Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Glory of God

"So 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" (John 1:14).
Moses asked to see God's glory, and he did get

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Silent Night, Holy Night

This was written by a friend of ours and shared with us, and with her permission I'm sharing with you. I hope you enjoy it!

~ ~ Silent Night, Holy Night ~ ~
Whether your Christmas Eve will be noisy and filled with fun or having a more quiet but meaningful gathering with special people, whether it will be awkward or sad or even silent and alone, it can be a Holy Night.
I see Holy as meaning

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Home for the Holidays

The Lovely Joanne and I are finally back in our house after four months to the day of renovations and six months to the day from the original damages. We've learned a lot this year from the experience! As we reflect on the story of Jesus' birth, I'm struck once again by the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, coming to live in a 'home' of human flesh. Giving up the perks of perfection and peace in heaven, he entered our chaotic and threatened

Thursday, December 5, 2013

He's Been Here Already (a rerun from 2009)

Christians are waiting for the return of Jesus to rule the nations. That's completely legitimate, because He said He was coming back. But "back" means He's already been here once. And both of those points are the message of the traditional four weeks of Advent -- that the Son of God visited us once, and that He's returning. ("Advent" means "arrival," as we see in the name "Seventh-Day Adventists" who emphasize the Second Coming.)

The first week of Advent wraps up the entire year of Christian teaching and celebration, by telling us of that blessed, joyful return of our Savior to the world. Typically, the message of that day in song and sermon and prayer gives us reasons to lift up our eyes in hope of His return, and to be encouraged as we continue to work with Him on the earth now.

But of course, Jesus couldn't return unless He'd been here once already. The next three weeks of Advent teach us some of the many lessons of the first coming. Those include the fact that humanity needed His sacrifice for sin. But Jesus didn't just come here to die -- He, as the Son of God and the Son of Man, perfectly joined God with humanity for the first time. Because He did that, He healed the breach that was opened up in Eden and continued on to that time. All of the angels were waiting for that new beginning, and they celebrated at His birth (Luke 2:8-14) just like they had at the creation (Job 38:7).

Hebrews 9:26-28 gives us both ends of the Advent season when it says this: "But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him."

Do you have goose bumps yet? I do, every time I think about the magnificent, all-inclusive scope of that passage. He's been here once; He dealt decisively with our separation from God; and He's coming back to finalize what He started a long, long time ago. I've got every reason that I can think of to celebrate. How about joining me?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Too Much Trouble?

Life has its share of trouble. Illness, injury, natural disasters, even something as simple as tangled fishing line, can make us wish life was simpler. I've told friends that the last few years have been hard on The Lovely Joanne, as she has experienced some kind of disaster every summer, and we want next year off! But what if God had been put off by the amount of trouble

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Gardens (and Some Clothing)

Have you ever noticed that the Bible begins and ends with people in a garden? In both gardens, there is fruit and health and life, and in both gardens, in Genesis 2 and Revelation 22, clothing is part of the scene. Coincidence? I don't think so. Let's look at it together.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Following the Lead of the Holy Spirit

Last time I wrote about how our relationship with Jesus Christ is not like a list of chores, but more like dancing with him in a relationship that teaches us the facets of love, both individually and as a church. The Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ, whom we've been given by the Father (1 Cor. 2:16, John 14:16-21) invites

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Holy Spirit Invites Us All to Dance

Is Christian life just a different list of required activities than a non-Christian life, but with the same feeling of chores and fatigue? Not at all. It's about a relationship, a friendship with Jesus Christ that deepens as we go through the years together, and about how he comes in and changes our thinking, then our words and actions too. Christian discipleship is a relationship of being filled with

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Relocated, Forgiven, Loved

I know people who have tried to get past a difficult time in their lives by relocating across the country. After unloading the moving truck, they stand in front of a mirror

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Singing a New Song - With Some Help

"Let's have some worship before we start our study" often, in church-speak, means playing and singing a couple of songs. Of course, worship isn't confined to singing. Psalm 96 has a lot to say about worshiping God, and some of it is about singing--but there's

Thursday, October 17, 2013

So you think your life is hard?

Read this. I dare you not to get inspired. And maybe think you can handle life just a teeny bit better after learning about this 16-year-old's experiences:

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Could God Really Want Me?

I've been writing over and over about the love of God:  that "our worth is not calculated on our performance or our moral rectitude, but on the love of the One who loves us." But sometimes I don't believe it about

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Prodigal Father and His Sons

Are there times you know you've really let someone else down? Do you sometimes refuse to let yourself off the hook for what others have long since forgiven? Sometimes you and I call ourselves "unworthy" to be loved

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Works for You?

For many years, I was told "prayer is when you talk to God, and Bible study is when God talks to you" and mostly, that simple answer seemed

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Do You Desire?

What do you really want in life? I don't mean more money or a newer car or something, but in a more permanent sense -- what you want people saying at your funeral, or the legacy you want to pass on to your children and others. What really matters to you? God Almighty is willing to give you those desires:  "Take

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Do You Really?

"Do you want to get well?" That sound ridiculous, doesn't it? Jesus -- who in my estimation was never ridiculous -- asked that exact question of a crippled man. In John 5:1-15, Jesus encountered this man as he lay

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Worse than I Thought

Turns out the work on my house is going to take longer than I thought. Not because the permits office takes longer, or that the workers

Friday, August 16, 2013

N.T. Wright on the Kingdom of God

What is the Kingship of God?  How does that compare to the kingdoms of this world, and how did Jesus come to reclaim it?  A 30-minute interview with N.T. Wright, discussing his book "How God Became King" is found here:  It's worth a listen! 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sunshine of God's Love

The sun is shining today and it's a beautiful afternoon. The flowers are out, the grass is green because of the recent rain, and I've heard the birds singing. What a day to be alive!

This day reminds me of the love of God:  I didn't create it, I didn't earn it, I didn't qualify for it, and I don't control it. The best I can do is respond by enjoying it and thanking him. And telling someone else about it.

What are you doing today?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"My Beloved Child"

Christ-centered, incarnational Trinitarian theology (more at this website) sees in Jesus the full picture of the Godhead; that in Jesus we can see the

Monday, July 22, 2013

Another Royal Birth

Hip, Hip, Hurray!!  The British royal family now has a new heir to the throne -- yet unnamed as of the day of his birth -- who was born today to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, otherwise known as William and Kate. Hearty congratulations to them all! This birth was

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Working at It Too Hard?

We can always be sure of this: God will always act in love. Why? Because we know he IS love (1 John 4:8 etc). To put it simply. God does what God is. The same is true of me and of you -- our actions come from

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

By the Spirit, or Nothing!

Every once in awhile a funny quirk takes hold of human nature, especially in the West, and we begin to think we can conquer the world all by ourselves. Maybe it's from watching those Bruce Willis movies where he keeps going and going, and eventually the bad guys meet an unpleasant end; or

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Explosions, Repairs and Replacements

Some of you know that recently, a house near ours was blown up due to a natural-gas leak. It was not the most fun experience Joanne and I have ever gone through, but we are grateful to God for surviving it and being able to move on. The engineers have been here, and they say that, although the house is sound, some areas will

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Holy Spirit Beckons Us In

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have lived, forever, in an endless 'dance' of self-giving, each in the others and each making space for the others. That God who is Love itself (1 John 4:8) has invited

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Holy Spirit in Community

My six siblings and I love getting together to catch up on life. We tell stories on each other, share memories of growing up together and laugh -- a lot! Sometimes we're all talking at the same time and have

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Listening to the Holy Spirit: The Role of Humility

Yesterday I got another dose of my own humanity, coming down with a thundering headache and nausea. Trying to decide how to hold my head, in a way that minimizes the headache, didn't leave much room for

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Listening to God the Holy Spirit

I've been studying, meditating, and asking God for more clarity on the Holy Spirit's person and work, and being reminded again how

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thanks to...

Sitting at a high-school graduation, and just got surprised when the speaker sent all the grads out into the audience with a white rose to find their family and thank them for their support over the years. I've never seen that done in all the ceremonies I've been to.
It reminded me again how much I owe to so many people in my life. Some who loved and supported me when I was discouraged,  and some who kicked my butt when I needed it. Some who taught me in a classroom, and others who taught profound lessons in the school of life. Some by words, many more by ezample.
Here's to all of you, whether you ever see these words or not. I never said thenk-you enough, and this isn't enough either, but it's a start.
How about you?  Who do you want to thank?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

I think God enjoys drama, good drama, in the healthy sense of raising everyone's expectations
for what he says is a truly spectacular event. He had Noah build

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Giver of Everything Good

Last time I wrote about God as a great giver of all good things. Let's continue. Just to begin the list, he has given us

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hurry and Cut the Grass Before the Snowstorm

I had to laugh - I've been wanting to cut the grass (it's called "mow the lawn" in some parts of the world) for about a week now

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Me (and Jesus)

When I was a boy, John Wayne was the epitome of rugged masculinity, able to fight off the Apaches with one hand and embrace

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It's Not Over Yet

This past Sunday, we celebrated the resurrection from the dead, to new life, of our Lord Jesus Christ. That event changed

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Worthy, and Accepted!

In 1 Cor 11:17-34, Paul gives instructions to a mixed-up church about gathering for the Lord's Supper, as it is commonly called -- remembering and
celebrating Jesus' giving of himself for us and our salvation. Many have been tortured over what he meant by "unworthily" in verse 27, "examine themselves" in verse 28, and "discerning the body of Christ" in verse 29.

If by "unworthily" Paul meant "having sinned too many times in the last few weeks" we'd all be out of luck, wouldn't we? He's talking about comprehending the bread and wine as both symbols and means of receiving grace from the Lord. The context of the whole book is of divisions and arguments within the church -- and in chapter 11, primarily class distinctions, with the poor left to go hungry while the rich overindulged even to the point of drunkenness. Neither group would be able to come to the table with the proper reflection, having admitted to oneself and to God how deeply we need this grace. Paul is telling them to be unified in love, to treat one another generously, and to reflect on the incredible love of God in forgiving us through Jesus.

"But, I still feel so unworthy!" we often say to ourselves. So, is our worth determined by our feelings? No, our worth is already given to us by Jesus himself, his own sinless life and perfect death for us, his love for us bringing us into the love of the Father. It's not because we have managed to confess every sin in our lives and stop sinning. Jesus loved his disciples in spite of their sins and selfish attitudes (John 13:1) -- and note, this is said while Judas was still in the room!  He told them the Father loved them too (John 17:23) and that love should give us confidence.

See also Jesus' words in John 15:9-17:  This hardly sounds like someone who says he accepts us only  subject to constant review of our hard work! And in Luke 22, as well as Matthew 26, Jesus urges the disciples to partake of the bread and wine -- it was his earnest desire that they take these symbols, and it's his earnest desire today too, for every one of us.

Our Lord has loved us beyond our imagination -- even when we try to imagine it! The symbols we take, in fellowship with one another and with God, help us remember Jesus: yes, our need for his forgiveness, but also to remember his love (John 3:16-17) that moved him to rescue and restore us to himself long before we could even ask (Romans 5:6-10). The Lord has given us life, freedom and love through Jesus. Isn't all of that worth celebrating with joy?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The "Abandoned" Savior

Reading through the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, I am struck once again by some of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross. Two in particular seem
hard to reconcile with each other.

Near death, Jesus says "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in Matthew 27:46. This is a quotation of the beginning of Psalm 22. Some take this to mean that when the weight and awfulness of all people's sins were laid on Jesus, the Father truly did turn away from the Son "to avoid looking on sin." But if the Father really separated from the Son, even for the smallest instant, the true unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be destroyed and the universe (you and me, too) would have ceased to exist. Given the unity of God, that's not a good explanation.

On another level, we see Jesus taking on even our most awful feelings of abandonment. Sometimes I feel like God hasn't answered my prayers, or doesn't really care about me, and probably you have too. But I don't think we can possibly understand how awful the Son of God, the man Jesus Christ, felt at that moment. He had been rejected by his own nation, even his own siblings, and abandoned by most of his closest friends. Now, as he was near death, and the Father had not reduced his agony or saved his physical life, perhaps Jesus the man really felt that he was being abandoned. Jesus identified with all our pain and sorrow (that idea is explained well in Isaiah 53) and in the end, defeated all of it along with all sin. Why do I say "defeated"? Because the feeling of abandonment didn't defeat him -- and it doesn't have to defeat us either.

Please let me explain. After quoting Psalm 22, Jesus said his last words: "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!" (Luke 23:46). After feeling all that abandonment by so many who should have supported him, Jesus still chose to trust the Father to bring him through this trial. By trusting, he became our victory, and our example. Jesus completely defeated our feelings that God doesn't care -- just like he defeated every other sin in his human existence (Heb. 4:14-16, Rom. 8:2-4). And he did it for us, just like he lived and died and was resurrected for  us. 

Remember, Psalm 22 ends in victory and praise. So when you and I get to feeling God doesn't care anymore, and nothing is ever going to work out (like Eeyore, if you know the character), we can remember that Jesus, who is still with us (Matt. 28:20), knows exactly how it feels, and gives us his victory freely. Let's accept that victory from him as his loving gift today, and praise the Father for it!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Snow and Forgivensss

Yesterday's snowfall was unexpected and lovely, blanketing the area in a sheet of white. Snow is
a wonder, with its fluffy whiteness covering all the dirt and detail of the landscape. For a short time, it makes us think everything is clean, pristine and perfect.  If only it could stay that way forever!

This is how our Father God sees each person in Christ. We are drawn into Jesus' life of perfection through the grace he gives us, and we are given a right relationship with God just as freely as the snow falls. The difference between the two, is that forgiveness will stay that way forever! The Father will always see us as clean and forgiven, righteous in Jesus and beloved.

This time of year, we celebrate the death of Jesus for us, and his resurrection for us too. We get to meditate often over the the wonder of God's freely-given love and forgiveness, the awesome depth of the sacrificial love of God for us, and the amazing all-inclusive nature of his plan for us that covers every contingency and will eventually redeem everything. We couldn't have dreamed it up, we can't really understand it, and we can't possibly give him enough thanks for it, but we surely ought to try!

One more thing:  that same forgiveness, grace, and inclusion the Lord God Almighty offers us, we are now empowered by the Holy Spirit to find ways to extend to others too. That includes the smelly homeless woman who hasn't had a bath in months, the addict who can't seem to find a way out of his hopelessness, and everyone who has ever offended us. Each of those is also loved, infinitely, by the same God who loves us in spite of the broken and hurtful ways we each live. (Yes, that includes me, dear reader, and somebody in your life could tell you that includes you.)

Let's rejoice, this season of renewal and new life, in God's amazing love. And let's make an effort to give that love and acceptance to someone else too. Even someone we might think doesn't deserve it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It's Time to Take Off the Veil

Moses spent time with God (Exodus 34) and his his appearance was changed. He had to wear a veil to keep from scaring everyone. Jesus was changed
in his appearance ("transfigured") before his crucifixion, to fulfill Moses' experience. After the resurrection and the start of the church, the disciples reflected Jesus by the way their inner selves were changed. (The Jewish high court, seeing them, knew they "had been with Jesus," Acts 4:13). You and I also ought to reflect Jesus (2 Cor 3:18), but sometimes we don't, because of 'the veil': either we don't see God well, so we don't see our sins; or our past is still present, and it veils the shining face of our new self in Christ.

I've been following Jesus for decades, but I still have unhealthy thinking and broken emotional patterns from the past that lead me to sin, hurting me and hurting others. And so do you. What's the cure for our disease? Paul tells us "this is the secret: Christ lives in you" (Col. 1:27). The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends us, will keep bugging us to "be with Jesus." Time spent focusing on Jesus will help us see him more, so we can see, confess, and surrender our sins, and so reflect Jesus. For today, here is just one example of such a sin that veils the image of Christ in us. 

Fear: all of us live in self-protection. We are afraid others will hurt us, or that they'll find out the embarrassing truth about us, so we hide behind a polite mask of pretended security. We try to control everything that happens so we stay "safe." And we try to control others by stubbornly holding our opinion, or shutting others off when we don't get our way. Fear and its results inhibit love in every relationship, from a casual meeting on the street to intimacy in marriage. We even try to use the same tactic with God, out of fear he will reject us -- but he has already accepted us through Jesus. His love should rule us instead. 1 John 4 tells us "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. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. 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."

The love John describes requires taking off the veil instead of hiding behind it in fear. You may not even be aware of a fear you have, but it's still crippling you. God has already put someone in your life who knows and loves you, and can help you, in an ongoing partnership of prayer and confession, to see the roots of your fear and surrender all of it to God. We all need someone to show the love of Jesus to us, and help us take off the veil. I'll be praying for you to find that person. Isn't it time you started this process too?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Taking Off the Veil, Part 2

Last week I wrote about our need to have the spiritual veil covering our eyes removed, by
surrendering our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:16: "whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away." When we see everything in the light of Christ, we no longer try to get justified before God on our own, but trust completely in what Jesus has done. When we're resting in Christ, we can be sure he accepts us, and be filled with his love, to the point we can overflow with it and pass it on to others.  That's what Paul means as he continues in verse 18, "all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord."

But sometimes the physical and emotional drives from our old selves interfere with our rest in Christ, and we aren't a very good example of Jesus' glory. In a time like that, we might react out of selfishness, spend our days in anxiety instead of peace, or speak from anger or self-defense instead of love. But we all want to "reflect the Lord's glory," and not leave other people confused about Christ, or hurt by our human reactions. So how can we see and root out the parts of our lives that don't reflect Jesus?

I'm glad you asked! That's actually one of the purposes of spiritual disciplines. When we halt our normal activities to have focused time with God, we get to shut off the normal background noise of chores, electronic interruptions and sometimes even our own physical needs like food and drink. With practice, we can learn to stop our minds whizzing around so fast, and hear God more clearly. We can learn spiritual practices that help us to review and reflect on our thoughts, giving us a more accurate picture of our true motivations. Through these tools and processes, we grow a step at a time in being able truly to reflect Jesus.

But what happens when we find parts of ourselves that don't measure up to Christ?  Instead of despairing, we throw ourselves once again on his infinite mercy and his absolute love! He showed us that love at the Last Supper: "He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end" (John 13:1). God loves us so much that he sent his Son, who not only died for us, but who served us in a very humble way by washing our dirty feet. How could we doubt such love? So then, why should we be afraid to admit to him what he knows anyway -- that we are still weak and need his help? That surrender of repentance, admitting our helplessness, is the final step in letting go of those old ways of the flesh. As Paul concludes the earlier verse, "And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image." Can we agree to take up the tools of spiritual formation and let the Lord change us?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Taking off the Veil

Spiritual vision involves seeing the way God sees, not the way we humans see (1 Sam. 16:7).  I know several people with
cataracts in one or both eyes. They see the world like they are looking through a veil -- it's indistinct, dark and dangerous. Spiritually, if we can't see clearly, we stumble around, without making spiritual progress. How can we see as God sees? How would that change us?

Perhaps an example will help. In Luke 5, Jesus is calling his 12 disciples out of their own lives to follow him. One of them, Matthew Levi, is a (insert 1st-century epithet) tax collector, assumed to be getting rich by robbing his own people while selling them out to the (epithet) Roman occupiers. Matthew surprises everyone by leaving it all behind to follow Jesus, then invites his friends (some of them are probably epithets too) to a banquet with Jesus, and the Pharisees pitch a fit. Why? Because they thought their job was living by the law and making others do it too, so the nation would be righteous. Jesus took a different approach. He described his mission as extending grace to (epithet) sinners (verses 31 and 32), which he knew the Pharisees wouldn't understand (verses 36-39).

2 Cor. 3:14-18 describes a 'veil' that darkens the spiritual vision of people who, like the Pharisees, see only the way of performance and so do not understand the truth. Only when "someone turns to the Lord" (v. 18) is that blindness removed. "Truth" is defined here as freedom in Christ under that "new way which makes us right with God" (verses 8-11). That's grace, not behavior, and that's how God thinks even if we don't get it.

I remember, 18 years ago this month, when I finally surrendered the survival instinct that told me I had to "do something," admitting that I couldn't save myself from anything, even by my earnest attempts to obey. "All of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord" Paul says in verse 18, and that night I finally began to see the glory of God. I'm still learning to reflect that glory -- that's a journey of seeing the ways I still don't reflect him, and surrendering those also. "The Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him" as we surrender more of ourselves to him. 

Proper behavior is not the path to life with God.  Life with God is the path to proper behavior. In fact, the way of performance is "worldliness" just like the Pharisees' thinking. If you don't see that, I beg you, with all I have, to turn to Jesus in complete surrender and ask him to remove that veil. If you have seen it, then spend some extra time and effort today listening to Jesus and then following him.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent 101

Like me, you may have heard the practice of Lent criticized, either by calling it "lint" (there's
no connection) or rejecting it out of hand as a mistaken way of working one's way to God. We are rightly careful not to create requirements where the Bible doesn't have them, even as we are free to examine and accept practices that will help us in the process of being formed into the image of Christ. Lent can be one of those.

Lent is not based on superstition, nor is it a way to save ourselves. It arose soon after the first century, from a practice of teaching new converts the basics of the faith for 40 days, helping them reject the demonic roots of their former pagan practices, then baptizing them just before Easter. Then came the concept of fasting for 40 days, as Moses did before God at Sinai and as Jesus did in the wilderness before defeating Satan. Rather than fasting from all food and water for 40 days, the Lenten fast was conceived as a time of solemn repentance before God, including extra times of prayer, and the challenge to give up a physical practice we enjoy. The cravings that resulted from giving up those things are reminders to ourselves that we really do need rescue! (It's interesting that in my denomination's tradition from 20 years ago or more, many tried to "prepare for the Passover" with practices that were at least as intense as this.)

As Michael Horton writes in an article on Lent in Christianity Today (find the article here) the society in which we find ourselves today is at least as tempting, demonic, and destructive as that surrounding the early church. So, once in awhile -- perhaps once a year at the very least least -- it is good to remind ourselves of temptation and our need for rescue. At the same time, we can go overboard by putting too much emphasis on the tool -- in this case, Lent -- and not enough on the actuality of our connection with the Lord. So while I recommend the discipline of time set aside for reflection, self-examination and self-denial, let's recall that Jesus is with us at all times, and our disciplines are no more than tools to help us pay attention. 

Today is "Ash Wednesday" on the calendar of liturgical churches, and many congregants will attend a solemn service in which someone will put a dab of ash on their forehead symbolizing repentance, mourning and humility (see Gen. 18:27, Esther 4:1, Job 42:6, Daniel 9:3, or Matt. 11:21). Let's thank God that people are being reminded, in whatever practice we use, of who we are and what he has rescued us from.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Are We There Yet?" Christian Life Is a Journey

I used to think the word "grace" was just a wimpy way of thinking about following Jesus -- so that people who couldn't obey
him well would hope to get grace instead. I thought that, on the rare occasions I didn't obey right, I could grovel before God and ask for grace 'just this once.' I was taught was that the whole idea of Christian life was to obey more, get sin out of my life (mostly by my own effort), and wean myself off the Lord's forgiveness as fast as possible until I didn't need grace at all. After all, Christ had gone to a lot of trouble at the cross to forgive me, and I didn't want to wear out my welcome by asking for grace all the time.

Finally, I began to understand that grace is how God relates to us all the time, out of his love for us, not because we can't obey perfectly but because we can't obey at all. (Even if we go through the motions of obedience, our motives are still impure.) Then, I began to enjoy receiving grace, but the problem was, I didn't realize that I wasn't giving grace to other people in my life. I was still the same selfish person who demanded performance from others while being glad God had already covered my lack of performance through Jesus. You might say I was just a teeny bit disconnected from reality.

The Lord finally started straightening out my messed-up ideas, through some very difficult situations in my life, and giving me some mature and loving Christians who mentored me and lovingly pointed out my hypocrisy. It has taken years but I'm happy to say I am beginning to see opportunities to give grace to others. At least some of the time.

All of this brings up the point that Christian life, becoming spiritually formed in the image of Jesus Christ, is a journey and not an event. We don't suddenly stop sinning by receiving the Holy Spirit, we don't instantly cast away every temptation after baptism, and a person doesn't mature instantly any more than a fine wine or cheese does. A journey means, among other things, being patient with the process, with ourselves, and with others as we journey together. 

No, we're not there yet. But the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the ongoing fellowship of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (2 Cor. 13:14) will carry us there. We'll enjoy the ride a lot more if we relax, ask the Lord how the journey works, and help others enjoy it too.

May the Lord give you peace as you walk with him!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Monks and Ordinary People

It sure would be nice to always feel close to God, wouldn't it?  I think we all would like that.  A long time ago, people who were especially passionate about connecting with God took a drastic step, to
live in a mountaintop, desert, or island 'retreat.'  Some lived in monasteries and convents with vows of silence, as a way to hear from God.  They created daily routines of prayers and readings and hymns, and discovered tools to stay more connected with God.  The impression grew up that these were 'the holy elite,' as though the only way to spiritual living was to become a monk or nun.

I'm glad to say the Lord invites all of us to connect deeply with him, and there aren't any 'elite.'  Paul tells us in Romans 12:2, "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."  He wrote those words to ordinary people living in Rome -- the hotbed of immorality and evil practices -- without telling the people to 'leave civilization behind' and live elsewhere.  So if Romans can participate in spiritual transformation, all Christians can!

Those who lived in retreats learned, of course, that "wherever you are, you take yourself with you" so they still had the same personal sins and weaknesses, and still had to let the Lord transform their thinking and emotions.   Like craftsmen create tools for woodworking, dozens of different practices were discovered by these people, as they were led by the Holy Spirit to surrender their shortcomings and problems to God.  And what they learned can help us! 

Would you like to feel more connected with God, more often?  I'm going to write a series, off and on, highlighting some of those ancient and effective practices.  I'll learn by distilling and writing about them, and I hope you will learn too.  May the Lord bless our journey together! 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Success: Listening and Obeying

How much of 'success' is hard work, and how much is a gift from God?  A lot of people quote the old proverb that success is "10% inspiration
and 90% perspiration" which leaves the real effort up to us. Is that really it? 

A story might help illustrate.  The Lord promised Abram in Gen. 15:4, “you will have a son of your own who will be your heir” and verse 6 says that "Abram believed God."  The Lord sent Abram a vision as part of a covenant ceremony (described in the rest of that chapter) so that should have sealed Abram's belief.  But, several years later, Abram still didn't have a son.  Sarai, his wife, thought she had a solution, by having Abram father a child by her slave Hagar -- that was an accepted practice in the culture, so perhaps Abram thought it was a good way for the promise to be fulfilled.  But if you read further, you realize that wasn't the Lord's plan, and Hagar's pregnancy just complicated life.  It would have been simpler, perhaps, if Abram had stopped to ask the Lord if this was what he had in mind. 

Most of us have no trouble admitting we need divine help for the really tough parts of our lives.  But we tend not to ask for help with everything. That's not wise!

A friend of mine asked me to pray that he would rest his problems on the shoulders of the Lord instead of trying to carry them himself, and that's wisdom straight from the word of God:
"Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track."(Proverbs 3:5-6, The Message).  And I was reminded the same thing while meditating, when the Holy Spirit asked me, "So, do you really think your solutions are better than mine?  Is that why you get up some days and start trying to handle problems without humbling yourself in prayer and my words to you first?" Ouch...

To really "listen for God's voice in everything" means taking the whole day to him before it starts, responding to challenges slowly enough that we have time to listen to him, and letting him have the last word.  That's tough for us self-starters, but it takes less time to listen and make the good decision the first time, than to go fast and then have to do it all over because we didn't listen.  How about deciding, once and for all, to listen to God first, every day, about everything?  He will direct us!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bilbo and the Fishermen

Gandalf interrupts Bilbo's quiet morning
The new Hobbit movie is a beautiful work of film-making.  This morning I saw a parallel
with the work of Jesus -- probably intentional, because Tolkien wrote Christian themes into his extended allegory about good and evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This story involves Gandalf the Gray, whose character is the Christ figure in the trilogy, and Bilbo, a stay-at-home hobbit quite content with his life.  Gandalf shows up uninvited one day on Bilbo's doorstep, and turns his life upside down!

Gandalf's other guests -- a dozen dwarves -- show up soon, and while eating every bit of food in Bilbo's well-stocked pantry, debate the adventure they are beginning, to reclaim their lost homeland from a dragon.  Their lurid descriptions confirm Bilbo's determination not to be an adventurer.  Finally, though, his curiosity draws him into this crazy journey, where growing comradeship mixes equally with life-threatening surprises. (Disclaimer:  this is not an endorsement of the movie, nor your excuse to drag your unwilling friends or family members to see it "because the pastor said it was good."  It includes a lot of fantasy, fighting and conflict, and it's rated PG-13.  Just so you know.)

I've been reflecting recently on Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus invites some fishermen on an adventure that is just as different from their previous life as Bilbo's adventure was to his.  No nice, safe house to come home to at night, no certain meals or bed, await these travelers.  Rather, they are told they will "fish for people" -- whatever that is supposed to mean -- and to go on the adventure, they have to leave everything else behind.  And so, amazingly, they do!  Just like Bilbo. Their reward for helping Jesus reclaim their homeland -- the whole earth, terrorized by sin and the original dragon, Satan -- isn't gold and jewels, but eternal life beginning now, (1 John 2:24-25) and a "crown of righteousness" (2 Tim. 4:8) in the future. 

And, the same kind of adventure, discipleship with Jesus, exists for us as it did for the original 12, and for Bilbo and the dwarves, even though it might not mean going to a Roman prison, or fighting your way through a cave full of (I won't spoil the movie if you still want to go see it).  We still have to sacrifice, to learn as we go, and to have a great need for faith in our leader, as we journey.  There are times it won't be comfortable, and we won't know what's next; but Jesus is always with us, and HE knows what's next, so that will have to do.  Oh, and one more thing -- the same reward Jesus promised the 12 disciples is given to every single one of us, and is the destiny of all humanity!  Let's get started, together!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What Is God's Name? (Part 6)

The Bible names God as three Persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit; yet some scholars and
lay people feel those names are inadequate or wrong.  I hope this series of questions on this topic has been helpful to you!  Here's one more question:  doesn't the Bible talk about God in terms of feminine or motherly actions?  If so, why can't we call him Mother instead of Father, or Father/Mother?  There are good reasons to delight in the motherly traits described of God, yet still to call him Father.  (In this post I'm indebted to Peter Toon's work Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity.)

Let's look at one example, and then the principles involved.  Isaiah 66:13 says "I will comfort a mother comforts her child."  Does this say God is a mother?  The word-picture here is a simile, where one thing is said to be "like" or "as" something else, for illustration, but the language is always of comparison, not literal statement, and nowhere is God named as Mother.  There are others scriptures, such as Deut. 32:11 and Isa. 31:5 where God is described like a bird hovering over a nest, caring for and protecting its young (Jesus uses a similar picture in Mat. 23:37), but nowhere does the Bible say God is a bird. 

God is described as Father in three ways.  First, in simile, as in Psa. 103:13, where God is said to have compassion for his children like a physical father.  Second, as a metaphor in the Old Testament, where he is described as the Father of a nation (Jer. 31:9) or a king (Psa. 2:7).  Third, Jesus reveals God as his own Father (John 3:16) of whom he has full knowledge (John 1:18 etc.) and reveals the Father to us (John 12:49-50).  "Father" then is not something we decided on and projected upward to God, but "this is God's self-revealed name and what it means is revealed by the One who is his 'Son' and by the One who is his 'Holy Spirit'" (Toon's words here).  This is no longer a metaphor but a revelation of the very name of God in Jesus' own words to us.  

Isn't God described as our Father also?  Yes, because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father; but not through a separate relationship.  Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29, Heb. 2:11), and because he said so -- not because we became so on our own -- we are also the children of the Father.  

To conclude the series, then, we see that if we trust the Bible's words as accurate, we see God calling himself Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we are not free to name him otherwise.  If we are uncomfortable with those ideas, or a masculine-sounding context (never to be identified with gender in the human sense!), then it is we who need to examine our hearts and open them to God, as he is already open to us through Jesus.  Solo Dei Gloria -- to God alone be the glory!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Free Indeed!

Luke 4:18-19  "“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,
 and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come."

Jesus quoted from Isaiah to state the purpose of his ministry (setting all humanity free), but they have
a parallel in our nation's history.  January 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order of President Lincoln, declaring freedom for some of the enslaved peoples in the United States (the proclamation was limited by politics and the ongoing war).  Nevertheless, Lincoln's proclamation was the first domino to fall that caused the end of slavery in the United States. 

There's another parallel.  All slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and all humanity is declared free in Christ.  Yet illegal human trafficking still occurs in this country.  And many do not know, or understand how to live in, their freedom in Christ, so they feel they are still enslaved by their sins, or under God's judgment. 

Jesus said "
So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free" (John 8:36) and I believe him more than I believe myself!  So how do we live in our freedom in Christ?  First we have to believe we are free.  Believing God means letting him change our thinking:  "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" (Romans 12:2).  Notice, it's surrendering our self-will and letting God change us -- not getting up the gumption to change ourselves so we can present ourselves to God already changed, because he is the only one who can truly change us anyway! 

Living in that freedom every moment of every day comes from knowing the will of God, as Paul said.  That leads us back to (no big surprise) spending time in the word of God and in prayer, along with other tools of spiritual formation that we know and practice.  And notice, these spiritual tools only work if we believe Jesus has truly set us free -- otherwise we keep trying to obey without faith, and that's a legalistic dead-end, spiritually fruitless.  (If you have any doubts about that, re-read the book of Galatians, especially chapters 3 and 4.) 
The freed slaves had to learn a new life -- how to make good decisions, think about the future, and care for their loved ones -- challenges created by their new freedom.  Christian discipleship, including the process of spiritual formation, is the exercise of learning to follow Christ in our spiritual freedom.  Let's make that spiritual formation a major goal in 2013 as we walk together in Christ.