Everyday OTS

Instead of the typical Vacation Bible School (VBS) that most churches do (usually consisting of 5 weekday morning sessions), our church does a 3-day, 2-night Vacation Bible Camp (in which the kids and staff camp out for a little over 48 hours). The kids love it, but it’s a whole lot of work for all the volunteers! This year my older son served on the “work crew,” which was a team of 10 high-schoolers who set up tents, cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, and generally served as the go-fers for the camp. My son (and the rest of the team) worked really hard, with great attitudes–I was super proud of them!

But I was even more pleased when the day after camp, while my son was still very tired, he walked in to the kitchen, saw the sink full of dirty dishes, and immediately stepped up and washed them all. No one asked him to do it, and no one praised him for doing it–he just did it.

Some opportunities to serve (OTS) are big and visible and short-lived, such as serving on the work crew for Vacation Bible Camp. In one sense, that kind of OTS is easy because there is immediate payoff in the kudos that it (rightfully!) procures. Other kinds of OTS are small and seemingly invisible and ongoing, such as washing dishes at home. Though the work itself may be exactly the same (they washed dishes at camp too), the fact that it’s everyday and unending and probably doesn’t garner any praise, makes it much harder to do with a joyful attitude. And I’m not just speaking about my son here!

In Jesus’ parable of the talents (in Matthew 25), the Divine commendation to the faithful servants is: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” It did not matter how much each servant had started with or how much they had gained–what made them “good and faithful servants” was that they had invested and used the little that they had been given. Immediately after this parable, Jesus gives His well-known challenge that what Christians do for “the least of these,” Jesus sees as being done for Him directly. But in what Jesus says there, the righteous who give food and drink and welcome and clothes to Jesus (through doing it for unknown needy ones) don’t even know that they have done that. They are simply going about their everyday lives in kindness and generosity and love. It is an everyday OTS, not a one-time big event. They are being faithful in the little things, serving in the little ways, trusting that their heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward them (Matthew 6:4).

So I hope that we who call ourselves Christians will not only do the big OTS events, but will also faithfully invest in the small, unseen OTS of our everyday lives. Don’t get me wrong–serving at Vacation Bible Camp (or School, as the case may be) is a very valuable investment of time and talent, so do it, and do it joyfully! But don’t stop there and rest on your laurels, but look for the dishes that need to be washed or the disabled daughter who needs a smile or the stressed-out coworker who could use some help. It’s in those little, unseen OTS that we unknowingly serve our Savior and point others to Him.

Double-Sided Change

As a disciple-maker for Christ, I am fascinated by how people actually change and grow and mature in relationship with Christ–I want to know how I can best facilitate that process of change in others. And as an apprentice of Jesus myself, I long to grow deeper in my own relationship with Christ–how does that happen for me?

Different authors have different perspectives on how the change process takes place, and (nerdy person that I am) I’ve been studying the variety of perspectives and trying to figure out where they overlap, with the goal of being able to articulate my own perspective of how a believer in Christ grows toward maturity.

One thing initially is very clear: change is double-sided. There are two sides of the same coin in this process of change. Change is fully a work of our sovereign, good God…AND change is a work that we engage fully in as well.

God is clearly the agent of change. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) He is sovereign over all that he has created–he alone can produce change. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding…” (Daniel 2:20-21) There are other foundational “stones” which make up the structure of the change process, but God is the “capstone,” without which the whole structure would collapse.

God is the producer of change, but he does not bring change about by magic. Though he has the power to do so, he does not do his work of change by simply zapping Christians in their sleep so that they wake up one morning fully sanctified. Rather, he calls us to abide in him (John 15:4), to obey all that he commands (Matthew 28:20), to set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He calls us to actively participate in the process of change, yet with the understanding that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

 

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Here is my attempt to summarize and visualize the process of change: the triune God brings change in Christians as our minds are shaped by his truth, and as we train our hearts to worship him in the midst of the trials he ordains and the tribe (or community) he places us in.

 

 

 

 

 

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God is the producer of change–sanctification is his work from beginning to end. No growth or maturity would happen apart from the foundational saving mercy of God, apart from the truth the Spirit reveals, and apart from the Christian’s union with Christ. The shaping influence of community is because we are united in the Body of Christ, and the formative power of trials is because we share in the sufferings of Christ.

 

 

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God alone forms and sanctifies his children, but we are not passive in the process. We respond and obey and depend and abide, and our action creates space for God to carry out his transforming work–it puts us in a posture of receptivity to the work that he is doing.

Does God’s Anger Explain His Love?

Good & Angry is a book with a bright red cover, written by Professor and Biblical counselor David Powlison. In chapter 10, Powlison makes the startling statement: “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger.” God’s anger and his love are two different but complementary expressions of his goodness. It is precisely because God loves so deeply that he has to be angry at anything that harms the ones he loves.

In the chapter, Powlison spells out four ways in which God expresses his love for his children through his anger:

  1. “In love, the anger that your sin deserves fell on Jesus, not on you.”
  2. “In love, God’s anger works to disarm the power of your sin.”
  3. “God’s anger will deliver you from the pain of other people’s sins.”
  4. “God’s anger serves as a warning and check to protect us from returning to a lifestyle of sin.”

For the Christian, these four aspects of God’s anger and love serve to comfort different aspects of our human struggle. In our fearfulness or self-condemnation, we can remember that Jesus took God’s anger against our sin. In our discouragement and weakness, we can remember that God’s anger works within us against what is wrong with us. In our feeling overwhelmed by aloneness or the unkindness of others toward us, we can remember that God’s anger will one day destroy every cause of pain and sorrow, and he will defend us. In our despair and temptation, we can remember that God’s anger will discipline the ones he loves, including us, so that we might share in his holiness.

In this season of my life, I especially resonate with this reality that in my discouragement over my weakness and regular failure to love my daughter rightly, God’s anger is working to right what is wrong within me. He is not angry with me or disappointed in me, but his anger is aimed at breaking the sin that still clings so closely to me and that keeps me from experiencing the fullness of life in him. To have a God who merely “accepts me as I am” would not be comforting–it would eventually lead to despair–but to have a God whose deep love for me is committed to making me holy, that is truly a comfort, even in the uncomfortableness of wrestling with my habitual sin. God’s anger that works to rid me of my sin explains his love as something far deeper than niceness or tolerance. The love of God expressed in his anger is a holy love…and a love that gives all to make the beloved holy also.

Powlison concludes: “God’s wrath is your hope. God’s wrath is my hope… Wrath is our hope because love masters anger. God’s loving anger resolves the entire problem of evil in a way that brings him inexpressible glory and brings us inexpressible blessing. The God who is love justly condemns evil, severs the power of remnant evil, brings relief from suffering, and protects us from ourselves.”  [pg. 121]

May you–and may I–experience the hope that comes through the loving anger of our righteous and good God.

Is Discipleship Different than Psychotherapy?

In his paradigm-shifting book called Connecting, Christian psychotherapist Dr. Larry Crabb comes to the conclusion that “we have made a terrible mistake.” What is that mistake? He writes: “For most of the twentieth century, we have wrongly defined soul wounds as psychological disorder and delegated their treatment to trained specialists.”

From that mistaken definition and delegation, Crabb identifies three significant implications for the church. One of those implications especially catches my eye because it has to do with discipleship:

The work of discipling has been wrongly defined as less than and different from psychotherapy and counseling. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe discipleship, defined properly as caring for the soul, is the reality, and psychotherapy is the imitation. Perhaps husbands and wives should be discipling each other; perhaps parents should be discipling their children, and friends should be discipling their friends. Maybe they can, and maybe discipling (or shepherding) was designed to do what we think only therapists should tackle.    [pg. 201]

I’m not sure that I would define discipleship solely as “caring for the soul” (though soul-care may be a part of discipleship), but even with a more robust definition (such as this one from discipleship.org: “helping people to trust and follow Jesus”) I do agree that a shift in understanding is needed. We tend to think of discipleship only in academic terms of teaching Biblical truths to a new Christian, but miss the vital aspect of walking alongside one another to help each other trust and follow Jesus in all of life. And maybe, as Dr. Crabb is suggesting, that kind of connecting with one another not only applies in something “spiritual” like learning to pray, but also in something “psychological” like addictions or narcissism or anxiety.

This is not a simplistic solution that promises a cure-all by just throwing Bible verses at a person, but it recognizes that what is actually helpful in therapy is often simply the opportunity to share deeply and be understood and loved in the midst of great struggle. And that mercy is something that Christians are uniquely equipped to offer to one another because that is what we ourselves have received from Christ. Trained therapists may be able to offer a certain level of grace and love to a needy person, but God demonstrates His astounding love to us by extending an even greater love and mercy through Christ, and doing so “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of God (Romans 5:8). Because that is how God has loved us, we are enabled to “encourage one another every day…so that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

Thanks for Noticing!

Melancholy, gloomy Eeyore (of the Winnie the Pooh stories) has a line I use quite often, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes with a bit of my own pessimism and cynicism: “Thanks for noticing!” Throughout my life, I have often felt unnoticed and unappreciated (perhaps largely due to my ISFJ personality, which is described as “the hard-working unsung hero who gets the background jobs done”), but now that I am the parent of a child with special needs, I feel that “invisibleness” and “aloneness” even more keenly.

My wife and I just returned from a week at Mt Hermon Family Camp, together with our younger two children (one of whom is our daughter with special needs). Though the staff of the conference center do a wonderful job of accommodating and caring for children with special needs, the reality is that our child’s limitations become our limitations that keep us from experiencing camp in the same way as families without special needs. And though we were surrounded by wonderful friends and families who love God and love us, we can still feel terribly alone because everyone is so busy doing all the things they can do that they don’t notice the few on the sidelines who would love to enter in but can’t.

Thus I was deeply touched and tremendously grateful for a little girl named Sophia, who throughout the week of camp, showed genuine interest in getting to know our Anah. Sophia’s kindness to my daughter was an even greater kindness to me, though I’m sure she had no idea how much it ministered to me. At mealtimes Sophia’s smiling face would appear, just to say hi to Anah, and she would linger long enough for Anah to get a slow, stilted reply out. One mealtime, as we sat at the table alone, Sophia even asked if she could join us, and we got to know her a bit over lunch. Another afternoon, after all the kids who competed in the 3-on-3 basketball tournament had cleared out and Anah was granny-shooting a beat-up volleyball on the hoop that the gracious staff person had lowered for her, guess who showed up? The few other people in the gym hadn’t bothered to say hi at all, but when Sophia arrived she came right over and cheered for Anah’s uncoordinated attempts to get the ball in the hoop.

On our last full day of camp, my son wanted to go on the canoes and then swim in the pool with his new friend, and at the last minute I decided to bring Anah along, knowing that she loves the water, but also knowing that she would hate the hike down to the pool and back. Well, it just so happened that my son’s new friend (and his dad) go to the same church as Sophia and her family, and they decided to come along too, so it ended up to be three dads and five kids. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a girl like Sophia would have a dad who is also patient and kind, but no one complained or even commented about Anah’s painstaking slowness down the steep trail, and for one time during the week, I didn’t feel so alone.

So thank you, Sophia–thanks for noticing a little girl (and her dad) who would have otherwise been very alone in a place that is meant for relationships and fun. I know you weren’t trying to do anything heroic or special, but that is what made your genuine kindness so wonderful. May God bear much more fruit from your compassionate heart as you love others like Jesus does!

Good News for a Weary Parent

I’m reading a book by Paul Tripp, called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, in preparation for a seminar my wife and I are teaching at the JEMS Mt Hermon Family Camp coming up next week. Reading books on parenting, especially books by people of such wisdom and experience as Paul Tripp or Elyse Fitzpatrick, often tend to produce guilt and discouragement in me, as I see how far my parenting is from the grace-saturated and Gospel-driven parenting that is described. Therefore when these writers (whom I look up to so much) honestly admit their parenting failures, God stirs some hope in me–that He can redeem and bring good out of my own failures as a parent too.

One section of Tripp’s book is especially convicting (or maybe I should put it this way: many sections are quite convicting, but I’m only going to write about this one!), in which he is expounding the principle that as parents we “have no power whatsoever to change [our] child.” He writes:

“God has given you authority for the work of change, but has not granted you the power to make that change happen. But we buy into the delusion of thinking again and again that that power is ours. We think that if we speak just a little bit louder, or stand a little bit closer, or make the threat a little bit scarier, or the punishment a little more severe, then our children will change.” [pg. 61]

Instead of using tactics of fear or reward or shame to try to produce change in our children, “Parenting is about your humble faithfulness in being willing to participate in God’s work of change for the sake of your children.” This is hardest for me in the parenting of my adopted daughter with special needs. My hopes that her capacity for reason and communication and self-care would increase through my parenting have gradually been drying up over the course of the almost five years that she has been in our family. Thus my patience is being replaced by cynicism, my kindness by harsh words, and my gentle shepherding by power and control. I have admitted many times in desperate prayer that I cannot bring change in my daughter, and yet I keep going back to these same old strategies to try to prove that I am actually capable of producing change.

Merely admitting my inability to elicit change in the heart of my daughter is not good news. But what IS good news is that God can bring change. He may not bring the kind of change I am longing for, and He may bring it on a different timetable than what I would prefer, but He can indeed bring change–that is within His ability. Therefore as Tripp sums it up:

“Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God… God is with you. He wants what is best for you and your children, and no one but he has the power to produce it. He has not placed the burden of change on your shoulders because he would not require you to do what you cannot do. God has simply called you as a parent to be a humble and faithful tool of change in the lives of your children. And for that there is moment by moment by moment grace.” [pg. 70]

 

A Puritanical Notion

How do you view the call to holiness in the Christian life? If you, like me, have grown up in a so-called Christian setting, you might have gathered that the Christian life is about learning to do a bunch of things that you really don’t want to do, and letting go of all the things you would prefer to do. Or if you’re not a Christian, perhaps you’re wondering why you would ever want to go to heaven, if heaven consists mainly of an unending monotone chanting of “Holy, holy, holy!”

We tend to think of holiness in the same way we might think of a kale salad–with a bit of a sigh and a resigned sense of responsibility, because after all, it would be much better for us than that bag of chips or slice of chocolate cake. (If you love kale salad, I apologize for using it in such a derogatory manner here!) So if we’re “being good” we’ll skip the junk food and eat the kale salad, even though we’d rather have the cake.

If that’s how we tend to view holiness, then when we read of someone who says: “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. [It] is of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature,” we might roll our eyes and wonder where they got such a crazy notion. But that is in fact what Jonathan Edwards wrote about holiness.

In the same note, Edwards admitted the reality that is often still the case for us as well: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing…” In other words: like kale salad. So how could Edwards move from a childhood notion of holiness as morose or unpleasant, and come to see it instead as sweet and lovely and serene?

From what I’m learning about Jonathan Edwards, he viewed holiness as only a divine attribute, and therefore impossible for us as humans to attain. Therefore the only way for Christians to grow in holiness is for us to participate in the holiness of God. But that is in fact what we do! In regeneration, we are united to Christ, and in that union, as I Peter 1:4 says, Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” Christ is holy, and because we are united to Him, we partake in His holiness. And that holiness is not sour, but sweet; not morose, but delightful.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wryly comments on how the satanic powers have successfully hijacked the word “puritanical” to bend it to their own deceptive schemes. Though it technically means “that which is characteristic of Puritans,” it has come to be synonymous with “strait-laced, stuffy, prudish, prim.” But that is not at all what characterized the Puritans, and certainly not the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, as is clear from his depiction of holiness as “sweet and ravishingly lovely.”

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of holiness, that we would not merely resign ourselves to it as an unpleasant but necessary thing, but long for it and strive after it (Hebrews 12:14) as a sweet fruit of our union with Christ.