Thursday, December 30, 2010

Most Popular Posts vs My Favorites (I Lose)

Apparently, gentle readers, we don’t always see things eye to eye, you and I.  On Monday I listed my twelve favorites posts of 2010. Today, as I list the five most-visited posts, only one of them was among my favorites.

Students of Jesus welcomed readers from 105 countries on all five inhabited continents. Next year I'm hoping the penguins in Antarctica get wi-fi. And Students of Jesus reached all 50 of these United States. I'm particularly grateful to that one guy in Cheyenne for putting Wyoming on the map (I hope he comes back next year as well).
The final week of the year is the traditional time for retrospectives, and I’m nothing if not traditional. So, in the continued spirit of all-about-me narcissism, here are Students of Jesus' most-visited posts of 2010. 
When Famous Christians are Gay When Christian singer Jennifer Knapp came out as a lesbian (with simultaneous interviews in The Advocate and Christianity Today) I ventured away from the center of Students of Jesus and gave my opinions on the church, on sin, and on the abuse of scripture. Not surprisingly, my views satisfied no one--not even myself.  This post generated 25 times the normal traffic to my blog, but it wandered away from the premise of Students of Jesus by commenting on current events and the church at large. I’ve learned that such posts generate a lot of heat and almost no light.
Monday’s Meditation: Sex, Celebrity and Discipleship Just four days later, shocked at the traffic that flooded my little dog and pony show, I tried to get back to the core of my concerns (I'm actually quite proud of this post). I commented on why issues of sex and celebrity draw an audience 25 times larger than the issue of discipleship. Really? Sex and celebrity garners more attention than following Jesus? Who knew? A crazy side effect of this post is that because the title contains the words sex and celebrity it draws traffic every week from search engines around the world. I feel sorry for the people who eagerly click on the link. The average length of a visit to this post? Less than two seconds.
The Great Fall of Wisdom This is the only overlap between my top twelve and the most-visited posts. I suggested that an omniscient God isn’t impressed with how smart we are. I also suspect that the reason it was visited so often is that 22.6% of Reformed-theology seminary students came to laugh at my reasoning (I made that last statistic up, but I stand by it nonetheless). I still like this post, and I would appreciated if all four of my regular readers would email it to Zondervan, Lifeway, and Thomas Nelson.
Monday’s Meditation: Three Important Questions I’m not going to tell you what the three questions are, but believe me, they’re important. This post also generated the most comments of any post all year, but only because I shamelessly ended the article with these pathetic words: I’m begging: tell me what you think.”
Monday’s Meditation: Indigenous Worship (dot com) I thrilled this post was well received because my dearest friends launched a website dedicated to songwriting and creativity in the local church. It’s an awesome site, and you should definitely check it out, but you should always do so by going to Students of Jesus first and then following the link to their site. Then they might buy me lunch.

One glimmer of hope for people who search the InterWeb is that the sixth-place post was actually written in February of 2009. Somehow, among the millions of people using Google-dot-antichrist, several hundred found their way to Students of Jesus by searching “How Can We Humble Ourselves.” That just provides just enough hope for me to keep writing another year.
That’s it, friends. 2010 is in the books, and my prayer for all four of you is that you will experience God’s richest blessings in the year to come. And hey, what would you like to read about in the coming year, I’m begging: tell me what you think!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Call me 'Narcissus.' These are my top twelve posts for 2010

I thought this was a good idea until my son asked me about today's topic. "I'm choosing my favorite posts of 2010," I said. "One from each month." I saw immediately the vanity of my exercise. But then writing (and hence blogging) is vain, so why wouldn't I naturally assume you'd want to review the year with me?

January: Is obedience possible? ~ Why would he command the impossible?
February: Why His Humanity Matters ~ Because doctrine divorced from flesh and blood is just plain dangerous.
March: Guys Like Us ~ For all of us who have trouble seeing ourselves in the Scripture.
April: Provoking God's Mercy ~ Don't be fooled just because it sounds "nice." Humility is a big freakin' deal.
May: The Discipline of the Present Moment ~ Philosophical, yes, but it's really changed my life.
June: Leaving the Church ~ The cool kids hated this post because I suggest leaving the church is a really bad idea.
July: Josue de La Cruz Saved My Life ~ In honor of the firefighter who saved my life.
August: The Great Fall of Wisdom ~ Why I am sick of smart people.
September: The Limits of Doubt ~ My take on what doubt can--and cannot--do.
October: Everyone’s Entitled to My Opinion: Under The Tuscan Sun ~ In which I surrender my Man-card.
November: Our True Destination ~ I'm still working on this one but I really think I'm on to something.
December: Christmas: God’s Tutorial on Hearing His Voice ~ Actually, I'm not sure I wrote anything all that good in December, but I had to pick something.

Thank you for giving me an excuse to stare into the mirror for hours on end. I feel a little bit like Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock, who fell in love with a female impersonator who impersonates . . . her. (Gross. I know.) And on Thursday, everyone, let's talk about your reactions to--me!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Lesson of Christmas

Some things hide in plain sight. Others hide behind fancy names. And still others hide among the over-decorated trappings of tradition dressed up as garish holiday cheer. With the truth about Christmas it’s all three.
The truth about Christmas is that God became a man. The transcendent Creator of the Universe, the One who sits outside his creation submerged himself in the work of his hands. The Playwright walked on stage during the show. The Coach became a player. The King became a commoner.
He wasn’t a Poser, pretending to be something other than what he was: he was born, and he grew; he came of age and took his place among us; he embraced his purpose and fulfilled it completely. He wasn’t slumming among us like some impostor: he laughed, he cried, he sweat. When we struck him, he bled. When we pierced him, he died.
Something as grand and wonderful as Christmas certainly has many sub-themes: peace on earth, goodwill toward men, hope for tomorrow, salvation for all, and the fulfillment of promise. We should listen to each line of the symphony and enjoy the beauty of each one. Put them all together than they point to the grand melody, that God became man.
When God became man he demonstrated how to be human. His life, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the model of all lives, everywhere and in every time. Men from every age can look to Jesus has example. Women from every culture can discover fulness in him. God did not cheat the game by walking through life untouched by the trouble we face. He faced the same troubles we have faced, and indeed more, because to his trouble was added unique rejection of all mankind toward him. Humanity had never seen his type before, and the one encounter between us and Him ended with utter rejection by us, and unrejectable love by him.
You can have your shepherds, wise men, angels, and mangers. For me, the grandeur of Christmas is captured in the gospel which places its cards on the table right from the start: 
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John tells us plainly, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
What does God look like? He looks like Jesus. God has described himself as the Word, and he spoke himself in Jesus. The countless words of every generation, arrayed in questions, arguments, songs and poems have been answered in the single Word, Jesus. The same Word that spoke creation into being speaks life into us today.
When God became man it looked like Jesus, and it still does. If we aspire to the presence of God in our everyday, we are really aspiring to Jesus. Because he is human we have the hope of his likeness. Because he is God, we have the certainty of his promise. All other messages flow from the Word made flesh. He was announced as Emmanuel, and he continues to reveal himself as such: God is forever with us because he has forever pitched his tent in the person of Jesus, the true lesson of Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday's Meditation: A Magical Baby?

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head,
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
Who knew simple Christmas carols could raise important questions for anyone who wants to follow Jesus? The song celebrates the Incarnation, literally, the enfleshment of Jesus, when God Himself became man. It is a powerful song because any parent remembers well the beauty and mystery of their child asleep in the crib. We can relate to sleeping babies. But then . . .
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes
The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes . . .
Right here--at the words, “no crying he makes” the song begins to depart from our personal experience. Most mothers would begin to worry about a baby who never cries. A baby who never cries? What kind of baby was this Jesus? Did he ever cry? Was he a real baby--who did all the things babies do--or was he a miracle baby?
This baby Jesus, God Incarnate: how did he receive the Magi when they came to worship? Did the infant invite them in and gesture for them to sit? Did the new-born child king say, “Please, come in. You must be exhausted from your journey.” Did he thank them for their thoughtful gifts? Or was he simply a baby, for the most part unaware of what was going on? Did his mother tell him years later of those strange visitors?
Fast-forward just a few years and imagine Jesus as a boy learning the family business at his father’s side: how did the sinless Son of God (perhaps, say, six years old) drive a nail into a board for the very first time? Did he hold the hammer correctly? Did he drive the nail straight and true? Or, like all children, did he gain his skill through experience? When the Perfect Human Being first held a saw and cut a piece of wood, did he cut the board correctly? And if he did not, what does this say of his divinity?
Behind such imaginations hide questions for anyone who would become like their Master. These questions comprise meditations worthy of the Christmas week: 
  • Was Jesus a real human being?
  • If Jesus is our example in both behavior and ministry, how did he become the man he was?
  • If Jesus modeled ministry for us by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead, by what power did he do these things? 
Questions like theses can help us celebrate the wonder of the Incarnation. More important, they can help us discover the life of a disciple and who we are as followers of Jesus.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What is Faith?

It may not have generated any comments at Students of Jesus, but one sentence from Monday’s Mediation on Faith garnered 20 comments over at Facebook. It was either a really poor sentence or we’ve got more to explore about the essence of faith.
I use Facebook to promote Students of Jesus, so I posted a provocative statement along with a link to this blog. The offending statement?
I want nothing to do with a definition of faith that requires agreement with propositions, I want everything to do with a faith that requires me to hope and trust in the Father's promise.”
Here’s a sampling of comments from people who lined up to take issue:
  • I'm also having a tough time understanding your use of "propositions."
  • I am wary of and adamantly against leapfrogging over propositions and intellectual understanding: Very strange ideas of "faith" tend to emerge as a result.
  • I do not say this in rancor, but in honesty; I wonder at how you will maintain your denominational position.
  • When you downplay the importance of intellectual pursuit and propositional truth, people just believe what they're told.
  • Where do we see, scripturally, that "doctrine has very little to do with faith"?

Somewhere along the way, faith has morphed from knowing Jesus to knowing about him. I’m writing today to suggest a possibility: what if faith is relationship--relationship with a living, thinking, feeling, Person--what if faith is relationship with God?
The Apostle Paul points to Abraham as the father of our faith. Romans chapter 4 suggests that we come into right relationship with God by trusting Him: in Abraham’s case he placed his trust in God’s promises. In our case, we can place our trust in God’s gracious initiative to us in Jesus Christ. Abraham was not required to agree with any doctrinal statements about God. Instead, God invited Abraham into a relationship. And what a relationship they had! Based upon that relationship Abraham trusted God’s guidance with respect to where to live, how to plan his family, even whether to perform human sacrifice! In a society littered with a multiplicity of gods, Abraham turned his back on every god except some strange God without a name, a God without an image and without any religious structure. God invited Abraham into a relationship.
God spoke to Abraham about the stars in the sky, the sands on the seashore, and about how the two of them could become friends. Abraham had no religious traditions, dogma, or culture to which he had to subscribe. He was simply God’s servant, and eventually God’s friend. Faith and doctrine are two different things. What doctrines did Abraham agree with? 
When Jesus called the twelve to follow him, he asked of them a great deal: within the only monotheistic religion in the history of the world, Jesus told his followers, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” He said, in effect, to know him was to know the Father. The way to the Father was relationship with the Son, and it still is because the Son is the exact representation of God’s nature.
Hebrews 11 is faith's "Hall of Fame." What doctrines required agreement of those whom are lauded for their faith? Verse six says simply that "he who comes to God must believe that he is, and he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him." That's relationship, not information. In fact, relationship is the surest way to to know the truth about someone: No one can deceive me with “facts” about my wife because after 26 years together I know her: I know her ways, her words, and in many cases I know her thoughts before she  thinks them. This is my guarantee that no one can deceive me about my wife, and the same can (and should) be true in our relationship with Jesus.
Faith and relationship will lead us to sound teaching, but teaching will not lead us to intimacy, relationship and faith. People who affirm correct doctrine  are not guaranteed relationship with the Father, Son, or Spirit. “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life,” Jesus said in John 5:39.  “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
One final Christmas example: when the Magi came to Jerusalem they inquired about the birth of the new king. The Scribes (masters of doctrine) answered the question correctly (Micah 5:2) yet not one went to bow before the new born king. Which would have been better that first Christmas: to know all the answers about Jesus, or to bow at his feet?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday's Meditation: A Person and His Promises

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact
that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. Romans 4:18-21
Last month I posted my reflections on the limits of doubt, a post that generated some interest, but left me cold because I had concentrated on the negative. I love this passage from Romans because it points me toward faith even while taking doubt into consideration. Faith is a worthy meditation for the week. To get you started, here are just a couple of notes.

"He faced the fact that his body was a good as dead." I love this. It tells me that faith does not require that I ignore the facts. I can stare frankly at what is before me. At the same time there are things bigger than the facts. This passage teaches me I can acknowledge my doubts without celebrating them.

Being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.“ Verses 20 and 21 tell me that Abraham's faith rested in God's promises, not a limited understanding of the situation. In fact, Abraham was persuaded that God could and would act. I suspect the reason faith is difficult for some people is that they’ve been told faith is believing a set of theological “facts” instead of trusting a person--a person fully capable and willing of acting on their behalf.

In another New Testament book Peter said that we become partakers in the divine nature through God's promises. His promises give us hope. That hope whispers to us, "go ahead--dare to to trust him, and to trust his promise!" I want nothing to do with a definition of faith that requires agreement with propositions, I want everything to do with a faith that requires me to hope and trust in the Father's promise.

Perhaps you could consider this during the week: faith is not agreeing with a set of propositions, it’s knowing a Person, hearing His promises, and trusting Him to fulfill them. Surely that’s better than celebrating my doubt, isn’t it?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There are few things worse than bad Christian art: well-intentioned, communicating a “correct” message, and just plain bad. It’s like taking medicine: you know it’s supposed to be good for you, so why is it so unpleasant?
That’s why discovering well-done works of art that honor Jesus is an experience to be treasured. And one of those treasures is Walden Media’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Having regained creative control of the Narnia franchise from the Monolithic Corporate Mouse (who shall not be mentioned here) Walden gave director Michael Apted the freedom to adapt C.S. Lewis’ third book of the Narnia series for the screen. Good moves all around: this is a fine film.

The commercial performance of Dawn Treader will likely determine whether the rest of the Narnia stories find their way into film: the darkened Prince Caspian movie, tweaked by the Mouse to resemble a teenage action picture made a profit, but only a small one. Small enough to drive the Round-eared Corporate Creature away--thank God for small blessings. Christians interested in seeing the entire series should vote with their feet (and dollars) immediately and support this movie.
It’s the best of the series, true to the spirit of Lewis’ book while condensing the lengthy tale. Georgie Henley shines as Lucy--my favorite character. This movie deserves your support because it’s well-made. And since everyone’s entitled to my opinion, I think you should march down to the cine-mega-monster-complex and watch The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas: God's Tutorial on Hearing His Voice

Monday’s Meditation suggested that although elementary students have no classes at Christmastime, school is in session for followers of Jesus. The Christmas narratives are not merely traditional words, they are divinely inspired for our benefit. For example, the Christmas story provides a tutorial on how God speaks to his people. 
In the opening of Matthew and Luke’s gospels the God of the heavens pulls out all the stops on the heavenly pipe organ and announces his kind intention by nearly every means possible. If the subject is “how to hear God’s voice,” get out your highlighters and take note of the many ways he speaks. I count at least nine:
God speaks through angels: Angels spoke to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and the shepherds. Our very word angel comes from the Greek, ├íngelos, meaning messenger. While the birth of Jesus was certainly unique in history, God’s use of angels is anything but unique--they exist carry his messages and do his work. Are you open to the possibility of of angelic visitation today? (see Hebrews 13:2)
God speaks through dreams: God spoke to Joseph almost exclusively through dreams. What’s more, Joseph took these dreams seriously and made life-altering choices based on them. Would you marry a woman or move to a foreign country based on your dreams? Joseph did! In fact, we are in the habit of referring to "our dreams," but what if they are God’s?
God speaks through nature: Three pagan wise men were among those who bowed in worship before the infant Jesus. They were literally moved to action because of what they observed in nature. Who would pack up their treasures and travel over deserts based on the sights in the sky? People who heard the voice of God, that’s who.
God speaks through the scripture: Matthew takes great care to point out the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in his nativity story. The stars may have guided the wise men to Israel, but the words of the prophet Micah gave them the final steps to take. Even Mary’s spontaneous song of praise in Luke chapter two is based upon words recorded in the Old Testament nearly a thousand years before. In our day many people study the Bible, but how many hear his voice in it?
God speaks through worship: When Zechariah encountered the angel Gabriel, he was fulfilling the office of priest by burning incense in the temple. That’s worship! So is the song sung by the “heavenly host” that night to the shepherds in the hillsides of Bethlehem. Included in the Christmas story is the revelation that worship is a two-way street: We offer praise and thanksgiving, and he speaks to us. When’s the last time you heard the voice of God in worship?
God speaks through governments: The opening words of Luke’s second chapter mention the decree by Caesar August that all the world be taxed. Grumbling taxpayers everywhere did not hear anything other than the greed of Rome, but behind the mechanics of politics and taxation God was moving people from one city to the next in order to set his plan in motion. So the next time you read about a new tax, be sure to listen for God’s voice!
God speaks through the Holy Spirit: Two “nobodies” named Simeon and Anna received a most unusual invitation to celebrate the birth of King Jesus--they had a hunch. Except in this case it wasn’t actually a hunch, it was the voice of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account makes clear that these two obscure temple-dwellers heard the still small voice of the Spirit, down the to time and place where the young parents of Jesus would come to the Temple to dedicate the baby Jesus. What if our lives--even specific days--could be guided like that? Scripture reveals they can.
God speaks through prophetic utterance: When Zechariah opened his mouth after nine months of silence, he prophesied! When Mary met Elizabeth the courtyard of a simple house became the gathering of saints, and both women spoke the words of God. The Christmas narrative is telling us that when God is at work, God’s people will speak inspired words of life. That should change the way we listen to one another, don’t you think?
And still one more: God speaks through Jesus: The Christ Child is the Word become flesh. John’s prologue reveals the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The opening of the book of Hebrews reveals that although God speaks in many times and in many ways, his ultimate word to us is a person: Jesus. The angels told the shepherds, “This shall be a sign for you: you will find a baby . . .” All of God’s words are contained in him. They were then. They are still.
So while we endure well-meaning Christmas carols and relentless cheerful music in retail stores, the question remains: will you hear God speak?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Discovering the Scripture at Christmastime

One of the challenges of reading the Christmas story each year is our familiarity with the text. Each year we turn to Luke and Matthew for the birth narratives, and each year we can be lulled to sleep by the familiarity of words. Yet the Christmas narratives are still scripture,  divinely inspired to reveal God’s heart and mind.
Christmas brings the opportunity for followers of Jesus to go deeply into these two passages again and again. They are spoken each year in Christmas pageants and sermons over and over. What if the Holy Spirit--aware we would come to these chapters dozens of times in our lives--filled these verse with revelation of God’s goodness, his providence, and his ways?
Allow me to share with you two insights new to me this year, even after reading these words for forty years.
The community of worship: Luke tells us that after a single angel announced glad tidings of great joy, the host of heaven appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” I believe part of the message is that heaven is comprised of a community of worship: whatever God does, it is accompanied by communal worship. Praise and adoration go hand in hand with the work of God, and we would do well to remember that in our daily efforts on earth, because we, too, are a part of this community of worship.
The resources of heaven: that night on a Bethlehem hillside, a multitude of the heavenly host was employed to lead a handful of shepherds to the feet of Jesus. One angel would’ve been enough! But in this act I believe God demonstrates that the resources of heaven are always available to lead people to Christ. Have we called upon the resources of heaven, or do we rely on own own?
For this week’s meditation I’d like to suggest we come to the Christmas narratives as God’s inspired word, which describe not only the events of His birth, but also contain revelation for us to order our world today.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Tradition

Today I sing in praise of Tradition, and  I’m not even named Tevye.
Tradition provides stability. Tradition liberates us from the spontaneous ideas trying to escape our minds too soon. Tradition connects us to the wisdom of the ages. Tradition saved my kid brother's life.
And, of course, there is no better time to celebrate tradition than Christmastime: the listless person seated, ringing a bell next to the Salvation Army kettle, who has long since given up standing or wearing a Santa outfit; the garish sounds that pass for Christmas music inside of WalMart or BigMart or StuffMart or BuyMore; the outrageous attempts to convince us that a Lexus is the perfect Christmas gift--I love them all. Seriously.
I love the sights and sounds of Christmas among the capitalists because they ring hollow against the traditions of the church universal: the cycle of Advent; the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke; and the glorious constancy of the Word made flesh.
Before you object too strenuously about all the faults of tradition, let me suggest that we’re not as smart as we think we are, and there are plenty of smart people who have come before us. Tradition, in Chesterton’s happy phrase, “is the democracy of the dead.” Why shouldn’t they have a vote?
This is not supposed to be a thoughtful, Monday Meditation-type post. Saturdays are for inflicting my unreasonable opinions on those intrepid enough to happen by. So, everyone’s entitled to my opinion, which in this case agrees with the great religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Discipleship: not a choice, it's the mission

When I told one of my best friends that for my (third) career I wanted to be a writer, he gave me life-changing advice: "Try to imagine talking about your subject every single day for two years. If the idea still thrills you, you've found your topic."
This Christmas will mark two years of writing Students of Jesus, and I can report my passion has grown! Becoming a disciple of Jesus--and making disciples of others--takes me deeper and deeper into life with God. When I encounter familiar old Bible passages on discipleship, they seem constantly-fresh, filled with life: always revealing the new possibilities of following the Lord.
Will you allow me to share a few of these ever-new passages? Here are three foundational passages for anyone who longs for something more than a fire-insurance relationship with Jesus:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • If heaven is the ultimate goal of the gospel, then discipleship is merely an option, like a choice in the cafeteria. But discipleship is not a choice, it's the mission.  There is something lacking in each one of us until we become disciples and until we make disciples of others.
  • Discipleship is open to anyone willing to worship Jesus. Intellectual curiosity is not the ticket in, nor are good works. And here is the really good news: doubt does not disqualify you from worship.
  • At the place of worship we discover that Jesus considers us partners in his mission. He never intended the original twelve disciples to be the only ones: he intended they would reproduce themselves. Amazingly, he intends the same for us as well.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)
  • The good news is better than we think: the Father intends that each of us can become conformed to the image of his son. This is staggering: if we are disciples of Jesus, the Father has set a destination for each of us--Christlikeness!
  • Jesus is unique: the only begotten of the Father. Yet that same Father is determined to have a large family. He sends a spirit of adoption into our hearts. We see him as our true Father and we discover our older brother is none other than the Lord of glory.
  • When we first heard the gospel--presented as Jesus‘ sacrificial death on our behalf--how many of us imagined the Father had a destination in mind better than Heaven itself?
At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
  • If the destination of Christlikeness seems too far-fetched, Jesus comes to our rescue. He himself offers to be our guide and instruct us in the kind of life that flows from being with our Creator moment-by-moment.
  • We can simultaneously learn from him and find rest in him. For example, anyone who has tried to learn a new language, skill, or life-habit understands the hard work involved. Yet Jesus tells us that when we are hooked-up in right relationship with him we will experience new life and refreshing at the same time. No university in the world can offer that combination.
  • Human models of training and leadership depend on intelligence and worldly wisdom for their effectiveness. In this passage the King himself looks heavenward and gives thanks that the kids at the head of the class have no advantage over the rest of the us. In fact, they are in the dark--God rejoices that human intelligence is inadequate while offering the benefits of relationship to all who will simply come to him. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?
So in the same year I’ve qualified for the seniors discount at Denny’s I’ve discovered that two years isn’t near enough to explore that possibilities of life with God. I’m delighted you’re along for the ride. In fact, I’d do it whether or not I ever find a publisher. (On the other hand, if there’s a publisher looking for a passionate soul with growing skills, you can reach me at ray.hollenbach@gmail.com)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Watering the Soil of Our Hearts

Just because we have heard something before doesn’t mean we should pass it by. Watchman Nee observed that patience in the face of the familiar is a sign of spiritual maturity. I need to ask your patience as I revisit and revise a post from April of last year, because it’s on my mind again:
“The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop--thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown." Mark 4: 14 – 20
Let me tell you about the first time I ever heard this parable. The night after I became a follower of Jesus a speaker used this parable to challenge us to put our roots deep into this new life. I just naturally assumed I was the good soil. How could I be anything else? Sitting next to me that night was a friend from high school who had also just turned to Jesus. After the message she wept and wept, and wept some more. Finally she composed herself enough to sob, “I just don’t want to let Jesus down. I’m afraid I might turn out to be one of those other types of soil.” I had assumed that I was the kind of person who was naturally good and would bear fruit, while she was moved to tears, crying and asking for the grace to live up her calling. At that moment I realized after just one day she was already way beyond me in her walk with Jesus.
This isn’t just any parable--it’s foundational. Jesus asked his disciples, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (v 13) He cautioned his students that this parable was critical to receiving the Kingdom of God (v 11).
As a young Christian I thought Jesus was describing a fixed reality: too bad for those with hardened hearts, rocky soil, or lives full of weeds, I thought. Thank God I was the good soil! It never occurred to me that his words were a call for me to tend my own heart, or that he was describing a continual process of every time he speaks into our lives. Over the years I’ve discovered I’m never further away from the Kingdom than when I think his words are for someone else, but not for me.
This week I invite you to ask, What about me? Have I watered the spoil of my heart with tears that cry out for his continued grace in my life?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

13 Thanksgiving Meditations

"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." ~ G.K. Chesterton
"Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world: It is not he who prays most or fasts most, it is not he who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, chastity or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God's goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it." ~ William Law
“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
"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you,' that would suffice." ~ Meister Eckhart
"We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?" ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received is a mighty prayer in the Spirit of God. It prevails with Him unspeakably.” ~ John Bunyan
"Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly."Henri Nouwen
"If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled." ~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon
"Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new-created upon your account: and under the sense of so great a blessing, let your joyful heart praise and magnify so good and glorious a Creator."  ~ William Law
"I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed and not I who robbed." ~ Matthew Henry
"When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time.  Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?"  ~ G.K. Chesterton
“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

Here's last year's list, too. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Can We Choose Our Emotions?

I’ve always been intrigued when the scriptures command an emotion: 
  • Let the priests, the Lord's ministers,weep between the porch and the altar (Joel 2:17)
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
  • Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)
We’re not responsible for our emotions, are we? It turns out, perhaps we are.
Some events--and the emotions that go with them--are beyond our control: unexpected loss, good news beyond all expectation, hurt inflicted from a loved-one. Yet in the everyday-ness of living, I believe that our emotions are largely the result of our habitual thoughts. If we could discern the map of our heart and mind, I suspect we would discover the well-worn pathways of our thinking and feeling. Expressed another way, we train ourselves to think and feel in certain predictable ways.
(This is where I should cite studies from the Journal of Psychiatric Studies or some such authoritative-sounding publication, but no: I’m just going to share what I’ve observed about myself and others during my few decades of living.)
I believe the reason we find repeated exhortations in the scripture to think and feels certain ways is because God has given us the capacity to rule our thoughts and emotions. Consider his very telling exchange between God and Cain, just before Cain chose to murder his brother:
“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4: 6-7)
Genesis, the book of origins, tells us the story of our first encounter with anger, jealously, and feelings of rejection. Contained in this story is revelation about our own psyche: we are responsible for our emotions, and each of us has been given the capacity to choose a healthy emotional response. In this story are the seeds of hope for a fallen world: God comes to us in our anger or hurt, and encourages us to choose wisely. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
Is there any better meditation for the week of Thanksgiving? Is is possible that we can redirect the pathways of our heart? If we give ourselves time and space in this holiday, I believe we will hear the voice of our Father encouraging us, “choose thanksgiving--it’s the best thing for you.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Thanksgiving Movies

Is there any subject Hollywood hasn’t covered? Genres multiply faster than starlets coming to L.A. Except in one area: Thanksgiving. So this Saturday morning, as a service to the readers of Students of Jesus, I offer a handful of Thanksgiving-themed movies.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: John Hughes’ 1987 tale of two misfits trying to get home for Thanksgiving still fits like a pair of bedroom slippers. Steve Martin plays Neil Page, an uptight businessman thrown by outrageous fortune into the care of the eternally traveling salesman, Dell Griffith, played by John Candy. The two men bond in ways both manly and true. Beyond the comedy is a yearning  for home, and the final scene of the film not only welcomes both of them to the banqueting table, but us as well.
Pieces of April: A wayward daughter invites her dying mother and the rest of her estranged family to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. In 2003 Katie Holmes, (before she became the subject of Scientological speculation) plays April, who discovers that family means more than she imagined. Patricia Clarkson, the best-kept secret in movies, plays the dying mother. The final sequence presents a view of family that shows all of us at our best. And for one day--Thanksgiving--they all get the relationships right.
Home for the Holidays: Jodie Foster has only directed three movies in her career, and she chose this tale of a dysfunctional family’s annual gathering at Thanksgiving. Holly Hunter loses her job, makes out with her ex-boss, and heads home to face the music, wonderfully supplied by Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey, Jr. and Charles Durning. This film, by the way, has one of the most interesting opening-credit sequences I’ve ever seen. It will also make you genuinely grateful for your family, because next to this crew of misfits, nearly any family looks great.

Come Christmas time I’ll suggest a list of Christmas feel-good films--like Die Hard--but until then everyone’s entitled to my opinion about Thanksgiving movies, and these three are the best of a very small bunch.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanksgiving and the Will of God

Thanksgiving posts always seem to sound like such a scolding: we ought to give thanks. 
Think about all the things you have and all other people who have nothing
There, now: give thanks.
Don’t concentrate on what is missing, be grateful for what you have.
There, now: give thanks.
Ungrateful people are losers.
There, now: give thanks.
The problem is, guilt is a terrible motivation for giving thanks. When I read Bible passages instructing me to give thanks, it can sound the same way:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5: 16 - 18)
On my grumpy days I feel like talking back to the scripture, “Don’t tell me to be happy! Do you think I could put it on from the outside?” (Here’s a happy-coat, why don’t you put it on?) And yet, giving thanks is the will of God. So if it’s the will of God shouldn’t I simply try harder, be obedient, and say thank you?
For example, frequently we teach children to say please and thank you as a matter of courtesy--as a way of teaching them how to get along in society. It’s the price they must pay to get their milk and cookies. We’re more concerned with the outward performance of good manners than we are with true gratitude. 
As we approach Thanksgiving in the United States this year, I’m beginning to discover there’s a difference between giving thanks and having a thankful heart. I’m also beginning to discover that the Father cares more about thankfulness that flows from the inside out than obedience we wear like a cheap suit.
Paul’s words in Thessalonians have something to teach us about the will of God: does the Father want outward compliance or a heart capable of expressing his will and doing it naturally?  Of course, it’s always better to obey than not to obey, but I think he’s after more than mere obedience--he knows thankfulness is the best thing for us. He knows that when our hearts respond with prayers of joy and gratitude to the situations of life, we are responding out of Christlessness and not simply parroting the company line. 
Rather than hearing thankfulness as a command, perhaps we can hear it as an invitation:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3: 15 - 16)
God is not honored when we tell him what we think he wants to hear--even though we don’t believe it. He knows better. He is honored (and we are healthiest) when our hearts and minds flow naturally with his. In this season we do well to recognize that included in the flow is a heart-condition called thankfulness.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Monday's Meditation: The Thanksgiving Diet

There are just 10 shopping days left until Thanksgiving! If that sounds strange, perhaps it’s because everywhere you look retailers have moved on from Halloween to Christmas. I don’t blame them--their job is to sell product, and retailers promote Christmas in November because they understand it's hard to sell stuff to people filled with thankfulness and contentment.
I promise this isn’t the standard “isn’t it a shame Christmas starts so early” rant. It’s not a rant at all, it’s the non-standard “do we understand the importance of giving thanks” meditation.
There are more than a hundred scriptural references to giving thanks. Consider just two Old Testament verses:
  • Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. (Psalm 100: 4)
  • Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever (Psalm 107:1)

These verses are more than poetry. There reveal the crucial importance of the spiritual discipline of giving thanks. Yes--giving thanks is a spiritual discipline, a practice, a habit, developed by those growing in God’s grace.
We enter the gates of God’s courtyard by giving thanks. The image is drawn from the Temple in Jerusalem: a massive structure whose courtyard was open to nearly everyone. The Psalmist instructs us, though, that the only way in was through thanksgiving. Not the mere attitude of gratitude, but the active giving of thanks: outward, vocal, and communal.
The Psalmist also teaches us that the proper response to God’s goodness is giving thanks. If we can catch the smallest glimpse of his goodness, it will generate thanks. Conversely, if we are not in the habit of giving thanks, perhaps it’s because we have not seen his goodness. And since his love endures forever, our thanks should be unending, and always new.
Thanksgiving is where Students of Jesus begin. The measure of our spirituality is not how much scripture we can recite. It’s not whether we can heal the sick. Nor is it prophetic insight worthy of Jeremiah. It is, simply, to see God’s goodness and respond in the appropriate way: with thanksgiving.
Finally, the good news gets better. In the U.S. we have a holiday devoted to the giving of thanks. Why wait until the fourth Thursday of November? Our Thanksgiving diet can begin today, by meditating on his goodness and giving thanks.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About A Boy

Lately I’ve been intrigued by “non-traditional” family. I decided it takes more than biological links to create a family. Any two fools can make a baby, but fathering and mothering are very different issues. I know--this is no great revelation, but on Saturdays everyone’s entitled to my opinion, and today I’d like to suggest we could learn a lot about family from Hugh Grant.
Not really, he’s just the lead actor in a very good movie, About a Boy. The real teacher is British novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the book and assisted on the screenplay. A 12 year-old named Marcus is the teacher within the film--a boy attached to a clinically depressed mother, a boy who is shunned on the playground even by the nerds, and a boy who possesses neither talent nor good looks. Oh--did I mention this is a comedy?
Hugh Grant’s role is the smarmy professional single guy named Will Lightman who discovers an untapped market--”single Mums.” Lightman is way too smooth to spend time on Marcus’ train-wreck of a mother, but still manages to meet and (surprisingly) befriend Marcus. I don’t know if “bugger off” counts as cursing in the U.K., but Marcus refuses to bugger off, and Lightman is saddled with his only true relationship in life. By the end of the film we’ve discovered that the title applies not only to Marcus but also to Will Lightman. Family, we learn, is about relationship, not biology.
That's it. Go get the movie. Like right now--hey!--did you know Netflix streams movies via the interweb? It’s amazing--now their library is closer than your closet.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Our True Destination

And then there’s the story about the guy who believed in predestination: after he fell down a flight of steps, he picked himself up and said, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
Monday’s Meditation discussed a common, everyday word: that. Today we invite spiritual whiplash by talking about predestination. There . . . did you feel it? Heaviness just entered the discussion. Nostrils flared as people began to dig in their heels because they already have strong opinions about this subject. The other sound you heard was the slamming of the door as right-minded people said, “Predestination? I’m outa here--who needs another argumentative blog post?” They are probably right to run. I’d leave, too, except I live here.
Is there a way to talk about about God’s sovereignty without small minds taking big positions? Probably not. Calvinism has become shorthand for predestination. Greg Boyd has been labeled a heretic for suggesting Open Theism. Most of the folks who hold to Arminianism are surprised to learn there was actually a guy named Arminius.
So join me in the deep end of the pool. If I start to sink, perhaps your comments will save me in the end. I’ve been thinking lately.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8: 28 - 29)
When you cut through the ten-dollar theological words in these verses, I think Paul means simply that God takes care of his children and wants every one of them to look just like Jesus.
This passage reveals that our destiny is to become conformed to the image of His Son. Pre-destination means someone in charge has determined where we’re going before we get there. The Father has determined that the place to be is Christlikeness--that’s home! What if predestination isn’t about a place, but instead about a condition?
Instead we’ve fixated on who’s in and who’s out. We’ve become protocol experts checking credentials at the door of heaven. The Apostle Paul considered Christlikeness to be the outcome of the gospel:
  • My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4: 19). When Paul mentions the pains of childbirth in association with their growth, he’s telling the Galatians that spiritual formation is just as important as spiritual birth. After the new birth, he says, something is supposed to be formed in each one of us. That something is the image of Jesus.
  • He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.  To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1: 28-29). When he mentions admonishing and teaching, Paul is describing a process. Being conformed to the likeness of Jesus is the result of applied supernatural wisdom. It not reserved for super saints, this passage says clearly, “everyone.” In verse 29 Paul sets his efforts and God’s energy side-by-side, describing a partnership between God’s empowerment and our strenuous response. Our spiritual DNA can come only from the new birth, our transformation comes our response and his continued grace.

Sometimes the scripture asks us to believe good news, news so good it stretches our faith and reaches way beyond our understanding. Part of that news is our destination--a destination pre-determined by the very heart of the Father: it’s not a place, but the possibility of becoming conformed to the image of Christ. The Father believes it about each on of us, do we believe it about ourselves?
The Father wants a big family. The First Son was born into the family. Since then sons and daughters have been adopted, and apparently he wants all the children to have a family resemblance.