Monday, June 13, 2016

Master’s Monday: Songs that Hold Me Accountable

Over the past couple of months, I have come to appreciate songs that hold me accountable. That probably sounds a bit odd. Let me explain what I mean with an example.

“Joy of the Lord,” written by Ed Cash, is a song I listen to quite frequently. The words make a simple but powerful commitment to trust in the Lord no matter what, and the upbeat tune matches the enthusiasm of the lyrics. I typically find myself singing along with the recording at the top of my lungs (or at least as close to “at the top of my lungs” as seems reasonably considerate in a thinly-walled flat, at 8 AM on a weekday morning…).

However, every time I sing this song, I come to a point where I ask myself, “Can I really sing these words? Coming from my mouth, are they true?” The lyrics of the piece are surprisingly heavy:

Though the tears may fall
My song will rise, my song will rise to You
Though my heart may fail
My song will rise, my song will rise to You
While there’s breath in my lungs
I will praise You, Lord

In the dead of night, I’ll lift my eyes
I’ll lift my eyes to You
When the waters rise, I’ll lift my eyes
I’ll lift my eyes to You
While there’s hope in my heart
I will praise You, Lord

The joy of the Lord is my strength!
The joy of the Lord is my strength!
In the darkness I’ll dance
In the shadows I’ll sing
The joy of the Lord is my strength!

And so on.

You know, it’s pretty easy to jump in on a good tune and affirm that “the joy of the Lord is my strength,” when I’m feeling full of joy. But what about when the tears fall, my heart fails, the waters rise, and the night closes in? What about then? Sometimes, I’m almost scared to sing these words, because when you think about it, they are a commitment to something that is not easy—to trust in the midst of darkness, and joy in the midst of pain. Rather daunting, I’d say.

But then that’s just the whole point, isn’t it? My strength is not my own—rather, it is sourced in the abiding joy of the Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” My prayer every time I sing this particular song is that my Lord would indeed strengthen me to continue clinging to His mighty joy—that when darkness falls and the shadows rise He would keep these words in my mind and that they would be true in my life.

And for now, trusting in His strength, I will continue singing these words with abandon. What are your favorite songs that hold you accountable?


Monday, May 30, 2016

Master’s Monday: Problems

Some of you may be familiar with the famous (or infamous) Bob Wiley introduction: “Maybe I should start. I. Have problems.” I imagine we can all identify to some extent or other with the self-conception those last three words imply. It’s funny to me to think about just how much of the rest of that movie focuses on the question of problems: What are the real problems here? And even more so, who is the one that has them?

I’ve really become aware this year of how easy it is for us to misidentify our own problems. Another way of saying this is that we often insist on asking the wrong questions. Humanities scholars, for instance, find it easy to come to a text with questions that they want answered, philosophical or sociological problems that they want the text to solve. Quite often, however, the author never intended his text as an answer to those particular questions. This dissonance often leaves the resulting “scholarly interpretation” completely skewed.

In my personal life as well, I see my own persistent tendency to misidentify my weaknesses. Often, the area in my life that I am most concerned about neglecting is the one to which I actually devote the most care and energy—at the expense of various other areas of my life about which, not surprisingly, I tend to forget. I worry about being blunt and uncaring in my conversations with friends, when in reality my tendency is to be too concerned about what others might think were I to say what I am really thinking. 

It’s certainly important to watch for and identify the sorts of “problems” that we each find ourselves repeatedly running into. We all have sets of ungodly tendencies that we must always be on guard against. Yet I think it is dangerous to settle into a rut of thinking we have figured out all our “issues,” and that if we just avoid those in future, “we’re good.” A complacency about having figured out our own weaknesses could potentially be as dangerous as thinking that we have none in the first place.

All this to say, let’s continue to question our assumptions about what our “problems” really are. Let’s continue to help one another identify different areas of our lives that may not yet be pleasing to our Lord. Above all, let’s not hide from our real problems by dressing up in the costume of “problems” that aren’t really at issue, at least in any given set of times and circumstances.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Taking The Steps

Once we begin to see ourselves as eternal spirits housed within temporary flesh and we start to recognize some of the forces the flesh puts on us, we can begin to make decisions that free us from the bondage it would put us in.

So many modern-day Christians--in an effort to make sure they stay true to the Reformation idea that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, which, from what I can discern, is a reaction to abuses related to buying and/or earning our salvation, and is another topic for another time--are scared of talking about "my part" in salvation. Lest any of my readers forget, I do believe God is ever working in me to accomplish His good will. I do not think I am out here on my own bringing myself to salvation. That's ridiculous and impossible.

But back to the forces we feel and the decisions we must make...

One of the first forces I recognized was related to my sense of worth. I would be interacting with people in one way or another and the thought would come to mind, "You are not as talented as she," or "You are not as smart, as pretty, as organized or as successful..." I would feel that sinking-heart feeling, that depressing sensation that I was less valuable.

What do we, as Christians walking after the spirit, do with thoughts like that?

Well, first of all, I immediately recognize that those thoughts are self-focused. They are not about focusing on the eternal welfare of others--a Christian concept we followers of Jesus want to have flowing from our hearts. When I speak of "self-focus," my mind immediately makes a connection with the flesh. The flesh, in its independence, has no thought for anything or anyone but itself.

So, I see those thoughts as the flesh putting its force on the real me. The real me, my eternal spirit--given over to the will of my Maker--wants to focus on others and their eternal good. I therefore ask myself, "What does my Maker say about my worth?"

Oh, what joy! He says I don't have to be the best pianist, the prettiest female, the smartest human, the most organized or successful. He says if I will just place myself in His hands, He will make of me something useful and beautiful.

So, I dismiss the thoughts of how I compare to others. I dwell on His view of me. It's powerful reality! It's "if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!"

That's how this understanding works in my moment-by-moment living. Once I embrace God's perspective and refuse to accept the flesh's viewpoint, I can then seek His approval, pray for wisdom as to how He wants to use me, and focus on the eternal welfare of others as I go about doing whatever I understand to be His will for me at the moment.

Does this mean that my flesh will never suggest that old depressing thought again? Of course not. However, the longer I live and the more I embrace God's perspective, the less those kinds of suggestions affect me negatively.

I pray this helps at least someone who reads!

Have a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Walking After The Spirit

The Apostle Paul refers to "the spirit" and "the flesh" in several of his letters. I specifically refer (in this post) to his letters to the Galatians and to the believers in Rome. He admonishes them to walk after the spirit--which brings life and peace, rather than walk after the flesh--which brings death. (Romans 8:13)

For years, I saw "spirit" capitalized in my English version of the Bible, and I thought Paul was always referring to the Holy Spirit. I didn't realize that in the Greek, spirit is never capitalized. When I thought spirit always referred to the third person of the trinity, I was sometimes left with a cloudy understanding.

From what I presently understand, sometimes Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit when he uses the term spirit, but often he is referring to the forever aspect of us which is being made into the image of Jesus as we trust and "walk after" Him.

The flesh is that physical part of us which is dying. It is not evil, it is just independent and will go its own way, do its own thing, unless something is done about it. It gets hungry and says, "Give me something to eat." It gets lonely and says, "Somebody hold me." It gets bored and says, "Give me something fun to do." It sees something it likes to look at and says, "I want to see that." On and on its demands go. If we follow its demands, if we do not subject every one of its requests to the understanding Jesus has given us, and ask the question, "What is pleasing to Him?" we will follow the flesh to our own destruction.

At various stages in life, the flesh demands different things. Our children are subject to forces of the flesh that we sometimes forget we dealt with as youngsters. Depending on our gender, the desires vary somewhat.

As long as we live, we are trapped in this flesh; we have to deal with it. Paul gives us the Christian answer to our dilemma. "Now those who belong to Christ Jesus," he states, "have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Gal 5:24 NAS)

When our flesh puts a force on us to do something, to feel something, to think something, to gaze at something, we have the responsibility to prayerfully examine and crucify, in our own mind (or die to) what is not Christlike. We do not have to give the flesh what it wants.

Getting a better understanding of these two concepts has been life-changing for me, something to sink my teeth into! It's real and exciting, and it works! It's not spiritual-pie-in-the-sky, empty terminology, but it is a way of life that makes everything change for the better! It makes Jesus's teachings, as well instructions from the other New Testament writers come to life! Every situation, every thought, every word, every attitude, every deed must be examined in the light of this reality.

While we never escape feeling the forces of the flesh in this life, we can say with Paul, "I [will] die daily." And we can share in the promise that "if [we live] by the [s]pirit [we] are putting to death the deeds of the body, [and we] will live." (Rom 8:13 NAS)

Thanks be to God who has made a way for us to become His sons and daughters! Do I realize what that means?! If the Bible is true, and we really can become heirs of God, it's too amazing to fully comprehend, but I'm certainly going to keep pursuing the path!