shorter catechism update

Four and a half years ago, I wrote this post and called it my own “shorter catechism.” A catechism is a teaching device based on questions and answers that Christians have long made use of. Back then, I wrote ten of my own questions and answers as a way to succinctly express some of the fundamentals of my (teenage) spirituality.

Since then, my faith has been deeply challenged and bruised. I couldn’t have known then the kind of mental discord and spiritual silence I would have to learn to live with. I’ve often felt far from God and I’ve often doubted his goodness and his existence. You could say that, in a small way, I’ve participated in the spiritual loneliness that Christ himself experienced, along with nearly every other biblical and historical saint.

And yet, God is good. I can say that honestly, if not as boldly as before. There are some hard things you have to believe in order to be a Christian. You have to wrap your mind around eternal destinies. You have believe in Adam and Eve. You have to submit to the idea of authority and hierarchy. Etc. It can hurt, at times.

And yet, I can’t tear myself away from the need for Theos or from the love of Christ on the cross. Those two stakes in the ground keep me standing.

Perhaps if I didn’t feel my need for salvation, it would be easier to live without articulated ideological commitments. In other words, I might be more easily swayed towards agnosticism if not for my deep-seated sense of spiritual and moral hunger, a hunger unsatisfied by my own disappointing efforts at intentional living. Some would call that psychological weakness. Maybe. But conviction of sin is like a light turned on in a dark room, and once that light goes on, everything else feels cowardly and self-deceptive.

Thus, everything I wrote four years ago is still true. I’m still a Christian, because Jesus is still the only one who can save me, and I still know that I need saving. Sometimes I’m growing, sometimes I’m barely holding on–may God have mercy on me. Yet God is greater, and God is good. My trembling grip on him is unfailingly overpowered by his unyielding embrace of me.

So, I’d like to repost that old “shorter catechism” as a testimony to the faithfulness of my Father in preserving my faith through this journey in the Beast’s territory. If you are a person who struggles to believe, I can relate. Reach out to me, and let’s talk about it.

Politics Of Symbols

You’ve got your politics of symbols, I’ve got my ideology,

but I’d like to know you laughing, unanalytically amused.

Remember how it was as kids? Before we knew how bad it was.

We’re wealthy children, grown up too slow.

Ever think what it would be like to be old?

 

You’ve got your social justice campaign, I’ve got my spirit-poverty,

but I wish you knew me boldly, unashamedly in love.

Just like you, I camp out, safe, behind my honesty and insight.

We’re spoiled little kids, ready to impress,

still terrified no one’s gonna call us back.

 

You’ve got your righteous indignation, I’ve got my hard-earned inner peace.

You’ve got your hardened skepticism, I’ve got my battle-won belief.

How strong is my faith in the choir loft?

How strong is your doubt in the fox-hole?

I’ll come downstairs,

if you come outside.

 

5 things the world needs to hear from the church

“The world” means not only institutions and cultures, but every person. “The church” means not only preachers and organizations, but every Christian. The world is full of prejudices and misunderstandings, and the church is full of bad examples and average people without all the answers.

We all could use some clarity.

1. We [Christians] are not interested in collecting converts like trophies on a shelf. If we are talking at you to prove anything to ourselves, our Christian friends, or God, we are completely in the wrong. Christians are under scriptural mandate to respect all people (1 Peter 3:15). We adhere to a biblical, dual anthropology which teaches that, on the one hand, every human being is an image-bearer of God and therefore valuable and honorable, and that, on the other hand, humanity is, comprehensively, morally broken and spiritual bankrupt, Christians included. In other words, we are no better or smarter than anyone else. In fact, we may appear weaker and more foolish (1 Corinthians 1:27), because God wants us to be amazed at him, not ourselves.

The reason we want to talk to you about our faith is that we earnestly believe Jesus is who he said he is and that he really is able to give the joy, peace, answers, and fellowship with God that he offered. We want the world – especially our friends and family, the people we care about most – to hear him out.

2. We care deeply about personal morality, but not for its own sakeThe aim of a Christian’s life is this: to worship God and express love for him by thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting like Jesus Christ. This means much more than behaving like a better person or giving up bad habits for good ones. It is more spiritual and more profound, and more impossibly difficult. Some of us with the right genes could pull off being “good people”; i.e. people with enough morality and likability to please the culture. None of us accomplish Christ-likeness in its fullness before we die. The idea of grace is so important to us for this reason. We want to be like Christ, but we fail miserably, and still, God chooses to love us as if we had succeeded, for Christ’s sake.

This is the tension behind our views on personal morality. The personal conduct of you and me is extremely important because it has to do with the aim and orientation of our lives, and yet is almost trivial when considered in the light of our failure and God’s grace.

3. We actually believe what the Bible says about Judgment Day, the wrath of God, and life after deathWe believe that God, who is exactingly holy, is angry with the world. We do not believe that he is only angry – Jesus taught that God loved the world to the point of sending his Son, Jesus, into it, to save it (John 3:16-17). Yet our scripture teaches that God will not overlook our outrageous disregard and mockery of him, which is the disease of sin that infects both our societies and our personal lives, forever. Soon, God will demand from every human being an exhaustive account of how they lived their lives. On those souls not shielded by the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God will rain down his justice in hell. It will be terrible, and fair.

In a culture of Self and non-accountability, we take this seriously. We want to do whatever we can to help people save themselves from themselves by entrusting their lives and their fates to Christ.

4. We struggle (with depression, anxiety, stress, unhappiness, loneliness, unmet expectations, sexual temptation, doubt, and on and on) as much as everybody, but we believe that Jesus is more real than all of itWe do not fool ourselves into thinking we have it all together or can refute every argument. We understand that Christian belief is hard – the  apostles understood that (Matthew 28:16-17). Our inner turmoil is often intense and our lives are often a mess, like everyone else.

We are also aware that we are not doing everything as we should be doing it, and that very often our words must speak louder than our actions. The difference for the Christian is not his or her own ability to rise above. The difference is faith in a God who transcends us and a Messiah who knows what it is like to be us.

5. What we are staking our lives on is Jesus, especially his death and resurrectionThe death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are even more fundamental to Christian faith than the existence of God or the inerrancy of the Bible. That is, we believe in God and the Bible because Jesus did, and we believe in Jesus because he rose from the dead. At the center, our belief stands or falls with him. Understanding the Bible and dealing with questions about Christianity’s rationality become possible in the context of faith in Jesus.

We believe that intellectually satisfying answers to questions about God and the Bible exist and are accessible. It is true to say, however, that everything we are and believe hangs on one person, and the historical reality of two events. Jesus is the central thing, and we believe that every person must ultimately deal with him.

prayers for the pilgrimage

Christians have long thought of the life of faith as a journey, a pilgrimage. “Walking with God” is one of the Bible’s most frequent metaphors for living in a relationship with him. This walk, the “ancient path” (Jeremiah 6:16), is difficult (Matthew 7:14) but blessed (Psalm 119:1). It is a walk in “newness of life,” opened to us by the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

This journey, like any other, includes a lot of ups and downs. At some of its stages, even putting one foot in front of the other (metaphorically speaking) feels like too much. Sometimes, the detours and byways look so tantalizingly easy and pleasant, and the road of carrying crosses (Luke 9:23) so steep and dark, that to make it through even one day without straying is a battle. Some days it takes everything we’ve got not to give up and turn back.

On those days, or during those seasons, the Word of God truly is the “lamp for our feet,” “the light for our path” that we so desperately need (Psalm 119:105). Seasoned travelers often know the scriptures that have brought them through life’s highs and lows in the past, the ones to which they have returned again and again for reassurance and guidance. These are the scriptures they have prayed so often that the phrases now spring up naturally in their prayers.

I’m at the beginning of my journey, but I know of a few prayers from the “guidebook” to which I repeatedly turn on those days when temptation, trouble, and doubt threaten so fiercely. Perhaps they can help you too.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

In this story from Mark’s Gospel, a father of a mute, convulsive, demon-possessed boy brings his son to Jesus seeking healing, saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies by saying, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father gives the memorable answer above. The footnote in my Bible says that some manuscripts add that he cried out “with tears,” in his desperation. Jesus responds by healing the man’s son in front a large crowd, making the point of his power in spite of weak faith exceedingly clear.

“I believe, help my unbelief” is my prayer too. Jesus’ promise about faith the size of a mustard seed is a promise I must claim (Luke 13:18-19, Luke 17:5-6). I am like this father, desperate, hard pressed for faith but turning to Jesus because I know no one and nothing can help me like he can.

[A Canaanite woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27

In this story, a Canaanite woman pushes through the cultural barriers of race and sex, ignores the ignorance of Jesus’ disciples, and challenges even the apparent reluctance of Jesus himself in her insistence that Jesus heal her daughter. She does not entitle herself to Jesus’ mercy, accepting her status as really being like that of a dog begging for scraps. Instead, she bravely, relentlessly asserts that Jesus’ grace is wide enough even for her. Jesus labels her assertion “great faith.”

When my sin or circumstances make my life look like that of a dog looking for scraps, “Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is my prayer. I will not give up on the grace that has not given up on me. Like this woman, crying out after Jesus, and like Jacob, “wrestling with God,” even when God wounds me, I must simply cling to him and claim the promise of his blessing, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:25-28).

And [Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say… ‘Give us each day our daily bread…’” Luke 11:2-3

“Give us each day our daily bread” is the line at the center of the Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prayer for a lifetime of bread, or even for tomorrow’s bread, but simply for the bread needed today. It is a prayer for grace one day at a time. “Father, give me today’s grace” is my prayer each morning, and I mean it the most when I know what kind of difficulty to expect from the day.

These prayers from the Bible, along with being expressions of what we need, are promises to us from God.

  • “I believe, help my unbelief” is a promise that his power is greater than our doubt.
  • “Even the dogs eat the scraps from your table” is a promise that his mercy is bigger than our mess.
  • “Give us each day our daily bread” is a promise that his grace is enough to get us through each day, one day at a time.

Praying these prayers simply means claiming his promises as our own.

Jesus goes before us on this pilgrimage. He opened the gate, he paved the way, he carried the cross. He will bring us to the finish.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:24

this is my prayer in the desert

The Bible is written in the language of ordinary people, not scholars. It is chock full of pictures and metaphors, not technical jargon. Shepherds and sheep, trees and fruit, soldiers and weapons, bread and wine – all these images resonate with us in far more fundamental ways than complex, unembellished prose ever could. One such image, reoccurring often in the Bible, is that of a desert.

The metaphor of a desert is easy to understand. It is dry and hot, showing few signs of life. Survival is difficult. Everything looks empty.

Mentions of deserts in the Bible often hearken back to the forty years that primitive Israel spent wandering in the Arabian Desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt but before entering Canaan, the land God promised to give them. For four decades, a nation of people lived in tents, without farms, without stability or knowing what to expect from the next day. They lived off of food called manna, provided directly by God, and with particular rules: each day, they could only gather enough manna to feed themselves that day. If they tried to gather food for the next day (except on the day before the Sabbath), all of it would rot and stink (Exodus 16).

When Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread, I suspect he had this story in mind.

Individual human life has its own “desert periods” too, the life of faith not excluded. Our emotions and imaginations go up and down continually. It’s part of being human, part of existing in time. Sometimes in the Christian life, God feels close and life makes sense. Faith and obedience still may not be easy, but love for God, people, and life feels right and comes spontaneously. These times are blessings from God and ought to be relished. They do not last forever, however.

“Wandering in the desert” is just as much a part of the life of faith as “flourishing in the promised land” is. Many Psalms testify to this, two of my favorites being Psalms 42 and 43, which may be read as one continuous prayer.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?” Psalm 42:1-3

Three times in his prayer the psalmist asks himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” This prayer is achingly expressive for anyone who knows of life in the desert, life when God feels far away. And yet, the psalm is full of hope and full of faith. Three times he answers himself, saying “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” The centerpiece of the poem comes when the psalmist declares, using God’s personal name, Yahweh (Jehovah):

By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:8

As usual in the Bible, God turns our expectations upside-down. Consider what Peter writes in his first epistle:
In this [in being born again to a living hope; in receiving an imperishable inheritance] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:3-7

It is in the desert, in trials and persecution, in suffering and loneliness, that a faith “more precious than gold” results, all to the glory of God – which, amazingly, believers will participate in – when Jesus returns. In one of my favorite C. S. Lewis books, “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis says this, in the voice of a devil instructing his junior apprentice in the fiendish ways of leading humanity astray: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

That’s when the Christian becomes dangerous to evil, dangerous to distrust, dangerous to self-reliance. That’s when our prayer for daily bread, for the day by day physical and spiritual sustenance from God, becomes real. That’s when our joy becomes “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) because it is founded on nothing else than the amazing sufficiency of God to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

This is my prayer in the desert
When all that’s within me feels dry
This is my prayer in my hunger and need
My God is the God who provides
Desert Song by Hillsong

repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.