Waiting for the Flip

As seems to happen a lot, Seth Godin got my brain juices pumping with a post about the way people flip from one way of doing things to another. In particular, he’s talking about how resistant we are as humans to better knowledge or technology or solutions, even in the face of evidence that refutes our prevailing view.

At this point, I feel like I’m somewhere around eight years into waiting for that flip to occur with the church. I’ve been trying to illustrate and teach and demonstrate that the church of Jesus is supposed to be something both far more profound and far simpler than what goes along with the term “church” in America: buildings and paid pastors and staff and screens and bands and worship wars and big budgets and overhead and bureaucracy and merchandising and marketing.

The church is the bride for whom Christ died. And that ought to be powerful enough that we don’t need to add to it. The church is the assembled saints who belong to King Jesus, both now and throughout all time.

Yet there’s been a strong tradition of architecture and budgets and business-y elements that really have no place in Scripture. And while they don’t need to be bad things (there are lots of things in the modern world that we use and adopt freely that the Bible says nothing directly about), they frequently turn the church into some grotesque caricature of what Jesus intends for it to be.

Whether that persuades or not isn’t really my point (I’ve written about this kind of stuff elsewhere anyhoos). I’m still convinced that this message is right. Yet I feel so isolated waiting for the flip to happen, for others to see what I’m talking about. And I feel desperate for it. Why?

Because it makes me feel like I’m either crazy or wrong.

If I’m wrong, then I simply want to be shown from the Scriptures and I’ll move on. Show me how I’m off my rocker and bring me back onto the reservation.

So far, it hasn’t happened.

Yet, I’m also not making much progress toward the flip. I’m loving me some Francis Chan for popularly putting into words some of these same struggles (though, granted, I’ve never made any substantial money from books or had a successful megachurch under my belt!). Even with all the platform he has, it still doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. And this is a flip I banked my whole family on, moving us into a new city with grand plans for changing the face of Christianity in America.

Not that I would’ve ever said that out loud, but that’s really the crux of it.

So here I am, waiting. And wondering if maybe I’m just wrong, if I’m looking for a flip that’ll never come. And sometimes I just want to quit–even if I am right!–because this waiting feels too hard and the goals which were once crunchy like Frosted Flakes are now soggy in the bottom of the cereal bowl.

I believe the flip needs to happen. Some days I believe it will. I’m just not sure I’m strong enough to wait it out.

(And yes, I fully acknowledge that God regularly had his people wait much longer than that to bring about deliverance or put a plan in motion. I know I’m being dumb and dramatic–I’m just trying to do it openly.)

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Adopting Loneliness

I really ought to say this up front: if you love Jesus, you really need (yes, need) to read The Babylon Bee regularly. They’re like The Onion, but centered around Jesus. It’s satire the way satire is supposed to be: both funny and painful. And they’re equal opportunity cutters, but they do it from the perspective that the Bible is a true story and Jesus is the only hero of that story. Seriously, check it out. Now on to our regularly schedule programming…

I write a post like this with some trepidation. And for a guy who tends to have writings that are “weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing”, that’s saying something. But The Babylon Bee had a satirical post called “Report: 95% Of Christians Agree The Other 5% Should Keep Adopting” and it obviously caught my attention. Here’s the infographic from the fake report:

adoption-chart-696x394

Of course, I’m a big ol’ sinner because I read it and responded like I overheard a killer “Yo Momma” joke in the schoolyard. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh–SLAM!!!” I might’ve even said it out loud. Like I was back in elementary school.

Because being an adoptive family now, we’re clearly in a position to judge the crap out of everyone that hasn’t done it. Isn’t that how it works with adoptive families and ministers and missionaries? We’re the chosen few who get the God-given privilege of looking down on everyone else.

And so my first thought after reading the post was, “Dude, I totally need to put that on social media. That’ll stick it to the non-adopters!” But once the dust from explosive, self-righteous pride settled, I didn’t. Instead, I left the post untouched, because at the end of the day, I really don’t want to be inflammatory. Nor do I want anyone to know how self-righteous I really am.

But a few months later, here I am posting it anyway. And I truly hope and literally pray as I type that it’s not to guilt trip, but to bring up something that most of us adoptive families dance around. My wife has already talked about it some, but I want to expand a bit. Here’s my thesis: adoption is really hard, but one of the reasons it’s so hard is because so few of us are doing it.

For instance, marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Being a light in a dark world is hard. But in each of these things, they’re common experiences. So, they’re hard–but we have a community and shared stories built around it. I can share a struggle or you can tell the difficulties you’ve faced, and we all go, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”

But with adoption, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, we share our struggles and difficulties, and we get one of three responses: horror (“How could anyone ever feel that way about a child!?”), pity (“I can’t even imagine how hard that is!”), or awe (“It is so incredible that you all have adopted kids from hard places–you’re true heroes!”). The first just hurts, the second is nice but ultimately not very helpful, and the third feels really cool but does nothing but enforce my personal Superman complex. But more importantly, all three responses have a distance, an otherness to them.

The fact is, it’s hard to adopt because it’s so incredibly lonely. Our church–the people who are closest to us in our mess–fight for us in every way they can, but it’s still from the outside. And I don’t mean that as a critique, but as a statement of reality. And they’ve listened as we’ve tried to explain the ugliest parts and excruciating struggles, coming as close as anyone in our lives to truly understanding our struggles. So I don’t write this as a critique of them, because they are in it with us in every way they can be.

But they’re the exceptions. Most of our brothers and sisters in Jesus can’t figure out what to do with us or other adoptive families. And that’s a lonely place to be. As I sit here and think about it, I’m sure that’s what overseas missionary families or pastors’ kids or adult singles or divorced believers all deal with. The otherness and loneliness of experience is just plain hard to shake.

Then I circle back to the article I linked to at the beginning of the post. Because I also get angry. Unlike the overseas missionaries or pastors’ kids or singles or divorcees, caring for the fatherless is something every believer is actively called to. So in my worst moments (or maybe my best), I’m angry because we ought not be alone. Caring for the fatherless isn’t some new, hot trend. That’s an oldie.

What would it be like if 50% of Christian families adopted? 60%? 75%? How many of the fatherless would have fathers? How much community would be built? Would adoption finally tip from weirdness to commonality? What would it be like for a confessed struggle to turn from “Oh, really?” to “Yes, me, too!”?

On our parenting blog, we’ve not hidden the struggles. We’ve not done the pretty thing and given the impression that the best thing we’ve ever done for our family was adopt. I still don’t think I can say that. But that doesn’t mean I think we made a mistake. The call to come and die sounds painful, because it is painful. We’ve had to die and die and die again, day after day, to graft four wild branches into our tree. The lessons and parallels to my own adoption in God’s family are myriad, deeper and richer than I would ever have imagined. The rebellion toward the good will of my new father, the desire for the old way of life, the memories of brokenness and ruin–adopting kids has re-colored my own adoption.

I just wish you knew that, too, the glory and gory. I wish we weren’t so alone.

Pushing Through

I don’t remember when it started, but “pushing through” has become almost a life motto somewhere in the parts of my brain I tend not to examine even though I follow their incessant advice. Life’s hard? Push through. Tired? Push through. Not sure what to do next? Just push through.

But I gotta admit it’s flat out tiring. Always pushing means constant effort, if not necessarily always constant movement. Where’s the rest in always moving forward? When’s the time to slow down? And the trouble with slowing down is that it might just mean you miss something.

So the real question comes down to a matter of risk: Which one’s riskier–plowing ahead on fumes or pulling off at the next exit to fill up but missing the event?

I’m really not one for dwelling on missed opportunities. I have too many and I’d rather not think about them than to possibly drown in a sea of self-doubt. But even in admitting that, there’s a part of me that always wonders if I’m about to miss the real thing coming my way. I’m not sure what this ephemeral “real thing” is, but I’m sure it’s a thing and I’m sure it’s really out there somewhere, beneath the pale blue sky.

I serve a Savior who ministered on the Way, taught on the Way, lived on the Way. His pace of life exhausts me. And I’m never sure whether I should chalk that up to “he’s Jesus and I’m not” or “time to be like my big brother.” Either way, I know that movement is as certain as the earth making another revolution each day. So the movement isn’t bad.

The problem comes when I’m pushing through to get to the endgame, ignoring everything on the way. Shoot, even at the end when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he still stopped along the way to heal and to teach his disciples. His destination never got confused with his passage–both were important and he didn’t neglect either.

I, on the other hand, push through Now to get to Then. Even taking the time to write this almost feels torturous because I feel like I need to do something more, like I’m not driving toward a goal. I’m just writing and it’s as meander-y as this blog’s namesake. I forget that King Jesus could meander like nobody’s business. A sharp turn into random never seemed to bother him. He could meander with purpose. Or perhaps he could aim with freedom.

I’m just afraid I’m not brave enough to follow in those particular footsteps.

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