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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Two Roads

I'm nearing the end of my week of Greek here in the Twin Cities. My mind is starting to feel a bit worn down, but the experience on the whole has been very positive. The interaction with my cohort in this learning process does as much for my personal growth as the classes do for my academic growth. I have greatly enjoyed being able to open up the New Testament in the language in which it was written and be able to understand some of the more basic phrases and verses even after a few weeks. I feel that with the right application and continued discipline to the language, knowing Greek could have huge dividends in my preaching and teaching.

This learning comes with a caution for me, however. While here at Bethel, my fellow classmates and I have enjoyed some laughs while watching a few television preachers and reading their blogs. (I wonder if those television preachers will ever read mine? That's an ironic thought.) While these "pastors", as they label themselves, have a wonderful grasp of God's word and parse the Greek language like experts, something is missing in their spirituality. They come across as superior and above those they are teaching. Their knowledge has not led them to grace, but to condemn and criticize those who do not understand God's word and obey God's teaching they way that they themselves do. They use their supposed wisdom to twist God's intent so that it suits their own purposes of raising money, recruiting volunteers, or promoting their own ministry. Rather than setting people free, I can't help but feel that they put a heavy burden of guilt and oppression on those they lead.

I have to wonder- what happened? They must have spent YEARS learning the Bible and studying it in order to understand the language the way they do. They have religiously applied themselves to learning all the ins and outs of an ancient language in order that they might better comprehend God's written message to us. And yet rather than making them more full of love and grace for the world around them, it has made them self-righteous, arrogant and judgemental.

Somewhere along the way, the purpose of their journey became convoluted. For some reason, I don't doubt that at the beginning these preachers wanted to know God more, but as they studied and grew, it became less about God and more about how God could be used for their own ends. And so something like the Bible that has the potential to be so wonderful and life-giving has become a weapon they wield for self-glorification.

I don't want that. I don't want to ever get to a point where what I know makes me more self-reliant and less God-dependent. My desire is that the more I know, the more I'll know that I don't know. And my understanding of Him and His words will make me humble at how much I don't understand, or better yet, how little of the things that I do understand am I able to live out. (Isn't that ultimately the bigger issue for us? It's not about how much we don't know, it's about actually doing the little that we know.)

May this be your heart as well. May you deeply desire to grow in your knowledge of the truth, and may that knowledge take you closer and closer to Him who can truly set you free.

Journey in His grace and love,

Nick

Monday, April 21, 2008

What's in a Book

I've just wrapped up day one of a week-long class in Greek. I think I severely underestimated the mental toll that learning a language would have on my mind and body. I feel absolutely exhausted. And there are four more days to go!

I find myself wondering at a time like this about the value of my studies. Is it worth all of this work and sacrifice to learn a language for a country that I will likely never visit? Is it worth it to be away from my family and to force my aging mind to stretch and adopt new concepts and ideas? (I did just turn 30 after all.) Sure, Greek has value because it's the language of the New Testament, but there are hundreds, even thousands, of scholars who know Greek far better than I ever will. Wouldn't it all be easier to just take their word for it and not re-invent the wheel?

And yet in this process something is happening to me. Even in a grueling day of nouns, adjectives, and parsing, I can sense a hunger for God and His Word growing in me. As I interact with friends and other passionate God-seekers, as I read John 1 the way it was originally written, and as I soak in the wisdom of others, I know that God is using this experience in my life.

In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Fosters states, "(Christians) may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know... and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study. Jesus made it unmistakably clear that it is the knowledge of the truth that will set us free."

We live in a day and age where we can pay someone to do almost anything for us. We can pay to have a CPA do our taxes. We can pay to have our lawn mowed or our hair cut. We can pay to have someone else cook our meals and even clean our homes. In a sense, we may even believe that we can "pay" a pastor to teach us God's Word. But in this culture where we are so comfortable having others do these things for us, there remains one thing that cannot be done on our behalf: spiritual growth. No amount of money paid to any professional can accomplish a greater closeness to God in our own hearts. Certainly, we pay to go to conferences or even pay a spiritual director for guidance, but even in these situations, it is the attentiveness and commitment of our own spirit and mind that produces any true and lasting growth.

If we long to know God and pursue him, we must value the process of study. We may ask, "Why study when a pastor knows God's word so much better, or when an author is so inspiring?" It is because in our own habit and discipline of study, we bring ourselves before God in way that no one else can accomplish for us. We come to him, body, soul, and mind.

And so we read and study God's word. We take notes and ask questions. We even take Greek and learn the same language thousands already know. (Ok, maybe only some of us do that.) But in the discipline of study, God meets us in the mind.

"Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you THINK." (Rom. 12:2)

Journey on, friend.

Nick

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Is It So Difficult?

A few days ago, I was enjoying a fine cup of joe and some thinking-space at a local coffee house when the attitude of the cashier/server caught my attention. When I had ordered my drink, I noticed that she seemed a little rushed and perhaps even gruff, but I dismissed this as just a busy time. But it soon became evident that this was more than a busy moment for her; it was just plain a bad day. She called out that drink were ready with a frustrated, almost bitter tone. She prepared drinks and sandwiches with as much moaning and grunting as I have ever heard. But what took the cake for me was when the phone rang. Now, in my mind at least, the phone ringing at your business is a good sign. But the instant this innocent piece of technology began to alert our restaurant employee that someone was one the line, she loudly exhaled, "O, for heaven's sake!" When she answered, she curtly said the name of the business, but with the dark inflection in her voice she might as well as said, "What do you want?"

Now, in all fairness, I don't know this person at all. I don't know if her kids were home sick and she was stressed out about who was taking care of them. I don't know if the business is financially crumbling and she's contemplating a closure. I don't know if her boyfriend just cheated on her with her close friend. All of these, and many more, could be reasons to put someone in a sour mood. But on this day, as an innocent bystander, I found myself thinking, "Really? Really? Is it really that bad?" Is it really so bad that she has a job where she makes fine food and drink for polite customers who pay well? Is it so bad to make money and run a respectable business? I have no idea what had set this surely gal off that day, but I do know that I hope someone else helps me next time.

This experience has me thinking about service. You see, I believe one of the primary activities that Jesus calls His followers to is service. If we want to be like him, we are invited, no commanded, to love and serve others in the way that Jesus himself did. We are asked to put ourselves aside, lay down our wants and desires, and truly care about other people.

How often do I react to service by saying, "O for heaven's sake!" Okay, so maybe I don't use that phrase, but I'm pretty sure that more often than I would like to know or admit, I take a similar posture towards serving others. An office visitor is viewed as an interruption. A need is looked down on as immaturity. I can see the pettiness in others, but not in myself. In so many ways, I become the one who acts like serving others is the worst thing in the world.

I remember a story Bill Hybel's told (pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago) about being asked to fly to a conference in South America. The only problem was that he was in Africa and didn't have the proper paperwork to go straight to South America. So, when he realized how much time this would take to fly to America, get the documents, get back on a plane and go to South America, he begin to complain. But his friends, who were good with grace and truth, said to him, "We're not asking you to die, Bill. We just want you to watch a few extra movies and eat a few extra meals." Bill said that this statement immediately changed his heart and he took the trip.

So today, I'm reminded that service may not always be my favorite activity, but in this world of pain, abuse, wars, famine, and death, I have been put in an incredibly fortunate position. I think of Iraqi believers who go to church and serve one another week after week, knowing each Sunday they could be gunned down on the way home. I think of missionaries who willingly take their families into hostile countries, knowing they could be imprisoned or tossed out. I think of Mexican believers who willingly and happily sit on pews that I view as junk. And sometimes I just need to say to myself, "Really? Really? Is it really that bad?" Is it really so bad that I have been blessed so much that I have extra to give away? Is it really so bad that God has put me in a vocation where it's my job to shepherd and care for others, and I get paid for it? Is it really so bad that Jesus wants me to be more like Him, and so he asks me to serve?

And I hope that when I ask myself these kinds of questions, my attitude, and my heart will change.

And maybe yours will, too.

Journey on, friend.

Nick

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Gaining Confidence

Hello everyone!

This past weekend at our worship gathering, we discussed what true confidence looks like. It's not outward bravado that hides inner fears and insecurity. Rather, a God-given confidence is inner security about who we are and what we do. In John 8, Jesus has this security because he lived in complete reliance on the Father. No matter how challenging and critical his opposition may have been, Jesus remained confident because he was doing exactly what God had called Him to do.

This message made me think of another historical figure who also displayed this kind of confidence. Had time allowed, I would have used this as an illustration, but I guess that's what a blog is for- all those wonderful thoughts that hit the cutting room floor.

In the late 3rd and early 4th century, a man named Athanasius became an influential leader of the church, serving as the bishop of Alexandria. This church father, known as the black dwarf (and you thought your nickname was bad), would face many trying times in his quest to advance the gospel of Christ. Athanasius led the opposition against Arius, a guy who was trying to standardize the theology that Jesus wasn't really God. Because Arius had the ear of the emperor and Athanasius usually did not, Athanasius would be exiled from his own city no less than 5 times. But Athanasius had confidence- inner security that what he was doing was from God, and so he could not be dissuaded. He continued to champion his God-given convictions, and by the end of his lifetime, the Arian controversy was put to rest and the role of Christ in the Trinity solidified. Athanasius is called the first doctor of the church, and contributed greatly to developing theology of the Trinity and settling the canon (books of the Bible) as we now have them. Had Athanasius lived with only external bravado, our faith might look much different; much less true to the word of God. But Athanasius was led by an inner reliance on the Father that saw him through all the controversy to a point of great influence.

In your life, may you not settle for mere external displays of bravery and courage. May you have true confidence that comes from complete reliance on the Father.

Journey on!

Nick