That Helpless Feeling

A few weeks ago, we faced the unexpected: Our not-even-three-week-old baby spiked a fever that wouldn’t break. A trip to the emergency room was followed by being admitted into a children’s hospital for a three-day stay. Fortunately, the problem proved to be a virus that simply needed time to pass.

But in the midst of the wait, there was one feeling, for me at least, that was strong: helplessness.

Life is precious. Life is also vulnerable. You learn both as a new parent.

We like to think that we are strong and in control. We like to think that we can provide safe spaces for our children where no harm will befall them. But then things happen in life and our illusions of strength shatter.

I watched as they poked, prodded, and drew blood and spinal fluid from my baby boy. I listened as the doctors explained how they would aggressively treat his condition as they waited for test results, in case their worst fears were realized. I sat awkwardly in a chair and held my son with wires and tubes running from him to machines.

I was present but I was helpless. I couldn’t make his fever break. I couldn’t speed up the clock for answers. I couldn’t make my boy better.

I could hold him. I could sit with my wife as she held him. And I could pray.

One positive that came from that helpless feeling was the reminder that even though I’m not in control, God is. That reminder deepens the reality of the prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come your will be done.”

Not every moment in life resolves positively, at least in a way that we can see in the here-and-now. Thank God for those moments that do, but the fact they don’t is part of the reality of living in a broken world. Yet, in those moments of deep helplessness, however they resolve, God is there for his children and God will carry us through.

That is the essence of Psalm 23, after all. There’s quiet plains and still waters but there’s also the dark valleys of the shadow of death, yet, God is there.

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Impactful Reads: Death in the City

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer is one of the most impactful books that I have read (in fact, I’ve read through it three times now). The title might sound a bit head-scratching. It is based on a series of lectures by Schaeffer in the late 1960s derived form the biblical books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Romans. He draws the title from Lamentations 1:1 which speaks of Jerusalem after the inhabitants were either killed or exiled to Babylon and then sat empty, hence “death” in the city.

Ultimately, Schaeffer was writing a critique of western culture as it was shifting (and continues to shift) from an overarching Judeo-Christian worldview to one that is post-Christian. But his critique is not so much aimed at the culture at large but rather the Christian’s and church’s response.

I first read Death in the City as a college student in a time where my faith was being greatly shaped and coming into its own. Three main things stuck out then and still stick with me today.

First, building on the Westminster Catechism, Schaeffer considered what it means that humanity’s “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Christianity is not a cold religion or a dispassionate intellectual exercise. Christianity is not about escape from life but pressing into true life with excitement. It’s about finding whole-person fulfillment “in relationship to the God who is there.” In other words, Christianity is about finding joy and satisfaction that never fades but finding its source in Christ and not in the offerings of the world and culture. (Pg. 25-27)

Second, Schaeffer warned that Christianity becomes ugly when it divorces itself from compassion. The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to speak some difficult truths but he did so with tears. Yes, the Christian Gospel is a message of holiness, a sacredness devoted to the ways of God that often run contra the ways of humanity, yet at the same time it is a message about love. The two cannot be divorced nor set against each other. As followers of Jesus, witnessing to the world, we must speak of every person’s significance as an image-bearer of God, we must not shy away from the wrongfulness of sin and rebellion against God, but we must do so with compassion and a heart that loves others by seeking to meet their various needs. (Pg. 68-74, 118-23)

Third, Schaeffer encouraged to “go on” speaking about Jesus and Scripture, even if it seems those who listen, believe, and turn to Jesus are few and far between. It is the encouragement to be faithful and not worry about “the world’s concept of success.” At the end of one of his lectures, Schaeffer passionately said: “My last sentence is simply this: The world is lost, the God of the Bible does exist; the world is lost, but truth is truth, keep on! And for how long? I’ll tell you. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, and then keep on!”

The above pagination is from the third printing of Death in the City by Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.

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Pursue All Things Good

I have heard about Eugene Peterson for years, a longtime pastor and author who died recently. I’ve even used his The Message paraphrase of the Bible for personal devotions. But only more recently have I picked up some of his other works, including, the considered-classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

Within its pages I have found words that cut to the heart. As he ponders the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), he spends time reflecting on various topics they portray. He assigns repentance to Psalm 120, and in words that are also reminiscent of Philippians 2:14-15 as well, he writes:

Psalm 120 is the decision to take one way over against the other. It is the turning point marking the transition from a dreamy nostalgia for a better life to a rugged pilgrimage of discipleship in faith, from complaining about how bad things are to pursing all things good.**

I think of social media, Facebook and Twitter and the likes that we all seem quite addicted to. How much of it is complaining about others? And complaining about others complaining about stuff? (And, then, semi-ironically, could this be complaining about others complaining about others complaining about stuff.)

We turn on the news, and most stories are about how bad things are across the globe and in our neighborhoods. Our coffee table or water cooler gossip carries a lot of complaints.

Complaining about people and things seems woven into the fabric of life. Including my life.

But Christianity is inherently optimistic. Yes, we should not gloss over a world of hurt, war, and disease, all brought on by the corruption of sin. But if we’re well known for complaining about how bad stuff is, then we’ve essentially have missed the point. Jesus rescues us from sin and he one day will make all things new.

Thus, for the Christian, the future is ultimately always better.

This, I think, is the reminder that Peterson sought to share: Christianity is about looking forward and upward. Complaining about the world isn’t going to change a thing.

But pursing all things good–pursing Jesus and all he offers will.

I hope to remember that the next time I feel the urge to complain.

**Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity Press, 2000), 28.

A Letter to My Newborn Son

Dear H,

Welcome to the world. Nine months of waiting and anticipating while you grew inside your mama, and now I’ve met you face-to-face. Your eyes have opened to the newness. You’re hearing things you’ve never heard before. Your tiny fingers get to grip mine.

I’m looking forward to seeing the person you’ll become–to meet your personality and help you discover your gifts and talents.

Three things that I wish for you as you grow and learn:

Be the best you you can be. The world can be a confusing place and a trying place. Sometimes it feels the easiest to conform and go with the flow–to be what other people want you to be. Honestly, though, that’s exhausting. Even if you match one person’s expectations, you’ll never match them all. God has given you your personality and abilities. Hone them and use them well. But be you. And if someone doesn’t like you, then smile, be kind, and keep being you.

Be the best you you can be in Jesus. The world can be a messed up place. But that’s not the way it was meant to be nor the way it will always be. God created us to be in a relationship with him, loving him, enjoying him, and loving others. But in a tale as old as humanity, we rebel against him and seek to live without him (or with our own tamed version of him). One day God is going to remake the world so there is no evil, death, or disease. Everyone there will love him, enjoy him, and love others without fail. The way we get there is through Jesus. He died and then, amazingly, rose from the grave to reverse our rebellion and set us right with God. If you trust in him, then he will take your heart, personality, and talents and use them in this life to love God, enjoy God, and love others.

Be the most loving you you can be. The world can be a cold place, a mean place. Though I use social media, I’m glad that I didn’t have to grow up in a world of social media. I was bullied at times and it was hurtful enough without a bunch of people piling on in a public forum. Some people hurt others because they have been hurt. They need compassion and grace. Some people hurt others because they’re just mean. They need compassion and grace. Some people struggle under the pain of hurt. They need compassion and grace. You can’t be everyone’s best friend, but you can be kind and loving to everyone you meet. Jesus overcame evil with love and he calls us to do the same. Some people are hard to love, and the Lord knows that I myself have failed plenty at loving others like I should. But if you make it your ambition to love well, even though you won’t be perfect at it, you’ll be able to make a little piece of the world just that much brighter. And it might even change the course of someone’s life or eternity.

I know right now that you won’t be able to read or understand a single word of this, at least for a while. That’s okay. Even if you never read these actual words, it’s going to be my job to help you learn these lessons. I pray that I do that well.

Love you Little Man.

Dad

Three Words: Justice, Beauty, & Evangelism

NT Wright is one of my favorite authors. Every time I read one of his works it challenges me to think more deeply on matters of faith. In the book Surprised by Hope**, Wright brings into focus how the hopes of eternity found in Jesus intersect with how we live today.

Toward the end of the book, Wright suggests that “the church is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’s resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation” (pg. 212). In other words, though we ourselves cannot make the world perfect, as followers of Jesus we should seek to help the world look as much like Jesus’ eternal Kingdom (the new creation) as possible.

He summarizes this mission with three words that have stuck with me since reading his book: Justice, beauty, and evangelism.

Justice is the idea of setting “the whole world right” (pg. 213). Where we see people hurting, where we see oppression, and where we see a degrading of human dignity so that certain persons or groups/classes of people are treated as less than human, Christians should be on the forefront of bringing healing, comfort, peace, and a return to dignity. The Gospel is about God’s solution to sin in the world, presenting Jesus as the one and only Savior-King. Sin is the reason why there is hurt, oppression, and degradation. The Gospel has social implications.

This is why the One who one day will make all things new, wiping away every tear, ending death, and removing pain (Revelation 21:3-5) tells his people to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the strangers and the sick, and visit those imprisoned. Thus, we treat the “least of these” as we would Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35-40).

Not every individual and not every church will be able to address every social ill to the fullest, but we can find our niche and serve well there or support those who do. I am friends with those intimately involved in things like ending human trafficking and ministering to immigrants and refugees. My wife and I believe our main niche in this season of life is foster care. Opportunities abound to work for justice and seek to make the world a little better.

Beauty deals with creativity and the arts. Wright states, “Genuine art is thus itself a response to the beauty of creation, which itself is a pointer to the beauty of God” (pg. 223). He goes on to argue that understanding art in such a way is not to ignore or deny the reality of living in a broken and fallen world. But, he says, “We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as–by God’s grace alone!–one day it will be… When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of the resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission” (pg. 224).

In other words, Christians should seek to create good art (visual, audible, written) that leads people to see the grace and beauty of God through the present veil of darkness and pain. Christian art should rise above mere sentimentality and engage the world with how it presently stands, but it should also point to hope.

God, after all, gave us imaginations. He gave us the ability to tell stories through words, song, images, and paint (and a host of other mediums). Using our imaginations in contrast to pessimism, hopelessness, and darkness, we create beauty that reflects the creativity and re-creativity of God, and, hopefully, points people toward his glory.

Evangelism is “the personal call of the gospel of Jesus to every child, woman, and man” (pg. 225). It is the “announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun” (pg. 227). Evangelism is telling the ultimate story of hope, the very thing that the work of justice and beauty point to.

The world is broken. Sin, mankind’s rebellion against God, steals, kills, and destroys. No one is free from the effects of sin and no one can escape the bondage of personal sin, at least without a Savior to free us from its clutches.

Jesus making all things new in eternity begins today in the hearts of women and men, girls and boys. We’re new creations in Christ, the apostle Paul told the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17). Acknowledging Jesus as Savior-King and becoming new creatures is to “experience genuine human life in the present [and] complete, glorious, resurrected human life int he future” (pg. 230). Evangelism, then, is telling a better story than the world offers by embracing the glorious wonders of everything the Creator offers.

Justice. Beauty. Evangelism. Wright’s book has helped me embrace these ideas in a deeper way in light of eternity. I pray this summary helps you do the same.

**NT Wright, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008)

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