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.” 

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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 itself. 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 Presentism, where someone introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into past events. The followers of Jesus were first and foremost devout, practicing Jews. They were not counter-culturalists seeking a reformation of Judaism in the same way Martin Luther sparked the Christian Reformation in 1517. These were common men and women, practical and grounded, fearful of God.

The story did not tell itself

Yet following Jesus’ execution these same men and women upended their lives to share the Gospel story, first throughout Judea and Samaria in direct contravention of the Jewish Ruling Class edict “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” then into the immediate Gentile world of Asia, Africa and the wider Middle East where they were often shunned and persecuted, and ultimately into the very heart of the Roman Empire where Peter and Paul would both (by tradition) die.

Deniers miss two key points here. First, the story did not tell itself. The sharing of Jesus’ story did not suddenly appear following the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. but instead was being passed from Believer to Believer within days of the Resurrection. The later written versions sprang directly from the verbal passage.

Second, the very same power structure that executed Jesus was still in place following his purported resurrection. The persecutions of followers began almost immediately and by the reign of Nero as Emperor in AD 54, being a “Christian” was so dangerous one might well end up as lion food in the Coliseum or dipped in candle wax and serve as a true Roman Candle.

While few “sane” people might subject themselves to this in the 21st Century, the followers of Jesus in the immediate years after his death and resurrection were absolutely convinced of a different Truth. They were eyewitnesses to God’s direct intervention in the course of history and as devout men and women of faith could not reject their mission, regardless of the cost.

The simple fact is not a single Follower in the first decades following the crucifixion was ever documented as confessing – freely or by persecution or torture – the Gospel story of the resurrection was a fake, a deliberate lie. And even in those cases where someone broke under torture, recanted their beliefs and converted to other religions, no Christian has been documented as believing the resurrection was a lie.

In his book “Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection” William Lane Craig writes: The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”

The first followers of Jesus did not die for a lie.  Not because their reported persecutions were not real, but because their story was. Rather than escaping pain by telling a known falsehood, they embraced the consequences by sharing the original inconvenient truth to naysayers of the day: He Is Risen!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

 

Tempus Sugit?

Key West: July 4th week, 1990: fireworks over the water, deep sea fishing for Mahi-Mahi (tourist note: it was not an exactly inspired idea to boat out over choppy pre-dawn open ocean the day-after-the-night-before which may have included one or two extra shots of a smooth libation from what was then a relatively new player in the tequila market called Patron Spirits Company), touring through the charms of Hemingway’s adopted home town.

What I remember most about that Summer week (well, apart from spending time with an incredible woman who would become my wife) was … how time sort of stood still. I later learned there was a popular technique in bars and restaurants of Key West during those days to intentionally slow down service, purportedly enhancing the experience of “laid back cool” made famous by another Key West transplant, Jimmy Buffet.

Apparently the notion here was to encourage visitors to throw away their Daytimers (for the nostalgic folks, this was obviously during a day and age before the rise of the ubiquitous mobile device that these days so often substitutes for a social life), pack their watches in a suitcase (again, these were the days of long ago when watches simply told us what time of day and what day of the month we happened to be stumbling through) adopt an island state of mind and r-e-l-a-x. Oh, and whilst relaxing spend a lot of money. Such is the nature of commerce in the Conch Republic.

Witticisms aside, there was something incredibly freeing about the experience. After the first 24 hours of withdrawal it became serene, almost meditative to sit down in a restaurant or bar, wait at least 20 minutes for the server (casually standing in the corner with two other servers, biding their time and letting you settle in), and learn the art of unhurried conversation all over again.

Learn the art of unhurried conversation all over again.

I remembered this recently when considering how busy our lives have become. Calendars, schedules, meetings, “quick” coffees, calls, to-do lists, kids’ activities, date nights with partners or spouses, drinks with friends … so much to do, so little time.

I get it.

My own online calendar looks like a patchwork quilt on any given day. I even know folks who write their time with God in on their agendas: Wake up 5 am, Catch up on News 5:15 am, Workout 5:30 – 6:15 am, Bible Reading and God 6:30 – 6:45 am, Breakfast 6:45 am. Pencil God right in there between Pilates and Scrambled Eggs.

 

Personally, I blame Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens. Who? It turns out in 1657 these two guys argued over which one invented a little device called a balance spring which, when attached to the balance wheel in mechanical timepieces, caused the balance wheel to oscillate with a predictable frequency when the timepiece was running, thus allowing for a consistent “tick” in the spring. Voilà, the accurate pocket watch was born.

From there it’s a straight shot to 21st Century time management gurus who have us managing our days down to the 5 minute increments so popular with über-efficient productivity experts.

What does all of this have to do with God? More than you might imagine. As time awareness became more culturally ingrained, it found its way into organized church service structure and eventually into our time spent with private study of the Word.

We make time for God, but it has to be convenient: for most Protestant denominations, that means just about an hour, usually scheduled between 9:00 am and 11:00 am. Not too long to interfere with Sunday brunch (or, God

Yo, bra – is that song in the Hymnal?

forbid, game time – especially if you’re a Cowboys fan in Texas) but long enough to get in a few favorite hymns, a sermon that doesn’t put us to sleep, and some social time. Or if you’re more concerned with having serious Sunday morning pillow time, there’s always the Saturday evening service, just before heading to dinner. In and out, like the California burger chain.

In some cases, we take things even further to accommodate busy, scheduled, clock-driven lives. Our fellow worshipers in Catholicism have refined service scheduling to a high art. For instance, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of my favorite churches in the country, has (count ‘em) eight services each and every Sunday! Surely busy New Yorkers can squeeze in God time during one for those!

Yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek. But here’s the point. How many times did Jesus advertise his sermon times, making them convenient for the time conscious? I don’t recall seeing anything like this in scripture “This Sunday: The Beatitudes at 9, 11, 1 and a special evening service at 5:30. We’ll have plenty fish and bread, so BYOB.” 

Credit: Radio Free Babylon

Rather, scripture tells us Jesus simply created gatherings with no regard to time: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.” (Matthew 5:1) Or he would spontaneously teach a lifetime’s worth of sermons in a single lesson on prayer: “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” (Luke 11:1) Or, he would simply climb into a boat on the water and begin preaching: “Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables.” (Mark 4:1-2)

God isn’t impressed with our productivity, nor our busy lives.

Jesus didn’t carve out time for God. There was no “sandwiching” in his ministry; God simply was – 24/7/365.

God isn’t impressed with our productivity, nor our busy lives. He doesn’t care how many meetings we cram into a day, how many people pass through our sanctuary doors on any given Sunday, how many books we sell as well-known authors, or how large our bank accounts grow. Instead, His only interest is our willing hearts offered to Him in authentic worship, and to each other in love and friendship. There is nothing more important than this.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church puts it this way: “If you’re too busy for God, you’re too busy … because you’re putting everything else in front of the number one commandment — love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.”

I began this post with a twist on the well-known Latin phrase “Tempus Fugit,” which loosely translated means “time flies.” I chose to rename it “Tempus Sugit,” or “Time Sucks.” Because time, and our preoccupation with it, doesn’t just fly, it can suck the life out of us, and our worship of God. It takes precedence over keeping our eyes on Jesus and instead keeps them on our calendars and to-do lists.

“Penciling God in” when it’s convenient, when our minds wander in His direction, when our calendars are open, when we’re concerned or out of control, when there are no looming deadlines, in those moments when life brings us crashing to our knees or we’ve just we score a huge success – none of these approaches help us cross the gulf to Grace.

I’m certainly not saying we don’t live in a different age that those who first heeded God’s call, nor that organizing our lives to ensure we attend church or spend time in the Word.  But no amount of scheduling or calendar management or momentary life intercession can ever truly bring us closer to God – in worship or at home. Only a willing heart and a broken watch.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Lost

“If anyone, regardless of reputation or credentials, preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed.” – Galatians 1:9

So, yeah – I’m a “guy” (apologies to the sensitive crowd who might consider that term unseemly in this age of identification correctness).

Let me explain.

  • I love football (the American kind – especially the Dallas Cowboys; don’t hate).
  • I consider well-made (vs. well-done, aka “burnt” in Texas vernacular) burgers a “Capital F” Food Group.

    Downlow Burger from Love & Salt (Los Angeles)
    Photo credit: la.eater.com
  • For me, a meaningful conversation with another “guy” can go like this: “Hey dude – what’s up?” “Not much, bro, you doin’ ok?” “Yeah, man, I’m great – wanna beer?”
  • It’s not a crime to wear the same gym clothes twice (ok, maybe more) without washing them.
  • And I have a genetic predisposition against asking directions.

See, it also turns out I have a love of all things technology. With fingertip access to what was once military-grade GPS systems on that little black appendage semi-permanently attached to the end of my arm, I feel no need to get help from passing pedestrians or especially my ever-faithful-passenger-seat companion (aka my wife) on where I took that last wrong turn. But then, I seem to take wrong turns … a lot. Another story for another post.

It is, however, a great segue to this post. Because it seems to me most of us make wrongs turns … a lot. And this is nowhere truer than in that messy family we call the Church.

It might be easy to support this statement by citing works from writers like Palmer Theological Seminary Professor Ron Sider in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience where he details how evangelical Christians are just sort of like the rest of society: same divorce rate, same indifference to the poor, nearly the same rate of unmarried cohabitation, etc.

If Christians are just as flawed as everyone else, what makes the Church so special?

So if Christians are just as flawed as everyone else, what makes the Church so special? This seems to be a favorite theme these days of en vogue “New Christian” bloggers, pointing to the flawed nature of humanity as Exhibit 1 in their argument that sin is our common bond and thus should be our commonly accepted bondage, freeing us from judgment of any kind.

Yet such easy arguments miss a vastly larger issue: over the last several decades the Church itself has lost its way. Consider what many churches look like today: vast amphitheaters catering to a “here I am, entertain me” mindset craving worship services more akin to rock concerts; in-house coffee shops with central casting baristas complete with just the right combination of tats and piercings; senior pastors delivering sermons tailor made for TED Talk cult status; painless sermons about the great things God has in store for us; empty rhetoric more concerned with talking about change than actually being change.

In many ways, the modern church has fallen victim to “cult-of-movement” worship. Where in the past the Church adapted to a culture and then worked to change it for the better, it seems that today’s church too often adapts to culture in order to be accepted by it as-is. Individualism and consumerism have replaced community and Kingdom. More “me” and less “He.”

Photo credit: theodysseyonline.com

This kind of worship promises fulfillment and purpose found in devout spiritual practice without awkward things like doctrine, teaching, commandments, sacrifice, obedience, or discipline. Jesus is preached more like a hip celeb with 2.2 billion Twitter followers than the Word in the Beginning. Personal relationships are promised with God, comforting and loving, just not sacrificial ones.

Today’s church too often adapts to culture in order to be accepted by it as-is

Credit: Gallup

For many, this type of “worship experience” fulfills their needs. Show up on Sunday (or Saturday night for the contemporary types), get a familiarly caffeinated dose of community, sing a few anthem songs, hear a killer sermon (a poll released by Gallup from April of this year indicated that 75% of worshippers say the sermon is their primary reason for attending church). All done till next week.

Don’t think I’m ridiculing these church-goers – this is where they are and God meets them right there, and their needs. It’s just that elevating the individual experience comes at the expense of God’s desire for real community (Ephesians 4:16). And opens the door for an errant Gospel.

For millions more, these attempts by the church to be more culturally relevant – through activities and missions nearly indistinguishable from secular social activism, to outspoken celebrity pastors taking positions more appropriate in a political campaign rally, to scripture-light series resembling Tony Robbins seminars – ring empty and hollow.

Credit: Business Insider

Which may help explain why less than 36% of the U.S. population now attends church yet when asked nearly 60% claim to be spiritual and to even pray regularly. Something seems missing from much of organized Christianity today for a vast number of believers.

There are, perhaps, a number of reasons for this drifting away from an Acts 2 or Galatians 1 vision of how Church and Community were designed to heed the Gospel. The need for cultural relevance might be a major contributor. As social activists grow louder in their demands for sloganeered “Social Justice,” accepting any and all points of view as equal, the appeal of a church doctrine which appears judgmental gets lost in the noise, relegated to the trash heap of “yesterday’s” religion. “All good paths lead to God and the Church just needs to get over itself,” claim the prophets of New Faith.

And as churches attempt to self-correct, adopting missions and messages deemed more “tolerant” irrespective of true Biblical inspiration, traditional conservative worshipers who feel these churches are straying from the Word may leave in search of something else – or even abandon church altogether; often transforming their faith from a light for the whole world into a lamp hidden under their nightstands (Matthew 5:14-15).

No easy answers exist for those who, to paraphrase Indian philosopher Bara Dada, “like Christ but reject Christians” (as represented by the Church). Perhaps the perceived hypocrisy of some modern Christians is too strong to overcome. Or perhaps folks have simply become inoculated from the real message of the Gospel, as Pastor Doug Ponder recently suggested in this post.

Regardless, if the Church is to emulate Jesus’ example of ministering to the lost, it must first find its way back. That means returning to the real meaning of Salvation, to the Truth that modern cries for Social Justice based on good intentions and actions often ignore the fundamental role of Faith in Christ alone.

Salvation, freely offered, comes at a cost

We can’t simply “feel” our way to God, nor purchase our way into Grace through good deeds or euphemisms. Nor do we earn Salvation by accepting God’s will; rather, we accept Salvation by following the commands and direction given to us by God.

Salvation, freely offered, does come at a cost, requiring that we turn away from actions and behaviors that may seem acceptable to the world but from which God hides face (Isaiah 59:2). This was the heart of Paul’s message to the Galatians in verse 1:10 Am I trying to win the approval of human beings or of God?

Scripture and Biblical instruction are not tired relics from an irrelevant past. They are, as Jesus tells us in John 15, what we must do to receive the gift God offers through the price of the Cross. And when we follow God’s will rather than what the world expects, we may be hated and rejected, criticized and ridiculed and accused, for we offer no safe harbor for sin.

Yes, to some this path seems rigid, even scary. No wonder there’s such temptation to dilute the Gospel message, to soften scripture’s message into one more palatable to modern tastes where no one is told what is right or wrong.

And it’s no mystery churches have lost their way trying to respond. Fortunately there’s a GPS (and even a few Apps) for that. It’s called the Bible. And within its pages are all the directions we will ever need to follow God’s call home.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Beakers and Bibles – God vs. Science

Electric pickles, homemade snow and slime – just the stuff boyhood dreams were made of (at least my boyhood with the chemistry set mom gave me for my 9th birthday). I loved experimentation and discovery, the reduction of things to smaller things, getting to the “heart of heart,” as a one of my junior high science teachers once said.

For our next experiment, let’s create the known universe from these five ingredients!

Eventually (as with all things in my life) this experimentation and discovery journey led me back to God, the original source of all truth. I wish there had been a book like Tina Houser’s “Beakers, Bubbles & the Bible” back then! Nothing like experiments with magnets and paper clips to explain God’s love for us.

Which brings me to a recent post I made reflecting on a few thoughts around Good Friday. As usual, I ran the full social media spectrum spread including FB, Twitter, email, and other sources.

Apparently it got some traction, probably because I mentioned Brussels Sprouts in the title! Someone (not a follower of mine) saw it on Twitter and re-tweeted to their timeline.  At some point, someone else makes a comment (including my Twitter name) ridiculing the post asking “Why the hell is there religious s%$t on my timeline?”  Not to be outdone, someone else replied “They’ll probably follow up with a Bible verse,” followed by a third comment saying “They can’t help themselves, for them it’s faith over facts.”

Faith over facts…. Now, I’d normally ignore silly comments like these but hey, it was Good Friday.  So I messaged all three individuals saying I’d be delighted to discuss facts and faith with them anytime.  As is typical with what social media folk refer to as internet trolls, only one actually got back to me with a tired attempt at a pithy comment about not needing fairy tales but still gave me his email address with a comment something to the effect of “bring it on!”

This was my reply (if this gets a little eye-rollingly dense because I was attempting to speak to a guy professing an understanding of science, feel free to skip to the end):

“You know, @SokhavySheik” (not his real Twitter handle), “I was raised by an ardent atheist father and have had to defend my views on faith since I was in elementary school. I get the whole ‘I’m too smart to believe in mythology’ stuff, I really do. Heck, I did a stint during college in comparative world religions and even went through my staunch Deist phase.  Perhaps you did, too.

There must be an answer…

“So let’s try this a different way, a way which might appeal to your need for facts versus Faith. I have no conflicts in believing the Universe came into existence some time around 13.8 billions years ago (we don’t really know, of course), and at just around the 10−43 seconds  mark (that’s about one quintillionith of a second) into this new Creation quantum mechanics engages, generating dynamic cosmic inflation which in turn creates quark-gluon plasma, eventually (over the next 299 seconds) leading to the supremacy of matter over anti-matter, and then sometime around the first 300 seconds forms helium, lithium, and heavy hydrogen (deuterium and Helium 3) from nascent protons and neutrons by a process called nucleosynthesis.  From there, nature sort of starts the chain reaction of laws balancing laws and matter reacting to matter and *boom* here we are debating the nature of reality (told you I was once a Deist).

“Center ball can do it all …”

“Yet I also have no conflict believing a creative life force (aka “God,” aka “El-Shaddai,” aka “Jehovah,” aka “Yahweh”) purposefully willed all of this into being and has been personally interacting with Creation over those same last 13.8 billion years. To believe that, I ascribe extra-natural causation. To wit: ‘In the beginning …’ and so forth.  This approach doesn’t negate scientific law but rather allows for intent and design. If you’re a billiards guy, think of it as the pool cue striking the cue ball with just the right angle, velocity and trajectory to set the table in motion.

“You, on the other hand, believe in a science maintaining that for eternity there was nothing except, perhaps, an infinite expanse of quarks and leptons swimming in helium-4, helium-3 and deuterium which somehow spontaneously coalesced into what we refer to as this same Big Bang, combusting into everything we know today including that keyboard you spend so much time with.  Your scientific basis for this (if you didn’t already know) is founded mostly on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, an essentially unsolved equation requiring the introduction of quantum potential (a sciency-like term basically saying ‘we don’t know but we think it could be this or that’) and a probabilistic explanation for the nature of reality.  Your equations rely on unquestioning belief in String Theory (by definition unprovable and for which to-date there remain no predictions that can validate its truth) and hypothetical Planck-length particles. See all the conditionals here? Hoo-boy.

“Setting aside little questions like ‘where did the quarks, leptons, helium-4, helium-3, and deuterium come from?’ I’m struggling with your equation that ties it all together. Did your guys ever solve that inch-long ‘Theory of Everything’ equation Einstein couldn’t figure out?

“Better yet, let’s try something a little simpler, something your chemistry-set religion can surely solve.  I believe God is the sole author of all Creation, existing uniquely outside the constraints of our 4-dimensional minds (and I’m including time here just to keep things interesting), yet capable of reaching into Creation at will. You believe in the intention-less superiority of science.

“So here’s my challenge: show me how your science can spontaneously grow a single strand of human hair using only the basic elements of 18 amino acids, lipids, sterols, fatty oils, sphingosine, triglycerides (yeah, that stuff your doctor probably told you was too high), squalene, melanin (you pick from eumelanin or phaeomelanin), some water (I won’t ask you to create Hydrogen or Oxygen – that’ll be a gimme between the two of us) and a few trace mineral elements.  You know, kind of an ‘Iron Chef’ competition for Creation.

Ultimately, science resolves into the same “unknowns” as Faith

“And no, I’m not talking about duplicating Angela Christiano’s 2013 experiment of taking cells from the scalps of prematurely balding men and grafting them on the backs of mice to mimic hair growth. I’m talking the real deal – take some beakers of raw materials, work your sciency magic and grow me a strand of hair.  Then we can talk about faith vs. facts.”

Yes, I know I threw a lot at @SokhavySheik. But as I mentioned, it was Good Friday, so there’s that. And the response to date? Crickets. Because ultimately, science simply resolves into the same “unknowns” as Faith. I just choose to believe there is a benevolent, loving, intentional God at the center of Creation rather than random noble gases and theoretical particles.

Here’s the thing. Believers need never fall into the faulty-logic trap of arguing God over Science. Our God is big enough to provide us brains to hypothesize any Universe we care to imagine. Or, in the words of Baylor University Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and proponent of intelligent design Robert J. Marks: “Saying the Bible is not a book about science is like saying a cookbook is not a book about chemistry.” They’re sort of the same things (at least certain parts, such as the entire first chapter of Genesis). And that God is patient enough to allow our ponderings and debate and arguments and science-ing until we find ourselves intellectually exhausted and right back where this story starts: “In the beginning…”

The events of Good Friday (and of the entire Biblical Story) are about an entirely different metaphysical currency: the currency of Redemption. There is simply no science, no hypothetical phantom bits, no equation, no String Theory, no Quantum Effect, no Multiplex Universe that will ever explain the circumstances and aftermath of Calvary, nor fully describe the simplicity and infinite complexity of John 3:16.

I kept my chemistry set a long time, along with the super cool physician-grade microscope by dad bought me when he still had hopes I’d grow up to be a doctor (sorry, Dad).  I never forgot the lessons of wonder these instruments of man taught me. And the love for accepting the unknown universe around me, allowing room in my tiny brain for the greater recognition that God was, is, and will be all things.

Try sliming that, @SokhavySheik!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Brussels Sprouts, Minding Medicine, and Good Friday: Four Reflections

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” – Matthew 16:21-25

Growing up there were two things I absolutely detested: Brussels Sprouts and a certain type of medicine for a certain type of embarrassing infection for which the treatment was – from my 6-year old perspective – worse than the symptoms! Fortunately, my mother was a saint and taught me to eventually savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine. Gotta love moms.

For some Christians, Good Friday is a bit like that. Or, as another pastor once put it, asking followers to embrace Good Friday is little bit like asking them embrace torture – or nails on a chalkboard!

Truth is, Good Friday is perhaps the most curiously circumspect day in Christendom’s Liturgical Year (fancy term meaning “calendar”). It doesn’t have an entire season of shopping, “bracket” holidays, and mangers with wise men surrounding it like Christmas; it doesn’t have the Joy and Celebration of its big brother Easter just two days later; nor does it have the sacrificial appeal of Lent, where we get to give up something for 40 days (but nothing too hard, of course).

To be sure, nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to build sacraments around the Friday before Easter. Early Christians remembered it as a day of sorrow, penance, and fasting, which is represented in the modern German tradition of Karfreitag (“Sorrowful Friday”). But Jesus never said as he was being led off to trial “Remember this day whenever you gather.”

Still, from my perspective Good Friday is a profound day of revelation, of contemplation, and while dreadful in how it ends, portentous in what it foretells.

This Good Friday, here are four things that come to mind when I reflect on this day and what it represents.

1.  Good Friday is the narrow gateway to Easter Sunday.

For most of us, Good Friday is about the crucifixion of Jesus – pure and simple: black-draped crosses, somber faces of mourning, even Good Friday services with sound effects recreating the hammering of nails into the wrists and feet of Eternal God incarnate.

As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross.

Yet it strikes me that we often focus too much on the end of the scene rather than the backstory, the full narrative.

As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross. Remember, Mary is asked by the messengers at the empty tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

We rush to the tomb, to Easter morning, to the Resurrection without fully embracing that without Good Friday there is no Easter Sunday. The pathway to redemption runs straight through the one-way road of what happens on that fateful Friday.

Consider how much of the story of God and man occurs on that single day. The second-guessing of God’s sovereignty and kingdom plans, the interplay of temptation vs. submission, the secularized mocking of Jesus as the Living Word, the rejection of salvation in favor of personal gain … the list is virtually endless.

Simply put, the entire Biblical story is replayed in the hours before the main event (the Crucifixion), and the most compelling and redeeming aspect of Good Friday is how faithful Jesus stayed to his calling, even in the hours of praying in Gethsemane, even as he was paraded before the Sanhedrin for a sham trial, even as Herod goaded him to provide a single miracle for entertainment value, even as Pilate debated him on the nature of Truth, even as he hung on the Cross.

The story of Easter is the story of perseverance and trust. There can be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday and overcoming the spiritual warfare of that pivotal moment. Without the Cross, and the devotion to walking through the narrow gateway leading there, there is no resurrection. Good Friday is our only path to Easter Sunday.

 2. The Cross is still a problem.

How must Jesus’ arrest and execution have been seen through the eyes of his followers? In less than 12 hours, his entire 42 months of ministry, perhaps even the whole of Messianic prophecy appeared to collapse, to be proven false. Where was the Kingdom? Where was the triumphal Messiah? The power he used to help others completely failed him during these dire hours. He was, it seemed, outwitted, outplayed. How could that happen?

Yet both Jesus’ followers and his accusers completely missed the real message of his life, as Jesus himself told Andrew and Philip in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it produces many.” In deed as well as word, Jesus lived out the very parables he taught.

Even today, some Christians have a problem with the Cross. To have meaning, the Cross must show us miracles and power. It must demonstrate right now the ability of God to take away our pain and suffering. It must reveal wisdom and truth.

Ultimately, God first offers us the Cross through Jesus, the road of surrender, then salvation. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul calls this “the power of and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24). It is the power and wisdom of Jesus in surrendering his will to God that leads him directly to the Cross.

Many Christians today prefer not to think about suffering. In fact, entire ministries are built on the concept of God as a force of comfort, with no sacrifice or suffering required. According to this view, the Cross was not actually necessary, just a prop used to wake up the knuckleheads too dim-witted to see the God in all of us.

The real meaning of the Cross is that our own power or reason or abilities are never enough to earn our way to salvation. Jesus relinquished his will, and so, too, must we.

3. Good Friday is the beginning, not the end.

It’s been said that all change happens in an instant – only our agonizing over the decision takes time. This is no truer than the events taking place on Good Friday and culminating at the Cross.

From the moment of man’s fall in the first garden, our history unfolded as a long, slow, tortuous dialogue with our own consciences, with each other, and with God over how we should respond. We warred, we railed against God’s plea to turn from iniquity, we excused and rationalized our brokenness.

On Good Friday, God stepped into His creation and offered the “instant” change we could not find in ourselves. The Cross is that change. God allows us to put His sovereignty over our lives on trial. He allows us to mock Him. He allows us to beat and debase Him. And yes, He even allows us to hang Him from the Cross of our own imperfections.

Yet, through all of this He remains faithful, inviting us to join Him at the very Cross we created, the very Cross to which He was nailed that we might be free. He compels us to see the broken and bloodied body of His Son. And to see our own broken and bloodied lives hanging with him.

Good Friday is the moment of that change. It is the Beginning of a Redeemed Life. This is the meaning of Jesus’ death, and of the rending of the Temple veil described in Matthew 27:51Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:44. God is no longer separated from Man, the price of our falling away has been paid.

In our rush to celebrate the empty tomb of Easter, we cannot overlook our own complicity in the agony and cost of the Cross. Good Friday is the beginning of the change within each of us. 

4. Faith always prevails, even when we doubt.

Finally, there is a moment – a crucial moment – at the Cross; a moment unlike any other in Scripture. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had been tempted and tested. Obstacles and roadblocks had been thrown in his path. In Gethsemane he asked God if there was another way. Yet through all of that his faith never wavered.

Then came these four words: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” – the one and only time in the New Testament where Jesus does not refer to God as his father. Yes, he was quoting Psalm 22:1, perhaps reminding those gathered at his feet of the foretelling of this very moment. But deeper than that, it was the one moment in his entire earthly existence where he truly become just like us – separated from God, alone in the sea of a sinful world, filled with the desolation of being unconscious of His Father’s presence.

And yet, a few mere breaths and heartbeats later the isolation passes and just as the Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, Jesus utters these words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Even in death, Jesus shows us how faith triumphs. What his disciples failed to grasp time and again about his ultimate destiny, Jesus finally demonstrated – literally – in the flesh. And all through faith.

Jesus knew what lay before him. The comfort of a promised resurrection did not calm the fear of a painful, humiliating death. Yet in his death as in his life, Jesus models for us what faith and trust in God’s plan really means.

On this Good Friday, pause and consider what God is asking you to surrender so that His love might heal you. Perhaps you’ll find your own way to “savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine!”

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Easter Thoughts: They Were No Heroes

“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” – Luke 22:61-62

Note: This post was originally published in 2016.  I’ve condensed it here in honor of Easter week. It may take a strange turn or two, but stay with me.

David Bowie.  Whoa – that’s not a name one normally associates with Easter.  But follow me here and we’ll make the connection.  I grew up loving Bowie’s work – from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars to 1983’s Let’s Dance his music shaped my own formative love of creating and playing music.

Later, I would appreciate how influential Bowie has been on musicians across the spectrum.  Artists as varied as The Killers, Jay Z (that’s right, Mr. Beyoncé),Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta known professionally as Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Lorde, Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, Arctic Monkeys, and countless others attribute much of their direction and style to one phase or another of Bowie’s career. 

(Parenthetical sidenote: for an entertaining read, check out this tongue-in-cheek story from the UK’s Mirror on how Bowie eerily predicted the Rise of Kanye West and the Destruction of the World. But I digress.)

Every year at this time, Christians remember their most sacred and Holy week: an ecstatic, triumphal entrance into Jerusalem laden with prophetic symbolism; the crescendo of confrontations with authorities; the somber and mysterious Thursday night dinner where Passover’s traditional ritual meal was replaced by a New Covenant; the poignant retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane symbolizing a fallen Garden of Eden for a final plea resulting in betrayal, arrest, and further betrayal; a sham middle-of-the-night trial before the self-important Sanhedrin and ending before a pompous Roman magistrate cowered into accommodating the mob; the humiliation of public flogging; a mocking, agonizing procession through the very streets so victoriously entered six days before; nailed and hung from a cross reserved for the most vile of offenders while guards laughed, drank and gambled over the very clothes worn during the ordeal; a final gasp and then … death, burial and sorrow.  Three days later, the impossibility of a promise fulfilled – resurrection and the defeat of death.

This is the story we share each Easter.  Filled with more excitement, intrigue, politics, violence, and redemption than the best Hollywood film.  Our focus is usually the same with each telling – Jesus’ destiny with his accusers and his overcoming their most heinous intentions and conquering sin.

Credit: Masayoshi Sukita

So what, then, is the connection between Bowie and Easter?  This is where we go on a bit of a journey.  In 1977, Bowie released his twelfth studio album, “Heroes.” The album and its title track “Heroes” remain among my favorite pieces by Bowie.  The original version, an up-tempo rocker, became an anthem of sorts, even though the lyrics have always been a bit murky.

In the 2013 feature film Lone Survivor I developed an entirely new appreciation for the song.  The final credits rolled over Peter Gabriel’s updated version and I began considering how the lyrics, with a bit of rewriting, could poignantly describe the experience of the first Apostles during the last hours of Jesus’ life.  And here we begin the connection.

How might that week have looked through the eyes of those closest to Jesus? We certainly get a glimpse in the Gospel stories, yet these retellings are always in the third person.  What must it have felt like to be Judas in the moments after he realizes the great tragedy his betrayal would hold; or Peter in the very moment of his denials; or Mary heading to the tomb Sunday morning not filled with hope but instead openly weeping and mourning?

The Calling of Peter and Andrew – Bernardo Strozzi

These were not extraordinary men and women – a few fishermen, a tax collector, a thief and liar, a Zealot or two with delusions of defeating Rome, a tent maker and Pharisee, a probable prostitute, a possible outcast from an ancient royal bloodline, various tradesmen, hangers-on from the lowest rungs of first century Palestinian life.  Broken sinners all – like each of us.

In the eyes of the Jewish Levitical Priesthood and their Roman overlords, a laughable, motley rabble of would-be revolutionaries; hardly the stuff of regime change.  Pontius Pilate thought Jesus was simply misguided saying “I find no basis for a charge in this man.”  Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler of Galilee and Perea, ridiculed Jesus and draped him in an ornate robe before sending him back to Pilate.

Yet the men and women making up Jesus’ inner circle each shared a common and ultimately unbreakable bond – they followed a leader whose unstoppable presence and force-of-will would topple empires.

During the weeks and months leading up to Jesus’ final week, their enthusiasm and confidence – perhaps even arrogance – emboldened them.  They were in the presence of the Messiah and the overthrow of earthly oppression was surely imminent.  It’s easy to understand how they would be emboldened. Jesus had calmed the storm, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, raised the dead, fed the multitudes, rebuked the hypocrites … why should Jerusalem be any different?

Albert Einstein is credited with many sayings.  Two of my favorites are “Adversity introduces a man to himself” and “The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”

I’m reminded of these in reflecting on the aftermath of the Jesus’ trial and execution.  Those same men and women buoyed with faux confidence saw their true characters revealed, and knew fear and shame and humiliation.  Not the traits of heroes, but more like the actions of frail, flawed, imperfect humans – just like each of us.

Jesus’ followers were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

To believers, the miracle of the Resurrection is manifest and 2,000 years after the event a foregone conclusion.  Of course Jesus triumphed; what other outcome could there have been when the Spirit of God Himself takes on human form? But to the men and women of Jesus’ time, and to Paul, Timothy, Silas, Titus and hundreds and then thousands of disciples who followed them, their strength was anything but inevitable.  They were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Nearly all of the original Apostles and early disciples of Jesus followed him into death or exile.  They did so not with preordained knowledge of Cosmic Supremacy but through that uniquely, divinely-gifted human trait of Faith.  They believed and then were empowered to spread the Kingdom of God. They found the heroes within themselves when faced with the greatest tragedy they could ever have imagined.

If I were to rewrite Bowie’s “Heroes” I wouldn’t change that much.  I might alter
the 3nd verse to reflect Judas or Peter in the Garden.  Or perhaps the 2nd verse to reflect how the Kingship of Jesus redeems the Lost.  And maybe change the line “We could be heroes, just for one day” to read “Now we can be heroes, every day.”

The power of God’s grace can make heroes in faith of us all.  If we simply believe, accept, listen, and act.

One coincidental footnote – Bowie played a cameo role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I doubt he connected the dots…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Men and the Messy Business of Relationship

I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.” – Genesis 28:15

Boys” (*dad-shudder*). As the undeserving father of two beautiful, vibrant daughters I can say with confidence that for fathers the “B” word may well be the second scariest plural noun in the English language. Beginning sometime around the second month of fifth grade and continuing non-stop until an unbearably long, tear-filled walk down an inevitably too-short aisle when “boys” becomes “husband,” we dads struggle continuously with the Barbarians at the Gate we once worked so hard ourselves to be.

Which brings me to what may arguably be the scariest word in the English language for dads everywhere (and men in general). The “R” word – Relationship. Yes, it’s true. Even the strongest men, backyard bruisers who can grill for 20 with perfect temperature control while swilling a cooler full of iced Heineken and reciting every line from Braveheart and Gladiator, even these guys can become wobbly puddles of man-goo at the thought of the R word.

We guys dread R things. Like meeting “the boyfriend” – the one with the bad hair and the entirely too shifty eyes (you’ve met him – you may have been him). We draw blanks when our spouses or partners want to sit down over a glass of wine and have the “R” conversation. And when do guys ever talk about our “relationship” with Bob or Jim or Pete?

“I don’t care if I’m Toby Maguire – no shoulder rubs!”

Most guys simply don’t “do” relationship (the verb, not the noun). We have our poker night buddies, the guys we hang out with during each Season  (Sports, not Fashion or the latest binge-watching series), the dudes we see at the gym, the significant others we tolerate at parties, heck – we’re even on first names with our hairstylists (we used to call them barbers). We “know” guys, we just don’t always have “relationships” with them.

Relationships are messy businesses. They’re hard. Done right, they require advanced socialization skills like listening, considering, actual discourse. They take empathy and understanding. They take, well, they take love. Another word that sends shivers down many of our steely spines. It’s just so much easier to assume than to act.

Relationships don’t “complete” us, they refine us.

Yet relationships are the essence of human interaction. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, relationships don’t “complete” us, they refine us. Relationships allow us safe refuge to cycle out the psychological toxins pumped into our psyches by 21st century living. We get to wrestle with someone else’s view of who we are, try it on for size, checking out the view in a virtual 3-side mirror of love and trust and respect, only to realize the sleeves are too long or too short, or the color just doesn’t suit us, or there aren’t enough pockets. Relationships give us the freedom to grow or not. They can bring us together, or drive us apart.

Turns out God has more than a few things to say on this subject. In fact, one might argue that God is entirely about relationship. Relationship with Him. Relationship with each other. Relationship with our own fractured selves.

The passage from Genesis I opened with was not accidental. From the very beginning of His narrative defining the human experience, God set the tone: “I am with you. I will watch over you wherever you go.” Unqualified. Unbound. Unending.

Imagine for a moment if our relationships with each other were this pure, this transparent. Imagine if we honestly said to one another “I’m right here, right beside you. I’ll be here when you need me.”  Not in some touchy-feely Facebook way, and not just with those closest to us.  But with everyone we meet, every living, breathing soul with whom we share this experience of life.

God is very direct on the subject of relationship. Throughout man’s unfolding story of awareness in God and His plan of Salvation, one theme has reverberated again and again. We are the vessels of grace bestowed by God. It’s our interaction with and relationship to one another that breathes life into the promise of the Kingdom. “The kingdom is among you,” Jesus tells us.

Men – and women – can learn endless lessons from how Jesus demonstrated the art and practice of relationships. We can all follow his example, even those of us who struggle with the enormity and, yes, messiness of the religion that has evolved over the centuries in his name. And it’s really quite simple if we get our heads and self-focus out of the way. Try the following exercise with me sometime in the next week.

1) Think of three people you know, three people you care for, but whom you’ve not connected with in a while. Perhaps they are close friends, perhaps they are people you just met.

2) Write down their names and something meaningful about them. Study that a moment, feel it. Imagine seeing the world from their eyes and from their lives, rather than your perception of it.

3) Reach out. Email, phone, handwritten note, maybe even get in the car and pay a decidedly pre-21st century actual visit. Tell them you were thinking of them. Tell them you care. Invite them into your life.

4) Encourage them to do the same, paying it forward to three of their friends and acquaintances.

God tells us He will always be with us, watching over us wherever we go. He does that for all of us, freely. How much less it is for us to do the same for each other.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #5 BAD THINGS

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12

12:39 AM, July 20, 2012. The first calls come into 911 dispatch in Aurora, Colorado. 90 seconds later, police arrive on the scene at theater 9 at the Century 16 Cinemark multiplex located at 14300 E. Alameda Avenue in the Town Center at Aurora shopping mall. What they find is nothing short of horrific.

Eighty-two casualties were reported on the scene, including twelve fatalities ranging from a 6 year-old girl to a 51 year-old father. Seventy people were hit by bullets while four people had eye damage from tear gas and eight were injured trying to flee the theatre.

“If God really existed, this would never happen.”

The public outcry was immediate and unanimous.  “How could this happen?” some asked. “Why didn’t someone see this coming?” others questioned. And then there was the ever-present chorus from the non-Believer choir: “If God really existed, things like this would never be allowed to happen.”

All of these reactions are normal.  Inoperable disease, mass murder, unwanted divorce after 30 years of marriage, an inexplicable automobile accident in the middle of the night, an airplane crashing into a mountainside during a snowstorm … so many innocent, good people senselessly hurt, lives destroyed.

How could a loving God allow such pain and sorrow to exist? Perhaps there’s no God at all, or maybe stuff just happens, even to Believers. “Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

This is the heart of our fifth and final installment of things we think are in the Bible but really aren’t:

#5 BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

On the surface, it actually makes sense.  “Good” people are tested by God and “bad” things happen to them for lessons to be learned.  There must be a reason.

Addressing this subject, Rick Warren writes: “This ‘why’ question is human nature, and we all ask it. We have this misconception that if we understand the reason behind our pain, then it will make the pain easier.” As rational beings living in the Post-Enlightenment Age, we can explain anything if we just understand it.

Yet, this very same “why” question isn’t new; it goes back millennia.

It was asked by Job and by David in Psalms; Jesus cried it out from the cross; Giovanni Boccaccio wrestled with the question during the Renaissance; and it was especially relevant during the last century, with global conflicts including two World Wars, the massacre of Jews and others at the hands of the Nazi regime, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, seemingly endless famines in Africa, the Khmer Rouge killing fields, the scourge of AIDS, the travesty in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo War.

And this century didn’t start much better. First came 9/11 and now the Syrian slaughters, and on and on. Why do all of these horrific things happen if there’s a loving and powerful God? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The straight answer is this: except in cases of His direct intervention (for instance, the Creation Event, or the Flood Event, or the protection offered to Moses in fleeing Pharaoh, or especially the birth, ministry, execution and resurrection of Christ), God does not directly cause or prevent either the “good” or “bad” things that happen to humans, natural or manmade.  Let’s explore this with three quick observations.

First, God is not the creator of evil and suffering.  While God exists eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit entwined in a perfect relationship of love, humans were created with free will to either experience or reject that love.  Love requires a choice.

We ask: “But doesn’t God know before hand? Can’t He stop it?” The question, while real, misses the larger point: even in situations where we may be the innocent victim of someone else’s madness or a savage disease, the reality of free choice must run its course, otherwise we humans are little more than mindless automatons.

Second, evil and suffering, while tragic,  are used by God for His greater purpose in drawing humans to His presence.  As Paul writes in Romans 8:28“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Notice Paul doesn’t say how God creates good from bad circumstances, or when any of us will personally see how it plays out. Nor does God promise this to everyone. He makes the covenant that our suffering can be turned to good if we commit to following Him.

Finally, we each decide if suffering makes us bitter or strengthens our faith. In times of deep crisis, especially after we’ve prayed as deeply and most convicted as we can, it’s natural to feel disappointment, anger, or even disbelief when those prayers are not answered. The death of a child to  cancer, a heart attack in the middle of the night, a business failure leading to bankruptcy … senseless pain.  Why, God, why?

On May 3, 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner, was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver in Fair Oaks, California. Her mother, Candace Lightner, could understandably have fallen into endless despair and grief, bitter at the world. Instead, she quit her job four days after the accident and founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). She turned tragedy to good by taking action. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

Jesus said in John 16:33“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. But be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

God doesn’t want us to need an explanation; He wants us to need His strength, to need a Savior, to need comfort and support.  He wants us to trust His will completely.  He asks that we surrender everything to Him – even our grief.

Tragedy will strike; suffering will come; we will struggle and wrestle with pain. But if we run into God’s grace, we’ll discover peace in our hearts for today, strength for tomorrow, and the staggering assurance of eternal life.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #4 LOVE

“He answered, 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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Luke 10:27

tried to be a good kid. Like, really hard.  But that never seemed to keep me out of trouble!  Take, for instance, that time in first grade when I dunked Peggy “Perky” Perkins’ french braid pigtails in finger paint.  Or the Summer between fourth and fifth grade when I carved my alter-ego initials into a neighbor’s concrete carport.  Or when I nearly got suspended from high school because it never dawned on me that “Fire Lanes” really were meant for Fire Trucks and not my shiny blue ’74 Audi 100 LS. Coincidentally (as some of my high school pals remember), I ended up parking that car in a deep ditch a few weeks later. I’m not sure my dad ever quite got over that…

C’mon – this baby just screams “park me anywhere!”

Of course, in each case (and so many more it’s rather embarrassing to mention them), I was ultimately confronted by the disappointment and sometimes stern faces of my parents.  Yet as hard as it was at the time, I always knew in my heart they loved me – unconditionally.  Yes, they expected genuine apologies and often required me to make amends, but they were always there to pick me up and dust me off. Good as new.

How often do we imagine God in this way? How often do we feel:

#4 GOD’S LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL

Many folks think God is like this – always there to love us and forgive us no matter what we do.  His love is completely “condition-less,” given freely with no strings.  Yet they base this view on a misunderstanding of the nature of God’s love for us.

Interestingly, the term “unconditional love” appears exactly nowhere in Scripture.  No early church thinker or writer used the term.  In fact no author of Christian works of any kind used “unconditional love” before the 20th century. The term was actually coined by renowned atheist Erich Fromm in 1934.  Post-modern faith celebrities such as Richard Rohr or Wilkie and Noreen Au take this concept further, integrating psychology, new-age spirituality and “science-y” talk to present God’s love as holistic spirituality, costless and without strings.

The popularity of this notion is understandable.  Humans embrace love from a secular, or “human” perspective.  Our love as children of our parents (and our love as parents for our children), our love for spouses or partners, out love for brothers and sisters – all of these examples and others are based on a “no-boundaries” mindset and  stem from a deep need for what psychologists call “unconditionals” – basic human needs essential to a person’s well-being.  We love and accept those closest to us unconditionally, just the way they are.

It’s natural to believe God mirrors this, loving us and accepting us exactly as we are. The problem is we then follow that with the idea that if God loves and accepts people unconditionally, we should also love and accept ourselves unconditionally.  “I’m fine just like I am,” we say, “I don’t need to change anything!”

Of course, humanistic love is unconditional right up until … someone lies, or cheats, or hurts, or betrays so deeply we break off all association, never re-opening our hearts to them.  This is one reason divorce rates in this country remain surprisingly high.  And here lies the key distinction.

Equating humanistic, “unconditional” love and acceptance (until it’s not) with God’’s immeasurable, incomprehensible, and unwarranted love is a fundamental misreading of scripture. Humanistic love is typically responsive – that is, someone loves us, and we love them in return.  On the other hand, God’s love is a love that initiates, a love that always IS.  God’s door is always open, because there’s simply no door.  Yet even as the door is open, God doesn’t drag us through … we have to walk in.

Many point to the Parable of the Prodigal, arguing the father in the story, representing God, unconditionally welcomes his wayward son home. And yes, he does bring out the robes and rings, kills the fatted calf and throws a huge party celebrating his son’s return.  The same son who had essentially said “give me my share now, you’re dead to me, dad.”

But notice what the father didn’t do. He didn’t throw a party for the son in absentia.  He didn’t break out the robes and bling celebrating his son while the kid was still traipsing off in far lands with prostitutes and drunkards. He didn’t celebrate his son being “alive again” until he came home.

We must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.

The difference is that while the father’s door is always open, the celebration only happens when the son returns, not while he’s straying.  If the son never comes home, he remains – in the words of the father – “dead.” He must change to receive the fullness of the father’s love. By extension, we must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.

Pastor Miles McPherson prays with Greg Hendricks

Miles McPherson, former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers turned senior pastor of The Rock Churchputs it this way: “Having God’s unconditional love does not mean you have God’s unconditional acceptance.” God loves us unconditionally, but he will not receive us unconditionally.

Jesus tells us in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This, then is the change we must make.  Accept that Christ is the single path to God. Reject the traps hidden in living “of this world.”  Turn away from the common notion that mankind’s morality has somehow evolved over the last 2,000 years and what mattered then is irrelevant now.

God is ready and willing to welcome us home.  His arms are strong enough to pick us up, dust us off, and drape us with robes of grace.  And just like our parents, He’s there to put us back together when we break and come back home. Good as new.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #3 TRIALS

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” – 2 Corinthians 1:8

An acquaintance of mine is a former Navy Seal – yeah, one of those guys. Actually, my friend (we’ll call him “Keysi” for this post, after the Keysi Fighting Method, made famous by the Chris Nolan “Batman” films) is one of the most unassuming and laid back guys I know. Of course, I’ve also never been the object of his ire so there’s that.

We were talking a while back – Keysi’s reluctant to ever discuss anything related to his active duty experiences but occasionally shares a story or two about his days in training to be a Frogman – and I asked him to tell me what got him through BUD/S  training (short for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL).

“HooYah, HooYah, HooYah, HEY! Today’s gonna be another easy day!”

Given that BUD/S generates an extraordinary 80%+ dropout rate over the six-month program and he survived it, I assumed his response would be something like “mental stamina” or “toughing it out.”

He paused a moment and then said “You know, they tried hard to break us – every minute of every day. Hell Week was one of the most grueling experiences of my life, what with the steel pier, the demo pit, the 24-hour training with no sleep, the log pole runs, the endless insults and harassment from the instructors. Did I think about dropping? Yeah, I did. More than once, although it ain’t really macho for an operator to admit it. In the end, I learned one thing: I could never get through it on my own.  It was just too much. But I had my crew, my class, and my God all on my side.”

I thought about Keysi’s comment when putting this post together, especially the last part, about having God on his side.  That leads me to this installment of things we think we know about the Bible but really don’t:

#3 GOD WON’T GIVE ME MORE THAN I CAN HANDLE

This belief is among the most commonly held misconceptions many have of what Scripture tells about how God works in our lives.  The notion is that God will never place burdens on our shoulders too great for us to endure.  Just “tough it out,” the thought goes.  “God knows how much I can take and won’t give me more than He knows I can handle.”

Actually this belief is almost 180 degrees opposite from what the Bible actually teaches us.  Yet as with most commonly misunderstood notions, it seems to be based in truth, in this case, on a passage from 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says:  “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

For me, the most meaningful part of this is passage is found, as it was with Keysi’s comment, at the end.  The burden or the temptation and our ability to overcome it isn’t really the point.  Rather, it’s the “way of escape” God offers that reveals the awesome power of His grace.

The truth is we’re never promised a life that won’t bury us under its weight.  In fact, life itself can be more than any of us can handle. And the Bible specifically tells us this as Paul writes in the 2 Corinthians passage I quoted at the start of the this post. In this passage Paul confesses to being burdened beyond his strength. To be tested this way is a clear indication that we can experience more suffering than we’re able to handle.

The “way out” Paul mentions in the 1 Corinthians passage is found in the realization that by surrendering to God what is too great for us to bear we give to Him the weight of that burden and allow His strength to hold us up.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul writes of God in 2 Corinthians 12:9.

God sometimes allows us to fall into humanly impossible situations.  Like Keysi’s instructors, He brings us to the end of our own strength so we will trust in His ability to do the impossible.  This is the essence of faith.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28. When our trials are more than we think we can bear, that is exactly when God’s grace is most impactful.

This week, give up something seemingly impossible to God.  You’ll find Him where He’s always been – right by your side. HooYah!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #2 HAPPINESS

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28 

4:47 am. Thursday. San Francisco International Airport. Another early morning start and another first-thing-in-the-morning flight.  Yesterday had been long, and yeah, I was out a little later with a client dinner than I planned. So my 3 hours of sleep had barely put a dent in the desire to simply crawl back into bed for the rest of the morning.

Approaching the security line, I was greeted not by the typically nonchalant security folks who spend their time dutifully confirming the 7-year old (and 15 pounds lighter) picture on your driver’s license is actually you, but rather,  a living, breathing human replica of Tigger.

I’m sure you’ve met them – perhaps you’re one of them! Those infectiously happy and gregarious people who seem to have more enthusiasm than a Green Bay Packers fan on Game Day.  Now in full disclosure, I’m usually one of those folks who answers the checkout clerk’s question at the store on how my day is going with an exuberant “Ter-RIF-ic!” and a smile on my face … but not this morning.

No, this morning I simply wanted to get through security, grab a cup of coffee and get on my plane. And there, standing between me and my morning caffeine fix was Officer Giddily Enthusiastic.

Sometimes our faith can be like this encounter.  A smiling, ever-perky pastor providing uplifting messages of how God is interested first and foremost in our pursuit of personal happiness; that if we only cast off our cares and worries and really understand scripture we’ll surely see how God never wants us to suffer, never wants us endure hardship. Prosperity awaits just around the next corner because …

#2 GOD WANTS ME TO BE HAPPY

“10,000 years in a bottle gives you SUCH a crick in the neck!”

It’s a common belief to some that God is little more than a “personal genie,” that if we just rub Him the right way He won’t merely grant our obligatory three wishes but all of them!  We even convince ourselves clearly sinful actions are ok by saying, “It’s fine – God just wants me to be happy.”

What exactly drives this belief? Why are we convinced God serves at our whim?  Webster’s defines happiness as “a pleasurable or satisfying experience; a state of well-being and contentment.”  Happiness is an emotion of euphoria, a state of mind that can come and go. Today you’re smiling gleefully at the check out counter clerk and the next you’re staring bleary-eyed at an airport security officer.

In this sense, happiness is like a temporarily-quenched thirst – the water always needs to be replenished.  Sadly, we often require even more to quench it the next time. And herein lies the heart of the matter.

Nowhere in the Bible – even with the most liberal and progressive reading – do the words “Blessed are the deliriously happy” appear.  Rather, we find “Blessed are the pure in heart,” (Matthew 5:8), or “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” (Psalm 37:4 – and note, the meaning of this is not that God will give you anything you want, but rather that He will place in your heart the desires He has for you), or “Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty,” (Job 5:17).

The emotion of happiness is almost always based on circumstances, and circumstances constantly change. God never asks us to pursue being “happy,” nor does He promise us happiness. In fact Jesus himself tells us quite specifically: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24).

God’s plan is for us is not to achieve mindless “happiness” in the modern sense of the word. He never assures a blissful, stress-free life in this world filled with comfortable possessions and overflowing abundance regardless of our actions or desires.  Rather, He wants us to realize that none of these brings real happiness, just as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well.

When we attach our happiness to the things of this world we become like the rich young ruler, possessed by our possessions

To be sure, God wants our lives to be filled with hope and joy – this is one of the fundamental messages of the Bible. Jesus himself personified joy and was criticized for it (Luke 7:34). But when we attach our happiness to the things of this world – people, possessions or life circumstances – we become like the rich young ruler, possessed by our possessions.

Scripture tells us the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). We can live into that by cultivating the joy God has planned.

Over the next few days, try mediating on God’s promises to be our protector, our comforter.  Declare them out loud (well, probably best not to try that in an airport security line)! Press pause on chasing a fleeting emotional high and focus instead on the never-changing God of creation. You’ll find a serenity and fulfillment surpassing anything of in this world.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #1 SELF-RELIANCE

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32 

Ever play the telephone game? You know, where a group of people whisper a phrase to the each other around the room and it changes over the chain from something like “These are a few of my favorite things” into something like “Doorknobs and doorjambs with hasps and strange hinges?” Along the way, each person is absolutely certain they’re passing along what they heard to the next person.

It turns out this also happens in the sharing of our faith.

Admit it – just like me, at one point or another you’ve said something to yourself or to a friend you thought was ripped right from the pages of the Bible when, in fact, it only sounds that way. Maybe to console, maybe to encourage, maybe just to have something to say, but still it isn’t quite the same.

We think these were truths handed down directly from God, like our own mini-versions of Moses’ trip to the mountaintop. After all, everyone just knows certain things are true, right?

There are many phrases, clichés, platitudes, and otherwise “common sense” sayings used by Christians every day, which have in fact, no biblical basis whatsoever! Rather, they’re subtle distortions of God’s message that serve only to steal from us the full joy of experiencing God and authentically sharing that experience with others.

When we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today we’ll never truly experience God.

Living in God’s truth leads us from the bleak landscapes of despair and into the brilliant light of life. Sometimes that truth takes us through dark places and barren valleys before we reach the place God intends for us. And sometimes that truth is difficult to hear, running counter to our deepest desires. It’s natural to seek solace in faith that’s easier to digest, easier to incorporate into our worldview, easier to reconcile with how we believe the world should be.

This is the basic failing of false gospels that detour us from the Word and into more comfortable, indigestion-free diets of frictionless lives where any path (or all paths) lead to God. We see it in popular mega-church pastors who tell us all the “good things” God has in store for us without ever really explaining the commitment required. We see it in popular faith blogs that tell us how traditional Christianity is out of touch with the modern world, filled with antiquated notions and unenlightened artifacts from yesterday. We see it in each other when we profess but do not practice.

The “Capital T” TRUTH is that when we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today, treating second-hand messages as first-hand truth, we’ll never truly experience God.

Over the next five posts we’ll look at a few of the most common and (sadly) popular misconceptions about what’s actually in – and NOT in – the Bible.

Starting with: 

#1  GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES

I love this one – partially due to its blatant and utter lack of biblical grounding, but mostly because I can show off the benefits of my liberal arts education (that would be sarcasm, in case there was any confusion).

A recent study by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group indicated that 68% of “born again” Christians agreed with this statement. However even the most basic reading of the Bible proves it to be quintessentially anti-Gospel. Clearly God gives each of us gifts and talents to develop and enjoy. Yet the entire concept of pure self-reliance (or self-righteousness) and the idea that we should just try a little harder to earn our salvation actually conflicts with the work of God.

Thou dost have great hair, dude …

The phrase actually originates in ancient Greece and may initially have been proverbial. It’s illustrated by two of Aesop’s Fables and a similar sentiment is found in ancient Greek drama. Benjamin Franklin is often credited with bringing it to America, but the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney‘s work.

The phrase has also found its way into popular culture. In a “Jaywalking” sketch on The Tonight Show, comedian host Jay Leno asked random people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most popular response given was “God helps those who help themselves.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly used it in responding to Jim McDermott who argued, “This is Christmas time. We talk about Good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.” O’Reilly argued for a more selective approach to unemployment benefits, and the importance of individual responsibility, concluding “while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?” Stephen Colbert parodied O’Reilly in response, concluding in character, “if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

Time and again, scripture points out that the lives of those who chase the myth of self-reliance end up, to quote James Bond in Casino Royale, “not well.” Spiritual self-reliance is inconsistence with God’s message. Simply look at Adam, Moses, Samson, Saul, Judas and 10 million unnamed souls since to find clear evidence.

While self-reliance on its own is never directly punished, God clearly favors helping those who cannot help themselves, which is what the entire concept of grace is all about (see the parable of the Pharisee and the PublicanEphesians 2:4–5Romans 4:4–5).

The bottom line is that God helps those who help themselves to the extent their motives aligns with His divine Will. When Jesus faced his most traumatic moment of temptation while in the Garden of Gethsemane the knee-jerk reaction of those around him was to take action. Peter reportedly sliced off the ear of an assailant. Jesus replies: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11). Peter took action to protect his teacher, regardless of God’s plan. Jesus took action but only in alignment with God’s will.

Better stated, God saves those who die to themselves: “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).

Words really do matter…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Be Prepared – Even When You’re Not

“They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” – Acts 14:21-27

I was not a particularly enthusiastic Boy Scout. Sure, I diligently worked my way up the ranks, earning merit badge after merit badge and achieving each level with dutiful pride. I always kept my uniforms tidy (secret confession, I ironed my scarves; yeah, I was sick, I know). And I even helped the proverbial elderly lady across the street once.

Problem is, I had an issue with the whole “Be Prepared” thing. “Be prepared for what?” I used to ask myself. When am I ever going to need to start a fire with two wet sticks and a clump of moss? That’s why God invented matches! My experience with scouting was more like falling off a bicycle rather than a purposeful race. I was “transactional” in my scouting.

The fathers of the emerging church in Jerusalem had a somewhat different perspective.

The Apostles’ initial outreach is in red…

Following the charge given them by Jesus in Acts 1:8 to witness and proclaim the Gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to “the ends of the earth,” the Apostles, Paul, and early disciples of the Church faced a daunting task: how would they equip themselves to carry out what has become known as “the Great Commission?” With one or two exceptions these weren’t men with deep religious backgrounds. In fact, except for the brief time they spent with Jesus they were rather ordinary – kind of like you and me. What possibly steeled them for the journeys resulting in the planting of Christianity across breadth of the Roman Empire?

We read in Acts 8 how a great persecution befell the church at Jerusalem, and just as Jesus had foreseen, scattered its members throughout Judea and Samaria.  Yet Jesus has prepared his disciples – even as they could not have planned for such a potential disaster. Rather than forsaking their faith, they were strengthened by it and spread the Gospel wherever they went. Ultimately, a foothold was established where Barnabas and Paul spent their early ministry teaching and growing disciples (still predominantly Jews although with an increasing interest from the Gentile population).

As I read through Acts 14, which opens this post, it strikes me that there were four specific areas of preparation the Apostles undertook to ensure they were equipped. These four areas are not so different from what you and I can do today in our own walks.

1) They prepared with a defined strategy (verse 21). The Apostles’ plan of action was simple, direct, and easily understood: Preach to Gospel to the lost, with intentionality to go where people could be found – the cities. Notice where time and again the Apostles took their message. Not into the barren wilderness, but rather, into the cities where the Good News could resonate and be magnified.

2) They prepared with steadfastness (verse 22). The early Church faced obstacles its modern descendents can hardly conceive, including persecution and even death. Still, the Apostles remained unwavering in their commitment to build community and reach the lost. They continued in faith no matter the obstacles.

God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them

3) They prepared for succession (verse 23). Jim Collins’ seminal book “Good to Great,” describes in detail the importance of a succession plan in business. How much more important is it that the Church – arguably the greatest enterprise of humanity – also have such a plan. Fortunately, the Apostles adopted Jesus’ (and God’s) own design – build and work through people. Pastor Bobby Welch, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, described it this way: God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them.

4) They were prepared to succeed (vs. 24-27). The New Testament clearly lays out a plan to accomplish the Great Commission. First, the Apostles took action based on their convicted faith in the power Jesus’ death and resurrection as Christ. Next, they communicated the incredible and indescribable wonders of God’s work amongst them. This ensured the news was continually spreading. Third, they were energized to recruit, or “call” brothers to join them and continue the fight for Kingdom building.

This is one of the most essential messages of the Gospel: trust in God to provide, let His Word inspire us to action, and then go share that abundance with others by enlisting them into the joy of the Gospel.

Not long ago I was returning to Austin from a business trip to Boston and had to connect through Chicago. As I settled into my seat and prepared for the final leg, a lady boarded and sat next to me. I was reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God,” and had tucked it into the seat pocket in front of me. It turned out my seat mate had serious issues with the “Christ” part of “Christianity.” She much preferred, in her words, “the more enlightened view” of Unitarianism. She just didn’t believe in the “chains” of Christianity.

Anyone who knows me can guess my reaction. Laptop snaps shut, and I go into engage mode. In the end, we had a lovely conversation. She seemed amazed that I listened and conversed without judgment, and actually considered her point of view. I promised to send her a copy of Keller’s book, which I did (Tim can thank me later).

Small steps, but steps nonetheless. In this case, I was prepared for this unexpected conversation by regular reading and studying of the Word coupled with regular conversations with others. Ultimately, planning only prepares us for when we are in the path of action. The Kingdom is won not by great speeches and comprehensive policies, but one relationship at a time.

This is the kind being prepared I can get used to.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Shouts! Not Silence

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD” – Psalm 96:11-13

A few months ago my wife and I went on a traditional “dinner and a movie” date. Now, this may be no great feat for many of you but with our competing schedules finding time for the just the two of us to get out on a Friday night rather resembles 3-D relationship Tetris!

It was fun – seafood enchiladas at one of our favorite Mexican hangouts, then onto popcorn, diet soda (yeah, I know all about how bad the scientists now say they are), the obligatory box of Nestlé Buncha Crunch and a giant pickle – my infernal movie time addiction.  You can see another reason we don’t get out much …

So in we settled, laughing at the campy trivia questions before the previews, making mental notes to see three upcoming films soon to be released, then sitting back as the feature started.

I canNOT believe she just did that!

Everything was going great! Right up until about 5:27 into the movie, when three girls, er, women behind us – apparently on some sort of girlfriends’ date that I still have never completely understood – began whispering. And not that hushed, sotto voce whisper used for secretive exchanges, mind you. Instead, this was that loud stage whisper people use to make sure those of us all the way on the back row of the balcony are in on their little secret.

For the next hour and thirty-nine minutes, we were treated to a running narrative accompanying the movie soundtrack filled with stories from their personal lives, punctuated with comments like “she’s sooooo adorable,” and “omg! That so reminds me of …” and, well you get the picture.

Somewhere deep inside me still lives the polite Southern Gentleman my momma raised me to be. Accordingly, I held my tongue. But let me be clear: I wasn’t happy. I mean look – I paid my $24 for the tickets and don’t even get me started about the bailout loan I needed for the concessions. This was my movie, by God, and I wanted SILENCE. Why can’t people just learn to sit down and shut up?

I thought about this later after the side-effects of aspartame and salt had subsided. And I flashed back to an altogether different conversation I overheard several years ago in another place between two Elders of a church I was visiting.

Basically, the thread of the discussion revolved around their belief in an “accepted doctrine” view of scripture at odds with the Senior Pastor’s vision for their church. Apparently, and much to the dismay of these two Elders, the Senior Pastor felt that human beings were actually allowed and even *gasp* encouraged to respirate and vocalize during sacred worship time.

Image courtesy of escholarship.org

Their position – and I exaggerate here only very slightly for dramatic effect – was that God means for us to sit somberly and quietly in our pews on Sunday mornings, moving and making noise only when absolutely necessary and as directed by the proper order of service elements by duly appointed conveyors of said accepted doctrine.

Granted, this was an extreme example of doctrinaire imperialism. Few of us today would be so dogmatic as to suggest our fellow congregants “sit down and shut up” (with the possible exception of when attending services at the Inner Springs Church of the Posturepedic). Yet over the years I’ve noticed another, more subtle form of that perspective still spreading through our churches every day: silent solemnity.

Surely you’ve seen it: the long, serious faces on Sunday morning, the stiff backs in pew after pew, the awkwardness when standing for readings or singing; the hesitance to utter any syllable other than a Corporate “amen;” for the most part, a complete lack of joy or emotion in the midst of God’s presence.

I have nothing at all against quiet contemplation. Some of my most profound worship experiences have come when the sheer impact of God’s unfathomable power and love for creation simply overwhelms the soul and the only response is hushed union with the Word. These are moments where all of us can let the noise and clutter of our lives fall away as we’re drawn into the very presence of God.

Yet it strikes me that God wants more than our solemn silence. I’m reminded of this every time I open my Bible to the Book of Psalms, especially Psalms 92-98. Time and again in these verses we read of exhortations and counsel concerning how and why and what we should bring to God in celebration of His majesty. Rarely are we instructed to fall silent and mute in God’s midst. Rather, we’re encouraged to do just the opposite!

God’s manifest act of creation and the resulting kaleidoscope of human experience accompanying our attempts – however imperfect – to enter into communion with God’s creative spirit, are both borne out of joy and delight, not solemnity and seriousness. Momentarily set aside qualms over scripture-as-literal-fact-versus-allegory and look at the astounding language of creation from Genesis 1God speaks and life explodes. Or the Birth Narrative in the Book of Luke, Chapter 2Christ is born into the world and countless angels thunder their joy in song.

King David sang, and shouted with joy, and even danced before the glory of God. We read in 2 Samuel 6 that as David brought the Ark from the house of Abinadab he and all his men – the whole house of Israel – were “celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”

Even in my own experience as a worship leader, I’m struck by the difference in reactions to various services, and how an engaged congregation produces a vibrant, almost electric atmosphere that is literally charged with the power of humans accepting and rejoicing in the presence of God.

The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day 

It seems odd to me that God would prefer our silence and stern faces to our laughter and joyful hearts. Didn’t Jesus surround himself with children as often as he could? Isn’t life itself a celebration of God’s love for His creation? Aren’t we encouraged to rejoice at our reborn spirits? This is how I imagine the true worship of our Creator – shouts of joy and wonderment, not silent vows of pinched frowns and uncomfortable postures masking thoughts of brunch plans and afternoon tee times.

One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is found in Matthew 22. Jesus is engaged in a tedious debate with the Sadducees about resurrection theology, a notion they ardently reject, as once again they attempt to trip Jesus up in details. Deftly defeating their argument, Jesus closes with this statement: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living” (verse 32). I love this! The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day we enjoy.

So the next time you feel an urge to shout out for joy, or close your eyes and raise your hands when singing a song of praise, or simply laugh at the sheer wonderment of creation, bring it on! But please, just make sure you silence that cell phone before the movie starts! Oh – and leave the life stories for drinks afterward.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Daily Spiritual Diet: Not for the Faint of Heart

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  Romans 6:16

Diets – they’re everywhere. Zone, Paleo, Low Carb, No Carb, Gluten-free, South Beach, Atkins, Mediterranean, Dash, 3-Day, Shred, Flat Belly … if you can think of it, there’s a diet for it. Once-famous celebrities gain newfound notoriety through endless commercials discussing how much weight they lost on their highly-lucrative endorsements for this or that meal plan.

Today’s culture seems slavishly obsessed with weight, even as a recent article in the New York Post indicates that while Americans are consuming supposedly healthier foods, the percentage of American adults who are considered obese stands at a whopping 36.5%. Ironically, being slaves to the scale actually makes us slaves to weight.

Slavery is a thread as interwoven into humankind as our DNA. Sadly, there is nothing so abhorrent in man’s experience as one human enslaving another. Throughout our history, from the earliest settlements of hunters and gatherers into local concentrations of shared protection to our relatively post-modern societies of this very day, humans have continuously found ways to prey on the weakest and force the less fortunate into bondage. Today, this bondage can take many forms: physical slavery, while relatively rare, still exists in modern Africasexual slavery, is a burgeoning trade in certain parts of the world; financial bondage, a highly refined form of slavery, flourishes nearly everywhere.

No, this isn’t a post about man’s inhumanity to man. We’ll save that for another time. Rather, it’s about the fire burning inside each of us, and how that fire can ignite the ember of unrest into a flame of action.

John Wesley, the celebrated preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, was a man in whom this flame burned bright and fierce. A life-long opponent of slavery, Wesley remained an outspoken advocate until his death. He not only fought against the scourge of slavery, but as a leader of the emergent Methodist movement he practiced throughout his life a regimen of personal discipline and ordered living.

As horrendous as human slavery can be, there is another, even more insidious form of enslavement many of us fall into every day. That slavery is self-imposed. It burrows into the crevasses of our hearts and our minds because we allow it to thrive there. It’s the slavery of the soul.

Paul writes about this in the passage above from Romans 6, comparing enslavement to sin with the ubiquitous practice of slavery across Palestine in his day. Paul is argues that if we give ourselves over to slavery, we will follow whatever master controls us. As slaves to sin, we are free to righteousness, he writes, yet our reward is death. But now that we have been set free from sin through the atonement and reconciliation of Christ, we are slaves to God, having as our reward sanctification and its end, eternal life.

It can be a difficult concept: trading one form of slavery for another, or that slavery in some sense equals freedom. Yet that is just what Paul is telling us; and where our friend John Wesley re-enters the conversation. Wesley’s commitment to disciplined living, that same discipline that bolstered his fight against slavery – imposed by others as well as self-imposed – offers us a path to follow in our daily struggle against slavish devotion to the things of this world vs. the will of God.

Lewis Allen, Pastor of Hope Church in Huddersfield, UK, is a well-respected follower of Wesley’s teachings. A few years ago he created a list of questions we should ask ourselves regarding our own spiritual discipline based on the teachings of John Wesley. I share that list here for your consideration. I’m fairly sure you’ll find something of value in one or more of these questions as part of your daily spiritual diet!

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
  4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
  5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  6. Did the Bible live in me today?
  7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
  8. Am I enjoying prayer?
  9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
  10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  12. Do I disobey God in anything?
  13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  15. Am I jealous, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  16. How do I spend my spare time?
  17. Am I proud?
  18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
  19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
  20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
  21. Is Christ real in me?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Love Wins. Every Time.

He said to the disciples, “Why are so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Mark 4:40

Control: kənˈtroʊl [kuh n-trohl] – to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command. Control has always been a capital“B” capital “T” Big Thing to me. Friends, jobs, relationships, family, dog’s bathroom habits, cable channel remotes … all of these and a thousand other things offer abundant opportunities to exercise my “control-at-all-costs” gene. Control. Sure, I’m the master of it!

My genetic pre-disposition for control showed itself early. In sixth grade I alphabetized all 63 of my mother’s spices – much to her dismay, as she apparently didn’t cook on an A-Z basis. Later, I would iron. Iron everything (nothing like a good crisp crease to make the world right).

It turns out Control is also one of our species’ favorite pastimes. Look around at the endless devices we’ve erected to “control” our environment. We feel if we can just bring order to chaos and make the unpredictable a little more predictable we can make sense of an incomprehensible world. Control becomes our answer to the soul-searing question WHY, God?”  Control becomes our proxy for … Love.

This is especially true in times of traumatic global calamity – for example in the face of horrific events such as the Holocaust of World War II. Survivors from death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau tell heartbreaking stories of watching their fellow Jews being marched to gas chambers, wondering aloud why God had so utterly forsaken them.

“What happened?” they wondered. Why had God forsaken their covenant? Why did He not protect them now? A group of Auschwitz prisoners felt so moved they conducted a formal trial, to try God for His indifference (this true story was turned into a BBC television special entitled God on Trial in 2008). For those who find this a curious notion, putting God on trial would not have been a blasphemous oddity, but rather something altogether understandable to Jews – in the tradition of the psalms, the Book of Job – and even Christ’s terrible accusing cry from the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”

In the end, a group of prisoners finds God guilty. And immediately, one of the rabbis among the prisoners says: “So what do we do now?” The reply is classic: “Let us pray.”  That is, the Jews accepted God for what He was.

I thought about this story as I read the verses from Mark 4:30-41. This passage is the well-known episode of Jesus calming the waves during a storm while his Apostles panicked. I was curious with a line from near the beginning, where the evangelist says, “They took him, just as he was, in the boat.”

What might this mean? For context, Jesus had been teaching people by the lake all day. Mark mentions several parables in this chapter (the Sower, The Mustard Seed, The Growing Seed) and the implication is that by day’s end Jesus was exhausted, probably in need of rest, maybe a bit withdrawn. His Apostles had been with him all day, and were probably just as tired. Perhaps they wanted rest. Perhaps they wanted to eat. Yet, the passage tells us they cast aside those concerns and took Jesus, as he was, in the boat with them. Jesus may not have delivered what the Apostles needed at that instant, yet they accepted him.

I travel a great in my business and often read books about faith while in flight. It’s fascinating to me how many folks I meet are interested in talking about the matter of belief. Frequently the subject of God’s role in their life comes up, and often it takes the form of disappointment – either God has disappointed them or the church hasn’t lived up to expectations, or they believe they’ve somehow disappointed God, and turned away from Him in shame.

Obviously, in these situations people feel hurt and abandoned in some way – by circumstances, or God, or God’s people, or their families, or even by themselves. I’ve talked to many people who have a similar reaction: “I don’t need people or gods who I can’t depend on, so I’ll be my own protector.” The ultimate profession of “control.”

This profoundly saddens me because it is so obvious these individuals are crying out for love or compassion yet can’t see that the problem is their own need to impose order and control rather than turning their eyes to God in humble acknowledgement that we cannot know all things as God knows them. In the absence of control, we abandon.

Jesus had an entirely different approach.

Indeed, Jesus’ ministry was built on a deep and profound reconciliation between people and God, as he continuously reminded his followers. He admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees for their insistence on arcane rules and points of Law as a way to control the lives of men and maintain righteousness. He chided the self-righteous and pious leaders of his time who rejected those who showed less adherence to the Law than they.

Perfection is a fiction existing nowhere except in our imaginations, where it rages like an out-of-control virus

In contrast, Jesus modeled love and reconciliation in everything he did. He accepted everyone, meeting them where they were, loving them as they were, assuring them God loved them the very same way. There was no requirement to perfect their lives before they could enter the Kingdom. He did not try to control their hearts or thoughts. He showed them the Way and invited them to follow.  Love wins every time with Jesus.

Yet Saved does not mean Perfect. If God required us to be perfect, there could  be no salvation at all. Perfection is a fiction existing nowhere except in our imaginations, where it rages like an out-of-control virus, leaving nothing but the wreckage of human shells devoid of emotional or spiritual depth in its wake.

I hear this over and over from people who feel they’ve been pushed away from God by the controlling motives of those who require them to measure up to some arbitrary standard of alleged perfection. And how many personal relationships have been destroyed by this very issue? It’s sad that people often turn their backs on God (or each other) when their expectations aren’t met. How many times have we run away from God because we perceive God has let us down?

These are all examples of our reacting to a world we don’t understand by trying to seize control. By abandoning someone who has hurt us, we control our emotional outrage. By turning our back on God when we find ourselves in the midst of what we consider unwarranted calamities, we control our own inner sense of justice in the world.

Such acts of desperation masquerading as bringing order and chaos and meaning to our lives are, in fact, the very things that destroy souls. Control is not the answer – forgiveness grounded in love is. When Jesus said “turn the other cheek” he wasn’t encouraging masochism. Instead, he was teaching us that the urge to take control of a perceived wrong by inflicting another wrong will only perpetuate the brokenness of the relationship. Forgiveness, accepting people as they are, loving them as they are (or even in spite of who they are) instead of attempting to change them into the perfect example of whom we think they should be is the very essence of living a Christ-filled life.

To be sure, forgiveness and acceptance don’t mean we’ll never have conflicts or need to exhort or correct errant behavior. In the story from the Mark, Jesus
accepted his disciples, and loved them, even though he was dismayed by their lack of faith. He probably didn’t appreciate being awakened from a sound sleep (I wish I could sleep that soundly in a tossing boat!) and if he reacts to low blood sugar the way I do there’s a pretty good chance he wasn’t feeling altogether hospitable (they didn’t have Red Bull in those days). Yet, he also gently scolded them for their inability to trust God.

It’s ok to tell people (or God) when you’re hurting because of something that happened. It’s healthy and normal to say “this is causing me pain,” or “I think what you’re doing is self-destructive” because that’s what people who really love each other do. That’s what real relationship is about. And that’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. It’s the kind of authentic relationship in community that we should have with one another.

Because in the end, Love really does win.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Delusion of Success

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18:18

As a kid I loved Albert Einstein. You know – the crazy hair, the rumpled clothes he didn’t change for days on end (yeah, that’s where I picked up my wear-till-they-stand-on-their-own gym clothes personal hygiene habit), that funny accent and goofy moustache. Oh, and the little equation that got people so excited a few decades back.

During his life, Einstein allegedly said a lot of curious and interesting things. Some of these are just urban legends (like the infamous “no bees, no humans” blurb), although I suspect Einstein would have taken credit! Others, like God doesn’t throw dice with the universe” ring clear and true as the deep reflection of a brilliant scientist looking out at the vast cosmos trying to make sense of it all.

One of my favorites is: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

I love this quote. It’s great a example of why Einstein was such a hero of mine: he seemed unconcerned with the ways of the world. Einstein was Einstein – he really didn’t care what the world thought.

We see this same trait in people all around us, although not always through the lens of famous patents-clerks-turned-physicists. Like the guy at work we all know will “never go anywhere” because he doesn’t spend enough time kissing

Photo courtesy of Fodor’s

up to that ogre of a boss whose idea of career development is making sure you know all the syllables in her absolutely-must-have-mid-morning “Light-Iced, Double-Shot, Non-Fat, 8-pump, Sugar-Free Vanilla, Extra Caramel, Caramel Macchiatto.” Or your friend from college who’s completely happy in the same job he got in 1996 because who needs all the hassle with that responsibility thing? Or the neighborhood 6-year olds who can play outside on a Summer day for endless hours doing absolutely nothing…

Not caring for the ways of the world is a talent, a gift. Although instinctive in children, we tend to lose it during the whole “adulting” thing and recapturing often takes cultivation and effort, particularly in the face of a world idolizing achievement and image. Not measuring ourselves against the trappings of a material life is so counter-cultural that people who follow this path are often referred to as “losers;” or worse, they’re simply ignored by the privileged ones with clucking head shaking.  This seems especially so in the very pubic conversations of the last 24 months or so.

It’s tempting.  So many of us build empires of self-importance around our lives, filled with the noise of conference calls and flights to the next city and endless meetings with endless people wanting “just one more thing” and charity functions for “really good causes” and perfect houses in ideal neighborhoods and church obligations and, and, and … until we are often deafened to the simple, small voice of God within our hearts, quietly reminding us that the sum total of every material thing in our lives can never really measure our “value.”

Pause a moment and think about your own definition of success. What mental picture gets conjured? Big house? A couple of expensive cars? Flush bank accounts with your retirement and kids’ college tuitions fully funded? Exciting vacations to exotic locations every year? Maybe enough excess cash to give generously to charities of your choice and fully tithe at church? Or even 23 million followers on FB?

Love this guy…

Western culture seems to have somehow created an art form around chasing the successful life. We build shrines to wealth, sacrifice our souls on the altars of money and power, inevitably viewing ourselves as unique in history. And while we gain in material possessions and status, how easy is it lose sight of true meaningfulness?

Scripture offers us a telling view into a different measurement of value and worth – God’s measurement. Over and over we read of the corruption and deception the pursuit of material success can have on the weak heart.

One particularly pointed example comes from the New Testament, an brief conversation between Jesus and a wealthy member of the ruling Jewish temple aristocracy. This encounter, described in all three Gospels, is one of the clearest messages God gives us on the distinctions between earthly value and spiritual value.

In the story, Jesus is asked by the man what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds saying he should obey the commandments. Simple enough, check! The man is pleased, but senses there must be more, saying he has obeyed the commandments since he was a child. When he asks Jesus again, the answer is not so simple. “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have, give the money to poor and follow me.”

That sound you hear? It’s the sound of tires screeching to halt. The man simply couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up his identify in exchange for the eternal life he sought.

Could you? Could I? Could any of us? If God told us that what was standing between us and a relationship with Him was the house we are so proud of, or the job we work so hard to keep, or (as in the case of Abraham) a child we love above all else, how would we respond?

My heart goes out to the wealthy man in this story. He’s like you and me and so many others in the world. We fall victim to the trap of believing that success equals a blessed life. We play by the rules, go to church if that’s our faith, work hard, and reap the rewards.

We think God smiles on our accomplishments. We believe we’re living good lives. It doesn’t dawn on us that these material measurements of success, these trinkets of achievement, have actually become our idols, our substitutes for devotion to God. We follow the rules so that we may keep these things.

Some folks interpret this story to mean money and wealth are inherently evil, as though having them is always wrong – we should simply abstain from any form of success or wealth accumulation and commit ourselves to a life of poverty.

I have a different interpretation. In my view, the wealth of the man confronting Jesus was a proxy for something deeper, a yawning unbridgeable canyon separating the man from God. The man had made money and wealth his god – not Yahwey, the almighty architect of creation. Jesus understood this, and placed before the man the truth that his life was not about God or Godliness at all. It was the man’s love for money, not money itself that was at issue.

Every day, we are asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God.

Each of us has our own form of separation, something we place above God. For some it’s certainly money. For others, it could be entertainment, or sports, or gluttony, or sex, or social standing. Or maybe even pride in our own righteousness. None of these is necessarily wrong, just as money is not inherently bad. Yet, when they keep us from salvation they destroy our souls.

Every day, we are being asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God. Sometimes that question is direct, like the encounter between Jesus and wealthy ruler. At other times the question is more subtle, like asking us to compromise our beliefs just a little to get something we really want. In every case, God is reaching for us, extending His invitation.

Let’s try something together this week. Take a few moments to inventory our lives. What have we placed “first?” What can we not walk away from? If the answer is anything other than answering God’s call to love Him with all our heart and to love each other as we love ourselves, then I suggest that like that rich young ruler, we may never know true lives of value.

Oh, and be sure to tip your barista next time you order that oh-so-complicated mid-day pick-me-up!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Now. No, Really – Now!

The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” Mark 1:15

I’ll admit it, I kind of like Twitter – I kind of like it a lot. In fact, I kind of like the entire notion of all things digital, real-time, and social: TwitterFacebook, Pinterest,  Skype, even *old school alert* SMS  (aka “texting” for my online-challenged pals), phones.   Apparently, given the entry of “Tweetstorm” into the modern lexicon, I’m not alone.  Just listen to cable news any morning for breathless reporting of that latest 140 character missives from at least one very well-known social media aficionado.

Many of my friends, especially those people a little *ahem* older than me, don’t “get” the Social Media concept. “Seems like a waste of time,” says one. “Just another form of stupefied TV watching,” opines another. Or this one: “Twitter’s a glorified altar of narcissism from which voyeurs and provocateurs alike can shout ‘here I am! Look at me right this second!’”  They clearly haven’t figured out I’m in that business.

To be sure, a casual romp through the Twitter Public Timeline can produce a mind-numbing litany of apparently meaningless chatter, a kind of digital “white noise” punctuated by voices emptying any and every immediate thought into the virtual stream of consciousness that is the online world.

Yet Social Media concepts like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr and others offer another face to those who look just a little deeper. For the emerging class of the online fluent, these and other sites are opening new doors on communication in the 21st Century, and redefining our very understanding of relationships.

The immediacy of these tools, their “now-ness,” creates a real and altogether novel form of intimacy lost from our past, when we used to gather in market places every day for one-to-many interactions. Unlike email or its gray-haired daddy snail mail, Social Media provides an opportunity to instantly connect with like minds anywhere, all the time.

In a sense, Social Media is like a pervasive, omnipresent force into which all of us can tap at any time and connect – like, say, electricity.

Which brings me to a sermon I recently heard based on the passage above from Mark. In his remarks, the pastor compared the Kingdom of God to electricity – something tangible, right here, right now, available for all Christians to “plug in” to.

I’ve thought a lot about that message. It seems intuitively “right” to me. Indeed Jesus’ entire message and ministry has always seemed to have an immediacy about them, a sense of doing more than just “believing” in an invisible God.

The Kingdom of God is already here, surrounding us, within us, in our midst. Like electricity, it flows through us, available to everyone.

At the core of the Gospel, at the very center of the message preached by Jesus, is a simple yet simultaneously confounding concept. The Kingdom of God – that unfathomable promise of Salvation and Grace bestowed on creation by a loving and benevolent creator – is not simply some distant, beyond-the-stars destination we’ll get to one day with our First Class Ticket on the Salvation Express purchased by the blood of a martyred prophet. The Kingdom of God is also already here, at this moment, actually present in the “now” of our lives. Surrounding us, within us, in our midst. Like electricity, it flows through us, available to everyone.

Quite different from the notion that we should repent out of our sins in exchange for a free upgraded suite at The Hotel Paradise after checking in with St. Peter down by Pearly Gates Junction (try finding that on Yelp).

Time and again Jesus demonstrated that his Kingdom ideas were verb-ish, rather than noun-ish. Over and over he describes the Kingdom of God in terms of doing something right now rather than a destination to pursue: a farmer sowing seeds (Matthew 13:3-8); a man planting a mustard seed (Luke 13:19); yeast worked into dough (Luke 13:21); a man separating weeds from wheat in his fields (Matthew 13:24-30); a fisherman pulling in a net overloaded with catch (Matthew 13:47-50); casting out demons by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28); sending his disciples to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:2); healing the sick so that the Kingdom of God has arrived (Luke 10:9). To Jesus, the Kingdom of God seems to be something we live here and now. There is an urgent immediacy to his teachings.

Viewed through this lens, how different might our response be to God’s Kingdom invitation? Think about this a moment. Really pause (you online addicts, I know how hard that can be) and consider. What would your life look like if you lived in the Kingdom now, not at some future time after you leave this existence? What would be different? How would you interact with your family and your friends and even those who are not so much your friends? What if we were already citizens of the Kingdom?

Something jumps out me in reading the New Testament, something that screams out in every act and deed Jesus performed, and seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles. God’s plan is to work through the body of His Church – you and me. His plan is for us to do unto each other every day.

How many of us learned in Sunday school that we should believe in God and not commit sin because that’s how we get into Heaven when we die? “Sin management,” some folks might call it. What if we take a different view? What if we believe in God because we already live in the Kingdom and Kingdom citizens have a responsibility to connect with each other and those in need right now – not after we all die? In other words, what if we focused on the outcomes of our relationships with God and each other rather than the rules and regulations of religion?

Try something new this week. Instead of waiting for Sunday to “do church,” find an opportunity to “do church” on your morning train, or at the grocery, or at your kids’ football game on Friday night. Talk to someone. Ask how they are doing – and listen when they answer. Share your own story with them if they invite you. Live as though you are already in God’s Kingdom. Plug into the electricity of God’s love and feel how connected you are to everyone, all the time.

And in the meantime, make time to meet some new friends. They’re all around you in the Kingdom.

Peace (via @rdgreen on Twitter, or maybe @rgaustin on Facebook).
Colossians 1:17

The Greatest Fixer of All

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” – Mark 9:23

I’ve always been a fixer.  It’s kind of what I do.

When something’s broken, I fix it.  See a cracked or chipped place in the wall?  Patch it up. Leaky faucet?  Yep, that’s me with the wrench (well, in truth I’m not much of a plumber but I’m dynamite with a cell phone so I know who to call).  Broken relationships?  Bring ‘em on.  Thorny problem at work?  Send it my way.  And don’t even get me started about crooked pictures.  Tip: if you ever invite me over for a cup of coffee or bite to eat, don’t be surprised to find me wandering around your house looking for crooked pictures, smudged windows, out-of-place books.  It’s a curse.

The “original” James T. Kirk”

One of my great childhood heroes, one of the guys on whom I modeled myself, was  Captain James T. Kirk.  Kirk defined the idea of the ultimate fixer.  He never believed in the no-win scenario.  Yeah, I know he was created by Gene Roddenberry and only lives in films, but Kirk could fix anything!  I wanted to be just like him.  And don’t get me started on the Shatner vs. Pine claptrap.

Of course, with age comes “wisdom” – that grown-up sounding word too often serving as a proxy for “acceptance” in place of “perseverance.”  We learn of consequences.  We learn of fallibility.  We learn of our own shortcomings and inadequacies.  We learn of the brokenness in our hearts and how sometimes no matter what we do, we can’t fix the problems right in front of us.

It’s a hard realization for someone convinced of their own invincibility.  Someone like me.

I have a friend, a very close friend who has recently been struggling; wrestling with internal voices and external pressures and doubts and uncertainties.  Many of the same issues a lot of us face every day.  There are times when these voices and pressures and doubts become deafening, drowning out the real truth: my friend is, in ways large and small, amazing.  As a parent, as the child of parents, as a friend, as a sibling, as a human being. Absolutely, utterly amazing.  A miracle – just as we all are.

The fixer in me wants to help, to rush in and begin barking orders, to repair the brokenness. But I can’t.  It saddens me, and hurts my heart.

How many of us have faced this, a situation where we’re seemingly powerless to solve the pain in someone else, wanting to solve the problem but unable to make the rescue?  It’s a sobering, humbling experience.  And sometimes, it causes us to doubt.

A story very early in the Bible, from the book of Genesis, reminds me of this scenario.

Abraham and his wife Sarah had wanted a child for years, yet they had never conceived.  Sarah, assuming she was simply not meant for motherhood, had long ago put away her hope.

One day God appears to Abraham, in the form of three men standing under a tree.  Abraham instructs Sarah to prepare a meal for the strangers and visits with them.

During their conversation, God asks Abraham where his wife is. Then He says something incredible: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” (Genesis 18:10).

Nearby, Sarah overhears their conversation and laughs out loud, saying she and Abraham were too old and she would never have the pleasure of a child.  She had given up.

When God heard Sarah’s laughter, He said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

Is anything too hard for God? We each face challenges and difficult situations in life. And in the midst of them God asks, “Do you think your problem is too hard for me to fix? Or do you believe I can work it out for you, even though you think it’s impossible?”

Jesus reminds us in Luke 18:27 “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  How many of us really believe this?  How many of us accept that God can perform the impossible in our lives, in our families, in our jobs, in our futures?

Of course, we’re quick to counsel others that He can. We tell others to pray, to have hope, to believe in the impossible because God is the doer of the impossible.  But do we really believe these truths for ourselves?

You won’t read that in the Presbyterian Book of Order, the Church of Christ Book of Worship, the Baptist Manual of Theology Christian Doctrine Church Order, the Methodist Book of Discipline, or even the Catholic Book of Canon Law.  Astonishingly, it’s the ultimate Truth of our faith.  God is not simply the Creator, the maker of all things, who acts and then sits back watching it unfold.  God is also an action-oriented DO-ER yearning to do the impossible in our lives.  The message of Scripture is clear: if we don’t believe this about Him, we don’t believe in Him at all.

Yet, how many of us at one time or another have lacked belief?  That kind of response points to only one thing: we’ve bought into The LieThe Lie of Hopelessness.  The Lie of Impossibility.  The Lie that God is powerless to help us.

Friends, no amount of counseling or shoulder-leaning or therapy in the world can help us unless we absolutely believe God’s word: Nothing in our lives is beyond His ability to fix. Otherwise, our faith is in name only, futile and impotent. The unspoken truth underlying our faith is this: we can’t really believe in God until we believe He is God of the Impossible.

I’m a father, blessed with two amazing, beautiful daughters for whom I would do or give anything.  So I relate very well to a story told in Mark 9:14, where a distraught father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus’ disciples seeking deliverance.

This boy was considered hopeless. Both deaf and speechless, he spewed out only guttural sounds. He foamed at the mouth like a mad dog, and physically he was skin and bone, emaciated by his awful struggle. His father had to hold onto him continually, because the demons constantly tried to cast him into the nearest river, lake or open fire, wanting to kill him. His situation was dire.

Unspoken Truth: we can’t really believe in God until we believe He is God of the impossible.

While the father asked the disciples for their help, the boy’s demons began manifesting themselves as he foamed at the mouth, rolling on the ground, contorting and gyrating wildly. Scripture tells us the disciples prayed over him – perhaps for a long time – but nothing happened.

It must have seemed an impossible situation. Soon the doubting scribes crowded around, asking, “Why is the boy not healed? Is this case too hard for your Lord? Is the devil more powerful here?”

And then Jesus came on the scene. When he asked what was going on, the father  answered, “I brought my son to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him. He’s a hopeless case.”  Jesus responded simply, “All things are possible to he who believes.”  Christ was telling everyone present, “Do you believe I’m able to handle anything except what Satan has claimed for his own?  I tell you, there is no problem, no impossible circumstance, I cannot fix.”

Yet with a single word, Jesus made the impossible a reality.  He discharged the unclean spirit and, taking the boy by the hand, lifted him from the ground.

Can you imagine the joy in this scene?  That clean, freed boy must have run to his father and embraced him.  And the father’s heart leapt with joy.  God had fixed it all.

God restores whatever appears dead in our lives with a single word.  He acts even when we don’t, even when we won’t, even when we can’t.  He stands ready to save us from even our most desperate brokenness.  And He does this with or without our acceptance.  Yet to receive the power of those actions, we must accept as true His ability to act as God of the Impossible.  In a word, we must Believe.

The friend I mentioned earlier is, blessedly, taking action, even as I write these words.  I’m so incredibly proud of my friend for taking this step. I may be unable to fix the situation, as much as I want to believe I could, but with God’s help, and with prayer, I have no doubt my friend will overcome the doubts and fear and pain and sense of insufficiency holding them back from realizing the miracle they truly are.

God can fix anything.  Even you.  Even me. It’s kind of what He does.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

The Self-Delusion of Self-Absorption

“But mark this:  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” –  2 Timothy 3:1-5

Navel-gazing – it’s a common occurrence.  No, I’m not talking about the lustful look I often have when browsing the produce section of H-E-B (that’s Texan for “grocery store,” y’all) while passing by the overly-genetically-enhanced navel oranges that look oh-so-good but actually taste kind of like extra pulpy Sunkist without the cardboard container.

Nor do I mean the vacant stares so many people have when practicing annoying Yoga postures while they really are gazing down at the their navels.

And I’m certainly not referring to the shifty eyes some of my guy friends have when a young lady (or not-so-young, these days) walks past in a bare-midriff top sporting one of those sparkly piercings winking out from the stub of what was originally an umbilical cord.

Rather, I’m thinking of an entirely different kind of navel-gazing; the type usually accompanying self-preoccupation, self-obsession, self-absorption. For instance, the buffed and coiffed crowd from the recent Oscars kerfuffle who seem to believe their voices are somehow more poignant than the masses.

I read a lot.  Some of my reading turns to online blogs, a veritable cornucopia when it comes to the self-absorbed.  Any given day yields post after post of exhausting self-analysis and historical references to lost childhoods and failed marriages and abusive bosses and generally all the bad things that have kept the reader from being who they really should be, if only XYZ wouldn’t keep popping up in unexpected (although in reality perhaps completely predictable) ways.

The self-absorbed individual perpetually turns the focus of every conversation back to their own trials and worries.  In fact, some people have developed it into a high art form often even seem witty in their hand-wringing.

There are many types of self-absorption.  There’s the pity seeker who wants the world to know how challenging their lives are; the attention lover who talks incessantly about how attractive or intelligent or desirable others seem to find them; the reverse psychologist who rejects any form of flattery only to seek and expect more (also known as the “passive aggressive reverse maneuver”).

Is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited, dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history of the world?

And then there are the professionals – self-help gurus feeding off the popularization of self-love, self-esteem and the other obsessions of self so en vogue today with modern psychiatrists and psychologists.  With such role models bombarding society from every corner, is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited, dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history of the world?

Scripture gives us a generous amount of guidance in the perils of self-absorption and self-love.  Paul admonished in his letter to the Philippians “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

From my perspective, we see so much self-absorption in those around us because in truth the world can sometimes be a pretty sucky place to live. And while some folks do display genuine love and concern for others, in truth, most of us (I embarrassingly include myself in this category) are usually wrapped up in ourselves.

Our central failing is a lack of understanding that when we put love of ourselves over the love for those around us, the  results are inevitably a focus on how unlovable we are.  Ironic, no?  The more we look inward, the more we crave  external validation.

Scripture is clear that the way of the Believer is vastly different from the way of the world. We’re taught that genuine love for our brothers and sisters rather than ourselves is our calling card. John 13:35 quotes Jesus telling us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

How can we avoid the trap of self-absorption?  How do we look outward rather than inward?

Reflecting on this question, I’m reminded of the 3rd Chapter of 1 John. John reveals in verse 11 that as Believers we are to love not ourselves, but those around us: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”  He then goes further, reminding us that our love one for another is one of the strongest proofs that we are saved, (verses 14-15).

Many people, especially those with a high degree of self-preoccupation, appear to love others.  They lavish those around them with praise and compliments and gifts and attention, making a point to remind everyone how loving they are.

Sadly, the motivation for this type of outward display is often more about the giver rather than genuine love for the person receiving.  And when their “love” is not reciprocated in a manner meeting their expectations, the giver can feel betrayed and abandoned.

Yet when we step outside of self-reflection and self-love, when we turn our gaze from within and look instead at the world around us, if we allow our love to be God-like and all it should be, three very clear characteristics emerge.

First, God-like love is extensive.  As early as Genesis 4:8, we read about the perils of self-love in the actions of Cain against his brother Abel.  Cain did this out of jealousy and self-absorption.  Contrast this with Jesus, who loved so much that even as we were his enemies, he laid his life down for us (John 15:13Romans 5:8).

This type of genuine, God-like love knows no boundaries and sets no limits. It is unconditional in the truest sense of the word. It expects no reciprocity, nothing in return.

The second characteristic of God-like love is that it’s expensive – there is a true cost to genuine love.  No better example of this cost

can be imagined than the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross of Calvary.  Jesus held nothing back.  He saw our need and met that need with every resource he had.

That’s what real love for others is about. What we have, what we can give – whether it be our time or money or material possessions – these things we should offer freely to those around us regardless of the cost.

Finally, God-like love is expressive.  Genuine love doesn’t simply talk, it doesn’t build a world of words, it takes action. Without the cross, the promise of John 3:16 is meaningless.

How many of us know people who talk but don’t really do? You’ve seen this person, maybe you’ve even been them at times in your life (I know I have).  Promises to help, best intentions, commitments to follow-through for someone in need of our time or attention – yet we don’t deliver.

I have a friend, an acquaintance I’ve actually never met in person.  We share thoughts and ideas occasionally online but really don’t have any deeper relationship.  Not long ago my friend told me he learned that another of our online acquaintances was experiencing a crushing run of bad luck and was at a crisis point.  He asked me if we might pool our resources with one or two other friends and help this individual out.  There would be nothing in return for this help, no tax-deductible receipt, no repayment of the money. It was simply people with genuine love helping a brother.  Without hesitation I said yes.  My friend reminded me that love, real love, is about action, not about faux concern or empty words of “empathy.”

Over the next few days, have a conversation with yourself.  How is your “love” life?  Are you truly caring for others in a selfless and genuine manner?  Do you give freely with no expectation of a return?  Can you forgive and love even when someone repeatedly disappoints you?

Honest answers to these simple questions will be far more profound than all the self-help books ever written.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Dead Christians Walking

Jesus said to him, “Let dead people bury their own dead. You go and tell others about God’s kingdom.” – Luke 9:60

Wait … I’m not ready!”  How often have you heard (or said) that when a deadline looms suddenly? Buy more time, ask for an extension, make up a great excuse (like we all did at least once in high school) – anything to get out of doing the one thing we should do right now.

Some of us (myself included) tend to be world-class procrastinators.  Others are simply afraid.  Still others of us feel ill-equipped.  Whatever the reason, we often find reasons why can’t face something head on.

I was reminded of this while reading through the verse from Luke at the beginning of this message.  In the story (whether the Luke 9 version or the Matthew 8 version), Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the cost of following him.  One disciple speaks up and asks if he can go bury his dead father before joining the journey.  Jesus responds with the well-known phrase “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Many people find this passage a little harsh, even disturbing.  The guy’s father had just died!  What could Jesus have been thinking?

The answer lies in Jesus’ perspective on the question.  In fact, Scripture indicates that much of what we view as compassion would be considered by Jesus as little more than misplaced caring for the “walking dead.”

For context, we need to remember where this passage occurs.  In Matthew Jesus had completed a series of healings (a man with a skin disease, a Roman commander’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, many people suffering from various demons), demonstrating yet again the proactive nature of his ministry.  When a teacher of the law suggested he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” meaning his ministry had no time to rest and that following him came at a cost. It was then the question of burying the father was put to him.

Luke places the story at the end of chapter 9, which is filled with accounts of Jesus’ ministry in action: the sending of the twelve, the feeding of the five thousand, the explanation to Peter of the meaning losing oneself to God’s larger plan, the mountain top epiphany, healing the boy with the evil spirit, the explanation of how the least important person is actually the most important person, forgiveness of the Samaritans for rejecting him.  Then Jesus exchanges comments with followers about the cost of following him and again the question of burying the father was put to him.

In both versions, Jesus draws a stark contrast between what it means to really follow the path God has laid before us and the easier, less painful path we often choose for ourselves.  This second path is what Jesus refers to when he tells his follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.”  Jesus doesn’t literally mean to let rotting corpses bury rotting corpses.  Rather, he’s addressing the tendency so many of us have to allow other things to come between us and God.  In this sense, Jesus was recognizing that the follower was more considered with matters of the flesh than matters of the heart and the spirit.  The follower was, in effect, a “dead man walking.”

In truth, we’re all dead men walking, condemned ultimately to die. Time eventually runs its course and there is nothing we can do to reverse it.  Regardless of how much success we achieve or fame we receive, no matter who our families are or how widely we travel the world, even with all the money of a Bill Gates or the charity of a Warren Buffett, nothing can create a barrier between us and death.  This was also true for Jesus.

Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, put it this way:

“On the day he died, Jesus was escorted from a Roman prison and marched to Golgotha – a trash heap outskirts on the Jerusalem. Roman guards walked to his right and to his left. Soldiers walked before him and behind him in a cross-like procession.  He was a dead man walking. He was alive and breathing, but he was living under a death sentence. His fate was sealed. Time had run out. His death was imminent.”

Jesus knew he must walk the walk each one of us walks every day – the walk of condemnation to death – in order to provide us the greatest gift of all, the gift of eternal life.  God lifted Jesus from that death sentence and returned him to us as a way of announcing that we, too, can receive this amazing gift.  Yet importantly (and to Jesus’ point when speaking to his follower), this gift is not free, and is not our birthright.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates that true faith, the faith that leads us to the Kingdom, is “verbish” rather than “adjectival.”  Jesus continually pushes his followers and, by extension, you and me to understand that the Kingdom already is.  We are invited, to enter, but that invitation must be actively acknowledged, accepted and received.  We must act here and now rather than delay for some future time.

This is the real lesson Jesus was teaching his follower when telling him to let the dead bury the dead.  Spiritual deadness, the way of this world, leads to true death.  Jesus was saying “tend to the living, the needs and the relationships of those who need your attention, those who need to hear the Word of God.”

Jesus teaches us that our lives are meant to be lived in active service to each other, rather than dwelling on the past.  The present is all we can affect moment-to-moment, and if we look backward, regretting the mistakes or losses of yesterday, we lose sight of what God has laid out for us today.

This week, try two things.  First, reflect on something in your life that has you looking backward.  Perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps a mistake resulting in a change in your life plan, or maybe simply a general feeling of failure and regret.  Hold that thought in your mind.  Focus on it.  Then write it down on a piece of paper, find a match, a burn it, letting the flames melt the pain and regret from your heart as they consume the paper.

Then, find someone in need of your attention, reach out to them, and let them know you love them.  Focus on now rather than yesterday or tomorrow.  Be the love for them you seek for yourself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

True Hope

“(H)ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”Romans 5:1-5

We’ve heard much in recent years about the enduring power of hope. Studying Romans this morning a passage from Romans 5 struck me as particularly revealing. In these early chapters Paul is writing about the supremacy of faith over works under the law. “Justification” in Paul’s view has nothing to do with how good we are or how many laws we follow; it can never be earned by works. Faith in the price paid by Jesus on the cross overrides any work or action we can ever take before the eyes of God. This is where true hope lies.

This passage takes the argument further. Our faith in God and the justification we have through the blood of Christ is the only authentic grounding of our hope. Yet this hope is not costless or without pain. Instead, we stand on faith to celebrate and glory in our own suffering. Paul contends that suffering and the endurance of hardship teaches discipline and perseverance. In time perseverance in face of pain and hardship builds character as we await God’s timing and receive His blessings based on His will. With character comes the power to hope and trust that God is indeed, in control of our lives. In this way God’s love can flow into and through our hearts as an outward display of the Holy Spirit connecting each of us to our neighbors and to God.

The lesson doesn’t end there. Today’s society is built on an entirely different vision of hope. More empty and rhetorical than Paul’s description, hope in the secular world is not something we develop through quiet obedience to God’s will but rather more like a tired punch line. It comes with no cost, no effort, and is rewarded by the only god of this world – man!

John Kekes, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University Albany and a well-known atheist writes in chapter 10 of his 2010 book “The Human Condition” how humans can find hope in a secular world through modest control over our lives. That is, by exerting our own will we can create hope – or at least the illusion of hope – in an otherwise hopeless world. This seems rather shallow to me, much like a parrot miming the words of its master with no real understanding of the depth or meaning behind the words.

Psalm 39:7 proclaims: “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” Hope is only authentic when placed solely in God’s saving grace. Anything less is little more than a cheap imitation masquerading as something it can never be.

While sharing dinner recently with a colleague in San Francisco, the conversation inevitably turned to America the aftermath of the 2016 election. I say inevitably because being from Texas, I’m regularly asked by friends in California and New York to discuss my opinions on matters of current interest. I suppose I’m an easy target!

Nevertheless, into the conversation we plunged – my companion holding views which, on the surface, appeared as diametrically opposed to mine as possible. The topics were wide ranging: from abortion to gun control, climate change to institutionalized racism, unemployment to tax relief. I came away from the table with considerable food for thought and will share some of that in later posts.

What struck me most about this 3-hour dinner was not our differences, but rather how much alike we were in our compassion for others and our love of honest discussion where each side sought first to understand the other before replying. I imagined at one point how different this same conversation might have been over social media with someone I seldom if ever see face-to-face, comfortably safe behind the protection of a digital veil. As many of you can attest, those discussions often to confrontational and devolve into acrimony and name-calling.

Ultimately, we determined that our end-state goals and desires were not that far apart though perhaps our means to those ends differed. And that got me thinking about church. Yes, church. Specifically, the current trend of many so-called “revolutionaries” to withdraw from traditional congregation-based church formats in favor of individual faith journeys.

One of these individuals, Kelly Bean, Associate Dean at UCLA School of Management and author of How to Be a Christian without Going to Church writes: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ … If you want to start a church, just have a party in your house and see who shows up.”

Kelly is right about this – as Jesus himself proclaimed in Matthew 18:19-20, if we get together in his name, he shows up. The specific text is Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Jesus is all around us, even when we don’t perceive his presence.

Yet there is something uniquely missing when we withdraw from the church because it doesn’t “speak our language,” or – more specific to this post – avoid people in our daily lives who disagree with us because they don’t speak our language. To paraphrase Donald Carson, a Canadian-born, Reformed Evangelical theologian and professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, life should not made up of “friends,” but rather of those who disagree with our points of view.

Why? Don’t we have enough debate and argument in our lives? The point here is that there is indeed a key difference between tolerance and relationship. Tolerating someone else’s opinion merely means putting up with them, not understanding or relating to them. While noble in its stated intent, it deftly sidesteps the messiness and inconvenience that comes from loving and knowing someone else, even if they disagree with you. And the ultimate danger in empty tolerance is that it can end in rejection of the other person if their opinions don’t fit your world-view.

What I was reminded of during my dinner is that two adults with well-formed if differing thoughts about the world can engage in constructive, probing conversation and walk away closer than they started. This is in the best tradition of Jesus’ core message about community as stated in Luke 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”

Listen. Learn. Relate. You might find more in common that you ever imagined.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Safe Distances

“Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.” – Mark 14:54

Have you ever met someone who thinks life is just easier on the sidelines? Never really making hard decisions, or sticking with the decisions they make. Living to watch others do what they only wish they could do. Longing for things they can’t quite bring themselves to reach for.  Wanting forever but afraid of tomorrow.  Safe distances.

Perhaps there’s a bit of this in each of us, keeping the most exciting, challenging and even transcendent possibilities in our lives just out of reach, at safe distances.  Maybe we fear being hurt, or perhaps we lack the confidence to pursue our dreams because, well, FAILURE. Safe distances.

Regardless, folks living on the sidelines set up endless barriers between themselves and the amazing fate that could be theirs if they only had the courage to believe. This is true in our Faith walks as well.  Indeed, it’s been the case since the first followers of Christ professed their devotion but seemed to lack the backbone to exercise their desire.

The core issue is found in our ability (or lack thereof) to follow into the
unknown, or the dangerous
.  We resist.  We argue with ourselves.  We lie awake at night and wrestle with what we should or shouldn’t do.  For Believers, many times these contemplations center on how we should respond to God’s call.

The “following” theme appears throughout the New Testament, most prominently in the Gospels (Matthew offers twenty-four examples alone). Yet the theme of following isn’t limited to merely being close to someone, marking their footsteps at safe distance.  Rather, it calls for a relationship; a relationship between us, God, and other followers. A relationship of intimacy, not distance.

Scripture also shows us the shortcomings of our ability to stay committed.  Take the example of Peter.  On the eve of Jesus’ arrest, after three years of being as close to Jesus as anyone possibly could, Peter shifts his focus, deciding to step to the sidelines.  In Mark 14:54 shortly after Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter followed Jesus at a distance:  “Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.”

Peter thought he was playing it safe.  He was watching from the sidelines. Yet he was actually in greater danger because of his fear.  In trying to protect his life, Peter in fact endangered himself even more by placing distance in his relationship with Jesus, denying three times he even knows Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).

God asks for our allegiance especially in times of adversity in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision.  He pleads for our fellowship if we will only agree to follow where He leads.

Like Peter, however, we too often follow the right person but at the wrong distance. We do this out of fear, and that fear makes us vulnerable to doubt and insecurity.

I recently saw a real-life example of how we can so easily close the distances in the relationship spaces of our lives.  A mother and her five or six year old son were walking through a busy airport concourse and the child kept getting distracted and wandering off.  The mother, apparently exhausted with trying to keep up with her son, finally just stopped in the middle of the concourse and watched as the child continued wandering several yards ahead.

The child suddenly looked around, no longer able to see his mother.  Realizing he was alone and sensing the distance that had grown between them, the child burst into tears and quickly ran back to his mother, enjoying the safety of being close to his protector. When you and I become aware of being separated from God or a loved one, do we rush back or continue drifting, perhaps placing even more distance between us?

Fortunately, Peter’s story had a redeeming ending. After denying Jesus, he confessed his shortcomings and boldly accepted Jesus’ challenge to take the Gospel to the world. As far as we know from the recorded life of Peter, he never permitted such dangerous distance to form in his relationship with Jesus again.

Staying at a safe distance may seem comforting. In fact, it can be the most dangerous place of all.  Get engaged with the passions of your life.  Follow the direction of where God is leading you.  Being a spectator in your own life is, ultimately, the loneliest seat in the stadium.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Learning to Learn

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”Ephesians 6:1

Like many folks in my generation, I grew up listening to the advice of my mother and father. Not that I was model child, mind you, just that they were there and, well, I listened. Sometimes I learned. More often, I nodded and ignored. Such is youth.

Of course, ask any 15-25 year-old today and you may get a different answer. Not only do they ignore as we did, they tune out! This is not completely on them – today’s distracted society creates plenty of opportunities to look the other way and if we’re being honest, parents in many cases are too overly concerned about being “cool” or “friends” or “young” to actually practice real parenting. Such is life in Century 21.

When my mother passed a few months ago, childhood memories played over and over in my thoughts. I had decided to deliver the eulogy and as I tried organizing my comments into a narrative that conveyed her life but also reflected what she taught me, I was reminded of Proverbs 1:8 “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” Okay, so Proverbs is talking about fathers but play along here.  The deeper meaning beyond an Exodus 20:12 admonishment to respect your parents is to learn from those who come before us.  They’ve lived the mistakes we haven’t yet imagined.

Throughout my life, I’ve strived to learn something new every day. My dad called me a “human vacuum” because I always inhaled information and could recall it effortlessly. This proved to be highly benefi
cial in growing a profession, but it also provides a valuable lesson in life.

Learning happens in several ways. The two most obvious (and most often employed) are: easy and hard. The hard way? Hurl yourself into a brick wall, back up hit it again. Rinse and repeat. The easy way? Learn the first time we face plant. And sometimes, we can simply remember what someone told us 10 years ago…

Chuck Swindoll, senior pastor at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas, wrote: “The wonderful thing about God’s schoolroom is that we get to grade our own papers… He doesn’t test us so He can learn how well we’re doing. He (allows) tests so WE can discover how well we’re doing.”

There’s vital guidance from scripture in this. Proverbs 1:8 is more than a mere suggestion to respect our parents and God isn’t throwing us a trick question. When we resist instruction, the teaching continues regardless of our opinion!

Our challenge as leaders (and humans) is to discern lessons as they are presented in our daily lives, learn from those, then move to the next lesson.  Sometimes we can even remember what mom and dad told us.

Rinse and repeat.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Too Much is Never Enough

 

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

 One of my favorite movies every year is the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I suspect we’ve all seen this film many times, maybe with at Christmas time with friends or family.  One of the key early scenes is a confrontation between the hero, George Bailey – a man whose future lies in front of him – and the evil millionaire Henry Potter, a man seemingly with everything yet has no redeeming qualities.

In this scene, George is preparing to leave on his long awaited trip to Europe, but is stopped by Potter’s desire to take over the Building and Loan built by George’s father.  Of course, we know how the story ends.  George stays, loses the $8,000 meant for his European trip which he decided to use to save the Building and Loan, and learns the true meaning of life and “having it all” along the way.

What if we could really have it all?  Money. Power. Love. Sex. Respect. Popularity. Absolutely anything we wanted. Many of us spend our lives wishing for that very scenario—or at least imagining what it would be like. But not many of us get there.

Mel Gibson, who has recently re-emerged to Hollywood accolades, got there.

Once an obscure Australian actor, Gibson’s first big break came at 23 in the cult classic Mad Max. More big roles followed in blockbusters such as the Lethal Weapon series, Maverick, Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, Payback, What Women Want and Signs. As his international stardom grew, so did his bank account. At one point Gibson was one of the top-paid actors in the world getting $25 million for every movie he starred in.

But acting wasn’t enough for him. In 1993 he stepped behind the camera to direct The Man Without a Face. Two years later he earned two Academy Awards for directing and producing Braveheart. He earned over half a billion dollars for his production of Passion of the Christ. He seemed unstoppable.

Gibson’s success didn’t stop with his career. He was married to the same woman for 25 years, and they had seven kids together. People magazine named him the Sexiest Man Alive. Premiere magazine listed him as one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Worldwide fame. Unlimited riches. True love. Fatherhood. Widespread respect for his talent. International renown for his sexual appeal. Virtually limitless power in his career. Rarely does one man get so much in one lifetime.

Mel Gibson had it all. So he must have been the happiest man on the planet, right? He had the power to do almost anything he wanted. The money to buy almost anything he could imagine. Almost nothing was out of reach for him.

Yet Gibson felt something was missing. All he had wasn’t enough. So he added some new experiences to the mix: addiction. Drugs, alcohol, women, anything. His addictions very nearly ruined his life, if not his career.

Eventually Gibson sought treatment for his addictions. But after getting clean and sober, he found himself right back where he had started: with an emptiness in his life.  He was in the celebrity wilderness for over 10 years.

Gibson wasn’t the first guy to reach that depressing conclusion. In fact the viewpoint is as ancient as the Old Testament.  King Solomon, sometimes referred to as the wisest man in antiquity, was such a man.  Solomon reached the same conclusion about life on earth over 3,000 years ago.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes, he spells out everything he tried in his quest for meaning in this life—and how all of it left him feeling empty.

What happened to Solomon in his quest for meaning?  How did a man who began with so much promise end with such despair and hopelessness?  And more importantly, could this happen to you and me?

Early in his reign, Solomon was described as a king who could do no wrong.  The first 10 chapters of I Kings offer numerous instances of Solomon’s remarkable fitness as King of Israel:

  • In 1 Kings 2 Solomon consolidates his rule.
  • In Chapter 3 God grants him wisdom, wealth, and honor.
  • In Chapter 4, we see Solomon coming into the fullness of his wealth and fame.  Verse 26 reads “Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses and, and twelve thousand horses.”
  • Chapters 5 – 7 describe the building of the Temple and Solomon’s palace, where over 180,000 men were conscripted to provide the labor.
  • Chapter 8 details the dedication of the Temple and the placing of the Ark into inner sanctuary.
  • In Chapter 9 God appears to Solomon for a second time, saying He had heard Solomon’s appeal and promising to put his Name and eyes and heart on the Temple forever and to establish Solomon’s royal throne over Israel forever, so long as Solomon walks before Him “faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness.”

But then God says something else, something foreshadowing not only Solomon’s later years but the very future of Israel itself.  Listen to the God’s admonition from verses 6-9: “But if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name.’”

This is a remarkable warning from God, directly aimed at Solomon’s one significant character flaw – indeed, the central character flaw in so many of us – pride and the belief that he could discern a better path than the one God has directed.

What I find most interesting here is God’s consistency.  Throughout scripture, God compels us to stay on a path to righteousness.  He doesn’t lurk in the dark corners, waiting for us to make mistakes and raining down punishment when we do.  He tells us plainly, simply, how to lead a life of fulfillment.  He also tells us the consequences when we don’t.

Solomon seemed to have his reign secured.  He had followed God Faithfully and used his wisdom and wealth judiciously.  Yet lying in Solomon’s heart was the seed of his downfall.

What caused that downfall?  In a word, COMPROMISE.  Solomon

“The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon” – Edward Poynter, 1890