Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Is Heaven Really Better than "Infinity War?"

I had just returned from our Spring Break service trip when I fired up my computer. I had been mostly offline, save for a few e-mails and seminary things, and now I was returning to the world. And when I chose to peruse YouTube for a minute just to relax; I saw it. The video I had been waiting for. The new Avengers: Infinity War trailer had dropped. And I lost the next half hour to it.

I spent the next few days watching response videos, combing the interwebs for easter eggs, trying to find any juicy details that had not yet been discovered. As a superhero movie fan, and an even bigger fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was hooked.

What came next was an odd thought: what if I die before it comes out? Or what if, for some reason, I don't get to see it? And then, came a prayer: “Lord, please let me see Infinity War before I die.”

Now, to be clear, I didn't verbalize this; I thought it. To the Lord. And then, I disregarded it for a while. But as we've been studying Exodus for a conference in May, I realized something about my prayer. I often live in two categories. Have a comfortable life, or an uncomfortable life. But there's a third life. A free life. One where I live in light of the fact that the shackles of death have been broken.

In Exodus 12, we see that God has conquered Pharaoh. He has plundered the Egyptians. And he has set the Israelites free. But there's one catch: they must leave in haste. No waiting. Just go. You're free to go and sacrifice to the Lord. Now go.

Of course, they go, only to encounter Pharaoh one last time, and again, God brings them to freedom. But how does that apply to us? We aren't enslaved to Pharaoh or Egypt. Is there anything we are enslaved to?

The answer should be simple: sin and death. Let's focus on the latter part of this, death. Now, this doesn't just mean death in the sense of when we die. It means we live in a fallen world. We live where all good things of God's creation have been corrupted. Suffering, oppression, racism, sickness, evil, it all exists here. And Heaven is where none of that will exist. In fact, in Revelation, God promises that He will wipe away every tear. So... wouldn't Heaven, where perfection will reign and we'll be face to face with the God who loves us, be better than anything this world has to offer? 
Now...that's not to say Infinity War shouldn't be watched – I'll be honest, Lord willing, I'm going to see that movie at least twice in theaters. It's the movie event of my lifetime. And I'll enjoy it thoroughly... unless the Russo brothers, the film's directors, completely botch it. (I highly doubt it)  But, if I never get to see it, will I ultimately miss out? If it's a choice between Infinity War, and Heaven, wouldn't the answer be obvious?

The point isn't that I necessarily have to choose between the two. Rather, the prayer reveals the heart. Most days, I don't think I value the promise of a life spent with Jesus face to face, without suffering, with eternal joy, more than other things. It shows in how often I make the choice to not share my faith, to not pray and spend time with God, and pray prayers like, “please don't take me before...” That's not to say we can't be excited for the events in our lives. Movies are fun. Sporting events are a blast. And beautiful things, like marriage, and the birth of a child, or a monumental birthday, are all great things that God lets us enjoy.

Let us cultivate a heart that longs even more for the great pleasures that are before God Almighty.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Are We Lambs Being Led to Slaughter?

Author's Note: This post has to do with some pretty deep hurts in my life. I talk about people who have left me over the years. If you are reading this, and the Spirit brings to mind that you might be one of those people, please rest assured that I forgive you, and that more importantly Jesus forgives you. And would you forgive me if I have sinned in any way that I have missed?

The first time I encountered Christian community, I was baffled by how sweet it was. People loved me because they loved me. People wanted to get to know me. They didn't care how weird I was or how much I annoyed them. They just wanted me to be there. When I finally became a Christian, one of the thoughts I had was, “I have the best friends ever, and nothing will ever break us apart.”

Fast forward about a dozen years, and the illusion is shattered. While I keep in touch with some of the people from that first group of friends, some of us don't talk much. Others don't like the ministry I work with. Others I don't talk with at all. And it seems that's been the case wherever I've gone. I meet people who genuinely love Jesus, or want to engage Him and seek Him. And I make some great friends. And I lose some along the way.

This isn't a knock on those friends. This isn't a hit piece. Rather, it's insight into a wounded and hurt soul, trying to wrestle with the emotions and understand. You see, my greatest struggle is being abandoned. It's been a theme in my life, one that is often a faulty core belief. It's tied into a line of thinking that goes like this:

Why do people keep leaving me? Have I done something wrong? Is there something fundamentally wrong with who I am? With what I've aligned myself with? There must be something wrong if everyone keeps leaving. I must be unworthy. Who could love me? How could God love me? He also probably looks at me and is ready to walk out too.”

The people in the Roman church once struggled with similar feelings. In Paul's letter to the Roman Church, he asks them a thought-provoking question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

He follows it up with another question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” After that, he lists about every fear possible. Every enemy, condition, or circumstance that could get in the way of Christ's love, followed by a quote from Psalm 44 which says:

For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

If you look further into the psalm he quotes, you see more insight into the attitude of the psalmist.

You have rejected us and disgraced us...”

You have made us the taunt of our neighbors...”

You have broken us in the place of jackels and covered us with the shadow of death.”

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!”

Do you see what's happening? Paul quotes this psalm to a church who has a similar story to mine, and a similar story to the psalmist.

Why are we suffering? Why are we experiencing conflict? Hatred? Famine? Persecution? Execution? Have you abandoned us? Are we just sheep being led to slaughter?!”

NO! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. And he finishes by saying no power, no entity, nothing on earth or in the heavens can separate us from Christ if we have placed our faith in Him. This is incredible. Do you see how this intersects with my story?

Why is everyone walking out on me? God are you going to walk ou...”

NO! JESUS DIED ON YOUR BEHALF! I'm not going anywhere! You are my son, you will never be separated from me, and because of this you are more than a conqueror! And there is nothing that will change that!”

So, Christian. Are we lambs being led to slaughter? Maybe in this life. Maybe we have a life of sorrows. Maybe we experience friends leaving after friends leaving. Maybe we experience legitimate persecution. Maybe we experience extreme loss, or extreme shame. But that is never evidence that God has left us. Jesus is proof of this. So hold claim to the author of our faith, and the giver of Life.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Live in the Father's Presence

I pulled in front of an 18 wheeler with a small concern. My car had been randomly cutting out on me, and I would lose control of the steering and my car would stall. It happened two or three times already, and I was taking it to another mechanic to figure out what exactly was wrong. As I went to turn into the mechanic, I tried turning the wheel only to find it was nearly impossible to turn.

Uh-oh.” I thought.

Thankfully, I was able to pull into the mechanic, my car stopping right in back of another car in the small shop's parking lot. Out of habit, I went in, dropped my keys off, and then started walking home (The mechanic was probably a mile away, so not that far of a walk) when I realized something.

God just happened to allow my car to make it to just the right location, at the right time, so that I would be protected.

Now, for a moment I reasoned with myself. “Come on, Zack. You think that God is in control of every detail of your life?'

Yes I do. And if the God I believe in is true, He absolutely got me to my mechanic safely, rather than being pummeled by an 18 wheeler. How good is our God? A few seconds earlier, at best I'm going to the hospital, and at worst, my wife is a widow.

It's a humble reminder that every detail of my life is in view of our heavenly Father. My thoughts. My words. My actions. My schedule. My work. My rest. My relationships. And most of the time, I live as if He isn't there. Much like getting out of the car and acting like nothing happened, I routinely live life as if it isn't miraculous that God is supporting the very breath that I breathe.

And because of Jesus, I know that the very fact that God is with me always brings such peace. Why, oh why, do I forget?

It's moments like these that remind me to praise God and worship Him throughout the day, knowing that each moment is in His view, and within His control. He is with me both in the good moments, and He stands by me in hard moments. He hears me when I speak to Him, and He knows me when I seek to hide from Him. He is with me as I live, and He will carry me home when I die. Oh would the comforting love of Jesus remind me that God is forever for me, and would it remind me to live life in light of His presence, always.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Never say Never...

When I graduated college, I was convinced I would never set forth in a classroom again. I hated school. I spent 17 years straight taking exams, making projects, writing papers, and reading endless books, and I was done.

Yet, when I felt a call into ministry, the natural question everyone asked was, “Are you going to seminary?”

I hated it. For one, I knew that I didn't want to be a pastor. I had been accepted into DiscipleMakers as a missionary to college students, and I loved the opportunities that I had there, so I started to resent this idea that it would be “better” for me to go to seminary and become a pastor.

Second, I was just tired of schooling. I wanted to be in the “real world.” I didn't want to be stuck in a campus bubble, nor did I want to be stuck in classrooms.

I vowed that I wouldn't go, not because I didn't see value in it, but because I thought everything I could learn, I would by being in the field.

It's been nearly ten years since then, and, much like all other times I've said, “Never will I ever...” God has gotten the last laugh. Starting January 2018, I will take my first class at Westminster Theological Seminary in pursuit of a Masters of Arts in Biblical Counseling. So how did I get from Spring 2008, where I said never, to now, where I'm begging for training?

1. God's Timing: While I trust God will use seminary for my good, and will further equip me, there was a lot of things I needed to learn while not in a classroom. I needed to learn to master and leverage my emotion for good, rather than let it control and consume me. I needed to face my fears of what people thought of me. I needed to crash and burn, and receive grace upon grace from Christ as I sought to learn from my mistakes.

2. Further Humbling: With those mistakes, I learned I knew a lot less than I thought I did, and in turn it made me more receptive to feedback, more patient to jump in with an opinion, and more quick to listen. This was very helpful, because in the past, I needed to prove myself. I had to be correct. And I was quick to defend any point that I had, because I, often wrongly, assumed it was contrary to Gospel. I needed humility to realize that I could learn in any and every situation.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” The past ten years has helped cultivate an attitude (though not a complete one) of wisdom gathering, rather than prideful point-proving.

3. Understanding and Fine-Tuning my Gifts: One of the great things about working in campus ministry, and especially with DiscipleMakers, is that you have to learn so many different skills, even if you're not naturally good at them. But while I've become a far better swiss army knife, I've also learned where the Lord has gifted me over time. I hadn't realized it, but I realized one of my real passions was counseling. I deeply love digging in with people and helping them process the junk they have gone through, and there's some natural giftedness there.

But with that giftedness, I also see just how limited I am in this area. The more I explore and journey with people, the more I realize I'm stuck. Now, part of this is good. I'm not Jesus. I'm not the Holy Spirit. I don't have the power, nor the responsibility, to know just exactly how to access the heart. But I want to know how to be more effective. I want God to use me in ways that would bring miraculous healing to the souls and spirits of those most deeply hurting.

So... with faith in Christ, I'm doing the one thing I vowed I would never do: go to seminary. I might be crazy. I might fail. But I trust that God will use this for my good, and His glory. The fact that I want to go is a start. After all, He is the one that put it on my heart.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Beware the Story you Tell Yourself

In Christopher Nolan's film, “Memento,” Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man who has anterograde amnesia. He can't remember anything for more than a few moments at a time, so he records everything with polaroid pictures and tattoos to retrace his steps. He's looking for a second attacker, who he believes killed his wife and and bludgeoned him to the point of his amnesic condition.

The big reveal, however, is after he kills one of the men who had been helping/using him. What we find out is that days before, this man who had been helping him shared information that exposed he had been using him. Knowing that he would forget this in a matter of moments, he wrote on the back of a polaroid not to trust this man, and tattooed this man's license plate number on himself, leading him to believe that this man was indeed the second attacker. He told himself a story that wasn't true, only to follow it so much that he would believe it as fact and act on it. It resulted in murder.

Stories are really helpful. They help us understand how we interpret life. They entertain us. We long for hopeful, happy endings, and we long to be affirmed and loved. Sadly, many of us have encountered huge bumps on the way to encountering our happy endings. Many of us, in fact, have been mistreated, abandoned, or wronged. The stain on the story can affect us dramatically, and for good reason: it wasn't supposed to be that way.

In Genesis 3, we see the beautiful story of mankind enjoying God in eternal bliss interrupted due to choosing a deceitful serpent's words over the trusting words of God. Beauty became chaos in an instant. And from that moment on, as sin and shame invade our life stories, we tell ourselves stories that are often more lethal and destructive than the bumps and bruises that we've encountered in our own personal stories.

None of us would say we are like Leonard. For one, we don't struggle with amnesia. And certainly, we would never murder someone because we believed a lie about them, right?

Yet, how often do we forget sin, brokenness, and God's sovereignty when we are wounded? How often, when we are busted and bruised, do we seek to destroy with our words? As hurting people, we can let our the stories we believe lead us down a destructive path. Much like Leonard of Memento, our hurt and confusion can lead us to devastating results, all because we reinforced over and over in our minds a story that is untrue.

How do we guard against this?

We remember God's Role: Frequently, God puts us in situations that we wouldn't put ourselves in. He sends Joseph to prison. He allows Satan to take everything away from Job. He sends Israel to exile. He directs Jonah to Ninevah. He places the disciples in the midst of a horrific storm. In all of it, He is seeking to bring about obedience, trust, and sanctification. No thing that happens to us is due to God turning His back, rather He is patiently trying to point our gaze back to Him. He cares far more about our heart than our circumstances.

We speak God's Word: Psalm 73 is a great lesson in this. As the psalmist pours His heart out about how he doesn't understand why the wicked have everything and he has nothing, He draws near to God. He spends time with God. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.” (v. 24) He listens to God's Word, and He speaks it to Himself.

We trust God's Greater Story: In the midst of the stories we tell ourselves, we must tell ourselves a better one. We deserve hell. We deserve wrath. We deserve abject alienation. We hated God. We disowned Him. And God's response is to come Himself and take on that punishment, so that He might reconcile us to Himself. The cross is the most pertinent image of this story, because if the cross is true, and we trust in Jesus' saving power, there is no sin, no action, no thought that can cause God to punish us. He can discipline and allow consequences, He can place us in difficult circumstances and hardships, but they never communicate God's wrath. Rather, they are meant to point us to God's love and mercy, that we might draw nearer to Him. Believe God's Greater Story of the Gospel.