Monday, November 26, 2012

Two Definitions of "Father"

In the past, I've written a lot about Father-- earthly and Heavenly-- or better yet, natural and adoptive. I was born on earth into the family of my natural father, and I was adopted by faith into the family of my Heavenly Father. He sought me out, paid the highest price imaginable for my ransom, and made me His own forever. He has even given me His name-- I am now part of God's family on the most basic level of my identity. 

I've also written about how natural experiences filled that role, "Father" with meaning. Some of what I learned about "Father" was good (my natural father, for example, did a great job of affirming me and enjoying me, which helped me to better understand how God enjoys me as Father), but some of what I learned was bad (my natural father, for example, died when I was 14 which caused me to believe on some level that my Adoptive Father might not always be around when I need Him). As with any adoptive father, my God is building on the good and falsifying the bad. He's committed to relationship with me, and to helping me know Him as He is-- not as I've learned to imagine Him. 

This morning I saw that a writer I respect a lot wrote a blog post about this very reality. Keep reading if you are interested: 

When God Looks Like Your Earthly Father


Published: Nov 19, 2012
 
Of all the names for God, “Father” is the most important. Yes, the Lord is King, and when you sense that life is out of control you are certainly comforted to know that he has kingly authority and control, but Father is better. When Jesus revealed the Kingdom of Heaven to us he taught a radical new way to pray—“Our Father . . .”

But while some people hear father and think intimacy, affection, mercy, compassion, home and rest, others cringe. For them father means anger, rage, lies, violence and rejection. Their earthly fathers have poisoned the name. As a result, they distance themselves from the Father and opt for the gentler members of the Trinity.

Time to protest
Understandable? Yes. If you grimace every time you say or hear the name father, why put yourself through that torture? But hold on. If this describes you, you are closing your ears to some of the sweetest music in Scripture! Don’t allow it!  Don’t allow anyone to poison something so good!

A long, slow protest
Slow and steady is the way to go. In this case it means to set your heart on knowing the true Father as he reveals himself throughout Scripture, and especially how his character is most fully revealed in his Son.
Notice that though the name Father is implied throughout the Old Testament, it is explicit and prominent in the New Testament. The contrast between the two suggests that the New Testament writers, following Jesus’ example, were moving into territory that would have been considered a bit audacious at the time. They had gone from Yahweh, which was a name that the Israelites thought should not even be spoken, to Father, which is personal, intimate, and spoken in every prayer. Your goal is to share in their excitement, even if the process takes time.
So begin by gathering some favorite passages.
And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ . . .” (Luke 15:11-12)
This story about the prodigal son must be on your list because the father’s patience, kindness and enduring love, all on display to a rascal, are enough to dispel any confusion about the character of your heavenly Father. This is how you let the New Testament writers endow the name Father with new meaning.

And a blitzkrieg
But sometimes the slow and steady method of dislodging contaminated names must be supplemented by something more aggressive. Perhaps there are times when you hear stories of our  Father in heaven as mere information rather than God’s words to you. One way to avoid this is to yell out a hearty “Amen!” to every reading of the prodigal son. “Yes, Father, I believe this!” This is one way to get nasty with distorted images of the Father.
The other is to confess them. When in doubt, repent. This is good advice, especially when you feel stuck. Confess that you are viewing God in an ungodly way. This, after all, is idolatry.
You are being controlled by a creature more than the Creator.
You have taken the face of your human father and fit that mask on God. This is another way of making God in your own image.
You have exchanged the Holy One for the profane.
This could be perceived as heaping on guilt when you already feel condemned and shamed, but the intent is exactly the opposite. The intent is to remind you of how powerful confession is. It’s saying to God: “Yikes, what am I doing? I am allowing lies to infect my knowledge of my true Father. Father, forgive me. Please open my eyes to who you are, and please keep them open.”  Such prayers can bring relief from Satan’s devices and disrupt the status quo like nothing else.

Fight to take back the name
So take a look at where you are. Are you stuck, confused, avoiding the Father, and controlled by someone other than God? If you find yourself in this place, know this: time alone will not heal it and passivity is not an option. Instead you need to go on the offensive. Confess when you need to and pray that you will hear what Scripture teaches about God the Father. Fight to take back the name.

Read more by Ed Welch and his colleagues at CCEF.org 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Judgment: Bad or Good News?

So, I have historically had some trouble getting up in the mornings. While a mystifying problem, we think it has something to do with my brain muscles being paralyzed upon waking, and needing a few cups of coffee and about 30 minutes to fire up before I can consciously do anything. And my husband is very prompt. (Can you see where this is going?) We are supposed to leave by 7:35 am in order to be at work "on time" in his mind-- 8:00. To me, 8:03 is on time and in fact an accomplishment! But he feels that he's not living up to his commitment if he's walking through the door by then. 

How this happened is a blog post in itself, but through prayer and some very specialized tactics (namely light and coffee shock treatment earlier than I'd like) I've started getting up in time to not be late. Recently, I've even had time to  do things other than just get ready in the morning! It's a new thing for me. So this morning I flipped to Psalm 98. I love the psalms, because they're accessible--  honest thoughts and feelings before God-- something I am practicing as well. But every now and then I read something in the Psalms that doesn't make sense, that seems awkward, that I can't relate to, and I feel "stuck." 

This morning, I had an experience like that. I read the first 9/10ths of Psalm 98 and could readily "sing along"-- things like, "be joyful in the Lord! Sing to Him a new song! The whole earth has seen His salvation" etc. etc. Then came the end, and I scratched my head. 

"Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth." I had to stop there and question. Excited about God's judgment? Hmm. My feelings about God's judgment are often more along the lines of subconscious fear and anxiety-- or at the very least, discomfort. A Holy and Just Judge pouring out His wrath against the sin that has wreaked havoc on His beautiful earth and its people does not initially sound like the kind of thing that should excite someone who is in fact guilty of the sin that offends Him so. His judgment doesn't seem exciting because I know that I deserve His judgment. 

But then I realized that if I really believe God is God, and that He is holy and good and beautiful and lovely; and if I really believe that sin is evil and a distortion of what He created, and toxic and destructive and a slap in God's face; then His judgment-- His setting things right-- is a good thing. According to the psalmist, that's obviously how the hills and rivers feel. They know they've been "subjected to futility" because of sin and that all things-- including inanimate things-- have been damaged because of sin. Romans 8 says that when God comes to judge the earth, "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption." Judgment means God setting things right. It's making new all that has been bruised and broken by sin. That's something to rejoice in, even if it means I will have to answer for my own part in how things went wrong. 

But then I realized something else-- something even more surprising. My "judgment" has, in fact, already happened in a sense. It happened on the cross. When Jesus Christ, who lived a perfect life before God, willingly died a shameful death, He was taking my place. I, who deserve judgment, stand free and clear before God because I stand with Jesus. In dying in my place and being raised again, Jesus took my judgment upon Himself and accomplished for me-- invites me into-- His new life. In a sense, Jesus being raised from the dead is a glimpse, a snapshot, of the new and "death-defeating life" that is to come over all the earth when God comes to judge. That is why Jesus is called the "firstfruits" of the resurrection; He's our first picture of new creation. And through trusting in Him alone, I get to be a part of that; I'm invited here and now to participate in something (new creation!) that hasn't come in its fullness yet.

Because of Christ, God's coming "judgment"-- His setting things right, making things new, wiping out the destructive effects of sin-- is something that even this guilty one can be excited about, because it's through Christ that this guilty one is now free. Not just freed from judgment, but free to be a part of new creation.

Do thoughts of God's "judgment" make you fearful? How does hearing about Christ's work on behalf of guilty ones change that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bath Time

Some friends of mine recently went through the foster care application process. They planned to foster one or two girls, ages six to twelve. But once they got through the home study, they were asked if they would be willing to consider taking someone outside their "demographic"-- a three year old boy who needed a home. A boy with third degree burns. My friends prayed, tidied away the age "six to twelve girl" things they had been collecting for a month, and said yes. 

At age 37 and 42, my friends became "parents" overnight. To a three year old. With third degree burns and unknown trauma. With no time to even prepare little things like clothes for a boy that size, they rearranged their lives in an instant to care for this little one.

Tonight, we went over to help out as one of the parents was out of town. We brought dinner. We visited and talked about monkeys. We bonded over chocolate chip muffins. It was fun to meet their new "friend" and share a meal. 

Then came bath time. This is the main reason our presence was needed, as it has thus far required two adults to make it through the process. With burns covering his neck, chest and leg, even undressing is painful and frightening for this little one. Being drug into a cold bath tub, soaked with running water and then rubbed down with soapy gauze is unbearable for him. The combination of the pain of raw wounds being reopened, adults touching his broken little body in painful ways, and the memories it must bring of restorative skin graft operations in the hospital make it a truly horrifying experience for him. 

We watched our friend speak kindly to him, gently explaining that they have to clean him so his boo-boos will get better. We watched him carry him in his arms to the tub and sit with him, speaking tenderly to him the whole time. We watched him get screamed at and scratched and kicked as the little boy fought for dear life to escape the pain. We watched him look into eyes filled with terror and confusion and betrayal and speak peace. 

It was truly gut-wrenching to watch this little boy go through such agony and  confusion. He kept screaming, "My friends are hurting me! My friends are hurting me!" He didn't-- couldn't-- understand that his friends were in fact caring for him. Washing his wounds so that they can heal. Cleaning him so that infection doesn't spread. Giving him hope for a life beyond the burns. 

But it was just as moving to watch our grown up friend hold him tenderly in the midst of the terror. To see his gentleness and resoluteness to care for this child in spite of the pain it caused both of them. To see from the outside looking in the excruciating and beautiful dynamic of parent and child, healer and wounded, shepherd and lamb. This little one couldn't comprehend that his "friend"  was doing anything at the moment other than hurting him. But in reality, our friend was loving in a way that said, "I will care for you even though you can't understand yet; even if you temporarily hate me for it."


How I longed for this little boy to stop screaming long enough to hear the gentle words his friend spoke to him throughout the whole ordeal. How I longed for him to understand that bath time was an act of intense love and protection. How I longed for him to turn to his new friends and see them as safe, trustworthy, and for his good. He didn't understand tonight, at least not fully. But I know that my friends won't stop trying. They will do the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. They'll keep washing and caring for his wounds and speaking truth until he can hear them, until he is healed.

Driving away, I thanked God for His parental love. I thanked Him for inviting me, an unexpected child, into His home, His family. I realized how often in the past I've reacted against His love and His help with fear and confusion-- how often I've interpreted His actions as betrayal. How I've kicked and screamed against His healing hand in my life as He has exposed and cleansed the most broken and wounded parts of me. I thanked Him for loving me enough to invite my temporary confusion, and even hate. 

And I asked Him to quiet me in those future moments-- because I know they'll come-- to help me listen to His kind, gentle voice in the midst of it all. I asked him to help me trust Him enough to hear His words of truth spoken over me in those moments of unbearable agony. I asked Him to help me see Him as safe, trustworthy, and for my good. 

I'm not sure whether or not the little boy will trust his new friends tomorrow at bath time. I'm not sure I'll trust My Friend tomorrow either. But I sleep in peace tonight knowing that whether or not we pause enough to listen and believe,  Our Friend will keep at it the next day, and the next, and the next. He'll keep speaking truth until we hear. He'll keep healing until we're healed.

 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What is the Gospel? Where There's a Best, There's Always a Better

When I first came to seminary, I basically thought the gospel (God's good news for us through the work of Christ) was something along the lines of checking a box ("I believe") and going to Heaven. I thought it was more like fire insurance than anything else. Since then, I've realized that while things like believing and Heaven are part of the story, they're just that: part of the story. There is so much more to God's good news than I could have ever imagined. 

For one thing, it doesn't just involve intellectually assenting to some idea-- checking a box-- it involves meeting and interacting with a Person. For another thing, it isn't just something that I get after I die, as if there's some ticket I'm waiting to redeem. It changes everything here and now. Yes there's Heaven, but in a way, one could say the gospel means that Heaven has come near and Heaven is here. And lastly, while it teaches me more than anything else that I matter, I've come to learn that it's ultimately not about me. I can't express how freeing it is to realize that the gospel isn't like a modern day sales pitch, centered around me, the consumer. The gospel is in fact about God, and that's the best news in the world. Because it means God has entered my personal story and redeemed it by inviting me into an even bigger one. He's invited me into His Story-- the Big Story-- of which all of history is a part and God is the central character, the Hero. 

The gospel is not an idea, it's a Person. That Person is Jesus. And He invites me to be a part of His mission not just to rescue me, but to rescue the whole world. And it's happening here and now. 

This is one of the best messages I've heard elaborating on some of these truths. It's a little big long, but well worth it. Listen while you cook, run, recline, pace, clip your toenails, whatever it takes! Even if you think this is crazy talk but just want to know what the subtitle of this post means, listen to find out! Also, if you do read all this stuff and think it's a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo, or if you are interested in talking more about anything specific, please email me. I would love to hear from you.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Changing My Mind

On Sunday, I had a really interesting talk with a friend. He was saying how our most basic belief systems are often formed by as early as ages 3-5. I'm not much of a child development guru, but I think that's probably true. What we believe about the world, ourselves, others, and God begins to take root as early as we begin to process our experiences. 

Now, aside from being really intimidated about the prospect of parenting, this whole thing got me thinking about what I really do believe about God. I'm studying the Bible and learning things about Him on paper-- and consciously I claim to believe those things-- He is good, He cares for me, He is my Father, etc. But sometimes I wonder about the things I "learned" about God before I had all this formal education; what did I come to believe at age 4, for example? And how much of that stuff do I actually still believe somewhere inside, buried deeply under fancy theological words and pretty Bible verses? 

My friend was saying that our belief systems are really hard to change, in part because they are held subconsciously. We're not even aware of them most of the time! For example, a child who "learns" early on that she'll never amount to anything may not consciously think she's dumb, but will act out that belief in her habits. She'll avoid studying because subconsciously, there's a deep fear of failure. She's almost sure she'll fail because deep down she believes that she'll never amount to anything. So why try? 

So, what did I "learn" about God that I still believe subconsciously? Did I come to believe somehow, for example, that "Father" is big and scary and to be avoided? That if he catches me I'll be punished? That he thinks my personality or aspirations are stupid? If so, I can say, "God is my loving Father" all day until I'm blue in the face without ever addressing the real issue of belief-- I believe Father is unsafe. 

What did I learn about myself that I still believe subconsciously? Did I come to believe somehow, for example, that I'll never amount to anything? That I'm not actually that smart, that I'm only as good as my grades/body/talent/income/job, or that I'm just a big inconvenience? If so, I can say, "God loves me" all day until I'm blue in the face without ever addressing the real issue of belief-- I believe I'm worthless.

My friend was saying that only a few things can change a person's belief system: major life-changing events, or lots and lots of deliberate practice over time. Again, I'm not much of a psychology guru, but I think that's probably true. The truth of those words lead me ultimately to the gospel. As a young person, I took in and processed things that I perceived to be coming from authoritative voices around me-- Mom and Dad, Teacher, Big Brother, etc. As I continued to grow and internalize those messages, I solidified what they taught me with what I perceived to be authoritative experience-- my own. If some reality is going to come along and challenge the very foundation of my world-- to tell me, in effect, that my parents (or whoever else influenced me) were wrong and that I am wrong-- who has the authority to do that? God. God's voice alone can trump all others. He created the world and thus has more of a right to explain it to me than anyone else.  

What does that look like practically? It means my subconscious beliefs about "Father" are subject to correction by God, the author of Fatherhood. If I learned somewhere along the way that "Father" means bully, God holds those who modeled that accountable, and He calls me to a change of mind. God is ultimately the authority on Father, not anyone who mirrors that reality in the here and now. It also means my subconscious beliefs about myself are subject to correction by God, the author of me. If I learned somewhere along the way that I'm only as valuable as _______ , God holds those who taught me that accountable, and He calls me to a change of mind. God is ultimately the authority on me, because He created me. He determines my worth and my identity, not anyone who stewards me in the here and now. 

I'm led to the gospel as my only hope in light of the weighty reality that that those deeply held beliefs are hard to change. The gospel says, "The lies that have shaped your world are so deeply rooted and so strongly held that they are impossible for you to change. You are in need of the rescue of Another." Thus, the gospel invites me to a life-changing event; to submit to the authority of God's voice over the voices of all others in my life, and to give Him the permission to redefine and re-write my story. 


As my friend talked with me about the necessity of a life-changing event or lots of long, slow, practice to change our deepest held beliefs, I realized that the gospel is both. It is the life-changing event of God entering my story as Hero and then slowly, over time, re-writing it. I became a Christian over 12 years ago when I submitted my life to God's authority, when I said His would be the voice I trust. But He has been at work since that day peeling back the layers of my false belief and slowly, gently, patiently undoing the lies and replacing them with truth. I still find evidence of those other voices shaping how I believe and how I see Him, and He is still kind to bring them to the surface and call me to a change of mind. As He does so, I find that I not only look at the future differently, but even my past is redefined by God's authoritative voice.

What are some voices that have shaped your beliefs? Do they agree with God's voice? Are you willing to let Him in and change your mind? It will be a life-changing event. And it will continue to unfold your whole life long. 



Friday, November 2, 2012

Facing the Shame

Last week, we went to a conference to recruit students for our school. Last year, the topic was psychological disorders. This year, the topic was guilt and shame. Listening to some amazing teachers and counselors talk about a common human problem-- shame-- gave me lots to process. 

Shame is a word for which I had no category for a long time. No emotional connection happened when I heard it talked about. I, probably like most people, assumed, "I don't really struggle with that." But the more I learned about the patterns at work in my life (ways I had learned to think and feel, ways I'd learned to relate to others and to God, etc.) the more I realized that shame was was a very powerful dynamic in my life. One of the problems with shame is that it's sneaky. It is a shape shifter-- it can mask itself as other issues. For me, shame hid behind phrases like "low self-esteem," "a bad high school experience," or even "perfectionism."

Here's what I mean. Shame is a feeling and experience of worthlessness, rejection, embarrassment, loneliness, exposure, dirtiness, _______ (fill in the blank). It can be the result of your own sin or the sin of others. I've written in a number of blog posts about the shame I experienced as a result of abuse. That's a relatively straightforward example, but as I continue to experience God's healing I'm realizing that the feelings of shame which characterized so much of my life have many sources.  I'll just briefly share from the three examples I mentioned. 

Low self-esteem. I am a full-fledged, fairy-dust sprinkling, poetry writing, endlessly singing, Lord of the Rings loving artist who grew up in a culture that valued... athleticism. Needless to say, eight grade was a bit awkward. Is there anything wrong with having different interests than most of my peers? Of course not. But being made fun of for it? Getting awkward stares in the hallway? Finding notes written by my classmates about how much of a loser I was, then having to go to the worst of all places in middle school-- P.E. class-- with those classmates? In other words, being shamed for who I am? That's something that eventually might get couched as "low self-esteem." 

A bad high school experience. Near the end of my freshman year, my father passed away from cancer. It was the culmination of his four-year battle with the illness, and my reaction to it sent me in a thousand wrong directions. I hurt myself and others in the process of trying to ease my own pain, and as a result, my sin became public. I found that after a certain point, my peers identified me-- they associated me-- with my sin. I became "the girl who ______." Instead of finding a safe place to hide in the wake of my father's death, I found myself even more exposed than ever. It's normal to have growing pains in high school, to be sure. But to experience feelings of nausea or anxiety upon returning to my hometown afterward? To be so haunted by past relationships or conversations that a "reunion" seems unbearable? To feel just as small, outcast, despised, exposed, dirty, __________ (fill in the blank) in the eyes of those peers today as then? It would be tempting to run away from it all by labeling it a "bad high school experience" and never looking back. 

Perfectionism. I've blogged about my humorous "to-do list idolatry." Personality differences allow for things like this, of course, but what about the sense of desperation and despair I feel when I don't get through my to-do list in a day? When I "waste" an hour napping and then feel the need to punish myself later? Just today I locked my keys in my gym locker and had to wait 30 minutes for someone to help me. I literally cried. "How could I be so stupid? How could I let a whole 30 minutes just get wasted like this? I don't know how I'll make up for it!" I was battling a deeply buried belief that I must "pull my weight" in order to earn my right to life. If I fail, well, shame on me. 

I realized this past weekend that these shameful feelings-- whether they fall under the "dramatic life experiences" category or not, shape my thoughts and actions. They shape the way I see God, myself, and others. And while it might be more convenient to ignore them, it's more freeing to face them. And I realized this past weekend that only the gospel gives me the power to face the shame. Because only the gospel really acknowledges the weight of the problem  (there is truth to what I feel) and offers an answer (but God has intervened, and that changes everything!)

The gospel says to my low self-esteem, "You are a precious person made in God's image. He loves your uniqueness and quirks and interests, and others have wronged you by shaming you for it. The weight of their sin is grievous and it is right to feel the pain of their words. Now, listen to God's words about who you are. He made you and He alone has the right to define you." To my bad high school experience, the gospel says, "You did sin against God and you stand guilty before Him. Your failure is a serious problem that must be answered for. But God loves you so much that He took your sin upon Himself so that you can be free from it. Now, through trusting in Him, you can be associated with Him-- not your sin. Now, you'll no longer be known as "the girl who _____ " but as "the girl who belongs to Jesus." To my perfectionism, the gospel says, "You are not god. You can't be perfect; stop expecting yourself to be! You are accepted and loved by God as His child; there's nothing more to do to prove yourself or earn His affection. Furthermore, He will provide for you to get done what He calls you to. You don't have to carry the heavy burden of trying to make it all happen." 

I realized this past weekend that apart from the gospel, I could attempt to deal with the shame by writing it off as nothing. I could plug my ears to the hurtful words people said to me, and bury the shame of their disapproval. Or, I could acknowledge my pain before God and experience His comfort and affirmation. I could avoid acknowledging the shame of my past actions by writing it all off as high-school drama. Or, I could face the reality of my sin before God and others and receive His complete and total forgiveness and freedom, standing before Him and others now with a new identity. I could normalize the slave-master of perfectionism by saying it's part of my personality, or I could accept my imperfection before God and be freed from the impossible yoke of living up to standards God Himself doesn't place on me. 

Are there areas in your life where shame might be hiding? What makes you afraid to face it? How might the gospel-- God's response to your sin and the sin of others against you-- change things?