Mangy Dog. Smoke and Mirrors. And the Love of God.

When we preach the gospel to ourselves, what we say is important.  What we think about what we say might be even more important.

When you’re reminded again of your sin – big or small, public or private – what “talk” goes through your head? What is the gospel message that you rehearse?

This might be the same question, but it might not be… When God looks at you, what do you imagine Him seeing?

Often when we hear the gospel or the “good news” explained, it goes something like this: I’m a sinner, rebellious and wicked through and through – my heart is evil and defiled – but because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, instead of me receiving the just penalty for my sin – death and separation from God, Jesus Himself endured that on my behalf. He received the wrath of God, so I could spend eternity with God.

The gospel songs we sing reinforce this message. 

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”

“For God, the Just, is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.”

Indeed, this is the message of Scripture.

Maybe. It’s possible to have the words right and the associations wrong. 

When you repeat that “good news” to yourself, what do you really hear? How do you interpret those words? And again, when God looks at you, what does He see? There’s a way of understanding this “good news” that misses much of its goodness and beauty.

When God looks at you, what do you think He sees, really?

smokey stage lights

Imagine the ugliest, mangy dog you can. Yellowed teeth. Flees. Matted hair, soiled with dirt and feces. Flaking, raw, irritated skin where the dog has gnawed and scratched away patches of its coat. Sunken eyes. Malnourished. Either cowering in fear, or fiercely resisting your approach with all of its remaining strength. Chained. 

That’s an ugly picture, and honestly, one that’s not far from the vivid Bible descriptions of the sinful condition of the human heart. That mangy dog is an apt metaphor. And if it elicits a sense of retreat and withdraw, of being repelling, I’ve hit the mark. 

The good news is that when God took on flesh in the person of Jesus and bore our sins on the cross, God in Jesus identified with us.  He took that ugliness and sin upon Himself. In effect, He picked up that mangy dog into His arms and got mucked up by it. To say He got dirty is an understatement, but in so doing, He began the process of actually making that dog what He alone could see – what that dog was supposed to be, what that dog could be, what the dog was incapable of doing for itself.

When God looks on you, He sees you in Jesus. 

Compare that to this different telling: God the Father looks at the mangy dog, and then by an elaborate setup of smoke and mirrors, in a giant cosmic illusion [drumroll], He looks away and sees His perfect Son, Jesus (all the while the mangy dog, remains hidden behind the mirrors)…Tada! [cymbal crash]

We tell ourselves something like that all the time. There’s truth in there. But it’s fundamentally different.

No gospel ‘presentation’ can possibly tell the full depth of the story every time, but it’s possible to so mis-tell the gospel story that it’s not gospel at all.

There are no mirrors. And no sleight of hand.

Jesus has picked you up. He embraces you. He has done this because He loves you. God the Father doesn’t look away from you to Jesus. He turned away from Jesus to look on you. He sees Jesus carrying you, Jesus clothing you, Jesus indwelling you, Jesus changing you, Jesus making you beautiful. That’s not a self-help message. That’s not a denial of your previous manginess, or any remaining manginess. [Manginess = the stench of sin, for those who would accuse me of soft-selling the gospel.] 

Jesus, in making you beautiful, is both making much of you, and displaying how gloriously good He is. And the display of His glory is inextricably tied up with His love for you. He will not have them torn asunder. 

You will never again be viewed apart from Christ. Where Christ is, there you are. Not God viewing Christ instead of you, but God viewing Christ with you enveloped in His life. You have not disappeared. Nor are God’s eyes merely diverted. You’ve been changed (and are being changed) and made beautiful (and being made beautiful) in Him. And that most definitely is to His praise and glory.

This is a life-changing truth that is so much better than a mere optical diversion tactic between Jesus and the Father. 

Hear the good news again (Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

. . .

It’s been said that the gospel is the announcement of God’s plan and means to take us back to Eden. 

In the garden, the transcendent God condescended… He is Creator and we are created, after all; there would be no way to interact without Him condescending; He is infinite and we are but clay in His hands. But He condescended in pleasure and love, to engage with and be known by His creation. It wasn’t a moral or legal condescension. There was purity and innocence in this interaction, similar to a stooping parent, who delights in his child. He liked this and it was good.

In love God created us. In love He interacted with us. In love He gave us purpose and calling. Why would God condescend lower still, infinitely lower, after our rebellion? Still love. And this faithful love is His glory. In the muck of the prodigal’s pig sty, in the Psalmist’s miry clay, or attached by nails to a Roman cross, there we find our God and Savior, with us in the most profound sense, thoroughly embracing us – taking us into Himself, onto Himself, becoming one of us and all of us.

But while our curse, our sin, our alienation – our manginess – made Him all those things, He didn’t remain those things. He bore them. He was cursed. But He is no longer. All past tense. It is finished. Done. 

He still bears the scars, but His scars have been transformed to beauty, and the cross has been transformed to victory.  And you are in Him. 

God now condescends to you as He did in Eden. As Creator with His loved ones. Without moral overtone. In Jesus. He likes you. And it is good, again. Restored. See yourself. Not cowering behind the mirror, but with Jesus gladly, pleased even, to be by your side. 

There’s no less glory to Jesus in this gospel, but more.  The pendulum swing against the so-called man-centered gospel has become a straw man and is in danger of distorting the gospel altogether. If we’re not careful, it’s merely an abstract cosmic transaction, between God and God, with a monergism that goes far beyond man’s incapacity and ultimately leads to manlessness. Who is the receiver of this good news? The Subject is Jesus – no contest. But who is the object? This is news and love for us. And in that news and love, we become. And we are becoming.

Hallelujah, what a Savior.

The Anti Fall Retreat Pitch

For weeks I’ve been giving the Fall Retreat “pitch”.

“Come to fall retreat! It’s going to be great and awesome and you’re going to love it and all the other good things I can think of…”

Well, I’m tired. And pitched out. And wanting to be rebellious. So today I’m going to tell you, through story, why you should avoid Fall Retreat at all costs.

There was once a freshman. Spoiler alert: her name is, Megan. My name is also, Megan. No, this is not a coincidence.

She came out of a high school where she was known for being confident and awesome (really awesome). But then she came into a college where she didn’t have a reputation. She didn’t have history.

She found an organization her first week on campus called Cru, and stayed because this really cute boy spoke at the first meeting. She bonded with all the other freshman girls who stayed because of this upperclassman, ear-pierced, edgy, Jesus-loving boy.

But there was a loneliness that she didn’t want to acknowledge. She was around all these new people, but felt alone. She was getting to know so many friends, but felt unknown. She attended these meetings, but wasn’t needed.

Then she saw the advertisements for Fall Retreat at Camp Carl. She signed up immediately. Bad choice, Megan.

The weekend was filled with bonfires, games, really late nights and several speaking sessions. It seems innocent enough, right? Wrong.

In those sessions, the speaker talked about giving your whole life: past, present and future to God. Trusting him to guide and direct your moment-by-moment day, and your future plans. Megan made that commitment to Jesus. This decision lead to Megan’s involvement with Cru for the next 3 1/2 years of her college career, and ultimately, working full-time with the organization. There are so many days where she thinks that the selfishness of choosing her own way, directing her own life, would be so much easier than laying down her rights in front of Jesus. It may be less joyous, less fulfilling, but certainly easier.

The bonfires, games and staying up all night gave Megan a chance to completely be herself with these Cru people. She (obviously) dominated all the games, and then got to share her heart with some women from her campus. She was known. She got to know two women at Fall Retreat specifically that stood next to her for the rest of her college career and then right beside her on her wedding day.

What can be wrong with that, you ask?

Well, her heart aches when theirs’ aches, and is sad when they are sad. You have no idea the amount of sleep she has lost by staying up and talking with these women. Then there is the fact that these women weren’t afraid to call Megan out when she was being a jerk: not fun. Not to mention the fact that we all have to graduate at some point. And then those people that you have lived life with for 4 years, those that you have given your heart to so deeply, leave. They get real jobs and you don’t live within walking distance to their dorm room anymore. Megan has been out of college for over two years, and there is hardly a day that goes by that she doesn’t miss those women.

So here is my, I mean Megan’s warning- if you don’t want to risk the love in those friendships that you will make at Fall Retreat, do not come. If you don’t want to be challenged in your faith, to grow in your relationship with Jesus, do not come. If you don’t want to be known, to be met exactly where you are at by other students and staff, to begin history with people, do not come. 

Megan went. Her life still reflects the decisions that were spurred on by that retreat. Take it from her; this retreat has the potential to change your course. And we all know that change is dangerous. Way more dangerous than spending a weekend on homework, or working, more dangerous than a relaxing weekend with friends or family. There is safety in the mundane, and retreat is anything but mundane.

So, proceed with caution, friends. Much caution.

Letter to Parents (From Parents)

Dear Friends and Parents,
 
It’s that time of year again, when we pack up our college kids and send them off to start a new year of “Higher Learning.”  But if you are like me, you are also thinking of what they may be learning outside the classroom… who and what will they be getting involved with?
 
They have a lot to choose from.  
 
(Photo Credit: Marissa Carney, Penn State News)
I’m thankful that Emily chose to go with Cru. Cru, unlike many groups at school, has some great role models to help her as she navigates through the college years.  They challenge her personally and they challenge her faith.
 
Last spring (2013),  Emily called home to ask what I thought about a mission trip to Croatia.  I was a little shocked, and then again, I wasn’t.  I did not even know where Croatia was (internet here I come!). God had to challenge me to “let go” and see what He had in mind for her. Not easy.  But through lots of prayers, emails, and phone calls (plus a short 5 1/2 hour drive one-way to meet Jennie and Hung), we felt that we could not stand in the way of what God was doing. In less than 3 weeks she raised the money needed to pay for the trip. Things even fell into place with her professors at school.  Our prayer was that God would “run before” the team and set things up for them to make an impact on the students they would be meeting.  God did. He even sent a team from Georgia that they did not know about who they worked side by side with.  Emily’s Cru trip was life-changing. She met students half a world away that are challenged by the same things she is. She also found other students who were also actively serving Christ.
 
She was seeing her world in a new way, as well as developing a heart for other college students facing challenges at school.  Cru has become a big part of her life.
 
What are your kids wanting to do this year? This spring break? This summer?  Who is it with?  Cru can be an influential part.  What is the goal of Cru? Ask your kids. Go meet the staff. Your young person may be staying on track thanks to the staff and other students at Cru.
 
Who knows, they may even change the world one person at a time.
 
I hope you and your student get to know the organization of Cru, the students and the staff too. I pray that you will all have a great experience this year.
 
In Him,
Rebecca and Joel Bussis (parents of Emily Bussis – CWRU class of 2016)
 

#TrueStory

We experience life as a story, because life is a story and that story goes something like this . . .

BETRAYAL:

We were created for a relationship with God. But our hearts turned proud, and pride corrupted. We abandoned God and intimacy turned to alienation. Humanity is now fallen: none of us lives or loves as we ought.

ANTICIPATION:

Though we betrayed God, He did not abandon us. Through the prophets God promised to send a Savior (the Messiah) who would restore and rescue us from the consequences of our sin and betrayal.

PURSUIT:

As promised, God sent the one who would rescue and restore us. His name was Jesus. The unique Son of God became one of us. He spoke truth, modeled love, granted forgiveness, and offered life in all of its fullness.

SACRIFICE:

Life’s greatest mystery was revealed in love’s greatest act. Jesus, the author of life, died for us: taking upon himself our guilt and atoning for our sin. How can we be sure? God raised Jesus from the dead. He is alive today and offers life to all who would receive it.

THE GIFT:

Now God invites us to come back to him through trusting in Jesus. Forgiveness is a free and undeserved gift, received only through genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. —John 6:40

This is the story—our story—from rebellion to reunion: our journey back to intimacy with God.

A TURNING POINT?

All good stories have turning points and this could be the turning point of your story. If you desire to turn to God and receive Christ, you can express that right now to God, silently, in prayer.

If you’d like to find out more, just go to EveryStudent.com where millions of students have gone to explore faith.

Sunblock and Jesus – Big Break 2013

This past week 4 staff and 26 students made the 16-hour treck down to Panama City Beach for a conference called Big Break.

This conference is all about learning how to share your faith, how to take steps of faith in your life, and then practically applying those two and sharing with all the college students that come to get hammered on the beach for their Spring Break trips.

The first things that always strikes me when I come down here for this trip is the overwhelming sadness of students desperately trying to fill their lives with things that are leaving them incredibly unsatisfied. It almost takes my breath away to look at the emptiness in their eyes, to see how far they are willing to go to escape their presently shallow and unfulfilling lives.

We talked to so many students this week who, when you really start talking to them, say that they want their life to be absolutely anything but the blur and haze and drunken stupor that defined most of their week, if not their college careers.

They want meaning during days where there is no agenda but to get hammered. They want purpose in school where the only aim is to graduate. They want peace when the thrills of partying can only satisfy for a short season. They want acceptance when their friendships seem so shallow.

This trip for many of them exposes how much they want MORE.

We, and around 1,200 other college students attending the conference, were so blessed to be able to step into so many of their lives and offer them a relationship with the Giver of meaning and purpose, the Person of peace and true acceptance. I’m so thankful to be able to show so many of these students for the first time, a Jesus who wants to love radically, heal completely, and give a joy that makes us ‘full’.

God has been so present with us throughout the entire trip. At the beginning of our trip only about 5 of our students had shared their faith before and now all of them have initiated conversations  and we’ve gotten to see 3 people accept Christ!

As a conference, during our week, 4200 spiritual conversations took place. Out of those conversations, 1588 people heard the gospel and we saw 116 people accept Christ! Praise the Lord!

Thoughts on Douglas Wilson’s “Black and Tan”

512px-Dirck_van_Baburen_-_Christ_Washing_the_Apostles_Feet_-_WGA1090

Since reading Douglas Wilson’s Black and Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America, after being alerted to it by Pastor Bryan Loritts’ critique and subsequent blog (a Google search will find these easily), my mind has been reeling with thoughts.  Because of my own inability to think about much else, or even have a normal conversation, I set out to synthesize them and get them out of my head and onto “paper.” My wife will appreciate my attention, and hopefully you will benefit from the writing.

Before my comments, it might be helpful firstly to present the arguments of the book as I’ve understood them. Wilson has several streams running together throughout his book, which I will attempt to outline below.

Exegetical stream:

  • Evangelicals apologize for Biblical texts which sanction slavery – from the Old Testament (in covenant relationship with God) and from the NT (a Christian way of living “biblically” within a pagan system of slavery).
  • This apologizing and embarrassment has weakened the church’s ability to speak with authority from the Scripture in other areas where the Bible also speaks authoritatively, i.e. homosexuality and abortion.
  • The way to recover that ability to speak with authority is to speak “truthfully,” in other words, unapologetically, without hemming and hawing about the slavery texts.
  • He is very careful and repetitive in denouncing the atrocities of chattel slavery, the slave trade, and racism, because the Bible speaks so plainly on these things.

With the premise that the Bible authorizes/sanctions slavery in the OT, within a certain covenantal framework with God, and in the NT, correcting and Christianizing the conduct of slaveowners and slaves within the pagan system, he sets out on the next stream.

Historical stream:

  • Despite his repetition in denouncing the atrocities of chattel slavery and the slave trade, he also repeats frequently the caveat “some” slaveowners, “some” slaves, under “some” circumstances. For “truth”’s sake, he will not uniformly condemn the South, and contrary to his protests, he does attempt to lessen her stigma.
  • He also goes to great lengths to support the thesis that the Old South was perhaps the most advanced Christian civilization at the time anywhere in the world. Because of this, they were even more harshly judged for their error (the atrocities of southern slavery), by the less righteous North (the same way God used pagan OT nations as His instruments of judgment – by no means an endorsement of the pagan nation, just an instrument in His hands.)
  • A Christian could own slaves in the south, treat them well, educate them, provide for their salvation through preaching, and fulfill the Biblical instruction for Christian slaveowners – all righteously.

Hypothetical stream:

  • If Southern Christians had lived even more righteously under these standards of Biblical slavery, the gospel itself would have erased slavery as an institution in due time, not because the Bible outright rejects slavery, but because the logical stream of the gospel and it’s outworking takes us there.
  • The Civil War was unnecessary, the fault of radicals (see Political stream), and forced an end to something through revolution which the gospel would have brought to an end more organically over time.

Political stream:

  • Unrighteous Unitarians in the North, who had rejected the Bible, seized control of the universities and thus public opinion.
  • “Radical Abolitionists” from this persuasion (compared to modern-day “intoleristas” in the book, not loyal to the Bible) vilified the South, who were actually more righteous (because of their allegiance to the Bible).
  • The South was actually fighting the right battle of states rights and had the moral high ground, notwithstanding ill-treatment of slaves.
  • All of this it is believed formed the basis for the current loss of states rights, the growth of the federal government, and the inability of the Christian church to make headway against a far-left liberal political agenda.

Where does one even begin? Bryan Loritts’ blog response focused on pastoral concerns, and in his own graciousness grants far too much. He in essence gives Wilson the benefit of the doubt that the “facts” as he presents them are correct, but rightly asks, where is the pastoral sensitivity toward the “other,” to African-Americans (and whites I might add) who hear in his words a justification of the South (despite protestations to the contrary) and further, an honoring? He asks Wilson in essence to walk in his shoes.

The problem with this kind of Biblicist and Objectivist is that as long as the “facts” are right, there is no argument to be had. And for Wilson, he’s convinced he has the “facts” right. Any attempt to say, “Yes, the facts, but…” is met with a cry of “you’re a relativist,” and among his tribe, to be a relativist, not a slaveholder, is the worst of sins.

Each of his streams of thought and their underlying premises need to be dismantled, piece by piece. And that’s apparently the only thing that will do. For Wilson, only “show me where my argument is wrong” will do.

Thabiti Anyabwile, in a tweet, asked a thoughtful question: Why attempt to justify slavery in the first place? We know Wilson’s stated answer from above, that justifying slavery to him seems necessary in order to speak with authority from the Bible. First, is justifying slavery necessary for recovering our moral authority and speaking with authority from the Scripture on current moral issues? And because the disavowal of and distancing of Christians from slavery might not be done in soundbites, requiring some “hemming and hawing,” does that make our stance weak? Yes, slavery is in the Bible, but must we start from a foundation of it’s biblical acceptability (for all times and places), even as Wilson says that the trajectory of the moral argument of the gospel leads to dismantling slavery? But secondly, whatever Wilson’s stated reason, one cannot miss the political animosity toward the Left nor the resentment for what he believes was a wholesale vilification of the South.

Wilson is a master with words. He likes them. And he places them above all else. He can only be held to his words and their truthfulness. Nevermind tone, inflection, or even how they are received. Is it only the cold hard meaning of words that matter. And with his words, he attempts to inoculate himself from any charge of racism. Indeed, with his words he disavows it entirely.

Objective Truth is a powerful thing. And God’s Truth is the standard by which all else must be measured. But let me suggest that this Truth is known by the Spirit and, yes mediated through the Words of Scripture, it is more than the words on the page. If it were not, any person reading them would have this truth. But the Truth comes by God. I’m not talking about a gnostic enlightening, but a Spirit-inspired understanding – the Spirit who alone knows the mind of God and was Himself responsible for the breathing of the Scripture. Is that not the “Objective Truth” – the one that comes from God and is enlightened by Him? The Word and Spirit together – is that not the standard?

I’m thankful that Truth is not just words and propositions to be parsed and understood. And I don’t say “just” to diminish the importance of words and propositions one iota. This is why the same Bible text, no matter how well exegeted and how well known according to the best rules of Greek language and grammar, will speak again and again and again in fresh ways to us. We never know it through and through.

I’m so thankful that this Word became flesh. Or as D.A. Carson explains in his commentary on John, the Word/Deed (logos) became flesh; the Word of God is never without power and action and embodiment, perfectly manifested to us in flesh and blood.

Mere words cannot embrace. Truth can. Truth walked in our shoes. And this is how Doug Wilson, however right he might be with his words (and I don’t grant that he is), couldn’t be further from the Truth.

Should Bryan Loritts, Thabiti Anyabwile, or Anthony Bradley respond to Wilson’s request to travel to Idaho (on his dime) for conversations and a platform, I should hope that hundreds of white evangelicals would show up en mass too. Shy of that, what is to be gained by the invitation or by taking him up on it? Who is to learn? And what? Perhaps a few white evangelicals, by simply picking up the phone, could have much more influence.

It would be disingenuous to represent this post as a reaction precipitated only by concerns over race relations. Here in Cleveland, conversations like this are incredibly important.  But (and I pray my African-American brothers hear no lessening of the concern, by my ‘but’), there’s something under this as well, also deeply important in my ministry context. What culture creates Bible readings like this, and not only Bible readings, but posture and demeanor which wield these readings so harshly? I speak to my Reformed brothers, of whom I am part. We are the most susceptible to and, dare I say, have failed by creating this culture of “right,” which on so many occasions renders us simply unable to hear. This concerns me. Reformed brothers, white and black, if not about the issue of slavery, relate to one another and those outside our tribe with this posture all too often.

May Jesus help us to hold high the authority of Scripture – its unparalleled importance in the life of faith as a dividing line between truth and error – but let’s let it also inform us about our own sinfulness, our own propensity to distort, to present it wrongly, and even get it wrong on occasion. How dare we presume, while knowing some things truly and faithfully, that we can know all things exhaustively? While faithfully presenting the perfection of God’s Word, let us also understand that we are finite in our understanding of it, and not having every answer is a proof of its grandeur, not an indictment against. Humility before God in all ways is good for us all.

This is updated from a previous post which appeared on Facebook.

The photo is Dutch Artist, Dirck van Baburen (circa 1594/1595–1624), Christ Washing the Disciples Feet.