Last night just before bedtime, a boomer of a West Texas thunderstorm began to roll in. This immediately means a few things…number one, Odessa will get some much needed rain (this is always the case regardless of how much we get). Number two; that I myself will have a potentially wonderful night of sleep as I love sleeping with rain in the background. And lastly, that no one else in my household will sleep well, so number two is immediately negated. And last night was no exception to that rule as I type this through bleary sleep-depraved eyes. But it got me thinking about control…or lack thereof. My kids are prime examples of the fear of lack of control. My ten-yr-old most recently has even begun to express his increasing fear of tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and any other kind of natural phenomena beyond his control. But control really is an illusion…isn’t it?
I guess it goes all the way back to the garden…I mean waaaay back. We couldn’t handle not being in control of our circumstances; our fate. And so we ate. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” – Genesis 3:6. And ever since we have operated under the illusion of control that sin allows us to think makes sense. If I just get this piece of my life figured out. If I just work hard enough these things will all fall into place. If I just have enough money, power, popularity, beauty, security, etc. then all will be well…except it won’t. In fact, the invitation made to us in the wake of a world broken by the illusion of control sounds more like this, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:24-25
Tomorrow is Good Friday and combined with Easter it represents the two most important days for the life of a Christian…why? Because it reminds us that we are not in control. Christ himself, in order to redeem us, showed us that life is best lived when we yield up control and just live for God. The apostle Paul described it this way, “When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:7-8. Christ gave up control of His life even to the point of death at our hands (talk about yielding control) so that we might know there is no power in control. In fact, true victory and power comes from giving up control or even realizing that we never even really had control. Perhaps this is the truth of Good Friday. That as we are called to give up the illusion of control we realize that we have a Savior who has already showed us the way. So may you give up the desire for control and the fear that accompanies it and live in the promise of Good Friday and the Hope of Easter.
Lately I’ve found myself spending a good deal of time in the gospel of John. I’m currently teaching a Sunday school class on the “I am” statements, working our way chronologically through John in a Sunday evening Bible study and even the Lectionary has us encountering Christ through John. So needless to say I pretty much live there. The central theme throughout the book of John is that of belief. This belief and it’s benefits are spelled out pretty quickly in the prologue, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” – John 1:12 Even the most often quoted piece of the entire Bible contains this theme as well, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 But what does the gospel writer mean by belief?
I can’t help but think of the scene in the story of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is poisoned by Captain Hook. In order to resuscitate her the audience (as this is the play version I am thinking of) must say they believe in fairies and clap their hands. As the audience claps, Tinkerbell is restored to life in the presence of their “belief”. But is this the “belief” that the gospel writer is referring to? The Greek word used throughout the book of John is the word pisteuō and William Mounce defines it as, “to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow”. And I think that this last portion of the definition is where the gospel writer is taking us…and rightfully so.
The thesis of the gospel of John is quite simple. He writes so that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God cannot in any way, shape or form be separated from what one does with that belief. It cannot be a statement of mere vocal expression. Because when one says that Jesus is God’s son, one is saying that Jesus fully embodies the Divine force that created every speck of existence and therefore that which he enacts and commands for us carries that same weight. In his trilemma, C.S. Lewis put it this way, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.” So truly I tell you, there is no such thing as ‘just belief’. To say one believes that Jesus is the Son of God must transform one’s very existence and therefore create in each and every one of us an entirely new way of living. So where is your belief taking you today?
One of my favorite table top games to play is Jenga. However I do not recommend playing this game with a 6-yr-old as their frustration with a loss can be a bit intense. For those of you not familiar with Jenga, it is a game with a tower involving multiple layers of 3 small wooden planks. In order to play one must remove a wood plank from the lower sections of the tower and stack that plank on top; forming a new layer. The game gets progressively unsteady as the tower is reshaped and eventually topples over to reveal the person who loses (Now you can see how a 6-yr-old might get upset…but it’s hilarious when daddy loses). I reference Jenga today because sometimes I think we often think of our faith walks in terms of a Jenga tower…but one in which we can’t ever remove any planks for fear of losing the whole construct. And then there are other people who seem to want to remove planks all the time and we wonder how their tower even remains upright. In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s narrative voice the Rev. John Ames speaks to this a bit when he says, “It seems to me some people go around looking to get their faith unsettled”
I think the issue in this discussion lies with how we think about our faith. For many of us faith is something that must be iron-clad, unwavering and rationalistic proof of what we believe. And so even the slightest chink/change in the construct of what we believe could bring the whole thing tumbling down. For others of us our faith is a bit more fluid and we allow change to enter into the ebb and flow of what we believe. One might even find comfort in the words of Anne Lamott, “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty.” But wherever you find yourself on this continuum, the one thing that we must all admit to ourselves is that what we espouse as far as belief is faith. It is hope in the thing we cannot prove upon which we stake our entire lives, will one day come to fruition. And that is difficult to comprehend sometimes.
The writer of the epistle of 1 Peter in the new testament encourages us with the following, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. 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” – 1 Peter 3:15 Sometimes we think about this “answer” as needing to be proof of our faith…some way to rationalize our belief to those we come into contact with. But truly the answer is evidence for our reason to hope. And how is this lived out? By staking our lives on that which we believe. We believe in God the Father almighty. And in Jesus Christ his only Son who made a way for our redemption. We believe in the Holy Spirit that sustains us and gives birth to the Church that is the hope for the world. And we frame our lives around these core beliefs. Perhaps other planks may come and go with our faith walk, but we have staked our life on these essentials with aren’t shaken and create in us hope for tomorrow. Rupertus Meldenius’ quote holds more truth to us today than ever before when it comes to our faith in an ever shifting cultural landscape, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Faith rests upon the essentials. This is where our hope is realized. And we give our hope to the world with gentleness and respect (love) and we begin see the world transformed.
I love being sick…said no one ever. Unfortunately this has been the case for me now for about a week now. Something about this West Texas air just does not agree with my lung stability. And I have found that when I am sick, I really just don’t care about the tasks on my to-do list as much. In fact, the only thing that concerns me about the tasks on this list is that they become to-done as soon as possible. I guess it is safe to say that in the midst of not feeling well, I am content to produce mediocre work.
Mediocre is defined by Miriam-Webster’s as, “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance”. And that’s just the result that I tend to give when I am running a fever, hanging onto a severe cough or have any other malady. But for me, and perhaps for some others, we have become content to do this when we feel fine as well. How many of us have found ourselves saying, “When will this day be over?” or “I can’t wait to be done with today?”. And granted, there are days when this could or should be the case, but most days? In his first letter to the church in Corinth the apostle Paul is engaging the Corinthians regarding their actions and the effects they have on others. The question before them is whether or not eating food sacrificed to idols has any effect on their Christian witness. Paul’s response is this, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31-33.
When I was in high school I worked in the summers for my dad. For those of you who don’t know, my father is a brick mason and so this wasn’t necessarily easy work. But I found myself working extra hard when I knew my dad was watching and perhaps slacking off a bit when his eyes were directed elsewhere. I think sometimes we find ourselves taking this same approach to life, but the truth is, someone is always watching. The way in which we engage with our day to day tasks is always being measured by someone. Can we truly say that we do everything we do in life to “the glory of God” or are we sometimes just content to be mediocre in our approach to life. I have found, recently that observant eyes and ears are always following me, particularly with a 5-yr-old in my house. Evidently she loves music as much as I do and recently I heard her walking around singing, “This is gonna be the best day of my life” from the song by American Authors by the same title. And maybe that little reminder is what we need to approach each task without seeking to just get it done, but realizing that each day has boundless potential for us to give glory to God and possibly effect the lives of those watching us.
I used to be able to sleep through any storm. I’m not kidding. I have slept through thunderstorms, tornado warnings (I have yet to confirm if I have slept through a touch down) and even a hurricane in north Florida. But all of that changed on December 6th 2007. Why you may ask? That is the day we brought Jonas Ezekiel Anthony Arp home. All of a sudden I couldn’t sleep through a gentle mist (that may be a bit of hyperbole). But truly I have never enjoyed sleeping through storms the way I used to for almost nine years now. And last night in West Texas we had a boomer of a thunderstorm. Around 2 in the morning the lightning was flashing, the house was shaking from the thunder and I just knew our kids were about to come running for our bed at any moment. So attempting to beat them to the punch I quickly jumped out of bed and quietly went to their room where I found them both still sound asleep. Sound asleep? I’m the one who can’t sleep through storms now and here they are like little sleeping angels while the world is coming down around them.
Now this hasn’t always been the case. There have been many sleepless nights in the Arp household where we have tried any number of cheesy analogies in order to comfort little ones scared by thunder. The angels are bowling, God is moving furniture around in heaven, there are changes in electrical currents between storm fronts and the ground…maybe one of those is true. But now it seems our kids have come to have some sort of weird confidence in that they are going to be okay. Maybe because they know their parents know about the storm it might give them some sort of ease. The Psalmist had a number of ways to describe his confidence in God in this fashion. “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121) “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever. The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.” (Psalm 29) I wonder if that is the same confidence with which my little angels slept so soundly.
In the gospel of Mark though we have a different picture of God in the storm. Jesus, after a long day of teaching (on Faith of all things) crawls up to the front of the boat while the disciples are crossing over the sea of Galilee and falls asleep. Suddenly a storm comes upon the disciples and they lose their minds. They wake him up saying, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” – Mark 4:38. Jesus wakes up, calms the storm, and then asks them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” – Mark 4:40. All along they have been walking, talking, eating, sleeping, traveling, and spending every waking hour with Jesus. He has shown them his power, compassion, love, grace, provision, etc. and yet all of a sudden when they fear their lives and/or livelihood are in danger they think he doesn’t care?!? I think for a moment they may have forgotten that the same God who never slumbers, the same God who is enthroned above the flood was the same God who slept for a moment in the midst of the storm. Jesus is with you in the storm. God sits enthroned above the flood and the storm. We can have peace in the midst of the good as well as the bad because of our faith. And maybe we might find ourselves like those little smiling Arps last night; resting peacefully while the world shakes so violently around them.
Last night a group of us at our church finished up a study on the book Love Does by Bob Goff. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it*) One of the main premises of the book is to think about life and love’s effect upon life differently. He even closes the book with an incredible chapter about a small idea that became a huge reality and eventually his life’s work and passion. My challenge at the close of our study was to brainstorm together some big ideas for the way our church could impact the community and world around us. Some of the ideas that we cam up with seemed relatively easy to accomplish. Some seemed like they might take a little bit of work. And a few even seemed nearly impossible…guess which one’s sparked my imagination the most?
Throughout the study on Love Does I have been introducing the participants to a certain internet personality. His name? Kid President. If you haven’t seen any of his YouTube videos stop reading this now and click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4z7gDsSKUmU. Did you do it? Ok then, now we may proceed. The reason I enjoy Kid President so much and the reason I felt the need to add him to our discussion of Love Does is because he doesn’t see change and reshaping the world as an impossibility. It kind of reminds me of an encounter that took place in scripture. Jesus’ disciples were downcast because they had tried to tackle something all the while “knowing” they couldn’t do it. They had tried to heal a man’s son in their own power. Jesus response to them? “He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:20-21.
I think the tie-in for us is that we dream and have our world changing ideas bound up in our own power…which is just silly. Jesus says that with faith (that’s believing in who God is, what He says and what He can do) that we can move mountains, change the world, see God’s Kingdom come. We don’t have to bind our ideas and dreams based on our abilities but rather we let them loose based on God’s ability. We can dream bigger, live bigger, love bigger, change the world in bigger ways because of Him and who He is in us.
For the past eight months I have been learning what it means to be a Texan. One of the things that I knew Texas for prior to my arrival is that everything is bigger in Texas. I have seen bigger burgers, bigger bugs, bigger skys, and I’m getting ready to see bigger high school football games. But what I am really excited about? Seeing bigger dreams and bigger ideas for God’s Kingdom in this world. May we become the people who dream bigger knowing how big our God is.
My wife and I don’t have cable. In fact, we cut the cable a long time ago. Now this doesn’t mean we don’t necessarily enjoy TV, it just means we spend less and binge watch more thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. That being said Hulu recently ruined my life. In the last month they made the entirety of Seinfeld available for viewing. All of sudden man hands, the Soup Nazi, the sidler and a myriad of other characters were made available for my viewing pleasure once again. And in the midst of my binge watching I have begun to realize there was a lot more to these episodes than I originally thought. In fact, one of my favorites so far is called “The Opposite”. In this episode George Costanza decides that every decision he has made up to that point in his life has been the wrong decision and vows to then make the exact opposite decision of his initial leanings going forward. The result…his life all of a sudden becomes incredible. It really is an amazing episode.
These episodes have given me new ways to think about how they might relate to us in our Christian journey. There are quite a few things Jesus said while here on earth that I wrestle with. One of those verses goes something like this, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:24-25 Death is not something I love thinking about, and yet here Jesus is reminding us the necessity of death for life. Unless a seed dies, there is no life. Unless I die there is no life. One of the things I have been ruminating on lately is what does that death look like in our world today. And I think it looks a lot like the death of certainty. Anne Lamont once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. ..Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, and emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Confession; I am a recovering know-it-all. There was a time where I could tell you exactly who God was, what He wanted for my life and what He expected of your life with fearless certainty. But nowadays, I’m not so certain. Oh I am still confident of the fact that Jesus loves me and that God has and is redeeming all things unto himself. But the other details I think are best lived out in journeying with others. If I am dying to myself, to my certainty, to my comfort daily all of a sudden it leaves a lot more space for God and for others. And maybe that is where we all need to find ourselves from time to time. A little less certain and a lot more faithful.