym, I've come to appreciate this verse far more. There is more to the fixed gaze than most of us ever experience. Whole books have been written on the subject -- from Practicing the Presence of God written by Brother Lawrence in the 16th century to The Godward Life written by Piper in the 20th. Those who have the greatest power in their spiritual walk are those who live each moment with Jesus in the front of their mind -- not the back.

 To switch metaphors a moment, think of a computer. When I am typing a document like this one, I am aware of the Microsoft Office program on my computer. But in the background, where I never give them any thought, half a dozen other programs are constantly running. They are running so that I can open them at a moment's notice and they'll be ready for service; but presently they are out of sight out of mind. Isn't that what our Christianity is for many of us? A program that runs in the background of our lives, out of sight and out of mind until we need to quickly open it in an emergency? Or on Sunday mornings? That kind of life will never have serious power for God.

In order to really progress toward power in prayer, self discipline, sacrifical love, a submissive heart, pervading peace, consistent joy -- we need to fix our conscious, present gaze upon Christ. His example, His imminence, His Word all need to be right there in front of us all the time. When we have Him there, our lives will press toward Him. Our entire being will exert force in the direction of our gaze. Like an athlete in training, we will grow steadily stronger in all the things that truly matter.

But -- is it possible to live consciously of Christ 24/7 in our busy, noisy, crazy lives? I guess the more important question is, have we really ever tried?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Weekend Warriors, Special Forces, and Everything in Between

If there is one thing I have learned from having a husband in the National Guard and a son in the Marine Corps, it is that not all branches of the service are alike. In fact, there is a bit of rivalry among them – and even a degree of snobbery on the part of some branches toward the others. For example, when my son was at Fort McCoy (an Army base) for training, he wrote to me about how "lazy" the Army guys were. The Marines rose a full hour earlier than the Army, so they were often returning from their early morning exercises (PT) by the time the soldiers were getting started. The Marines would run by chanting a cadence to the effect of, "Hey there, Army, can't you see, stretching in the parking lot is not PT!" (In defense of the Army, I would not call rising at 5:00 instead of 4:00 "lazy"; but you get the idea!)

When people join the military, they have some choices to make. Not only do they have to choose between Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines; but they also have to choose between part time and full time – the corps or the reserves. This choice is often made based on how committed the person enlisting is to the military way of life. In other words, how much do they want to suffer and sacrifice? My son chose the Marine Corps for a specific reason: he wanted something more demanding than the Army but not quite as arduous as the Navy Seals. He wanted to be challenged and stretched and strengthened in body, mind, and spirit; but he did not want to become a fighting machine. My husband chose the Army National Guard because he wanted the training, the self-discipline, and the "job security" that it offered. But the military has never been his primary career.

The teachings of the New Testament make it clear that Christians are all soldiers by virtue of the fact that we have an enemy to withstand and a Commanding Officer to obey. We do not have a choice about this. Like it or not, it's who we are. However, we do have one tremendously important choice to make. We must choose our own level of personal commitment. We have to ask ourselves how far we are going to take this "Christian life" thing and what we are going to do with it.

We certainly have the option to be "Weekend Warriors." We can put on our "uniforms" and go to church on Sundays, put in our time, and then go back to our "civilian lives" Monday through Saturday. This isn't a bad choice. It even has its perks and benefits. We can hear good music, make nice friends, hang around with people who share our beliefs, and get the satisfaction of knowing we are doing the right thing by bringing our kids to Sunday school.

I can't speak for you; but I have to ask myself, Is this enough for me? Do I want to be a faithful minimalist? Or is there something in me that is stirred by the idea of a bigger commitment, a greater sacrifice, a higher cost? When I face my Commander, will He not just be satisfied but pleased? To put it another way, would I be more proud to display a uniform that is perfectly creased and pressed or one that is so muddy and bloody that it'll never come clean again?

When I was about fourteen, I read the biographies of D.L. Moody, Martin Luther, and Amy Carmichael. I was deeply affected by their life stories. As a young man, D.L. Moody was challenged by these words: "The world has yet to see what God can do in and through a person whose heart is wholly and fully committed to Him." Moody wanted to be that person, and that passion drove him to higher levels of commitment and service than most. Martin Luther was a man whose conscience was keenly attuned to the Voice of God. He risked his life to expose the lies that threatened the gospel and to put the Bible into the hands of the German people in their own language. If Luther was among the "special forces" in Christ's army, Amy Carmichael was a Navy Seal. She rescued literally hundreds of young girls in India from wretched lives as temple prostitutes. She lived in harsh, difficult conditions for decades refusing the usual furloughs that most missionaries take. She poured out her life in the extreme.

Amy Carmichael wrote a poem entitled, "No Scar?" which captures her perspective of the Christian life. Its closing stanza sums up the Christian's choice. When I read these words, I can't help but ask myself, What kind of soldier am I? What kind of soldier do I want to be?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierc├Ęd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?