Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Extreme Personal Makeover

Our cats are an interesting study in selfishness.  There's not much sharing between Haley and Susie, just a me-first, outta-my-way animal instinct.  Unfortunately, that is how I often feel too.  Yesterday, The Wonderful Joanne and I had what we call a "meaningful discussion."  I thought she was pressuring me into purchasing something, and reacted strongly with why I didn't think it was a good idea.  When I finally said I was sorry, it was mostly by complaining about the way I thought she had treated me.  Only later did I realize that I had simply defended myself again.  So this morning, another apology was in order, a real one this time.

See, the problem is not that we don't know what to do, it's that we are so filled with self-seeking that we don't let love -- outward-flowing, other-centered giving without seeking a return -- guide us first. This gets back to what I've been writing and speaking about lately:  that the Triune God had determined before time began (before we are 'good enough' to deserve his love) to adopt us into his circle of love and self-giving (Eph. 1:3-11, etc); and although he loves us right now, right where we are, he is determined not to leave us in our self-created pain.  So he sent his Son, whom we celebrate during Advent and Christmas for coming into the world, not only to pay for our sins but to give us a Person to love and follow.

"Following Jesus" is a daily walk of seeing ourselves, seeing Jesus, and admitting where we don't measure up to him.  Then surrendering (it sounds simple but it's one of the hardest things we can do) surrendering this part of us that demands gratification so Jesus can give us rest, peace and assurance from himself instead.

What are some of those me-first, outta-my-way human instincts? Paul writes in Galatians 5:19-21, "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God."  Our sins -- these and many more -- are forgiven in Christ, but God is on a campaign to renovate our inner selves, at the deepest level.  To restore us to what humans were at Creation, and to what we all are, in reality, because we are now "in Christ." 

"Following Jesus" includes being led by his Spirit to have his inner desires: "So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves...the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires...Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives" (Gal. 5:16,17,25). That's how the surrender thing works.

You've not arrived yet at perfection, and neither have I.  But let's be encouraged:  we are on the journey with Jesus, and he is the one who not only knows the way, he IS the way (John 14:1-10) and he has shown us that way.  Will you follow him with me?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trust and Rest

We in the Western societies spend our lives pursuing more, better, bigger and higher.  We stay caffienated in order to be more alert and "productive."  A bumper sticker claims "He who dies with the most toys wins" (wins what? we wonder).  A poster advertising a workout club says "You can rest when you're dead."  A John Wayne movie has him kicking people awake long before the sun is up, telling them they are "burning daylight."  We think societies that take a mid-day break -- a two-hour lunch or a nap -- are wasting time.  We think our lives are measured by how much we can accomplish.  And sometimes we think we have to apply the same amount of effort toward "pleasing God." 

As a fulfillment of the original Sabbath command to Israel, Jesus calls us in Matt. 11:28-30 to come and rest in him: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  That's an enigma to us:  how do you rest in a person?  What does being humble and gentle have to do with rest?  How can the 'yoke' (an instrument for carrying heavy burdens) be easy to bear?  How can we rest while still carrying a load, even a light one?  And what if, while you're resting, you're really supposed to be doing something more productive?

The answer is that we must learn to trust in Jesus, not in ourselves.  That is the essence of our salvation (Eph. 2:8-10 etc.) but even more, it is the essence of daily life in Christ, the new life we are called into (Gal. 2:20).  Jesus doesn't tell us "come and rest, then go work more."  He simply says come and rest.  Robert Mulholland, Jr. in Invitation to a Journey refers us to Psalm 131, a song encouraging us to trust.  Verse 2 says "I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me."  The child is content just to sit quietly on his mother's lap, knowing he is secure there.  That's the kind of trust we are to learn.

 Life today is not just "preparation for heaven" as some put it, like prepping for an entrance exam.  Our lives are meant to be a living relationship of deepening love for God through his Son Jesus; learning to listen to him and respond; learning to trust Christ for everything, no matter how small or large.  As we learn to trust, we can rest from the frantic activity we use to seek God's approval, or even 'get ahead in the world.' 

"Just trust."  Quick to say, a lifetime to learn.  What will you surrender to God today, trusting him to handle it for you? 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Walking with Jesus

I've been spending a lot of time lately studying and discussing with others what it means to be a Christian.  It's a big subject, but at the same time it has a pretty simple answer.  You may not know it, but that's a big issue of discussion within the Christian world right now, and frankly, many churches in the Western world have it wrong. My denomination was certainly wrong about it, in important ways, for a lot of years, but we're a lot closer now and still growing into a better understanding of it.  To be more personal, I had it wrong all those years and I'm just now seeing it more clearly. 

Most of the time when most Christians tell you about salvation, it's all about forgiveness of your sins and going to be with God when you die.  Those two things are true, but if that's all there is, you may as well live like a pagan until two minutes before you die, then be sure to ask for salvation!  This feeds our Western consumer mentality:  God is someone who will give you forgiveness and other stuff, and salvation is a product you acquire by saying a prayer and getting baptized.  Oh, and attending church -- so choose the most attractive church around, that will make you feel good and increase your social status. 

All of that misses the point.  I wrote briefly about that on September 6, that salvation is not about location but about relationship.  Let me begin to expand on that here.

Salvation is not just a legal or accounting transaction that takes place in heaven when you say the right prayer.  It is being saved from yourself and your sins, but more than that, it's being saved into a life spent with Christ, following him.  Jesus told the twelve, "Come, follow me" and they spent the next three years walking around with him, watching the way he treated people and scratching their heads over what he had just taught.  They began to realize that what he taught related directly to the way he treated people (you might say he lived what he taught).  And they figured out eventually that what he taught and how he treated others came directly from his relationship with the Father, whom Jesus came to reveal.  Once the Holy Spirit was given to them, those relationships were clear to them, and they were able to live what Jesus taught, and teach it to others as he had taught them.

Living a Christian life is, simply, learning to walk with Jesus every hour of every day. Learning to trust him.  Surrendering control to him.  Listening to him.  Letting him do the talking instead of your old motivations. You may have been a Christian for six hours or sixty years, but quite possibly you and I both have missed out on a lot of this, and we both need it.  We'll look later at the methods that will help us, but let's begin with a quietness before God, recognizing our complete inability to make life work and surrendering it to him instead.  Will you walk with Jesus along with me?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Prayer: Surrender to a Loving God

"Please pray that I will get a new job...Prayers are requested for immediate healing of...Please pray I can find a new place to live...I've been praying for the same thing for ten years and nothing ever happens."  Have you ever heard those phrases?  I have.  Now, there's nothing wrong with asking others to pray with us, and absolutely nothing wrong with praying!  I wonder, though, when we talk about prayer in this way, if we really understand what prayer is?

As Westerners, we have the mindset (without thinking about it; that's what a mindset is) that everything must improve my life and make me happy in some way, or it's no good.  Let's face it, we've done the same with prayer.  We read in Philippians 4:6 "in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" and presume that prayer is about telling God everything we need, expecting he will provide it. 

If your child were to treat you that way, it would sound like "Daddy and Mommy, thank you for giving me breakfast this morning, and I need a bike and a sweater and a new video game and it's really, really important that we go to McDonald's for dinner tonight."  And you'd be thinking "slow down a little, will ya?"  But God is not a vending machine that dispenses our treats when we plug in the right words. (And Jesus said "your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him" in Matt. 6:8.) 

The prayers of the Bible, especially in the Psalms, are much different -- lots of real complaints and requests, for sure, but when we read carefully, they show a process of deep surrender to the will of God.  Robert Mulholland Jr. diagnoses prayer in Invitation to a Journey when he writes "our prayer tends to be a shopping list of things that need to be accomplished, an attempt to manipulate the symptoms of our lives without entering a deep, transforming relationship with God in the midst of what we think we need..." (105).  Prayer, he reminds us, "is primarily relational, not functional."  Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying "Prayer is the act by which we divest ourselves of all false belongings and become free to belong to God and God alone." 

Prayer, then, is not trying to get God to do something for us, but is a process of surrendering ourselves to God for what he wants to do in us.  That's a long and complex discussion, so we'll have to get back to it another week.  But for now -- try just taking yourself to God without any pretense or any agenda, and spend time with him.  Let me know how it goes, will you?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


My friend Michael Duduit, who writes regularly on preaching and is editor of Preaching magazine, talks about this latest protest movement that started in Wall Street and has since "occupied" a couple of dozen city parks across the nation.  He says there's a better solution than protesting the amount of money somebody else makes or how little attention is given to the average citizen.  Michael says "Here's a better bet: Occupy Worship. Meet the One who alone can satisfy your needs and breach the chasm caused by sin, and the best news is you don't even have to go to New York or any other city to Occupy Worship—you can demonstrate anywhere!"

I like the way Michael thinks.  He reminds us that even if all the money earned by all the investment bankers and all the highly-paid executives of all the companies that are the target of these protests was spread around to the poor, it still wouldn't be enough.  (Not to mention, most of the poor in the US have a thousand times more than the true poor overseas.)  Why not?  Because humanly, we never have enough.  Even those highly-paid executives feel their lives would be better if they just made, say, 10% more.  The solution, Michael rightly says, is to worship.

Now, by worship, Michael and I don't mean to turn on your favorite Christian song or hymn, sing along loudly, and pray.  Closing our eyes and praying doesn't make our problems go away (it doesn't work for Tim Tebow in the backfield either).  No, we're talking a deep, focused, sincere, whole-hearted, whole-life surrender to the One who owns eternity and has already accepted you, dear reader, as his beloved child.  As we've been studying lately in the Beatitudes, a life "in Christ" means we have full access to the blessings of living in the love and acceptance of the Father through the Spirit (John 17:20-23, Col. 1:24-27, etc).  "Christ is in you" says Paul, and he's not talking some metaphysical claptrap or fuzzy idea, but a spiritual reality. 

Life -- real, authentic life -- is lived out in that reality, minute by minute.  Not just "what would Jesus do?" but "Jesus, what are you doing and what would you have me do?"  Offering ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) is what Paul calls "truly the way to worship him."  Focusing on whole-life worship helps us understand that the momentary troubles of this life really are momentary.  We don't ignore them, we work on them with the passion that Jesus had cleaning out the moneychangers (the honest and the dishonest together) from the Temple, in John 2:13-17, and the love he had when he healed the sick and provided bread for thousands. 

Want something to occupy in protest of this world's sickness?  Occupy, and be occupied by, Jesus-in-you, with everything you've got, and watch what happens!  (And come back and tell me!)