On suffering…

Probably one of the biggest struggles In a life of faith has to do with why God allows suffering. Some ask the question this way: why do bad things happen to good people?

This year at Catalyst, Matt Chandler took this subject on. It is a powerful thing to hear a man who has battled brain cancer speak on suffering. He knows of what he speaks.

One of the theories – that doesn’t solve the problem of suffering, but at least gives an understanding of the role of suffering in the life of faith – is that God uses our suffering to teach us what we could not otherwise learn. It is through that lens that Matt Chandler spoke.

He said, “It is not unloving of God to wound you now so that you might have eternity with him. It IS unloving of God to save you from pain now and allow you to spend eternity apart from him.”

If what is at stake is eternity spent with God, then suffering becomes less of a horror. I would rather walk through the valley now and know that I am a citizen of Heaven, and when I die eternity in the presence of a loving God awaits me, than avoid suffering now and lose out on eternity with God.

Matt Chandler also said this: “God is going to do surgery to cut out some of what is killing us that we don’t even know is killing us…Jesus does not drive an ambulance, he is not going to show up when it is already too late.”

I found this profoundly comforting.

So let me leave you with this quote from the Apostle Paul, who knew a little bit about suffering:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Romans 8:18

A little phrase…

Catalyst is a big conference. Thirteen thousand attendees. Twenty countries represented. I lost count of the number of laptops in the sound pit.

In just two days a massive amount of information is thrown at those of us who have gathered to take it in. One of my friends calls it “drinking from the fire hose” and he’s not wrong. There is so much to take in, that it is impossible to catch it all.

But even in the midst of all of that, each time I am there, I find I am struck by one little phrase that one of the speakers throws out. Often it’s not the main point of their talk. It’s just something that, for one reason or another rings in my ears and rolls around in my brain.

This year that little phrase comes from Matt Chandler. He said, “God works in the mess.”

And I thought – Thank God! Because life IS messy. It is unpredictable. None of us know what tomorrow will bring.

And that might be overwhelming.

Except that God works in the mess. And that means, no matter how messy the day, or the conversation or the meeting or the issue, God is at work in it.

David wrote these words in the midst of being hunted and living in caves to keep his enemies from finding him:

But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands
Psalm 31:14-15a

He wrote this, I believe, because he understood this little phrase: God works in the mess.

Of Fairy Stories and Lions…

I have always been drawn in by fantasy stories (CS Lewis called them “fairy stories”). My Dad read The Lord of the Rings – the entire trilogy, plus The Hobbit, a chapter at a time – to my brother and I at bedtime when I was eight years old. And then followed that up with the Narnia tales.

I loved and continue to love The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a story itself and as a retelling of the Great Story that God has been telling since the creation of the world.

Aslan has become an important icon for Christ for me. So it should come as no surprise that I love lion images. I have a large black and white photo of a lion over the mantle in my dining room. When I saw it in the store, my father was with me and I grinned at him and said, “Look, Dad, it’s Aslan!” Then I bought the picture and brought it home. So that whenever I see it, I would be reminded of the One who loved me enough to lay down his life for me.

So on a day like today, a day that has been long and full of wrestling with difficult issues, I find an image like this comforting:

To me…this is Jesus communing with his Heavenly Father, who happens also to be my Heavenly Father.

Let me leave you with this declaration from First Peter:

What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.

1 Peter 3:3-5 MSG

PS – I promise tomorrow I will be back to blogging about Catalyst!

Celebrity…

One if the ideas that ran through many of the talks given at Catalyst this year was the danger of celebrity. For Canadian pastors, this might sound like a uniquely American problem. I mean, after all, in the Canadian context a “mega-church” is one that has over a thousand members (as opposed to the American benchmark which I would put at around 5000+). At one of the conferences I attended in Atlanta, I heard a pastor say, “Hey, when we started out, we were a small church, too. In those days we only had 1,500 people on a Sunday.” This was at an Orange conference, which focusses on family ministry, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear the same sort of statement made by Catalyst attendees. There is no doubt that church is bigger in the USA. The world of church is very different south of the border.

So any of us who toil away in Canadian church world, where a big church has a Sunday attendance of 200+, might be tempted not to heed the warnings about celebrity. How famous can one actually be when your whole congregation is less than a hundred people?

But I have long held the theory that the cult of personality, the problem of celebrity, is just as pervasive in a small church as in a large one. All pastors find themselves put on a pedestal at one point or another. Sometimes it is because we helped a family through a crisis. Sometimes it is because of our teaching. Sometimes it’s nothing at all that we did, but simply the fact that our congregants may have been raised to think of their pastor in an elevated way.

The trouble starts if we start to believe our own legend. When we do that…well, we start to find our identity in things other than that unshakeable child-of-the-King-ness that I wrote about the other night. Our identity isn’t changed. Nothing can change the fact that we are children of the King. But it is like we develop identity amnesia. We forget that our hope, our joy, our life is found in the fact that we are children of the King. We start to look for life in other places…in the adoration of those we are leading, or the successes we are experiencing in our leadership.

And the reality is: that never satisfies. We are children of the King. Everything other than His love falls flat.

Take a deep breath and a long hard look at your life, and ask yourself this: are you looking for life-joy-hope-peace-affirmation from anything other than God’s love?

If so let me share with you something Jon Acuff said during the conference (told you I’d end up blogging about him more than once): the Living God of the Universe knows your name…and that is as famous as you will ever need to be.

Laughter….

One of the things Catalyst does well, is engage its attendees on many levels. There are highly intellectual speakers who deliver a tonne of information in a short talk. There are highly charismatic leaders, who bring emotions bubbling to the surface through the power of their words. There is good (LOUD!) music, and art and and amazing things to experience (this year, there was literally a beat-boxing cellist. SERIOUSLY!).

And emceeing through all of the inspirational, exciting, eye-opening presentations, are Tripp and Tyler. They’re a sketch comedy duo, and their job is to make the conference fun. They mock some of the speakers (this year, there was a segment where they had an Andy Stanley doll, a Craig Groeschel doll, a Francis Chan doll and a Rob Bell doll…I was just about in tears, I was laughing so hard!), they do give-aways and they make announcements to keep us informed of all that is happening at the conference.

But what they are really there to do, is to make the attendees laugh. Because there is joy in following Jesus. When you live life knowing that you are deeply and profoundly loved, it is easy to laugh. We should be able to laugh at ourselves (there are a lot of denominational jokes!) and experience joy together.

So to make you laugh, here is Tripp and Tyler’s wrap-up video:

 

Identity…

One of my favorite things about going to a conference is discovering new things. Whether it’s a new band, or a new speaker or a new author or a new perspective on an old story that Jesus told. Doesn’t matter, I just love discovering that I don’t know everything there is to know in my faith.

This year I discovered Jon Acuff.  He’s a blogger, so I had to like him, right? He was also a great speaker. He didn’t speak for long (maybe 15min, while the big guns got 45min), but his talk stands out to me as one of the most influential things I heard at Catalyst. I’m sure I’ll blog about him more than once.

But what is on my mind tonite is something Acuff said about the Prodigal Son. I loved that he used THAT story as his teaching Scripture, as it is one God has used to shape my life in powerful ways. Acuff zeroed in at one point on that moment when the prodigal returns home, and he has this whole speech prepared to say to his father. He’s going to admit what he did wrong, and then he’s going to ask his Dad to make him like one of the hired men. Only, he never gets to give the whole speech. He admits that he was wrong, and then he is cut off by his loving Father who just wants to throw a party because his Son is home.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Acuff said that the reason the son never got to give the “make me like one of the hired men” part of his speech, is that none of his experiences during his ‘wild living’ days could change his identity.  His identity was already set. No amount of squandering could change the fact that he was a son.

And it is the same for us. We are children of the King, sons and daughters of the Living God. And God will not ever, cannot ever, make us like one of the hired men. That is not who we are.

No matter how bad we screw up, no matter how broken we become, no matter how many failures we wrack up. We are still children of the King.

I need to know that. I need to hear it over and over again, because there is a very human part of me that wonders – always and eternally – if I am enough. I have to tell you, it is hard for me to admit that. I am struggling right this second to NOT delete that sentence. I kind of want to.

But the thing is…it’s the truth. And it is the reason I found Acuff’s teaching on this old, beloved parable so life-giving. Seriously. That is the story I want to shout from the rooftops. That is the truth I want to give my life to. That is the one thing I want to tell everyone: you are a child of the King, and all your squandering will NEVER change that. Your identity is set. You are enough.

And Jesus died so that your identity would never ever change. You are a child of the King.

 

 

MAKE

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At Catalyst, Atlanta, this year’s theme was: MAKE. I have to admit, when I first heard that the theme was “make”, I had no idea where the conference would go with it. Of course, now it all seems so obvious.

We are made to be makers. We are made in the image of the Great Maker. Anything we do that makes instead of destroys, reflects God and leads us closer to the people we were made to be.

The word make showed up in so many different aspects of the conference – there was the Maker’s Market, where attendees could buy fair trade goods to help make a living for those in need; there were the talks, all of which were about making something (making culture, making peace, making history); and there was the idea that drove Catalyst this year: that God is making us into the leaders He wants us to be.

I love the idea that we were made to be makers. We are made to be makers of peace, makers of disciples, makers of relationship, makers of beauty, makers of hope. We are made to be those who build up instead of tear down. We are made to make someone else’s day, to make their lives better, to make their joy complete. Because that is what Jesus has done for us.

And because when we make, we reflect the image of God.

And I loved the idea that God is still making me. That God is still making you. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, God is never finished with us. He is always shaping us, forming and reforming us, making us.

There is a song by the Christian band Gungor (it’s the lead singer’s last name, in case you were wondering), who happened to lead a fair amount of the worship at Catalyst this year, called “Beautiful Things.”

The chorus goes:

You make beautiful things,
You make beautiful things out of the dust,
You make beautiful things,
You make beautiful things out of us.

I think it has to be the most encouraging thoughts I have come across in a long time…that as messy and confusing and broken as my life sometimes feels, God is making a beautiful thing out of it. Every once in a while I get a glimpse of the beautiful things God is making out of my life – and when that happens I am amazed at what the Great Maker is capable of doing with my efforts.

And you know what? It’s not just my life, that God is making beautiful things out of…but the life of anyone who chooses to live in relationship with God, anyone who chooses to be a maker. God is making beautiful things out of your life. Even if you cannot see it right now.

Because God is the Great Maker and He never leaves us and never forsakes us. He will always be making us new.

Recovered…ish.

A little over a week ago I was in Atlanta for Catalyst. It was an amazing time, and God had so much to say to me during the conference. But the reality is that for an introvert and a process-thinker like me, it takes a while to recover from an event like that. Not only was there a 16hr drive each way (I know, you think we’re crazy for driving, but man I love a good road trip!), there were also two intense days of leadership teaching from high energy speakers in the midst of a crowd of 13,000 people.

On the one hand, I love Catalyst and all it has brought into my life in the past two years. On the other hand, once it’s over I just need TIME to recover. That’s how God made me. And I am learning not to fight it, but to embrace it.

I still think the greatest thing Craig Groeschel has ever taught me is that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is rest. So I have been allowing my brain and my body some rest in the past week. Of course, the world keeps turning, and I cannot hit a pause button on the the things happening in my life and the community of faith where I serve. Even still, I would say I am recovered from Catalyst and ready to begin writing about it.

As I sat in the last session of the conference, I made a list on my iPhone notes about blog ideas that came from all I experienced during the conference. So this is my way of telling all of you who take the time to read my blog (what a blessing you are to me!) to get ready to hear a whole lot about Catalyst and the great things I learned there. My hope is that God will use these lessons to touch your heart in beautiful ways.

And now, as I close the book on a long but wonderful day, my prayer is that you may find rest when you need it. That you may be released from the heavy burdens you carry and may truly believe what is said in the Psalms:

It is useless for you to work so hard
from early morning until late at night,
anxiously working for food to eat;
for God gives rest to his loved ones.
Palm 127:2 NLT