A Perfectly Designed Tool to Stagnate Your Life With God

If I were someone who wanted to put an obstacle in the way of the life with God of millions of Christians around the globe, I don't think I would work particularly hard at sewing seeds of doubt about Jesus' divinity or his humanity. I don't think I would work too hard at stirring up debates about the Bible nor try to add more heat to the fire of the usual controversies that surround it. I don't think I would try to get people to work too hard to earn God's love and operate as if when they do good things, God's love for them would increase. I don't think I'd try to stir up people's passions for the things that destroy them (the good ol' "deadly sins"). 

No, I think–if my goal were to stagnate the life with God of not just one person, but multitudes––I’d go with something more subtle. It would be something that could suck the life out of people while simultaneously appearing completely socially acceptable even among groups of committed Christians. Rather than working to get Christians to renounce life with God, I think I'd work to get them to embrace something that could keep them from ever making any progress in it. 

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How to Spend a Day Alone with God

A few months ago, I wrote up a brief description for some colleagues with suggestions on how to spend a day alone with God. I'm currently working on the Advent series, and the topic has come up again, so I thought it might be handy to go ahead and have this posted:


When we mention solitude and attempt to commit ourselves to it, a push/pull phenomenon almost always comes into play. We long for time alone with God, but we also resist it at multiple levels. That resistance most often surfaces in the form of thinking that we have too much to do to take a day away, but the real issue(s) are probably deeper than that. Solitude opens up the space for God to deal with things at some of those other levels which we are normally very good at ignoring.

As for details on how to go about this and what to do, please feel free to do it in a way that suits you and your life with your family. The point is to do it, not to do it perfectly.

For example, some people may be able to take a full 24 hour period and get away. Normally, for my wife and me, our day in solitude ends up being the length of a work day so that we can be back home with the kiddos for the evening. Find the length of time that works best for you (as long as it is some actual length of time).

As for the arrangement and content of the day, I would encourage you simply to try not to fill it with much. You’ll want to unplug from technology and be reasonably inaccessible. I find that I can’t spend days like this in my own house, but my wife can. It’s fine to have something to read–certainly some scripture and perhaps one other book, but even these can be twisted into tools we use to avoid God in solitude rather than encounter him, so make use of them as you wish, but without using them to cram full the space in the day that you have opened up for you and God. Journaling is good if it is a habit for you, or even if it feels inviting to you. But the bottom line is that there are no demands on you for this day–just be with God.

You might come away from a day like this encouraged and refreshed, or you might feel plain bored. Don’t be concerned with whether you “did” it well or poorly...the issue is more about having a day in which we let everything else go in order to be with our Friend. You may find it helpful to keep in mind the simple question, “What would God and I like to do together today?”

For years, I wanted to have days like this, but virtually never took them. I felt like they were a luxury and the demands of a life in ministry were too much for me to afford them. In that regard, I was badly educated, or–more likely–self-deceived. Now I view them as an indispensable part of the kind of life and ministry I want to have.

What Does it Take, and is it Worth it?

In 2006, my wife and I moved to Guatemala for a couple of years, largely motivated by the desire to be part of what God was doing in the lives of a bunch of kids at New Life Children's Home. We were at a point in our lives when we were pretty free to make a move like that. We didn’t have kids, we didn’t have any debt, we were finished with school, and when the opportunity came up, we thought, “If we don’t do this now we never will.” Our attention had been grabbed by the good ways that we had seen children's lives impacted at NLCH and we wanted to be a part of it, so we went. Like anyone would, we went into that with such high expectations. And it really was a great experience for us, but it’s almost inevitable that at some point, those high expectations are going to come crashing down with a loud thud, and for us, it didn’t take long. We had been in Guatemala three days when we both got sick, and I mean sick. Intestinal infections, amoebas, the works. Not exactly what we were hoping our first week in Guatemala would be like.

And to add to the situation, we knew that the area around where we were moving to wasn’t the safest place on earth. We felt reasonably confident in our safety on the grounds of the children’s home, but the city it’s in isn’t the kind of place where you want to spend much time out after dark. We were aware of that when we went there, but it’s a very different thing to know it and be okay with it while being in another locale than it is to be there and have trouble falling asleep because of hearing gunfire.

The rubber had met the road for us in that first week in Guatemala. We had paid a high cost to get in on something God was doing in the world. Now- was it really worth it? 

As you can imagine, we were a bit discouraged. I’ll never forget being at our lowest point one morning when one of the missionaries we were working with, who is one of our heroes, came over to check on us. She’s a nurse, so she was keeping us on the road back to health, but she also knew we were just having a hard time. My wife mentioned the gunfire to her, and she made a comment that made me mentally stop in my tracks (even though I certainly wasn’t making any actual tracks because I could barely get out of bed). But here’s what she said: “Yes, I might get gunned down in the streets of Guatemala tomorrow. But following Jesus is worth it.”

Now, let me be clear. She hasn’t been gunned down. No one from the children’s home has ever been gunned down, but she got the point of two of Jesus' shortest parables from Matthew 13:44-46, in which Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven (or what God is up to in the world) to someone who finds a treasure hidden in a field or a merchant who found an incredibly valuable pearl. Both unhesitatingly sell all that they have in order to get the things they'd found.

Our missionary friend was able to say such words because was in on God’s kingdom. She was part of what we pray when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” She was in on something God was doing in the world, and she had found it to be so good that any price that may have come along was worth it.

Being part of what God is doing in the world doesn't necessarily mean that you'll go live in a third-world country. For some, it will mean doing something like that. But what matters more than whether or not you would ever do something like that is how, in our real lives that we're really living right here and now, that you and I can get in on what God is doing, cooperate with it, and help to further it.

What would it take for you to be fully in on what God is doing, and is it worth it?

Superhero Jesus

A friend of mine has a four-year-old named Richard, and apparently Richard recently surprised his Dad by telling him, "I wish I was Jesus." My friend thinks that Richard wants to be Jesus because he thinks Jesus is a superhero with special powers. That's understandable, since four-year-old boys see plenty of stuff about superheroes, then when they're at church, they hear stories about Jesus healing sick people, making dead people come back to life, stopping storms, walking on water, turning a sack lunch into enough food for thousands of people to eat, and coming back from the dead himself. Pretty superhero-ish stuff.

But being a good dad, my friend wanted Richard to understand that Jesus is different from the superheroes on the cartoons. Something about putting Jesus in the same category as Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk seemed too sacrilegious to accept, so my friend told Richard that instead of pretending to be Jesus (like we do with superheroes), he should try to be like Jesus.

But that wasn't good enough for Richard. He responded, "No. I'm just going to pretend to be Jesus and do the cool stuff he did."

I think I'm going to try and see if Richard can preach some weekend soon at our church, because regardless of how much of it he gets as a four-year-old, there's some pretty good theology there. The desire to be like Jesus can take us to some good places in the spiritual life, but it alone can't take us as far as we're meant to go.

Gary Moon helped me realize the difference in a great blog post for Conversations Journal. To translate part of what he wrote there to my experience: My sports hero in high school and college was David Robinson. I really wanted to be like him, and tried to find any ways I could to do so. I played his sport and chose his number 50 to wear with the teams I played for, but that's really about as far as any similarities could be drawn. Anything beyond those things displayed obvious differences: He had huge muscles, was incredibly quick for his size, could seemingly jump over opponents, and led the league in scoring, once scoring 71 points in a single game. I was skin and bones, couldn't run, couldn't jump, and in college averaged double points for the season (as in 2 points per game). But at least I wore his number.

Moon points out similarities and differences between the ways that we imitate our sports heroes (his was John McEnroe) and our imitation of Jesus as Christians. There's an important similarity in that, to be like them, we must imitate their overall everyday lifestyles if we have any hope of being able to do some of the things they did. But then he points out a really important difference: ”There is a distinct advantage for those who want to live like Christ instead of play tennis like McEnroe. Christ will actually step into your flesh (incarnate you) and show you how to play—from the inside out.”

Long ago, I worked hard at being a basketball player. Yet however hard I worked, there certainly was no David Robinson stepping into my flesh and teaching me to play from the inside out. College basketball was evidence to me that I had gone as far as my body would ever take me in the sport. I wanted to be like David Robinson, which certainly helped me toward being a better player, but there was never any David Robinson in me.

Yet at the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the opportunity we are given, in very livable and practical ways, to welcome him into us as we also are welcomed to live in him. There is a lot about this that's a bit mystical and mysterious, but at the same time it's stuff that gets played out in our tangible, everyday lives. If, out of our desire to be like Jesus, we generally order our lives as he did, doing the kinds of things he did in order to become the kind of person he was, the testimony of his best friends through the ages is that we will discover him there right beside us in the process, even in us, teaching us how to live from the inside out.

Then it's no longer just about us wanting to be like Jesus, but it's about Christ in us.

I'm pretty sure that's what Richard was trying to say, in a four-year-old kind of way.

Why We've Had Our Children Baptized as Infants

Infant baptism is one of those issues that can really throw people for a loop. Often, even Christians who practice it have very little idea of why they do so and other groups don't. Those who don't can look (with a jaw-hanging-open kind of look) at those of us who do and wonder, "Why in the world would they ever do such a thing?" Those of us who do can look at those who don't and think, "Let's just make sure baptism doesn't come up in the conversation."

So, this post is not at all an attempt to try to persuade our friends who "don't" that we're right. Rather, incase it does come up in the conversation next time we're with you, it's just an attempt to keep you from feeling the need to drop your jaw open and perhaps you might even think, "They may not be like us, but they're probably not heretics."

My little girl will be baptized on Sunday at the age of seven months, very close to the same age at which our son was baptized a few years ago. This will obviously have nothing to do with anything she has done nor with any decision she has made.

Of all the potential issues surrounding baptism, I think that is both why infant baptism has come to mean so much to me and also why many others are opposed to it.

In a super-generalized way, I think almost all* Christians' views of baptism either fall on one side of that issue or the other, so I'll see if I can briefly give a bit of background on each and address a few common misconceptions.

Before I go any further, it's essential to realize that folks on either side of this can find reasonable support for their beliefs in Scripture. Neither side has thrown the Bible out the window, but rather, both sides have developed their respective practices of baptism in an attempt to be consistent with what we have read there. For the purposes of trying to keep this post to a readable length, I won't attempt to try to go into a full biblical study here. If people's comments indicate that doing so would be helpful, I can attempt it in another post.

Those Who Don't

This may sound odd from someone who has had his children baptized as infants: I really think that those who don't practice infant baptism refrain from doing so for good reasons. Because in the New Testament, we often read of people being baptized after having repented of their sin and as a symbol of leaving their old life behind to be raised to a new life in Christ, to them, baptism is primarily a means of a person declaring publicly that they too have done so.

It's a very significant thing in a person's life to come to that point. They've come to the end of reliance upon themselves, have decided to replace that with reliance upon God and his mercy offered to us through Jesus, and an important part of that is making a public declaration of the decision they have made by doing what individuals in Scriptures did.

As followers of Jesus, this is seen as one of the primary ways that we begin our life of following him, by deciding to come and be "baptized with water for the forgiveness of sins." Although Jesus was sinless, even he submitted himself to this baptism, and therefore we can imitate him by doing so once we have repented and accepted his mercy.

Common Misconceptions from Those Who Don't (Practice Infant Baptism) About Those Who Do

1. Since baptism as described above is essentially connected to a person's experience of repentance, forgiveness, and conversion, it's easy to see why baptizing an infant wouldn't make much sense to them. When they see it done and still interpret baptism through this framework, it can be inferred that the act of baptizing a baby (or anyone too young to make a decision for themselves) is meant to be a substitute for that child's need to come to that point of repentance, forgiveness, and conversion. Some even interpret this as the parents' attempt to determine the child's eternal destiny. (In conversation, this can get confused with the doctrine of Predestination, but that's a whole separate, unrelated issue.)

This couldn't be further from the reality of the beliefs behind infant baptism. As I hope to support below, when our kids are baptized, it's done as a way of recognizing God's faithfulness to them, which- we hope, pray, and strive for- will one day bring them to a point of responding to God's goodness, cooperating with God's love for and work in them, as they repent of their sin, ask for God's forgiveness, and then seek to live new lives in Christ.

Yes, in some parts of church history, there have been groups that have adopted a set of beliefs about baptism such as, "a baptized baby who dies goes to heaven and an unbaptized baby goes to hell." But just because some have done so, let's not throw out the baby with the baptism water... This has never been the majority view among those who practice infant baptism.

2. Sometimes it's assumed that the practice of baptizing infants must be something that came out of the middle ages along with a slew of other misguided Christian-disguised practices (such as paying priests for forgiveness), and that adult/believer's baptism obviously goes all the way back to the New Testament. Yet the reality is that infant baptism has been practiced as far back as we can trace in church history, while believer's baptism didn't emerge until the Anabaptists in the 16th century.

It's somewhat ironic that as heavily as the theology of the Protestant Reformation has influenced most groups who do not practice baptize infants, many of the Reformation heroes (including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli) were strongly among those who do.

3. It's often assumed that "those who don't" are willing to re-baptize people, while "those who do" are unwilling to do so. (This is another super-generalization to which there are plenty of exceptions.) Yet the assumption isn't very accurate. Even though the Anabaptists got their name because it meant they were the ones who re-baptized people, even they disagreed with the name, since any adults they baptized had come to believe that their baptism as infants really didn't mean anything. Therefore, their baptism as adults was the first "real" baptism. Assumably, then if one backslid, that baptism also didn't mean anything and they could come again for their first real deal.

Again, this reflects how the emphasis in baptism of "those who don't" is placed on the person being baptized and the process they have been through.The emphasis for "those who do" is not on the individual and their sincere repentance, but on God, and God's grace and faithfulness. Therefore, whether I backslide after being baptized or not has nothing to say about the validity of my baptism. The only reason "those who do" would ever need to be re-baptized would be if God didn't hold up his end of the covenant and needed to start all over. Hopefully you can see why we're not eager to encourage any means that might lead someone to think that had happened...

4. Both views of this highly value following Christ's example in being baptized, but they differ in what it is about Jesus' baptism that we are to imitate.

For those who don't, it really matters that we imitate Jesus' method of Baptism: that he was an adult when he was baptized, as well as how he was baptized ("he came up out of the water" indicates that he went under, rather than just getting some water on his forehead).

For those who do, Jesus' baptism is equally a model, but the focus is more on imitating Jesus' motive for baptism.  That's not to say that the method doesn't matter, but it can't be the primary focus. The occasion for Jesus' baptism was that John was calling Israel to repent when Jesus was an adult, and therefore he couldn't/wouldn't have had any reason nor opportunity to be baptized as a child. And yes, perhaps he did go all the way under the water, but does that always have to be the case? Even if I try to imitate him by finding a river for my baptism, any rivers within driving distance of where I live certainly don't have enough water in them to cover my 6' 7" frame- even regardless of whether I'm vertical or horizontal.

So, if not the method, what was Jesus' motive? It's safe to say that he wasn't trying to make a public declaration about a process of personal repentance that he had just been through. So what was it that motivated Jesus to go into the water that day? That requires a fuller explanation about...

Those Who Do

Not surprisingly, I also think there are good reasons for having children baptized as infants, and these reasons are fundamentally different from the reasons above. (And, not surprisingly, I'll take a bit more room to explain here.) Obviously when my little girl is baptized this coming Sunday it will not be because she's gone through a sincere process of repentance. It won't be a public declaration of any decisions she has made. She isn't leaving all seven previous months of her life behind and rising to a begin again just over halfway through her first year. She hasn't accepted God's mercy toward her.

So, if her baptism isn't about all of the things that baptism precisely is to so many people, what is it about?

In short, it's about God's grace.

In not-so-short: In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign that someone was a part of the people with whom God had made a covenant. This covenant and practice began with Abraham, to whom God had made the promise, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Those descendants of Abraham that came through his son, Isaac, and Isaac's son, Jacob (who was later given the name Israel) became the Jewish people. Christians believe that this promise God made to Abraham meant that every ethnic group would eventually be blessed through one person who would come from the Jewish people, Jesus, the Messiah/the Christ.

Even from the time of Abraham, God began working through Abraham and his descendants, always staying faithful to his side of the covenant even in the face of their unfaithfulness. Regardless of how often Abraham's descendants turned their backs on the God of their ancestor, trusting in other gods or other things for their welfare, regardless of how immoral those descendants became, completely ignoring the laws of God that they had been given, though at times it was as if God were keeping his marital vows to a persistent harlot (as depicted in the life of the prophet Hosea), regardless of anything that happened... God kept his end of the covenant.

That covenant and all that happened through the course of God's constant faithfulness to a wavering people came to fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.

The moment during the +/- 2,000 years between Abraham and Jesus that came to mark the identity of their people more than any other was when, after being enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, they were led by God from captivity to freedom by passing through the Red Sea.

In Mark's gospel, there is no hint of a Christmas story. Rather, he begins by saying in the first verse, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..." Then, as quickly as verse 2, we see John the Baptist. As quickly as verse 9, Jesus is coming to be baptized. It's as if Mark is telling us that the moment that marks the coming of the Messiah, the fulfillment of God's centuries-old promise to Abraham, is when Jesus comes, along with "all the people of Jerusalem" to be baptized by John. Again, as with Moses and the Exodus, we see God's people [this time even God's Son!] passing through water. As Moses did, he too would lead them into freedom- this time from captivity to their sin.

After Jesus accomplished all that he came to do, his earliest followers quickly recognized that circumcision could no longer be the symbol of entrance into God's covenant people. It no longer had anything to do with genetic lineage or gender. The old covenant was fulfilled in Jesus. How would God's people now be identified? They would begin in the same place Mark says this act of God's work began: in the water, together with all the people following our Messiah from captivity to sin into the freedom of life in Christ.

In the years following Jesus' ascension, the old promise continued to be unveiled before the eyes of Jesus' earliest followers. People from outside the confined reaches of the old, circumcision-represented, covenant, came to be blessed by the Messiah who fulfilled it. And as they responded "they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12), Jews and Gentiles, often along with all the members of their households, which would almost certainly have included children (Acts 16:15, 16:33, 18:8, 1 Cor. 1:16).

When the Israelites passed through the water on their way out of Egypt, no one in the crowd thought it was anything of their own doing. None of them had caused the plagues nor the miracles, particularly for the sea to part for them. God, by his own action (i.e. grace), was liberating them.

When Jesus' first generation of followers passed through the water in baptism, they knew that they had not been liberated by their own doing. None of them had caused the old promises to be fulfilled in the Messiah, particularly for him to be raised from the dead. God, by his own action (i.e. grace), was liberating them.

Many Christians from that time on have had experiences similar to one I had several years ago. I was invited to preach in the church where my family attended when I was born and where I was baptized as an infant. As I stood in the pulpit that day, I looked down at the spot where I would have been baptized. I had no memory of it. I did not choose it for myself. In the +/- 30 years in between the day of my baptism and the day that I stood in that pulpit, I had often turned my back on the God of my parents and grandparents, trusted in other things to satisfy me, completely ignoring the kind of life in Christ that had been offered to me. But that morning, it hit me: Regardless of anything that happened... God kept his end of the covenant.

My baptism was in no way about anything that I had done. No repentance. No decision. It was completely about God's covenant of grace (i.e. his own action of bringing me from captivity to sin into real life in the Messiah), and about God's covenant people- my family and our church- who were promising to model God's ways for me and teach them to me.

There would come a point later in my life when I did repent. I made a decision. But even that was simply a response to how God had always been acting in my life (i.e. grace) in fidelity to the covenant that was part of my baptism as an infant.

My son's baptism was a day he will not remember, though it's one we will never forget, and we will do all we can to help him "know" that day as much as possible. My daughter's baptism will be the same. We will do what followers of Jesus have done as far back in Christian history as we know: We will go with everyone in our church, present our child as one entering into God's covenant people, all dedicate ourselves together to teaching her the ways of life in Jesus, and she will join with millions upon millions of God's people before her and go through the water. Then, when we stop afterward and reflect on it, we will be in awe that this precious little girl, completely dependent and incapable of doing anything for herself, will never, never, never be let down by God. Although it is sure that she will fail, this covenant will never have to be remade, because God will never be unfaithful to her.

The grace of the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the Father of Jesus, and of Peter, Stephen, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Asbury, Edwards... and of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, and of all of my household will never fail my little girl.

Her baptism on Sunday will be outward and visible sign to always remind us of this wondrous reality of God's grace.

* These over-generalizations don't represent all Christians. There are also some Christian groups, such as the Quakers, who do not practice water baptism at all. I also think they have good reasons, but no room for that in this post.

Completely Unhelpful Things to Say to Someone in Grief, Part 4

[This is part of a series of posts on completely unhelpful things to say to someone in grief. See the others here.] In Part 2 of this series of posts, I posted this picture of a Christmas ornament that I thought represented something really unhelpful to say to someone in grief:

This ad for a Christmas ornament was the first time I'd seen those words, but in the months since I've continually seen them in different places. I've seen friends turn to them in support after losing someone, and I've had pastor friends recommend them to those in grief. So I thought I'd revisit that post and explain, while treading lightly, why I think it's completely unhelpful.

Hopefully you haven't been looking through a book of options for verses to print on memorial cards at a funeral home anytime recently, but if you have been the words from the ornament have probably been in there as part of a short poem:

God saw you getting tired and a cure was not to be so he put his arms around you and whispered, "Come to Me"

With tearful eyes we watched you and saw you pass away and although we love you dearly we could not make you stay.

A Golden heart stopped beating hard working hands at rest. God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best

I can understand the sentiment and experience behind it, and don't particularly have any problem with it... until the last two lines: I'm quite sure that God is not in a habit of breaking people's hearts in order to prove to us that he only takes the best. I don't attribute the tumor that took my Dad's life to God, and I certainly don't attribute it to God's desire to prove a point to us, and I absolutely don't attribute it to God's desire to prove a point that he only takes the best.

I would never want to love or trust a God who does things like that. My Dad died of cancer, as did each of his parents, because our bodies- like all of creation- are imperfect and eagerly awaiting the day when God will make all things new. Sickness is a terrible part of life on earth, but one of the reasons for Christ's coming as a human was so that he would defeat death. He destroyed it, and we have to pay attention to the historic Christian belief that the resurrection that brought Jesus from the grave in a renewed, death-defeating body will happen one day in Christ to my Dad and all of us.

That's a much more Biblical understanding than that God was sitting in heaven and decided I needed to learn a lesson, so he implanted a tumor in my Dad's esophagus. The poem says that God took my Dad, breaking our hearts, just to make a point to us? That's a God whose good side I'm going to try to stay on, but from whom I'm going to keep a safe distance. I'll certainly have trouble trusting him trusting him with anything or anyone else meaningful in my life. (Be careful kids, and please don't be one of the best!)

And how could there possibly be any way for it to be true that God "only takes the best"? Who takes the rest? And, sitting at the bedside of my loved one, how could I know the difference? Perhaps getting one of these ornaments as a gift somehow plays a role?

A passage of Scripture that has fascinated me for some time is when John says, "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). Jesus' friend, who saw his miraculous, outstanding life, then saw the worst of things happen to him, others he loved, and surely endured some hard things himself, summarized the entire message of Jesus in this way. Not: "Jesus died for you and you can go to heaven when you die." Not: "Live a holy life so that God will be pleased with you and you can avoid his wrath." No, he said, "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all."

Another way of saying this is: There's nothing bad about God. God is completely and utterly good and trustworthy. God won't deliberately take someone from you (even if they are one of the best) so that you'll have a long-lasting memorable object lesson.

God was always good to my Dad, he continues to be so, and will always be so to every one of us, not least in the day when our bodies and our world will be made new again as the Scriptures say.