Monday, April 24, 2017

The Greatest Treasure

I was in Minneapolis for a pastor's conference in January, and one of my favorite preachers and authors, John Piper, was set to preach. I was very excited. His influence through his writing and preaching has impacted me ever since coming to Christ, and I was going to have the opportunity to hear him preach live.

He came to the podium for the first main session, began to speak, and for the next 45 minutes, I heard a very forgettable sermon. In fact, it was so forgettable, I don't remember the text he preached from, nor do I remember the main point. I don't even remember sub-points.

I was surprised. As a growing preacher, the key things I always make sure to do is go back to the text, have a clear main point, have a clear flow of thought, clear sub-points, etc. And here was a preaching veteran, and I couldn't remember any of them.

Now, the point of this isn't to tear John Piper down. In fact, the most memorable moment of the conference came from that very talk. It was John Piper's joy itself. He spoke about God and His Glory, His Gospel, His Godness, His Holiness, and Piper was awestruck. He loved God. He treasured God. So much so that I could hear it in how his voice changed, how his eyes watered, and how his face brightened when he spoke about Him.

He wasn't here solely to tell pastors how to do their job. He wanted them to be refreshed by the most beautiful and woundrous entity, the one who is everlasting hope and joy.

I shouldn't have been surprised. His book “Desiring God” is devoted to the idea that the chief end of man is to love God and ENJOY Him forever. But it was a sight to see Piper genuinely reflecting his true treasure. It made me wonder, how often do I stop at theology and doctrine without allowing it to impact my soul?

How often do I read my bible, pray, or do evangelism and discipleship because I treasure Christ?

How often is my goal to get people believing the right things, without pointing them to the pleasure of knowing the right person?

The great thing about Piper is that he loves good doctrine. He loves the bible. He loves the mission that God has given us. But that's all driven by his passion to love Christ more than all other things. It drives his study, his preaching, his prayer life.

To be clear, his passion is not driven solely be emotion. I believe it's driven by priority. The priority of spending time with God, of learning about God, communing with God, giving things up for God, because He is worth it.

Where is our treasure? Is it in God? Or in what we can get from Him? Do we treasure being right? Do we treasure possessions? Or do we treasure our creator, savior, and redeemer?

Start with what you truly believe. Do you believe God is your greatest source of joy? Are you cultivating that joy with reading God's Word and prayer? Are you serving Him by sharing the Gospel with others and making disciples? Are you giving faithfully and cheerfully to God's Mission?

Treasure Christ. Treasure Him above all else. Treasure Him with your mind. Treasure Him with your heart. Treasure Him with your actions.

He is our great joy, our greatest reward. Are you missing out?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Do We Hate Grief?

Twelve percent. That was the Rotten Tomatoes score that the movie “Collateral Beauty” received. Of course, I found that out after I spent my $1.59 to rent the movie so my wife and I could watch it. “How on earth could a movie with Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly, Kate Winslet, and Edward Norton score that low?” I pondered. Those aren't just good actors, they are the best of the best!

After we watched it, I could some of the reasoning behind its low score. The story and dialogue weren't great. It was clogged with too many characters, each with their own deep struggles, and yet it was a fairly sappy and predictable. And, while the actors are GREAT actors, the writing doesn't aid Winslet or Norton in their performances. In fact, a good majority of the film feels pretty forced. Despite this, I still don't understand how this movie received one-fourth of the positive rating that Power Rangers got (I say that both as a Power Rangers fan, and as someone who LOVED the movie).

Then, I wondered if part of the struggle was not solely in its cinematic elements, but the content itself. The plot follows Howard (Will Smith), who was a charismatic advertising executive that lost all zeal for life after his six-year-old daughter died. His friends and co-workers (Norton, Winslet, and Michael Pena) are concerned that they may lose their jobs, and on the surface, seem selfishly motivated to get Howard to lose his voting share. They then hire an “acting group” (there's a not so subtle twist) to help him process and hopefully be back in his right mind to lead their company. They pose as Love, Time, and Death, three characters that Howard wrote to in the beginning of the film, and as they come to Howard, they help chink away at the deep suffering he had held within himself for three years.

Part of the story, however, comes when each of these “actors” engage the three friends, revealing that they all are also wrestling with forms of suffering. A father doesn't know how to engage his estranged daughter. An older, single woman feels like she's running out of time to have children. And a family man with a newborn finds out he has terminal cancer. Love. Time. Death. Predictably, they are changed by their encounters with each actor's portrayal of those three things. Unpredictably, I was moved by all three to the point of tears. More on them later.

While the movie could easily be accused of being too simplistic in how it handles grief, I considered a counter-point. Grief is so complex and hard, that we often don't know how to handle it. So we don't. We pour ourselves into other things. We say all the right things. We ignore the pain by numbing ourselves with sin and escapes, we hide our weakness and seek to cover it with insufficient coverings. I might even suggest that we avoid or criticize movies and stories that deal with grief, so we don't have to actually grapple with it.

Will Smith and Helen Mirren, who portrayed 'Death,' illustrate this with one interaction. As she speaks to the grieved character, he fires back, using the simple statements that were said to him as ammunition. One by one he fired, each from a broad spectrum of religions and worldviews, including Christianity. He ends by reeming her out for stealing his daughter, and not trading his life for hers.

Grief is raw. It's hard. And, as a Christian, it's easy to logically reason through his anger and why Christians say what they say. And yet, there's something about his grief that deeply resonated. Grief is not solely about getting the right truth. It's moving towards that truth in the midst of the deep mess, pain, and sorrow. It takes one step towards the right person, and sometimes it's hard to find what that first step is. At times, it's reminding yourself of what's true. In others, it's learning to share your deep, raw emotions with God. That's what we see in the Psalms. Psalm 88 ends with an amazing accusation against God. “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me.” How could he say that against God? Yet, it's in the bible. There's no resolution. Why?

Because grief is a hard journey to wade through, and God wants to meet you in the mess. Unfortunately, the best way to miss God is to not be honest with ourselves about how much pain and sorrow we are actually grappling with. We're too fearful of sharing our deepest scars with God and with others. And sometimes, we really just don't want to do the hard work of walking alongside someone who is deeply grieved, because it's messy, unexpected, and takes time. And, if we're honest with ourselves, we don't want to confront the darkest things within us, and sometimes, we don't want to see the darkest parts of other people.

Thankfully, Jesus not only helps us see it; He endured it too. Because of His endurance, it gives us access to the God who is the greatest refuge for our pain. I love the song “Sovereign Over Us” by Aaron Keyes. Here's what it says:

“There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You're sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You're teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You're with us in the fire and the flood
You're faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us

Even what the enemy means for evil
You turn it for our good
You turn it for our good and for Your glory
Even in the valley, You are faithful
You're working for our good
You're working for our good and for Your glory.”

We hate grief. We hate being in it. We hate seeing people in it. But we should expect it. And we should run to God with it.

Will Smith's last interaction is with Keira Knightly's "Love."  At the end of their conversation, after Will Smith accuses her of betraying him, she responds by saying, “No. I was there in her eyes (his daughter's), and I'm with you now in your pain.”

What's greater about our hope is that we aren't waiting on a cosmic emotion. We are waiting on the God who embodied love, and demonstrated His devotion to the point of greater grief. He stands with us, and is with us both in our joys, and our sorrows. He helps us re-interpret it. He reminds us He is with us in the midst of it. And He encourages us with a hope that won't fade; Himself.