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?