A couple of weeks ago Christians celebrated the Ascension of Jesus. Do you ever wonder why we celebrate the Ascension? I understand celebrating the birth of Jesus, and his resurrection, and even his death on a cross (if we understand what it means). But his Ascension? Yet after his Ascension, the disciples “returned … with great joy” (Luke 24:51). They celebrated the Ascension.*

When I was about ten years old, my father taught me how to sail our small sailboat. He taught me how to capture the wind, how to steer with a tiller, and how to “right” the sailboat when it capsized.

One day after another sail together, my father looked at me and said, “Go on, take her out by yourself.” The wind was rather strong; the waves were rather large; and my mother was rather terrified. I loved it. I took the boat out alone. The wind blew splashes in my excited face. I was a ten-year-old boy alone on the sea; I was Captain Hook, Christopher Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake all rolled into one.

That was one of the most memorable days of my mere ten years of existence. I still delight in the memory.

What does the Ascension have to do my solo sail? Well, quite a bit, actually. As I’ve reflected on the Ascension, here is what God is saying to me.

The weakness of believers

After three years with Jesus, after his death AND resurrection, and after forty days with this resurrected Son of God, the disciples ask, “So, are you going to finally kick the Romans out?” (Acts 1:6, paraphrased). They still don’t get it.

It may sound irreverent, but I’m not sure how else to describe the disciples at the time; they were sort of idiots. (Nor do I know a better word for us, sometimes!)

I’m surprised Jesus didn’t cry out, “Argh! Father, we’re going to have to start all over.

Instead, in his Ascension, Jesus says to the disciples, “Go on, take her [his message, his work] out by yourself.” They weren’t perfect; they weren’t even close.

The disciples asked, “Will you do this now?” and Jesus responded, “No, YOU will!” Jesus entrusted his gospel and his church to a small group of people who still didn’t get it. Just like my father entrusted a sailboat to a ten-year-old boy.

Humility and Confidence

As a ten-year-old boy, I was young, foolish, and weak. Forty-five years later, I’m old, foolish, and weak—though a perhaps little less foolish and a little less weak.

In our [sometimes rare] moments of honest self-reflection, we see our own weakness and foolishness. It’s easy to want to wait until we are wise and strong before we “take her out.” Jesus is saying we can go out now, in our weakness and brokenness. He is with us, and through our weakness he is made strong.

It’s good to have the humility that comes with self-reflection, but we also should have confidence. Jesus has confidence in us. His Ascension says, “Take her out.” And he is making us into something incredible. C. S. Lewis said of us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. (Mere Christianity)

But not alone

I imagine the disciples were pretty disappointed. They had already “lost” Jesus once, on the cross. Now Jesus tells them that he is leaving again.

When my father said, “Take her out” I was alone. But when Jesus said, “Take her out” he also said, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). And the disciples were filled with great joy (literally “mega” joy).

In their joy, the disciples understood something that we don’t quite get. I sometimes wish Jesus were still here physically. But Jesus is saying he is here, literally, at our side, with us in every moment. As I sit at my keyboard, Jesus is sitting next to me, in me, with me. He is here. And sometimes I can sense his presence.

The wonder of it all

Isn’t it wonderful—almost too good to believe—that Christ entrusts his mission to us while we are weak, and broken, and still don’t get it?

In his Ascension, Jesus says, “I anoint you, I appoint you, I commission you; take her out,” just as you are now, in your weakness and imperfection, “And behold, I am with you always.”

Sam

[See also, The Heresy of Wonder-less Theology]

* I first heard of the wonder of the Ascension in a sermon by Tim Keller, The Ascension.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.

I wonder sometimes if the greatest problem facing the modern church is a lack of wonder.

When we were kids, all kinds of experiences brought wonder. Our first trip to the zoo filled us with wonder. The stick-figured, long-necked giraffe was fantastic; the bloated barrel-shaped hippopotamus was delightful (even the name hippopotamus was enchanting); and the shuffling, tuxedo-clad penguin was wonderful.

As teenagers, we became jaded; we lost our wonder. We’d already been to the zoo. “Big deal!” We’d already learned to ride a bike. “Who cares!”

Science’s turn

Science comes along and steals more wonder. It takes the human body, dissects it, and “explains” life with cold, clinical detachment. In talking about the meaning of life, one scientist wrote,

In reality there are no such things as human rights…. All we know is we are part of nature and there is no scientific basis whatsoever for thinking we are better than all the rest of it…. We have no more basic rights than viruses. (Robert Jarvic, Inventor of the artificial heart)

That’ll really get you up in the morning, won’t it?

The church and wonder

In the Roman Empire, Christianity grew largely through wonder. Downtrodden slaves were given the wonder of Sonship; oppressed minorities were shown the wonder of Freedom; widows, orphans, and the poor were offered the wonder of Hope.

Like jaded teenagers, though, the modern church has lost its sense of wonder.

Most preaching today teaches moralism or abstract doctrine. (And like the chicken and the egg, we’re not sure which comes first.) Conservatives teach us to be good little boys and girls, and Liberals preach tolerance. I recently heard two sermons on the Fruit of the Spirit. The Conservative pastor concluded with, “Go out and be good;” and the Liberal ended with, “Go out and Coexist.”

This is not the preaching that grew the early church. Imagine telling an oppressed Roman slave, “I have incredible news that will revolutionize the rest of your life: Just don’t be selfish!” Or the Liberal version, “I know your master oppresses you, but I have something that will rock your world: Tolerate those who differ from you!”

Neither Conservatives nor Liberals preach wonder anymore. And then we “wonder” why the church has so little impact on the world around us.

Abstract, impersonal doctrine fails as well. So much is theoretical or informational. I once heard a sermon that conjugated the Greek verb agape. It was technically correct. We took notes like good little students. If tested, we would have answered correctly.

And at the end of the sermon I wanted to say, “So what!” and to ask, “What does that have to do with my life?”

Imagine a first-century, childless widow with barely two pennies to rub together. We say, “I have a something that will transform your poverty into riches: Here is the conjugation of agape.” No! Abstract theory didn’t change the Roman world.

Frankly, cerebral Christianity gives me a headache.

So what did Jesus do that was different?

The preaching of Jesus always went beyond mere morality or abstract theory. When Jesus taught morality, the listeners were astounded (Matt. 19:25) and when Jesus taught doctrine, the listeners were scandalized (John 6:61). Nobody said, “So what!” nor did they ask, “What does this have to do with my life?” They may not have liked it, they may have been angry; but Jesus always left them wondering.

Sure, but heresy?

Addressing the Will (moralism) produces proud Pharisees. Addressing the Intellect (abstract doctrine) establishes arrogant eggheads. Awakening the heart with wonder creates humble believers. Wonder leads to adoration, and adoration leads to worship of the One who gave up all for the joy of knowing us. And worship creates humility

Only wonder will change our behavior, our beliefs, and our hearts.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn faces a hulking, Goliath-like Nazgûl. It threatens to, “bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

Éowyn responds, “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

Merry, the little Hobbit, sees Éowyn ready to die out of love for her king, and, “Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his fist.”

That is what we need, “great wonder.” When we see Jesus not simply dying for another but for us—even as we disobey his commands and disbelieve his truth—then we will wonder. In our wonder, we’ll clench our fists, we’ll find belief in our hearts, and we’ll delight to do his will.

So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither. It was great wonder.

Sam

(See also, The Wonder of the Ascension.)

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.

These two pictures show Mt. St. Helens. One was taken on May 17, 1980, and the other was taken several days later.

mt-st-helens-after

Beneath the calm exterior of a majestic mountain boiled an inner life that would erupt with 20,000 times more power than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Each of us has an inner and an outer life. We sense this intuitively. We say of others, “They don’t know me, the true me.” A popular book on the Myers Briggs personality test is entitled, Please Understand Me.

While we vaguely sense an inner self, we primarily invest in our outer life. We dedicate hours in running on treadmills; we devour the latest tabloid diet; we pour out our hearts on career advancement; we spend hours in shopping for shoes or for shotguns.

These external activities are like mowing the lawn of Mt. St. Helens, on May 17, 1980.

Our truest self is our inner self. We are the same person the day before we are fired as the day after. A friend recently lost most of her right arm in a freak accident, but she lost not a single strand of hair of who she truly is.

The person we are inside is our truest person. But we’ve barely begun to know that person because we fail to know our inner life. And we certainly don’t invest in it.

What is an inner life?

It’s not just emotions. When we say someone “wears his heart on his sleeve” we mean he easily cries, or gets angry, or gets hurt. We know his emotions while not knowing him.

Our inner life is a mixture of our deep desires, hopes, and beliefs. Our emotions are responses to them. They react to the fulfillment, opposition, or longing of our desires, hopes, and beliefs.

Deep Desires

I say deep because our surface desires, hopes, and beliefs aren’t the essential us. When I was a boy, I wanted to be a fireman. My dad was a chaplain for the fire department, and I fought fires all over the house in his helmet. I desired to be a fireman.

But stamping out fires wasn’t my deepest desire. I realized that my firefighting dream was fueled by the fire of wanting to help. I began defending kids who were picked on by bullies.

Later a deeper desire arose: to help these victims stand up for themselves. They needed more than a protector. They needed an inner strength.

We can be like miners (not minors! although some of us…). We discover a desire and dig deeper to discover the underlying desire; and then we dig further. Soon that mountain—that is us—becomes honeycombed by dozens of cave explorations.

Instead, though, we squander time in the pursuit of our external lives, leaving our inner lives to starve. Or erupt. Busyness is a narcotic by which we numb our hearts from self-exploration.

A Guide

Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a human’s heart are deep waters, but a person of understanding draws them out.”

Okay, alright. I switched metaphors from mountains to waters. But bear with me.

Last January my family went to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to scuba dive, but the seas were rough. The scuba shop suggested we try inland diving in underwater caverns.

My family discussed diving forty feet under water beneath a rock ceiling which was underneath dozens of feet of rock. Let me tell you, it took some convincing. But they eventually persuaded me and we dove.

It was spectacular.

Diving underground caverns requires a guide. The guide led us, protected us, and pointed out beautiful formations that we would never have noticed by ourselves.

Our hearts are deep waters (which are often buried under dozens of feet of rock) and we need a guide. Conservatives are accused of stuffing their feelings, and liberals are accused of venting their feelings. God calls us to pray our feelings.

Jesus wants to guide us into knowing who we really, the true us, the person who is the same whether we get the promotion or get fired or lose a limb. There is someone inside we need to get to know.

So we go to our guide. We explore who we are when we ask God, “Why did I get angry there?” and “Why did that story move me?” and “Who am I really?”

As we pray these questions, we begin to explore our inner life, a spectacular adventure.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I think there are two reasons we don’t investigate the underwater caverns of our hearts: we’re either too busy or too scared.

For twenty-five years I worked in business, and much of my work was busyness. I had morning meetings, client meetings, lunch meetings, and staff meetings, and dozens of emails and phone calls. I simply didn’t think of an inner life. I was too busy.

Then I left work to pursue ministry, and my wife and friends would ask why I was withdrawn (or upset, or moved…). And suddenly I found I was scared. I didn’t want to excavate that cavern. It was an adventure I was too scared to pursue.

Exploring underwater caverns is scary and fun; exploring the hidden motivations of my heart is scary, and … threatening.

I found I feared a lack of significance—which I longed for—and I believed other things might keep it from me; and my hope was sucked dry. Notice my desires, beliefs, and hopes.

In prayer, personal reflection, and talking with friends, I begin to discover who I am, but only after battling busyness and fear.

My mountain is filled with mines, and my caverns are being explored; and it is rich.

I’m no longer doing as much as I am being, and being discovered with the help of a Guide.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart, Ltd. All rights reserved.

At one particular moment in my life, not long ago, I asked God what He doing in my life.  He brought to me Heb. 12:27 – not necessarily a verse I wanted to hear.  I was hoping for something like “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:23)  What God said instead was that He was about “the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”

Shaken!  Is this not the word of our time?  It seems like everything and everyone is being shaken.

Well, God followed through on what He said – He always does.  He shook me and my world, and things started to fall apart.  I was in a season of uprooting not planting, tearing down not building up, scattering not gathering.  There is a season for every activity under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3).

The good thing is that seasons change.

The hard thing is that seasons change.

It seemed like all the things that I loved and were familiar and comfortable with, from relationships, to my work, to the way I did life were being shaken.  In the shaking, that which is truest about us is revealed, both the good and the bad, who we truly are and what we have falsely become.  The assurance of God is that those things which cannot be shaken will endure and remain, and those things which are untrue will fall.

As a friend told me, lies have speed but truth has endurance.

Ultimately, at the end of the shaking a decision must be made.   Will we realign our life to what God has revealed as the truest things about us or will we try to pick up all the things that are lying on the ground from the shaking and reattach them?  Realignment or reattachment.

As Elrond said to Aragorn in The Return of the King, “Put aside the Ranger, become who you were born to be.”  The Ranger was a good man fulfilling an important role, but there was a greater, more needed role for Aragorn.  He was more than a Ranger now.  He had become a king.  You are not who you were five year ago, or one year ago.  There is always something to “put aside” and something to “become”.

Thomas Kempis wrote, “A man is raised up from the earth by two wings—simplicity and purity. There must be simplicity in his intention and purity in his desires. Simplicity leads to God, purity embraces and enjoys Him.”

God’s great purpose in a season of shaking is to raise us up, allowing us to live as pilgrims – for pilgrims travel lightly but with great purpose.  It is the cry and the struggle of every human heart to understand our truest desire and created intention.  God will reveal it, “For it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases Him” (Phil. 2:13 ISV) and He “will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.” (Psalm 32:8)

“Noble simplicity is the psyche of heroes” – unknown author

What season does God have you in?  What things are no longer appropriate or helpful in your life, from what you know about your true self at this moment?  What must you put aside, and what must you become?

Ask Him

With you in pursuing noble simplicity,

Gary

I’m discovering that meditation is one of the most powerful ways to hear God. No, “powerful” isn’t a strong enough word. Meditation may be the most profound, deep, life-changing, heart-enriching way to hear God.

But there is a problem. I picture meditation—maybe you do too— as something kind of weird. It’s a person dressed in leotards sitting in an awkward position humming nonsensical syllables, emptying the mind, thinking of “one hand clapping.” It’s the mystic or the desert monk escaping from reality. It seems totally disconnected from real life.

But everyone is a meditation expert. We meditate all the time. We don’t know it because we call it something else, and we slip into it accidentally.

We all imagine.

Every day every conscious human imagines–the business tycoon and the homeless person, the New York poet and the Himalayan shepherd. Everyone imagines.

We paint pictures in our mind of what life would be like “if” or what we’ll do “when.” “What will I do after I graduate from college; wouldn’t it be fun to have a horse; wouldn’t it be cool if that girl would date me?” In spare moments scattered through the day, we imagine.

Our imagining is a type of meditation. It is a concentrated thinking on a particular subject. It’s “seeing” in our mind’s eye.

Imaging creates Intimacy with God

The best imagining is often shared imaging with a friend. Fiancés imagine life after marriage; tired spouses imagine a vacation by the sea; software programmers imagine creating the next best selling iPad App. We love to share our mind’s eye with someone else; it connects our hearts through shared inner images. It creates intimacy.

It’s also possible to imagine while in conversation with God. God shares an image with us, and we share our hearts’ desires with God. We connect our hearts to God in this prayerful, conversational imagining. It creates intimacy with God, sharing our heart.

Imagining fuels longing

Our problem is not in learning to meditate; no, our problem is the subject we choose for our meditation. Imagining increases longing. That’s why pornography is so addictive. Paul wrote, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6).

Our intentional imagining is one way we “set our mind” on something. Sustained imagining on earthly things—a new car, a new dress, a job promotion, sex without commitment—increases our desires for those things. But these things do not bring life. They fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the heart.

Setting our minds—and this includes intentional imagining—on spiritual things increases our longing for them, such as knowing God’s love, hearing God’s voice, and intimacy with Christ. And these bring deep, soul satisfaction.

So how can we set our minds on the Spirit?

It’s easy to slip into imaging things of the flesh because we have so many external pressures. These external pressures often spark our minds to imagine solutions. We work long hours so we imagine a vacation; our car breaks down, again, so we imagine a new problem-free car. Our external pressures give us many topics for meditation.

In Christian meditation we let God choose the topic. Pick a passage and converse with God on his words through intentional imagining. Here are some possible passages:

  • Consider [imagine, meditate on] how wild flowers grow. They neither labor nor spin. Yet I tell you, even Solomon with all his splendor was not dressed like one of these (Luke 12:27).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like merchant [Jesus] seeking fine pearls. When he found that one pearl of incredible value [you], he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45-46).
  • O God, my God; I eagerly seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry, weary land where there is no water. So I gaze upon you [imagine, meditate] … and my soul is satisfied as with a great feast … as I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in middle of the night (Ps 63).

We can set our minds on the Spirit as we let these word pictures fill our imagination. Consider these passages—picture yourself and God in them. Imagine them prayerfully in conversation with God, and God will speak exactly what you need to hear in your heart.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.