Monday, August 31, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
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
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
- 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.
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
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
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
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
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.