in praise of not having it all together

…they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

2 Corinthians 10:10

Tim Gombis’s book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry is most helpful, and possibly even groundbreaking in giving us a view of Paul, pre and post conversion, and how that affected Paul’s service to God. And how that might speak to us today, even those who are in the trenches in ministry, and yet doing so in a way that is often more like Paul before his conversion to Christ, completely flipped after that conversion.

Too many of us have taken on the worldly attitude that we are out to sell something, have a big impact on our communities, be successful in terms of numbers: growing and growing, and just be the epitome of success inside and out. Win, win, win is a big part of that, being winners. Or having just that image that people imagine is good, maybe even Christian, and perish the thought: even like Jesus. After all, some have compared Jesus to images contrary to the “love your enemies” cross bearing picture given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

We ought to not only much prefer, but accept nothing but honesty to God and to each other. And while we should pray and do our best to present the truth in Christ as fully as possible, faithful to Scripture, to what we’re hoping God has given us, that should be done in utter humility with a willingness to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, maybe to trip over our words some. That might encourage the kind of church the New Testament envisions in which everyone is a participant. We’re not out to impress each other, but to seek God together, and be faithful together in God’s covenant in Christ.

We need to get rid of the notion once for all that we’re to have it all together, whatever that means. What we do desire is to be growing together into the image and full maturity of Christ. Nothing else matters. What we need to see is not us, but Christ in us. No pretense, all real, honest, even when raw and most often with the sense of falling short. But God’s grace in Christ making the needed difference. In and through Jesus.

God meets sincerity

God is well-known in Judah;
in Israel, he’s a household name.
He keeps a house in Salem,
his own suite of rooms in Zion.
That’s where, using arrows for kindling,
he made a bonfire of weapons of war.

Oh, how bright you shine!
Outshining their huge piles of loot!
The warriors were plundered
and left there impotent.
And now there’s nothing to them,
nothing to show for their swagger and threats.
Your sudden roar, God of Jacob,
knocked the wind out of horse and rider.

Fierce you are, and fearsome!
Who can stand up to your rising anger?
From heaven you thunder judgment;
earth falls to her knees and holds her breath.
God stands tall and makes things right,
he saves all the wretched on earth.
Instead of smoldering rage—God-praise!
All that sputtering rage—now a garland for God!

Do for God what you said you’d do—
he is, after all, your God.
Let everyone in town bring offerings
to the One Who Watches our every move.
Nobody gets by with anything,
no one plays fast and loose with him.

Psalm 76; MSG

It’s important to read the psalm in its entirety. You see the backdrop, the focus. I want to emphasize a bit the end:

Do for God what you said you’d do—
he is, after all, your God.
Let everyone in town bring offerings
to the One Who Watches our every move.
Nobody gets by with anything,
no one plays fast and loose with him.

Especially the thought about playing fast and loose with God. I think of Balaam, and how God seemed to let Balaam have his way, almost it seems with God’s blessing. But God told Balaam that Balaam’s path was a reckless one in God’s sight (Numbers 22:32). The point for us is whether or not we’re sincere in seeking God, and seeking to live in line with God’s call to us in Christ. We need to be sincere. One is either sincere or not sincere. More sincerity does not make one more sincere. You either are, or you’re not.

God sees through whatever charade we might be putting on. In the midst of all our weakness God is looking for just a drop of sincerity, untainted by some other motive. Even just the desire not to play fast and loose with God. God will meet us when we’re genuinely sincere. In and through Jesus.

no more drippy sentimentality

God, God . . . my God!
Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.

Psalm 22:1-2; MSG

On a human level I like the Bible because it’s real, not flinching from life as it is, not providing some way of escape or denial. But facing it, and being honest and truthful about it.

So much of pop culture, even Christian popular culture, and specifically the evangelical tradition of it which I lived in many years is full of sentimentality. By sentimental, what I mean is feeling good, close, warm, and that everything is alright or will work out. Maybe we can add the power of positive thinking into the mix.

We do need faith in the midst of all the trouble and trauma of life. And that’s exactly what we see, even in the opening lines of Psalm 22 as rendered by Eugene Peterson. The psalmist echoed by Jesus on the cross did not hide their pain or true thoughts. And actually, when you think about it, this was a part of their faith.

We need to read the entire psalm to see that there is indeed a good ending. That God lifts up the one in pain, those in pain as well, all who look to him, all who put their hope in God indeed right in the midst of their pain and trouble.

Honesty before God first, and before others where appropriate is important. We do no one any favors by sugarcoating what is bitter. Scripture doesn’t do that. Jesus didn’t. We who are his followers should not, either. We’re in this together in Jesus, but in real life, not just the good, presentable part, but all of it. In and through Jesus.

Thoughts inspired by Tim Gombis’s helpful podcast: Faith Improvised: Sovereignty, Suffering, Sports, Etc.

the breakthrough we need

A David Psalm

When I call, give me answers. God, take my side!
Once, in a tight place, you gave me room;
Now I’m in trouble again: grace me! hear me!

You rabble—how long do I put up with your scorn?
How long will you lust after lies?
How long will you live crazed by illusion?

Look at this: look
Who got picked by God!
He listens the split second I call to him.

Complain if you must, but don’t lash out.
Keep your mouth shut, and let your heart do the talking.
Build your case before God and wait for his verdict.

Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say.
“More, more.”
I have God’s more-than-enough,
More joy in one ordinary day

Than they get in all their shopping sprees.
At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep,
For you, God, have put my life back together.

Psalm 4; MSG

There are times when we may have quit in your spirit. Where there seems no where to go. When one feels hopeless. That is partly what is so great about the psalms . We encounter real people living in the real world. The psalms speaks our language, sometimes in ways that are uncomfortable, and probably a bit off the mark, sometimes more than a bit. Sounds like us at least in our private spaces at times, doesn’t it?

But we find just like the psalmist here, David, that God answers us. We may have to keep reading in the psalms before we land on one that meets us where we’re at. That was the case with me last night. So I opened my The Message Bible to Psalm 1 and began to read. But stopped after reading Psalm 4. And sought God’s help in prayer from that. And God helped me, removing the complete discouragement with a sense of peace, as well as an imagination for something that was encouraging.

So we need to find our space with God. The psalms are perhaps the best in helping us do so. Meeting us in our various circumstances and moods, God helping us as we enter them to find God and what we need from God. In and through Jesus.

heart to heart honesty

An honest answer
is like a warm hug.

Proverbs 24:26; MSG

An honest answer presupposes a question. More often than not, I would suppose that questions would have to do with problems. Whatever the case, what’s called for here is honesty. And what’s most fully honest is heart to heart.

This is about telling the truth in grace, that is with kindness. And also with wisdom. How we say it is as important as what we say. And just what is said, also. Honesty doesn’t mean dumping all we perceive to be the truth on them. They might not be ready for that. Honesty means the answer at least points them in the right direction.

A truly honest answer also involves humility. We don’t pretend we’re above the fray, beyond the struggle they face. We have our own struggles, and even if it’s not precisely what they face, it will be helpful to them for us to acknowledge such.

Honesty involves not only telling the truth about the problem, possibly gently pointing out a fault. But honesty also truthfully encourages. We point out the good we see in them, give them the praise they deserve, and thank God together for God’s grace in helping them and us in our struggles. Of course sharing how God has and is helping us through our own difficulties.

Yes, an honest answer is what’s needed. That ends up being heart to heart, and like a warm hug as the Scripture says. What we all need to receive and be open to give.

when all seems against you

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said:

“May the day of my birth perish,
and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day—may it turn to darkness;
may God above not care about it;
may no light shine on it.
May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more;
may a cloud settle over it;
may blackness overwhelm it.
That night—may thick darkness seize it;
may it not be included among the days of the year
nor be entered in any of the months.
May that night be barren;
may no shout of joy be heard in it.
May those who curse days curse that day,
those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
May its morning stars become dark;
may it wait for daylight in vain
and not see the first rays of dawn,
for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me
to hide trouble from my eyes.

“Why did I not perish at birth,
and die as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me
and breasts that I might be nursed?
For now I would be lying down in peace;
I would be asleep and at rest
with kings and rulers of the earth,
who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
with princes who had gold,
who filled their houses with silver.
Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
like an infant who never saw the light of day?
There the wicked cease from turmoil,
and there the weary are at rest.
Captives also enjoy their ease;
they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are freed from their owners.

“Why is light given to those in misery,
and life to the bitter of soul,
to those who long for death that does not come,
who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
who are filled with gladness
and rejoice when they reach the grave?
Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Job 3:1-26

One of the things I love about Scripture is the rugged, unapologetic, fully exposed truth about one’s experience and feelings. It is uncomfortable at times, even dreadful, yes, troubling, but it captures something of what we all experience in this life.

I return again and again to the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes, especially for me, the latter. There’s plenty of wisdom to be gathered from them both, along with the standard essential wisdom we find in Proverbs.

This tells me that it’s okay to express our true thoughts, especially to God. Job was doing so with friends he trusted, but who, alas, turned out to be untrustworthy. That teaches us something, too. But Job was undeterred. He let them have their say, and he would have his. Back and forth it went. Until the end, when God intervened.

We have to read the entire story. We don’t want to remain forever in minor key. But somehow all of that is included in what we might call the song of Scripture. God didn’t erase these words of Job, this part from the story. Indeed, it’s an integral part. Without it, the story would be incomplete. It mirrors something of our own story.

God deals with us as we are, where we’re at. Not how we would like things to be. We come to God as we are, frankly confessing and simply speaking all that is on our hearts, and often troubled minds. And we wrestle through it, like Job did.

An essential part of genuine faith in and through Jesus.

making prayer a lifelong habit

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

If there’s one thing that should characterize us as Christians, it should be love. But as far as what we do goes: prayer. Of course we want to do all things in love. But prayer should mark us, mark our journey.

But it’s too easy, in fact more like ingrained in us to be rather prayerless. We pray less, not more, if at all. Prayer as a simple matter of fact is simply talking to God. Hopefully in genuine, sincere praise to God. I admit I’ve been too often poor on both counts.

I think it helps to be in scripture as a general habit throughout much of our day. Make it simple. Don’t think you have to sit and read scripture for hours, and then pray for an hour or more. No, just a bit here and there, with prayers along the way. Trying to be open to hearing God, asking God questions, speaking to God about what one is up against, and hopefully especially on behalf of others who need our love and prayers.

If we think our prayers have to be a certain way, maybe ornate and even long like some of the religious leaders in Jesus’s day used to do to impress others, than we’re thankfully mistaken. Just look at the Psalms. “Help!” is a good prayer. We use our language. If it happens to sound like scripture, fine. And again, remember the Psalms. They often get pretty raw. And as we seek to pray what we believe God wills from scripture, all the better. But our prayers need to come from our hearts. So that we pray what we’re really thinking and feeling to God. As we do that, God will meet us and help us.

I sometimes think disparaging thoughts about myself. Many counsel against repeating such thoughts, but I think it’s quite okay to do so as long as we seek to live in God’s presence always. God can help us revise such, although some of what we think that way might well be grounded in truth. So that like the tax collector, we might be more justified in God’s eyes than those who think they somehow have it all together, and actually look down on others.

So let’s pray. Short prayers along the way. For our needs, and for the needs of others. For God’s will to be done, so that God might be glorified in all things in and through Jesus.

answer the questions we know, not the many things we don’t know

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

Over the course of one’s life, much seems to be shrouded in mystery. And I’m thinking not so much in looking back, though that’s true, but in living through it. And then there’s the nebulous in between stuff, which we had enough understanding to work through, and either did well, or well enough, or not.

It is critical in one’s life to take a radical stance in acting on what we do know, which includes a whole host of things. I can’t emphasize this enough to help others avoid my errors, but also for me in the present. The only way I can avoid self-deception along with satanic deception is to stay on the straight and narrow course of obedience to God’s word. And what that involves is both very gospel and church oriented. And again, it’s rooted in the word, but the goal of that being an interactive relationship with God in communion with the church. And of course our lives in all of this are to be a witness to the world.

In answering the questions we know, I am getting at plain old fashioned obedience to scripture, nonetheless. To take a lot more of it literally, than not. And that involves good reading, meditation, and study. Of course we read scripture as both a human and divine book. So that we don’t do fanciful things with it in working at getting at the plain sense of its meaning. And we consider it in its entirety, and learn from biblical scholars who do the same. We stay the course not only of scripture, but within the latitude and accepted parameters of the church’s interpretation and understanding.

Let me say again that this is crucial. Life is going to throw us some serious issues along the way, at least in our minds, but also in reality. Some of it in my own life has definitely been a matter of the mind. But others definitely real, as well as difficult. We need scripture and the church, and to be honest to God, and honest to others, particularly those in leadership, as well as a trusted, wise friend.

So let’s concentrate on doing well in what we know, and trust God to help us be faithful in that, as well as through the more difficult matters, along with what we don’t understand at all. And to learn to keep doing this, and growing in it, in and through Jesus.

to tell the truth

To Tell the Truth was a popular American television show which featured three people all claiming to be a certain person, of course only one of them being that person. It was interesting how hard it was for the contestants along with the television audience to guess who the real ___ ___ was. Truth telling, as Scot McKnight points out in at least one of his books, is so very basic to following Christ, and is surely underrated. Not that we don’t think it’s important, but that we don’t think much about it, maybe because we rather take it for granted, and maybe also because we rationalize some of it away at times.

Somewhere recently I read that if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. In our society we’re meant to present ourselves in public, a good example of that, when one has a job interview. They are supposed to “sell themselves,” giving all the appearance of having it all together. Not that there can’t be positive job interviews in which one presents just why they might do well in the job they’re applying for. And then look at our political campaigns. What if there would be an election between candidates who were really honest and simply running as public servants? Maybe it would be quite boring to many, but it would have the potential of having substance, and the style would surely be much better, because these candidates could be real.

It’s interesting to me how impressed people might at least act toward me when they first meet me (“first impressions”), and later become disillusioned when they get to know the real me. Which is why I don’t care at all any more about first impressions I might make on others, except that I don’t want to be a stumbling block, but rather, a witness for the gospel. They want some ideal, but when they get to know the real Ted Gossard, they end up disillusioned, and rightfully so, because their image has been broken.

Again, thinking back to that piece (can’t recall it): If something is too good to be true, that’s because it is. What is ultimately needed is not for others to know the real me, and it would be better to spare anyone of that. I don’t even know the real me, entirely. Although truth telling remains paramount, and would include one being forthright about one’s weaknesses when that might be appropriate, along with their strengths, hopefully working on the former and thanking God for the gift of the latter. But what is really needed is a focus on the Truth, on Jesus himself. It is not about us, after all, but only about him. God made known in Jesus by the Spirit, the one Truth that is worth believing in entirely, and can change our lives forever.