Monday, March 27, 2017

Escape to the Suffering Savior

“I can't take much more of this,” I uttered after Heather and I checked out of the emergency room a week ago. I was in the hospital more times than I could count. A dear friend of mine had to have surgery after a part of his body once again failed him. After that, plus multiple visits to the ER and urgent care with my own family members, I was exhausted.

I desired relief. I desired peace. But hard moments continued to come. These ER trips added to a season of significant hardship. The exhaustion gave way to a rushing wave of anger and shame as I was reminded again of the all that I have been wading through. Trauma, broken relationships, unmet expectations, a surrounding culture that seems to hate anything Christian day by day. Add to the indwelling sin that so easily entangles, it feels like each day is another tidal wave coming to sweep me off my feet. I plead to God, pleading that He would at least let me catch my breath.

“Why would you do this to me!? Don't I deserve a reprieve!”

It was about that time that I read this in the book “Experiencing the Trinity,” by Joe Thorn:

As a Christian you can not only expect affliction, but you can also expect a kind that is unique to the people of God. You will suffer for your faith and face many obstacles in following Jesus. And in all of your suffering you are called to look to Jesus in His suffering not only for how it saves you, but also how it guides you.”

How did Jesus suffer? He was mocked and scorned. He was falsely accused, corruptly tried, and unfairly judged. The immortal, everlasting God, was subject to human frailty. And then He underwent His Father's wrath for the sins of all mankind...none of which He committed.

And how did Jesus respond to that suffering? He did not seek retribution against His enemies. He didn't repay an eye for an eye. And He didn't curse God. He trusted Him to the point of death. Why? Because He knew that God's plan to defeat evil, sin, and ultimate suffering would win out.

This challenges my soul. I had a rough week or two. It's been compounded by a rough 10 months. Jesus gave up heaven. He gave up eternal comfort. He paid every cost imaginable. He suffered in every way.

He was tired. He was weary. His friends betrayed him. His enemies slandered and imprisoned Him. His body failed him. His Father judged Him. And He responded in sinless perfection, so we would not have to suffer the same wrath that Jesus took on. He is the one we look to in the midst of suffering.

This doesn't mean we minimize our pain. Far from it. Rather, we ask Jesus to carry our burdens for us. We rest in His loving arms knowing that He is our refuge, our shelter in the midst of pain and hardship. And when things get harder, we plead all the more for help. All the more for relief. And we press in, finding joy in knowing the Savior in the midst of deep trials.

I hope I don't have to visit someone in the hospital again very soon. I hope I can catch up on lost sleep. I hope my relationships will be restored. I plead for God to transform the hearts of those who hate Christianity from dead hearts to ones that live vibrantly. But even if those things don't happen now, I can rest assured knowing God has won. The victory is assured. My suffering is temporary. Because of this, we can move forward in faith. Call out to Jesus, and give Him the burdens and suffering you are carrying.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lessons from a Homeless Man

His name was C.W. It stood for Car Wash, which I'm not sure if he meant as a joke or if that was his actual name. I met him while serving with The Philadelphia Project, a ministry devoted to sharing the Gospel through mercy and meeting the needs of the community. Our ministry has partnered with them over the past couple years for Spring Break, and this year we had the opportunity to make sandwiches and hand them out to the homeless, hoping we could talk with them, feed them, and minister both to their hungry bodies and their even hungrier souls.

Something that stood out to me as I, and a number of students, engaged with C.W. was what he didn't do. He never complained. He wasn't angry at his lot in life. No, he was, at least on the surface, very joyful. It surprised me, that he seemingly had so little, yet in an hour and fifteen minutes of conversation, when I prayed over him, I didn't know what requests he had for me to pray for him. He never told me what I could pray for, other than what he was thankful for.

The second thing that stood out to me was how much he knew. He had a ribbon around his neck; he had won a dance competition when he was younger. As I asked him about it, he started rattling off all kinds of stories, and then shared not only that he could dance, but he could play music too! He knew all sorts of instruments, including a number of woodwinds as well as the drums. He told me about the bands he played with, the dancing he did, and everything in between.

When we went to pray with him, he shared a number of spiritual things with me. Some were good, some not so much. I'm not sure he was a believer. But I was amazed by how much he knew, and how much he had taken in. And as I prayed with him, the Lord worked in me, because I started to consider some things about myself that I hadn't previously.

One was my prejudice towards the “marginalized.” I'm not sure anyone would look at me and call me a man who pre-judges. But as I think about all the times I have walked past a homeless person, very rarely have I considered them an actual person. To me, their identity is homeless. They have always been homeless, and it's probably their fault that they are homeless. But that's not true. While it may be their fault of why they are in the predicamint they are in (partially or fully), it's not everything about them. They may have suffered tragedy or have suffered the sins of others that landed them in their situation. They have stories not just of how they landed where they are, but they have stories about who they are and what they love. They have joys, memories, and dreams.

Second, and what's more, these people are human souls. They are made in the image of God. They are worthy of dignity. And it's our privilege and duty to love our neighbor, whether they live in the rich mansion or are walking the streets. We are called to not show partiality. A soul is a soul.

Third, this man, just like anyone else, needs a savior. And I am not him. Sometimes it's easy for us as privileged people to think it's about us reaching down and rescuing the weak and hopeless. I realized quickly that wasn't the case. In fact, I learned more about myself, and my need for a savior, than anything else in the midst of my interaction with CW. He didn't need my pity. He didn't need my generosity. He and I need the same thing, a savior who can save from both the penalty of sin and the dominion of it.

Consider how you look at people. Who are the people you look at and consider nameless? The ones who you identify only with a word, like 'homeless'? Have you considered lately that they are men and women made in the image of God? That these are the people, much like the bleeding woman in Luke 8 and the Samaritan Woman in John 4, who we often disregard yet Jesus moves towards?

How can you image Christ and move towards the marginalized? How can you think like Jesus and remember that they have the same dignity and value to God that you do?

Lastly, how can we remind ourselves that Jesus became homeless and a wanderer for the very sake of giving us an eternal home and hope? That truth should motivate us to engage all people not only with physical food, but the spiritual food of the Gospel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How to Love a Sports Fan (Or anyone who Loves something you don't)

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law...
(I Corinthians 9:19-20)

The Gospel is the most important message to communicate to people. It is the message that, while we have broken God's heart and are deserving of God's perfect justice and wrath, He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins so we might be reconciled to Him and declared righteous in His sight. It's important to communicate that to our friends who are lost, and it's important to communicate that to one another, because we are never beyond our need for the overwhelming grace of Jesus Christ.

Just don't start sharing about the Gospel on 4th and 1 on what could be a game-altering play. At least not with a passionate fan of the team playing.

Of course, I'm somewhat joking (emphasis on somewhat). We never want to shy away from opportunities to walk through open doors to minister the gospel and point one another to Christ. And sometimes, for those of us who follow Jesus, the call of sports idolatry is a real thing. Sometimes I need to shut off the TV and love my wife, play with my kids, and put their needs before my wants. But sometimes I think we try to force doors open rather than seek to help open those doors through how we relate to people.

I was recently watching a football game that I really was excited about, and invited friends over to watch it with me. And here we were, sitting on the couch, and play after play was another deep, provocative question that had nothing to do with football.

In seeking to serve him, I missed a number of pivotal moments in the game, and rather than including these friends into something I enjoy, it became less of an opportunity to welcome these people into my life, and more of an opportunity to entertain questions that I didn't really want to think about until after the game.

Now, I need to constantly lay down my life. But it gave me a thought. When we are seeking to minister the Gospel, sometimes we put ourselves in this mode of, “I need to ask this person questions all the time, because this will love them.” That may be what you want to do, or it may be what you feel pressured to do. However, sometimes the best way to love a sports fan is not to ask a bunch of questions, even about the game. Instead, it's a great opportunity to enjoy something that is loved by that person.

This is true with anyone we want to love. There is a time for deeper questions. Sometimes it does present itself while a person is sharing their loves with you. Sometimes, we force the issue, and we actually miss an opportunity to actually help open a door to deeper conversation.

With that being said, here are a few ways to love a sports fan:

1. Don't expect a lot of initial conversationThe person wants to watch the game WITH you. They don't want it to be background noise to conversation. To us, it's the main event, much like a long-anticipated movie. It doesn't mean you can't have the occasional thought or question, but also be sensitive to different moments within a game. Timeouts and commercial breaks are good to figure out how serious the fan is, and what they want or don't want to talk about.

2. Don't rely on the other person to explain every aspect of the game In general, I love explaining things about football. So asking questions is good. But answering the same question about why there is a holding call gets hard, or why the uniforms are that color, or... you get the picture. Take five minutes to get a little handle on some of the rules, the teams that are playing, and who the star players are. If someone who knows nothing about football comes to me and says, “I hear that JT Barrett is a pretty good QB,” my excitement to share something that means a lot to me goes through the roof, and trust is instantly built.

3. Let them share their excitement about specific plays, players, or moments that they remember -  Sometimes, we have very specific memories, because we love our team. We can feel like we are part of the team (for good and for bad). Letting us share our memories is not meaningless, you're actually getting to know a part of our soul. It's something the Lord has allowed us to love. Sometimes we love it too much, and there's a conversation for that later. But letting us share about these seemingly meaningless memories actually gives you a picture of some of the great joys and sorrows of being a fan.

4. Marvel when God opens doors to deeper conversation – As trust is built, and as you become a 'sports fan' to another sports fan, it really builds trust to deeper conversation. When Heather waits to talk to me about my frustration until after the game, I'm much more apt to share and confess that I may have been hoping too much in my team. When others take the time to enjoy a pasttime that I've enjoyed for the entirety of my life, it deepens trust to talk about spiritual realities. That's a work of God, and we should marvel when God uses something as trivial as a football game to minister to the soul.

This is true of every passion out there. If someone loves art and music, invest in what they love. If someone loves to cook, be willing to be their assistant for a day. If someone loves coffee houses, go with them to their favorite and try their favorite thing on the menu.

And consider your loves. What are the things that people can do with you that will deepen trust?