Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"He is my Prize..." Sometimes

This is going to be short and sweet... but as I think about David Crowder's song How He Loves, I'm often captivated by the lyric "And we are His portion and He is our prize."  It's so beautiful, because it reminds us that the greatest thing we can pursue is God Himself.  However, I went through the day yesterday (and this happens most days) where God was clearly NOT the prize I was pursuing.  I pursue people so they like me, I pursue possessions to make me feel better, I pursue food to comfort me.  Last night in particular, I couldn't stop eating... I felt like a 16 year old garbage disposal all over again.  Then the guilt set in,  "I'm going to get fat!  No!  Not again!  I did so much to lose this weight!" 

I was convicted, but also reminded of a great truth about worship songs.  Worship songs aren't necessarily speaking about what we do now, but what God is transforming us for.  There's a fun video on youtube right now, about how we really don't mean what we sing.  I'd say it's really true, when we sing "I could sing of your love forever," normally I'm thinking, "I can sing until I get hungry for lunch."  This can be seen as really bad, OR, we can praise God that He one day will orient our hearts to sing solely about Himself.  He WILL bring us to completion in Christ.  It's a concrete fact.  "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."  (Phil. 1:6)  So is Christ my ultimate prize?  Yes!  I am a new creation (II Cor. 5:17).  But I will not be completely there, 24/7 until we get to Heaven.  And neither will anyone else.  Until then, I'll keep singing that lyric, along with the ones from the song 'Forever Reign,' (I'm running to your arms, my heart will sing no other name) not because that's completely true now, but knowing that God will one day completely orient my heart to do that.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Defining Escapism Biblically

I was out for coffee with my friend and co-worker Joel this past summer, and we were talking about what God had been up to in our lives.  I was having a particularly rough couple of months, where I felt pretty discouraged about most of life.  My walk with the Lord felt distant, finances were tight, I felt fairly useless at ministry, and on many occasions felt like I was a terrible husband.  I did anything I could to ease the pain, so I'd sink into many different ways to escape the pain.  TV, movies, sports, food, daydreaming, writing fan fiction, video gaming, work, financial planning, and more.  I didn't need a conversation with Joel to understand that I was trying to escape the pain I was feeling by using things, particularly entertainment, that weren't good enough. 

Escapism is a fairly new term (at least that I have experienced) in the realm of Christianity, but it's quickly picking up steam.  Essentially, it's what I just described: actions motivated to medicate the pain of life.  It's a 'way out' of the curse of life, whether it's personal sin, people who have sinned against you, or just awful circumstances.  And, as technology and media advance, there are millions of ways to medicate.  Instead of having to go out and buy a movie for 15 dollars, you can substitute it for free streaming of youtube.  It may not be sophisticated stuff, but you can certainly get loads of laughs in a short amount of time!   However, it doesn't work in the long haul.  I'm convinced that escapism is like a gateway drug, it gets us away from depending on the Lord and puts the ball in our court to be satisfied.  And all we find are cheap two-minute youtube videos, cheap imitations of sex, and cheap virtual representations of our lives. 

Now, notice that the problem is NOT the activities.  Aside from a couple of the items listed (for instance, I just implied pornography, which certainly is sin), most of these things aren't inherently sinful.  Youtube is not inherently sin, nor are movies, TV, sports, video games, fan fiction, video games, etc.  For the most part, these things in of themselves aren't the problem! It's the motivation behind it.  In fact, they can be used to glorify God!  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."  (I Corinthians 10:31)

So, if those things aren't necessarily sin on their own, what was wrong?  What's so bad about escaping pain anyway?  Well, that brings us back to the conversation with Joel.  As we sat at Starbucks, he asked me the question, "How can you define this biblically?"  It was a great question, and quite honestly I drew a blank.  I had been using the term escapism all this time, and the only time I could actually think about how escaping was used in the scriptures, my mind went directly to David escaping from his enemies in I Samuel, and that was clearly not a problem in God's sight.  However, as we continued to think about scriptures, we realized the root of the problem.  "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things."  (Romans 1:18-23)

To put it in our context, it means this:
- We escape the truth of our sin, life's brokenness, and our deep need for a savior by suppressing the truth that we actually need Jesus to redeem us and make us new.  (v. 18)
- We suppress the truth despite the fact that we know it fully, because God made it very clear to us since the creation of the world (vs. 19-20)
- We actively choose to not honor God or give thanks to Him in the midst of our circumstances (v. 21)
- We easily settle for far less (vs. 22-23)

To wrap up what this means for us, essentially it means that we actively sin against God when we run to other things to 'medicate' our emotional pain.  As we choose that self-medication, we actively curse God, despite the fact that we may say or think nothing of the like. I'm convicted even as I type this, because I know that I have chosen to suppress the truth even today, by daydreaming, thinking I'm awesome and that I can be a hero to others, instead of remembering that I am one of the many that needed to be rescued by Jesus, and that without Him I am nothing but a wretched sinner. 

How does the Gospel Apply? Well, if you're reading this and you realize that you're in the same boat, don't be upset that you struggle with it.  Instead, thank God, because you see your need for Him, rather than suppressing the truth!  The fact that you can even consider Jesus in this means that God is working in your life to bring about restoration! It also means that we are called to give up all escapes!  This doesn't mean we need to give up movie watching, TV, etc.  But it does mean we need to constantly check our hearts and their motivations.  An example of this is me checking my heart as I write this blog.  Early on in the process of this, I've noticed how much I want attention from people, and the more likes on facebook I get for the blog, the more excited I am because in my heart of hearts it makes me think I'm more awesome than I thought I was before!  I often believe that if I get a lot of hits and people following the blog, it means that I'm awesome.  But that's clearly not the case.  I'm not great, but Jesus is the Greatest.  This goes for anything else that we use.  Most things can be used to bring God glory, or used as an attempt to suppress the truth.  What's your motivation?  Is it Christ?  Or are you escaping?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jesus and JoePa

The first point of writing this blog is to make Jesus known.  It's the point of my life, and of any Christian's life.  But as a sports fan, it's easy to look at the passing of a giant such as Joe Paterno and come up with all the cliches that you can think.  I grew up a Buckeyes fan, so there were three legendary coaches that you always thought of when you thought of the current Big Ten: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and Paterno.  Woody died before I could remember, Bo died the day before the 'game of the century' back in 2006 (but I had never seen him coach), and Joe.  For a long time, I never thought I would see the end of his career, let alone the end of his life.

The problem with that for me is two-fold: 1.  I've met this man personally.  2. I personally see the effect, of both the scandal that has muddied his reputation and his subsequent death, on the people I regularly see and minister to.

Problem # 1:  This man wasn't just some legendary coach that I revered.  He's a man that lived maybe 500 feet from me the past few months.  I pass his house at least twice a week walking to Penn State's main campus.  In other words, he wasn't an immovable object, but a fragile person in need of love, just like the rest of us.  He was friendly and kind, the time I met him was when we crossed each others paths right near his house.  He had just been getting home from practice.  I didn't want to disturb him because his wife was just coming out to greet him, but it was he who greeted me, his face lit up to greet a new face.  I passed by just saying hi back, and saying good luck to him.  Though it wasn't much of a meeting, it was a reminder that he wasn't some untouchable hero that I could never be in the presence of, but was simply a man who loved his job, loved the community he was a part of, and cared for his family.

Problem # 2:  It was two days after Heather and my 2nd wedding anniversary when Joe was fired.  A scandal which involves so many people and still has so much hidden claimed many reputations, but being in the trenches was where I saw the real damage.  We talk about the victims of Jerry Sandusky, and how unforgivable it is, and many speak of how Joe was irresponsible, but the fact was the whole situation was much worse than that.  You see, what I saw (and had expected, considering how I reacted to the Jim Tressel scandal), was that many had made an idol of Joe, Penn State Football, and "doing it the honorable way."  Being a part of Penn State and being a part of 'Joe's way' were good things.  The problem was we depended on them to be something they weren't.  Many of us expected Joe to be a savior, rather than expecting him to need a savior.  We escaped to Joe Paternoism, or Penn Stateism, and we're paying the price.  His reputation was dragged through the mud up until the point of his death.  I find it sadly ironic that there were false reports of his death, and then 'resurrection,' only for him to pass around 9:30 this morning for real.  I could talk about the fallenness of the media not being responsible, or the sadness surrounding the community, or even about the extremes of reactions and how both sides are probably going too far.  But that would be missing the point.

The main point is that we looked to put our faith in someone other than Jesus, and neither he or we could stand it.  Ok, I'll admit I never put my faith in Joe.  But I did in Jim Tressel (another head coach I've met, and will always have a high opinion of regardless of the recent scandal).  Others have done it in players, musicians, teams, countries, etc.  and they all have crumbled under the pressure of savior status.  They weren't made for that.  Jesus, on the other hand, was.

"Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart O daughter of Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.  The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil."  Zephaniah 3:14-15

These verses are staggering, because we are called to sing and rejoice over what God has done for us, and the fact that He has placed Himself in our midst.  However, these next verses are also staggering:

"And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And many shall stumble on it.  They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken."  Isaiah 8:14-15

Jesus is meant to bring people into a great sanctuary, but He also serves as a stumbling block for those who run after other things as their refuge.  Joe was a legendary football coach, a family man, a friend too many, and supposedly devout in his Catholic faith.  But he was a man.  He was fallible.  Though we don't have all the facts, even if we could be sure that even if he was in the clear from the Sandusky scandal, he was still not meant to be the savior we wanted him to be.  How do we know?  Because he died.  He, on his own, couldn't defeat sin and death.  And whether it be the scandal or his death, many have not just been let down, but crushed and defeated because of the deconstruction of this man.

However, there is tremendous hope in the Gospel of Christ.  Here are a few things that stick out to me:

1.  This whole situation points to the fact that our way of life is broken.  From the sexual abuse victims, to the way Joe Paterno was treated by the Board of Trustees, to the seeming lack of credibility from the internal investigation, there is just so much wrong with the situation.  However, Revelation talks about the fact that in the life to come, there will be no curse.  Sin will be defeated.  There won't be scandals.  There won't be faulty news reports.  Children will not be abused.  Lies won't be covered up.  People won't be let down.  Our true leader and King will lead perfectly.  And we'll have a Savior who is truly infallible.

2.  We can remember the good that Joe did, and see the image of Christ in his life.  He gave of himself to generations of students.  He gave generously to the cause of education.  He lived modestly.  He pursued excellence both on and off the football field.  These all are admirable things, and point to a greater man who gave Himself to his disciples by living with them for three years, gave generously by giving His life for the cause of salvation, lived so modestly that He gave up living in the greatest Kingdom for 33 years so He could live without a place to lay His head (Matthew 8:20), and lived not only excellently but perfectly so that others could be seen as perfect.

3.  We see that Jesus, and not a good male role model, is who we truly need.  Though our Penn State Community should mourn the loss of a great man in Joe, by no means should our lives be lived through "Joe Pa is Penn State," or "what would Joe Pa do?"  We don't need to think through how Joe would make a decision.  We need to invest ourselves into Jesus, and particularly His Word, to fulfill our greatest needs, and to live righteously through Christ.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why I'm writing this blog

Welcome to the blog, Escaping Escapism: Finding True Refuge in Jesus.  You might be asking why I'm writing this.  There are several reasons, but here are some of the primary ones.

1.  A desire to make Jesus known:  Whether you're a Christian or not, there is one thing that matters most in this, and that Jesus is made known.  I want to make Him known because He is the greatest refuge we could ever have.  He is greater than marriage, sex, friends, food, football, video games, laughter, alcohol, drugs, roller coasters, money, etc.  A life with Jesus isn't easy, but it's fulfilling, satisfying, and I want you to share the one that gives me most joy.

2.  A desire to make our escapes aware:  The term 'escapism' isn't used in scripture.  But Romans 1:18 states, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."  Escapism tends to lend itself to suppressing the truth, or lying to ourselves, about who we really are.  We create ourselves as the best player in Madden so we can rack up amazing stats because we aren't great at football in real life.  We dream about ourselves as heroes that love us for our sacrificial efforts, because we aren't truly sacrificial.  We lose ourselves in entertainment so we don't have to face the realities of pain, suffering, and sin of this fallen world.  We eat for comfort, we overexercise to maintain certain shape, all of these things often have one purpose: to help us avoid the truth that we are wretched, horrible, sinful people in need of a perfect savior.

3.  A desire to encourage true refuge:  These escapes lead to a false refuge.  In other words, they make us feel better for a short time, but they really set us up for long-term failure.  If anyone has ever gone through a 12 hour gaming session, sure it feels great in the short term, but don't you feel more tired the next day?  Pornography promises excitement, thrill, and pleasure, but leaves you feeling empty and dirty over the long haul.  Overeating tastes great until you can't hardly move an hour later.  Or there's the added 10 pounds a few weeks (or days) later.  Jesus is our true refuge.  However, He is the one who exposes us for who we really are (Isaiah 8:14, Hebrews 4:11-13).  To truly be comforted, we must be willing to expose our sin into the light (1 John 1), so that Jesus can give us true comfort that despite our gross failures, He died for us at our worst (Romans 5:8).  Despite our badness, our failures, our hopelessness, Jesus's death provides true hope, that a perfect, all powerful, all knowing God who sees us for who we really are, actually LOVES us and projects Jesus' perfection onto us.

In short, if you struggle with suppressing the truth about yourself, or are prone to escapism (if you're human, you probably do.) than I hope you find this encouraging and helpful in your walk with Christ.  Feel free to ask any questions... I might have answers, or I might just have the same question that you do, because I am a recovering Escapism junkie, but Jesus has me on the road to recovery by trusting in Him!  And if you're in Christ, you are on the road to recovery too!

Special Thanks to:
Heather Gugenheim, my awesome wife who points me to Jesus constantly!  (And, she created the cover art for the blog on the facebook page!  What a woman! :-D )
Andy Cimbala, who's own fight against sin, and his idea of blogging to encourage and equip others with the gospel of Christ, has been an incredible motivator for me.

There are plenty more special thanks to go around, but that's a start.  Thanks for reading!

In His Grace,