Friday, October 28, 2011

Two Nights, Two Conversations, One Realization

The last two nights I have been a part of two unrelated - yet related - conversations. Neither of them were earth-shattering, but they gave me occasion to do a little reflecting. Last night, my wife and I were treated to a much-needed night out. Camille's brother and his wife now live three houses down from us in Maine, which has been such a huge blessing on many levels, and they were gracious enough to hang out at our house after our kids went to sleep.

When we returned from enjoying a meal at our local Indian restaurant, a quick trip to the mall, and the L.L. Bean outlet, we visited with them for a while. We get the opportunity to do this 2-3 nights a week and we usually have enjoyable conversations. Last night was no different. At one point in our conversation, though, we got to talking about our formative years. We reflected upon our family dynamics, our relationship with our parents and siblings, and so forth - which caused me to come to an interesting realization that I shared with the three of them. "When I think about where I was as a kid or teenager," I said, "I am amazed that I ever grew out of that. I am amazed that I 'escaped' from those crazy years." And, as I shared with them, it is usually pretty embarrassing to think about where I used to be.

They all agreed. As we looked back on those years, we all realized that we were nothing but self-centered, silly, ignorant brats (my words)! It is quite startling to come face-to-face with this reality. (I shared similar reflections on this a few years ago.)

But then I got to thinking about this again this morning, as I was watching my little two-and-a-half year-old, Camden, and my eight-month old Acadia. And I was even more startled with this poignant and sobering question: do I suppose that I am no longer a self-centered, silly, ignorant brat? Has anything really changed?

Two nights ago, I was at Prayer Meeting. We are currently studying the book of Romans. We've been in the book for about a month now and we just got through the first chapter. We have had many interesting and insightful conversations. Some how, we got to talking about the "p" word the other night - perfection, a word that causes many people to break out in a cold sweat or hives. As John Wesley said, "There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican."

In our discussion, though, my mind turned to what Paul writes about it in Philippians. "Not that I have already attained or am already perfected," he declares, "but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me" (3:12). Very clearly, Paul indicates that he has not reached that lofty goal of perfection. But he was still aiming for it and pressing on.

But a few verses later, Paul takes an interesting twist that is not fully appreciated when we simply read it in English. In verse 15 he admonishes the Philippians, "Therefore, let us, as many as are mature, have this mind . . . " The word for "mature" is the adjectival form of the verb "perfect" (adj., teleios; verb, teleio) in verse 12. Thus, Paul says, "Not that I have already attained or am already perfected . . . . [but] let us, as many as are perfect . . . "

So there is a sense in which, according to Paul, we are already perfect and yet not yet perfect. (As an aside, it is important to recognize that, according to Paul, arriving at perfection is a passive experience on our part. This is evident, even by reading the English. The verb in Greek is in the passive form in v. 12, meaning another Agent is performing the perfecting work and we are simply receiving it. Thus, it is not about us, trying harder to be good or become perfect. It's about "consenting" for Christ to do the work. See also Phil 1:6 and Christ's Object Lessons, p. 159). This only makes sense when we approach concepts relating to soteriology (salvation) from a "process" point of view and it helps us recognize that, for Paul, perfection is just as much a journey as it is a destination.

Recognizing this tension keeps us out of two ditches: it keeps us out of the one ditch that says we need to reach "absolute perfection" before Christ can come (often defined from a human perspective and relating to behavior modification) and the other ditch that says we will never arrive at the place where we will learn to always say "yes" to God and leave our lives of sin behind (which often leads to complacency in the Christian walk).

Paul's passage in Philippians relates to my reflections on the past because it tells me that, so long as I am continuing to grow and move toward the goal, God considers me to be "perfect." Yet I cannot feel satisfied and complacent in where I am because God, does, indeed, want me to eventually arrive at the place - completely by His grace - where I learn to say "yes" to Him all the time and I can be trusted with eternity, ultimately vindicating His character before the universe.

Of course, it does get tricky when one starts measuring "growth." By what standard does one measure growth? What is the fruit that one should inspect to see if there has been growth? Should I be watching less TV than I did ten years ago; eating healthier; going to be earlier? Or are the areas that I need to inspect more in the relational arena - ie., am I more patient, forgiving, loving, initiating? Or do I need to simply worry more about my social conscience - ie., my interaction with the poor, underprivileged, and hurting?

Or is there a place to inspect all these areas?

These are questions that cannot be answered now. But one last thing: whatever the case, I do know that we need God to do the inspecting because we do not even know our own hearts. Thus, one of the safest prayers we can ever utter is, along with David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's All Just Icing

It seems to me that if there was one idea that I wish everyone could be impressed with, it would be this: the only thing - and I mean the only thing - anyone in this world deserves is non-existence.

That's it.

I, myself, have been impressed with this idea more and more recently. It is an idea that I have been familiar with for a long time, but for some reason, it seems to be hitting home a lot more in recent times. And I think that if people in this world could just come to recognize this truth, there would be a lot more gratitude and a lot less anger.

We wouldn't have people feeling entitled to everything. We wouldn't have greedy Wall Street bankers or angry protesters who want their hides. We wouldn't have people feeling as though the world is owed to them. We wouldn't have divorce. We wouldn't have Middle East conflicts.

This is because all of us would realize that anything beneficial that happens to come our way is simply "icing on the cake." It's a bonus. It's the cherry on top. The only thing we truly deserve is non-existence.

There are two very basic tenets of scripture that are foundational to this reality. They come from two passages in Romans that are frequently cited but not often milked for all their beauty. The first is Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." The second, of course, is three chapters later, "For the wages of sin is death." The word for "wage" literally means "payment" or "compensation." It is that which a person earns on the basis of the work he or she has done. Thus, it is what he or she "deserves."

Of course, the work that every single human being has done is "sin." I prefer to put it in much more "PC" language: sin is the act of being selfish - which no human being can deny is an intrinsic part of our human fabric. In fact, I would argue that it is not only a "part" of our human fabric, it is the very core from which all our actions flow.

Thus, in light of the fact that we are all saturated with sin and fall into its snares every day, the only thing that any of us deserve - the only thing we are truly entitled to and should be the rightful recipients of - is death and non-existence. In fact, the human race should not even have continued to exist beyond Adam and Eve's infamous fall.

Ellen White puts it this way: "The inheritance of children is that of sin. Sin has separated them from God . . . As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death" (9MR, p. 236).

This is our rightful lot.

Yet we are still here.

And this is the reality that all of us need to recognize, grapple with, understand, and appreciate. We should not exist right now, but we do. We deserve death, punishment, non-existence. But instead we have all been given life.

As Ellen White states elsewhere, "To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life. The bread we eat is the purchase of His broken body. The water we drink is bought by His spilled blood. Never one, saint or sinner, eats his daily food, but he is nourished by the body and the blood of Christ. The cross of Calvary is stamped on every loaf. It is reflected in every water spring" (The Desire of Ages, p. 660).

This is further supplemented by what she goes onto say in the next sentence of the first quote I shared, "But Christ steps in and passes over the ground where Adam fell, enduring every test in man's behalf. He redeems Adam's disgraceful failure and fall by coming forth from the trial untarnished. This places man on vantage ground with God" (9MR, p. 236). It must be noted that the term "vantage ground" means "a position or place that gives one an advantage."

Though this concept may seem overly simplistic, I think that recognizing it has tremendous implications for my every day life. In full disclosure, I don't know how many times in my own marriage and family life I think I am entitled and deserve better treatment or greater benefits that I am simply not receiving. After watching my kids for two hours, I feel frustrated when my wife wants to have me watch them a little longer so she can go for a walk, or take a shower, or do anything other than watch them. "But I've just watched them for two hours," I think to myself, "I deserve to have a little peace and quiet now."

I do?

Says who?

This reality has implications for politics and the economy as well. We would find a lot less corporate greed and political jealousy. We wouldn't have teachers going on strike or unions demanding their "rights." The only right that any of us deserve is death. Everything, absolutely everything, is a gift from God.

This means that my life would be defined a lot more by gratitude. To use a very simple analogy, by virtue of the sin I was born into and the sin I continuously participate in, my rightful inheritance should actually be millions of dollars of debt. Yet not only has Christ, by virtue of His death and taking on the debt, zeroed my account, He has actually left me with a positive balance that equals billions of dollars.

Thus, am I going to cry, and be greedy, if I don't receive a few extra dollars that I think other people owe me? Am I going to get angry when my cell phone carrier has been charging me too much for too long? Am I going to get upset when my bank charges me a $5 monthly fee to use my debit card? Am I going to feel slighted when a person does not give me proper recognition, as if I were thinking in my mind, "Do they know who I am?" Am I justified in feeling frustrated when a person withholds his or her affections from me, as if there was some inherit worthiness within myself that deserves their undying commitment? Do I get annoyed at the person who is taking forever at the cash register because he or she is using 500 coupons, and all I want to do is purchase my loaf of bread?

As I already said, receiving anything in life is simply a bonus, extra gravy, a blessing.

So when I look at the equation, it elicits a response of humility, gratitude, and appreciation. And I find myself living in the shadows of the constant tension between where I should be right now and where I actually am. And I realize that I can live with the little annoyances and frustrations because that is the reality (which is far too often passed over): I am living.

And finding the balance between the two tensions causes me to live a life of faith - "I once was lost, but now I'm found."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pursued - now in stock from Amazon

My new book, Pursued, is now available and in stock from

You can purchase it by clicking here.