Monday, October 13, 2014

Who am I? Identity and Idolatry

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Look around you and you will see a world in search of identity. Each of us carries within us a fundamental need to have significance in the universe ... some existential impact greater than the collection of chemicals that makes up our human form.

This need was actually one of the first forces I remember that drove me out of my adolescent agnosticism toward a search for deeper truths. Evan as my public school teachers taught me that my life was little more than a cosmic accident--and even as I accepted it at first--I eventually ran up against a problem that their science books could not begin to resolve.

What made me ... me?
Why do I have an individual consciousness, and why is that consciousness wrapped up in this particular body? Why was I not someone else, or indeed something else? Why was I born into this life, and not that of, say, Phil Collins? Or Phil Mickelson? Or King Philip or Dr. Phil or even Punxsutawney Phil for that matter?

I was trying to understand the existence of my soul. I was trying to figure out if I was more than just a random assortment of cells passing through the galaxy on its way to oblivion.

I think in many ways I still struggle along this quest for meaning, and as I look around me, it's clear I'm not alone.

We seek to address our identity hunger in a host of ways. Think back to high school, when each of us searched incessantly for our place. Even where we didn't quite fit in, we made an identity (and established relationships) based on this nonconformity. Why? We wanted the comfort of friendship, sure, but we also wanted to find some environment where we could feel significant, even if this was within a very small circle. We changed our clothes and our speech and our hobbies so that we could find some sense of reality in which we were recognized by someone--even ourselves--as important.

News flash ... that quest didn't stop after high school.  It just became more sophisticated.

Well, that is, for most of us.

As we get older, most of us continue to pursue our quests in more subtle ways. We find something we're good at or a group that accepts and validates us. Perhaps we identify ourselves by our careers, or our family connections, or our sports loyalties. Maybe we come up with some obscure online identity, perhaps even complete with a clever cartoon character, that ... well ...

Um, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Is there?

Seriously, there can be, and this brings us to where the danger lies. The quest for identity can lead us into some idolatrous and ultimately soul-killing places. This is how young men utterly lose themselves in online pornography or gaming; or how mothers selfishly obsess over their children's successes and failures; or how middle-aged professionals attempt to squeeze life out of their careers.

In extreme cases, it leads even the most outwardly successful people into excess and despair and self-destructive behaviors, to include suicide.

The fact is, significance is a hard-wired psychic need--part of our true nature as bearers of God's image. Each of us will each seek to fill it in our own way, because we simply must. The question is, will this quest move us toward the God who gives ultimate meaning and eternal purpose and true identity, or will it move us into an outwardly attractive but ultimately hollow counterfeit?

It is only by seeking God that I find an identity worth investing my life in.

In Psalm 139, David, despite being Israel's greatest king, discovers how an authentic quest for God leads him to discover his true self, and to find great comfort and satisfaction there.
For you formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
   my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
   when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
   in your book were written, every one of them,
   the days that were formed for me,
   when as yet there was none of them.
This is also why David's son, who for a time appeared to have eclipsed even his father in temporal greatness, discovers that his pursuit of life's temporal satisfactions left him only with the crushing conclusion that they were all meaningless--a mere "chasing after the wind"--that left his soul barren.

This is also what my friend Sharon discovered, and why she later wrote this:
... I find I am finally content in knowing this simple truth: I am a child of God, and I am saved by His grace. I can say it now: I am ready to die ... which means now I can truly live.
Idolatry takes many forms, but the self-idolatry of identity is perhaps among the most insidious. It takes us captive and teaches us to try to squeeze a little temporal life out of that which is dying, rather than to find life eternal in Him who is by nature eternal.

Who am I truly? Dare I say it?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Foremost of Sinners

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. -- Acts 2:42-47
Much has been said--some of it by me--about why today's church seems so depressingly distant from the ideal of Acts 2. She has strayed from sound doctrine, from prayerfulness, from belief in the God of Wonders, from true generosity, from disciplemaking. In fact, none of these critiques seems entirely unfair. The church seems to be on her heels and falling backwards.

Yet as I get older and (maybe) a little wiser, I find myself faced with simpler and more personal truths:

I am the problem.

I increasingly find it difficult to point a finger at the church's failings without seeing those remaining fingers pointing back at myself. An honest assessment of the way I spend my days and my energy returns me to this galling fact: I am much too highly committed to fulfilling my appetites.

Sure, maybe I have cleaned these up over the decades to make them more publicly "acceptable" among the brethren. Still, the bottom line remains that by most objective measures (i.e., how I spend my time and energies), I am far more interested in my own comfort and near-term gratification than I am with God's glory, His gospel, or His children.

God sits on the throne of my life, yet I can't find time for His people or His priorities. I stand by His grace before a dying world in need of that same grace. He has rescued me from destruction and despair, invited me into His holy presence, and entrusted me with the most noble and amazing of missions--the salvation of my neighbor's eternal soul.

But I can't be bothered, because I've got stuff to do.

So where does that leave me?

In desperate, daily need of mercy.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. -- 1 Timothy 1:15

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Our True and Proper Worship

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

This blog has had much to say on the topic of corporate worship.  Some of these posts have sparked a degree of consternation among the brethren, for many of whom the new, "contemporary" conventions have rapidly become as sacrosanct as the old "traditional" ones once were.

These discussions are important, because it is vital to know what exactly we are seeking to accomplish when we come together as a body.  It would be foolish to hand-wave the issues away under an easy cliche of "freedom", for if we accept that worship is truly about God, we must also believe He has something to say about the matter:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Yet the intensity of the debate over style and methods can turn the very idea of worship into a caricature, wherein certain high-profile aspects are further exaggerated and distorted.  When this happens, other crucial features are lost.

For example, for many of us the de facto definition of the word has devolved into a corporate activity that takes place between roughly 10:30 and noon on a Sunday morning.  But even this may be too broad ... perhaps for many of us, "worship" has basically come to mean that part of the service involving music.

Nobody would admit to such a narrow definition as this, of course.  But honestly, if we were to word-cloud of our normal language patterns about worship, what would really stand out?  "Service"?  "Liturgical"?  "Contemporary"?  "Team"?  "Band"?

Perhaps we need to take the entire line back to formula and ask the fundamental question:  What exactly is "worship"?

Well, let's start with this:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Romans 12:1-2)
In his Readings on St. John's Gospel, Archbishop William Temple unpacked a definition of worship along these lines that is as magnificently poetic as it is mind-blowing:
Worship is a submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. 
Now that's a pretty tall order for any pastor or worship team!  But of course that's the point, isn't it?  There is no ecclesiastical figure or institution created under the sun that can produce in its congregants this kind of whole-life surrender within the span of three praise songs or a 90-minute service.  Or as John Frame makes clear in his book, Worship in Spirit and Truth:
Redemption is the means; worship is the goal. In one sense, worship is the whole point of everything. It is the purpose of history, the goal of the whole Christian story. Worship is not one segment of the Christian life among others. Worship is the entire Christian life, seen as a priestly offering to God. And when we meet together as a church, our time of worship is not merely a preliminary to something else; rather, it is the whole point of our existence as the body of Christ.
I really like this definition, with one caveat:  our congregational worship is certainly not merely "preliminary", but nor is it the "whole point".  Our corporate worship is an essential expression of the all-consuming "priestly offering" that is to mark our entire worshipful existence before the face of God.  When we come together on the Lord's Day to worship our risen Savior, it ought to be the culminating event of one week and preparation for the next, each moment of which is then to be spent in God-glorifying obedience ... which is itself our "true and proper worship".

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Those Who Mourn

Location: Da Nang, Thanh KhĂȘ, Da Nang, Vietnam
Recently I have been blessed and challenged through a series of conversations with someone who is not a Christian, but who has patiently and attentively heard my testimony about Jesus, and why I follow Him.  Our talks have ranged a number of issues:  social, cultural, philosophical, theological, and personal.  Perhaps more importantly, they have involved a series of interconnected vignettes about my Savior and me.

Because my friend did not grow up around Christians, I have had to consciously abandon my assumptions about what people understand about Christ and His gospel.  This has been good for me, since such assumptions are generally wrong anyway.  Even more personally, carefully explaining how my belief forms the basis for my life, thought, and principles has been refreshing, insofar as it has also helped me to recognize in a new way how integrally such core principles as love, grace, devotion, purity, loyalty, sacrifice, etc. spring from the seed of simple faith in the Author of my salvation.

At the same time, these conversations have laid bare the deeper loneliness of the Christian's peculiarity.  My friend, who is much younger than I, appears to respect my faith and admire my family, while at the same time seeing me as an anachronism:  a nice man with some old-fashioned and outdated ideas.  While this is an improvement over, say, a perception of cold judgmentalism, it still leaves me sad ... and my friend yet lost.

This is a hard form of evangelism, because it requires sincerely caring for someone who may simply never respond to faith with faith.  It is so much easier, for example, to go "street witnessing" with friends among people you will likely never see again, and for whom you feel little real compassion.  When I share the gospel with someone I honestly care for, I then have to honestly feel the pain of their rejection, or at least their ambivalence.

At the same time, I think I have come to appreciate the value of sorrow in my life, insofar as it reawakens my soul.  Ministry is--in essence and with rare exception--loving and giving to those who will not respond in equal measure. The pain of that reality must be felt, lest we become cold and calloused.  The pain of gospel ministry ought to drive us further into gospel dependence on our Savior, but it cannot do so if we refuse to experience it.