Learning the Art of Rest

Tomorrow, June 11, my church family will get the opportunity to learn about “The Art of Rest” from Adam Mabry, the pastor of Alethia Church in Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of a book by the same name. Adam has learned some important lessons about rest and sabbath-keeping through his experience as a pastor, as a church planter—and as a human being who lives in a very busy part of the country—and he’ll be sharing those lessons in a workshop on Saturday morning – and then again in the message that he’ll share with my church family in worship on Sunday morning.

In his book, The Art of Rest, Adam writes: “We don’t have to wait until the work is done to rest with God. Our personal sense of accomplishment isn’t what we bring to God; it’s what we’re meant to get from him…Your sense of security and accomplishment is not the ticket you must present to God in order to relate to him. Relationship is the gift he wishes to present to you, to be enjoyed regularly as you simply come to him.”

Like most of those who read this post, that’s a statement that I know to be true. And yet, it’s a reality that I struggle to embrace in practice. So much of our culture—and even our church culture—turns on the idea that our worth is based on how much we do and produce. And so, it becomes a challenging act of faith to trust that God’s welcoming love depends not on what we do for Him but on what Jesus has done for us.

I wish that I could be there to hear Adam this weekend. But I’m grateful that I’ve been given the grace-gift of this sabbatical, which is reminding me that rest isn’t a reward to be earned but a gift to be received. If you happen to be in Mount Airy this weekend, I encourage you to stop by Calvary Baptist Church and learn the lessons that Adam will be sharing.

I’m Just Waiting on a Friend

My family and I have just wrapped up a few days of “sabbatical vacationing” at Disneyworld. Of course, as anyone who’s been at Disneyworld recently can attest, such a visit is largely an adventure in waiting. Whether you’re standing in line for the latest ride, a classic attraction, or the chance to purchase an overpriced meal, a significant portion (if not the greatest portion) of your day is spent cued up and waiting for the chance to move forward.

Of course, like many people, I have some ambivalent feelings about the Disney waiting experience. On the one hand, the “minions of the Mouse” have an unbelievable gift for hiding much of your waiting from you. Just when you think you’re almost to the front of a line, you round a corner and discover that there’s a whole new section of waiting ahead. And even though you probably wouldn’t have stepped into the line if you had known you’d have to wait this long, you’re committed at this point; so you breathe deeply and do your best to practice patience. On the other hand, the “line engineers” do a pretty good job of giving you things to look at and listen to while you stand in line. And unless the cues are exceptionally long, you often get to stand in the shade. So given how many people are usually your “companions in waiting,” it’s probably not nearly as bad as it could be.

Now, as a side note, my waiting experience on this trip to Disney was complicated by the theme park’s new “Lightning Lane” practices. For those who can afford to do so (which doesn’t include me), the purchase of a Lightning Pass entitles you to “skip the waiting” on most attractions. And while I understand that this provides an easy way for the corporation to increase its profits, it does seem to privilege the “haves” at the expense of the “have nots” in a way of which the biblical prophets would have approved.

In the end, the thing I found myself pondering amid this I experience was the question of what sustains us in our waiting. And in that regard, I was reminded of two things. First, it really does matter what we’re waiting for. Standing in line just to get into the park is one thing, while waiting to get on the new Star Wars “Rise of the Resistance” ride is another. And maybe the Bible’s frequent admonitions to “set your mind on things above”—to meditate on the future God has promised to us—aim to give us a an end goal that’s worth the wait.

But along with that, I’ve been reminded over the past few days that it also matters a lot who were waiting with. Disney rides are great and all, but none of them are worth the long, hot hours that I’ve spent standing in line recently. No, what has made the waiting worthwhile has been the presence of my family. And maybe that’s why so many of the Bible’s calls to wait remind us that it’s God we’re waiting for, and not just the blessings that He’s promised. As Psalm 27:14 puts it, “Wait for the LORD (emphasis added); be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

So here’s a few photos of the “waiting companions” with whom I’ve been privileged to share the last few days:

Tongues of Fire

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Acts 2:1-3 (NIV)

Today is the first Sunday of my sabbatical; and it seems strange, I confess, not to be getting ready for a morning of worship, preaching, and interacting with my church family. Of course, I’m grateful for all those who will be taking care of things in my absence, especially Dr. Roger Gilbert – the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC – who will be my congregation’s “preaching pastor” while I’m away.

But in what I hope will be an indicator of things to come, I’d like to note that this first Sunday of my absence coincides with a celebration of God’s presence. Today is Pentecost Sunday, our annual reminder of the way that God’s Spirit came to His people and “ignited” them with power for mission. And if there’s a prayer that has motivated me throughout the process of preparing for this sabbatical, it is the prayer that God’s Spirit would come again in a fresh way to empower both me and my church family for the life to which Jesus calls us.

In a book titled, Revival, a well-known pastor of the last century named Martin Lloyd Jones writes:

It is a truism to say that every revival of religion that the Church has ever known has been, in a sense, a kind of repetition of what happened on the day of Pentecost, that it has been a return to that origin, to that beginning,..We need the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Men can conduct services. Men can get converts. Men can give additions to the Church. What a man can never do is what God does: the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, the descent of power, this uniqueness, this special manifestation of the presence and of the power of God.

From Revival, by Martin Lloyd Jones

So today, would you join me in praying that those “tongues of fire” would once again fall on God’s people; and that we, too, would be empowered, united, and sent out to be the kind of community through which His kingdom comes?

Just Hanging Out?

In his book, The Art of The Rest, Pastor Adam Mabry describes the way that he would sometimes ask his wife what she wanted to do that day, and she‘d respond, “Let’s just hang out.” In response, he says:

“I’d then proceed with a list of activities which I thought were conducive to this ‘just hanging out’ of which she spoke. We could take a walk, play a game, have a discussion… any of these. But please, PLEASE, could we have a plan for our relaxation, because the whole day could go by without us making progress on that “hanging out” task, and then we would end up failing to hit our goal of relaxing.”

Adam Mabry, The Art of Rest

Of course, you might sense a bit of “spiritual dysfunction” in a statement like that, and Pastor Adam agrees! “Here’s my problem,” he confesses. “I don’t ‘just hang out.’ In fact, I don’t really ‘just’ anything. I do.”

Now, those who know me won’t be surprised to hear me say that Pastor Adam’s confession resonates with me. I tend to live in a state of constant motion, always looking for the next meaningful way to use my time. And while this does allow me to be reasonably productive, it also puts me at risk of getting burned out – or of missing what really matters in my rush to stay busy.

And that’s why it’s such a gift to find myself on sabbatical. As of last Monday, I have an opportunity to set my “task-oriented impulses” aside so that I can focus on “being” rather than “doing.” Of course, the transition hasn’t been easy. For much of this last week, I’ve found myself struggling with the sense that I ought to be accomplishing something. But as of last night, my family and I have arrived in Orlando, where we’ll be enjoying a week or so of vacation. And it is my prayer that our visit to “The Magic Kingdom” will deepen my capacity for living in “The Peaceable Kingdom,” in which the One who reigns loves us not because of “what we do” but because “who He is” and “what He’s done.” As Pastor Adam Mabry puts it: “Resting requires you to admit that you are not sufficient, and to acknowledge that there is One who is.”

So, here’s to “Just hanging out” in the days ahead. And here’s to the Savior who calls us to come to Him, so that He can teach us rest.

Pics to follow in the coming days…

In the Office: You are the Beloved

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 3:13-17) describes the baptism of Jesus in which our Lord comes up out of the water and hears a voice that says, ““This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (v. 17) For many years now, I have not been able to read this passage without thinking of Henri Nouwen and what it means for us to understand ourselves as the “beloved” of God:

Let me start by telling you that many of the people that I live with hear voices that tell them that they are no good, that they are a problem, that they are a burden, that they are a failure. They hear a voice that keeps saying, “If you want to be loved, you had better prove that you are worth loving. You must show it.”

But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, “You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.”

You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.

Jesus heard that voice. He heard that voice when He came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother’s womb. I’ve written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don’t be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are.”

I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are. That is where the spiritual life starts — by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved.

Henri Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved

May we hear that voice today. And through us, may others come to know that they’re beloved, too.

In the Office: A Bad Day for God’s People

The readings in today’s Daily Office paint a rather unflattering picture of God’s people. The psalm (Psalm 78:1-39) recounts the way that they “continued to sin against God, rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High,” even though they had seen God’s grace and power demonstrated in the Exodus. The Old Testament lesson (2 Kings 5:19-27) tells the tale of Elisha’s servant secretly (and selfishly) accepting gifts that Elisha had turned down. The gospel lesson (Mark 5:27-37) warns that our sinfulness extends beyond our external actions to include the thoughts and intents of our hearts. And finally, the New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 5:1-8) features Paul lamenting the fact that there’s serious sin being committed by the members of the Corinthians church, and nobody seems to care.

In the OfficeOf course, Paul, at least, offers a “corrective response” to the wickedness he sees: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5) He’s describing the practice of “church discipline,” in which members of the Body are expelled in the hope that it will awaken them to their fault and lead them to repentance. And I know many people who remember the use of church discipline — days when members were “kicked out” because of adultery or drunkenness or some other sin.

But who would we “discipline” today? We seem so hopelessly divided that we can’t even agree on what our problems are, let alone what we should do to solve them. And in our eagerness to prove ourselves “right,” we too often speak ill of brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, and we too often participate in the cycle of “gotcha” accusations the exacerbate our differences rather than seeking to overcome them.

Sadly, I have no wisdom that offers a way beyond our present impasses. And there are some days that I almost despair of the Church’s ability to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” as Jesus has indicated we are. But most days I cling to this: “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us.” (1 Cor. 5:7) Not a one of us deserves the grace and love and fellowship into which we have been received. And in the end, the future of this fellowship depends not on us, but on the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and teaches us what it means to love one another.

May we listen to Him today, rather than the voices that urge us to look to our own interests rather than the interests of others. And may our awareness of the price that He paid for our forgiveness lead us to turn from our sin and brokenness to embrace holiness and healing.

In the Office: “Wherefore Art Thou, O Truth?”

Where do you turn to get the truth? Who do you turn to when you need godly discernment that you can trust, even when the message might be one you don’t want to hear?

Today’s Old Testament lesson (1 Kings 22:1-28) offers up a story, which — in spite of its ancient setting — is as relevant as our current debates about “fake news” and the “echo chambers” in which many of us form our opinions.

King Ahab wants to go to war. So, he calls his friend Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and invites him to get in on the action. Jehoshaphat seems eager to sign up; but he does have this one request: “First seek the counsel of the LORD.” So Ahab calls together his 400-member team of prophetic “yes-men,” and they tell him exactly what he wants to hear: “Go to war, for the LORD will give you victory.”

Jehoshaphat, however, seems to sense that these so-called prophets might not be speaking the truth; and so he asks: “Is there no longer a prophet of the LORD here of whom we can inquire?” Ahab confesses that there is such a prophet — a man named Micaiah. But Ahab’s not too fond of him, because “he never prophesies anything good about me.”

Still, Micaiah is summoned and is asked whether battled is advisable; and he, too, tells the king exactly what he wants to hear: “Attack and be victorious, for the LORD will give the enemy into your hand.” But this time, Ahab himself realizes that truth isn’t being spoken; so he insists: “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” And yet, when Micaiah offers truth — “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” — Ahab tells Jehoshaphat: “See? What did I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me.”

john832Two key questions emerge for me. On the one side: How often, I wonder, are we like Ahab? We claim to want the truth; and sometimes, we even sense that what we’re hearing isn’t it! And yet, when someone speaks truth to us, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve already constructed in our head. What will it take to make us heed the voice that speaks truth, even when it’s uncomfortable?

But on the other side: Do we have the faith and character to be like Micaiah? Can we cling to and speak truth, even when there are many voices around us that are speaking something else — and even when truth-telling is likely to get us more heartache than applause?

Fortunately, of course, refusing to hear and/or speak the truth tends to be “their” problem, not ours…right? Or could it be that we all could use a dose of Truth these days?

May Jesus truly be our Way, our Truth, and our Life today; and may we be both courageous enough to speak truth in love — and humble enough to hear it.

In the Office: Spirit Moves

The story of the New Testament church is a story of the Spirit’s power and guidance. And yet, the apparent drama and pervasiveness of this divine activity can easily lead us to wonder: Are we missing something? Why doesn’t the Spirit act now in the way He did then?

Take, for example, today’s New Testament lesson from Acts 16. Paul and his companions are on a missionary journey and are traveling through the region of Galatia — because, the Bible says, they were “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (v.6). Moving on, they try to enter a region called Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (v. 7).

So, how exactly did the Spirit offer this guidance? Was there a bright light and an audible voice from heaven? Were Paul and his companions seized by spiritual ecstasy, from which they emerged with a clear understanding of what the Spirit wanted? Or is what’s going on here far more mundane? Could it be that they were “kept from preaching the word in Asia” — not by a direct heavenly message — but by the lack of transportation? When the Spirit “would not allow them” to enter Bithynia, did He block their way with a flaming sword, or with a cantankerous border guard?

Please understand; I am not trying to “make light” of the Spirit’s guidance. But I wonder sometimes if our assumptions about the work of the Spirit inadvertently deprive us of access to the Spirit’s power, because they remove the Spirit from the flow of our “normal” experience. Could it be that the Spirit is at work within and around us far more than we appreciate, but we miss it because we’re looking for Him in the extraordinary rather than the ordinary?

In a book about the Spirit, pastor J. D. Greear reflects on this episode in Acts and writes:

Paul thought of his whole ministry as led by the Spirit. Evidently, however, Paul’s means for following the Spirit did not entail getting up each day and waiting on a message to spell itself out in the foam of his cappuccino.

The disciples had clear, general commands given by Jesus in the Great Commission to obey. But as they did so, they had no choice but to look to the Spirit for power and guidance in pursuing those commands.

Yet, even in this extreme dependence, they never reduced the Spirit’s activity in their lives to some formula. They grounded themselves in the Word, obeyed Jesus’ general commands, and looked to the Spirit to lead them — watching for him, but assuming he was leading even if they couldn’t see or feel him.

Jesus, Continued… by J. D. Greear

Let’s trust that the Spirit will be active in our lives today — not necessarily because we see (or don’t see) spectacular signs and wonders — but because Jesus has promised that He will be. And trusting that the Spirit is at work, let’s look for Him and join Him; so that through us, God’s Kingdom may come a little closer to those who need it most.

In the Office

In the Office: Truth Handlers

In the last few days, I’ve been preparing a memorial service for a man in my church named Tom. Among other things, Tom was a devoted student of scripture, who applied himself to understanding God’s Word, living by its precepts, and teaching it to others. As a result, he had a deep and abiding impact on his family, and on the classes and churches that he served.

In the last few days, I have also been participating in this training event for Logos Bible software (www.logos.com). Among other things, I’ve been reminded how blessed we are to be the beneficiaries of women and men down through the ages who have copied and preserved and translated and researched and innovated so that we could have access to the scriptures – AND – so that we would have the opportunity to study them and be enriched by them and be changed by them so that we can more perfectly reflect the Light of Christ.

In today’s readings from the Daily Office, the Apostle offers this admonition to his protege: 

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Now, not all of us may ever be preachers or teachers or Bible scholars. But all of us have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to “handle the word of truth” in such a way that it’s transforming impact can work through us to bring blessing to others.

Who are the people who have shared the riches of God’s Word with you? And what could you do today to “correctly handle the word of truth” so that you can share its bounty with others?

May God give us grace to be doers of His Word- and not hearers only.

In the Office: Strong/Strengthened in Grace

I’m actually “out of the office” this week, receiving some training in a biblical software package that I’ve owned for a long time but have never fully utilized. And in my readings for this morning, I’ve run across an example of why the use of such tools makes a difference. 

In the NIV, Paul writes to his protege Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That phrase has always caught my attention. Grace – as we typically understand it – is “unmerited favor.” So how is one to “be strong” in grace? “Being strong,” it seems to me, implies effort and achievement on our part. And so – in some way – fulfilling this admonition would  undermine the very grace that we seek to be strong in.

A quick look at the underlying Greek text, however, reveals that the verb translated “be strong” by the NIV is actually a passive verb, which means that the translators of the ESV are probably more accurate when they render this verse: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” The goal is not to “be strong” in grace – as if we had to train and struggle in order to appropriate the grace that is freely offered in Christ (although I must confess that this remains an intriguing image). No, the goal is to be strengthened by grace: to allow the unmerited favor of God to give us freedom from out anxieties, confidence in our hope, and an ability to rest in the love that holds our lives today (and every day).

Of course, this doesn’t mean, therefore, that we are left with nothing to “do” or “strive for.” Paul then goes on to encourage Timothy to pursue a way of life that his characterized by intense effort. He talks in terms of soldiers and athletes and hard-working farmers who are eager to please their commanders, to win the victor’s crown, and to receive their share of the crop. But the difference, I think, is that these efforts are made in response to grace and not in an effort to earn it. As Paul says in one of this other letters, we do “work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” but we do so because “God is the one who is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Of course, all of that remains just an exercise of the mind until it transforms our hearts. Will we allow ourselves to “be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” today? Will we accept that we don’t have to strive anxiously to prove and defend ourselves, because we are already loved with an everlasting love? And then, secure in that love, will we invest ourselves fully in whatever opportunities our Lord might bring our way?