Monday, July 31, 2006

Delighting in the Ordinary

There's a delightful post by Amy on the Humble Musings blog that dovetails nicely with my discussion last week on seeing God in the monotony of daily life. She touches on our innate desire to feel special by quoting Elisabeth Elliot.

“Most of us would like to do something special in life, something to distinguish us. We suppose that we desire it for God’s sake, but more likely we are discontent with ordinary life and crave special privileges." Elizabeth Elliot

If you're like many Christians, this is ground well tread. Most of us have had daydreams of grandeur, fostering hopes of someday accomplishing something significant for God's kingdom. In our private moments, our hearts are inspired by men like William Carey who once said, "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." We want to live lives of significance, of importance - we want our lives to count. This is not altogether surprising since it is God himself who created us in his image. Nor is the desire for significance, innately bad.

Yet, as Elizabeth Elliot has noted, our hearts can harbor a discontentment with what seems for most of us, an ordinary life. No dramatic service for God in a faraway place. No multitudes coming to Christ at the sound of our preaching. Not even occasional affirmations of your wise counsel or recognition of your rare gifts. If we're honest, at times we're tempted to be disappointed that we're ordinary instead of spectacular.

The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it's inherently dangerous to our souls and insulting to God. In its more benign form, we will end up dismissing evidences of God's gracious work in and around us. Worse still, we may be feeding a sinful craving for significance, rooted in a kind of self-idolatry.

What we need is encouragement toward a different view. Here are points of encouragement on how to look upon our ordinary lives from God's perspective.

Cultivate Faithfulness Fueled by Hope.

Read again the parable of talents in Matthew 25:14-30. It reminds us that God's evaluation will rest on how faithfully we've invested the resources he's dispensed to us. We may not accomplish the spectacular in this life but we can take joy in knowing that hope-filled faithfulness, fueled by the anticipation of hearing his commendation, will be the basis of God's measure. What a joyful day it will be to know that every mundane task performed for his glory will receive recognition from him. He doesn't miss a thing.

Live a Life Marked by Receiving

Much of our ill-founded motivation to serve God in the spectacular is actually not of God. Our desire to do something special may stem from a heart intent on earning on merit rather than receiving by grace. The emphasis of the Christian experience is primarily about receiving from God and then secondarily about serving him. It's the heart of the gospel - "...the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28. Accomplishing the extraordinary in a manner that seeks to earn or impress by merit is not the kind of service that honors God. Acts 17:24-25 reminds us that "The God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything"

Remember Onesimus

Much of our reading of the New Testament begins with our identification with Paul. There is indeed a right and proper way to identify with Paul and to be spurred on by him. However, we ought not identify with Paul in a manner that looks upon all of his life as normative for every believer. We need to remember that the early church was filled with believers that were faithfully living quiet lives to the glory of God. I like to remind myself that God who is not impressed with the measure of our gifts or achievements (since he gives us both) had a plan for Paul whom he commissioned to write much of the New Testament as well as Onesimus, who was a simple Christian slave, noted by Paul as his "faithful and beloved brother" in Col 4:9. We do not know how Onesimus may have served God's plan by being a faithful brother to Paul but we can be assured that his unspectacular life was no less directed by God's sovereign purpose.

Granted, most of us prefer to think of ourselves closer to Paul than Onesimus but that only reveals that we're probably thinking about this the wrong way.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Worthy of Note This Week

Here's are a few items that caught my attention this past week -

At the top of list is a three part series of messages by Al Mohler entitled "Raising Teens in a Media Culture" . Links to all three parts in MP3 are listed below -

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Dr. Al Mohler offers this series of thoughtful messages about the pervasiveness of mass media (tv, movies, music, Internet, etc...) in our culture and its impact on our children. Obviously, it's a topic most pertinent for those with teenage children but it is also informative to anyone who is interested about how mass media has encroached on Christian family life. I found the messages a wonderfully sobering reminder to stay involved in leading my children through an increasingly media saturated world.

One of the points that Dr. Mohler makes is that it is impossible to really cut yourself off from the world of mass media - it's here to stay. As you would expect, he encourages parents to thoughtfully and intentionally monitor the content through the various mediums. The challenge with this is the sheer volume of content that is pumped through on a daily basis. To that end, Dr. Mohler offers a practical suggestion to limit the bandwidth of what our children are exposed to .... by simply saying no to certain things. I'd encourage you to listen for yourself... I plan to listen to these messages with Kathy to better understand what changes we need to make in our home.

Mark Lauterbach's blog, Gospel Driven Life has an interesting post on Christian liberty. It's a commentary on how we make choices about Christian lifestyle practices for which the Bible does not provide explicit guidance such as choices on permissible movies to watch, to homeschool or not to homeschool, etc... you get the idea. The interesting part of this post is the question he raises not merely on how we make those choices but the way we interact with others who may have come to a different decision on a particular issue.

Finally, I noticed that earlier this month, Church Report released the list of the 50 Most Influential Churches in America. Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church (#16), John MacArthur's Grace Community Church (#31) and John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist (#42) made the cut. No Sovereign Grace churches were named...but there's always next year.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Seeing God in the Monotony

Not all work is creative. In fact, I would venture that most work we engage in is of the repetitive, monotonous type - interspersed with rare opportunities for creativity. I’m thinking about all the work that gets done everyday – both at home and in business.

It so often seems like many of the chores around our home get done…only to get undone in a matter of days. I find that mowing the lawn could actually be fun, if you didn’t have to do it all over again every Saturday. Doing the laundry, cleaning the home, doing the dishes – all these tasks can have a certain repetitive feel to them.

It’s no easier in the corporate world. Whether we’re flipping burgers, attending meetings or organizing filing systems, many jobs can often feel monotonous to us. How do we approach the monotony of our working lives with a view that is glorifying to God and satisfying to our souls? Is that even possible? It’s relatively easy to understand how we’re reflecting God’s glory in conducting a task that is creative by nature but how do you glorify God when you’re doing the kind of repetitive work that seems devoid of creativity?

The world offers us no help in this regard. Ever notice how the kinds of work that are repetitive and monotonous are not well-regarded in the culture around us? Rewards are aplenty for the "creative class" but menial repetition is for the lesser among us. This is not God's view.

I had been thinking about this for a while (primarily because I dislike repetitive tasks) when I came upon a G.K Chesterton quote by way of John Piper’s book “When I Don't Desire God - How to Fight for Joy”. It offers a hint on a different way of thinking about the monotony we might face in our daily work.

“[Children] often say, “Do it again”; and the grown up person does it again till he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps, God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes each daisy separately, but never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton

Just pause a second and think about what this might mean to us. God glories in the repetition of the universe we live in. The sun rises in the same way every day and each time it does so, God rejoices in it because it functions in exactly the manner he desires. It'll keep doing so as a reflection of God's faithful rulership until God says "stop". The moon and stars reveal themselves according the a repetitive rhythm to a God who delights in the repetition. This is in no small part what Psalm 19 speaks of:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge."

Day after day after day...the heavens testify of God's creative power, his faithfulness and his wisdom.

Yet, for most of us - we remain oblivious this daily testimony. Perhaps G.K Chesterton is right - our inability to see God in our daily monotony has less to do with the nature of the tasks and more to do with the effects of sin that have tainted our childlike joy. We need a new realization that God can, and does take pleasure in seeing us fulfill with faithfulness, seemingly mundane tasks. When we do these tasks joyfully, we exercise order in a world rendered disorderly by sin and we reflect the joyful faithfulness of our Father. This is nothing that can be achieved by natural means - we need God's help here. For when we're faced with the occasion for such tasks, we can turn our gaze Godward and have him enlighten our hearts with a new perspective.

May God graciously grant to us such a Godward perspective.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Vacation Eyes

I've been intending to post a couple of photos from our recent vacation...but never got around to it. We were in Yosemite marveling at God's creation and I just want to share a couple of photos so you can marvel along.

I'm not much of an outdoorsman but it's difficult not to be impressed with the scenery.

How kind of God to create a world of such color, texture and beauty for us to enjoy. He could have created a bland world in monochrome...but we're thankful he chose not to.!

Never been to the Grand Canyon...I've heard it said that it will leave you in awe and feeling small ....Yosemite had a similar effect on me.

That said, Kathy will often remind me that beautiful vistas and sights are around us, every day but we're too busy to notice. She calls it looking with "vacation eyes'. She'll often draw my attention to a spectacular sunset as we're driving along or have me stop to pay attention to flowers blooming in the garden. She's right - there is beauty all around us.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Book Review - Lost in the Middle

Lost in the Middle by Dr. Paul David Tripp (Shepherd Press)

Midlife can be a potential minefield of disappointments, broken promises and wayward dreams. In his latest book Lost in the Middle, Paul Tripp guides us through the challenges of midlife by bringing a gospel-centric view to this interesting period of life. As far as I know, it’s the first book of its kind written from a thoroughly biblical perspective. Paul Tripp has written many fine books including Age of Opportunity and War of Words. I've found that the strength of Tripp’s writings stems from his deeply insightful understanding of the human struggle matched with his commitment to bring biblical truth to bear on that struggle.

In Lost in the Middle Tripp does a masterful job of communicating what it feels like to enter this phase of life. He understands that “the struggles of midlife are a window to deeper, more fundamental struggles”. He identifies common themes that mark the road through midlife such as an awareness of mortality, the increasing tally of regrets and the loss of dreams once held dear. Instead of simply identifying these markers, he skillfully leads the reader through a biblically informed interpretation of these challenging situations.

For instance, in Chapter 3 – The Death of Invincibility, he tackles the issue of aging:

“…three factors that make midlife such a struggle: the universal awareness of the unnaturalness of death, the happy delusions of youth and the obsessive physical focus of our culture. Yet together they are not enough to explain why physical aging so often becomes a spiritual crisis in midlife.”

Tripp’s answer is simple, yet profound:

“It is humbling but it is true: if we are going to understand the huge struggle of physical aging, we can’t just look at the culture in which we live but must also examine our hearts…the only real solution is in heart change”

“The Lover of our souls is using the occasion of midlife and the reality of aging to expose and deliver us from the idols that resided in secret and ruled us.”

Perhaps because I’m a little bit of a dreamer, I found Chapter 5 – Towers to the Sky, particularly compelling. In this chapter, he discusses the power of our dreams and imagination. He reminds us that the ability to dream is a gift from God but also warns us that they can take hold of our hearts.

" the pursuit of my essential dream, I have been slowly building my own personal tower to my personal heaven. It has me. It defines me. It motivates me. It guides and directs me. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning and a reason to press on."

Paul Tripp offers us a remedy for wayward dreams – dream vertically.

“Remember why you have been given this ability: so that the eyes of your heart could be enthralled with a vision of him and his kingdom.”

What makes this book so engaging is the real life anecdotes interlaced through every chapter. I found myself identifying with the individuals in these stories and connecting those anecdotes to similar situations in my own life. I found that it made the advice dispensed in the book more memorable and applicable.

One last point – don’t let the title fool you. I think “Lost in the Middle” has valuable lessons for readers of all ages. Many of the examples may be more applicable for those in midlife but the insightful interpretation of these life experiences and the biblically informed advice are lessons for a lifetime.

Lost in the Middle is an outstanding book - it's insightful to the struggles of midlife but finds its answers firmly rooted in biblical truth. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Johann Sebastian Bach

I plan to occasionally blog on a historical Christian figure who influenced his/her culture. I think it's often helpful to learn from Christian men and women who, in their own time, wrestled with how to live for and influence others for Christ.

I thought we'd start with the brilliant composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, who influenced the culture of his day through a Christ-centered use of his gifts. This article in Reformation21 by Greg Wilbur gives us a brief window into Bach's life and work. In this well written article, Wilbur proposes that through his life's work in the arts, Bach offers us a model for cultural change -

"Sebastian Bach remains an agent of the power of cultural change through his clear presentation of the gospel in his work, his commitment to biblical excellence, and his reformational approach to cultural change."

It's a worthwhile read.

The article notes compelling points about Bach, his worldview and how he exercised his unique gifts.

1. Bach's vibrant faith was expressed in gospel-centered work. His work appeared to be infused with marks of his biblical convictions. Wilbur writes:

"Bach’s personal understanding of biblical truth resonates throughout his
music as he presents sound and weighty doctrine in a manner that challenges the listener to consider issues of the faith."

As a side point, I'm not sure how biblical truth translates into classical music but I'll take Wilbur's word on this.

2. Bach was a serious biblical scholar. He wasn't just devoted to music, he was devoted to the study of God's word.

"The margin notes he wrote in his personal Bible testify to the depth of Bach’s knowledge and study of scripture and clearly indicate he was a thorough student of Scripture—especially as it related to his specific calling."

3. Bach pursued excellence in his work for the glory of God. There was no sacred/secular work dichotomy for Bach.

"Bach labored to make his work as excellent or perfect as possible. Everything was to be done for God’s glory alone—all work, all music, tuning instruments, writing keyboard exercises, positioning orchestras, loving his wife, teaching students, dealing with criticism, watching over the care of his students. Everything! If all of these things are to the praise of the Most High Almighty God, ought they not to be the very best that can be offered?"

Few (none?) of us are in possession of unique skills equal to Bach's but we can still learn from this man. How can we apply these lessons in the work that we're engaged in? What aspects of Bach's life serve as a model for cultural change that can be applied in other fields of endeavor and in our sphere of influence?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What the Puritans Teach Us About Work - Part 2

The Puritan view of vocation not only legitimized all manner of work as service to God but also had practical implications in the way work was conducted. One such implication was exemplified in the Puritan’s motivation for his life’s work.

Imagine a young man seeking to make choices regarding his career choice. What might he receive as career counseling advice from his Puritan elders? Here’s a possible sampling of their sage advice which I’ve “distilled” into a few key takeaways –

Key point: Have a high view of why you work

“Some man will say perchance: …must we not labor in our callings to maintain our families? I answer: this must be done but this is not the scope and the end of our lives. The true end of our lives is to do service to God in serving of man” William Perkins

Key point: Don’t be motivated by fame or fortune but rather by a desire to serve.

“Choose that employment or calling in which you may be most serviceable to God. Choose not that in which you may be most rich or honorable in the world; but that in which you may do most good...” Richard Baxter

Key point: Carefully assess your gifts when choosing your life’s work - they are a possible indicator of God's leading

“Another thing to make the calling warrantable is when God gives a man gifts for it…When God hath called me to a place, he has given me some gifts fit for that place, especially if the place be suitable and fitted to me and my best gifts…” John Cotton

Key point: Be on your guard against selfish, worldly ambition as you pursue your life’s work.

“Take heed lest, under the pretense of diligence in your calling, you be drawn to earthly-mindedness, and excessive cares or covetous designs for rising in the world” Richard Baxter

It's not the kind of advice we're accustomed to hearing or the kind of thinking we carry to work daily. We're not often exhorted to pursue work for the purposes of service nor are we advised to be cautious of selfish ambition. Instead we are often ambitious without caution and pursue work for wealth-building rather than service.

This unusual thinking is at the heart of the Puritan work ethic. I suspect it sounds strangely out of place in the corporate world today not because it's antiquated but because it's counter-culture.