Gift 57 – The World (As We Knew It)

So…where exactly are we?

I love exploring how human beings have answered this question for the last few thousand years or so.

Ancient people groups had all kinds of ideas about the world and just precisely how it all worked. Some folks imagined the sky was some kind of celestial canvas separating humans from the gods, and the stars were merely holes poked into the tarp-like divider that revealed the glory of the heavens beyond. Others (including the ancient Hebrews and their neighbors) pictured the world like a massive snow globe supported by view of worldgreat pillars below and covered by a vault that kept out the waters above (except when the floodgates of heaven were opened and the waters came down…we say, “hey it’s raining!” today).

The oldest discovered maps show how our human ancestors imagined the world to be flat.  That is until those clever Greeks figured out that we’ve been living on a ball all this time (Mind. Blown.). Even so, their very best maps looked something like this:

posidonius map

Eventually, this dude named Pomponius divided the earth into five separate sectors (only 2 were habitable, he thought) and discovered an invisible belt that separated northern and southern hemispheres. Now we’re getting somewhere…

Pomponius map

Jump forward about 1500 years (and a whole bunch of crazy looking maps) later and we have southern Germany’s own Martin Waldseemüller (it took me forever to figure out how to make the u do that) who compiled Waldseemuller map 2information for years and years in order to develop a clearer vision of the earth.  First ever shout out to “America” on a map. Looking familiar yet?

 

The progression went something like this: “There’s way more land than we thought” and then, “There’s way more water than we thought” and then, “So apparently this thing is round?!?” and then, “Believe it or not, there’s more land on the other side of all that water!” and on and on, all the way to the pictures of the earth we have today.

And then, of course, our perception of earth’s place in the universe has radically (like radically radically radically) transformed as we started dabbling with high-powered telescopes (uh oh, here we go again…). Come to find out, there’s a whole lot of universe out there.

Watch this video if you want your head to explode:

 

When I think about our ever developing understanding of the world—how we’ve gone from thinking the earth is a snow globe in the very center of the universe (which isn’t very big anyway), to the realization that our puny planet is smaller than a single punctuation in the vast realm of the Internet—I can’t help but think about our ever growing understanding of God.

In one way, God has made himself known through what we call “revelation”: The Scriptures, and the natural world, and most importantly, Jesus. But in another way, I believe with all my heart that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of just who God is.

In the Bible, after talking about how incredible and overwhelming God is, Job concludes with this: “And these are but the outer fringes of his works; how faint a whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”

And earlier in the Bible, when Manoah asked an angel for its name, the angel replied, “Why do you ask my name? For it is too wonderful for you to endure.” AHH!  And that’s just an angel! Imagine what God’s Name sounds like! Actually no, don’t even try.

And through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let them proclaim it!” Yep, God is being sarcastic there at the end.

My point is this…just like how our concept of the world is ever unfolding like an always-budding flower, so too our understanding of God blooms and blossoms as we make new scientific discoveries, explore new places, uncover new species, and even tell new stories. This is why learning can be a thrilling form of worship!

Maybe heaven will be a sort of exploration into the never-ending glory and goodness of God, and we’ll have to constantly make new maps as He shows himself to be even more and even better than we thought the day before.

The Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware said, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a Mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”

My prayer for you, Rea, is that you begin this God-discovering process at a young age and continue to your last day when the journey will begin in earnest. I love you.

– Dad

 

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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

Gift 47 – Welcome home!

“Look at the flowers of the field. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?”

Getting ready to leave the hospital.

Getting ready to leave the hospital.

Ahhhhhh!

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Meeting Piper for the first time…

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I’m pretty sure he likes you.

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Daddy and the nap time guard dogs.

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Hey Reagan, what’s the meaning of life?

Hmm…let me think about it.

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You: Daddy, how did the dinosaurs go extinct?

Me: I don’t know, Reagan, how?

dipe

You: Tar pits.

Trying to figure out this whole dad thing.

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Time for a music break…

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First bath at home!

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Rae,

The value of our home has gone through the roof since becoming a family of three (five if you count the pups).  It’s so so good to be together.  As funny as it sounds, I keep thinking about God and his love of home.  God’s first action in the Scriptures is to make a home where he can his children can live together.  When that home is lost, the rest of Scripture is full of God’s desire to bring his family back.  “I will be their God and I will be their people.”  Home.  Together.

Home is what God loves.  Recovering home is what he died for.  This is that longing in our hearts, too–to be home in the company of the Trinity.  Invited up and in, into the great Family Room of God’s hospitality.  These few days with you has given me a clearer picture and fuller taste of just what it is God loves so dearly, and why he loves it so much.

Gift 34 – Sinful and Hazardous (I)

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As I filled my car with gas, I noticed a small sign on the pump: “Smoking while fueling is illegal and dangerous.” For some reason the distinction between “illegal” and “dangerous” struck me as a bit…redundant. Isn’t it enough to say that smoking near flowing gasoline is dangerous? Like, you’re-gonna-blow-up dangerous? The legality of the matter seems trivial when you picture a person engulfed in flames after lighting up at the pump. The two things are actually one thing—smoking while fueling is illegal because it is so dangerous.

A similar separation has happened in our ideas about sin. Somehow we’ve come to believe that there are things (activities/behaviors/patterns) that are sinful, and there are also things that are harmful. I can hear religious authorities informing, “You don’t want to do that, it’s sinful and hazardous.”

But the truth is, the two are one. If something is sinful then it’s not good for you. No exceptions. Likewise, if something is harmful to you, it is sinful.

In my experience with working with high school kids I’ve become aware of an evident religious haze surrounding the concept of sin. “Mr. Russ, is ____________ a sin? Well how about ____________? What I mean to say is, will God be mad at me if I _____________?” Our confusion about sin has everything to do with a misunderstanding of God’s character. Believe it or not, God is not arbitrarily calling stuff sin. That’s not how God operates because that’s not who God is. There is no sin you can commit that will bring you more joy, more satisfaction, more life. In fact, the very reason God warns of certain behaviors is precisely because God is for us. God is totally, completely, passionately, sacrificially committed to our flourishing—even more than we are committed to our own flourishing! The very reason He hates sin is because He is for His people.

Sadly, this is a paradigm shift for many. We have imagined a God who makes the rules without consideration for His children, and we had better get on board or else! But He is so much better. It’s time to let Jesus be our guide, the one who lived with such a profound and overwhelming sense of his Father’s goodness. While many Pharisees were actually “sinning” in their study of God’s Word (imagine that!) because of their motivation to be seen as spiritually superior (Matt. 23), Jesus perfectly navigated the confusing waters of Sabbath observance (“Is it lawful to heal a person on Sabbath?”), food regulations (“Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?”), and Torah prioritization (“Which command is the greatest?”) with incessant focus on God’s character.

May we grow to be like him in our understanding of sin and righteousness as we too abide in the Father’s heart.

Gift 27 – Now Go

When you love someone, you start to care about the things they care about. As I grow in love for my wife I learn to see from her perspective, value the things she values, and even love the things she loves.

The same is true for those who love God. As our love grows, our hearts are shaped to be like His as we see Him revealed in Scripture. In time we begin to celebrate good things like victory over addiction, unity in the Church family, and the healing of damaged relationships. We also begin to grieve injustice on a personal (addiction, bitterness, jealousy), communal (gossip, bullying, exclusion), and societal (homelessness, sex-trafficking, extreme poverty) level. And as our love grows we are called to act on these things that break God’s heart.

Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God reveals His plan to rescue Hebrew slaves, and I imagine Moses is ecstatic…at first.

God: I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned for their suffering…

Moses: Yes!

God: So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…

Moses: Alright! That’s great!

God: I will bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey…

Moses: This is terrific news!

God: So now, go. I am sending you.

Moses: Wait…what? You’re joking, right? I thought you were going to do it?!

God: I am going to do it. Now go, I am sending you.

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See, when our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, we’re not just meant to cry, or even just to pray, but to go—because God is going to act, and He is sending us. True purpose begins when we ask the question, “What do you care about, God?” and then act.

God said of the shepherd boy David, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.” I wonder how long it took God to find a person, just one person, who cared so deeply about God’s heart that he was willing to do?

Daughter, my prayer for you, for us, is that we would join with Samuel in asking, “speak LORD, your servant is listening,” Isaiah in offering, “Here am I! Send me!” and most of all, with Jesus as he offered himself lovingly and submissively to the Father, “Not my will, but Your’s be done.”

There is much to be done. In our homes, our communities, our world. Our God is looking for men and women willing to join Him in caring and acting on His heart.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner looking for workers for his vineyard. He goes into the marketplace and finds people standing around twiddling their thumbs. “Why are you standing around not doing anything?” he asks. “Sir, no one has hired us,” they respond. The landowner replies, “Well then come work for me!”

In a culture starving for purpose and significance, people standing around not doing anything, hear the invitation of our dangerous Friend and Lord who calls us to follow him into the dead places of the world where he will bring life. He still has a plan to free slaves. Now go, he is sending you.

Gift 20 – The Truth about Fiction

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Believe it or not, this lit. enthusiast, English major, and all around word-lover used to utterly detest reading.

In middle school I somehow almost always coincidentally chose books to “read” that had been made into movies. The teacher would see the title I’d picked and say, “I think that story was made into a movie a few years ago. You might enjoy watching it when you’ve finished the book.”

“Oh Really?” I would say, “I didn’t know that. I’ll have to see if I can rent it when I’m done reading.” I knew this was a dishonest practice, but I had no other way of passing the monthly Accelerated Reader tests.

But everything changed when I checked out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the school library. It was the natural choice since I’d already seen the movie adaptation at my grandparent’s house, though when a friend told me about a few variances, I decided to skim the first few pages just to cover my bases.

ozThen it happened: I went to Oz. I didn’t mean to, but I ended up getting hooked and actually finished the book (“It was kinda like watching a movie in my head,” I told my flabbergasted friends). I found out that L. Frank Baum had actually written 13 other Oz adventures, so I bought and read them all.

This was just the beginning of my love for fiction, and for reading in general. Over ten years later, I am convinced that books such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz impact young people in countless positive ways and contribute to a person’s sense of creativity, wonder, and depth. Every once and a while I meet a fiction critic who doesn’t have time to waste on “silly stories that aren’t even true”, and while I have about a hundred reasons why reading fiction is an unequivocally good and wholesome activity, I want to share just one with you now:

The very best fictional stories are true. Really.

You see, there is a difference between something that is truthful and something that is factual. Many Eastern cultures have historically appreciated this difference when it comes to storytelling. Take, for example, the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. A westerner will tell you that the story is not true. Why not? Because it didn’t really happen. But tell the same story to someone from a story-centric society and they’ll likely tell you that it is in fact true. Why? Because it is true, isn’t it? The deterioration of one’s integrity is very serious business. Every time you break your word the value of your word decreases. Or, as Aesop famously said, “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!” These things are true, making the Boy Who Cried Wolf a story that tells truth, though not necessarily through fact. This is an exceptionally significant distinction to make, and is, in my opinion, the very best reason to read fiction.

Books such as the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia are stories that tell the truth. Friendship is more valuable than power. There is more to people than mere appearances. Humility and self-sacrifice is greater than superiority and self-importance. Things are not the most important things. Courage in the face of overwhelming odds does make a difference. Love is stronger than death. The light does shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.

There is great and nourishing magic in stories that tell the truth—even when the stories aren’t comprised of facts. It is worth noting that Jesus himself dealt almost exclusively in fiction to communicate truth to his audiences (Matt. 13:34). “There was a man who had two sons. The younger son came to his father and demanded his share of the inheritance…” “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep and one of them runs away…” “There was a woman with ten silver coins…” “A wealthy man was preparing a great feast…”

Clearly there is more to fiction than meets the eye. In fact, In Mark 4 Jesus explains to his disciples that the very reason he speaks in story is so that only few will understand. It is as though his stories are invitations beckoning the true in heart to follow where he leads. Because bookJesus, in his unexpected, seemingly foolish, upside down way of doing things still leads to a cross, and it will be those whose eyes have been shaped by the truth found in fiction who will be the first to recognize and believe that the gardener outside the tomb is really the resurrected Son of God.