31 October 2009

Learned Helplessness

In 1967, Martin Seligman conducted one of the most groundbreaking studies in the history of psychology. He described a phenomenon called learned helplessness, whereby dogs repeatedly exposed to shock with no hope for escape eventually learned to just lay down and whine when shocked, even when escape became possible. Learned helplessness was foundational to modern psychology's understanding of depression.

I had not thought of this term in a long time, but a confluence of factors brought it back to mind. At the end of his excellent book A Praying Life, Paul Miller wrote, "Learned helplessness lurks just underneath the surface of [my] prayer time. I simply can't do life on my own. Without God's intervention, I am completely helpless. I need Jesus" (p. 260). I have experienced learned helplessness very profoundly during the month of October. I was co-directing the capital campaign at church. I was helpless. We were awaiting Tessa's court date, not sure of what the outcome might be. I was helpless. Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was helpless. Amelia, the daughter of some of our dearest friends, lies in the hospital in a grave neurological state. I am helpless.

Helpless, Helpless, Helpless

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I can do apart from God. He is my ever constant help in trouble. These recent situations have all helped me to learn that I am indeed helpless, but I am not hopeless. I serve a powerful God who loves me. Though I may not understand why or how, He will work all things out to His glory. May I never forget that in Him, there is hope.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

-The 121st Psalm

Choose Your Words Carefully

awe-an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful.

awesome-inspiring awe.

As a child of the 80's, I am quick to pronounce something awesome.
  • "Wow, that was an awesome cheeseburger."
  • "Jason, here is the paperwork you requested." "Awesome"
  • "Honey, the kids and I are ready to leave." "Awesome."
Unfortunately, as a culture, I think we have stripped many words and concepts of their power. Something that is awesome is exceedingly powerful and overwhelming--never a description for a cheeseburger. It is a description for God. In the past when people said they served an awesome God, it meant something. Now, believers and unbelievers alike yawn, shrug their shoulders, and move on.

During the past week, I have sought to stop saying "awesome" unless I am talking about God. Let us choose our words carefully and not lose sight of He who is truly awesome.

The Lord will be awesome against them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the lands of the nations.--Zephaniah 2:11

29 October 2009

Stump of Jesse

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.-Isaiah 11:1

Recently, I purchased an audio version of the New Testament and tonight I was listening to Matthew 1. Often, when I am reading Matthew 1, my eyes gloss over when I read "The Genealogy of Jesus Christ." I mean, it is a list of names. How engaging could it be? But tonight, I was excited about this lineage. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was not even Jewish. David was a voyeur and worse. Matthew walked through this colorful family tree beginning with Abraham and concluding with "Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16).

As I listened to verse 16, something tripped in my mind. The promised Messiah was to be from the Davidic line--a branch from the stump of Jesse. But Mary was not from David's line as far as we know--Joseph was. I thought "that cannot be right." Then I realized that Joseph adopted Jesus into his family, into David's heritage--just as the Father had planned all along. Joseph not only named Jesus according to the direction of the angel of the Lord (v. 21), he also raised him as his own child not as an interloper in his family.

God was intentional in doing this. God could have given Jesus a pristine genealogy, replete with a strong Jewish lineage and no black sheep, but He didn't. A straightforward genealogy could have been useful to the exclusionary Pharisees. They could have used it as yet one more reason to keep the undesirables out of the kingdom.

Instead, Jesus' family history--full of undesirables--demonstrates clearly that all can have a place in His family. What is more, Jesus who was himself adopted, in turn offers all of us--voyeurs, prostitutes, Gentiles, and sinners--the chance for adoption as sons.

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.--Galatians 4:4-7

26 October 2009

Stop Doubting and Believe

I am again amazed at how God leads me to passages in His word that address issues in my life. A couple of days ago, I wrote this post about my timidity (or is it fear?) in prayer, yet making an audacious request anyway. This morning, I was listening to an audio Bible sampler that I got from the bookstore, and the narrators read John 11--the passage that describes the death of Lazarus. It became quite evident that God was speaking directly to me again (or as Heather prefers to imply, God is smacking me with a large plank). You may appreciate why in a moment.

The passage begins with Mary and Martha sending word to Jesus that Lazarus, "the one Jesus loved," was ill (v. 3). In verse 4, Jesus responded, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” God allowed this illness in order that Christ would be glorified. Yet even after hearing of this illness, He waited two days longer, by which point Lazarus died so that His power might be demonstrated all the more.

To the outside observer, healing may be one thing, an earthly thing; but raising someone from the dead was divine. This point is clarified in verses 11-15. Jesus tells His disciples, "our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him" (v. 11). The disciples respond, "if he has fallen asleep, he will recover" (v. 13). The disciples are already minimizing, looking for an easy explanation, a logical explanation. Then in verses 14, Jesus is blunt with them--"Lazarus has died" because they weren't comprehending his meaning by "fallen asleep." I believe He says this to confront their logic, their trust in earthly things. People don't just become alive again because that is impossible. In verse 15 Jesus finishes His sentence, "for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe." Christ knew that raising His friend from the dead would be an awesome demonstration of His power and that their belief would grow exponentially by seeing Him work.

In verse 17, we discover that Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days, so he is really dead. In fact, Martha raised concern about an odor--the smell of death--because of the length of time since his passing (v. 39). In the meantime, however, we see Christ setting up His followers to see something miraculous. Martha says to Him, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 21). This belief is similar to the disciples, however, Martha shows amazing faith by saying to Jesus, "but even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you" (v. 22). Can you imagine? Her brother has been dead for four days. He most assuredly stinks, yet Martha trusts in Christ's power! That's what we all need--to believe that Christ is much bigger than our circumstances--much bigger than death. Christ then goes on to confirm her faith in Him. He tells her, "your brother will rise again" (v. 23), not on the last day, but on that very day because, as Jesus tells her, He "is the resurrection and the life" (v. 25).

The story continues to build. Those early believers, and we today, are getting set up to see a miracle. Jesus prepares His disciples. He prepares the sisters. He is preparing us to see not just a healing but someone raised from the dead. He is preparing us for the impossible.

As He is setting the stage--with utter confidence in His Father's power--we get a glimpse of His humanity. He felt compassion on his friends. They were all crying over the death of a loved one and he was moved (v. 34) by their sorrow to the degree where He also wept (v. 35). He sympathizes with their feelings; He is not an aloof God, not a magical genie, but a man with real feelings for those He loved.

In verse 40, we get to see the climax approaching, the story coming full circle. Jesus tells them, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Then He prays. He prays boldly to His heavenly father. "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me." He demonstrates the confidence that I pray I one day have. He is speaking with His Abba Father, knowing that He is listening. As we know, He then calls Lazarus out from the tomb and many Jews who were there believed. He set the stage, performed a miracle and was glorified.

As I have contemplated Heather's diagnosis of cancer, I realize that God sometimes makes things seem dire so that He can bring glory to Himself by demonstrating His power. That is His supreme goal--to be glorified. Unfortunately, in a society with so many voices and viewpoints calling for our attention, it is too often not the mundane that draws us to God, it is the remarkable. Make no mistake, however, God is in the mundane as well, but too often we miss Him there. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world".

Later in the day, He drove His point home to me. I came across John 20:27. Jesus is talking to Thomas and He said to him, "stop doubting and believe." (NIV).

24 October 2009

Praying Boldly

John 14:13-14--"Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it."

I am scared to write this post. I fear what it says about me because, frankly, it reveals weakness. I struggle with prayer. Specifically, private prayer. I have difficulty with intimacy with my heavenly Father. If an outsider would look at my quiet times, he may see that I desire to know God, but he may wonder if I want God to know me.

Corporately, I have never minded praying. I feel connected with those whom I am praying with and with God, but individually my prayers somehow become apprehensive and awkward. Even when I am able to filter out the intrusive thoughts of a restless mind, many questions enter into my consciousness. "Does God really care about my individual prayers?" "Am I asking for things selfishly?" "Am I praying the right way?" But the question that scares me the most, the one that drives me to tears is this:

"What if I ask for something and God says 'no'?"

Over and over in the book of John (14, 15, 16), Jesus exhorts his disciples to "ask the Father in his name" and "it will be given." That is a bold promise from someone with the power to back it up.

Yet I falter. Those nagging thoughts such as "If the answer is 'no' I must not be faithful enough," "maybe I am not praying right," or "there must be some unconfessed sin keeping this prayer from being answered" assault my assurance.

Recently, I find myself in a place where I am placing an audacious request at the foot of the throne for Heather to be healed completely, but I am also asking God to boost my confidence in His ability to answer my prayers and to deepen my prayer life.

In essence, I am placing my hope in the words of Jesus from John 14--that I ask boldly in Jesus name, that He does it, that His will is done, and that God receives all the glory.

Ephesians 3:20-21 "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (NIV)

23 October 2009

More than I can handle

Over the past week, I have heard the phrase, "God won't give you any more than you can handle" many, many times. I have been thinking about this phrase a lot and I began to wonder about it's Biblical origin. Turns out, there isn't one. Nowhere in the Bible, does it say that God won't give us anymore than we can handle. It does tell us that God won't allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (I Corinthians 10:13), but that is different than God giving us more than we can handle.

On the contrary, I believe that God allows intolerable pain (consider Job). I believe that pain can be so horrific that we cannot handle it. In fact, I think that hurts can be one way He draws us closer to Him. The realization that I am utterly powerless to handle something on my own leads me to cry out to Him. Suffering with God helps us to rely on God during the mundane as well.

The Psalms are full of pain (as Dave Powlison says, most Psalms are written in the minor key). David frequently writes of this.

Psalm 69 begins,
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire
where there is no foothold.
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

By the end of this Psalm, however, David is praising God with song and offering thanksgiving. He writes, "for the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners."

Consider also Paul's description of the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul asked God repeatedly for this thorn to leave him, but God tells Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

From time to time, God allows much more than we can handle--but He never give us more than He can handle.

17 October 2009

The Breath Before the Pain

Yesterday, Ian hit his mouth on a chair, but there wasn't an immediate reaction. He paused for a moment before he began to wail. I have often found that reprieve to be a good indicator of real injury rather than simply a wounded ego. I think back to my own childhood when I experienced this delayed response to pain and the intermediary thought says, "this will soon hurt much worse."

Awakening to the dawn of my wife's diagnosis of breast cancer, I suspect we are gathering our breath. Today, there is no pain and things seem normal. But there is the promise of pain--of suffering to come. I have little concept of how much this will hurt, I just understand that it will.

After that initial reaction, when the real pain started and the blood flowed, Ian's natural instinct was to seek parental comfort. I find myself there as well. The first person I called--the first person I cried with--after hearing Heather's diagnosis was my mother. She did not offer to fix it--she cannot--she just cried with me, which I guess is why I called her.

I have also been seeking my heavenly Father, but I don't know what to say to Him. Words fail me. I believe right now, that is probably where He wants me to be. I am His wounded child and it is He who offers words of comfort. Yesterday, the daily verse from the Faithwalkers devotional was Isaiah 41:13--For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you."

Father help me to remember that you are the God of all comfort.

16 October 2009

Suffering Together

Genesis 2:24--Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Several months ago, I read John Piper's excellent book, Desiring God. Though I was regularly affected by things that he wrote, I was particularly moved by his chapter on suffering. I said to my dear wife, "as Christians, we are called to suffer. We have a fantastic life, why is it that we don't suffer?" She replied, "wherever you lead, I will follow."

As I sat on the top of that mountain of contentment, I had no idea that God was preparing us for a trip into this valley. The Valley of Breast Cancer. In the past 5 days, which have been a whirlwind, Heather went from "I found a lump in my breast that I should have checked out" to "Heather will require a mastectomy."

I have also been painfully assured of something I have long suspected--the suffering of someone I love, in this case the flesh of my flesh--comes with substantial pain. As social beings, we humans suffer when confronted by the pain of others, particularly our loved ones. A part of me says I have no right to feel hurt, yet another part is reminded that I am one with this woman God has joined with me. Her pain is my pain.

I also know that as we peer into the valley, God has given us the past several years together to prepare for this journey with one another. Taking her left hand in mine and reaching to God with my right, we step out in faith.

I want to build a house up on this mountain
Way up high where the peaceful waters flow
To quench my thirsty soul
Up on the mountain

My faith is strengthened by all that I see
You make it easy for me to believe up on the mountain
Oh, up on the mountain

I would love to live up on this mountain
And keep the pain of living life so far away
But I know I can't stay
Up on the mountain

I said I'd go, Lord, wherever You lead
For where You are is where I most want to be
And I can tell we're headed for the valley
My faith is strengthened by all that I've seen
So Lord help me remember what You've shown me
Up on the mountain

You bring me up here on this mountain
For me to rest and learn and grow
I see the truth up on the mountain
And I carry it to the world far below

So as I go down to the valley
Knowing that You will go with me
This is my prayer, Lord
Help me to remember what You've shown me
Up on the mountain
Up on the mountain

I cherish these times up on the mountain
But I can leave this place because I know
Someday You'll take me home to live forever
Up on the mountain

10 October 2009

What is zeal for God?

I found this quote as I was reading J.I. Packer's Knowing God today.

"Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature--which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted--but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called 'zealous' men...

"A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies--whether he has health, or whether he has sickness--whether he is rich, or whether he is poor--whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offense--whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish--whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise--whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame--for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God's glory. If he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it--he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn; and if consumed in burning, he has but done the work for which God appointed him. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal. If he cannot preach, work, and give money, he will cry, and sigh, and pray...If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will do the work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill (Exodus 17:9-13). If he is cut off from working himself, he will give the Lord no rest till help is raised up from another quarter, and the work is done. This is what I mean when I speak of 'zeal' in religion" (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 1959 ed., p. 130).

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.--Revelation 3:15-17,19

God, grant us a zeal for you!

07 October 2009

Parenting on the razor's edge

To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth--Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.--Proverbs 1:2-7

Over the past week or so, a confluence of factors has led me to think specifically about how I present Christ to my children. One of those factors was Michael Spencer, the i-monk. I once emailed Mr Spencer and told him that he was the blogger that I hate to love because although I don't always agree with him, he often makes me think deeply about my faith. Over the past few days, he has done a series of posts on young earth creationism, atheism, and abandoning the faith. This post today prompted me to write. Briefly, his essay tells of a young man who walked away from the God of his youth because there was no freedom to think independently or creatively under the umbrella of fundamentalism.

At times, when I read stories like this, I feel absolutely frozen inside. I believe there is no more important decision that my children can make than the decision for Christ, but how do I help them on that journey? Too much inflexibility and legalism can lead to rebellion. Too little guidance and structure can lead to a poorly calibrated moral compass. As I perch precariously along this narrow blade, I fear falling one way or the other, jeopardizing my children's eternal future.

As I think about these issues, I come to a place of wanting to teach my children to think for themselves from a Christian worldview by modeling that very thing in myself. I want them to see me deeply reflecting about issues in the world or in my faith and, through prayerful consideration and scriptural contemplation, coming to what I believe is a Biblical conclusion. When they approach me with questions, I want to provide guidance and wise counsel, but also encourage them to think through the questions for themselves with no hint of judgment in their process. If they arrive at a conclusion that is different from mine, I want to be able to ask myself whether their conclusion jeopardizes their salvation. If it does, I pray God gives me the words as I encourage them to seek Him. If it does not, I pray that I can demonstrate grace and parental pride in their ability to think for themselves.

Above all, I pray that God grants me the wisdom and the courage to teach my children what is truly important--the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discussions about how the earth was created, whether homosexuality is a sin, or whether Bono is actually a Christian are infinitesimally unimportant relative to the Good News. I also pray for freedom from anxiety about whether I am "doing it right" instead trusting that if God seeks my children, they will be found by Him. I desire for myself and my children to be overwhelmed by the grace of Christ, to love others, and seek God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

05 October 2009

Positions of worship

Recently at church, we were singing a popular worship song that included the lines:

We stand and lift up our hands, for the joy of the Lord is our strength
We bow down and worship him now, how great how awesome is He.

People often lift their hands as they sing this song (and many other worship songs). Admittedly, it may difficult to continue to sing a lively worship number while genuflecting, but I cannot recall the last time when I saw someone bow down in [a Protestant] church, even during prayer. I suppose I personally don't bow down for fear of embarrassment.

Throughout both Testaments, there is evidence of both raising hands (Psalm 63:4, Psalm 141:2, Lamentations 3:41) and bowing low (Isaiah 51:14, Psalm 95:6), but what I find interesting is what the two positions suggest. From my perspective, in our society at least, raising hands suggests an offering of loving praise whereas bowing low suggests a brokenness of spirit--an acknowledgement of unworthiness--such as we see from the tax collector in Luke 18 who averted his eyes from heaven.

I believe that both positions can demonstrate worship, but to me, happily singing "we bow down and worship him now" seems out of place. The song is joyful, bowing down is contrite. They don't easily fit together.

As we worship God individually and corporately, let us not forget the One we worship is perfectly holy and worthy of our fear (Isaiah 6, Revelation 15). I think that too often we lose sight of His glory in our worship and it simply becomes about singing happy songs to Jesus. God loves us and He sent His son to die for us, but He is also glorious.

John knew this better than anyone. He was the "beloved" disciple (John 21) and wrote effusively about the love of Christ but when he encountered Christ in his Glory, he "fell at as His feet as if dead" (Revelation 1:12-18). For John, it was no stretch to see Christ as both perfectly loving and deserving of fear. We should seek the same.

Phillipians 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.