Two Roads Diverged in a Garden

by Mike Phay

My heels backed up to the edge of a twenty-five feet high wooden platform just large enough to accommodate two people. My shirt was drenched with sweat. My muscles shook from adrenaline and fatigue, the effects of several ropes-course obstacles. We were attached to a tall, pencil-like tree swaying in the breeze.

Jeff, the course facilitator, tethered me into the final element of the course—the zip line. He challenged me to not simply ride the zip line to safety, but to face my fear of losing control by crossing my arms over my chest and fall backward. The tether would catch me and the zip line would take care of the rest. This “trust fall” would only work if I resisted the instinct to grab the tether.

I wasn’t interested in Jeff’s challenge.

Without hesitation, I looked Jeff in the eyes, said, “No thanks,” grabbed the tether, and eased my weight onto the zip line for a controlled ride to the ground.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you trust God?”

Jeff’s question came as a shock—a blatant undressing of my vulnerability and weakness. My fear of heights was obvious, laying bare my desire for control. I had a choice: to close my fist and grab the tether, or open my hand and trust.

My preference for control won, and I zipped away, grasping the tether—and my sense of control.

TWO WILLS DIVERGED IN A GARDEN

Humanity’s first battle for control took place in a garden, provoked by the ancient serpent’s deceitful words: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).

Until this point in time, human will had been aligned to the divine will in a relationship of trust and obedience. Now Eve held stood on the precipice of a new possibility—an alternative path where she was in control. Would she choose trust or control, an open hand or a closed fist?

Eve saw the fruit of the forbidden tree as desirable “to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6), and she took some of its fruit and ate, sharing it with Adam, her husband. Eve and Adam chose the closed fist of control.

This act of disobedience resulted in the divergence of human and divine will, changing the course of history. Our battle for control had begun.

THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL

The “opening of their eyes” to a world of wisdom awakened Adam and Eve to their nakedness and vulnerability. They quickly fashioned coverings for themselves. A relationship with God, once marked by trust and obedience, was instantly undermined. All for the sake of control.

Like our first parents, we are experts at constructing coverings to hide our vulnerability. Setting out to deceive others, we unintentionally deceive ourselves with our homemade fig leaves. We take comfort in this deception since it helps us feel in control, but in the end, it’s only an illusion.

As descendants of the Fall, we fabricate worlds of control, attempting to keep life’s struggles—suffering, sickness, loss, tragedy, grief—at arm’s length. But sickness and death don’t make appointments. Loss and tragedy don’t submit to our parameters. Whenever the unexpected comes crashing into our lives, we can hardly handle it. We become confused and shell-shocked, angry and bitter like our lives are out of control.

NOT WHAT I WILL, BUT WHAT YOU WILL

This great battle of control we find ourselves in came to a head in another garden:

“And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray,’ And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.’ And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” – Mark 14:32-36

Jesus, like Eve, had a choice before him. Not a fruit, but a cup—the cup of God’s wrath. Before Jesus drank from it, he held it in his hands, considering an alternative path. He wrestles with his Father, struggling to the point of blood and tears (see Luke 22:44), saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).

Human and divine will tragically diverged in the first garden. But the result would not be the same. The open-handed will of the Son—not grasping for control (Phil. 2:6), ever obedient to his Father (John 5:19)—changed the course of history when he said, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Jesus’ words of submission are not a request, but a statement of fact. They are the clear-eyed recognition of the indomitable supremacy of the Father’s will over man-made illusions. Jesus considered every alternate reality and possible future in which human wills could supersede the divine will—and rejected them outright, even though it meant drinking the cup of wrath.

Read the rest of this post at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Five Reasons to Brag about Jesus: A Meditation on John 17

by Mike Phay

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”  (John 17:1b-5)

This is the beginning of what is called the “High Priestly” prayer, spoken by Jesus mere hours before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As Easter approaches—when Christians around the world annually celebrate our Lord’s resurrection—we are offered an appropriate time to meditate on these words.

Surprising to many, Jesus begins by praying that his Father would “glorify him,” which is kind of a strange thing to ask for. Like an ancient Greek warrior on the eve of battle or a Roman gladiator entering the arena, was Jesus simply out to gain fame? Was he so self-infatuated as to pray that he would be worshipped? Is Jesus simply an egocentric, glory-hungry narcissist?

Most of us dislike a braggart. Arrogant people get on our nerves. Self-centeredness is rarely attractive.

However, with Jesus, things are different. There are a million reasons for you and me to be impressed with him. If he is truly who he says he is—who the Bible claims him to be—then he deserves not only all of our adoration but his own as well. If Jesus is God, then there exists nothing more worthy of his affections than himself.

So Jesus can and should pray for his own glory because he deserves it. There are at least five reasons why:

Jesus deserves glory because of his very nature

Jesus’ glory—his intrinsic worth and value—isn’t something he grew into. Jesus had (as he states in his prayer) glory “before the world existed.” This is a crucial statement, in which Jesus expresses his divine nature as the Son of God, his essence as the eternally existent second person of the Trinity. From before time began Jesus was “very God of very God.” The Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15 that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” As such, he is worthy of our praise.

Jesus deserves glory because of his obedience to the Father

Jesus prayed to his Father: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” In other words, Jesus honored his Father by being completely obedient to him. He did this by becoming a man, living a perfect life, and then dying on a Roman cross. Just as a pleasantly compliant child makes her parents proud and receives praise from friends and family, Jesus’ obedience brings honor to both himself and his Father. As such, his obedience is praiseworthy.

Jesus deserves the glory that comes with an epic victory

In the ancient world, sovereigns, kings, generals, and warriors sought and gained glory in battle. It wasn’t out of the realm of the ordinary for men to desire and attain the fame and renown that accompanied great feats or notable victories. According to the biblical story, the greatest victory ever won was accomplished when Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities”—that is, the evil spiritual powers—“and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). On the cross, Jesus has won a great victory over death, sin, and Satan. He deserves all of the glory and honor that comes with such a victory.

Jesus deserves glory because of what he’s done for us

For Jesus to be glorified is for him to go through with his work of saving a people for himself. He has earned salvation for rebellious, dead, and wretched sinners who don’t deserve a single ounce of his grace. And yet he gives it anyway. Such unmerited favor and gratuitous love deserves our praise.

Jesus’ deserves glory because it is good for us

In the end, to praise Jesus—to give him glory and honor—is the best possible thing for you and for me. It is what we were made for. The biblical story tells us that Jesus’ prayer was fulfilled when he was exalted to the right hand of God: “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” As such, he is in the place he was always meant to be: on his throne, reigning over the universe. For Jesus to be in charge of the cosmos—overseeing the unfolding of history and every element of our lives—is the best possible thing for each of us. And that, truly, is worthy of our praise.

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Pursuing Obscurity: A Call to Pastoral Humility

by Mike Phay

Please note: This article originally appeared at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, in their online magazine, The Table.

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious, as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In the 2013 Ben Stiller comedy film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the title protagonist embarks on a worldwide search to find eccentric photojournalist Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). Walter finally catches up with O’Connell in the upper Himalayas, where the globe-hopping photographer is stalking the elusive snow leopard. Motioning Walter—who has uncharacteristically pushed himself far beyond the borders of his comfortable, predictable, daydreaming life in New York City—to take a load off, Sean describes his quarry:

“They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. It never lets itself be seen.”

He continues, profoundly: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

A few lines later, Sean ambiguously refers to Walter himself as a “ghost cat,” calling attention to the nondescript beauty of an ordinary guy faithfully doing his job day after day, year after year. Pursuing excellence without calling undue attention to himself.

Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.

This is, of course, not how our culture functions. The idea that there is a shyness—a modesty—to beauty is antithetical to our society’s understanding of beauty. Isn’t it the beautiful things and beautiful people that constantly vie for our attention? Whether on the best and most expensive big screen TV, the magazine racks in the checkout line, the pop-up ads on the internet, or in the sports car in the driveway of the designer home, or the growing ubiquity of CrossFit “boxes,” it seems that beauty is always front and center, constantly demanding our attention. Beauty seems to be defined by calling attention to itself.

Pastoral Narcissism

Our culture parades and flaunts its version of beauty. It vies for it and pays for it. It worships beauty—or at least a caricature of it. To be beautiful is to deserve the spotlight; to demand attention. Youth, physical fitness, personal charisma, humor, charm, and popularity are imbued with such power that they shape an understanding of beauty that—like moths attracted to the light—we can’t help but be drawn to. To be a celebrity is to be recognized as a “beautiful one” and to leverage that beauty for reward.

This kind of attention seeking is not, of course, relegated to the marketplace. It has infiltrated the church and especially the ranks of the pastorate. Sadly, much like ancient Israel—who constantly allowed the shrines of foreign gods to invade the land—the church has fallen prey to the overwhelming siren call of this cult of beauty. Pastors are not immune to this kind of narcissism.

In this life, even the most humble will never fully be free from the human impetus towards pride. Pastors are no exception, and to make matters worse, there are peculiar temptations toward pride that seem to be unique to the pastoral vocation. The proximity of pastoral work to things that are holy—God’s people, God’s Word, the sacraments—brings with it an especially surreptitious form of pride. “It is a terrible thing,” C.S. Lewis observed of pride, “that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life.”

It is difficult for those who are publicly identified as God’s servants to separate themselves from what Henri Nouwen called “a success-oriented world.” Outward definitions of success line up so neatly with the inward temptations to receive applause, adulation, and affirmation. Put a man in any place to receive applause—on a stage, a platform or a podium; behind any pulpit or microphone—and resistance to ego-stroking is (nearly) futile. Suddenly, even we servants of the church no longer see an incongruity between our pastoral vocation and the potential for prominence among the ranks of the beautiful. As a result, we end up exalting our own beauty and brilliance.

Although celebrity pastors are not necessarily a new phenomenon—Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon were all well-known in their time—the past five decades of globalization have seen their rapid multiplication. This, in turn, has fueled a cult of personality and a culture of celebrity among the rank and file of pastors that is endangering the pastoral vocation.

In their essence, these temptations to mimic the surrounding culture find their modern clerical expression evidenced in our metrics of success: Dollars, followers, and platform. Success is synonymous with numerical growth: whether it be church attendance, giving, blog traffic, Twitter followers, book sales, social media clout, speaking gigs, or the breadth of one’s national or international influence. ‘Good’ pastors—so the narrative goes—are those that are growing along these lines.

Strategies for gaining this kind of success are legion and are mostly tied to our cultural understanding of beauty. In other words, the more beautiful—i.e., charismatic and winsome—a pastor, the bigger the numbers he or she will be able to produce. Pastors are told—either implicitly or explicitly, sometimes by the church and always by the world—that they must not only cultivate beauty but also flaunt their beauty in order to achieve success. The need for any successful pastor is to gain a voice—a platform—in order to amplify and project their charisma, intelligence, beauty, and charm beyond the scope of the local congregation and into the broader world.

Continue reading at Biola Center for Christian Thought

 

The Surprising Antidote to Your Doubt

If you ever wonder how to get a bad rap with posterity, you need look no further than Jonathan Edwards, one of modernity’s favorite Puritan whipping boys. An 18th Century pastor, theologian, and missionary, Edwards has gained a negative reputation as the foremost of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and the paragon of everything our culture finds faulty with religion. If it’s considered anathema today—like a repressive puritanical morality, an overemphasis on sin, guilt, and judgment, or a sadistic glorification of divine violence—it’s probably been pinned on Jonathan Edwards at some point.

SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD?

My first exposure to Edwards came in high school literature with the assigned reading of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Tackling the sermon as a read-aloud, our teacher prodded the class to preach with zeal: “Read it with passion! With fury in your eyes and fire in your belly!” His appeal to dramatic flair was mostly lost on a languid group of hormonal juniors, none of whom were eager to stand out amongst their peers. But the bias against Edwards—and the old-fashioned, bigoted, puritanical religion he represented—was clear.

In recent years, a popular backlash against “angry God” Christianity has risen not only from secular quarters but also from within the walls of the church. Consider a recent title from Brian Zahnd entitled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, one in a long line of attempts to correct what is believed to be a backward and destructive theology and replace it with a non-violent, singularly loving, atonement-free gospel.*

For many of us, the appeal of a gratuitously loving God in the face of Edwards’ seemingly angry and bloodthirsty deity is irresistible. The angry, severe, cold god we grew up with has left us harboring neuroses too various to number. The god many of us have pictured from childhood was more like a domineering or demanding father than a gentle and loving friend. He reigned with an iron fist, rode on a heavenly cloud, and longed for a chance to exact vengeance on sinners and saints alike. This is a god whose stratospheric expectations left us cowering in fear, hopeless victims of his capricious anger and violent wrath…

Read the rest of this article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Giving God the Future

by Mike Phay

Ever since H. G. Wells popularized the notion in his 1895 novella The Time Machine, and Albert Einstein made the concept at least theoretically possible with his 1915 general theory of relativity, time travel has appealed to the imaginations of millions. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, time travel isn’t just intriguing, it’s actually kind of cool. And with Dr. Who and Bill & Ted moving through space-time in phone booths, time travel can be kind of fun. But no time machine has been as sweet as Doc Brown’s stainless steel DeLorean that transported Michael J. Fox to the past and back in the 1985 smash hit Back to the Future. I was 9 years old at the time…and man! what I would have given for a real flux capacitor!

Thinking about time travel, I often ask people odd questions like, “If you had a time machine, would you prefer to go to the past, or to the future?” Responses to this kind of question actually reveal a lot about a person’s personality, fears, and hopes. It’s a great conversation-starter.

Why don’t you take a moment and think of your own response to this question? Would you choose to travel to the past or the future?

Not having done any kind of scientific poll, I find most people choosing the past over the future. I think there are two emotional responses for why this would overwhelmingly be the case: regret and nostalgia. First, we would want to go back to a certain time and fix something—prevent an assassination or a World War; talk our younger selves into or out of something that we did or didn’t do. This would be operating out of the regret mode. The second reason is nostalgia: we would want to meet some significant historical figure, witness an historic event, or simply return to a time when things were better, easier or happier. In both instances, there is a known quantity: the past has already happened, and this knowledge gives me some control as I travel there.

On the other hand, the future is unknown, which might be a motivating factor for some of us: we are curious souls and will always be drawn to an adventure. Perhaps we would want to allay curiosity (who am I going to marry?) or secure ourselves financially (who is going to win the next 10 Super Bowls?). But the unknown often produces a sense of anxiety or fear greater than our curiosity can overcome.

As we think about this question (past vs. future) in relation to our own regrets and anxieties, allow me to point out the obvious truth: none of us is heading to the past; all of us are heading to the future. In a very practical sense, that’s how time works. The choice has been removed. You’re traveling to the future whether you like it or not. Now the question is: how will you deal with it?

We find an instructive text in the New Testament:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

The future fills us with fear not only because it is unknown, but because we have no control over it. In this passage, the writer (James, the brother of Jesus) forcefully confronts each of us with our arrogant attempts to control the future. Because that’s what we do with things that cause us to be anxious: we attempt to control them.

To plan things is normal human behavior. We would even call it adult behavior. As we grow and become more responsible, it behooves us to think of the future and make plans for the coming days. Good parents are expected to teach their children to plan well in order to be successful in life. There is wisdom in planning. So we need to recognize that James is not attacking the wise stewardship of our time and resources.

What James is calling out here is our prideful tendency to have confidence in the wrong things: in our own plans rather than in God’s plans. Again, it’s not planning itself that’s wrong. It’s planning that does not take into account the greater, more important plans of the omnipotent and sovereign God of the universe. It’s planning that attempts to remove control from God’s hands and put it squarely in our own.

The fact of the matter is that we have neither knowledge nor control in relation to the future, and this scares us to death. It causes us to recognize our limits, that we aren’t in control.

If I were an atheist this realization might be more than I could handle. It might drive me to insanity. It would at least drive me to build a life where I at least had the illusion of control over my future: a life of security, planning, comfort, and padded retirement accounts. Ironically, when I claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet place my trust in these things to allay my anxiety, I’m living as a practical atheist. It’s so much easier to live in the illusion of control than to completely depend on God.

In the 2015 Tom Hank’s movie Bridge of Spies, accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is on trial for espionage. Several times during the movie, Hanks’ character—James Donovan—is surprised by Abel’s calm behavior and asks him something along the lines of, “Aren’t you worried?” Each time, Abel answers him calmly and matter-of-factly: “Would it help?” Which is the right question, with the same answer every time: No, it wouldn’t help. Our anxiety and attempts at control, though understandable, will not help. They will not change the future.

God calls us to a humble confidence not in ourselves, but in Him. He is sovereign. He is in control. He knows the future. He has it planned out perfectly. He is not surprised or powerless over it. Even more than that, He loves us and we can rest easy in the fact that even those things that bring us anxiety are comfortably in His hands.

 

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

If All Were Known…

by Mike Phay

God’s ways do not always make sense to us.

I’ve heard it said that if we knew all that God knew—that is, “if all were known”—we would both understand his reasoning and make the same decisions that he does. There is an appeal to this argument that is, in essence, an intellectual nod to God’s basic rationality and a tacit call to trust the deep wisdom of God. However, let’s think about the implications of this line of reasoning and perhaps expose why it might be a bit ridiculous for us to assume that this would be the case.

As humans, we’re prone to think that if we knew everything—if all the facts were laid on the table—we could understand God’s sovereign and mysterious ways: the “why” behind the befuddling choices that He seems to habitually make. Not only that, but we demand from God an answer to the “why” question. But let me suggest that there is much more to the story than a mere intellectual understanding—more than just seeing “all the cards on the table.”

There are at least three issues that keep this kind of understanding from being possible.

First of all, we have a capacity issue. If all of the cards were laid on the table, we simply couldn’t handle it. Our minds would explode. The sheer amount of information would be too much for us. I can hardly handle it when two or three of my kids are simultaneously asking me questions. How would I ever be able to grasp all that God—in His infinite all-knowingness—grasps in a moment? We are creatures, not the Creator. There is a fundamental difference in our capacity.

Secondly, we have a compatibility issue. Not only is our capacity for understanding different, our ways are different. As Scripture makes clear: “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“If all were known” assumes that God is limited to human-like rationality in His decision making. But our minds don’t run on the same kind of software as God’s. For all that we know, everything that we know about God is—like in Plato’s allegory of the cave—nothing but shadow puppets playing on a wall. Kid-speak. Puppet show and stick figures. We should be amazed that God lowers Himself to speak to us at all.

Finally, we have a care issue. Deeper than our ways and our thoughts being different from God’s, our hearts are different from His. How? First of all, we are tied up and bound with all sorts of sin and brokenness. We are fallen, and even though redeemed, still wrestle with the habits of the flesh. And yet, even if we were completely holy and pure humans, we are still limited by our finiteness. But ultimately, our hearts do not share the same love, affection, care, and concern that God has for all of his creation.

In the end, I’m convinced that “if all were known” is not the correct response to God’s mysterious and often perplexing ways. As Job learned (Job 40:3-5), the overwhelming divergence between the human and the Divine should drive us to quickly find a place of humility and silence. It is best for us to cover our mouths, bow our heads and our knees, and humbly worship our Great God.

All cannot be known. Perhaps we should just stop trying and simply worship.

 

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Take in the Beauty

by Mike Phay

The day was damp, overcast, and cool. The majesty of the ice-cut valleys of Glacier National Park was largely hidden in low-hanging cloud cover. The spring run-off was calling attention to itself, filling out the edges of Two Medicine Creek, tickling the high water mark, and then careening carelessly over the 20-foot drop into the broiling pool below.

We stood at the base of Running Eagle Falls, cameras and phones in hand. The teenage boys had climbed beyond the railing—the limits of civilization—intent to memorialize this place and moment, “selfie”-style. They would, in due time, remember the experience itself, while largely ignoring its digitized copies.

My teenage daughter and I stood at the rail—phones pocketed and camera lenses covered, drinking and breathing in beauty with each of our senses—while couples and families, groups of all shapes and sizes, ages, and nationalities came and went. Some took in the experience momentarily, quickly departing, while others slowed down for several minutes of peace and quiet. Through all of the people movement, our visit lingered on. We were present, unhurried, serene.

One older couple approached and snapped a few photos. After not more than sixty seconds, the husband spoke up: “Let’s go. I’ve seen it. It’s not gonna change if I keep looking at it.” He glanced at me with a smirk and a nod and the knowingness of a fellow man: American, efficient, and accomplished.

And off they went, unaffected and unchanged in the presence of beauty. Taking in a landmark rather than an experience. Checking beauty off the list as if it were something that could be controlled, captured, and cataloged—then bragged about.

I nodded politely back to the gentleman and returned my attention to the waterfall. Contrary to his bold assertion, each moment brought with it the realization of everything I had missed—the fact that I hadn’t really seen it yet at all. The longer I beheld the beauty, the more beauty I knew that I was missing. And the longer I looked, the more it actually did change.

Just seconds after this older coupled turned to make their way back to their comfortable, climate controlled, all-wheel-drive tourist vehicle, the clouds broke. Sun shone on the glistening water, revealing a beauty previously unseen, unwitnessed. As I stood, camera-less, I saw the instantaneous change—constant and unending—and I looked, transfixed, as millions of water droplets captured and refracted light in ways that could not and never would be mimicked. The change—which had not been there in the previous moment—was stunning. Then as quickly as it had come, the sunlight was again obscured behind the fast-moving cloud. The torrent continued and the waterfall as an object continued to exist, even as it was before.

But the nature of waterfalls is one of constant change. No two moments of a waterfall are the same. They move forward incessantly, ever flowing, rushing past, creating an infinite string of moments. All moments of beauty, none to be slighted. To proclaim “I’ve seen it” is a contradiction in terms. This kind of beauty can never be over-seen, each moment extremely valuable in its own right.

And in that moment it seemed to me that to refrain from capturing the moment with a lens—or checking it off a list—was getting closer to the nature of the moment itself. I was taking in its beauty.

Taking in beauty does not come easily to me. An achiever by nature, I instinctively pursue productivity and value completion. I often find the unknown, unrestrained, and uncontrollable pieces of life—categories into which beauty often falls—best left for someone else to handle. I am a moment capturer, not a moment experiencer. And the moment that is best captured for me is the one where everything is finished and complete: Been there. Done that. Seen it. Let’s move on. Our purpose is to get to the destination, not to enjoy the trip.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a bit more enamored with the process, not just the destination. This has happened with the difficult realization that the destination is not already—and may never be—reached. As a husband, father, pastor, and leader, there are plenty of people depending on me to get them to a destination. And they are not necessarily thinking of the destination as much as they are longing to be loved in the midst of the journey.

We could think of the people who flow into and out of our lives as the individual moments of a waterfall. When we fail to attend to each of these God-imaging individuals who’ve been entrusted to us—even if just for a moment, a blink of an eye—then we miss the beauty that God intended for us to see, to experience, and to love. If we choose to simply catalog and check them off our lists as objects or projects, then we fail to give them the dignity God has infused into them, along with the care and attention required of us by the command to love.

It is the intangible, un-captured, fast-moving—and often messy—moments to which I am to attend. To change metaphors, it is the one car of the many hundreds that pass by on the highway every day—with that particular family in it, struggling with that particular issue, grieving that particular loss, celebrating that particular blessing. The important thing is neither the freeway nor the car, but the folks inside. Those are the ones: the souls with whom I’ve been entrusted, even if just for a moment. And if I’m unable to see the car for the traffic, the particular and radiant beauty within the moment, or the individual above and beyond the task, then truly I have lost sight of my purpose.

In standing and experiencing the beauty of a waterfall, it dawned on me that God gives us these moments of beauty-noticing—slowing down and unplugging from a digital, deadline world—to wake us up to the mystery and the beauty inherent in all of life. Our lives often move at freeway speed—detached from and unaware of the cars around us, the people we travel with, and even the stirrings and struggles in our own souls.

So why not take a moment and unplug? Notice the world and the people that God has placed around you. Hunt for beauty. And as you turn your smartphone off and forego a selfie (just this once), take notice of the small, the mundane, the regular. Keep yourself from moving past without noticing. Take time to savor without having to control, catalog, or capture the moment. Each of these moments is a gift, just as each soul is a gift. Maybe as we slow down and take them as such, we will truly see them for what they are.

What the Gospel Leaves Out

“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  — James 2:13

The beautiful and expansive Gospel leaves something out. Although immensely inclusive, it is also shockingly exclusive. Although expansive, there is no room in the Gospel for certain things:

  • There is no room in the Gospel for partiality, favoritism or prejudice.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on skin color.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on nationality.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on ethnicity.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on language.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on “ability” or disability.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on social status.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on power.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on wealth (or lack of it).
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on number of chromosomes.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on personality.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on gender.
  • There is no room in the Gospel for prejudice based on sexual orientation.

If true, what this means is that there is no room in Jesus’ church for any of these things. Furthermore, where any of these find a place in our own hearts, speech and behavior, they will find themselves needing to be challenged, rebuked, extracted and forsaken.

Because rather than showing partiality, Jesus has created and thus celebrates human diversity. And if this is the case, then necessarily our churches and gatherings should be places were a diversity of all different kinds of people are welcomed, embraced, and loved. Our gatherings should be places where every unique person is able not only to come to Jesus, but to come and be welcomed and loved by the church. Jesus welcomes everyone. So should we.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that a call to practice radical love includes a condoning of sin or a celebration of behavior that is clearly contrary to Scripture. On the contrary, there is absolutely no place for excusing prejudice or condoning partiality, failing to recognize our own fallenness and desperate need for a Savior. The tree trunk must be excised from our own eye before we attempt to blow the loose eyelash from our neighbor’s.

The Gospel levels the playing field. Before the Law we are all in desperate need of Christ. We are all desperately broken and fallen. And this desperate neediness is what the Gospel addresses. It is why we needed Jesus to come and die for us. And it is what gives us the liberty and power to overcome our judgments with mercy.

For “here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  – Colossians 3:11

“A Lie in My Right Hand”

by Mike Phay

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  – 1 John 5:21

Confession time.

I see a therapist on a regular basis.

My therapist and I hold regular 4-hour sessions, usually on Tuesday mornings.

He does not hold a counseling degree or own a private practice. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s never had any experience with professional psychology at all. He doesn’t have any fancy letters after his name or a place in the Academy.

My therapist is a self-employed engineer and machinist by trade, an amateur astronomer and telescope maker in his off-hours. And he likes to bake in his spare time. His true passion, though, is woodworking. When wood is involved, he’s a Master Craftsman.

Yes, my therapist is my unofficial (and unpaid) shop teacher. I consider the times that I spend in his shop as necessary therapy sessions for the retention of my sanity and the upkeep of my pastoral soul. They give me a short weekly break from the oft-grueling work of pastoral ministry, providing a connection with the tangible, physical world of woodgrain and sawdust. In his shop, I touch and smell, feel and create. I learn to carefully impose my will on a tactile medium and watch instantaneous physical change occur. The earthiness of the shop returns me to the real-world from which I am often – sadly – detached in the work of ministry. The immediacy of the results pacifies the anxious and success-oriented temptations of my daily work. It all serves as a reminder to me that my “job” is really more earthy, physical, and real than the world or the church sometimes allows it to be.

I’ve always enjoyed building things. I’ve done my share of construction and carpentry. But aside from one semester of wood shop in the 7th grade, have never been trained in the finer skills of woodworking. My teacher in this craft is detailed, patient and precise as he trains me to use simple and time-tested tools to manufacture simple and unique projects.

The word manufacture literally means ‘to make by hand,’ although it generally evokes images of large scale, hands-free, machine-driven output of products for mass consumption. But prior to mass production – before the ubiquity of conveyor belts and assembly lines – manufacturing took place as the word suggests: by hand. It is this kind of fine craftsmanship that has become a lost art, relegated to lost or dying cultures. Like the Amish.

As our culture has lost the art of authentic craftsmanship in pursuit of the mighty dollar, we have – perhaps unwittingly – jettisoned the energy and devotion that goes into a beautifully handcrafted item. Fine craftsmanship requires that hand and eye be tuned as precisely as the tools that are used. Blades must be sharpened to sheer the hairs from a man’s forearm. Likewise, one’s senses must be awake and aware, tuned to the medium. One with the tool itself. Connected to the wood. Craftsmanship requires attentiveness. Slowing down. Patience. Care.

Subtle Idolatry

I am not much of an artisan. At this point, just an apprentice. A novice. But I can see how this kind of creative work – largely lost to a consumeristic American public – can give one a sense of value and worth, an earned feeling of dignity and identity. Like the child greeting her daddy’s homecoming – “Look what I made!” – I too find myself craving the display of my own handiwork. I long to receive the credit due to my creative endeavors.

I want others to see me. I desire people to notice me. I long for them to admire me. I’m an adoration junky – a glory thief. And in all of this, I prove my nature to be, as John Calvin pointed out, “a perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes, 1.11.8).

As I ponder this, it seems a short step for me to begin to draw my wooden creations into my idolatrous, glory-thieving ways. To have them join me as partners in my sacrilege. To make idols of them.

This reminds me of the passage from Isaiah, describing idolatrous craftsmen:

The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:13-20)

We shake our heads at the folly displayed in the prophetic words. We convince ourselves that we would never participate in such blatant idiocy.

Our idolatry is much more subtle.

As I create these small pieces of imperfect craftsmanship during my weekly therapy sessions, I am confronted by the longing in my heart for a taste of glory. I want people to like what I make, to appreciate what I create with my hands. I want to impress them. To have them speak well of my creation, affirm my abilities, and raise their measure of me accordingly.

All because of a chunk of wood.

Now, when it comes to my actual vocation, this temptation towards idolatry really heats up. In my work I shepherd people and make disciples by crafting and preaching sermons, writing articles, planning worship services, leading elders, and counseling church members. And oh, how I love it when people are impressed with the work that I do! When they speak well of my abilities, creativity, intelligence, compassion, and humor. I love it when people are impressed with me.

Like when someone recently told me that I have a fan club in the church.

A fan club. In the church.

My response to this well-meaning person was: “I don’t want a fan club. Be a Jesus fan!” But oh, how a Mike Phay fan club appeals to my praise-hungry, idol-making heart!

Who Tells You Who You Are?

When we imbue the works of our hands with the power to create worth and value for ourselves, we wrap up our identity in our efforts. How difficult it is to let go of our need for appreciation, approval, and adulation that comes to us so naturally through our work! How difficult to disentangle our identity from our self-made idols!

It is utter foolishness to give this identity-forming power to empty idols.

Identity-giving is a God-task, a Gospel-work. It’s not our responsibility to create our own identity, but God’s. The One who created us in His own image will ultimately restore our sin-lost, idol-grasping identity through the identity-defining work of the perfect image-bearer, Jesus Christ. As Paul Tripp writes, “You don’t work in the hope of getting an identity; you work in celebration of the identity that, in Christ, you have been given.”

So who tells you who you are?

Because idolatry is ultimately a worship issue, every identity crisis is also a worship issue. What we worship shapes who we are. It follows, then, that the only escape from our identity crisis is to pursue true worship: to make much of Jesus. We must look to and adore Him, fixing our eyes on Him, “the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” He is our Identity-Giver.

So ask yourself: Do I, in faith, believe what He says? Even what He says about me? Because taking Him at His word is essential to true worship.

The more that you truly give yourself to make much of Him, the more you will find yourself throwing your idols down in disgust, and the more you will find yourself believing what He says about you. And if He can create the world and your new identity, why not trust Him to detach your heart from “the lie in your right hand,” and use the works of your hands for His glory instead of your own?

 

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

He Prays For Us

by Mike Phay

Last week I took a team from our church to Canada to visit some missionary friends. Even though we were as prepared as I thought we could be, we were still detained at the border for nearly an hour. Thankfully, we made it into the country, although not without a minor bit of stress. Within two hours of that fiasco, I had the distinct unpleasure of viewing the flashing lights of a police car in my rearview mirror. “Sir, I pulled you over because you were going 73 in a 50 zone.” Wow! That’s fast! Oh, wait. Canada’s metric. 73 km/h is pretty close to 50 mph. Whoops. Conversion is a beast.

And so within two hours in a new country, I had been detained by immigration agents and then ticketed by Canada’s finest. (And I thought the cops up there only rode horses!) As much time preparing and praying for this trip to go smoothly, by this time I wasn’t sure if we would ever get to our destination. Thankfully, that was the end of our troubles with the law, and the remainder of our trip was smooth and wonderful.

One of the things that consistently threatens to derail discipleship is the presence of continual resistance and opposition. Like being pulled over – again and again. Or being continuously undermined by a passive-aggressive employee. Or constantly being questioned about your decisions by a spouse or teenage child. We all know what resistance and opposition feel like.

Thankfully, Jesus is not surprised by this kind of opposition. In fact, He actually prepared us for this, telling His disciples that they would “have tribulation” in this world. But “take heart,” he assured them, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Along with the comfort of Jesus’ victory – the fact that we fight in a battle with a fixed and certain outcome – we can be assured in the midst of the opposition that Jesus has not left us alone. “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” He promised His disciples (Matthew 28:20). Indeed, He has even sent the Holy Spirit to be with and in all those who believe (John 14:16-17). He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18).

Jesus has also ensured us that His mind and heart are with us, proven in the fact that He prays for us. The 17th chapter of John is a written testament to the fact that the Son of God Himself actively prays for us. We can take great comfort in knowing that Jesus – nearly 2,000 years ago – was praying for us: “I do not ask for these only [those disciples who were present], but also for those who will believe in me through their word [all believers of all time]…” (verse 20). Jesus was praying for us – and lest we think he didn’t include us in this sweeping prayer – perhaps we think that the timeframe is just too big – let us remember that we belonged to Him even then, for “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Jesus is not limited by our timeframes.

Take this in: The Son of God prayed for us. For you and for me. And the fact is that Jesus continues to pray for us, for He “always lives to make intercession” for His followers (Hebrews 7:25). He is “at the right hand of God…interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).

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