Expression and Benediction

Christmas is for expressing yourself; that is, at least, what the retailers who want me to buy media for expressing myself keep telling me. This time of year when the aroma of Tall Pumpkin Spice Lattes fills the air, we usually feel the urge to tell someone (or the world) exactly what it is we are experiencing. We may not know exactly what it is we want to say or exactly where it is coming from up, but we do want to express it nonetheless: whether through cards and cookies, or through presents and wrapping jobs, or even through yet another Christmas album and yet another Christmas sweater. Whatever it is, we want to say it, and we want it to be said to us.

But words can fail, gestures can deceive, presents can disappoint and sweaters can wage a holiday campaign of “shock and awe.” Our confident attempts at saying one thing can implode (or worse, explode) as we end up communicating something quite different. Even worse, our usual streak of babbling can drown us out when we actually have something important to say. To be honest, I have often even wished to become like the prophet Ezekiel, blessed by the Gift of Muteness. For the first part of his ministry, he could speak only when he had a message from God, and the rest of the time he existed in a state of tongue-paralysis. Though it is hardly in the spirit of Christmas, receiving such a gift from God might actually help me avoid inflicting or receiving the wounds caused by my wayward words.

And actually, when God broke his own four hundred-year silence by sending the angel Gabriel to an average priest named Zechariah, he gave him the Gift of Muteness. The message that Gabriel brought, namely that Zechariah’s post-menopausal wife Elizabeth would bear a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah, was rather incredible, and Zechariah’s own incredulous questioning was nearly life-threatening for him. As a result, Zechariah walked out of the temple that day stunned: he had heard a Gospel that he was utterly incapable of articulating to anyone but himself. All he could do was to go home to be with the elderly wife of his youth who would now conceive, carry, and bear his son while he sat silently waiting to speak God’s words.

And what words! Zechariah’s thoughts had been sealed in, allowed to marinate and stew as he reflected on what it all meant. In the better part of a year during which Zechariah waited on God to return to him the use of his speech, he had essentially tenderized his silent meditations into a song of praise and blessing which neither minces nor wastes words as it presents the Gospel. It is no surprise that Zechariah’s song, traditionally called the Benedictus, was quickly picked up and learned by the early church and became forever immortalized in the Gospel of Luke. To this day, it is still sung around the world (as in fact a group of us did last night around a living-room piano), in large part because it expresses with both precision and amplitude the marvelous salvation that Almighty God has accomplished through his Messiah.

The song begins by praising God for fulfilling his own self-expression: the promises that he had given through his prophets. God had sworn oaths in the covenant that he made with Abraham both to save him and his descendants from all enemies and also to allow them all to worship him without fear forever in holiness and righteousness. No matter how sinful Israel had been towards God, no matter how far away from him they stood, no matter how broken they had become, God had promised to show infinite mercy to them by anointing a descendant of David to deliver them. And now this God (who has a real penchant for “self-expression”) has made good on his oaths by actually coming into the world, by visiting his people in mercy. God who before had spoken at so many times and in so many ways has finally spoken his Final Word: the Word made Flesh, the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.

But in the last part of this song, the self-expression of God which gave voice to Zechariah gives voice to his son John as well. John would declare the total and imminent fulfillment of all of God’s promises. He was called to announce the news of the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness through God’s grace and mercy alone, secured by the Coming One whose arrival would be like the dawn breaking upon total darkness. At his advent, his people would be delivered from death itself and brought into perfect peace with God forever. When John opened his mouth, this would be his subject, his theme, and his passion. The mission of John’s life was simply to prepare the way for God, and when he “expressed himself” he simply delivered the message that God had given him to say.

And I suppose that this is precisely why I find deep pleasure in singing Zechariah’s song. I live immersed in a world of the incessant chatter of messages: phone, text, mail, email, radio, and video, not to mention actual face-to-face conversations with someone. And in this sea of words, most of which is drivel (emanating from me as much as anyone), I can find it difficult to find my voice. But when I sing his song, when I declare anew his Gospel, when I find his focus again on Christ, I find that voice which will endure beyond this mortal life and which will arise again to praise my Lord when he visits us again for good.

Meaning and Magnifying

The American search for the “true meaning of Christmas” intrigues and frustrates me. As children we just did not have this problem: we were too thrilled with the trappings of covetous anticipation to notice the metallic taste of “vanity of vanities” somewhere in the shreds of wrapping paper. But then we grew up. And so, we watch television specials all month, usually featuring a burnt-out workaholic who has to “rediscover” some hidden secret of holiday happiness which, as it happens, might actually be the whole secret of human existence. As we do this, we often sense the intolerable weight of obligation to fulfill an ever-increasing number of materialistic holiday demands while at the same time sensing the need to reconstruct artificially the fuzzy feelings (and fuzzy premises) allegedly at the heart of these holidays. All of this tends to end with exhaustion, grumpiness, alienation, and the nagging sensation that Vanity Fair has overlooked something. And it has.

Of course, the meaning of this season of waning daylight can only be found in the momentous, earth-shattering arrival of the Coming One through whom all times, items, ideas, and people have any meaning whatsoever. At the heart both of the Fast of Advent and of the Feast of Christmas lies the intrusion of the living God, the Almighty Creator as a Man into his own creation, all to save it from sin and to bring it to glory. To be sure, this is much more momentous than what the typical holiday seeker of spirituality and meaning is looking for. But the coming of the Messiah does not merely restore Christmas carols to their original childlike gleam or redeem gaudy decorations to be put up without restraint. When Jesus comes, it changes everything.

And this is what gave Mary reason to sing as she did to her cousin Elizabeth in what we know as the Magnificat. By God’s choice, she who was simply an impoverished adolescent girl from a forsaken family in an insignificant town was given the simple Good News that she need not fear. By way of Gabriel and his message, she who had never known hope apart from what the prophets had promised centuries beforehand now knew that she had found favor with God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she who had never lain with a man would conceive, carry, and bear a Son who would be called the Son of God and who would sit on the throne of his forefather David forever. And though she gave her affirmative acceptance of the will of God then and there, it is in her song that it all spills out to Elizabeth, and to us.

As Mary stands and praises the God of Abraham, she weaves throughout her song an understanding of the Gospel which carries with it loads of meaning for the birth of this boy and for the whole rest of the world. Why does Mary magnify the Lord? Why does her spirit rejoice in God her Savior? It is because he regarded her lowliness, stooped down from heaven and exalted her by choosing her to be the mother of the Son of God, the Son of David, the Lord of all things, and the Savior of his people. He in his grace and mercy had shown his power, love, and mysterious wisdom in exalting such a lowly, humble, meek, and otherwise insignificant girl to that pivotal place in his redemptive plans for history. He magnified her, so she magnifies him.

But as Mary considers God’s holiness, might, and mercy, she quickly understands that the inconceivable change in her life that she has experienced pours out into the rest of the world in the same way. The coming of Messiah means the Great Reversal of all things as he enters into his Kingdom. Those who are wise in their own eyes are scattered by the wisdom of God. Those who grasped power for themselves are thrust down even as the meek and humble are exalted to the top. Those who are hungry are finally fed, while those who have denied them sustenance waste away apart from him. And most importantly, God’s broken people, who had suffered so obviously and for so long under the weight of sin, guilt, hunger, plague, sword, and death, would finally enter into the blessing and rest promised to Abraham so many centuries before.

Mary here grasps and fleshes out in her song one of the central truths of the Gospel: her son Jesus Christ accomplished the Great Reversal. His lowly birth, lowly life, and lowly death were reversed when he experienced his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, which means that not only has the curse on his people been turned to blessing, but the tables have been turned throughout the whole of reality. All of life finds its purpose and meaning only in this Man and in submission to his authority, and all of life will be judged by him on the Last Day when he comes again in glory. That little first-trimester baby, who lay in Mary’s womb as she sang this song, is now and ever King of kings and Lord of lords: holy is his name, and his mercy on those who fear him through all generations.

Meaning in general can be tenuous, artificial, even synthetic, and never more so than around the month of December. But in the midst of the holiday blues or a nagging ennui, we have in Mary’s song a vibrant reminder that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, that God in Christ will make all things new, and that God in Christ has magnified us who believe in his mercy, to the point that we will be called blessed by all generations.

And that, boys and girls, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Andrew's Feast for All

One of the gnarly things about the classical Christian tradition that I absolutely love is the peculiar practice of setting aside particular days to remember the most important elements of what Jude calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.” We have days set aside to celebrate with solemnity or feasting (or maybe even with both) the birth of our Lord Jesus, his presentation in the temple, his temptation in the wilderness, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, his sending of the Holy Spirit upon his church, and his imminent return to judge the earth. This is weighty and tremendous stuff, the kind of timekeeping that can engrain the Gospel in a person, a generation, and maybe even a culture.

And peppered throughout a church year dedicated to the life of Christ is a constellation of dates set aside to remember those through whom the Lord Christ established his church: the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs. His life is reflected in their lives, his acts are engraved in their acts, and if we pay attention, we may manage to get a clearer picture of our identity as the church when we study not only his life but their lives in him as well. These sporadic days are tasty and marvelous bits in the year, and help recall us back to our roots as a family, part of the household of God under his Son.

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew, brother of Simon Peter and Apostle of the Lord Jesus. According to Christian tradition Andrew, like all of the Lord’s Apostles, gave up his life to death at the hand of the enemies of the truth on behalf of what the Apostle John calls “the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ.” He like the others had been empowered on the day of Pentecost to bear witness to the resurrection of the Son of God and to teach all that he had spoken and done during his earthly ministry. Like them, Andrew went to his grave proclaiming the Good News that Jesus had died for sinners and was raised for sinners. He was, after all, an Apostle and a Martyr.

But I find that merely treating Andrew like a generic apostle misses all the nuance, all the personality, all the juice of what Scripture tells about him. It misses altogether the example and the encouragement in the life of Andrew in particular for sinners like me who seek to be found in and to follow Christ daily. And I find that, as a man preparing for the mission field, it is particularly important for me to pay careful attention to the life of Andrew.

Andrew does not immediately stand out as an Apostle to take much notice of in Scripture. Though fisherman Andrew is one of the first to come to Jesus, he does not make it into the inner apostolic circle of Peter, James, and John. Indeed, Andrew makes only occasional appearances in the Gospel narratives, and barely shows up at all in the Acts of the Apostles. But that does make him any less important than the other Apostles.

In fact, two things stand out in the life of Andrew. First, Andrew immediately answers the call to follow Jesus without delay. When John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” Andrew immediately leaves everything to follow Jesus. There is no hesitation, no delay, no looking back: he follows Jesus persistently and joyfully. Now, clearly, we are called as Christians to this kind of obedient response to the Gospel: how much more should we missionaries have quick and ready hearts to go where God calls us and do what he requires of us?

Second, Andrew always seems to be bringing people to Jesus. After he follows Jesus, Andrew brings his brother Simon Peter to meet him. Andrew brings the boy with loaves and fishes to meet Jesus despite his doubts. Andrew brings the Gentiles who desire to see Jesus and announces them to the Lord. Just as Peter is prone to action, Philip to speculation, and Thomas to emotion, Andrew is dedicated to connecting people with the Messiah whose words bring life and whose presence brings peace. It is certainly the case that we are also called as Christians to bring others to Christ in order to find life in him: how much more should we missionaries, whose professional calling is to proclaim Christ, be bringing the nations to walk in his light?

These twin attributes that we see in Andrew, a passion both quickly to follow and also to bring others to follow the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” do not just belong to Andrew: they spring from the very heart of God our heavenly Father. His desire from before the foundation of the world has been that we have life in him, and that we have it through his Son, Jesus Christ. In the life of Andrew we get a poignant if tiny and imperfect picture of the love of God and of his own passion that we obtain true and eternal life by believing in his Son. My hope is that, on this Feast of St. Andrew, we may, by considering his obedience, be encouraged to come not to him but to his Lord and ours, that Jesus who, in his goodness, has founded and established his church on the Apostles and Prophets, one of whom is Andrew.

The Excellence of Autumn

The joy of traveling is, if nothing else, a distinct change of scenery. It seems impossible to me that in the last three weeks I have gone from the green, mountainous coves of Puget Sound to the fir-encircled lakes of Northern California to the balmy beaches of San Diego, and now finally to the cold shores of Lake Michigan and the gray, dilapidated suburbs of Chicago. Some might say that this latest stop along my journey is a step down from the others, but as I took a walk this afternoon and experienced an old familiar sensation too often missed in Southern California, I must disagree. It is here in the Midwest where I have once again met an old November friend in a blustery season that cannot be experienced in the same way in warmer climes.

Autumn is absolutely my favorite season. Growing up in Indiana and attending college in Ohio, every year I relished the vivid moments of crinkled leaves, spiced cider, and the gradually cooling air which day after day brought a gradual crescendo of nippiness. As the days and weeks moved on through November, the biting autumn air that flooded my nose and lungs seemed like a harbinger, bringing an oracle not only of the swiftly approaching winter but of mortality itself. In the midst of midterms and term papers, it was as if Death, whose specter had managed rather successfully to remain hidden during the bright summer months, now grew bold and jumped out from behind every early-darkened shed, summoned by the smell of ponds turning over, leaves decaying, and harvest fires everywhere giving off lusty billows of smoke. It was intoxicating then, and I am equally enthralled today.

But my love for autumn is completely tied to the inevitable advent of spring. True, I may savor the bittersweet, melancholy sensation of sheltering myself indoors with a cup of tea after spending a gray blustery day in the open elements. But autumn leads to winter, and though joy may be found in the days of dark and nights of ice, it can only be secured and maintained with great personal sacrifice and exertion. When nature round about us lies in the grips of winter, nothing grows, nothing comforts, nothing warms, and nothing forgives. Death himself, who with coquettish insistence merely flirted with us during the fall, wins in winter over the world of living things and drives them into the still hardened earth.

To put it another way, spring must come, or we must die. For me, it was never a surprise that, in his Comedy, Dante arrives at the heart of hell to find it a veritable block of ice, a frigid prison from which he and his classical guide would finally emerge on Easter Sunday. The poet’s instincts ring true to me, though not simply with respect to the coldness of Death and Hell (as well as the hellishness of cold), but also in regards to the radiant victory that the Resurrection of Christ brings. Our Lord Jesus rose from the dead in the first month of the Jewish calendar, coinciding in the Northern Hemisphere with the first emergence of spring: the time of warm winds bringing fresh rain, of greenness and new life, and of the promise of summer to come. From the empty tomb emerged a Savior who had borne the wrath of God and who in the process had not only defeated Sin and Death and but had also begun a radically new life, the first fruits of the new creation of all things. Every year, the glories of springtime gesture towards a coming moment of cosmic regeneration, the general resurrection of all flesh at Christ’s coming, without which there remains no hope for a gritty world of ember days and hoarfrost nights.

Still, the reverse is true: not only must we look forward to the waxing of spring to endure the waning of autumn, but spring is never appreciated without the preceding howl of winter or the bite of autumn. I find that those who most celebrate spring are those suffer through the sternest measures of darkness, snow and ice. We must reckon with the “newness” of new life before we can experience its mystery, joy, and power. As Christians, we keep Advent before we celebrate Christmas, and we fast through Lent before we feast on Easter. If we would taste the joy and blessing of the world to come, we must savor the pain, sorrow, and curse of the present world and, in the process, stand against it in hope of greater things on the horizon. The Apostle Paul writes that “Death has no sting” for the one who will rise with Christ, just as autumn poses no despair to the one who knows that the frost’s own doom is coming; and so, to continue the analogy, we do and must stoke the fires, rake the leaves, mull the cider, and howl back into the night as we await a month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

I have made a short story long, and it is time to put the kettle on to make more tea, after which I will probably take a walk in the nippy eventide. With any luck, my cheeks will grow rosy from the wind and my lips may even chap. It may not seem like much, but it is a small reminder that I have come and am going home.

Wisdom and the World

I usually find life's complexities pretty perplexing, often pleasantly so. Recently however, I have been mulling over a conundrum which has been popping up frequently in my conversations with friends and loved ones (though it it has been chewed over by veritable centuries of Christian thought). Since I have decided to jot down some of my ideas about it here, let me put the conundrum succinctly: how can some unbelievers show so much wisdom when so many Christians live life so foolishly? To wrestle with the force of this question, you do not have to have poured over the great pagan works of Greco-Roman antiquity, or have studied the Crusades in detail, or have read a biography of Gandhi, or have spent a grueling semester abroad with a Muslim family in North Africa. The only thing necessary is to have been struck at one time or another by the realization that some of the smartest, wisest, and nicest people in your life do not trust in Jesus for salvation or confess him to be Lord.

Humbling as it may be, Christians simply do not have a monopoly on wisdom and wise living. When we come to Christ, very few us get zapped at the same time with instant supernatural skill in wise living. God’s promise to give wisdom to everyone who asks is absolutely true; nonetheless, this promise does not come with a timetable, and far too few Christians even spend time asking God for wisdom. All too often, we Christians regularly replicate the foolish, immature, and even destructive attitudes and behaviors of the unbelieving world around us: sometimes we surpass them. We frequently appear to aim at being wise as sheep and innocent as snakes.

So, if wisdom does not come naturally from being a Christian where does it come from? Wisdom in Scripture is a practical, habitual skill in living life well, grounded in an insight into and understanding of how reality is set up and structured. This structure of reality is rooted in God’s creative order, an order which he established for everyone when he created the world and which he still upholds and sustains for everyone through his common grace in the midst of a world filled with the common curse of sin and brokenness.

The key words here are creation and common grace. Whether we have salvation in Christ or not, we each have access to the world God created by way of our observation, reason, and lived experience. Armed with God’s tools and God’s help, both non-Christians and Christians alike can gain considerable success in living life skillfully. Christians can learn much about life from myriads of non-Christians, dead and alive, who have lived and taught wisely. To assume that Christians have an automatic superiority in wise living in this present age is to deny both the goodness of God’s creation and the sufficiency for the time being of his sustaining providence for those created in his image.

But this is far from the whole story. The Christian message, the Gospel, announces that God “hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The wisdom of the Present Age, otherwise normally valid, is of no ultimate value when entering into the Coming Age, into the Resurrection and the New Creation. Here human wisdom, built so precisely on God’s purposes in our Creation, becomes bewildered and clueless when confronted with God’s wisdom, exuberantly manifested in our Redemption through the Cross of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians,

While the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, to us who are being made alive it is the power of God. … For, since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased, through the folly of what is proclaimed, to save those who believe.

In view of our foolish living, God the Father, moved by infinitely powerful love, sent his Son Jesus to live and to die wisely on our behalf. In this "foolish" act for the sake of fools, he accomplished something far beyond anything revealed in the universe up until that point. This Gospel appeared then, as it still does now, to be utter nonsense, but this perception does not change the fact that all of reality has been restructured and reordered by Christ, and one day it will be regenerated in him. Paul continues,

We do in fact speak wisdom among the mature, yet wisdom not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Instead, we speak a mysterious and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

According to Paul, every Christian must possess, indeed does possess, a unique wisdom in light of this reality, rooted in submission to God’s wisdom as realized in Jesus Christ.

God’s wisdom requires two fundamental actions: trust and reprioritization. Trust demands that the Christian, in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ, depend entirely on God for every good thing, beginning with his salvation from dominion of darkness and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Reprioritization demands that the Christian, in light of the Kingdom that Christ is bringing with him when he returns, make decisions which acknowledge the transitory character of the things of this life, preferring instead to “store up treasure in heaven” which will never pass away. Those wise in the wisdom of this age can never and will never understand trust in God’s wisdom or the decisions made in its light. The authentic Christian will always appear foolish to the worldly-wise who scratch their heads and look on. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As Christians, we must embrace wisdom wherever we find it: God has given it to the world for his glory and our benefit. This is absolutely true. But we must never forget that such wisdom is not enough: the deepest wisdom is found only in a paradoxical and counter-cultural way of life, steeped deeply in the truth of a Gospel which heralds and opens to us a heavenly reality to come.

When Home Comes to Us

There is something delightful in seeing the paradoxes of the Christian faith come to life and take flesh in visible and tangible ways. Over the last few weeks, I have been ruminating a lot on the paradox associated with the via crucis, “the way of the cross” of Christian discipleship. The paradox goes something like this: to experience this resurrected life of Christ, we must experience the cruciform life of Christ. To put it another way,

“Truly our way to eternal joy is to suffer here with Christ; and our door to enter into eternal life is gladly to die with Christ; that we may rise again from death, and dwell with him in everlasting life.”

This paradox is expressed of course in different ways, whether by Jesus addressing his disciples, or by the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy his apprentice or to the Philippians, or by the Apostle Peter comforting suffering Christians. But Holy writ is unanimous in its testimony that the model that Christ gives to Christians for their lives corresponds much more closely to the hard wood of his cross than to the ease, comfort, pleasure, prestige, or power that we generally expect or hope to come our way.

Still, do our lives in fact bear witness to the truth of this paradox? I seem to be able to see something like it in the incredible lives of men and women around me who, in the face of evil around them and despite their own sufferings, remain stalwart in their faith and persevere with joy. However, none of these experts in “cruciform living” have actually attained to the glory that has been promised us in the Resurrection of Christ, and it can be difficult to obey the exhortation to “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” when we cannot see that outcome here and now.

Indeed, the difficulty in seeking visible and tangible confirmation of the paradox of the via crucis is that, according to the Apostle Paul, we are still waiting for “the coming weight of glory to be revealed in us which is not worth comparing to the sufferings of the present age.” Here and now we can only behold the suffering: the glory has not yet broken into our world. In order to consider the outcome of the lives of those who have taken up their cross and followed Christ, we must have faith, trusting that our Lord will honor his promise to “transform our bodies of lowliness into the same form as his body of glory, according to the working by which he is able also to submit to himself all things.”

But even considering the outcome of their “cruciform living” through the lens of faith, a tricky question can emerge for people like me whose own suffering appears minute in comparison to that of so many others. After all, in my short life of youth and vigor, I have enjoyed a loving family and firm friendships. I have eaten well, slept warm, earned degrees, travelled the world, and preached the Gospel in peace and tranquility. Very little about my life suggests the obvious suffering which the apostles, the martyrs, and so many others of the church militant have undergone as they were conformed to the “cruciform life” of Christ. The question is: have I and others like me been exempt from the via crucis?

Hardly. My tentative answer to this question may not be entirely satisfactory to some, but I find it is an important stab at it for Christians who, like me, have enjoyed enormous blessing, prosperity, and privilege in the present world.

As I have been travelling for the last three weeks I have been struck by the discomfort which comes with being a visitor and a guest in the homes of others. No matter how gracious the host or how posh the surroundings, there is an ache associated with being somewhere other than home. Homesickness reminds us with its unasked for jabs that we are not where we are most ourselves, not where we most belong, not where we hope to arrive at. Though well-fed, well-clothed, and well-cared for, we will never rest content until we are at rest in the place we claim as our own.

It is this kind of homesickness pain, be it dull, throbbing, or acute, which characterizes the heart of the Christian life as we are each stretched upon our crosses. As Paul lets on, when we become crucified with Christ, we remove our focus from earthly things and experiences, even when they are pleasurable, in order to set our minds on heavenly things, where Christ is seated, where our citizenship lies, where we have our home. To wit, if this world is no longer our true home, then its pleasures and comforts, its prestige and honor will all ring hollow as our homesickness for a heavenly kingdom casts its shadow over life in the present age. Suffering always comes to Christians in this world because, without exception, we have all died to the world we live in, and death is never without pain.

However, to the end we cling to the paradox that Paul exudes to the Romans: “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And this is the hope: that home will come to us. Our risen Lord will return to earth to raise us up to be with him, bringing heaven with him, and he will wipe away every tear from our eye in that place where there will be no more place for suffering. Believe me: this homecoming will make all the suffering of our cross-marked lives worth every minute of it.

The Inner Game of Wisdom

One of the incessant prayer requests that I have is for is wisdom, especially when I’m going through circumstances which are ridiculously confusing, disheartening, or deeply painful. I don’t think this comes merely from a sense of need or inadequacy: God has promised to give wisdom to those who seek it out and to those who ask for it in faith, and we are commanded to counsel each other with all wisdom. It may be important to us, but it is even more important to the God who loves us and whom we love in return.

Yet through my own prayers, I sometimes betray a misunderstanding of what wisdom is and how it is received. They’ll go something like this:

Dear Lord: dang it, I’m going to have to make a decision, and I am at my wit’s end. I don’t know which way to go. I have not obeyed your Spirit by disciplining my mind or the habits of my heart to faithfully discern your will or way for my life. Please zap me with secret knowledge so that I can make the perfect decision. Or, if possible, take this awful decision from me and clearly arrange the circumstances of my life for me. I pray all of this in the Name of Jesus who lived the most perfect life ever. Amen.

Without question, we need to pray to the Lord for wisdom, but let’s be honest: the biblical concept of wisdom is at once far more robust, far more organic, far more divine, and far more human than what these last ditch prayers would seem to suggest.

The concept of wisdom that we find in Scripture is richer than the anemic exposition above. In the Old Testament alone (which is not only full of wisdom literature but in fact shot through with the themes and motifs of wisdom), there is a whole range of words used to describe the concepts related to wisdom: knowledge (da`ath), understanding (binah), instruction (torah), discipline (musar), prudence (`ormah), discretion (mizmah). But the actual word for wisdom itself (chokmah) in the Hebrew Scriptures is an intensely practical word relating to the skill of an artisan. The wise person is like the MVP pitcher who pitches a perfect game, or the virtuoso violinist who receives a standing ovation, or the architect whose arches last a millennium. Wisdom may involve insight into the world and understanding of reality, but we cannot limit wisdom to knowledge and insight. Wisdom always manifests itself in skillful, beautiful living. So how then do we become skillful, beautiful livers?

Back when I was regularly studying and practicing violin, a music instructor recommended that I buy and read The Inner Game of Music, a musical spinoff of the book The Inner Game of Tennis. The thesis of this book was at once intuitive and instructive: the musician is at his best when the technical aspects of his craft have been completely rehearsed, practiced, and mastered before the performance, consequently allowing the creative and aesthetic core of the musician’s expression to come across flawlessly and effortlessly.

As long as the musician is concentrated on hitting all the right notes in all the right order with correct precision and execution, he will be creating sequential sounds, not music. However, when the musician is so prepared that he has stopped being concerned with these technical elements, he is then finally able to open himself up completely to express what he desires through the medium of music. Only then is he an artist, and only then is his craft truly art.

Here’s where a parallel can be drawn with the technique of musical performance that I described above, what we might call “The Inner Game of Wisdom”. To become not just a master of my instrument but a performer whose artistry would transcend mere technical mastery, I had to take time every day to practice meticulously the music of the day: note-by-note, section-by-section, piece-by-piece. Similarly, if we desire insight, wisdom, and expertise in beautiful living for the glory of God, we must discipline our lives hour-by-hour, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year. As we practice walking with God in Christ, coming before him in worship, trusting his promises, following his commandments, drawing close to him in prayer and worship, and showing his love in tangible ways to those around us, we become like Christ, the Power and Wisdom of God, whose skillful and beautifully lived life knows no equal.

It is hardly wrong to cry out to God for insight and guidance when we are feeling confused and helpless: he desires and commands us to do exactly that! But we can miss the heights and depths of the life of wisdom that God has for us when we equate God’s momentary direction and providence with the wisdom acquired through a lifetime of walking with him. As followers of Jesus, let’s delight in the daily discipline of drawing close to him, seeking first his Kingdom and his Righteousness, so that, among all these things, his wisdom may be added to our lives.

Missions Means Martyrdom

Much of the Christian life can sometimes sound syrupy: martyrdom does not and cannot. Even in an age of cynicism, we still remember, respect, and honor those who have given their lives for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, as Christians living today in the United States, our primary attitude today towards martyrs tends to be pity: pity for those robbed of life, beaten down by evil, and prevented by violence from serving God. All this then usually lead us to fervent prayer that we and our families be forever spared the blessed gift of martyrdom!

Of course, this is hardly the perspective of the Holy Scriptures or of the Church at its strongest. Over the last few days, I have been studying the second century account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (a city in modern-day Turkey). As the story unfolds, the focus is neither on the brutality of his execution nor on a call to rally around his death. Rather, the narrative hones in on the conformity of Polycarp’s life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only does Polycarp proclaim with his lips the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, suffered, died, and was raised on behalf of sinners and now reigns as King, but even the tiny details of Polycarp’s life and execution correspond with the life and execution of his Lord and Savior and, in the process, bear witness to the Gospel.

In a similar way, the Apostle Paul describes for the Philippians his own passionate desire to be found in Christ and justified through faith on the basis of Christ’s righteousness in the hope that he himself “might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming made like him in his death, if by any means [he] might attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Paul, who would one day be martyred in Rome, understood that the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ in every detail possible. This means that, for the present age, our highest joy is to become like Christ by suffering like him, at the hands of wicked men and women, and even to give up our lives to death if we are called upon to do so.

But becoming like Christ in his suffering and death also means becoming like him in his victory. For this reason, the Apostle John in the book of the Revelation describes Christians, reigning with Christ, as “those who were beheaded on account of the testimony of Jesus and on account of the Word of God” but who, in doing so, “conquered [their Accuser] on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their testimony, and did not love their life even unto death.” Just as by dying on the cross Christ conquered our guilt, our sin, our enemies, and even our death, in martyrdom we also conquer the forces of evil, not through force but through the power of his Gospel proclaimed by individuals whose lives increasingly mirror and reflect his life.

Thinking through the implications of this for my own life and for Christians more generally, I think we ought to draw two conclusions. First, I think we need to understand that missions” means “martyrdom”. Cross-cultural Christian ministry is not simply a hip project for bored people, an alternative lifestyle for the poor Christians who simply will not fit into regular life in the United States, or even the means to a personal sense of fulfillment and productivity. Missionaries who cross cultural boundaries to make disciples of Jesus Christ are called to renounce every right that we have on our own lives, fortunes, locations, priorities, and privileges, all in order to bear witness to his Good News, a Gospel which is robust enough to merit both the world’s persecuting fury and the disciple’s trust and endurance in the face of that persecution. Missions entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.

But second, I think that we also need to understand that “the Christian life” means “martyrdom”. While martyrs deserve our remembrance and respect, they do not deserve our pity. Rather martyrs like the Apostles “have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Name” by God himself: they share in that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” that directs us all to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by proclaiming him with our lips and by becoming like him in his life and death. Our chief desire as Christians should not be to live comfortable, easy, prosperous, or otherwise “successful” lives, but to become like Christ in every way possible. The Christian life entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.

We may never be burnt at the stake like Polycarp, beheaded like Paul, or crucified upside down like Peter. But we are all called to lives in which we share in the sufferings of Christ, as John puts it, “for the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus!”