Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday's Meditation: The Right Time

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5: 6 – 8)
Sometimes little words slip past us like water through our fingers. In this passage the little words are, “at just the right time.” These words reveal that the Father’s idea of the right time is radically different from ours.
The whole world had rebelled against God. His voice had gone out to all nations and through all generations, calling us home. The Creator had never stopped extending the invitation to return. He revealed himself in every morning mist, and in the cloud of stars we call the Milky Way. In every generation he sent visionaries and poets to describe the beauty of living in harmony with the Creator. But we would have none of it. We were unwilling, and unable, to see or hear.
These three Holy Spirit-inspired verses from Paul’s letter show us that God’s view of the “right time” is when we are powerless. Even if we had wanted to return to the Creator, we were unable.
The lesson for disciples is not simply that God is gracious (though he is). It’s not simply that he accomplishes redemption when we cannot (he does). No. For those who take seriously the possibility that we can imitate his goodness and character, the lesson is that the right time to act is when others cannot.
How often I have waited for others to meet me halfway. If I am going to help someone, I require a “show of good faith.” I’ve walked away from people in need—materially, emotionally, spiritually—because I thought they weren’t interested in helping themselves. The lesson of the gospel is, in part, that God acted first, without any guarantee that his extravagant love would be received. He risked rejection because action had to be taken.
As his disciple, am I willing to do the same?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our theology allows for the love of God. Do our hearts allow it?

I know a guy who grew up in the kind of Christian home where going to the movies was considered sinful. The lure of forbidden fruit was strong: he longed to go to the movies and see exactly what was so wicked. The only thing that kept him from sneaking away to the theater was his concern about the “Rapture.” What would happen to him if Jesus came back at the exact hour he was inside a movie theater?

Then there was this other guy who was determined to never say “never” to God, because he was sure that God would enforce upon him the one thing he never wanted to do! I suggested that he tell the Almighty that he would never serve God in Hawaii, but my friend was not amused.

In my experience many Christians carry conflicting ideas about God’s heart. With their heads they boldly believe that God is willing to pay any price for the redemption of mankind but with their hearts they cannot believe that God loves them personally. True, God “so loved the world” that he sent his Son to save us all, but loving the world doesn’t mean that God loves me. Or, as one young woman I know put it, “Sure he loves me, but he has to--that’s his job.”

Our theology allows for the love of God. Do our hearts allow it?

The answer does not come easily. Our hearts--each one of us--resist the idea that anyone could love us unconditionally. Married couples can remain together for years and still find themselves driven by he fear of rejection even though their spouse has demonstrated love time and again. Even in healthy, balanced families children have no real grasp of their parent’s love until they themselves become parents. Our insecurities run like subterranean rivers, watering our fears from below even when our surface life is filled with love and acceptance.

No blog will settle this question in one quick reading, but I’d like to point toward a solution.

Jesus knew human nature all too well. He understood the pressures to perform for acceptance, and the fears of rejection. In one amazing passage he both acknowledges our shortcomings as human beings and uses our very faults to assure us of God’s love--God’s personal, one-on-one love for each of us:
"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7: 9 - 11)
In this passage I see and feel the genius of our Lord. Jesus saw the imperfect love of fathers and mothers. It’s something we all have seen. The examples are in front of us every day. We see mothers who lose patience and fathers who are preoccupied. We watch at grocery stores as parents speak sharp words when children don’t deserve a rebuke. If we are parents ourselves know firsthand that the well of devotion runs dry and we have little or nothing left to give. Yet we also know that even in our weakness we would never substitute stones for bread or snakes for fish. We may not always be up to the task, but we will not harm our children. Jesus used our failings to encourage us that a perfect Father can love completely.

Somehow we are tempted to change the equation when it comes to God. We do not see his perfection as a perfection of heart, but only a perfection of holiness. We may address him as “Father” but we have no real certainty the word means the same thing when we are talking about God.

Jesus came not only to save: he came to demonstrate the possibilities of a life-giving relationship with the Father. Religious authorities were scandalized by his intimacy with the Holy God of Abraham. Who would dare call the Creator of the universe “Papa”? The mind-blowing answer in not simply that Jesus would dare to do such a thing, but that he invites us to do the same.

The Apostle Paul understood the bold invitation presented by Jesus. In the soaring beauty of Romans, chapter eight, Paul challenges us to considers the possibilities of a life-giving relationship with Papa. Not simply forgiveness of sin, but daily, joyful interaction with a Father who delights to be with us:
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. (Romans 8: 15 - 16)
Not God’s children in some legal sense. Not children in some metaphorical image. Really children, and really his. Toward the end of the chapter Paul reminds us that Jesus was the “firstborn” specifically for the reason that God wanted many more children. No servants, but sons and daughters.

We can read these words, think these thoughts, and still jump to the next web page unaffected. It takes the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to break through. The Holy Spirit is with you right now, where you sit and read.

What’s your hurry? Take moment, take a breath, and pray a prayer:

Spirit of God, will you come here--right now--and bring the heart-knowledge that my Father loves me?”

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Are you sure you want to know his will?

Here’s an easy topic for a Monday: how can you know for sure if you’ve heard the voice of God? As followers of Jesus we want to follow his directions—go where he wants us to go, and do want he wants us to do. Understanding his direction in our life is a sign of a mature disciple.

I was hanging out with a few friends this morning and we began to discuss the challenges of such worn out phrases like, “hearing God,” or, “moving in faith.” Sometimes God is abundantly clear. Both through the scriptures and the circumstances of life certain aspects of God’s will are very clear. Some are clear every day. It’s God’s will that I should be thankful and praise-filled. It’s God’s will that I should be of a humble, kind and generous heart. It’s God’s will that I should hunger and thirst after him and his kingdom. (
NOTE: this is not a throwaway list. The seven things just mentioned are enough for a lifetime!)

There are challenges, however, decisions that involve choosing one thing and not choosing another: What employment does he have for me? Whom should I marry? Should we try to conceive a child? What color outfit should I wear today? From the everyday to the life-changing, we all recognize that some choices involve embracing one direction and choosing to walk away from another path. Both paths could even be “good.” But we must choose.

A second challenge: what about when life makes choices for us? What happens when circumstances and events wash over us like sea waves? Is God the author of every circumstance? Is the Adversary reaching out his hand to steal, kill or destroy? This, too, involves hearing from God. Do I stand against the tide or go with the flow?

Recently a friend of mine faced a decision that would involve a one-year commitment. “How will I know it’s God?” he asked. I suggested he enjoy the ride, and that he would know whether God was “in it” after the year was over. What--is that an unsatisfying answer? Try this one on for size: in the book of Genesis a teenager named Joseph suffered injustice and betrayal at the hands of some of his own bothers. Yet years later (perhaps 15 – 20 years later!) Joseph could say, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

Are willing to walk with him day-to-day, moment-by-moment? Sure! But sometimes (just sometimes) we must we willing to wait years to figure out his purposes in our lives.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

All About Me

Writing a blog is an exercise in vanity. It presumes that other people take interest in your thoughts or your life. Writing a biographical blog is the height of vanity because it’s “all about me.” I try to avoid the all about me aspect of blogging and concentrate instead on my ideas about following Jesus. But this week I’m on vacation (Perdido Key, Florida) and I left all profundity at home. It’s Thursday evening, though, and time to post so here comes the vain part:
Sometimes people ask me which books have shaped my views on following Jesus in general or discipleship in particular. So from the beach, here’s a list of the most formative books in my life (since you asked!):
The Canon within the Canon: Every follower of Jesus reads the Scripture, but each one of us has a canon within the canon, those books that speak to us consistently. All of the Bible is Spirit-breathed, but the Holy Spirit regularly speaks to me through these books:
  • Genesis – for me, every major theme of scripture is introduced in this book. It contains no fewer than six life stories: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. No systematic theology here, just a personal God in relationship with real people.
  • Isaiah – Sometimes called the fifth gospel because Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet. Scholars argue over whether this book had one author, two, or even three. When I read Isaiah I hear one voice, majestic and earth-shaking, the voice of Yahweh.
  • The Gospels – of course, I’m cheating by lumping them all together, but God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Whenever I don’t know what to read, I choose a gospel. I understand that some people consider the gospels to be the work of the first generation of Jesus’ followers—how they interpreted his life and teaching—but for me the gospels are the divinely preserved record of his teaching.
  • I & II Peter – authorship aside (again!), I simply find myself quoting these verses again and again.
God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis—I had been a high-school evangelical for three years when someone handed me this collection of essays. They changed my life, and Lewis became my first teacher. If you have never read C.S. Lewis, you have missed one of God’s great gifts to the church in the last hundred years. God in the Dock is the most formative work of Lewis because it captured my heart and my attention. Thirty-plus years later, Lewis is my constant companion.
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard—This book put into words things which I knew, but didn’t know that I knew! A Southern Baptist with a PhD in Philosophy who teaches at USC: that ought to catch your attention. Willard cracks open our narrow ideas of “the gospel” and re-introduces evangelicals to “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” It was the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul. That ought to be good enough for any disciple.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen—This book taught me what it meant to reflect upon the scripture. Nouwen is an exegete of the soul. Return of the Prodigal was not the first of his books I read, but it moved me more than any other. It taught me by example how to meditate on the scriptures, and how to place myself into the Biblical narrative.
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence—This little collection of letters and thoughts from a centuries-gone Carmelite brother is disarmingly and dangerously simple. Far from retreating from the world, Brother Lawrence opened up for me the possibility of being with God every moment. It is sacramental in the most universal sense. I discovered the secret of not just a daily life with Him, but life that is available moment-by-moment. All we need to do is “turn.”
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro—The only work of fiction on this vain list. I would be dishonest if I left it off, but no amount of explaining will convey the impact this book had on me. It taught me that a life of selfless service is not enough. We are responsible for who and what we serve. I wept for weeks after reading it, and it changed my life with God for the better. You may read it and think, “that’s it?” but if I ever meet Mr. Ishiguro, I will buy him lunch!
There are plenty of other good authors. Francis Schaeffer, St. Augustine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, John Milton, Thomas a Kempis, Bill Johnson, A.W. Tozer, William Blake, but time fails any comprehensive list. But this is my list. They have made me who I am.

These books, more than any others, formed my life with God. May I include one observation before we part? Years ago I helped teach a Spiritual Formation class at a nearby university. Our class read Willard’s Renovation of the Heart during the semester. One student, a junior in college, told me that he had never read an entire book, cover-to-cover, before in his life. How could this be? Perhaps it was just this one guy, but I cannot see how one can claim to be a follower of Jesus apart from drinking deep at the well of other believers, and that includes reading books. Not quantity. But may I suggest that you invite the Holy Spirit to be your tutor while you learn at the feet of past masters?

What are your life-changing books? I'll read your comments with great interest.

Monday, August 17, 2009

At the beach with Clive Staples

I’m on vacation this week, and it would be impolite not to invite you along. Imagine you’re at the beach: can you hear the gentle Gulf of Mexico waves coming ashore? Can you feel the breeze—which always feels just right? And of course, a beach companion, C.S. Lewis. Rather than try to write anything useful (I left my brain back in Kentucky), I think I’ll let you look over my shoulder and enjoy what I am reading: Reflections on the Psalms

From his essay, “A Word about Praising,” here are a few choice cuts.

The most obvious fact about praise escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest and at the same time the most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.”

And later on:

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists, in telling everyone to praise God, are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.”

To complete the thought:

The praise not only expresses, but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.

So whether you are at the beach or on the job, I invite you to join the glad celebration: “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, enter into His courts with praise.” It will be the sanest thing you do today. Surf's up, gotta go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Suppose You Had a Friend

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples." ~ Luke 11: 1

When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them about prayer, he shared what has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The gospels preserve two versions for us, one in Matthew 6 (in the Sermon of the Mount) and the one the follows in Luke, chapter 11. We are tempted to think that after Jesus shared his template for prayer that he was finished answering their question, but the text reveals that he continued to instruct them about prayer.

He continued with seven simple words that forever changed my heart forever toward prayer: “Suppose one of you has a friend . . .” (Luke 11: 5)

After establishing the priorities of worship, the kingdom of God, daily provision and forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus moved the conversation from the content of prayer to the relationship between God and man. The relationship is that of friendship.

He tells the story of two men who knew each other so well that both were unafraid of the other’s response. It’s a thought-provoking account: one guy receives an unexpected visitor late at night and he’s moved by the need to provide hospitality. This man goes to his friend’s house, even though it’s too late for a polite visit and asks for what he needs to give to others. The friend on the inside of the house is so sure of their relationship that he can say, “Don’t bother me.” Both friends are so comfortable with one another that the relationship is never at risk: one guy can show up in the middle of the night, and the other guy can say, “Are you nuts? Go away!” In fact, the relationship is so strong that on the basis of their friendship alone the first guy can say, “I’m not leaving until I get what I need.”

Some friendships stand on stick-legs. They can’t hold much weight. Every conversation has to be measured carefully to avoid damaging the relationship. Jesus, on the other hand, presents the example of a friendship so strong that both men can say exactly what they think without any worry of ruining the bond between them. (A side note: do you have any friendships so strong? If so, you are fortunate indeed!)

Bible scholars will tell you that Jesus paints this picture to illustrate the importance of persistence in prayer, and of course that’s true. But what changed my heart forever was the revelation that Jesus invites us to imagine prayer as an extension of that kind of friendship. If we approach prayer academically we will rush past Jesus' simple introduction, “Suppose.” Jesus asks us to draw on our experience and imagination to think about the best friendship we have, and apply that kind of security and strength to the way we pray.

For me, the point of his illustration is that the friendship itself is the reason we can persist. The reason we can be bold is that we know our rude behavior will not sever the relationship. We can continue to ask, seek, and knock because we know the heart of the one we are “bothering.” He’s our friend. The kind of friend for whom the rules don’t count.

I’d like to suggest at least five thoughts that may change your prayers:

We don’t have to wait for the “proper time” to come and ask. If the situation calls for it, bang on the door in the middle of the night. That’s what real friends can do.

The friendship door swings both ways: he is comfortable in the relationship, too. So comfortable, in fact, that the first answer might be, “Don’t bother me!” Does my picture of God allow for the possibility that I could press through the first answer?

When my friend does answer, he will give me “as much as I need.” (verse 8) Friends don’t keep score, what’s yours is mine, and vice versa. The basis for the generosity is the relationship, not some rules of etiquette.

I can have the boldness to keep on asking when I’m asking on behalf of someone else. Remember how the story starts? There’s a third party in the picture. They are the ones who will eat the bread; they are the ones in need. Jesus is suggesting that when we pray out of our need to bless others, God is more than generous. But how many times have I limited my prayers to my needs?

Finally, Jesus is unafraid to mix metaphors. Just as the power of this imaginary scene is beginning to sink in, Jesus begins to talk about fathers, children, and the Holy Spirit. Can we turn our imagination in still another direction? Perhaps, but that’s another blog for another day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Monday's Meditation: The Problem with Seeking

“Today, being a seeker is almost more acceptable than being a finder. If you've found something you believe in, you are perceived as close-minded.” ~ Dick Staub. This quote is a little bit like the sermon, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming:” once you’ve read the title, you’ve got the idea.
The Apostle Paul was pretty hard on continual seekers: “Always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7). When you read from the beginning of the chapter, the whole passage reveals that this attitude is a sign the "last days." And Biblically speaking, we’ve been in the last days since Jesus ascended to the Father.
Yet the Biblical witness is that God does not turn away the hungry. He rewards those who diligently seek him. God has mercy on the bruised; he won’t extinguish a smoldering flame. It’s equally true that God treats us with greater dignity and respect than most of us are aware of. One way he does so is by holding us accountable for that which we know.
Sometimes the Father is kind enough to hide things from us until he knows we are desperate enough to act. He’s a good steward. He doesn’t put pearls before swine because that would be a waste. He does not share information just to satisfy curiosity, because that might bring judgment on those who are unwilling to act—and God takes judgment far more seriously than do we.
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” (Proverbs 25: 2) Really? Is it true that God demonstrates his glory by hiding things from us? I’d like to suggest that one reason may be that the “kingly” are those bold enough to act upon what they find.
This Monday, I need to ask myself: “what has God shown me already?” And then ask the more important question: “Have I sold everything I have in order to lay hold of what he has already revealed?"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ours to Give

The Apostle Paul opened every letter with the words “grace and peace.” Some people might think it a formality, but these words--even if they were formalities--were breathed out by the Holy Spirit.

I believe that Paul gave each congregation grace and peace because they were his to give. Jesus had instructed the original twelve: “Whatever house you enter, let your first words be, ‘peace to this house.’” (Luke 10:5) Jesus had in mind something more than words, because he observed that the greeting of peace could rest upon the people in that house, or return to the one that gave the greeting. This peace Jesus instructed the disciples to give was something real, something tangible, no less tangible than handing someone a loaf of bread. Decades later, Paul, a follower of Jesus, wrote to the churches of God scattered across the Roman world, and his first words are “grace and peace.”

Paul himself possessed grace and peace. He apparently had a surplus: he could give it away. In many cases Paul was the founder of the church to which he wrote. He wrote to encourage what was good in these churches and to offer correction for whatever needed help. I wonder how often look upon correction and teaching as sources of the peace and grace of God. For those who have given it any thought at all, God’s grace and peace should be prized above almost anything else in our lives. Many of Paul’s churches faced persecution from the outside, some experienced disagreements on the inside. All of them needed these eternal gifts. They were so important that Paul presented these gifts up front, just as a guest would before entering a house.

Part of the lesson for me is that Paul wanted his friends to experience God's grace and peace, and when necessary he brought powerful words of reproof. From our perspective twenty centuries later we understand that each letter was the word of God--then and now. Those people who first heard the words of Paul read aloud in the congregation had a choice: they could listen beyond the mere words of the letter and in so doing receive the grace and peace offered them, or, like the householder in Luke 10 refuse to receive the grace of God and the peace of God has it appeared to them.

How often does God’s grace or peace appear to us in some form we may not recognize? Do we receive the words of loved ones as God’s grace in our lives? Do we consider that the instruction we receive from those in authority has the potential to bring God’s peace?

Finally, I think we also need to consider: what is ours to give? Have we received some measure of grace? Of peace? Jesus had straightforward instructions to his followers: “freely you’ve received, therefore freely give.” If we have received any grace from God (and I hope we have!) then we have it to give. Don’t worry, you won’t run out! Paul’s famous words from Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” were not words he claimed exclusively for himself. He was speaking them over those who were listening to his letter. Many believers have quoted this verse on their own behalf in order to fight off guilt and condemnation. Have we ever quoted them on behalf of others?

And if God has given us peace in any area of our lives, well then, we have that to give as well. One disciple may have learned the secret of contentment with respect to financial matters. Another may have learned how to place everyday fears at the feet of Jesus, and so on--do we ever consider that what peace we have received in our walk with God might be the very thing we can teach others? He blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others.

Our everyday lives are just like the times in which Paul wrote his letters. The words, “grace and peace” are not mere formalities, they are ours to give.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Grace and Peace

Sometimes I’m in a hurry to get to the “real” scripture. When I’m reading one of the epistles I skip over the opening or fly past the closing. In the gospels I nearly always ignore the genealogies. In the Old Testament--well, don’t get me started.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to think that all of the Bible is inspired, even the “formalities” like greetings and blessings. Here are just a couple of examples: if we took the time to think about the first four verses of II Peter our view of God’s grace and peace wold be forever changed. Or, if we resisted the urge to finish the book of Hebrews too quickly the last six verses in the letter would send us away with enough encouragement to last a month.

Did you ever notice that every one of Paul’s letters open with the words “Grace and peace?” Perhaps Paul was just being nice, and he really didn’t mean those words. Perhaps that’s the way all such letters began and no one took them seriously. Or, perhaps--just perhaps--the Holy Spirit and Paul considered grace and peace as indispensable in the Christian life.

What better day than a Monday to stop and meditate over one simple idea: we need his grace and peace in our lives every day. In practical terms--everyday living--what do God's grace and peace look like in my life? His grace and peace are first steps in a mature walk with God. His grace and peace are abundant enough that we can give them away every time we greet one another. So my greeting to you as we start our week: grace to you, and peace.