Trusting the dentist

I made my first trip to the dentist last week since returning to Florida. After the X-rays, everything seemed good. No issues. Score. That is until the dentist came in, blew some air on my teeth, I reacted, and then he broke the news that I had a little cavity. Bummer.

Fortunately only a $60 dollar fix, and I would just need to come back in a few days. Like a parolee without a real reason to flee, I turned myself into the authorities to let them get to work.

After numbing me up, and without much explanation, they got rolling. So I daydreamed about the upcoming next few months of our church plant, so as not to waste any time. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t see anything. They didn’t give me a mirror-which was a good move on their part. I don’t think watching a dude drill out parts of your teeth could make one’s day any better.

So there I was, unable to see anything. Unable to feel anything, so I guess that means they could have been doing anything. And of course, not being well versed on dentistry procedures, I had no clue what they were even supposed to be doing.

Yet I sat there without a concern in the world, totally trusting the dental team. I couldn’t see what they were doing, yet I knew they were doing something that I really needed. I trusted that they were doing something good, but I had no immediate evidence to support such a thought. And I couldn’t feel that they were doing anything good.

Did these people really care about me? Now the dentist was nice. And a fisherman. I like those kinds of people a lot. I really do. But he didn’t know me, and he probably has good malpractice insurance (if something went wrong). Yet I trusted him. Without even thinking about it whether trusting him was a good idea or not.

Then it hit me. If I can trust a dentist to work in my mouth even though I can’t see him at work-and have no idea what he’s really doing-then should it be that much of a leap to trust God when I can’t see what He’s doing? Even though I can’t often see what God is doing (He, like the dentist doesn’t often see fit to give me a mirror), should I have any less reason to trust Him?

Should I trust the dentist more than I trust God? Does it even make sense to do so?

This metaphor will not necessarily make me trust God more in the future. And in and of itself, it won’t make you either. But perhaps, it is good to see the irrationality of doubting that God is at work even when we can’t see Him at work.

It never hurts to see the irrationality of doubt or the silliness of anger (a la Jonah). And to see it often. Perhaps Romans 8:29-that God will work all things out for the good of those who love Him-makes more sense to me now.

At least it makes a little more sense to trust God, since He is better, more loving, more sacrificial, more invested, and more committed to me than a pretty dang good dentist.

Sad old thoughts on Newtown

Its now been several days removed from horrible massacre in Newtown. When tragedies like this happen, we all have defense mechanisms to help us cope (I’m talking about we bystanders-not the victims or families of such victims). Sometimes we run to agnosticism: how could God exist in this mess? Sometimes we assume God could have done nothing to stop this from happening. Sometimes we protect ourselves by just not allowing ourselves to feel such pain. I know I do that. Not that we become apathetic, but we don’t allow ourselves to go to such despairing depths. 

Much has been written about this tragedy and how to process all this mess. These are simply some of my thoughts, that serve as counsel for myself, a distant bystander, and possibly other bystanders.
This is not advice, but how I, simply as a Christian first, and pastor second, think through this mess, and/or need to think through particularly rough acts of injustice. If you want to know how you can pray,  Scotty Smith gives a great explanation for how to pray for the families involved.

1.) Agnosticism. When suffering and injustice happen, the first response may be one of agnosticism. How can God be real and loving, and allow this to happen?  It makes sense at first to think like this. It really does, particularly when injustice happens to Christians, whom claim to be alone in receiving full favor from God (Luke 2:14). However in order to be consistent with the promise of Christianity, we have to remember that a life of no suffering is not promised to us; in fact, it is very much the opposite. Jesus promises us suffering. So does the writer of Hebrews (12:7-11) and Paul in II Tim 3:12. 

But Tim Keller also reminds us that if we use the existence of evil to conclude that God does not exist, we are ultimately committing intellectual suicide. Either God created us in His image and we know and can declare activity like this wrong, or we are a collection of atoms and chemicals without any way to declare this activity evil. Did precious children die or did molecules and chemicals become re-arranged? If there is no God, nor man/woman created in God’s image, we can have no ultimate standard of goodness and cannot call this act evil. And we know this is evil!

2.) God can’t control everything. This is comforting at some levels, because it makes God out to be gentle and loving and caring. He would have liked to stop these actions, but He can’t because His hands are tied. Remember Free Will? But if this is the case, then you probably should limit your prayers to things that don’t cause God to step on anyone’s free will. Not sure how that would be possible though. If God can’t stop these things, He is not a God worthy of your prayers. So we can’t go there.

3.) Protective Apathy. Now I don’t know anyone apathetic to 9/11 or this Newtown Tragedy. But sometimes I do try to distance myself from sadness. I don’t want to think about it, or guess what, I feel sad too! I honestly don’t dig sadness. Who does? But our Savior was no stranger to sadness, even entering into it. When sadness comes upon us, we don’t need to protect ourselves by simply focusing on the positives. Below are John Piper’s words from his daily advent devotional:

Many of you will feel loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections-both in life and death? But O, do  not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter….Jesus came at Christmas time that we might have eternal life.

Running from sadness is not life. Jesus is life. Sadness about death can be good when it drives us to Him who is the Resurrection and the Life.

This injustice sucks. People are messed up. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but there are special punishments for leading children astray (Mark 9:42). I can’t imagine what happens to those who murder children. Lanza is not in a better place.

Yet nothing short of the Final Resurrection will bring back our believing loved ones. We grieve with hope, but we still grieve.

I’m actually quite saddened as I write this. I’m ready for Jesus to come back. Today. I don’t get a vote, but I do get a prayer, found in the penultimate verse in the bible: “Come Lord Jesus.” In Him is life forever more and in Him alone is, as Rich Mullins (whose life was cut short by car accident) sang, “a hope to carry on.”

Sadly sovereign, mostly sovereign, and mostly believing sovereignty

Christians, at least in America (since I don’t know a ton of Christians outside of America I’ll limit my target audience to those I actually know) really struggle with the idea of God being Sovereign. Now few people struggle with declaring God is Sovereign, since that’s exactly what the bible tells us about God. But when it comes to actually what God is sovereign “over,” well that’s when two paths diverge. I’ve “chosen” (or have I?) the road less traveled, but many folks really believe in a limited picture of God’s Sovereignty. 

For instance, my son’s preschool lays forth some of its theological convictions, one of which is “God is Sovereign over all things.” But what they really mean is that God is Sovereign over all things except my individual choice to repent and believe. That is off limits. God does not choose people, God’s people have chosen Him. This is an arena God can do nothing about. So in essence God is only mostly Sovereign (still better than slightly sovereign I presume). 

Yet for those who would profess that God is in total Sovereign control over His universe (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6), there is still yet another bigger problem. Believing it. How do I know if I am, at the moment, truly believing God is Sovereign? Here are some diagnostic observations I’ve been personally working through (well before, but also during the election) to discern how much I really believe.

  • I might be saddened by a decision/outcome, but will not be depressed by it. 
  • I will be angered by an injustice, and it will move me to prayer and action, but I won’t be disillusioned by sin’s presence. Sin’s presence will be with us until Jesus returns.
  • I will be frustrated by an event or outcome, but instead of a fatalistic apathy or uber-introspection, I can evaluate and discern what can be learned for the future
  • I might be angered by the actions of others, but it won’t stop me from loving them

For a more thorough look at the idea of “God is in control” as it relates to the election, I commend to you the article of a friend and fellow PCA pastor

Professing God is Sovereign is the easy part; believing God is actually Sovereign is hard part. Very hard. I’m a decent theologian but not very good at applying my theology. That’s what my frustration, anxiety and blood pressure levels reveal. They reveal a disbelief that God is both trustworthy and sovereign. 

This part has much less to do with the election and more with the presence of evil in the world and our moving into it.

There is on often overlooked aspect of God’s Sovereignty: that God can ordain something that brings him sadness (though not regret). Think about God not delighting in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11). Think about the cross. That did not come about by accident but by God’s decree. Think about Lazarus’ death in John 13 and remember that Jesus could have come sooner, but chose not to do so. Yet he wept. An intentionality, plan, and purpose, but not without tears. Think about the way a father has to discipline a son, being in total control of that discipline, yet he is sad that it has come to this point. 

I think we need less an answer as to why we suffer, and more a dynamic relationship with Sovereign loving God who also weeps with us. One of my favorite preachers, Martin Ban of Christ Church Santa Fe, reached this conclusion, even though I disagreed with how he got there. The why is less  important than the Who.

God’s Sovereignty doesn’t mean that God simply coldly ordains. He is not subject to emotions the way we are, but we cannot assume that things which always fall out according to His plan are without any divine “tears.”

Winning and Losing: God’s help and God’s involvement

This Sunday I preached on Philippians 4:10-23 which includes the famous or in-famous Phil 4:13 “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” The major theme of this passage is thankfulness, but the “sandwiched” truth in the middle is that we CAN be content in all situations: from bad houses to bad spouses, from losing to bad weather. Now I’m not saying I always believe that; I often don’t. But I think its more scriptural to say I CAN THROUGH CHRIST honor God and find contentment in specific situations than it is to say “I just can’t….” (which we all say from time to time, right?) and become angry, gripe, or run. The sermon can be found here.
I pulled for Tebow and the Broncos vs. the Patriots (I pull for anyone vs. the Patriots) but pretty much saw on the TV Saturday what I thought I might see: a clubbing.

But I’m very thankful for how far the Broncos went this season and the opportunities for Jesus to be talked about by secular sports talk show hosts that probably don’t even know or usually care too much for Him. Because of Tebow, pastors and theologians have also been given a platform as well. One such article, that I think is incredibly apropos for all sports fans, is the Atlantic Journal’s  “Does God care if Tim Tebow wins on Saturday.” How cool is it that The Atlantic Journal, read by all kinds of different folks from all kinds of different beliefs, has given those folks a chance to read about God’s Sovereignty, Providence, Secondary Causes, Calvin, etc…, and of course Jesus. Check it out, as it will be helpful not just as an athlete, fan, or parent, but simply as a person navigating this world with the hope of a Transcendent as well as Immanent Lord.

Whether winning or losing, we see a growing Christ-centered contentment in Tebow (as opposed to his crying after loss at FL), as well as the opportunities God has afforded many others through his faith, passion, service, and play on the field.

No Christian Friends!

Every Christian who has kids wants his/her kids to have Christian friends. That’s pretty much a gimme. But I think if we take seriously the fact that our families ARE NOT ends in and of themselves (Gen 12:1-3), we will also pray that they have non-Christian friends who will come to know Jesus through our children and their activities. 
Now how that is applied for each family will differ. Some may need to put strict limits and boundaries and decide how much his/her child is ready to seriously be a friend to others outside Christ. Some may just not be ready yet. But at the very least, we can regularly be praying for our kids’ unchurched friends. I do this each night with my 3 year old, praying for several of his pre-school friends to come to church with us.
And still, there is always some parental anxiety that bad behaviors will rub off. Of course, if we are honest, we would recognize that bad behaviors are more than just learned from others; they are produced from within our and our children’s sinful hearts. It’s not Spongebob’s fault. At the same time, Connar my three year old is probably too young to actually filter Spongebob through a Christian grid, so that, including disrespect, is a potential risk when he plays with his unbelieving neighbors.
One family unknowingly helped me and several other folks think through this issue.
We had a missionary family come visit the church a few weeks ago. They are going back to Germany in a year to begin tilling the soil for another church plant in Berlin. We asked them, “Who do your kids play with?” Their kids have NO Christian friends. In fact some families don’t let their kids play with these missionary kids because they are Christians. How reversed is that?
Ultimately you just have to trust that Jesus is bigger than your kids lack of Christian friends. They can still grow up to know Jesus, rest on Him, and tell others about Him. If He that is in us, is greater than he who is in the world, then we need not fear.
Is that not challenging to us in America? Will my kid have good influences? Enough Christian friends? How often should I let Jimmy the Pagan come over to play? These are questions church-going suburbanites ask.  But I think we need to be reminded of the Christian community overseas, particularly those of missionaries. Perhaps we need a bit more faith in God and less faith in “seemingly” controllable areas.

When these fears or “controls” come up, consider your brothers and sisters in the faith whose kids have NO Christian friends. God is good. He is faithful to us and to our children. He can make up for our lack of faithfulness as parents as well as our kids’ lack of Christian friends.

A God in Hurricane season

A few weeks ago, this article on the CNN belief blog came out, claiming that even “religious” people don’t necessarily look to God to explain why such storms happen. The conclusion was that for the most part, people understand such storms happen because of a variety of atmospheric conditions, and happen NOT as a result of the hand of God. Here’s a snippet:

Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of American Christians—believe that when God has something to say He speaks in less dramatic ways, including the still small voices in our hearts and the slightly louder voices of the preachers in our pulpits. When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, however, our authorities are geologists and meteorologists. Most of us interpret these events not through the rumblings of the biblical prophet Jeremiah or the poetry of the Book of Revelation but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates. As a result of this sort of secularization, we are much better at predicting the course of hurricanes…… 
So we are better prepared, thank science. Our stories are far less dramatic, however. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. But their God no longer acts out his fury as in Bible days.  Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has.

When we believe in some sort of “clockmaker” Enlightenment-esque type God, who winds the world up, and then lets it go, we will obviously interpret things differently through this lens. Here are some thoughts.

1.) People don’t regularly blame God for Hurricanes. Hurricanes aren’t de facto judgments (not saying that they can’t be-we just don’t have access to that info and shouldn’t ASSUME) on sinful cities. That is positive I guess. Because we obviously don’t need “prophets” telling us this storm was for that reason because they don’t know. Instead we react to disasters like Jesus told us: not with judgment on others but as opportunities to repent ourselves (Luke 13:5).

2.) But if Hurricanes and Tornadoes have only a natural origin and God plays no part in it, then that’s obviously not only unbiblical (Gen 50:20), but it makes God irrelevant to any level of suffering. A God that plans and ordains all things is the God who can do something with the mess of the storms and with the mess of our lives. We need a God who doesn’t have to say, “Oh crud, now what can I do to help these people out, now that this has happened?” I write this now as theological truth, not as counsel to someone in the wake of tornadic activities.

I had to think a bit after reading this article. Does a secular world-view really help prepare us for hurricanes whereas a biblical worldview hinders? What part does God really play in storms? Should our science and knowledge of how storms arise and go forward really put God into a different part of our world in a sort of Descartesian duelism (science in physical realm; God fits into the personal/moral realm)?

A skeptic could say (and I have skepticism within me-I think most of us do at some level), the reason that storms are ascribed to God by the ancients is because they had no other explanation. So now we can observe wind patterns, sea currents, barometric pressure and such; we’re beyond that biblical point of view.

But the cool thing is that the bible doesn’t only ascribe to God unexplainable phenomenon (at the time), but also very the very observable. For instance, even morally evil things like vicious unjust wars.

The Babylonians were an instrument of judgment upon Judah, just as the Assyrians were instruments of judgment upon Israel. Both empires were quite evil and both chose to attack, and go “too far” in their wartime atrocities. Yet God declares that he raised up the Babylonians to come and open up a can of, well, judgment, upon His people (Habakkuk 1).

Why did these people come and invade Jerusalem? On one level, they wanted to do so because they liked killing and conquering (secondary cause). But on another level, God ordained them to do it (primary cause) as part of His plan. The same thing goes with tornadic (probably not a word, but I like it) activity and hurricanes. The weather systems, barometric pressures, ocean temperatures and currents, all have a part to play. But these mere observations don’t tell the whole story, just as observing war time atrocities in 586 BC didn’t tell the whole story. There is still a primary cause: God.  

God still speaks through His Word today. He still speaks through His creation and our consciences as they are consistent with His Word. We don’t need him to speak clearly (as specific judgments we can understand) through Hurricanes, I’ll grant this lad that. Scripture is sufficient. But we cannot afford to assume that He has nothing to do with Him. We will miss the redemption and restoration which come from both figurative and literal storms in our lives if we ignore the one who is Lord even over storms (Mark 4:41).