Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 5)

Have you ever understood the Bible's names for God, about how and why God is called Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Have you ever wondered -- or doubted -- whether we can trust
those names?  And by "trust" I mean two things:  the Bible being accurate in its teaching, and trusting God intimately as we come to know him more every day.  I've been trying to understand that myself, and am attempting to explain it briefly here.

So far we've talked mostly about the name Father, and why the Bible describes him that way.  Let's examine, briefly, whether that name includes gender, or male sexuality. We've already said that Jesus called God his Father many times in the Gospels; that God is called the Father of our Lord; and that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (John 14:9, Matt. 11:27).  In Matt. 23:9 Jesus says to us not to call a human person Father, but why would he say that?  To stop us from projecting human ideas onto God, and polluting our view of him, from two sources:  from elevating a human person too much, and from our notion of fatherhood, however good or bad.  (We've talked already of the difficulty some have of not being able to think of God as Father, because of problems with human fathers.  This is what Jesus rules out here.)

Some say that the name or title "Father" is a way to make male humans more important, and that men wrote the Bible to oppress women.  So then, is the Bible's description of God any different than other religions of the time when it was written?  Here's an extremely brief sketch.  Actually, the writers of the Bible could see many examples in the pagan world around them, of  mythological deities described as being male or female, like humans, and because of their greater powers they misused their male or female qualities worse than the humans did.  Some societies had female gods to worship, but history shows that didn't make the status of women any better.  Because of the broken relations between the sexes in the world around them, people predictably worshiped the mythological gods in broken ways:  there was temple prostitution and all kinds of other horrible activity, in the name of their gods, whether male or female.  The Bible was specifically, carefully, written to exclude all those ideas in referring to the true God.

So what do we come back to?  The God of the Bible, who is described as infinitely loving, giving and concerned for us; who has given himself, in the person of Jesus, to rescue us; and unlike the pagan gods of mythology, doesn't have the weaknesses we do.  We can trust God as Father, so long as we think of him in the way he describes himself and not in other ways.  We'll look at some other ways language is used to describe God -- including some feminine characteristics!-- next time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Immanu-El, part 1

Humans have always had a sense of something greater than ourselves.  "Primitive" civilizations
create lists of gods, usually from the seasons and natural events, and devise ways to appease the anger of those gods.  "Advanced" civilizations reject those gods, explaining natural events by the sciences. 

But the God of the Bible reveals himself as the Creator of all the objects the primitive civilizations worshipped:  sun, moon, stars, etc. This God made humans also, the man from "the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7) and the woman from a rib from Adam's side (2:21-22), to show an intimate connection of being (2:23-24).  The description shows a God who was involved in the welfare of these people he had made, a God who was connected with them and present with them.

Tragedy resulted.  The humans listened to temptation from the serpent, the embodiment of their arch-enemy Satan, who gave them the "gifts" of doubt and desire.  Turning away from trust in their Maker, they rejected the single restriction from God (not to eat of the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil,' 2:16-17) and broke that intimate connection with him. Even then, God continued to seek them:  "When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees.  Then the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'" (3:8-9).  

God then uttered the first prophecy of the One who would rescue their descendents.  "And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel" (3:15).  Hebrew scholars, and Bible students to this day, recognize this as the first foretelling of the Messiah, who would be wounded but in that wounding would forever crush the power of the serpent.

God continued acting in human history to work out his purpose.  He chose Abraham as the ancestor of a nation, Israel, through which he created the vocabulary of salvation:  sin, sacrifice, the blameless lamb,  the priesthood, the temple and more.  Israel's history shows God pursuing them in love, in spite of their sins, just as he did Adam and Eve, and promising reconciliation.

In Isaiah 7:14 he promises "Immanuel (which means 'God with us')."  The promise that God would be with us again, loving us and walking and talking with us, fills our deepest desire for something meaningful.  It is the true destiny of humanity.  But how could God be with us -- we who are filled with sin and shame?  That's the greatest wonder of all!  We'll look at that next time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Living in the W

It's been a tough year for a lot of us.  My dad had a pacemaker put in, then had complications.  Several of my friends have
illnesses and all the attendant problems like tight finances and too much time tied up in doctor visits.  The Lovely Joanne had a car wreck and is still dealing with it.  Many people we know have lost loved ones, including two in the last three days.  A dear friend and fellow pastor is afraid his wife may have cancer.  My father-in-law has health problems.  And on it goes.

Where does it all end?  When will it be over?  What can we do to make it better?  Why is this happening? 

I don't know the answers to any of those W's but I do know one W that makes the whole thing bearable.  In fact, this W makes it all make sense.  That's the "Who" question -- which is the only place to start, and is the key to the entire puzzle.  In this case, it's Who is in charge?  And the answer is another question:  Who is Jesus? 

Jesus is the Word who was with the Father before creation and still is (John 1:1-4), and who came to be with us (John 1:14), in the flesh with all our same weaknesses and needs (Heb. 2:17) the unique Son of God who gave himself to save us (John 3:16-17).  He's the One the Father sent because we didn't listen to the other messengers very well (Heb. 1:1-2) and he is absolutely of the same being as the Father (Heb. 1:3).  He paid for all our sins on the Cross, willingly (John 19:30) and rose from the grave (John 20:1-10).  He ascended bodily to the Father (Acts 1:9) and is at the right hand of the Father now, ruling the entire universe -- in fact, containing it all in himself and having brought the whole created order back to God in a state of favor (Col. 1:17-23, Heb. 1:3) .  In all those ways, he perfectly represented us, so that when he died, we died and don't fear death anymore, because when he was resurrected, so were we (2 Cor. 5:14-17) and when he ascended to the Father, he took us with him in spirit and we stand before God the Father without a single fault (Col. 1:22) -- totally blameless, in Christ.  Through Jesus we have been adopted into the very household of God for God's glory and this made him very happy (Eph. 1:3-6).  He will return again in glory and finally set everything right: " I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:3-4).  We have the Holy Spirit as our guarantee, living within us every day, as the down payment on the life we've been promised by God through his Son Jesus (Eph. 1:13-14). And Jesus will never leave us, but will be with us to the end (Mat. 28:20). 

That, my friends, is the Gospel.  Now, with all that in mind, what exactly were you and I worried about a few minutes ago?  Whatever it was, Jesus Christ already knows about it; has experienced it in his own body, and knows exactly how you feel; is walking with you through it; and will never let you go.

We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and keep asking the "Who" question, because that one.  Or as I have come to call it, "Living in the W."  Are you there with me?

Saturday, December 8, 2012


In a classic passage in Philippians 2, Paul describes Jesus, who "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" (verses 6 and 7).  The phrase "gave up his divine privileges" (New Living Translation) is from the Greek word "ekenosen" and means "he emptied (himself)."  Paul was describing the self-giving of the Son of God, who was willing to become human -- with immeasurably fewer privileges than his existence in eternity -- in order to bring all humanity into fellowship with himself. 

Without going into all the technical dynamics, (if you want more, visit I'll just say today that this self-emptying isn't a new thing with God.  In the biblical descriptions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit showing the Triune nature of God, this self-giving is the core of God's being.  In John's Gospel, especially, the Father is shown as being "in" Jesus and vice versa (John 10:38 and 14:10, for instance) -- and the Greek means, literally, "in" as a position relative to the other.  Jesus says "The Spirit...will not speak on his own, but will tell you what he has heard...All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” in 16:13-15.  These sayings tells us that the Father has given -- sent out from himself -- all himself to the Son, and that the Son also gives himself to the Spirit who passes that on to us.

In these and many other scripture passages -- too many to list today -- the nature of God is described, to put it most simply, as "giving".  So for the Son of God to give of himself, becoming human to save us, is to continue the giving nature of who God is, this time toward us.  "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son..." in John 3:16 -- that is the reason we note and celebrate the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (John 1:14) at this time of year. 

The question is, will "ekenosen" describe you and me too?  Will we give "all that we have" to God, so we have room to receive all he gives us?  Or will we continue to be self-absorbed, self-actualized, self-willed and full of ourselves?  God leaves us that choice, because he won't force his love on us.  But the offer has already been made; the Son of God has already given himself for you.  How much of him will you accept?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 4)

We've been talking here about God's name as Father (we'll look at God's other names later).  We said that we can let God, as a perfect Father, define
for us what fatherhood should be.  And since none of our physical dads measured up to God's perfect standard, let's recognize that they did "they best they knew how" (Heb. 12:10) and learn to forgive them for being human, however long that takes us.  That way we stop missing out.  Make sense?

Jesus said in Mat. 23:9 "you have one Father, and he is in heaven," and he was specifically taking all our patriarchal ideas of fatherhood and booting them out of the discussion, to focus on who God really is.  In Mat. 11:27, Jesus insists that one of his jobs is to tell us about the Father:  "no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."  So in Jesus we have 'inside information' on God the Father!  And we'll see that our human negative concepts of fatherhood as a closed patriarchal system, or an abusive, angry authority figure, just don't hold up to Biblical scrutiny.

So, is God a Father in the same way as a physical father?  No, it's not the same idea, and we don't think of him creating children like the Greek and Roman gods did.  But to help us understand him a little, God has "commandeered human language and named himself as Father" according to James B. Torrance.  This was a major topic in the church, in the 300's AD.  We began to realize we should be very careful when using words to describe God, since human language is so limited! 

But when we think "theocentrically"  -- by attempting to understand God from his own words -- we see a different picture. God the Father is not simply called "a father" at random.  Jesus calls God his Father about 60 times in the Gospels (half of those in John).  He's "our Father" twice in Isaiah; and eight times in Paul's epistles plus once in 1 Peter, he is called "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."   He's the Father in relationship, because he's the Father of the Son.  This is not the result of a male-dominated set of Biblical writers, but from his own words.

We'll close with this one thought:  God the Father is love (1 John 4:8) and it's clear from Jesus' own words that he loves you and 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).  Maybe your own dad knew how to love you well, but your heavenly Father loves infinitely more.  Will you let him love you?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 3)

Is God a male person?  Why do the descriptions of God in the Bible seem male instead of female?  Why is God called a "father"? Can we use feminine concepts
for God also?  We've started on some important questions here:  whether the names and descriptions we have for God are adequate and if not, what to do about it.

Last week I wrote about whether being wounded by a father figure (or any male figure) means we shouldn't try to think of God as a father, substituting some other word instead.  We recognized that idea as "anthropocentric" or human-centered reasoning, which is basically idolatry.  It starts from the basis of who we are, what we understand, and what we feel our needs are, then projects our ideas onto God, like he was a big movie screen.  But God is far greater than our ideas of who he should be, so we need to use "theocentric" or "God-centered" reasoning instead. 

Since God describes himself to us in the Bible using the word Father, then we should use those concepts to describe and define for us what a physical father should be like.  God is not often referred to in the Old Testament as a father, but Jesus describes him right from the start as "Our Father" (Mat. 6:9) and he speaks of God as Father 16 times in Luke's gospel and at least 93 times in John's Gospel!  We would do well to review John's writings, especially, to see more of the Fatherhood of God as Jesus showed it to us.  But in summary, we could say that the Father is an infinitely loving Person who plans and provides good for us, looks out for us, and always works out what is best for us, even to the point of sacrificing himself for us (see John 3:16).  In fact, he loves us as much as he loves the Son of God (John 17:23) -- which shows us that the infinite and eternal love that is characteristic of the Father-Son-Spirit God is now being shared with us!

If we are willing to trust that Scripture has come to us as it was inspired by God, without changes in its meaning, then we also have to accept that the names for God are what he actually calls himself.  Can God be Father even if we have similar terms in human life, and some of those terms leave us with negative images?  Yes, if we're willing to think in theocentric terms:  admitting that God is Father of all, and that he defines for us what Fatherhood is, therefore we can re-define what fatherhood should be!  Our own fathers fell short of that ideal, no matter how good they were, but we can choose to see them through the eyes of grace just as our heavenly Father sees us.  More on all of this next time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 2)

Last week we introduced some of the questions about how God is named in the Bible, and whether we should add
to those words or change them, with the goal of understanding God better and loving him more.  These goals sound noble, so let's see if the strategy is a good one. I am indebted for this material to the work of James B. Torrance and his brother Thomas F. Torrance, Gary Deddo and Roland L. Frye, among others.

My dad and I didn't get along well when I was growing up.  Until I began to understand and appreciate both God and my father better, I had difficulties accepting God as a father figure -- no surprise, right?  In fact many (not all, of course) of us in the Western world have strained relationships with our physical fathers.  So it seems logical to us that we should want a different word for God, that doesn't remind us of that wound.  Some evangelists have even substituted "friend" for "Father" to be a more acceptable idea to those who don't know God yet.  Others focus on Jesus, who seems more palatable than the Father, thus avoiding -- for the moment -- the issue of God's fatherhood.

So here's the first problem we're going to look at:  this strategy is "anthropocentric" or human-centered, rather than "theocentric" or God-centered.  We've created ourselves as the center of the universe.  We allow our pain to define and determine who we are for the rest of our lives, not believing that God can heal any wound.  That's idolatry.  Instead, when we look to Jesus we find the love and healing of God expressed toward us.  Jesus took on our sins, our weaknesses and our pain (Isa. 53:3-5).  When he touched a leper, he didn't contract leprosy -- the leper was healed!  When he spoke with people, he didn't leave them in their sin and selfishness, but confronted their anthropocentric ways, challenging them to turn away from themselves as idols, and toward God (the Sermon on the Mount, Mat. 5-7, is a good example of that idea, but there are many others). 

Here's the point for today:  your pain, the abuse in your past, your personal or public wound, does not define you.  Only God can define you -- and God says you belong to him, he loves you just like you are right now, and he will love you forever!  Even though you've been wounded by a father figure, God is the perfect definition of all fatherhood, and he knows how to help you perfectly.  Hebrews 12:10 says "For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness." 

God is asking you, right now, to let go of whatever you think keeps you from his "YES" toward you.  Even if you've been saying "No" to him all your life, God says "No" to your "No" and "YES" to you.  His love as a perfect Father will completely make up for any lack of love from your own dad -- and you will find healing in him (Mat. 11:29).  (Next week, we'll look at why the Bible uses the word "father" for God.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Is God's Name? (part 1)

If you want to get in trouble fast, try calling a loved one by the wrong name.  Those of us from large families sometimes got called a sibling's name by Dad or Mom, especially if we were in trouble -- and that just made it worse.  But what do you call God?  In the Bible, he's
Father, Son and Spirit, but a modern movement wants to neutralize these names because they're thought of as sexist.  I think you'll see that, far from being an esoteric argument by theologians in a back room somewhere, this discussion is key to truly understanding God, and resting assured in his love for us!  And for this series, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Gary Deddo, who has written clearly and with a deep love for God and others on this topic.

First, let's look at the objections, conscious and unconscious, to naming God with male terms.  Then, we'll look carefully for Biblical answers to each one. Finally, we'll see what difference it makes in our lives and our relationship with God, when we understand him for who he is, using his true names.  Ready?

When I was in college, desiring to know more of God, I ran into a roadblock:  a broken relationship with my human father leading me to mistrust God as a father.  Sound familiar?  I was afraid that God would be angry or impatient with me, as my dad often was, and it took many years to learn that he really wasn't that way.  That broken relationship with a father figure, so common in our society today, leads some to believe the cure is to change our words for God.  More about that in our next installment.

Another major argument is that the Bible was written in a society dominated by men, so descriptions of God were obviously male in character and ignored the needs of women and the true nature of God, who must have feminine traits and perhaps a female person.  If all that is true, it creates a lot of additional concerns for us!  We'll answer that too.

Finally, the argument goes, if the Bible really does ignore a female side of God and the needs of women, as some say, then the Bible and Christianity is simply another method for oppressing women.  If that's the case, then the whole foundation of Christianity -- including a male Savior -- is in a lot of trouble.  Would you like an answer for that?

Please bear with me!  We'll see that there are solid answers for all these concerns, answers that actually tell us a lot more about who God is.  By doing that, we will learn to trust his love for us more than ever! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Can the Gospel Change Your Life?

Romans 12:2 - Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but 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.

The Bible isn't just a chapter of history told from a particular perspective, or a series of letters to a long-gone church, or a bunch of poems from a prophet to ancient Israel, or even an instruction manual for human life.  It's a telling of human struggles, and the love story of our rescue from those struggles by God himself, as he gives imperfect and messy humans a new way of living with him and with each other (and even with ourselves). 

The critical moment for each of us is when we can see the Bible as the words of God to us, personally, individually, for right now, even though they were written two thousand or more years ago.  But please notice, taking God's words personally doesn't mean saying "Yes, that's right, I have to try harder to do these things so God will be pleased with me."  It's more like a cry of wonder and awe:  "Is God really saying that he loves me and wants my love in return?  Is God really offering me a new life in what he says here?  Can God really take away my old habits, unclean desires, and horrible memories of my past?  Can I trust that God will help me change?  Will I ever be able to say that in my life I'm reflecting the image of Christ?"  The answer to all those questions is "YES!" 

The Gospel -- the Good News of God's love for us -- really does have the power to changes your life.  I know that because I've seen people changed from the inside out once they learn it.  I know a man who was once self-centered and abusive, who came to see the love of God for him.  He is now a stable, loving man who has renewed relationships with his children, and who expresses God's love through the gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ.  The love, peace, patience and other fruits of God's love in his life (see Galatians 5:22-23 for one list) are directly from God's heart to our hearts -- God condescending to live in us and express himself through us -- not from our broken methods of trying harder.

How does the Gospel change our lives?  When we look to the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, who has already made it possible for us:  "So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image."  Let the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ change you

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Politics, and Real Answers

My friend Jack and I got into a discussion about politics the other day.  Being the reasonable person I am, as soon as he started telling me his opinions about the parties and candidates, I had to tell him my opinion too.  That's when
things got difficult. But one of the fascinating things about having friends who don't have the same belief system or ideas as you, is that election time gets intense!

I've had discussions lately with quite a few neighbors, friends and church members about our economy, the job situation, foreign policy and so forth.  And although I am non-partisan, I have an opinion about our system:  it's broken.  Jesus said "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse" (Matthew 9:16).  He wasn't talking about politics, but we are in a similar situation.  Most of our laws are designed to fix a problem, and that's honorable.  By nature, those laws favor one situation while limiting another, and they're never perfectly even-handed.  The imbalance needs to be adjusted, or new factors come into play.  Our system has become so complex that, when we write another law to patch a problem, we "tear a hole" somewhere else, then we try to fix that, and ... well, you get the picture. (If you'd like a real-life example, here's a news story illustrating this from the BBC.)

I have a much more fundamental question that you might find counter-intuitive at first:  Who is Jesus?  He is the Creator, the coming King of the world, our Savior, and the one who by becoming flesh along with us, has brought us into the heart of God for eternity.  Asking "how would Jesus vote?" obscures the real issue:  Jesus isn't running, and he isn't voting, he already IS in charge even though he hasn't yet fully imposed his will on the world.  When he does return visibly in glory, he won't be looking for your vote!  He, and he alone, will have all the perfect answers to all our tangled and competing needs.  If we try to work out our problems without looking to him for his solutions and his love, we're hopelessly lost.  And someday, he's going to return and we'll finally get to see what human life really ought to look like. 

What do we do in the meantime, then?  Here are some suggestions:
  • Pray hard for our leaders and system -- as though prayer is the only tool you have -- and be a responsible citizen.  See Rom. 13:1-7.  
  • Follow the simple advice in Malachi 6:8:  "this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."
  • Get involved where you can to "do right and love mercy."   We have the right to vote for leaders and issues in this country, and I encourage you to cast a wise, prayerfully-considered vote.  About 20 years ago a friend of mine decided to get more involved:  he ran for city council because he loved his neighbors and wanted to do them some good.
  • Use a lot of grace in discussions with those of different opinions.  
 I won't tell you how to vote.  That's not my job.  But I pray you will find the wisdom you need to vote well. May the Lord grant you wisdom and peace!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Where You Really Live

Where do you live?  Some people live in a house, some in an apartment or a trailer or a condo.  Some live in huge refugee camps, some in shanty towns, and some out in the open.  But the Bible says everyone lives in
God.  How is that possible?

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (and anybody else who would listen) told the people of Athens, recorded for us in Acts 17:28, "For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’"  Now, wait -- these were rank pagans, people who worshipped so many gods they had a blank altar out there, just in case they left a god out accidentally.  They had no clue about the true God, the creator of the whole universe, the One whom Paul was describing.  So how could they be "in him?"  And why would Paul agree with the poet, even if the poet didn't know who he was writing about?

Paul saw that the only way there is to live, is in God.  Paul saw God not only as creator and life-giver, but he also recognized the Son of God, the man Jesus Christ, as the source of everything, including our lives.  Jesus, who was God born into flesh, gave the entire human race a new starting place (Rom. 5:6-21), including life for everyone:  "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" (verse 18).  So the only place we can live, is in Christ.  Our only way of living is in him.  Our only purpose for life is in him.   

Our reason for living is to move outward from our center in Jesus Christ, and to be a bubbling spring of life and love and peace and hope for everyone we know.  Some of the people we know are probably like the pagans Paul met, with no knowledge of God and no love in them, and maybe they're hard to love sometimes.  But Paul said they "live and move and exist" in him just like we do.  They too have been given "new life" by God through the life, death and resurrection of his dear Son.  Like the Athenians, they don't know it yet, but if somebody will tell them, some of them will believe.

Like Paul, when we approach people graciously and patiently and lovingly, we'll find ways and times and even the words to pass along this wonderful message of peace.   When we focus on "living in" God, he will move us to love, and as we let him love others through us, we ourselves will experience more of his love and joy than ever. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Jesus: Expert Consultant

The Lovely Joanne, in her systems-auditing business, sometimes visits client companies that have very complex manufacturing processes.  Sometimes she hires
an expert consultant to come in and handle the more technical parts of the visit.  That consultant has a high standard of training and experience, and knows whether the client is performing the proper tasks, and whether they're doing them properly.

How about you and me?  At home, sometimes we have to call a trained plumber or electrician for repairs we can't do on our own.  But when we run into trouble with relationships, what can we do?  I'll admit it -- my first reaction as a human is to get tense, blame it all on the other person and keep finding more reasons he or she is at fault.  That doesn't work well in my marriage, nor in any other relationship I have.  I need help!  Likely, so do you.  (There are important times when we need to call on trained human counselors who can give us specific tools for understanding others and responding to them, but right now, let's focus on what God has given us in himself.)

Rather than giving you "Three Simple Keys to Better Relationships" let me point you to Jesus himself. Jesus is the "Expert Consultant on Relationships" whom we can call in for help.  Let's look at his credentials, in the book of Hebrews.  Jesus:
  • Is "the champion who initiates and perfects our faith" (12:2)
  • Is the high priest "who is able to empathize with our weaknesses; and was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin" (4:15)
  • Had to endure "hostility...from sinful people" (12:3)
  • Is the One who could, once and for all, "remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice" (9:26)
Jesus is the only one who is fully God and fully man. He knows the heart of God for us, and he knows human weaknesses.  He is the only one who can help us through every mess we get ourselves into.  The Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ Jesus promised, "will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you."  What is the mind of Christ that the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds us of? It's love and forgiveness toward the other person, giving and forgiving -- even while enduring "hostility from sinful people" just as he did. 

As I said, my first reaction is to defend myself and blame the other person.  I have to stop and ask Jesus to help me see the other person from his viewpoint, not my own.  Jesus helps me see the person he loves, not the person I'm upset with.  Jesus gives me his compassion and forgiveness, and helps me learn how to give it away freely.  Jesus is my "Expert Consultant on Relationships" and I call him in a lot.  If you need that same help, I can highly recommend him.  Give him a call -- why not right now?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Ears and One Spirit

My mom used to tell me I had two ears and one mouth for a good reason.  She tried many times to help me understand
what that reason was, but now finally I think I get it.  At least the two ears part. 

It goes something like this.  We have an outer ear and an inner ear.  The outer ear catches all the sounds outside us and funnels them through the ear canal,* (which sounds gross if you know what canals usually look like), into the inner ear where the sounds are coded and sent to the brain through the auditory nerve.

Just for now, let's look at that ear through Spirit eyes:  by way of analogy, what might the two parts of the ear mean? What if the outer ear is for listening to other people, and the inner ear is for listening to the Holy Spirit's voice?  What if we're supposed to listen deeply to others before responding to them, and listen deeply to the Spirit's voice telling us how to respond to them in the love of God?  How would that affect our conversations and relationships? 

Well. for starters, what if everything we said -- after listening to the Spirit -- was completely along the lines of what God would have us say? What if we never had to take anything back, because all we said was just the right thing? I think, if we listened to the Spirit well enough, it's at least possible.  The fruit of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23) and those qualities would certainly reduce the amount of apology and explanation needed for our wrong words and attitudes to others.  In the book of Acts, the speakers were often said to be "full of the Holy Spirit" and they said some wonderful things -- so maybe what we say would be more wonderful if we could better hear what the Spirit is telling us.   

One of these days I might have to buy a hearing aid to capture those outside sounds better.  But what I really need right now is to capture those inner sounds, that voice of God telling me how to respond to others, and make sure I pay attention to that before I speak.  How about you?  Would listening to God more closely make a difference?  Let's pray for better hearing in the "inner ear."

*sometimes called the "middle ear," but having three parts to the ear instead of two really messes up this illustration. Sorry.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Bull's-Eye

Target shooters like to be able to hit the center of the target, called the "bull's-eye" or bullseye.  And if they get especially sharp, they can hit the center of the bullseye.  So if you wanted to know what the exact center
of God's will is, what would it be?  You might not be too surprised if I tell you it's Jesus Christ himself.  How would we know?  Here are a few scriptures:

Heb 1:1-4 "Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names."  Now, if you had to guess, is this Son greater than the prophets of old?  Greater than Moses?  Greater than the angels and other spirits?  Greater than the creation?  Yes, all the above. 

Col 1: 15-20 "Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything...He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.  Christ is also the head of the he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself."  So, is the Christ more important than anything or anyone else in the universe, under the Father?  Yes.  Has God already saved you through his Son?  Yes!

John 1: 1, 14 "In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God...the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.  And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son."  Jesus the Christ, who by this description is also God, came to live with us humans, as our only Savior.  The Center of God's entire work with humanity is found in him, and him alone. 

Do you want to please God, or do the work of God?  In John 6:29 we read "Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'"  So, let everything else in life be seen in the light of Jesus.  Center your life in him.  Let him be to you what he truly is for the whole creation, the bullseye, the Center of the center.  And see how that changes everything else. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Even a Little Light

We've all heard about the speed of light, but as my friend Kyle Bowen asked once, what's the speed of dark?  Darkness is just the absence
of light, and it only takes a little light to conquer the darkness.  Light a match or turn on a flashlight in a dark room, and suddenly what's around me becomes visible even in that small amount of light.  What was a threat, in the darkness, becomes helpful instead.  The chair I was about to trip over becomes a place to rest.  I can grasp and drink the glass of water on the kitchen counter instead of knocking it over. 

We can shine light into the lives of others and have a huge helpful effect.  In Ephesians 5:8, Paul tells us "For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!"  That light from God, as he tells us in verse 9, produces "only what is good and right and true."  But like me, you may be thinking of all the reasons we don't believe that our light is good enough or is having the right effect or why God can't use our light because it isn't, well, 'whatever' enough.  Our objections don't recognize the power of the God who is himself Light and Life, to be light in us. 

A few quick ideas to help us live confidently as light: 
  • We may think we're not producing much light, but it only takes a teeny bit to conquer the darkness. 
  • Others see our light a lot more positively than we do. 
  • It's not our light anyway, but the light of Jesus in us. 
  • It's our job just to be the light God made us in Christ.  It's God's job to create the results.  
  • When somebody compliments you on your light, point to the Light-giver.
 Wherever you are, there is some darkness that needs light.  Let it shine today!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Giving Grief to the Holy Spirit

It's easy for me to make my wife, The Lovely Joanne, upset.  All I have to do
is say something unkind about the way the house looks, or about her cooking or driving.  Truth to tell, we can each make the other upset, about all kinds of subjects.  But it's not just the comment.  The root of it, when we say or do the wrong things, is that we aren't paying attention to the desires and needs of the other.  Nurturing our love, trying to love each other more deeply, means being sensitive to what the other one is thinking or might want at any certain point.  It means for me to expend some effort to figure out what my wife would actually like me to do, and then to do that.  And I appreciate it a great deal when she does the same for me.

Marriage is a very close relationship and takes ongoing attentiveness to work right.  But guess what -- it's the same with our most intimate relationship, that is, with the Holy Spirit.  Rather than leave us alone (John 14:18) to figure out how to understand and follow Jesus, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to live in us and continue to teach us about Jesus and the Father (verse 17). That indwelling of the Spirit is the very heart of our ability to relate to God.  His mind in us is real and can be felt. 

We need to decide how we will live within that relationship.  We can pay careful, constant attention to the Spirit's presence and will, as he leads us to live according to his mind; or we can be lax about his presence.  Guess which gets better results?  Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:30:  "And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own."  I puzzled over that instruction for many years before realizing that the Spirit, who is the mind of God, genuinely lives in me and is troubled when I go against his will for me. 

In Rom. 8:6 we read:  "Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace."  That sounds like the relationship between my wife and me.  Putting attention to the reality of the Spirit's presence, and letting him have his way instead of stubbornly doing my own will, leads to a much more peaceful existence.  If you're having stress and anxiety, maybe it's time to let go and let the Holy Spirit direct more.  Why not give it a try?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Love of the Holy Spirit

The greatest human need is to know we are loved.  And most of us try to love others as well as we know how.  Most of the time.  Unless
we're upset with the other person, or they said something stupid to us, or hurt us in some way, or they got on our last nerve, or we just don't feel like it.  Then we retreat into our Fortress of Solitude, or sing Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am a Rock" to ourselves and pretend we don't need the other person anyway, so there.

The Holy Spirit changes all that.  He is the very essence of the love of God., and the Father sends him to give you and me God's love, which is the only way we can love anyone else (1 John 4:19).

Do you believe the Father loves you?  In fact, he loves you just like he loves his Son, Jesus!  "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).  He doesn't want you to live in fear and torment, but in a relaxed assurance of his complete love for you.  Let's look at more of 1 John 4:
  • "God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins" (verses 9 and 10).  
  • "Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.  No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.  And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us" (verses 11-13). 
  • "We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.  God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect" (verses 16-17).  
  • And then John says, summarizing these verses, "Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love" (verse 18).
If we are afraid of the future, it is because we don't grasp how much we are fully loved by God.  If we are unable to love others, it is because we don't grasp how much we are fully loved by God.  The Holy Spirit will fill you with the complete assurance of God's love for you, as you ask him to.  That's one of his main jobs. 

Are you ready to know God's love completely?  Just ask him!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Time for Change? Good News!

This morning, I heard a flock of geese flying by, headed for winter south of here.  Their honking brings a smile to my face -- I think geese are magnificent creatures -- but it makes me realize
what their honking means:  Change is on the way! 

Most of us would like to see real, meaningful, permanent change in our habits.  We'd like to be free from fear, doubt and temptation.  Good news!  Our first real change has already been given to us, at no charge. Colossians 1 tells us that we are the blessed recipients of God's unilateral actions: 
"For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself.  He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (v. 19-20) This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. (v. 21) Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body {not through our repentance, faith, baptism or obedience}. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault" (v. 22).  What a huge change!!  But can we change the way we act? 

I've had the experience of being harnessed to a strong rope and tackling an obstacle course twenty or thirty feet up (a lot higher off the ground than I like to be!).  Since I was completely secured by that rope, I was given the courage to climb, jump, and work my way over obstacles I never would have tackled alone.  God's love gives us the same courage.  Paul tells us here to "continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it" (v. 23) as a moment-by-moment part of life.  Leaving our old habits behind feels foreign, and we can hesitate in fear.  Knowing we are completely loved and eternally accepted by God, gives us the courage to change our ways:  to live another day without the false promises of alcohol, pornography, anger, lust, food, unforgiveness, or any other method we use to feel in control of our lives.

I can tell you from experience, this much change won't happen from sheer force of will.  It's time to believe what God says, that he we are "holy and blameless," and to choose to live in that truth.  God will always hold us securely, and will help us develop new habits of thinking, feeling, speaking and living, whether we take it one step at a time or all at once.  Why not start today?  If you need another person to know what you're doing and pray for you, just ask.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Power of the Holy Spirit

Are you struggling with something in your life, and want the power to overcome it?  The ultimate source of power is God himself, and God gives us
his Holy Spirit to live in us (Eph. 1:13).  The Spirit's power "is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 1:19-20).  Awesome!  I need that!  Do you?  Paul explains how, in his letter to the Ephesians.  

God has identified us as his own (like putting a seal of approval on us) by giving us his Holy Spirit (1:13).  Paul prays that God will give "spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God" (1:17), through the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit's power, as we saw in 1:19-20, is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and put him above every other power (1:21) -- which means God can do anything he needs to in us, to give us new spiritual life!  Using that "up from the dead" idea in 2:4-6, Paul says that God gave us life, while we were still dead in our sins, when he raised Jesus from the dead.  

Paul was an energetic, effective evangelist.  But Paul insists it was by "God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News" (3:7), not by his own hard work, diligence or dedication.  And so, one of his prayers to God for the church was that "from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit...And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is" (3:16-18).  Then he asks that we "experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God" (3:19). 

That power can do "infinitely more than we might ask or think" (3:20).  One thing we all need the Holy Spirit to do for us, is to help us understand and experience "the love of Christ," and have "all the fullness of life and power that comes from God."  If we understood , we wouldn't try to work things out ourselves.  We wouldn't use political maneuvering and half-truths to get others to do our will.  We wouldn't use food, pornography, alcohol, marijuana, drugs, shopping, tobacco or any other substance or activity to make us feel better about ourselves. Knowing how secure we are in Christ, through God's infinite power, would let us relax and trust God to take care of all our needs.  

God loves us without conditions and gives us his powerful Spirit freely.  It's up to us, to decide to live within the Spirit instead of struggling to succeed by ourselves.  How about praying to God, giving up the struggle, and asking him to fill you completely with his power?  Instead of struggling, you'll experience his peace, leave your cravings behind and be filled with his love instead.  Too good to be true?  You won't know unless you take that step of surrender!  Need help surrendering?  Just ask.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Spiritual Experiences vs A Spiritual Life

The curriculum at last week's summer camp, SEP Rockies, was "Rooted" and was beautifully delivered by our chapel speaker, Anthony Mullins.  He talked about the life
cycle of a tree, starting with a seed that dies in the ground in order for the tree to sprout, the seedling struggling to push out of the ground to sunlight and then to push its roots deep in the soil to get nourishment and to hold on during storms; and finally to the point of maturity, which is bearing fruit and seed in order to start the cycle again.

I found a book called "Deep-Rooted in Christ: The Way of Spiritual Transformation" by Joshua Choonmin Kang, a Korean pastor in Los Angeles.  It ties right in with that "Rooted" camp curriculum.  I read these comments in chapter 5, and was reminded of the "mountaintop experiences" we have at our camps: "Spiritual experiences and spiritual disciplines are similar, but they have different outcomes...Spiritual formation isn't like a quickly spreading fire; it's like a tree with deeply descending roots, establishing a foundation for future growth and fruitfulness." (The book is $10 at, if you're interested).

Kang's point is important.  Most of us like spiritual experiences, because they're exciting, they give us energy, and they're memorable.  But like birthday cake, we can't make them our entire diet.  Growth and health, both spiritual and physical, need intentional and balanced nutrition.  When we feel spiritually weak, seeking yet another mountaintop experience won't deepen our contact with and our reliance on Jesus.  A steady, day-by-day diet of spiritual habits will feed our understanding of God and of our own needs.

Here are some examples of habits we can use to deepen our spiritual lives:  Self-examination, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, shows us how we fall short of God's best for us and can help us see a way toward peace.  Silence and solitude (turning away from all our distractions so we can focus on God) gives God space to hold an extended conversation with us.  Generosity helps us release our fervent hold on our possessions and remember they all belong to God anyway.  Memorization of scripture -- several verses at a time -- nourishes our thinking and cooperates with the Holy Spirit as he teaches us (John 16:13).

How about trying one of these practices today, and see how it helps you?  If it's helpful, why not make it a daily, weekly or monthly habit?  These and many others will help you be "Rooted" in God's love and life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Is God Speaking...

Jesus said the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, will "teach us all things" and "lead us into truth."  So, how does the Holy Spirit communicate?  How do we know what he is saying? 
Let's take a brief (not complete by any means) look.

Luke seems to have a keen interest in the Holy Spirit, as his gospel account has more to say about the Spirit's work than Matthew or Mark, and nearly as much as John. The book of Acts, probably also written by Luke, describes the Spirit about 60 times, leading the new church just as Jesus said he would.  Quite a few times, someone is said to be "filled with" or "full of" the Holy Spirit, and that leads to some kind of proclamation of God's will.  In Acts 8:29, the Holy Spirit communicates very specifically to Philip, "Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”  In Acts 10, Cornelius has a vision of an angel, and the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter, saying "I have sent" the men who came for him.  In Acts 16, the Spirit leads a group in several ways:  he "prevented them" from preaching in one place; "did not allow them" to go another place; and then Paul had a vision calling them to Macedonia (modern Greece).  So we have several different modes of communication in these chapters.  We may safely assume that the Spirit continues to communicate with us in the same ways.  The Spirit also "breathed" the words of Scripture as we read in 2 Tim. 3:16 and we trust the words of the Bible as it has come to us, to be the words of God.

Words, impressions, pictures, the Scripture, and the words of other Christians, are all part of the Spirit's communication to us.  Then, how do we tell if something is coming from God, rather than just an impression, or a false message?  We are cautioned by the apostle John that we should "not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God" (1 John 4:1).  That testing includes a right understanding of the Bible, and comparing the idea or message to the mind of Christ.  Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13) so any prompting or message we receive from the Holy Spirit will point to Christ (John 15:26) and not encourage strife or division, but work toward harmony. 

This just the briefest overview, and not even a complete one, of the Spirit's methods of communicating to us.  But the point is, the Spirit does communicate, as he is the mind of Christ in us.  So, we should ask God to speak to us, expect to receive direction from him, and be open and receptive to what he has to say.  And then, of course, be obedient!  But that's a discussion for another day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Holy Spirit of the Love of God

Do you live every day with worry and fear over what disaster of money, health, or relationship might happen to you next?  Do you fret over politics, international tensions and the threat of famine, weather or disease?  If so, you've not yet recognized the power of the Holy Spirit to help you live by love.  

Paul's words in Romans 5:1-2 tell us how sure we can be about our place with God:  "Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God ...Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory."  By his grace -- not by our effort -- God has forgiven us our sins, brought us into his household, and given us peace with him.   

But when trials and setbacks come, when plans don't work out, then can I worry?  No, says Paul:  "We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.  And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation" (Rom. 5:3-4).  Rejoice?  The church in Rome was being persecuted for believing in Jesus.  The saints were often being fed to the lions, and Paul wanted them to think spiritually, to look forward to eternity, and not give up their faith.  

The Christians in Rome -- and we today -- can rejoice and endure and hope only through the Spirit's power.   Romans 5:5 tells us "For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love."  If we are constantly being reminded of "how dearly God loves us," how can we lapse into fear about the next five minutes, or about coming days or years?  If we continue to fear, it's because we are not surrendering to that total reassurance from the Holy Spirit in us. 

If you're still living in fear instead of love, how about setting aside some time to read scripture and ask God, with all your energy, to help you see what Romans 5:5 means for you?  Get away from every other distraction, and let the Spirit teach you to trust that God loves youThat will change you from a worrier to a warrior! 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit

I come from a tradition that didn't emphasize the Spirit's work except as extra power we used to avoid sin.  But the more I study, the more I realize that sin-avoidance only one small part of what the Spirit is about.  The "Third Person of the Trinity" as the Spirit is called by theologians, is the mind
and will of God living in each of us.  Notice Jesus' words in John 14:  the Spirit "leads into all truth" (John 14:17), is actually God-in-us (same verse), brings Jesus to be "in us" (John 14:20), presents the mind and will of Jesus to his followers and "he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you" (John 14:26).  That's an intimate, and very important, set of roles. 

If you have a friend or business associate who is this involved in your life, how constant is that relationship?  You'll be communicating many times every day, in every possible way:  phone, fax, email, text, Facebook, face-to-face; and spending as much energy as possible to understand that person, to strengthen that bond (now, read that again in terms of your husband or wife...).  The Holy Spirit gives us that communication with God.  He does not draw attention to himself -- Jesus said the Spirit would not "speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard" in John 16:13 -- but it is the Spirit's work, prompting and reminding and illuminating us, that tells us the heart of God.  So it's natural for Paul to describe this relationship as "fellowship" in 2 Cor. 13:14.  

Romans 8 tells us that "The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you...For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children."  There is a non-physical, soul-level connection between us and our Creator.  When the Holy Spirit activates that connection, drawing us to God, we experience a yearning for God, and a growing love for him, that we did not recognize before.  And that connection, drawing us to respond in love, draws us to do the will of God.  James tells us to avoid the spiritual adultery of being a "friend of the world," because God is drawing us like a lover to himself:  "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us."  So we ought to be responding to God's constant call, hearing his Spirit's voice singing to us, and in contrast, turning a deaf ear to the lure of sin.   

So how can we be more aware of this constant communication?  By taking time for silence and stillness; prayer; studying the Bible; by fellowship with other Spirit-led people; and using the other spiritual disciplines to ask God intently for direction at every opportunity.  By daily practice, we can recognize the guidance of the Spirit.  Being guided by him should become habitual rather than occasional.  I need that habit more than I have it, and my guess is, so do you, dear reader.  So let's continue the journey together, following the lead of the faithful Spirit of God. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Freedom of the Holy Spirit

This week, Americans celebrate the official declaration of our nation's independence from our mother country, England.  (For some in England, because of the trouble the colonists were causing and the loss of a certain small amount of tea
in Boston Harbor, July 4 became known as "Good Riddance Day" but that's a discussion for another time.)  They were free!  That freedom, of course, led to setting up a new government with a whole new set of laws, taxes and so forth.  But were they still free?  Yes!  And is there a parallel to spiritual life? Yes!  

Once the new American nation was born, we were no longer under English law but under a new set of laws created for this new country. Many principles were the same, but the source and the expression were different.

By rough analogy, that's the case with Christians.  We are summoned into a spiritual relationship with God. "So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.  And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death" says Paul in Romans 8, verse 1.  He continues:  God sent his Son to live in our flesh and sacrificially cover our guilt, so that "the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit."  God accepts us because of Jesus, not because we try really hard to obey and only fail most of the time.  We are in a "new land" of grace, set free by Jesus (Luke 4:17-19), and led by the Holy Spirit rather than a list of rules. 

Salvation is like immigrating to this new land:  it's coming to know, accept and live in our Father's love and acceptance of us through Jesus.  Our new spiritual relationship with God frees us to change our thinking and ways:  "For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image" (2 Cor. 3:17-18).  That freedom in the Spirit leads us to love others rather than serve self, as Galatians 5:13 says:  "Don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love."  When we serve someone, we grow in God's love; and as we grow in God's love, we learn to serve others.

Free?  Yes, you really are free -- free from your addiction to self, in all its ugly expressions. Free from guilt and shame. Free to let the Holy Spirit push you into loving somebody without expecting something back. Free to know God loves you and is showing you how to love others. Why not celebrate by thanking God, and asking him who you can love for him today?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Walking Around with the Holy Spirit

I want God to be pleased with my life in Christ, don't you?  In 1 Thess 2:12 we read "live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you to share in his Kingdom and glory."  Continuing on our series on the Holy Spirit's work
in our lives, let's look at our day-to-day lives, and how the Holy Spirit can lead us, bearing fruit through us to make our lives "worthy of our calling."  Since, as Jesus said, the Holy Spirit is living within us (John 14:17), we should be able to hear his voice and obey.

Let's see what we can learn about paying attention to the Holy Spirit, by using prayer as a parallel idea.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul instructs us to "never stop praying."  As we've heard recently, the word for "never stop" ("without ceasing," in some translations) is used in Greek literature to describe a hacking cough; not that you're always coughing, but the tickle in your throat is always there.  So this command instructs us to "have a heart of prayer" as one translation puts it, rather than to react to life's trials in ways that are less "worthy of our calling."   

So, how would we "pay attention to the Holy Spirit without ceasing"?  First of all, since we are "in Christ" we should expect God to speak to us and we should ask him for direction.  Each of us, according to our own spiritual giftedness and individual makeup, will hear him in a slightly different way, but we will hear the same message because God is not divided.  One way to hear him is to soak ourselves in Scripture, as the Holy Spirit speaks through the words of the Bible (Hebrews 3:7-11) not only "in Bible times" but today too.  Bible students hear from God as they study the Scripture, and often the Spirit brings a verse to our minds when we need it.  Someone with the gift of compassion may hear the Spirit better through the prayers of another person, or through hearing of that person's need.  Another may sense the Spirit speaking through the words of a worship song, or in a group discussion, and some may see a picture depicting something they should do, like Paul saw the Macedonian man in a vision in Acts 16:9-10.  Specifically taking time to turn off all the distractions and seek God's voice is also very helpful.  

There are cautions, of course.  God the Holy Spirit will never speak contrary to the Scripture that he himself inspired.  He will never tell us to do something for selfish reasons, and he rarely tells us that someone else should be doing something.  He expects us to use wisdom as we decide how to obey him, and often we need the discernment of the church he has put us into, to choose the wisest course.   

If we want to hear, we need to listen, and listen with the desire to follow what we're told.  But we should expect to hear the Holy Spirit more and more as we mature in Christ.  There are lots of other resources available if you want to study this topic more, so don't hesitate to ask. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Holy Spirit of Love

I've been writing the last month or so on the Holy Spirit, and how he works to draw us to God and to help us understand the mind of God.  Today we're looking at how the Holy Spirit creates God's love in us.

It is the heart of God himself, who has loved us since before the creation (Eph. 1:3-8), that gives us life.  God pulls us closer to himself through the Holy Spirit: "For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love" (Rom. 5:5).  God's love in us lets us live in confidence, not in fear. Jesus guarantees us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that the Father will take care of us:  “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?' These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs" (Mat. 6:31-32).  John the Apostle said it more flatly in his first epistle:  "Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love" (1 John 4:18).

When we understand the Father's love more deeply, we will respond to others with that same love:  "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God...But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us" (1 John 4:7, 12).  It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the love of God (Romans 5:5) and reminds us what our Father wants us to know (John 14:26).  So this morning, when I was thinking of writing something sarcastic in this column, it was the Holy Spirit who reminded me that wouldn't be loving, even though it felt like fun at the time. 

So the question is, are we properly hearing and following that loving voice of the Holy Spirit?  Typically, one of two things gets in the way:  distraction, or our own selfish desires being stronger at the moment.  I've been writing  lately about how we can reduce distractions to listen better, and learn to surrender more.  When we do, we will be able to think, speak and act in that God's love, and we will find our relationships work a lot better.  How's that working for you?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hearing the Voice of the Holy Spirit

Even though The Lovely Joanne and I live in the same house, sometimes we have trouble communicating.  Then she and I have to stop and focus on
listening to each other -- words, non-verbal cues, and the meanings behind the words.  It would be easier if she could simply grasp what I mean, rather than...but this is about God, not about me.

God communicates with us through the Holy Spirit (his own mind) living in us as Jesus promised:  "the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth" (John 14:17).  Jesus told us "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me" (John 15:4).  To re-phrase what Jesus said, we do not produce spiritual fruit on our own, but only by being fully connected with Jesus, and allowing him to act in us.  

To bear spiritual fruit, we must surrender to the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Sounds simple.  Hard to do.  Sometimes we drive full-speed-ahead through life, playing the theme from "Rocky" at 100 decibels, trying to create 99% of our spiritual success ourselves and only asking God to help with that last 1%.  Sometimes we worry ourselves into a corner, afraid that God won't take care of us like he has so many times in the past

But it is God who is in charge, and God who has the power to create good fruit in us.  So the only rational spiritual life is to surrender our choices to him by taking all our decisions and our words to him for approval -- PRIOR approval.  We're taught to listen before acting, both with God and humans:  "You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires" (James 1:19-21).  Rather than just passively waiting for God to tell us something, we can actively work with God by asking for direction, and surrendering to whatever he answers.  

What's on your to-do list for today?  I think the question should begin one step earlier -- what is on God's list for you?  How about taking him a blank sheet of paper, before it gets clogged up with your own list, and getting his priorities?  And asking him how to produce that spiritual fruit he wants, in your life?  That's the only way I can have a fruitful day.  Give it a try for about a year, and let me know how it goes.