Ask Him For Joy

by Mike Phay

Like a precisely tuned seismograph, my wife is intimately tuned into the lives and needs of our five children. She can sense a fever from a mile away and knows if her offspring need a Kleenex five minutes before a nose begins to run.

This has come, of course, not only because of the amazingly intuitive and attentive mother that she is but also because of the immense amount of time that she has invested in her children. She has been the primary resource to meet every one of their needs from their conception onward. As each of our five children developed in her womb, there was not a physical need that her body did not anticipate or provide for them. As they have entered the world and have grown, she has been a constant presence and provider for them. When they have a need, she meets it. As a natural and right result, they go to her for almost everything.

It’s a bit humorous when I’m at home because even when I might be close and available to meet their needs, my kids don’t generally default to me as a major resource for their most basic needs (unless there’s cash involved…but we can discuss teenagers later).

There are times when I will be in the room near my wife, doing something important – like stuffing my face with dessert or staring at my iPhone – when one of my smaller children walks in and asks my wife a question like, “Does Daddy have to go to work today?” At that moment, Keri and I will exchange a bemused and knowing glance. Her eyes will momentarily return to the child’s, and with the power of gravitational force (I’m sure that mothers actually have tractor beams in their eyes) will guide a pair of 5-year-old eyes – simply with a nod – to the waiting and attentive face of their father. Gently, she will say, “Your dad is right here for you. Ask Him.”

The resulting transformation of a child’s face from query to comprehension – and on a good day, to delight – is miraculous.  It’s as if a veil has been lifted and the child has noticed my presence in their world for the very first time: Eyes widen, a smile broadens across their face, and oftentimes a hug ensues (these are the sweet times…again, we can discuss teenagers later). The child’s attention is then diverted to me, and the questioner has been re-introduced to the appropriate party with a simple redirect: “Your dad is right here for you. Ask Him.”

Christian theology has long acknowledged and celebrated Christ’s unique office as Mediator: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Through His sacrificial and atoning death, burial, resurrection and ascension, Christ has accomplished the enduring reconciliation of relationship between God and His people. There is no greater truth – no greater reality.

And yet the robustness of His mediation is often lessened, as we tend to think that maybe God isn’t really happy with us. Maybe He just tolerates us. And so we are hesitant to come too close to Him. We need Jesus to continuously run full-time interference for us with an unhappy God.

But the fact of the matter is that Christ is such a perfect mediator between us and God that He has provided a way for us to come to the Father directly. His righteousness is now our own (2 Corinthians 5:21), and we are counted as fully-vested, adopted children. It is utterly profound and often rather difficult for us to believe what Jesus says about this in John 16:

“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full… In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you…”

(John 16:23-24, 26-27)

Jesus here makes reference to a radical change in relationship between His followers and His Father that will happen through His mediating work: specifically, through His redemptive death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. He is assuring His gathered disciples that “that day” will come when direct access to the Father will take place. In “that day,” Jesus says, we will be able to ask – that is, we will be able to pray.

I have a pastor friend who often reminds that at the core of the Gospel is the often-missed truth that Jesus died so that we could pray. The author to the Hebrews assures us that we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). We have truly been given “boldness and access” to the Father “with confidence through our faith in him” (Ephesians 2:18; 3:12).

And He expects us to come. To pray. To ask. In fact, He commands us to ask. He wants us to ask. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Your Dad is right here for you. Ask Him.”

But, if you are like me, prayer is often a labor and a grind, accompanied by overtones of duty, burden, and guilt. We know that we ought to pray, while simultaneously carrying an awareness of our deficiency in prayer. Ask any of your Christian friends how their prayer life is going, and the probability is high that you will get a sheepish aversion of the eyes, a quick change of the subject, or a dejected dropping of the countenance.

Yet the fact that we now have access to the very throne of God is incredible and should be for us a source of much joy. What else could bring us greater joy than a new, intimate relationship with God Himself?

We don’t always associate prayer with joy, but God doesn’t want us to associate it with guilt and shame. Instead, He grants us the ability to find joy in our relationship with Him through prayer:

Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24)

We often take this to mean that our joy will be full because of our receiving. But I think it’s more full-orbed than this. Joy comes because of the relationship in which we can ask:

“In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you…” (verses 26-27, italics mine)

Perhaps Jesus is saying that joy comes because of our new relationship with the One Whom we are asking – the One Who is present; the One Who loves us; the One Who listens to and answers our requests. And because of this new relationship, we are learning to ask for that which is actually able to make us joyful. As a result, we receive what we truly want – the very thing that we will find ourselves asking for – more of God.

So what if – instead of loading our prayer life with false expectations, guilt, fear, aversion, humiliation, anger, frustration, or even boredom – we were to ask for what God is so willing to give?

What if we were to ask God for joy?

You see, for God, prayer is all about relationship. It’s all about being with His children.

And for us, it should be all about being with our Father, in whose presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). God would have you be joyful – even in your sadness, sorrow, broken-heartedness, and pain. So come to Him – especially if you don’t feel joyful – and ask for joy from the Healer, the Care-giver, and the only One who can turn your sorrow into joy.

But if you’re just grumpy? Inordinately angry? Morbid or morose? Sure. Come to God with those things, but beware if you are intent on holding onto them. God would have you be joyful – so don’t resist it.

Instead, ask for joy! Fight for joy! Find joy! For in Christ, you are in the smiling, happy presence of the God who made you and loves you more than you could ever ask or imagine. He wants to be with you. He wants you to devote your time and attention and energy to Him. He loves you and offers you joy.

So ask your Daddy. He’s right here for you. Ask Him for joy.

[note: versions of this article were published at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and For The Church]

Deliver Us From Evil

by Mike Phay

Three Ways that Jesus Prays for Our Protection

“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:11-16)

Jesus’ absence from the world should cause a certain amount of angst for His disciples because true disciples have a strong, irresistible, innate desire to be with Jesus. As the Apostle Paul attested when pondering his own death: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23, italics mine).

Although the believer’s final destiny is to be with Christ, Jesus purposely leaves us in the world – which happens to be a very hostile place for those who are associated with Him. And yet this is the inevitable and assigned lot of all of Jesus’ disciples. In fact, Jesus intentionally requests that His followers not be taken out of the world (v. 15). In other words, He intended to leave us here. He intended for us to be here in the world right now – not accidentally, but for a purpose: and His purposes are always perfect.

If we look at the end of this section, we can see that the unifying danger from which all other dangers in this world come is Satan himself, leading Him to pray: “keep [protect – NIV] them from the evil one” (v. 15).

As Jesus prays against Satan’s influence, He draws our attention to three ways in which Satan works in this world. Let’s look at them one at a time:

Satan is a murderer

“He was a murderer from the beginning…” (John 8:44)

We see from the very beginning of God’s story that Satan is the Ultimate Vandal. Unable to create anything by himself, he takes what God has created as good – life, wholeness, unity, peace, relationship – and destroys, vandalizes, and seeks to reverse it. Death comes when there is division, enmity, and hostility – the destruction of God’s good, creative purposes.

In the Genesis story, Satan subversively brought enmity between Adam and Eve, between both of them and God, and also between them and the created world. In the biblical view, life is relational unity (John 17:3), and death is separation – ultimately, separation from God. But in so many other ways, whenever we experience hostility and division – broken relationships, fractured peace, reversed unity – death is in play.

Jesus specifically prays against this Satan-wrought divisiveness amongst His disciples: “Holy Father, keep [protect, NIV] them in your name…that they may be one, even as we are one” (v. 11). Satan – the devil – is, as Peter tells us, our adversary. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Prey is at its most vulnerable to a predator when it is isolated and alone, away from the flock.

So where Satan would bring death into our lives by keeping us isolated and lonely, Jesus prays us together. Where Satan would have a heyday of deadening our souls by over-individualizing us, Jesus died to make us a people. To bring us together. To create unity where there was once only enmity, separation, and death. Jesus prays against Satan’s murderous ways by praying for our unity.

We keep ourselves safer by staying with the flock – by being with God’s people, His church. And by making it a priority to not allow yourself to get caught alone, isolated, and vulnerable.

Satan is a thief

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10)

But what does Satan steal, that Jesus thinks it important for us to retain? In verse 13, Jesus prays, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”

Satan wants to take your joy. Actually, he wants to keep you from having Jesus’ own joy. And what was Jesus’ joy – what he calls his ‘food’? To do the will of His Father.

Hear it from Jesus’ own lips: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:10-12)

Where does joy come from? Obedience. How do we obey? Through love.

Satan’s ploy of joy-thievery is to draw us into disobedience, which looks like self-centered, narcissistic, ego-maniacal, non-loving lives. The ironic thing about this is that the way in which we are actually able to combat Satan’s attempted burglary is to give more love – to pour ourselves out and empty ourselves for the sake of others. The more we empty ourselves in love and obedience, the more capacity we have for joy. The more of ourselves we let go, the more joy we get.

Obedience through love brought Jesus joy. Pouring Himself out for us and for our salvation brought Jesus joy: “who, for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:2, italics mine). Obedience through love will bring us joy, too. Trying to hang ontyourselflf and your comfortable, self-focused life? That is the way to lose all joy.

Be assured that the enemy of your soul does not love you. He has not given up one iota of himself for you. So why give him anything? Why forfeit your joy to him? On the other hand, the Savior of your soul loves you perfectly. He has given up all of Himself for you. Are you willing to give Him your self and trust Him with everything?

Satan is a liar

“…he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Already in this Gospel, Jesus has told his disciples that they will face tribulation and hatred in this world (John 15:18-16:4; 16:33), so those who belong to Jesus should expect to be hated, persecuted, and even killed. This is because Jesus has given us God’s word – the Gospel – and as a result, we – like Jesus – are not of the world (v. 14).

Like oil and water, Hatfields and McCoys, Republicans and Democrats – the world and disciples should repel each other. Those who have received and believed in God’s word in the Gospel have not merely given intellectual assent to a set of truths or propositions, but have been given a new identity in Christ. We are new creations. We have been rescued out of the world, out of the domain of darkness, and have become children of light. And light repels darkness. And the darkness hates it. Despises it. Can’t stand it.

Perhaps Satan’s most subtle and powerful weapon in his arsenal against believers is the lie (“has God really said?”) that discipleship does not necessitate a repulsive-to-the-world radical reorientation of one’s life around the Gospel. When would-be-followers-of-Christ swallow Satan’s deception here, the tension between them and the world is removed. Opposition abates. Life becomes peaceful and comfort ensues.

This is why the so-called Prosperity Gospel is so popular (and so demonic): it requires no radical reorientation around God, His Kingdom or His commandments. The result of buying into this lie of “comfortable discipleship” is that our powers of discernment (Hebrews 5:14) are dulled and the things of the world – rather than the things of God – hold sway over us, clouding our vision and adjusting our eyes to a near-sightedness that views this world as the only one.

This is the essence of the spiritual battle taking place beneath the tangible, sensible, physical world. This battle is very real, and it is very important: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

So when Jesus affirms that we are not of the world, and thus opposed by the world (in verse 14 and again in verse 16) – and asks that we not be taken out of the world – He is purposefully leaving us in this place of tension, opposition, hatred, persecution, and even death. And he knows that the struggle will be a struggle of endurance and faith which sees beyond the opposition to the smiling face of our Savior. And so, Jesus asks His Father to “keep them from the evil one” (v. 15), a protection that, I am convinced, includes opening our eyes not only to see but also to be aware of the Kingdom that is ever-present beneath the veneer of this world.

But Jesus…

We are in the world, where the stakes are high. The Good News is that Jesus prays for your protection and mine. He prays that our perspective, our unity, and our joy will be protected by the Only One who can truly protect them: our Holy Father, God Himself. And a life of faith desperately clings to God’s power, displayed in Christ’s finished work: a new identity in Him. The perils of ignoring or rejecting Him or pursuing our identity elsewhere are dire and destructive. Judas Iscariot, caught isolated and divided from Jesus and the other disciples, is the ultimate example (v. 12).

Satan is the enemy of our souls. He is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. He will rest when we are destroyed, empty, vacuous, and dead. But Jesus…

And here it is, the two words that make all of the difference:  But Jesus…

  • But Jesus is the Savior of your soul.
  • But Jesus is the Author and perfecter of your faith.
  • But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who protects you from attack.
  • But Jesus holds onto you with a grip that cannot be broken by anything in all of creation.
  • But Jesus is on the throne of the Universe.
  • But Jesus has prayed for you.
  • But Jesus is praying for you even now, as we speak, interceding with words of complete authority on your behalf, to His Father who loves Him and listens to Him and will fulfill all of His promises in you and for you…forever!

Leading Kids Past “Praying the Prayer”

by Mike Phay

As you speak with your child about Jesus, God’s Word, and their relationship with God, there are several biblical values that should frame your approach to this ongoing conversation. Oftentimes, parents are intimidated by having spiritual conversations with their children simply because they doubt their own competence. They fear that they will get it wrong. Christian parents often tend to take the minimalist route, which is easy and requires no college degree: Let’s just get our child to ‘pray the prayer’ to ‘accept Jesus into their heart.’ That done: success! My child’s eternal destiny is secure, and we can return to life as normal. But God has called and equipped Christian parents for something more.

Missing in this simplistic approach with your child is the deep importance of the parent-child relationship: God has given you to your child as a leader, mentor, teacher, and disciple-maker. These kinds of everyday spiritual conversations should be a part of your life rhythm with your child. As God commanded the Israelite parents in regard to His commandments: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

Below, I’ve articulated some basic biblical values to guide a Gospel-shaped approach to our children’s hearts, and to help us think through the discerning work that is so necessary for guiding our children to Jesus, especially around the key moments of conversion and baptism.

Guiding Values

  • Resist the urge to equate curiosity and eagerness with spiritual lifeChildren are insatiably curious learners and childhood is an imaginative and creative time. It is also a stage of life when motivation comes through reward & punishment. For these reasons, words & reality do not always align for children, causing difficulty in our discernment of our children’s hearts. Children will tend to say what they think you want to hear, including the ubiquitous ‘sinner’s prayer.’ For example, my 5-year old daughter will dutifully (and joyously!) declare “Jesus died on the cross for our sins!” as a response to any question asked when the Bible is open at our dinner table. She can enthusiastically parrot the correct response to the wrong question: as parents, we encourage and correct with gentle guidance, because she is eager, curious and learning. Eagerness & curiosity are the happy marks of healthy children everywhere; they are not necessarily trustworthy markers of spiritual life.
  • Keep God’s Word central in your conversations with your child. God has sovereignly designed that faith comes through hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:14-17). You can have many spiritually-oriented and deep astonished with the wordconversations with your children without ever bringing God’s Word to bear. But the response that you are looking for in your child’s heart is not a response to your wisdom, but to God’s Word. Keep the Bible open and in front of them. The fruit that you and your child will reap from these types of Word-centered conversations will be eternal
  • Be prayerfully attentive to God’s work in your child’s heart. Parents should take comfort in the fact that the primary work of salvation in a child’s heart is the work of God. The nature of new birth is God’s sovereign election of individuals (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4; Acts 2:39; 13:48; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Revelation 17:8), brought to fruition through the Spirit’s movement and work in a dead heart (John 3:8; Ezekiel 37; Ephesians 2:1-10). For parents, there is a call to prayerful and dependent attentiveness in looking for signs of the Spirit’s movements in a child’s heart. God has been at work on your child well before you were even on the scene (Psalm 139:13-16; Ephesians 1:3-6). Be constantly on the hunt for His astonishing grace in the heart and life of your child – and celebrate it when you see it!
  • Call for but do not force a response. Do not be afraid to call your child to profess faith or to follow Jesus in baptism if you believe that your child is ready. Conversely, do not be afraid to have your child wait if they are not ready. Allowing a child to respond to God in His time is more important than your own (possibly idolatrous) need for assurance that your child is on the right track. You must be careful that your eagerness not overcome a child’s readiness. Seek to carefully and sensitively take a posture of responsiveness to the movement of the Spirit rather than one of forceful initiation, seeking to patiently allow the Spirit to work faith in your child, rather than inadvertently leading your child to a place where God is not leading. Discernment and relationship are key. There are several ‘Discernment Helps’ lined out below. If one or several of these are lacking – or even more strongly, a child is resistant to the Gospel or to outward proclamation – then wisdom would caution against any pressure to reap where a crop is unprepared for harvest.
  • Take into account both the mind and the heart. It is important that your child understand the truth of the Gospel and be able to articulate it in their own words.  Nevertheless, this articulation is not enough, as the responses that you are looking for in your child must be both intellectual (mind) and emotional (heart). See below for more clarity on the affectional response of faith.

Discernment Helps

The Bible clarifies for us how the Spirit moves in people and how a true response of faith will be flavored. Below are some tips that are helpful in a parent’s work of discerning their child’s heart in relation to the look and feel of biblical conversion & faith in Christ. Stay attentive to the Spirit moving in your child’s heart in response to the Word of God in the following ways:

  • Gospel Sorrow: Have you seen or discerned in your child a sorrow for and brokenness over their sin? There is a point in the life of every true believer when they recognize sin not just as an idea, but as a personal affront against a holy God. Gospel fear drives an individual to repentance and a desire for forgiveness. With children, this will most often be perceived as a brokenness for their sin(s), articulated in their own words, and often accompanied with tears. This is good and healthy as children are confronted with their own sinfulness. The opposite of Gospel Sorrow is any response such as defensiveness, blame, deflection, or anger when personal sin is confronted or opposed. (See Psalm 51:17; Matthew 5:3; 2 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Affection for Christ: The Gospel calls us to a love and devotion for Christ that are over and above all other loves and devotions (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37-38). This is opposed to several possible responses that we might see in our children, including a mere intellectual assent to truth, or a reward/punishment response (like a fear of Hell or a desire to please). A reverent Fear of God is right and good (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 19:9; 1 Peter 2:17). Thankfully, the Gospel takes us through a simplistic fear to a deep love and sincere affection for Christ, the object of our faith (1 John 4:18). Parents should be looking for affectional clues in their children, giving evidence to their love for Christ. This may sound like delight, love, satisfaction or longing.
  • Discernible Fruit: Good fruit is the outward, discernible result of true, biblical faith (Matthew 3:8; 7:16-20; John 15:3-5,8,16; Romans 7:4; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 1:9-11; James 2:14-26). When considering fruit, we begin to take note of a child’s behavior, which can be tricky. Although all children are born sinners, some are naturally more obedient than others. This may be the result of the regenerating work of the Spirit in the child, common grace given through a pleasant or gentle disposition, or a heightened desire to please. Another issue with discerning fruit in children is lack of time or life experience, especially with very young children. Even if regeneration, repentance and faith have taken place, they have simply not had enough life duration to ‘prove it’ through the fruit of faith. A further complication arises in the fact that as children grow, they often ‘naturally’ overcome or grow out of certain behaviors. In other words, they mature. Thankfully, parents usually know their children best and through time and prayerful attention can often discern the difference between merely good behavior and the true fruit of repentance.

God’s grace on you as you, ultimately, trust in Him alone to guide your children to faith. It is a delight to us, as parents, to rejoice in new birth – especially when it’s in our own child. May Christ be everything in your life, your home, and your children!

Note: This article was also published at For the Church

Seeing and Believing

by Mike Phay

This is the second part of a series on Thomas, from John 20:24-29. The first part can be found here.

Thomas responds to his friends’ witness with the famous words, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25)

The Cautious Pragmatist?

Two options about Thomas’ character present themselves to me here, both of which can be made to line up with the evidence. The first is that Thomas was a cautious pragmatist. Some, in fact, would read his request (to see and touch Jesus’ wounds) as hyperbole. Exaggeration. In other words, he was saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, Jesus is back from the dead…and pigs can fly.”

Perhaps, then, he doubted because of the impossibility of physical resurrection. It was outside of His experience. It seemed unreal.

If this was Thomas, then he was a level-headed skeptic, resistant to dubious claims. And rightly so. Who wants to be gullibly drawn in to believe a lie? None of us.

Yet we could alternatively read Thomas’ demand as a simple request for fairness: he was merely asking for what the other disciples had already been given. When Jesus had appeared to them on Easter evening, he “showed them his hands and his side” (verse 20). They didn’t even request this private viewing, but Christ freely offered it to them. The text is silent on whether or not they too would have shared Thomas’ hesitations if they had been absent on that Easter evening.

But Thomas seems to have been level-headed here. He knew that appearances could easily deceive and that people were gullible. He wasn’t about to be caught up in the naïveté of others.

The Disillusioned Devotee?

Alternatively, I wonder if Thomas – in his doubting – was protecting Himself from pain, shame, and dashed hopes.

Perhaps he felt like the last three years of his life – walking with Jesus, serving alongside him, learning from and being taught by him – had been nothing but a waste.

Who hasn’t given themselves to something for a time of their life, only to have it end up in disappointment? A 20-year career with one company suddenly ending with an unforeseen and unexplained pink slip. A long relationship cut-off with the suprise abandonment of a spouse. An expensive investment leading you belly up into bankruptcy. Another fad diet out the window in exchange for multiple extra pounds.

Perhaps Thomas was feeling that he had given himself over to something, and it had – seemingly – come to naught. (Understand how I envisioned him at the bar in the previous post?)

Why submit himself to that kind of pain once again?

Why get his hopes up only to have them dashed a second time?

Embarrassment and shame are the companions of dashed hopes, and perhaps Thomas wanted no part of that embarrassment and shame. He wasn’t going to be fooled again.

Which Thomas Are You?

Do you identify with Thomas?

Are you a cautious pragmatist? Level-headed, you live and breath common sense. You are naturally skeptical and resistant to dubious claims. You are a proud realist who relies on your experience, your senses, and your knowledge of the world as it has been presented to you. Maybe you need things to be black and white, straightforward and clear, neither cloudy nor ambiguous.

Are you a disillusioned devotee? You’ve given your heart and life over to things in the past, only to have your hopes dashed. As a result, you’ve been slow to believe, slow to trust, and slow to give yourself to anything.

Jesus Responds to Thomas with Understanding and Kindness

 Verses 26-27: “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

The famous painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02) depicts Caravaggio’s vision of this scene.* At first glance, this image can be a bit shocking, even a little gross. What it shows is a Christ who is very human – very much wounded, very physical and very present. It shows a Christ who is fully available to meet an individual in their place of need, struggle and doubt.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas copy

I love Jesus’ response to Thomas, because He met Thomas where he was at: in the place of his doubts and questions. He doesn’t belittle Thomas for not believing the testimony of the other disciples.

I love Jesus’ response to Thomas, because He shows that He will make place for my doubts and questions. He’s not threatened by them. They don’t anger or frustrate Him. He is real enough and powerful enough to meet me right where I’m at: in my confusions, questions, doubts, frustrations, and anger. In my obstinate hard-headedness.

Perhaps he would meet you today…right where you are at.

I love Jesus’ response to Thomas, because He solidifies for Thomas the reality of hope. And the hope that Jesus gives is not a hope that can be dashed. It’s not a hope that leads to shame, and there’s not a possibility that the hope that Jesus provides will fail.

This is unlike any other hope that we have ever experienced.

In this world, there is always a chance that what we hope for will fail. But not with Jesus. Those who place their hope in Jesus Christ are the only ones in the entire world who are guaranteed the thing for which they hope. For Thomas, this truth became a reality when He saw the resurrected Christ. And for you and I, this truth has become a reality because of the resurrected Christ.

Thomas Responds in Worship & Faith

verse 28: “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord, and my God!’”

The text is not clear as to whether Thomas actually touched or placed his finger into Jesus’ wounds, as pictured in Caravaggio’s painting. In fact, it would seem to indicate that all Thomas needed for faith was the sight of those wounds – the sight of the crucified and risen Christ.

Yes, Jesus meets us where we are at. But He always meets us there in the cross.

John’s account is curious in its specific focus on Christ’s wounds (vv. 20, 25, 27). Why? In John 12:23, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Here, Jesus connects His glory to His death. And Jesus’ glory is what draws people into belief.

Often, we equate Jesus’ glory with His resurrection, and rightly so. But throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly connects His glory to the cross. This is why – for Thomas – the seeing of Jesus’ wounds is significant.

Jesus said, in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Here, Jesus is talking about the magnetically soul-attracting nature of His death on the cross. It is the suffering, crucified Christ that is the object and the source of faith. This is why Paul would later say, “For I decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

The cross is the means of our salvation. The resurrection is its power.

When Thomas saw the mortally wounded – yet very much fully alive – Jesus (“a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” [Revelation 5:6]), His faith and worship were indomitably sparked. And just as the twenty-four elders fell down around God’s throne when the Lamb took the scroll, Thomas’ response is appropriately complete and overwhelming.

Thomas never considered half-hearted, semi-committed discipleship to be an option that was offered by Jesus. For Him, belief and worship were inseparable.

Belief is to be accompanied by worship, or else it is not true belief.

Thomas says to Jesus: “My Lord and my God,” an oft-quoted utterance in arguments about Jesus’ divinity. And though the apologetic nature of this verse is quite strong, it’s not the main point of Thomas’ declaration.

Thomas first calls Jesus “my Lord,” which is a personal confession of Christ’s authority over him. Thomas was essentially calling Jesus his Master. His King. The word implies complete submission and obedience. Because Thomas’ response to Jesus was instant and complete, his life would never be the same. When his doubts are removed, he was all in.

With the Gospel, this is the norm, rather than the exception (reserved for that small percentage of super-Christians who enter into professional ministry or become career missionaries). For Thomas, as the story goes, this utter commitment sent him as the Apostle to India, where he was martyred for his witness and devotion to the crucified and risen Christ.

Thomas then confesses Jesus as “my God,” which acts as the second deity- affirming bookend to John’s Gospel (see John 1:1 & 18).** The wounds and the life together convinced Thomas that Jesus was Who He said He was. And in an instant, the blinders were removed, and Thomas really saw.

Seeing and Believing

In verse 29, “Jesus said to him, ‘You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Like Thomas, we are given the ability to really see Christ for who He is: the Crucified King. The Suffering God.

And when we see Him, let us believe and worship.

And whether you are a cautious pragmatist or a disillusioned devotee, the call for you is to look upon Jesus – the crucified and risen One – and respond: “My Lord and my God!”

 

*I was first made aware of this painting by Wesley Hill in a poignant blog post.

**See Wesley Hill’s article.

Things Are Not Always as They Appear

by Mike Phay

This is the first part of a series on Thomas, from John 20:24-29. The second part is available here.

The internet recently hosted a minor flurry of critical and mocking activity when a major national retailer began marketing and selling a unique pair of designer jeans – sporting a hefty $425 price tag. The selling point? The jeans come complete with fake mud on them.

Screenshot 2017-04-27 15.03.43

Fake mud? You just can’t make this stuff up.

The marketing idea behind this product, as best as I can tell, is that whoever buys and wears these jeans will look like they work in a blue collar job – such as in construction, the oil field, or on a farm or ranch – and that they had just spent the day working hard for their money. Apparently, the work-a-day manliness and brawn – connected, rightly, to these hard-working vocations, and idolized in truck commercials – is worthy of imitation by those who have no experience or claim to this kind of manliness whatsoever. Like the actors in the truck commercials.

I wonder if the people who pay this kind of money for these imitation work pants have ever seen mud in their lives, know what a pickup truck looks like, have ever been on a construction site, could recognize the smell of diesel fuel, or have ever handled a power tool (other than their electric toothbrush).

As I’ve pondered this odd, new cultural artifact, my mind is struck by a few different truths:

The first is that our culture’s addiction to image, coupled with a willingness and ability to pay anything for it, knows no bounds. It reveals a part of our culture that is simultaneously both unbelievably comical and deeply concerning.

Commenting on this new faux-labor product, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse wittily placed these truths (of comedy and concern) in ironic juxtaposition in a recent Tweet, tersely stating, “America was nice while it lasted”.*

A second thought that struck me was the interesting fact that many Americans are willing to look dirty, but not get dirty.

However, I will leave those two points to blog posts of their own and land on a third: What you see is not always the real thing.

Appearances aren’t everything, and they don’t always correspond with reality. They don’t always get to the heart of the matter. Clothes don’t always make the man.

Because of this, it’s easy for us to doubt and to question – to be skeptical about things, and slow to believe everything that is put in front of us. As a rule, none of us desires to “have a fast one pulled on us,” or to get duped or tricked in a world that is all too ready to deceive.

In a strong sense, then, this element of detached self-protection is not necessarily a bad thing. In a play on the old adage: He who falls for everything will stand for nothing.

It is not a good thing to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14). Jesus Himself was knowledgeable and cautious about the fickle and deceitful nature of humanity: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:24-25)

“Doubting” Thomas

If this is the case, then it makes me wonder why a guy like the Apostle Thomas – popularly known as “Doubting” Thomas – gets such a bad rap, when in truth, we should all identify with him in one way or another.

Here’s the story:

“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’” (John 20:24-25)

First of all, who was Thomas? Sparse attention is given to this almost anonymous disciple in the earliest of the three Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke. In each of these Synoptics, Thomas is mentioned only once – by name – in the lists of twelve disciples whom Jesus calls as His inner circle (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15).

In John’s Gospel, Thomas is given a few more minutes of air time. John first introduces him in the Lazarus story. Having heard the report of Lazarus’ demise, Jesus waited two days to travel to Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, lived. Immediately upon deciding to travel to Bethany, Jesus’ disciples throw an apparent coup: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8) Bethany was close to Jerusalem, so a move in that direction was a move towards harm, persecution and possible death. Then, following an exchange of words and guidance from Jesus, who was firm in His resolve to go once again to Judea to “awaken” Lazarus (verse 11), the disciples finally give in. We do not have a clear picture of how long or heated this exchange was, or what each disciple said, but John (the writer) firmly remembers the words of one man, Thomas:

“So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (verse 16)

It’s difficult to know what Thomas meant by this comment.

Is this skeptical sarcasm, along the lines of, “Well, I guess Jesus is crazy, and if he wants to go and die, let’s go with him and get it over with.”

Or is this dogged loyalty, along the lines of, “Okay. Jesus wants to go, and even though it looks like it will end in death for all of us, He’s the boss. Let’s roll.”

Whatever is driving Thomas’ comment (I have a hunch that it’s the latter), the incident – as handed down to us by John – seems to show Thomas as having a boots-on-the-ground, blue-collar, no-nonsense, working man’s view of the world. When the path was clear to him, he accepted it and moved forward. (He seems to have been the kind of guy who would wear jeans with real mud on them.) He probably would have done well in the military.

The second time that we hear from Thomas in John’s Gospel is at the very beginning of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse (chapters 14-17). Here, Jesus is explaining to His disciples about what life will be like after He has returned to the Father. He has told them that He is going away, will be preparing a place for them, and then will come to get them. In fact, He says, “you know the way to where I am going” (14:4). Immediately, “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’” (14:5) This question, of course, leads into the famous sixth verse, where Jesus reveals to His disciples that He is the Way (and the Truth, and the Life).

Underneath Thomas’ question seems to be a further picture of just who this man was: a no-nonsense, concrete, give-it-to-me-straight kind of dude. We can identify with this. If a friend invites us to their home for dinner, or we plan to rendezvous with another family at a particular campsite, it makes a lot of sense for us to have an address or location to plug into our GPS so we can actually get there. Who wouldn’t be sensible enough to ask for the endpoint of a journey, so that they can know (or at least, figure out) the way to it?

For Thomas there was a clear problem, necessitating a clear question, and presuming a clear answer.

Thomas was a man who saw things in black and white, and at this point – early in the Farewell conversation – Thomas is already confused. Perhaps he’s even frustrated by Jesus’ figures of speech: His vagueness, abstraction, and lack of clarity.

At root, Thomas seems to be a common sense, concrete thinker.

Answering another question may be helpful for us as we seek to learn about this mysterious disciples: Where was Thomas? In verse 24, we read that Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared on Easter evening. Why was he not there? This could be a clue as to his personality, and thus the source of his famous doubt. Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer to the question. But his response to the other disciples’ report – which was no doubt marked by joy and wonder – is indicative of a man who was level-headed, perhaps skeptical or cynical, maybe even struggling and beleaguered.

Honestly, I can picture Thomas sitting at a bar, alone, nursing a drink and staring at the wall, pondering the reality of what has happened. (I’m not sure if Jerusalem had bars at the time, but you get the point.)

Thomas responds to his friends’ witness with the famous words, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (verse 25)

Do you identify with Thomas?

To be continued…

 

*Sasse, Ben (@BenSasse), “America was nice while it lasted” 25 Apr 2017, 10:08 AM. Tweet.

Four Reasons to Bring Your Bible to Church

by Mike Phay

It took me a while as a pastor, in the early days of iPads and smartphones, to get used to people staring at their screens during a sermon. “How rude,” I thought. “Do they seriously think I can’t see them? These are adults, acting like teenagers!” Not being the regular preacher at the time, I was appalled at the ever-increasing number of faces that I would see lit by glowing screens each time I filled the pulpit.

It took me a while to realize that these folks weren’t being rude. They were just reading their Bibles!

So be encouraged, Pastor. Your people aren’t ignoring you. They’re just multi-tasking. Because really, who can resist the urge to check e-mails, text messages, and sports scores, while simultaneously checking the preacher’s factual accuracy? (And yes, Preacher, have no doubt: you are being fact-checked in real-time.) Notwithstanding the evidence showing that there is no such thing as truly efficient multi-tasking,* glow-faced congregations offer at least a kernel of encouragement for weary pastors.

Beyond this congregational screen fetish, what continues to surprise me as a preacher are the folks who – though attentively engaged with the sermon, as evidenced by their consistent eye contact and encouraging nods – are sitting empty-handed during a thoroughly Scripture-saturated expository sermon. This Bible vacuum in a worship service concerns me for several reasons, so allow me to offer four reasons why every believer should bring their Bible to church (and every Pastor should encourage their people to do so):

Reason 1: Bring your Bible to church to battle your own consumerism

I occasionally enjoy watching cooking shows on TV, but rarely (never) do I watch them in the kitchen, follow the directions, or in any way work to imitate Rachael Ray or Emeril Lagasse in preparing a tasty meal. No, usually I’m admiring the food and hoping that someone in my family will cook something similar for me. This is the epitome of consumeristic passive entertainment, which – perhaps surprisingly – is not what church is about at all.

There are so many parts of our culture that work against our active engagement in life, including the screens that we tote into the sanctuary. Most of the rooms in which we hear sermons are set up like auditoriums: an audience, sitting in forward-facing seats, watching or listening to a “performer” on a  stage. How is this different from a concert, a lecture, a comedy show, or a movie? In the setting, not much. And unfortunately, our culture regularly conditions us to enter into these settings as passive consumers, rather than as active participants.

An antidote to this consumerist identity would be to regularly bring your Bible to church and actually use it during the sermon. Actively engaging with the Book in your hand – and yes, I’m talking about a bound, paper-paged, non-digital Bible – is the first step to being an active participant in the preaching of the Word. Because of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination, when you actively engage the Word of God, you are willingly opening yourself up to the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a work in the mind, but in the heart and character as well.

As a member of your church, push yourself to get out of the consumeristic habit of passive attention. Don’t treat the sermon like a cooking show. It’s not eye (or ear) candy, it’s a meal. And while you’re eating it, your pastor is trying to teach you to feed yourself. So be an active, rather than a passive, listener.  Engage with the Word intentionally, and you will find the Word engaging you in both a mysterious and a powerful way.

Reason 2: Bring your Bible to church so that you will better retain what you hear

How many times have you walked out of a church service and within 30 minutes couldn’t recall what the sermon was about? There are probably a myriad of reasons for these memory lapses (including poor preaching), but have you ever asked yourself what you have added – or failed to add – to this lack of retention?

There were many reasons that God the Son became incarnate, one of which was our own physicality and dependence upon our senses. In order to learn and retain what God was trying to show us in Christ, we needed a flesh-and-blood, living, breathing human that we could see, touch, smell, and hear. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” (1 John 1:1) In these words, the Apostle calls our attention not only to the physicality of Christ, but to our own dependence upon the physical and sensible as pathways for knowing about God.

As we have discovered more and more about human cognition and learning styles, it becomes increasingly evident that most people have a preferred learning style by which they are able to best learn and retain information (mine is visual-verbal – I learn best when I see words). Add to this the fact that a person’s retention level increases when sensory pathways are multiplied, and it makes sense that God gave us Jesus in four dimensions so that we could really get it.

The incarnation, therefore, is a pointer to our need to bring our Bibles to church. Hearing the Word preached is powerful. Reading the written Word is essential. Touching and handling a Bible anchors us physically to God’s gracious gift of the Bible itself. All three of these together are – I believe – intended by God to help us know Him better. When you bring your Bible with you to church, you are purposely making available your God-given pathways of learning, and increasing your own ability to better retain the preached Word.

Reason 3: Bring your Bible to church to learn to feed yourself

One of the tasks of a good preacher is to help his hearers learn to read and understand the Bible for themselves. When you follow along in the text that is being preached, you will – over time – begin to see for yourself the truths that he (the preacher) has discovered in the text. He will help you to uncover the thread of an argument through a text, make connections between biblical thoughts and ideas, and learn to trace biblical doctrines throughout the Scriptures. Like any good teacher, a gifted preacher doesn’t just give you a fish; he teaches you how to fish. And you can’t fish if you don’t bring your rod & reel with you.

Reason 4: Bring your Bible to church to become intimately familiar with God’s Word 

I always encourage people to write in their Bibles, just like they would write in any other book (except a library book, of course). Don’t worry, this isn’t sacrilege. The book itself – ink and paper – is not holy, though the title on the cover urges otherwise. To write in your Bible means that you will need to have a paper Bible and a pen in your hand. I can’t count the number of times I have been able to find a familiar passage because I knew exactly where it was on a page. This can’t be done with a digital copy.

And as much as I love Bible software and all of the helps that accompany these programs, the negative impact of these digital helps occurs when we allow them to take over the disciplined tasks of memory (like knowing the order of the Bible’s 66 books, or remembering the chapter-verse address of a certain phrase or passage). The digital world tends to undercut this brain-forming memory work and replace it with rapid-access automation, thereby excusing us from the hard work of actually knowing the Word.

In the end, these four things can’t take place for you if you fail to bring your Bible to church. God’s Word is a gift. Prize it. Study it. Learn it. But start with just bringing it.

 

*For instance, see Levitin, Daniel, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (New York, NY: Dutton, 2014).

Note: This article was also published at For the Church.

Laying Aside a Crushing Weight

by Mike Phay

First World Problems

Our ways of seeing betray what we believe about the world and our place in it.

For instance, have you ever experienced a “First World Problem”? You know, like what happened the last time you couldn’t find the remote control? Did it seem like the world was about to end? Did you actually have to get up out of the La-Z-Boy and change the channel?

Or have you ever been deeply offended when someone else ate the last chicken wing, or devoured the last serving of ice cream – the stash that you had been reserving (and dreaming about) for a week?

Has your blood pressure ever risen and your patience level plummeted as you sat in the Starbucks drive thru for 7 minutes – 7 WHOLE MINUTES!?

In seeing the smallest things as nuisances, we inadvertently disclose an implicit understanding of our own self-importance: that “I” am great. And any particular “problem” – minor nuisance though it may be – has not taken into consideration the majesty of the royal “me,” and therefore deserves my wrath and the flood of my righteous anger.

Universe in Miniature

There is an ironic result of this way of seeing the world. When minor nuisances are inordinately magnified into gigantic problems, our self-perceived importance is inversely diminished.  We are actually, unknowingly, displaying our smallness – our finitude – rather than our greatness.

The great mind – the great soul – is the one in which desires are ordered and the world is viewed in accordance with reality. To take an ant and make it into a giant, or to transform a speck of dust into a log, is neither realistic nor appropriate. This kind of skewed seeing shrinks the perceivable universe to ant-like proportions. The only way that a fallen and finite human being can be the greatest thing in any possible universe is for that universe to be incredibly small. If small things are made to look big, then one truly lives in a minuscule universe.

Only small people can inhabit small universes.  

The small person is one who chronically over-inflates – not only his own ego but also the offenses that are perceived to be mounted against him.

The great person is the one who sees things as they really are – including herself and the things that threaten her person, patience or peace – and keeps the realities of the universe in their proper place.

Humility is the characteristic of having a right view of oneself – a view that is neither too high nor too low. Surprisingly, humility is a mark of greatness, as it allows for one’s perceived universe to be infinitely larger than oneself. By disallowing the possibility of the self as one’s measure of reality, the self is put in proper perspective to a reality that is given permission (in one’s conception) to be far larger, immense, expansive and wonderful than any human can conceive. The acknowledgment of one’s own finitude allows for the possibility of the infinite to exist outside of oneself.

In this view of the universe, Jesus’ enigmatic sentence about the last being first makes a whole lot more sense.

We all share this ironic tendency to inflate ourselves, a weakness that tends to create tiny universes for ourselves to inhabit. In this context, it may be understandable that we share a human proclivity to deflate the level and effect of our own nuisance-making. Inhabiting a small reality allows us to minimize and even ignore the nature of our own transgressions.

The truth is that our own sins are infinitely greater than we take them to be. We are much closer to the ant than we are to our Creator, and the problems that we create in the universe through both our natural and nurtured sinfulness are far greater than the nuisances that we find frequenting our lives in the guise of First World Problems.

Perhaps it is actually the glory of the Image of God that has been stamped on each of our beings that causes us to perceive small, negligible, unintended offenses against ourselves as being on par with the cosmic treason that is our sin.

In our rebellion against God, we have infinitely offended an infinite creator, not because of the greatness of our sin, but because of the greatness of the One against whom we have sinned. 

A little perspective – a new way of seeing – makes a big difference.

Laying Aside a Crushing Weight

In the book of Hebrews, the anonymous writer invites the faithful to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely…” (Hebrews 12:1)

When I read this verse, my mind tends to hurry past the former phrase, dealing with weight, and to easily identify with the close-clinging sin of the latter phrase. I do this because I’m used to wearing close-clinging sin like a straightjacket. I know and recognize it in me like I know and recognize my own hands and feet. I gravitate to this familiar reality, because – to paraphrase King David – my sin is my constant companion.

But I want to linger on the less-analyzed weight of the former phrase.

Perhaps the weight to which the Hebrews-writer refers is the weight of self-importance, self-aggrandizement, and self-deification. 

This kind of persistent pride is the sin with which we have all been infused by the folly and rebellion of our First Parents. The sin of the garden, happily (and haphazardly) inherited and embraced, is our desire to make ourselves like God. In our attempt to usurp, dethrone, and replace the God of the universe, the weight of our self-assumed job description has become a burden too large for us to bear.

Could this be the weight that wisdom counsels us to lay aside?

Could this be the burden that brings with it those daily anxieties that we all carry, against which no amount of Prozac is sufficient?

If we removed ourselves from the throne of our universe, would we find the kind of freedom that only the releasing of weight – a “lightened burden” (Matthew 11:30) – can provide?

The crown is too large to fit our tiny heads. It will break our necks.

The throne is too great for our diminutive statures. It will break our bodies.

Thankfully, our lesson in laying aside this unbearable burden – this crushing weight – is taught us by the King Himself. Our text for instruction is the familiar Philippians 2, in which Paul describes Jesus as the King who took it upon Himself, not to be usurped, but to willingly step down from His besieged throne to offer up broken body on behalf of us rebel thieves:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (verses 5-8)

The King Himself has taught us by example how to lay aside this weight – not by ‘grasping,’ but by freely releasing what was rightfully His. As a result, He invites us to freely approach the throne, but not to usurp it.  He invites us to come as children, not as rebels.

And when we lay aside the weight of our ‘grasping’ attempts to fill His shoes, it is fit and proper to approach Him as a beloved child, welcomed into the arms – but not the office – of the King.

Note: this article was also published at For the Church.

 

An Easter Monday Resurrection Meditation

by Mike Phay

It was a dark and stormy night. Children in their forgetful playfulness had left the farm gate ajar, unknowingly giving free reign to the wandering, scent-hunting instincts of the old Bassett Hound. Once again following her overactive sniffer, and instigated by thunderous peals, she disappeared into the neighborhood.  Discovering her absence, perhaps hours later, we combed the roads and driveways nearby, searching in vain for our poor lost hound. Absent from her favorite haunts – the provocatively scented and often unsavory yards and fields of neighbors – the search widened. Emotions rose. Darkness darkened. Rain soaked. Hope slipped.

“Have you seen our hound?” followed the knocking, answered in the negative by sympathetic women and helpful men, neighbors all.  No one had seen poor Lily, wandering or otherwise.  The worst fears of parents and children knocked on our minds and hearts: a faithful and beloved pet missing, possibly gone for good.  The most obvious explanation crept into our minds, solidifying after days of fruitless searching: wandering off in her aged and weary body, searching out a ditch or a tree – a place to curl up and, in dignity, pass into the hereafter.  Thirteen is a mighty compilation of years for a canine, ninety-one in her wizened grandmotherly comportment.  Understandable, we thought, to go in peace.

For two more days, we searched.  Neighborhood telephone poles displayed the report: missing dog, please call. Animal shelters took our report, joining in the search.  More days passed without luck, no word.  Lily had gone off to die and would be gone forever.

Mom and Dad sat the kids down to have the serious talk of life and death.  Coming and going.  Breathing and burying.  Life on a farm had not insulated the kids from the births and deaths of dozens, but this was something different: the family dog was no mere chicken or bunny.  Tears came, accompanied by questions.  The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months.

Resurrection tends to surprise those who witness it.  One day, nearly two months later, Mom turned the corner onto our street.  The traumatic events of that stormy night had receded into memory, not preparing her for the sight of resurrection, witnessed in the flesh: Lily the Hound, back from the dead, called forth from the tomb in which we had placed her – alive again!

Pulling the car to the side of the road, a wealth of emotion rose up in Mom’s heart and gut.  It is surprising what the sudden appearance of the dead can cause in the hearts of the living.  Shock and awe at a healthy, living, breathing sight of the dog who was once thought deceased, now raised from the dead.  Though never dead, she had gone missing from our lives for multiple weeks, only to be found in the care of some kind neighbors.  Wires, but not paths, had crossed, and the finders could not find the owners; the owners missing the finders by hours, maybe feet.  Lily, living for a time under another name – how about Lazarus? – with a caring family who now had to say goodbye, experiencing grief and loss in a different way, on a different day.

My middle daughter shed tears on that day, too, her body wracked with the uncontrollable convulsions of a healthy sob.  I held her, dry shirt sacrificed to receive tears, asking her why these were flowing, even now: “I’m just so happy that she’s alive!”  Resurrection is a shock when experienced because resurrection is an unexpected surprise.


Yet we daily, even unwittingly, experience resurrection.  The surprising reality of rhythmic resurrection in our lives goes unheeded because it is experienced in the everydayness of a created world in which we have become comfortable.

For example, our days generally find their completion with a self-entombment of sorts: crawling into bed, sealing ourselves under warm covers, settling in between soft sheets. Mimicking the night’s pressing-in darkness, we extinguish our artificial lights and give ourselves over to the fatigued needs of weary muscles and aching bones. We sleep. We imitate death for six or eight hours a night, allowing our bodies rejuvenation and refreshment. With the morning light, we find ourselves rising to a day that maybe should not have come, but by the grace of God.  We open our eyes and see that darkness has once again been pushed back by the light, for “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This daily resurrection rehearsal goes unheeded, because it is so…daily. So mundane. So boring. We are often shocked awake by alarms, and rage at the morning, fighting the too-early coming of the light: desiring more sleep, a longer rest, a bit of insulation from the dawning day and all that it will bring. But perhaps we should rejoice that the light has come, and we did not deserve it. Nothing in us requires the coming of the light – it is simply a gift of God. His daily goodness to us, if we will recognize it, is a Resurrection goodness. Let’s remember to be awed by the sunrise glory of light and life, daily giving praise to the One whose covenant with day and night cannot be broken (Jeremiah 33:19-21). The sun, reminding us of and pointing us to the Son, gives meaning and life to our whole day until the night returns and we are once again pushed into necessary rest, necessary darkness, looking from the vantage of our nightly tomb, with closed eyes and weary hope, to the dawning of tomorrow.


Consider another example of the mundane rhythm of resurrection in your life: the produce placed on your plate, decorating the end of your fork.  From whence has it come?  It has come through death for the sake of your life:  for “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Much fruit born, festooning our tables and bringing life and joy to these energy-hungry bodies.  We too often miss the death that brings life – that transforms into life. For in order for us to go on living, something must always die.

But death does not have the last word, just as Jesus’ last words, borne from death (“It is finished!” [John 19:30]), bear in their weight the promise and power of life unknown to the world.  What death ultimately bears – because of Christ’s resurrection – is the miraculous birthing of new life.  “Resurrection means,” writes Frederick Buechner, “that the worst thing is never the last thing.”

It is shocking that resurrection can shock, but perhaps it should be more shocking that it often bores us.  Let us be awed at the daily and regular deaths that result in life, and daily be reminded that whatever death we bear today has its ultimate hope grounded in a deeper truth: that in the death of Christ, death has met its death, and Life is the ultimate Victor.  Perhaps, then, the daily spectacular will gain in us a greater weight of awe and gratitude, wonder and hope.

A Good Theologian

I found this great definition of the work of a theologian over on Steve Holme’s blog, Shored Fragments.  It’s worth a read and a ponder, especially in regards to the centrality of Christ’s church in the work of theology.  As a pastor, I have often wrestled with my (seemingly unneeded) work as a theologian.  This was a much-needed and helpful reminder that my vocation, while pastoral, is fundamentally theological in nature: serving Gospel ends, for the good of His people.

“I think a good theologian prays well, first. No theologian who doesn’t has even begun to understand the discipline. And then s/he serves the Church, and his or her particular part of it (down to a local congregation) in humility and faithfulness. Theology belongs to the Church; any theologian divorced from the Church is a bad theologian, however brilliant or knowledgeable. A good theologian has a grasp of gospel values, and would swap everything s/he has written to see one sinner repent, or one broken life healed. A good theologian writes and speaks only to help the Church be more faithful to the gospel, bringing whatever knowledge of the tradition, whatever insight into contemporary modes of thought, and whatever native cleverness s/he may possess, all into service of this one end. A good theologian is marked by humility and cheerfulness, knowing how far short of the mystery of God and God’s works his/her best efforts fall, and knowing that in the good grace of God something of lasting worth may still come from them. A good theologian, finally, does know something, and has some capacity of thought, and so can make a contribution through his/her God-given vocation.

I am not a very good theologian.”

The Insanity of Our Discontent

by Mike Phay

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

I propose a new definition, with the help of 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, from his classic The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:

“What is it that satisfies God himself, but that he enjoys all fullness in himself; so he comes to have satisfaction in himself. Now if you enjoy God as your portion, if your soul can say with the Church in Lamentations 3.24: ‘The Lord is my portion, saith my soul’, why should you not be satisfied and contented like God? God is contented, he is in eternal contentment in himself; now if you have that God as your portion, why should you not be contented with him alone? Since God is contented with himself alone, if you have him, you may be contented with him alone, and it may be, that is the reason why your outward comforts are taken from you, that God may be all in all to you.”*

It is insane that God Himself, who is enough to satisfy God Himself, is often perceived by me as not enough to satisfy my heart.  If God is enough for God, why is He often not enough for me?  That is insanity.

 

 

*Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Edinburgh & Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), p. 66. Italics mine.

Photo Credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

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