Thursday, May 28, 2009

Five Passages I find Hard to Believe

One night I had this discussion with some people I respect: is there anything in the Bible that you find difficult to believe? It was a get-real conversation. Kind of like the guy who begged Jesus to heal his son: he said to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." "'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9: 22 – 24)

Honestly, I’m not sure I would trust someone who said they cold wrap their mind around everything revealed in the Bible. So “un-follow” this blog if you must, but I’m going to put my weakness on display. God is way bigger than my intellect, and to prove my point, I present five passages I find difficult to believe.

1 AND 2). “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:40) After describing incredible heroes of faith, the writer of Hebrews concludes the chapter with two astonishing nuggets. God has planned something better for us. I’d kill to have the faith of any one of these people, but apparently there’s more, and it’s better, and it’s for us. AND only together with us would they be made perfect. Are you kidding me? Something is lacking in the experiences of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and well, the whole list—and they are looking to us for the fulfillment of their experiences. No wonder there is a great cloud of witnesses looking on. They are counting on us! Like the guy said, I believe, but help me in my unbelief.

3). “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 3:10) To begin with, I have no clear idea who the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms" are. I suppose when the Almighty wants to chill at a celestial Starbucks (think Job, chapter 1), these are the guys he hangs with. That’s strange enough, but while they are waiting for the java to cool down and God wants to put his multifaceted wisdom on display, he says, “Hey, take a look at the church.” Are you kidding me? I love my local church, but it hardly reaches the level of manifesting all of God’s wisdom.

4). “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) OK, I know Jesus is going to chide me later, but for right now, holy cow! First of all, Jesus uses really strong language. When he opens up with “I tell the truth” it means, “read my lips, I’m not kidding.” Second, it’s in the singular: “anyone” and “he.” My favorite cop-out on this verse used to be that it was the aggregate works of all believers in all times but there’s no way you can read it like that. He means me, and then he means you. Since I’m being honest (and it’s the last time you’ll ever read this blog) I’ll admit I’d settle for just doing the stuff he did.

5). “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1: 3 – 4) The reason I have so much trouble with these two verses is that they lay so much responsibility at my feet. He’s given us everything we need. Well then, go get ‘em. It’s a one-two punch: Peter also says that through God's promises we may participate in the divine nature. What do you think the "divine nature" is? I don’t know, but it’s got to be good!

BONUS ROUND: This one isn’t mine, but it’s too good to leave out. My friend has trouble with Judges 15: 4, “So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs.” It’s from one of the Samson stories, and it stretches one of my good friends. “300 foxes?!?” he said. "Do you know how hard it is to catch just one of those critters?"

How about you? Care to share any passages that stretch your faith?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Waking Up

When I was young I depended on other people to wake me up.

My mother would tip-toe into my room and call my name softly, with a voice that was more of a question than a command: “Ray?” . . . Pause. “Ray?!?” . . . Another pause. “It’s time to get up, Darling.” Quiet pause. “Your breakfast is ready.”

My father, on the other hand, didn’t even use the doorknob. The door would burst open, hit the wall, and vibrate in place. He snapped the light on. It shone like a spotlight. With the voice of a thousand waters my Dad would say, “Get up! We’re leaving in ten minutes!”

Now I am older, and most mornings God is there to meet me as I open my eyes. I am beginning to experience what Isaiah wrote:
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.
These words come from Isaiah 50:4, which are surely about Jesus.

I like to imagine how Jesus woke up each day. I imagine that he began his day with the voice of God in his ear. Not as a some structured discipline, where he would drag himself into the Father’s presence. No, I like to imagine that Jesus opened his eyes, and immediately tuned his ear to hear the one voice that mattered more than any other.

It’s the voice I want to hear first each day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Someone More Accessible?

At this blog site we discuss the call to discipleship, the call to take the yoke he offers to anyone who will cooperate with him. Jesus has a goal in mind for this kind of discipleship: for each of us to be become conformed to his image. Some might say it is an unattainable goal. Perhaps they are correct. Attainable or not, Jesus is still the one to aim for. He’s the center, the bullseye. Even if I believed that hitting the bullseye was an impossibility, I would still aim for it. Why shoot for anything but the center? If I miss, at least I miss in the right direction.

If we are overwhelmed by the call to imitate the Lord Himself, we begin to think, "perhaps I could find a more accessible role model?" We might be tempted choose another mentor: a pastor, a friend, a celebrity, or an “older brother.” Many of us might lower our expectations because the idea of becoming like Jesus seems impossible. If you’re inclined to choose another model, the letter of James has a remarkable suggestion: consider Elijah. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5: 16b – 18) James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, surely must have struggled with the disparity between his actions and those of Jesus, yet he closes his letter with a suggestion that would seem unattainable by most believers today. Who is greater, Jesus, or Elijah? Of course we know the answer. Shouldn’t Elijah’s life of faith and practice be more attainable than that of Jesus?

“Elijah was a man just like us.” How many of us believe that? Elijah’s life story involves a supernatural prayer life capable of changing weather patterns. Elijah was a man like us? He was subject to uncertainty, perhaps even bouts of depression. These similarities resonate with us, but he also miraculously multiplied food, called down fire from heaven, and raised the dead. If James is attempting to lower the bar by suggesting we look to a mere human as a mentor, we are still left standing and staring at the height of the bar. Elijah’s life certainly has the authority of scripture, but how are we to understand, interpret or adapt his life to our experience? What would be the response of family and friends if we maintained that we were just like Elijah? And yet--we are called to follow Jesus, not Elijah. Are we aiming for the center, or have we lowered our expectations?

As we read James’ instructions to the early church—and the church through the ages by extension—what level of expectation should we have? The record of the early church in Acts shows their level of expectation was high. These were normal people: working class types who were most definitely not a part of the religious establishment. They were aware that Jesus, their Master, had been killed and they, too, might die. At the same time they constantly called on God’s dynamic intervention into their affairs:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
" 'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4: 23 – 31)

In his excellent work, Hearing God, Dallas Willard observes that one key to developing a vibrant, conversational relationship with God is to put yourself into the place of Biblical examples. The men and women of the scripture were not pressed into God’s service out of merit, they were simply people God selected and used. Elijah really was a human just like us. Can we imagine ourselves having the same conversation with God he did? All of the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 were normal everyday people who simply heard God and entered into dialogue with him. Be warned: if you don’t want your life changed forever, don’t talk to God. He can be very persuasive!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Burning Heart Road

When is the last time your day was interrupted by impossibly good news? Most of us suffer interruptions all the time. We plan our day, set to our tasks, and the interruptions come along one after another. Yet some interruptions are a good thing: Luke 24 reminds us that when we least expect it, Jesus himself would like to break into our schedules and priorities.
Two guys, despondent over the death of Jesus, make the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are leaving the big city and their dreams of something better. They dared to place their hope in someone else, and those hopes have been crushed. I think they were returning to the routine and the mundane, convinced that they should never let their hearts get carried away again.
The text tells us that Jesus approaches them as they walk down Despair Way. They don’t recognize him, though—perhaps because when we are caught up in our disappointment nothing looks right. Now the three of them continue walking, but as Jesus begins to interact with them, they find their hearts lit up with new possibilities and hope renewed. Finally, as they reach their destination, they make an important decision. Despite their own sadness and disappointment they invite the Stranger to share a meal. They welcome the interruption.
You know the rest: Jesus reveals himself. They are amazed. They recognize the old burning in their hearts, and they head back to Jerusalem to deliver impossible, ridiculously good news. They had walked down Despair Way, but now they raced up Burning Heart Road.
This burning heart is only possible by walking with Jesus—or rather, by inviting him to walk with you. Jesus was content to join them as they went their own way. Yet when they finally recognized him it totally changed their destination! Of course, here’s the catch: they didn’t know it was him. They had to welcome the interruption. They had to look past their disappointment and open themselves up to something beyond themselves.
How will Jesus interrupt your day? You won’t know it until after you welcome the interruption.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

17 Observations on Matthew 13:

And now for something completely different: today I spent some time in Matthew, chapter 13. That’s the chapter chocked full of parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. Usually I try to write a structured post, with a beginning, middle, and end, but today I thought I would simply record a series of observations from this chapter. Grab your Bible and find Matthew, chapter 13: you’re invited to follow along. It could take just five minutes or you could spend an hour. As to whether it is well-structured--you be the judge.

(Bonus observation, not counted in the 17: don't think for a minute that Jesus is talking about "heaven" as in "Go to Heaven when you die." He's not!)

Verses 3 - 9: Why do so many people presume that an equal amount of seed fell on all four types of soil? Several different commentaries make such statements, but it’s not really indicated in what Jesus says. Wouldn’t it make more sense that a tiny amount fell on the hardened path, and that lots and lots fell into stony or thorn-infested soil? Wouldn't the sower discover which soil was which after things started to grow?

Verse 11: The secrets of the kingdom are given to disciples, not casual listeners. Would God actually conceal things?

Verse 12: Not only would he conceal things, he apparently entrusts treasures to those who have demonstrated that they will take care of them.

Verse 16: Yet he tells the disciples that they are blessed beyond many prophets and righteous people. He is lavish with those who are following hard after him.

Verse 19: “Anyone” can mean me, too.

Verse 23: I remember Derek Prince pointed out that thirty and sixty-fold add up to ninety. He said the hundred-fold dimension is a kind of fruitfulness that exceeds the other two combined. After 30 years I’m still not sure what Derek meant.

Verse 27: Why does everyone require the Master to explain himself? The implication is that it’s his fault. Do I do that? Do I demand that God explain why things go wrong?

Verse 29: Even in the presence of evil, God cares about the harvest.

Verses 31- 33: Jesus used little tiny “bookend parables.” Not everything has to be L-O-N-G. Am I listening?

Verse 36: People who hang around after the crowds leave usually get something extra. What’s my hurry?

Verses 44 & 45: Two more bookends. These are strikingly different. One guy finds the treasure, presumably by accident; the other guy has been purposefully looking for that one pearl. One guy recognizes what anyone can see--treasure; the other guy has trained himself to recognize something rare and precious. Both sell everything they have--everything?

Verse 46: For the sixth time, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Jesus is using images, not allegories. Where did these images come from? Well, for one, what do you think he was doing those first 30 years of this life?

Verse 49: For the second time, “so it will be at the end of the age.” True, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the here-and-now, but it is also about the end of the age. Do I live my life with the end of the age in mind?

Verse 51: Breathtaking! They answered, “Yes.”

Verse 52: Good news--we can be “trained in the Kingdom.” There’s hope for anyone who wants to be his student.

Verse 53: This should be the end of chapter 13. When Langton divided the scripture into chapters in the 13th century he got this one wrong.

Verse 53 (again): When you’re finished, it’s time to leave.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Monday's Meditation: No more correct answers!

I was thinking this morning about part of the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel— (should we reserve passages about his birth for December?)  the part where the Magi make their way first to Jerusalem and ask King Herod about the birth of the new king.  Herod calls the scholars together and tries to determine the location of the Messiah’s birthplace.  Of course the scholars get the answer right, and Herod sends the Magi on their way.
Why didn’t Herod or any of the learned men go with the Magi?  They got the answer “right,” but it did not lead them to Jesus.  What is the purpose of correct doctrine if it does not lead us into an experience with God?  Like the scholars in Herod’s court, am I content to know the truth without experiencing it?  
Who got to experience a relationship with Jesus?  It was those who were willing to act on what was revealed. My point is not only about meeting Jesus the first time—what if all the revelation contained in the scripture is placed there for us to experience him personally?  Lord, deliver me from “correct information” and give the grace to hunger for your presence.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Peace That Passes Understanding

Our age is characterized by activity, energy, and action. Peace, however, is not an attribute of our times. When magazines and television broadcasts highlight the lives of celebrities, peace is not mentioned as one of the advantages of “the good life.” Jesus, however, offered his disciples the yoke of discipleship, and under his instruction they would experience rest and peace. “Peace I leave with you,” he told his friends at the Last Supper. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14: 27)
He spoke about peace often: when he looked over Jerusalem he cried because the people of the city had never learned the things that would make for peace; when he commissioned his disciples to preach the Kingdom of God he told them to give their peace as a gift; when the resurrected Jesus appeared he greeted his friends with “Peace.” Peace is among the fruit of the Spirit. Peace is an attribute of believers even when they face persecution or violence. Peace is the fingerprint of Jesus upon the lives he has crafted.
Students of Jesus can learn rest and peace has they submit to his instruction in everyday life. We can learn peace. He can teach us how to live a life of peace. The Apostle Paul, writing to a healthy group of believers in Philippi, gave these words as his final command:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6 – 7)
These are famous verses. Perhaps you have heard of this incredible promise of “the peace which transcends understanding.” But has anyone taught us how to receive the gift of God, this perfect peace?
As we read this passage in Philippians we could easily think of the first words as a command, “be anxious for nothing.” But it is not a command, it is an outcome—an outcome that depends on living out the words that follow. We can be free from anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving.
For many followers of Jesus prayer is more a source of frustration than peace. We know that we are supposed to pray, be who has instructed us in how to pray? For some of us, our prayers are driven by need or fear. For others prayer is a duty and a mystery. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. As they spent time with Jesus they saw a qualitative difference in prayer as they understood it and prayer as Jesus practiced it. Fortunately, we have a record of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Luke 11 is a particularly useful passage on prayer. We hear again a version of The Lord’s prayer; Jesus asks us to imagine that we a have a friend—the kind of friend we can approach even in the middle of the night; he reminds his disciples that there is a perfect parent in heaven who longs to give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests. One reason we do not experience the peace that passes understanding after we pray is that we have not learned how to pray as Jesus taught.
The passage in Philippians also reveals the key ingredient in prayer: thanksgiving. A thankful heart is the foundation for peace in God’s Kingdom. As we “present our requests to God,” we are instructed to do so with thanksgiving. Requests, with thanksgiving. These need not be opposed to each other. Thanksgiving changes the atmosphere whenever it is present. Thanksgiving orders our world properly. God does not demand thanksgiving, he is teaching us that a heart thankful toward him is a heart in right relationship with him. Do we need to petition God? Absolutely! But the life-giving way to bring our requests before him is with a genuinely thankful heart. Many followers of Jesus pray from a place of worry and care, and consequently emerge from prayer even more anxious than when they started! We can learn to be thankful. We must pursue this heart-quality if we are to follow him.
Finally, we need to see the connection between our understanding and peace. Christians, especially those of us in the western world, are driven by the need to control our circumstances. Part of that control is the driving need to “understand” what is going on in our circumstances. We believe that if we can understand what is happening, we will somehow have the power to affect our situation. This is largely an illusion. We rarely are capable of the perspective needed to understand our complicated lives. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, puts it this way: “until you give up your right to understand you can't have the peace that passes understanding.” We want to know: why have we been treated unfairly? Why did our loved one make such a foolish choice? The “why” questions reveal our inner desire to be in control, and when we are not in control we are filled with worry, grief, and care. God can indeed give understanding, but it is a gift to the heart at rest in him.
The good news is that we can learn the things that make for peace. We can learn to pray the Jesus way. We can cultivate thankfulness that springs from the heart. We can experience transcendent peace. He calls us to learn from him. We can start there.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Monday's Meditation: has yesterday's word become today's bird seed?

Quick: what was the main point of the sermon you heard yesterday in church?  It's a little bit like trying to remember what you had for dinner last night:  you're sure you ate something, but what was it?

Today's memo is brief because the point is important: has yesterday's word become today's bird seed?  (Matt 13: 4) As we put our heads on the pillow last night, how many of us gave any thought to putting the words of Sunday church into action the rest if the week?  We protect what God gives us by intentional action: "How does this apply to me?  What can I do to make this real?"

Jesus, the Master Teacher, concluded his most famous sermon with this very challenge: act on my words and your life will be well-built; ignore my words and ruin is sure to follow. (Matt 7:24 - 27)