Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Things New

It happens every year: I have good intentions for the best possible new year. My intentions bring forth resolutions for a better life. After all, it’s natural to reflect upon the closing of one year and the possibilities of another. Everyone has hopes for a better year. We all instinctively realize that we have a role to play in shaping the year to come. So we resolve to try harder, act kindly, and become better people. Of course, New Year’s resolutions rarely last a week--or sometimes even the night!

The new year presents an opportunity to reflect on how real change comes. I’d like to suggest three pillars of change for Students of Jesus:

Redeeming Time: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This is worth reflection: we live in time. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised by it’s passage: “What? Where did the year go?” Each day tries to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, and the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an impostor. “Each day is a god,” Annie Dillard observed. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any human relationship flourish if it receives only the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) In fact, the King James version employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.” True change comes to those who understand God’s gracious gift of time, and rule over that gift as God intends.

The Presence of the Holy Spirit: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation does not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit in order to effect real change. The legacy of flesh is corruption. It’s not that flesh is evil, but rather that all flesh is subject to corruption. For example, imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day, and it remains firm and inviting. Now imagine that you leave that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. This is the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God to give birth to our plans. The Apostle Peter reflected on the words of Isaiah and concluded that we need a reminder in order to be open to the Spirit: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1: 23) The new birth implants the imperishable seed, but we can easily be distracted by the flesh: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3) True change comes to those who insist upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in all their plans.

Responding to Grace: There is, indeed, a place for human effort. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were steps for Paul to take as well: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace; we must have eyes to see what the Master is doing. We must also possess the courage to commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best to God’s kindness.

We turn the calendar page, but he gives new life. In the end, we will recognize the work of Jesus in our successes. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I make all things new.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday's Meditation: From Child to Man

Matthew and Luke tell us the Christmas story--the drama and circumstances of the birth of Jesus. These accounts are rich in detail and paint a vivid picture of the Nativity. We know so much about the baby Jesus: his ancestry, his conception, his birth and the those who marked that birth. These events cover no more than a year.

What we know about the next thirty years can fit into a few spare words: Joseph and Mary took their child to Egypt for a time before returning to Nazareth, their home. In Nazareth Jesus grew both physically and spiritually, and participated in his family’s life, including their pilgrimages to Jerusalem year after year. In those years only one event captures the notice of the scriptures: as a twelve year-old his curiosity caused him to lose himself in the Temple grounds, seeking answers for his questions.

That’s it. We know little of his upbringing. We are given one snapshot event and a summary statement (Luke 2:52). And yet, these years must have been important. How did they contribute to the man he became?

Some might think the child Christ knew his identity from the beginning, in which case his childhood and adolescence were utterly unlike any life ever lived. Apocryphal literature from the second century contains fantastic stories of a wonder-working boy Jesus, capable of raising the dead and changing stones into living creatures. If these stories (which are not in the scripture) are true, then his life cannot be a model for ours.

The other possibility is that Jesus grew in awareness and understanding of his identity, discovering God’s call and destiny upon his life. How does any child find his God-given purpose? How did he find his? How do we find ours? And how can we meditate on these possibilities with so little guidance from the scripture?

If you are willing to wade into deep water this week, consider: how did he become the man he was?

Thursday, December 24, 2009


All language falls short of reality, but when we attempt to describe the mystery of the Incarnation, words fails utterly. Throughout history, words have poured forth profusely in an effort to explain a mystery so great that angels have longed to look into.

The Incarnation. It’s such a strange word, tinged with stained glass and solemn intonation. The word is not native to English. We inherited the word from Latin as that beautiful language tried to express, “to be made flesh.” So strange. To be made flesh. Not to be made of flesh, but rather rendered into flesh. Someone--God--was changed into flesh. No wonder the angels were curious.

Theologians raise objections: God cannot “become” anything because God cannot change. I’m not smart enough to be a theologian. I can only point to the witness of the Holy Spirit: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Although the words of men have failed for millennia, the Word became flesh. God describes himself as “the Word.” What is that Word? It is, simply, Jesus. The Word spoken was an entire life, and that life was the light of men. In that one Word/Life, we discover the glory of God, the grace of God and the truth of God.

In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God pitched his tent among us and showed us how to live. God wasn’t “slumming,” like some Hollywood star sleeping on the streets for one night. He left the most exclusive gated community in all creation and became a little lower than the angels. He lived among us--as one of us--without the benefits of his heavenly nature. The Christmas story comes to us filled with drama and pathos, but in our celebration of the Christ Child, the faith of his parents, the wonder of the Magi and worship from the shepherds it’s easy to miss the point: it’s the beginning of the gospel story, not the story in itself.

What does it look like for God to live like a man? It starts with humility, danger, and promise--not so different from each human life that comes from God. It starts with desperation and need but it continues day after day, month after month, year after year until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Jesus the baby became Jesus the child. And in the same succession of days we all experience, Jesus the child became Jesus the man. He showed us how it’s done. He took no shortcuts, he did not cheat on the exam of life. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrew 4:15).

For the past hundred years the divinity of Jesus has been under attack, and the church has rushed to defend from those attacks. Rightly so: he is the Son of God. However, decades of emphasis on his divine nature have come at the expense of an understanding of his humanity. Jesus lived his daily life in communion with the Father using the same means open to each one of us: prayer, openness to the Spirit, the witness of scripture, a listening ear, and the life of a disciple. The child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). It was no charade: Jesus was a man. If we grasp his humanity we can encounter the hope of Christlikeness for ourselves as well. The Incarnation is not only a theological teaching, it is a picture of what is possible for followers of Jesus.

An overemphasis on his divinity creates a picture of a saving God who is beyond our reach. An overemphasis on his humanity reduces Jesus to a beloved character who is easily marginalized by the changes of culture and time. It took the early church two centuries to come to an acceptable statement of the mystery—Jesus is at once 100% God and 100% man. The mystery is also the stuff of Christmas meditation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday's Meditation: A Christmas Parable

God comes to us in unexpected ways. Our problem is that we are looking for him according to our expectations. This is one of the lessons of the first Christmas: God came to nation which eagerly longed for his coming, prayed for his return, and placed all their hopes in his presence. Yet most of the nation missed the hour of his visitation. Is this simply history, or a parable for our day?

The people of God known as Israel had looked for a “day of visitation” for at least 500 years before the coming of Jesus. The nation remembered the golden age of King David a thousand years before the days of Herod, a counterfeit king. David was the prototype of God’s chosen vessel, a unifying and conquering King who established Israel in peace, security, and prosperity. After David’s reign many the prophets began to anticipate a day when Yahweh, the God of Israel, would not rule through a representative king. Instead, God would come personally, take his place on earth and establish Jerusalem as the pinnacle of the earth.

The day of God’s visitation would be both glorious and terrifying. The oppressed (Israel) would be rescued and the oppressor (Persia, Syria, Greece, Rome--or whomever was on top at the time) would be cast down. The people of Israel were looking for their freedom and expected God to judge the rest of the world as well. They expected God would come to the Temple and establish his throne on the earth. They expected “The Day of the Lord,” both great and terrible--great for them, terrible for their enemies. These expectations were based on their understanding of the scriptures and the encouragement of their teachers. These expectations shaped their view of the world, and became the substance of their hopes.

Who could have imagined that when God came to earth personally, he would be dressed in frailty? Who could have imagined that God would indeed come to the Temple, only to declare that the true Temple was built of living stones? Who could have imagined that this King would establish his throne in the hearts of men? And perhaps most incredibly, who could have imagined that the Day of Judgment would indeed come, but that the Son of God would take the judgment upon himself in order to save the guilty?

Of course, in our day, we know these things. We can see clearly. But still the original question remains as a Christmas meditation: Is this simply history, or a parable for our day?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

God at the Margins

Hope, promise, and expectation live in the most unlikely places. The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is peopled with unknowns—unknowns who possessed a rich history with God and whose stories are preserved for our instruction. Simeon is just such an example. He was an individual on the margins, unnoticed in his day but preserved for us in the scripture as an example of how to walk with God.

Just after the birth of their child, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was a massive complex of buildings, a religious marketplace at the center of Jewish life. The young couple expected anonymity in the crush of humanity flowing in and out of the Temple, but instead they encountered a man who had patiently waited to see the promise of God fulfilled before he died:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2: 25 – 32)

Simeon’s actions and words are recorded for us not as a matter of historical curiosity, but rather to demonstrate how we can enter into God’s purpose in our day as well. Simeon had a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. In just three verses the work of the Spirit is highlighted three times, and each mention points to a distinct aspect of the Spirit’s work in Simeon’s life:

• First the scripture says simply, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” (v25) Simeon’s life was characterized by the presence of the Spirit in an abiding way: to know Simeon, to talk with him, was to taste something of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have met people like him. Their lives are permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They radiate the attributes of Godly character, like the list of His fruit in Galatians 5: 22-23. In Simeon’s case other people may not have been able to define the source of his distinctive character, but they undoubtedly sensed the difference.

• Second, the Holy Spirit had spoken to Simeon personally that “he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (v26) This is significant because no amount of study in the Old Testament could lead anyone to such a promise. It was personal. That means Simeon had trained not only his intellect but also his spirit to receive from God. Simeon combined both the ability to hear and the faith to hold on to what he heard. Can you imagine the raised eyebrows he would have encountered if he chose to share such a personal promise from God? Yet the promise was true because the scriptures assure us so.

• Third, Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in practical ways. He was “moved by the Holy Spirit” on a particular day to be at a particular place at a particular time (v27). Perhaps Simeon was consciously aware of the Spirit’s direction, or perhaps it was something less defined. But whatever level of awareness Simeon possessed it was sufficient to put him in the right place at the right time. Dallas Willard has observed that God’s leading isn’t always some explicit command. In fact, we may not be able to separate our thoughts from his—until after the fact, when we realize God was leading and guiding toward a particular moment. Although we do not know Simeon’s age at the time of the encounter with Jesus, the text leads us to believe he was a man advanced in years. His interaction with the Holy Spirit that day was not some robotic control. It was the result of years of heartfelt seeking and cooperation with the still small voice so characteristic of God’s ways.

Simeon’s relationship with the Holy Spirit placed him before the baby Jesus. Simeon’s response to the moment is instructive as well:

He knew his moment had come. When Simeon declares, “dismiss your servant in peace,” (v29) he is not waxing poetic. He welcomes death because he has experienced the faithfulness of God. He has witnessed the promise of God to Abraham, to Israel, and to himself. He has seen the hope of Israel.

Simeon saw what others did not. He declared, “My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (vs 30-31) It was business as usual at the Temple that day. Priests, rabbis, and religious sorts of all kinds walked right past the King of Glory. Simeon saw a baby and witnessed the consolation of Israel. Here’s a difficult question: will I be held accountable for what the Father tried to show me, but I was unable to see?

Finally, Simeon understood that God’s purposes stretch beyond Israel to the entire world. There, in the shadow of the Temple, Simeon bore witness to the hope of the Gentiles. Most of the Temple was off-limits to women and pagans. But standing before Mary, and attracting the attention of a widow named Anna, Simeon declared that the court of the Gentiles now housed the presence of God. The God of Abraham had fulfilled a promise to bless the entire world. In our day, even among believers, we are tempted to think that God is at work on behalf of the few, when in fact his purposes include the many.

There is so much to celebrate in the Christmas story, but for followers of Jesus there is even more to learn.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday's Meditation Nine Months to Think

One day you go to work, encounter an angel, and receive the best news of your life. But it’s too good to be true, so you’re not sure whether to trust your heart to happiness. Then the angel gives you an assignment: keep silent for nine months and meditate on the work of God. This is the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. His story is also a part of the Christmas saga.
The angel who delivers good news to him is mildly offended at Zechariah’s inability to enter into joy and hope. This angel, Gabriel, has come straight from the presence of God, where the only news is good news. Gabriel’s response to fear and doubt is instructive: keep silent until it comes to pass. Then, nine months and eight days later, Zechariah’s voice returns. What would you say after nine months of meditating on the goodness of God?
Zechariah’s first words after nine months of silence are recoded in Luke 1: 67-80. Nine months of reflection. Nine months to consider the work of God. Nine months to travel from doubt to insight; from fear to hope.
Why not consider these seven questions this week:
  • Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” His perspective had shifted from the everyday to the presence of God. (v 67) How many of us consider the need to dwell in the presence?
  • The God of Israel is in the business of redemption, both personally and corporately. (vs 68-71). How many of us consider that God’s redemptive purposes extend beyond our own need?
  • God’s saving action demonstrates his faithfulness to all generations, from Abraham forward. (vs 72-73) How many of us consider that God sees all of humanity before him at any given moment?
  • The purpose of God’s saving action is so that we can “serve him without fear.” (v74) How many of us consider God’s purpose in saving us?
  • John the Baptist’s ministry was solely to prepare the way for another. (v76) How many of us view ministry as releasing someone else to be the star?
  • Isaiah’s fingerprints are all over the Zechariah’s final words (vs 77-79). How many of us allow the scripture to inform our wondering and meditation?
  • Finally, the baby was only eight days old. Zechariah’s work was just beginning. (v80) How many of us see the fulfillment of God’s promise as the beginning instead of the end?
May these seven questions carry us to another Monday. Peace!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The God of Nobodies

When really important people come to town, everyone one knows it. NBA stadiums sell out months before LaBron or Kobe show up for game time. When Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson do a personal appearance, hundreds of screaming fans will show up hours ahead of time. When the President visits your city, you can be sure the mayor will meet him at the airport and school children will be there to give the first lady flowers.

But the Christmas story shows us that God does things differently. You might even call his way sneaky. The most important person in the history of the world snuck into town late one night and definitely did not stay in a five-star hotel. Actually, Jesus was smuggled into Bethlehem through the womb of a teenage girl, who gave birth in a barn. That’s different.

We all know the story of Christmas: the baby, the barn, the shepherds and magi. Hidden inside that familiar story is the surprising revelation that God’s way is to ignore the bigshots and use nobodies instead. Just count the nobodies:

Mary was a teenage girl from a small town. In Bible times women were not important people, and teenagers were even lower on the scale. Mix in her pre-martial pregnancy, and you’ve got a real nobody on your hands. But Mary was God’s choice. She conceived the baby Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. God considered her somebody important and gave her a pretty tough assignment!

Joseph was a nobody, too. He was just a working man across town from Mary’s family. He was faced with a choice between trusting God or protecting his small-town reputation. But reputations belong to important people, and most of the important people were in Jerusalem. Joseph said “yes” to shame, yes to love and yes to God, so God chose Joseph to act as a foster-father to the Savior of the world.

Shepherds are not important people, just the opposite: second-shift schmucks who work outdoors. Back in that day watching sheep was not exactly a rock-star kind of gig. Yet they were the first guests invited to the celebration.

The Magi? nothing more than rich pagan astrologers: it didn’t matter if they had money; they were foreigners. Foreigners have the wrong religion, the wrong clothes, and the wrong sacred books. Elizabeth & Zechariah: a kindly old couple engaged in harmless religious activity. They are the kind of people society ignores--unless they are driving too slow on a the highway. Anna & Simeon: Alone and elderly, they were two people almost completely invisible to everyone. Everyone except the Holy Spirit. One and all, they were people on the outside of society.

The secret message inside the Christmas story? God invites the nobodies. And when God invites you to the table, he provides everything you need. The powerful people, the beautiful people, and the cool kids might not make it to the celebration. They’re welcome, but they might be too busy building their own kingdoms. Meanwhile God’s kingdom is filling up with the people no one notices.

This season, if you are a nobody—rejoice! You are not far from the Kingdom of God.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday's Meditation Correct Answers and Cold Hearts

Knowing the right answer is overrated. A heart moved by the truth is beyond measure.

In Matthew’s account of the Christmas story three wise men (rich pagan astrologers, actually) follow a star to Israel. They know the star is the herald of a new king and a new world order. Because these men understand protocol and honor, they pay a visit to the current king of Israel. The Magi presumed Herod and his court would be aware of this epochal change:

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" (Matthew 2: 2 - 6)

I have always been astonished at this passage. The Magi had gone as far as their knowledge could take them. They had already traveled a long way and were willing to go the distance. The chief priests and teachers of Israel--the religious professionals--could correctly answer the question regarding the birthplace of the king, but not one of them said to the Magi, “What?!? It’s happening now? We must go with you to see the king.”

Not a single scholar went to see the the hope of Israel and Savior of the world. They were content with knowing the correct answer, but their hearts were apparently unwilling to experience the truth first-hand. This Monday, this Christmas season, may God deliver us from right answers living in cold hearts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discipled by the Christmas Narrative

What we know of the birth of Jesus comes to us as divine revelation in the inspired words of the gospels. We get the Christmas story from the scriptures. These passages, found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, are some of the most well-known Bible verses in history.

Like countless other believers around the world, as I prepare for the Christmas season I will read these passages again and again. They are familiar and comforting, and perhaps that’s the problem: because I have come to these passages so often, I am tempted to think that there is nothing new for the Holy Spirit to reveal through these words. That would be a mistake, because the Bible narrative of the birth of Christ is not only inspired storytelling but also useful for training in right relationship with God. What better way to prepare for Christmas than to go deeper in our relationship with the Father?

Let me suggest that the birth narratives--like all scripture--are food for students of Jesus. These passages are filled with challenges to our faith, and filled with the encouragement we need to grow in God. Today I would like to share just four observations from the first chapter of Matthew.

1). Poor Joseph--God didn’t get his approval before acting. Can you imagine the real-life shock of these words: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1: 18) Mary received an angelic visitation and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Joseph received the worst news of his life. God “drafted” Joseph into a difficult position--would the Almighty ever do the same to us? Have we ever considered the implications of God’s sovereignty? If we affirm that we belong to him are we willing to be drafted as Joseph was?

2). The narrative reveals the actions of a righteous man. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” (1: 19) How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels Joseph a “righteous man.” Scripture is demonstrating what true righteousness looks like in action. It’s revealing as well that the scripture describes Joseph's righteousness not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions--toward God and man.

3). Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly. Even in his concern for Mary and her reputation he was still determined to divorce her (in modern terms, "break the engagement"). Yet verse 20 reveals that he took time to consider his actions. When Joseph was faced with the impossible, he did not rush to judgment. The scriptures do not indicate how long he waited, but he took time to consider his actions. And in that period of time, Joseph positioned himself to hear from God in a most unusual manner:

4).An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.’” God gave Joseph a dream, a dream that would change his life forever. This must’ve been some dream, or Joseph must’ve been some righteous man, or both. Engagement, unexpected pregnancy, and an out-of-this-world explanation would be enough to give anyone dreams. But God chose a dream as the means to provide divine direction, and Joseph recognized the dream as God’s personal leading. In fact, dreams are mentioned no fewer than four times in Matthew 1 & 2. I believe scripture is teaching us that God can and does guide his children through dreams. Imagine: in an emotionally charged situation, just when we would be tempted to ignore our dreams as a product of our subconscious, God is present: leading, directing, and guiding--through dreams. By the way, there is no indication that Joseph heard anything else from God until after the baby was born. He remained faithful to God’s instructions for months, all based on one dream!

The Christmas season offers an opportunity to anyone who would become a student of Jesus. Can we imagine ourselves in these situations? Between Matthew and Luke's gospels the cast of Christmas characters is pretty large: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the Magi and shepherds. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants, and cheesy dramas. They are also the stuff of God’s instruction to his disciples.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday's Meditation Meditation

Earlier this month I posted a short piece that dealt with meditating on the scriptures. It generated significant response via comments, email, facebook and Twitter primarily because people considered mediation too subjective for followers of Jesus. The word meditation carries with it overtones of Eastern mysticism, religious ritual, or drug-induced fantasies. Fortunately, the God encourages us to meditate on his words. The truth is we all meditate, the real question should be: to what will we give ourselves?

As I launched into meditation years ago, I believe the Lord lead me to Matthew 6: 9 – 13, the Lord’s Prayer. This seemed odd—I had already committed this prayer to memory. I had said this prayer since I was a child. Even “unbelievers” recite this prayer. I felt the Spirit direct me to the very first line. A still small voice in my mind said, “don’t be in a hurry, take just a small piece.” I took the first line: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

The voice of my imagination said, “That’s too big for you.”

“Strange,” I thought. How about, “Our Father in heaven.”

Back came the sound: “Too big.”

“OK, I get it, I’m supposed to meditate on the Father.” So I settled in to consider: “Our Father.”

One more time the voice replied: “Too big. Smaller.”

There was only one word left, “Our.” It didn’t seem like much but I was determined to at least try to follow the Spirit’s leading. I seemed silly at first. How do you meditate on a single word? I quieted myself and gave my thoughts to that single word:
Our. I’m a word-guy, so after a moment I considered that fact that it’s the first personal plural. Instead of I alone, it’s Our together.

In the silence of my room, I began to realize the significance of the plural. I was not alone. Whenever I turned in prayer to the Heavenly Father, someone was with me. In my imagination I saw Jesus put his arm around my shoulder, saying, “Com’on, let’s go to the Father together.” This seemed like a big deal to me—if I was ever worried that the Father might turn away from me, I was certain He wouldn’t turn away from Jesus.

Since that time, whenever I turn to God, I imagine Jesus, my older brother going with me. I have gained confidence that even though I am not worthy, Jesus is, and he’s the one who takes me to the Father.

I wonder what your mediations will show you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving: God's Will and Our Good.

We should give thanks. It's God's will, and it's really, really good for us:

“A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received is a mighty prayer in the Spirit of God. It prevails with Him unspeakably.” ~ John Bunyan

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” ~ John Milton

“A thankful heart cannot be cynical.” ~ A.W. Tozer

“The careless soul receives the Father's gifts as if it were a way things had of dropping into his hand yet is he ever complaining, as if someone were accountable for the checks which meet him at every turn. For the good that comes to him, he gives no thanks—who is there to thank? At the disappointments that befall him he grumbles—there must be someone to blame!” ~ George MacDonoald

“Thanksgiving comes from above. It is the gift that we cannot fabricate for ourselves. It is to be received. It is freely offered and asks to be freely received. That is where the choice is! We can choose to let the stranger continue his journey and so remain a stranger. But we can also invite him into our inner lives, let him touch every part of our being and then transform our resentments into gratitude. We don't have to do this. In fact, most people don't. But as often as we make that choice, everything, even the most trivial things, become[s] new. Our little lives become great—part of the mysterious work of God's salvation. Once that happens, nothing is accidental, casual, or futile any more. Even the most insignificant event speaks the language of faith, hope, and above all, love. That's the Eucharistic life, the life in which everything becomes a way of saying "Thank you" to him who joined us on the road.” ~ Henri Nouwen

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” ~ Paul, the Apostle: I Thessalonians 5: 16 – 18

“"Praise be to you, O LORD,
God of our father Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.

Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name.”
~ David, King of Israel: 1 Chronicles 29: 10 - 13

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday's Meditation Chilling Words

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sat down to teach his disciples how to live well. He taught about everyday life. His words were not poetic images of heaven but practical words for everyday life. He chose topics that were relevant to those who heard him that day, and amazingly, after 2,000 years these same topics are still relevant.
For me, part of the grandeur of his teaching is the connection between living well now and rewards awaiting us later. True, there is a sense in which living well is it’s own reward, but Jesus also revealed that the Father pays attention to the everyday business of living. When our actions and attitudes line up with his teaching they can provide rest and peace now, as well as reward later.
“Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” ~ Matthew 6: 1 Jesus wasn’t shy about discussing rewards for the choices we make or the secret plans of our hearts. He invited us to weigh the difference between the rewards of men and the reward of God. In the passage following Matthew 6:1 Jesus outlined three “acts of righteousness.” In these verses he repeated two phrases each time. The first phrase is chilling; the second is sublime.
Whether in charity, prayer, or fasting, Jesus indicated that recognition and praise is there for the taking. We can become “somebodies” in the religious world. We can engage in our religious duties in such a way as to ensure advancement and respect of others. We can scoop up the rewards and praise of men, but it comes with a price. After each “act of righteousness” Jesus challenged us to consider these seven words: “They have received their reward in full.”
Conversely, we can desire the reward of the Father. Jesus reveals a Father who “sees what is done in secret.” The Father is surprisingly interested in the smallest acts of everyday life. He is not only interested, he also rewards is undercover friends. God is not distant. The Father is present and active in the everyday. He is delighted by our private offerings and rewards his secret servants.
Over the years I have come to find this assessment both accurate and frightening. The Father lavishes his love and care on those who value his approval. To those who strive for the approval of men, we are left with some of the most chilling words Jesus ever spoke: “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Scary Church

North American Christians seem to have one of two responses to the book of Acts. Some regard Acts as a book of history, while others consider it a description of the possibilities of church life. I started in the first camp and eventually arrived at the second.

The book of Acts is indeed a history of the earliest church. It chronicles the growth of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. It details the actions of the Apostles and the first believers. It is inspiring the way great history should be. In the final analysis, however, history remains an account of the past, and the past is safely isolated from the present.

As I came to regard the book of Acts as normative, my comfortable Christian life was shaken to the core. Did the Holy Spirit inspire the book of Acts as an example for us today? Is it possible He wants us to consider the life of the earliest believers as normative? If so, then I—we—have fallen short. Consider just this one passage:

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. ~ Acts 5: 12 – 16

Since I have determined to read the book of Acts as normative it has ruined me forever. Consider just a few points capable of changing our view of the church:

• This passage occurs immediately after two people dropped dead in the church (Acts 5: 1 – 11). Can you imagine the response if a husband and wife were carried away—dead—from an elders meeting in an American church today? Even more astounding: the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira did not cause a crisis in church leadership. Instead, the incident likely established the leadership even more!

• The earliest church had no facilities. They met on the Temple grounds out in the open. What a spectacle these followers of Jesus must have been. Everyone in town knew where they met and when. Christian community was demonstrated in public. The attraction of the church had nothing to do with facilities, bells or whistles but rather the authentic lives of the people.

• How many churches in our day are both “highly regarded” and also cause people to think twice before joining? (v13) The people in Jerusalem observed a group of believers so radical outsiders considered it a calculated risk to venture into their midst. In our day people join churches—and unjoin them—for a variety of reasons. The fear of God is not usually very high on anyone’s list.

• Notice the word, “Nevertheless” in verse 14: even though no one dared join them, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Have you ever encountered an outreach program like that? The church in Jerusalem was so dynamic it was scary. It was also so dynamic outsiders couldn’t stay away! Imagine a church capable of inspiring fear and fascination.

• Peter, a leader in this church, had a reputation for healing. His reputation was so widespread the public observed his daily routine and dragged the sick into the streets just to be in his proximity. Peter’s “healing ministry” did not involve outreach, meetings, or even prayer! Yet the entire community knew the Peter was a follower of Jesus.

• The healing ministry associated with the early church in Jerusalem gathered crowds from the countryside. It would be no easy task to carry a sick family member up the hillside to Jerusalem, but the reputation of the first Christians was so strong that people came from literally miles around to encounter the same healing anointing that Jesus himself carried. These people did not go home disappointed, “all of them were healed.” If Acts is indeed intended to be normative, it presents a breathtaking standard: all of them were healed.

• Amazingly, this church still had a lot to learn! The next 23 chapters of Acts depict a group of believers still willing to learn and grow as followers of Christ. This Jerusalem church was not ethnically diverse. Its vision did not extend to the Gentiles. The leadership had plenty more to learn, and they made mistakes along the way.

There is a difference between history and revelation. It’s the difference between examining the scriptures or letting the scriptures examine us.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Sanctified Imagination

The gospels give us a glimpse of the life of Jesus, but only a glimpse. John the Apostle reminded us “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21: 25) In John’s final words to us we have been given an invitation to imagine the life of Jesus more fully.
Don’t be afraid, we apply our imagination to the life of Christ in more ways than we realize. For example, the scripture tells us only that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2: 7) Our imagination provides the barn: the sights, the sounds, even the scent. Some of the most beautiful paintings in history have depicted the details of that night. And if you have ever suffered through a Sunday-school Christmas pageant you will also acknowledge some of the cheesiest dramas ever written have portrayed the events of the nativity. From transcendent beauty on canvas to children wearing ridiculous paste-on beards, our imaginations accompany the revealed word of God. It’s OK—we are invited to meditate upon, to imagine, his life.
This Monday, let me suggest a path for our imaginations. From the beginning, humanity was made in the image of God, but one of miracles of incarnation is that humanity became more than an image, it became a temple. In Jesus, God became man, and man became the dwelling place of God. It was God who became a child, forever sanctifying birth and infancy. It was God who was a boy: running, playing, learning and growing, and forevermore youth became a vessel of his presence. It was God who grew into a carpenter: sweating, working, and laboring. His work makes our work holy.
Jesus himself experienced the most mundane, repetitive, and humblest aspects of everyday life. He cleaned his home, only to watch it fall into disrepair again. He lived the "ordinary" life as well. Can we imagine the ordinary things in his life? If we can, then our life becomes his: the factory and the laundry room are his domain as well. Can we imagine the possibility that he is familiar with the everyday toil of our lives?
Sanctified imagination belongs to him. If we can imagine the daily life of the Son of God, we can find him in ours.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fear or Future?

These are times of political change conflict, economic uncertainty, and armed conflict. People all over the world share a common concern for their safety and security, but most find themselves filled with worry and uncertainty. Good news seems difficult to find, and those who deliver the news from across the globe to our living room or doorstep seem to have only one message: our worst fears may come to pass.

Fear is a part of everyday life in our day. But that’s where the gospel message breaks in and challenges us to get our news from a different source: from the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom. Just when we are tempted to think that these times are unique, the Scriptures remind us that people of every generation, every race, and every society have had to cope with fear and uncertainty. The fears of the human heart do not change from one century to the next. God's answer is always the same: there is a King in Heaven who will return to earth, and we can participate in His Kingdom right now, even before he returns.

In Luke’s gospel, we get a picture of a society eager to find a solution to their worries. The beginning of Luke chapter 12 tells us that so many people gathered to hear the teachings of Jesus that the crowds grew to many thousands, sometimes in danger of trampling upon one another (Luke 12:1). They were hungry for good news. But there is a difference between being part of a crowd and being a disciple. In that setting Jesus reminded his disciples how to order their priorities and manage their fears.

Our First Priority
He taught that our first priority was be sure our fears are rightly placed--in reverence to God Himself, the ultimate Judge. Jesus boldly indicated that the only judgment that mattered was the final judgment when the Son of God would return. In the first paragraphs of this chapter (Luke 12: 4-21) we can receive a powerful revelation from the Scriptures, namely that riches in this life are not as important as being “rich toward God.” (v. 21) Here is a meditation for Students of Jesus: what does it mean to be "rich toward God?"

After establishing the one ultimate truth about Judgment Day, Jesus began to address the cares and worries of this world, the here-and-now. He taught that the reality of the Kingdom of God is not simply about the afterlife, but rather that the Kingdom of God should impact the way we think and act now. He assures us that God cares about our everyday needs. He promises us that we can settle our fears by learning how to trust Him for practical things. In this new relationship with God He will provide for our everyday needs:

And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom (Luke 12: 29 - 32, NIV).

He Will Provide
The same Father who provides for our eternal life also provides for our needs right now. That is, the blessing of his Kingdom can begin now for those who walk in a trusting relationship with him. Do we really believe that our Heavenly Father is pleased to “give us the Kingdom?” It's liberating. If we treasure the Kingdom we find liberty to sell everything we have. If we treasure the Kingdom we become free to demonstrate that Kingdom in radical ways to those in need (which is everyone).

True, in the remaining portion of the chapter (verses 35 - 59) He instructs us to look forward to his return. We should be ready for that day! But Jesus suggests that readiness for the Final Day expresses itself in sold-out obedience here and now. Kingdom citizens can live and act out of the certainty of the future in the midst of uncertainty worldwide. We are free to be unpredictable followers of the King and change-agents for his Kingdom. Anyone can embrace the Kingdom when it is fully manifested. We are called to act in faithfulness now to a Kingdom not yet fully revealed.

These verses about the Kingdom of God in the middle of the chapter are heart of his message. Luke 12 opens and closes with images from the end of the age, but by proclaiming the Kingdom of God in the middle of the chapter Jesus reminds us that if our priorities are correct his Kingdom can impact our everyday needs and calm our fears.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this article in February for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website. I have reprinted it here (with some changes) because I took the week off to celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Freedom from the "do-nots"

Back in fifth grade I actually had to write, “I will not talk in class” one hundred times on the blackboard. It was a classic educational moment. I was so short I needed to use a chair to reach the top of the board. I thought I would never finish. If only they had cut and paste back then! When I returned to school the next day--you guessed it--I still spoke out of turn in class.

The list of things I should not do has only grown longer since those days: I should not slap people in the face when they drive me crazy; I should not wager the mortgage money on a sure thing at the race track; I should not text in the movie theater (or while driving); and I should not spend as much time as I do cruising the social network. Perhaps you can add to the list of things I should not do. Don’t bother: I’ve given up trying not to do things. There are several problems with trying not to do things. I lack the discipline, I have a bad memory for rules, and I sometimes lack the will to follow them.

The Apostle Paul was one of the greatest rule-followers ever, yet became a messenger of freedom. His message was so scandalous people thought he was crazy. Imagine a man who had memorized every one of the 614 points of the Old Testament law writing these freedom-filled words:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2: 20 - 23)
This same Apostle of freedom had one goal for his converts: that they would resemble Jesus: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1: 28). These two passages both refer to “teaching,” yet each teaching produces very different results.
The mystery of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse revolves around this very issue, and provides a perfect Monday meditation--what teaching can lead me to perfect in Christ? What does “perfection” mean? Is it possible in my life?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Mysterious Incarnation

If you think you aren’t qualified to represent God, you’re just the kind of person he’s looking for.

God entrusted the care of his creation to two people: Adam and Eve. When Creation was threatened by unbridled wickedness, he entrusted life on earth to one man: Noah. When God determined to bless all the nations of the earth, he entrusted his plan for restoration to one man: Abraham. From the very beginning God has chosen to partner with people. God uses people—deeply flawed people. It’s a heck of a way to run a railroad, but after all, he is God.

The Exodus event is the controlling narrative of the Old Testament. The book of Exodus reveals God’s heart and mind, and also his method: Exodus 3: 7 – 8 depicts God’s compassionate heart and his determination to rescue all of Israel:
The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
God told Moses “I’ve seen, I’ve heard, and I’ve come down to deliver.” Then, just two verses later, God reveals the agent of his deliverance—Moses himself:
So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt. (3:10)

Scripture reveals that when God is determined to act, he is equally determined to use people. Even the most magnificent act of God, the redemption of the world, required a man. In Jesus, God himself came to earth and became a man. He did not pretend to be human: he became human. When only God could do the job, he still came as a man. The mystery of the Incarnation is that Jesus of Nazareth is 100% God and at the same time 100% per cent man. The humanity of Christ is a theological mystery and a revelation of God’s way of doing things, all rolled into one.

We should not be surprised that it is so. God has always used people. Moses objected. Jeremiah complained that he was too young. Jonah ran away. Isaiah knew he was unclean. Whatever excuse they were trying to sell, God wasn’t buying. He believes in us even when we do not believe in him.

In fact, part of the scandal of Jesus Christ is that he by-passed all the “qualified” people and instead assembled the most unlikely team. Working stiffs, tax collectors and prostitutes were his chosen vessels. Religious professionals didn’t make the cut. Even after training his team for three years, they experienced epic failure just when the stakes were the highest. Jesus didn’t care even then. He re-assembled eleven men on a hillside in Galilee and said, “I have accomplished what only God can do; the rest is up to you.”

Our partnership with God begins when we determine to give up our self-assessment and surrender to his promise of who we are in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul encourages the church in Rome to see things God’s way:
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8: 32 – 33)
Singer John Mark McMillan puts it this way: “So what if I’m not worthy, you have made me clean.”

It should not surprise us that God became a man in the person of Jesus. God had been using men to accomplish his will since creation. The mystery of the Incarnation extends beyond the humanity of Christ. The mystery includes you and me.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Saturation

Recently I heard Bill Johnson say that he has read Romans 4 every single day for the past four years. A married couple I know used to read Proverbs 3 nearly every night together as they went to sleep. They did it for a year and then decided to stay with the same chapter until they felt God gave them permission to move on. Thirty years ago I was moved by one line from a song, and I still sing that line several times a day.
What do you think of when you hear the word, meditation? Eastern religions? Passing thoughts? A guru sitting upon a mountaintop? I’d like to suggest that the Biblical notion of meditation is closer to saturation.

You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.

You drench its furrows
and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers
and bless its crops.

You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.

The grasslands of the desert overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.

The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing. (Psalm 65: 9 - 13)

Richard Foster’s liberating book, Celebration of Discipline, opens with these simple words, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.” True that. It’s no surprise that the first discipline he recommends is meditation. Watchman Nee observed that one sign of the natural man is an unwillingness to hear the same sermon a second time. As if the Holy Spirit wouldn’t use repetition to teach, lead, and guide.
Last week I kvetched about the tendency to value knowledge above relationship, but there is a knowing which leads to relationship. It’s the knowing of meditation: allowing the scripture to saturate our whole being, to overflow our head and seep into our heart. Our culture is word-weary. Too many blogs, too many comments, and the constant need to publish more. Yet it’s still true that God’s words are life giving. What will saturate your heart today? And tomorrow, and tomorrow?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Relationship, or Knowledge?

It’s so much easier to study about about Jesus than to be a student of Jesus. We face the constant temptation to fill our heads with the details of his life and ministry. Pastors and college professors emphasize the need to memorize Bible verses or learn Greek and Hebrew. Publishers produce massive volumes of systematic theology. Popular Christian books suggest Biblical “keys to success” for our finances, healing, and any other human need. But Jesus is not a system, he is a person.

Perhaps we should give ourselves first to filling our hearts and lives with his presence. An omniscient God is not impressed with the size of our intellect, but he is impressed with the size of our heart. How can a finite human mind grasp an infinite God? St. Augustine, one of the greatest intellectuals in history, lamented that the “mansion of his heart” was too small and asked God to graciously enlarge his heart, not his mind. The Holy Spirit, who breathed out every word of the scripture, is not impressed with how many verses we have committed to memory, but he is impressed with how many verses have found their way into our everyday lives. Jesus didn't care much for religious knowledge, but he was astonished by the faith of simple people like widows and gentile soldiers.

Even though the Scripture encourages us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” we are constantly tempted to pursue human understanding regarding the words of Jesus when we should pursue his living presence. Trust is all about relationship, understanding is all about intellect. In Jesus, God chose to become a man. The infinite stooped down and clothed himself in humanity. In Jesus, God did not pretend to become a man, God became a man. In his earthly ministry Jesus did not reveal all the secrets of knowledge and learning in human history. He chose instead to reveal how it was possible to enter into relationship with the creator. Jesus chose to reveal the Kingdom of God. By his actions, Jesus teaches us that relationship is more important than understanding. We know this intuitively. We tend to forget it when it comes to our faith.

Faith does not require us to throw our brains into the trash. It does, however, require us to order our lives around what is most important, and relationship comes first. Jesus opened the way back to relationship with the creator. The good news of the gospel is that the Father has gone after the very children who have rejected him. He refuses to leave us alone. He will pay any price--even the life of son--in order to win us back again. That's a committed relationship in action. By contrast, in so much of our Christian fellowship with one another we require intellectual agreement with our favorite doctrines.

Some of us have busied ourselves with developing human descriptions of God’s action. We discuss words like justification or sanctification. We try to present the legal reasons Christians can expect to go to heaven when they die. When Jesus paid the price for reconciliation, I do not believe he was thinking in terms of “going to heaven when we die.” I believe his focus was on demonstrating God’s irrepressible love. Jesus described eternal life in terms of relationship with God: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17: 3) Of course it’s true that we have the hope of going to heaven. It’s only natural. Since God is eternal, he will naturally bring his friends with him into eternity. It's where he lives. “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14: 2 - 3) I suspect that when Augustine prayed the mansions of his heart would be enlarged, he was asking for the work of heaven to begin in in his heart then and there.

God is the creator and sustainer of everything. He is certainly not against the use of our intellect. In fact, in Jesus are "hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 2:3) We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, mind, and strength, so we can confidently apply our intellect in the love of God. As we give ourselves to study, we should also remember that the countless of number of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation who will worship him in heaven will certainly include the unlearned and the illiterate--and they may have a thing or two to teach us about a loving relationship with Jesus.

The challenge for us as Students of Jesus, then, is to know him, and not settle for knowing about him.