Of Rocks and Stones

by Rick Booye

            They were rocks, just plain old rocks lying in the dirt, all relaxed and laid back. The rain washed them. The sun warmed them. The dust covered them. Life was as they hoped, utterly stressless, utterly useless. The rocks loved it. But it didn’t last.

Rock-life ended the day a man came by and picked a few of them up. His hands dug down around their dirty undersides and pried them out of their comfortable dust. He brushed them off, viewing them from different angles, and took them home.

At first the rocks were quite pleased with all this attention and somewhat excited to belong to a real person. After all, it’s not normal for a rock to be considered valuable enough to belong to a living being (though they secretly think they are quite important).  Certainly, it seemed that their rock-lives had taken an enjoyable turn for the better now that the man had gathered them and made them his.

The journey to their new home was pleasant enough, even if rocks are not accustomed to being carried very much (they prefer to think of themselves as self-motivated).

Once inside the house however, the rocks experienced several new sensations.  First, they were scrubbed thoroughly with water. This offended them since a certain rocky dirtiness had always been admired among them.

Next, their new owner placed them into a large cylindrical steel can. Once inside they felt a cool, thick, gritty liquid poured over them. It squished down between them and filled the cylinder past the half-way mark. Good thing rocks don’t need much air. Then a cap was screwed tight to the top. They felt the whole container tipped on its side as their new owner placed it on a motor-driven roller. He flipped the switch and the motor hummed to life. Over and over it turned the can, slowly, relentlessly. The grit scrapped their skins. They tumbled end over end.

Well, they didn’t enjoy this at all. Rocks don’t like being lumped together in close quarters. They prefer open spaces where they can imagine that they are the only ones that matter. Neither do they appreciate the implication that all rocks are basically alike in most ways, and that none is inherently better than another. Being all bunched together hurt their pride. And they really hated the friction and constant movement. They were all rolling around together, bumping, scraping, rubbing each other’s rough spots. Even when they tried hard not to rub another the wrong way, it seemed the can would turn just so and the friction would sand edges off both of them. All this was quite painful, especially at first. (Many began to think how easy life was when they were just lying around on the ground.)

The process also took a lot of time, which is something rocks usually have plenty of, but in this case they resented.

Finally it ended. The man lifted the cylinder off the motor, unscrewed the cap and tumbled the rocks out of their rolling prison. Interestingly, they had begun to roll together rather smoothly by the end of the ordeal. So many of the rough edges had been removed that the whole experience took on a new dimension. The rugged individuality that had once caused so much trouble was reduced to a very smooth surface, which retained the original shape but allowed movement and cooperation. They had become more than ordinary rocks.

As the owner rinsed them all (this last washing was quite enjoyable) he smiled his approval. They were now stones, polished and beautiful, each unique, yet fitting together perfectly. Each had a luster and depth all its own, reflecting the owner’s light in a different way, bringing a special beauty to his home. And yet, together they seemed to be more beautiful than as individuals. There was a harmony of the colors and shapes, a glorious blending of the uniquenesses.

All the former roughness was forgotten now. The stones enjoyed touching each other and belonging to their owner. They began to realize that somehow in the polisher there had been a profound change in their basic essence, something much deeper than the shine alone. They had begun to live … like Him.

Looking back now the stones view it all from a new perspective. They had never realized how dead and alone they were before the Master picked them up. Somehow, they had convinced themselves that they were not in need of polishing or change or any other life than the one they were “born” with. But now they knew the truth, that there is a life infinitely beyond the ability of a rock to understand.

They also understand that the process of grinding, scraping, and polishing was purposeful, effective. At the time it seemed inefficient and needlessly painful. All they wanted was to get out of the can and on with the program. But the can was the program.  The shine they needed was developed in the process they hated. Far from being a waste of time, the despised polisher was miraculously effective in transforming the character of the stones, which turned out to be the real project all along.

They saw now how much they needed each other. Before, as they lay in the dirt, smudged and smug in their rocky individuality, they were completely unaware of their potential as a group. Closeness and cooperation were of no value. Unity (the kind they had now) was unheard of, unimaginable. But now they couldn’t imagine being utterly alone again. Their unity was their greatest advantage. They were so much more complete together, so much more luminous and glorious belonging to each other than they could ever have hoped to be on their own.

So it was all worth it. What had appeared easy and fun had turned out to be difficult and painful. But then, what had appeared useless and destructive turned out to be transforming and rewarding. The Person had used everything to benefit His stones and they were glad of it, all of it. And His purposes for them in the future? Who knows? Anyone wise enough to turn dead rocks into living gems can be counted on to think of something.  (I Peter 2:4-5, Rom.8:28-30, Eph.4:1-6).

Topiary

Frankly, I’m tired of books about the church. With some exceptions, they are impatient critiques. And for a working pastor, though they have some salient points, as a steady diet they become deeply wearying. The church is never “missional” enough, “radical” enough, “spiritually disciplined” enough, “relevant” enough, “creedal” enough, “Reformed” enough, “doing justice enough,” or “growing” enough. But none of this is news to any experienced pastor who is trying to nourish the Lord’s sheep, most of whom are just surviving amid cancer, divorce, bankruptcy and temptation. I have discovered that an obsession with the failures of the church instead of the victory of Christ will not help the church in the ways some sociologists imagine. Plus, it’s depressing and unbiblical.

All this critique tempts pastors to try to shape the church to appear more like what they think the latest emphasis is, and be anxious when their church is not impressive in these ways. This shaping has to do with pleasing often imaginary pastoral peers, the authors of the books that line the shelves. But the church is not our project, or at least not primarily ours. It is Christ’s church. He trims it for fruit, not for looks.

Topiary is the science and art of trimming bushes or trees to look like various “non-bush” things—like Mickey Mouse for instance. You see a lot of it at Disney Land. It takes considerable skill and is quite impressive when done right. The problem with topiary is that the actual fruit of the bush or tree is an obstacle to the beautification project. When I worked as a grounds keeper I remember spraying giant olive trees so they would not bear olives because the olives were messy. I think much pastoral literature coerces us into being grounds keepers instead of farmers.

One thing I have learned is that, though I must keep learning even from critiques, the church is not Disney Land. It is a working farm, with all the mess and inefficiency that a working farm experiences. Pastoring is not marketing, manufacturing, or topiary. It is not glamorous or flattering. Farming is hard, seasonal, long-term, humble work with lots of set-backs, dependent on many forces outside our control (weather, God’s providence), and focused on fruit, not impressiveness. There is virtue in patience, as every farmer knows (James 5:7).

 

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Humility and Anxiety

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

 1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV)

At first glance humility and anxiety do not seem connected. They feel like two different categories of our thought life. What would one have to do with the other? In fact, most people only memorize the second section of this passage, the one about casting our anxiety on the Lord because he cares for us. This of course it the right thing and perfectly true. Yet Peter bases his exhortation to release our worries to God on the foundation of our humbling ourselves under his mighty hand. Some translations obscure the connection by making the second clause its own sentence, as if Peter were saying two different things, one about humility and another about anxiety. But the Greek sentence makes the second exhortation a continuation of the first. Which means that humbling ourselves under God’s personal sovereign providence actually sources the peace that replaces the anxiety.

What Peter is saying in this passage then, is that we can rest in the providence of God, but not if we insist that we know how everything ought to turn out. That’s the problem. We try to rest in God’s providence without letting go of our own sovereignty over the outcome. That insistence on our own wisdom regarding the issues that pertain to us is the essence of our pride, which in turn is the source of our anxiety, because we manifestly do not have control over our lives the way we like to think we do. So, humility reduces anxiety by undermining the very American idea that we are entirely in charge of our own future and that we must make it a good one. Or to put it another way; anxiety grows in the soil of our pride as we plan how our lives, families, careers, ministries and futures ought to go (see Jas.4:13-17).

So, part of trusting God’s providence is letting go of the idea that our plan is the only one or the best one. This is humility because it keeps us in mind of our responsibility to live as wisely as we can, yet rests in the fact that we are not the gods of our own lives and that our wisdom is not the ultimate answer to anything. And self-humbling under God’s providence is a safe thing to do because the Lord actually cares for us. It doesn’t always feel like it, though. Which is why Peter emphasizes it. Faith in Christ means knowing that he loves us so much that he died for us, then wrestled sin and death … to death … on our behalf. That being the case, one of the prime entailments of real faith in Christ is trusting that the Lord cares for us and loves us even when our feelings and circumstances do not seem to bear this out.

It stings a bit to realize that our most painful anxieties may find their origins in our own fallen pride. We have a settled conviction (cultivated in fact by our culture) that we always know what’s best for us, and that what’s best for us is a life of ease, success, happiness at all levels, and upward mobility at all times. Our latent moralism tends to give us the intuition that if we are good little boys and girls, God will certainly let us have “our best life now.” But a life of unbroken comfort and ease never produces the character we know we want or the faith we really need. Faith and character only grow by being stretched to the breaking point from time to time. That breaking point can feel like the opposite of faith to us, but our feelings are not reliable guides to spiritual growth. In reality, when faith feels like it’s being stretched too far it is actually being exercised in order to become stronger (Jas.1:2-4; Rom.5:3-6). This is why the Lord often answers our prayers by not giving us what we ask for in the timing we ask for it. Not only does he know what we really need, but the stress of having to trust him without knowing that he’s up to is precisely the growth of faith that we asked him for in the first place.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Discouragement in Prayer

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

 This is the opening of Jesus’ famous parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge. The parable itself is a fascinating piece of teaching by Jesus, but I would like to ask a question that arises before he even gets into the story. Why does Jesus teach a parable specifically to encourage persistence in prayer? The counterintuitive answer is that he gives this teaching because discouragement is the most normal experience in the life of prayer. The Greek word translated “lose heart” here means to be deflated, weary, tired, despairing, in a mood to quit. That describes most Christians sometimes and some Christians all the time. Oddly, what Jesus is basically saying is that prayer, by its very nature in this age, will be at times a very frustrating exercise. Why is it this way? Let me offer at least three possible reasons.

 

First, answers to prayer do not usually come quickly enough to keep our attention. Many divine responses come long after we have given up praying for the thing! Our gnat-like attention spans lose track of the request long before the answer arrives and so we are not impressed. On top of that many of us are closet skeptics anyway, and so are prepared to interpret events as coincidences or accidents unless they happen immediately.

 

Second, answers to prayer rarely present as “miracles.” The Lord isn’t in the entertainment business and much of his work slides under our sensory radar unless we calibrate our awareness to look for him. Also, we expect a certain sort of answer and he often solves the problem in a completely unexpected and unimpressive way. When this happens it doesn’t occur to us that he did the thing, because it wasn’t quite the thing we requested.

 

Third, time itself is a crucial element in all that God does in this fallen era. Speed does not improve God’s work, either in our hearts or in our circumstances. Any cook knows that time in the oven is just as crucial as any other ingredient in the recipe. Especially relational issues are this way; friendships, romances, business partnerships, anything that relies on humans to know and trust each other, will take time—usually more of it than we want to invest. This is why the Psalms are filled with exhortations to wait on the Lord.

 

All three of these issues conspire to discourage us in prayer. So, the Lord says we must not give up. A rule of thumb that I use is that if I am severely tempted to give up praying for something important, that’s the time to specifically stay at it. It’s good to know that being discouraged is a normal part of being a prayer partner in any meaningful aspect of God’s work.

 

So, let us pray …

 

Christian Prayer

In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

John 16:26-27

New Covenant prayer is arguably the single greatest practical privilege we have as Christians. Jesus is basically telling his friends that soon they will be able to pray the same way he does—directly to God as their Father based on a personal covenant love relationship that cannot fail. This is a distinctly new sort of experience he bestows on his disciples, or he wouldn’t have been as excited about it as he was. He is far more enthused about our potential prayer life than we are (Lk.11:1-13; 18:1-8; Jn.15:16; 16:23-24).  Note four things he says in this passage about Christian prayer:

First, prayer is in his name. That makes it in some mysterious and powerful way an improvement over prayer offered under the Old Covenant. A Christian is metaphysically joined to the authority and identity of Christ, the Messiah, God’s own Son (the name), by simple faith (“believing that I came from God”).  And because we are under his grace and authority we come into the Father’s presence in a relationship to him unknown prior to Christ (Rom.8:14-17; Heb.4:14-16). Before the gospel, before the work of the cross, this was not available. Jesus (shockingly) said that among the OT believers there was nobody greater than John the Baptist (A very radical thought in light of all the great names in the Old Testament!). And yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater (in a better position) than John (Lk.7:28). He must be referring to the work of regeneration and justification that comes in Christ to the simplest Christian, and with that New Covenant work—the right to pray like the Son of God himself. Wow!

Second, we call God “Father” when we talk to him, just like Jesus did. This was not done prior to Christ and was in fact one of the outstanding characteristics of his own prayer life. It is not found in any other religion and not available through any other message than the gospel of Christ. This means that what passes for “prayer” in much of the world, because it is emphatically not in the name of Christ, is not anything like what goes on in the smallest gathering of the most humble Christians. Wow!

Third, the Father hears us directly and personally, just like he heard Jesus. Jesus says that he will not ask the Father on our behalf, but our prayers are heard immediately by God himself. This means, among other things, that we don’t need other angelic or saintly “mediators” to “get God’s ear” for us (1 Tim.2:5; Heb.4:14-16). This does not mean that Christ does not speak to the Father about us. He does (Heb.7:25; 1 Jn.2:1-2). But it does mean that our access to the Father is, like Jesus’ access, instant, constant, secure, personal, and effective through the Holy Spirit (Rom.8:26). Wow!

Fourth, the Father hears our prayers because he loves us. Because we love Jesus, the Father loves us like he loves his own son. Consider the fact that God loves you as much as he loves Christ Jesus himself. In fact, he gave his son up to die for us so that he could have us in his family forever (Rom.8:31-32). Most of us simply do not believe this, and because we don’t believe it we feel less confident than we should about our prayers. Wow!

So, Christian prayer is a unique and powerful right. It is not like pagan prayer, Old Covenant prayer, New Age prayer, non-Christian religious prayer, or mystical meditation on the numinous. It is personal, perpetual, open communication with the God of the universe as our Father. Let us pray.

Pastor Rick

Should We Try To Forgive Ourselves?

A Pastoral Response

Rick Booye, Sr. Pastor, Trail Christian Fellowship

 

Greetings Pastor Rick,

 A few weeks ago you made a statement that got me thinking. Maybe I misunderstood it. You said that we cannot forgive ourselves; we don’t have the power to do that. I get that I can’t forgive my sins like Jesus does, or that I am not able to forgive others sins, that this is Gods job not mine. But I do think I can forgive people for hurts they have caused me, and I can forgive myself for hurts I have caused myself. This type of forgiveness is not the same as what God does obviously. Am I wrong, did I miss-understand what you said? 

 That’s a great question, 

First, about “forgiving ourselves.” We may be just talking semantics here, or I could have miss-stated what I meant. I completely agree with you that we are able (and required in fact) to forgive others for the hurts they have caused us (I assume this means real sins against us, not just hurt feelings, though that too requires grace from us). This is completely biblical. But the idea that I need to forgive myself for the hurts (sins?) I have caused myself is a bit opaque to me. I guess that if all I’m talking about is the “hurts” I have done to me, then the Me that is offended can say “I forgive me.” Maybe that’s a way of getting through our internal stuff. It might be a helpful process. But if the “hurts” are real sins, real crimes in God’s court, then Someone greater than me needs to do the forgiving or it won’t work. The Bible is utterly silent on people “forgiving themselves,” which strikes me as odd in light of the heavy emphasis many Christians place on the concept. I think we mean by that phrase that we should take seriously the fact that the Lord has forgiven us, appropriate it personally and live in the reality of it. If that is our intent then I have no objection to the phrase at all. But I wonder if that is what we mean.

 What I was trying to address in my statement is the fact that many Christians don’t reach a sense of true peace about their forgiven sins, and they suppose that it is because they have not “forgiven themselves.” My suggestion is that that is the wrong way to put it. I would say that they haven’t really trusted the Lord to forgive them in a tangible way. My reason is that the Self is not the agent of forgiveness because the Self doesn’t have the authority to forgive in the first place. Which is in fact precisely why these folks can’t seem to find the peace of God in the situation—they’re seeking the peace from within themselves (a very western and American idea, and utterly absent from the biblical worldview). They seem to attribute more authority (and far more attention) to their own feelings about themselves than they do to what the Lord thinks about them. I suspect this is because in our culture for about the last 100 or so years we have gradually come to believe that what we think about ourselves (or anything else for that matter) is the ultimate arbiter of reality on the subject. But this is not true. What God thinks about us is infinitely more important and making that adjustment in our thinking is crucial to living in the grace of Christ. The Self is not Lord, Christ is Lord. What I’m wanting Christians to realize is that if Christ Jesus forgives them, then they should take is word for it rather than try to do it themselves. When they feel “unforgiven” (as happens often in cases of real sin) what they need to do is continually remind themselves of the gospel, that they are not at the mercy of their conscience but at the mercy of Christ (1 Jn.2:1-2; 3:19-20). And the cross of Christ has really, truly, eternally, completely wiped away their blame for the evil they committed. I think this is part of “taking every thought captive to obedience to Christ” (2 Cor.10:3-5).

 It seems to me that Paul alludes to something like this in 1 Cor.4:3-5. There he says, “…But it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself [un-confessed sin], but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

 The key phrases in this passage for our thoughts here are, “I am not by that acquitted,” and In fact, I don’t even judge myself.” Paul was criticized by people for being a bad steward of the ministry. His response to this is at least two-fold. First, he says that he is not aware of any unconfessed sin in his life, but that his clear conscience is not what acquits him of guilt. In other words, it is not his sense of being clean that makes him really clean. This is an astounding statement when you think about it. He consults his conscience obviously, but he does not let it stand as the agent of forgiveness or guilt. The second thing he says is that not only did he not care that much what his critics thought—he didn’t care that much for what he himself thought of his work. Instead he only cared what the Lord thinks and he recommends letting all judgment rest there. It seems to me that, based on this statement regarding his faithfulness in ministry, Paul would have thought it strange that on the much more important issue of forgiveness of sins, he should rely on his own ability to forgive himself in order to come to peace.

 I think what happens for many of us is that we unconsciously make a distinction between our theoretical and general “forgiveness of sins” and our daily, oh so specific, sense of shame and guilt. We subscribe theologically to the lofty doctrine of “forgiveness,” but we don’t let it actually penetrate our feelings about the way we have failed today in the myriad small sins we all are aware of. For those daily pangs and heartaches we take the over-the-counter advice of our world and try to “forgive ourselves.” But I’m encouraging Christians to apply the blood of Christ to those small issues as well as to the big ones. Jesus washed the dust off his disciples’ feet even after they had “bathed” in his eternal grace (Jn.13:10).

 Hope this clarifies a bit.

 Grace and peace,

 Pastor Rick

 

Thoughts on Christian Art

Rick Booye

Art is creative material use of the imagination.  That is, it is the extension into material reality of human thought in the form of music, sculpture, design, drawing/painting and so forth.  It takes abstract ideas of beauty and form and materializes them for others to view, hear, enjoy, critique, absorb and consider.  Art comes from the imagination, which is the God-given capacity to visualize something before it takes material shape or form.  Only two beings in the universe make art: God (his art is called creation) and His primary artistic expression—humans. (Yes, humans are works of art, God’s art). No other creatures (including angels as far as we can tell) make art.  Art among humans is an amazing evidence for God’s existence.  It is a pointer to a sort of creativity that is inexplicable apart from the existence of a creative God.

Critiquing art is crucial to its usefulness because good art not only conveys beauty, but also incites meaningful thought, which in turn almost always creates some controversy.  That is not so say that “controversial art” is always good, but that good art makes people think about important things; and people often disagree about the most important things.

Art conveys and/or challenges worldviews, too.  Like fiction writing, art of all kinds has a subtext, a meaning intended or assumed by the artist.  This is true even of art that conveys a sense of random meaninglessness, lacking classic beauty or symmetry.  Abstract art is a statement of worldview, often of despair.  But that itself is a philosophical (existentialist or nihilist) worldview.  On the other end of the spectrum, who can take in Thomas Kinkaid’s work without sensing the deep peace, tranquility and intuitive creational beauty that seem to be the subtext of his work?  We know now that Kinkaid’s personal life was not as tranquil as his paintings, yet the yearning for warmth and meaning remains, does it not?  His pieces are not usually overtly Christian in the classic sacred genre (though he does put a lot of churches in his scenes), yet they convey a warmth that strikes an intuitive chord, a chord that sounds like the universe should make sense, should be safe.  That intuition is crucial to the Christian worldview because that is God’s final plan for the redeemed universe.  Art critics slam Kinkaid for his sentimental feel, but people want to know something good is happening somewhere, even if not in their own life at the moment.

This worldview aspect of art is why Christian art should not be limited to classic, explicit portrayals of Christian themes such as pictures of Jesus, the disciples and so on.  These are fine in their own way, but Christians should also be producing art that, while not explicitly “sacred” in its overt structure, is nevertheless prompting thought that might do one of two things: 1) subvert the reigning worldview (be it spiritistic or naturalistic); 2) advance a biblical worldview, one that shows deeper meaning, touching material reality with a transcendent reality, conveying love, compassion, forgiveness, grace and so on.  Art that makes people question naturalism or think about creation or beauty from a theistic worldview may not look Christian (read “churchy”) on the surface, but it communicates at an intuitive level, tilling the emotional soil and creating an environment where gospel reality might penetrate.

For example, I read not long ago (but I can’t remember where) that there is a powerful purveyor of the Christian worldview (note: not always the gospel itself, but the worldview that assumes the truth of the gospel) in American culture not found in church or Christian publications.  It is Country Music. That’s right, Country Music.  There are a lot of Christians in that industry, yes, but whether the artist is a Christian or not, the basic underlying worldview in almost all Country music, the assumed priority and meaning structure, the shape of the morality (or immorality), the understanding of good and bad, virtue and vice, is grounded in a Christian worldview.  Country music artists do not write existentialist, nihilist, spiritist, or postmodern lyrics.  Blues writers may; Jazz writers may; and Head Bangers, Alternatives and Rock and Roll artists often do—but not Country singers.  Even when the music is sad, corny, funny, angry, or immoral, the basic ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice that underlie the lyrics are all informed by the existence of a real God, the biblical God.  Furthermore, the vice/virtue tensions in the music always reflect biblical ethics, even when the singer is siding with the vice in question (alcoholism and philandering are favorites).

So art communicates at the intuitive level.  In a world desperate for better intuitions than those on offer from naturalism (we’re grown up germs, accidental blips on the vast, dark, lifeless screen of the universe), any art that prompts hope will be welcome.  Christians who do art for the purpose of revealing God’s thoughts about his universe, and specifically his own work of art—humanity—have their work cut out for them.  And we need more of them.  Tim Keller highlights the need for musicians:

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. “Imagination communicates,” as Arthur Danto says, “indefinable but inescapable truth.” Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”[1]

What Keller points out about music is true of all art forms.  Good art presupposes (unconsciously?) a Christian worldview, that is a worldview in which beauty, virtue, love, and relationship have ultimate value.  Danto’s insight about “indefinable but inescapable truth” is on point.  Christian artists can help people define the inescapable truth of God’s presence by focusing the imagination and the intuition of their audiences on something other than the Self.  This subverts the nihilism of our pluralistic culture, while presenting to the heart the only alternative that offers real hope—the Lord, the Ultimate Artist.