Thursday, March 27, 2008

God's Surprises

J.I. Packer, a well-known evangelical theologian and the author of the classic, Knowing God, remembers learning a children’s song in church growing up. “God is a surprise, right before your eyes, God is a surprise.” He had occasion to reflect recently on God’s surprises in his life: the way Jesus Christ “broke into my life, claimed me as his own, and made me a different person” when he was an adolescent; the way God called him into ministry even though he was “poor” at human relationships; the way he met his wife at a retreat neither had planned to attend; the way he was asked to write a devotional pamphlet, which became a 60,000 word book, the first of many he authored; the way he was “headhunted” away from England to teach in Canada, which led to, “beyond question, the best 28 years of my life so far.” Packer can look back and see many ways in which God surprisingly redirected him in a way that blessed him (see “Count Your Surprises,” Christianity Today, March 2008).

This Sunday I am beginning a series on “Living Your Bucket List.” It will include much exhortation to be intentional about focusing on the main things and living life to the full. However, one dimension of this must be to keep ourselves open to God’s surprises. As the old proverb states, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” We should live purposefully, so as to “make the most of the time” (Ephesians 5:16), while also being open to God’s providential re-direction. I think of a golf analogy (of course): you want to grip your club firmly, but not too tightly, lest it be hindered from doing its work. Likewise, grip your life firmly, but not too tightly. God may be trying to give you another club. Isn’t it significant that 99% of golfers hold the club too tightly?

When I graduated from college with a business degree I thought I would go into banking in New Orleans. During a chance conversation with an old girlfriend in Houston, whose father was a corporate recruiter, I found myself interviewing for a job with an oil & gas company. Four weeks later I was living in Houston. Three years after that I was at a Bible college! This would not have been even on my top ten list of possible turns in my life five years earlier.

When Angela and I were beginning to consider moving back to Texas from Connecticut, but before taking any action, we found ourselves talking with some folks at the 1994 Pepperdine Lectureships about a ministry in Los Angeles. Six months later we moved there. Neither of us had ever considered living in southern California, but we ended up spending nine wonderful years there.

Not every surprising thing that happens is God-ordained, but many are. Sometimes it’s a mystery which are and which aren’t. One promise we hold to is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). That is, he can help us make the most of the incidental surprises, and he wants us to make the most of his surprises!

Henri Nouwen, the late priest and author, articulated a wonderful prayer that has served as a kind of guiding principle in my life: “Lord, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me whatever you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you.”

Our God is a God of surprises. Keep a firm grip on your life, loosely.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Story is Jesus

Recently my friend Edward Fudge responded to the question, “What is the core of the gospel?” in his thrice-weekly email essay, gracEmail (see I want to share (and paraphrase in parts) a portion of his response and add my comments.

“They had little money and minimal education. There was no business plan, no human sponsorship, no institutional presence. Mass media was unheard of and mass transportation did not yet exist. Yet within one generation, thirteen plain men and their unremarkable helpers spread the Jesus message throughout the Roman Empire in every direction people could go. Most of these messengers lost their lives in the process—but gladly, because of the value they placed on the message they bore.

“It starts in Jerusalem with Peter addressing a pilgrimage of thousands, including many who recently had engineered Jesus’ crucifixion. You killed Jesus the Son of God, Peter declared, but God raised him from the dead and titled him “Lord” and “Christ.” Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to fulfill the ancient prophecies, so turn your hearts to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:22-38).

“The message was always simple. Jesus was killed on the cross but God raised him from the grave and exalted him beside himself in heaven. Now God offers repentance and the forgiveness of sins to everyone.

“It is interesting what we don’t find in the story of the early Christians in the book of Acts. We don’t find moralisms or religious duties, or instruction on joining a particular church, or talk of self-esteem or keys to worldly success. The story is Jesus, killed by men but raised by God, who gives authority to Jesus and repentance to humankind, a new start in a new world. With this story God turned the world upside-down (actually right-side-up) and history and civilization has never been the same. The same God is still in charge, the same Spirit still at work, the same story still true and – when the story goes out straight and unvarnished – the same results will follow. A world is waiting” (3/18/08).

Have you noticed how many books by atheists are on the bestseller lists this year? Two prominent ones are The God Delusion, and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Then there is the book that a LOT of pastors are reading, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and why it Matters. This is all perhaps a helpful reminder to focus, or refocus, on the main thing, which is the person of Jesus Christ and the Good News about him. When I had a life-changing series of conversations at age twenty which led to my baptism into Christ, people didn’t tell me about the benefits of religion, or even the truths of Christianity. They told me about Jesus Christ. How he fulfills the promises of Scripture. How he died on the cross for my sins. How he was raised from the dead and reigns in heaven. How he came to both model and offer me a life with God that is contrary to many of the world’s values. How he wants to be both my Lord and my friend (John 15). How he knocks at my door waiting for me to answer (Revelation 3).

Yes, friends, the story is Jesus. He is risen and he lives through the Holy Spirit in his followers throughout the world. What a story!

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I went to Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans (Go Falcons!). The tradition was for each senior to submit a quotation for the yearbook which embodied something about which they felt strongly, which described them in some way, or which they simply wanted associated with them for posterity. Some seniors chose pithy and humorous but superficial quotations (“If you worry about missing the boat, remember the Titanic!”) but most took it seriously. I had a hard time coming up with something, not being a terribly thoughtful teenager. But I finally decided that I really liked the Indian proverb on a plaque in my friend Jeff Gum’s dining room. It read “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

My good friend Steve Moroney, who was instrumental in my baptism into Christ at age 20, chose Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” I remember wondering why he found that so meaningful. Steve was, and is, a deep guy. It just seemed to me that he would have submitted something, well, more profound.

The older I get the more I appreciate the depth, challenge, spiritual power, and richness of Jesus’ teaching about mercy. There is an admonition I think of a lot, and do my best to live out: “Make charitable judgments.” Give people the benefit of the doubt. Be merciful in your assumptions. The famous playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde, who was known for his barbed wit, once said, “When I was young I admired clever people; now that I am older I admire kind people.” Kindness and mercy are much harder than cleverness.

Earlier this decade, the executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines, was forced out by the Times’ publisher amidst the Jayson Blair journalism scandal. Raines had made his mark as a “hard charging” newspaperman. Unfortunately, this described his way with people. Few if any of his staff supported him during the turmoil preceding his firing; most even undermined him. As one of them put it later, “He treated people on the way up as if he never expected to encounter them on the way down.”

And now Elliott Spitzer, governor of New York, has discovered the painful corollary of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:7, “Cursed are the unmerciful, for they will not receive mercy.” While serving as New York’s attorney general, Spitzer built a reputation as a ruthless ethical crusader (consider the irony of that description). Many who were the subjects of his investigations felt he went too far. He was particularly unaffected by what his indictments did to peoples’ reputations, regardless of whether they were found guilty or innocent. He was criticized, for instance, for “pressuring ethically wayward but not necessarily criminal companies into agreeing to unfairly large settlements by threatening CEO’s with prolonged legal battles” (Time, 3/13/08, John Cloud, “Was Spitzer Destined to Fall?”) In short, the man showed no mercy. As he said to the Republican leader in the state assembly after becoming governor, “I’m a steamroller, and I’ll roll over you.”

Consequently, when federal wiretaps uncovered his visits to a prostitute, and it was subsequently revealed that this has been a regular practice of his for a decade, even as he passed tougher laws against other men doing the same, he was forced to resign within 48 hours. No one stood up for him. No one defended him. The steamroller got steamrolled.

Mercy is blessed. Both ways.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Holy Discontent

I heard a talk a while ago by a very fruitful and accomplished pastor urging Christians to listen to and act on our “holy discontent.” This is an intriguing concept to me and I’d like to explore it this week.

On the one hand, the scriptures exhort us to cultivate contentment. Paul’s famous declaration that “I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty… I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11-12) is a powerful exhortation not to let our outward circumstances dictate our inner peace. American Christians particularly, trained in the habits of consumption-towards-fulfillment, do well to heed this admonition. On the other hand, the scriptures exhort us to beware a distorted “contentment” which is really only sanctified apathy. Jesus criticizes the Laodicean church in Revelation 3 for being “neither hot nor cold… but lukewarm.”

The fact is that holy discontent is the Spirit-inspired fuel that runs the engine of spiritual action against the unacceptable status quo. Martin Luther experienced a holy discontent against the abuses of the Church in the 16th century which led to the Reformation. William Wilberforce experienced a holy discontent against the slave trade in 18th and 19th century Britain which led to its eventual abolition. Martin Luther King experienced a holy discontent against the unfair plight of Black people in America in the 20th century which led to the Civil Rights movement. These are grand historical examples, but holy discontent is simply God’s way to move ordinary people to strive for deeper spiritual significance and engagement with his Kingdom work. “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (food, clothing, shelter) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). In this sense, discontent is a positive impulse. One of the dictionary’s definitions of discontent is “aspiration for improvement.”

One challenge is identifying the “holy” in “holy discontent.” Plenty of Christians are unhappy! But holy discontent expresses the conviction that there is more work to do, more kingdom living to experience, more relationship to be had, and I want to pursue it. Its aim is to bring one’s life, one’s family, one’s church, or one’s community into greater alignment and participation with the Kingdom of God.

During our recent Week of Prayer and Fasting for Breakthrough and our Servin’ the Burbs day, one of my take-aways was the clarification of a holy discontent I have been experiencing. It was a positive clarification in that I experienced a definite inner conviction to break out of this status quo. There is a great sense of freedom, and of fear, in acting on this. And that is always the way it is when you step out on faith.

Let me ask you a question. Do you have any holy discontent? If not, and you’re certain it’s not just apathy, count your blessings. You’re in a good place. For now. Keep striving first for the Kingdom. If you do have holy discontent, listen to it. Give it a chance to talk. Just as the body gives us symptoms of deeper changes, so the Spirit gives us indications of deeper stirrings. What kind of man or woman of God do you want to be? How would you like to join God’s Kingdom work more fully? What is your present spiritual trajectory? If you died next week, what would your spiritual legacy be? The most important part of holy discontent is not the discontent but the holiness.