The Journey Towards a Better Death (and life)

architect-architecture-black-and-white-1537008The better game is one we all play even though it never promises a return.

We pay for the next better, move cities to find the next better, cheat on a spouse to experience the next better. There really is no end in the quest to find this psychological sasquatch.

One of the ways it has shown up in my life over the years is with church and employment.

Southerners are especially skilled in playing the better game with churches. The perfect one is out there. I’m going to find it. The one where the pastor preaches a strong, theologically rich sermon with hilarious stories, poignant illustrations, priceless application and all in 30 minutes or less, like an episode of that new Netflix show, F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

In my mind, there was always a better preacher. A better worship experience. A better atmosphere. There had to be. This could not be the pinnacle of church.

And I carried that same mentality and quest for better into my graduate education and professional career.

So by 2013, after 7 years of marriage, we’d moved 11 times (a couple of which were in the same city to a different living situation, but my wife still counts those as moves). Granted, at least I didn’t say I was feeling “called” to Nowheresville. We set up camp in Savannah, Los Angeles, St. Louis–all great cities.

My graduate transcript was a registrar’s worst nightmare. It probably looked more like a word search than a transcript.

After all my searching and gypsy-like moving, where did we end up? Daggum Bluff City, TN. You have to say daggum in a sentence with Bluff City.

That’s a very generous use of the word City, by the way.

But there I was. There we were.

I went from megachurch to megachurch in search of better and ended up being most satisfied pastorally and professionally working in this little, out of the way church and at a Christian school.

At Bunker Hill Christian, there was nobody waiting to be wowed. They wanted to be loved. I didn’t hit a home run with that one, but I grew. Oh so slowly. But they were kind, patient, and gracious.

That season was refining in the sense that it exposed the prideful dross that covered every inch of me. That pride kept me from living a Hebrews 11 life. It would keep from dying a Hebrews 11 death.

Even when I thought I was seeking first God’s kingdom, I was very much at home here. I was an earthly citizen through and through, ALL about the tangible, measurable, and quantifiable.

From childhood to adulthood, the next achievement, next girl, next church, next city, the next better was supposed to make me feel like I’d arrived.

My grand realization? Fundamentally, these were all things I could manipulate. All I had to do was say, Well, God’s calling me to California. Calling me to St. Louis. Calling me to break up with you (best.line.ever).

It doesn’t take faith to manipulate. It takes faith to live and move toward that which you do not control.

Hebrews 11 again

10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

There’s only one truly better city, better scenario, better whatever. The city of God.

There is a future that will only be fashioned by faithfulness in the moment. The Architect has the plans drawn up. But He is also the Builder. So what’s our part?

It may sound like this conclusion to Hebrews 11

32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. 39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

What better epithet could you ask for than verse 38?

    The world was not worthy of them

Only a person who has lived for a better world will have that said of them.

But like the folks in the text, I can’t sit idly by and dream of the better place.

So, a word to the dreamer like me who can’t get no satisfaction.

Pastor Darrin in Pooler, GA said something one Sunday while we were visiting. I can’t shake it. Keep your eyes fixed on heaven, but get your head out of the clouds, he said. Mind your business, I thought.

No, it really did hit me. Translation for my life? Stop being a critic without bringing a contribution. I’d made a living doing that. The pay is terrible.

I’m asking God to do something with my imagination other than have it be an idol factory that spawns discontentment and petty thoughts. I want to bloom where I’m planted as those flowery journals at Target quip.

But part of our spiritual journeys is smashing face first into the transcendent reality that the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we seek won’t be found this side of forever. No thing. No one. It won’t happen.

That realization should be even greater fodder for the fire of exhausting all resources in this life on the journey towards what matters most. And it’s probably not the latest facebook fight or Twitter mud slinging contest.

I have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, and this is what or who God has put in front of me right now, and I’m going to catalyze those resources to make the most and best of my actual life right now—and by faith it will produce a better life and death.

Eyes on heaven. Heads out of the clouds.

I’m going to cultivate the very ground in which I’m presently planted to see the fruit that God wants to grow in me and through me, for my good, the good of those around me, and for His glory.

Selah.

The Better You’ve Been Longing For

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Welcome to part 3 of this lovely series on why happiness eludes you, experiences disappoint you, and dreams deceive you.

In case you’re just joining in, I’ll give you the bottom line — it boils down to the idea of better. You can read parts 1 and 2 to catch up or fall asleep, your choice.

For those picking up after part deux, you were left with but a centimeter of your posterior hanging on the edge of your seat, wondering what in the world happens in Hebrews 11 to these men and women who lived by faith and died in faith, having never witnessed or grasped that for which they so deeply longed.

There are two helpful summaries about these men and women in relation to better.

Summary 1 is Hebrews 11.13-16.

These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 

Summary 2 comes at the end of the chapter in verses 39 and 40.

All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

So these faithful men and women who’ve gone before us by thousands of years, listened and obeyed God–not perfectly–but to the point that it was clear their better was not a better to be grasped in this world.

This feels like that moment where the preacher has no application and leans hard on  aren’t you glad heaven is waiting? Now, let’s stand and sing eight stanzas of I’ll Fly Away into Beulah Land somewhere over Jordan!

So yes, no wool to pull over your eyes, the better is forever. It’s eternity. It’s with God in His presence for eternity.

But I don’t think that is the main point for the writer of Hebrews. There is a pursuit of better here and now. The letter doesn’t continue on with a charge to suck it up until you die. 

Chapter 12 carries on with physically vigorous exercise words like lay aside every hindrance/weight and run the race with endurance. There’s no passive laisse faire spiritual gobbly goop there.

Run. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s the one who got you started, and he’s the one who will get you across the finish line.

And oh that moment. That moment when your race is done. That moment when I fall into the arms of my Savior. That moment.

Having never laid hands or eyes on that which we longed and lived for, we will know in an instant that nothing was done in vain. We will be reassured one billion times over that there was nothing or no one on earth worth trading for a city that only God can build and an inheritance that only God can afford.

  • That moment will be better than whatever awkward bliss you can achieve with your girlfriend or boyfriend in your car or your apartment.
  • It will be better than whatever subdivision you dream of living in but can’t seem to afford.
  • It will be better than that car or lifted truck or boat or house or outfit or purse or batting average or GPA that you think will satisfy your itch for better or make your dad proud.

What’s it all mean?

May I be blunt? Of course I can; I’m writing.

There is no better this world affords that will be better enough.

It feels wrong to say it, type it, read it, believe it. But it’s true.

The only better that will satisfy is the better that lasts forever.

An obsession with that better will yield a life of beauty and purpose here and now. There is something about looking out and walking the path of long obedience that, invisibly and invariably, satisfies in the end.

For lack of a better word, it’s better.

I  will conclude this series next time with my own grasping for better story.

Until then.

 

Seeking a Better Better in a World of Imposters

So you’ve been bamboozled by the idea of better your entire life, as I mentioned in the last post. Nobody said that’s what was happening, but it happened. And it carries on.

Right now, some of you reading this are thinking about the better job or car or shoes or purse or blog (shame on you for that last one). But it’s in us. We want better. We crave better. We have anxiety over better and imagine ourselves living in, driving, or sleeping with better.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that better is so alluring. The first advertising campaign on earth had to do with better.

It took all of three chapters in Genesis for Eve to be convinced that she could be

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Just one bite?

better and life could be better if she’d just eat of the fruit from a specific tree.

Both she and Adam took the bait of better, hook, line, and sinker. And then everyone blamed someone, but that’s a different topic.

Better is that low hanging fruit, right there in front of your face non-stop. It seems so reachable, so pleasing to the eye, and it must be wonderful to experience. 

  • With ladies, I think about social media and the gnawing sense that her life is better. It’s constant.
  • For the gents living in a hypersexualized culture, it’s evident that the Internet thinks you can get better, and for cheap. Why bother with real people when virtual people will fulfill your fantasies?

Better is everywhere. It wears many masks.

It may be worth noting here that my hope is NOT that you would abandon better. I want you to believe in better. There is a reason that longing is in you. It just may be a wildly different better altogether. It’s a better that, in an election year, will make people frustrated and simultaneously prevent you from slinging mud on the facebook…because you don’t think better will be won at the polls, at not the better folks are slandering, lying, and cussing to grasp.

I found myself some time back re-reading through the letter of Hebrews in the New Testament, which really reads best if you do it all at one time. It’s more like a sermon.

Hebrews chapter 11, in particular, is where this is all coming from.

This chapter is sometimes called the hall of faith because it is replete with the names and stories of some of the who’s who of the OT

Enoch. Noah. Moses. Abraham. Sarah.

The refrain of the chapter is by faith. By faith Noah–by faith Abraham–by faith Israel…

In order to not be confused about what faith is, God is kind enough to tell us exactly what faith is at the beginning of chapter 11

Hebrews 11.1 Now faith is the reality (confidence) of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (CSB) 

> The glaring oddity about faith and your walk with Christ is that it’s wrapped up in things not seen.

It’s not that the empirical, visible, or tangible doesn’t matter. But rather, that the transcendent, intangible, and invisible matter more, at least in terms of what governs the way you live.

As you might expect, this is a pervasive theme throughout the Bible. That we live amidst the visible and invisible.

It’s this tension that makes so many college students and academics uncomfortable.

It’s what drives attempts by Bible professors who’ve spent nearly a decade in doctoral programs to explain away the supernatural.

And yet much of the focus in Hebrews 11 is on these men and women who were faithful even when they didn’t see what was promised to them by God in this life. Those who were captivated by the invisible, by faith.

  • Abraham didn’t see descendants as numerous as the stars.
  • Moses didn’t see the Promised Land in all its glory.

In the next post, I will point you to a summary of several of these lives and their having died without seeing the better they so longed to experience. Faithful men and women who, thousands of years before we ever cared about a thing, listened and obeyed God, not perfectly, but to the degree that it was clear their better was vastly different than the better we’ve become accustomed to chasing.

Here’s to a better better.

Christian in America or American Christian: A distinction

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I am a Christian.

I am an American.

God saw fit for me to be born into a great country as well as born again into a great covenant–that is, the covenant of grace.

In the midst of this tumultuous election season, replete with a variety show of interviews, articles, and debates, I find myself at a loss. To quote my fellow millennial/Gen Y folks, “I can’t even.”

The question for me comes down to which one of these phrases best describes me. In view of my life, my hope, my spending, my conversations–both in person and on the other side of a screen, which is more accurate? I am an American Christian–or–I am a Christian in America.

Is there really a difference? I think so.

I don’t believe “Christian” should really be modified by any adjective. But that’s another blog.

For me it’s about how I am to be Christian in America. The same would be true for a Christian in Africa, in Iraq, or in  Barbados. I believe a drastic blurring between these two  notions of Country and Faith is prevalent in Evangelical churches across the US.

The “American Christian” understanding, albeit painting with broad strokes, is predominant among self-identified Republicans, perhaps some Libertarians as well.

I don’t consider myself a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Whig. So it’s not about red state, blue state for me.

Where I see the grave disconnect is that point when identifying as a “conservative” equates to bashing leaders, not praying for leaders, and making soul-level judgments based on a veto or policy.

Lest my historiography fail me, the President of the United States does not sign on to be the protector of all things “Christian.” Religious liberty, yes. And I can argue that such liberty is being infringed upon. But for those buying into the rhetoric that a certain president will make life better for Christians, I simply don’t see it.  Moreover, what constitutes better? The Church has been thrown to lions and hung on trees since her inception.

I love freedom. And there’s no freer place than America, as far as I know. If Christians in America spent as much time praying for her leaders as bashing, condemning, or judging them, God would be honored in that. Perhaps God would honor those prayers.

As one pastor in Tennessee put it, “We have about as much chance of changing America battling over hot  button issues as we do of curing malaria by swatting all the mosquitoes in the world.” Not a lot of amens after that one.

What if–just try to imagine this, please–what if…

  • Evangelical Christians in America experienced as much angst  over poverty in the US and across the world as over politics?
  • Or if they expressed the same degree of indignation over their neighbors and coworkers not knowing the Lamb who was slain to make them sons and daughters of God?

Come Monday morning, would the same damning vitriol spit towards a person created in the image of God come out of the mouth that, just fifteen hours earlier, sang of God’s amazing grace?

It’s not easy to see oneself foremost as a citizen of heaven. In fact, everything about this world is aimed at blinding us from such a vision. But I know of no other way to live faithfully according to the gospel, since it is the gospel that informs all that we do, whether in word or deed.

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The writer of Hebrews speaks to this tension of citizenship and identity,

These all (saints of old) died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland... 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-14,16, HCSB)


 

How at Home are You?

Consider this a survey without any free offers awaiting you at the end. I will list out a few passages of Scripture and ask one question. Feel free to answer how you’d like.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3.20-21)

 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11.13-16)

14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13.14-16)

Question: In light of the emboldened phrases signifying another home, a better home, etc., if you believed that to be true would it change the way you live now?

No need to give your Sunday School answer. Be honest. Do you believe those things? If not, then obviously it won’t impact your life. But if you do believe, is it impacting the way you live?