From a Book: Bent Creatures Are Full of Fears

I’ve recently been re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and just finished the first book Out of the Silent Planet. In the book, the word used to describe sin to the inhabitants of Malacandra is “bent”, a word aptly describing how we take the good that God has given and bend it to something other than it’s use. Thus we on Earth (Thulcandra in the book) are all bent. One of the creatures was observing with bemusement how the human visitors had acted so incredibly strangely, full of fear and paranoia. The main character Ransom responded to the creatures who couldn’t understand the fears of their human visitors by saying:

Bent creatures are full of fears.

There’s so much I could say here. So much of my life that is filled with fear. The fear of looking the fool. The fear of getting hurt. The fear of being laughed at. The fear of the future. The fear of my failures. The fear of my successes. The fear of being wrong. The fear of being misunderstood. The fear of being unloved. The fear of my own passions. And on and on and on.

There seems to be a proportional link between our “bentedness” and our fears. Or conversely, the greater our faith, the greater our fearlessness in the hands of a good and wise king. My bentedness is far worse than I lie to myself it is. And the same lies that hide it are also the ones I use to rename my fears as logic and wisdom and reason. But as circumstances have shown lately, I am “laden with guilt and full of fear”, but I hesitate to “fly to thee, my Lord.” Then the blacksmith would have to place me on the anvil and begin to hammer the bends out to straighten me into the image he created me for.

But that would hurt. And I’m afraid of pain.

Feeling Conventional

In an odd turn of events, I registered for the 2017 Gospel Coalition national conference, which is conveniently coming to my own town, Indy. Despite the mundanity of such an action, it’s a ridiculously big deal for me. Somewhere along the line (so long ago that it’s fuzzy now), my identity got wrapped up in making sure to do the opposite of everyone else: a rebel–but a rebel in Reformed Christian circles (which is kinda silly when I say it that way). And I’ve found a tremendous joy in constantly not doing what my peers are doing.

House churches? Check. Unpaid pastor? Check. Living in the city? Check. Disagreeing in some slight-to-serious way with every Reformed author out there? Check. Avoiding conferences because every good pastor is supposed to attend conferences? Check.

So here I am, spending money to go to a conference I don’t have to and, at some level, don’t want to attend. And my wife had to talk me down out of my pretentious, self-righteous judgmentalism to even consider it in the first place. Similar things have been happening lately. When I get all cantankerous and unwilling to put up with anything that didn’t originate from my brain, my wife just rolls her eyes and says, “Old man…”

It’s been an easy path from “blazing my own trail” to “not blazing their trail.” As I read in a Dan Doriani book years ago, when you try to do the opposite of anything you’re still being controlled by the thing you’re rebelling against. And that’s probably the turning point when I stopped feeling original and started feeling like a tool. What’s sad is that I started to pull away in the first place because I felt like a tool.

I’m amazed at how lame I can be.

So, I’m going to a conference. Why? Because I want to. Because I want to hear Keller and Carson and Piper. Because I want to hear more about my commonalities with the reformers who couldn’t find unity. Because I want to learn more about the radical reformation Anabaptists, always pushing and pushing and pushing to be more and more faithful to the Word. Because I want to be reminded that I’m part of the Church, not just indyEkklesia and I can celebrate our differences, differences which orbit around the cross and empty tomb. Because it’d be cool.

Just another step in the humiliation of Bill Bell…

(And as an awesome side note, I get to go with my rockin’ awesome wife. We haven’t been able to attend something that was intended to feed our souls and reinvigorate our tired lives since some incredibly generous friends sent us to a conference ten years ago. God our Dad is very kind!)

Blind to My Own Idolatry

This morning, I took some time while running/walking to listen to some sermons with the hope of hearing God’s Word afresh. I am so highly cynical and self-sufficient that I almost never listen to anyone else teaching these days. Because I believe I’m that wise.

Ugh.

Anyway, I started with this Tim Keller sermon. He begins by talking about how sin can have spiritual mastery over us, especially by something other than God being our ultimate goal. He gives some indicators: anger, fear, and sadness. When we’re chasing after empty idols and they fail to deliver–as they always do–it leads to anger (because things aren’t going the way we want and so we rage about it), overwhelming anxiety (because if things might not turn out right, we’ve got no hope or confidence at all), and sadness (because how can we have joy when we can’t have the thing we want most).

Here’s me lately: I’ve been incredibly short-tempered and judgmental, sometimes mentally only and, especially with my kiddos, sometimes actually. Everything they do that has been even remotely annoying or disobedient or disrespectful or just not what I wanted at the time has been met by my sinful snippiness and anger. I’ve had to repent over and over again for reacting too harshly. Check one for anger.

For the last several nights, I’ve not been able to sleep well. I thought at first it was caffeinated drinks. Cut those out, still no change. I thought it might be from the Claritin D I was taking before bed. Cut those out, still no change. In retrospect, the fact that I keep waking up from dreams feeling like there’s some urgent matter I need to fix right then or else leads me to believe I’m clearly very anxious. And even though my somewhat stoic persona doesn’t display it as clearly as others, I’m anxious all the time that I’ll fail at work or fail Court or fail the kids or fail as a pastor-elder. Check two for fear.

I’ve also found it much harder lately to be light-hearted and easy-going. I, of course, don’t see this in myself but my wife has pointed it out more than once. Like I’m “carrying a constant burden on my shoulders and can’t shake it” or something along those lines. The fact is, joy feels elusive right now, a whole lot like chasing after the wind or looking for a snipe in the backyard. Check three for sadness.

And so, I find myself diagnosed: sin is ruling over me and I’m chasing after everything but the one good Giver.

I also listened to this John Piper sermon about assessing what our ultimate joy is found in (it would almost seem coincidental that both sermons had such common themes if, ya know, I believed in coincidences). He does this nice job of taking an example of something that makes us happy, then asking “Why?” over and over till we hit “the bottom” or, to say it differently, till we reach the foundation of our joy. If it’s anything other than God himself, we’re missing it.

As my old friend Tom Binkowski could painfully recollect from our many meetings for mutual encouragement, I am awfully horribly terribly tremendously bad at assessing my own motives or the foundation of my motives. (I’m not sure I stated that strongly enough…) But as I think over the things that are making me angry (Why am I so angry?), scared (What am I so worried about?), and sad (What’s making me so unhappy?), every chain of questions leads me to one response: I’m not getting the honor and recognition I think I deserve. Or perhaps I’m afraid I won’t get the honor and recognition I deserve.

So, today I’m grateful to the God and Father of King Jesus for Keller and Piper. Through their words, another layer of my inscrutable onion-y soul has been peeled back. And another layer of idolatry unearthed.

Though I still wonder if I’m just shedding the outer layer of my dragon skin and still too scared to feel the painful, gentle claws tear the whole thing off. God, grant me the mercy to get there…

My Quiet Defeat at the Hands of the Dishwasher

For some time, the pressures of life have been building, filling up my mind and time and attention. The biggest and easiest culprit has been work, where I’ve been tasked with a new project and a new process, taking more time and attention than I’ve had to expend in a very long time. But it’s really been so much more than that. The cares and troubles of this world, whether that be work stuff or disobedient kids or broken-down cars or whatever, have slowly but surely been choking the life out of me.

The last few weeks have been the culmination of it all. I put in a whole lot of extra hours at work, even several over a weekend–something I normally refuse to do as a matter of principle, that my job doesn’t own my every waking moment. But I had “good reason” to break my own rules. I did that literally up to the second when we left for a family vacation. And even though our bodies left the house (and my laptop!), my mind kept churning and thinking. All of this manifested itself in a number of ways. I’ve been broadly distracted constantly. I’ve been very short-tempered with my children. I’ve been disengaged at home. I’ve been falling more and more behind at work.

Even in my teaching, a gift given by the Spirit, I have been misstepping and faltering. This past week, I taught three times: one for my church, one for the high schoolers in our co-op, and one for some biblical training with some close friends. In all three, I just sucked. I was trying to teach and share the insight God has given me, but I was drawing from a dry well. I sinfully attacked a sister’s story, I was woefully unprepared to bring anything good to the high schoolers, and my dear friends all had to tell me that I was breaking the very interpretive rules I’d just given them

All of this has resulted in two things simultaneously. On the one hand, I’ve been feeling the weight of my failure increasing and building and growing and overtaking. On the other hand, I’ve been trying more and more furiously to make up for my insufficiency, working longer and trying really hard not to be so angry and trying to segment my life and get it all figured out.

You can probably see where this is headed. Because it’s not been working in the slightest. Instead of getting better, it’s all getting worse. On our date last night, my lovely wife was trying to gently point out to me that the path I was on was unsustainable and that it was my pride that was fueling my grasping at the air of fixing my own problems.

And so after our date, I noticed our dishwasher wasn’t getting the dishes clean. This morning  (not really digesting my wife’s words at all), I thought I’d unhook it, pull it out, and see if I could fix it. (Note: I have a bachelor’s degree in music, part of a seminary degree, and a job as an information analyst–handyman I am not!) As usual with such efforts, I couldn’t figure out the problem and made a huge watery mess in the kitchen from unhooking the water lines.

The hardest part was telling my wife we should call an appliance repairman. Because, you see, I think I could fix it with more time. I think I could figure out the problem and save us money. But what I don’t want to own up to is the fact that I already don’t have time for all the commitments I’ve made for myself. Nor that I might spend hours taking the darn thing apart and searching online repair forums and still not find the problem. My modus operandi is to never admit defeat: I can do this!

Except I can’t. Less because I’m not able–I have a pretty strong track record of accomplishing most things I decide to accomplish–but more because I’m a fool who can’t see that he’s choosing to neglect what’s been entrusted to me to save a few bucks that for once in my life I can actually afford to spend. Is it better to save money or to humble myself by getting help and getting back to my true responsibilities?

And I don’t think I’m explaining this very well anyhow. I feel like I’m advocating for some advanced time management tools or a life coach to help me prioritize. Which is about as Jesus-less as all my efforts have been lately. I’m sure time management or life coaching could help in some manner.

My problem, though, is a heart problem. My defeat came from the dishwasher because my Dad was kind enough to see me building my tower up to the heavens and came down to confuse my work and scatter me before I trudged full force into self-worshiping idolatry.

I’m glad I lost. I needed to. My own imaginary kingdom was bloated and moldy and cracked and rotting, but beautiful in my mind. But my Dad, who sees me refusing his good food to instead eat from the trash can, has used the sharp sting of discipline–and just the right discipline–to show me the feast he’s laid out for me.

My feast? The feast of a Savior who was already perfect so I would stop trying to be. The feast of limits, the feast of understanding that I’m not an island and not everything is my job, the feast of fellowship with my God through the Spirit who dwells within me, the lowly estate of a beaten and rejected Savior where I would rather bypass the gutters and jump to the glory.

So I’m grateful. A first step has been taken. My attention has been turned to the feast, but my heart is slow and cold and incredibly stupid. God grant me the grace to repent beyond even what I’ve seen so far.

“Failure”

Seth Godin nails an important idea that being a failure and feeling like a failure are rarely the same thing. You should read it, as he makes the point so well.

As a Jesus follower, we all tend to write up a series of mental (or actual!) rules that we measure ourselves by. The problem is that we often set standards that are either too lofty or not required of us by King Jesus or just plum ridiculous (I will read the whole Bible in three days!).

For me (and the silly people like me), I tend not to make many of these types of rules for myself. Why? Because I’d feel bad all the time because I’d surely miss the mark constantly! Psh. So in order to avoid feeling like a failure, I require nothing of myself and truly fail in loving my neighbor as myself because I don’t even try.

So to the me’s of the world, I say: Stop trying to avoid feeling like a failure. Avoiding the feeling isn’t the same as avoiding failure. And in trying not to feel like you’re failing, you’re actually just failing and feeling good about it. Which is absurd and maybe even wicked. Repent of your false righteousness and hear the Word of the Lord.

But others (some whom I love dearly) makes an insurmountable list of goals, such that can never be attained. And thus they “fail” and are crushed under the constant sense of failure upon failure.

To them I say: Instead, walk by faith. Remember that God is preparing beforehand the good deeds he intends you today. And he is actively growing you up, turning your toddles into strides. As ridiculous as it is for the toddler to think he can walk without falling in one day or the ten-year-old who wants to chop wood with the strength of his daddy, it’s that ridiculous to think you can overcome every weakness by tomorrow or next month or next year. Growing my nature takes time—physically or spiritually. Trust the farmer of your soul.

Exhortations for Today

I’ve been working on some daily exhortations to have auto-sent to myself, with the hope of reminding myself of who I am in relation to my Dad and his son, King Jesus. Here’s a rough version of what I’m thinking about right now:

You, Bill, are a beloved son of God. Your very future has been secured. But that future isn’t here yet. Until then, you’ve been called to be like Jesus—be dying to find life. You live by faith and you die by faith—your faith is so small, even smaller than a mustard seed. Why don’t you believe? Why do you forsake your first love? Why do you forget everything I’ve done for you? So, choose this day whom you will serve. Do not forget my son, your first love. Don’t be lukewarm and be spit out. Instead, turn from your sins and set your eyes on my Son, of whom Aslan reminds you. And remember that your faith looks like this:

·         Love your wife as Christ loved the church and live with her in an understanding

·         Don’t frustrate your kids and drive them to anger

·         Don’t work for your boss—work for me instead

·         I am in the Light of the World, the light that makes you shine in this dark world

·         Remember who you are—and be that

At Least I’m Not the Only One

“Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.” -Martyn Lloyd-Jones

“There is nothing that we are so bad at all our days as prayer.” -Alexander Whyte

“There are times in my life when I would rather die than pray.” -Thomas Shepard

“May I but speak my own Experience, and from that tell you the difficulty of Praying to God as I ought; it is enough to make you poor, blind, carnal men, to entertain strange thoughts of me. For, as for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so reluctant to go to God, and when it is with him, so reluctant to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my Prayers; first to beg God that he would take mine heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. In fact, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray I am so ignorant; only (blessed be Grace) the Spirit helps our infirmities.” -John Bunyan

Not that these quotations excuse my complete suckiness at prayer. But at least I’m not the only one. And these guys are the bee’s knees.
HT: Mark Jones

Afraid to Write

Sometimes I just hate writing. And I love it. But I hate it.

It’s aggravating.

I found myself nodding along with Michael Crichton when he wrote: “If you’re a writer, the assimilation of important experiences almost obliges you to write about them. Writing is how you make the experience your own, how you explore what it means to you, how you come to possess it, and ultimately release it.”

But I just can’t seem to get myself to write most of the time. I use the easy excuse of “I’ve just been really busy and haven’t had time”, but that’s not true. I don’t write because it’s often painful. But it really is the way that I explore the events of my life and possess them and release them (to use Crichton’s terms). And there’s a part of me that feels stuffed with unreleased experiences, because I simply won’t to toil through smashing them out in words.

And maybe it’s because I really hate to just lay it all out there. I’ve been under the vague impression for several years that I’m just a private guy who likes to keep to myself. It’s probably more accurate to say that I’m terrified—and, correspondingly, incredibly insecure. I don’t think I could put a good number on how much of what I do is simply an effort to get affirmation from others. More than half the time? Almost all the time?

I don’t really know, but I know it’s a lot. I remember being shocked in college when in a single semester I was told by at least three people that I was afraid to take risks. I frankly didn’t believe them. I’m not sure a whole lot has changed since then. I’m still scared and I still think I’m not.

So, I’m writing this post (about writing—ha) just to write. Because I need to. I keep putting it off because “I don’t have anything to write about”. Gotta start somewhere…

Lukewarm

My wife and I were having one of those tough conversations Monday night where we really dig deep into the things about our lives that we hate. You know, the stuff we don’t ever won’t to talk about because even acknowledging it feels like too much to bear. No, it’d be better to just let sleeping dogs lie and act like they’ll never wake up.

Well, we woke them up.

I haven’t stopped thinking about that conversation since it happened. Which is probably no big surprise since I process everything internally and usually over long spans of time. And I’ve learned that I process things better in writing than in speech. Annoying sometimes, but true.

The crux of the conversation Monday was that we’re sinking and have been for a long time. Sinking in loneliness. Sinking in worldliness. Sinking in hopelessness. Sinking in selfishness. Sinking in debt. Sinking in To-Dos. Sinking in kids. Just sinking.

As we talked, I kept getting mental flashes or maybe glimpses of Jesus’ words to some of the churches in the revelation given to John. First: “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” The “coincidental” (ha!) background to that thought was earlier in the day when Courtney was recounting all of the amazing things God had done in our lives over the years. Miracles and divine encounters. God reaching into our history. Our oldest was blown away because he didn’t think those things happened anymore, only back in Bible times. And interestingly, since he’s been born they truly seem to have disappeared.

So there it is, laying there. God once did all these things for us. Then we got all analytical and cold, forsaking the love, the energy, the passion we once had. And it’s like he’s still working things together for us (in some clear ways over the years), but more in the background and less tangibly. In some ways it feels like when the Spirit of the LORD departed from King Saul. And that’s not really one of those guys whose path I’d like to follow.

The other passage that stood out: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth… You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

That’s probably the best way to describe my heart: lukewarm. And it’s been that way for so very long and I didn’t even realize it. Not cold and dead, but not hot and fiery and alive either.

Room temperature.

Tepid.

Meh.

Over the past several years, I’ve lived this seemingly obedient life. I’ve done the whole church thing. I married a woman after God’s own heart. I’ve had lots of kids and filled my quiver. I’ve pursued the orphans. I’ve moved my family into a place that most flee. I’ve pursued seminary. I’ve been a pastor. I’ve started a church. I’ve opened my home. I’ve worked hard at a job.

But it’s not been real. Not deep down. And it sounds so horribly cliché to even talk about it. “Going through the motions”. Yeah, that’s it, but so much more devastating than that. Because I’ve dragged a whole clan of people—nine others to be specific—into a blind alley at night, with no way to turn around and darkness on every side. And I’m ready to handle it because I’m armed with what—a smartphone and an empty wallet?

“I’m just not so sure how well this plan was thought through.” Exactly.

So, here I am, eleven years of marriage, six biological kids, two foster/adoptive kids, living out of place in the ‘hood, chasing a pipe dream of a home-based church, working in a cubicle, treading water, riding a stationary bike, chasing the carrot that’s always just out reach.

Does it sound like a mid-life crisis? Probably. I’d really rather put a more biblical name on it: sin. I’ve been chasing who-knows-what for so long that I left my first love behind. And I’ve dragged my family down into the depths with me, like the dad charging ahead dragging his toddler by the wrist.

My only hope here? That Jesus is knocking. Not same lame-o “Jesus just wants to come into your heart and save you” but like he actually said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

Really? He still loves me, even after everything? He really is still there, desiring to come in and feast with me, to share with me everything?

It floors me. And it’s the only hope I can cling to, because I feel like a total wretch. Shoot, I am a total wretch. But not forsaken, not too far gone, not lost. But definitely wandering afield, blind to the dangers around me.

And now? Now I’m praying. And trusting hard that what was true 2,000 years ago is still true now. That he really is there. That if I come near to God, he will come near to me. I’m praying for wisdom and for true repentance, not just words but deep conviction and genuine action from that. And I’m praying that I can actually lead my family toward the Promised Land instead of the barrenness of the wilderness. 

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.”

Is this earnestness? Is this repentance?

God, I hope so. May it be so.

More specific thoughts to come, if the Lord wills…

In the Name of Love

mirror-with-ornate-frameGet ready for Bill’s duh statement of the day: I can’t see myself. Well, I can see parts of me. But not all of me. And looking in mirrors doesn’t help that much because I still see a backwards version of me. That’s why seeing a picture of yourself (or hearing your own voice, for that matter) is such a shocking thing: we don’t look (to ourselves) the way we actually look (to everyone else).

My soul isn’t any different. I know what I think I’m like on the inside. But I don’t “see” myself clearly. Not at all. Thus trying to diagnose and mend my own soul is a dangerous endeavor–a lot like how it goes when I try to cut my own hair by looking in a mirror.

Well, something happens to me from time to time. It would probably happen more often if I asked Dad for it. But I don’t. I’m usually content in my blissful ignorance of my own failings and sins and temptations. Yet Dad doesn’t always wait around for me to ask for his help–sometimes he sees me headed toward the precipice and he steps in because he loves me.

How this time? A prophecy from my wife. And when she prophesies, it’s really just the Spirit kicking me in the spiritual teeth with words of truth that smart like hell all while she doesn’t even know she’s prophesying. (Yes, prophecy from the Spirit still exists. No, it’s not full of bangs and whistles and fireworks–it’s words from one Spirit-filled Christian to another.) It’s a lot like Eustace having his dragon skin removed by Aslan:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy—oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

So, what’s my sin? Idolatry. What idol? Get this: her.

Suck.

wooden-heart-2But I love her. Like, I way love her. I would do anything for her. I would sacrifice myself for her. I would go to the end of the world and back for her.

Ah. Yeah. Now I see it. If you subbed in Jesus for all of the “hers” in the last paragraph, all would be hunky dory. That’s the way it’s supposed to be for the King. But not for my wife. At least, not over and above allegiance to and love for the King.

To be honest, I struggled hard in my heart. The way I loved her was good and right. Wasn’t it? How could my love for her and my devotion to her be bad?

Enter another story (I’m apparently in a CS Lewis mood today) called Till We Have Faces. To give a horribly simplistic and overly generalized summary, it tells the story of how one sister loved her sister in such a way as to nearly destroy her. It’s an astounding book and both times I’ve read it, I was caught off-guard with the turn it took near the end and the overlaying complexity of the protagonist (really, just read it for yourself–I’m explaining it horribly).

But to give the necessary background, most of the book is devoted to the older sister citing her case against the gods for how they have brought misery upon her and upon her sister. And interestingly, I still find this part of the book somewhat bland to read ( I say it’s interesting because her self-blindness–like mine–is lame and kinda boring). But then the turn happens. In the very last part of the book, the older sister finally understands that her case against the gods was really a case against herself; that in the name of love she had displayed, to quote an essay I found, “a tyrannically selfish possessiveness.” What she thought was love for her sister was really deep-seated selfishness. It was self-love. And it turned into hate toward the object of her “love”. (Again, I plead with you, read the book. It’s truly worth the time.)

And so, in a book written decades ago, I find myself. I love my wife so fiercely because I love myself.  I want so badly to believe that I love her selflessly, but I love her for myself. And I expect from her the impossible–to be my hope and my joy and my salvation. There’s no other word for that than “idol”.

And so, I’m laid bare. My skin has been stripped by the Lion. I have no turn left but to turn–to repent.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
(from Psalm 51)