Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday's Meditation: In Praise of "Mindless Obedience"

I won’t be a hypocrite. The Bible says partying and getting drunk is a bad thing, but I really like it. Why should I hold back from doing something if that’s what my heart really wants? I don’t think God would appreciate that. Obeying God only counts when we mean it from the heart.
These are the words of a teenager I once tried to turn back from the edge of reckless behavior. This young person was intelligent, sincere, and determined not to put up a false front. His highest value was “be true to your heart.” He had seen plenty of high-school classmates profess one set of values at some church youth group, yet party themselves into a stupor on Friday nights.
True obedience to the will of God must spring from the heart, right? When Jesus said “if a man looks on a woman lustfully he has already committed adultery,” he was trying to point to the soil of the heart from which all action flows. “Mindless obedience” is the stuff of Pharisees, right?
In our day--perhaps more than any other--we are urged to be be real: “Follow your dreams . . . don’t settle for less . . . be true to your self.” Yes, well, what if I’m a jerk? Should I be true to that self? What if my dreams involve a level of selfishness that puts my family at risk for poverty or loss? Should I be true to those dreams? What if in refusing to settle for less I end up achieving nothing, and must rely on the charity of others? What if following my heart leads me to a god who looks exactly like . . . me?
Monday’s Meditation is a caution: It’s true that the highest obedience flows from a heart conformed to his image: are there lower forms of obedience capable of effecting change from the outside in? How does my heart experience such a transformation, and what is my role in the metamorphosis? 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Calming Our Fears

Just when we are tempted to think these times are unique, the Gospels remind us that people of every generation, every race, and every society have had to cope with fear and uncertainty. The answer is always the same: there is a King in Heaven who will return to earth, and we can participate in His Kingdom right now, even before he returns. 
One of the most amazing things about the gospels is how up-to-date they are. No matter how many centuries have passed or how many continents removed, the story of Jesus still speaks to our time and place. Today we find ourselves in a time of political change, in a time economic uncertainty, and in a time of armed conflict. We all share a common concern for safety and security, but find ourselves filled with worry and uncertainty. But we are reading the wrong newspapers and checking the wrong websites: it turns out God’s early edition is still up do date.
In the Luke’s gospel, we get a picture of a society eager to find a solution to their worries. The beginning of Luke chapter 12 tells us that so many people gathered to hear the teachings of Jesus that the crowds grew to many thousands, sometimes in danger of trampling upon one another (Luke 12:1). In that setting Jesus reminded his followers of how to order their priorities and manage their fears.
He taught that our first priority was to be sure that our fears are rightly placed--in reverence to God Himself, the ultimate Judge. Jesus boldly indicated that the only judgment that mattered was the final judgment when the Son of God would return. In the first paragraphs of this chapter (Luke 12: 4-21) we can receive a powerful revelation from the Scriptures, namely that riches in this life are not as important as being “rich toward God.” (v. 21)
After establishing the one ultimate truth about Judgment Day, Jesus then began to address the cares and worries if this world and the here-and-now. He taught that the reality of the Kingdom of God is not simply about the afterlife, but rather that the Kingdom of God should impact the way we think and act now.  
Here is how Jesus gives us comfort. He assures us that God cares about our everyday needs. He promises us that we can settle our fears by learning how to trust Him for practical things. In this new relationship with God He will provide for our everyday needs:
And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12: 29 - 32NIV)
Jesus assures us that the same Father who provides for our eternal life also provides for our needs right now. That is, the benefits of the Kingdom of God can begin right here and now for those who walk in a trusting relationship with him.
Do we really believe that our Heavenly Father is pleased to “give us the Kingdom?”  Perhaps we trust him for our assurance of eternity with him, but Jesus is also instructing us that when the Father gives his Kingdom, he is committing himself to look after our needs day-to-day: our needs for food, and shelter, and clothing.
True, in the remaining portion of the chapter He also instructs us to look forward to his return. We should be ready for that day! (verses 35 - 59)  How can we depend on God for our eternal destination, without also learning to trust Him for the journey along the way?
These verses about the Kingdom of God in the middle of the chapter are heart of his message. Luke 12 opens and closes with images from the end of the age, but by proclaiming the Kingdom of God in the middle of the chapter, Jesus is reminding us that if our heavenly priorities are correct, his Kingdom can begin to impact our everyday needs, and calm our fears.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hanging out at Pangea

My cyber-friend Kurt Willems invited me to post at his evocative site, The Pangea Blog, so yesterday I posted The Subtle Idolatry over there. I hope it doesn't get him into trouble!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Considering the Cross

Have you ever planned to think about something? To set the direction of your thoughts, so whenever they are free and looking for something constructive to do, the direction is already determined?  Some topics are too big to be merely Monday’s Meditation. They deserve more time: to marinate, to allow the flavor to saturate every part of the meal.

(Now I’m getting hungry--but isn’t that the point of focused meditation as well?)
There’s no better topic for sustained meditation than the words of Jesus, because his words broke forth from of old and will continue on forever. His words established the earth; his words will create a new heaven and new earth. So this week I’m giving myself to his simple statement, “"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23)
Some meditation starts best with questions. What would it mean to “take up his cross daily?” How is self-denial connected to our ability to lay hold of the cross? Perhaps I can suggest three appetizers for the disciple who would feast on the Lord’s words:
Taking up our cross is an intentional act. The cross doesn’t happen to us. We take it each day by the choices we make. These choices can small and private, they needn’t prove anything to anyone. Jack Hayford, a wonderful pastor and example of a disciple, once said he reads the scripture each morning at his bedside--on his knees. He does so to signal to God and remind himself of his willingness to submit to God’s will. 
The Apostle Paul warned us that religious people will consider the cross something shameful and intellectual people will consider it foolish. Am I willing to embrace shameful foolishness in order to follow Jesus?
Taking up our cross contains the promise of resurrection. Which do we want: a life filled with our own efforts, our own strength and our own results, or a life filled with supernatural power? The cross changed everything. It was a death sentence in its day, now it’s the path to life.
The Father is not trying to kill us, but he calls us to come and die. There’s a big difference. Why would he ask this of us?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ignoring the Cross

This is embarrassing, for reals. Every once in a while the Twitterverse delivers a thunderbolt, and I was struck this past weekend.
One of my regular readers--a person whom I don’t think I’ve ever met--sent me this direct message on twitter: “I could not find an entry on your blog about ‘carrying our cross daily.’ I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Had some confusion lately.”
Immediately I thought, “That can’t be right.” I checked the labels at my site and sure enough, the word “cross” doesn’t even appear. About twenty minutes later I received another direct message: “I did find a few entries with a closer look.“ My Twitter correspondent was being generous: the tally came to three sentences about the cross. How could this be? How could I blog for two years, more than 200 posts, and never address the role of the cross in the life of a disciple?
Jesus was pretty clear on this subject. All three of the synoptic gospels. Smack dab in the middle of Mark, so you can’t miss it:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8: 34-38)
Luke’s gospel (chapter 9) adds the word “daily” to the passage, and Matthew’s gospel (chapter 16) introduces “reward” to the mix. Clearly, this is an important part of following Jesus. The epistles contain 13 overt references to the cross and who knows how many implied references. Here at Students of Jesus? Three. In two years, 228 posts, Eleventy gazillion words.
After the two-message twitter conversation my immediate thought was, “no problem: I’ll just write something up and post it.” The Holy Spirit was kind enough to suggest that if I hadn’t considered the cross of Christ in two years, what insight could I gain in four days?
So here is what I have learned in four days: I have ignored the cross of Christ. I’ve embraced the image of taking the yoke (check the URL and the tag-line at the top),
perhaps because by taking the yoke I can remain alive, but embracing the cross means learning how to die. Daily.
I’ve come too far with Jesus to fall into the trap of beating myself up. Instead, the Father graciously nudged another one of his kids to send me 140 characters via social networking to call my attention to what is still lacking in my life as a disciple. I immediately dug in and began to attend to the cross.
In these first few days I’ve imagined possible responses to the words of Jesus, and I’d like to share my first pass at that. What are the possible responses? Maybe we can start with these four:
  • Reject the cross: In which I understand the call, count the cost, and fold before I must pay the price. Better to indulge in religious activities--perhaps even do some good--but remain the master of my fate: build my ministry, increase my readership, secure my future. I don’t think that’s me, but I can imagine pastors, evangelists, and various religious professionals taking this. Then again, when is the last time I fasted? Jesus probably isn’t amused by my standard line, “the only thing I ever got from fasting is skinny.”
  • Mortify myself in an attempt to take up the cross: I’m no church historian, but there are plenty of examples of those who believed that by literary imitating the suffering of Jesus they were somehow following his example. It’s true that no one took his life from him: Jesus gave himself to the cross, but I don’t think he intended us to inflicted controlled pain in order to find affinity with him. (But then, after only four days’ reflection, what do I really know?)
  • Ignore the cross: I think this is where I’ve been living. Love Jesus? You bet. Worship and Adore? I’m in. Serve him? I’d like to think that’s what I’ve been doing. But with respect to the call to embrace the cross--it’s imagery and reality--I’ve been a no-show. Like the disciples in Ephesus who had never heard of the Holy Spirit, I’m the disciple who’s never seen the cross. And honestly: how could I miss it? The cross is the primary sign of Evangelical Christianity. Who’s ever heard of a church without a cross? (Answer: mine)
  • Embrace the cross: Now, I’m just four days into this but it seems to me that Jesus loved the Father, saw what he was doing, and partnered with him. Jesus demonstrated a life of purity and obedience. A life so vivid and compelling that some people followed him and some killed him. A life so loving he was willing to be lifted up in shame in order to rescue those who neither loved him nor understood him. I’d like to learn to live that kind of life.
There. That’s the first pass. It won’t be the last, and it shouldn’t be a monologue. There are probably plenty of you who have thought and lived deeply toward the cross. Here’s your chance to teach, encourage and, if you must, chastize. I eagerly welcome your instruction. Why not leave a comment, point me toward your blog post that deals with the cross, or set me straight in general. I need it, and my friend on Twitter is still waiting for an answer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's Saturday,and in turning my attention to the cross I came across a Good Friday post from 2009: Still, it's not enough for a discipleship blog. And, gentle readers, I'm still looking for your comments.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Excellent Adventure at Jason Boyett's "O Me of Little Faith."

The actual Jason Boyett

Sometimes even the very best blog sites have to lower their standards, and that’s the case today at Jason Boyett’s “O Me of Little Faith.”
Today Jason has kindly included me in his his Voices of Doubt series, which is funny because I generally bamboozle folks into thinking I’m certain about everything, including the Cubs' chances to win a World Series this century. So it must’ve been a slow week for Jason, but his bad day is my good fortune.
Jason’s site is highly regarded, and for good reason: he willing to ask the hard questions while at the same time showing respect for other viewpoints and passion for Jesus. We became acquianted last year when I posted a snarky comment on his website; he responded with thoughtfulness and grace. So I came back to his site again and again. Now I have a bona fide man-crush on him (but that would be another post for anther day, wouldn’t it?).
Check out my piece, Learning From Thomas at O Me of Little Faith.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Difference Between You and You

When a friend of mine became a missionary to Peru several years ago, we talked about the cultural changes that were going to be necessary, but there was one change neither of us could have predicted. After he got to Lima, he decided he should read the Bible in Spanish, even for his personal devotional times. That’s when he discovered the power of the second-person plural.
“It’s the most amazing thing,” he said. “All the years I read the word ‘you’ in my English Bible, I thought it was talking about me. But in Spanish, I think it’s talking about ‘us.’”
He’s on to something: the New Testament, especially the epistles, is addressed to “us,” not “me.” Who knew that 9th grade grammar class would turn out to be so important? By some unfortunate accident of the English language the word “you” can mean one person or a whole group of people. Not so in Spanish and most other languages. Instead of a Red-Letter edition of the Bible, we need a “You & You-all” edition.
When North Americans read the letters of the New Testament we tend to interpret the word “you” as a singular. In other words, we think the Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, is speaking to “me.” Considering our individualistic consumer-oriented society, is it any surprise?
Paul and the other writers of the epistles were usually addressing groups of people. Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, 15 of them were written to groups of people, not individuals. These groups of people are more commonly known as “the church.” Of the six remaining letters, three of them are all about life and order within the church (a group of people)!
It’s popular these days to say “Jesus, yes. The church, no.” But the writers of the epistles would never have thought like that. They saw the church as the primary focus of what the Holy Spirit was doing in their day.
Here are three examples from Paul’s letters that have challenged my thinking about the importance of the church:
  • Ephesians 1: 22 tells us that the church is not only the “body of Christ,” but also the “fullness of [Jesus], who fills everything in every way.” Imagine that: the church is the fullness of Jesus. This really stretches me. Apparently Paul hasn’t been to any churches I have ever attended.
  • Ephesians 3: 10 tells us that God wants to show his “manifold wisdom” through the church. But the church is perhaps one of the last places people would think to find wisdom. Around my hometown, not even the Christians think that the church demonstrates the wisdom of God.
  • I Timothy 3:15 tells us that God considers the church to be His household, and that the church is the “pillar and support of the truth.” A pillar holds something up, either to bear the weight or to put something on display. What kind of “weight” could your church bear, and what does your church put on display?
There are plenty more such passages in the New Testament. If we put on “church glasses” and look again, we can begin to discover that throughout the New Testament God has an exalted view of the church.
Now I’ve got a big problem: bashing the church is easy to do and lots of fun, but apparently Jesus loves the church. He loves the church so much that he wants to marry her. The marriage supper of the Lamb will celebrate the union of Jesus and his church, a bride without spot or blemish. Perhaps one of the reasons evangelical believers have difficulty committing to a local church body is they consider membership to be something beyond the gospel message instead of part of the gospel message.
What if I told my friend, “I think you are great. You’re smart, loving, wise, insightful, and fun to be with. But I don’t like your wife at all. I want to be with you, hang out with you, and learn from you. But I don’t want to have anything at all to do with your wife--ever.” Do you think he would accept a relationship with me on those terms?
How many of us say that to Jesus all the time?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Distance Between Me and God (Part Two)

This weekend I was arrested by a tiny word. It caused me to put down the book and worship with a fresh heart. My cup of wonder, amazement and gratitude was dripping from the rim again. I was reading along at the beginning of John’s gospel and a two-letter word rocked my world. Perhaps it will mean nothing to you, but for me the lightning flashed, the thunder followed when I read the word, “he.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Word, the Life, the Light is also “Him.” Alive and personal.
It’s risky to share your personal response to scripture. Huh? Others say. Yeah, so, what’s the big deal?
Like so many passages in the Bible, I am tempted to think I already know the truth: until the truth breaks into the room and becomes alive. What was only in my head came and sat by my side. The ink on the page is a mere cipher, a code devised by the cunning of men. The true word was spoken and the universe began to spin. There was no air to carry the sound. There were no ears to hear the command. There was simply the Word. And the Word was a Person. Personal. Real. Relational. Alive.
The big deal, for me, is the amazing metamorphosis from Word to Person. Too often what passes for faith lives only in my head--the paltry collection of thoughts from (honestly) a bear of very little brain. Yet the Word became flesh, and lived among us in part, I suspect, to reinforce that brains have very little to do with life, but people--a Person--”he” is the source of life.
Monday’s Meditation for me (and my prayer for you) is that whatever passage of scripture you choose, the Truth will come and sit by your side. Grace to you, and peace.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Confrontation of Grace

What is the distance between you and God? Monday’s Meditation suggested it’s not nearly as far as we might think. Paul, speaking to a group of people in Athens who were completely alienated from God, told them God was not far from any of them. Where did he get such an idea? I’d like to suggest that Paul got this idea from his personal experience and the history of his people.
If there was ever a candidate for the wrath of God, Paul’s your man: a Jew who had missed the Messiah; a religious cop bent on dragging apostate Hebrews back to Jerusalem to face the music. Jesus took Paul’s persecution of the people of the church personally: asking, “Why have you persecuted me?” Yet when Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus it was a confrontation of grace, not judgment. The good shepherd has left the ninety-nine and gone after the one who had wandered away.
Imagine Paul, struck blind, sitting alone in a strange city, forced to re-think his religious convictions. He had given his life to study the Hebrew scriptures. He was considered a rising star in Judaism. He had been taught by the best and put his faith into action as an orthodox bounty-hunter. Then, after encountering Jesus personally, he sat in darkness and wrestled with one thought: everything know is wrong. Years later, as Paul stood at the marketplace of ideas in Athens, he suggested that God is close at hand to each of us: the sensual, the cerebral, the religious, the skeptic, the clueless and the pagan. I suspect Paul could make such a statement because he had experienced the reality.
All it takes is one real encounter with Jesus to make us re-think our ideas about God. Not religious argument or philosophical persuasion, but encounter. I suspect that in the Damascus darkness Paul also began to re-interpret the history of his people as revealed in the Old Testament:
  • After Adam and Eve choose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they discovered their nakedness and tried to hide from God.  Far from rejecting them, God himself went searching for them. 
  • When Cain was angry with his brother, it was Yahweh who tried to talk him down from the ledge. Even after the murder of Abel, Yahweh not only heard the voice of the victim, he placed a mark of protection on the oppressor.
  • When Jacob cheated his brother and lied to his father, God did not reject him--though it would have been understandable. Instead, God revealed Himself at Bethel and said, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
The story of Israel goes on and on: each chapter reveals that God himself is the seeker, and his people are the sought. King David, who abused the privilege and grace of God as much as any modern politician, discovered a Faithfulness beyond human reasoning, a Presence not far from any one of us: 
You have searched me, LORD, 
   and you know me. 
You know when I sit and when I rise; 
   you perceive my thoughts from afar.
His amazing song asked:
Where can I go from your Spirit? 
   Where can I flee from your presence?
David came to the conclusion:
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me 
   and the light become night around me,” 
even the darkness will not be dark to you; 
   the night will shine like the day, 
   for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139)
By the time Paul had re-calibrated his understanding of God, he was able to celebrate God’s goodness and affections: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39) Paul, the legalist, had become the Apostle--not only of God’s grace--but of his presence and goodness as well.

Paul had discovered that the Father has always wanted to be among us, and he will not allow anything to get in the way. If sin separated us from the Father, then the Father provided a remedy. It’s more than a legal transaction: the record shows that God will go to any length to be with us. If, as Isaiah says, “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you,” (Isaiah 59: 2) it is because we are the ones in hiding. He has not gone anywhere. He is still “not far from any one of us.” 
I wonder now how many of us need time and space to re-calibrate our view of the Father. How many of the events in our personal history would point to God’s desire to be with us, if only the scales would fall from our eyes? I’m determined to find out, and you’re invited on the journey, too.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Distance Between Me and God

"God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’" (Acts 17: 22-29)
At the start of this new year these words are ringing in my ears, “he is not far from any one of us.” What is the distance between you and God? Not far. So many of us have been told of the chasm between Holy God and sinful man, and I’m sure that’s true in some respect. Yet Paul spoke these words to people who did not care whether Paul’s God was real or not. He spoke to pagans with no regard for the holiness of God and no awareness of their own sin. He told them that God was behind the events and identities of their lives and pulling the levers in order to encourage people to turn his direction.
What is the distance between you and God? How far do we have to go to connect with him? Not far. It turns out that each day we live, we move, we take our steps, breath our breaths, we run our errands and do our jobs and live our lives--and all the while he is not far from any one of us. Do I know this? Do I feel it? (Or in the words of my friend Kristin Tennant, do I make space for him?) If he is not far, how much space do I need?
How can we make space for him? John Wesley was one of 19 children; his mother, Susannah, made space for God by pulling her apron over her head and taking a moment to pray. How can we make space for him? I have a friend who takes a ten-minute retreat from everything, including his own thoughts, just to sit in silence with God. I have another friend who uses his a different scripture reference as his computer’s password; each time he logs on he recites the verse and asks for God’s help in his work. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel church in Redding, CA suggests, “Since you can't imagine a place where He isn't, you might as well imagine Him with you.”
Whatever we may think the distance is, the testimony of the scripture is that he is not far from us. No one is excluded. How far do we need to turn? In the coming year perhaps we can learn that the answer is, “Not far.”