Escape from Monkey Hill

Monkey Hill

It has been three years since Allyson and I honeymooned in New Orleans. We had a great time eating our way through the French Quarter, learning to drive in a city of only ways, and forgetting that real life existed for only a few days. But as the exhaustive planner and lover of my wife, I decided to really go all out and take her on Allyson’s All Day Animal Adventure. See, Allyson loves animals and the zoo. If she could, she would go every day. But in New Orleans, you can buy a day pass and go t the insectarium, aquarium, and zoo for a discounted price. This is a top notch zoo with live exhibits where you can see and even touch the animals. We’re newlyweds and so of course poor. But this, I’m all over this; Day 3 of Husband Jay is going to kill it.

We arrived, only to wait in line for our passes to get stamped. Now we weren’t in line for a long time, probably fifteen minutes. But it was summer and the humidity was getting to all of us in line as we patiently stood in our Purgatorial Sweat Box. As Allyson and I are joking and kidding around, I saw the family in front of us. It’s a typical touristy family parents, two kids, and a grandparent; our fellow members of the sauna like queue. But about halfway through the line the older child began getting fussy. He was probably no more than six or seven. Now would I say that he was acting bad. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum or crying. He was just a bored, hot, child ready to get in to see the animals. So he’s hanging onto the dad, and just complaining. “How long is it going to be? I’m bored? Are we almost there? It’s hot today? What can we see first? Can I play Angry Birds?” You get the idea. But then he said the thing that really piqued my interest: I just want to go to Monkey Hill. Please can we go?

And he repeated it. For about two minutes straight.

Now Monkey Hill is actually quite famous. They built it in the 1930’s so that kids in New Orleans would know what a hill looks like. There’s a five story tree house, a wading pool, and kids often roll down the grass of the hill. It’s been there forever and kids of all ages still go ape for it. It is right in the middle of the zoo and so for parents it’s a great midway point to rest while kids play. However, after a while the dad had grown impatient about the Monkey Hill subject. Then he said it.

This father bent down to his son, mustering up all the kindness and tenderness in his voice. He ruffled his hair and said, “Brandon, I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, we’ll go to Monkey Hill.”

My heart sank. Not because this guy is a bad father. I don’t think he is. I’ve heard many parents say similar things. I get that I don’t get parenting decisions because I’m not one. That wasn’t my issue. But because in it I heard the legalism I had so often struggled with as a teen and younger adult. I heard all the legalism in that moment of “quid pro quo”

I think so often, I view God as this type of Father: one who looks at me and says, “Now Jay, if you act right, then I will come and save you. But you have to make sure that you have your act together in order to get the reward.” I struggle with viewing God from a place that if when I sin, He’s coming after me and mine to get me back. Or He’s causing bad things to happen because I wasn’t as faithful as I should’ve been. So then, what do I do? I try to grit and grind my way to holiness. I study the Catechism more, I sing out of the Psalter, I make sure that I’m listening to religious podcasts. But not out of a heart longing to know God or to worship him, but because I have to make sure I’m crossing things off my list.

When I was at CBC, I made sure that I had whatever new book I was reading at the time in my backpack and read before class. Not because I just loved reading, but because I wanted people to see my Older Brother self reading it. I wanted people to go “that Jay Sawrie is just so dedicated”. I made sure all of my tweets were deep theological truths, because that’s what I thought would be God pleasing. That was the deal. I was good, so I get to go to Monkey Hill. I was good, so now God doesn’t have a reason to ditch me when I sin. I was faithful and pious, so God now owes me to never leave.

But God’s faithfulness to us isn’t “quid pro quo” but rather “it is finished” faithfulness. God’s promise to keep us is based on nothing that we have brought, are bringing, or will bring to the table. Christ died for future sins too; so that now whatever we do wind up bringing is still going to the trash heap. Our Pharisaical righteousness doesn’t earn us our place or earn our keep. We don’t get in by faith and stay in by faithfulness. When God looks at us, He sees Christ. He actively obeys and then gives us His obedience for our disobedience. He works, we get the reward. He takes the spanking, we get to go outside and play. Any attempt to add to the works of Christ by our own bootstrap pulled attempts, really just scream “Eh I’ll do it myself”.

But here’s the ironic thing. As we made the turn in the zoo and approached the Hill, right at the entrance was the sign: Monkey Hill Closed for Repairs. No one got into Monkey Hill that day. The promise of legalism is so empty, that even when we strive and work so that God will delight in us, all we find is the broken promise that this wasn’t the way after all. Legalism only leads to tears and disappointment. Because then we feel cheated. We believe that God now owes us something in return for all the merit that we brought Him. But God has not promised us anything that He has not already provided in Christ.

So then, let’s keep looking to Christ. Let us see Him and taste of Him in the Sacraments. Let us run to Him by faith. Keep hearing and believing the Gospel.

When Your Sin is Exposed, Run to Jesus

When Your Sin is

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
– Hebrews 4:12-16, NIV

Every pastor has a pastor – someone that they can talk with and go to for spiritual advice. If you’re a pastor, and you don’t have a pastor, then get one. You’ll go insane. At the very least, get a therapist. I don’t really recommend that option because therapists tend to charge by the hour and ask you about your feelings in a very unfeeling way, but I digress.

I was listening to a recent sermon my pastor (which can find at this link), and he briefly expounded on Hebrews 4:12-16, and I wanted to share with you my take away from his exposition.

Notice, first of all, that our passage tells us of the sharpness of God’s word, and how it is that sharpness that tears into the root of our being. And what is it that is at the core our being? Sin. We’re sinful, and the word of God exposes that sin before a holy God. The same holy God before whose presence Isaiah feared that he might die because he was a man of unclean lips. So, if this is the case, then what hope is there for us?

Our hope is that Jesus is a faithful high priest who has taken upon Himself the sins of those who run to Him for light and life. Because He always lives to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25), we are able to approach the throne of grace and receive mercy in the time of need. And when do we need mercy? All the time, especially when we see our sin exposed before Him, and do you know what? We can rejoice because it has all been laid on Christ.

“Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid”
– Keith Getty & Stuart Townsend

“And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
– Revelation 5:9-10, NIV

Jesus paid for you, and He continually intercedes for you. Go in peace.

It Really is Finished

It ReallyIs Finished.jpg

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” – Isaiah 40:2, NIV

We make life difficult for ourselves with every sinful choice we make, but sometimes what we need to hear is that our sins have been paid for, and that the hard service that we had to serve has been completed. This was the case with God’s people in Isaiah 40.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are the prophet confront the people with their sin. One of the chapters where this is most obvious is chapter 5. In verses 20-21, we read about how the people are exchanging sweet water for bitter water, trading light for darkness, and calling evil good. The people of God have clearly made their bed, and it would seem based on what we read in Isaiah 5:25-30, they’re going to have to lay in it.

“Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. 26He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily! 27Not one of them grows tired or stumbles, not one slumbers or sleeps; not a belt is loosened at the waist, not a sandal strap is broken. 28 Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses’ hooves seem like flint, their chariot wheels like a whirlwind. 29 Their roar is like that of the lion, they roar like young lions; they growl as they seize their prey and carry it off with no one to rescue. 30In that day they will roar over it like the roaring of the sea. And if one looks at the land, there is only darkness and distress; even the sun will be darkened by clouds.” – Isaiah 5:25-30, NIV

Here we have an imagery of God sending a call for pagan nations to come and swoop down like a pack of wild animals on his people as punishment for their sin. We see this fulfilled when Assyria comes in and attacks the people. God eventually brings judgement on Assyria for this attack, even Israel brought it on themselves (Isaiah 10).

For those first 39 chapters in Isaiah, we see God heaping on Israel woe, wrath, and judgement, but then in chapter 40 something happens. It’s all over. God declares that their hard time is over, and their sins are forgiven.

We can be stubborn and rebellious like the children of Israel. 1st Corinthians 10 shows us that we can be partakers of the covenant, and yet God can still not be pleased with us. However, unlike the children of Israel, someone has already taken our wrath and judgement for us – Jesus Christ.

What we should see in Isaiah 40 are comforting words that should encourage us to leave behind our sin and run to Jesus. When He says it is finished, He means it.

 

Why “Be Strong” or “Buck Up” is the Wrong Response to Suffering…

In the context of talking about people in difficult and ongoing situations, someone once asked me: “Why is the simple instruction to ‘be strong’ or ‘buck up’ at best insufficient and at worst harmful?”

When I heard this question, I was immediately struck 1) by my strong feelings on the subject and 2) by my natural ability to answer the question with insight and nuance. This was presumably in large part because I’ve dealt with significant and ongoing health issues (both physical and psychological) in recent years that have forced me to stare the painful realities of life full in the face. While on this journey, I’ve had my share of both helpful and unhelpful responses from people. Concurrently, I’ve had numerous opportunities to deeply connect with other people who are suffering, even when their suffering is quite different than my own. All that to say, I guess it makes sense that when I was asked the above-mentioned question, I felt both passionate and somewhat-competent in writing up the following reply…

Telling someone who is suffering to “Buck up!” or “Be strong!” shuts down conversation by shaming the person, instead of providing a safe place for healthy dialogue and compassionate understanding. It says that you are not willing to try to understand the other person’s situation, that you’re not willing to walk with them through this trial.

It overestimates the power of the human will and emotions. It assumes that if only the person tried harder or thought more positively, things would be better. It assumes that the problem is with the person’s effort or attitude. This ends up isolating the sufferer from resources and people that may be necessary for their situation.

It guilts people about things which are largely not under their control, instead of freeing them with knowledge that some things are not their fault, while providing a safe and empowering environment in which to make choices over those things that they can manage.

It downplays or denies the reality of the difficult parts of the human experience and the validity of unpleasant emotions. This means, of course, that such persons will be of little or no help in actually dealing with such experiences.

Basically, telling someone to “be strong” or “buck up” shuts down conversation and relationship, isolates the sufferer, guilts and shames over that which is out of the person’s control, may prevent the sufferer from getting the help they need, and denies the reality of the full human experience.

– Hannah

(Picture from: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1398985/Sheryl-Sandberg-Real-empathy-is-sometimes-not-insisting-that-it-will-be-okay-but)

He Whispers Sweet Peace to Me

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:1, 27, NRSV

Has your heart ever been troubled? Have you lost sleep over worry and stress? Has your entire being ever ached over an insurmountable problem that didn’t seem to have a solution? I think we all have at one time or another. What do we do in these times?I’ve often found that in these circumstances I’ve got no choice but to pray and wait for God to act.

I like being in control. I like being able to make life decisions for myself, but when I feel I’m backed into a corner I begin let my heart get troubled. I go over possible scenarios in my head of how the situation could work not knowing what could possibly happen and I just add to my worry and stress. What’s going on inside when I allow my heart to become troubled in spite of Christ plainly telling me not to allow my heart to be troubled? I’m giving in to my worry and stress and I’m ultimately looking to myself for answers instead of God.

Let me just tell you something that I’m having to remind myself every day for the last year – God will provide. You see, when you’re in the dark and it looks like you’ll never see the light again, that’s when Jesus comes into the dark and whispers peace. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), but he’s also the light of our world. He exposes those things that the darkness tries to hide. He covers us with his wings, and He feeds us with sweet manna from heaven. That may not be comforting when the bills are due in three days and you have no idea what you’re going to do, and you’ve got nothing but Ramen in the cabinets, but God will provide.
Sometime when misgivings darken the day
And faith’s light I cannot see
I ask my dear Lord to brighten the way
He whispers sweet peace to me
– Will M. Ramsey

Momentary Affliction and a Merciful Savior

MAMS

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. …For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7, 17-18, NRSV

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, NRSV

Let’s get one thing clear. I suck at being a Christian. I love Jesus with all my heart. He’s my best friend. I call upon Him as Savior everyday and I pray for Him to be my Lord, and I try to submit myself to what He wants for my life, but sometimes I just blow it. If I weren’t a Calvinist, I would say that I’ve lost my salvation two or three times in the last week. The struggle that I have is real and one of the reasons I believe God allows me to have these struggles is so that I can help others who have similar problems.

You see, this whole sanctification thing is from now until we die. We’ll never be perfect until we stand in the full presence of Almighty God in Heaven. Until that moment, God continually draws us to Himself. He beckons us into a beautiful relationship with Him. And this life is full of ups and downs, unexpected turns in the road, and sometimes we lose our way. Sometimes we make bad decisions. The good news though is that Jesus didn’t lay any terms and conditions in a negotiation with the Father before He came. Jesus didn’t look at God and say, “Now Dad, I’m only going to atone for their sins if they never blow it or mess up again from the moment of their conversion.” That conversation never took place. As a matter of fact, I don’t even believe there was any negotiation because Jesus humbly submitted Himself to the Father’s will.

Spurgeon said, “God came here in human form, not bound to be obedient; but “being found in fashion as a man, he became obedient”; obedient to his own law, and fulfilled every jot and tittle of it. He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And his obedience is ours, if we believe.” So you see, Jesus was perfectly obedient because He knew we wouldn’t be. He knew we were sons of wrath and disobedience when He saved us, and then He made children of the light.

Now, I’m a secure child of God, but there are days when it feels like the darkness will not lift and I have gone too far and Jesus, in all of His love and mercy, reminds me of the atonement that He secured for me over 2,000 years ago on an old rugged cross. My sins, my mess ups, my mistakes, my depression, my habits, and hangups were nailed to the cross and Jesus had already declared His victory over them.

So if you’re reading this and you’re having one of those days, remember He’s not done with you yet. He loves you and He still says to us, “Neither do I condemn you, go, and sin no more!.”

Jesus Is After Your Joy

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
– John 15:1-7, 11 (NRSV)

Jesus is after your joy. Think about that. He always wants us to have joy. But, how can we take joy in being pruned? Hoe can we take joy in knowing that we must always depend on Him? As human beings, we are so independently minded that we often forget that we need Jesus just to breathe.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” – Acts 17:24, 25 (NRSV)

Personally, I’m glad to know that I don’t have depend on myself. It’s comforting for me to know that I am not the culmination of my human experience. In John 17, Jesus shows us that we must be connected to him if we are ever going to bear fruit for His kingdom. He first shows us that if we are not bearing adequate fruit then God prunes us that we will bear more fruit. Sometimes God has to take away things from our lives to show us that He is more precious than anything else. He has to show that we must enjoy Him above everything else. Enjoying God above everything else is what caused David to exclaim

“Because your steadfast love is better than life,  my lips will praise you.” – Psalm 63:3 (ESV)

Understanding that God is be valued more than life itself should motivate us in such a way that bears fruit. When we consider all this we must ask ourselves, “Are we bearing fruit for the kingdom?”, “Do we really value God more than life itself?” As I finish up this post, consider the words of Paul:

 “If our hope in Christ is for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone else in the world.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:19 (NCV)

We have a hope beyond this meager human experience, let’s pursue that hope together!