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The lie behind my “yeah, but” spirituality

What attitude do I bring to the Scriptures when I read them? Is there an attentiveness to what is written? Is there an expectation to hear from God? Is there a readiness to obey?

Obedience is at the heart of faithfulness. If God is King and I’m not, then how can I do other than obey him?

not_so_sure_about_that.jpgBut I see in myself and hear from others a “yeah, but” spirituality, where we agree with God to a point but then put the brakes on our obedience.

I don’t mean that we should read a story like that of Jephthah (Judges 11, particularly 11:29-40) and make rash vows to God that cost the lives of our children. Rather, we ought to read stories like that and make well-considered vows to God that we follow through on as tenaciously as he did. The story is painful as a cautionary tale in its reminder of how good people can make stupid choices. But it is also a reminder of how seriously those who came before us have taken the kingship of God.

Each day, I need to hear the Scriptures and ask questions that lead to obedience.

For instance:

What does it look like for me to honor my father and mother (Ex. 20:12) without qualifying it with a “yeah, but” that keeps me from doing it?

What does it look like for me to love my wife the way Christ loved the church and give myself up for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-28) with no “yeah, but she said this and didn’t do that.”

What does it look like for me to hear Col. 3:23-24 as I do my job? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

What does it look like for me to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Then. 5:16-18)? And how do I do this in a culture that teaches me to complain, to reject suffering, to spend time on my iPhone instead of praying, and to always want more for myself? How do I “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4)? I really want to say, “Yeah, but they’re not looking out for my interests!”

I am full of yeah-buts. They take the substance out of my Bible reading and my obedience to Christ. But what’s even worse is I project a “yeah, but” hesitancy on God as well.

Even though the heart of the Gospel is Jesus in the Garden telling his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 2:42), before obediently going to the cross, I have to admit that I often treat God as if he’s holding back, as if he’s holding out on me. Even though the Scriptures are together the story of God’s full attention on redeeming humanity, I treat God as if he’s not generous, not faithful, not intent on blessing me.

Even though “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), I expect of God: “I would reward him, but …”

I don’t actually say these things to God. But the way I live betrays a belief that God is holding out on me, that each “yeah, but” to him from me is matched my a “yeah, but” from him to me.

I need to live 2 Cor. 1:20 —

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

I need to hear God’s overwhelming YES in Jesus and respond with a full-bodied YES of my own.

When I do so, my obedience will be that of a dearly loved child to his open-hearted Father. It will be the obedience of richly rewarded servant to his generous Master. It will be the obedience of well-taught disciple to his wise Teacher.

There is no hesitancy in God toward me. May there be none in me toward him either.

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3 practices for walking through grief

When my sister was killed by a drunk driver, we were crushed. We were not unique in our pain — many suffer similar sorrows — but we suffered out pain uniquely, as all do.

But I didn’t want to be alone in my grief and I wanted to experience it fully. No numbing. I wanted to get to the bottom of my sorrow, and the only way I knew to do so was through community and through prayer.

Practice 1 — spending time with good authors. I started with the quiet companionship of several trusted authors. Reading their books was a balm. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartetsand Frederich Buechner’s The Alphabet of GraceScreen Shot 2016-06-02 at 8.18.28 PM are all short and difficult books, but I read them not so much for their content, but to spend time in company with the authors.

Practice 2 — spending time with good friends. Then there were my praying companions. I met weekly with my friend Thierry Bourgeois for friendship and for prayer, meeting often in the art gallery at Regent College. For the next year, he and Geordie Ziegler walked with me through the many shades of grief. I can never repay the debt of friendship I experienced because of those prayer times together.

Practice 3 — spending time with a good prayer. The third thing I did was to say kaddish, the kaddish being a Jewish mourner’s prayer. Not being aware of any specifically Christian mourner’s prayer, I gladly reached for the Jewish one which I’d been introduced to in a book by Chaim Potok.

The kaddish is a surprising prayer. It doesn’t coddle the mourner. In fact, it doesn’t offer any direct consolation at all. Rather, it is a prayer of the greatness of the eternal God. In the face of death, it stands firmly on the forever and ever nature of God. In the face of pain, it asserts boldly the goodness and rightness of the Lord of all.

It is utterly serious. There is an unwavering statement of faith in the midst of circumstances that make hearts quail. Having prayed it, I have an inkling of the faith of religious Jews and how it kept them sane during the insanity of the Holocaust. This prayer never left them, for death never left them. And neither did the God who seemed so far away and so helpless at the time.

That’s what I needed.

What I didn’t need were the be-nice-and-greet-someone times during worship on Sundays. When I sat in worship, either singing or hearing the Scriptures read, I wanted to undam my tears. Gathered with God’s people in worship is when I feel most complete, most who I really am — it’s when I feel the most. And the happy handshakes at our church kept me bottled up (which is why, years later as a pastor, I offered to those who were grieving the relative solitude of one of the church’s two balconies). But saying kaddish was a daily uncorking of the bottle and an opening of the hands to the Glorious One who gives and takes away.

Having written that, I have to admit that it’s a fairly dry prayer. It is no great emotional outpouring like we have in many places in the Psalms (themselves an essential companion during grief). And yet, that is part of its richness. It doesn’t depend on our emotions, but on the greatness and goodness of the King of the universe.

Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.(Amen.)

Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will. May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Messiah. (Amen.)

In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.

(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity, blessed.)

May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (Amen.)

Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world; and say, Amen. (Amen.)

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (Amen.)

He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (Amen.)