Being and Doing

Skycroft Sunrise

Been reading a lot on the relationship between being and doing. Naturally, this was the passage that showed up in today’s devotional: Matthew 7:13-23 (from The Message).

Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.

Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.

Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

How to Trust God

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church (Columbia Heights parish): “How to Trust God (or, How to Live in the Kingdom)”, based on Luke 11:37-12:34.]

Here’s what I think: in any given situation, you have a choice; and that choice is a matter of trust. The choice is whether you will trust God or whether you will trust something else. Every time you choose to trust God, you are demonstrating your citizenship, your residence in the kingdom of God. Every time you choose not to trust God, you are pledging your allegiance to some other kingdom and some other ruler. Most of the time, the choice doesn’t seem as clear as that and it’s hard to know what it looks like to trust God, but I’m convinced that most of the decisions we make can be traced back to this root choice.

Here are some ways we can trust God (more):

1. We trust God by trusting what he sees. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

If the Lord looks at the heart, we may want to be working, first, on our hearts and not just on the outward appearance that people look at, and second, on the ways we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart. We live in a culture that glorifies the superficial, that celebrates the artificial, that idolizes physical attractiveness, even while things like character and maturity are undervalued and neglected. We look at the outside; God looks at the heart.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:2-3:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

This word is a challenge to me, a challenge to the way I live my life. Many people in our church just get to see me on Sundays, and hopefully whether I’m preaching or leading worship or just greeting you at the door, they’re left with a good impression. But my prayer is that my whole life is pleasing to God, not just the parts that people see. My prayer is that the way I speak to Carolyn when nobody else is around is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I treat the homeless guy on the corner who’s asking for help is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I browse the internet, when no one else is home, is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I spend every dollar I earn and every moment of every day is pleasing to God, whether anybody is there to see me or not, whether I post it to social media or not, whether I’m praised for it by another person or not.

If we trust God, we’ll trust what he sees—that the inside is far more important than external appearances.

2. We trust God by trusting what he says. Because what we say reflects where we place our trust, and where we place our trust impacts what we say. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus says:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

You are valuable to God. One of the struggles I know many of you deal with is how to be a Christian in non-Christian, and even anti-Christian, environments—whether that’s at school or at work or even in your own family. This is the challenge that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing, persecuted, their very lives threatened—do we fear God or do we fear people? Do you care more about what your boss thinks or about what God thinks? Do you care more about your significant other’s approval or God’s approval? Are you more afraid of your friends turning their back on you or of you turning your back on God?

Now, please don’t hear me saying that this means you should go all gung-ho and start adding John 3:16 to your work email signature or spouting off religious screeds on social media or running roughshod over your loved ones and what they think.

But what would it look like if you were to accept the truth that God says to you, “I love you, you’re mine,” every morning, every night, every moment?

How would that truth—that the God of the universe loves you, that your heavenly Father has got your back, even when you have no idea what’s going on in your life!—change the way you live your life? How would trusting what God says change what you say and do—at work, at home, in your friendships, in your relationships, on social media?

We trust God by trusting what he says, no matter what anyone else says.

3. We trust God by trusting that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

In one of his greatest challenges, Jesus says, in Luke 12:22-23:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus goes on to say, “God provides for the birds and for the flowers. How much more will he care for you? Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink; your Father knows that you need these things.”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about prayer, about how prayer begins with our understanding of God as Father, as the one who loves us and cares for us and seeks our good and will give us what we need. I love what Jesus says in 12:32:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Your Father knows what you really need, and he is happy to provide it. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

The antidote to fear and anxiety, to greed and worry, is to trust God, to trust that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

  • It may be healing … or it may be strength for the journey.
  • It may be that relationship … or it may be restoration when your heart is broken.
  • It may be the new job … or it may be a context in which to mature.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said:

God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.

Because that’s the kind of God we serve. Because that’s what God is like.

At the heart of life in the kingdom of God, at the core of the eternal kind of life, at the center of the life Jesus desires for us to live is trust of God. Jesus lived this out in his own life. He loved others unconditionally because he trusted in God’s love for each and every person as created in the image of God. He was never defensive, never judgmental, and yet also never afraid to call out injustice and hypocrisy because he knew what God had said—about himself and about the way the world was meant to be. And he lived with few possessions, traveling among the poor, bouncing from house to house, trusting that God would provide, that his Father would give him whatever he needed to survive. He lived his life surrendered to the kingdom of God, submitted to the will of God, and gave his life on that cross, trusting that by his death he might win us life and trusting that God would vindicate him by raising him up from the dead. And God came through. God always comes through.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, a couple of pastors in California, wrote:

the gospel of the kingdom invites us to trust God in everything. Trust is demonstrated by our willingness to act as though what we claim to believe is true. Some will begin their journey with Christ by getting on their knees, praying a sinner’s prayer, and writing down the date, time and location in a journal. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. … Others will, by the grace of God, begin living as though they really do trust Jesus and their “decision” will be woven into their new actions and choices. They will simply begin to orient their lives around Jesus.

So where will you place your trust?

On joy and pain

Tealights

So many things we achieve are achieved only through struggle and conflict, not in easy ways. They always seem to involve crosses. I have so longed to find somewhere in life some corner where joy is unmingled with pain. But I have never found it. Wherever I find joy, my own or other people’s, it always seems to be mingled with pain. And I find that the people I most respect are people who know the link between joy and pain. And I have found that if we will own pain and weep over it together, we will also find Christ’s overflowing comfort. The bad news is that there may be no corner of reality where joy is not related to pain. The good news is that there is no corner of reality where pain cannot be transformed into overflowing joy.

– John Goldingay, Walk On: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities

For more on loss, click here.

Why Work? Part 2: The Story

[Part 2 of an adaptation of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015. Read Part 1 here.]

The story I want to talk about is one you may have heard before—it’s the story of God; it’s the gospel. This story—this gospel—as we understand it here at The District Church has four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal—and we need to understand all of them to understand the fullness of the story of God. Each chapter has something to say to our understanding of God, of life, of faith, of sin and evil, of suffering, of Jesus; and each chapter also has something to say to our understanding of work.

CreationLet’s start with Creation, where we learn this: we were made to work. You may not want that to be true, but there’s a reason why we feel more fulfilled when we’re working—and I don’t just mean the hours you spend at your job; I mean whatever you do with your time that fulfills the purpose for which God made you. We were made to work, and that’s why those of us who are unemployed and those of us who are underemployed—we feel the pain, the lack, the longing, the feeling of something missing, the feeling that we’re not doing everything we were created to do. In Genesis 1:26, God said:

Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

The Hebrew word for “rule” here is radah; it can also be translated “have dominion.” It’s not an idle word, where you rule by being handed a title and sitting passively on a throne. It’s an active word; it requires effort. When God gives human beings their commission in Genesis 1:28, he uses the same word: “Rule.”

See, in the ancient world, kings and emperors used to construct statues of themselves in whatever region they ruled—statues in their image, in their likeness—as signs to whoever saw them that this king or that emperor was in charge. This is what it means when the Bible says we are made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. The purpose for which God created human beings was “so that they may rule,” so that we might be living testaments to the Maker and Ruler of all things.

Here’s another thing we learn from Creation. In Genesis 2:2-3, it says:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

The word that’s used here for God’s work—melaka—is the same word that is used in Exodus 20:9, where God is laying out the Ten Commandments and he says to the people of Israel, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melaka).” The same word is used for the work that God does and the work that we do. We work because God works. We’re created in the image of God; we’re created in the image of the God who works. Therefore, we’re also created to work; therefore, when we work, we show what God is like.

Pastor and author Tim Keller wrote a great book about faith and work; it’s called Every Good Endeavor, and he writes, “Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.”[1] And the great English novelist Dorothy Sayers wrote, in the 1940s:

[Work is] a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. [It is] not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

We were made to work.

FallBut the second chapter of the gospel story is the Fall, when humanity chose to disobey God, to turn away from God, to distrust God’s word and his promises, and sin entered the world. In the Genesis account, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God told them not to; but in our lives, we do that in our own ways—we act like we know it all, we choose to believe that we can do things on our own, we elevate ourselves to the place in our lives that only our Creator should be in. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says to Adam:

[Because you disobeyed me …]

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Sin is why the world is broken. Sin is why our relationships are fractured. And sin is why work is a struggle. We were made to work but sin makes what was intended to be a joy and a fulfillment of all of who we were created to be a “painful toil.” Sin is why everyone—at some point or other, and some more frequently than others—experiences the sense that our work is fruitless and maybe even pointless, even if we’re doing a job we feel called to.

Folks work with and teach students who don’t always respond with gratitude or in educational systems that seem to magnify the bad things instead of amplifying the good things. Others work with patients who don’t always appreciate the treatment they’re getting or who may continue abusing their bodies or who may be coming from or going back into very broken families. Part of the reason for this is that sin doesn’t just affect individuals; it affects systems, it lingers over generations, it multiplies as time goes on—and so we have underserved communities, we have disparities in income and inequalities in educational opportunities, we have people working multiple jobs and still not keeping their heads above water while a few have enough resources to not work at all, we have a city—the capital city of our nation—where almost a third of the children (29,000 kids) live below the federal poverty threshold.[2]

None of us is exempt from the effects of sin and, this side of Christ’s return, what we will always experience in our work is that not all is as it should be; and even if you were to find the perfect job that perfectly utilized your gifts and you got to work with the most awesome people, you would still come up against the realities of sin. Sin is why work is a struggle.

RedemptionFortunately for us, sin is not the end. The third chapter is Redemption, which tells us that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to set the captives free, to break the chains of oppression, to defeat sin and death once and for all. Jesus was the most human of us all, and by that I mean he was—and is—the truest representation of God, the fullest embodiment of God-in-charge, the most authentic image-bearer of God, in the way he showed grace and love, in the way he called out injustice and oppression, in the way he stood up for those the world had tossed aside. He did it in the way that he lived, in the example he set; and he did it most decisively in the way that he died on a cross for our sins and was raised from the dead to give us new life.

See, the most significant way that Christ’s redemption impacts our work is that it restores our relationship with God—and therefore it reorders our relationship with our work. Because of the amazing grace of God, we no longer have to work our way back into his favor. We were made to work but sin made work and money and status and power and privilege idols for us, to be valued over God; and yet “through Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Jesus came to bring redemption so that we might be restored to God, so that we might have hope and joy and peace, and so that our relationship with our work might be reordered and realigned the way it was supposed to be.

Oh, by the way, Jesus worked too. Scripture tells us that until he was about thirty years old, he worked as what was called a tekton, what’s normally translated as ‘carpenter.’ We also know that he was poor; and we know that when he first preached in Nazareth, the question that was asked was “Is not this the carpenter?”, which might be taken as, “Isn’t this just the carpenter?” See, the job Jesus did for most of his life didn’t seem to garner him much regard in the eyes of the world. Remember that, especially if and when you’re doing something that the world doesn’t seem to hold in great esteem. Jesus, our Teacher, our Master, our Lord, our Savior, our King, worked. And he sees you.

RenewalAnd so we come to the fourth chapter of the story: Renewal. Jesus coming to earth and winning us back for God wasn’t the end of the story either; no, God the Father and Jesus the Son sent the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—to empower his church—that’s us—to continue the work they had been doing, to continue the mission they had begun, to play a part in this story. The Father worked, the Son worked, and the Spirit is at work in and through us as we live and work. And so renewal teaches us that we are recruited to work (again), to work with a reordered understanding of creation and of sin and of redemption and of our place in the whole story, and to partner with God in the work that he is doing through the church—remember, that’s us—setting the world right, setting our eyes on the vision of heaven coming to earth, of God’s kingdom and God’s government being fully established here on earth, and doing whatever it takes, doing whatever the Spirit asks us, to make that a reality. It is this broader calling that we are all entrusted with as followers of Christ; it is within this broader calling that we then figure out what our individual callings may be. If you spend all your life trying to figure out your own individual calling without responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal, you’ll probably miss out on all of it; but if you spend all your life responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal—wherever you find yourself—you’ll be fulfilling the purpose for which you were made, whether you find one thing to do for the rest of your life or not. It’s in working together in this grander work of renewal that we truly embody our identity individually as image bearers of God and corporately as the church, as the body of Christ.

Read Part 3 tomorrow.

[1] Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 49.

[2] http://www.nccp.org/profiles/DC_profile_7.html

Why Work? Part 1: The Problem

[Part 1 of an adaption of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015.]

A new report says that more than half of Americans are unhappy at their jobs. That’s a problem.

Another problem is that when we think about faith and work, I think there’s a lack of understanding and integration. All of us experience these things to a greater or lesser degree, for a variety of reasons: because we’re finite people and we don’t know what we need to know, because we’re fallen people and we don’t always do what we were made to do, because we inhabit a broken world and things are not as they should be.

The reason why this lack of understanding and integration is a problem is that work is probably where most of us spend most of our time. There are 168 hours in a week. If we spend 40, 60, 80 hours a week at work—and I’m not saying all of that is healthy, but that’s what we do—that’s anywhere from a quarter to a half of all of our hours, and as a proportion of the hours we’re awake, those figures only go up.

Work is probably where we spend most of our time, which means it’s the place where we have the most influence and opportunity as Christians—as follower of Christ who help others follow Christ.

And so here’s the problem: if we don’t allow God to work through us in the places where we work, the places where we spend most of our time, whether because of a lack of understanding or integration, we miss out on not only what God has for us in those places but also what God has for those around us in those places.

Some people experience a lack of understanding; they don’t understand what faith has to do with their work. Functionally, this can lead to two extremes: either feeling the need to mention Jesus in everything you do for fear that if you don’t, it doesn’t count as acceptable to God; or siloing your spirituality into a couple hours every Sunday—and then going into the week as if God wasn’t even real.

Maybe work—rather than God—is the center of your life; maybe work—rather than God—forms the core of your identity. But God says that who you are—and who you are becoming—is far more important than what you do. We’ve been pounding this point home over the last few months for the very reason that it’s the opposite of what you hear in our culture, so let me say it again: who you are—and who you are becoming—is far more important than what you do.

Then there’s the struggle of integration: we may know that if Jesus is the Lord of all of our life, he should be Lord in all of our life, including our work; but we may struggle with how to integrate our spirituality into our work or our work into our spirituality, maybe because we find ourselves in a job whose purpose we’re not quite sure of or we’re working for an organization or company or government that doesn’t explicitly have God at the center—or even in the picture.

Fifteen years ago, I started a law degree—partly because it seemed like a practical thing to do, and partly because—to be really honest and vulnerable with you—the 90s TV show Ally McBeal made the lawyer’s life seem really fun … yeah, that was part of my discernment process. At the time, I was also drifting from my faith, not really rejecting God but definitely not diving into anything God had for me. I didn’t really have the will or desire to bring faith into my life, let alone into what I would end up doing. And as I pursued my law degree, I realized that I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week for anything; see, I had no overarching framework or structure for my life, no understanding of the importance of God in my life nor really any sense of what God might be calling me to.

My problem was that I didn’t know the story of God.

Read Part 2 here.