Death to Life turns 1

Well, it has been a year since I first started this endeavor and I have to say it’s been an interesting one to say the least.  I have thoroughly enjoyed writing my posts (check out the first one here), even though I honestly don’t know who reads what I have to say.  Several people have outed themselves at various times with comments either on my posts or on Facebook/Twitter, or in person, and the feedback has been encouraging.  I’m thankful for the opportunity to write and I appreciate all of you who take a look at what God is and has been doing in my life.

This being the one-year birthdiversary of the inaugural post, I’d like to take a look at how this whole thing has shaped up, and then I’ll lay out a few goals/ideas for the next year or so.

First, we’ll start off with a couple of stats: I have posted a total of 28 times in twelve months – the highest number of tags being random musings (15), theology (14), daily living (8), and questions that friends have asked me that I thought were interesting enough to put on here (8) – there is obviously some overlap.  I have no idea how many visitors I get or how often they visit because I’ve had no way of obtaining that information, nor do I know what I would do with it.  Second, I’ve enjoyed posting Lastly, I gave the blog a facelift a few days ago and I like the new look.  There are still a few things that I’m trying to get used to and need to work out, but overall I think it’s a pretty solid improvement over what I had.  It’s been a good year and I’m pleased with where I’m at – but I’m not satisfied… I think there’s a lot more to do this next year, which brings me to my next point.

Where I’d like to go with this over the next year, should God’s sense of humor persist and his patience with me prevail:
1)     I would like to develop something of a regular posting schedule – whether that is once a month or once a week I won’t know until my seminary schedule is no longer existent (I’m definitely excited about graduating in a couple of weeks!).
2)     I would also like to greatly expand the topics and types of posts to include: book, music, and movie reviews/discussions; this-day-in-history and related factoids; more series of postings; maybe a few more picture postings from my travels; possibly some interviews and/or conversations; and then a few other things that are to be determined.
3)     I would like to make use of the Amazon widget on the right side of the page to help sell books and maybe make some cash – but that depends on your willingness to read my blog, take my recommendation seriously enough to make a purchase, and then make your purchase via my blog.  That seems like a pretty tall order.
4)     Somehow I’d like to tease out some more conversation and discussion on here, but we’ll see how that goes – that’s not exactly a clearly defined goal, but whatever.
5)     I would also like to figure out how many of you there are and who the heck you are… I’m still working on that, and whether that goal is met with success or dismal failure, you probably won’t ever know.
6)     Lastly, I get a fair amount of people who ask me questions about random theological and biblical topics, and I would love to incorporate that into my blog somehow – maybe start a page for question submissions or something like that.  I’ll have to do some work to figure that whole thing out.

A few things that I do not want to change:  I want my blog to continue being a place of open discussion and interaction.  I also want to stay fiercely dedicated to being authentic, real, raw, and mostly unedited (I rarely, if ever, proofread or edit anything I write).  I would love to continue growing as a writer and as a Christian, though I must say I am at the Lord’s mercy for both of those.  I have done nothing to acquire either of those precious gifts, and I pray that I use them to God’s glory.

Thank you for indulging me once again – I appreciate your willingness to read what I write, and I look forward to hearing from you in one way or another on down the road.

Grace and peace through Jesus,

– nj

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Constant Need: Redemption Groups Immersion part 3

The last two posts concerning Redemption Groups have – I hope – driven home the idea that God has been taking me through an intense time of rediscovering who I am and where my allegiance lies.  The first post (Ashes) focused on God bringing me to the point of complete desperation and dependence on him alone, and the second (Discipline) highlighted the ever-present and active role that God plays in our suffering and trials – that they are not the backhanded disapproval of a vengeful god, but rather the merciful discipline of a loving Father who wants much more for us than we could possibly secure for ourselves.  In this post I’ll set out to show that God not only wants our best and his glory, but accomplishes both in the cross of Christ.

Our culture is replete with drivel masquerading as ‘self-help’ books and ‘fix this part of your life and everything else will fall into place’ literature.  To our shame, many Christians have hijacked the gospel and turned Jesus into a guru of whatever topic the author chooses to twist Scripture to fit.  Now, just so I am clear, there are surely times where we need to seek the wisdom and support of others in making decisions and living life and books are a great source of a lot of that wisdom, so don’t hear me saying that getting other peoples’ input is wrong or bad.  I do, however, want to point out the insidious underlying motives behind much of this genre, and see how we can view it through a gospel-centered lens.

This world mimics the pattern of original sin in the Garden of Eden – that is, that rather than following what God has revealed and instructed us to do, we come up with our own plan and strike out on our own course.  Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 both say that there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.  In Eden man’s way resulted in banishment from the Garden, a curse for all of creation, and lots of other bad stuff.  Today this looks like us forsaking the counsel of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit for logical conclusions, excusing sin for various reasons, and ultimately taking God’s rightful place as the ruler and sovereign lord over our lives.  I would submit to you that there is a way that seems right to a man about how to use and apply Scripture, but in the end if it’s not anchored with the full counsel of Scripture, led by the Holy Spirit, and in accordance with historical orthodoxy, then it will most certainly lead to death.

So if we use Scripture as God’s instruction book, a list of good morals to live by, how to manage your money, how to rightly order your family and home, or how to eat healthier, then we’ve completely missed the point of Scripture.  Of course the manifold wisdom of God is to be expressed in the way that Christians live life, handle their finances, love their spouses and parent their children, but the main point of Scripture is not what we do, but who God is and what he’s done.  You see, when we start boiling down God’s self-revelation to a how-to or a list of helpful anecdotes we’ve forsaken God’s most precious gift – himself – for common grace gifts and an easier temporal existence (or at least what we think will be easier..).

Let’s take this a step further and delve into it a little further.  How about using the Bible as a sin-eradication tool.  Maybe you don’t want to have a ton of cash or have the best sex, life, job, etc.  Maybe you don’t have that high and/or greedy of aspirations.  Maybe you just want to be rid of some frustrating circumstance… maybe you’d like to stop driving around the same cul-de-sac of sin and finally live in true victory over it.  I would say to you that even the desire to be free from sin can itself be sinful if you don’t view the cross as the ultimate goal in your life.

If you’re only wanting to live in victory over sin or in some other state of existence without bowing at the foot of the cross and walking the hard, narrow pathway of true heartfelt confession, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration, then you’re short-circuiting the significance of the cross and the entire redemption process.  In effect you’re forsaking God’s magnificent sacrifice of himself on our behalf for the gifts that he freely gives his children.  The cross must not be some historical event that we at one time trusted in – rather, we must live our lives as an echo of Martin Luther’s first thesis:  that ‘all of life is repentance.’  We must never move away from the cross – it must permeate everything about who we are and what we do and we must let our weakness and meekness and neediness be the place where God’s strength and grace shines through our lives.

I think this is the heart of Paul’s reaction to struggling with his ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:7.  Paul asks God three times to take away some kind of temptation or struggle (it’s not completely clear what he’s referring to specifically) in his life, but then realizes that God allowed that darkness (‘messenger from Satan’) to stick with him so that Paul would not grow conceited.  See, Paul realized that being free from sin and struggle wasn’t the point – having more of Christ and a closer relationship with him is.  So rather than shuffle past our sin and telling ourselves we’ll do better next time, let’s confess the full extent of our sin and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God who calls us to do so.  Let’s realize that there is no way that we can out-sin God’s grace if he has called us into his family.  Of course this doesn’t give us license to sin – Romans 6 deals with that very firmly.  But it does mean that we who are redeemed live not in light of our constant sin, but in light of our constant need of the cross.

One day we will be sin-free and glorified in the presence of God for eternity (see Revelation 20-22 for a vision of this awesome future reality), and we yearn for that day like the rest of Creation (see Romans 8:18-25), but it is not a reality yet.  So let us in the mean time struggle well in a redemptive way.

Let us cling to the cross with all that we have and count this world as a temporary home.  Let us lean not on our own understanding, but on the grace that God gives us freely as his children.  And may we realize that our primary end in life is not to be free of sin and struggle, but rather to know Christ more deeply and live in light of our constant need of the cross.

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San Jacinto Day and Aggie Muster – Today in History, April 21st

This Day in History:  April, 21 – San Jacinto Day, Aggie Muster
Today is a very cool day for me in several different ways – first as a Texan, second as an Aggie, and third as a nerd an amateur historian.

As a Texan, April 21st (1836) is a momentous day because it marks the victory at San Jacinto for Sam Houston and the Texas Army, effectively ending the Texas Revolution.  You should definitely read the full article on Wikipedia (it’s actually pretty good), which you can find here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_San_Jacinto .  Just in case you’re more devoted to my blog than history, I’ll give you a brief run-down on what happened and why it’s awesome.

http://thesafiles.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/alamo_at_night3.jpgMexico and ‘Texians’ (American settlers in the Mexican territory of Coahuila y Tejas) were increasingly at odds until armed conflict broke out at Gonzales (the ‘Concord and Lexington’ of Texas – google that if you don’t get what I’m talking about).  Anyway, the Texas Revolution begins a war of independence from October 1835 until April 1836.  After several conflicts of note, the Mexican army under their president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (several thousand soldiers) surrounded and besieged the Alamo at San Antonio de Bexar (modern day San Antonio) on February 23, 1836.  For thirteen days the small force of 180-200 men inside the Alamo held off the Mexican Army bombardment and small skirmishes, eventually losing a main assault early in the morning on March 6th.  During that siege, a delegation of Texans drafted and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2nd (Sam Houston’s birthday, coincidentally).

After the Alamo, Santa Anna split his force into several prongs in order to try to find and eliminate the Texas Army under Sam Houston.  Over the next month and a half, Houston continually retreated to the east (toward the Houston area) so that he could train his men and consolidate his ragtag military and engage the Mexicans on a good battlefield – this is what we know as the ‘Runaway Scrape.’  On April 20th, two prongs of the Mexican Army (Santa Anna and Cos) caught up with the Texas Army at the San Jacinto River.  The Mexicans expected the Texans to retreat again and did not prepare to attack.  To their dismay the Texans mounted a surprise assault in the mid-afternoon on April 21st and completely defeated the larger Mexican force in about 18 minutes.

Santa Anna disguised himself as a Mexican private and was captured immediately after the battle was over, hoping to escape the attention of the Texan leadership.  He was discovered and brought to Sam Houston who had suffered a gunshot wound in his ankle and was laying down at the time.  Houston exchanged Santa Anna’s freedom for Texas’ independence, ending the Texas Revolution and establishing Texas as a sovereign republic.  Therefore, April 21st, 1836 is an awesome day for all Texans.

Now, as an Aggie, this day also holds a very special significance because it is the day on which we hold a celebration called ‘Muster’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muster_%28Texas_A&M_University%29).  On April 21st (because of the immense importance of San Jacinto Day) Aggies all over the world get together to commemorate current and former students who have passed away in the previous year.  Loved ones gather during the ‘Roll Call of the Absent’ and as a list of the names of the deceased is read, their loved ones answer ‘here’.  It is a solemn time of celebration and remembrance, and one of the most moving traditions at A&M, of which there are many.  ‘Silver Taps’ is another similar tradition where students silently gather in the Academic Plaza on the A&M campus the first Tuesday of every month to honor current students who have died in the past month.  A special harmonized rendition of Taps is played and then a 21-gun salute is given for the deceased.

If you care to perpetuate the stereotype that A&M is a cult, please do so in an educated fashion by refraining from commenting until after you have studied up on what the traditions actually mean – you can find them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditions_of_Texas_A%26M_University .

Thanks, Gig ‘Em, and Remember the Alamo.
– nj

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Discipline: Redemption Groups Immersion part 2

In my last post I wrote about how God is with us as we struggle and as we walk through the tough parts of life.  One of the biggest paradigm shifts of that week in Seattle was the realization that God not only allows, but ordains our suffering and trials in this life.  I do not say that lightly, by the way.  In the past six months I have seen several sets of dear friends go through some of the roughest situations that can be endured in this life, and their simultaneous grief and faith have deeply impacted my soul.

God has some very sobering instructions for us Christians in Hebrews 12.  Verse five says that we are not to ‘regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,’ and continues on in verse six to say that God disciplines those he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.  Therefore, if we are truly sons (and daughters) of God, then as his children we will have to endure hardship and pain from his hand.  There is no alternate way – it will happen, and it will suck to a certain degree.  Yet we are not left without hope – verse ten goes on to say that God’s hand of discipline is for our good and for our holiness or sanctification.  So we have an immense amount of hope in the toughest of times – God has not and will never abandon us, and he is with us in the midst of our suffering.

At this point I think it’s absolutely essential to point out that God is not some vengeful knee-jerk reaction kind of disciplinarian just waiting for us to screw up so he can pound us into a pulp.  He is a merciful, loving, caring father who wants the best for his kids, and is willing to cause some temporary pain so that there is an enduring joy (just like disciplining a child who wants to run in the street or slapping away a hand that is on its way to a burning stove).   This is what we see in Hebrews 12:11 – that all discipline seems for the moment to be painful rather than pleasant, but soon it will put forth the ‘peaceful fruit of righteousness’ for those who have been molded and trained by it.  J.I. Packer describes it this way: “And still He seeks the fellowship of His people and will send them both joy and sorrow to detach their hands from the things of this world and attach them to Himself.”

But this introduces a very scary reality that was very hard for me to get through my head, and chilled my spine when it did finally hit home:  my sins, other people, various situations or circumstances – these things are not ‘holding me back’ from where or who I want to be.  I cannot assign to anything else the responsibility that only God can possess.  God is the one who is sovereign and orchestrates it all – he has us exactly where he wants us.  At all times.  In every circumstance and situation.  There are no exceptions, and he is never caught off-guard.

One quick aside: if you have endured the heavy hand of the Lord in one way or another, or have suffered unspeakable evil in this life, know that it is not pointless and it is not endless.  God chose not to change what happened to you or what you’ve done – rather he redeems it and redefines it with the cross of Christ.  What men have meant for evil for millennia now, God has intended and orchestrated for good (see Genesis 50:20 in its broader context).  Those shameful things that you have either inflicted or suffered are now scars that are a testament to God’s healing grace if you trust in Christ Jesus and let him redefine your story of suffering and shame as one of redemption and glory.

So if you are like me when I was in Seattle, and you’re dealing with a quiet undercurrent of bitterness toward God concerning a given unfulfilled desire, or a tough situation or circumstance in your life that you just don’t like, I want to ask you a question that a very perceptive, Spirit-led man named Kirk McKelvey asked me:  “When are you going to agree with God on where he’s got you?” You can only gloss over your disdain for your circumstance for so long.  At some point you will run out of excuses and you will come to the end of your ‘if only ___ were the case… then I would be ____…’ statements.  I urge you and plead with you to confess that bitterness toward God, honestly confess where you’re at and what you think about it (seriously… be honest and unleash it on him – he can take it, and he already knows exactly what’s on your heart), and then begin to pray about what you have been holding more dear than God.  Odds are, the thing that you have wanted more than anything else and have tried to snatch from God’s hand as if he wouldn’t notice – that is your idol, or at least a clue to what it is.

Discipline is not fun, but it will in time bring forth that fruit of righteousness, and you will begin to see God’s hand of grace in freeing you from your idols, whatever they are.  You see, each of us if we’re honest has a certain list of things that we want in addition to a right relationship with God.  But God gives us so much more than that – he gives us himself!  And that is all we should ever want or need.

But that’s a whole other topic… I’ll try to tackle some of it in Part 3.

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Ashes: Redemption Groups Immersion part 1

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Seattle at Mars Hill Church called Redemption Groups Immersion (a one-week intensive boot camp that trains ministry leaders to implement and lead a ministry called Redemption Groups).  I was put into a group where we delved into the depths of our lives with brutal honesty and walked through the material during the main teaching sessions, which were some of the finest and most Spirit-led teachings I’ve heard.  The week that I spent up there was one of the most heart-wrenching and healing times I’ve ever experienced as a Christian, and I am immensely thankful to God for the men and women at Mars Hill who serve him relentlessly with unbridled passion.

The next few posts will be some of my take-aways from that conference, all of which impacted me in profound ways.

Anyway, as that week went on and God kept hammering away at the junk in my life – the bitterness toward God that I didn’t even know I had, the wicked sense of entitlement that I’ve carried for most of my life, etc. – I was moved pray the following prayer late one night in bed:

Father, you have chosen to love me in spite of me.  You redeemed me for your glory and it seems that all I’ve done is trample on it and childishly demand more – because I think that you’re not good enough for me.  I’ve forsaken the Creator for creation – an infinite offense.  The highest of treason.  And yet you saved me, redeemed me, bought me.  You said “Mine!” and I rebelled.  I confess I wanted your gifts more than life itself.  And like a fool I looked elsewhere for that which only you can provide.  My pride, lust, lies, self-importance, self indulgence, doubt, distrust, shame, – my sin.  All of it.  Stinking, festering, choking my life and killing my soul.  And yet you took them all on- you atoned for every bit of my sin before I even breathed.  So how can I remain unmoved?  How can I not worship you?  Your kindness has brought me to repentance, and I confess I have no other hope, no other aspiration, no other God.  You are all I have.  I have been a fool to see you as a tormentor, a taskmaster; in you and you alone is freedom and grace abounding in steadfast lovingkindness.  So Father, thank you for loving me – thank you for loving me enough to not let me fumble about in my sin, but that you revealed my idols and crushed them with your love on the cross.  I relinquish my desires to you – everything I felt entitled to; everything I was using you for:  A wife. A home. Children.  Financial prosperity.  Respect. Honor.  Success.  Education, diplomas, intellect.  Appreciation, affection.  A place of ministry.  Sleep.  Health.  Food.  Salvation.  All of these I’ve taken for granted and tried to snatch from your hand without you looking.  And yet you are so much more gracious than to give me what I want.  I see now that my pain and shame and sanctifying affliction were not the heavy hand of a vengeful God, but rather the merciful discipline of a relentlessly pursuing Father for his son.  God hear this prayer as a desperate plea for what you’ve already given freely.  And a grateful hallelujah that this world is ashes to me. Ashes. Come Lord Jesus!

In my nearly 20 years of being a Christian I have gone through stages of repentance, but at this conference God truly made me aware of my idolatry, pride, selfishness, and bitterness toward him.  I began to see sin not as a measurement of how bad I am, but rather how immensely good God’s grace is.  And I finally saw that the things that God has been withholding from me – the graces common to many people – was a beautiful picture of God’s grace in my life, not his wrath.  My sin and loneliness and frustration and bitterness were not out of God’s reach – rather, he was right in the middle of them! … and he was the cause of them.  God has loved me enough to not let me be satisfied by what I want and the junk that my heart pursues.  He wants my affections to be solely for him, and he works to that end by showing me how fruitless my pursuits are so many times.  And you know what I’ve found after exploring this new thing that God has shown me?  I don’t need anything in this life except for the cross.  I know – it seems so simple and so Sunday-schoolish to say that, but I can honestly say with no caveat, no asterisk that I need nothing more than the cross for satisfaction.  God’s incredible grace has brought my soul peace and rest.  It’s just as the old hymn says: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

So now, a few weeks removed from the mountain top high of the conference, I still do wrestle with finding my satisfaction in the cross. But I am much more apt to turn and repent of my sin and rest in the perfect finished atoning work that Christ did on the cross, and I am moved to live in light of his resurrection and current intercession on my behalf.  If you also claim the name of Christ, then I would urge you to join me in taking heart in the fact that God’s hand is with us even in the midst of our suffering and pain.  He has not abandoned us, nor will he will ever forsake us.  And he is not frustrated or angry with his kids – he loves us more than we could ever have imagined, and he is not a wicked father who frustrates his children.  He is good, he is sovereign, and he is enough.

Some cool verses (make sure to read them in context) that have to do with ashes:
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes…” – Genesis 18:27

“… I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” – Job 42:56

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes…” – Isaiah 61:1,3

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