Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Coping with good news

Imagine receiving a message so good that it caused you to re-think your entire life. The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and suddenly now they tell you your house is paid off. In fact, they owe you a rebate as well. A total stranger has paid off your student loans. Your abusive husband has turned a corner and now treats you like a queen. The doctors call to say the diagnosis was wrong and you don’t have cancer after all. All of these examples represent the best kind of news: no more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; no more walking on egg-shells, afraid that some trivial event will anger your spouse; your fears of endless treatments and medicines vanish in a moment. Who wouldn’t welcome such great news? But the day after such a wonderful event you find yourself worried about money, afraid that your husband will relapse, or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. Old habits die hard, and the habits of the mind may not die at all.
To receive good news, to really receive it—take it in and discover a new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know: you thought it meant remorse, determination, trying harder or feeling guilty. Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word “repent” means rethink your life.
The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change the world. There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, wipes away the past, or presents a future that cannot be denied. Bet yet, all three. Jesus presented that hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus challenged people to recognize that the world would be forever different because God had come down and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.
God could not be stopped, the old order of things was condemned and a new order was made real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”
Good news requires that we rethink our way of life. Have you recalculated yours in the light of his Kingdom?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Beyond Appreciation, beyond waiting for heaven.

If you want to know what your full potential looks like as a Christian, look at Jesus. All that he did during his earthly ministry was done through reliance upon the Holy Spirit and by looking to the Father for direction. Jesus lived his life as a model for us to follow, and that model is within reach of each person who receives him as Lord as well as Savior.

Jesus was fully God and fully man yet he was one person. This is vital to our understanding of Jesus as a role model in our everyday lives. He was not a man who achieved divinity, nor was he God merely pretending to be a man. We must make distinctions between the two aspects of his identity because each one drives different aspects of our Christian walk: we worship Jesus because he is God; we can pattern our lives after him because in his humanity he lived the perfect human life as our example.

We should recognize the difference between his unique sacrificial death on the cross and the pattern of living he set for us during his earthly ministry. His death on the cross is unique because of who he is—the sinless perfect Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. History is filled with examples of sacrificial deaths; soldiers have died on behalf of their comrades and parents have died on behalf of their children. But no one else could accomplish what Jesus accomplished on the cross, because his perfect sacrifice came by virtue of his identity as God come to earth. His sacrifice was for the sin of all people, at all times, in all places. Only God’s own blood could satisfy the guilt of our sin. His death was unique: one time, once, for all. God himself provided the lamb. No one else could do it and no one else will ever have to do it again. We have emphasized his death and resurrection on Jesus as God’s only Son precisely because only God could do it.

There is, however, the danger of over-emphasis: when we concentrate on the substitutionary death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life and teaching we limit his ministry to a divine rescue mission—a rescue mission that only becomes effective for us when we die. When we see his ministry exclusively as the action that purchased heaven for us it is difficult to make the connection between his sacrifice and our everyday lives. Many Christians are emotionally moved by his suffering on Calvary. Many are grateful that he paid a debt he did no owe. Many Christians understand that they have no hope of heaven apart from the price Jesus paid on their behalf. But apart from gratitude for his kindness, for most believers there is little connection between what Jesus did then and how we can live today.

Here is the challenge: our appreciation for what he did does not empower us to fulfill the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Our gratitude for his suffering does not release the wisdom, insight, or strength for each one of us to live as a new kind of person. Jesus urged his followers to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 29) The “rest” he speaks of here is not our eternal rest, but rest and peace for everyday living.

His gentleness and humility may have led him to the cross but they are also character traits available to his disciples today. Likewise, his power to heal and deliver may have offended the religious leaders of his day, but that same power is available to his followers today. He offers the opportunity for us to learn from him—not about how to go to heaven when we die but about how heaven can come to earth now. This is the very first request we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let Your Kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added). During his earthly ministry his wisdom, his actions, and his powerful works were examples of how we could live on earth as well. This is the radical nature of his gospel: the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Students of Jesus can go beyond receiving Jesus as Savior and receive him as Lord. Through the record of the gospels and the active presence of the Holy Spirit Jesus still invites us to take the yoke of discipleship today. The good news of the gospel includes the glorious invitation to grow in Christlikeness right now. Will we respond to that invitation, or wait for the age to come?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Flawed Leaders

The twelve men who followed Jesus were just that: men. They were a remarkably flawed group of followers. One of the most comforting studies you can do in the gospels is to observe the disciples’ shortcomings. Stories of their bone-headedness are the common stuff of preaching and teaching: “Don’t worry about falling short,” says the preacher, “the disciples didn’t measure up and Jesus still loved them.”
I would like to suggest that the New Testament keeps an account of their troubles for another reason as well—to teach us about leadership. Not Jesus’ leadership, but the leadership of these very flawed men we call “the Apostles.” We readily accept the idea that Jesus chose followers who are flawed, but rarely consider that these flawed individuals became the first leaders of the church as well. As we turn from the gospels to the book of Acts, we are sometimes stricken with amnesia: the group of followers who deserted Jesus were the very same guys who Jesus left in charge of the whole show! True, the resurrection of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit contributed to a dramatic change in these men, but character issues don’t yield to change overnight. In part, the book of Acts is the account of how they grew into the task Jesus gave them.
There’s a lesson for us today as well. We can be a difficult group of people to lead. Christian leaders are at a real disadvantage when compared to Jesus or the Apostles. Not only is Jesus perfect, he also isn’t here! That means we are left with imperfect leaders whose flaws are available daily for inspection. Most people will pay lip service to the idea that there is “no perfect leader,” but when the flaws begin to show through, lip service gives way to disappointment, hurt feelings, and criticism. I wonder how a modern church would react to the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira recorded in Acts 5: 1-11. That incident didn’t create a crisis of leadership in the young church, it helped establish the leaders! Keep in mind that these were same leaders who continued to struggle with their calling for the next twenty years.
Are we willing to consider the possibility that the same Lord who chose flawed men to lead his church is still choosing men like that today?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trying, or Training?

Let me tell you a story about what happened on vacation a few years back. We used to take my wife’s little sister, LuciAnn, on vacation with us when she was in high school. She was great company and cheap babysitting. One year we took her to San Diego for a week and almost killed her.

Luci wanted to try scuba diving. There was this little place in La Jolla that advertised scuba lessons and diving, all in one afternoon. It was pure southern California: the proprietor was a Vietnam veteran with pictures of his past life everywhere. Tie-dye had not gone out of style in his shop. He had a three-inch shark’s tooth on display; he claimed he had pulled it out of his head after the shark bit him! One Thursday afternoon Luci and I joined one other student for a scuba class. The shop was a mile from the ocean, and after suiting up we headed to his hippie-era van for a drive to the sea. I expected we would make our way to a marina but instead he drove to a public beach and said, “don’t put your fins on yet. It makes it hard to walk on the sand.” Turns out that was the only lesson we got.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t you going to spend any time training us?” I had been scuba diving two or three times in other locations, and each time we had spent an hour going over equipment, and had even trained briefly in a swimming pool. But that was me. I knew this was Luci’s first effort.

“Oh, yeah.” he said. “I’ll cover that stuff at the beach.”

Sunbathers and swimmers at the beach stopped and stared (children pointed) as our instructor and three students marched to the water in full wet-suit armor. We sat on the firm sand and the waves ran up our legs us as we put on our fins.

“Here’s what you need to do,” he offered. “Stay close to me.” He pointed to me and said, “You’ve been down before, right? You take the other guy, and I’ll take the girl.” Instruction-time had ended. Diving time began. The four of us waded out chest-deep into the Pacific in full gear: we had weighted belts to help us stay under water.

“Put on your masks,” said the boss. Luci had never worn a mask before.

“No! Not like that! Spit in it!”

“It’s doesn’t fit,” Luci offered.

“Didn’t you size it back at the shop?” he demanded. The water was up to Luci’s neck, chest-deep for the rest of us. He fiddled with the mask. “There. That oughta do it. Put it on. Let’s get going.”

We swam out about fifty yards when Luci pulled up. “My mask is full of water.”

“Give me that!” he barked. The four of us were treading water, with diving weights around our waist. Luci went under for a moment. I pulled her up. The instructor adjusted the mask one more time. Luci choked out a mouthful of seawater.

“You’re going to have to try harder,” he told Luci. “You could get in serious trouble here.” No foolin’! Luci was near tears as this time the instructor stretched the mask over her head. Of course, he did it perfectly, and it fit. “Tell you what,” he said, "just hold my hand the rest of the way.”

I gained a lot of respect for my young sister-in-law that day. I would have panicked: she was out in the ocean in water above her head, with no training at all, fighting to stay above water. All the instructor could offer was “You’re going to have to try harder.” Luci didn’t panic, and she managed to stay in control enough to enjoy the rest of the dive. 45 minutes later the beach-goers watched as we emerged from beneath the sea and waddled back up to the hippie van.

Luci learned how to scuba dive that day. I learned that there is a world of difference between trying and training.

Becoming a follower of Jesus requires training. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) His promise of rest is realized as we learn from him.

Too many believers have encountered the hippie-scuba-instructor model of following Jesus: “You’re going to have to try harder.” Someone told them that following Jesus results in rest and peace; no one trained them to hear the voice of God, or how to take the yoke Jesus offers. In fact, too many believers are unaware that Christian maturity even requires training. But it’s true: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5: 13 -14)

If we are serious about using the phrase, “born again,” we must realize that infants need others to provide care until they can care for themselves. Ultimately it is Jesus himself who trains us as disciples. He is the master teacher, but most of us need someone to train us how to hear his voice and how to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Who has trained you? Who are you training?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday's Meditation: How God reveals his glory

When everything seems to be going wrong, God reveals his goodness and his glory.
This morning, consider Exodus 33. Moses has experienced unimaginable victory: the Egyptians have been defeated, God’s people have been delivered from slavery into freedom, and Moses has received ten life-giving words that will order Israel’s new identity as God’s own people. Moses is literally at the heights of revelation and victory. When he comes down from the mountaintop he gets the surprise of his life: the people of God, freshly rescued from 400 years of misery, have turned away from God and bowed down before a statue of a calf. Worse still, the “worship” of the man-made statue involved the kind of party that would make your mother blush.
When you turn to Exodus 33, that’s the story so far. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, and some days are calf manure. In that place of betrayal and spiritual adultery, God decides to demonstrate his goodness to Moses. Exodus 33: 12 – 23 takes only a moment to read, but we could meditate on them for the rest of the week.
Moses pleads with God for help, and God answers simply, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God’s first answer is to offer his presence. It’s what we need most. Selah: pause, and think about that!
Moses responds with wisdom that still applies for us today: regarding God’s presence Moses says, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” The distinguishing mark of God’s people is his presence. In times of victory or trouble, his presence is our identity. I know it’s Monday, but Selah: pause, and think about that!
God assurances are personal and filled with approval. Moses is bold enough to push all the chips into the middle of the table: “show me your glory.” What a strange request when there are so many problems to solve! Today, make time and Selah: pause, and think about that!
Finally, even as God himself says, “yes,” to Moses, God offers a gentle instruction. Moses asked, “show me your glory,” and God says, “I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you.” The lesson is: one of the ways God demonstrates his glory is to show us his goodness. Why not ask him today to open your eyes to his goodness? Selah!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grace to Build

A parable: two students each received scholarships to Harvard University. Full rides, every possible expense paid. Both were bright kids, and both felt intimidated by the reputation of such a great college. They each thought, “I don’t deserve to be here.” One student studied day and night. She gave it all she had. The other student began to enjoy the thrill of college life: parties, the big-city nearby, and the freedom of being on his own for the first time in his life. By mid term the first student was still working hard, earning C’s and B’s in her classes. The other was failing every class and placed on academic probation. By Christmas the first student had earned a 3.0 GPA, but the second had flunked out of Harvard. Which of these two students laid hold of the opportunity given to them?

Of course the answer is the first student, humble and hard working. The second student was the object of gossip: “How could he throw away an opportunity like that?” people asked.

Imagine for a moment that the grace of God is like a full ride to Harvard: beyond expectation, every expense paid, a life-changing opportunity. Anyone watching these two students would conclude that the student who flunked out had thrown away a once in a lifetime opportunity. The scholarship to Harvard was a gift of grace, but the truth was that the work was just beginning. God’s grace is something like this parable. He does for us what we could not possibly do for ourselves. What is beyond our reach is joyfully paid in full by Jesus Christ, but the work is just beginning. Why would we squander the possibilities of new birth in Christ?

Some people might object to the close association between the word, “grace” and the word, “work.” God’s grace comes with no strings attached, doesn’t it? No amount of effort on our part could win his pardon. True enough—it’s just not the whole story.

The whole story goes beyond the fact that God picked up the tab we couldn’t pay: he invites us to labor with him as the Kingdom of God breaks into the Earth. The Apostle Paul knew immediately that Jesus had laid hold of him for a purpose. Paul, filled with gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness, began to call himself “God’s fellow-worker” (I Corinthians 3:9) He considered the church in Corinth God’s field, God’s building, and he considered himself privileged to join the workforce. Paul was well aware that he had no moral standing to plant, preach, or pastor God’s new church in Corinth; he was also aware that his “qualifications” were not the issue: “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 15: 10) What a strange combination of words: “grace” and “worked harder” all in one sentence.

Like the student who received a full ride to Harvard, we need to receive the grace of God for what it is: a calling to a new life, a life in which we join the family business.

Paul isn’t the only Biblical example. Imagine the grace of God coming to one man, with a warning of worldwide judgment. Imagine that this one man--out of all the world--had found favor in God’s sight. You are imagining Noah. In an era when sin and violence threatened to spoil all of creation, the grace of God came to one man with the warning of a flood and instructions to build an ark. The grace was in the warning; building the ark was the response. God did for Noah what he could not do for himself. Noah responded by partnering with God to bring safety to every living creature. Tradition holds that construction of the ark took 120 years. Imagine 120 years of faithfulness in response to the grace of God. Noah’s response to God’s grace was sweat and effort for longer than men or women live in our day. Here's the lesson: the only reasonable response to the grace of God is gratitude that moves us to action.

Some are given a free ride to an Ivy League school. Others hear a word of warning generations before the great and terrible day of the Lord. We all are given God’s grace to become fellow-workers in the family business.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday's Meditation: A Life Without Regret?

What would you change about your past? Careful! It’s a trick question. We can make changes today, tomorrow, but not yesterday. Yet so many of us carry a pack full yesterdays on our back. This makes our walk as disciples doubly difficult.

Of course, I would do so many things differently if I had them to do over, but that’s just not a real possibility. My personal history is filled ignorance, rebellion, and poor choices—but today, that’s not the point! The real question is, how do I move forward with Jesus? And one surprising part of the answer is, “Repent!”

Last Thursday’s post brought emails, tweets, and Facebook-posts expressing surprise and doubts regarding this statement: "Repentance is not simply the doorway into life with God; it is the hallway as well" (There, I did it—I quoted myself. That’s a sure sign of an inflated ego!) So Monday’s Memo is just a small reflection on repentance.

The basics: “Repent” is the very first word of Good News ever preached. John the Baptist and Jesus alike declared that a new reality was breaking into the world; the Kingdom of God was at hand. The old ways of thinking and acting no longer applied. To repent means, literally, to re-think.

The meat: The scriptures reveal that it is possible to live a life without regret. Check this out: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (II Corinthians 7: 10) Who doesn’t have sorrow about the past? That’s OK. But Paul encourages his friends in Corinth to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe on such sorrow and allow it to be redeemed. Amazingly, Godly sorrow means a life free from regret. Earthly-sorrow means a life of what-ifs.

The hope: The good news of the Kingdom of God is not simply about going to heaven when we die. It’s about heaven breaking into earth right now (see Matthew 6: 10). If we limit “salvation” to mean only going-to-heaven-when-we-die, then repentance is only about fire-insurance, but if we embrace the in-breaking Kingdom right now, then repentance means we can live regret-free!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Christian Fatalism: Missing His Glory

“Everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps you’ve heard that before. Perhaps you’ve said it. I’d like to suggest that there’s a world of difference between “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God gives reason to everything that happens.” The first is Christian superstition; the second declares the glory of God.
Surviving Nuclear Terrorismphoto © 2008 Steve Jurvetson | more info (via: Wylio)
For years my wife was the director of a crisis pregnancy center in our town. She comforted and held women of nearly all ages as they faced unexpected news, or had nowhere to turn when everyone had walked out on them. One of the most memorable moments my wife experienced was when a teenage girl, a Christian, received the news that her pregnancy test was positive. The young girl’s world was undone. She cried in my wife’s arms and asked, “How could God let this happen to me?” There on the couch was not the right moment to chide the girl about the sum of her personal choices. She needed comfort. But during the ensuing months, through Bible studies and parenting classes the young woman learned that the freedoms given to us by the Creator are also accompanied by the results of our choices. God respects us so much that he allows the choices we make to have meaning.
Finally the months came to term and a beautiful new life entered the world. The teenage mother returned to my wife’s office to show off her trophy of new life, a baby fearfully and wonderfully knit by God. This time the excited young mother declared, “You see, everything happens for a reason!” The beginning of her pregnancy had been met with recriminations against God. The birth of her child was met with a joyful ignorance about the gentle ways of the Father.
The idea that God is somehow pulling the levelers behind the screen of life is what I call Christian fatalism: God is all-powerful. His will cannot be denied. Therefore everything that happens must have been part of his plan from the beginning. He was behind everything all along. Isn’t God great?
It’s true: God does manage to draw wonderful outcomes from the foolishness of men. It is also true that the glory of God’s power and wisdom is frequently on display in human affairs
in spite of our choices, not because of them. Part of the glory of God is his ability to accomplish his will in the midst of the complexity of a billion human choices. He does not over-rule our lives. He works within them. He is forgiving, patient, and kind. He knows our weaknesses and chooses to partner with us anyway. What some mean for evil, God turns into good. But he is never the author of that evil.
The twin dangers of Christian fatalism are that believers—who ought to be disciples—first come to believe that their sinful choices have been the will of God all along, and second, believers are tempted to believe that whatever happens in life must be ordained by God.
The first danger strips away responsibility for our choices and undermines the call of God to repentance as a way of life. Repentance is not simply the doorway into life with God; it is the hallway as well. The New Testament word for repentance is metanoia, which means simply to change one’s mind, or even better, to re-think our way of life. This rethinking should be an on-going way of life. The Apostle Paul tells us “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Renewal comes from a continual re-thinking every aspect of life. First God forgives us at the beginning of our relationship, then he teaches us a new way to live.
The second danger of Christian fatalism is that believers accept each event in life as part of God’s foreordained plan. I have watched followers of Jesus embrace tragedy as if it was sent from God. Sickness is a prime example. Many of God’s children embrace sickness as part of God’s dealings in their lives. I have heard some Christians refer to cancer as “my gift from God” because they have learned so much through the ordeal of treatment. The clear revelation of scripture is that God is holy and good. He is the Father of lights, the giver of every good and perfect gift. Testing and failure do not come from him. He is not the source of sickness and disease. It’s true that in our sickness we can experience the grace of God or develop Christian virtues such as long-suffering. But that is something very different from ascribing the source of our illness to the heavenly Father. What earthly parent would infect a child with disease in order to teach character lessons? Why would the perfect heavenly Father do what is unthinkable among us?
Sin and sorrow have been loosed on the earth from the very days of the Garden of Eden. We may at times be subject to them, but our Father has never inflicted them upon us for our good. Christian fatalism lures us into a false expression of God’s sovereignty and separates from his glory. Perhaps we can discover more his greatness by standing with him against the sin and sorrow of our age.