Focus. When I write I realize that I need to work hard to get my head in the right space. I need to cut out the distractions, slow my mind down, clear the clutter. And it takes a while. There are so many competing streams of thought running through my brain, and so many outside distractions vying for my attention, that it takes discipline for me to focus my writing. To quiet myself so that I can communicate clearly the ONE THING I want to say. My goal as a communicator is to be more like a laser beam, and less like a fog lamp. Focus.
This is the principle of “irreducible minimums.” It is the process of reducing something down to its most elemental level, so that it can’t be reduced any more without being fundamentally changed into something else. In Chemistry class, we learned about molecules, for example, the smallest identifiable unit into which a pure substance can be divided and still retain the composition and chemical properties of that substance. In my high school Composition class, Mrs. O. always challenged us to “use fewer words.” Get to the point. Cut to the chase. Irreducible minimums.
The prophet-poet King David gave us a moment of clarity like that in Psalm 27. For a moment, in the midst of declaring his faith in God to carry him through a season of intense hardship and danger, David pulls back the curtain to reveal the central most focused desire of his heart.
“ONE THING I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, and to seek him in his temple.” (27:4)
That’s focus. “In all of my heart, God, you alone enthrall me. When I clear away the clutter, and boil down my desire to its purest essence, it is YOU that I want.” David says, “If I lose everything else, but have communion with my Lord, that is enough. My soul is satisfied in Him alone.”
Paul makes a similar declaration in Philippians 3:8. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Do you see? This is Paul’s ONE THING. Knowing Jesus. Relationship with God trumps everything else.
So I examine my heart. I ask, “What is my ONE THING?”
I encourage you to spend some quiet moments with this question, too. And I can help you. It may be too easy to give the expected answer here. I mean, for those of us who go to church regularly for worship, isn’t it expected of us that our answer would be, “well, JESUS, of course. My ONE THING must be JESUS”? That’s too easy. I’m not asking you to put your finger on what you think the right answer should be. I’m asking you to consider what is actually TRUE.
Pleasure is like a gauge that measures value. So maybe instead of trying to simply name your irreducible minimum – your most important, most deeply seated desire – it may be easier to reflect on what it is that brings you the deepest pleasure. What do you enjoy most? What floods you with delight? Now we’re getting at it. The heart of your heart. Meditate on this. Clear away the distractions, and pray for clarity. All of us have our own ONE THING. Focus. What is yours?
Be honest with yourself. And with God.
David and Paul understood something about God that transformed them, emboldened them, and gave focus to their whole life. By the grace of God, they came to understand in the heart of their heart the truth of Psalm 16:11, which David wrote: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
How much joy do you want? How about a bottomless well of it? That’s fullness of joy. And how long do you want it to last? 75 years? 85? How about forever?
I know my ONE THING. I know that I know that I know. I want fullness of joy in the presence of God forever. I want to KNOW Jesus more and more, because in Him alone will all of my other desires be swallowed and satisfied and overpowered.
So today, find a quiet place to get alone with your thoughts and to talk with God. Ask yourself what brings you the greatest happiness. What is the ONE THING that you can’t imagine being without, even if it costs you every other desire and dream cluttering up your heart space?
I submit to you that David and Paul had it right. Until being at peace and in love with Jesus becomes your irreducible minimum, you will always feel the nagging tug of dissatisfaction. But when He becomes your ONE THING, you will find joyful rest for every longing of your heart.
June 13, 2014, Grace Free Lutheran Church, Valley City, ND. For my ordination service I sang “Sovereign” by Chris Tomlin.
Sovereign in the mountain air Sovereign on the ocean floor With me in the calm With me in the storm
Sovereign in my greatest joy Sovereign in my deepest cry With me in the dark With me at the dawn
In your everlasting arms, all the pieces of my life From beginning to the end, I will trust You In Your never-failing love You work everything for good God whatever comes my way, I will trust You God whatever comes my way, I will trust You
All my hopes, all I need Held in Your hands All my life, all of me Held in Your hands All my fears, all my dreams Held in Your hands
Jesus said… “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
As I write this today I am thinking about three people I am very much looking forward to seeing again.
The first is my good friend and former Seminary professor, Pastor Fran Monseth. He was honestly a father figure in my life, and he loved me and all of our family like we were his own. Fran transferred residence from his earthly shell to the presence of the Lord one year ago today. One year. It’s still hard to believe I can’t call him for advice, can’t pray with him, can’t endure his dry jokes.
Second, I miss my friend Jeremy. He never really leaves my mind, to be honest. We worshipped together, made music together, discussed theology over eggs benedict, laughed and cried and prayed together through his cancer diagnosis and treatment, and through the bone marrow transplant that took his life. Jeremy knew my heart, and I knew his. Jeremy went home to Jesus in June of 2012. There are still days when the tears come, unexpected.
And third, I want to give my Grandma Arona a hug. Grandma went to heaven just this last October. I miss her cinnamon rolls with the peanut butter frosting, and her potato dumplings, and the way she would say “It’s probably not any good” after you had just taken thirds of whatever deliciousness she happened to be serving that evening. I miss hearing her vibrato, as she sang hymns to Jesus. After having lived the last several years of her life in a wheelchair following a stroke, Grandma walked into Jesus’ arms. She’s singing again, too.
We’re drawing near to EASTER now, and our eyes and thoughts are on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Church is preparing to celebrate. But today, as I remember Pastor Monseth, and Jeremy, and Grandma, the reality and power of the HOPE of RESURRECTION shakes me again. Because Jesus rose FIRST, you see – the firstfruits, He is called – we who know Him as our own carry the assurance with us that death is not an end. Death has lost its sting. Now it is a relocation, a joyful transfer to freedom. And we will rise again.
That’s why I can’t intone the Apostle’s Creed every week in our worship services with my heart and brain disengaged. In fact, the joyful reality of the certain resurrection we look forward to can probably be seen splashed on my face as we agree together what we believe in… “The holy Christian Church, the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body…”
Really since Jeremy left us, this resurrection we look forward to has become so much more real for many of his loved ones. His friends here below were and are unusually close to him and to each other. We assume he’s working out a housing arrangement with the Lord whereby our mansions are all on the same cul-de-sac. Since Jeremy’s departure, thoughts of resurrection are always swirling through my theology, and it affects my everyday reality. Like Paul, I hang my everything on the hope of resurrection.
Paul said that he had given up everything else in life in order that he might live in relationship with Jesus. And to what end? “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
For me, this is tangible. Not just theological speculation. Keeping my eyes on the reality of resurrection in Jesus is changing my tastes. Jesus is making my heart new, and refashioning my mind. He puts my mouth out of taste for the poison of sin, and reminds me of the sweetness of knowing Him. Finding my delight in Him leads to LIFE, and a complete and soul-satisfying joy that lasts forever. (Psalm 16:11) And communion with Him. And ongoing relationship with Fran, and Jeremy, and Grandma again.
The Church will celebrate Easter in a few short weeks. Don’t allow your family traditions and familiar ceremony to inoculate you to the wonder of this moment. The resurrection is for YOU. That should astound you. It astounds me. And it means that those loved ones in Jesus who have gone on before us are together now with the Lord, and they will rise again. Death is not final. It’s just a relocation, a renewal, a rebirthing process. Jesus said that everyone who lives and believes in Him shall never die.
Jesus fields a question about what happens to people when they die. It’s a theology question. About other people. Jesus’ answer burns away the arm’s-length safety of the question and reframes it in a way we can’t ignore. Instead of answering “How many will go to heaven when they die?” Jesus requires each of us to ask, “Will I go to heaven when I die?”
Everybody dies. The door to heaven is narrow. We all live on in eternity, but not everyone will be in heaven with God, enjoying His favor forever. If you hope to make it into the Kingdom of God – through the narrow door – you must enter alone before God. We come one at a time.
What about you? Here is the GOOD NEWS. There is a Door. And it’s still open. Right now.
>> This message is found in Luke 13:22-30. You can read it online here.
We live under the self-delusion that we are in control. We shoulder the weight of our own protection, provision, status, wealth, health, and direction. Jesus is talking to his disciples about money, and priorities – and about their Father in heaven. “No,” he says, “you are not in control.” And we must realize… this is amazingly GOOD NEWS.
>> This message is found in Luke12:22-34. You can read it online here.
When you boil your goals and values and priorities down to the very core, and you strip away all the non-essentials, can you identify your ONE THING? Cut through the clutter and see what it is that you’re really living for.
>> Please follow along in Luke10:38-42. You can read it online here.
This July, 1,800+ souls gathered together for a week of worship and Bible study and relational bonding at the YMCA of the Rockies camp up in the mountains of Estes Park, CO. This was FLY 2013, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations Youth Convention, held every two years. My wife Amy and I were grateful to be asked to speak this year on July 4, for the Thursday evening services. As I spoke to the men and boys in the Longhouse, Amy had an opportunity to speak to the girls in the Assembly Hall just up the hill. The theme of the convention was “Broken,” taken from Isaiah 53. The text we focused on for the evening was Isaiah 53:10-12.
My dad has my back. I don’t want to disappoint him. I love spending time with him, because I know that he loves me. We’ve got a good relationship, and that has been formative in my life. I’m literally not the same person I would be without him loving me the way that he does. In some ways, our relationship with God is like this. That’s why he invites us to call Him “Father.”
Far from the remote, disinterested God-idea many people struggle with, and a far cry from the buzz-kill God of to-do lists and do-nots, the Bible describes a God who INITIATES. A God who loves first. A God who created us to be RELATIONAL beings, just as He is a RELATIONAL God. God wants us to live in close relationship with him through His Word. … …
“A Relational People for a Relational God” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Pastor Monseth has been the dean of our AFLC Seminary for 42 years. He was my Systematic Theology professor and my good friend. He was also the father of some of the best friends I have ever had. When you love much, you grieve hard, and so his absence is felt deeply by our families and by our whole church Association. Fran Monseth died on Good Friday. Late at night, following an emotionally tangled Easter, my brother-in-law, Adam, sent the following tweet:
There it is. GOSPEL! HOPE! The exact minute we concede our loved ones are gone, the power of hope floods in.
For those of us who loved Fran so deeply, we grieve his passing with many tears. I hate it. He was like a second (or third) dad to me, he loved my wife and kiddos like family. And he let us know. His absence will be felt for the rest of our lives. My grief spills down my face, and it has for a week, and it shows no signs of stopping. But then, in every conversation, and in every story… Jesus. The Gospel. HOPE.
I’m straining at the keyboard to shout it to you. Whether you go to church or not. I feel this one to my toes. Jesus makes all the difference. On one side stands anger/confusion/hopelessness/defeat/despair/eventual cynicism and apathy. On the other stands HOPE. With hope comes forgiveness, freedom, purpose, and much joy. God is in the business of proclaiming HOPE in the darkest of places, in the darkest of moments, to the darkest of hearts. I want to be a part of His great story. Like Fran.
Those who ever had a chance to meet Pastor Monseth – or had the great privilege of knowing him well – will speak with conviction that he reflected the character of his greatest love. I’ve heard people say that we become like what we love most. It is natural to worship what we love most. It is natural for a student to become like their teacher. For boys to grow up to be like the dads they love. In this regard Fran reflected the love and character and values of his father, Pastor Fritjof Monseth. Even more, we saw JESUS in him.
I’m struggling to shake off the “churchy” language here – I don’t want my words to blend into the evangelical beige. To say we saw JESUS in Fran has some TEETH. It means real-world lives were changed, because Fran lived DIFFERENTLY than most people – even churchy people. Fran’s faith was bold. He was resolute. He loved God fiercely, and his family joyfully, and his friends deeply. He was full of the truth. He had huge swaths of God’s Word memorized, and his conversations were saturated with scripture. When I had the pressures of life weighing me down, I would talk to Fran, and he cared about it. He cared about our stuff like it was HIS stuff. He would pray with me, asking God to bless and protect and provide for us, with every understanding that his prayers would be answered, because His God is my God. And our God is trustworthy. Without Jesus, I would carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. With Jesus, I can rest. Fran reminded me of that a hundred times.
I was talking to one of the maintenance men on the Seminary campus where I live (and where Fran worked everyday as Professor of Systematic Theology and Seminary Dean), and we noted the consistency with which Fran loved people. I mean ALL people. Recognize the rarity in this. We don’t live like this, even if we believe we should… Or maybe I should just speak for me. I don’t love people the same – with Jesus’ kind of love – regardless of their stature or intellect or smell. I know I shouldn’t, but I tend to categorize people. Lord forgive me.
Fran looked everybody in the eye. His countenance and his words communicated “You matter to me and you matter to God.” This was true for the academicians he could call peers, and it was true for the everyday Joes, and even for the Seminary students who sometimes thought we knew better. Notably, it was just as true for the awkward and the offensive and the marginal people. Fran supernaturally loved people. He was like Jesus.
Do you get this? How remarkable and important this is? Pastor Monseth breathed out Jesus to everybody he had contact with. He affirmed the learned and the weirdos. I want to be that kind of man.
But then he died. He just died. It was a Friday morning. And then by lunch time, no heartbeat.
This is a spark that grows. This is the unique thing that Jesus-lovers experience that the rest of the world doesn’t believe truly exists. This is HOPE: God’s PROVEN power on full display in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is the future of those who believe. Like Fran. Jesus promised us in Romans 6 that our sins were put to death with Him on the cross, and in His resurrection WE who believe are (and will be) resurrected to new life in Him.
As Fran’s death approached he was preparing us – those who love him much – in the HOPE that we would need in days like today, the day of his funeral.
On the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, the Monseth family gathered at the family farm in Rogers, MN, to celebrate Easter together. Grandpa Monseth spoke that afternoon to the family about the hope of resurrection. He talked about the death of his dad, Fritjof, and how he grieved it. “But,” he said, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” Quoting 1 Thessalonians 4:13, he prepared his family. “When I go to heaven on Friday, I know you will be sad. But the sovereign God loves us. Remember the HOPE we have in Jesus. We’ll spend FOREVER together with Him. You’ll see.” Jesus makes all the difference.
He was preparing us, too, his students at AFLTS. In his last lecture of his 42 year career teaching at our Seminary, Dr. Monseth spoke to us about death and the nature of our transition to heaven as disciples of Jesus. In a profoundly fitting turn, Pastor Monseth ended class on Wednesday, March 27, with Job 19:25-27, which is likely the oldest statement in the Bible about the hope of the resurrection.
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
This matters! HOPE! No other religion offers HOPE like the assurance of freedom and life that Jesus gives us. His promises are so clear. I agree with the Apostle Paul, who wrote about this hope in Romans 1:16.
“I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe…”
ALL who believe. Jesus made all the difference to Fran. This confidence in the Gospel fueled his passion to share it. With everyone. With Doctors and weirdos. Because the smartest and the slowest, the kindest and the cruelest, the polished and the ragamuffins ALL fall short of God’s perfect standard. Every soul needs Jesus. Fran lived the Gospel message – the unshakable HOPE that is stronger than death: JESUS died and rose again to forgive everyone. Salvation and freedom and purpose and meaning and HOPE are universally available to EVERYONE who believes.
So today we gather in the chapel on the beloved campus where Dr. Monseth poured out his Jesus to thousands of students. Not just religious ideology. He gave us Jesus. Through the Spirit and the Word, Pastor Monseth helped usher in the Kingdom of God among us. And I know we will never be able to accommodate all the traffic. And I know the spaces of this campus will be filled to overflowing. But I know this is right, to be right here together to mourn as a family. And I think of the last time we gathered with Pastor Monseth as a family in this chapel, not too many days ago.
We gathered here for Ben and Dre’s new daughter – Fran’s latest grandchild. It was her baptism day. I had the great privilege of holding this new 8 pound life, and welcoming her into the family of God with the water and the Word. Everybody huddled around, and the kids had the best seats, right up in front. Blessings were read over her. And Grandpa Fran’s rich voice, full of love and conviction, rang out his blessing, calling upon Jesus to keep her and strengthen her and use her life for His glory. And in this little girl I see his legacy. Like I do in the family picture above.
Only when I look at these pictures, I see thousands of other souls leaning into the frame. Lives changed forever because Fran lived with the courage and conviction to tell them how they mattered to God, and how their sick souls and selfish hearts needed Jesus. And more than that… how Jesus was available to them. Today. Right now. How many souls will be with Fran in heaven because he loved the somebodies and the nobodies with equal compassion? I imagine a stadium full. Only they’re not cheering for Fran. They’re shouting their praise to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – Fran’s first love. The One he sees today face to face.
I think again of this little girl that Fran loved so dearly. I see her daddy hold her close with such joy and protective, crazy love. And I understand again the metaphor that God has given us. “I love you like that. I hold you close like that. I am your father, and you are my adopted sons and daughters whom I chose to be my own. When you love much, you will grieve hard, and so I will comfort you today.”
Jesus makes all the difference. Without Him we wail into the wind. But Fran knew Jesus. Peace. Purpose. Forgiveness. Freedom. Wholeness. Resurrection. LIFE.
I marvel at the grace of God. I think of Fran’s new granddaughter, and I see how His hand of blessing was surely upon Ben and Dre as they continued his family line. I imagine her growing in her faith, with the tender heart for Jesus that we see in her dad, and the beautiful boldness of her momma, furthering the exponential reach of her Grandpa’s Gospel legacy.
And I think what a wonder it is that in this season of deep grief, in the midst of deep faith, they named her HOPE.
Last night I watched “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time. It would be accurate to say I am a fan of Donald Miller, although I have to qualify that statement. I appreciate the ART of Donald Miller because it is honest and insightful. I do not look to Donald Miller for theological profundity. Likewise I found “Blue Like Jazz” the movie to be beautiful in some ways, because it was honest and insightful, but not because it was theologically profound.
So people are asking me what I thought. I’m conflicted.
Here’s what I like…
“Blue Like Jazz” tells the truth. “Christian” art (a label I am rapidly liking less and less) doesn’t always do that. In fact, much art slapped with a “Christian Art” label tries to paint a picture (in some case, I mean this quite literally) representing a sanitized world, safe for church people to enter without feeling too threatened or having their feathers ruffled out of alignment. Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the poster-boy for this kind of art, which looks one the one hand to be deemed “safe” for Christian consumption, but on the other hand, is actually very dangerous in its “sanitization” of our condition. In a brilliant critique of Kinkade’s work (read the whole article here), Daniel A. Siedell writes:
“The Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed ‘light’ merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.
Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home.”
This is a problem. Art has power to disrupt and challenge, but the Christian marketplace comes with its own set of rules designed to protect us from offense. Therefore, “Christian” art is almost never provocative to the degree that it might lead to actual life-change. It sooner leads us to be comfortable, while reaffirming our faith. And we need encouragement, us church people.
But don’t we also need to be disturbed and broken-hearted? God is in the business of redemption through the ongoing process of death and resurrection. The death part… it doesn’t look like a Kinkade painting.
Neither does “Blue Like Jazz” the movie.
In fact, “Blue Like Jazz” shows us the yucky side of churchiness without the transformative power of a life rooted and abiding in Jesus Christ. It shows the carnality and brokenness and narcissism of young adult lives given over to the pursuit of pleasure and identity and meaning when God has been rejected wholesale. The movie is dark and sad and tragic if you consider the eternal ramifications of the sea of lives surrounding young Don Miller. If you are planning to see this and expect it to have the feel-good (albeit disquietingly “safe”) vibe of “Facing the Giants” or “Soul-Surfer,” you might find “Blue Like Jazz” disturbing. Reed College is full of substance abuse and profanity and emptiness and sex. Lots of it. “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t unnecessarily graphic, but neither does it pull many punches.
I’m sick of Kincade. In this, “Blue Like Jazz” was a refreshing change. It shows brokenness. It made me hurt for the broken people, and hunger to be bolder as an image-bearer for Jesus. Broken people need Jesus. I have Jesus.
“Blue Like Jazz” wasn’t written for the “Church” market, so if you are looking for a movie that is, consider yourself warned. Instead, Taylor and Miller seem to be telling a story for spiritually curious people who want to know if God is real when the world is such a mess and the churches in many neighborhoods look more like social clubs for hypocrites than beacons of light and hope.
Here’s what I didn’t like…
“Blue Like Jazz” embraces a metaphor, woven throughout the narrative. “My dad says jazz is like life, because it doesn’t resolve…” Like much of Donald Miller’s theo-philosophical ponderings, neither does “Blue Like Jazz.” And I understand that we are works in process, and that art is often more effective when it leaves some questions unanswered. This leaves room for the consumer to wonder, and think, and search. But it is unsatisfying in a movie that asks out loud, “Where do we find meaning and purpose in life?”
There ARE clear answers to many of the questions Miller and Taylor are asking, but it is cooler to leave them unanswered. It is cooler to leave us to ponder on our own.
** MINOR SPOILER ALERT **
Sure, by the end of the film the young, restless Don Miller comes to some kind of ambiguous belief that God is probably real, and this Jesus stuff… he buys it. But there is little power in his transformation, because it is very hard to see what this transformation actually looks like. Except, of course, for a compulsion not only to ask forgiveness for his own hypocrisy and lack of courage, but also for the many failings of the Church, writ large. That may be cool, and more palatable to the jaded (or wounded) spiritually-curious viewers. But my heart aches for them to hear a better story.
A better story starts with an all-powerful and very present God Almighty, who is not only Sovereign and perfectly Holy, but full of mind-bending LOVE that obliterates our best attempts to understand it. That perfectly pure One created every soul who ever lived to be in a mutually joy-giving relationship with Him. But we, the creatures, spat in His face because we thought we knew better what would satisfy. We died that day. And every day since, man clamors to find identity and meaning and lasting pleasure, but none of it really satisfies us. Reed College exhausts us, and we feel the shame of it.
A better story would speak the truth of the Bible, that JESUS CHRIST came to save SINNERS, even the very worst. That He offers HOPE and JOY that really is lasting and satisfies our longing for identity, meaning, and pleasure free from guilt. This is THE true story the world needs to hear.
I don’t mean to saddle “Blue Like Jazz” the movie with the calling of the Church. God did not call Steve Taylor and Donald Miller to use this movie to make disciples. He calls me to do that, and you, too, if you love Jesus. But I sense a missed opportunity here. That’s all I’m saying.
“Blue Like Jazz” is smartly written, well acted, and cleverly rendered. It works. I see the need for movies and more art in general to explore faith while looking honestly at brokenness, although I remember the words of Paul to focus our minds and hearts on “whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) In order to focus on what is true – on the life-transforming power of the GOSPEL – allow “Blue Like Jazz” to do the work it is intended to do. Let it disturb you and stir compassion in you for the brokenness we live in.
Then get in the Word, read the Gospel, and do something.