Saturday, July 31, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About One Ring to Rule Them All

It’s becoming popular to hide away for a weekend and watch a single season of a television series in the space of one or two days. It’s an inexpensive and fun getaway. But before you invest a weekend with the likes of say, Burn Notice, may I suggest The Lord of the Rings?

This is not a nerd-alert. Hooded robes are not required for a weekend of viewing. You can retain whatever level of hipness you have and still carve out ten hours of your life to experience a tale well-told, a story that depicts eternal values and represents the best in Christian artistry.

Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stands as a triumph of cinematic story-telling, and is well worth a second visit now that the series has had a few years to mature. The three movies garnered a total of 17 Academy awards: Jackson and his team poured nearly five years of their lives into the making of these movies. If Tolkien’s work was widely considered the “book of the century,” these films could rightly be considered the movies of the decade.

In a time when Christian fiction and movie-making frequently features “message” over mastery of the art, The Lord of the Rings reminds anyone engaged in creative endeavors that we need not dumb-down our efforts in service of the King. Of course, Christian publishing houses and movie studios are the ones in the greatest need of this reminder: God is honored most when artists are allowed to pursue artistry over profit.

In my opinion everyone ought to lose themselves for a day in The Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Storing Up Treasure in Heaven

I received an email a few days ago from a student unfortunate enough to take a college class from me last spring. My young friend has apparently had a difficult summer and wrote to me looking for some direction. Here’s the letter:
Hey Ray,
I've been struggling with something lately and I was wondering if maybe you could help (I need some insight).
I've definitely noticed this summer how in this life, money is everything (so says the world). If you don’t have it, you aren't worth anything and you can’t do very much without it. I think this has got me down, I am kinda questioning my worth as a person. 
I know there’s a verse that says to 'store up riches in heaven'. But I don’t know what these riches are and how to 'store them up.’ I know that I my soul is worth the price of Christ dying on the cross but I don't feel worth anything.
I just don’t know what things are of actual worth in life (heavenly worth).
Here’s my response (even now, as I read it a few days later, I realize there is so much more to be said):
I trust your summer hasn’t been a total struggle, but I definitely hear you when you say that money really runs the show these days. It can be depressing. I took a day to think about how to answer you. Here’s my first try. If you have any questions or thoughts, please write back and let me know.

When Jesus said “store up riches in heaven” he was contrasting temporary things with permanent things. Yes, he was talking about heaven-after-you-die, but he was also trying to reveal that the permanent things are all around us here and now. The kingdom of God places great value on these permanent things. They are the kind of things that do not wear out and cannot be stolen from you. You can begin to “invest” in them now, and your investment goes with you wherever to go.

So what are these permanent things, and how do we store up these treasures? Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by talking about the kind of people who are fortunate in God’s eyes. That is, the kingdom of God values the poor, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers. If you want to store up treasures in heaven, you can find them among the poor. You can find them by showing mercy to others. You can become rich in God’s kingdom by becoming the kind of person who makes peace. Every act of mercy and kindness (especially to those who cannot “repay” you) is like making a deposit in the kingdom of God. Remember: Jesus told us that the kingdom is breaking into the here and now--it’s not just about heaven after you die.

Another way to store up these kingdom treasures is to see who you really are--a child of God! Worldly people draw their identity from their stuff: the label on their clothes, the cars they drive, the houses they build. Did you know that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses the phrase ‘your Father in heaven” more than a dozen times? People who do not know their Father work hard to develop their own image. Children of God receive the family likeness that comes from God. It’s not about about working to become godly, it’s more like growing up and realizing that your Father is capable of providing everything you need: love, security, identity, food, clothing, and a home. I’m sure you’ve seen people who crave love and security: they’ll do anything to feel accepted--spend money, offer their bodies, pretend to be someone who they are not. Part of storing up treasures in heaven is to embrace the family identity, because you will receive the family inheritance.

Finally, investing in God’s kingdom is like any other kind of investing. In the everyday world we invest in things with our time, energy or money. It may not sound spiritual, but we invest in the Kingdom of God the same way: with our time, energy, and money. Do we give ourselves to the Kingdom of God? Jesus said it is the best investment: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

There are a thousand practical applications to this stuff. Each life lived before God can fulfill the charge “store up treasures in heaven” and still look like a unique life. God doesn’t make cookie cutter children. I encourage you to take some quiet time and think through what your life could look like in the kingdom of God.

Finally, I’m happy talk more, if this note spurs any questions or ideas.

Grace to you, and peace,

How would you have responded? What would you tell someone about “storing up treasure in heaven?” I look forward to your comments.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Grace and Peace

Thirteen times: “Grace and peace to you.” Each one of Paul’s letters open with these words. Whether Paul was writing to the people of a church, to his “true son in the faith,” or even writing to discuss the difference between slavery and brotherhood, his blessing is grace and peace.

Here’s a meditation for the week: Why would this man of God greet everyone in this manner? What is so important about grace and peace that Paul feels the need to speak the words immediately? A simple blog post will not do--who could exhaust the possibilities of these two words? Neither will theological definitions do--the academy has been lulled into the trap of believing that if we can define a word we somehow possess the quality.

Perhaps we could start here: Paul greeted everyone with “grace and peace” because he understood our on-going need for both of them. He was writing to believers, yet he wished for them more grace and more peace.

How many of us have made the mistake of thinking God’s grace operates only at the new birth? Part of the good news is there is more grace, grace for today, and grace for tomorrow. Grace for more than forgiveness--God wants to provide grace in the everyday, grace for growth, and grace to sustain. Have I asked for grace beyond forgiveness?

God’s peace is also our constant need. The resurrected Jesus greeted his friends with the word “Peace.” Peace is the first message of the risen Lord. Paul, a Jewish rabbi, understood “peace” to represent the well-being that comes from God, the wholeness that flows from a relationship with the author of life. How many of us--even if we have walked with God for decades--need more of the Shalom of God?

Finally, grace and peace represent more than our need. They are the need of everyone we meet. Do we wish grace and peace on others? Do we have it to give?

This week, my friends, here is my blessing: grace to you, and peace.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About the "Great Commission"

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28: 16 - 20
These are familiar verses to Evangelicals. We have even given this passage a name, “The Great Commission.” Most people who point to these verses begin at verse 18, when Jesus begins to speak, but the proper context begins at verse 16--and what a difference those two verses make!

Verse 16 - The disciples obeyed. Jesus gave them instructions to return to Galilee. Apart from carrying out those instructions, they would have missed an encounter with the resurrected Lord. It’s a simple meditation, but challenging: obedience puts us in a position to hear God. Do my actions make it easier or harder for me to hear his voice?

Verse 17 - Some of them doubted. These words first hit me like a thunderbolt--some of those who had seen the resurrected Jesus, those who had “proof” of his glory, still doubted! Imagine the scene around Jesus: his best friends giving him worship in a private setting, yet in some minds and hearts there was still doubt. Here’s the good news: their doubt did not disqualify them. He still received them, and he gave the “Great Commission” even to those who doubted.

These two are worth turning over in our hearts today: disobedience may keep me from hearing his voice, but doubt will not. In my opinion everyone ought to re-think the Great Commission in light of verses 16 and 17.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The True School of Ministry

From the very earliest moments of his ministry Jesus called men to follow him. It was the call of the Kingdom. It was his invitation into the school of ministry. Training for ministry involved one central idea: following him.

In our modern era--an age that values accreditation and authorization--the church itself looks skeptically on those who would attempt to “do ministry” apart from specialized training or recognition conferred from institutions. But institutions are notoriously hard to follow. Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the wise and simple pattern laid down by the Master: come and follow.

Jesus selected tradesmen and villagers to follow him. In the act of following they became fit to do his work and to train others to do his work. They learned his ways not through formal education but by being with him and imitating him. When Mark’s gospel presents a list of the disciples it states simply that Jesus chose them “that they might be with him and he might send them out . . .” (Mark 3: 14). The pre-eminent qualification for ministry was that they were with him. Even their detractors observed by their actions that these men “had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

These men traveled with Jesus, camped with Jesus, and ate with Jesus. They shared life with him. If he was invited to a wedding, they went with him. If he taught the masses, they were with him. If he stayed up most of the night healing the sick, they were with him. It was their constant exposure to his presence and activity that became their school of ministry. Jesus did not assign readings or lecture extensively. If they had questions about what he said publicly, they asked him about it privately. If Jesus had a concern about their behavior he asked them about it (for example, “what were you discussing just now?” Mark 8:17).

It is worth noting that with respect to preparation for ministry, neither Jesus nor any of his original twelve disciples would be considered qualified to teach in a university or seminary today. Our educational biases tilt strongly toward knowing about Jesus or about the scriptures as opposed to knowing him or being with him. Objective knowledge is certainly easier to quantify, but Jesus cared far more about relationship than formal education. Clearly he and his disciples valued the scriptures--and all of them demonstrated knowledge of them, but these abilities were secondary to relationship with Jesus.

One gospel account in particular presents a challenge to our understanding of Jesus and his value system: after sending 70 of his followers out for their first ministry experience, he rejoiced before the Father with these words: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “ (Luke 10:21)  What kind of person is delighted when the wise and learned are clueless?

Here’s part of our problem: for many of us “Come follow me” is too simple. Jesus is no longer here, how can we follow? Jesus lived in another place and time, how does his life serve as an example for ours today? Or perhaps the greatest challenge: Jesus is the sinless Son of God, isn’t it impossible to follow him?

Perhaps the very fact that we stumble at the invitation demonstrates why individual Christians (and the church as a whole) have difficulty impacting our society. We are good at study. We are big at planning and organizing. We are very good at structure and control. But we are not very good at following. Those who cannot grasp “Come follow me” underscore the problems we face.

I suspect that we are limited in our effectiveness because we have placed understanding above obedience. We have prized our intellectual capacities above the kind of love that causes us to become imitators of the Beloved. In a natural family children learn first by imitating their parents. Only later do they understand. In the family of God we are at risk of being the kind of people who James, the brother of Jesus, cautioned: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” His warning reminds us that if we separate actions from what we learned we are setting ourselves up for deception.

Part of the solution is to look for his presence. It is that simple. He has promised it to us. Even as Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he made a startling assertion: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20) Through the agency of his Holy Spirit Jesus remains alive and present among us. We can train ourselves to recognize his presence. He did not lie to us; he is here for us today. Becoming a follower of Jesus is to refuse to settle for anything less than his presence. This is a challenge to a society (the church!) which has prized education over relationship. We have substituted learning about him for being with him.

If this first step sounds too mystical, too subjective, it may underscore the extent of our need. The plain promise of Jesus is that, through the agency of His Spirit, Jesus remains available for us today: to lead, to guide, in short--for us to follow. Our “studies” in his School of Ministry begin with the refusal to accept anything less than his presence.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday's Meditation: About Meditation

At Students of Jesus Mondays are about meditation. We can set the course for our hearts all week long by choosing a theme to hold before God day by day. Mediation should be a normative part of Christian life, but many North American Christians are familiar only with study.

Richard Foster, a man who has given himself to training in spiritual formation,  says simply, “Christian meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.” Hearing his voice need not be the same thing as reading the Bible.

We give ourselves to definitions, memorization and organization, but our hearts remain unmoved. For example, when the Magi asked the religious experts of King Herod’s court, “where is the Messiah to be born?” the Scribes were capable of giving a correct answer, but not one of them was moved to go with the Magi and worship at the feet of the Child Christ. God save us from that kind of knowledge. The paths to mediation are many, but I’d like to suggest a few starting points for those who have never considered the difference between book-learning and meditation:

  • Chew the cud: Don’t be in a hurry. When we ruminate on the scripture for a week, a month, or even a year we give the Holy Spirit opportunity to suggest what He meant when he inspired the text. I know of one married couple who read all the verses of Proverbs 3 every night for a year. Each night they talked about what the words could mean--that’s chewing the cud!
  • Look for Jesus’ words in his actions. For example, if you are intrigued by Jesus’ mysterious statement, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine,” why not read all four gospels looking for evidence of how Jesus walked out that very statement? I guarantee--you’ll be surprised.
  • Set aside the Bible, and listen. Of course the Bible is a good thing, but the Bible itself suggests other avenues to hear God’s voice: the operation of nature, the moon and the stars, lives of other believers, even our own hearts can convey the voice of God to us. The very fact that we have the Bible as a safety net should give us confidence to open our ears to other avenues of His expression.

Do you need somewhere to start? Try this on for a week:
Your word, O LORD, is eternal; 
       it stands firm in the heavens.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations; 

       you established the earth, and it endures.
Your laws endure to this day,
       for all things serve you.
If your law had not been my delight,
       I would have perished in my affliction.
I will never forget your precepts,
       for by them you have preserved my life.
 Save me, for I am yours;
       I have sought out your precepts.
 The wicked are waiting to destroy me,
       but I will ponder your statutes.
 To all perfection I see a limit;
       but your commands are boundless.
                         ~ Psalm 118: 89-96

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Josué De La Cruz Saved My Life

When I was a young boy Josué De La Cruz saved my life. My third-floor apartment on the northwest side of Chicago was fully involved in flames. The Latino firefighter crawled up the steps beneath the smoke, through the fire, and carried me to safety. I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for him.

He visited me in the hospital the next day. I thanked him for his courage and sacrifice. He told me he was happy to make a difference. We chatted for a while. His Spanish accent reminded me that he was from a completely different culture than mine. It was hard to understand him sometimes, but I was grateful. I fell asleep and he was gone.

My family found a new place to live but I included Josué in my prayers every night--for a couple of months at least. Eventually school took all my attention and life returned to normal. I was surprised five years later when Josué turned up at my college dorm one night. I was coming back to the dorm very late--trying not to attract the attention of the Resident Assistant.

“Man,” he said with that accent. “You know it’s really dangerous to drive home in your condition. You should be more careful.”

I was embarrassed. “Yeah, I guess so.” I shoved my hand forward to shake his. “Hey man, thanks for pulling me out of that fire back then.”

“No problem--that’s over. Listen, I brought you some money for textbooks. Take care for yourself.”

It was strange, him showing up that night. I really wasn’t thinking straight. When I woke up the next morning it was hard to tell where the night had ended and where my dreams began. But I did have $100 in the pocket of my jeans.

I was nearly thirty when he turned up again. I’d been married for seven years. My wife and I had one kid and another of the way. I had taken a job working for her father. It wasn’t the life I wanted but with another kid on the way paying the bills was a big deal. Still, the job sucked and I wasn’t happy.  I came home from work and there was Josué, the firefighter who had saved my life, sitting on my front step, petting the family dog.

“Dude, what are you doing here?”

“Amigo, it’s so good to see you again. I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.”

That seemed really strange to hear. All I could manage was an awkward “Thanks.”

“You know,” he said, looking up  from the dog. “You ought to cut your wife a little slack. It isn’t easy raising one kid while she’s baking another.”

“Well my job ain’t so hot either. Did you want something?” I asked.

He ignored the question. “I could help you with that if you want.”

I laughed. “Thanks. I’m a little old for the Fire Academy, don’t you think?” I  stepped past him an went to the door. “Thanks for stopping by, though.” Later I found a gift card to Applebee’s right where he had been sitting. There was a post-it note where he had scribbled, Take your wife out to dinner tonight.

I don’t know: maybe Josué had moved into my neighborhood because he began to pop up at the most random times and places. It began to get a little creepy. One time he was in the booth behind me and my friend at the pancake house.

“Hey man,” he said with that accent. “Have you been putting on some weight?”

“Maybe. You still look pretty fit.” It was true, I had to admit it.

“I’m not trying to bust your hump,” he said. “I just want to see you stay healthy and live well.”

I didn’t feel scolded. Especially because he waited for my buddy to hit the restroom before he spoke to me. “Yeah. Thanks. I’ll work on that.” When my friend and I left we found that Josué had already paid the tab. It went on like this for the next few years. Josué would turn up, offer his opinion on something or other, and always do something nice for me.

Then one afternoon he was outside my workplace. I had bolted from working for my father-in-law, but three jobs later I was going nowhere fast. Life sucked. My wife and kids were strangers to me, and I was thinking of getting in the car and just driving.

“My friend,” Josué said gently. “Don’t do this thing.”

I was startled. Did he know my thoughts? “What thing?”

“Times are tough,” he said. “I get it. Let me help you learn how to live.”

Finally I’d had enough of these strange appearances. “Listen, Josué. It’s been twenty years since you saved me from the fire. What gives you the right to show up and tell me what to do?”

“What good was saving your life if you don’t know how to live it?” he answered. “I went into your apartment that day to change your life, not just save it.”

“Really?” I demanded. “Well, I needed someone to save me--not someone to run my life. What gives you the right?”

“I am Josué De La Cruz.” He stood tall and his voice swelled with strength. And as he said the words he began to change: his face and clothes became white--dazzling beyond any brightness on Earth.

I shielded my eyes and heard thunder from the cloudless sky. In the thunder I thought I heard a voice. “This is my son. Listen to him!”

And then, in a moment the day returned, and the sunshine seemed less bright. Josué put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. That’s why I saved you that day.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Why Did She Leave?

“Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone." Mark 7:29-30
These are the final words from an encounter between Jesus and a pagan woman. Perhaps you know the story: Jesus leaves Israel and lays low in a foreign city. A Gentile woman seeks him out and cries for mercy on behalf of her demonized daughter. It looks as though she will be sent away empty, but after an infamous exchange with the Jewish Messiah, she returns home to find her daughter healed. Commentators have made much of the exchange: “healing is the children’s bread; humble yourself in prayer;” or even “don’t take offense when it seems God is against you.”

When I meditate on this story I am faced with a different question. Why did the woman leave? She was aggressive enough to find Jesus even when he wanted to keep his location a secret. She broke into his beach house and annoyed everyone in the room. She was a woman who will not be denied. From our perspective Jesus answered rudely yet she refused to be dismissed--until he says “you may go, the demon has left your daughter.”

We know the outcome: Jesus healed her daughter from where he sat. When Jesus uttered the words the room did not light up with the glory of God. There was no evidence of a miracle in the room. Other healing stories show people pleading that Jesus hurry to the bedside of those in need. Even his best friends Mary and Martha complained that if Jesus had only come sooner Lazarus would not have died. Yet this foreigner was content to walk away on the strength of his word.

Here’s my suggested meditation this week: would I have been satisfied with only his word? This woman knew when to pray, and she knew when to quit. When I put myself in the story I have to admit I may not have been so easily satisfied. Would I have insisted, “No! Please come now and lay your hands on my child”?

Let's consider these questions: When I pray, do I leave room for Jesus to speak to me? Will I trust him when he does? Am I satisfied with only his word?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About "Places in the Heart"

How far apart are the natural and spiritual?  Robert Benton’s 1984 quiet masterpiece, Places in the Heart, explores the distance between the two.

Filmed on location in Waxahachie, Texas, this movie tells the compelling story of a Depression era family facing tragedy and poverty while maintaining their identity and dignity before God and man. Its characters are deeply flawed people thrown together by circumstances beyond their imagining. Somehow they must judge wisely between what matters and what seems to matter. This movie answers the question posed to Jesus by a lawyer: “Who is my neighbor?”

Places in the Heart is not an overtly Christian movie, and that’s a good thing. Some Evangelical ministries attempt to make “Christian movies with a message,” which is a really bad idea: when an art form elevates message above craft both the craft and message suffer. The characters in this movie quite naturally live their lives in a “Christian town.” If any Christian claims are made during the film, they are revealed in due course. Thus when the town’s mortgage banker is also a church deacon the movie naturally explores the relationship between the two identities residing in the same man. Eventually we discover the multiple identities of nearly every character in the movie.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards (Sally Field won for best actress and Benton for original screenplay), Places in the Heart presents a fine cast: Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich, and Ed Harris. Robert Benton’s direction is understated. He trusts the story without resorting to unnecessary drama. The pace is unhurried and the ending will cause you realize that the Kingdom of God breaks into our day and age more than we expect.

In my opinion any disciple who loves films ought to own this movie.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Lavender Bridge

I dreamed last night of a little girl with bows in her hair. I knew immediately she was a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. She was young, not more than five or six years old. Her hair was pulled to either side and held in place by lavender bows, and the bows came flowing forth in two lines. A new bow appeared to replace each one that floated toward me, creating a lavender stream, flowing gently from her to me.

The bows from the right side of her hair were perfect, each one was fully shaped and proportioned, symmetrical and pretty. The ones from the left side were crude and clumsy, as if the little girl had tied them herself. The difference between the two kinds of bows was unmistakable, but she did not seem to mind. As I watched these bows in my dream the Spirit said “the bows coming from her right side are the intentions of her heart. She desires perfection, beauty and grace before me. The ones coming from the left side represent her ability to achieve these intentions.”

I continued to look at the little girl and something amazing happened! She began to age before my eyes. First she was but five or six years old: then seven, then eight. Still the bows streamed out. In only a few moments the girl became an adolescent, then a young woman, until she was finally mature. Through the changes the lavender bows continued to come, but the clumsy and rugged bows from the left side became more complete with each passing year until at last the two lines of bows were the same. The dream ended; I woke up an hour before the alarm was set.

In that hour I used the dream as my morning prayer before God, letting the images sink into my waking thoughts. I asked the Lord if this dream was for me or someone else (the fact that you’re reading it on my blog gives you the answer to that question!); I asked Him if there was meaning beyond the words spoken by the Holy Spirit in the dream. After some reflection the phrase “the full stature of Christ” came to mind. I knew the phrase came from one of Paul’s letters, and with the help of Bible Gateway I found the passage:
“ . . . until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesian 4: 13)
In the past few weeks at Students of Jesus we’ve discussed the process of spiritual formation: we’ve pondered over whether perfection is possible in the life of a disciple; how spiritual transformation depends upon relationship above precept; and how change runs deep when we cooperate with the Father. So today I add a few simple observations based upon a gentle dream and the passage it brought to mind:

Spiritual Transformation is a royal calling: the color of the bows represent the royalty to which we are born in the kingdom of God. Lavender is baby-purple, and purple is used throughout the scripture to represent royalty. We, too--you and I--are a royal priesthood, a chosen nation (I Peter 2: 9-10), who are called to represent the One who called us out of darkness into light. We can wear that calling like a gentle adornment in our lives.

Spiritual Transformation is a process: That the little girl became an adult, and the bows became more complete indicates some changes take time, and the Lord is well aware of the process. He knows the intentions of our heart and sees the clumsy nature of our attempts to imitate his completeness. Our standing before God changes when we are born from above, his image in our lives can grow more and more complete if our intentions and practices remain focused upon him: what the scripture calls “ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Spiritual Transformation has a place for the imperfect: No one expects a child to have it all together. The bows on her left side were clumsy and crude, but there’s nothing wrong with a child who is disheveled. In fact, a child who is always perfectly groomed would be the exception! We expect children to have untied shoelaces, grass-stains on their jeans, and bows that just don’t quite hang right. It means they are normal children. And I, for one, am glad that Jesus loves the little children of the world, because it’s his good pleasure to give us the kingdom. The passage in Ephesians reminds us that we can all attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

The Lord comes close to anyone who wants to be like him. He draws near in the most unexpected ways. Why not post a comment and share the dreams given to you by the Spirit?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Monday's Meditation: How Change Runs Deep

You know you’re really sick when the doctor does for you what you cannot do for yourself: you receive anesthetic, they cut you open and fish around inside your body, and later you wake up a changed man. That’s one kind of “healing.” It’s the kind none of us want, but sometimes need.

The other kind of healing comes when we visit the doctor’s office, receive advice or medicine, and go home to apply the remedy to ourselves. “Change your diet and lose some weight,” says the healer. Or: “Have this prescription filled and take the medicine until your condition goes away.”

In the first example our need is critical and we are powerless to effect the remedy ourselves. In the second, our need may be just as great, but we are able to participate in the change. A good doctor has the skill to heal the first way, but prefers to use the second. He knows change runs deep when we participate in the cure. Of course, God is a good doctor. Consider these instructions:
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. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. (2 Peter 1: 3-9)
Can you see the interplay between the two types of healing? There is a dynamic difference between what God alone can do and what we can do in cooperation with him. Both bring healing, and both are critical. A week of meditation on the difference between the two could transform our lives.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Everone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Radical Generosity

Have you ever been moved to an act of radical generosity? Really radical, say, like the woman who poured out perfume worth a year’s wages on Jesus’ feet?

Earlier this week two of my friends flew to Seattle, Washington. They paid extra for their luggage: two bicycles. Over the next few weeks they will ride those bicycles to Bar Harbour, Maine. The 4,100 mile ride will raise money for children in Kenya, providing one meal a day for children who are forced to choose between going to school or begging for food.

Who would give their summer for children they do not know? Who would engage in a radical act of physical courage to draw attention to others in need? Who would raise thousands of dollars in order to change someone’s life forever?

The answer is: Mark and Sarah Tiu. Husband and wife, Mark and Sarah Tiu ("Chew") have embarked on a crazy plan to change the lives of thousands. Can you imagine biking a hundred miles a day, crossing mountains and prairies, camping in the middle of nowhere all in order to show practical love? In my opinion you should read their story--better yet, in my opinion you should support them with your own radical act of generosity.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Relationship that Transforms

Wouldn’t it be a shame to stay married to the same spouse for a lifetime and not be changed by the process of sharing life together?  Or raise children for twenty years and fail to grow in patience, grace, and kindness? Our most important and personal relationships touch us deeply. We find ourselves transformed into different people. The rough edges rounded, the abrasive surfaces rubbed smooth: changed into our true selves.

And then there’s Jesus. Wouldn’t it be a shame to take the identity of “Christian” for most of our adult lives and somehow remain unchanged?

A marriage which does not impact our personality is no marriage at at. Raising children without experiencing vulnerability and risk is to fail at parenting. Friendship without open give and take is only a shadow of real relationship. Yet year after year we find ourselves in the same spiritual shape. While promoting a recent blog post I used Facebook to encourage others to visit this site. The “teaser” in my status update was this sentence: “Wouldn’t it be terrible to be forever forgiven, but always unable to change?” One of my Facebook friends responded with the comment, “That pretty well sums up my life.” How many of us could have posted the same comment?

Any true relationship carries the power to transform us at the deepest level. Do we have a relationship with Jesus, or an arrangement? For many believers he’s the one who paid the price for our sin, paved the way to eternal life--and the one who left the planet a long time ago. The average believer in North America knows how to appropriate the legal exercise of God’s forgiveness, but has no real expectation of becoming “conformed to the image of Christ.” (Romans 8: 29) Scriptural promises of transformation are pushed into the future, as if they will magically happen at the second coming.

I’d like to suggest three earth-bound agents of change God can also use in our spiritual lives. In marriage, family and friendships we find ourselves transformed by love, commitment, and constancy. These three pillars of human relationship can also become the means by which the Holy Spirit works in our lives.

Love: The reason I am less of a jerk after twenty-five years of marriage is simple: I love my wife and don’t want to purposely cause her pain. When I act selfishly toward my wife she pays the price. I witness first-hand the grief I cause and because I love her I determine to think of her before I think of me. I’m still a selfish man, but am I less selfish after twenty-five years of trial and error? The same can be true of my relationship with Christ. If Jesus is simply the Divine Defense Attorney who rescues me from hell, he has no claim on my life. If, however, Jesus is the passionate love of my life, I will joyfully conform my actions to those things which give him joy. This isn’t about following the Law, it’s about pleasing my beloved. Of course, the first question is--do I love him, or do I merely want to use his sacrifice?

Commitment: Insanity is hereditary--you get it from your kids! How many times in one day can a two year-old push you buttons? Why don’t we just walk that toddler to the front door and say, “That’s it, pal. I’ve had enough. You’re on your own!” Raising children comes with a twenty-year commitment to the unknown. We stick with our children when they drive us crazy. We continue to pour our lives into them even when they are ungrateful and egocentric. We remain true to them even when we don’t understand them, simply because we are committed to them. Commitment stands firm even when love wants to run and cry. If we learn commitment from raising our children, how much more will commitment serve us as a means of grace with God? Even when we feel He may be against us, commitment can hold us firm. Of course, the Almighty is no petulant child, but there are certainly times when we do not understand his actions. His commandments can run counter to our desires, but commitment can steady us until we come to our senses again and his wisdom. That commitment can also strengthen our resolve to order our lives around his priorities.

Constancy: Life is so daily. We do the laundry this week, knowing we will do it again next week. Repetitive tasks threaten to overwhelm our desire for whimsy and adventure. Yet those who neglect the everyday matters are regarded as immature and irresponsible. The constant parade of days and weeks, months and years builds faithfulness into our souls. Could we become like Tolkien’s hobbits: those quiet little folk demonstrated unseen reserves of strength. What if the everyday-ness of life reveals something of God’s grandeur? Our resolve to listen for his voice in the mundane, to sense his presence in the quiet of the house, to discover his faithfulness reflected in our meager faithful tasks can open us up to change at the deepest level. What if we are the hobbits of his kingdom?

Spiritual transformation begins with relationship. The real question whether our relationship with Jesus rises to the level of our most cherished human ones. No one should settle for marriage, family, or friendship without significance. Why should we settle for less with God?