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Return to Joy

Return to Joy

I am ready for joy. I am hungry for it. After a year of pandemic, characterized for many of us by disappointment, loneliness, and fear, our appetite for joy has only increased. Spring has arrived and the vaccine is becoming available. “Normal” doesn’t feel too far away. Will we return to joy?

We were created for joy. It is the root of every longing, and we spend the majority of our lives searching for it. Joy is both a command and a promise, but we’re often not very good at understanding it or finding it. Every one of us wants more of it, so how do we do it? Where do we get it? How do we sustain it? How do we return to joy?

The Most Joyful Book of the Bible

To answer these questions, I often turn to Philippians in the New Testament. Philippians is sometimes referred to as the most joyful book in the Bible, which means for me, it’s pages are well-worn. I even memorized all 104 verses of it back in college (please don’t quiz me!).

Now before you think that’s me bragging — look how spiritual I am, I memorized a whole book of the Bible —I only share that to show you my desperation. That’s how hungry I am for joy! You see, I am not very good at it. As someone who is definitely a bit on the melancholy side, joy often feels out of reach.

As a result, I can easily gravitate to the many pseudo joys around me. Maybe the next meal, or the next drink, or the next vacation, or the next purchase, or the next show, or the next accomplishment, or the next whatever will finally do it. Have you been there? Even though these are often good things, it can be a vicious cycle of escalating disappointment and discontent. 

Paul shows us a better way. And what always amazes me about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that he wrote it from prison! From prison, suffering for preaching the good news of Jesus, Paul writes one of the most joy-filled books of the Bible. At the very least, this should remind us that joy is not based on circumstance. But if it’s not circumstance, where do we get it?

Choose Joy?

I know you’ve heard the phrase or seen it on some home decor or motivational poster: Choose Joy. I have a love/hate relationship with that phrase. On the one hand, I do love it. Joy is a command from God and therefore we all have an active role in pursuing it. Joy is not an option for Christians. Choose Joy!

On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with mild depression for most of my life, I also sort of want to punch that phrase in the face. Believe me, I’ve tried to choose joy! It’s not that easy, is it? I don’t think we can just “choose joy” and have it magically appear.

Choose Habits of Joy

But we can choose habits of joy, and I think this is where Philippians encourages us. We may not be able to simply choose to have joyful feelings but we can choose to pursue the practices that are most likely to build joy into our lives. Paul shows us some of these practices, and while there are many lessons on joy here, let me focus on three primary habits of joy: prayer, people, and presence.

Habit of Joy #1: Prayer

Perhaps the most obvious habit of joy from Philippians is the habit of prayer. According to Paul, prayer is not simply a means of getting stuff from God, but a means of receiving the kind of peace that leads to rejoicing.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4, 6-7

It’s interesting to me that more and more is being written today from a variety of worldviews about the importance of mindfulness and gratitude when it comes to joy. People from several disciplines (neurology, psychology, theology) all agree on how important this is to joy, even if they disagree on other foundational principles.

The practice of quieting ourselves mentally, articulating our feelings, and focusing most on the things we’re grateful for is good for your brain, and more importantly, it’s good for your soul! The people of God have been doing this work for millenia. We are actually invited to express those things to the God who made us.

If you want more joy in your life, but are not growing in prayer, you are going to be disappointed. For me, I try to start each day with prayer, and I try to spend about half my time thanking God for those ways in which I’ve recently experienced His love. All joy is relational (more on that below) and when I pray with gratitude, my joy increases. I think yours will as well.

Habit of Joy #2: People

The second habit of joy that stands out to me from Philippians is people. This letter is deeply relational, deeply personal, and highly communal. Paul addresses conflict among Christians, he encourages the relationships within the church, and he demonstrates that there is no real joy apart from others.

There is no real joy apart from others. That may be a shocking statement, but the older I get and the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I am of this truth. Although I’m an introvert, need a lot of alone time, and occasionally just don’t like people, I am convinced that the majority of our joy is found in the context of relationships. 

I recently read that one definition of joy is knowing that someone else is glad to be with me. Simply being with that person and knowing that you are loved and respected — that they want to be with you — is the place of deepest joy.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.… Philippians 2:1-5

What will make Paul’s joy complete? The same thing that increases our own joy — a community of people shaped by the love of Jesus.

Sadly, we often think joy will come by doing what we want, expressing ourselves, possessing unrestricted freedom, and essentially getting our own way. Which means, if you think about it, many of our faulty definitions of joy actually hinder community, and therefore hinders our joy! True community isn’t possible if I’m always getting my way. True community demands a sacrifice of some of my rights, preferences, and desires, yet even with these sacrifices, this kind of community is the place of deepest joy.

This is why Paul can tell us to put others first, to serve relentlessly, and to give generously. He can tell us all that and keep a smile on his face, because he knows: if you want joy, you need people, and the best relationships are characterized by the way of Jesus.

This has shaped my priorities. For example, even though I often think I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix (which only rarely satisfies), I’ve forced myself to schedule greater time with the people I love (which almost always satisfies). The church is a great place to do this, even though it certainly takes work. Prioritize these relationships, and when you see that people are glad to be with you, and they see that you are glad to be with them, there will be joy.

Habit of Joy #3: Presence

This also applies to God. God is happy to be with you. His face lights up when you enter the room. He delights in spending time with you, and in His “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

The presence of God is always available to His people. In the third chapter of Philippians Paul lists many of the things we run to in order to give us joy. He mentions his heritage, his national and ethnic background, his accomplishments and good works. But that is not Paul’s joy.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… Philippians 3:7-9

Knowing Christ and being found in Him — this is Paul’s joy. And we also can know Him and be found in Him. We can spend time consciously in His presence. We can get to know Him through prayer and people, spending time with Him and spending time with His community. We also get to know Him through His Word and through His Spirit.

And for Paul, that is a joy greater than personal self-expression or unlimited freedom. It is a joy greater than power or accomplishment or feeling like a good person. It is a joy that is greater than any circumstance and it is a joy that is available to us.

Prayer, people, and presence…I’m not going to say just choose joy. But I can encourage you to choose the habits of joy. They take time and they take work but it is a lifelong path worth taking. And together, we can return to joy.

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Additional Reading

Philippians — Read it, study it, meditate on it, and perhaps even memorize it. You can also engage in our sermon series: Return to Joy: Studies in Philippians.

The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder & Michel Hendricks. (While not perfect, this book does a fascinating job in bringing many of these things together. It’s a pretty short read but very worth it. I’m still chewing on a lot of it.)

 

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.

I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.

Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?

But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?

That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.

Alaska and Lent

Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.

When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.

But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.

In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.

So much work

But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?

It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.

And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!

Then we saw it

And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.

I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.

Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.

We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.

And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.

Lent and Easter

And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.

For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.

Our hike toward Easter

We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.

Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.

To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.

If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.

With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.

And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!

Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?

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Originally published February 20, 2019

2019 ONLINE LENTEN DEVOTIONAL FROM BIOLA UNIVERSITY

Learning to Trust (and Love) the Bible

Learning to Trust (and Love) the Bible

My relationship with the Bible has always been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. And it all began for me with a fairly lukewarm prayer.

Jesus, I’m going to try to take you seriously for a while. As best I can remember, these are the words I prayed down in the basement of my childhood home when I was 18 years old. It wasn’t a very poetic prayer, and it even seems a bit half-hearted, but it was enough. That night Jesus grabbed onto this reluctant convert and nothing for me has been the same since.

That moment set me on a path–a lifelong quest–to learn how to trust and love the Bible.

I’d grown up in church. My dad was a pastor during my formative years. I knew the Bible pretty well, and if we were doing a Bible trivia night, I could dominate. But it wasn’t until that lukewarm prayer that I began to hear God’s voice through its ancient pages. I could see God’s love for me. I could see myself in His words. A life and a love and a joy calling out to me from its pages.

Weird, right? As a senior in high school, unsure of my future, lonely and depressed, God found me and He used His Book to do it.

I couldn’t get enough.
Almost instantly, I couldn’t get enough of this Book. It was like food and I hadn’t eaten for years. I’d read it in the morning before school and at night before bed. Sermons (at Christ Community no less, vintage Pastor Tom) came alive. I began discussing it with friends and a few months later even began leading a Bible study with my peers. 

I wanted to know it and understand it and trust it and obey it and build my life on it. I wanted to know the One who’d made me and there He was on these dusty pages.

But then doubt settled in.
I don’t know if you know this about the Bible, but it is a hard book. Once you start reading (more than just the inspiring soundbite), questions surface. Brutal, sometimes seemingly unanswerable questions. And then, of course, doubt.

The next fall I headed off to Bible college (I told you, I fell hard for this book!), yet the more I studied and read, the more questions I had. In fact, the greatest season of doubt in my life (so far) happened while in Bible college and then seminary. Could I really build my life on a Book so old, so often confusing, so very difficult at times, with so little certainty?

Can we really trust (and love) the Bible?
Well, no surprise, I’m going to say yes. Let me go ahead and name my bias. Big shocker that a pastor says we should trust the Bible. But it has never been easy for me. Doubts still surface. Regularly. As I said, my relationship with the Bible has been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. To some extent, that remains true today (though thankfully less debilitating).

I know that there is nothing I could say to instantly make you trust and love the Bible. Faith is still required. But I want to share with you why I believe. Or perhaps more importantly, why I keep believing. Why do I keep returning to this beautiful, difficult, mysterious, ancient Book? Here are the three most important reasons for me personally: the person of Jesus, the character of God, and the testimony of its pages.

But first, a few warnings.
This is not meant to be exhaustive and it should be noted that everything here has been the subject of countless blogs and books. There are people smarter than me if you want to dig deeper. I also want to acknowledge that my reasons can easily be questioned. I don’t have any unassailable arguments and some of what I’m going to say is clearly circular in its reasoning. (Trust the Bible because the Bible tells you to trust the Bible–it’s great logic, I know.) 

Here’s the deal. If you don’t want to trust the Bible, there is nothing I can say to convince you. Faith is still required.

That is exactly right. My goal is not to convince those who don’t want to believe but to encourage those who do.

The Bible is a difficult book. It’s ok to admit that. Yet being difficult to understand isn’t the same as being untrustworthy. There is a lot I still don’t understand about the Scriptures, and a few things I just don’t like. But I keep coming back for these three reasons.

  1. The Person of Jesus

Everything in my faith comes down to the person of Jesus. Everything! I answer each of my doubts with this: did Jesus rise from the dead or not? If He didn’t, I’m out. But if He did, everything changes! If Jesus actually rose from the dead that is the most important truth the world has ever known, making Jesus the most important person. You see, one day I’d like to rise from the dead as well. So if He did, I want to hang on every word He said and all He did. 

There is good historical evidence (not just the Bible tells me so) supporting the validity of the resurrection. While much could be said, until someone more compellingly answers the following questions, I will continue to believe Jesus did come out of the grave alive. 

Questions like:

  • Why was the tomb empty and why couldn’t anyone find the body?
  • What about all the eyewitnesses who saw Him alive?
  • If it was a legend, why would the inventors make women (who couldn’t even testify in court in that time period) the first eyewitnesses? And why would you make all the men doubting cowards?
  • How do you explain the transformation of the eyewitness, from doubting cowards in hiding to literal martyrs for their faith that Jesus was alive?
  • Where did the church (and this crazy movement of His followers) come from, in the midst of so much oppression?

If Jesus rose from the dead, then it doesn’t matter if you like what He said or not or whether or not you find Him personally compelling. If He rose from the dead, He wins, and I’m listening.

Jesus believed the Old Testament.
And Jesus believed the Old Testament. I struggle with the Old Testament. I love the stories and poetry, but I find it much harder than the New Testament. Not only did Jesus believe it, He loves it! He quotes it and makes references to it constantly. You can’t even really understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament.

He said things likeScripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), referring to the Old Testament. In His most famous sermon, considered to be a kind of summary of His main passions, He says: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).

He even referred to Himself as the center of the Old Testament Scriptures and the key to their understanding. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me… (John 5:39).

...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself… Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead… (Luke 24:27, 45-46)

The one who defeated death believed, taught, loved, obeyed, and even revealed Himself as the focus and fulfillment of the Old Testament. I’m siding with the One who defeated death—every time.

Jesus commissioned the New Testament (sort of).
It also seems like He commissioned the writing of the New Testament through the work of the Apostles. The people who knew Jesus best were the ones who wrote these things down for us.

Jesus told them: I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12–15).

It is reasonable to believe that Jesus wanted His Apostles to write these things down, and promised that His Spirit would guide them in it.

Jesus reveals the character of God.
Jesus also shows us who God is. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). And what does Jesus reveal to us about God the Father? 

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us that God wants to rescue. God wants to love and be loved. God wants a really big, beautiful, diverse family. God wants a relationship with His creation. Our God wants to be known. That doesn’t prove He gave us the Bible, but it does give us a motive. Jesus shows us that it is God’s heart to communicate with His people. 

Hebrews begins with these words, making a similar connection: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (1:1-2) The Apostle John does the same when He refers to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1).

If God so wants to be known that He would send His own Son, it’s at least plausible that He would find other ways to reveal Himself as well. I trust the Bible because I trust the person of Jesus.

  1. The Character of God

I also trust the Bible because I trust the character of God. Jesus shows us the character of God, but so do the Scriptures. You cannot read the Bible without the overwhelming sense that God wants us to know Him. The reason we exist is to know God and be known by Him. Here are just a few such scriptures:

Exodus 6:6-8: I am the Lord… I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I am the Lord. 

Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God. 

Proverbs 8:17: I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.

John 17:3: And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Jeremiah says it perhaps most beautifully. What is the most important thing any human can do? Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (9:23-24)

And what is God’s goal for humanity? I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God wants to be known. This doesn’t mean the Bible is His Book but it does show us a deep motivation for self-revelation.


God cannot lie.
It’s also important to note here that God cannot lie. He wants to be known and, as God, He has the power and creativity to reveal Himself. But how can we trust Him? We can trust Him because He can only be truthful. He can only be faithful and honest. 

1 Samuel 15:29: The Glory of Israel [meaning God] will not lie.

Numbers 23:19: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

If God is real and if He wants to be known, He will reveal Himself accurately and honestly. I trust the Bible because I trust the character of God. 

  1. The Testimony of Its Pages

I also trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages. If the Bible is not God’s Word, it is perhaps the most arrogant, self-confident, full-of-itself book ever written.

If it is not God’s Word, it is not just a nice book with nice stories and nice morals. If it is not God’s Word, it is evil, because it claims to hold the very words of God, and to be the greatest, most important, most sacred book ever written. Trust it or trash it.

The claims it makes.
Listen to just a few of its claims:

2 Samuel 7:28: Now, O Lord God, You are God, and Your words are truth…

2 Samuel 22:31: This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.

Psalms 12:6: The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

Psalm 18:30: As for God, His way is blameless; the word of the Lord is tried…

Psalm 19:7: The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

Proverbs 30:5: Every word of God proves true.

2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

2 Peter 1:19-21: And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 

Revelation 22:6: And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place.

The Story it tells.
The Story it tells also nudges me toward belief. I can’t tell you if its words are true, and perhaps I’m only speaking from my own experience, but the Story of Scripture has a ring of truth about it. Yes, it is easy to get lost in the details or all the individual stories, but when you see its grand narrative, many of our questions and longings find compelling answers. The grand Story can be summed up in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.

Creation. The world had a beginning. It was made with purpose and significance, with humans made in the image of God. Regardless of what you believe about how or when God made the world, the fact that He made it answers so many questions. It compellingly explains why we live as if our lives matter, why beauty touches us so deeply, why love and relationships are so essential, and why, even now in the 21st Century, we just can’t seem to shake our longing for a Maker. The Bible shows us how we were created with these things in mind.

Fall. But everything is broken. We hurt the people we love. We run from God. We choose self-destructive paths. We break the things we touch. And despite all our effort, we can’t fix it. Then add to that cancer, viruses, tornados, infertility, pain in childbirth, loneliness, depression, anxiety, terrorism, war, racism, trafficking, and eventually death. We know in our bones the world shouldn’t be this way. The Bible tells us why.

Redemption. Yet we long for things to be better, and we work to that end. We strive toward self-improvement and we long for it in the people we love. We celebrate stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, rescue and redemption. These things are hard-wired into us by a God who offers them to us, and we see them on display through the climax of this Story in His Son. The Bible explains these longings.

New Creation. One day things will finally and completely be made whole. We want utopia. We want to live forever. We want to be reunited with the people we’ve lost. We want to see God. All these longings find fulfillment in the Story of Scripture.

No, none of this proves the Bible is true or that this grand narrative is the narrative we’re living. Yet, it gives me just one more piece of confidence in believing. It tells a compelling Story.

The way it speaks.
And if you thought that last point was too subjective, you’ll hate this one.

The way this Book speaks to my heart reinforces its veracity. When I read it I can almost hear God’s voice. I feel comforted in my heartache, convicted of my sin, and exposed at my deepest level. I don’t just read this Book. It reads me! It knows me and speaks directly to me. I trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages. 

So what now?
So what are we supposed to do with all this? I want to end with three action steps.

  1. Bring Him your doubts

First, bring God your doubts. I know I didn’t answer your questions and I realize there are fair reasons to doubt the Scriptures. Don’t sweep your doubts under the rug. Take your doubts seriously enough to look into them.

Sometimes people say things like “the Bible is full of contradictions” without actually looking at any supposed contradictions. Or sometimes we reject the Scriptures not because of any logical argument, but simply because we don’t like what it says. I don’t want to obey this so it must not be true. There are also times when we assume the Bible must be false simply because we haven’t taken the time to properly understand it in its cultural context.

Instead, take your doubts seriously enough to do some of the work to really understand. I discovered early on that many of my doubts had more to do with a lack of understanding or an unquestioning loyalty to my own cultural assumptions than with anything inherent in the text. Do the work. Bring Him your doubts.

  1. Trust that God knows better

Second, in all matters, trust that God knows better. Easier said than done I know, but if God has spoken, trust that He has spoken for our good. His Word is for your good. I love how the statement of faith for our denomination the Evangelical Free Church of America summarizes what we believe about the Scriptures. Pay close attention to how it ends.

We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.

Believed, obeyed, and trusted. Not just read or studied or proclaimed, as important as those things are.

Jesus said: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Trust these words. Obey them. Build your life upon them. They are for you from God. Trust that He knows better.

  1. Make this Book your food

And finally, eat this Book! Make it your food. It is strange to me how regularly the Bible refers to itself as a kind of food, sweeter than the best dessert and more satisfying than the richest feast. For Jesus while fasting even chose God’s Word over bread. He said, quoting the Old Testament: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

 So eat up, Church! Read it regularly and systematically. Memorize it and meditate upon it. Learn to study it and dig deeply into it. Know it so that you can trust it, love it, obey it, and build your life upon it.

Where else can we go?
I love this Book and I want you to love it too. It has been twenty-three years since that half-hearted prayer in my parent’s basement. Twenty-three years and I still feel like I’m just barely at the beginning, still struggling, still doubting, but still growing.

Whenever I’m wrestling with my faith (which is more often than I care to admit) I often think of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels. Jesus was at the height of his popularity but then preached a really hard sermon. After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:66-69).

I often feel like Peter. For I am often burdened by doubt and unanswered questions, tempted, like the crowds, to walk away. But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life! So here I am, learning to trust (and love) the Bible.

I Want to Be a Tree: Learning to Trust from a Mighty Sequoia  

I Want to Be a Tree: Learning to Trust from a Mighty Sequoia  

I want to be a tree

“I want to be a tree.” I felt these words deep in my bones as I stood before the largest tree in the world. His name is General Sherman, located in Sequoia National Park in California. He is 2,200 years old (already a big tree when Jesus was born). He is 275 feet tall (the WW1 Memorial is 217 feet tall), 36.5 feet in diameter (that’s roughly 4 parking spaces across) and weighs 1,385 tons (that’s about 600 minivans). He is a big tree.

When I saw him, I thought, I want to be a tree. Now, of course I much prefer being a human, made in God’s image, and all that. But. If I could be anything else, I just might pick a tree. At the very least, I want to be the kind of tree talked about in Scripture. 

Trees in the Bible

Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.

I want to be that tree. So rooted in God and drawing on His unending resources that nothing can shake me. When life heats up or droughts last way too long, even then it has no fear and is not anxious. I want to be that tree!

If you are familiar with the Scriptures, you may have noticed how God loves trees. He talks about them all the time. They are in the first pages of our Bibles, the last pages, and even the climax of our story happens on a tree. Trees in Scripture are often a sign of God’s blessing and favor, and humans are encouraged to model our lives in some ways after them and are often compared to them (just a few examples: Psalm 1, Psalm 52:8, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Matthew 7:17-19). 

So when I saw this tree it grabbed me. We actually spent the better part of three days in old growth sequoia groves, far below their towering canopies. We could see these magnificent trees flourishing in every direction. We touched them, smelled them, climbed on the fallen ones, stood inside hollow ones, picniced among them, drove our minivan through one of them, and hiked for miles below their stunning presence. These are the weird things the Millers do on vacation!

Lessons from a Tree

There are many things trees teach us. God’s Word explicitly uses trees as living illustrations and I want to mention three things that make me want to be like a mighty sequoia.

  • Take the long view

First, trees take the long view. Every time I plant a tree I feel like it is an act of faith, looking ahead into a distant future. I plant knowing full-well that the greatest size and beauty of this tree could likely be long after I am gone. Planting a tree is always for the people who outlive us. Trees take the long view and they encourage us to do the same. 

I have never once looked at a tree and thought, boy, that thing is sure in a hurry. I have never seen one appear to be concerned about the moment or focused solely on the present. Instead, trees give me a sense of history and stability. It has been there a long time and will probably be there a longer time still. Trees are patient.

When I look at my life, I’m almost always in a hurry and obsessed with right now. It is easy in a year filled with as much turmoil as 2020 to imagine that things have never been more challenging or more divisive or disappointing. I’ve caught myself thinking things like: never before has our nation been so divided. Never has a virus had so much influence. Never has being a pastor (or parent, or teacher, or business leader, or medical professional—fill in the blank) been more exhausting. 

Then I look at this tree. How many revolutions, civil wars, and contentious elections has it seen? How many nations rise and fall? How many viruses and diseases, economic downturns, and unanticipated situations? How many pastors come and go and how many apparent setbacks or divisions within the broader church? 

Oh right. I’m probably not the first human to feel any of these things.

Of course, none of this minimizes the things we are feeling today. Our struggles are uniquely our own and as such, feel uniquely personal. Yet instead of looking at the last eight months, or the last four years, or even the 40+ years I’ve been alive, a tree reminds me that God also sees a bigger picture. And I need that bigger perspective.

Psalm 90:1–4: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. 

A tree has seen a lot. 

God has seen it all. 

Nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard, and as such, I can, like a tree, wait patiently. I can trust in Him and rest in His provision. Trees encourage me to take the long view.

  • Suffer with purpose

They also encourage me to suffer with purpose. I find this remarkable about sequoia trees; sequoias are quite literally built for suffering and come out better because of it. 

I tend to worry about all the fires in California and everywhere out west. Even more, I worry about the fires in my own life and work and relationships. Not only are sequoias designed to withstand most forest fires, they actually need the fires in order to thrive. 

Just look at this sequoia cone, no bigger than a small chicken egg, with tiny seeds embedded. And look behind at the dark spot at the base of the tree–a burned out hole big enough to camp in. (For you history and nature nerds, this is the same tree John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped under in 1903 when they “invented” the National Parks.)

Take a look at that burn mark. It seems impossible to me, yet in all the hiking we did, it was harder to find an old sequoia without burn marks than those with them. I knew the trees needed the fires, but I was surprised  to see the majority of them deeply scarred by their environment, yet still massively mighty! How does that work?

You see, the bark of a mature sequoia can measure up to three feet thick (yes, you read that right—three feet) protecting it from almost any fire. It will leave tremendous scars but the tree stands protected. Not only that, the fires actually help the cones open up in order to release the seeds. Fire then burns off any competing plant undergrowth so the new seeds and saplings can flourish at the base of their towering parents. The fires and trees work together demonstrating some of the keys to the trees’ endurance: thick skin, ample pruning, and new growth. 

If I am completely honest, 2020 has felt like one fire after another. I still feel the heat, and there is a good chance the burns many of us have experienced could turn into scars. Let’s not naively imagine it all rosy. There are things that, after this year, may never be the same. Not everything survives a forest fire. 

I don’t want to be one of the casualties. I want to emerge stronger, with bolder faith, more resilient hope, and deeper compassion. Tender but thick-skinned. I want to see a church purified and pruned, longing for and working toward the Kingdom. I want to sprout new growth in my life, my family, my community, and our church to God’s great glory and our great joy. I want what Peter wrote to be true of us. 

1 Peter 1:3–9: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

When I see a scarred sequoia it reminds me to suffer with purpose. I don’t have to enjoy it or pursue it, but I do have to let God use it. If you let Him, He will not waste the fires in your life.

And if you’re thinking, yeah, but how? You are not alone. I feel it right with you. Left to my own devices I tend to retreat back into my self-centered focus on the present and waste my suffering. But there is one more lesson from these mighty trees.

  • Stand tall. Together.

Sequoias stand tall together. They need one another and they almost seem to know it. In fact, I was puzzled when the ranger told us that while you may occasionally see a lone sequoia, it will almost certainly fail to flourish. It might survive. It might grow to a decent size and even live to a decent age. But it will never be a giant. It will never really be what it could be. For that to happen, these trees need a community.

You see, sequoias have remarkably shallow roots for their size. Again, imagine a tree that is 275 feet tall, weighing 1385 tons. Think about the foundation required for a building that size. Now picture that tree swaying and being whipped about in storm after storm after storm for 2,200 years. And it’s still standing.

Mature sequoia roots are only 12-14 feet deep. How do they possibly withstand every storm for thousands of years? The roots form a community. They spread out (each sequoia can spread out underground across an entire acre), twisting and turning and intertwining into an entire community of roots, holding each other strong. It can be a cluttered and tangled mess down there yet it allows them to flourish through nearly every storm.

When I am tempted toward despair or apathy, toward destructive distraction or unhealthy busyness, toward doubt or anger, it is the people standing with me who keep me standing.

Who are those trees in your life? How, even in the difficulty of today, are you pursuing those relationships? How are you helping each other stand tall? 

Life and community and church all look very different right now. It is hard. Isolation creeps in. Old habits die. If we’re not careful, at some point we’re going to look around and realize that we are alone, and then, even the smaller storms will shake us. What will happen when the big one comes?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

May our roots grow deeply entwined together, so that in this unusual community, we might stand tall and endure every storm.

Will we be this tree?

Will this be us—God’s church—in this world? Will we be this tree? Rooted in Him and never fearing. When the storms rage, when the fires come, when the immediate feels so pressing. When elections overwhelm us, when viruses disrupt us, when fears and disappointments and frustrations loom. Will we keep trusting? Will we learn from the trees?

Next time you feel the tensions rising up within you, look up at a tree. Sure, you may have trouble finding a sequoia nearby, and not all trees are the same, but any tree will do. Let it remind you anyway. 

Take the long view. 

Suffer with purpose. 

Stand tall together. 

And as you look up at the tree, may you also lift your eyes up to the God who promises to make you into the forest described by Isaiah 61:1-3. 

For our God comes: to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. 

“Touchdown! Kan-sas City!!!”

“Touchdown! Kan-sas City!!!”

My Favorite Kansas City Chief

by Nathan Miller, Senior Pastor – Congregational Development

What a week for Kansas City! How fun it has been celebrating with our entire community! I want to tell you quickly about my favorite Kansas City Chief. It’s not Patrick Mahomes (shocking, I know). It’s Mitch Holthus, the radio voice of the Chiefs. I love this man so much and have such deep admiration for him.

Yes, he’s great on the radio! But more than that, I value his friendship, his leadership at Christ Community, his faith, and the beautiful ways he strives to connect his faith with his work. As one of our elders, I get to spend a lot of time with Mitch and he is one of the most tender and genuine people I know.

He’s spent the last several weeks on the global stage and has appeared in more than a few articles and posts. Below are a few highlights. May we all, in each of our roles, no matter how big or how small, connect our faith to our Monday lives a bit like our good friend Mitch!

Behind the Mic With the Voice of the Chiefs, Mitch Holthus

“The thing that I love about the Chiefs Kingdom the most is how unifying it is. …You’ll have a person who lives in the inner city fist pump someone who is rural in the Midwest…The Chiefs Kingdom to me is the most unifying thing that we have in this region.”

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Chiefs Radio announcer Mitch Holthus sees God’s providence in
Super Bowl run

“Make sure the light shining in you is brighter than the light that shines on you.” Chiefs radio announcer Mitch Holthus

[vcex_button url=”https://sportsspectrum.com/sport/football/2020/02/01/chiefs-radio-announcer-mitch-holthus-god-providence-super-bowl-run/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener” title=”READ MORE” style=”flat” align=”left” color=”black” size=”small” target=”blank” rel=”none”]READ MORE[/vcex_button]

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Divisional Playoff  Sights & Sounds 2019

 

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