Highlights from CCEF Conference

My wife and I greatly enjoyed attending the CCEF National Conference together this past weekend! Here are a few of the highlights for me, along with some oimg_1116ther random observations from our trip…

Most beautiful house: on Forest Ave, a few blocks from where we were staying on the North Shore in Chattanooga.

Favorite new song I learned at the conference: We Will Feast in the House of Zion

Favorite kinda new song we sang at the conference: Psalm 126

Favorite old song we sang at the conference: How Firm a Foundation (In case you can’t tell, singing together with 2000 other Christians so many songs rich in Gospel truths was one of the best parts of the conference for me!)

Favorite quote from the conference: Joni Eareckson Tada compared suffering to “splash-overs of hell,” but then said that “Splash-overs of heaven are: finding Jesus with you in the splash-overs from hell.”

Best find in the conference bookstore: The Radical Book for Kids, selling for $12.50 (50% off) before it has even been released!

Best restaurant food: sweet potato fries at Urban Stack in Chattanooga. So good!

Best lunch deal: a 4-pack of meal-size Santa Fe Chicken Salads for $5 (total!), from Costco.

Favorite insight from a speaker: Aaron Sironi reminded us that the essence of marriage is a one-flesh union, therefore marital conflict is more like an autoimmune disease (i.e. a body fighting against itself) than like a boxing match (2 opponents fighting each other).

Favorite speaker: David Powlison is a man I greatly respect, whose writing and teaching have become very influential in my thinking. He did not have a full plenary session to teach this time, but I was scrambling to jot down notes even from his opening remarks at the beginning of the conference–he has a lot of wisdom to share.

Most touching moment in the conference: Joni Eareckson Tada’s birthday landed during the conference, so we all sang Happy Birthday to her in the session when she and ice-signDavid Powlison had a “fireside chat.” Then Ken Tada (her husband) and Nan Powlison (David’s wife) came out with a gift for Joni and honored her–it was an emotional moment.

Most confusing road sign: We flew into Atlanta, and then drove up to Chattanooga, and all along the highway we kept seeing this sign. Huh?!
I finally came to the conclusion that it meant that the section of roadway that was a bridge might be icy even if the rest of the road was not icy, so proceed with caution. If I’m ever driving that road in winter, I guess I’ll have to watch out.

Making Space

One of my favorite descriptions of spiritual disciplines comes from Henri Nouwen, who says that discipline and discipleship have the same root word, and disciplines are “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” To create space means that you must “prevent everything in your life from being filled up…that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied.”

My wife and I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend the CCEF National Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee this weekend. We were doubly blessed to have a couple days on either side of the conference to pull away from the busyness of our regular life, to rest and refresh. So we’re finishing up a stay in a little town called Peachtree City, img_1091just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where we have had lots of “un-occupied” time, rather than filling up every spare moment with something to see or do. And in that “space” God is refreshing our hearts in ways that we did not plan on.

As I was working on a writing project yesterday, there was enough space available in the unhurried afternoon to follow some “rabbit trails” of what I was studying, and God led me to some discoveries that were surprising and exciting (at least to me!). I was looking at Luke 5:16 where it says that Jesus often withdrew to desolate places to pray, and I decided to explore the word “withdrew.” What I discovered was that the Greek word in Scripture that is translated “withdraw” or “withdrew” in English is a comprised of two words together–the preposition that means “under” and the verb that means “to leave space which may be filled or occupied by another.”

So when Jesus withdrew, it literally means He went “under space.” He submitted to (i.e. came under the authority of) some empty space in order to have room to be filled and occupied by another, namely His Father, through prayer. Jesus went to a desolate place, where there was nothing to fill His time or preoccupy His heart. But He did not do that merely to empty Himself as in Buddhism, but in order that His mind and heart could be occupied fully with His Father in prayer.

May you–and may I–learn to create space in the midst of our busyness, so that our hearts can be filled with all that the Father desires to lavish on us.

Hurry Up & Learn Patience!

I’m all for patience–I just wish it wasn’t such a slow process!

In my family growing up, anger was often present but rarely acknowledged. Outwardly we were a very calm family who believed that all anger was ungodly, but that simply meant that our anger was only expressed in a simmering, passive-aggressive manner. So I’ve never thought of myself as an angry person.

My perceptiogood-and-angryn of myself has been changing over the past four years since our adopted, special-needs daughter joined our family. There have been far more visible expressions of anger coming out of me in these four years than ever before. God is graciously allowing me to see that I am not the patient, calm person that I thought I was.

So when David Powlison’s book, Good and Angry, was recently published, it immediately caught my attention. Powlison calls the good form of anger “the constructive displeasure of mercy,” and he says there are four key aspects in that: patience, forgiveness, charity, and constructive conflict. His description of patience was very insightful to me:

You bear with difficult people and events, not out of indifference, resignation, or cowardice. You hang in there because you are driven by a different purpose. You are willing to work slowly to solve things. Patience is not passivity. It is how to be purposeful and constructive in the face of great difficulties. You are even willing to live constructively for a long time within seeming insoluble evils. By definition, patience means that what’s wrong doesn’t change right away. (pg 78)

That’s part of my struggle in loving my daughter: I know my impatient anger toward her is wrong, but if I think that the only other option is to have no anger, then I just end up in resignation or indifference, which also is wrong. So to see true patience as the Godly balance between those two extremes is helpful—I can still agree that her mindlessness and disobedience is wrong, but at the same time be willing to work slowly over a long period of time to solve that. To be patient with her means agreeing that something is wrong without demanding instant change. When I stop to think about it, I know that some things are changing in my daughter, but it’s just extremely slow. So I know I need to continue to persist in training her (even though the easier thing is to slide into resignation), and yet in the training accept the reality that change is far, far slower than I would like (rather than pushing for immediate change).

The ironic thing is that my daughter has been far more patient with me in my stumbling attempts to love than I have with her in her stumbling attempts to learn.

Where Unworthiness & Great Worth Meet

The final verse of a hymn sung by Keith and Kristyn Getty portrays a strikingly beautiful contrast:

Two wonders here that I confess
My worth and my unworthiness
My value fixed – my ransom paid
At the cross

The cross of Christ clearly establishes my unworthiness. Like all of mankind I was dead in my sin, completely incapable of knowing God or pleasing God–cross-at-hilltopand it was my sin that put Jesus on that cruel cross. Jesus did not suffer and die because I was worthy of His salvation, but He faced the wrath of God in my place out of His great love for me, even when I was dead in my sin.

But amazingly, the cross not only establishes my unworthiness, but at the very same time establishes my great worth. The fact that the sinless Son of God would bear shame and wrath and separation from His Father on my behalf places inestimable worth on me. It is not worth that I have somehow earned or gained, but worth that is bestowed because of the incalculable cost that Jesus paid to make me His own.

Unworthiness and great worth meet at the cross. There the ransom for my unworthiness is paid, and there–through that ransom–my worth is established. Lyricist Graham Kendrick says of this hymn:

We need to sing about our worth from God’s perspective, not ours or our cultures, and God’s perspective centres in on the cross.


The Dentist’s Perspective

This morning I took my daughter Anah to her regular 6-month appointment at the dentist. They took x-rays of her mouth, cleaned her teeth, gave her a fluoride treatment, and even did some extra work of putting sealant on her lower teeth. Then she got to pick out a prize from the “treasure chest” and get her picture taken for the “Zero Cavity Wall” of photos. It felt almost normal.

dentist-officeWhat a difference from 4 years ago when I took her to the same dentist shortly after arriving home with her from China! In that first visit, she fought against everything they tried to do–she was terrified of the x-ray machine, she had to be physically restrained in the dentist chair, and they did well just to get enough peeks into her mouth to see that she had cavities on just about every tooth. Even after all of that initial work was completed (under general anesthesia), she still fought and struggled with everything–especially x-rays–so I dreaded those trips to the dentist.

In time, however, she gradually has learned what to expect at the dentist’s office. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for her dentist and the hygienists and office staff there, who have been truly kind and gentle and gracious (and persistent!) with her through all of this. And so this morning, they all were commenting what a huge difference it was today compared to that first year or two.

As I drove home with her, I thought about how much I need the dentist’s perspective on all the other areas of Anah’s life too. The dentist only sees her 2 or 3 times in a year, so every time she sees her, she can see some significant change in Anah. I see Anah every day, and oftentimes the continuous daily battles and struggles eclipse any sense of progress or growth. It’s only when I step back and look at last year or 3 years ago that I can see that there really is improvement.

I suppose it is the same in my life too. When I fall again to the same sin or struggle that I’ve dealt with for years, it feels like I will never change. But if I can look beyond the daily battle to see the longer term perspective, then I can see that indeed God is at work changing and sanctifying my heart in Him. It’s just a slow process.

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”          Philippians 1:6

Adopted, yet Waiting for Adoption

Romans 8 has long been a favorite Bible passage of mine, because of the strong undercurrent of HOPE that runs through it. Hope, for me as a Christian, is not merely a nice-sounding wish that maybe things will get better someday, but it is a certainty of glory that will surely come but is not yet. Because that hope is certain but yet future, we as Christians live in a tension between what is already true and what is not yet realized fully.

Spiritual adoption is one aspect of this already-not yet tension. Human adoption–to the extent that it mirrors this same tension–gives us a more tangible picture of this spiritual reality.

Romans 8:15-17 says that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” and therefore “we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ.” We have received adoption–it is past tense, completed…already. Adoption gives us a new status as children of God and heirs with Christ. That is what we are–present tense…already. But then just a few verses later, in Romans 8:23, we see that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” That’s something we’re waiting for and hoping for…it’s not yet. So we are adopted already, yet we’re waiting for adoption. How can that be?

Adoption changes our status. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). That is the already part. But adoption doesn’t immediately change our situation. Our status has been changed to son/daughter and heir, but we have not yet received the inheritance. Whether a child enters a family biologically or through adoption, they are still a child and do not receive their full inheritance until adulthood. And therefore we groan and wait and hope (Romans 8:23-25).

ice-cream-for-anahI see this same already-not yet tension at play in my family’s adoption of my daughter Anah. This Saturday will mark 4 years since her status changed from a ward of the state in China to the daughter of Daniel & Vera Christian. All the mounds of paperwork have been completed. She is officially ours…already. And yet in many ways it feels as if nothing has changed. We still can’t have a conversation with her–only scripted lines that we tell her to say. We don’t really know her–we don’t have any clue who she really is as a person because she’s lived her whole life letting others think for her. And we’re no longer sure if any of these things are going to change…certainly not yet. Her family naimg_0364me has changed to ours, but inside she seems to still be the same little girl that marched into our room–and into our lives–four years ago. Already…but not yet.

And so we groan, and we wait, and we try to hope. But we are realizing more and more that our hope cannot be in what we will do to train her and help her to grow. No, the only real hope we have is that God also will adopt her into His family. Because then–and only then–will there be the certainty that her broken mind and body will one day be redeemed and made whole (Romans 8:23). And then we will know her for who God has made her to be, in all her sweetness and silliness and creativity, without the dull mindlessness that now remains as a frustrating reminder of her pre-adoption life.


The VIM of Retreats

Image 12I have said before that I believe spiritual retreats are a foundational discipline–not of greater value than other disciplines, but foundational in the sense of primary. In the hurried, noisy culture in which most of us live, we rarely pause to reflect or listen, and even more rarely do we pull aside from the busyness to simply be alone with God with no agenda. Yet it is in those quiet places of solitude that the truth of the Gospel sinks deeper than theological knowledge and moves our hearts to worship the God who saves. Retreats create space in our lives to pursue other vital disciplines, which otherwise would not happen (or would only happen sporadically and distractedly).

So if that’s the case, why don’t we retreat more often? If retreats set the stage for so many other areas of spiritual growth, it would be foolish to allow retreats to be a rarity in our lives. And yet for most of us, myself included, rare retreating is the reality. Why is that?

Dallas Willard used the acronym VIM to describe the elements necessary for spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. There has to be the right Vision, the right Intention or decision, and these have to be accompanied by adequate Means of carrying it out. Willard says “We simply cannot accomplish at the intention level what has to be accomplished at the vision level, and we cannot accomplish at the means level what has to be accomplished at the intention and the vision level. One common problem is that we tend to accentuate the means and get all the means, but we do not have in place the vision or the intention” (from a lecture given at Talbot Seminary in 2008, called Beyond Pornography). I think this goes a long way in explaining why retreats are so rare even though they accomplish so much good in our hearts.

Retreats are part of the Means of growth toward maturity in Christ. But if our Vision of retreats is that they are merely optional luxuries that are nice occasionally, then we will not be likely to utilize the means available to us, no matter how many opportunities and resources we might be given. Likewise, if we see retreats as important, yet never Intend or decide to build them in to our schedules, they will not happen.

Therefore if we are going to make the most of this foundational means of spiritual transformation, we must first be convinced that retreats are indeed vital–not in and of themselves, but because they create space for deeper relating with God and one another. And as that vision grows, we must then make it our intention to actually retreat–something as time-consuming and counterintuitive as a retreat will not just happen unless it is decided on and planned for. And then, only when that vision and intention are in place, will retreats become a foundational means of growth toward maturity in Christ.