An Inconvenient Work

Faith over Fear. That is what we have heard a lot about these last several weeks. We’ve encouraged it as a church, you’ve probably seen it in a social media post from another Christian outlet, or maybe you have even encouraged someone else with that same truth. And for good reason, it is a good reminder during times like these. It is a good reminder that faith is what should be produced in us as we seek the Lord in this season. Pressing into the Lord during this time is important for us all to do. Seeking refuge in the Lord is right. (Psalm 16:1)

But what if the Lord is asking more of us? What if it is not just a simple equation of replacing fear with faith. Or having faith, instead of fear. What if the Lord wants to use this season for something much more?, What if He wants to remove that which stands in our way of faith most often, something that is actually at the root of the fear we often have? What if before the Lord can increase our faith He has to do a much deeper work; a much more inconvenient work in our life?

What am I talking about? Well let me lead you there by way of describing first how the Lord showed me this work just this week.

I was reading Exodus 14. Now this isn’t so much about what I was reading. It is more about how, deep down in my heart, I was reading it.

It is a familiar story. Moses has led his people out of Egypt into the wilderness. The people have watched over time how God has shown up through plaques and miracles, signs and wonders, and now as a pillar of dust and fire. To say that these people have seen some amazing acts of God would be an understatement. He is literally leading them day and night in a pillar of dust and a pillar of fire by night.

But now they have come to the Red Sea, a geographical dead-end. And here comes Pharaoh, hard-hearted and ready to destroy the Israelites. Imagine you are an Israelite, you’ve seen God literally send an angel of death to fight for you. You have seen God overthrow and bring to his knees the super-power political leader of your day. You have spent the last several days watching as God manifest himself in your midst through dust and fire. And at the first sign of trouble you want to run back to Egypt. I mean, I can get you being afraid. I can get there being some trepidation in your voice and heart at this moment. I can even expect the question: “Lord this looks like a pretty tough situation. Not sure how you are going to get us out of this one.” I can understand all that, but No! The Israelites sarcastically mock Moses, basically saying, “Oh so you brought us out here to die. We told you so. We had it better in Egypt.” (Exodus 14:11-12)

And if I am honest as I have told that story to kids, as I have read about it over and over, there are times that, I may not have shaken my head, but deep down in me, I was shaking my heart at least. I was scoffing at the Israelites. “Oh yea of little faith! You’ve just witnessed God fighting for you. And now you doubt him?”, my heart would say.

But this time, during this season, reading that story in the midst of COVID-19 exposed my pride, arrogance, and vanity. I didn’t shake my heart at the Israelites, I sadly identified with them. I asked myself, “How many of your prayers sound like those Israelites?” I may not be staring at the Red Sea, but take a second and look at your calendar for April. Think about the prospect of employment if this season continues. Look into the abyss of what is now our unknown situation and see if you don’t feel a little bit of what the Israelites felt that day.

Which leads me to the inconvenient work the Lord is up to in my own life, maybe your life, and maybe the church as a whole. We have talked a lot these last few weeks about having faith and believing in the goodness of the Lord. But what I have forgotten and maybe you have too, is that belief and faith is a two-step process. Faith’s biggest obstacle is not fear, it is what lies as the source of that fear, sin and idolatry.

John the Baptist comes on the scene and his ministry can be summed up in three words, “Repent and Believe.” Jesus comes on the scene and begins his ministry in Mark 1:14 and his first recorded words in that gospel are this, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus first “sermon” in Mark is to call people to repentance and then belief. “Root out the sin, recognize where you have believed in opposition to my good news, and then believe in the gospel,” Jesus says. Repentance is always the first step in the process of deepening faith. Moving towards God is always accompanied by moving away from and acknowledging false beliefs, false gods, and insufficient idols.

I don’t say this from an ivory tower or some emotionally distant vantage point. I realize our current situation has already seen people lose their jobs. Families are making or will begin to have to make tough choices. Much of what lies ahead of us is unknown. That is why I called what the Lord is wanting to do, such an inconvenient work. Not an insensitive work, but an inconvenient one. In the midst of all this unknown, in the midst of this Red Sea of questions and worry, in midst of this diseases and hurt, the fact that the Lord may want us to repent so that our faith could be made stronger is inconvenient, from our human perspective at best.

But if we want more of God. If what we really seek is to be transformed into the likeness of His Son in the midst of this trial, then it would be foolish for us as a church not to recognize that the greater work of deepening faith may have to come through the road of repentance. We want to be comforted by God, but realizing areas where we have first made God small is often the first step in His comforting work.

Think back 6 months ago. Would you ever have believed, in the midst of your work and toil, your leisure and spare time, your business and money-making endeavors, that out there in the world somewhere there was lurking a little tiny virus, no bigger then 1/1000th of an eye lash that could bring the world to its knees? Our biggest weapons, all our money, and all our power have yet to stop this thing. At best right now all we hope to do is contain it. Oh but how powerful, whether we realize it or not, did we feel at that time. How little thought did we give of the millions of ways God’s good grace was maintaining our world and keeping us going. How much of our days did we think that we, in our own power and might, happened because of our ability to make it so?

And yet a tiny virus has shown us that we aren’t as in control as we thought we were. One tiny virus has shown up and once again reminded us how fragile, how needy, and how vulnerable we are. And we would be worse off if we simply hunkered down during this time, thought nothing of the different ways, known and unknown, that we have forgotten God in the midst of our everyday lives.

God brought his people to the Red Sea because he loved them. It was easy for God to get them out of Egypt, but it took a much longer time to get Egypt out of them. The same is true for us. We are living a similar exodus story. The Israelites were brought to the Red Sea so that they would feel their need of God. And God has brought us to this point because we need the same. And neediness’ companion on this wilderness journey is often repentance. God may not part every figurative “Red Sea” for us. What God did for the Israelites in the wilderness that day, is not prescriptive for what God will do for you in your family, with your health, or with your job in this season. Not because God doesn’t care about those things, but because God has already parted this sea. He did it when His Son came to this virus infected earth and died on the cross for our redemption. He did it when he raised His Son from the dead because death had no claim on his sinless and perfect life, and he does it today because he is still ruling and reigning in the midst of the pandemic. God has not been dethroned by COVID-19. And as you look to an unknown future, acknowledge the ways in which you are stilled pulled to want to go back to Egypt. Acknowledge where you heart is prone to despair. Stare at the Red Sea of your future and be reminded of Moses words to the people at that day, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord.”

Traditions, Liturgy, and Advent

Traditions

Do you have any Christmas traditions? Did your family have them when you were growing up? What were they? Take a moment to think about them. Are your memories of them fond? I bet you have more traditions then you think. Sometimes that which is normal to us becomes invisible.

I will give you one example from my own life. If you are a part of the Van Dyke family, then Christmas day had a very important tradition. It actually started the night before. My brothers and I would all sleep in the same room. We weren’t allowed to exit that room until the next day when we heard Christmas music – It always seemed to be Bing Crosby. When the music started playing, we would run down the hall towards the kitchen – it became a full contact sport as we got older and older- and there in the kitchen we would find glasses of orange juice. We would race to drink the glasses of orange juice and sit down. The first one finished and seated was the victor and the first to get to open a gift. No one quite knows how this tradition got started. It proceeded my brothers and me. And yet we all continue it with our own children to this day. You can say that in a weird and funny way, it marks us as a family.

The Christmas season is full of opportunities to make traditions, renew old ones, or borrow from others.

Liturgy

These traditions can be really important markers in our life. They can mark us as a family, a culture, or even as Christians. Within the church, these traditions have a special name – liturgy. A liturgy refers to the structure and ritual of a church service with a purpose to point us and others to God. Liturgies are the structures we use to formalize our worship. They are structures that are meant to teach us something, express something to others, and lead us into deeper worship. Some churches are more “liturgical” than others. Some denominations and churches have highly structured ways of worship. If you grew up in a highly structured church or “high” church, as it is sometimes called, then you will know what I am talking about. You may even balk at my mentioning them because all that form and structure stifled your worship.

But here is the problem. As James K.A. Smith talks frequently about, the problem is not in the form, structure, or liturgies themselves. The problem is how we use them.

Think about the Christmas traditions that we just talked about. I don’t think many of us would say that those rituals or traditions have stifled Christmas. Just the opposite. Those traditions marked us. They give us an identity as a family, part of an ongoing story. They form and inform our worship. As Paul David Tripp says, “worship is an identity before it is an activity.” We are made to worship, and we will worship something, and we will create structures for our worship, whether we know it or not.

Advent

Which brings me to my ultimate point: Advent. We are in the middle of this Advent season. You may or may not have noticed the candles upfront of the church, the special prayer, and the lighting of those candles these past two Sundays, but those are a part of the way we, as a church, recognize that we are in the Advent season. Advent means coming. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It starts 4 weeks before Christmas, so we already in the 2nd week of Advent.

Each week is marked by a different word – Hope, Love, Joy, Peace – or Bible reading. There have been more traditional ways of celebrating Advent with specific Bible readings, an Advent wreath, etc. Advent is a liturgy/tradition of the church and hopefully will be a liturgy in your family and your life.

Why?

Advent is a season of looking back- of remembering what God has done. Advent is about placing ourselves, as a community and family, in that part of history that looked towards the coming of Jesus, not back at it. It’s about connecting to what is being sung when we hear Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. Ponder these words from that great hymn

Come thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee.

Have you ever been to a jewelry store? If you have you know that they always display the diamonds on black velvet. They do that so that the brilliance and beauty of that diamond can be seen in its entirety. Advent is like that. It is about remembering the black velvet of Ephesians 2:1-3 (you were dead in your sins and trespasses…) so the diamond of Ephesians 2:4-10 (But God, being rich in mercy…) can shine bright.

That is Advent. A season of remembering the bad news so we can fully appreciate the glad tidings of great joy. We need Christmas. We need to celebrate better and with more joy than the world does. But we shouldn’t rush to the 25th without taking some time to remember what we are celebrating and why we are celebrating it. Advent is one of those liturgies, traditions, rituals, whatever word you like, that helps us see the weight.

An Article about an Article about an Article

Often times I will read an article or a blog that makes me realize I don’t have to write on that subject because someone has already done a better job than I could have done.  The below articles are from Chap Bettis, a pastor, speaker, and author on biblical parenting, and Tim Challies, pastor and Christian blogger.

They both write about a phenomenon they notice in today’s churches. The phenomenon of  parents that are resistant or reluctant to receive and be given parenting advice in the church. I am thankful and honored every time a parent asks me for wisdom, for many reasons, but many times because I know that it is a rare gift to speak into someone’s life.  It is a rare gift that shouldn’t be that rare in the church. Bettis and Challies give explanations for why they think this is and I think both are right. 

I highly recommend that we all read these articles.  They aren’t just for parents.  They are for those whose kids are now out of the home.  Our young parents need those that have gone before them.  If we want our next generation to be equipped and supported so that they know and love Jesus Christ, then we need to know how to disciple them in both a formative and corrective way.  Which means we need parents that know how to form and correct their children as they disciple them, which means our parents need someone to form and correct their parenting. We aren’t meant to do this Christian life thing alone.  This is actually one area that our some of our parents can learn from our single parents.  Our single parents are usually much better at asking for wisdom and advice from older people in the church. 

I will end by saying this. I don’t know how much Sarah and I have done right in our life, but I do know that one of the things that we did right was to ask older people to speak into our lives about our marriage and parenting. And when they did, we promised to receive what they had to say knowing they were people that loved us.  We decided to be unoffendable in our pursuit of discipleship. Sarah and I are eternally grateful for people that came into our lives that were able to guide us in our parenting.  People who I can still name and call on.  I will continue to be grateful for those people that the Lord puts in our life that will help us through the next season. We need each other.  We need the covenant-community-of-the-unoffendable-because-they-are secure-in-Christ.  Parenting is hard enough that we shouldn’t try to do it without our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the Lord.

Read this article. And then read this article about that article. And then you will better understand my article about an article about an article.

Don’t Save Your Children from Things that Jesus Wouldn’t Save them From

My favorite part of being a Family Pastor at Community Bible Church is when parents trust me enough on their journey to becoming the primary-discipleship maker in the life of their children, to ask for my advice.  It is something I always take seriously and never want to be flippant about the wisdom that I give them – I pray it is wisdom a majority of the time.  I want to point them to Jesus, the good news of the gospel, how to apply that good news, and the Bible. 

There are times that I get questions that my answer actually surprises parents.  Sometimes Biblical wisdom goes against the natural reaction to protect our children that all parents have.  Which is why I say that we have to be careful not to save our children from things that Jesus doesn’t save them from. 

Here are 3 areas that I see parents try to save their children:

1. Rejection

It is back to school time and we all know what that means. School drama. Rejection of some sort. We have all felt the sting of rejection, some more than others.  We remember what it was like to get picked last on the team, or wear the wrong brand of shoes, or simply not fit it.  We have all probably been laughed at by someone we thought was our friend.  Truth is that we all know the sting of rejection.  And when our kids come home from school with that sting of rejection causing a spiritual anaphylactic shock, we too often reach for our emotional epi-pens to try to calm and protect the hearts of our children.  Maybe we try to build our kids up in telling them how great we think they are and how lame we think the other kids are for making fun of them.  But protecting our children from rejection won’t help them.  As Christians we know we will face rejection.  It is promised to us; even more so as the days get darker.  So instead of trying to put a self-esteem bubble around our children, we need to help them learn how to walk through rejection with confidence in the Lord and confidence of his presence. The good news of the gospel assures us of God’s presence in the midst of rejection and that he sees us.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” John 15:18

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5:3

2. Sin

Another area that I see parents trying to protect their children from is by minimizing their children’s sin.  This is how I typically hear or see a parent describe it to me:

Parent of a 5-year-old: “My son/daughter has a real hard time when we call them out for something that they have done.  They usually get really sad and sullen and start crying out that they are “So bad. I am so bad, mommy.”

Me: “How do you respond?”

Parent: “I try to comfort my child that what they did was wrong, but it wasn’t that bad and they don’t need to be crushed by it.”

This is where I usually try to tip-toe into a massive truth that we all need to grasp, and it is this:

We are all worse/more bad/more sinful than we realize. 

Now, a child could be communicating this for a couple of reasons.  One is that they actually feel bad about what they’ve done, and they are expressing it.  Or they are trying to manipulate the situation.  They are trying to get you, the parent, to focus more on consoling them and less about their offense.

The truth is this: your children are worse than you think.  They are worse than they think.  So when they are expressing their “badness”, don’t try to make them feel better by minimizing their offense or by protecting them from feeling guilt or shame.  Instead, agree with them about their sin, without any tone of rebuke, and then introduce them once again to the good news of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, of course, saves our children from their own sin.  That is the beauty of the gospel, but he doesn’t save them from understanding their need for the gospel.  He doesn’t shy away from showing us our need for Him comes out of our own rebellion to the Father. We are all bad.  They are actually expressing a biblical truth, one that is fundamental to the gospel.

 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone- to his own way” Isaiah 53:6

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquity, O Lord who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Psalm 130:3-4

“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans5:8

3. Death

Every so often, maybe at the death of a loved one or even the death of a family pet, children may begin to ask about death.  “What does it mean that we die?” “What happened to grandpa?” “Will I die?”

For so much of their life, children live with an invincible view of themselves and the world.  They don’t think about death because it doesn’t enter their mind.  Their life is often too busy or, frankly, self-absorbed to think about death.

At some point, though, children might begin to ask about death and too often parents don’t want their children to worry or be anxious. So, parents will tell them “Don’t worry about that.  You have a long time until you have to worry about death. Grandpa was old and lived a good life.  It was his time.”

But in reality, it is not until our children begin to think deeply about the consequence of being mortal that they can begin to understand the deeper scope of the good news.  Death makes the gospel more real, even to a child.  And besides, none of us can promise our children a long life.  That’s not in our power to promise.

Instead, we can give our children a taste of an ever-expanding view of the beauty of the gospel. 

“Daddy, will I die?”

“Yes, son.  You will.  I don’t know when. But it will happen. Does that make you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“It makes me afraid sometimes too.  But that is why I have to remind myself of what Jesus Christ did on the cross.  And that he tells me that I will have an everlasting life with him.  That if I have faith in Him that nothing can separate me from him.  Not even death.”

“Even though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Psalm 23:4

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

To summarize all of these examples in one statement: Try not to protect your children from things the Bible asks you to help them walk through, not around.  And the way we walk through it with our children is by showing them how the good news applies in all areas of our life, even rejection, sin, and death.

Pig-Pen, Oxen, and a Glorious Mess

Do you remember the Charlie Brown character Pig-Pen from the famous Peanuts cartoon strip? He was Charlie Brown’s friend, who always seemed to have a cloud of dust following him where ever he went.  He could never get clean.  There was one time he was able to get clean, but as soon as he went outside, he instantly became dirty, declaring himself “A dust magnet.”

Most days as a father to 4 children, I think that we might have given birth to 4 Pig-Pens.  Often it is not dust that seems to be radiating and originating from my children, although that will change as Summer gets closer. No, my children seem to be swirled in a dust cloud of their own things.  Crayons and Legos, empty juice boxes and used sucker sticks, goldfish crackers and socks. 

You might suspect that my wife and I have never taught our children what and where trash bins are in our house. Or you might think that we prefer dirty clothes to sit for days in the first spot they land, not in the dirty hamper.  Or you might suspect that we prefer our children to take off their shoes and to make getting anywhere on time more fun by playing that stress-free game of “Where did my other shoe end up?” You would be wrong.  We really try to teach our kids about trash bins, clothes hampers, and how to put their shoes away.  Alas, somedays it feels like our kids our Pig-Pen.  They are just “dust, Lego, crayon, empty juice box, goldfish crackers in the couch cushion” magnets.

 A few weeks I came home to some creation sitting on our side table.  It was a penny and peppermint glued inside a small coin box that I got my children on my last trip to Costa Rica.  The box was held up by a Lego man.  When I asked my kids what in the world this thing was, my youngest told me, as if I was crazy for not recognizing it at first sight, that it was clearly, a “Leprechaun Trap”. Of course, a Leprechaun trap! How could I not have known?

Or this last week, as the weather was getting warmer, I came home to my kids outside with craft supplies making something.  All I could think about at the time was how much of that stuff will I have to pick up.  Who is going to leave the glue out? How many-colored pencils will be left out and how many will be put back in the box? Why do they have tape, and will they not ever make a mess?

It was later that night however that I went into our master bathroom and there on the mirror was taped a piece of paper from one of my kids.  It read:

 Mom and Dad, I love you guys.

(I+ drawn heart+ drawn stick figures to represent my wife and I)

Here (Heres) some flowers for good luck.

And taped to the paper where two flowers (probably weeds)

That paper is still up in our bathroom today.  And it reminded me of an interesting verse in Proverbs.

“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”

Proverbs 14:4

This may seem like an interesting verse to think about, but I think it has a lot to do with family life and ministry to the family.

Oxen are dirty, they are expensive, and they are time consuming.  But if you want a harvest you must have them.  There was no getting around this for the ancient Israelites.  You can have a clean feeding trough (manger) or you can have abundant crops.  But you really can’t have both.

We live in a world that continually tries to tell families that they can have it all.  That you can have the perfect house, the perfect kids, the perfect vacation, the perfect on and on and on.  And we are constantly bombarded by these images through entertainment, commercials, and social media.  It even has a name online, it’s called the “curated life”. Curated means selected, organized, and presented using professional or expert knowledge.  People have even started posting about their curated messy-life, which is just a form of emotional showmanship that masquerades itself as vulnerability. God’s wisdom tells us this.  Life is messy.  You can’t avoid it.  But there is a harvest that can come with the mess.

The glorious thing is that God cares so much for us.  He cares about the small things in life and he cares about the big things.  He knew ancient farmers would worry about barns and troughs that never could get cleaned.  He cares about moms and dads, at work and at home, caring for their families in 1,000 different ways. 

Life is messy and Life is beautiful, and life is somehow beautiful because it is messy.  And that sentence wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t for the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who makes something beautiful out our of mess.

Because every so often, out of the mess, you might get something like this: