Gift 56 – Committing to Disciplined Spiritual Growth is Not the Same Thing as Working to Earn Your Salvation

Quite the title, huh?

A while back I heard a friend comment that his daughter needs less of the gospel in her life. I asked what he meant. He said that the constant reiteration of the grace of the cross at school and at church had made her lazy in her “spiritual life” and even with homework. Grace, grace, grace resulted in lethargy.

But this is a misunderstanding of the gospel—or at least a disfigurement of the intended fruit of the gospel in a person’s life. Our post Reformation Christian culture is often prepared to call out legalism in its many forms, but sometimes not so well equipped to encourage a growing spiritual devotion, especially in young people, for fear they will believe that doing good deeds or becoming a good person is how to earn God’s favor. But maybe this neglect of discipleship is one of the factors in the spiritual laziness my friend was noticing.

But the gospel, believe it or not, is more than just forgiveness. It’s the promise of a new heart.

If God is a gardener, then the gospel is the soil in which we’re meant to increase, not in order to earn God’s affection, but fueled and fed by it. This means growth, and fruit, and flourishing.plant

If a person’s reception of the gospel results in their loving God and others less, then it probably wasn’t the gospel, rather what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace.”

Personally, I have found that spiritual intentionality actually increases my capacity to receive God’s love and grace—not that he loves me any more as I put forth effort, but that my life is in a better posture to receive. Just as a hollowed out cup can hold more water, an eager, obedient, disciplined life is able to understand and embrace God’s mercies more readily.

God’s grace is a new soil in which to grow more than it is a declaration that the plant doesn’t matter. My prayer for you, Rea, is that your roots go down deep into the love and grace of our God. And, firmly rooted, you will grow to the fullness of all that God is calling you to be as His beloved child.

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  – Titus 2:11-12

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Gift 55 – Kingdom Come

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them.

Dear Rea,

Right now there is an extremist Islamic militant group called ISIS that has been wreaking havoc on innocent civilians around the world. Just last week they attacked Paris, killing 129 people and wounding even more.

This particular terrorist group is motivated by establishing a kingdom on ISISearth. In simple terms, the aim of these people is to bring the world under the authority of Islam, and to eliminate those who won’t submit. This means fighting, taking, killing.

In the middle of all this death and destruction, I’m reminded that Jesus came to bring a kingdom, too, and as his followers we’re called to be agents of this kingdom. But what is his kingdom like?

In the story above, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus with a request: “Can my boys rule with you in your coming kingdom? Can they be your number 2 and number 3 guys? Can they be at your right and at your left?”

Underneath this mother’s request is an assumption about Jesus’ kingdom—that it will be like other kingdoms of the day, established through power and might, secured by “making your enemies a footstool under your feet.” Jesus’ kingdom is about influence and control and strength and dominance. It’s about winning. It’s about thrones.

…right?

I don’t think it’s by accident, then, that a few chapters later Matthew mentions Mary, the mother of James and John, being present at the crucifixion (Matt. 27:56). She sees the King, but instead of thrones on his right and on his left, she sees crosses.

This is the way Jesus is leading? This is how his Kingdom comes?

While we are assured that thrones will someday be the reality, that Jesus will rule as King and his brothers and sisters will rule with him, we can’t forget that losing comes before winning, that death precedes resurrection, that the cross is the way to the throne.

Many Christians today seem preoccupied with winning. Winning debates, arguments, elections, culture wars. I understand this, and who am I to say whether these things are good or bad? What I do know is the path that Jesus set for his disciples:

Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the least, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

In many ways, Jesus’ Kingdom was surprising because it was an upside down kingdom. This wasn’t what the people were expecting. We use this picture in class to contrast Kingdom expectations with the way Jesus’ shocking behavior…

Upside Down Pic

This is still how Jesus’ Kingdom comes today. To be citizens of this Kingdom means service, sacrifice, humility, death to self in response to the love of God—in sharp contrast to ISIS’ kingdom of violence. Peter learned this after drawing his sword to attack those coming to arrest his master.

And though this might appear like weakness to the world, in truth it is a supernatural strength that conquers even death in the end. I am convinced that what makes Christianity so powerful and unique, is also what makes it so challenging—that those who would accept the call must deny themselves, take up a cross and follow a crucified King.

This is an Upside Down Kingdom. May it come in your life today in the things you think, the things you say, the way you treat other people; your attitude, your work, your play, your everything.

Gift 54 – Discovery and Worship

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I took this picture a few days ago. It captures the exact moment you realized that those two strange objects that have been floating around in your peripheral vision actually belong to you. You control them. They’re yours. They’re called hands, and they are attached to arms (those are yours, too).

The picture shows the shock in your face. “Oh. My. Goodness. I’ve been wondering who those things belonged to!”

I love moments like this when you notice patterns in your little world. Whether figuring out that your hands are under your control, or realizing that shaking your toy stuffed bird makes a rattling noise, or recognizing that the sound of rushing water means you’re about to get a bath, all these little discoveries are beautiful to me because I love learning, too!

Here’s the thing–don’t stop discovering.  People often do this for some stupid reason.  One morning we wake up and decide we’re adults now and there’s nothing exciting left to discover on planet earth or anywhere else for that matter, because we pretty much get how it all works.  We forget that everything is actually nuts.  We talk to people on cell phones and take for granted that invisible streams of something (sorry, I clearly still have no clue what’s really going on) are going to space (I think?) and then finding just the right other-person’s-phone to go to, where voices are unscrambled (maybe?) in a plastic device that was made from the ground.  Oh yeah, that’s not weird at all.  (I asked the guy at the Verizon store how cell phones work.  He said, “It’s pretty simple really, the phone sends out a signal.”  “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t realize there was a signal involved. Silly me. I get it now.” And then I punched him in the face…Okay, I didn’t really punch him in the face, but I wanted to.)

I used to be asleep to all the cool stuff around me.  But over the last few years I’ve discovered something wonderful that has changed my life completely. The important secret is this: Learning can be worship.

If you accept this holy secret and are faithful to the true spirit of learning, you will be blessed beyond measure. Curiosity will bubble up in your like a fountain as you hunger and thirst to know more about God’s world, and in turn, more about God.   This has been the thrill of the past several years of my life—to learn, to grow, to discover. It’s like sitting at a table covered with every kind of incredible food and choosing what you’re going to eat first (your questions are the forks and spoons!).

Rea Rea, I just can’t wait to worship God as we learn together in the years to come.

Gift 53 – Parent Kind of Love

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me.  – Psalm 139:17-18

Your mom read that it’s important to have some time away from your baby before going back to work, kind of like practice separation. It’s good. It’s healthy. So a few nights ago we went to a Ben Rector concert with some friends.

And yet, a few minutes into the concert we were on your mom’s phone, scrolling through our favorite pictures of you. We laughed at your funny faces and talked about all the wonderful things you do (which to an outsider wouldn’t appear to be much since you’re still less than three months old). Even though we were out for a fun night with friends, we couldn’t help but think about you. We missed you!

Being a parent has changed my understanding of God’s heart toward his children. Becoming a dad has meant stepping first hand into one of the most prevalent Biblical metaphors—God is like a parent, we’re like his kids.

Through my limited, human, picture-centric understanding, I keep imagining God captivated by pictures of his people, that parent-kind-of-love look on his face. He’s in a meeting with the archangels, but he keeps interrupting the agenda to talk about his kids. “Did you see what Chris did yesterday? Haha, that kid! I just love him.”

Two of the most fundamental human needs are for acceptance and approval. Without these essentials it is hard—maybe impossible—to grow up to be a healthy, functioning adult. Daughter, I pray you may find genuine acceptance and nourishing approval, not just from the leaky faucets of people like your mom and I, but first and foremost from the Fount, the Wellspring, the Father whose thoughts for you outnumber the grains of sand.

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Dear Grandpa

A post by my wife, Amanda:

I sat down at my desk this morning with the cool fall breeze blowing through my window. Coffee at hand, sleeping baby on my lap, and my to-do list in front of me: clean the house, cut the fruit, order pictures, make the slideshow, respond to emails and phone calls, pick out an outfit for the funeral. And yet with all of the busyness of preparation, I couldn’t help but sit and reflect.

2015

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this past week as I watched Grandpa slowly decline and slip away under hospice care. “From dust you are and to dust you will return” keeps running through my head and I sing quietly to myself from time to time “from life’s first cry, to final breath… Jesus commands my destiny”.

What is life? I think back to nine months ago. I work on a labor and delivery unit and before my first pregnancy appointment, I scanned my abdomen with the ultrasound at work at just eight weeks pregnant and saw the tiniest flicker of a heartbeat. Joy, hope, potential – a life – all inside that tiny little heart. How does that tiny dancing glimmer of an infant become a life that pulses and moves and breathes for 78 years? And as quietly and indiscreetly as that heart began to beat, it ceases in much the same fashion.

As I left the hospital Wednesday night, I kissed my Grandpa on the forehead and I told him I loved him, and I came home to my baby girl and I kissed her on the forehead and I told her I loved her. A little over an hour later as I was holding my daughter in my arms, I received the text from my mom, telling me that Grandpa had died peacefully, held in the arms of his wife of fifty five years. “From dust you are and to dust you will return”.

I’m rifling through pictures now, collected by all of my family members. Photographs of my Grandpa as a child with his siblings, playing tennis in high school, walking my mother down the aisle, with my cousins and I at the lake. My Grandma kept a box by her bedside filled with certificates and accomplishments and notes from my Grandpa’s life. And I think about all of the people my Grandpa touched in his lifetime, of all of the memories made. When I get to the end of my life, what things will I have in my box? And I think about my daughter, Reagan, and I wonder what her life will become – who will she touch? What memories will she make? I imagine her in many of the same pictures – sports, friends, vacations.
And then I think about how life is so big and so much and so full. How can we possibly reflect and remember a life of seventy-eight years in a one-hour funeral service. What does it all mean? “From dust you are and to dust you will return”.

I want to remember this day when I feel like life is mundane and filled with the busyness of day-to-day tasks. When it’s four o’clock in the afternoon and all I’ve accomplished in the day is eating breakfast and feeding my child. I want to remember that each day is a part of a bigger life that I am creating – whether I live for twenty-four, seventy-eight or one hundred and three years. Each day is a blessing and a gift.

So what do I want to teach my daughter about her great-grandfather and the legacy he left behind through his life? I want her to hear about his kind, humble spirit. I want her to know how much and how well he loved others – especially those that not everyone loves. The last few years of his life after retirement, my Grandpa drove a Max bus all over town, and I think of all of the careers he had in his life, he enjoyed this one the most. He got to meet and interact with people that he wouldn’t have come in contact with otherwise. He built relationships with the people he drove week after week, and he loved them – all of them.

Grandpa never complained. As my Grandma touched on in her tribute letter, through eight years of cancer diagnoses, countless surgeries, feeding tubes, oxygen, heart monitors and test results, Grandpa never once complained or let on that he was in pain. And not only did he not complain, he was always concerned with how others were doing. That was his nature – selfless and caring.

And then I start to think about a marriage of fifty-five years. Fifty-five years! I look at my own marriage of only three, and cannot even begin to imagine what fifty-two more years might look like. A few months ago my Grandpa said to me “Man I married a great woman. She takes such good care of me”. My Grandparents were lovers, caretakers and best friends. This is what it looks like to love through good times and bad, sickness and health. What a perfect example of a love never failing.

So thank you, Grandpa, for the memories, for the many prayers you prayed for me, for the advice and wisdom poured out, for sleepovers, for the time spent pulling my cousins and I around the lake on the tubes over and over, and most of all for your example of a life lived in service to Jesus.
You are gone from this earth, but I am comforted by the knowledge that you are free of pain and rejoicing in the presence of the Father. When Reagan gets older, I will show her the pictures of the two of you together, and I will share these reflections with her. This is only my goodbye for now. I look forward to the day we are reunited together in Heaven.

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Love always,
Amanda

Gift 52 – Your Great Grandpa

Hi Sweetie,

Your great grandpa, Jay Groenendyk, fell asleep last night a little after 10 pm.

I say “fell asleep” because of the New Testament motif used by several authors to express the reality that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, death has been turned into a nap.  I believe this is true.

But at the same time, this doesn’t mean that death doesn’t hurt.  Your mom wrote this last night:

Grandpa slipped peacefully into the arms of Jesus tonight! I’m so thankful for the legacy of love and memories he leaves behind, and for the chance to say goodbye these last few days. He was ready to see Uncle David again and be free of the pain of this earth. I’m so glad he was able to meet Reagan – his first great grandchild. There will always be a hole in my heart that can’t be filled by anyone else. Love you forever, Grandpa!

That hole she’s talking about is what it feels like when someone you love dies.  It’s an empty space left behind when a grandpa isn’t there in person anymore.  When this hole caused by death feels dark and deep, I go to an old poem by a man named John Donne.  I love this poem because it addresses Death for me when I’m too tired to remind myself of the hope we have in Jesus.  It goes like this…

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Like your mom said, I’m so glad you got to meet great grandpa.  I can’t wait to show you the picture of the two of you when you’re old enough to recognize it, and with your mom, tell you about your great grandpa.
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Gift 51 – A Little Less Talk

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Listen to Jesus for long enough and you’ll see this theme emerge: Talk is cheap. You say you love God? Lets see it by the way you treat other people. (After all, “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen”—John 4).

comedian 2This makes sense, doesn’t it? Imagine being a standup comedian and having everyone tell you how funny you are…and yet
no one laughs when you tell a joke. I can see a husband turning to his wife, 100% deadpan expressionless, saying, “This guy’s hilarious.”

Or how about the girl who stays with her boyfriend after he cheats on her for the hundredth time, because well, he says he loves me.

When words like these aren’t backed by supporting action they become nothing more than meaningless chatter. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Because we all know…

You can say you think something is funny, but your laughter is the unfakeable proof.

You can say you love someone, but your faithfulness is the undeniable evidence.

And you can say you worship someone, but your obedience is the truest testimony of your devotion.

Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my commands.”

Because you can talk about loving Jesus all day long (or write blogs about it for that matter), but the proof, as they say, will always be in the pudding (by the way, where on earth did that saying come from?). And just to be clear, I don’t think the point is not talking about your love for God. Sometimes talking about God is a form of acting on your love. The point is that your words and your actions are supposed to be in tandem, intertwining seamlessly, without contradiction.

Gift 50 – The First Three Words You Ever Heard

Before you were born, I thought long and hard about just what I wanted to say to you in your first minutes of air-breathing life. What should be the very first words your brand new ears ever hear? Your mom didn’t think it mattered too much; after all, you won’t be able to understand human speech for a long time yet. But to me this was important.

Part of me knows that words are just words. But deep down I still secretly think that words—all words—are incantations of a sort, doing things to those on whom they fall. And so I’m praying these words, three little words, do their work in you until you become like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaves never wither (Psalm 1).

photo (27)I wanted the first words you ever heard to be like good soil for you to grow in. I want these words to be a firm foundation under your feet, allowing you the freedom to try and fail, the liberty to trust, the strength to be yourself in an age of pretending. And though you won’t understand their meaning at first, I will take you back to these first three words often—on good days and on bad ones. When you’re navigating identity issues, or celebrating a birthday, or hurt by the words of a classmate, or getting ready for a date, we’ll revisit these words together. I’ll say to you, “Do you know what the very first thing ever said to you was?”

Whether you feel like it or not, these words are truth. Fact, even. No matter what you do you will not be able to shake the whole worlds of meaning they hold, brimming just beneath the surface. You are stuck in these three words, and I’m sorry but there’s nothing you can do about it. Whatever shape your identity takes in the years ahead, it will forever be building off of your base, your starting point, the irrevocable, unalterable, irreversible reality that

you

are

loved.

Gift 49 – Trash Walls

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These pictures show some of the red brick walls you can find behind most businesses downtown. Take a quick glance and you might think there’s some sort of secret garden behind these barriers.

But no, it’s just trash. These brick walls are a way of keeping all our garbage out of the way so the downtown shoppers don’t have to see (or smell) the waste. A good thing.

But it’s not such a good thing when we do this with our lives. All people—and for some reason it seems like Christians especially—put walls around their garbage. We don’t want anyone to see some of the less-presentable parts of our lives. The weaknesses. The addictions. The failures. The poor choices of our past; insecurities of our present; fears of our future. So we post smiling photos and never leave the shallow end of relationships. We show up to church pretending everything is Great, how are you?  

Trash walls.

These false fronts are keeping us from the kind of relationships we’re meant to have. Now I’m not necessarily saying we should parade our garbage down the main streets of our lives, either. But there is something powerful about being yourself, your whole self, with those you consider friends. Here are just a few reasons why taking down these trash walls leads to healthier living.

Vulnerability ignites genuine, meaningful community. The very strongest communities I have ever witnessed or been a part of all have one thing in common: they were born in vulnerability. Taking the first step towards vulnerability is always scary, but almost always causes a chain reaction that produces deep friendships. Journeying through life without this kind of community is nearly impossible.

You’ll quickly discover you’re not alone. The funniest thing happens when you take down your trash wall: you’ll see that everyone else has trash, too. This is an important byproduct of community. Suddenly you’re not the only one wrestles with ____________, or is insecure about ___________, or is afraid of ___________. Not only does this realization dissipate shame, but it also allows you to address the trash together.

You can relax. Maintaining these trash walls can be hard work. There is incredible freedom that comes with being yourself in community. So much freedom that you might just discover that your trash isn’t what you thought it was. It doesn’t define you. It isn’t what matters most. It isn’t the deepest part of your identity. These lies thrive only when kept hidden behind locked doors. The fresh air of God’s grace is stronger than any garbage your life can produce.

Gift 48 – Be Kind

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

                           – Philo of Alexandria

Dear Rea,

Today I was reminded of something very simple but very important.

I was paying for lunch at a fast food restaurant when I noticed the cashier had little cuts all over her arms.  I looked at her face and right away recognized that look of disillusionment, like as a kid she thought the world was one way, but then grew up and found it was something else.  To be fair, I don’t know her, nor do I know her story.  But those cuts across her arms clearly told of a battle she was in the middle of.

In those few minutes I would have given anything to make her smile even just a little bit.  I wanted to yell “Surprise! I’m you’re 10,000th customer!” and throw confetti and hand her a big check and a puppy.  But I didn’t do those things.  Instead I tried to be extra polite; I looked her in the eyes and said “thank you so much,” when she gave me my food.

I know, I probably should have done the puppy thing.

The funny thing is, there was a guy right in front of me in a shirt and tie.  I couldn’t see his arms, but nothing about his posture or appearance would lead me to think there were cuts on them.  And yet, I’ve been a person just long enough to know that this guy was in the middle of something, too.  Something challenging, maybe even painful.  Just because there were no visible signs of battle doesn’t mean he’s not fighting.  Because if he’s a person, he is/was/will be fighting something.

We all have this tendency to oversimplify people.  That lady driving on my bumper is nothing more than an idiot who deserves to be ran off the road.  That guy at work is a complete jerk.  That kid in my class is a ____________.  We like to imagine others as one-dimensional.  Easily defined in just a word or two. (Ironically, whenever I, say, drive up on someone’s bumper it’s for a very good reason and the person going the speed limit is now the idiot).  But kindness is the opposite.  It’s the ability to see someone as more than they appear and to treat them with respect, dignity, and consideration, acknowledging that being a person can be really hard at times.  And that lady, or that guy, or that kid, is in fact a person.