Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Bonus

Some companies give out a Christmas bonus (for the PC, a holiday bonus), or if they're technically driven, a performance bonus.  So here's something all of us can enjoy; one more point about the miracle of Christmas -- a 'Christmas bonus' if you will.

To paraphrase Max Lucado, God went through all this just for you.  If you were the only human on earth, the eternal Son of God would have come into human flesh with you, to be Immanuel, bringing humanity back into unity with God.  He would have died to pay for all your sins by his perfect, sinless sacrifice.  The hundreds of your sins would all be washed away by his sinless blood, and his rising from the dead on the first day of the week would have been your confidence of eternal resurrection. 

Even if it was only for you.  God loves that much!

Want some scriptures to read about this?  John 3:16, 1 John 3:16, 1 John 4:8, Romans 3:21-28, 6:23, 5:6-10, Eph. 1:3-5, for starters.  

How's that for a Christmas bonus?  This is one you can spend over, and over, and over...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday (and everyday) Memories

The Lovely Joanne happened to see a fascinating segment of the CBS magazine show "60 Minutes" this week.  This was about people who remember everything that has ever happened to them, from an early age.  They can remember and re-live every instance from any day in their lives, even 20 or 30 years ago, with perfect clarity.  (You can find the full story here.)  

Even without that perfect memory, I have some good memories of the past, and some very bad ones.  I'd like to remember the good ones better, and forget the bad ones forever.  But memory can be a useful tool as well as an irritant.  Memory can help us avoid repeating the same dumb stunts over and over, and hopefully remember dates that are important to our loved ones. (Note to self, remember more birthdays!)

Another thought about memory:  God has decided to forget all our sins.  In Isaiah 43:25, looking forward to forgiving all humans because of his Son Jesus, he says "I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again."  That's a wonderful promise!  And it's straight from God's own grace, not from our good works or deserving it.  I'm very thankful God has forgotten my sins --  I'd certainly like it if nobody on earth remembered any of them either!

Louise Owen, one of the people interviewed for the "60 Minutes" story, said about her gift of perfect memory, "it makes me live my life with so much more intention and so much more joy...Because I know that I'm gonna remember whatever happens today, it's like, all right, what can I do to make today significant?"  That comment made me stop and ask myself the same question.  How can I make today meaningful?  What can I do to plant a good memory in someone else's day, or bring joy to someone?  Paul tells us to live the "new life" in Eph. 4:23-24:  "Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy."  Being "more intentional" as Louise said, paying more attention to the new life we've been given, will help us leave those good memories for someone else.  And maybe even for ourselves.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Gospel -- A Scandal from the First

He was conceived by an unwed mother in a comparatively poor family.  The scandal in her small town probably shamed her entire clan.  Her fiance nearly broke off their engagement in shame.  She didn't get a baby shower, because all her well-behaved friends deserted her.  When the time came to deliver her baby, there was no midwife, no adoring friends to fight over who got to hold the new baby first, nobody to bring in meals for the new mother.  Jesus' first look at our world took in the inside of a barn, which might even have been a cave hollowed out in the soft limestone, thick with cobwebs, dust and lamp smoke -- even worse than the kind of place Bob Vila sees on "This Old House."  

Angels told people about this newborn king.  But they didn't give their good news to the city fathers, or the local judges or priests or teachers, whose reputations could have generated welcome and notoriety for the newborn.  Instead, the heavenly messengers gave the word to shepherds, who were not only smelly, but generally seen by the good townfolk as just barely on the right side of the law, not to be trusted.  So even the first witnesses to the Messiah's birth were outcasts.  What a scandal!

So it shouldn't have been any surprise, when Jesus started preaching, that he spent time with prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, and other disreputable types.  When Jesus told the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, all the 'good and bad' of the town were invited to the party, because all people need the Father's love.  He took heat from the religious establishment for getting too close to sinners.  They accused him of the same kind of sins as those he was around, but they had it wrong.  He was there to show all of them -- the religious posers and the honest sinners -- that Father God loved them, and the best way to do that was to spend time with them so they'd see as well as hear his message.  And he said, plainly, in Luke 19:10 that he came "to seek and to save the lost."  That was a scandal to the religious leaders, who assumed that good religious people should only be around other good religious people. 

Why all this?  Because if Jesus, the Son of God, had been born to a princess in a king's palace with royal attendants and gifts from Nordstrom's, and a scholarship to the best rabbinical school, then we could assume that he came only for the powerful and religious.  But grace, by nature, is scandalous!  God has adopted -- given complete forgiveness and acceptance into his own circle of love, without reservation -- to everyday sinners and losers like me and like you, through Jesus, freely.  If you don't understand that scandalous grace, can we talk?

God's scandal of grace was made plain in Jesus.  Now, most people don't believe God could possibly love somebody as messed up as them.  I was in the front of the line on that one.  But Jesus proved God loves us, by a humble birth in uncomfortable circumstances, and by scandalously accepting with open arms all the broken, messed-up people he could find.  He already loves you, right where you are. 

And that's the real meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Not to Be Served But to Serve

I like to be taken care of -- who doesn't?  A massage on a tight muscle, a great meal, and many other treats in life make me feel loved and cared for.  I've learned to give those things away too, because they show love for someone else.

The core reason we celebrate Christmas is that God took on flesh, becoming Jesus, to be with us.  But Jesus wasn't here to be waited on hand and foot.  He corrected the disciples for their self-seeking attitudes in Matthew 20.   He started the lesson by telling them (v. 17-19) that he himself was to die under the hand of the Jews and the Romans.  He told them straight out that they weren't to act like the Gentile rulers, taking advantage of others (v. 25-27).   He capped it off by reversing the normal order for big-wigs, in v. 28:  "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many." 

He'd been teaching this to the disciples for some time.  In Matthew 14, Jesus heard about his cousin John, the baptizer, being killed by Herod, and tried to get away, but everyone followed him.  Verse 14 says "Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick."  Then (v. 15) "That evening the disciples came to him and said, 'This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.' "  But Jesus wasn't going to let the disciples get away with turning others away!  Through a miracle, he made them feed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with one person's dinner. (He multiplied the food, but they had to do the work of distributing it.)

Jesus is still doing miracles and providing for people today.  He provides the resources, but he expects his disciples (yep, that would be you and me) to carry the stuff around.  So, how do we do that?  Some people I know feed the homeless, either directly or by contributing to a shelter.  Others help take care of someone in their neighborhood who is in need.  It can be simple, and not even expensive:  baking cookies; visiting someone who is home-bound or stuck in the hospital; or providing warm clothing for a family in need.

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus teaches on humble giving by saying we should provide for those who can't pay us back by giving something similar to us.  So why don't you and I make a special effort this month to do something for someone less able?  The message of the Gospel -- the love of God for people -- can begin with physical gifts that lead to spiritual breakthroughs.  It takes figuring out what they need and then deciding to provide it.  Just like Jesus did for you, and for me.  Just like he's continuing to do, and wants us involved in, today.  So let's get busy with Jesus!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Feasting and Fasting

This time of year we plan our big family meals, make travel plans and look forward to celebrations and reunions with loved ones. It's a time of joy, fun, and food -- although food seems to be #1 on that list!  And we rarely think of deciding to go without food for a day, because we're looking forward to those great meals. But from time to time, fasting -- voluntarily going without something -- is important.  It reminds us how physical we really are and how much we depend on (or are a slave to) nourishment or some other physical thing.

Isaiah talked about fasting in 58:3-7.  The nation self-righteously claimed to obey God because they could say they fasted.  Yet, Isaiah says, their posturing didn't affect their behavior; "oppressing your workers," and "fighting and quarreling" were two of their sins that continued.  "Going through motions of penance" does no good, says Isaiah, if your heart is not changed.  Instead, says the prophet, creating justice and stopping oppression, and feeding and clothing and housing the poor, is the kind of fast God wants.  Why is that a fast?  Because it is giving up something that makes us more comfortable, whether it's leisure time, additional food in the pantry, an extra jacket in the closet, or something else we're not really using anyway, in order to help someone else.

Isaiah's words didn't seem to have much effect on his own people.  But how did his words come to life in Jesus?  The Son of God 'fasted' from his divine privileges in order to do what Isaiah said: "let oppressed people go free, and remove the chains that bind people."  Paul describes how the Son of God, whom we know as Jesus, sacrificed himself to serve humans, in Philippians 2:6-8:  "Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross."  He didn't have to give up all that, but he didHe didn't deserve the criminal's death -- we did.   

The Son of God shared himself with the spiritually hungry as well as feeding them physically (see John 6:1-15 and 25-40).  He provides a home for the homeless:  "There is more than enough room in my Father’s home...When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am." (John 14:2-3).  He preached the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19, interpreting Isaiah's words directly).  And he fasted for 40 days before meeting Satan in the wilderness and defeating the evil one completely. 

Through Isaiah's words, God invites us to do what he has already done:  to become uncomfortable in order to provide comfort for someone else.  Jesus, the living Son of God, sacrificed all through his life, not just so we could 'follow an example' but so we would be completely included in him, and in the love of the Father:  "I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me." (John 17:23).  I know people who have experienced Jesus' love, and they share it with others.  They sacrifice their comfort so others can have more, they give up time and personal space and comfort, and money and food and clothing, so that someone else can have enough -- and so those people can also experience the love of God as they get included in that love. 

Jesus, the Son of God, fasted so we can feast.  How will you "go and do likewise" this year?   And if you don't know what this love of God for you really means, please give me a chance to explain it. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Meal with Jesus

Last weekend in church we looked at a bunch of different meals described in the Bible.  But they weren't just meals, like we might stop and eat because we're hungry:  the Middle Eastern tradition was and is that sharing food with someone shows they are accepted as family.  So these meals are depictions of fellowship, community, sharing, between God and all humanity.  And it is the Word of God, the Son, who came to 'fellowship' with us in the person of Jesus, (John 1:14) whose birth we are about to celebrate. 

The whole Bible points to Jesus the Messiah (see John 5:36-40, especially v. 39; Luke 24:25-27; and Hebrews 1:1-3) and we should look for him every time we pick up the scriptures. 

So in what way are these meals pictures of Jesus?  Here's a brief summary: 

1.  Gen. 18:1-8 -- The Son of God is present at the meal with Abraham, looking forward to his human life, sharing our humanity, and promising a miraculous child, Isaac, who was the first domino in a long line that led to the birth of Jesus.
2.  Ex. 12:1-11 -- Jesus is the Passover lamb.
3.  Lev. 3:1-5 and 7:11-16 -- Jesus is the fellowship offering that the people shared (the only offering eaten by the person bringing it) in the presence of God at the temple
4.  Isa. 25:6-8 -- Jesus is the 'wonderful feast' during which God takes away the shadow of death hanging over all people and swallows up death forever
5.  John 2:1-11 -- Jesus supplies the wine as a symbol of his own blood, that purifies us rather than the water of washings
6.  Matthew 9:9-13 -- Jesus calls Matthew to be his disciple, and eats with all of Matthew's friends (a bunch of sinners and cheats) at a fellowship meal, showing God's loving embrace, through Jesus, of every sinner in the world -- including the complaining Pharisees! 
7.  Matt. 22:1-14 -- Jesus is the gracious invitation from the King to the wedding feast; and supplies the celebration garment of his own righteousness
8.  Luke 22:19-20 -- Jesus serves himself to us as bread and wine, his own body and blood given for us.  This is the ultimate fellowship meal, which he invites us to share, more than just an offering for sin but as a sharing in his own life
9.  Rev. 19:7 -- the wedding feast of the Lamb, a fellowship meal of epic proportions, is a present reality for all those who know their place as accepted and loved children of the Father "in Christ," and will be a final reality for all who will walk into God's loving embrace

All these meals picture a gracious invitation from God to every person on earth -- that he accepts us as family, as his own beloved children, adopted into himself by Jesus (Eph. 1:3-5).  As we move toward our Thanksgiving feasts, how about remembering the ultimate feast -- around a table with Jesus?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

God - With - Us

One of the most outrageous prophecies of the Old Testament is in Isaiah 7:14 -- "All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).  Matthew claims in his gospel as he describes Mary, a young virgin, being made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, "All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet," then quotes Isaiah's words.  This amazing gift of God, that God would no longer be remote but would truly be with us humans, is something we celebrate (is that a good enough word?) every year during Advent. But it gets better!

What most people don't realize is that the Incarnation, as we call it -- the Word being made flesh (John 1:14) didn't end after Jesus was killed on the cross and then resurrected.  Jesus showed himself to the disciples, who thought he was some kind of spook, and said "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." (Luke 24:39).  And yes, the Greek says "flesh and bones."   Jesus still had his human body, just hyped up somehow (he still ate, Luke 24:41-43, but he could appear and disappear at will, verses 31 and 36).  

In Acts 1:1-9, he is shown ascending to heaven in the same body.  And in Acts 7:55-56, Stephen sees Jesus (note, Jesus, not "the Son of God" or "Christ") standing at the Father's right hand, and says "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man [showing Jesus' humanity] standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!"  The man, Jesus Christ, is still at the Father's right hand,  (1 Tim. 2:5) as our Mediator, and he prays for us as our High Priest: "Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf." (Heb 7:25).

Jesus himself -- Immanuel -- is right now at the right hand of God Almighty, perfectly representing you, speaking for you, praying for you.  He is, right now, still God in the flesh, God-With-Us, the only perfect mediator because he is both "us" and God.  Yes, still.  Yes, right now.  Yes, forever.

No matter what we are going through, he still knows just exactly how we feel -- fatigue and disappointment and worry and pain and betrayal and fear and every other human emotion -- because he went through it all.  He still has his scars.  He still knows our own personal pain.  And he has defeated all of it, forever!  He is our encourager through the presence of the Holy Spirit ("another Advocate like me" John 14:16).  And he will never leave us (Mat. 28:20) so we know we are never alone.

And it's not just "God-With-Us" -- it's God-with-you.  Yes, you.  He really loves you that much.  Really! And he always will.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Face to Face (part 5)

My friend Jack read one of these posts and said something like "so if you want to see God, why not look in the mirror?"  I thought he was being funny, because he has a wacky sense of humor, and sometimes he thinks he's God, but he was serious.  "Hey, we're supposed to be made in the image of God, so shouldn't you see peace, patience, love and all those things, in the mirror?"  Hmmm... Well, what if he's right?

After all, Genesis 1:26 starts off with  "Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness."  So how are we made in God's image and likeness?  From all I've studied, it's by being relational persons, and having the ability to make decisions.  (Certainly not from being approximately the same size and shape as God!)  So indeed, Jack could be right -- if we are made in the image of God, then the "peace, patience, love and all those things" that are aspects of God's character should show up in us. 

Except, well, our first parents messed things up. Their minds and lives became filled with anxiety, impatience, hatred and a lot of other negative selfish traits, instead of the good ones.  We've all ended up following them, down through the generations. Except for Jesus.  Paul explains in Romans 5:12 "When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned." But Paul continues by explaining God didn't leave us in death, comparing Adam with Jesus in several different ways.  Then in verse 18 he says  "Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone."  Over in 2 Cor. 5:17, Paul continues the thought, saying "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! " 

Paul used that phrase "in Christ" about 90 times in his letters.  I looked it up in the Greek.  It means "in Christ."  Like, inside of, part of, living in.  So the way it's supposed to work is, Christ pours into us his love for us, his love for others, his "peace, patience, love and all those things."  He creates those expressions of his love in us, so we can "bear much fruit" as he said in John 15.  But then there are the days we don't feel like it's working; when nothing turns out right and we respond like a "sore-toothed bear" as my mom used to say.  What's up with that?  We're still "in Christ" -- but those days, we're paying more attention to what's going on outside of us than who we're inside of

How do we make it work?  We have to surrender to the mind of Christ in us.  In Philippians 2:5 Paul writes "You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had" then goes on to describe Christ's humility and other-centered serving in his human life.  The Son of God gave up everything to come live with us.  We have to give up our self-centered thinking, in order to live in him and let him put his peace in us. 

And that's when the image in the mirror turns out to be God after all!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Face to Face (part 4)

Many people read the Bible and conclude there are two Gods -- a distant, demanding and judgmental "angry sky god" in the Old Testament, and a gentle, loving, compassionate and sacrificing Jesus in the New.  They want to hide from the old, angry one and get loved on by the new one.  Behind that idea is the unspoken concept that Jesus sneaked down onto the earth when the Father wasn't looking, figured out a way to save everybody by standing in the way of the thunderbolts the Father aimed at sinners, died on the cross and then had to get resurrected so he could explain the whole thing when he went back to heaven.  (The Father, according to this idea, had to forgive Jesus his sneaky insolence, because of the good result.)

Not so.   John 1:1 says the Word, who became Jesus (that name means "God saves") was 'face to face' with God from the beginning.  John 3:16 says "God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son..."  John 4:34 says "My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me."  John 5:19-20 says "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing...For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing."  And in John 8:29, he says "And the one who sent me is with me—he has not deserted me. For I always do what pleases him."  

Jesus speaks of the intimate contact and love between him and his Father in John 17.  Verse 24: "you loved me even before the world began!"  Verse 11, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one."  Verse 21"I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you."  

There is no other God for us to know than the one we see revealed in Jesus.  In John 14:9, he says "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!" And in 17:26, "I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them."  What love is that?  17:23 says "I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me." 

There's the real kicker.  Knowing God is not some sort of five-page essay test, and if you don't get a high enough grade you're out.  Instead, when we look to Jesus, seeing and trusting him to bring us into that intimacy with the Father, we also get to see the Father, face to face.  When we do, we will begin to see the depth and magnificence of the love of the Father for the Son from eternity (John 1:1 and 17:24, see above); and we will come to see that the same exact love is given to us, for free, because of Jesus.  

Look at Jesus, and get face to face with the Father.  It changes everything!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Face to Face with God

It's always been God's idea to have face-to-face fellowship with humanity.  It is only our own disbelief and stubbornness that keeps us from having that closeness.  Adam and Eve, our first parents, walked and talked with God, until they decided (with some help from Satan) that he was holding out on them.  They withdrew from God, and there's been nothing but trouble in the world since then.

So God, who has infinite patience with us rascals, (see 1 Timothy 1:16) kept on pursuing us even when we wouldn't listen.  He rescued Israel from Egypt, to honor his promises to Abraham, and met them at Sinai to give them what we call the Old Covenant.  But they couldn't handle the fireworks and noise level (Deut. 5:4-5) so they asked him to talk to Moses alone; so God spoke with Moses face to face, instead of directly to the people.  (Ex. 33:11, Deut. 34:10).  He pursued his messy people Israel with prophets and judges, using all kinds of different metaphors and ways to describe himself, but still they didn't listen.  Finally, the Father sent his only Son. 

And still, some people didn't believe, even though God was standing there in the flesh in front of them.  Can we believe?  The Gospel accounts were written so we'd believe (John 20:30-31) but we still have a decision to make.  We need to turn and face Jesus, and give up on working our way to God by being good (that's what most religions and even many Christians teach), or even by trying to keep the Ten Commandments and the other Old Covenant laws.  Or by avoiding smoking or drinking or movies or sinners.  We have to turn and face Jesus, and believe that he has already saved us from everything we can't save ourselves from -- which is everything.  When we turn and face Jesus, we can see clearly (see 2 Cor. 3) for the first time.

What do we see when we turn to Jesus?  More on that next time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

God With Us: reflections on the Chilean mine rescue

I didn't write this but wish I had.  You can see or listen to it online, or get the script here:


Thanks to God for his deliverance through Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Face to Face (part 2)

Experts say 90% of communication is non-verbal -- that is, not the words themselves, but the vocal inflection, timing, and the facial and bodily expressions that go with the words.  This is why I'd rather see my wife while we talk, than just speak on the phone, as I can understand more of what she's saying.

John, the apostle, seems to have known Jesus best of the twelve.  He wrote his gospel to comment on Jesus' divinity and how he reveals the Father to us.  John writes in chapter 1 verse 1, that "In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God, and the Word was God."  The word "with" in English indicates being next to, or participating; but that's far too simple a thought here.  It is translated from the Greek "pros" which has the idea of connection, nearness and intimacy.  It means, in this usage, something like "face to face with."  John takes it even farther in verse 14, when the Word (who became human, now obviously speaking of Jesus) is called "the Father's one and only Son."  So John is painting a portrait here of a Being who is God, who is also face-to-face with God, and who also became human

Verse 18 is also powerful:  "No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us."  The Greek here says "God the one and only" or "God the uniquely begotten one".  That's the one we know now as Jesus; who as the eternal Word, became a human being just like us and showed us who and how the Father really is. The Hebrew writers and prophets described God as best they could; but human language was just not good enough.  God himself came to be with us and let us see him, to supply all the information that language alone couldn't provide (among other reasons).

Jesus was giving the disciples a deeper understanding of his relationship with the Father in John 14.  He said to Philip in verse 9, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you?"  So when we want to understand who God really is, what he's really saying, we look at Jesus.  Jesus was and is God, not just a prophet; so what he shows us is more complete than what was said before.  There is no other "God" hiding behind Jesus' back.  There aren't two different faces to God, the God of anger and judgment on one hand and the God of love in Jesus on the other -- that's our own misunderstanding of the scriptures.  There isn't any other mysterious 'plan of God' besides Jesus.  Jesus is the One who brings out in detail the full plan and purpose of God from creation:  that is, to be with us, to save us from all our sins and failings and to get us close to him so he can show us what real life and real love are about -- forever!

Jesus was and is God's equivalent, for us, of all the non-verbal communication cues that we use in trying to understand others.  His life and teachings, in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, are there to help us get face-to-face with God and understand him.  So let's continue to look to him (Heb. 12:1-2) until we actually get to see him with our own resurrected eyes.  More on that next time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Face to Face

The Lovely Joanne and I talk by phone during her business trips, as a way to stay connected.  What's better is when she can call me on her computer and we can see each others' faces.  We can read the emotions in the facial expressions, not just hear the words, and that's a far greater connection. 

Wouldn't it be nice to have a direct, face-to-face connection with God?  Adam and Eve got to talk with God in the garden of Eden.  Abraham spoke with God in person (Gen. 18) but that seems to have been a rare thing even for Abraham.  Moses was said to talk face to face with God in Ex. 33:7-11, but ancient Israel as a whole never saw God's face or heard his voice.  Who said that?  Jesus himself, in John 5:37:  "And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face."  

Let's look at those words in context, in John 5.  Jesus heals a lame man at the pool of Bethesda, where people who were "blind, lame and paralyzed" waited for an occasional miraculous healing.  The Pharisees, keepers of all things righteous, objected to Jesus 'breaking' the Sabbath day.  Jesus begins to explain how they don't see what is right in front of them -- explaining that he is the Son of God, so clearly that they are ready to kill him (verses 16-18).  He says that he does only what he "sees his Father doing" and his Father "love the Son and shows him everything he is doing" (19-20).  Jesus says that "those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life" (24). 

Again, he talks about his relationship with the Father, and the authority he carries, in 36-38:  "But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you."  To cap that off, he tells them that they are refusing to see what the Father has been showing them in the scriptures: "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life" (39-40).  

Jesus met people who were blind, lame and paralyzed at the pool.  For some reason, we only read about one whom he healed, although there could have been others, because John has a specific reason for bringing this story to us.  What is it?  That these Pharisees were spiritually blind, lame and paralyzed by their refusal to believe.  (Watch the number of times Jesus refers to seeing and hearing in this passage.)  Most of all, he points to himself as the one true Messenger from the Father.  Jesus came to show us the Father (John 14:9) so that we would no longer be blind, lame or paralyzed spiritually; and so we would see the Father through him, face to face.  

Want to see God face to face, to know him intimately?  Look at Jesus.  More on that next time. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Do You Know?

Here we are again, deep in another school year.  I'm taking a class (and am behind already!) and a bunch of young people I know are taking classes too.  Later this year, we'll all get tested on what we know.  In high school, many students will take the ACT or the SAT tests to see if they know enough for college.  So everybody wants to know what we know, or how much we know.

Everybody except God, that is.  God doesn't care how many facts you've memorized or whether you can solve quadratic equations or chemistry problems.  He wants you to know him:  "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).

One of the reasons Jesus came is to reveal the Father to us; so that by what he said and did, we would truly know God.  He showed us the Father's heart, by healing and teaching and loving us, and by being lifted up on the cross for us:  "In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life. "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life."  (John 3:14-17).

So, what do you know?  Do you know facts about God, or do you know a Person?  Have you memorized scripture or are you actively pursuing a living relationship with the living Jesus Christ, the Son of God?  He has already accepted you, drawn you into himself and saved you (Col. 1:19-20)-- but do you live every day knowing him and focusing on him?  Has his mind in you changed the way you think about everything you are and do?  He's still working to help me see him, and he'll keep working with you too.

Get to know Jesus -- who he is, is more important than anything else you'll ever learn!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Keeping it Simple (Part 4)

My Windows 'desktop' on my computer keeps getting more complicated.  Too many icons for audios I haven't listened to yet and for projects I promised somebody I'd do.  Just too busy and cluttered.  Oops, I guess I mean life as well.

I have to admit, I've done some of it to myself.  To be useful and helpful, I have taken on more work.  Other people have been really good about letting me some responsibilities to them, which has left me free to take on other tasks that I got asked to do, or decided on my own to attempt.

Why?  Because we humans are designed to interact with God, to have him fully in place as Numero Uno; and when he isn't completely there, our lives don't work right.  We keep trying to patch that brokenness with other stuff that sounds good at the time.  We try serial relationships, responsibilities and titles that make us feel more important, more material goods that we have to paint or clean or lubricate or make room for, or food or sex or money.  But all those are unsatisfying, and they get in the way of the peace that would be ours from completely trusting God.  Because he is the one -- the only one -- who can satisfy that craving for being included, wanted, needed, loved and fitting in.  He planned from before the first humans drew breath, that we would be invited and included in his love, (Eph. 1:3-5) and he wired us to want that, to have an itch so deep that only he can scratch it -- so that eventually, we would turn and look for him.

The good news is, God is the one who already loves us completely, already considers us important, and already includes us totally in his love.  He loves us so much that his Son died for us, "while we were utterly helpless...while we were still sinners...while we were his enemies" according to Romans 5:6-10Nobody else could ever love you or me like that!

So why do we all do it fall into these traps?  Because we don't accept that unlimited love that flows to us from God.  We don't feel worthy; we don't believe he has really forgiven us.  But the scripture is plain -- he already has forgiven and accepted us, without our having done anything.  Ephesians 2:8-10 says that our salvation (simply, acceptance into God's love) is by faith, and even that faith is a gift from God.  You and I didn't earn it, we can't earn it, and it won't happen because of what we do. It's simply a gift.

Simply, God has saved you and me because of his son Jesus -- and that is a gift that we need to accept, and let his acceptance and love soak into every part of our thinking. When we fully accept what God has done, we will find the peace in life that we've always looked for, and a simplicity that will make everything else in life fall into its rightful place.  Looking for the simple life?  Look no farther!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Keeping it Simple (Part 3)

The Amazing Joanne and I just spent a week camping by a lake at about 8,500 feet elevation (3,000 feet higher than our home).  Pit toilets, a metal picnic table and fire ring, and our camping gear including a small tent and sleeping bags.  That was about it for the week except for coin-operated hot showers in the main building a mile down the road.  We brought our food from home and cooked it over one fire or the other, and ate pretty well for being out in the boonies.

We got to read some books that aren't required for work, went to sleep listening to the loons, woke up hearing geese honk on their way south, talked about stuff we hadn't discussed in awhile, and watched some great sunrises and sunsets.  And fished.  Well, when I say 'fished' I mean we stood by the lake and waved fiberglass sticks at the fish as they swam by.  They didn't wave back.  Or anything else.  So we're having frozen salmon for dinner tonight, to get back at them.

I didn't miss television, amplified music or stock market reports.  A few people tried to call but nobody got through because I had my phone turned off nearly all week.  I continued to be amazed throughout the week at what we could get along without.  We made the deliberate effort to slow down, simplify and get away, and it was very refreshing. 

Finding life too busy?  So do I, fairly often.  Some of my chores are self-appointed, and so I have to decide to un-appoint myself as their custodian.  Other chores have to be done, but sometimes other people can do them better than me. Other chores will wait.  Possessions -- as I mentioned a few weeks ago -- tend to demand attention, but I can get rid of them instead, if I really want to. 

Paul said to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:7-8) that we should be okay having just the basics:  "After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content."  Ah, contentment -- so elusive when you're always after more!  But if our focus is on God and what he wants (Matthew 6:33) then he will guide us into what he wants us occupied with.  We will find that his will is far more satisfying than all the stuff and nonsense this world has to offer. Ready to ask God for clarity on his will?  The result can save your life!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Keeping it Simple (Part 2)

I miss The Lovely Joanne when she's away.  I don't sleep as well and I get distracted a lot.  On a much more powerful level, we humans are made to be connected, at the heart level, with God.  (Some of my agnostic friends and relatives disagree, but that's okay for the moment.)  We're created not to be alone, but in relationship with God.  That is so fundamentally important to us, something goes haywire in our souls when that connection is not active, or not primary, in our lives. Our thinking is confused, and our other relationships don't work the way they should. So we try to fill up that hole in our hearts with stuff, busyness, people and chores to make ourselves feel needed; but it's not the same as that one relationship.

Getting our connection with God back can be helped by practicing simplicity.  I wrote last time about how, in Jesus' words, we need to "seek the Kingdom of God above all else" (Matthew 6:33).  Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, describes "an inward reality that results in an outward life-style" (page 79).  Some try to create an outward show of simplicity without the inner conviction.  Foster notes that this always results in legalism, and I've seen enough legalism to agree with him. We should be convinced, as well, that an inward simplicity of thinking and belief will result in changes that we will express on the outside

Jesus' words about God's Kingdom spring from an older and more basic command: "And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength" in Deut. 6:5.  We might see that as a one-time decision, but it seems to me like a lifetime journey.  Every day offers distractions, temptations, and siren songs of busyness, chores and responsibilities.  The more stuff we have, the more we work at maintaining it; and if we look at what others have -- not just their possessions, but their positions -- we are likely to try harder to catch up to where we think they are. And all of it distracts us from God.

So how can we get some of this simplicity? A focus on loving God with all we have, encourages us to trust him too.  Trusting God to supply what we need is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6.  That trust enables us to stop striving, and to enjoy what we have right now.  It helps us to stop working for more stuff, more power, more position, more respect and awe and love from other people.  It helps us accept others, right where they are now, even as we learn to accept the position we are in now.  Paul says "I have learned the secret of living in every situation" in Philippians 4:12; and he had lived through all kinds of pain and trouble as well as comfortable living by trusting God to handle his needs and his future. 

How do you simplify life when it is just too busy?  We'll look at that next time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Keeping it Simple (Part 1)

Sometimes I wonder where all the 'stuff' in my life came from.  It's everywhere - in the house, in the closets, in the garage, in the yard.  I don't even remember where some of these things came from, but here they are, and because I have to store them and maintain them and repair them, it seems like they own me!  Yikes!  Is that how this is supposed to work?

In a word, no.  The Message Bible says in Eccl. 7:29, "God made men and women true and upright; we're the ones who've made a mess of things." James says in 4:2-3 that every kind of conflict comes from evil desires for more, more, more:  "You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure."  Adam and Eve messed things up when they wanted more, and we're still doing it!

Jesus gave us our priorities in Matt. 6:33 -- "Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need."   Earlier, in verse 24, he said we cannot succeed by having two gods:  "You cannot serve both God and money."  So do we give all our stuff away so we can just live simply?  Richard Foster, in his classic book Celebration of Discipline, quotes Kirkegaard commenting on this passage, 'no, we must first seek God's kingdom.'  Shall we spend all our time preaching the Gospel so our lives will be properly simple?  No, we must first seek God's kingdom.  In other words, we have to get our inward life right, then we will find the right outward expression of what is true inwardly. 

Simplicity, as a spiritual tool, is a huge topic.  Foster writes a chapter on it, and barely begins to outline it.  But simplicity begins, and continues, with having our hearts and energies and lives focused on the will of God.  Studying the life and teachings of Jesus, and how those were expounded by the rest of the New Testament, is our best view of 'the will of God.'  As Jesus himself said in John 6:28-29: They replied, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?”  Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.”

Focus on what he said just there, and we will find simplicity.  More on this idea next time. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Are We There Yet?

"Are we there yet?" How many times have I heard that? 

The good news -- make that the incredibly great news -- is, something has happened that means you really are gonna get there, but in another way it says you've already arrived. 

Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-6 "God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus."  See, the dead don't raise themselves, they have to be raised; and the instant Christ was raised, all humanity was, in a spiritual sense, raised from the dead along with him.  That happened before we could recognize it or make a choice to accept it or not, and Paul says that, because of what Christ did to unite us with him, we're already 'seated...in the heavenly realms.'  

"Now, Mark," you might say, "Paul may think that's true, but he doesn't go to my school, and that really doesn't sound like 3rd Period Spanish with Ramirez."  Or, for adults, working at the welding shop, or being a single parent.  So can it be true that we're 'in the heavenly realms' when life looks just the opposite?  What is a 'heavenly realm' anyway? 

What Jesus did for you and me, a long time ago, was to make sure that every human ever born was invited into the circle of family love that originates in the Triune God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  That love is self-giving, it finds its joy in seeing others thrive, it honors others above itself, and is endlessly flowing outward.  It is without boundary, without holding back, and without end. That love reached out to us in the person of  Jesus and loved us too.  In Jesus' words, "...you love them as much as you love me" (John 17:23).  Wow, how do we understand that?  Does God really love us that much?  Yes, he does.  Jesus said so.  

Being in 'the heavenly realms' I think, is being loved like that -- already!  If we can begin to imagine that, it's the only way we can understand the overwhelming reality of being with God in eternity -- being loved without limits and without end.  Sound like heaven to you?  It does to me!  So even in 3rd Period Spanish, if nobody else loves you -- God still does.  Jesus said so.  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Giving It Up

Our Western society is not known for self-denial.  We have fast-food palaces practically everywhere, with 'dollar menus' set up to drain the last resources from our wallets.  We're not accustomed to having to wait for food, or for that matter, anything else -- some people even watch movies and TV on their mobile phones instead of returning home or going to the cinema! 

Youthworker.com posted an article on July 26 called "Going Techless" that told the story of a girl who went without her cellphone, radio, television and computer for a week (you can watch the full news segment, on NickNews, here.)  At first she drove everyone crazy, then later in the week began talking instead of texting, and "began cooking, singing and playing the guitar." Who knew? 

Jesus reminded us of the perils of our "stuff" when he said in Luke 12:15 “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”  I looked that verse up in the Greek -- it says "all greed."  Wow, all?  Every type? What if I really, really like chocolate?  Or books, even theology books?  Or food?  The Boss was telling us to not let anything get the upper hand on us that turns out to be a subtle form of outright idolatry -- having something else that is more important than God. 

The Bible describes 'fasting' as a way to tell ourselves "no."  Fasting typically refers to going without food, but truly, it could refer to anything that we use that threatens to become too important to us.  People sometimes fast from television, a certain food, or some other part of life; and instead of moping around the house in despair from not having it, they use that extra time and energy to serve God instead of themselves.  

But it takes courage and dedication to give up, even for awhile, something we are so tied to.  It's a sacrifice!  But those sacrifices can teach us a lot about ourselves:  what's most important to us, and how much time we waste on what isn't really important.  How about it?  Is there something you would give up for God?  What would it be?  Why? For how long?  When will you start?  What will you do with the extra energy you get?  It's worth asking yourself the questions, then getting started!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hangin' Out

A full week of summer camp is just finished, and The Amazing Joanne and I spent that time with a wonderfully charming and crazy-energetic bunch of teens and staff at 8,500 feet near Buffalo Creek.  We ran around together doing sports, chapel, meals and a lot of other fun things.  For me, the best was just hangin' out -- after a meal, before an activity, a chance encounter along the path, even a conversation while putting clean dishes away.  To have that kind of relaxed fun with a friend (old or brand-new) was a treat. 

Jesus hung out with his disciples a lot.  The video "Matthew," shot using the NIV of the Gospel of Matthew as its script, shows Jesus (played with depth and passion by Bruce Marchiano) laughing, teasing and conversing with his disciples; a real look at God in the flesh. Rather than just preaching all the time, Jesus is shown hangin' out with his followers, whom he treats as friends, and having conversations with them.  There is plenty of teaching, of course; but a lot of it is in the process of everyday life with its ups and downs.  He settles arguments, uses everyday events as teaching moments, and even engages in a water fight with his 'dorm' in a local stream.  (It doesn't show who won, but I have an idea.)

The Boss said at the end of Matthew, 28:19-20, that we should make disciples wherever we go; and then, he said "And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  His words "I am" are in the plain ol' present tense, not anything conditional.  So he's still walking around with us, hangin' out as it were, teaching us as we go, and helping us figure out what this "discipling" thing is about. 

So I think the best thing we can do is to learn how to 'hang out' with Jesus better and better.  To be more aware that he is here (in the person of the Holy Spirit, who "will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13) and be more careful to listen.  We know he wants to lead us; so we need to 'listen up' as we sometimes say at camp, to be able to hear him.  He'll teach us through the written Word, through awareness of the spiritual realities all around us, through the good words of friends, and other ways.  Let's see what happens if we 'listen up' even better, shall we?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Changing My Mind

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Eastern Europe in 1473. He grew up, as a mathematician and scholar, in an age when "everyone knew" the sun revolved around the earth.  He studied astronomy in Krakow, and probably began to take it seriously in about 1497 (five years after Christopher Columbus's famous voyage).  He began tracking the movements of the moon, planets and stars, becoming more and more convinced that common knowledge was wrong.  Finally, in 1543, just at the end of his life, his book showing mathematical proof of the sun as the center of our galaxy was finally published.  Today, we take his ideas for granted, but Nicolaus studied for nearly 50 years to understand, refine and publish a revolutionary idea. 

We all have ideas, like the one Copernicus overturned, that aren't correct.  In order to change those ideas, we need to spend time studying the truth and learning to re-order our thinking processes.  It may not take 50 years, but it will take time and effort. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 to 'let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.' 

Jesus himself said in John 8:32, "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."  Which truth did he mean that would set us free?  He also said "I am the truth" in John 14:6, so I believe that he was talking about himself, and truth dealing with himself -- not mathematical or theoretical truth, or merely memorizing a set of Bible verses. 

So the question is, how can we learn that truth?  We Christians believe the Bible is our spiritual guidebook; and we also believe that Jesus Christ is the full, complete and perfect revelation of God (John 14:9, for instance).  So as we read the word of God, we will know the truth about Jesus and thus about God's plans for us and the way he provided for us in Jesus.  Hebrews 12:2 says "We do this [endure in the Christian life] by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith." 

There are many warnings in the Bible to not be deceived, distracted and hurt by focusing on things that don't profit.  So for us, the way we can keep our focus, and know the truth, is to focus on Christ and learn about him.  There's a lot in the Bible about him; I think you'll find that the entire Bible focuses on him.  So as we focus on him, study about him, and see the truth revealed in him and through him, God will "change the way we think" and we will know the truth.  Let's get to it!  Need help?  Just ask!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I've been mowing lawns since I was about six years old, so pushing a lawnmower -- or growing grass that must be mowed -- has sort of lost its shine for me.  But because I love my wife (The Amazing Joanne) we have a lawn with grass, and I help work on it.  This morning, I pulled weeds for an hour while it was still more-or-less cool outside.  Adam was told in Genesis 3 after he rebelled in the perfect garden, "the ground is cursed because of you.  All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you..."  So every time I dig or pull weeds, I remember that note.  But it's not just the ground that grows harmful things; our minds and emotions do too. 

In Hebrews 12:15, we're told " Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many."  When we focus on a real or imagined hurt, and let that divide us from our friends and family, and from our family in Christ, we start believing that the hurt is more important than the relationship.  That's a lie!  But that lie has destroyed many friendships and family bonds. 

Hurting others, or letting ourselves be poisoned by hurt, are two very common kinds of weed.  There are many more:  lust, greed, envy, anger, selfish ambition, idolatry (anything ahead of God in our lives) and so on.  Galatians 5:16-21 tells us to be steered by the Spirit of God, not the fleshly pull that produces those weeds.

How do you destroy weeds?  In a lawn, pulling or digging them out is one way.  Another step is to feed the grass and make it so healthy that the weeds get choked out.  No, seriously -- if the grass is good and strong, and covers all the available soil, there won't be any way for weed seeds to get rooted and grow.  Gal. 5:22-26 gives us more:  "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!"  Those are 'good grass,' the kind of thing God is himself, and that he wants in us.  It goes on to say "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives."  So, we're told to make sure we're really focusing on our Christian life, and that will produce the good results in life.  That's both pro-active, by choosing to focus on God, and reactive, because God will continue to 'fertilize and water us' with his Word and his Spirit.

It's easy enough to get tired, and then lose our focus or ambition to live our whole lives focused on Christ.  To let the TV or internet or idle ideas dominate our minds -- and that gives a spot for the weeds to take root.  Then, they start blocking out the good results God wants in us, like weeds block the sun from the grass.  So we need to keep on top of our day-to-day living, and let God water and fertilize us so our lives will be filled with the fruits of the Spirit -- not the weeds of the flesh. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Prayer: Talking and Listening

"Now I lay me down to sleep..." goes the old childhood prayer.  That's  fine for two-year-olds, I guess, but the more we grow in Christ, the more we should know and practice deeper prayer.  Prayer is hard work, not an exercise in reciting some words or giving God our to-do list for his day! But good prayer, deep prayer, changes our own ideas and our lives. 

I wrote in January about my own feelings of not wanting to be threatened by being too close to God, in a post called "Half a Cup of Jesus".  It's common for us to ask for a few things from God, but not to get too close to him, because he might ask something of us that we don't want to do.  Even when confessing a sin or weakness, we can leave it at "God, I'm sorry this happened, help me not to do it again" without letting him show us our deeper motives that keep drawing us to that hurtful behavior. 

Some quote Jesus' words in Matt. 21:22, "You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it" to prove that God is obligated to deliver whatever we ask for "in faith."  That idea turns God into a vending machine or a servant at our pleasure, which is backwards to our true relationship with him.  James reminds us in 4:2-3 "Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure." And so Richard Foster explains "To 'ask rightly' involves transformed passions.  In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God's thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills"  (Celebration of Discipline, p. 33).  That would have to involve focus: intently pursuing a problem, or a motive of ours, to inquire as to God's view on it; being willing to hear him tell us we've not been thinking, acting or speaking from love; and being ready to yield to his will even if it looks like a loss to our agenda. 

We could say that prayer is bending our bodies and our thoughts to God, in an exercise of the mind and will that works to transform us from self-centered to God-centered persons. Real prayer is work -- the hard work of facing ourselves and submitting to God -- not a relaxed little session of pleasant thoughts as an interlude to our otherwise 'busy' day.  We will still have requests of God, and we will still ask him to change the circumstances around us -- but as we grow up in prayer, our requests will come from a deeper sense of his love for us and others, and we may be surprised about how many answers we receive once our motives are the same as God's. 

And that will be worth all the effort. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thinking About It

I'm basically a lazy person, especially in the area of physical exercise.  But as I get older, regular workouts become more necessary to keep me strong and able to move around.  The same is true with the human brain:  if it receives regular workouts, it stays more limber, focuses better and keeps its memory better. Clear thinking is also important to a clear path in life; without it, we can't know how to conduct ourselves, or where we might need to change our actions.

Thinking clearly, especially about God, is work. But without it, we can't hear from God.  One of the spiritual disciplines we find practiced in the Bible is meditation, which sounds to some like daydreaming and to others like a weird practice bordering on the occult.  But the real definition of it, according to Richard Foster in his classic book Celebration of Discipline, is "the ability to hear God's voice and obey his word" (p.17).  The references in the Bible refer to placing ourselves humbly before God in repentance and submission, and "changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God" (p. 15). 

Jesus practiced meditation as part of his spiritual life. That guidance was crucial to him:  in John 5:19, he says "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does."  One of many places he is described as seeking time alone with the Father is Matt. 14:13.  Being away from the crowds gave him the time and freedom from distractions to hear from his Father.  And though Jesus no longer is physically present on earth, he is still active through his followers and expects us to seek him, as shown many times in the book of Acts.  

Individually, meditation is a growing, familiar relationship with God through his son Jesus, as led by the Holy Spirit's work.  It's a divine-human encounter; God-centered, not me-centered.  It is a driving force behind a healthy daily experience of God's presence and will for us.  If we don't stop to ask God "what should I do?" for our daily routine or for our emergencies and puzzles, how will we know his will?  Stopping to have an internal conversation with God about our lives is one way we can be led and corrected by God.

We can meditate while we are reading scripture; looking at the wonders of Creation; thinking over a problem we face -- and stopping to ask God's direction; during prayer, when we've said all we can say and pause for God's prompting; and many other times and ways.  It's best to avoid distractions, so we could predict that meditating in a quiet place would be more helpful than while driving!  A good way to practice meditating is to start by reading scripture and then humbly praying for God's guidance in applying it.  That's similar to what Luke says about Jesus's mother in Luke 2:19:  "Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often."

Not familiar with meditation?  Today is a good time to start. Worried you won't be good at it?  Nobody is, at first; but as we practice meditation, it becomes more a part of our daily habits and gives us strength for the day's journey.  It's worth the trouble and will give you many spiritual rewards.  Why not start today?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gardening and Eternity

Since buying our house, The Amazing Joanne and I have been trying to grow things outside -- some to look at, and some to eat -- with different amounts of success.  It's no secret that our soil needs to be improved (I wrote about that awhile back) and here in Colorado, one of the biggest tricks is knowing when to plant which thing.  But one fact is sure:  to get something to grow, you have to actually plant it. 

Paul knew that was a fact in spiritual life too.  In Galatians 6:7-8, he writes "You cannot fool God, so don't make a fool of yourself! You will harvest what you plant. If you follow your selfish desires, you will harvest destruction, but if you follow the Spirit, you will harvest eternal life."  He wrote this in the context of selfishness versus generosity, but I think it applies pretty much across the board.

What's important, then, is to find ways to 'follow the Spirit' as a habit -- to put ourselves in the position of being able to hear the Spirit's voice of guidance, so we can respond.  From earliest Christian practice, people have used spiritual tools called "Discipines" to help them hear from the Spirit.  Earlier in Galatians, (5:16) Paul wrote "So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves."  In verse 19, he says "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear" and then he goes on to list the kind of sins and addictions that are all around us -- the kind of sins we have all been guilty of!  Then he says "the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  Which of these lists would you rather have characterize your life?  Whether we like it or not, that will depend on what we invest our time and effort in.

Richard Foster defines some of these spiritual disciplines as "Inward"; that is, dealing with our thoughts:  meditation, prayer, fasting, and study of God's word.  Outward disciplines he notes are:  simplicity, solitude, submission, and service.  Corporate disciplines, those that we can practice together, include confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.  Jesus used spiritual disciplines, and so should we.  I'll be writing on these disciplines as a series, and hope that they will help you as well as me.

What we put in the ground determines what kind of garden we grow.  What we invest our time and energies in, determines the shape of our lives.  I suggest we invest in the disciplines to allow the Spirit to shape our lives in the way he wants to.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Have you ever been working on a project and plugged one too many tools into an electrical outlet? Suddenly, the power for that outlet cuts off, and you're stuck until you can re-set the circuit.  Despite its frustrations, this is a safety feature to keep you from frying yourself or starting a fire somewhere.  An overloaded circuit simply won't do what it's designed to do -- deliver power. 

I get into that state sometimes:  four writing projects, three meetings, two emergency phone calls (somebody will start singing "and a partridge in a pear tree" pretty soon) and my nerves are fried.  Sometimes I find my thinking going around and around the same little racetrack of all there is to do, without being able to get a real start.  Or fear starts in and tells me I'm going to miss getting something done and end up on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign.  All of it is foolish thinking, of course, but it sucks up the available energy and I start reacting with frustration instead of the love I should have. It's time to focus on the one, most important thing. 

What's the 'most important thing'?  Getting back to relying on the love and power of God, instead of staying on the hamster wheel of relying on myself and my energies. In Psalm 142, after several verses talking about being overwhelmed, David says "Then I pray to you, O Lord.  I say, 'You are my place of refuge. You are all I really want in life. Hear my cry, for I am very low. Rescue me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.' " 

When he wrote Psalm 142, David was reflecting on his experience hiding in a cave, running for his life from Saul's entire army.  And to think I get worried over a messy office!  David said: "You are all I really want in life" and he was exactly right.  Sermons, study papers, meetings, conference calls, home repairs, dirty floors, fussy children, and lost dogs will all come and go.  Only God is forever. 

"They are too strong for me" says David.  Mine are too strong for me, too, and only God's strength can keep me from being swallowed up by too much stress (or paper).  I need to ask God for the calm, and his love, to do each task with love, which is not my natural thought when I'm overloaded.  Only his love flowing through me will keep the circuit alive, and the real power available.  Then maybe I can get some of this done!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cleaning & Maintenance

The Lovely Joanne came home from a business trip, walked into our bedroom and started sneezing.  I knew she hadn't become allergic to me (and I'd had a shower that day) so it had to be something in that room.  Out came the vacuum, furniture cleaner and window cleaner, and the room got cleaned out. We found dust bunnies under the bed and behind the furniture, and a lot of dust from places we had forgotten we had.  But a week later, it was coming back, so we've had to do it again. And again. The lawn needs mowing, weeds keep growing, and the house needs different repairs -- it seems impossible to keep ahead of it all. 

Isn't it like that with our spiritual lives too?  We just get one thing under control -- so we think -- and something else pops up.  Like dandelions in green grass, we seem to have problems popping up one after another, and they sometimes get ahead of us.  Just when we think our anger is defeated, lust pops up, or envy or resentment.  And when we work on those, anger makes a comeback. 

David prayed in Psalm 51: "For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night."  He had learned what he was like, and he felt helpless against the power of sin in his life.  David's release from guilt was through repenting, throwing himself on God's mercy and leaving his guilt behind through the forgiveness God gives. 

But he also knew that sin would never leave him alone.  He prayed "How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults." (Psalm 19:12).  Part of David's spiritual life was maintenance work -- stopping to ask God to show him what he needed to know about himself, looking in the deeper corners of his thoughts and emotions, and asking for forgiveness from sins he hadn't recognized before. 

Prayer, study, meditation, fasting, solitude and silence, simplicity, service, confession, worship and other spiritual disciplines are the 'maintenance tools' of our spiritual lives.  Like the extension wand on the vacuum, they help us to get into the recesses, the little-seen parts of our lives that accumulate sin and bad habits.  Like window cleaner, they help us see better.  Like cleaning and oiling a bicycle, they help us function as we were designed to, walking alongside God and hearing from him all the time.  On the other hand, if we neglect these disciplines, then the dust and rust, and the sin and guilt and shame and pain build up in our lives, and we start falling apart.

A couple of highly useful books in this area are Richard Foster's "Celebration of Discipline" and Dallas Willard's "The Spirit of the Disciplines."  A daily devotional, either in book form or as an online tool coming to your phone or email inbox, can also help keep us in front of God.  (Biblegateway.com and Crosswalk.com are two of hundreds of online resources.)  Whatever way we do it, spiritual maintenance is a necessary, not optional, part of life with God.  So if you don't have such a plan, now is a good time to start one.  Need help designing one?  Just ask.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I've decided I love my wife.

I hope that is no surprise to The Amazing Joanne, but of course like all married men, I sometimes don't act like I love her, and often I don't appreciate her as I should.  Proverbs 18:22 says "The man who finds a wife finds a treasure, and he receives favor from the Lord."  So according to that verse, I've got a treasure and have received favor from God.  I agree!  I don't deserve her love, and I am blessed more than I can measure to have a life partner, friend and the amazing ministry partner she is, in my life.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:25 that husbands should "love" their wives.  In society of that time, marriage was a social convenience for raising heirs to the man's family, and love was often given to the man's mistress instead.  As he often did, Paul turns this human idea on its head and says that the man should love his wife "just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her."  Men tend to be a tad more selfish than that.  Sometimes if we're being heroic we give up our lives for a cause, but not for our wives.  But Paul instructs us that, as the Messiah sacrificed himself for the sake of the church, husbands should give up our own agendas and desires and priorities in order to serve our wives.

Marriage experts will tell you that a wife will feel nurtured and cherished by this behavior by a husband, and respond by loving him; but Paul doesn't talk about whether a wife will respond, he merely says this is our duty.  Her response, if any, is secondary and we aren't to serve in anticipation of a return, but because God says we must.  (Loving in order to get a response that we want isn't really loving anyway.)  Still, it shouldn't be drudgery; in verse 28, he says "In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself."

A man who will love his wife this way, whether he feels like it or not or thinks she deserves it or not, learns some of the love that Jesus himself has for his church (a church that is, by all accounts, not perfect nor sometimes seems loveable).  He may learn some humility as he reflects on how our Savior loves the church in spite of itself, and so loves him in spite of himself; and that might encourage him to love his wife with true selflessness.  I'm working on that one and will be for some time to come.  But still grateful for the treasure and favor God has given me in Joanne.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"God Doesn't Love Me"

"Yeah, I know, the Bible says 'God so loved the world' but that means the planet -- not people like me."  I know people who feel this way; who insist that it's impossible for God to love someone who is like they are.  The way some people act, it is certain they don't feel loved, or believe that God loves them. But is God's love for us true, whether or not we believe it?

Here's how Paul put it in Ephesians 1:  "Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes.  God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure." This says that the Father committed himself a long time ago -- really, before time existed to measure 'a long time ago' -- to create us and bring us into his circle of love. And to create the mechanism for that inclusion, the Son (we know him now as Jesus Christ) committed to come into human flesh, to bring us to the Father through the Spirit's work. 

People hadn't been made yet, and the first sin hadn't been committed when all this planning took place. But because God (whom we know as Father, Son and Spirit) created us with the freedom to make choices, it was inevitable that somebody, sometime, would make the wrong choice and send us all down the wrong path. So the decision of God to love us and save us in spite of our sins was inevitable, right from the first.  It was part of the package.

That means this:  God already knows what kind of person you are, and loves you anyway.  Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, loved you so much he went through the same meat-grinder of physical life that you go through, and then died to pay for all our lousy decisions (including the idea that God doesn't love us!) and then was brought back to life to give us life.  "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and since God himself is limitless, God's love is limitless,which means he loves you whether you're having a good day (or life) or a bad day (or life).  He created you and me out of love, and he intends to love us forever.

That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Soul Amendment

The Lovely Joanne has been working in the soil lately, planting flowers and helping me in the vegetable garden.  The soil around our house is mostly clay, which is fine for some plants and not so fine for others.  We've decided that it needs "amending" which is a term for adding different components to the soil.  Soil amendments loosen the soil or make it hold water better, or make it more or less alkaline.  This is so the soil can be more balanced, have more nutrients available for the plants, and in general help the plants grow better -- that is, soil the way it's supposed to be.

I have a plan for soil amendment in our garden.  You may or may not have realized that God has a "soul amendment" plan going on in your life.  Why is that?  Well, all of us have grown up in a world that is far from what God intended.  In Romans 5, Paul describes the desolation that rejecting God has brought on the world:  "When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned." So even if we had loving parents and a happy childhood, we've grown up in a broken world, and one way or another we ourselves are broken.  We need help--and God gives it!  It comes in the form of "soul amendment" -- not only forgiveness of our sins, but a whole new life in Christ, a life of growth and change.

Some of what my lawn and garden need can be simply spread on top, and it will soak in and do its work.  Other amendments need to be dug into the soil, so out come my shovel and spading fork to turn it all upside down. The worms aren't happy about being dug out of their home, but it has to be if I'm going to give then a new bunch of goodies to chew on. Sometimes 'soul amendment' has to be done that way too, even though it seems very painful at the time.  James writes in chapter 1: "Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow."  Ouch!  Joy??  I'd rather be comfortable, and receive joy from getting a fat tax refund.  But being comfortable doesn't usually help us grow, and it won't break up the spiritual 'hard ground' we've all inherited as children of Adam and Eve.

We usually don't know how to handle the discomfort during a trial or difficult time.  James continues in verse 5, "If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking." God doesn't leave us alone or without resources -- he remains a generous and loving Father who wants us to thrive, and will provide wisdom and encouragement.  Sometimes those come from his word, and sometimes from other people. 

Soil amendment can be hard work, and it takes time.  Same with soul amendment.  But in both cases, the eventual result is beautiful growth, showing the best of God's creation -- the way it is supposed to be -- in our gardens, and in our souls. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The last few weeks in church, we've been discussing how we can obey the "second great commandment" as it is sometimes called.  Jesus agreed with a lawyer in Luke 10:27-28 that the summary of the entire law was to love God with all we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The lawyer of course, being a lawyer, wanted to define neighbor.  He should have quit while he was ahead!  The Lord gave him, instead, a reminder that "neighbor" really means "anybody around us."

Of course, the problem is that the people around us are so inconvenient!  They have bad habits, they irritate us, they're not trustworthy and they often aren't the kind of people we'd prefer to be around.  So we tend (like the lawyer) to spend our time and attention on those we're more comfortable with.  With or without expressing it in words, we may say things like "they're not like us;" "they have too many needs for us to help with;" or even "he got himself into that mess, he can get himself back out." 

In the book of James, written by the brother of Jesus, we're instructed that favoritism speaks against the love of Jesus Christ:  "If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?" (2:3-4).  James goes on to say in verses 8 and 9, "Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law."

It may be impossible to give lots of time and attention to everyone in our lives, especially in the days of email, Facebook (some people have 2,500 'friends' on FB -- is that even possible?) and a generally over-extended lifestyle that a lot of us have.  But that's not what James is saying; he is telling us not to favor one over the other due to judgmental thinking, writing some people off because they don't fit our standards or we feel better about loving others instead.

I have neighbors that take good care of their grass, keep their stuff neat and don't make much noise.  I have others who, well let's say, aren't quite as considerate.  It's easy to start thinking of them as a nuisance, assigning them a "back seat" in friendship compared to the ones that are less trouble.  But that's just what James tells us not to do.  Our love for others is supposed to stretch to everyone, even if they are not like us or maybe more trouble than we'd like to deal with.  After all, God has loved "the world" (John 3:16) not just a select few.

If the "glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (James 2:1) had died only for good people, where would that leave me and you?