A Simple Gospel for Really Simple People

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The gospel is a profound mystery that has been made quite simple. A little child could grasp it. We have the deep sense that it is quite complicated, but it is really straightforward. For years, day after day after day, I have tried to jump high enough to attain a semblance of peace, but to no avail. After a long period I finally realized I couldn’t make it work. If God was going to save me, He was going to have to personally intervene. I just didn’t have it in me. The simplicity of our faith needs to be declared; too many believe it is unattainable. C.S. Lewis once wrote about this simple gospel:

“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. … That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.”

–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Over time I realized, (actually it was more like a lightning bolt) that it wasn’t how high I could jump— but how low I could go. The ‘good news’ is designed for the simple; not for the spiritual athlete. We must become as “little children to enter the kingdom of God.” There is no other way. Jesus has made it clear. I simply can not attain salvation by my own merits, rather it is given out to those who can’t arrive at some vague legal standard.

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3

We are a people who are engineered for achievement. We value those who have ‘arrived.’ But what if the opposite was true? What if it wasn’t greatness, but ‘smallness’ that opened heaven’s doors? Would you qualify? I ask these questions not to demean you, but to reassure you. I would only suggest that you reexamine your faith. It is only prudent after all.

Adopting the world’s attitudes is not surprising. We are saturated by her presence. She makes her presence known by everything we perceive. It is the basic environment that surrounds all that we do or think. Jesus’ gospel asks us to rethink some basic things:

  • Do I belong here?
  • Is this my real home?
  • What am I living for?
  • Am I a loving person?
  • What am I living for?

We ask these questions, not because they are somewhat profound; we ask them because they are basic. Yet so much rests on each. We must clear away the world’s confusion, in order to grasp each question. We must become like little children, again. When we start to ask these questions— we are on our way.

 

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Change (for the Unchangeable)

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I stagger over the patience of God for my soul. Sometimes repeated forays into sin become all I can see. I am the prototypical sinner, and it’s hard to believe anyone else could be as stubborn as me. But grace is always found, when I return to Him.

I do know that growing up has much to do with time spent with Him. Coming into Jesus’ presence, by faith, is my ‘life task.’ I know this to be true.

“I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts,
    who tremble at my word.”

Isaiah 66:2

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Rembrandt’s Meditation on the Younger Son

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Painting by Renbrandt, 1606-1669
“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to  one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Luke 15:11-24, ESV

Three hundred and twenty-nine words– these describe the life of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. These 329 words reveal to us a God who forgives much, and loves easily; the Father loves far too much, way too easy— and far too extravagantly for human beings to understand. Perhaps we sort of expect that he will ‘appropriately’ punish his son— at least put him on probation at least. It only makes sense.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Many of us have lived in prodigality, some  of us for a very long time. We have spent our inheritance like ‘drunken sailors’ and have nothing at all to show for it. The prodigal, completely destitute, takes the only work he can find. (Imagine a good Jewish boy feeding hogs.) He is so far gone that he starts inspecting the slop pails for something to eat.

Many of us will understand his despair. But there comes this crystalline moment of amazing clarity. The prodigal—filthy and impoverished, has  a memory of the Father’s house. The servants there had far more than him. Sometimes in our captivity we instinctively want to go home, if only to be a slave.

The Father has dreamed of this moment. The parable says, “He saw him–felt compassion–ran out to him–embraced him–and kissed him.” In moments we see a swirl of servants who completely overwhelm an already overwhelmed son. I’ve read the Parable of the Prodigal Son a hundred times or more . It never loses its punch. I simply want to bring you for just a few moments back into its light. I expect that the Holy Spirit may have business with you. rembrandt-prodigal3 (1)

We see that his father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture. His head is downy, almost like a newborn’s. Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in stoic judgment; we read in the parable that he objects to the father’s compassion for the sinful son.

Rembrandt had painted the Prodigal once before, when he was considerable younger. And it is a very good painting. The prodigal is happy and gay; there is absolutely no indication of the consequences of sin. He is charming young man at a happy party. But Rembrandt chooses at the end of his life to re-paint it to reflect reality. This is one of the last paintings he will do, and it is the Prodigal Son–destitute and repenting. I can only imagine; the years have taken a toll and he doesn’t really feel his first painting is enough. He wants to paint what is true. He is painting us.

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Redeeming Pain

When history speaks, do we listen?

by Terry Powell

It’s one thing to say that God’s sovereignty redeems our pain or weakness for a greater purpose. It’s another thing altogether to see a vivid illustration of the truth.

David Brainerd (1718-1747) took the gospel of Christ to Indians in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, often living alone with sparse food rations and exposure to cold. Extremely melancholy in temperament, Brainerd endured long episodes of joylessness, often slinking into despair over awareness of his sin, or over an incapacity to feel more love for the people he was trying to reach. Physical frailty accompanied his psychological anguish. He died of tuberculosis before his thirtieth birthday.

A couple years after launching missionary work among the Indians, in 1845, God’s Spirit brought a spiritual awakening in New Jersey. Within a year, the church Brainerd started numbered 130.

Brainerd kept diaries in which he described bouts of despondency, disclosed his consciousness of sin in light of God’s holiness, and recounted efforts to evangelize the Indians. Their pages teem with honest self-disclosure as well as desperate dependence on God for physical and emotional sustenance.

Twenty-two places in his diaries he yearned for death as an escape from his misery. Yet he persisted in proclaiming Christ, even when his own temperamental makeup eclipsed his ability to experience the joy inherent in the gospel. One entry revealed his acceptance of weakness and deeply-entrenched desire to finish well: “Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God… Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey.”

After his death, the fruit of Brainerd’s life multiplied exponentially. In 1749, Jonathan Edwards, in whose home Brainerd died, took the diaries and published them as a Life of Brainerd, a book that’s never been out of print. Renown missionaries and leaders galvanized by Brainerd’s story include John Wesley, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Robert McCheyne, David Livingstone, Andrew Murray, and Jim Elliot.

The borders of Brainerd’s impact weren’t expanded in spite of his emotional and physical afflictions, but because of them.

His story resonates with so many servants over the years because when push comes to shove, they, too, wrestle with sinful propensities, episodes of despondency, and physical frailties. They believe they are candidates for the same divine grace they observe in Brainerd’s life. John Piper, himself buoyed by Brainerd’s story, offers this apt summary statement: “Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints who cry to him day and night to accomplish amazing things for his glory.”

How can God use you despite physical or emotional frailty?

For biblical indicators that God uses weak, needy people, read these texts: 1 Corinthians 1:26-29; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9-10. Resources quoted are The Life of David Brainerd, by Jonathan Edwards, and The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction on the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, by John Piper.


Terry teaches in the areas of Church Ministry and Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. He has served as a Christian Education staff member for three  churches, and he’s a licensed preacher in the Presbyterian Church of America.  His current books in print are Serve Strong:  Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, and  Now That’s Good A Question!  How To Lead Quality Bible Discussions. Terry has been married for 46 years, and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, one grandson, and a dachshund.  His constant prayer is, “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am!”

Terry has a new blog at http://www.penetratingthedarkness.com. It deals with the believer’s depression and other mental issues. Please visit him and tell him “Hi” from me.

Surviving the Daily Grind

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“I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like a man without strength,

Psalm 88:4

In May 2011, this is what I wrote–

“I feel like I am going through a meat grinder. Pushed against my will (and desire) I’m finding myself in a place I’d rather not be. My therapist confirmed today that I’m in a “mixed state” where bipolar mania and depression come together.  I compare it to two massive ocean currents smashing into each other.  (please Google, “mixed state”).

I’ve been into this state for just two weeks and the urge to commit suicide is starting to become surprisingly strong. For my own safety, I’m almost thinking that it maybe time to go to the hospital again.  I must tell you that these are places that you really don’t want to go if you don’t have to.  (FYI, my particular choice is Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. It’s actually a somewhat “nicer” degree of miserable, and they have cooler art.)

I also get paranoid that people are attacking me and are plotting to ruin me. I am quite  suspicious of Facebook and my depression chat. I believe that the people that I encounter there are trying to get at me behind my back. Social networking with these type of services can be a nightmare.

But, then there is also the grandiosity. I believe that I think clearer, better, and faster than other people. It’s like I have superpowers.  I will think of myself as extremely gifted, superior to others.  I paint and write poetry and do “noble” things.

But I also have tremendous anxiety, with racing thoughts, and even heart palpitations esp. when I am sitting trying to relax. I don’t sleep well at all, in spite of the sleeping pill, the Klonopin and the melatonin, and the Benadryl, (to make sure I do sleep).

I continue to take my psych meds like a good boy. But they don’t seem to work like they used to. I think they can’t handle this particular concoction of depression/mania.  Sometimes, I feel like I’m getting better, but I never seem to get well.

The endless cycle of feeling really good and then feeling really bad is a challenging thing.  It is difficult to have a stable walk of discipleship under these circumstances.  I think being starkly honest and broken over my own fallenness is the key for me. (Now if I can only remember this.)

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I know that I’m being very blunt here. Tact has never been an easy thing. As I read I remember the struggle, and how I couldn’t see a way out. I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit who led me when no one else could. I wrote this post some time ag0. I’ve been reasonably stable, but I’m certain that putting it up now maybe timely for some. I’m in a better frame of mind the last several months.

 “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Romans 5:6

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A Sidetracked Life

 

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I’m thinking that an awful lot of my life has been filled with ‘inconvenient interruptions.’ I like a certain order, and schedules and keeping appointments. I’m not a rigid person, but I become mildly annoyed when my life becomes ruled by these unplanned intrusions.

However, at times an interruption can be quite productive. Often when my plans are set aside, I get the opportunity to see the Holy Spirit step in. He does things that are eternally true and special.

Scriptures are saturated with ‘inconvenient interruption.’ Mary, whose life was jolted by a visit by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-31). Paul, on the road to Damascus was overwhelmed suddenly and converted (Acts 9:1-9). The virgin Mary would have a son, and Paul would shake the world with his preaching the Gospel of Jesus.

There are many others who had their calm lives interrupted by God.

One could almost say that the Bible is a book of ‘blessed interruption.’ I’m thinking right now of Moses, whom God shook and completely altered his life in just a few moments. And of course we read of Abraham, suddenly leaving everything to follow a promise.

I tell you, God has a flair for the dramatic. He often steps into the lives of His people. We might get irritated, frustrated, owly and a bit afraid. The question is this– can the Spirit interrupt you?

“The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect.”

Psalms 33:10

Perhaps this is the next lesson in your discipleship. You will need to be a servant. The most profoundly Christian people I know are those whose lives can be side-tracked. I encourage you, look for God’s purposes behind your next interruption. Let Him arrange your schedule. 

“The Lord can control a king’s mind as he controls a river;
    he can direct it as he pleases.”

Proverbs 21:1

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Processing Pain Through Poetry

 

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by Linda K

I wrote this poem a couple of months ago. I wrote it while trying to process the struggle of dealing with one sister who suffers with mental illness (bipolar disorder and bulimia) and other family members who don’t understand.

I have experienced seven years of major clinical depression myself, and over the last few years have come to the realization that ending up there again is not outside the realm of possibility if I’m not ever vigilant. But that doesn’t make the family relationships any easier, and I often feel like I’m the only glue or buffer holding things together, and I’m not doing a very good job at it.

I share this here to maybe give someone else the strength to keep being that glue or to appreciate the one in the family who is the glue or . . . well, frankly I’m not sure why. It just seems like something I need to share.

A note on the final stanza: I do not, in any way, wish that the person this poem is about was dead. Far from it. I’ve lost too many other family members, including another sister who died of cancer two years ago. But on the day I wrote this, that felt like it would have been easier to take than the present situation.

Impossible Madness

Why does it feel like I’ve lost you
when you aren’t even dead?

Why am I the only one
who wants to make amends?

Why does it have to be so hard
after all these years?

Maybe it’s the tears
mine and yours, and theirs,
that makes breathing and living
loving and forgiving so impossible

I guess sometimes families and madness
can’t survive one another

Because that’s what you are, you know,
mad, or crazy, or mentally ill
whatever you want to call it

It’s torn us apart
because you don’t understand
why they can’t begin to comprehend
what’s going on inside your head

It’s torn us—you and me—apart
because you’ve convinced yourself
that I don’t at all understand
what’s going on inside your head

You forget I’ve been there
that those crazy, mad thoughts
have been inside my head, too

But then you’ve forgotten a lot of things
all the times I was there for you
just to listen
and the times you were there for me

Forgetting the good
is a tragic side effect
of medications meant to help
Somehow they don’t erase
memories of the less-than-perfect moments

My greatest desire is to forgive
and to be forgiven
to live and laugh and love again
to mend what has been torn asunder
to heal the thoughts inside your head

But right now, in this moment
it feels like you might as well be dead
at least that would be easier to live with

 

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You can find Linda’s own website at http://lindakruschke.wordpress.com/