Dangerous

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”Matthew 10:34

We live in a dangerous world. Terrorist threats, environmental disasters, fatal illnesses, financial ruin, hatred, violence, persecution, accusations, anger … one might be forgiven giving up hope with the headlines that scream at us from every quarter 24 hours a day.

Yet there is another danger living in our midst, a danger far deeper yet more profound: the danger of faith.

A Dangerous Man

Re-read the passage above. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” These words in Matthew 10 are from an extended conversation Jesus had with his twelve disciples, instructing them on the meaning of following him.

How can Jesus be the Prince of Peace prophesied in Isaiah 9 yet bring a sword?

Passages such as Isaiah 9:6Luke 2:14, and John 14:27 all clearly teach that Jesus came in peace. So what did Jesus mean? Did he truly come to incite discord, to “set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother?” Was Jesus advocating violence as the way to build God’s Kingdom?

“Jesus Cleanses the Temple” by Carl Bloch c. 1874

Consider Jesus’ response to the money changers – using whips to drive them from the temple. Or his endless taunting of the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to them as snakes and calling them a “brood of vipers.” Or his cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11.

Hardly behavior of a peaceful man. Indeed, in the eyes of religious leaders and authorities of the day he was dangerous – so dangerous he had to be executed.

Still Dangerous Today

The Jesus of Scripture is complicated, often seemingly contradictory, and always compelling – but at a cost. Many of his immediate First Century followers discovered this in brutal ways: Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Andrew was crucified at Patras in Greece. Thomas was murdered by Hindu priests near Chennai in India. Philip was arrested and crucified upside down at Hierapolis in Turkey under the persecution of Roman emperor Domitian. Matthew was said to have been stabbed to death in the city of Nabadar, Ethiopia. Bartholomew was flayed alive, crucified, and beheaded in Southern Arabia. James (son of Alpheus) was either stoned to death in Jerusalem or crucified in the Egyptian town of Ostrakine. Simon the Zealot was killed in Persia for refusing to offer sacrifices to their Sun god.

And of course Jesus himself was arrested, mocked, beaten, tried, and executed in a joint conspiracy of Jewish leaders and their Roman occupiers.

The Jesus we see as meek and mild, the Jesus we try so hard to clothe in the highly-sanitized and politically correct mores of the 21st Century, the authentic Jesus known to his contemporaries, remains very much the most dangerous man – or human – to ever live.

Why?

At the very center of this danger is a very simple, stark truth: Jesus holds a flawless and uncompromising mirror up to each of us.

When we stare into the face of Jesus we stare into the face of our own imperfections, our own shortcomings, our own sins.

We see the face of failings so profound only the grace and forgiveness of an omniscient Creator can make right.

When we stare into the face of Jesus we see a love so impossibly deep and unconditional it is unimaginable compared to our own pale imitations.

We see the reflection of how the Enemy has worked his deceit into the very fabric of our lives.

Pilate saw this in his ultimate question “Quid est veritas? (“What is truth?”).  Caiaphas saw it in his demand “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

We see it every time we challenge God’s sovereignty over our lives. We see it any time we place Jesus anywhere except front and center.

When we allow our lives, our possessions, our positions, our wealth – when we allow anything to be more important to us than our love for Jesus, we step into the very center of the danger of Jesus’ anger at our hypocrisy. Conversely, when we place our love for Jesus above everything else we face the ridicule and hostility of a world bent on removing Jesus from all parts of our lives.

Jesus Calls Us Out and Sends Us

Jesus calls us out. He challenges us to confront the logs in our own eyes. And then he goes further. He sends us. He tells us in order to be his disciples we must brave the dangerous ridicule, scorn, and rejection of the world. He shows us God’s Kingdom is not some distant imaginary destination we will someday reach after our journey as human beings is complete, but is instead right here, right now, in the midst of us.

Jesus teaches us to live dangerously in his promise:

  • To boldly pray for God’s hand to guide our lives and to be prepared when God answers.
  • To forgive those who do us wrong – even when that wrong seems unforgivable. “Forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions,” Jesus tells us in Mark 11:25.
  • To deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him.
  • To live fully in the knowledge that while we may “be hated by all” because of his name, those who endure to the end will be saved.

The Safest Place of All

Following Jesus – truly following him with every fiber of who we are – may not feel safe in a culture trying desperately to deny him. In truth, by the standards of the world it’s not “safe” at all. Following Jesus is dangerous, because Jesus himself, the very incarnation of God, is dangerous.

He is dangerous when angered by our actions or lack of actions, or when we fail to bear fruit but expect our secure place in the garden, or when we feign worship with empty hypocrisy. He’s dangerous when he puts the limitless power of prayer into our frail hands. He’s dangerous when he demands we forgive unconditionally, even should it cost us our lives.

Why would anyone want to follow someone so dangerous? Why should we entrust our love or desire that love be returned by such a dangerous man? How could we possibly be safe?

Because ultimately, through his death and resurrection Jesus overcomes the world. Through his willing sacrifice, Jesus defeats the Enemy. Because by knowing Jesus, loving him above all else, and trusting in his Truth, we actually find ourselves in the safest place we will ever be.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Abundant

“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; as it is written, “He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor, His righteousness endures forever.”

2 Corinthians 9:8-9

God is able. What do those words mean to you and me? Able to do what? When? How? Where?

For some, the notion of God being “able” rings hollow. After all, when was the last time we actually saw or experienced God’s work in our lives? For others, God is simply another in a long string of those who have disappointed them throughout their lives. Those who overpromised and either under delivered or never delivered at all. Those who fill us with hope only to break our hearts and shatter our souls.

It’s natural in a world so filled with secular noise to place God – an invisible, remote, impassive God – in the same category as His human creations. Is He really in control of everything? Is He concerned with us? Can He, in Paul’s words, cause “all things to work together for good?” Is He even there?

The passage I began with is one of only two instances in all of the New Testament where we find the words “God is able” (the other is in Romans 11:23). In the Old Testament, we see it once in Daniel 3:17. Yet to the reader with eyes to see and ears to hear, “God is able” has eternal meaning, the omnipotent power to do what only He can

Limitless

Consider for a moment a few of the limitless things only God has power to do.

  • God is able to save and protect us – forever. Peter wrote that God can protect us through our faith “for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” When we place our faith and trust in God, His power to save and protect us extends through eternity. We see this echoed in Hebrews 7:25, which tells us God saves “forever those who draw near” Him. Compare that to our own feeble attempts to demonstrate our power over the trials of life.
  • God is able to supply our needs – for everything. This is the essence of Paul’s meaning in the 2 Corinthians passage. How often have we truly placed our trust in God to “give us this day our daily bread?” This covenant is endless, unbreakable, yet so many times we reach a crucial life moment, a key decision, a seemingly insurmountable problem and instead of placing our trust in God, we place that trust in ourselves. This is especially true in our tithing. How many of us actually offer God the first 10% of our increase (time, treasure, thoughts, devotion)? “Test Me on this now,” God tells us in Malachi 3:10. Are you willing to test Him?
  • God is able to cure us. Jesus built a large portion of his earthly ministry on the power of our faith and trust in God’s healing ability. “Do you believe I am able to do this?” he asks two blind men in Matthew 9:28. He poses this same question to each of us – do we believe he has the power to heal us? God may not always provide immediate physical healing, but He always heals the needs of our souls. Our belief is the tool He uses for our road to restoration. Do you place your faith in God or in yourself?
The Burning Fiery Furnace, c 1832, George Jones
  • God is able to rescue us from death. In Daniel 3 we read the account of three Jews serving as administrators in Babylon during the captivity thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, after refusing to bow down to the king’s image. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire” they say in Daniel 3:17. God delivers us from the finality of death when we proclaim His sovereignty over our lives. Do you pray to God only in times of need or have you confessed Him as Lord of your life?
  • God is able to deliver us from sin. The Epistle of Jude teaches that we should “have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire” while giving glory to “Him who is able to keep you from stumbling.” God works through us to reach our brothers and sisters, giving physical evidence to His ability to keep us from straying and stumbling into the traps of sin. Do you mirror God in how you treat others?

His Greatest Gift

Of course, there are things God simply can’t do. Not because He is limited in any way, but because it is impossible given His nature. For example, God is unable to lie. He is unable to love. He is unable to break covenant. He is unable to deny Himself. God is unable to not exist.

The everlasting and eternal Truth is that God cannot do anything contrary to His Word. He cannot refrain from sharing His abundant Grace and Love to all who heed His call.

No better example of this exists than the Grace God bestowed on mankind through the gift of His son Jesus. Rather than spare His son from the pain and suffering of human transgressions, He willed Jesus to take on the pain and weight of those sins for everyone ever born or who will ever be born.

Credit: www.ucg.org

There is no rational reason for this kind of grace. God owes nothing to mankind. No humans are better or worse than others – we have all fallen short and all suffer from the burden of sin. Jesus himself said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” There is none righteous in the sight of God. No one deserving of His Grace.

Three Acts

When we bring God fully into our lives, the doors of His abundance are flung wide. Sometimes this abundance takes a material or physical form. At other times, God’s abundance shows up in our relationships and peace of mind. In all cases, that abundance is real and available to all who are called to His purpose and will.

How can we experience that abundance, opening the gates around our hearts and letting God’s grace fill us? No two walks with God are identical, and your journey has likely been different from mine. However, here are three actions all of us can take to invite the power of God to become change we so desperately need.

  • Yield to God’s Will. This doesn’t mean simply paying lip service to God, as Jesus chastised in Matthew 15:8. Rather, it means giving our hearts fully and wholly to His will, offering our undivided allegiance to His sovereignty. When we place only part of our trust in God’s will, reserving the remainder for ourselves, God reserves the blessing of His abundance.
  • Wait for His response. We’re all impatient, wanting results and blessings right now. And there are times when the abundance we seek takes the form of a miracle we need immediately to cure a disease, save a marriage, prevent a financial disaster. Yet as we read in Isaiah 40:31 “Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength.” God wants us to prayerfully and patiently look to Him, not ourselves. Only when we focus our eyes on God, rather than our own solutions, will be open and ready to receive His power.
  • Keep our faith. Scripture repeatedly tells us that God’s power is unleashed in our lives through the strength of our Faith. If we do not expect God to work in our lives, He will not. There is the familiar story of Jesus in Mark 6 returning to his hometown, teaching in the synagogue to friends and family. Mark reports his listeners “took offense” at him, questioning from where he got his wisdom and ability to do miracles. Because of their disbelief, God did no great works or miracles. Jesus “wondered” at their unbelief. A few chapters later in Mark 9 Jesus encounters a man in a crowd who asks if Jesus can do anything to help his afflicted son. Jesus’ response is key: “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” God brings His power into our lives when we believe.

God can deliver His abundance to each of us. There is no imperfection in His power, only the imperfection in our faith. As the late Pastor Richard Strauss once wrote: “Believe that He can do what needs to be done in your life. Expect Him to answer, then watch for Him to do it. He may work in totally unexpected ways, but He will work with supernatural power. At this very moment He is looking for people through whom He can demonstrate that power. Why not let it be you?”

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #12 Journeys in Time

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1

It’s here! Christmas Eve. Presents are wrapped, delicious food awaits us, family and friends are close. We look forward to this evening and tomorrow morning all year. For some, the journey to Christmas morning is simply from our bedrooms to our living rooms. Others travel many miles to join in the celebration. In fact, AAA recently estimated that this year over 112 million Americans will travel in some form this Christmas.

One of our biggest concerns when we take a trip, especially during the holidays, is whether we’ll get to our destination on time. Crowded airports, busy highways, overbooked hotels … when will we get there? Our travel plans sometimes seem more pressing than our travel destinations.

A different journey

There is another journey we should remember today as another Advent ends. A journey made by our Creator spanning the infinite stretches of time and space, from thought to Word to flesh to Salvation. It is the reason we celebrate this day, the Eve “O Come” became “Emmanuel.”

The Jesus so often stylized in paintings and song seems at odds with the Jesus of history. He was not born to princely riches, surrounded by the comforts of an Eternal throne. His arrival was greeted with a brief night of fanfare and praise but then life took hold.

The Jesus of history was born to humble parents, a day laborer and young girl barely into her teens. They lived not in one of the great commerce centers of Judea amidst the religious elite, but a dusty town nearly 100 miles from Jerusalem. Many in his day would never travel beyond the borders of their own villages. And it’s likely few people worried much about timetables and schedules.

Jesus’ life commenced with a journey, a continuation of the journey his Father began so many eons before. His life would end with a journey, a journey that would take him from death to transcendence. A journey that happened precisely on time.

During his earthly life, Jesus took many journeys: to Egypt as a baby, throughout Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Every trip he made, every place he visited, Scripture records the travels not of an inveterate site-seer looking to check boxes for the ancient wonders of the world he visited, but rather, someone with a single purpose: to encounter us, engage with us, teach and minister to us, bring us the Good News of the coming of his Father’s Kingdom.

A visitor to all

A lot is written about Jesus’ focus on the downtrodden and the outcast, the forgotten members of society. And indeed, he did speak to the humble and the meek and poor, both in purse and in spirit. Yet, the remarkable thing about Jesus’ journeys was how he did not discriminate between rich and poor, famous or obscure. He visited with anyone.

An encounter with a rich young ruler mentioned Mark 10:17-27 is one example. The passage begins “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him, and ask him ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Notice the passage begins with Jesus embarking on yet another journey! Jesus seeks those who seek him – in this case, a man of wealth and means. Rather than dismissing the young man simply because of his wealth, Jesus engages him. That encounter didn’t end as the rich young ruler hoped, but Jesus still met him where he was.

Mary Annointing Jesus’ Feet, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

Another encounter from John 12:1-8, describes Jesus allowing Mary to anoint his feet with an expensive and fragrant ointment that would sell for $20,000 today. In this story, Jesus has just come to Bethany in preparation for his final Passover in Jerusalem. Mary obviously has the means to possess such an expensive perfume and so was clearly not destitute. Yet again, Jesus did not criticize or shun her.

Jesus made an inconceivable journey for all of us. He came for the poor and rich, the unknown and the famous. He was no stranger to poverty and hardship, yet he was comfortable with the powerful and wealthy.

Jesus embodied his Father’s desire to reconcile all of mankind, regardless of circumstances. He realized that even those with means face struggles. Temptation doesn’t discriminate. He made his journey to you and me because we all hurt, we’re all broken, we all have fear and doubt.

The real point

The point of Christmas is to awaken us to the infinite capacity of God to reach inside our lives and heal us, to offer us the love and forgiveness only a Father can provide. To remind us of the journey He took to reach us.

Scholars estimate Jesus traveled over 21,000 miles during his life – nearly the distance around the earth’s equator. Yet that very last mile he walked, the mile from Pilate’s palace the hilltop on Golgotha, was undoubtedly his hardest. A mile few of us would willingly walk. And he arrived right on time.

Tonight as we prepare to celebrate the blessings of Christmas, let’s not worry too much about our own timetables or schedules. Rather, remember instead the long journey God made to reach us. And remember the journey He asks of us to reach those around us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #11 Not a Silent Night

“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.’”

Luke 2:13

As a worship leader I get to play a lot of music throughout the year. No time is more enjoyable for me than Advent and Christmas. The songs, the vocals, the arrangements, they all bring the season alive for me.

One of my favorite Christmas Season songs for worship is Andrew Peterson’s “Labor of love” (If you’ve never heard it, find a version here). The song is a unique reinterpretation of the traditional “Silent Night.” Rather than a quiet, peaceful version of Jesus’ birth, the lyrics depict a grittier, harsher world welcoming the Son of Man.

When we look at miniature nativity scenes, do we see something like this?

A radiant Mary, loving Joseph, gentle shepherds leaning on their staffs, perhaps a few wise men looking on with knowing smiles, glorious Angels heralding the miracle, a peaceful donkey and a couple of sheep … all focused on a beaming baby Jesus. A perfectly calm picture of tranquility, sanitized and airbrushed for our consumption.

Yet I imagine the real nativity scene was quite different.

A different kind of night

To begin with, what must it have been like for Joseph to take a nearly full-term Mary the 80+ hilly and winding miles on foot or riding a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to the census decree from Caesar described in Luke 2? The tiny village of Bethlehem, by that time a sleepy town of about 300 people, would have swelled in size because of the census, on that night packed and noisy. The crowds were likely disgruntled at the inconvenience of the Roman census, pushing and shoving each other on the narrow streets.

On the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem today. Credit: www.nortonwheeler.com

Or consider the “shepherds in the fields” in verse 8. Imagine being these men, used to watching over their flocks all night, fighting off predators and poachers. They’re in no way timid or meek. Yet nothing has prepared them for the sight of an other-worldly being appearing from the skies and announcing the news of Jesus’ birth. Scripture tells us they were “terrified.”

Fear can be a powerful motivator. It causes us to be mistrustful and hurtful to each other. It closes our minds to those with whom we disagree. It causes us to lash out at those we see as different. We like our worlds to remain unchanging and predictable.

These shepherds had their worlds completely disrupted. Yet the Angel calms them, tells them not to be afraid and is joined a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” joining in praise.

Hardly a quiet night on the hillside.

Back at the stable and the manger, things are hardly more subdued. Unable to find accommodations Joseph was forced to bargain for a corner in a barn, probably suffering disdainful looks from other, more fortunate people who had warm fires and comfortable beds or pallets.

Mary has given birth – likely without a midwife or the comforting hands of her mother – surrounded by the raucous livestock of both Bethlehem’s residents and the visitors also there to complete the census. The scene is chaotic, noisy, dirty, and crowded.

Hardly the picture of a silent night.

Noisy, messy lives

Many of us can relate to this more realistic picture of Jesus’ birth. Like that night, our lives are gritty and crowded rather than airbrushed and pristine. Our days and nights are noisy, messy, often filled with angry voices and disdainful looks. We’re bombarded every day with messages of angst, anxiety, uncertainty.

Hope gives way to fear. Fear leads us to dread the future, uncertain of how we’ll get from day to day. We pray for grace and help while a nagging voice whispers deep inside us “what if He doesn’t answer?” Like the people of Israel during that long pause before Christ’s birth, we question how long we must wait for deliverance.

And so, we retreat inside ourselves, guarded and protective of our hearts, unwilling to engage the world in open and welcoming ways. Rejecting the needs of others, we focus on our own needs.

Credit: Billy Hunt

Hardly the makings of perfect lives.

In the midst of the chaos surrounding her, how did Mary respond? Scripture tells us she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Mary’s answer to the pandemonium and disorder surrounding her was to praise God for His providence, thankful for the blessing He had bestowed. She prayed and opened this most vulnerable moment of her life to everyone around her, sharing freely the precious gift God and given to mankind.

Forgetful souls

Sometimes, even during Advent and Christmas, it’s easy for us to suffer from what 9th century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena called “forgetfulness of soul.” We forget to love, forget to give, forget to extend our hand to others. We sing carols, go to parties, buy tons of gifts but do not, as Mary did, “treasure things in our hearts.”

Today, this Eve of Arrival, let us remember that beyond the celebrations and decorations, the true meaning of Emmanuel, “God With Us” is as close as the next person we see. We were made in God’s image, created to emulate Him and love each other openly, abundantly, and without fear even in the midst of chaos.

God has never been silent, if we have ears to hear. He has never been invisible, if we have eyes to see. He invites us to encounter Him when we protect the weak, lift up the downtrodden, seek peace in the midst of enmity.

The angel proclaimed to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” As you celebrate this Christmas Eve, this closing of Advent, proclaim the Good News: Arrival is Nigh.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #10 Prepare

“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”

John 14:3

How do you get ready for Christmas? A beautiful tree with ribbons and ornaments? Mantle decorations and table treatments? One too many trips to the mall or site visits to Amazon? In my case, guilty as charged.

We typically begin our Christmas planning right after October and start the set-up Thanksgiving week. Yes, we’re those people. We love Christmas and surrounding ourselves with physical reminders of the season.

We’re not alone. During the Christmas Season, everywhere you look there are signs of preparation: wreaths, store decorations, snowmen, plastic Santas and reindeer on the neighbors’ lawns … everyone has their own way of preparing for Christmas celebrations. Anticipation fills the air.

God prepares

God also prepares. In fact, since the beginning He’s been preparing. His preparation also includes decorations and ornaments, although of a different sort. At times, His preparations have taken an entire people into captivity and exile. At other times, He calls new leaders onto mountain tops or into deserts. He has prepared by dressing elaborate temples with gold and fine linen, as well as lowly barn stalls with straw and rough hewn wood.

And God’s preparations have required much longer than a few hours over the weekend to set up. Countless people and many centuries were needed to unfold His perfect plan that mankind’s Savior would be born at a specific place and time, to a specific woman He anointed, in a specific town according to His prophetic instruction, to fulfill a specific mission at a perfectly appointed date.

This event was foretold, rehearsed for centuries, and planned by God at the origination of creation. And it is the very reason we celebrate Advent.

As early as Genesis 3:15, following the fall of Man in the aftermath of Eve’s temptation, God revealed the beginnings of His plan warning the serpent “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” These earliest foreshadowings of God’s prophesied the eventual conquest of the serpent by God’s chosen offspring. The offspring descended from a fallen woman and eventually born to a Virgin. A perfect preparation for a perfect answer to our frailties and imperfections.

“The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden” by Michelangelo, 1509

The journey from Eden to Calvary was long, just as our own plans are often long. Of course, God’s plans infinitely overshadow our own. Still, we are asked to prepare. Every Christmas we remember Son of Man’s coming with decorations and carols and cards and presents. We prepare for his return in the season of Advent by remembering the past while anticipating the future.

The most important preparation

Yet the most important preparation we can make every Advent Season – indeed, every day of the year – is to prepare our hearts and the hearts of those around us for what is to come. As Believers, we’re ordained to be God’s beacons in the here and now, offering a glimpse of eternity to those who will receive. Regardless of life’s distractions, no matter what we see or hear every day whispering to turn away from God, our charge is to prepare for the future.

God had the expanse of time to prepare us for the birth of His son. We aren’t given that luxury. Instead, our role is to share the miracle of Christmas every day to anyone and everyone we encounter. To those who have never experienced the joy of God’s love. To those who feel abandoned in the world. To those who have lost all hope.

We prepare for Christmas every year because God has prepared the way before us. As we remember this Advent Season, let us never forget the least of our brothers and sisters. Preparing our hearts means preparing theirs.

Today, tomorrow, or even right now – find someone you don’t know and wish them a Merry Christmas. Or tell a friend you love them, remembering with gratefulness what God’s love means to us all.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #9 Radical Gratitude

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 

Christian scholar Robert C. Roberts has written: “The Christian Faith is characterized by gratitude, a feeling of delight and intellectual excitement that our world is not only created by God but nourished by his gracious presence.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m being confessionally honest I sometimes struggle with gratitude. Ok, let’s just be frank – I can be downright ungrateful. People can (and often do) frustrate and disappoint me. My expectations aren’t met. My needs don’t get the priority they deserve. My social media posts don’t get enough likes. My work colleagues don’t pull their weight. I’m not paid what I’m worth. My house isn’t big enough.

Sound familiar?

Of course, this isn’t really how I feel (much) but, especially during Advent and Christmas Season, I can’t help but catch myself sometimes forgetting how enormously blessed we all are. Blessed to be alive, blessed to know suffering, blessed to know love, blessed to be transformed by the presence of God.

Blessings and gratitude

These blessings are the source and foundation of gratitude. And gratitude grounded in the strength of God’s favor – regardless of our circumstances – can forge faith stronger than iron, unshakeable even in the face of adversity.

How, exactly, does gratitude deepen and strengthen our faith? In many ways, gratitude is like strenuous exercise, building our spiritual muscles the more we use it. In times of plenty, when our prayers are answered and we feel the bounty of God surrounding us, faith can be relatively effortless. We thank God for His goodness, but our gratitude requires little from us. Kind of like doing arm curls with 5 lb weights.

As Rick Warren has put it, “Anybody can thank God for good things.”

But what happens when times are not so good — when things just don’t seem to make sense, when events are spinning out of control? A sudden illness, the death of a loved one, fierce prayers answered with silence, when nothing is going the way we planned. Where is our gratitude in those moments?

“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

It seems counterintuitive to offer gratitude in times of pain and hardship, almost like Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House assuming the position and exclaiming “Thank you sir, may I have another?” as arch-nemesis Doug Neidermeyer wields a huge paddle over and over again. But in a sense, this is precisely what God asks of us.

“I’m not sure I felt that, sir! Try again?”

Gratitude in times of hardship stretches our faith beyond any capacity we ever imagined. As our spiritual faith strengthens, the roots of that faith grow deeper, more firmly planted in the “good soil” Jesus refers to in Matthew 13:8. When we offer our thanks to God as the prophet Jeremiah did in the midst of his imprisonment by King Nebuchadnezzar, God responds with “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27)

In the midst of our most dire circumstances, when we face the seemingly impossible, that’s when our gratitude should be its most impactful. It is in these times we should recall David’s words from Psalm 18: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.”

The ultimate test

The ultimate test of our faith is exactly in the moments we think God has turned away (or, perhaps even doubt He was ever there). When hope seems gone, the future bleak, the promises we held close now broken, that’s when we should lift up our hearts to God in thanks, grateful that He is bigger than any problem we have, greater than any adversary.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom … I will rejoice in the God of my Salvation,” exclaims the prophet Habakkuk. In our darkest hours of waiting and fear, God hasn’t abandoned us. He remains where He has always been, standing right beside us ready to fill our hearts with His passion and lift us from the miry clay of our sorrow.

Paul writes in Colossians 2:7“Sink your roots in him and build on him. Be strengthened by the faith that you were taught, and overflow with thanksgiving.” 

As this Advent season approaches its climax, remember the power of gratefulness even in the darkest nights. When we feel we’ve lost everything, let’s be thankful for the very breath we draw. Look for what we still have rather than what we don’t.

Sink your roots into the deep bedrock of faith, being grateful for God just being Himself and knowing He works all things to the good of those who love Him.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #8 Death and Taxes

“But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’”

Matthew 16:23

A movie I’ve always loved for its intelligent writing and nuanced acting is “Meet Joe Black,” the story of wealthy news and media mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) who on the eve of his 65th birthday is visited by Death in the form of a man named Joe Black (Brad Pitt).

In a key scene foreshadowing the end of the film, Joe is in a conference room talking with the movie’s antagonist, “Drew.” Joe challenges Drew about the inevitability of a major financial transaction to which Drew responds “We all know this deal is as certain as death and taxes.” Pausing, Joe comments “Death and taxes? What an odd pairing.”

Death and taxes. Unless you’ve been on a remote island the last few years you’ve no doubt heard the annual hysteria around debates over tax reform – who has too much, who has too little, winners, losers, etc.

I won’t debate the merits or flaws of tax policy here (you can check out social media or cable news any day of the week to get an overdose of that). Rather, I want to focus on the flawed idea of believing anything – taxes, justice, politics, governments, etc. – is “certain” other than death.

Nowhere to hide

The whims and policies of man are transient and will change with the times, while the nature of God is eternal. As Jesus responded when asked about the morality of paying Caesar’s poll tax in Matthew 22, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  What belongs to God will always be returned to Him.

There is simply nowhere to hide from physical death. We may fill our days with endless workouts, pad our diets with supplements and nutrition, slather our faces with creams and ointments, push retirement out another ten years but the truth is that each and every one of us has one appointment – an appointment with the end of our earthly days – we can’t cancel or reschedule.

Jesus also had an appointment. One scheduled from the beginning of time, foretold over generations of prophets, foreshadowed in the long wait between Malachi and Matthew. His appointment was certain. It was unchangeable. His appoint was with death.

Divine appointments

When Jesus finally revealed this divine appointment to his disciples, explaining he will suffer betrayal, trial and execution, be entombed for a time, and finally raised up on the third day, Peter would have no part of it.

He denied the inevitability of God’s plan.

He expects Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed Christ, the Lion of Judah to raise a victorious hand against the oppression of Rome. Messiahs conquer, they do not succumb. And in an ironic twist, Peter foretells his own betrayal of Jesus following the arrest in Jerusalem by denying the very mission Jesus had announced.

“St. Peter’s Denial” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1660

Jesus responds in the only way Peter will understand – implying Satan had possessed him and to go away. Peter simply had not comprehended the true oppression Jesus came to defeat … the certain oppression of sin and death. The great “waiting” of the Jewish people would be fulfilled in Jesus laying down his sinless life to atone for the flawed and sinful lives of all mankind. This was the appointment only Jesus could keep.

Turning the page

In rebuking Peter, Jesus tells us a much deeper truth. The problems of the world are infinitely greater than our politics, or our personal desires, even our own deaths. What we believe is the end of the story (death) is actually the turning of a page.

Jesus conquers the horrors of death so that we will never experience those horrors even as we face our own demise . We no longer need to hide, fearing and forestalling the inevitable. We no longer need fear the ravages of disease, the pain of broken relationships, the soul-crushing weight of financial ruin.

Rather, Jesus writes an entirely new chapter for us, telling us to embrace the death he suffered in our own lives, every day. To follow his example means willingly taking up our own crosses and running toward the death he calls us to experience: death to pride, death to apathy, death to unfaithfulness, death to hate, death to lying, death to hypocrisy, death to denial.

Jesus teaches Peter and his disciples that the only way to avoid our inevitable appointment with death is to embrace that very death while we live. Luke 9:24 recounts his words: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.

The price of life

Advent, this time of waiting and expectation, is also a season of understanding. We learn through enduring anticipation that God never meant His call to be convenient or inexpensive. Often, He leads us to suffer for His work. He challenges the strength of our faith. Being a Believer can be costly, lonely, disappointing.

Yet the clear message of Christianity is simply this: die to the selfish, vain, fleeting promises of the world and receive the assurance of eternity. Die to the whispered seductions and lies of the enemy and experience the radiant joy of unearned grace. Die to death and receive life.

The ultimate Good News is that Jesus has already paid the price for our lives. His death and resurrection were the tax we owed, the payment we should have made. The price for our lives is now … free.

Joe Black teaches William Parrish there is no fear or sorrow in death if we learn to live a life of service and sacrificial love. While we all suffer the same fallibilities of being human, our final breath is not a tragic failure of frailty but a transcendent triumph over death.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #7 Stormy Weather

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

James 1:2-4

A while back, I was at dinner with a few guy friends. Predictably, we talked about typical guy things. Because we’re all of a “certain age,” our “guy things” talk was relatively tame. Relatively.

Credit: www.wisebread.com

However … one member of our party broke an unspoken “guy” rule in my crowd: don’t complain about the weather. Not the real weather, of course. Rather, the weather of our relationships, the weather of lives. The weather we can’t control but we can certainly anticipate. “Don’t blame the weather for getting wet when you forgot to bring an umbrella,” one of my, um, “older” guy friends fondly says.

Life is tough

Look, life is tough. We live in a world where the deck appears to be stacked against most of us. In Christian terms we call this a “fallen world,” a world where a very real and present enemy works to stain every part of our lives with fear and doubt and uncertainty.

Glass breaks. We get old (yeah, I know that’s hard to hear). Marriages fall apart. Loved ones get addicted to Opiates. Parents forget our names. Sexual harassment becomes an accepted norm. Alcohol and drugs are so common our children need rehab at 14 years old. A gun becomes a more persuasive argument than reason.

Credit: New York Times

In 1944 Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots released a single called “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.” They borrowed the title from the poem “Rainy Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both Ella and Longfellow spoke truth. But I prefer the original truth from Ecclesiastes 3 “For everything this is a season.”

Storm clouds are always on the horizon. Life pushes back. This is especially hard to accept during seasons of anticipation. Seasons like Advent when God may seem silent and unreachable. Seasons where we are asked to wait and trust.

The war inside us

The stormy weather of our lives should not be surprising, especially for those of us actively attempting to reject the temptations of the material world, the seductions of a physical life. It’s not easy to resist.

Paul tells us of the “Conflict of Two Natures” in Romans 7, a war being waged inside each of us. He reflects that in Galatians 5:17, writing “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.”

Credit: www.kingdomrice.wordpress.com

The temptations of the world, particularly in seasons of waiting, are like tornadoes in Kansas. We anticipate the storm clouds, we feel the wind, we eventually see the funnel hit the ground yet sometimes we don’t seek shelter.

While we live in a fallen world and bad things happen to us, we always have control over how we respond – whether we bring an umbrella or head underground or simply give in.

Yet in every instance of adversity or waiting, we have a choice. We can choose to look backward or we can move forward. Notice we can’t actually go backward, only look there. And we really can’t stay where we are as life moves on around us. Look back or move forward.

Storms strengthen us

James tells us in the verse I began with that the testing of our faith builds perseverance. Surviving storms makes us stronger to future storms. Meeting and defeating temptation and doubt tempers us, transforms us, like hardening steel with fire.

We see this transformation in our choices. We can feel joy or bitterness. We can forgive or hold onto anger. We can trust or be suspicious of everyone. We can be filled with faith or plagued with fear. We can love or we can hate. We can offer mercy or seek revenge.

We can fill our hearts with hope. Or we can sink into despair.

Stormy weather and hard seasons are not meant to weaken us, but rather to strengthen us. They offer us opportunities to reinforce our trust and faith in God by hearing His voice and rejoicing in His salvation. Especially when the clouds are darkest…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #6 The Most Impossible Mission

“I am a representative from him, and that One sent me forth.”

John 7:29

My sister Shari is an amazing woman, and a fellow Believer after whom I’ve modeled much of my adult Christian walk. I’ve never actually told her this so the news will come as some surprise. Every year she takes one or more of my nieces and nephews on missionary trips to Central America to make a difference in the lives of people most of us will never meet. She touches the hearts of everyone around her.

In ways she may never appreciate, Shari missioned Christ to me …and it worked.

The work of missionaries

What do you think of when you hear the word “missionary?” Perhaps you see a scrubbed face Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon acolyte ringing your doorbell asking if you have found God. Maybe you think of a group of college students taking the annual trip to Nicaragua to paint houses and serve meals. Or even that couple from your church who suddenly announced they were packing up and moving to China last year.

“Hi – we’re missionaries here to save you!”

Regardless, the role of missionary is firmly established in the modern church to serve preaching the gospel “in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matthew 24:14). Most who are called to the missionary life, while facing adversity, are rewarded with successful missions. Lives are changed, hearts are touched, souls are saved. What they do works.

Although Scripture doesn’t include the word “missionary” in that form, there are numerous stories of those “being sent” (the Latin word is “mitto”) to do God’s work. Moses, Jeremiah, Nathan, Zechariah, Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, the Apostles, Paul – all were sent out by God for various purposes. And their efforts, across history, successfully unfolded the life-changing message of salvation and redemption we know as Christianity.

One true missionary

And then someone different was sent by God, a missionary whose purpose stood above all others, whose coming had been foretold and awaited, yet whose mission should by any measure have been considered impossible. An impossible mission given to Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the most well-known scriptures in the Bible, especially appropriate for Advent Season, is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Credit: www.msafropolitan.com

Think of his mission: born to save all who believe in him from eternal death. Born to redeem all of mankind. Born to pay the ultimate price for our transgressions. I mean really, what could go wrong with that?

Since that moment in the Garden when man stepped away from God’s perfection by virtue of his right to freely choose, God has tried to invite us home. Jesus, as God’s “Word” prior to his human birth, spoke on his father’s behalf through the centuries, breathing life and inspiration into prophets, martyrs, faithful men and women.

And man’s response remains obstinate. Like the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew 23:23, we too often neglect “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

Yet still Jesus prevailed. For uncounted years while man wanders in wildernesses of his own making, Jesus has persisted in his mission. Through a willing spirit, enduring patience, and an unconditional love of creation, Jesus personifies the perfect character of God. He reflects the forgiveness, grace and salvation of a waiting Creator.

Miracle of free will

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of humility. A time for each of us to reflect on the unfathomable humility of Jesus, who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7)

Jesus achieves the fullness of his impossible mission by using the very thing man used in rebellion to God’s purpose: free will. Through his sacrifice and intercession, Jesus asks us to freely choose his invitation. No coercion, no forced conversions. Simply believe, repent, receive, and return home.

My sister taught me the humility of being a Christ follower. Jesus teaches us all that no missions are impossible when God sends us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #5 What Breaks Your Heart?

I have listened and heard, they have spoken what is not right; no man repented of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turned to his course, like a horse charging into the battle.” Jeremiah 8:6

What breaks your heart?

I’m not talking about a badly-ending relationship, or even the loss of a loved one to illness or tragedy although these certainly cause us to grieve. Nor do I mean family betrayals like Fredo in “Godfather II” – we saw how that ended for both Fredo and eventually for Michael!

The broken heart I’m referring to here is different. It’s that mourning of the soul, that gut-wrenching sorrow we feel at our very core when we’re connected to what breaks God’s heart.

Credit: www.chickensmoothie.com

The Bible offers many descriptions of how Holy heart is broken. Broken by those who are lost and refuse to come home. Broken because of those who are persecuted and have no one to share their distress. Broken from the cries of the poor who have no means of support. And broken by our disobedience.

Broken by rebellion

600 years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people had once again become increasingly rebellious and obstinate. For generations, they had grown lax in following God’s commandments, eventually seduced by the attraction of Baal and other idols and squandering the promise and hope of the Torah.

Eventually, God removes His protection and Babylon conquers Judah, deposing their king Jehoiakim and sending much of the population into exile. By 587 BC, Judah was no longer a nation and the memories of greatness achieved by David and Solomon faded. It broke the hearts of a nation.

The prophet Jeremiah, seeing the wretched conditions of his fellow Jews, had just such a broken, aching heart. He saw the misery of his brothers and sisters, the children of Abraham, the Covenant People. And he knew what God had called him to do, the hard message he had to deliver to these same people: repent from their sins and return to God. Their rejection of his message the eventual exile of Judah ultimately led to his death by the very hands of those he tried to save.

What breaks your heart?

Many of us today simply don’t equate broken hearts with sin. The very word itself, “sin,” seems antiquated, unenlightened, uneducated to the modern ear. And when God asks us as he asked Jeremiah “Why have these people turned away? Why are they always turning away?” (Jeremiah 8:5) we simply … turn away.

What breaks your heart?

The answer to that question isn’t always obvious. So, perhaps we might start with a different question. What breaks God’s heart?

What breaks God’s heart?

There are many things we might find in scripture to answer this. In my own journey, a few come to mind. This is especially true for those who claim to know God’s heart yet still falter.

  • When we don’t turn from our shortcomings. Just like the people in Jeremiah’s day, God’s people today – you and me and those around us – have turned away from God, often refusing to hear Him. Jeremiah’s people, like us, should have known better. They knew, we know, when the path we’re on is wrong. Yet we continue down that path, oblivious to where it leads.

We may confess, we may have a moment of contrite remorse, but when the pain passes, we ignore Jesus’ admonition in John 8:11 to “Go and sin no more.”

  • When we don’t live God’s Word. Like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, many professing Christians today talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. We have our Bibles, we may go to Bible studies, we may debate and argue Scripture – but do we live it? Do we spend time the poor? Do we take in orphans? Do we look after widows? If we the only Bible those around us ever see, what does that Bible look like? And yes, I’m writing these words to me.
Credit: www.modernsurvivalblog.com
  • When we don’t realize how short the time is. Jeremiah commented “Harvest has passed, summer has ended, but we have not been saved.” (Jeremiah 8:20). A farmer who misses harvest time will starve. He knows how short the time is.

There’s a similar urgency in our lives. According to a recent study there are 2.1 billion        people in the world who don’t know Christ. Every year, 16-20 million die ever without hearing the Gospel.  This is our harvest, yours and mine. And the harvest season is upon us, this season of Advent, this season of preparation.

  • When we self-destruct. In my mid 20’s, one of my closest high school friends spiraled out of control, eventually taking his own life. Many of us at the time asked ourselves what we might have done to change our friend’s course, to ease his burden. There was likely nothing we could have done, but the key pain was that we did nothing at all.

God holds this mirror up to us constantly, reminding us that we are surrounded by    self-destruction. Where are we in taking the hands of others to help them through their struggles? The addicts, the prisoners, the lost.  How often does our heart break for those we see right in front of us?

  • When we refuse to let God heal us. Jeremiah cries out in 8:22Is there no balm in Gilead?” In Jeremiah’s time Gilead was a place of hope, famous for balm from a local tree resin that cured illness. Jeremiah was equating God’s voice and commandments to a healing cure for our broken lives, a salve for spiritual illness. Yet, the people refused.

How many people have you known who refuse treatment for their own sicknesses?  Perhaps a friend whose marriage is in tatters but won’t seek counseling. Or a work  colleague who is unable to perform but too prideful to has for help. Or an acquaintance who is spiritually lost but will not follow God?

Prepare by acting

Advent is about many things including waiting, expectation, hope. And it’s also about recognizing how God has given us this season of preparation to discover where our hearts are not with His, where we’ve hardened ourselves to what breaks God’s heart. When we see people from every walk of life ignoring the warning signs, ignoring how time is running short, refusing to turn back from the wrong paths of their decisions, refusing help … our hearts should also break.

This Advent Season, take a look around. See your neighbors, your loved ones, your adversaries, yourself. Where can you bring hope and preparation and expectation to the broken hearts of others? Where can you bring healing to your own broken heart?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #4 Hope

“When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’” John 5:6

James Cameron is an accomplished inventor, engineer, philanthropist, and deep-sea explorer. He’s also directed a couple of movies you may have seen – do The Terminator, Titanic, or Avatar ring any bells? Cameron is famous for many things, but one of his traits I find most inspiring from a secular business perspective is his drive and focus. He once famously said “Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Fear is not an option.”

As a business guy, I embrace this statement completely. As a Christian, I take issue with its initial sentence. “Hope,” as it turns out, is a key pillar of faith.

Reflecting on the vanity of life and how short his days were in the face of his personal weaknesses, David writes in Psalm 39: “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” Confronting his own frailty, David turns to the only source of strength he knows will not fail him – hope in God.

Hope, as it turns out, is a common trait in our faith. Paul refers to “hope” at least five times in his letter to the Romans. Hope is all over the book of Psalms. Hope punctuates Jesus’ ministry at every turn. Hope saved Job from despair.

Hope helps us change the way we view the world, offering us light in the midst of darkness. Lack of hope has the exact opposite effect.

Hope works

A friend I’ve recently met is struggling in his marriage. When we talk about where the difficulties lie, the common theme is that he has given up hope of any resolution, resigned to endless struggle. His life is filled with depression and despair.

Another acquaintance of mine was just told his wife’s breast cancer thought to be in remission has re-emerged, metastasized in her liver and spine. His reaction? Absolute hope and faith in God’s power to heal her once again.

Credit: http://www.2911church.com/

Two scenarios, two different responses. The common thread? Given choices in life, we can respond with fear and gloom, or with hope and faith. In either instance, how we respond can shape how God works in our lives.

Now, before anyone labels me a Christian Scientist or Jehovah’s Witness, let me assure you – I believe in science, in medicine, and in the skill of physicians. When a medication or procedure can relieve or cure an ailment, I whole-heartedly support it. That said, it’s established that a patient’s mental condition impacts their response to treatment.

What do you want?

Translation? Hope works.

We read a beautiful story in John 5 about the power of hope. After spending time in Galilee where he met the woman Samaritan by the well and healing a nobleman’s son, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, encountering a man who had laid beside the waters of the Bethesda Pools for 38 years, crippled.

This man came to the waters every day waiting for his chance to be cured, only to watch others take his place. At some point, he simply lost hope, telling himself this was his life, this was all it would ever be.

Can you relate to this? Has there been a time in your life when you simply lost hope? Maybe a dream you had, a relationship you cherished, a job you needed … gone or beyond reach. When we lose our hope, we lose our belief in ourselves. We stop caring.

“Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1883

When Jesus encountered the man by the pool, he saw something different than the man saw in himself he saw a human being who had given up hope, given up on his dream of walking.

Rather than judge him, Jesus asked: “Do you wish to get well?” A simple, straight-forward question. Like many others Jesus asked throughout his earthly ministry such as “What are you looking for?” in John 1:38, or “Why are you looking for me?” in Luke 2:49, or “What do you want me to do for you?” in Mark 10:36.

Jesus is not so much interested in the man’s affliction as he is the man’s state of mind. Did this man truly want to cured or was he comfortable in his hopelessness? Jesus realizes if he cures the man’s mind, his body will follow. And that is precisely what happened.

Anyone can lose hope

Believers – even the most devout – can lose hope. Perhaps we’re surrounded by others who themselves are hopeless, draining us with their own lack of belief. Maybe having hope in the face of adversity is simply too hard, too much work. Or sometimes, finding hope can simply be too painful, leaving us exposed to heartbreak and disappointment.

Paul reminds us in Romans 12:12 to “rejoice in hope, persevere in tribulation, stay devoted to prayer.” When we lose hope, when we stop caring and stop praying, we create our own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Hope may not be much of a strategy for James Cameron. But during this Advent Season, I see hope shining like a beacon through the darkness and fog of a hopeless world. Hope shows us how God doesn’t just offer the promise of an afterlife in eternity, but can and will meet our needs right here, right now, in this moment, forgiving us of our shortcomings and changing our lives forever.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #3 “Why?”

“The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Psalm 34:19

Pain. Loss. They’re difficult.

In the past two years I’ve lost my beloved mother, my amazing father-in-law, six high school and college classmates and three friends from church. Eleven losses in such a short span of time. And if my social media feeds are any indication, multiple other friends and acquaintances are suffering from any number of afflictions.

In many ways, this Advent Season feels very much like a Season of Suffering.

It’s in times of suffering and loss that many of us get closer to God. Or, sadly, farther away. Things happen. Sometimes unexpected. Sometimes expected but dreaded. Sometimes pointless and preventable. Sometimes unspeakably tragic.

As Believers, how do we cope with such losses? Our immediate and understandable reaction is “Why, God? Why did you let this happen?” Often, we echo the words of the prophet Habakkuk who wrote 600 years before Jesus’s birth:

How long, O Lord, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’
Yet You do not save.” (Habakkuk 1:2)

It’s natural to want explanations, to seek answers. If we can understand God’s Will and His purpose, we can accept His plan. When we don’t have those answers, we often remain trapped in a cycle of “if only” and “I/he/she/they should have.”  Without an explanation, our lives can splinter into 10,000 fragmented pieces impossible to put back together.

Answers give us closure, and closure allows us to move on.

Unthinkable Trust

It often seems God asks the impossible of us. To simply trust Him when we have no way of understanding how or why. To turn our lives over to Him in complete obedience, submit to His sovereignty when nothing is certain. To accept His purpose even when we can make no sense of what He wants.

Unthinkable trust. Unreasonable faith. Unfathomable belief.

This isn’t what many of us expected when we accepted the baptismal call. God never mentioned trust in Him might require surviving illness, death, shattered marriages, lost jobs, ruined finances. With every tragedy, our faith is tested, raising the familiar questions of those around us who don’t share our beliefs. “How can a loving God let this happen? Why do you believe in fairy tales? Why don’t you realize the truth that we’re alone in this world?”

Freedom through trust

Trust us difficult. Trust requires unnatural reactions to what the world throws at us. We want to question, to revisit, to blame. With every passing moment, our efforts to understand make us more anxious, more angry, more hurt. The very thing we try to help us through the pain makes that pain more real.

Yet with every moment God is whispering to us that His will is in motion, His purposes are at work. If we simply trust. Eventually, through acceptance and trust and submission and belief something amazing and transformational happens – we begin to heal.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, 1603

It’s a mystery, a paradox. The same process we fight against is the very process that frees us. Jesus tells us in John 8:32 “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That truth, the only real Truth, is that when we trust in God and His infinite wisdom – as hard as that might be – we find peace and purpose.

God is the answer to our “Why?”

As strange as it seems, suffering invites us to see God in ways we’ve never imagined. Just as Job learned to trust in God more deeply and completely after his trials and tests, we learn how possible it is to trust God with our own lives through grief and suffering.

When we place our trust in God, even in the face of things and events we may never understand, a beautiful transformation takes place. Although we may not have a concrete answer, we’ll find peace that God truly does cause “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

There are always “whys” to our suffering, no matter how difficult that suffering might be. While we may never fully understand the reasons for our grief, during this Advent Season we can take comfort in one ultimate truth. When we surrender our “whys” to God, He will always answer with the perfect answer: Himself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #2 Numb

“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Matthew 24:12-13

I travel. Like, a lot. As in over 210,000 miles on planes and 118 nights in hotels this year alone. A good 1/3 of my life is spent on the road either going to, participating in, or returning from business meetings. It’s a grueling pace.

One inevitable topic of conversation with new acquaintances is “how do you do that?” A more pointed version is “why do you still do it?” Ignoring the implied age reference, the second question is easy: I love what I do, and I’m fairly good at it. The answer to the first question? Technology. I confess: I embrace technology in every facet of my life where it can help me be more productive.

I’m old enough to remember not having a device in every hand. No texting, no smartphone with GPS and Google Maps, no social media, no Uber at my beck and call. I chuckled several years ago when my youngest daughter innocently asked “Dad, what grade where you in when you got your first cell phone?” I jokingly replied “Um, 20th grade?”  I was 26 before I ever saw my first cell phone, one of those Dick Tracy in-the-car monstrosities used by the CEO of the company I worked for and charging $12 per minute.

What does technology have to do with Advent?

Convenience. Pure and Simple.

We live in the Convenience Revolution. Digital assistants organize our lives. Amazon delivers our most immediate “gotta have it right now” same-day urges. Skype or Google Hangouts allow us to reach out and “touch” someone face-to-face from our kitchen tables. We pay our bills from our cell phones. Selecting that “special” gift for a friend or loved one now is as easy as 15 minutes on Etsy.

For the truly connected, we’ve eliminated any need to deal with stress, boredom, discomfort, or pain. We can talk with distant friends and family on a whim – or just as easily avoid them. We can secretly laugh at those old classmates who haven’t “aged” all that well. Or (perhaps even more secretly) covet the “great family lives” they share on social media.

There’s another side to this coin, of course.

Technology and convenience have created an entire generation of human beings with virtually no basic human socialization skills. Uncomfortable with real interaction, many of us spend hours every day “interacting” online. We choose Netflix over the messiness of Cinemark. We live in gated communities with wifi-powered camera systems ensuring we never actually have to see our neighbors. Homework and research? Just download it.

Sadly, this also seems to have found its way into our churches and our relationship with God. We crave convenient sermons about topics that won’t make us too uncomfortable. We prefer tech-savvy “worship experiences” with pyrotechnics and high entertainment value over intense, prayer-infused scriptural examination that might ask us to look just a bit deeper into our own lives. We pass the peace of Christ to our neighbors, never even knowing their names.

We’ve become culturally addicted to stimulation and easy rewards without the need for  relationship investment. Worse, in the words of Facebook’s former vice president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya, we’ve substituted “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops (including the hearts, likes, and thumbs up of various social media channels)” for real life, destroying how society works.

We’ve become numb

In short, we’ve become numb. Numb to struggle, numb to pain, numb to God’s voice, numb to the Holy Spirit’s longing for our hearts. Numb to anything except convenience, stimulation, and endless commentary on everyone else’s shortcomings.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Immediate gratification inevitably leads to longing for greater levels of stimulation. Where a Toyota once met our desires, now a Lamborghini satisfies our need for speed. Yesterday’s Coach Messenger Crossbody In Signature Jacquard Bag is replaced with today’s Christian Louboutin Cabata East-West Tote. (Ok, I’m a little scared I even know what those are.)

The funny thing about numbness is that the more we have of something, the more numb we become to it. We forget the yearning hearts of our youth, when simple things satisfied us. Sadly, for many of us this same thing happens to our relationships with God.

Remember when we started, when the feeling was new and we were ALIVE with passion for God? Stories in the Bible leapt off the page at us, speaking truth into our lives with every read. Sermons had us talking for days and our pastors were AMAZING.

Then, something happened. We allowed our relationship with God to become, well, casual. We got numb. What once held us in awe now barely amuses us. We lost the wonder, the reverence. We forgot David’s words from Psalm 147: “The Lord favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.” (emphasis mine)

The same God we once revered became a God we now critique. The same God who saved mankind through the sacrifice of His only son is no longer big enough to save us from the world of man without a serious makeover. We redefine His words. We water down (or, in modern language, “edify”) His commandments. We demand the God we selectively deign to worship change to see us through our eyes, agreeing with who we believe ourselves to be.

Something has changed

Soon enough, our faith becomes little more than veneer, a love grown cold. We transform into the very people Jesus describes in Matthew 23:27, appearing whitewashed and beautiful on the outside, but on the inside full of “dead bones and uncleanness.” This type of faith, while not deeply fulfilling in our souls, works in the 21st Century because it doesn’t require much commitment.

Funny thing – we don’t see the irony. Yes, something has changed. But that something isn’t God, it’s us. We have changed, wanting immediate satisfaction. God is the same as He told us in Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8 and Revelation 1:8.

What has changed is that we’ve become numb to God’s voice. We don’t want to wait and anticipate, we want to receive and appreciate.

God’s promise is for all of us. He never asked us to live passionless (or painless) lives – just the opposite! His love for us surpasses our understanding. He provides an endless supply of all we need to walk in the fullness of His life.

During this Advent season, push beyond the numbness. Wait with the same fresh anticipation you felt when you first discovered His love.  Renew the expectation of His promise for peace and salvation in your heart. And let go of the idea that convenience is in any way a synonym for God.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #1 The Waiting

For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.”  Isaiah 64:4

I’ve always loved music – any kind of music (well, I draw the line at Polka, but that’s a different post). Last year saw the passing of Tom Petty, a musical hero of my 20’s. In 1981 he released a song called “The Waiting.”

There’s a line in the song that says “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.” Many of us can identify with that sentiment, especially when we’re younger – I know I did. Waiting is, well, hard.

Stretching the analogy a bit farther, “the waiting is the hardest part” also describes much of what the season leading up to Christmas – and, ultimately, the season all Believers have been in since Christ’s ascension nearly 2,000 years ago – feels like.

“Pssst … Santa, you up there?”

As kids, we “wait” for Santa and his magical sleigh. As adults, we “wait” for gift-giving and Holiday parties. For Christians, Advent is a season of expectation, a time of preparation. Advent reminds us to wait and prepare for the inevitable return of Christ just as he came during that first Christmas season so long ago.

A different kind of waiting

Yet, I’m also reminded this time of year of a different kind of waiting; a waiting more immediate, more real, and perhaps more painful for many – both during Christmas and throughout the year.

This kind of waiting relates directly to prayers and the cries of our hearts. Prayers for intercession, prayers for healing, prayers for miracles we so desperately need. Prayers that the divorce our spouse just asked for doesn’t happen. Prayers that the doctor’s diagnosis of cancer isn’t real. Prayers that “what is” might become “what if?”

The same prayers of anticipation the nation of Israel cried out during the 400 years between the prophetic writings of Malachi and the miraculous events in Bethlehem. Prayers of waiting …

Credit: www.iprayer.com

Sometimes God answers prayers immediately. We feel the imminence and power of His hand in our lives and reach out to tell everyone about the amazing goodness of His love.

But other times – perhaps too often for many of us – prayers seem to be answered with deafening silence, miracles hovering forever just over the horizon. As time passes and God doesn’t appear genie-like in response to our plea-filled conjuring, our faith can falter.

Why does this happen? If God truly is the God of Salvation, a Savior who actually saves, why do we often feel so alone, so empty, so … forsaken?  Where is this God of Jacob and Abraham who sent His son to take our place on a Roman cross of humiliation?

Why, God?

On two occasions leading up to and in the midst of his Crucifixion Jesus himself speaks for those of us facing times of despair. The first occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed with such earnestness his sweat became like “great drops of blood, falling down the ground” (Luke 22:44). In this seminal moment of temptation, he asks God to take away the sacrificial cup, to spare him the trial and suffering to come.

We don’t read if God answers, because Jesus answers for Him, saying “yet not my will, but Yours be done.” Jesus knew God saw his heart, and knew his deepest desire was to follow God’s will.

“The Importance of Prayer,” Sebastiano Ricci c. 1701

How many times have we been able to ask and answer our own questions of God in confidence? Too often, our prayers seem like one-way streets, shouting to God to repair our lives yet stopping short of asking what God wants from us.

The second instance occurred on the cross. As described in Matthew 27:46, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” Imagine the anguish of one who has been with God from before the beginning of time suddenly left alone, his prayers unanswered, his cries met with absolute silence. Yet still Jesus trusted.N

Not our will

Mother Teresa, writing in a letter to spiritual confident Rev. Michael van der Peet about the separation she experienced from Jesus, said “the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear, the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak … I want you to pray for me–that I let Him have (a) free hand.”

Hear the reflection of Jesus’ approach to God in her words. In the face of unanswered prayers, she acknowledges His sovereignty in all things.

As we grow in our relationship with God, more deeply understanding His purposes for us, our attitudes change. We come to realize how much God loves us and already knows the desires of hearts. Even when we’ve been waiting. Even when we think He isn’t listening.

The true meaning of Advent is this: Pray and Trust. Ask God for a need, show our faith in His Will, Trust in His provenance, and wait with expectancy and hope.

“My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote in Philippians 4:19. His miracles are still here – Emmanuel still means “God is with us.”

During this Advent season, don’t fall victim to the belief hope is gone. Don’t build walls around your heart so you can’t feel God’s touch. Don’t deafen your ears to His call.

Trust in God’s promises. Lift Him up in praise and worship daily. Thank Him for the blessings and protections He provides and will yet provide.

Tom Petty passed away as all humans do.  God’s Word and His promises will never die.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Guilty!

“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” – John 8:7

It didn’t look good. In fact, it was scandalous. Caught in the very act of adultery, a woman was dragged through the Temple Court into public view to be mocked and judged by pious, cold-faced accusers. She was guilty and their law demanded a single punishment: stoning until she was dead.

It seems barbaric. But even more barbaric was the fact that she was apparently a willing participant to an act which, while sinful, was shared with her willing lover. Yet only she was hauled in front of her self-righteous would-be executioners – her clandestine lover was nowhere to be found.

Standing between the woman and certain death: a lone rabbi squatting silently in front of her, writing curious noodles in the sand.

Two Voices

Scripture clearly identifies two different voices here, two voices that also speak to us through today’s always-on news headlines – the voice of those who condemn and the voice of Christ. The voice of condemners will criticize, destroy, mock, and humiliate to gain achieve their agenda. They use any means available to exploit the weaknesses and failures of their adversaries.

In this passage, John exposes the true nature of their motives. While adultery was indeed a sin, they unconcerned with moral purity. Rather, they used this woman as a pawn in their larger plan to trap Jesus in a situation forcing him to choose between God’s message of forgiveness and obeying the Old Testament laws handed down from Moses.

“Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,” Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1644

The real scandal was not the woman’s sin – we all sin. The real scandal was the cynical hypocrisy from those who would destroy the lives of real people to achieve their ultimate aim: to stop a rabbi calling out their charade and challenging their authority while silently drawing in the sand.

One Truth

This encounter from John 8 reveals a truth of the human condition: we all face moments where competing voices scream for our attention. The world blames us. It doesn’t care about us or our flaws except if those flaws can be exploited. We are simply tools to be used and discarded as needed to advance someone’s personal gain.

Pointing out failure seems to be the Reality TV series of modern society. Yet like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, contemporary accusers are uniformly guilty of spotlighting failures others while ignoring their own.

Make no mistake. The woman in this passage was guilty, caught while committing adultery. Black and white. The Law of Moses demanded exacting punishment. Yet the Law also provide forgiveness for those who turned away from their sinful ways.

Credit: Times Higher Education

At the same time, the woman’s failure does not obscure the depravity of her accusers, using her failure to advance their own ends.

Jesus does not ignore the woman’s sin. He does not condone her actions. He doesn’t excuse her behavior because she had a difficult childhood, or an abusive husband, or because she suffered under the oppression of “toxic patriarchy.”

Nor does Jesus does pander to the victimization so dominant in our culture where no one takes responsibility for their sin. He doesn’t care who the man was with whom she was committing adultery, so the punishment would be fair. He doesn’t call what the woman did a personal choice that is just different than what He would prefer.

Jesus calls out her actions for what they were – sin.

Three Lessons

However, rather than playing “gotcha” with a woman who had clearly transgressed God’s seventh commandment, Jesus transforms the encounter into a teaching moment demonstrating the unfathomable power of mercy, grace, and forgiveness while also shaming the men confronting the woman of their hypocritical accusations.

Jesus does this in three ways:

  • He shows us that our first response to sin should always be admitting to God our brokenness. As Paul writes in Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
  • Second, he emphasizes the destructive power of sin – for those who commit it, those who observe it in others, and those who are victimized by it. Shame, shattered lives, destroyed reputations … these are all part of what Paul refers to in Romans 6:23 as “the wages of sin.”
  • Finally, he demonstrates the transformative power of compassion rather than condemnation. The sole entity in all of creation with the true power and authority to condemn the world declared he would not condemn her, but rather forgave her with the admonition to “go and sin no more.”

“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us,” John wrote in 1 John 1:8. Yet if we, as the woman in Temple courtyard did, confess our own shortcomings rather than condemn the failings of others, God offers forgiveness, pardon, and eternal life.

We live in an age of cutting-edge judgment filled with hypocrites masquerading as social justice warriors. It surrounds us – on our televisions and smart phones, in our institutions of education and governance, in our churches. Everywhere we turn, the long lines of accusers await their chance to judge and condemn us.

Accept the Grace of Christ, turn away from the hypocrites who condemn you, and “go and sin no more.”

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

After the Storm

“Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. – Luke 8:25

With dawn approaching on Friday September 14, millions watched as cable and television reporters stood in rain gear, bracing themselves against gale-force winds and breathlessly reporting on the landfall of Hurricane Florence. In the aftermath, the stories were all too familiar: multiple fatalities, hundreds of thousands without power, families stranded in their homes.

Hurricanes are vicious, unrelenting, and terrifying. The wreckage they leave in their wake is indiscriminate. They can destroy lives.

And sometimes, they can restore hope and faith.

Luke 8 tells of an episode when during a terrible storm. Jesus had just directed his disciples to set out in a boat across the lake near Galilee where he had been preaching for several days. As they made their way across to the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus fell asleep, likely exhausted from his efforts.

Without warning, a “fierce gale of wind” overtook them, filling the boat with water and potentially sinking them. These were hardened sea-goers, accustomed to rain and wind while fishing or traveling. This “squall” (as one translation calls it) should have been nothing to them unless it was extraordinary and truly terrifying.

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Ludolph Bakhuizen, c. 1695”

Moreover, the journey from Galilee to the Gerasenes is not a leisurely trip across a small lake. The Sea of Galilee, separating the two, is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, some 13 miles long 8 miles wide. A ship sunk in the middle of this lake would mean certain death to the passengers.

The disciples felt doomed.

Waking Jesus from his sleep, they exclaimed the boat was sinking and they were fearful for their lives. Unfazed, Jesus stood up and rebuked the storm, immediately calming the winds and the raging water. Luke writes that the disciples were “amazed” and cried out “who is this man?”

This story combines everything I love about Jesus and his faith in God. Not only does he remain calm in the very midst of chaos knowing God has a plan to turn all things to his purpose, but reading past the verse 25, Jesus takes no time resting, repairing, or recounting the storm incident. Instead he immediately gets out of the boat and faces down a man with demons, casting them out into a herd of swine who themselves drown in the very same lake his disciples had feared they would die just a few hours earlier.

The lessons we can draw from this are profound and meaningful in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

God’s Intentions are Bigger Than Our Storms

God’s plans are bigger than any storm we face. While we fear the unknowns and potential tragedy of loss, God is busy calming the waters ahead of us.

Why? Because there is always another “side of the lake” to reach. God’s intention was for Jesus to encounter the demon-possessed man amidst the people of the Gerasenes, and getting through a storm was part of that plan.

Our personal storms may not be hurricanes. Instead, they may be the unexpected death of loved one. Or we may lose a job and not know how we will pay our bills. Or we may be betrayed by a friend or a spouse.

Our storm may happen when life has seemed to turn against us so much, we don’t know where to turn or what to do. We may even hear the Great Deceiver whispering in our ear, “It’s no use, it will never work. You may as well give up.”

Yet to those who trust in God, the waves and the rain, the despair and the pain – they have no power. His intention is greater than our desperation.

God Interprets Storms Differently

In Luke’s account, Jesus is sleeping through what his disciples believed was a deadly event. Clearly, Jesus was not concerned – he was sleeping soundly as the boat rolled.

How do we typically react in bad times? Do we sleep soundly? I know I don’t! I have sleepless nights, anxious that God needs my help in sorting out my world. I want to take action, jumping into the middle of things.

The disciples saw their storm as a horrifying event that needed to be stopped. In truth, there was absolutely nothing they could do to change the situation. They were powerless, and this feeling of powerlessness impacted their faith.

Credit: The American Conservative

God, however, was not powerless, and did not consider this storm a calamitous event – He saw it as a way to strengthen the disciples’ faith in His sovereignty.

This has ever been so. The prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 55:8-9 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Even in the darkest of times, when trouble and hardship crash down on us, God asks us to trust in His Word, claiming His promise for us. We see a storm, God sees an opportunity to bring us closer to Him.

God’s Instruction Surpasses Our Assumptions

We often place enormous faith in our ingenuity and creations. We build houses to withstand the strength of hurricanes – until they don’t. We invent earthquake-resistant buildings which collapse when the Richter Scale is a tick too high. We trust in ourselves when God is patiently waiting for us to place our trust in Him.

“Where is your faith?” Jesus asked his disciples as the storm raged. I imagine it was in many things: the construction of the boat, their own seamanship and experience, perhaps in the strength of the sails to weather the winds.

One place their faith clearly wasn’t – with Jesus and God. In the midst of the storms in our lives, where is our faith? In people? In money? In short term pleasures? None of these can truly save us, and often they can’t show us how to get through the hardships facing us.

Yet God reminds us that He has the power to get us through, to bring us to the other side of the storm. His guiding hand is there, calming the winds and if we listen we can hear His instruction to trust and place our faith in Him.

The aftermath of Hurricane Florence is still unfolding. There will likely be additional fatalities and extreme hardship. God remains here, in our midst, reassuring us His plans are greater than ours, His wisdom infinitely more complete than our imagination.

By placing our faith and trust in Him, we can see the through the darkness and know the truth in Paul’s words from Romans 8:28 when he wrote “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.”

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Fear: The Great Liar

“The Lord is for me; I will not fear; What can man do to me?”Psalm 118:6

We seem to live in a world of fear. Fear of tomorrow, fear of the unknown, fear of each other, fear of what might change us. We fear things in the dark, we fear strangers and people with different skin color or sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We fear our own mortality.

It’s all a lie.

Fear surrounds us

I recently spent time in Luke’s Gospel and was reminded of this passage: “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Luke 21:25-26

While the focus of this post is not end-times prophecy, doesn’t it often feel like we live in a period very similar to what Jesus described? Fear surrounds us, gripping our hearts and paralyzing our emotions.From personal relationships to political backstabbing, the world lives in fear of virtually everything.

Many of us seem consumed by a sense of dread.

Why should fear be so deeply ingrained in us? If as professing Christians we believe in salvation why are we afraid of harm or death? Why can we not find the calm of David in Psalm 23, walking “in the valley of the shadow of death” yet fearing no evil?

As children, we’re taught to fear the first time we hear the word “NO!” When we mature, fear plants deep roots and grows, for many becoming a dark shadow controlling their lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus became flesh and endured death on the cross that he “might free those who through fear … were subject to slavery all their lives.” Hebrews 2:15

Physical fear, the fear of pain or death, is natural. When it doesn’t control us, fear can protect us from harm and danger, helping us make prudent decisions and avoid miscalculated risks. Yet when uncontrolled, fear can replace our trust in God, substituting belief in a personality ability to deliver ourselves from adversity through actions. We often begin to believe in our own invulnerability.

2,600 years ago, a young prophet named Daniel was thrown into in a lions’ den by Darius the Mede (known in scripture as “Darius the King”)  for disobeying an edict not to pray to YAHWEY.  Undeterred, Daniel defied the edict and continued to pray, showing no fear.

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614/1616

I don’t know where some look to find fearlessness, but I’m positive where Daniel found his. Trusting in God, Daniel faced down wild animals that would have devoured him, knowing the outcome would be God’s will.

Be anxious for nothing

Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians “Be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6). David tells us in Psalm 55:22 “Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.”

God provides deliverance from fear. He tells us not to let worry and anxiety grip us. In Jesus’ own words, “who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27).

Does this mean we will never suffer tragedy or hardship? No. Does it mean we won’t be a victim in a tragedy or some unforeseen catastrophic illness? No. But it does mean that as Believers our salvation is secure and God will guide us on the path He has set for us. Equally important, we know the destination awaiting us.

This was the fearlessness driving the Apostles, virtually all of whom were persecuted and executed for their beliefs. The same fearlessness comforted Stephen as he was stoned to death for speaking the truth of Jesus. It fueled William Tyndale, a key reformer who was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.

Fearlessness empowered Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stand against Hitler’s treatment of Jews, resulting in his 1945 hanging. It burned in the hearts of seven Egyptian Christians murdered in January 2010 as they left their church in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

Each of these and thousands of other similar instances around the world speak to the power of defeating fear. And they share another common bond: enduring love. In his first epistle, John writes “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” 1 John 4:18.

Love drives out fear

Ultimately, fear is self-focused. When we’re afraid, we’re almost always focused on something about ourselves – what we might lose, what might be taken away from us, pain or hardship we might endure. Fear drives us to distrust those we love, look skeptically at our neighbors and colleagues, hate those around us who have more than we do.

On the other hand, love is always about someone else, and perfect love is solely about God. When we allow the perfect love of God to penetrate our hearts, there’s simply no room for self-centeredness or conceit. And where there is no self-focus, there is no fear.

There will always be loss and pain and even death for as long as we draw breath. But the promise of the Gospel is that God’s salvation through the sacrifice of Christ strengthens our spirits and souls and bodies, giving us triumph over our weaknesses and victory in the face of adversity.

Faith in God’s love emboldens Believers. As Paul wrote to Timothy concerning the nature of suffering and faith: “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Perfect love derives from the acceptance of Christ as our soul source of comfort and salvation. God’s perfect love for us, believed by us, replaces fear with love. And where loves lives, the lies of hate and fear can never take hold.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Door Checking

“I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” John 8:11

I read a disturbing blog post a couple of days ago from a popular and (among certain circles) well-known blogger, a self-professed “20-year Ministry veteran trying to… live out the red letters of Jesus.”

The post begins with a boastful “I’m going to hell.” After a lot of judgmental-sounding opinion condemning fellow Christians, he concludes with “Hell seems like a much more beautiful place.”

Consider that: “I’m going to hell, and that seems like a much more beautiful place than Heaven.” This from a man many consider a “pastor.”

I was unprepared for this.

And then I recalled Genesis 3:1 “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” Three verses later the serpent says “you will not certainly die.”

“Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Michelangelo, 1510

Thus began the massive lie. The same lie being retold by popular bloggers claiming Christian credentials based on 20 years of ministry veteran-ship.

Which reminds me of a music video released 33 years left. In March of 1985 an all-star group if musicians got together to record a song called “We Are The World.” The song became an instant classic. The relevance for this post was the sign producer Quincy Jones famously posted on the studio door : “Check your Egos at the door.”

How does an intentionally-provocative blog post from an equally intentionally-provocative societal commentator using “Ministry” as a credentials shield relate to a 33 year-old song about unity?

Without diving into the commonalities of “everyone is ok, no matter what they choose to do” found in both philosophies, I want to focus instead on the idea of “living out the red letters of Jesus” vs. “Check Your Egos at the door.

Follow me here. The “red letters” of Jesus were all about ego. They were all about personal desire and gratification. They were all about pushing down what we believe in order to embrace what God tells us is true. Even when it hurts.

And they were all about “checking” something at the entryway to the Kingdom.

Regardless of whether we call that ego, or desire, or “enlightened Progressive opinion,” Jesus was clear: what we must check at the door of the Kingdom is our sin. We may enter the Kingdom broken by sin, but we cannot bring the love and practice of that sin with us.

Credit: Rolling Stone

What does this mean?

It means that as true Christians reborn in Faith through the blood and sacrifice of God reconciling Himself to us at Calvary, those red letters of Jesus actually mean something. They mean what Jesus intended, not what our modern relativistic interpretations wish them to be.

And the most important red letters are those punctuating two encounters where Jesus heals or forgives: “Go, and sin no more.”

These words were most famously spoken to the adulterous woman following the encounter described in John 8:11: “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

Notice the lesson here for Christians: we are not to condemn others for their sins, even as we forgive them.  Yet they are also to give up those sins.

Check your sins at the door.

Contrast this with the Ministry Veteran Blogger’s implied conclusion: “If Heaven means I can’t be whatever I define myself to be, do whatever I feel is right for me, I’ll take Hell.”

I’m not checking anything at the door, and if you ask me to you’re just a close-minded (insert favorite insult here).

Credit: www.johnmartinborg.com/spiritual-art

God’s forgiveness is freely-given, but it is not without cost.

Forgiveness requires a changed heart and a changed life. Ask any betrayed spouse who stays in a marriage what this means.

Forgiveness does not free us to repeat our past mistakes. It frees us from the condemnation of those mistakes.

Forgiveness only comes when we ask for it. Returning to past sins, or falling into new ones, requires returning to our knees and asking God once more to wash away our transgressions.

Forgiveness requires obedience and subservience to God’s Word. The writer of Hebrews 2:1 states: “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.” Believing we can rewrite God’s law to suit our lifestyles in the name of “inclusiveness” is a direct act of disobedience.

In today’s increasingly secularized world, Christians are too-often confused about the role God’s law and living a life of Christian love as defined by Jesus. We’re told the Jesus of modern worship invited everyone to the table, with no expectations or requirements. That God loves and forgives us in our sin rather than in spite of it. We seem to buy the massive lie that God does not mean what He has written on our hearts.

I don’t know what is truly in the heart of the blogger I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I do know this: his love for his own ego and self-defined version of Christian life is infinitely too big to check at any door, even the door of the Kingdom.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Who, Me?

“[God] said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Genesis 22:2

We hate chores. They remind us of unpleasant things we have to do, like eating all the overcooked spinach on our plates when we were kids. Or finally tackling that little garage project we’ve been promising our spouses we’d get to for two summers. Or (my favorite) scheduling that colonoscopy the doctor’s been nagging about.

Chores. They “pretty much suck,” as one of my daughters used to say.

Yet chores also serve a meaningful purpose. Chores remind us that things don’t “get done” without somebody actually “doing them.” Chores also remind us that what has to “get done” is sometimes not our choice, but someone else’s.

When God Calls

God continually asks us to “do something.” Sometimes, it may be an easy thing, like “Hey, why don’t you check out the big building down the street with my logo out front? I hear there are some pretty cool people there!”  [/irreverent mode]

Other times, not so much. Like the passage above from Genesis. Anyone who ever attended Sunday School knows the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Abraham, in a moment of supreme testing, is instructed by God to do something unthinkable: sacrifice his own son. And not just any son – this was Isaac, the son Abraham and his wife Sarah had prayed for God to provide them for decades. Now, God is telling Abraham to kill his own son.

Some people struggle with this story. “How could a God so insistent on love,” they ask, “demand something so cold-blooded and harsh?”

Others, particularly scholars practicing allegorical interpretation, reduce every story in the Bible to mere fable. For these folks, Abraham’s challenge was nothing more than a story designed to teach the original audience of Genesis something very important about God. Human sacrifice was common and prevalent in Abraham’s day. This story, in their eyes, was created to show that the God of Israel was unlike other Gods. The God of Israel had no interest in the sacrifice of humans.

Hard Choices

Regardless of one’s theological view, no fancy semantic doubletalk can make God look like the “Good Guy.” In this passage it’s quite clear God asks Abraham to murder his innocent son, an obedient you man who had grown strong in his father’s faith. Isaac probably never asked Abraham “who, me?”

God could have asked Abraham to go into the desert and find his other son, Ishmael, the boy he fathered with Hagar the maidservant of his wife Sarah and whom he had sent away when Isaac was very young. Instead, God singled out the beloved son, the son in whom Abraham had placed his hopes.

The people of Abraham’s time would clearly understand the moral dilemma, perhaps in ways impossible for the modern mind grasp. In those days, the death of an only son would be unimaginably treacherous for the family.

“Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio, 1603

Abraham was old (scripture tells us he was 100 when Isaac was born) and the likelihood of his fathering a son remote. With Isaac’s death, there would be no heir to Abraham’s estate. With no heir, God’s promise to bring a great nation out of Abraham in the land to which God had led him would be jeopardized.

This was serious on many levels.

Why would God lead Abraham out of Haran and into an alien land, have him endure trials at the hand of Pharaoh, survive the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally grant him a son he must then sacrifice? And in the sacrifice, forego his own legacy and future?

On the surface the request seems incomprehensible. Abraham, however, was ready and willing to answer God’s call, regardless of the task. He did not ask “why,” he asked “how?” “How can I please you, God? How can I follow your bidding? What shall I do?”

At the last minute, of course, God stays Abraham’s hand, convinced of Abraham’s complete, unquestioning faith in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. It was this very readiness to give up everything precious to him and obey the will of God that ultimately spared Isaac’s life.

Sacrifices of the Heart

God had no interest in the sacrifice of Isaac (maybe the scholars have that part right). God has no interest in anything material we offer Him. Instead, God was interested in Abraham’s heart. What God really wanted Abraham to sacrifice was his personal will. God wanted Abraham to fully trust in His divine presence and providence. It’s the same request He makes of us.

There’s another story in scripture, found in the New Testament, where a similar request is made by Jesus of a rich young ruler. This time, the request is to abandon everything the young man holds dear – his money, his possessions, his “things” – sell it all, give the money he receives to the poor and follow Jesus. Where Abraham passed his test, the rich young ruler sadly failed his.

Every day God asks each of us to do something just as hard as what he asked of Abraham or the rich young ruler.

Every day He asks us to give money to others when we often don’t think we even have enough for ourselves.

Credit: “Self Sacrifice” by josephacheng on DeviantArt

Every day He challenges us to change our attitudes, to see beyond our prejudices.

Every day He taps someone on the shoulder – maybe you, maybe me, to go minister to a bunch of strangers.

Every day He asks us to lay down our lives for a friend in need.

Every day he nudges us to let go of the fears we cling to and embrace a future brighter than anything we can imagine.

God calls us out of our comfort zones to follow His will. A friend once told me that every time I get comfortable, I’ve probably quit doing what God wants me to do. I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but I’m beginning to understand now.

Abraham reminds us that God sometimes asks hard things … things that may even seem impossible. More importantly, God asks us to simply trust that we’ll get through those hard things because through Him all things are possible. It’s like this paraphrase of something I read the other day – “loving and trusting God is like floating … so amazingly simple, but if you fight it, nearly impossible.”

What is God Asking You?

Tomorrow morning, as you busy yourself preparing for the day, pause a moment and think about this question: “What has God asked me to do that’s hard?”

The answer is different for each us. For some, it may be to focus on a pressing family matter we keep ignoring. For others, it may be to lay down a troubling struggle with addiction. Still others may find they are too concerned with the world and not enough on God.

Or perhaps it will be something even harder. I have no idea. I do know when God asks us to do hard things we must decide if we’re willing to sacrifice the “everything” we cling to, like Abraham, just to follow God.

Viewed this way, God’s will no longer seems so much like a chore. It’s a pathway to Salvation.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Priceless

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” – Matthew 6:19

In January 2013, a collector paid $10,016,875, the highest selling price of any coin in history, for a 1794 “Flowing Hair” Silver/Copper dollar, the first dollar coin issued by the newly-formed U.S. Federal Government.

Consider that for a moment – the world’s rarest coin is valued at over $10 million. Ten million dollars. Interestingly, at current trading prices, you could buy the 24 grams of actual silver in that coin for about $13, or 0.0001% of the coin’s selling price. But who’s counting?

A Flowing Hair Silver Dollar, the first silver dollar struck by the United States Mint, Reuters January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stack’s Bowers Galleries/Handout

We place worth in the oddest things.

No Ordinary Dinner

I was reminded of this when re-reading the encounter depicted in John 12:1-11 describing Jesus returning to the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus during the week of his eventual betrayal and arrest.

In this passage, as Jesus and Lazarus are having dinner, Mary approaches and opens a expensive jar of fragrant nard, anointing Jesus’ feet and then drying them with her hair. In today’s dollars, the ointment would be worth just under $25,000, about a year’s wages in 33 A.D. That’s a lot of money for a foot rub!

Feigning shock and indignation, Judas (yes that Judas, who was attending the dinner), rebukes Jesus, saying “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Remember, this is the same Judas who five days later would betray Jesus for $1,000 worth of coins, the same price paid to compensate the death of a slave (Exodus 21:32).

We find worth in the oddest things.

Money in God’s Eyes

Scripture has many references to money. Some mention sacrifices made by the humble, (for instance, the woman with 10 coins in Luke 15:8 who rejoices after believing she had lost one, or the widow who gave her last two mites to the Temple in Luke 21. Others refer to the consequences of valuing money too highly, such as how much easier it is for camels to pass through needle eyes than rich men to enter the kingdom (Matthew 19:24), or how our hearts will be found near that which we treasure (Matthew 6:21).

What struck me about the stories of the $10 million-dollar coin and Judas’ self-righteous outburst followed by his own acceptance of blood money was not the vast difference in their monetary worth ($10 million for a single silver coin vs. $1,000 for 30 pieces of silver) but rather the ironic gulf separating their intrinsic worth.  On the one hand, more money than 99.999% of human beings will ever see is exchanged for the equivalent of 1 ounce of silver.

On the other hand, about 17 ounces of silver is exchanged for the life of Man’s Creator and Eternal Savior.

We look for worth in the oddest things.

Betrayal By Many Names

Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, Rembrandt, 1629

For centuries, “scholars” have offered many explanations of Judas’ betrayal for what was, essentially, a few day’s wages, the price of slave. The most common answer is that Judas was simply a greedy coward, hungry for money and weak to temptation.

I’ve always been troubled by this argument for the simple reason that Judas was the acknowledged “purse holder” for the apostles and could have taken money from their mobile bank any time he wished. 30 more pieces of silver would have hardly made a difference in his daily life.

Another theory is that Judas was part of Jesus’ master plan all along, only pretending to “sell him out” to the Jewish authorities in much the same way Luca Brasi pretended to sell out Don Corleone in The Godfather – all part of an intricate strategy to help Jesus manipulate the prophetic scriptures into fulfillment.

“Anyt’ing for you, Don Corleone.”

This argument seems suspect to me on many levels, most notably in that it would require Jesus to essentially be a deceiver of Luciferian proportions and imply the Crucifixion and ultimately the Resurrection were hoaxes.  Not exactly my view.

In truth, Judas – like all of us – was a frail and flawed human, filled with weakness. Regardless of what lay in his heart, God’s magnificent plan unfolded exactly as it had been foretold, exactly on time. Judas’ betrayal became the pathway to our redemption and salvation.

Truly Priceless

What a handful of 1st Century Jewish leaders spent for a betrayer’s kiss in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem bought infinitely more than the easy arrest of a rabble rousing rabbi. It purchased the collective freedom of all mankind.

In that sense, those 30 pieces of silver were the most priceless, most invaluable coins in all of history, worth infinitely more than all the combined wealth of all the kings and nations since the beginning of time.

The next time you read or hear about a painting or a house or a rare coin selling for some unimaginable amount, remember this: the highest price ever paid for anything bought the most precious gift ever freely given by God – forgiveness.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

What Now?

“O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)

Early in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring (the first in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) there’s a moment where Samwise “Sam” Gangee and Frodo Baggins are beginning their trek along the countryside, making their way across streams, over hills, and through meadows. Eventually finding themselves in a cornfield they stop. Frodo turns to Sam and asks what’s wrong.

“This is it,” he replies. “If take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

Credit: andybsglove.deviantart.com

Sam was sad, and perhaps afraid. Many of us feel this way. We’ve reached a block, a stopping point. Life has changed around us and we’re not prepared. Our expectations are suddenly different from reality. What we had counted on to be true is no longer reliable.

Confusing World

“What do I do now?” we ask. “How do I make sense of all of this?”

We live in a confusing world, a world that often makes little sense. Yet there’s nothing new here. As Bob Dylan penned, the times may be “a-Changin,” but haven’t they always been so?

In the aftermath of every Easter many of us feel the same nagging sense of hesitant expectancy. “Christ is Risen!” our proclamations recite. “Now what?” some ask. I mean, it’s been 2,000 years. The story always ends the same, no surprises. The stone is rolled back, the tomb is empty. The world awaits a returning savior. “What do we do until then?”

For skeptics, this is simply veiled language for “what if it isn’t really true?”

A Dusty Road

I imagine two travelers heading out of Jerusalem down the dusty, seven-mile road to Emmaus the day following the Resurrection had similar feelings. Passover Week, beginning so hopefully, had ended in the stunning crucifixion of a prophet and presumed Messiah; they were dejected and in shock.

As they walked, the events of the past few days were still raw and immediate. The world they knew had, in a moment, been turned upside down. They would naturally be asking themselves “What do we do now? What if it wasn’t true?”

Luke 24:15 tells us that as they talked, Jesus approaches and begins walking along side. For an unknown reason, the travelers don’t immediately recognize him. When Jesus asked what they were discussing, the two travelers shared their despair as well as surprise that this stranger had no idea of the tragedy they had witnessed: Jesus, their great prophet and hoped-for Deliverer, had been arrested by the Jewish authorities, turned over to Roman overlords, executed and placed in a tomb for three days. Now his body was somehow mysteriously missing.

Once filled hoped, they were now shattered. A broken man nailed to a Imperial cross had been the end of the journey for them. They were living in the past, not the now. While they didn’t disbelieve the Easter morning accounts of Mary or Peter, they had not personally seen the risen Christ.

Credit: Emmaus, Janet Brooks Gerloff, Abtei Kornelimünster, 2018

As with many encounters described in scripture, Jesus realizes these two travelers need something more, a deeper revelation into the reality of God’s plan. He begins with a gentle rebuke in Luke 24:25 and continues with the pivotal question in verse 26: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”

The travelers clearly didn’t understand. They, like many of Jesus’ followers, had misread or misinterpreted the prophecies concerning the awaited Messiah. They believed the popular teaching that Israel’s Redeemer would forceably drive out the Romans and establish his earthly kingdom in Jerusalem.

The Ultimate Bible Study

Jesus proceeds to offer them what may be the ultimate Bible study in history. Beginning with Moses and prophets he details every aspect of his true purpose, filling their hearts with the Word of God.

The travelers’ problems were similar to many of our own – they had viewed Christ through their eyes and expectations rather than through God’s. They believed the cross had been a failure, a mistake because it did not fit their vision of what a Messiah should be. They failed to see the cross as what it was: the means by which Christ would enter his glory, the very fulfillment of scripture and pathway to redemption.

The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt, 1648

Reaching Emmaus, the travelers invited the still-unrecognized Jesus into their home for supper. After blessing and breaking bread, Jesus is finally revealed to them and then, suddenly, vanishes. In the place of his physical body, he left something even more permanent and immutable – the Word and Voice of God.

Astonished, they share how their hearts had been burning in his presence and how as he revealed God’s plan to them their understanding had changed.

Luke tells us the travelers got up that very hour and returned by the same road to Jerusalem to share their experience with the 11 apostles and those gathered with them. The same road that had started with despair was now a road of hope and elation.

Hope Restored

This encounter reminds me of so many stories I hear from others. Hopes and dreams are crushed. Life has taken an unforeseen turn. Doors that once seemed wide open are suddenly slammed shut.

Yet even the midst of chaos, disappointment, and dead-end roads often filling our lives Jesus walks beside us still, restoring hope and renewing our strength through the inerrant Word of God. Like the travelers to Emmaus, our walks can end with hearts ignited rather than filled with despair, emboldened by the love of a risen Savior.

Ultimately, just as Samwise asked “what now?” at the edge of his understanding, we ask “what now?” at the edge of ours and are answered by Jesus himself. The Word of God is the “what now?” in all our lives.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Love, It’s That Simple

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

A moment ago, the world was ordered. Plans were in place. Victory was at hand. Three years of constant travel to endless towns, encountering people at every turn craving the promise of hope they had waited generations to hear was about to pay off. Adoring crowds had hailed their entrance into the city with an extravagant parade.

The Kingdom … had finally … arrived.

Earlier, the group of brothers had assembled in an upper room away from throngs crowding the city streets below, watching with odd curiosity as their leader stripped off his outer garments, grabbed a nearby basin of water and a towel, and proceeded moving from man to man, gently washing their feet in an astonishing display of humility and service. “Women and slaves do this,” they whispered to one another, “not the Messiah!”

“The Last Supper,” Leonardo da Vinci, 1498

During the ceremonial meal, celebrated each Passover in remembrance of God’s Deliverance of His people from bondage, the man for whom these men had left behind everything and followed shocked them into momentary silence.

“Betrayal?” “Leaving us?” “What about the Kingdom?”

This simply couldn’t be. It was just … wrong.

An Act of Love

Every Christian knows this story from the Last Supper. My high school friend and extraordinary Christian artist, songwriter, and teacher Michael Card penned an amazing song memorializing the moment (“The Basin and the Towel”). The Supreme Savior of the World assumes the lowliest of positions to demonstrate the power of a servant’s heart to his disciples.

Today is known around the Christian world as “Maundy Thursday.” The term comes from the Latin word mandatum in John 13:34 meaning “command.” Jesus instructed his disciples in a new commandment following this episode to “Love one another.” Foot washing, while an ancient custom of hospitality in the Middle East, was redefined by Jesus as an amazing act of service and love.

But it was not the ultimate act of service. That would come later in the evening, foretold during the Passover meal by Jesus. He revealed to his disciples how he would demonstrate an infinitely more meaningful act of love and sacrifice in willingly walking into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities to suffer their sham trial, conviction, and execution in atonement for sins of the world.

The last meal Jesus shared with his disciples is described in all four canonical Gospels (Matthew 26:17-30Mark 14:12-26Luke 22:7-39 and John 13:1-17:26). In addition to the foot washing episode uniquely depicted in John, the key events in the meal included preparing the apostles for Jesus’ imminent departure, predictions about Judas betraying Jesus, and the foretelling of the upcoming denial of Jesus by Peter. As the evening unfolds, the scales eventually drop from the eyes of the apostles as Jesus calmly, lovingly explains the meaning of all they had seen and heard the prior three years.

He Didn’t Run

He wasn’t running. He wasn’t fighting back. He wasn’t raising an army to storm the Roman garrison housed at the Fortress of Antonia overlooking the Temple. He wasn’t ushering in a sweeping movement of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye-for-eye justice.

Instead, Jesus offered his incredulous apostles an entirely different message. Away from the thousands that followed him wherever he went, Jesus looked into the eyes of his twelve closest friends and brothers and taught them a new meaning of Messiahship: love.

Jesus was blameless. His ministry was built on non-violence, healing, raising the dead, and freeing those held hostage to sin. He brought hope to the hopeless and life to those dying in darkness.

But on this evening, he told his followers the shattering truth: no one would thank him. No one would celebrate his acts of mercy and kindness. In less than 300 minutes, he would be arrested. Within 21 hours he would be dead.

Wrong. Just, wrong!

The smoldering ember Jesus planted in the hearts of his apostles that night in a tiny room a few feet above the streets of Jerusalem was resisted by every man sharing the meal with him. Yet within a few weeks it would erupt in a blazing wildfire that would spread the to the length and breadth of the known world.

The Ultimate Weapon

Because ultimately, Jesus demonstrated how goodness, kindness, and compassion could overpower the oppression and authority of the world more than any weapon or army. He revealed the most overwhelming and radical insurgency movement the world had ever known: a kingdom built on love, not vengeance.

In today’s world filled with sensationalized violence, hatred raised to an art form by endless media and wall-to-wall news coverage, celebrity-inspired self-aggrandizement pouring out of Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, this simple story of love wouldn’t “go viral.” It wouldn’t last an entire news cycle, shouted down by voices more interested in self-promotion and personal agendas than lasting, profound changes of the human heart.

Muslim protestors, credit Walid Shoebat

But ultimately, Jesus’ story of love transcends all of those things. Because this simple story of love is not about one man but is about all of us. It’s the story of what happens when a world gone mad does everything it can to extinguish hope through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet is overcome by the triumph of sacrificial love. In the words of Reverend Dr. Emily C. Heath, “It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.”

What If?

What if the world knew us as Christians not by the Bible we carry, the cross hanging from our neck or the church we attend? What if Christianity was not defined by size of our amphitheaters or the production value of our music-filled services? What if our faith wasn’t identified by what we say we believe about Jesus, or how self-righteously we portray ourselves in blog posts?

What if, instead, we were known as Christians by our love?  What if we could show the world what Jesus showed his disciples that night, a world where we are united in spirit, walking beside each other, working together to build Kingdom-filled communities founded in love rather than dividing lines?

Tonight, as you reflect on what a simple act of feet washing memorializes, as we pause to join in the solemnity of a Passover dinner shared by a condemned Savior and his weary followers 2,000 years ago, take a moment to remember. Take a moment to remember not just what this night or even the coming weekend of Easter means, but what it means to be a Christian in the world of the Fourth Day, the day after the Resurrection, the day when light emerged from darkness.

Remember what it means to be a truly Christ-centered Believer. Remember Christ’s commandment from John 13 – to love each other as he loved us.

Love, it’s really that simple.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Untamed

“They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53)

“Trust me – you’ll know when I’m mad!”

Ever hear anyone say that? We sometimes completely misread another person, assuming because they seem soft-spoken they’re easily manipulated or weak. Kind of like Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo thought Michael Corleone was just some “young punk.” We know how that turned out…

“It’s not personal, it’s strictly business…”

Every Lenten season, I’m bewildered by modern revisionist Christians (including pastors and pseudo-pastors like former minister turned political commentator John Pavlovitz) attempting to recast the Jesus and God of scripture into something more easily digested by today’s “delicate” or “enlightened” spiritual palettes with “woke” politically correct awareness.

As though an authentic Jesus, the acknowledged son of the Living God, Lion of Judah, Alpha and Omega, the very Word that spoke creation into being has mellowed with time, reconsidering the commandments he embodied.

A Different Jesus

Unlike the milk toast, lukewarm, tolerant-of-any-and-all-behaviors-as-long-as-you-mean-well Jesus popularized by scriptural-lite churches seeking ever-larger audiences and appeasing and increasingly secularized world, the real Jesus was convicted, fully “sold out” for the essential message of God to love Him and turn from all forms of sin.

Even in his quiet moments, Jesus was clear. Every encounter he had with a fallen soul ended with some form of instruction to repent. When challenged, he never retreated to meek and shy platitudes but rather reiterated the central role God and God’s Law must play in our lives. He lived out the words of Joshua when as a dying patriarch he told all of Israel “As for me and my house, I will follow the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

If read with a discerning eye, Jesus’ words often plainly cut through the lackadaisical or deceitful attitudes of his listeners. Sometimes, bordering on the fiery and harsh.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Cecco del Caravaggio’s “Christ expulses the money changers out of the temple,” 1610

In Luke 12:49-53, Jesus is recorded having a lengthy discussion with both his disciples and a “crowd of many thousands.” Near the end of this episode he offers these words: “I have come to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Earlier, he described the faithless and unwise manager being “cut to pieces” by his master, and those not doing their master’s will being “beaten with many blows.”

Not exactly the weak-kneed pacifist popular with the Richard Rohr crowd. In fact, neither Jesus nor God are ever described in Scripture as being “meek and mild,” tamed like house pets for our amusement.

Fear of God is a Real Thing

Instead, from Genesis to Revelation what you find is a God who is to be loved, but also respected in fear, worship, and yes, sometimes dread:

  • Leviticus 19:14 – “You shall fear your God, I am the Lord.”
  • Psalm 19:9 – “The fear of the Lord is pure”
  • Psalm 111:10 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
  • Proverbs 1:7 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
  • Proverbs 14:27 – “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death.”
  • 1 Peter 2:17 – “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
  • Romans 3:18 – In Paul’s indictment of fallen mankind separated from God by sin he says, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

And what of the reactions Jesus’ own disciples had to his amazing works? In Mark 4 after Jesus spent the day teaching crowds beside a lake, he and his disciples cross the lake to find a bit of calm and piece. As they crossed, a terrible storm arose, threatening to capsize their boats and drown the men.

Roused from a sound sleep in the front of the boat, Jesus rebukes and calms the storm, scolding his disciples for having so little faith. Terrified, they asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Hardly timid.

Biblical Truth

Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of Biblical truth. Encouraged by trendy terms such as “tolerance” and “inclusion” – which in and of themselves are worthy ideals and in the proper context wholly scriptural – we’ve somehow transformed God into a deity that looks very much like us, a kind and grandfatherly soul who tolerates our every transgression and gives us all the things we ask for.

This new God accepts our modern secularized morality, agreeing with our redacted and reinterpreted scripture to fit the whims and desires of the moment. This God has no standard we must meet, as long as we consider ourselves “good people.” This God is a God taken for granted.

Pastor Steven “God Broke the Law for Sin” Furtick and Pastor Rick “Works First, Faith Second” Warren

The true God – the God of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, you and me – that God is not to be taken lightly. That God allows us the follies of our own will but holds us accountable. That God “has authority to throw you into hell,” as Jesus warned in Luke 12:5.

Yet underlying this awesome and omniscient power over our lives is a God of love, a God filled with kindness, a God faithful in all He promises for those who fear and love Him. He desires our hearts but will ultimately destroy those who harden their hearts and minds to His will.

God Won’t be Tamed

.

Simply put, there’s no way to “tame” or “tone down” God. We can’t redefine Him to fit our modern tastes any more than we can change the law of gravity to soften our fall if we accidentally step off a 20 story building. We can’t negotiate with His eternal and perfect nature. And we can’t avoid the consequences when we try to do these things.

Yet God is also gracious, loving, overflowing with kindness and mercy, willing to forgive us and welcome us home when we remember that in the end everything is about Him, and never about us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

The Freeing Power of Forgiveness

“He who is forgiven little, loves little.” – Luke 7:47

Forgiveness seems in short supply today. Ironically, our need to be forgiven has grown to epic proportions. Scandals unfold every day, the foibles and flaws and shortcomings of those around us unmasked and revealed for public ridicule and scorn.

Ridicule and scorn are standard tools of the trade in modern secular society. We mock those who stumble, deride those who make mistakes. And this isn’t limited to the public arena – it creeps into our private lives and relationships as well. We are “wronged” and we cling to our indignation like a life preserver.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Why should I forgive him? He hasn’t even really apologized. 
     
  • I can’t forgive her because she hurt me too much.
     
  • What he did was so vile no one can ever forgive him.
     
  • That monster doesn’t deserve forgiveness.
     
  • I don’t care why she did it, it was wrong and I can’t forgive her.

Even #metoo, #timesup and endless other hashtag slogans.

Anger is Understandable

Sometimes, holding onto anger and bitterness is comforting, perhaps even understandable: the rapist of one’s child, the murderer of a loved one, a twisted young man who picks up a weapon and slaughters innocents for no fathomable reason, a trust financial advisor who fraudulently steals billions from unknowing investors, a betraying spouse.

These and countless other examples sear into our souls like white hot coals, ripping at our hearts and forever changing us. Yes, we feel justified in holding someone accountable, someone to blame.

Yet blaming others and holding them hostage to our contempt is like enslaving ourselves in emotional bondage. We poison our lives with anger or hatred. The bile of unforgiveness seeps through us, coloring our thoughts, strangling out our capacity to love.

A Different Approach

There was an encounter in the New Testament, told only the book of Luke. It’s a curious story found in Luke 7 and tells of an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee named Simon.

The chapter begins with the encounter of Jesus and a Centurion in Capernaum, where Jesus saves the Centurion’s servant. This in and of itself would be startling to Jesus’ contemporaries – it would be hard for Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to forgive Jesus for giving aid and comfort to their Roman overlords.

This is followed by the story of Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead in the town of Nain, an encounter that spread his name across Judea. Jesus’ spreading fame eventually reached John the Baptist, who sends his disciples back to Jesus asking if he is, in fact, the expected Messiah.

Jesus replies with a masterful answer to the crowds and Pharisees around him, cutting to the very heart of understanding and forgiveness: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:33-34)

The next encounter happens in the house of one of the Pharisees in the crowd, a man named Simon. He invites Jesus to dinner, presumably to show his influential friends this novel Nazarene prophet creating so much excitement across the country. Notably, Simon does not extend Jesus the customary courtesy of offering of foot washing, a clear sign that he neither respected nor honored Jesus.

While at dinner, an unnamed woman, a “sinner” like those mentioned in his response to the question asked by John’s disciples, approaches Jesus cradling a small jar of expensive perfume. As dinner guests gasp and mutter about who she was, the woman begins sobbing at Jesus’ feet, bathing them in her tears, drying them with her hair and pouring her perfume over them.

Christ at Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1620

Shocked, Simon thinks to himself how clueless Jesus must be not to know “what kind of woman” she was. Jesus’ reply was stunning and point on. He tells the story of two debtors, one great, one small, who each had their debts forgiven. Simon, being challenged on who was the more grateful, said the one whose debt was larger.

After telling Simon that this woman – whose sins were great – had shown him hospitality and attention far beyond Simon’s, Jesus then concluded with this comment: “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

**BOOM**

This one statement lays out all we need to know about forgiveness. We will love God (and each other) to the same degree we recognize our own failings and God’s undeserved forgiveness of us – and our forgiveness of others, even when we believe they do not deserve it.

As a Pharisee, Simon had likely been deeply schooled in the Law, memorizing extensive portions of Scripture, practicing rigorous self-discipline, diligently tithing, publicly displaying his “service” to God, and generally having a reputation as a godly man. And yet his actions did not reflect love for God.

The woman, however, who had nothing to offer except shameful sin, was described as a model for true worship. Why? Simply because she knew how desperately she needed God’s forgiveness Jesus offered in his gospel, and she believed that he would grant it.

That is what God asks of us. That is the grace-filled faith that saves.

Slave trader-turned-pastor, John Newton said it this way “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour.” We can learn from this.

When we fail to forgive, we fail to love. When we fail to love, we fail to serve God.

Society’s current open season on anyone who makes a mistake is completely antithetical to God’s instruction to His people and leads us directly into Jesus’ warning from his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:2 “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”

The next time someone offends you, pause and take a breath. You could be on the receiving end yourself someday, or even today. And the freedom offered in letting go of blame is as powerful as truth itself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Safe Places and Other Modern Myths

“You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day; of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon.” Psalm 91:5-6

The news hit midmorning on, of all days, the start of Advent and Valentine’s Day: “Active shooter in Florida school.” Every day since, cable news and social media have been wall to wall with saturation coverage, shrill screams of “enough is enough,” student walkouts, and lockstep cries for yet more manmade faux solutions to manmade real problems.

Yet every proposed “fix” seems, in the grand scheme of things, hollow and sadly lacking any real core curative ingredient. Appeals for “safe places” in a world of unsafe reality.

How did we get here? Why do our daily lives seem and feel so much less secure than 10, 20, or 30 years ago? Are there really any safe places anymore?

In times of hardship or tragedy there is a natural desire to seek instant answers, immediate solutions ensuring we can step safely outside our door. We build houses with safe rooms. We pass laws to eliminate every perceivable type of danger. We legislate, regulate, and adjudicate every conceivable facet of life to make ourselves “safer.”

No Safe Places

The truth is no place on earth is safe enough to protect us from the inescapable certainties of life. No amount of money can shield us from the ravages of aging, disease, and death. No one we know, no where we go can ultimately protect us this truth: human life has a 100% mortality rate.

To be sure, we try.

We seek safety in more government oversight from our elected officials. Perhaps we seek safety in our churches and pastors. We seek safety online and on social media, with like-minded people saying like-minded things. Some even seek safety in barricading themselves behind walls and storing entire arsenals for protection.

Is there really safety in numbers?

In each of these, a common thread emerges: we seek safety in ourselves, in human devices. And almost always, we are disappointed and even heartbroken.

Jeremiah spoke of the dangers we face in placing our trust in each other (or even, as seems to be wildly en vogue the last few days, our children) rather than in God:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord. For he will be like a bush in the desert and … live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.” (Jeremiah 17:5-6)

There is no safe place in surrender to fear. There is no safe place in blaming politicians or organizations for doing exactly what their constituents allow them to do, abdicating the responsibility of citizenship for creature comforts and diversions. There is no safe place in trusting our own so-called wisdom.

Yes, Evil is Real

Here is truth: evil is real. Since the first lie planted in the hearts of man turned us away from God’s perfection in the garden, we – mankind – have chosen to do evil things. It’s hardwired into our collective psyche.

Paul writes in Romans 5:12 “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given.” Insert “evil” for “sin” and the picture gets clearer.

Credit: NBC News

Which brings us back to the events in Florida last week. A nineteen-year old broken soul, barely an adult, chose to live out the evil infesting his heart. He meticulously planned the slaughter, executing his deed with cold precision. He succeeded in shattering the illusions of safe places for those who simply expected another school day. 

No Easy Answers

Should we ask how? Dare we ask why? Of course.

Yet before we look for easy answers from the hearts of broken men and women grasping at something, anything, to prove they are not impotent in the face of evil, perhaps we should look at other things.

No doubt we can question the relatively frictionless accessibility to firearms guaranteed by our Constitution, and whether the time has come to reconsider its intended wisdom.

Or we can study the impact of a disconnected culture addicted to devices in the palms of its hands or at the other end of violent video game consoles.

Perhaps we should look at homes with single parents or no parents at all where boundaries and expectations and love for our children are absent.

Maybe we should explore the impact of ubiquitous psychotropic drugs and untreated mental illness all in the name of nonjudgmental tolerance.

Or even dig into the rise of bullying and the coarseness of society where social media allows anyone to say anything at any time with no consequence.

We should look at all these things and more.  And once we’ve analyzed and scrutinized and examined how man has turned creation into what we read in the headlines every day, we should remember that the influence all these things is not the same as the root cause for human suffering.

Wishes Don’t Work

Evil cannot be wished away, it cannot be legislated into extinction. Like water, it will seep through the cracks of even the most civilized and orderly society. Believing in manmade safe places is, simply, an illusion, a myth perpetrated by an enemy wishing delighted as we shake our fists at the sky saying “Enough! We are in control!”

Simply put, there is only one truly safe place: the will of the living God. As surely evil hides and walks amongst us, this is also goodness in our midst – vastly more than the media or our news feeds will ever tell us.

God has a design for each of us, and while we may not understand, He has a plan for any evil we create or endure. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” Paul tells us in Romans 8:28.

God’s Purpose Can Never Be Defeated

No one – regardless of how deranged or evil – can succeed in blocking God’s purposes. Yet, when we remove the light of God’s Truth and replace it with the world’s standards, we are left to wander blind on our own paths of disobedience.

And sadly, sometimes that disobedience hurts even the innocents, the bystanders. Such is the consequence for a world in denial searching for safety where none exists.

There are no adequate words of comfort we can ever give to the parent of a child lost so senselessly, just as there is no easy consolation to someone suffering from a terminal disease or a spouse suffering betrayal.

Brothers and sisters, safety is found in the shelter of God’s love. “I the Lord do no not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed,” God speaks through His prophet in Malachi 3:6.

Take comfort in knowing His love never diminishes, His Light is always right there with us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Surviving the World

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Dear Christian – we live in confusing times. Every day it seems we’re bombarded with admonitions and rebukes:

“You can say this but you can’t say that.”

“Live the way we think you should and embrace anything anyone else feels or you’re X-cist and X-phobic.”

“You don’t really believe that stuff about a literal Hell do you?”

“What?? You actually buy that immaculate conception story? Are you crazy”

“Don’t tell me you actually think the Bible is literally the inspired Word of God. Surely you must realize it’s just a book written by men with all their biases and limitations.”

Or one of my favorites from a recent popular daytime talk show featuring five B- and C-list celebrity women commenting on the weighty matters of the day: “Talking to God and hearing Him talk back is what I call mental illness.”

Things Have Changed

Life for Christians today seems different than when many of us first became Believers. Back before social media created John the Baptists out of anyone with a laptop or a smartphone or offered easy pulpits for anyone with a grievance of hate to spew.

Credit: Diialia from youtube.com

Before it seemed like our Bibles had been tossed into cultural blenders, only to be rearranged and reinterpreted to mean anything anyone wishes, at any time and for any reason.

Before secular debates forced changes in our understanding of sacred Scripture to conform Christian faith to the sensibilities of “enlightened” Society.

Before faith was publicly ridiculed as casually as we comment on the weather.

Before our sensitivities to “feelings” overshadows our concerns for the very lives of those around us.

As an unashamed follower of Christ, I’m saddened by what is happening to the message of love and authentic obedience to God’s Word espoused by the Jesus of scripture.

I’m disappointed with celebrities and pastors who place their number of followers, book sales, and secular adoration over Truth and Salvation. With religious pundits politicize faith.

I’m angered over preachers of the Word who build treasures for themselves at the expense of the very congregants they profess to serve.

I’m disheartened by churches that remove crosses and sermons about sacrifice in favor of blithe self-help sermon series and bland walls filled with nondescript portrayals of perfect lives because Biblical truth is somehow “too harsh and depressing.”

Listening to The Truth

When God’s Word became flesh, and God’s voice spoke to both that generation and all of creation about His son, saying a “Listen to him,” His instruction wasn’t a suggestion, or an illustration of just one out of many ways to reach salvation. Jesus embodied the definition of received grace and substitutionary atonement.

Jesus’ life was the fulfillment of God’s promise first made in Genesis 3:14-15, where in response to the serpent’s lies and the subsequent downfall of man God proclaimed: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

Credit: www.e-watchman.com

We see this struggle playing out daily before our very eyes.

Rebellion in Our DNA

When we read this account of Genesis, and then the next few chapters, we get a more complete picture of the fullness in God’s promise of a Savior, and how deeply desperate we are in need of salvation. Rebellion is in our DNA, embedded at the core of our collective psyche, masquerading as “enlightenment” and “independence.” Our search for self-salvation allows sin to constantly lurk outside the doors of our hearts, desiring to consume us.

Every day, each of us makes moral/spiritual decisions. The pressure to make those decisions based on ever-changing social “norms” is overwhelming. We’re told to “feel” our way through life using contemporary measurements, not make decisions based on outdated and archaic writings of men who lived 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

And so it’s been from the beginning, even with Jesus’ earliest followers after his resurrection and ascension. We read in Paul’s epistles an admonition to the congregations in Galatia to turn from prideful legalism as they fell away from the gospel of grace. He rebuked the church in Corinth not turn a blind eye to the division and rampant immorality that had crept into its midst. To the Colossians he warned against the false teachings of those who were questioning the very identity and deity of Jesus.

Credit: www.messianicpublications.com

Late, when John penned the Book of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches in Asia Minor, Jesus’ own words reinforced the message of vigilance against a diluted faith. They – like many today – had abandoned God’s Word as the only standard for guiding belief and behaviors.

Unchanging Hearts

Yet have we as a people really changed that much over the centuries? Our technology may be different, our ability to see the world in larger terms has expanded, but have our hearts grown?

Just like Christians today, early Believers were surrounded by those advocating lifestyles and philosophies in direct conflict with scriptural teaching, often in the name of “tolerance” and “love.” And just like many of us today, early Christians faced harsh criticism, ridicule, and ostracizing for holding to the authentic teachings passed from God through Jesus.

Even popular pseudo-pastors with catchy-sounding blog sites tell us our faith is wrong, distorted, irrelevant in a world where nothing is out of bounds if it’s done under the catch-all of “love,” nothing is counter to God’s direction (unless, of course, it disagrees with their vision of the world).

A Hard Truth

Here’s the hard truth for all who believe in the timelessness of God’s sovereign Word. If we are to heed Paul’s warning not to conform to this world, to immunize ourselves from the moral and spiritual confusion surrounding us, we must first resist the pressure to conform to the Godless standards of our culture.

In his epistle to the Romans, acknowledged by many as the clearest and most systematic presentation of Christian doctrine in all Scripture, Paul warns us that the pagan world system will continually pressure us to fit in and endorse its belief system, to be “normal” and “mainstream.” The true #Resist movement in society is pushing back against this system of societal enslavement.

The enticements never feel like shackles, of course. Just as the Moabites corrupted the Israelites in Numbers 31-33, or the Nicolaitans attempting to corrupt the Ephesians in Revelation 2, these seductions are most often presented as assurances of pleasure, self-gratification, and personal gain. False teachings are filled with prisons masquerading as promises.

Avoiding False Teachings

How do we avoid the whispers of an enemy waiting at our door? At some point, we must simply choose not to listen, refuse to embrace them as enlightened truths of a more openly aware society, and shut them out.

False doctrines, watering-down our beliefs to accommodate a more “tolerant” expression of faith, are like poisonous vipers. We may escape unharmed after one or two encounters. Over time, their bite becomes toxic to our spiritual health.

The lure of cultural conformity works its way into every aspect of our lives – how we live, how we relate, how we worship, how some in society respond to social pressures. When we remove the guardrails of obedience to God’s Word from our lives, all we have left is moral equivalency (that is, morality is what I say it is). And with every example of behavior straying from ever-evolving social norms, the outcry for another man-made remedy in the form of a law or rule emerges.

We’ve forgotten the direct simplicity of God’s plan, replacing it with a society demanding only one rule: agree with us or be exiled. How much more infinitely pure is the direct Word of our Creator?

Scripture tells us “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,” (Genesis 8:21). How much truer is that today, as the world crowds in to replace God with cultural conformity?

Over the next few days, pause a moment and reflect on where you look for guidance. Is it from the peer pressure screaming at you to fit in or is it from the timeless, inerrant Word of God? The answer may surprise you.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

A Bad Day

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.Romans 5:3-5

I recently had a call from a friend who needed to vent. He was having a bad day. His wife was nagging about how he didn’t help out around the house, one of his kids was having problems in school, his boss was on his back about performance, and his beloved football team hadn’t made it into the playoffs. To top it off, his golf game was suffering. It was truly an apocalypse.

Every day we’re bombarded with stories of hardship. Some of these tug at our heartstrings: mothers losing their children needlessly to senseless crime; cancer ravishing the lives of families who must face unplanned catastrophes; the unimaginably impoverished barely surviving in far-flung places where even food and water are rare.

“Honest, officer, I just needed a quick place to park.”

And then, there are the fabricated stories of hardship. Tales of illegal immigrants who have been deported multiple times but are still being “persecuted” when they return to this country and break the law. Christians who claim they are being unfairly judged because of their scriptural interpretations. Culturally-sensitive types who reject any commentary they find specifically offensive to their delicate psyches.

A Tame World

The world today is, in many ways, tame. Creature comforts we deem as “bare minimums” would have been seen as impossibly extravagant luxuries a mere 100 years ago: large screen televisions in multiple rooms, smart phones permanently attached to our hands, churches wide open on every street corner offering whatever flavor of Christianity a consumer-oriented seeker desires, regardless of how authentically it follows scripture.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. No doubt some might find my framing of this topic already tainted with bias. Yet as I reflect on the unique 21st Century sentiments of those who feel life is treating them unfairly, I’m reminded of the struggles of 14 very real and very specific individuals who pledged their lives to proclaim Truth into the world nearly 2,000 years ago.

When Jesus ascended 40 days after his resurrection around 33 AD, there were exactly 11 Apostles and approximately 500 total followers in the entire world. 511 people who heard the ministry of Jesus and believed his Gospel. Almost immediately, Jesus’ followers were subject to the most horrific forms of persecution. They were hunted, beaten, sometimes stoned, almost unanimously ostracized. They had every reason to run from the call God placed on their hearts for an easier life, but they did not.

Persecuted for Faith

And what of Jesus’ Apostles? Consider what happened to each of those who were closest to Jesus life and ministry in the short 30 years following his resurrection:

  • James, older brother of John, is run through with a sword by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem
  • Philip is crucified upside down in Asia
  • Bartholomew is skinned alive and beheaded in Armenia
  • Thomas (who doubted the resurrection) is stabbed to death by Hindu priests in Punjab, India
  • Matthew is martyred in Ethiopia
  • Simon and Jude are martyred in modern day Beirut
  • Mathias is stoned to death in Jerusalem after evangelizing in Armenia
  • James the Just (brother of Jesus) is thrown from the walls of the temple in Jerusalem by an angry mob and stoned to death
  • Andrew, brother of Peter, is crucified on an x-shaped cross in Patras, Greece
  • Simon Peter is crucified in Rome upside down
  • John the Evangelist is thrown into a boiling vat of oil, emerging unharmed but then exiled to Patmos
  • Mark is martyred in Alexandria after becoming its first Pope
  • Paul is beheaded in Rome

Credot: www.catholiccompany.com

These men and hundreds of thousands of followers since pledged and gave their lives defending a Truth so many today take for granted. They didn’t look for comfortable lives, easy faith. They didn’t water down Scripture to meet the sensitive ears of the people around them.

John’s Gospel describes the final night Jesus spent with his Apostles during the last supper. Afterwards, he encourages his followers by telling them not to let the coming trials of the world stop them from their mission. “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, also believe in me,” he begins in John 14. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you,” he continues in Chapter 15. He closes Chapter 16 with “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Life in Context

Friends, my message today is very simple. In the scheme of things, how difficult is your life? An IRS audit? Bills to pay? Your political candidate lost? Grumbling spouses? Someone’s Twitter feed makes you angry? Your preacher said something you found insensitive? These kinds of things are what stand between you and an unclouded relationship with God?

“For our present troubles are quite small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us an immeasurably great glory that will last forever,” Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians. Every hardship we suffer today, even in the worst of times, prepares us for a future in eternity if we remember Christ overcame the world on our behalf.

When we put our lives in context, our “bad days” might be seen as “best days” for others. Instead of looking for reasons why our lives are not perfect, perhaps we should consider how filled we are by the Grace of God’s love and the sacrifice Jesus made at Calvary.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Of Pride and Prima Donnas

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:5-7

There was a time when I loved skiing. When we moved to Boulder in 1999, I was a big skier – a BIG skier. My first year there I managed 43 days on the slopes. Of course, the work thing interfered from time to time, but not much. I got really good, and was very impressed with myself and my skills.

I later relocated to Austin and tried keeping up my love for skiing, organizing semi-annual trips the first couple of years, until life finally intruded. Eventually, I just packed away the heavy weather gear, the boots, the helmets, the gloves, the slinky little underwear, you know the drill.

Then I organized a team “business meeting” in Crested Butte. No, really – a real meeting. In fact, the management at the Lodge was impressed with our ability to meet 9 hours a day for two days with the lifts 50 yards outside!

I couldn’t stay the weekend with the rest of my team, so I got there early to squeeze in a half-day of slope time before the meetings started.

Nothin’ But Pride

A funny thing happens when you haven’t skied in a couple of years. Apparently there’s this brain–body disconnect where the brain believes one thing and the body believes another. To my brain, six years away from skiing was really nothing, just a blink of the eye. I remembered – with pride, course – my glory days. My brain told me I was “Powder Dude” and “Steeps Dude” and “Air Dude.” Of course, my body had already moved out of state and was focused on more important things like lounging in front of a TV with a nice adult beverage.

Needless to say, I got reminded who was boss. After half a day of skiing, nothing too strenuous, of course, I tried one last run, just to prove I still had it. You can guess what happened next. A caught edge, a wonderful somersault, and *splat* “Air Dude” becomes “Crash Dude” with a separated shoulder.

“Dude, I kept my skis on!”

To be sure, the nurse and the doctors and the nice ski patrol guy were all very understanding. They didn’t care much about my pride, though. I, on the other hand, was very concerned. I mean, I’m a skier for 18 years! This doesn’t happen to me!

That’s the topic of this message: Pride. What it is, why it lies at the root of nearly all our shortcomings, how it separates us from God, how it separates us from each other.

The word “Pride” is mentioned nearly 80 times in the NIV version of the Bible. Related topics like “proud” and “prideful” and “boastful” increase that count significantly. Scriptural commentary on Pride is rarely positive.

In the passage quoted at the beginning of this message, Peter is writing to the Elders and leaders in the expanding region of the early Church across Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (collectively known today as the country of Turkey), attempting to encourage new followers who were under severe persecution and wavering in their faith. The younger followers were at odds with their elders, allowing pride to fuel disagreements and arguments about who should lead.


Peter is pointing out a subtle but crucial point. Pride (or its corollary the lack of humility) is at the heart of all sin. It leads us from God instead of running to Him. Arrogance, disobedience, rebellion, mistreatment of others – all are rooted in a lack of humility.

Humility is Hard

Humility isn’t a popular topic in today. It’s not touted on The View or Ellen, it’s rarely mentioned in speeches, it certainly hasn’t found it’s way into the endless blathering from would-be social critics attacking this politician or that celebrity, you don’t find seminars dedicated to finding humility. Take a look at this link on self-help books – not a single topic on humility.

Why is this?

Perhaps because true humility can only exist when God is present. Humility is like a shadow we cast when God’s light shines on us. When we turn from God, the shadow of humility is replaced by a darker, more insidious shadow – the shadow of Pride.

Pride leads us to believe we can define ourselves apart from our “created” nature. Ironically, as we cling tightly to the fantasy of self-importance and self-sufficiency, we begin feeling anxious about anything threatening that illusion. This anxiety fuels the motives leading us into lives of mistakes and shortcomings as we try to avoid the reality that we’re not really in control of our lives.

One area of Christian life where Pride is most dangerous is … faith. Peter saw this among his followers, as the younger men allowed pride to cloud their sense of community.

We’ve all known folks like that – proud Christians who are good people yet who stand on self-made alters of self-righteousness. Their faith is not so much about God as it is about them.

The Self-Exalted Are Humbled

This is wonderfully illustrated in the 18th chapter of Luke. Jesus is teaching when his attention turns to “some who were confident in their righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” In response, Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee and Tax Collector going to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, filled with a sense of his own self-righteousness, thanks God he isn’t like the other men – adulterers, evildoers, even tax collectors. Meanwhile, the tax collector stands in the back of the temple, afraid to raise his eyes to God and begs mercy for his sins. Jesus clinches the story with this line: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot, 1894

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled by God. That’s a powerful message. And we’re just one broken promise, one misstep away from devastation. Getting to the root of Pride lying buried in each of our hearts is hard. Yet as I’ve reflected on how Pride often controls my relationships with God and those around me, I’ve found three ways to attack my own lack of humility. Let me warn you, these aren’t easy to do consistently, and they must be done together. And while they may seem simplistic, they work. This week, I encourage each of you to consciously try them:

1) Be grateful to anyone and everyone. Treat even the things people are expected to do as great gifts. Be grateful for your meals, grateful for the change you get back at the drive through, the smile at the ticket counter, rain, life itself. Thank everyone.

2) Beg forgiveness of God for the sin of Pride. Go before Him in prayer every day or every few hours and implore His mercy. The more this offends you, the more Pride you have.

3) Ask God for a spirit of Humility and Gratitude. Read Philippians 2:3-11 and imitate it. Understand that without God’s Grace, we’ll never cast away our illusions. Ask God to break your pride and vanity using whatever it takes: illness, loss of friends, loss of family, public humiliation. This is unbelievably difficult to request, and every fiber of our being fights it. We protest it is not fair, or “God doesn’t work that way.”

As Jesus reminded us, what good is gaining the world and losing our soul? In the end, all but true love for God is lost, so count all else but God as loss now.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Chasms and Warnings

If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:31

We live in an age of broken dreams and growing chasms: dreams shattered by chasms in thought, dreams crushed by chasms in civility, dreams unrealized by chasms in our perceptions of justice and fairness. The current political climate seemingly consuming the waking hours of so many of us has only widened these chasms.

Regardless of what we read from our favorite social media pundit or hear from cable news “contributors,” chasms are nothing new to humanity. We are not suddenly “more fractured than ever” as one self-appointed arbiter of righteousness recently posted.

Rather, we’ve had to face and cross chasms throughout history, sometimes more successfully than others.  In virtually every case, warning signs were available … and too often ignored.

Warnings Ignored

There’s a well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke I often turn to when grappling with notions of division, strife, and warning signs.

Shortly after sharing the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15, Jesus then describes the contrasting lives of two men in Luke 16: an unnamed rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus.

In the parable, Jesus sets the stage by describing how the rich man dressed opulently and lived in splendor every day while Lazarus begged for crumbs from the rich man’s table, covered in sores.  There was a gate separating them, with Lazarus lying outside and the rich man safe within.

After both men die, the rich man is sent to Hades and Lazarus is taken by Abraham to heaven. The rich man begs for relief (much as in life Lazarus had begged for food), only to be rebuked by Abraham who responds “between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

Where did this chasm come from?  Did God create an artificial barrier separating us into two camps of Heaven dwellers and Hell sufferers?

Some readers mistakenly believe this parable is about afterlives and whether we end up in Heaven or Hell separated for eternity by a chasm of infinite dimension as punishment for our deeds. Instead, Jesus is describing a different chasm, a divide of man’s own insistent making.

In life, the rich man had maintained distance between himself and Lazarus. He built walls around his life, locking himself inside a prison of self-creation. Over time, this prison became surrounded by a chasm so vast that in death not even eternity could bridge it. The chasm was created by the rich man himself.

But the story goes further.

The rich man also had five brothers, all still alive. After Abraham’s rejection, he pleads: “Father Abraham I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may warn them so that they may not come to this place of torment.”

The siblings are apparently unaware of their peril. They need to be warned, urgently. The rich man asks that Lazarus be raised from the dead and sent back to warn the rich man’s brothers to change their ways. Abraham denies this second request, indicating the brothers would not listen to a resurrected dead beggar’s warnings since they continued ignoring the teachings of Moses and the Prophets.

Who Are We?

As you read this story, who are you? The rich man wearing purple and feasting every day?  Or do you identify with Lazarus, the poor beggar covered with sores, lying at the gate?  Or perhaps the siblings?

In truth, most of us are neither that rich nor that poor. Yet in this story, it doesn’t matter – they are both already dead.  Thus, we are the siblings. What Abraham couldn’t do (send Lazarus back to tell the brothers), Jesus does with his parable.

The great chasms in our lives are not imposed by God, but are actually divides of our own creation. Yes, there is a great divide between rich and poor in our world, often a chasm of our own making, and this chasm gets deeper with each act of separation, each act of negligence, each act of violence, each act of indifference.

Like the rich man in Jesus’ story, we build gates and walls, digging moats and chasms. We move into exclusive neighborhoods, send our kids to exclusive schools, add “us vs. them” into our everyday language.

Perhaps we see the Lazaruses in our own lives, maybe sympathizing with their plight. Yet even in our compassion do we actually see them as fellow children of God? We offer them crumbs from our tables but do we offer them respect and hospitality? This is the true chasm Jesus describes.

Credit: www.theemotionmachine.com

There seems to be a lot of division between the “us’s” and the “them’s” in our world – differences based on wealth, or race, or faith, or nationality, or a thousand other distinctions. Jesus tells us these distinctions are artificial and ultimately no amount of warning can save us if we refuse to heed God’s call to turn away from the invented chasms in our hearts.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he warns that “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.” I would argue the same might be said for rich and poor alike.

False Divisions

Anyone seeking to divide along artificial lines falls into the temptation of believing themselves superior to those on the other side of the chasm, placing their trust in that separation rather than God’s appeal for reconciliation. Rather than being generous and compassionate they become hardened and cold. They don’t prioritize their relationships with God and with others. They reject the life that is true life.

And yes, it’s hard work. Society seems wired to exploit what divides us rather than what unites us. Sometimes it seems the chasms are so great we will never cross them.

Yet we are called to be those people, those chasm-crossers. We’re called to level mountains and fill valleys, straightening the paths that lead to God. Every step of the way, God is beside us, reminding us that His Grace and Love can bridge any gap, close any distance.

Jesus tells us in this parable to listen for the warning. To turn away from digging ourselves deeper into isolation. To hear the cry of those who need reconciliation with us. To love God with all our hearts and our minds and our strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter who we (or they) are.

We’ve been warned. What are we doing about?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Why Transformation is So Hard

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12: 2

Transformers hit theatres in 2007 to the delight of 12 year olds (and some former 12 year olds) everywhere.  Over the next ten years and five movies, the franchise earned nearly $4.9 billion worldwide, proving that colorful toy cars – and Megan Fox – can sell movie tickets.

“I swear that was a ’76 Camaro five minutes ago!”

The heroes, Autobots hiding among humans as vehicles, transform into saviors to fight the villainous Decepticons in a battle for the Earth. This war between Good and Evil has obvious parallels to Scripture – a malevolent force with one purpose seeks to destroy God’s plan for redemption. God’s heroes from Scripture are like the Autobots (go with me on this), ordinary human beings transformed into extraordinary agents of God’s Holy Spirit.

A Common Theme

We’re moved by stories of overcoming challenges and obstacles. For Judeo-Christian Believers, the transformation motif is familiar: David transformed from a shepherd into a King by slaying a mighty warrior twice his size; Job transformed from a wealthy man to a pauper and back again; Jacob’s son Joseph transformed from prisoner to supreme administrator of Egypt; Mary transformed from a scared, unwed teenager into the mother of God’s only Son; Saul the Christian persecutor transformed into Paul the Evangelical powerhouse.

The lesson is the same in each example: the conditions of our human birth don’t define us. We aren’t confined by the things of the world simply because we find ourselves in a place or time we did not choose.

Is Positive Thinking Enough

What separates those who break free from their origins from those who don’t? In almost all cases the answer is “attitude.” Secularists call this the power of Positive Psychology (“positive thinking”), but regardless of the label, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests an attitude of positive energy and optimism defeats a dark view of the world.

There’s a great deal of angst in the world today, especially among those who see the past year’s events as apocalyptic. Social media and blogs are filled with the naysayers preaching dire circumstances and end times-like catastrophes. These are the same folks who speak so highly of self-identification and positive affirmations when the political winds blow a different way.

Credit: www.yourerc.com

They just can’t break free from mindsets holding them captive to a world to which they’ve conformed.

Amidst a deluge of self-help gurus, libraries filled with how-to books, endless diets and financial systems, exercise plans for every body type, why are so many of us unable to every truly transform? Why do we continually jump from half-measure to half-measure?

If the power of transformation lies in the application of attitude, how do we remain unchanged?

Where We Place Our Belief

Perhaps the answers lies not in what we want to believe but rather in where we place that belief. Paul reminds us in Romans 12 that when we entrust our belief in things of this world (“conforming”), we receive things of this world. Still we crave more – a new body, a bigger house, a more expensive car, a better personality. We’re never satisfied because we are never transformed.

Christians are no different than non-Christians in their need for transformation. Yet we struggle as well. Why is this the case? Perhaps because this need for transformation is the single barrier the Enemy has to keep us from God. The less satisfied we stay, the more we need rather than experience transformation, the the greater hold Satan has on our lives.

In my own journey, I’ve found four areas I must continually revisit as I strive for Transformation. These are mine – yours might be different.

 1.  Insisting on my will, not God’s.

It’s tempting to think of God as a kind of spiritual ATM: we deposit spiritual credits and we withdraw them on demand. The more “x” we put in (the more we give to the church, the more we show our “goodness,” the more mission trips we take), the more blessings we’ll receive. But the world doesn’t play fair. It pushes back, asking for more every time we give.

God doesn’t equate transactions with transformation. To receive God’s transformational grace we must first understand and seek His will, not our desires. Until we ask God for discernment into His will we will remain untransformed.

2.  Looking to the Church to transform me.

Today’s church can be a wonderful, affirming, and catalyzing place for transformation. But the church itself is not the source for that transformation. In Galatians 6, Paul reminds the congregation in Galatia that the church – both traditional Jews and Gentiles – is nothing except the affirmation of God’s power to transform: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

When we look to the Church rather than to God for our fulfillment, we miss His point that we should be focused vertically first, not horizontally.

 3.  If I try a little harder, I can make change happen.

As a professional and an executive, I’m all about the power of initiative and effort. Yet when I allow that to spill over into my Faith life, I’m often disappointed. Life pushes back. People resist. Our efforts are thwarted.

We can’t force Christianity to transform either our lives or the lives of others. It never works that way.  Instead, we should follow Paul’s advice in Galatians 5:25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us walk with the Spirit.” Following the Spirit enables us to bear the fruit Jesus describes in John 15.

4.  Earning my way to transformation.

Think of the caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly. The process is effortless for the caterpillar once it starts. The caterpillar is living on the outside what it knows to be true on the inside. The same is true for us. When we believe ourselves undeserving of grace in our hearts, we often attempt to overcompensate in our actions, trying to earn God’s love. Or worse, we try to earn acceptance from other sources.

The truth, and the truly Good News of the Gospel is that God has already done the heavy lifting. He’s already completed the hard work of transformation. We can add nothing to the perfection of His forgiveness. No effort on our part can “earn” what has already been freely given – we simply have to receive it and let it happen.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we are all being transformed into God’s image when we take off our masks and contemplate His glory. Not our will, but His. Not our church, but His Spirit. Not our efforts, but His work.

In the end, we’re not simply Hollywood-created Autobots who magically transform ourselves into humanity-saving heroes. As Christians, we need reminding just as the new church did in Paul’s time that the only true transformation comes through the Will and Spirit of God.

This week, let go of your belief in self-transformation. Remember that God has already done the work. Simply allow that work to change you, spread your wings, and fly.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Reset

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” – Ephesians 4:1

This time of year, I have three annual rituals to close out one season and begin another: I get into my closet and do my version of a clothing purge; set personal and professional goals for the coming year; and select one book of the Bible to read as an anchor for the coming 12 months. I call it my “reset.”

“Dive right in!”

Actually, it’s more like a “recalibration.” I’m not sure how desirable it would be to start completely over every year!

These rituals aren’t simply boxes checked to start a new year – they truly set the tone and pace of how that new season will unfold. And packing up unworn clothing items for donating both symbolizes the discarding of excess baggage as well as the sharing of things others may need.

Yet the ritual I most cherish is the selection of a book from the Bible to ground me for what comes next. Actually, in some years it’s been a single passage or verse, but this year my choice was Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

God’s Reset Message

I’ve often considered Ephesians a kind of “reset button” God offers Believers. In six short but exceptionally rich chapters, Paul (writing to the church in Ephesus some 1,200 miles away from his Roman prison cell around 62 A.D.) lays out the framework for what God has done in guiding humanity back from the long wilderness we’ve strayed into since the Fall.

Explore the depth of Paul’s words yourself, first reminding the Ephesians how God has given us all new life through Christ (Chapters 1-3), and then how God wants us to live in the grace of that new life (Chapters 4-6).

It’s the second half of Ephesians, the application of love and renewal in resetting our lives, I find most compelling as the new year approaches.

Fresh Starts

Many of us start each year with fresh thinking, lofty goals, resolutions to change. We’re going to stop this, start that, go here but not go there, spend more time with some people and less time with others, lose weight, make new friends, save more money, do more to help the poor or less fortunate, call our parents (or our kids) more often, treat our significant others better … the lists can be endless.

By January 31, however, life seems to push back. Old habits return, nagging at us to forget about resets and focus instead on the tried and true, the clutter and yokes of yesterday. What we aspire to become gets entangled in those things to which we still stubbornly cling.

Credit: www.whatwillmatter.com

For some, it’s as though we fear letting go of the past, holding close those feelings and emotions that both helped and hindered us in the past. Like hoarders of things hiding in the corners of our closets, gradually crowding out room for anything new. We hoard heartbreak, broken relationships, disappointments, anger, past glories, addictions, suspicions and doubts … it often seems we hold onto anything preventing us from experiencing the new heart God gives all Believers.

Paul encourages the Ephesians to “walk worthy of the calling you have received.” He could be speaking to us today.

In accepting Christ into our lives, we become “new creations,” with old things passing away, replaced by fresh and new possibilities. And not just on January 1st but each and every day of the year. Because we’re united in faith, God charts a new course for us, a path made straight and clear, free of the emotional clutter and baggage of this world.

Put on a New Self

Yes, new courses are scary. They challenge us to rethink who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going. A new job, moving from the comforting familiarity of home, leaving a toxic relationship to begin a new, uplifting one, forgiving someone who wronged us and allowing them to re-enter our life – all of these remind us of what God asks when we accept His call to turn our lives away from wrong choices and bad decisions. “Think about who you were,” He asks. “Did that really fulfill you?”

Paul echoes this, calling us to examine our old values, attitudes, and actions when we were at odds with God’s plan and compare that to who we are now, “renewed in the spirit” (Ephesians 4:23).

Before we can put on our “new self” we must discard our old self; stop following the ways we loved before we were saved. We must hit reset on our lives, making new choices in accordance with Christ’s character living in our hearts. Rather than submitting to fear and doubt, submit to God and each other in faith and hope.

This New Year’s Eve, as we celebrate with family and friends sharing hopes and dreams of the coming year, let’s not forget to get deep into the closets of our lives, cleaning out the old ways, the clutter and negative emotions chaining us to behaviors and thoughts we no longer need.

Try something new. Forgive someone. Take a chance on something that scares you.  And don’t forget to bag up those old clothes, that “old self,” and give it away. It’s no longer you.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #12 Journeys in Time

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

It’s here! Christmas Day. Presents, delicious food, family and friends. We look forward to this day all year. For some, the journey is simply from our bedrooms to our living rooms. Others travel many miles to join in the celebration. In fact, AAA recently estimated that this year over 100 million Americans would travel in some form this Christmas.

One of our biggest concerns when we take a trip, especially during the holidays, is whether we’ll get to our destination on time. Crowded airports, busy highways, overbooked hotels … when will we get there? Our travel plans sometimes seem more pressing than our travel destinations.

A Different Journey

There is another journey we should remember today as another Advent ends. A journey made by our Creator spanning the infinite stretches of time and space, from thought to Word to flesh to Salvation. It is the reason we celebrate this day, the day “O Come” became “Emmanuel.”

The Jesus so often stylized in paintings and song seems at odds with the Jesus of history. He was not born to princely riches, surrounded by the comforts of an Eternal throne. His arrival was greeted with a brief night of fanfare and praise but then life took hold.

The Jesus of history was born to humble parents, a day laborer and young girl barely into her teens. They lived not in one of the great commerce centers of Judea amidst the religious elite, but a dusty town nearly 100 miles from Jerusalem. Many in his day would never travel beyond the borders of their own villages. And it’s likely few people worried much about timetables and schedules.

Jesus’ life commenced with a journey, a continuation of the journey his Father began so many eons before. His life would end with a journey, a journey that would take him from death to transcendence. A journey that happened precisely on time.

During his earthly life, Jesus took many journeys: to Egypt as a baby, throughout Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Every trip he made, every place he visited, Scripture records the travels not of an inveterate site-seer looking to check boxes for the ancient wonders of the world he visited, but rather, someone with a single purpose: to encounter us, engage with us, teach and minister to us, bring us the Good News of the coming of his Father’s Kingdom.

A Visitor to All

A lot is written about Jesus’ focus on the downtrodden and the outcast. The forgotten members of society. And indeed, he did speak to the humble and the meek and poor, both in purse and in spirit. Yet, the remarkable thing about Jesus’ journeys was how he did not discriminate between rich and poor, famous or obscure. He visited with anyone.

An encounter with a rich young ruler mentioned Mark 10:17-27 is one example. The passage begins “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him, and ask him ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Notice the passage begins with Jesus embarking on yet another journey! Jesus seeks those who seek him – in this case, a man of wealth and means. Rather than dismissing the young man simply because of his wealth, Jesus engages him. That encounter didn’t end as the rich young ruler hoped, but Jesus still met him where he was.

Mary Annointing Jesus’ Feet, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

Another encounter from John 12:1-8, describes Jesus allowing Mary to anoint his feet with an expensive and fragrant ointment that would sell for $20,000 today. In this story, Jesus has just come to Bethany in preparation for his final Passover in Jerusalem. Mary obviously has the means to possess such an expensive perfume and so was clearly not destitute. Yet again, Jesus did not criticize or shun her.

Jesus made an inconceivable journey for all of us. He came for the poor and rich, the unknown and the famous. He was no stranger to poverty and hardship, yet he was comfortable with the powerful and wealthy.

Jesus embodied his Father’s desire to reconcile all of mankind, regardless of circumstances. He realized that even those with means face struggles. Temptation doesn’t discriminate. He made his journey to you and me because we all hurt, we’re all broken, we all have fear and doubt.

The Real Point

The point of Christmas is to awaken us to the infinite capacity of God to reach inside our lives and heal us, to offer us the love and forgiveness only a Father can provide. To remind us of the journey He took to reach us.

Scholars estimate Jesus traveled over 21,000 miles during his life – nearly the distance around the earth’s equator. Yet that very last mile he walked, the mile from Pilate’s palace the hilltop on Golgotha, was undoubtedly his hardest. A mile few of us would willingly walk. And he arrived right on time.

Today as we celebrate the blessings of Christmas, let’s not worry too much about our own timetables or schedules. Rather, remember instead the long journey God made to reach us. And remember the journey He asks of us to reach those around us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #11 Not A Silent Night

“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.’” (Luke 2:13)

As a worship leader I get to play a lot of music throughout the year. No time is more enjoyable for me than Advent and Christmas. The songs, the vocals, the arrangements, they all bring the season alive for me.

One of my favorite Christmas Season songs for worship is Andrew Peterson’s “Labor of love” (If you’ve never heard it, find a version here). The song is a unique reinterpretation of the traditional “Silent Night.” Rather than a quiet, peaceful version of Jesus’ birth, the lyrics depict a grittier, harsher world welcoming the Son of Man.

When we look at miniature nativity scenes, do we see something like this?

A radiant Mary, loving Joseph, gentle shepherds leaning on their staffs, perhaps a few wise men looking on with knowing smiles, glorious Angels heralding the miracle, a peaceful donkey and a couple of sheep … all focused on a beaming baby Jesus. A perfectly calm picture of tranquility, sanitized and airbrushed for our consumption.

Yet I imagine the real nativity scene was quite different.

A Different Night

To begin with, what must it have been like for Joseph to take a nearly full-term Mary the 80+ hilly and winding miles on foot or riding a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to the census decree from Caesar described in Luke 2? The tiny village of Bethlehem, by that time a sleepy town of about 300 people, would have swelled in size because of the census, on that night packed and noisy. The crowds were likely disgruntled at the inconvenience of the Roman census, pushing and shoving each other on the narrow streets.

On the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem today. Credit: www.nortonwheeler.com

Or consider the “shepherds in the fields” in verse 8. Imagine being these men, used to watching over their flocks all night, fighting off predators and poachers. They’re in no way timid or meek. Yet nothing has prepared them for the sight of an other-worldly being appearing from the skies and announcing the news of Jesus’ birth. Scripture tells us they were “terrified.”

Fear can be a powerful motivator. It causes us to be mistrustful and hurtful to each other. It closes our minds to those with whom we disagree. It causes us to lash out at those we see as different. We like our worlds to remain unchanging and predictable.

These shepherds had their worlds completely disrupted. Yet the Angel calms them, tells them not to be afraid and is joined a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” joining in praise.

Hardly a quiet night on the hillside.

Back at the stable and the manger, things are hardly more subdued. Unable to find accommodations Joseph was forced to bargain for a corner in a barn, probably suffering disdainful looks from other, more fortunate people who had warm fires and comfortable beds or pallets.

Mary has given birth – likely without a midwife or the comforting hands of her mother – surrounded by the raucous livestock of both Bethlehem’s residents and the visitors also there to complete the census. The scene is chaotic, noisy, dirty, and crowded.

Hardly the picture of a silent night.

Noisy Lives

Many of us can relate to this more realistic picture of Jesus’ birth. Like that night, our lives are gritty and crowded rather than airbrushed and pristine. Our days and nights are noisy, messy, often filled with angry voices and disdainful looks. We’re bombarded every day with messages of angst, anxiety, uncertainty.

Hope gives way to fear. Fear leads us to dread the future, uncertain of how we’ll get from day to day. We pray for grace and help while a nagging voice whispers deep inside us “what if He doesn’t answer?” Like the people of Israel during that long pause before Christ’s birth, we question how long we must wait for deliverance.

And so, we retreat inside ourselves, guarded and protective of our hearts, unwilling to engage the world in open and welcoming ways. Rejecting the needs of others, we focus on our own needs.

Credit: Billy Hunt

Hardly the makings of perfect lives.

In the midst of the chaos surrounding her, how did Mary respond? Scripture tells us she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Mary’s answer to the pandemonium and disorder surrounding her was to praise God for His providence, thankful for the blessing He had bestowed. She prayed and opened this most vulnerable moment of her life to everyone around her, sharing freely the precious gift God and given to mankind.

Forgetful Souls

Sometimes, even during Advent and Christmas, it’s easy for us to suffer from what 9th century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena called “forgetfulness of soul.” We forget to love, forget to give, forget to extend our hand to others. We sing carols, go to parties, buy tons of gifts but do not, as Mary did, “treasure things in our hearts.”

Today, this Eve of Arrival, let us remember that beyond the celebrations and decorations, the true meaning of Emmanuel, “God With Us” is as close as the next person we see. We were made in God’s image, created to emulate Him and love each other openly, abundantly, and without fear even in the midst of chaos.

God has never been silent, if we have ears to hear. He has never been invisible, if we have eyes to see. He invites us to encounter Him when we protect the weak, lift up the downtrodden, seek peace in the midst of enmity.

The angel proclaimed to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” As you celebrate this Christmas Eve, this closing of Advent, proclaim the Good News: Arrival is Nigh.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #10 Prepare

“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3)

How do you get ready for Christmas? A beautiful tree with ribbons and ornaments? Mantle decorations and table treatments? One too many trips to the mall or site visits to Amazon? In my case, guilty as charged.

We typically begin our Christmas planning right after October and start the set-up Thanksgiving week. Yes, we’re those people. We love Christmas and surrounding ourselves with physical reminders of the season.

We’re not alone. During the Christmas Season, everywhere we look there are signs of preparation: wreaths, store decorations, snowmen, plastic Santas and reindeer on the neighbors’ lawns … everyone has their own way of preparing for Christmas celebrations. Anticipation fills the air.

God Prepares

God also prepares. In fact, since the beginning He’s been preparing. His preparation also includes decorations and ornaments, although of a different sort. At times, His preparations have taken an entire people into captivity and exile. At other times, He leads new leaders onto mountain tops or into deserts. He has prepared by dressing elaborate temples with gold and fine linen, as well as lowly barn stalls with straw and rough hewn wood.

And God’s preparations have required much longer than a few hours over the weekend to set up. Countless people and many centuries were needed to unfold His perfect plan that mankind’s Savior would be born at a specific place and time, to a specific woman He anointed, in a specific town according to His prophetic instruction, to fulfill a specific mission at a perfectly appointed date.

This event was foretold, rehearsed for centuries, and planned by God at the origination of creation. And it is the very reason we celebrate Advent.

As early as Genesis 3:15, following the fall of Man in the aftermath of Eve’s temptation, God revealed the beginnings of His plan warning the serpent “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” These earliest foreshadowings of God’s prophesied the eventual conquest of the serpent by God’s chosen offspring. The offspring descended from a fallen woman and eventually born to a Virgin. A perfect preparation for a perfect answer to our frailties and imperfections.

“The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden” by Michelangelo, 1509

The journey from Eden to Calvary was long, just as our own plans are often long. Of course, God’s plans infinitely overshadow our own. Still, we are asked to prepare. Every Christmas we remember Son of Man’s coming with decorations and carols and cards and presents. We prepare for his return in the season of Advent by remembering the past while anticipating the future.

The Most Important Preparation

Yet the most important preparation we can make every Advent Season – indeed, every day of the year – is to prepare our hearts and the hearts of those around us for what is to come. As Believers, we’re ordained to be God’s beacons in the here and now, offering a glimpse of eternity to those who will receive. Regardless of life’s distractions, no matter what we see or hear every day whispering to turn away from God, our charge is to prepare for the future.

God had the expanse of time to prepare us for the birth of His son. We aren’t given that luxury. Instead, our role is to share the miracle of Christmas every day to anyone and everyone we encounter. To those who have never experienced the joy of God’s love. To those who feel abandoned in the world. To those who have lost all hope.

We prepare for Christmas every year because God has prepared the way before us. As we remember this Advent Season, let us never forget the least of our brothers and sisters. Preparing our hearts means preparing theirs.

Today, tomorrow find someone you don’t know and wish them a Merry Christmas. Or tell a friend you love them, remembering with gratefulness what God’s love means to us all.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent #9 – Radical Gratitude

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Christian scholar Robert C. Roberts has written: “The Christian Faith is characterized by gratitude, a feeling of delight and intellectual excitement that our world is not only created by God but nourished by his gracious presence.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m being confessionally honest I sometimes struggle with gratitude. Ok, let’s just be frank – I can be downright ungrateful. People can frustrate and disappoint me. My expectations aren’t met. My needs don’t get the priority they deserve. My social media posts don’t get enough likes. My work colleagues don’t pull their weight. I’m not paid what I’m worth. My house isn’t big enough.

Sound familiar?

Of course, this isn’t really how I feel (much) but, especially during Advent and Christmas Season, I can’t help but catch myself sometimes forgetting how enormously blessed we all are. Blessed to be alive, blessed to know suffering, blessed to know love, blessed to be transformed by the presence of God.

Blessings and Gratitude

These blessings are the source and foundation of gratitude. And gratitude grounded in the strength of God’s favor – regardless of our circumstances – can forge faith stronger than iron, unshakeable even in the face of adversity.

How, exactly, does gratitude deepen and strengthen our faith? In many ways, gratitude is like strenuous exercise, building our spiritual muscles the more we use it. In times of plenty, when our prayers are answered and we feel the bounty of God surrounding us, faith can be relatively effortless. We thank God for His goodness, but our gratitude requires little from us. Kind of like doing arm curls with 5 lb weights.

As Rick Warren has put it, “Anybody can thank God for good things.”

But what happens when times are not so good — when things just don’t seem to make sense, when events are spinning out of control? A sudden illness, the death of a loved one, fierce prayers answered with silence, when nothing is going the way we planned. Where is our gratitude in those moments?

“Thanks sir, may I have another?”

It seems counterintuitive to offer gratitude in times of pain and hardship, almost like Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House assuming the position and exclaiming “Thank you sir, may I have another?” as arch-nemesis Doug Neidermeyer wields a huge paddle over and over again. But in a sense, this is precisely what God asks of us.

“I’m not sure I felt that, sir! Try again?”

Gratitude in times of hardship stretches our faith beyond any capacity we ever imagined. As our spiritual faith strengthens, the roots of that faith grow deeper, more firmly planted in the “good soil” Jesus refers to in Matthew 13:8. When we offer our thanks to God as the prophet Jeremiah did in the midst of his imprisonment by King Nebuchadnezzar, God responds with “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27)

In the midst of our most dire circumstances, when we face the seemingly impossible, that’s when our gratitude should be its most impactful. It is in these times we should recall David’s words from Psalm 18: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.”

The Ultimate Test

The ultimate test of our faith is exactly in the moments we think God has turned away (or, perhaps even doubt He was ever there). When hope seems gone, the future bleak, the promises we held close now broken, that’s when we should lift up our hearts to God in thanks, grateful that He is bigger than any problem we have, greater than any adversary.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom … I will rejoice in the God of my Salvation,” exclaims the prophet Habakkuk. In our darkest hours of waiting and fear, God hasn’t abandoned us. He remains where He has always been, standing right beside us ready to fill our hearts with His passion and lift us from the miry clay of our sorrow.

Paul writes in Colossians 2:7“Sink your roots in him and build on him. Be strengthened by the faith that you were taught, and overflow with thanksgiving.” 

As this Advent season approaches its climax, remember the power of gratefulness even in the darkest nights. When we feel we’ve lost everything, let’s be thankful for the very breath we draw. Look for what we still have rather than what we don’t.

Sink your roots into the deep bedrock of faith, being grateful for God just being Himself and knowing He works all things to the good of those who love Him.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent #8 – Death and Taxes

“But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’” Matthew 16:23

A movie I’ve always loved for its intelligent writing and nuanced acting is “Meet Joe Black,” the story of wealthy news and media mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) who on the eve of his 65th birthday is visited by Death in the form of a man named Joe Black (Brad Pitt).

In a key scene foreshadowing the end of the film, Joe is in a conference room talking with the movie’s antagonist, “Drew.” Joe challenges Drew about the inevitability of a major financial transaction to which Drew responds “We all know this deal is as certain as death and taxes.” Pausing, Joe comments “Death and taxes? What an odd pairing.”

Death and taxes. Unless you’ve been on a remote island the last few days you’ve no doubt heard the hysteria around the debate in the US on the Tax Reform Bill that was just passed by Congress.

I won’t debate the merits or flaws of that legislation here (you can check out John Pavlovitz any day of the week to get an overdose of that). Rather, I want to focus on the flawed idea of believing anything (taxes, justice, politics, governments, etc.) is “certain” other than death.

Nowhere to Hide

The whims and policies of man are transient and will change with the times, while the nature of God is eternal. As Jesus responded when asked about the morality of paying Caesar’s poll tax in Matthew 22, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  What belongs to God will always be returned to Him.

There is simply nowhere to hide from physical death. We may fill our days with endless workouts, pad our diets with supplements and nutrition, slather our faces with creams and ointments, push retirement out another ten years but the truth is that each and every one of us has one appointment – an appointment with the end of our earthly days – we can’t cancel or reschedule.

Jesus also had an appointment. One scheduled from the beginning of time, foretold over generations of prophets, foreshadowed in the long wait between Malachi and Matthew. His appointment was certain. It was unchangeable. His appoint was with death.

Divine Appointment

When Jesus finally revealed this divine appointment to his disciples, explaining he will suffer betrayal, trial and execution, be entombed for a time, and finally raised up on the third day, Peter would have no part of it.

He denied the inevitability of God’s plan.

 He expects Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed Christ, the Lion of Judah to raise a victorious hand against the oppression of Rome. Messiahs conquer, they do not succumb. And in an ironic twist, Peter foretells his own betrayal of Jesus following the arrest in Jerusalem by denying the very mission Jesus had announced.

“St. Peter’s Denial” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1660

Jesus responds in the only way Pete will understand – implying Satan had possessed him and to go away. Peter simply had not comprehended the true oppression Jesus came to defeat … the certain oppression of sin and death. The great “waiting” of the Jewish people would be fulfilled in Jesus laying down his sinless life to atone for the flawed and sinful lives of all mankind. This was the appointment only Jesus could keep.

Turning the Page

In rejecting Peter, Jesus tells us a much deeper truth. The problems of the world are infinitely great than politics, or our personal desires, even our own deaths. What we believe is the end of the story (death) is actually the turning of a page.

Jesus conquers the horrors of death so that we will never experience those horrors even as we face our own demise . We no longer need to hide, fearing and forestalling the inevitable. We no longer need fear the ravages of disease, the pain of broken relationships, the soul-crushing weight of financial ruin.

Rather, Jesus writes an entirely new chapter for us, telling us to embrace the death he suffered in our own lives, every day. To follow his example means willingly taking up our own crosses and running toward the death he calls us to experience: death to pride, death to apathy, death to unfaithfulness, death to hate, death to lying, death to hypocrisy, death to denial.

Jesus teaches Peter and his disciples that the only way to avoid our inevitable appointment with death is to embrace that very death while we live. Luke 9:24 recounts his words: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.

The Price of Life

Advent, this time of waiting and expectation, is also a season of understanding. We learn through enduring anticipation that God never meant His call to be convenient or inexpensive. Often, He leads us to suffer for His work. He challenges the strength of our faith. Being a Believer can be costly, lonely, disappointing.

Yet the clear message of Christianity is simply this: die to the selfish, vain, fleeting promises of the world and receive the assurance of eternity. Die to the whispered seductions and lies of the enemy and experience the radiant joy of unearned grace. Die to death and receive life.

The ultimate Good News is that Jesus has already paid the price for our lives. His death and resurrection were the tax we owed, the payment we should have made. The price for our lives is now … free.

Joe Black teaches William Parrish there is no fear or sorrow in death if we learn to live a life of service and sacrificial love. While we all suffer the same fallibilities of being human, our final breath is not a tragic failure of frailty but a transcendent triumph over death.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #7 Stormy Weather

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”—James 1:2-4

I was recently at dinner with a few guy friends. Predictably, we talked about typical guy things. Because we’re all of a “certain age,” our “guy things” talk was relatively tame. Relatively.

Credit: www.wisebread.com

However … one member of our party broke an unspoken “guy” rule in my crowd: don’t complain about the weather. Not the real weather, of course. Rather, the weather of our relationships, the weather of lives. The weather we can’t control but we can certainly anticipate. “Don’t blame the weather for getting wet when you forgot to bring an umbrella,” one of my, um, “older” guy friends fondly says.

Life is tough.

Look, life is tough. We live in a world where the deck appears to be stacked against most of us. In Christian terms we call this a “fallen world,” a world where a very real and present enemy works to stain every part of our lives with fear and doubt and uncertainty.

Glass breaks. We get old (yeah, I know that’s hard to hear). Marriages fall apart. Loved ones get addicted to Opiates. Parents forget our names. Sexual harassment becomes an accepted norm. Alcohol and drugs are so common our children need rehab at 14 years old. A gun becomes a more persuasive argument than reason.

Credit: New York Times

In 1944 Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots released a single called “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.” They borrowed the title from the poem “Rainy Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both Ella and Longfellow spoke truth. But I prefer the original truth from Ecclesiastes 3 “For everything this is a season.”

Storm clouds are always on the horizon. Life pushes back. This is especially hard to accept during seasons of anticipation. Seasons like Advent when God may seem silent and unreachable. Seasons where we are asked to wait and trust.

The War Inside Us

The stormy weather of our lives should not be surprising, especially for those of us actively attempting to reject the temptations of the material world, the seductions of a physical life. It’s not easy to resist.

Paul tells us of the “Conflict of Two Natures” in Romans 7, a war being waged inside each of us. He reflects that in Galatians 5:17, writing “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.”

Credit: www.kingdomrice.wordpress.com

The temptations of the world, particularly in seasons of waiting, are like tornadoes in Kansas. We anticipate the storm clouds, we feel the wind, we eventually see the funnel hit the ground yet sometimes we don’t seek shelter.

While we live in a fallen world and bad things happen to us, we always have control over how we respond – whether we bring an umbrella or head underground or simply give in.

Yet in every instance of adversity or waiting, we have a choice. We can choose to look backward or we can move forward. Notice we can’t actually go backward, only look there. And we really can’t stay where we are as life moves on around us. So, we can look back or move forward.

Storms Strengthen Us

James tells us in the verse I began with that the testing of our faith builds perseverance. Surviving storms makes us stronger to future storms. Meeting and defeating temptation and doubt tempers us, transforms us, like hardening steel with fire.

We see this transformation in our choices. We can feel joy or bitterness. We can forgive or hold onto anger. We can trust or be suspicious of everyone. We can be filled with faith or plagued with fear. We can love or we can hate. We can offer mercy or seek revenge.

We can fill our hearts with hope. Or we can sink into despair.

Stormy weather and hard seasons are not meant to weaken us, but rather to strengthen us. They offer us opportunities to reinforce our trust and faith in God by hearing His voice and rejoicing in His salvation. Especially when the clouds are darkest…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #6 The Most Impossible Mission

“I am a representative from him, and that One sent me forth.”—John 7:29.

My sister Shari is an amazing woman, and a fellow Believer after whom I’ve modeled much of my adult Christian walk. I’ve never actually told her this so the news will come as some surprise. Every year she takes one or more of my nieces and nephews on missionary trips to Central America to make a difference in the lives of people most of us will never meet. She touches the hearts of everyone around her.

In ways she may never appreciate, Shari missioned Christ to me …and it worked.

The Work of Missionaries

What do you think of when you hear the word “missionary?” Perhaps you see a scrubbed face Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon acolyte ringing your doorbell asking if you have found God. Maybe you think of a group of college students taking the annual trip to Nicaragua to paint houses and serve meals. Or even that couple from your church who suddenly announced they were packing up and moving to China last year.

“Hi – we’re missionaries here to save you!”

Regardless, the role of missionary is firmly established in the modern church to serve preaching the gospel “in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matthew 24:14). Most who are called to the missionary life, while facing adversity, are rewarded with successful missions. Lives are changed, hearts are touched, souls are saved. What they do works.

Although Scripture doesn’t include the word “missionary” in that form, there are numerous stories of those “being sent” (the Latin word is “mitto”) to do God’s work. Moses, Jeremiah, Nathan, Zechariah, Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, the Apostles, Paul – all were sent out by God for various purposes. And their efforts, across history, successfully unfolded the life-changing message of salvation and redemption we know as Christianity.

One True Missionary

And then someone different was sent by God, a missionary whose purpose stood above all others, whose coming had been foretold and awaited, yet whose mission should by any measure have been considered impossible. An impossible mission given to Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the most well-known scriptures in the Bible, especially appropriate for Advent Season, is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Credit: www.msafropolitan.com

Think of his mission: born to save all who believe in him from eternal death. Born to redeem all of mankind. Born to pay the ultimate price for our transgressions. I mean really, what could go wrong with that?

Since that moment in the Garden when man stepped away from God’s perfection by virtue of his right to freely choose, God has tried to invite us home. Jesus, as God’s “Word” prior to his human birth, spoke on his father’s behalf through the centuries, breathing life and inspiration into prophets, martyrs, faithful men and women.

And man’s response remains obstinate. Like the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew 23:23, we too often neglect “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

Yet still Jesus prevailed. For uncounted years while man wanders in wildernesses of his own making, Jesus has persisted in his mission. Through a willing spirit, enduring patience, and an unconditional love of creation, Jesus personifies the perfect character of God. He reflects the forgiveness, grace and salvation of a waiting Creator.

Miracle of Free Will

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of humility. A time for each of us to reflect on the unfathomable humility of Jesus, who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7)

Jesus achieves the fullness of his impossible mission by using the very thing man used in rebellion to God’s purpose: free will. Through his sacrifice and intercession, Jesus asks us to freely choose his invitation. No coercion, no forced conversions. Simply believe, repent, receive, and return home.

My sister taught me the humility of being a Christ follower. Jesus teaches us all that no missions are impossible when God sends us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #5 What Breaks Your Heart?

I have listened and heard, they have spoken what is not right; no man repented of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turned to his course, like a horse charging into the battle.” Jeremiah 8:6 

What breaks your heart?

I’m not talking about a badly-ending relationship, or even the loss of a loved one to illness or tragedy although these certainly cause us to grieve. Nor do I mean family betrayals like Fredo in “Godfather II” – we saw how that ended for both Fredo and eventually for Michael!

The broken heart I’m referring to here is different. It’s that mourning of the soul, that gut-wrenching sorrow we feel at our very core when we’re connected to what breaks God’s heart.

Credit: www.chickensmoothie.com

The Bible offers many descriptions of how Holy heart is broken. Broken by those who are lost and refuse to come home. Broken because of those who are persecuted and have no one to share their distress. Broken from the cries of the poor who have no means of support. And broken by our disobedience.

Broken by Rebellion

600 years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people had once again become increasingly rebellious and obstinate. For generations, they had grown lax in following God’s commandments, eventually seduced by the attraction of Baal and other idols and squandering the promise and hope of the Torah.

Eventually, God removes His protection and Babylon conquers Judah, deposing their king Jehoiakim and sending much of the population into exile. By 587 BC, Judah was no longer a nation and the memories of greatness achieved by David and Solomon faded. It broke the hearts of a nation.

The prophet Jeremiah, seeing the wretched conditions of his fellow Jews, had just such a broken, aching heart. He saw the misery of his brothers and sisters, the children of Abraham, the Covenant People. And he knew what God had called him to do, the hard message he had to deliver to these same people: repent from their sins and return to God. Their rejection of his message the eventual exile of Judah ultimately led to his death by the very hands of those he tried to save.

What breaks your heart?

Many of us today simply don’t equate broken hearts with sin. The very word itself, “sin,” seems antiquated, unenlightened, uneducated to the modern ear. And when God asks us as he asked Jeremiah “Why have these people turned away? Why are they always turning away?” (Jeremiah 8:5) we simply … turn away.

What breaks your heart?

The answer to that question isn’t always obvious. So, perhaps we might start with a different question. What breaks God’s heart?

There are many things we might find in scripture to answer this. In my own journey, a few come to mind. This is especially true for those who claim to know God’s heart yet still falter.

  • When we don’t turn from our shortcomings. Just like the people in Jeremiah’s day, God’s people today – you and me and those around us – have turned away from God, often refusing to hear Him. Jeremiah’s people, like us, should have known better. They knew, we know, when the path we’re on is wrong. Yet we continue down that path, oblivious to where it leads.

We may confess, we may have a moment of contrite remorse, but when the pain passes, we ignore Jesus’ admonition in John 8:11 to “Go and sin no more.”

  • When we don’t live God’s Word. Like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, many professing Christians today talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. We have our Bibles, we may go to Bible studies, we may debate and argue Scripture – but do we live it? Do we spend time the poor? Do we take in orphans? Do we look after widows? If we the only Bible those around us ever see, what does that Bible look like? And yes, I’m writing these words to me.

Credit: www.modernsurvivalblog.com

  • When we don’t realize how short the time is. Jeremiah commented “Harvest has passed, summer has ended, but we have not been saved.” (Jeremiah 8:20). A farmer who misses harvest time will starve. He knows how short the time is.

There’s a similar urgency in our lives. According to a recent study there are 2.1 billion people in the world who don’t know Christ. Based on annualized death rates, 16-20 million die every year without hearing the Gospel.  This is our harvest, yours and mine. And the harvest season is upon us, this season of Advent, this season of preparation.

  • When we self-destruct. In my late 20’s, one of my closest high school friends spiraled out of control, eventually taking his own life. Many of us at the time asked ourselves what we might have done to change our friend’s course, to ease his burden. There was likely nothing we could have done, but the key pain was that we did nothing at all.

God holds this mirror up to us constantly, reminding us that we are surrounded by self-destruction. Where are we in taking the hands of others to help them through their struggles? The addicts, the prisoners, the lost.  How often does our heart break for those we see right in front of us?

  • When we refuse to let God heal us. Jeremiah cries out in 8:22Is there no balm in Gilead?” In Jeremiah’s time Gilead was a place of hope, famous for balm from a local tree resin that cured illness. Jeremiah was equating God’s voice and commandments to a healing cure for our broken lives, a salve for spiritual illness. Yet, the people refused.

How many people have you known who refuse treatment for their own sicknesses? Perhaps a friend whose marriage is in tatters but won’t seek counseling. Or a work colleague who is unable to perform but too prideful to has for help. Or an acquaintance who is spiritually lost but will not follow God?

Prepare by Acting

Advent is about many things including waiting, expectation, hope. And it’s also about recognizing how God has given us this season of preparation to discover where our hearts are not with His, where we’ve hardened ourselves to what breaks God’s heart. When we see people from every walk of life ignoring the warning signs, ignoring how time is running short, refusing to turn back from the wrong paths of their decisions, refusing help … our hearts should also break.

This Advent Season, take a look around. See your neighbors, your loved ones, your adversaries, yourself. Where can you bring hope and preparation and expectation to the broken hearts of others? Where can you bring healing to your own broken heart?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #4 Hope

“When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’” John 5:6 

James Cameron is an accomplished inventor, engineer, philanthropist, and deep-sea explorer. He’s also directed a couple of movies you may have seen – do The Terminator, Titanic, or Avatar ring any bells? Cameron is famous for many things, but one of his traits I find most inspiring from a secular business perspective is his drive and focus. He once famously said “Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Fear is not an option.”

Credit: Peter Woolston

As a business guy, I embrace this statement completely. As a Christian, I take issue with its initial sentence. “Hope,” as it turns out, is a key pillar of faith.

Reflecting on the vanity of life and how short his days were in the face of his personal weaknesses, David writes in Psalm 39: “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” Confronting his own frailty, David turns to the only source of strength he knows will not fail him – hope in God.

Hope, as it turns out, is a common trait in our faith. Paul refers to “hope” at least five times in his letter to the Romans. Hope is all over the book of Psalms. Hope punctuates Jesus’ ministry at every turn. Hope saved Job from despair.

Hope helps us change the way we view the world, offering us light in the midst of darkness. Lack of hope has the exact opposite effect.

Hope Works

A friend I’ve recently met is struggling in his marriage. When we talk about where the difficulties lie, the common theme is that he has given up hope of any resolution, resigned to endless struggle. His life is filled with depression and despair.

Another acquaintance of mine was just told his wife’s breast cancer thought to be in remission has re-emerged, metastasized in her liver and spine. His reaction? Absolute hope and faith in God’s power to heal her once again.

Credit: http://www.2911church.com/

Two scenarios, two different responses. The common thread? Given choices in life, we can respond with fear and gloom, or with hope and faith. In either instance, how we respond can shape how God works in our lives.

Now, before anyone labels me a Christian Scientist or Jehovah’s Witness, let me assure you – I believe in science, in medicine, and in the skill of physicians. When a medication or procedure can relieve or cure an ailment, I whole-heartedly support it. That said, it’s established that a patient’s mental condition impacts their response to treatment.

Translation? Hope works.

What Do You Want?

We read a beautiful story in John 5 about the power of hope. After spending time in Galilee where he met the woman Samaritan by the well and healing a nobleman’s son, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, encountering a man who had laid beside the waters of the Bethesda Pools for 38 years, crippled.

This man came to the waters every day waiting for his chance to be cured, only to watch others take his place. At some point, he simply lost hope, telling himself this was his life, this was all it would ever be.

Can you relate to this? Has there been a time in your life when you simply lost hope? Maybe a dream you had, a relationship you cherished, a job you needed … gone or beyond reach. When we lose our hope, we lose our belief in ourselves. We stop caring.

“Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1883

When Jesus encountered the man by the pool, he saw something different than the man saw in himself he saw a human being who had given up hope, given up on his dream of walking.

Rather than judge him, Jesus asked: “Do you wish to get well?” A simple, straight-forward question. Like many others Jesus asked throughout his earthly ministry such as “What are you looking for?” in John 1:38, or “Why are you looking for me?” in Luke 2:49, or “What do you want me to do for you?” in Mark 10:36.

Jesus is not so much interested in the man’s affliction as he is the man’s state of mind. Did this man truly want to cured or was he comfortable in his hopelessness? Jesus realizes if he cures the man’s mind, his body will follow. And that is precisely what happened.

Anyone Can Lose Hope

Believers – even the most devout – can lose hope. Perhaps we’re surrounded by others who themselves are hopeless, draining us with their own lack of belief. Maybe having hope in the face of adversity is simply too hard, too much work. Or sometimes, finding hope can simply be too painful, leaving us exposed to heartbreak and disappointment.

Paul reminds us in Romans 12:12 to “rejoice in hope, persevere in tribulation, stay devoted to prayer.” When we lose hope, when we stop caring and stop praying, we create our own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Hope may not be much of a strategy for James Cameron. But during this Advent Season, I see hope shining like a beacon through the darkness and fog of a hopeless world. Hope shows us how God doesn’t just offer the promise of an afterlife in eternity, but can and will meet our needs right here, right now, in this moment, forgiving us of our shortcomings and changing our lives forever.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Twelve Days of Advent – #3 Why?

“The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Psalm 34:19

Pain. Loss. They’re difficult.

In the past 14 months I’ve lost my beloved mother, my amazing father-in-law, four high school and college classmates and two friends from church. Eight losses in such a short span of time. And if my social media feeds are any indication, multiple other friends and acquaintances are suffering from any number of afflictions.

In many ways, this Advent Season feels very much like a Season of Suffering.

It’s in times of suffering and loss that many of us get closer to God. Or, sadly, farther away. Things happen. Sometimes unexpected. Sometimes expected but dreaded. Sometimes pointless and preventable. Sometimes unspeakably tragic.

As Believers, how do we cope with such losses? Our immediate and understandable reaction is “Why, God? Why did you let this happen?” Often, we echo the words of the prophet Habakkuk who wrote 600 years before Jesus’s birth:

How long, O Lord, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’
Yet You do not save.” (Habakkuk 1:2)

It’s natural to want explanations, to seek answers. If we can understand God’s Will and His purpose, we can accept His plan. When we don’t have those answers, we often remain trapped in a cycle of “if only” and “I/he/she/they should have.”  Without an explanation, our lives can splinter into 10,000 fragmented pieces impossible to put back together.

Answers give us closure, and closure allows us to move on.

Unthinkable Trust

It often seems God asks the impossible of us. To simply trust Him when we have no way of understanding how or why. To turn our lives over to Him in complete obedience, submit to His sovereignty when nothing is certain. To accept His purpose even when we can make no sense of what He wants.

Unthinkable trust. Unreasonable faith. Unfathomable belief.

This isn’t what many of us expected when we accepted the baptismal call. God never mentioned trust in Him might require surviving illness, death, shattered marriages, lost jobs, ruined finances. With every tragedy, our faith is tested, raising the familiar questions of those around us who don’t share our beliefs. “How can a loving God let this happen? Why do you believe in fairy tales? Why don’t you realize the truth that we’re alone in this world?”

Freedom Through Trust

Trust us difficult. Trust requires unnatural reactions to what the world throws at us. We want to question, to revisit, to blame. With every passing moment, our efforts to understand make us more anxious, more angry, more hurt. The very thing we try to help us through the pain makes that pain more real.

Yet with every moment God is whispering to us that His will is in motion, His purposes are at work. If we simply trust. Eventually, through acceptance and trust and submission and belief something amazing and transformational happens – we begin to heal.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, 1603

It’s a mystery, a paradox. The same process we fight against is the very process that frees us. Jesus tells us in John 8:32 “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That truth, the only real Truth, is that when we trust in God and His infinite wisdom – as hard as that might be – we find peace and purpose.

God is the Answer to Our “Why?”

As strange as it seems, suffering invites us to see God in ways we’ve never imagined. Just as Job learned to trust in God more deeply and completely after his trials and tests, we learn how possible it is to trust God with our own lives through grief and suffering.

When we place our trust in God, even in the face of things and events we may never understand, a beautiful transformation takes place. Although we may not have a concrete answer, we’ll find peace that God truly does cause “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

There are always “whys” to our suffering, no matter how difficult that suffering might be. While we may never fully understand the reasons for our grief, during this Advent Season we can take comfort in one ultimate truth. When we surrender our “whys” to God, He will always answer with the perfect answer: Himself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Twelve Days of Advent – #2 Numb

“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Matthew 24:12-13

I travel. Like, a lot. As in nearly 200,000 miles on planes and 129 nights in hotels this year alone. A good 1/3 of my life is spent on the road either going to, participating in, or returning from business meetings. It’s a grueling pace.

One inevitable topic of conversation with new acquaintances is “how do you do that?” A more pointed version is “why do you still do it?” Ignoring the implied age reference, the second question is easy: I love what I do, and I’m fairly good at it. The answer to the first question? Technology. I confess: I embrace technology in every facet of my life where it can help me be more productive.

I’m old enough to remember not having a device in every hand. No texting, no smartphone with GPS and Google Maps, no social media, no Uber at my beck and call. I chuckled several years ago when my youngest daughter innocently asked “Dad, what grade where you in when you got your first cell phone?” I jokingly replied “Um, 20th grade?”  I was 26 before I ever saw my first cell phone, one of those Dick Tracy in-the-car monstrosities used by the CEO of the company I worked for and charging $12 per minute.

What does technology have to do with Advent?

Convenience. Pure and simple.

We live in the Convenience Revolution. Digital assistants organize our lives. Amazon delivers our most immediate “gotta have it right now” same-day urges. Skype or Google Hangouts allow us to reach out and “touch” someone face-to-face from our kitchen tables. We pay our bills from our cell phones. Selecting that “special” gift for a friend or loved one now is as easy as 15 minutes on Etsy.

For the truly connected, we’ve eliminated any need to deal with stress, boredom, discomfort, or pain. We can talk with distant friends and family on a whim – or just as easily avoid them. We can secretly laugh at those old classmates who haven’t “aged” all that well. Or (perhaps even more secretly) covet the “great family lives” they share on social media.

There’s another side to this coin, of course.

Technology and convenience have created an entire generation of human beings with virtually no basic human socialization skills. Uncomfortable with real interaction, many of us spend hours every day “interacting” online. We choose Netflix over the messiness of Cinemark. We live in gated communities with wifi-powered camera systems ensuring we never actually have to see our neighbors. Homework and research? Just download it.

Sadly, this also seems to have found its way into our churches and our relationship with God. We crave convenient sermons about topics that won’t make us too uncomfortable. We prefer tech-savvy “worship experiences” with pyrotechnics and high entertainment value over intense, prayer-infused scriptural examination that might ask us to look just a bit deeper into our own lives. We pass the peace of Christ to our neighbors, never even knowing their names.

We’ve become culturally addicted to stimulation and easy rewards without the need for  relationship investment. Worse, in the words of Facebook’s former vice president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya, we’ve substituted “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops (including the hearts, likes, and thumbs up of various social media channels)” for real life, destroying how society works.

We’ve Become Numb

In short, we’ve become numb. Numb to struggle, numb to pain, numb to God’s voice, numb to the Holy Spirit’s longing for our hearts. Numb to anything except convenience, stimulation, and endless commentary on everyone else’s shortcomings.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Immediate gratification inevitably leads to longing for greater levels of stimulation. Where a Toyota once met our desires, now a Lamborghini satisfies our need for speed. Yesterday’s Coach Messenger Crossbody In Signature Jacquard Bag is replaced with today’s Christian Louboutin Cabata East-West Tote. (Ok, I’m a little scared I even know what those are.)

The funny thing about numbness is that the more we have of something, the more numb we become to it. We forget the yearning hearts of our youth, when simple things satisfied us. Sadly, for many of us this same thing happens to our relationships with God.

Remember when we started, when the feeling was new and we were ALIVE with passion for God? Stories in the Bible leapt off the page at us, speaking truth into our lives with every read. Sermons had us talking for days and our pastors were AMAZING.

Then, something happened. We allowed our relationship with God to become, well, casual. We got numb. What once held us in awe now barely amuses us. We lost the wonder, the reverence. We forgot David’s words from Psalm 147: “The Lord favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.” (emphasis mine)

The same God we once revered became a God we now critique. The same God who saved mankind through the sacrifice of His only son is no longer big enough to save us from the world of man without a serious makeover. We redefine His words. We water down (or, in modern language, “edify”) His commandments. We demand the God we selectively deign to worship change to see us through our eyes, agreeing with who we believe ourselves to be.

Veneer, not Faith

Soon enough, our faith becomes little more than veneer, a love grown cold. We transform into the very people Jesus describes in Matthew 23:27, appearing whitewashed and beautiful on the outside, but on the inside full of “dead bones and uncleanness.” This type of faith, while not deeply fulfilling in our souls, works in the 21st Century because it doesn’t require much commitment.

Funny thing – we don’t see the irony. Yes, something has changed. But that something isn’t God, it’s us. We have changed, wanting immediate satisfaction. God is the same as He told us in Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8 and Revelation 1:8.

What has changed is that we’ve become numb to God’s voice. We don’t want to wait and anticipate, we want to receive and appreciate.

God’s promise is for all of us. He never asked us to live passionless (or painless) lives – just the opposite! His love for us surpasses our understanding. He provides an endless supply of all we need to walk in the fullness of His life.

During this Advent season, push beyond the numbness. Wait with the same fresh anticipation you felt when you first discovered His love.  Renew the expectation of His promise for peace and salvation in your heart. And let go of the idea that convenience is in any way a synonym for God.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Twelve Days of Advent – #1 The Waiting …

For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.”  Isaiah 64:4

I’ve always loved music – any kind of music (well, I draw the line at Polka, but that’s a different post). Earlier this year, Tom Petty, a musical hero of my 20’s, passed away. In 1981, he released a song called “The Waiting.”

There’s a line in the song that says “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.” Many of us can identify with that sentiment, especially when we’re younger – I know I did. Waiting is, well, hard.

Stretching the analogy a bit farther, “the waiting is the hardest part” also describes much of what the season leading up to Christmas – and, ultimately, the season all Believers have been in since Christ’s ascension nearly 2,000 years ago – feels like.

“Pssst … Santa, you up there?”

As kids, we “wait” for Santa and his magical sleigh. As adults, we “wait” for gift-giving and Holiday parties. For Christians, Advent is a season of expectation, a time of preparation. Advent reminds us to wait and prepare for the inevitable return of Christ just as he came during that first Christmas season so long ago.

Yet, I’m also reminded this time of year of a different kind of waiting; a waiting more immediate, more real, and perhaps more painful for many – both during Christmas and throughout the year.

Prayers of Waiting

This kind of waiting relates directly to prayers and the cries of our hearts. Prayers for intercession, prayers for healing, prayers for miracles we so desperately need. Prayers that the divorce our spouse just asked for doesn’t happen. Prayers that the doctor’s diagnosis of cancer isn’t real. Prayers that “what is” might become “what if?”

The same prayers of anticipation the nation of Israel cried out during the 400 years between the prophetic writings of Malachi and the miraculous events in Bethlehem. Prayers of waiting …

Credit: www.iprayer.com

Sometimes God answers prayers immediately. We feel the imminence and power of His hand in our lives and reach out to tell everyone about the amazing goodness of His love.

But other times – perhaps too often for many of us – prayers seem to be answered with deafening silence, miracles hovering forever just over the horizon. As time passes and God doesn’t appear genie-like in response to our plea-filled conjuring, our faith can falter.

Why does this happen? If God truly is the God of Salvation, a Savior who actually saves, why do we often feel so alone, so empty, so … forsaken?  Where is this God of Jacob and Abraham who sent His son to take our place on a Roman cross of humiliation?

Two Occasions

On two occasions leading up to and in the midst of his Crucifixion Jesus himself speaks for those of us facing times of despair. The first occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed with such earnestness his sweat became like “great drops of blood, falling down the ground” (Luke 22:44). In this seminal moment of temptation, he asks God to take away the sacrificial cup, to spare him the trial and suffering to come.

We don’t read if God answers, because Jesus answers for Him, saying “yet not my will, but Yours be done.” Jesus knew God saw his heart, and knew his deepest desire was to follow God’s will.

“The Importance of Prayer,” Sebastiano Ricci c. 1701

How many times have we been able to ask and answer our own questions of God in confidence? Too often, our prayers seem like one-way streets, shouting to God to repair our lives yet stopping short of asking what God wants from us.

The second instance occurred on the cross. As described in Matthew 27:46, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” Imagine the anguish of one who has been with God from before the beginning of time suddenly left alone, his prayers unanswered, his cries met with absolute silence. Yet still Jesus trusted.

Mother Teresa, writing in a letter to spiritual confident Rev. Michael van der Peet about the separation she experienced from Jesus, said “the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear, the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak … I want you to pray for me–that I let Him have (a) free hand.”

Hear the reflection of Jesus’ approach to God in her words. In the face of unanswered prayers, she acknowledges His sovereignty in all things.

As we grow in our relationship with God, more deeply understanding His purposes for us, our attitudes change. We come to realize how much God loves us and already knows the desires of hearts. Even when we’ve been waiting. Even when we think He isn’t listening.

The true meaning of Advent is this: Pray and Trust. Ask God for a need, show our faith in His Will, Trust in His provenance, and wait with expectancy and hope.

“My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote in Philippians 4:19. His miracles are still here – Emmanuel still means “God is with us.”

During this Advent season, don’t fall victim to the belief hope is gone. Don’t build walls around your heart so you can’t feel God’s touch. Don’t deafen your ears to His call.

Trust in God’s promises. Lift Him up in praise and worship daily. Thank Him for the blessings and protections He provides and will yet provide.

Tom Petty passed away as all humans do.  God’s Word and His promises will never die.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Inconvenient Truth Is Uncomfortable

I wasn’t going to write this. Actually, I tried not to. Several times. But enough is enough. There’s an imposter in our midst, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A shill wrapped in the cloak of ecumenical authenticity. Someone like Simon the Sorcerer mentioned in Acts 8.
Who is this pretender? John Pavolitz, blogger extraordinaire and author of Stuff That Needs To Be Saidand the invitational-sounding A Bigger Table.”
Self-acclaimed “pastor” John Pavlovitz gets a free ride from thousands who read his cleverly appealing posts, sharing them on Facebook and Twitter to demonstrate some vague notion of progressive compassion. Inconveniently for the Truth, his followers rarely actually question his commentary. Because … politics.
Pavlovitz first gained notoriety after being fired from his church (for, well, not exactly specified reasons) and then posting a commentary on how parents should face the possibility of having gay children. The post went viral. Later, he published a “day-after” diatribe following the 2016 Presidential election immediately making him a darling of the Left who breathlessly proclaimed “at last! A Christian we can agree with!”
In the months since, Pavolitz has found another church to pastor and become something of a Johnny-One-Note, his posts dripping insults, ridicule, hatred (he seems to particularly love the word “hate”), and general disdain for anyone who actually reads and believes Scripture as they written. One of his favorite topics (more on this in a moment): the current President of the United States.
Perhaps at one point in his life Pavolvitz actually believed in the Word of God. Maybe he felt called to proclaim the full Gospel of repentance and salvation. In more recent times, John has traded whatever pedigree he may once have had as a true pastor and minister of the Gospel for the worldly applause of internet fame, cable news celebrity, and book sales.
Pavlovitz passes off his unique brand of Christian-bashing as “enlightened,” hiding blatantly partisan commentary behind the twin shields of faux religiosity and modern social justice bumper stickers. A recent post even attempts to strike an awkwardly fake self-deprecating tone with ham-fisted satire. Rather than humorous, it comes off as, well, desperately seeking.
I generally ignore writers like Pavlovitz and the mirth-filled followers they attract. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and their beliefs, regardless of how they may stray from reality or common decency. But out of sheer morbid curiosity I visited his site recently and saw the post entitled Trump’s America Would be a Living Hell for Jesus.”
Let the richness of Pavlovitz’s arrogance hover there for a moment. He has apparently tapped into a direct line with the Jesus of the same Bible he rarely, if ever quotes! He’s seemingly found the secret thread into the mind of the Savior of Creation and discovered that this mind would be as focused on hating an elected civil servant of a 21st Century nation state as Pavolvitz himself appears to be.
This type of mindless claptrap could easily be shrugged off, relegating it to the endless chatter of modern online wind-shouting it has become. However, this post crossed a line for me. Mostly because those slavishly following his every pressing of the “send” key might actually believe his baseless assertions.
So, for the record, here are three of his comments from that post, each followed by a dose of reality.
First, he tries aligning the Jesus of the Bible with three popular victim identities in current culture:A dark-skinned, itinerant, refugee Jesus wouldn’t be allowed in Donald Trump’s America.”
In truth, we have no idea what color Jesus’ skin might have been. Any suggestion would be speculation (yes, even idealized portraits of Jesus as a fair-skinned blue-eyed Caucasian). He was Jewish, born in 1st Century Palestine. Perhaps he looked like current Egyptians. Perhaps he resembled other Northern Africans or Palestinians. Or maybe he was as fair-skinned as Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Yitzak Shamir, or Shimon Peres (all Jews and all Prime Ministers of Israel). Throwing the “dark-skinned” reference is pure pandering and offers nothing at all in the way of informing us on the identity of Jesus.
“Itineracy” seems to be a badge of impoverished honor for Pavolvitz in attempting to prove his point. As though Jesus’ synagogue and teaching missions were somehow the same as modern day itinerant workers moving from farm to farm harvesting crops for domineering overlords.
In actuality, many synagogues in 1st Century Galilee (the home of the most religious and well-educated Jews in the world at the time of Jesus), were not large enough to support a full-time rabbi and so traveling, teaching, “itinerant” rabbis were common. These rabbis typically supported themselves with a trade (such as, say, carpentry), and while they were prohibited by the Talmud from charging fees for services, they were free to accept gifts. If John would like a brief lesson on this topic, I recommend this.
And as for refugee? Tugs at the heart strings, doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s simply false scriptural interpretation.
The only time Jesus even closely fit this description was as an infant when his parents fled to Egypt to avoid religious extermination because Herod believed Jesus threatened his right to the throne of David. Once they returned to Israel after the death of Herod, Jesus was a known member of the Jewish community, his family openly traveling to Jerusalem every year to worship.
It would be enlightening for Pavlovitz to cite examples of any refugees being turned away from the United States (even under proposed changes to current immigration law) when faced with the certain threat of death of their children because of religious affiliation. Take your time, John. We’ll grab some popcorn.
Next is this gem: “He’d be denied healthcare, detained at the airport, separated from his family, trolled relentlessly on Twitter by his followers, accosted by torch-bearing marchers, vilified by pulpit-pounding preachers, and branded a terrorist by the President himself in incendiary fake videos and fear-baiting Tweets.”
Where to start. Jesus never asked for a single shekel of government support, including healthcare. His “family” was mankind, as he himself declared in Mark 3:32-34. He was, in fact, “trolled relentlessly” by the Twitter equivalent of the day – the Scribes and Pharisees. He was ultimately branded a terrorist by the Temple itself and rather than parodied in fake videos was arrested, brutalized, and executed.
Then this: A subversive, homeless rabbi who lived with the street people and publicly condemned and challenged every move by the political power-holders perverting religion to line their pockets.”
Subversive? Yes, to the Pharisaical and Saduceean regimes that had corrupted the true faith of the Covenant – not of Rome. Jesus had no commentary whatsoever about the governments of men other than his single response regarding paying Imperial taxes to Caesar. Perhaps Jesus was the original author of our highly-cherished “separation of Church and State” doctrine.
Here’s the truth, the “stuff that really needs to be said.” Whatever happened in John Pavolvitz’s past to create the caricature of the blogger we read today, his current claim to a progressive interpretation of God’s Word is, bluntly, misguided at best. He neither accurately interprets nor discerningly communicates the scripture he falsely proclaims. He’s simply a clever online wordsmith tapping into a despondent secular audience behind the label of “20-year ministry veteran.”
John’s followers “like” and “share” his posts because they, just as he, are focused on imputing Jesus’ message onto secular institutions and culture rather than what Jesus actually says. For John, the Word of God and the truth of the Kingdom is not sufficient – the mind of man is ascendant. John’s interpretation of social justice, tolerance, and morality are inventions of modern secular society. Perhaps compassionate for cable news, but untethered to God’s word. The Kingdom of God stands apart from governments of men.
A final comment John, if you’re reading this. Please know I have no personal animus toward you. Being in the business of digital marketing technology, I enjoy a good online success story. And no doubt you probably believe your mission is to speak to the “woke” folks among us. So you do you, brother.
That said, your definition of Jesus’ message is, in my view, self-serving and has little to do with the real faith of authentic Christianity and grace-filled salvation. I guess I just have this involuntary reflex against what I see as hypocrisy and blatant consumerism.
Believe what you may, but while I do respect the office of the Presidency and support many of the policies of its current incumbent, I’m not stupid, uneducated, bigoted, “ist-is,” phobic in any way, or uninformed. I don’t stand on soap boxes touting my personal moral virtue to sell books but I’ll match my private efforts to “live out the red-letters of Jesus” with you anywhere, anytime.
You can find me at www.miafede.com or @rdgreen on Twitter.
Oh, and I counted ten links to your website in this post. Do I get a referral bonus? I already bought your book so we’re set there (oh wait – that’s eleven).
Peace.

Not “My” Sin

I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” – Psalm 32:5

“Look – it’s not like I don’t know it’s probably wrong, but God understands me and He knows I’m gonna sin anyway. So I’m ok.” The words hung thickly in a  noisy coffee shop as I listened to my companion unpack his story of infidelity, hoping I might offer the equivalent of a spiritual high-five.

It took a moment and another sip of coffee for me to absorb the depth of the comment from this friend I’ve known for a number of years.

“I’m ok.” Two simple words that, used in the wrong context, plunge countless souls over the cliff of false security. You may have heard this sentiment under different phrases: “God loves me just the way I am,” is a popular claim. “Why would a loving God send anyone to hell? As long as I accept Christ I don’t have to change,” argues another. And “Jesus never actually said that,” is the current rage with the Progressive Christian crowd.

How can self-professing followers of Christ hold such seemingly contrarian views to clear and unambiguous guidance from scripture? A couple of answers come to mind.

Confess and Carry On

For centuries, the role of confession has played a prominent role in both Protestant and Catholic denominations. Canons 12 and 13 of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 hint at the necessity of confession. In 459 Pope Saint Leo the Great (the very same Pope who turned back Attila the Hun’s attack on Italy) wrote “It is sufficient … to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents.”

Credit: www.epicpew.com

The argument for confession is that when someone unburdens themselves through sharing their deepest, most desperate secrets they form a private and intimate trust with God’s intermediary, thus opening the door for God to restore their relationship.

Unfortunately, in the case of my friend – like so many others – confession often replaces repentance, becoming a substitute for a truly changed heart. Substitutionary confession proclaims “There, I said it. I’m good now until it happens again. See ya next week.”  In these instances, words replace transformation and the “saved” soul is just a “guilty conscience.”

We see a lot of this in today’s culture. Politicians discovered taking bribes, only to admit their sorrow at how they disappointed constituents. Celebrities caught in years of sexual harassment, explaining away their behavior as a “generational” thing. High school teachers accused of having inappropriate relationships with students, apologizing for any pain experienced by colleagues or parents.

What’s missing? Actual repentance. No real change of heart, just regret at being exposed. Their actions aren’t the problem, the consequences of those actions are.

Paul cautions against this belief in Romans 6:1-4: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died in sin still live in it?”

God’s grace and forgiveness isn’t offered as a reprieve from the “all you can eat” sin buffet, continually filling our plates and indulging our appetites while having our weekly spiritual purge. Rather, He offers grace to entirely change the menu.

Scripture is Misunderstood

This argument is a bit more difficult, mostly because it’s so charged with identity politics. The approach typically follows the path of “Jesus never really said that,” or “the Old Testament was written before science understood XYZ,” or one of my favorites: “words don’t really mean what they seem to mean.”

Underlying this belief is a passage found near the very beginning of scripture, in Genesis 3: “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”

“God doesn’t really mean what He says,” Satan whispers to Eve. Why? Because if God is serious and humans understood that sin creates eternal separation from Him, the power of temptation would evaporate.

Since mankind’s Fall, we’ve tried to re-interpret and “refine” God’s explicit instructions. The Old Testament is essentially the chronicle of our repeated failure to obey God’s commandments through the unfolding story of the nation of Israel, while the New Testament records the ultimate rejection of God’s law in the Crucifixion of Christ.

Yeah, it’s in there…

We’ve not really evolved much as 20th and 21st Century believers. Falling into sin remains, at its core, the rejection of God’s sovereignty. Instead of finding our identities in God’s design, we define God through our identities. Rather than adhering to God’s will, we demand our will.

In creating our own identities, we open the door to any and all interpretations of God’s plan, based solely on what we feel and believe about ourselves. Thus, we self-label as “true” Christians regardless of how many fundamental tenets we reject simply because we don’t believe they apply to us.

This philosophy claims my sin is not really sin if I believe it defines who I see myself to be – for as we read in Psalm 139:14 “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Therefore, God must love me because He made me this way.

Credit: 412teens.org

Any call to change who I am – regardless of what may be found in “outdated” scriptures – would imply God made a mistake with me. Being perfectly unblemished and perfectly tolerant, God would never make that mistake. So what you call sin, I (and my God) call self-realization. In the words of celebrity pastors such as Hillsong’s Carl Lentz, “People just have to live out their own convictions.”

There’s so much to unpack there it would take volumes explore. Yet God, in His infinite and mysterious mastery of grace, allows us our freedom to fall or to soar, to enter or reject His Kingdom saying “ok then, not My will but your will be done.”

The clearest mission

As Christians, we’re charged with a clear and unambiguous mission – love each other and those around us while focusing every ounce of our faith and belief on God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives. Then, share the Good News of Salvation through Christ, confronting errant or false teachings with candor and honesty.

This can be terribly difficult when what we believe about ourselves conflicts with what God has revealed to us as His Truth.

After my friend shared his story I paused, not sure how real he wanted me to be. I could see his desire for approval, but I also felt called to hold up a mirror.

I reminded him that God never smiles on sin, that infidelity is called out directly as an affront to His desire for us. I shared the words of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias: “When a man says ‘I do’ to his wife, he is simultaneously saying ‘I don’t’ to everyone else.”

True confession results in what Paul refers to as “Godly sorrow,” bringing repentance “that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Without repentance, there is no changed heart. An unchanged heart is simply our way of going through the motions, asking God’s permission to continue in our sin without being accountable for the results.

Sin is not what we choose it to be. The world’s definition of the Good News is what A.W. Pink described as “Salvation by character.” Once we give up our belief in our own sovereignty and choose God, Salvation reveals itself as something entirely different: a character built by, and because of Salvation.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Trust Has Consequences

Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Matthew 14:16-18

A friend recently asked if I played Scrabble. Now admittedly it’s been years since the game even crossed my mind, so I headed to the game closet and found a dusty boxed set. Spreading out a fistful of random letters from the box I was surprised to see the first five were “U-R-T-S-T.” Rearranged, they spelled “Trust.” And it occurred to me that there was a message in that. A message that had been pounding away at me for a while. A message about trust.

Born trusting

Ever noticed the look in a five year old’s eyes, wide as blue saucers and filled with laughter when you tell them something – anything – that captures their imagination? Hope and belief shine so bright from their faces it lights up the room. The light of trust.

Trust is born into us, as strong and real as our five senses. As children we ooze trust from every pore, holding onto it with blank-stared wonder, like the deer I see every day in Austin crossing the road with fearless (sometimes mindless) conviction that my two-ton vehicle will not transform them into early morning road kill.

This kind of trust is beautiful in its simplicity, inspiring in its breadth. Our parents worry constantly, fearing we’ll trust everyone, including the wrong people, until we eventually wind up as little pictures on milk cartons.

Yet somewhere along the way, jammed between crushed middle school hearts and broken promises from grown-ups who never quite understood that soccer games – even when we lose – are just as important as conference calls; sometime before the fairy tale wedding but after Santa’s last visit, trust is often replaced by something else.

“What is this trust thing you speak of?”

My erudite friends back East (the ones who’ve made art forms out of weekend brunch and the methodical dissection of the Sunday Times) would call this replacement of trust “discernment” or “sophistication.” Not for them the naiveté of innocence and faith in stuff or people unknown or unseen. Rather, they view all things through the jaundiced eye of cynical skepticism, confident in their abilities to see through the motives and fabrications of the world around them.

“Why, really,” they say between sips of mimosas and bites of fresh pastries, “no one ever takes anything at face value anymore.”

On the other hand, my seasoned pals in Tejas (for ya’ll Northern types that’s local slang for “God’s Own Backyard”) might put it another way: “Wise up, bro – everybody’s got an angle.” Then they’d tell me to work on my bluffing skills ‘cause they “just feel awful” taking my money at Wednesday night poker.

Chronic suspicion syndrome

Most of us eventually lose our innate ability to trust, replaced by a very grown-up attitude: chronic suspicion syndrome. CSS usually creeps into our lives silently, unseen, in devious ways. We begin questioning this or that and eventually find ourselves suspicious of everything and everyone around us – their motives, their actions, their words. We sometimes even lose our trust in God. Unchecked, the lack of trust can rage out of control, destroying relationships and lives.

Funny thing is, while we lose the ability to trust others, we’re offended and hurt when those around us don’t place their trust in our every word. We want their belief, we crave their trust. That has certainly been true in my case. I even thought about inventing a magic elixir once to give me that special “trustworthiness” scent. Just spray on a squirt or two of every morning and everyone I meet will trust me.

“I’ve found it! The magic elixir to make everyone trust me!”

Turns out somebody beat me to it! A laboratory in New York claims to have bottled “trust” in a special formula called Liquid Trust. Yes, it sounds a bit over the top, but there really us a product called Liquid Trust. It contains nothing more exotic than a natural and odorless hormone called oxcytocin that plays a large role in childbirth, breast-feeding, and romantic love. Oh, it also throws in the pheromones Androstenone and Androsterone for good measure.

The trust deficit

Magic potions aside, we often seem trapped in a “trust deficit” keeping us looking over our shoulders and double-checking our locks. Why is trust so rare? Why do we want so desperately for people to trust us while we can’t seem to trust them? Why does it seem in the dialogue between trust and suspicion, suspicion usually seems to win?

Trust is one of the crucial questions facing humans, believers and non-believers alike. Think about something as common place as today’s politics. The mistrust between Democrats and Republicans has led to a toxic environment in which every word is scrutinized by the opposing side for ulterior motives. Or a broken relationship where an honest mistake by one person leads their partner to question every action they take.

We see the impact of eroding trust it in the rise of violent crime, civil litigation, breakdown of family structures (neighborhoods, churches, unions, clubs, charities), lack of shared values with neighbors, etc. It surrounds and penetrates us.

Yet there is an antidote, a remedy as close as the nearest bookshelf or nightstand. Scripture offers a compelling lens through which to view the human condition, and how trust in ourselves rather than God’s ability to provide almost inevitably leads to disillusionment and emptiness.

The episode from the passage in Matthew at the beginning of this message is a clear illustration of how God calls us to trust in His abundance rather than our own ability to provide. Interestingly, the story of 5,000 being fed from five fish and two loaves is one of the few episodes from Jesus’ ministry outside the crucifixion and resurrection to be recounted in all four Gospels. Matthew’s version opens with Jesus hearing of the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus’ response is not surprising: he withdraws. Not only is he grieving over the death of his cousin, but he is sorrowful that John’s death is a precursor to his own.

The local people who have begun following Jesus with fanatical devotion pursue him to what Matthew describes as a “deserted place” implying no nearby inns or places to rest and eat – after all, the nearest McDonald’s drive through is still 20 centuries away. When evening comes, the crowds need to eat. Jesus’ initial response is to tell his disciples to give the people food, prompting the disciples to remind him they have only five fishes and two loaves and suggest instead sending the crowd away. Jesus ignores this seemingly logical suggestion and calls for the fishes and loaves to be brought forth. After blessing them, he gives the food to the disciples who in turn distribute it to the crowd, eventually gathering twelve baskets of leftovers.

Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/swallowdale

What happened here? What is God telling us about trust? A couple of things. First, God is saying anything is possible if we believe in His will. Jesus faced a seemingly impossible challenge and yet never thought of scarcity. Instead, he trusted in God and believed in abundance. God is saying “don’t tell Me what you lack, tell Me what you are moved to do.” If we take our needs to God He will provide.

Second, we’re being compelled to take action. Deuteronomy 9:23-24 implores us to “Trust and obey” God in all things. Not “trust when you feel like it and obey when you can” or “trust or obey” or “trust, then perhaps obey” – it’s trust and obey. In the episode from Matthew, the disciples neither trusted nor obeyed when Jesus said “you feed them.” Instead, Jesus had to make obvious for them what God asks from each of us.

Restoring trust

The natural question then, is “how?” In a world immersed in distrust, how can we let go of our suspicious nature and trust in the ultimate authority and power of God’s will? Here are three suggestions that work for me:

  1. Turn to trustworthy sources. For believers, there is no greater source of truth than Scripture. The Book of Psalms (specifically Psalms 11, 16, 23, 62, 121) are great sources for strength. Other passages I’ve found compelling are Jeremiah 17:7Isaiah 26:3 and 1 Peter 5:7.
  2. Give up on the illusion of Control. One of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned is there is a God, and I’m not Him. I’m not in control. I have never been in control. I never will be in control. Not of everything, not of anything.
  3. Put trust at the very heart of faith. As a Believer, my perspective on the world is one of radical trust, a willingness to trust God and, therefore, an ability to trust others. As a body of Believers we must personify this trust. Our evangelism to a postmodern culture must proclaim a God who can be trusted to take care of us, to take hold of us, to heal us, to save us, and a community that can itself be trusted.

A word of caution. Living a life built on trust has consequences. You actually have to believe in others, and accept that they believe in you. And be prepared when they do. Be prepared when their belief in you sometimes exceeds your belief in yourself. Be prepared when God believes in us even when we’ve lost all hope in Him.

There’s a $1 dollar bill pinned to a board next to my desk as I write this. On the back are the words “In God We Trust.” Four simple words. Can we really live by them?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Shibboleths and Bigger Tables

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” Judges 12:6

 Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, wrote: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” Rabbi Heschel knew the impact words have on the world.

Those closest to me know my love of words, and their power to create, shape, hurt, divide, and even destroy. Shibboleth – a term originating from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת‎) and referenced in the passage from Judges 12 above – has long been a word used to divide and separate. In today’s language, shibboleth has also taken on a wider meaning, referring to any “in-group” word or phrase distinguishes members of a group from outsiders.

Credit: Faithandleadership.com

I was reminded of shibboleths this week while discovering a new website recently launched to “score” churches on how affirming they are of the current en vogue shibboleth: gender/sexual orientation. This site, whose leadership team is composed entirely of individuals rejecting anyone not speaking into their view of truth on the subject of unqualified acceptance and advocacy, is similar to other outspoken proponents on this topic ranging from pastors hoping to demonstrate enlightened cultural sensitivity to outright opportunists with impressive sounding credentials like “20-year ministry veteran trying to love people well and to live out-out the red letters of Jesus” who seize on cultural events to advance their personal need for adoration. As if those truly called to ministry ever exit as veterans (see 2 Timothy 4:7 on an authentic view of ministry).

I’ve referenced neither the site nor the pastor(s) in question – they don’t need additional promoting here and some of you may already know (or even follow) their teachings. My issue is not their belief structure, but rather a seemingly myopic and unrelenting insistence that Scripture is inherently wrong or misunderstood on this subject. And a demand that Christians clarify where they stand or be labeled as intolerant and “phobic.”

Their basic reasoning goes something like this. Scripture, while divinely inspired, has been “misinterpreted” by man. The writers of the 66 books in the current Protestant Canonical Bible wrote with a limited understanding of biology and science, with no way to fully appreciate the fluidity of gender identity and sexual expression afforded by 2,000 years of scientific advancement. To ascribe “truth” to the teaching of Biblical writers is, well, simply unintelligent and backward.

Good old-fashioned fundamentalism

One could spend an entire 3-years of seminary dissecting the intellectual flaws in this argument. Perhaps I’ll tackle that in another post. For now, I’ll make a different case. Proponents of single-issue Bible errancy is nothing new. Pick your pet doctrine and throughout history there have been those who will argue that the Bible is wrong because their belief is different.

In many ways, this is no different than good, old-fashioned fundamentalism. Endless versions of fundamentalism exist across Christian belief but one of my favorites to highlight is the King James Only movement. Essentially, these folks believe the King James Version of the Bible is the sole authentic and accurate English translation from the most reliable Greek New Testament manuscripts (the Textus Receptus or Majority Text). According the KJV-only advocates, all other translations have been corrupted either through negligence or intent.

Codex Vaticanus 354 S (028), an uncial codex with a Byzantine text

Fundamentalism of all stripes (but especially these two types) suffer from a number of strikingly similar problems, especially for Christians searching for a true and faithful walk. Here are a couple.

Rejecting historical truth for culturally-acceptable litmus tests

Those who believe a single translation from 1611 (or 1769) is the only legitimate English translation of the Bible ignore common sense and the rigor of sound scholarship born out over hundreds of years. Those advocating Biblical neutrality on gender relations simply misread or misinterpret the literal writing of scripture. Either way, in both cases advocates begin with a point of view and then search for justification rather than starting with the source text and reading for discernment. And often the “experts” they bring to their arguments are either self-taught, have qualifications unrelated to Biblical scholarship or determine they can play arm-chair psychoanalysts on scripture writers.

 Grounded in Gnosticism

Flourishing throughout the Mediterranean world in the second century AD, the Gnostics believed they alone possessed “secret” knowledge that made them somehow more enlightened. Modern stepchildren of Gnostic beliefs are convinced they are purveyors of the single truth and those disagreeing with them are unenlightened, uneducated, or heretics. KJV-onlyists believe they’re in on a conspiracy to corrupt the original intent of Bible writers driven by a diabolical agenda. Gender-neutralists argue they alone have determined the true, enlightened meaning of the Bible on this subject and those who disagree are morally inferior or simply unenlightened.

Single issue dividing lines

In both cases, their chosen issue is the “single greatest question” facing the Christian faith – a modern shibboleth, as it were. To the KSV-onlyist, a fellow Believer reading from a translation such as New International Version, Revised Standard Version, New English Translation, etc. is receiving heretical teaching from contaminated Bibles created by liberals bent on perverting the Word. To gender neutralists, the modern church is anti-God if it doesn’t embrace with unquestioned acceptance their definition love.

To be clear, I assume no evil intent from either of these camps. Unlike some strains of fundamentalism that maliciously twist religious dogma to fit a worldview of domination or enslavement, these folks aren’t executing a veiled, hidden agenda to challenge God’s Word or authority.

They instead claim a special interpretation of scripture which fits their view of the world rather than the divinely inspired will of God. They then use that interpretation to determine who can be inside their group, and who is excluded because of their moral or religious shortcomings.

A recent book by one of these advocates with a title evoking expanding the table of grace (again, I’ve decided not promote either of these camps here) makes the argument that God’s Love is not the “limited view” described in scripture but is rather something larger, a place where no one is rejected, no one is asked to change who they believe themselves to be, a place where sin has no clear definition.

What struck me when I read the book (which I did), was how the very thesis of the work itself was negated in the Introduction, where the implication was given that anyone not subscribing to the author’s worldview was somehow “outside.” The author went further in a blog post from a few days ago suggesting anyone who questioned his vehemence was unwelcome at his Bigger Table.

The true bigger table

We read in Luke 5 that after calling the tax collector Levi to follow him, Jesus joined Levi’s friends (fellow tax collectors and other identified sinners) for dinner. When confronted by fundamentalist Pharisees and scribes to explain why he was socializing with sinners, Jesus offered an answer that beautifully reconciles the notions of invitation, grace, repentance, and redemption: It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

God’s invitation and His table are, indeed, open to all – regardless of where we stand on this or that social issue, no matter how far from grace we may have strayed. The choice to “pull up a chair” is, indeed, ours.

Yet unlike the no-consequences theology of many in the modern “acceptance” movement, or the narrow single-issue theology of fundamentalism, God’s invitation has a single explicit price – repentance. We can come as we are, but to stay we must change, turning away from the life of denial and rebellion where He met us.

“Go and sin no more,” Jesus told the adulteress in John 8. Notice that he didn’t say “Welcome to the party, woman – now go and sin some more.”

Accepting a seat at God’s Bigger Table implies changing our hearts. It means leaving behind our insistence on pursuing the transgressions always whispering to us, the erection of walls to separate us from each other, or the belief that anything we do must be from God and is therefore acceptable in His eyes.

Shibboleths protected the Gileadites in their battle against the Ephramites at the fords of Jordon. Today, they simply serve as obstacles to a fully-realized Kingdom.  Jesus’ invitation is simple:

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Fearless

“The Lord is for me; I will not fear; What can man do to me?”Psalm 118:6

The first draft of this post was written during the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. At the time, I was reflecting on how helpless we often feel over things we can’t control, like natural disasters and illness. My theme was power and powerlessness. Recent events have changed my focus.

Instead, I want to shift to a different emotion: fear.

We live in a world of fear. Fear of tomorrow, fear of the unknown, fear of each other, fear of what might change us. We fear things in the dark, we fear strangers and people with different skin color or sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We fear our own mortality.

Credit: Reuters

The late hours of October 1 were erupted with the sound of gunfire as shots rained down on a large crowd of concert goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. As of this writing (one week later), 58 men and women are dead – as well as the shooter whose name I won’t sensationalize by repeating here – and over 500 wounded. A stunned world cried out in dumbfounded shock, expressing an urgent plea to do something, to bring sense to the madness. And underlying that urge is an ancient, primal instinct: fear that we can never be safe.

Fear surrounds us

I recently revisited Luke’s Gospel and was reminded of this passage: There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Luke 21:25-26

While the focus of this post is not end-times prophecy, doesn’t it often feel like we live in a period very similar to what Jesus described? Fear surrounds us, gripping our hearts and paralyzing our emotions. Many of us seem consumed by a sense of dread.

Why should fear be so deeply ingrained in us? If as professing Christians we believe in salvation why are we afraid of harm or death? Why can we not find the calm of David in Psalm 23, walking “in the valley of the shadow of death” yet fearing no evil?

As children, we’re taught to fear the first time we hear the word “NO!” When we mature, fear plants deep roots and grows, for many becoming a dark shadow controlling their lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus became flesh and endured death on the cross that he “might free those who through fear … were subject to slavery all their lives.” Hebrews 2:15

Physical fear, the fear of pain or death, is natural. When it doesn’t control us, fear can protect us from harm and danger, helping us make prudent decisions and avoid miscalculated risks. Yet when uncontrolled, fear can replace our trust in God, substituting belief in a personality ability to deliver ourselves from adversity through actions. We often begin to believe in our own invulnerability.

In the news coverage following the events in Las Vegas, I was struck by the image of a lone concert goer standing in the midst of the carnage facing the lone gunman while everyone around him crouched in fear. Granted, he had been enjoying adult beverages and his unique demonstration of fearlessness is not one I might recommend, but his defiance represented bravery to many. It reminded me of another story.

2,600 years ago, a young prophet named Daniel was thrown into in a lions’ den by Darius the Mede (known in scripture as “Darius the King”)  for disobeying an edict not to pray to YAHWEY.  Undeterred, Daniel defied the edict and continued to pray, showing no fear.

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614/1616

I don’t know where the defiant concert goer in Las Vegas found his fearlessness, but I’m positive where Daniel found his. Trusting in God, Daniel faced down wild animals that would have devoured him, knowing the outcome would be God’s will.

Be anxious for nothing

Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians “Be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6). David tells us in Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.”

God provides deliverance from fear. He tells us not to let worry and anxiety grip us. In Jesus’ own words, who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?(Matthew 6:27).

Does this mean we will never suffer tragedy or hardship? No. Does it mean we won’t be a victim in a tragedy like the one that took so many lives in Las Vegas, or Nice, or London, or New York? No. But it does mean that as Believers our salvation is secure and God will guide us on the path He has set for us. Equally important, we know the destination awaiting us.

This was the fearlessness that drove the Apostles, virtually all of which were persecuted and executed for their beliefs. The same fearlessness comforted Stephen as he was stoned to death for speaking the truth of Jesus. It fueled William Tyndale, a key reformer who was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.

Fearlessness empowered Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stand against Hitler’s treatment of Jews, resulting in his 1945 hanging. It burned in the hearts of seven Egyptian Christians murdered in January 2010 as they left their church in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

And unwavering fearlessness based on trust in God surrounded the nine victims at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina murdered as they stood to pray in June 2015.

Credit: NY Daily News

Each of these and thousands of other similar instances around the world speak to the power of defeating fear. And they share another common bond: enduring love. In his first epistle, John writes “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” 1 John 4:18.

Love drives out fear

Ultimately, fear is self-focused. When we’re afraid, we’re almost always focused on something about ourselves – what we might lose, what might be taken away from us, pain or hardship we might endure. Fear drives us to distrust those we love, look skeptically at our neighbors and colleagues, hate those around us who have more than we do.

On the other hand, love is always about someone else, and perfect love is solely about God. When we allow the perfect love of God to penetrate our hearts, there’s simply no room for self-centeredness or conceit. And where there is no self-focus, there is no fear.

There will always be loss and pain and even death for as long as we draw breath. But the promise of the Gospel is that God’s salvation through the sacrifice of Christ strengthens our spirits and souls and bodies, giving us triumph over our weaknesses and victory in the face of adversity.

Faith in God’s love emboldens Believers. As Paul wrote to Timothy concerning the nature of suffering and faith: God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Perfect love derives from the acceptance of Christ as our soul source of comfort and salvation. God’s perfect love for us, believed by us, replaces fear with love. And where loves lives, hate and fear can never take hold.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Unseen

“Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” – John 20:29

Think of something you believe but have never seen. It’s actually more common than you might imagine, even for the post-modern scientific mind. Gravity, for instance. I’ve never seen it but believe it’s there which is why I refrain from stepping off ten story buildings. Or oxygen. We don’t actually see oxygen but we certainly know when it’s absent.

There are many things we’ve never actually seen but know are there – radio waves, dark matter, ultraviolet light, the imaginary number constant i (just trust me on this one – if you don’t believe in unseen things try being an air traffic controller without using numbers that can’t seem to exist), our minds and emotions, the entire universe. Hey – I even believe in honest politicians, though I’ve heard they’re rare as winged unicorns.

“Vote for me – I’m magical!”

It’s easy to believe what we see or experience directly, and just as easy to disbelieve something we haven’t. “I saw it with my own eyes,” we say. Yet when we hear an incredible story from someone else we, too, can find ourselves skeptical.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, scripture describes a similar exchange. By this time (Sunday morning), Jesus had been dead and buried two full days and nights. The burial, accomplished quickly to honor the Jewish rules of sundown, had not allowed for fully preparing Jesus’ body after being taken down from the cross.

At dawn following the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and at least two other women approached the sealed tomb to ask the covering stone be rolled away so they could administer the remaining treatment of Jesus’ body for the traditional year of rest prior to final burial of his bones in a stone ossuary. They were shocked to find the sealing stone already removed and the tomb empty of Jesus’ body.

Dumbstruck, Mary and the others encountered a very much alive Jesus who instructed them to go tell the apostles he had risen and “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mark 16:7).

Running breathlessly to share the news with the apostles who were still “mourning and weeping” (Mark 16:10), Mary’s story was met with rebuke and disbelief, “appearing to them as nonsense.” Returning to the tomb to see the evidence first-hand Peter “went away wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:11-12).

The scripture passage I opened with happens a few days later. Jesus has already appeared to the apostles and they have believed – all except Thomas who famously states he would not believe “unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side.” (John 20:25).

Appearing to Thomas in the midst of the apostles, Jesus challenged him to “reach here with your finger, and see my hands.” Thomas never completes the test, instead exclaiming for the first time by anyone in the New Testament that Jesus is “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Thomas finally saw and believed. Jesus acknowledged his belief but went further to say those who believed yet have not seen are blessed.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio 1692

I’ve always been struck that God didn’t simply whisk Jesus away and leave the tomb sealed. We read in John 20:19 that Jesus appeared to his disciples while they were locked away behind closed doors and in other instances he was able to materialize in the midst of followers who were either unaware of his presence or didn’t recognize him.  The point of the rolled away stone was not to allow Jesus to leave the tomb, but to provide yet another visible proof of his resurrection.

The rolled away stone and Jesus appearing to the eleven remaining apostles (and many others) following his resurrection were foretold and necessary parts of God’s plan. They became foundational truths, proving beyond doubt the reality of the resurrection – seen and confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses, many of whom Luke describes as ”foolish men and slow of heart to believe” during the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25).

Jesus insisted these first witnesses – ordinary, unremarkable men and women with no special status or religious standing outside of their relationship with him – verify he was alive, a complete and undeniable human being, not a bodiless apparition with no substance.

Believing without seeing

The encounter with Thomas was crucial because it demonstrated the essential element of God’s central aim: trusting in His Will through faith. The apostles had lived in faith-by-sight throughout Jesus’ ministry. They saw the miracles first hand; they saw him calm the storms, walk on the waters, debate the Pharisees into silence. They saw him raise Lazarus. They saw him heal the lame and bring sight to the blind. Peter, James and John even saw his transfiguration alongside Moses and Elijah. One would think seeing these and countless other things with their own eyes would have solidified their faith beyond doubt.

Credit: Joshua Harris, 2010

Yet even at the height of his ministry Jesus reminded the twelve how small their faith continued to be. Following the feeding of the four thousand as told in Mark, Jesus listens as his disciples worry they have nothing to eat and asks incredulously Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?” (Mark 8:17-18).

In another encounter with the Pharisees and scribes Jesus is asked for more signs of his fulfilling the messianic prophecies. Rejecting their disbelief, he responded “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matthew 12:39).

To some, seeing will never be believing

Jesus is indicating that for many (including those of us today), seeing is never believing. There will never be enough signs, enough evidence, enough “proof” to satisfy the unwilling mind. God tells us to look beyond what we see to find truth, as even our eyes can deceive us.

In the human generations since Jesus’ ascension (100, 60, 50, pick your math), one message is clear – God stepped into humanity for a brief moment through Jesus so that we might see and believe, and then stepped out of humanity again so that we might then know and believe. Paul describes this by saying “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)

As Christians, we know this today because we’ve received an incontrovertible truth passed down through the centuries essentially unchanged since originally told by eye-witnesses who themselves first doubted. While we sometimes ask God to show us “signs,” we ultimately realize God’s work is most often revealed through the signs of our actions through faith.

Our faith is not blind

Much has been said about the “folly” of believing in an unseen God. Like the apostles cowering behind locked doors when Mary rushed in to tell them of the incredible news of Jesus’ resurrection, modern culture doubts and questions. We’re suspicious a Just God could exist in a world of pain we ourselves have created. Yet connection through prayer can show us the way.

Jesus reminds us in John 1:18 “no one has seen God.” As Believers, we trust in a God we’ve never seen. We trust in a resurrected Christ we’ve only read and heard about. We trust in a Holy Spirit we sense but can’t identify. We embrace a death and resurrection we can’t prove but understand are necessary for our salvation. We do this most directly through prayer, when we are most intimate with God.

The writer of Hebrews comments “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Hebrews 11:1.

Yet our faith is not blind, but is instead based on evidence – the evidence of God’s Word and how that Word works in our lives. The Word is Truth, it is sure, it is unassailable. And it is connected through prayer. And when we trust in that Word – regardless of what we have or have not seen – the world loses its hold on us and fear is replaced with the confidence of eternal triumph.

“All things are possible to him who believes,” Jesus tells the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:23. This is the essence of faith – trusting in the infallibility of God’s Word as handed down to us generation after generation. We need exercise only the simplest degree of faith to call down the power of God in our lives.

Do you have the faith to believe our unseen God can transform your life?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Still Here…

“For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.” – Matthew 24:4

I opened my eyes this morning and … the world was still here. Now granted, I wasn’t expecting the rapture but there’s been so much hype around September 23, 2017 and the Revelation 12 Sign, the mysterious Planet X, earthquakes in Mexico City and Los Angeles and Japan, the endless Category 5 Hurricanepocolypse of 2017, Donald Trump addressing the United Nations, North Korea and their nuclear ambitions , Super Mosquitos spreading Super Malaria … it’s felt like we were in the middle of a Matthew 24 end times prophecy from Jesus.

Not quite the end

Of course, this is clearly not the end as so much of Jesus’ end of days depiction has not yet materialized and I’m apparently still able to write this. For instance, even though persecutions of Christians have increased around the world, they haven’t yet risen to the apocalyptic proportions of the Left Behind series. And while we’re on that subject, I didn’t see Drudge Report flashing the sudden disappearance of millions of people overnight.

Nor have we seen the Abomination of Desolation standing in the holy place. And with all respects to Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan, the gospel has surely NOT been “preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations.”

“Aren’t we there yet, God?” (credit: nowtheendbegins.com)

Now that we’ve established the world hasn’t ended and our best efforts to guess at Christ’s return have once again been thwarted, let’s have a word of honesty. Go ahead, lean in on this one.

The central, yet least understood foundation of Christian faith is the return of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” (Mark 13:26), (Luke 21:27). Yet, “(Of) that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Mark 13:32).

Almost since the day following Jesus’ ascension, many have tried to second guess the Mark 13 passage.  In 500 A.D. Hippolytus of RomeSextus Julius Africanus, and Irenaeus predicted Jesus would return based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.  German monk and mathematician Michael Stifel  published a work stating categorically that Christ would return at 8:00 am on October 19, 1533 (presumably local time).  In 1844 American Baptist preacher William Miller proclaimed Jesus would return on October 22. His slightly missed guess came to be known as The Great Disappointment. And then there was Harold Camping’s famous prediction the world would come to a fiery end on October 21, 2011. Other near misses can be found here.

“No, really – set your sundial. 8:00 am for sure.”

Yet still, Jesus told us what to look for. We will have signs, we’ll actually see Jesus return, but no one knows when. Folks are going out to dinner, getting married, watching TV, working their jobs, arguing about politics, posting their uber-filtered pics on social media – in other words, everything will be absolutely normal, until the moment it isn’t. Sounds like a perfect recipe for prophetic sensationalism.

Scripture tells us to prepare

Fortunately for Believers, scripture also tells us to prepare. “You must also be ready,” Jesus said in Matthew 24:44. “The day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night,” Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,”  declares Peter (2 Peter 3:10). The message is clear – we should stand ready for the Christ’s return every day of our lives.

Sadly, the vast majority of people in the world – even many Christians – live their lives as though Jesus never promised to return. If you and I were honest, we might admit to our own negligent view of the future.

“The Agony in the Garden,” Andrea Mantegna 1458

In the moment of his most significant trial, Jesus took three disciples with him to the Garden of Gethsemane (Peter, John and James). Asking them to stay vigilant, Jesus stepped away to pray. Returning, Jesus found them sleeping and said “So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation,” (Matthew 26:40-41).

This happened three times and on the third instance Jesus chided “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand,” (Matthew 26:45).

Lulled into complacency

Idle speculation, dramatized rumors, false predictions, endless distractions – these and a thousand other diversions lull us into complacency. The decades pass, Jesus still hasn’t shown up and we get busy with other things. We sleep while God extends His hand. We ignore the signs around us, unable to “analyze this present time,” as Jesus told the crowds in Luke 12:56. We search endlessly for signs of what God has already revealed.

The Greek Christian Bishop Origen Adamantius wrote in 212 A.D. “In a certain sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified.” In other words, for those of us who are dead to worldly things, the day of the Lord has already arrived – we are just awaiting Christ’s return.

And yet, his return is not quite here. The charge is not to awake from our slumber, but to stay awake with watchful endurance. Jesus calls us to be ready, or in a different sense, always be becoming ready. We find certainty based on the dependability of God’s character, not the accuracy of our predictions. We prepare for Jesus’ return not to figure out a puzzle, but rather to trust in a promise from God.

God wants us to be vigilant for Jesus’ return not because we know the specific date, but because we trust His promise. We see our future and are comforted because “not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed” (Joshua 23:14). We live our lives as though Jesus has already returned.

Three ways to live

What would this look like? How would we act if we lived as though Christ had already returned and we were walking in light of truth? There are hundreds of possible answers in scripture but here are three:

  • Live the Word. God is not just a spiritual concept locked away in an ancient book of writings to be studied while ignoring the very people we are called to serve- God is real and active in our midst today, as we should be. After healing the cripple in Bethesda on the Sabbath, Jesus was challenged by Jewish leadership for doing works on the Sabbath. He answered “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). He goes further, admonishing the Pharisees and Sanhedrin that their substitute of studying the law rather than living God’s word out in the world condemns them: You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me;  and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:38-39) Jesus is telling us that studying the Word is only the first step – we must go further in actually live the Word out in communion with those around us.
  • Convert, don’t condemn. Every corner of our lives today seems filled with condemnation of something or someone. In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:40-45). When we convert those who hate us to a life of love, we demonstrate the foundational Kingdom principle of forgiveness rather than the earthly principle of retribution.
  • Love God, love each other. When challenged by a lawyer on how to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded in terms the lawyer would understand: What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)

Knowing where God is taking us, knowing what comes after the end of this world, truly understanding that there is a lasting and eternal life awaiting us, we can be at peace and live in confidence. And even if we may not know the day and hour, God tells us to stay vigilant. 

Are you still sleeping? Behold the hour is at hand

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Living in Pits

“Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” – Luke 14:5

Ok, I admit it – I loved Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” Trilogy (aka “Batman”). Everything about the series was amazing. Yeah, Heath Ledger stole the show as the Joker in the second installment, but each film had its moments.

One of my favorite scenes from the trilogy was the intense build up to Bruce Wayne climbing out of the pit in “The Dark Knight Rises.” For those who’ve not seen it, click here – but come back!

The most interesting thing about this scene isn’t Wayne’s final emergence, but rather how he got there. Up to the moment of his escape, he believed he could be freed by relying on man’s inventions – the safety of a rope, the practiced skill of his own hand. It was not until he let go of his own contrivances that he could escape the prison of his own shortcomings.

How often are we like Bruce Wayne in that pit, relying on our own efforts, our own “good works” to free us from the pits and wells into which we inevitably fall?

We need saving every day

In the passage from Luke I began with, Jesus is explaining curing a man of dropsy on the Sabbath, a high sin in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus’ message was clear: saving a lost soul is never wrong even on the Sabbath.

Yet as I read this passage my sense is that Jesus’ point was not so much about his actions, but instead about our needs.  That is, man needs saving every day, including the Sabbath. And God, in His righteousness, saves us every day, including the Sabbath.

“Good God, man! Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?”

Jesus often used the Sabbath to point out our dependence on God’s hand. Notice how he cast the unclean spirit out in Capernaum on a Sabbath (Mark 1:21-18). Or healing a crippled man at Bethesda (John 5:1-18). Or healing the woman in the synagogue (Luke 13:10-17).

The common thread in all of Jesus’ encounters – both on the Sabbath and other days – is how inadequate our role is in our own healing. Can our works or personal efforts save us? Do we really need God to work out our salvation? Where is faith?

Paul addresses this question beautifully in Ephesians 2, specifically verses 8 and 9: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We simply can’t pull ourselves from the “miry clay” of existence (Psalm 40:2). We need God to provide us His hand, His grace.

Works without faith are empty

There’s a long-standing debate (particularly between Catholicism and Reformative Protestantism) regarding the roles played by works vs. faith in salvation. For some, the question is in the interpretation of Paul’s writings from passages such as Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:5. These folks will split hairs over works of good vs. works of law. That’s the subject of a different post.

Others will point to the epistle of James where he writes in 2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Which is it? Do our works earn our salvation or are we saved simply by faith in Jesus Christ as the one true way to God the Father, repenting of our past?

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635

This confusion is around context. In both instances, James and Paul use the Genesis 22 story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac to illustrate their meaning. Yet even as some might argue James and Paul disagree, they in fact support each other.

In the case of James, he isn’t claiming we have the ability to work out our own salvation but is instead distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate faith. Both are in a sense “faith,” but “perfected” faith goes beyond easy social media labels such as “#lovetrumpshate” and “#sharingiscaring” – instead, it extends into a way of life. Works without faith are empty.

James teaches that authentic faith is demonstrated by our actions, not that our actions win our salvation. Abraham’s righteous deeds (James 2:21-22) earned him nothing. However, his obedience to God proved his faith was genuine, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Right faith leads to right actions

Right faith leads to right actions. Paul contends that without trusting in God, Abraham could never have offered his son on the altar. He uses Abraham’s story to show that people are justified on the basis of real faith rather than their own efforts; James shows that Abraham’s faith was proven to be real because it worked itself out in his actions. Two halves of the same whole.

We each occasionally finds ourselves at the bottom of a soul-pit. All too often, we fall there through our own actions and decisions. Failed marriages, addictions, abusive relationships, depression, anger we can never seem to let go of, hatred of another because of their skin color or language or yes, even their definitions of love.

While it’s true that we can stop doing what dropped us into this pit or that well, an unrepentant heart relying on its own efforts is simply blind to the next hole into which it stumbles.

Without God’s extended hand to lift us from these self-made pits of the soul, we inevitably fall back into them, never truly escaping. Salvation doesn’t come from temporary acts of kindness trying to soothe our guilty consciences or show our Goliath-sized compassion, but by turning over our lives to a God willing to accept repentance, trusting in His will.

Bruce Wayne’s man-made ropes could never set him free. Nor can ours. Only faith – the right kind of faith – opens the narrow door to God’s forgiveness and our ultimate freedom.

What rope are you clinging to?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Living to Die

“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.” – Revelation 3:1-2

A year ago today my mother died. Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by the family she loved. Tears were shed, hands were held, prayers were shared. After fighting an extremely rare and debilitating disease, mom slipped away in the early hours of the morning on September 10, 2016.

To be clear, her doctor had not originally declared she was terminal. At the time, the prognosis seemed to suggest potential recovery. But the physician eventually saw the signs.

Mom was diagnosed with anca vasculitis at age 75, a rare, vicious, relentless disease. She died five months before her 80th birthday.

The origins of my mother’s illness were years in the making, buried in her body, slowly working their way into her immune system until they appeared as irreversible symptoms.  By the time she was diagnosed, there was not much anyone could do … she had been slowly dying for years and no one knew.

Something feels missing

Credit: Credo Magazine

Many churches today suffer from a similar malaise – literally dying slow, gradual deaths.

In some cases, like my mother neither they nor their congregations seem to realize how sick they are. All appears well on the surface – plenty of bright shining faces in the pews, a vibrant children’s ministry, bouncy sermons from popular preachers with catchy series names. Yet deep beneath the surface something just feels … missing, hollow.

In all too many other churches, the diagnosis is plain but not acted on in meaningful ways. Membership has been declining for years, former longtime members have moved to newer, fresher churches, the average age of the members is closer to retirement than from having that first child.

For these churches, “change” is not in their vocabulary as they continue serving the call God placed on the hearts of their predecessors 20, 30, 50 or more years before. “This is who we are,” they say, comfortable in discernment they feel is exceedingly true.

Why does this happen? Why do some churches march solemnly down the road to extinction? Why aren’t they bold in the face of a changing world?

“I’ll take the first option…”

The challenges facing today’s church leadership teams are more complex than any time in modern history. While I volunteer as a worship leader at my church, I’m not on staff nor have I ever been.  My career experience is in the secular world, but I’ve used that background to observe a number of churches over the years and spoken at length with their leaders either privately or at leadership forums. Here are a few thoughts on why churches fail to turn from the pathway leading to shutting their doors.

Leadership doesn’t recognize the problem

Recent statistics indicate church membership across the U.S. has dropped 15% over the last 10 years, with nearly 85% of U.S. churches either declining or have plateaued. In my own denomination alone, total membership is down nearly 20% in five years. Some individual churches have experienced declines in attendance by over 80%. 

Do churches actually impact their communities?

I would be curious where the gospel witness is for these churches within their communities when nearly half of people asked say today’s church has no positive impact. How many new believers do they bring to Christ (other than child baptisms)? How are they actually impacting the lives of the unchurched or reaching the six in ten young people walking away from the church altogether?

To some of these churches, there is no problem, just a resigned recognition that things aren’t like they used to be. Others have faced the changing tastes of their congregations by watering down their teachings, making themselves less offensive. But always keeping the offering coffers filled.

Paul, in writing to the Galatians, warned against such attitudes of denial when he said “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).

Leadership admits there’s a problem, but it’s not their fault

These folks blame the community. People should be walking through the door, but they’re simply not. The culture is changing, and they shouldn’t have to adjust to the new ethnic make-up of their cities. “We’ll just shepherd our current members,” they say. Or, it’s the fault of the previous four pastors who just never quite fit in.

“Really, you can’t blame us. We’ve always done church this way!”

Facing our problems is crucial if we hope to overcome them. When David was called by God to confront Goliath he didn’t blame Saul’s army. Instead, scripture tells us Then it happened when the Philistine rose and came and drew near to meet David, that David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:48).

Only when we’re willing to grapple with our challenges can we hope to stem the hemorrhaging of congregants.

Searching for “Superman” pastors

They prayerfully offer that if the Search Committee will just find that perfect Senior Pastor, everything will turn around. After all, the Superman Pastor works for us, right? He (or she) will make it happen. Yet for one reason or another, pastor after pastor leaves after a 2-3 year stint. Rinse and repeat, nothing changes. 

“Here I am to save the day…”

This approach to church leadership directly contradicts scripture, in that it denies the role each of us plays in a healthy church. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs And He gave some as apostles, and some as  prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

We all play a role in a living church

We are meant to unify as co-leaders in our churches, not place the burden on a single figure. Why? To go make and disciples of the world (Matthew 28:19).

Why can’t we just go back?

“Remember when Pastor Steve was here? Things were perfect then.” It’s a common refrain. Turn the clock back 10 years, or maybe 20. That’s when the church felt alive. Can’t we just go back to doing church like we did then?

This attitude reminds me of the exacting discipleship Jesus demanded – not looking back, not reminiscing, not thinking of the past. When asked by a would-be follower if he could go back and bury his dead father Jesus replied: Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).

Churches like this are everywhere, and growing in number. Too often congregations turn inward when faced with change, fearful of what that change might bring. Culture responds. Is your church among them?

Sadly, too many churches are dying – some slowly, others more rapidly. While God can intervene when a faithful congregation cries out, the church must turn its face to Him, walking away from prior preferences, desires, and even treasured traditions. In other words, repent (or “turn away”). As Peter is quoted in Acts 8:22-23 Therefore repent … and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

Churches cannot program, cajole, or buy their way back to life. As humans, neither can we. Instead, we must face our challenges head on, adapting when we can, accepting God’s direction when we can’t.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Comfortable Church, Comfortable Christians

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

I recently reconnected with a high school friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. He missed our last two reunions but we’re connected on social media and after reading several of my recent posts on Miafede he reached out for an opinion, one I candidly felt a bit unqualified to answer. Still, he asked so I wasn’t shy in responding.

My friend and his wife were struggling to find a church where they could both “fit in” and feel “comfortable.” He mentioned how “boring and stodgy” some churches were, or how “loud and edgy” others seemed. They tried the Unitarian route but that felt a bit too “new age.” He also shared how his wife had grown increasingly sensitive to the questions of politically correct tolerance and how “uncomfortable” she was in any church she felt was too judgmental.

A few months ago, they visited another church on the recommendation of a friend. It was perfect! Great music, beautiful campus setting, a super cool, not-quite-sure-how-old-he-is Senior Pastor who wore hip v-neck t-shirts, had a great haircut, and shied away from any touchy subjects like same-sex marriage, abortion and deep scriptural introspection.

“Who, me? Naw, this is just my normal hairdo…”

Instead, this Senior Pastor masterfully interwove the Bible, the Quran, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism (don’t you love how the Zoroasters combine cosmogonic dualism and eschatological monotheism like the metaphysical bosses they are?), this-ism and that-ism (quoting the inimitable John Lennon) to create a beautiful tapestry of feel-good theology where every sermon somehow led to the inevitable conclusion that our old-fashioned Biblical notions of God are just too small and limited. And above it all, this church was just so … comfortable. My friend gave me his new church’s website and was curious what I thought.

Scripture doesn’t teach a comfortable Gospel

Honestly, I was surprised. I’d seen many comments from this Senior Pastor in recent months, outspoken and provocative opinions on what “real” Christians should be in this inclusive, post-modern age. His theology, while novel, was hardly scriptural. It felt like more of a “build my audience” social media strategy. But that’s just the industry I’m in coming out.

Repentance? What’s that? Change our behavior? Why would God want us to change? Narrow gates? Don’t you know all roads lead to Heaven? Treating others as we want to be treated? Yesterday’s news. Isn’t love for each other just as they are the only thing that matters? After all, enlightened 21st Century spiritual beings have rid themselves of judgmental attitudes and treat others as they want to be treated, not as we wanted to be treated. Apparently, this last bit is a real thing known as the Platinum Rule (click the link and look it up).

Comfortable church. I somehow missed that phrase the last time I searched scripture. But then, my Bibles – I have several – aren’t redacted with all conceivably-offensive passages removed or softened.

So yummy!

A growing trend in recent years has been for churches to design “worship experiences” and “conversations” to attract “Christians” and “Seekers” who reject traditional Christianity yet profess their spirituality. And yes, I overused air quotes for a reason. An increasing number of self-labeled post-modern Christians want a comfortable church, conforming to their personal beliefs about life. Just not the church Jesus built on the rock of Peter’s faith (Matthew 16:17-18).

Religious comfort for many is often about social classification – wealth, education, race, politics, gender, social justice, and race. We prefer to worship with people who look like us, share our views, demonstrate our values. We want to be comfortable in our moments of worship. Is this what Scripture actually teaches us?

True Believers surrender their slavery to the world 

Let’s start with Jesus’ own words: If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate … even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” (Luke 14:26-27, 33)

Ouch. If I’m playing word association, those aren’t my first thoughts when someone says “Christian comfort.” Many contemporary preachers teach “peace and prosperity” theology or “revisionist” understandings of the Bible. “God is Love,” they exhort us, He doesn’t want His followers to suffer or be uncomfortable. God loves us just the way we are. One popular self-described “20-year ministry veteran” blogger went so far as to publish an article entitled 10 Things This Christian Doesn’t Believe About the Bible. Basically, the writer could simply have left out the first two and the seventh words in that title.

When tempted by Satan’s promise of a comfortable life, Jesus responded with: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4). Predicting his role as God in the flesh he proclaimed that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). When asked about the path to the Kingdom he replied Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able(Luke 13:24).

Jesus promised many things, but a “comfortable faith” wasn’t on the list. The Gospel Jesus preached and lived was anything but comfortable. Even with the adulating crowds of his first two years and the thunderous reception he received entering Jerusalem during his final week, Jesus’ ministry was under constant attack and ridicule by the authorities and doubters. Ultimately, his reward wasn’t a mega seaside villa in Caesarea. He didn’t graduate from the synagogue to a lucrative career headlining 1st Century Talmudic  conferences delivering lofty how-to lectures on living your best life now.

Rather, Jesus’ ministry taught the sober, uncomfortable truth that God’s way is different from ours. To follow Jesus likely meant persecution (John 15:20) and hatred from the world (John 15:18-19). There would be no inviting homes and get-away vacations (Matthew 8:18-22). Life would be buffeted by trial and storms (Luke 8:22-25). Ultimately, following Jesus might end in betrayal and death (Mark 13:12-13), just as Jesus’ own earthly life ended.

True followers of Christ don’t focus on comfortable sermons and vague spirituality. They don’t throw out inconvenient scriptural truth. They don’t shop for pastors or preachers who “tickle their ears, hoarding “teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3). True Believers surrender their slavery to the world and are simply in the world.

A True Church doesn’t conform to comfort or personal desires. It doesn’t sample and poll to determine the next sermon series. A True Church teaches that we have been “crucified with Christ” and no longer live our lives but experience Christ who lives within us as we “live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). A True Church is made up of people living by the teachings of the Word, not by repackaged, watered-down socially-acceptable facsimiles.

“Seriously, can’t I just hear some great music and a rockin’ sermon?” (Photo courtesy Daily Mail)

Pastor John MacArthur puts it this way: “Only if the church hides its message and ceases to be what God designed can it make an unbeliever comfortable.”

I told my friend I was happy he and his wife had found a church. I also cautioned him to heed what the Bible actually says. To study and read for himself. To write down what he hears in a sermon and test it against scripture. Not simply trust the words of a well-spoken Senior Pastor promising an interpretive Gospel that doesn’t exist.

There is a True Church here on earth. That Church has one role: to call Believers and prepare them for eternal life. The True Church is doing God’s genuine work, inviting His chosen to repentance and the Kingdom. With or without the skinny jeans, fitted v-neck T’s, revised theology for a modern ear, or pithy blogs.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Where is God?

We went through fire and through water, yet You brought us out into a place of abundance.”- Psalm 66:12

The videos, livestreams, social media posts, and photos pouring out of Texas and specifically Houston in the wake of unprecedented modern-day flooding from Hurricane Harvey continues evoking sorrow, compassion, sacrifice, and introspection. Many find it difficult to imagine the impact of 9 trillion tons of water falling on a relatively small area of geography in a short period of time, and the havoc it wrecks on the lives of those in its path.

Rescue boats fill a flooded street at flood victims are evacuated as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Disasters like Harvey create crises. And they also create questions. “How could this have happened?” “Why didn’t people evacuate?” “Why weren’t we better prepared?” These and hundreds of additional questions will be asked in the coming months as politics and emotion creep into secular government oversight. The usual dance will play out, blame will be assessed, and Caesar’s due will be rendered.

A more interesting question from many is “How could a loving God allow this to happen? How should we respond as Christians?” 

How Should Christians Respond?

Scripture often provides us comfort in times of crisis. One excerpt I’ve returned to during moments of uncertainty is Psalm 66. Written as a song of praise, this Psalm illustrates the man’s dependence on the omnipotence and omniscience of God during trouble times. Throughout Psalm 66, the psalmist offers counsel on how those who “fear God” should respond to crises.

Reflecting on the aftermath of Harvey, here are a few thoughts on how a specific passage from scripture can guide our response as Believers.

First – Acknowledge God’s Sovereignty: “Come and see the works of God” (Psalm 66:5)

Disasters, like unexpected illnesses, the loss of a child, or tragic accidents, naturally raise questions about the nature of God. Recall the experience of Job, tested for months on end by God. He was tempted to question yet never surrendered his belief in God’s sovereign power.

Gerard Seghers: The Patient Job (1650)

Sadly, many of us face disaster with a skeptic’s response, ignoring the greater Truth that God, in Job’s words, “destroys both the guiltless and the wicked” (Job 9:22).  For instance, atheists assume life is random and meaningless, nothing more than selfish genes multiplying and reproducing. Natural disasters are, well, just nature. Sad but meaningless.

The philosopher might argue God cannot be all good and all powerful.  He would deny that God “does not turn away our prayers” (Psalm 66:20) and is not susceptible to the temptations of evil (James 1:13).

Not all grief is a consequence of sin

Modern legalists, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day would say all human misery is a consequence of our sin. While moral failures can and often do lead to suffering, not all grief is a consequence of sin. Natural disasters can strike the just and the unjust alike, mush as Jesus said God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:45).

Liberalists provide answers falling into a handful of flawed categories. Some blame God, assigning evil intent to God. Others, like Christian Scientists, claim the physical world is merely an illusion and argue God is not at work at all in the world. Still others, like Open Theists, belittle God’s power and omniscience by claiming He could never envision a future and so cannot know the effects of natural disasters.  This belief is directly contradicted by Paul in Ephesians 1:3-4 where he tells us Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who … chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.

On the other hand, Christians trust God’s infinite the wisdom and sovereignty without assigning Him blame. “I cried out to Him with my mouth” the psalmist writes in Psalm 66:17.

During times of tragedy or natural disaster, Believers must access God’s very throne for guidance: “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

The writer of Psalm 66 cried to God, his words a plea of urgent desperation. Faithfully, God listened: But certainly God has heard; He has given heed to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19).

Who should we pray for?

Who should we pray for? Social media popularizes generic slogans such as “Pray for (fill in the blank).” Believers are called to pray more deeply and specifically. Pray for those personally suffering, who have lost lives or livelihoods. Pray for those fearful they have nowhere to turn. Pray for those questioning why God would let this happen. Pray for those risking their own lives to save the imperiled. Pray for those who give of their time and resources to help. 

Second – Trust God: “Who keeps us in life” – Psalm 66:9

Crisis tempts us to doubt. Believers find faith in God’s guiding hand even in the midst of trials. Consider what scripture tells us: “Every good thing is from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17). God’s hand doesn’t waver.

God also comforts us through our disbelief. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me” Jesus tells us in John 14:1. Our faith allows us to survive the trials of uncertainty, even in times of uncertainty.

And God’s love never leaves us, as Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

Asking “why God?” in times of tragedy leads us down a path of endless questioning. God sometimes intervenes in natural disasters, and sometimes He doesn’t. Some are healed while others are not. This one is spared while that one is not. We don’t know God’s ways, as He tells us through the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). 

Ultimately, God’s sovereignty does not mean causality. While God certainly can choose to cause an earthquake or send a flood to accomplish His greater purpose, it is folly to assume God is the “architect” of tragic or evil actions. He rules over all things to conformity them to His will. As Paul writes: God causes all things to work together for good … to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Simply put, our best and most faithful response to hurricanes, disasters, or tragedies is to lift our prayers in trust of God’s wisdom even as we lift our hands to love and help each other.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Fantasies of Obedience

 “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”- Romans 1:22

Take 10 seconds and answer this question: what was your most lasting fantasy from childhood – the one you held onto longest (perhaps secretly still do) or the one that most vividly sparked your imagination?

True confession – here’s mine for the first time anywhere: when I was twelve I fantasized about joining the Jackson 5 as their bass player and 6th vocalist. The year was 1970, and the J5 had just released “I’ll Be there” in August. By September, I knew my life plan – I’d somehow be discovered by Berry Gordy and whisked away to the magical land of afros and bellbottoms.

Looking back, there were so many things wrong with this fantasy I don’t know when to start! To begin with, the only song I could play on bass at that time was a bad version of In a Gadda da Vida, but that’s another story.

We all have fantasies, things we wistfully cling to. As we grow up, most of us put away our fantasies (or so we tell ourselves), replacing them with grown-up concerns of daily life: landing that “real” job, getting married, picking up a mortgage, having a kid or two … you know – the whole “responsibility” thing.

Faith is no longer something we live, but rather something we squeeze in on Sunday mornings

For many of us, letting go of childhood fantasies gradually transitions into also replacing other so-called “fantasies” in our lives. We give up believing in Santa and Easter Bunny, and soon enough lose the belief in a sovereign God who guides our lives. We lose our fear of monsters in the closet only to find we no longer fear an Enemy looking to deceive us from a path to righteous living. Faith is no longer something we live, but rather something we squeeze in on Sunday mornings between pancakes and football (or Saturday nights for the sleep-in crowd).

And sometimes we not only give up fantasies, we replace them with new, “improved,” more comfortable and convenient fantasies: “someone else will provide for my needs;” “I’m not to blame for my own poor life choices;” “I’m the maker of my own salvation;” and one of my favorites – “I’ll be fine if I just play by Man’s rules.”

I call this last one a “Fantasy of Obedience” and it finds its roots at the very beginning of Man’s history … the Garden. Not satisfied with the perfect order created by God, Man listened to the whispers of the Enemy, believing obedience to his own flawed human will was superior to obeying God’s perfect design.

Comfortable theology is designed to obey our desires

How often do we fall victim to this?  “I don’t want to offend anyone so I’ll just agree,” one person says. “Well, the experts say the writers of the Bible didn’t know today’s science so …” says another. “Everyone says society has evolved and the Bible needs to catch up,” still others argue. And “I don’t need fairy tales to live a good life,” say those who reject the Word altogether.

Go ahead … take a bite!

Convenient and comfortable theology designed to obey our desires – theology eerily reminiscent of Paul’s warning in 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.”

Paul was not the only voice cautioning against Man’s obedience to Man. Peter wrote in his 2nd Epistle: “There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who brought them.”  John wrote in his first letter: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Jeremiah warned that false teachers filled their followers with false hopes, leading them “into futility.”  Ezekiel proclaimed in his prophesy that God’s hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.”

And Jesus himself warned his followers of the same in Matthew 24 when he taught about false teachers during the last days: For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”

Sound familiar? Visit the Religion section of any bookstore and you’ll find book after book from “Christian” authors justifying any and every interpretation of desire-based belief.

Humans are hard-wired to obey … and rebel

Humans are hard-wired to obey … and rebel. We obey when it’s comfortable or convenient and rebel when it’s not. The Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus in this very question as reported in Mark 12: Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”  Jesus, avoiding the trap replies: “’Whose likeness and inscription is this’ And they said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were amazed at Him”.

Joachim Wtewael – The Tribute Money (1616)

We increasingly seem to render our obedience to man-made rules but fail to render our obedience to God. Man’s rules, filtered through polls and focus groups and public opinion and social media, are designed to manage our obedience rather than guide our righteousness – just enough to keep us paying our taxes and enabling those in power to maintain their positions, but not enough to offend our personal desires.

We render to Man’s rules because “out there” in the world we desire an earthly reward – the best looking, the most gifted athletes, the richest business icons, the most talented performers … if we just obey the rules society sets up we can become one of these privileged few. The world becomes our prize.

Ultimately these are little more than misguided fantasies. We gain adulation through obeying the world but lose something immeasurably more valuable – our souls.  We become like those described by Paul in  Romans 1, our hearts darkened, exchanging truths for lies, obedient to our own desires and “Professing to be wise, (becoming) fools.”

My childhood fantasies of singing “ABC” with the Jackson 5 may have been amusing. Our fantasies of defying Righteous Truth are, in the end, sadly ruinous.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Bandwagons, Idols, and Charlottesville

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man .” (Romans 1:21-23).

During the mid-1800’s, circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum (yes, that P.T. Barnum) attracted the public to his legendary circuses with elaborate parades through town, complete with riotous noise and garish “bandwagons.” The showmanship worked, attracted countless thousands to pony up $0.50 or $1.00 in exchange for huge spectacles of tigers, elephants, horses, and trapeze artists.

“Jump on board! The band’s great!!”

Never ones to miss a sure thing, late 19th century politicians picked up on this way to attract crowds and began using bandwagons during their campaigns. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt created the modern usage of “jumping on the bandwagon” in a letter from 1899 where he wrote: “When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”

Not much has changed.

Idols and bandwagons distract us from what matters

Yet, bandwagons are not recent inventions. They’ve been around as long as man has drawn breath and we know them by another name: idols. Simply put, idols (like bandwagons) are devices used by others to focus our attention away from what should matter, and onto what they want us believe.

God knew exactly why idols were to be avoided. After bringing Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, He realized mankind’s flawed nature and our tendency to believe in our own infinitely limited ability at self-salvation.

Hear God’s own words on this subject: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

Left to their own inclinations, a fallen people would soon forget it was God and not Man who overcame Pharaoh’s enslavement and instead build inert and powerless monuments into which their focus and worship were channeled. And one man’s idol would likely become another man’s heresy. Eventually, dissension would lead to chaos and violence as the people fought over which idol was more powerful, forgetting God altogether.

One man’s idol is another man’s heresy

Does this have the ring of familiarity? When the recent events in Charlottesville unfolded live in real time, my very first thought was of the Second Commandment. My next thought was of its embodiment in Jesus’ words from Matthew 22: “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.”

Without devolving into yet one more blogpost about who was right or wrong, and fully acknowledging the insidious behavior and words of those who would uphold so-called White Supremacy, I believe the tragedy that marked Charlottesville was both avoidable and predictable.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” 1634

Here, in summary, is what happened: On August 12, extreme white supremacist groups of the political Right flocked to Charlottesville for the fourth time in as many months, protesting the decision to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from one of the city’s parks. This time their protest attracted a counter-protest group including members of Antifa, an equally extreme faction of the political Left. The ensuing clash resulting in injury and death, and has virtually paralyzed a nation in debate and 24 hours news coverage.

Those are the essential facts. But what can we say about what was really the underlying truth of Charlottesville? Simply put, the clash of idols. Those on one side put their faith and trust in symbols and flags and monuments (idols), inflaming those on the other side who saw these idols as representing evil, racism and hatred.

The only power idols have is what we give them

I will leave to others the debate over which of these perspectives was and is more incendiary. For me, as a believing Christian seeking guidance in the Word, I can say this: I place no status or emotional investment in symbols or idols of any kind. As a citizen of the United States, I honor our flag, but if forced to choose I would proclaim the Word. Symbols are meaningless unless we imbue them with power. Both the defenders of the statue in Charlottesville and those supporting its removal suffer from the same lie: that these idols have any power whatsoever. The only power they have is what we give them.

The greater tragedies of Charlottesville, Berkley, Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas, Paris, Nice, Boston, Barcelona, Berlin … is that the world has descended into an endless battle over idols.

  • “My (little) god is bigger than your (little) god.”
  • “My prophet is more powerful than your prophet.”
  • “My wealth makes me more righteous than your poverty.”
  • “My skin color makes me more entitled than your skin color.”
  • “My tolerance makes me more noble than you.”
  • “My flag is more important than your flag.”

These and 10,000 other idols consume our attention daily. As evangelist D.L. Moody declared, “You don’t have to go (far)to find false gods.  Whatever you love more than God is your idol.” These substitutes become modern-day bandwagons we jump on for a sense of belonging and meaning. They distract us from focusing on God’s charge: to love Him with every fiber of our being and to love each other as we love ourselves.

“Quick, kick it one more time to make sure it’s dead!”

American Pastor A.W. Tozer once wrote: “An idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”  Idolatry begins with an ever-diluted understanding of God.  We devalue His worthiness, ignore His holiness, reject His love, water down His truth, or dismiss or even ridicule His sovereignty (see this clip of Bill Maher in prime form).  We begin erecting idols in our minds and with our hands as our focus drifts from living in God’s Word, placing that focus in other thoughts and things.  Pastor John Piper refers to this as “the first dark exchange” in his commentaries on the first chapter of Romans.

God points us down the right road in times of strife like those we currently face. He speaks through the words of David in Psalm 46: “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

The path to peace lies not in slogans or flags or statues or bumper stickers or hashtags or cable news talking heads or memes. We cannot follow a painted bandwagon to Utopia. When we place our trust in idols we remove our trust in God. And God’s parade is the only parade that matters.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

little faith – Big God

Let’s talk about faith. During my first year of college, I had the unshakeable faith I could daydream through an entire semester of differential equations, do a four-hour cram for the final and still breeze through the course (thinking, of course, that all 18-year old college freshmen with absolutely no interest in math but with great calculus test scores should naturally consider taking differential equations – as an elective). FAITH FAIL. A Summer School course erased both the failing grade and my misplaced faith. And cured me of any long-suppressed fantasies of a career in Quantum Physics.

We all have faith in something: faith that when we turn a light switch on in a darkened room we can see (assuming we’ve paid the light bill); faith that when we’re running late for that important meeting, our car will start; faith that politicians we vote for will actually do what they promise (ok – even I laughed out loud at that one).  The point is this – everyone has faith, it’s just a matter of where we place that faith.

Christian faith is no different. And it’s often complicated by its nagging companion: doubt.

Wait – is it even possible for a real Christian to be filled with faith and filled with doubt at the same time? What about that whole “omniscient and omnipotent” thing with God? According to Scripture, absolutely. In fact, it’s the hallmark of faith’s power. Let’s explore this.

Faith is not the absence of fear or anxiousness

First, faith is not the absence of fear or anxiousness. Rather, it’s the certainty that God will deliver on His promises, even, as David writes, we may be walking through “the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Jesus himself knew anxiousness, as evidenced during his final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane with these words: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

We can have faith that God wants us to do something and still be terrified. The courage of true faith isn’t found in not fearing our calling. Rather, it is found in placing our trust in God   and plunging into our calling in spite of our fear.

Faith doesn’t have to be Super Human to be super powerful

“I am in-VINCE-able!”

Second, faith doesn’t need to be Super Human to be powerful. We start with the faith we have: it may be miniscule, even microscopic, but that’s where we start.

Jesus demonstrates this in an encounter from story Mark 9 where a man from a nearby crowd brought his demon-possessed son to his disciples who were unable to heal the boy. The man, in a telling moment of little faith says to Jesus “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

Testing the man, Jesus exclaims, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Notice how Jesus doesn’t say “certain” things or “some” things – he proclaims everything can be achieved through belief.

In a clarifying moment, the father exclaims: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” The spirt is gone and the boy healed. Everything is possible for one who believes.

Jesus’ disciples lacked the belief they could heal the boy, the father doubted Jesus could heal the boy. It was after Jesus encouraged to father to show a little belief, a little faith that the miracle happens.

Even weak faith is enough

How much faith is enough? When is faith too small for God to work in our lives? Scripture offers an answer. In Matthew’s account of this same encounter, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to heal the boy. Jesus’ response gives us an answer as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago: “Because you have so little faith … If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

“Wait … this thing gets HOW big??”

To my skeptic friends – yes, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, using a figure of speech (he’s allowed, and believe it or not first century Judeans actually spoke in colloquialisms just like we do today). And he’s not telling us we need mountain-sized strength to move mustard seeds.

The truth is even the smallest amount of faith reaches God. He asks us to start with the faith we have, trust in His promise, and He will do the rest in accordance with His will. Recall the story of Peter leaping onto the water to meet Jesus in Matthew 14. At first, his faith appears strong enough to have him cross the water to Jesus – until he is confronted by strong winds and in his fear begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand (meeting Peter where he is) and caught him (God doing His part with our limited faith), saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The account in Luke 8:25 puts a finer point to it: “Where is your faith?” (emphasis mine)

Peter’s faith was small, but not so small as to be ignored by God. It wasn’t until he realized he couldn’t cross the water alone – much as the father of the possessed boy realized he couldn’t heal his son alone – that Peter’s faith was placed in God and his miracle delivered.

In the today’s world with seemingly infinite data and information on any subject at our fingertips, it’s hard to place faith in things we can’t touch, or see with our own eyes, or hold in our hands. To be one of those who Jesus referred to in John 20:29 as “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This may be especially true when we pray for something God doesn’t grant. Our faith dwindles, even to the size of a mustard seed.

Yet when we let go of ourselves and take God’s hand we find something amazing: God’s greatest works often happen in our most obedient moments. Our faith by itself has no power at all. Our “words of power” are meaningless. Without complete trust in God, our prayers are merely recitations.

I believed in my own ability to ace a semester of math in four hours – FAIL. The grieving father believed in the ability of physicians and men to heal his son – FAIL. Peter had faith in his own power to step out on the water – FAIL.

God’s formula for faith working in our lives is simple: Pray, Trust, Believe. Even if that faith is small. Even if that faith is weak. Even if that faith is tested by adversity. Faith is the simply empty hand that receives God’s power.

The smallest faith will be answered if we put it in the right place. Where is yours?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Hypocrite!

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:5

Did you ever wear masks as kid? Playing make believe or on Halloween? This may be an alien concept to post-Modern, Uber-hip Homo Contemporaneous humanoids too concerned with the “social message” sent by their children donning masks which may have some hint of misogyny, inadvertent cultural appropriation, veiled gender identification intolerance, embedded racism, or pigmentation privilege. Clearly, their social antennae are more acutely attuned than those of us who simply like a good laugh.

Society seems to place a premium on being socially and politically correct in public

The “enlightened” enjoy a more refined sense of socially acceptable public visage than true matters of the heart. They know what their friends/followers/fans need to make sense of their own personality oddities and cater to those gaps or shortcomings daily.

Society seems to place a premium on being socially and politically correct in public. Say the right things, and the people will approve. Don’t question someone’s private behavior, mind you – what matters is what they say and do in front of an audience or a camera.  The “mask” they wear matters more than the face they bare in private.

Courtesy: Exceptional Sales Performance

I was reminded of this recently when considering Jesus’ final public sermon. Parts of this sermon can be found in Mark and Luke, but to get the full impact we must turn to Matthew 23.

First, a bit of context. The time is Tuesday or Wednesday during the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. A couple of days earlier, Jesus entered Jerusalem hailed as the prophesied Jewish Messiah by thousands who had made their way to the city for Passover.

Map courtesy CL Francisco

For three years Jesus had taken his message across the Judean landscape, tirelessly healing and teaching and preaching in synagogues from Bethsaida, Banias and Caesaria Philippi, to Bethany, Jericho and Jerusalem.  By day he taught and at night would find rest with friends and acquaintances. (As a side note, I found one interesting commentary that during his ministry alone Jesus walked over 4,000 miles.)

So now Jesus is in Jerusalem for his last fateful visit. As a prelude to his final public message his first act was to enter the Temple courts where he would teach and share the next three days. He immediately noticed several things: the money changers who converted non-Jewish coins into temple-acceptable tribute-paying shekels (and always at a premium to turn a profit); the dove and pigeon sellers who sold “acceptable sacrifices” at exorbitant prices; the sellers of cattle and sheep who offered these animals as Temple sacrifices, again at crushingly inflated rates.

Infuriated, Jesus overturns the merchants’ tables, temporarily interrupting the revenue flow of the Temple priesthood. Most scholars believe this was the final straw that set the Jewish authorities on a course to organize his arrest. Follow the money. An interesting debate has existing since the New Testament accounts first appeared on whether Jesus did this at the end of his ministry (as told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke), at the beginning of his ministry (as told in John), or both at the beginning and end. An well-reasoned explanation can be found here.

Next, Jesus begins addressing the gathering crowds in either the Court of the Gentiles or perhaps more likely the Court of Israel. An astonishing series of lessons follows, beginning with a direct challenge by the Temple rulers to his theological authority and continuing as he tells three parables (the Two Sons, the Tenants, and the Wedding Banquet), refutes Pharisees trying trap him on over a question of Roman Imperial Loyalty vs. Loyalty to God (paying taxes), defeats an attempt by the Sadducees to ensnare his understanding of scripture in a question of marriage after resurrection (of course, the Sadducees didn’t actually believe in the Resurrection), answered the question of which is the greatest commandment and then to the delight of the crowds stunned the Pharisees into embarrassed silence by proclaiming the Messiah was greater than David.

It’s likely these teachings and public rebukes of Jewish authority took place over a couple of days.  Yet while Jesus was probably drained and physically/mentally exhausted at the end of every day, the words, the challenges, the debates, all served to set the stage for what came next.

Jesus dismantles the moral authority of the Jewish order

On that Tuesday or Wednesday before he left the Temple for a final time to return to Bethany to rest and prepare for Thursday’s climatic arrest, Jesus turned his attention away from the Pharisees and focused again on the crowd. Yet his words were aimed like a heat-seeking blistering spear directly at the heart of the malignancy he knew the Priesthood had become.

Jesus’ open comments were devastatingly effective: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Emphasis mine).

*BOOM* In three sentences and 38 words (well, in the English translation at least), Jesus utterly dismantles the entire moral authority of the formal Jewish order declaring the whole priesthood corrupt and false. And he’s just getting started.

“Everything they do is done for people to see,” he says. Does this sound oddly familiar to what we see today in both the Church and secular worlds? “They love the place of honor at the banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.”

Jesus then proclaims seven “woes” on the Pharisees and teachers – accusing them of shutting the doors of the Kingdom against the people, of turning their so-called “saved” into children of Hell, of being blind guides, of tithing from abundance but ignoring the matters of justice and mercy, of caring more for appearances than for substance, of murdering prophets, and finally foretelling with ominous prophetic vision that God Himself had left the Temple would not return to their presence until they accepted Jesus as the anointed Messiah.

“Really, that Jesus was such nice boy…”

So much for Charles Wesley’s “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

The point is this. For three years Jesus preached and taught a message of salvation, a message of redemption through repentance and acceptance of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy.  In encounter after encounter Jesus healed, forgave sins, and invited the lost home to God’s loving Grace. Yet in his final public appearance he laid out the brutal truth that hierarchy inevitably leads to brazen hypocrisy, false teaching and death.

Where do we see this today? The halls of Congress? Media moguls and their sycophant followers? The lofty modern cathedrals of megachurch celebrity pastors with their mansions and private jets and overflowing bank accounts? The holier-than-thou congregationalists demanding their self-assigned pews but never speaking a single word to the homeless and broken?

Brothers and sisters, hypocrisy lies at the very center of societal decay. Jesus saw that in the Temple and in the heart of man. 2,000 years later very little has changed.  To purge sin from our lives we can start with the masks we each wear every day – you and me.

Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself, regardless of who they might be.  Sin no more. Ask for mercy. Simple words of Truth, powerful words of Life.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

And the Verdict Is…

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 

I had a love-hate relationship with forensics in high school and college.  For you CSI fans, the forensics I’m referencing have nothing to do with crime scenes and dead bodies (although my debate partner and I did slay quite a few teams in our day).  Rather, I’m talking about competitive public speaking.  Yes, I was one of those guys – cocky, obnoxious, with opinions on everything. Some people might say not much has changed over the years…

To be sure, I loved spending summers at places like Northwestern University in Chicago or Michigan Seven Week honing my debate skills and preparing thousands of 3×5 cards with perfect snippets of cited quotations proving every conceivable angle of any potential topic.  And writing an original oratory speech that made me seem erudite and worldly was a blast at 16 and 17.

The “hate” part involved that scourge of every competitive public speaker: the judge.  Not to say judges were bad people, mind you.  For the most part, they were pleasant enough folks who volunteered their time to sit through generally self-indulgent puffery from young know-it-alls like me.  The problem was, well, we usually did know more than the judges.  All you had to do was ask us!

“The faster I talk the more convincing I get!”

For 8-10 minutes (depending on the event), we’d pour our hearts out on one topic or another, only to wait for what seemed an eternity in some high school or college hallway for a runner to post our fate, determined by someone we’d usually never met before that round and who often told us nothing constructive in their lofty remarks about “deportment” and “fact checking.”  Sheesh!

The interesting thing about judging another’s performance, technique or even their behavior is that for the most part our judgment is subjective.  We see their actions through our eyes.  Not always, of course.  There are clear winners and losers in track and field where the fastest athlete wins, or in a NASCAR race where the fastest car takes the flag.  But in most human endeavors, judging means rendering an opinion on someone else’s actions.

Which brings us to the topic of this post – Judgment.

Courtesy USAToday

As I write this, the news is filled with stories about the mistrial in the Bill Cosby sexual predator case. A lot has been written on both sides and my purpose here is not to render a personal view on Mr. Cosby or his behavior.  There are plenty of voices doing that.  Rather, let’s consider the implications of judging the actions and motives of others.

The Cosby trial is instructive because so much of the case is hearsay and based on the appearance of actions rather than clear-cut proof. “Consensual” turned out to be a very difficult thing to define and the non-verdict was ultimately reached based on what we (the jurors) believed to be true about Mr. Cosby.  How we (the jurors) judged his actions and the motives they imply.

What if the person “on trial” is your friend and the judge and jury turn out to be you?

A sexual predation trial in a civil setting is one thing.  But what if there’s no civil trial involved?  What if the person “on trial” is your friend, or your neighbor, or an acquaintance?  Or perhaps someone you don’t even really know?  And the judge and jury turn out to be … you?

The passage I opened with is an admonition against self-righteousness.  Political dialogue in recent years provides endless examples of smug opinion-sharing in social media and endless “news” outlets. Everyone has an opinion and if someone disagrees they are (fill in the epithet).

Sadly, we find similar self-righteous attitudes pervasive in our faith today.  When asked their opinion of American Christians many respondents overwhelmingly respond “judgmental.”  Not “caring,” or “empathetic,” or “loving.”

Why are Christians often labeled “judgmental?”  I believe it goes to the very heart of what Jesus taught again and again when confronting hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

First, let’s be clear – Jesus did not consider all judgment wrong.  For example, in verse 6 of the Matthew passage Jesus cautions: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  Here the reader is cautioned to discern where to focus his or her faith in others to protect against what Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:15 as “false prophets.”

Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to “judge correctly” rather than by appearances only (John 7:24), and Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 to hold those of the Faith accountable while not judging those outside the Faith.

Christians veer onto dangerous ground when they judge others without sufficient discernment.  Jesus cautions in Matthew 7:3-5 that we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to clear the speck from another’s.  His point here is that too often we attack someone else for many of the same faults we find in our own hearts.

I have a friend, about my age, with a similar background.  For 28 years he was married to the same woman, raised four children, was a strong leader in the church.  What few people knew was that he and his wife had experienced marital problems for years.  After many attempts to repair the relationship, my friend determined their differences were irreconcilable and filed for divorce.

Those not knowing the facts spent considerable time condemning my friend.  One went so far as to suggest my friend should consider finding another congregation, that his actions were “inappropriate” for his church family.

Courtesy RELEVANT Magazine

Candidly, stories like this churn up the wrath of overturning temple money changer tables in me.  While I hold no ill-will against those judging my friend, their criticism comes from a place of self-righteousness, rather than love.  My friend’s decision was somehow not acceptable to these individuals’ view of what church should be.  Alas, my friend did leave.

I suspect had he been sitting in on the conversation, Jesus would have looked at his accusers and simply said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

Self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy.  Jesus teaches us in Luke 6:36-37 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Later, Jesus’ brother James would write “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” meaning that anyone who judges without mercy will receive the same.

Self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy. 

Many of us struggle with this.  I know I do.  Why do we find it so hard to extend grace and mercy to others?  Two potential and rather obvious reasons come to mind.

First, many of us continually compare – we compare ourselves with others, we compare others against one another.  Differences often make us uneasy and it’s easier to “fit” in with each other, to be the same, share the same views.  With some exceptions, most of us don’t want to stand out.  This is true in Christian circles as well.  We have “acceptable norms,” and those who step outside those norms are looked at with suspicion.

Yet the church was never intended to turn out assembly line, cookie-cutter Christians.  We don’t all have to look alike and sound alike and think alike and act alike.  For example, as parents we naturally compare our children to others, trying to get them to do the same things, often forcing them to be something they were never meant to be.  Unfortunately, in the body of Christ, we do the same thing — trying to get everyone to speak and act the same way, forcing them to be something they were never intended to be.  This tendency to compare and get everyone to fit certain “acceptable norms” hinders the miracle of grace.

The second reason is our tendency to control.  As some of my older friends can attest, I’ve struggled with control issues most of my life.  I don’t like loose ends.

“Control” by itself isn’t necessary a bad thing – controlling a flood after a dam bursts, or controlling one’s spending.  The problem occurs when we browbeat those around us into compliance, to control their actions, to fit our view.  Those we attempt to control either submit and become less than what they are intended to be, or rebel and push us away.  Neither of these is an example of grace and mercy and forgiveness.

What can we do to extend grace and forgiveness to those around us rather than rushing to judgment?  Three ideas come to mind (borrowed from Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans 14).

  • Accept others as they are.  In the context of Romans 14, the issue was the eating of meat.  Paul tells his readers to “accept others,” meaning meat eaters and non-meat eaters should co-exist.  Not too controversial these days, except perhaps with ardent vegans.  Consider other, touchier subjects facing Christians today.  To drink or not drink alcohol, to watch certain types of movies, to get tattoos or not, to allow ordination of men and women who are same-sex oriented.  Each of these and a thousand other issues can divide us.  Paul tells us to allow for these differences with discernment.
  • Not dictating to others allows GOD the freedom to direct their lives. While we’re all family, and I may urge you to be cautious in certain actions in your life, grace means I give you the freedom to choose.  God is fully capable of guiding each of us – some to one lifestyle, others to a different lifestyle.
  • We’re not qualified to judge others. God tells us He alone is qualified to judge; who are we to judge someone else?  We’re notoriously inconsistent.  We can seldom read the motives of others, finding it hard to be totally objective.  How often do we jump to wrong conclusions, make judgmental statements, only to later learn of off base and insensitive we were?

Loving others requires us to allow for freedom of choice without judgment.  We may disagree, we may not choose that path, but our charge as Christians is to love our brothers and sisters in the midst of their own choices and let God take them down the path He will.  Sometimes that path leads to and through hardship.  We must love them regardless.

I encourage you to see where you may be rendering harsh judgment against others.  Look into your own heart.  Ask yourself if you are qualified to sit on that judgment seat.  I suspect you’ll find that your first best role is to simply offer guidance, and accept the outcomes with love, grace, and humility.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Dying for a Lie

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised.” – Romans 1:25

Lying has been much on my mind recently. No, not me lying (I outgrew the novelty a long time ago and besides, it’s so time consuming keeping up – maybe there’s an App for that?).  Rather, lying in general.

Shhh … I know what I’m doing.

Lying can take many forms – from simple, “no one will know’” lies like padding an expense report or shaving six strokes from a golf score, to somewhat more serious lies such as cheating on taxes or one’s spouse (in either case they always eventually find out), to the most popular lies du jour involving political intrigue, to that most pernicious, consuming lie … lying to ourselves about who we really are.

In every case, lies are like cancer cells, colonizing in the hidden crevices of our souls and if unchecked metastasizing into raging, out-of-control black holes eating us alive from the inside, fed only by more lies in a never-ending ravenous cycle.

Lies are seductive, drawing us into worlds we wish could be so we don’t have to face the world that is. And the most insidious lies are self-affirming. We believe something is true, therefore we accept anything we hear or see or even experience supporting that belief.

Of course, social media only feeds this cycle. The disparity between one’s online profile and what actual exists behind that locked front door is often so great even we don’t recognize the person we pretend to be.

Which brings us to this passage in 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Let that sink in – no clever stories (i.e. “lies”) but rather the truth, to which they were direct witnesses. No face-saving or life-saving comments whitewashing the reality of their world. Instead, an unfiltered, unafraid proclamation of what they knew to be real: a man had lived, was arrested and crucified by Judean Prefect Pontius Pilate, had died on a cross, was buried, and then he had risen.

There is no ambiguity or parsing of words here, no focus group testing to spare offending the community. Pure, unvarnished truth. And to a person they did this in direct defiance of the most severe penalty the Roman Empire could impose – death by crucifixion on the charge of sedition.

We live in a society where profession of faith is, by comparison, relatively painless. Certainly there are dangerous places in the world today to be Christian, oppressive regimes smothering the free expression of faith. According to OpenDoorsUSA.org, every day 11 Christians are put to death for their faith, 7 churches are destroyed, and 24 acts of violence are committed against Christian believers. Still, across the vast majority of the planet, humans can and do espouse their belief freely.

Why would they die for a lie?

How much easier might it have been for that handful of followers who witnessed the crucifixion and Resurrection to stay silent when imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, or when arrested and paraded before their Roman overlords? How much less painful would their lives have been had they returned to their boats and nets, their tax collecting, their lives as physicians or wives?

At the center lies an obvious question: if the narrative we know today through the four canonical Gospels had not really happened, if Jesus had not really died, or having died had not appeared to them from the tomb as a Resurrected Savior, what could possibly have motivated them to dedicate and sacrifice the remainder of their own lives in futility? Why would they suffer or die for a lie?

Consider an alternative narrative. A charismatic itinerate rabbi with no recognized pedigree emerges from the backwater villages of Galilee, whips the locals into a frenzy through a combination of clever stories and cheap slight-of-hand trickery, runs afoul of the ruling class in Jerusalem, is arrested and convicted by the Jewish leaders who because they have no sanctioned death penalty make a deal with the local Roman strongman to change their charge of blasphemy into the imperial crime of Sedition and is unceremoniously nailed to a cross where he dies – end of story.

The entombment in a fresh grave site owned by a respected Jewish leader? The mysterious rolling back of the stone and disappearance of the body? The 40 days of appearances to the faithful following the fictitious resurrection, and the eventual ascension? None of these ever happened, fabricated out of whole cloth decades after the last eyewitnesses had themselves been executed or martyred.

This is what many skeptics would have us believe – that the resurrected Jesus story was nothing but a myth, a lie passed from generation to generation, growing with each retelling.

Let’s go back to the question – why would these men and women willingly suffer persecution for a lie? There was no upside for them. No cushy pensions, no villas in Capernaum, no lecture circuit fame with their 1st century equivalents to TED Talks such as “7 Things I Learned Walking on Water.” No, the only outcome for them was rejection, persecution, death.

To be sure there are those who tirelessly argue no basis exists for assuming the Apostles actually were martyred, much less executed for their beliefs as followers of a risen Messiah.  “Mass hysteria,” some argue. “Saving face,” others claim. “Grandstanding!” still another insists. For anyone interested in seeing how far the deniers will go, I recommend a blog called Cross Examined. Fair warning – this blog isn’t forgiving to Followers who believe traditional tenets.

The flaw with these and other arguments is in large part connected to a logical fallacy known as