Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Eternity in our Hearts, Revealed Day by Day

God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11
When I look at my children I see the beauty and grace of creation. They’ve been shaped by the hand of God, kissed to life by his breath. I see decades of life to come: joy and laughter, worry and fear, discovery and rest. I’m a father, a man with limited experience and wisdom, a man filled to overflowing with love for my children but also aware that my cup doesn’t hold nearly enough love to give them all they need.
Then I turn my attention to the perfect parent, the Heavenly Father, and I begin to understand his love and care have no limit. He has given us everything we need for life and godliness. The DNA of his Spirit contains eternity, buried within us like treasure in a field. He watches and waits for us to discover the wealth.
Jesus, the God-Man, demonstrated how to seek and find the treasure. He told us the Kingdom of God was within us, and also told us the Kingdom was breaking in from above. His actions and his words demonstrate a beauty Solomon could only glimpse in Ecclesiastes. If it’s true that God has placed eternity in the hearts of men, then Jesus gave us words for what our hearts already know. When I come to Jesus my heart burns from within because deep calls to deep. 
Solomon may have been correct when he wrote these words, but his insight has been superseded by the Incarnation. It’s more than a week’s worth of mediation, but I hope to unlock the eternity in my heart by coming to the one who holds the key. What about you?
Perhaps you will pray with me (and our brother from 1,600 years ago) “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Difference between Jesus the man and Jesus as God

If you want to know what the full potential of your life can be, look at Jesus.  All that he did during his earthly ministry was done through reliance upon the Holy Spirit. That means we can imitate his example. “Impossible!” you say?
As Evangelical believers in the previous century placed the emphasis more and more on the divinity of Christ our understanding of his humanity began to fade. That’s a problem: if we lose sight of Jesus the Man we also lose sight of his plans for us right here and right now. If we lose sight of everything he did and said before his death and resurrection we have fallen into the role of salvation consumer instead of disciple of Christ.
Let me share you with a “secret” seldom considered by most believers today: Jesus is fully God and fully man. We need to make distinctions between the two aspects of his identity because each one drives different aspects of our Christian walk: we worship Jesus because he is God; we can pattern our lives after him because in his humanity he lived the perfect human life as our example. We should recognize the difference between his unique sacrificial death on the cross and the pattern of living he set for us during his earthly ministry.
His death on the cross is unique because of who he is—the sinless perfect Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. History is filled with examples of sacrificial deaths; soldiers have died on behalf of their comrades and parents have died on behalf of their children, but no one else could accomplish what Jesus accomplished on the cross because his sacrifice came by virtue of his identity as God-come-to-earth. His sacrifice was for the sin of all peoples, in all times, in all places. Only God’s own blood could satisfy the guilt of our sin. His death was unique: one time, once, for all. God himself provided the lamb. No one else could do it and no one else will ever have to do it again. We emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s only Son precisely because only God could do it.
But there is the danger of over-emphasis: when we concentrate on the substitutionary death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life and teaching we limit his ministry to a divine rescue mission—a rescue mission that only becomes effective for us when we die. When we see his ministry exclusively as the action that purchased heaven for us it is difficult to make the connection between his sacrifice and our everyday lives. Many Christians are moved emotionally by his suffering on Calvary. Many are grateful that he paid a debt he did no owe. Many Christians understand that they have no hope of heaven apart from the price Jesus paid on their behalf. But apart from gratitude for his kindness we see little connection between what Jesus did then and how we can live today.
Here is the challenge: our appreciation for what he did does not empower us to fulfill his example. Our gratitude for his suffering does release the wisdom, insight, or strength for each one of us to live as a new kind of person. Jesus urged his followers to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The rest he speaks of here is not our eternal rest, but rest and peace for everyday living. His gentleness and humility may have led him to the cross but they are also character traits available to his disciples today. He offers the opportunity for us to learn from him—not about how to go to heaven when we die but about how heaven can come to earth now. This is the very first request we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let Your Kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added). During his earthly ministry his wisdom, his actions, the radical nature of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and his powerful works were examples of how we could live on earth as well.
His mission included purchasing our pardon from sin by going to the cross, but it was much larger. The life-stories of Jesus seldom mention the word gospel apart from the phrase Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew). His mission on earth included pardon for sin, but it also gave new life and a new family identity to everyone who believes in him. That new identity, available right now to anyone who will follow him, is “Child of God.” When we discover the breadth of the gospel message we discover our adoption into a new family, and the possibility of taking on the family likeness.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday's Meditation: What can I do Now?

I rarely think about that second coming of Jesus because I feel the responsibility to live with him each day. Yet he did talk about the days ahead, and I suspect there are lessons for each of us today. In the parable of the ten virgins Jesus gives us the assurance of his return and speaks to our lives right now. Perhaps we could meditate on his coming and still find daily guidance? Here are five seeds of meditation:
We wait together for his return. The virgins waited together; they were not alone. There is a community of faith: his coming will certainly involve personal accountability as Jesus returns to judge each of us, but until he arrives we are called to remain in community. 
We carry the light. We are the evidence that a new day is coming. For some people trapped in the darkness of depression or disobedience, we may be the only light they see. The light we carry is not our own, it comes from the Spirit he has given us.
He provides his Holy Spirit to comfort and empower his disciples. Throughout the Scripture oil is one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit. Still, we have a responsibility to trim our lamps--no one can do it for us. We alone must be sure that we steward the precious resource of his presence in the Person of the Holy Spirit.  
Things may take a little longer than we might expect. The bridegroom was a long time coming. He was delayed so long that both the wise and the foolish fell asleep, but we are still commanded to be ready for his return at any moment. The good news is we can be faithful even if we get the timetable wrong.
Finally, much has been made of the end of Jesus' parable. When word finally comes that his return is at hand, the foolish virgins must leave to find more oil, and they eventually find themselves on the outside looking in. This verse can be the source of argument and division, or we can take from it one sure lesson: instead of fearing the words, "I don't know you," we can prepare now for the assurance that the door to the feast will be open to us
What can I do this week to look forward to the feast?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Am With You, Always.

The theologians have a fancy word (omnipresence) that tells us God is everywhere. What good is it to have a theology that asserts God’s presence is everywhere if there is no evidence of it? Do we experience his presence? Are we aware when God is in the room? Jesus never intended for us to be disciples or to make disciples apart from the personal experience of his presence.
The Bible, our guidebook for walking with God, is filled with the fact of God’s tangible presence. God’s presence is overwhelming in the first two chapters of Genesis: God personally forms humanity from the dust of the ground, kisses the breath of life into the first man, instructs and guides his children as he walks in the garden with them. This same Bible--thousands of pages later--closes with the same overwhelming presence: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21: 3)
Between the stretch from Genesis and Revelation God visits Abraham; Jacob finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with the Almighty; God talks with Moses face to face the way friends speak to one another; he reveals his presence in the cloud and the fire around the people of Israel; when Solomon dedicates the temple God manifests in a cloud so thick with his presence that no one can remain standing or perform the duties of worship. Ezekiel saw God’s traveling throne. Isaiah saw the temple filled with God’s presence and glory. And that’s just the Old Testament.
The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent, but forget that: do you experience his presence? If there is any hope for transformation as a follower of Jesus, we must be able to recognize and experience his presence. We must not settle for anything less than the experience of his presence.
The Great Commission, our call to make disciples, contains the promise of his presence, “And surely I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20) To make disciples apart from the active presence of Jesus is to make disciples who look like us, not Jesus.
Amazingly, opening ourselves up to the presence of Jesus is not any different from developing a friendship with anyone else. He goes where is welcomed.  He stays and develops friendships with those who order their lives around him. What, then, can we do to teach ourselves to recognize and enjoy the presence of God?
I’d like to suggest at least five approaches to experiencing God’s presence:
The first step in experiencing the presence of God is to take the Biblical witness seriously.  The plain message of scripture is that God is highly relational and desires us to experience an awareness of him daily. Those of us with a high view of scripture should allow the Bible to whet our appetite to interact with our Maker on a personal level daily.  We have a choice: if our experience does not match the revealed word of God, we must choose to change our way of life and pursue the experience he has promised.
Second, we should order our lives in ways that allow us to experience his presence. The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude stand in the forefront here. Many of us are unable to start a car without turning on the radio. We must tune our senses to perceive the presence of God. Why not seriously try silence or solitude for an hour—or a day?  This is not mysticism, it is discipleship.  
Third, we should consider the joyful example of others. Throughout history the witness is consistent: those who have been most aware of God’s presence have experienced the joy and peace that flow from that relationship. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite, discovered that daily activities did not have to block an awareness of God’s presence. He experienced “little reminders” from God that “set him on fire to the point that he felt a great impulse to shout praises, to sing, and to dance before the Lord with joy . . . the worst trial he could imagine was losing his sense of God’s presence, which had been with him for so long a time.”
Fourth, the presence of God has implications for our life together as the church.  Together we are the bride of Christ, and he longs to bestow his presence on the assembled church as well. It is popular in our day to embrace Jesus and shun the church. Popular, but incorrect. The church is one expression of the presence of God in the earth. If we value the presence of God in our lives we should look for his presence in the church.
Finally, one aspect of God’s presence is the power of God. John Wimber, founder or the Vineyard Movement, said that power of God is in the presence of God. For those Christians who embrace the possibilities of miraculous signs and wonders in ministry, the secret is not to seek some special spiritual power, but rather the tangible presence of God.
These five considerations are not an exhaustive list.  They are merely the starting point.  Can we have the same experiences of God’s presence recorded in the Scripture?  Are we willing to order our lives around the expectation of his presence?  Will we discover the joy of his presence?  Can the church really become an expression God’s presence on earth?  And finally, are we willing to recognize that his tangible presence could provide power for “supernatural” ministry?  These questions can only be answered if we are willing to move from “lecture” to “lab.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Gifts, Fruit, and Spoiled Brats

My son has always been above average: even as a child, when he entered the terrible-two’s at 18 months. In the three or four days leading up to his second birthday he was nearly impossible: temper tantrums a dozen times a day, unhappy with everything around him. Finally, on the morning of his second birthday I looked at my wife and said, “That’s it! I’ve had it! There will be no birthday party today. Take back all his presents--he doesn’t deserve them.”

Who would refuse to give a birthday gift simply because a child was acting, well, childish? Now, years later, my son is in his twenties: married, gainfully employed, following Jesus, and a delight to be around.
This week’s meditation invites you to consider the difference between gifts and fruit: Paul’s letters to young churches mention both the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5) and gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). The Heavenly Father is a father of infinite generosity and infinite patience. He gives us what we need, and grows in us what we become. Both actions begin with him. Both actions reflect his character. Yet there are distinct differences between gifts and fruit.
It is too common among North American believers to fixate on one or the other: some believers celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of Godly character. Others concentrate on the fruit of the Spirit as if the Father has nothing more to give. Of course, we need both. And of course, the Father wants us to have both. No amount of Christian character can fill a supernatural need, and no supernatural power can replace Christlikeness.
As we launch into the everyday world between Sundays, perhaps we should consider the place of both gifts and fruit in our lives:
  • Do I reject what the Father gives?
  • Do I prize prize his gifts above his character?
  • Do I follow the command of the scripture and “eagerly desire” his gifts?
  • Do I lay hold of the call to become conformed to his image?
  • Do I live a life of balance in all the Spirit wants to do?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dare to Imagine a Life of Harmony

Like a guy who shows up at a party in 1980’s MC Hammer pants, obedience is hopelessly out of fashion. The very word obey carries with it ridiculous notions of ancient kingdoms, stupid henchmen, or marital imbalance. Disobedience has always existed, but the idea that our actions should be determined by someone else, is passé among North Americans of all kinds: believers and unbelievers alike.
Isaiah dwelt among a “people of unclean lips.” We dwell among a people of independence. Our heroes are those who will not bow. Our hearts rise to the closing lines of Henley’s poem,

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
I suspect our distrust of obedience flows from our fear of the other--the one whom we are to obey. Why should a woman pledge obedience to a husband who is filled with selfishness and pride? Why should a soldier vow obedience to a government pursuing injustice and oppression? Why would anyone put themselves in the hands of another? We are afraid of the other. What agenda does the other person have? To what purpose does someone else demand we do things his way? To follow someone else’s will is to expose ourselves to exploitation and open ourselves to abuse. No one else could possibly have our good as the highest goal. And even if by some crazy chance someone else did have our best interests at heart, how could we be sure they had the wisdom or strength to bring it about?
We refuse to obey because we see the call to obedience as something foreign and alien to our souls. We hear the voice of the Other and put up our defenses because we think something from the outside is trying to invade our lives, our very being. Our life experience has taught us no one possesses the combination of good intentions, perfect wisdom, and effective power to win our trust. We have become convinced we must protect ourselves.
I believe this lies at the heart of our reticence to obey the Heavenly Father. We resist the commands of God because we are not convinced he is good, or his intentions toward us are safe, or he has the wisdom or power to act on our behalf. It is an issue of trust. Church people tell us of his goodness, but our experience and fear tell us otherwise. Like a panicked, drowning man fighting against the very lifeguard who is trying to pull us to shore the only answer is submission and harmony with the rescue effort, but these are the very things our panic and fear tell us to resist. “Work together with me,” says the lifeguard, “and we will get to the shore.”
What if the Person who loved us most was also the one capable of showing us how to live? What if the Person who has the wisdom to see life as it really is the very one whispering instructions to our heart? “This is the way,” he says, and we feel his breath on our face. “Walk in it.” What if the one who has infinite power and authority wants to use his strength for our good? Our struggle flows from the fact that the news is too good to believe: the most powerful Being in the universe is also the one who loves us most. We are afraid of power because we have seen its abuse. We distrust good intentions because we are sure no one has the wisdom to navigate the maze of life. 
It requires a daring imagination: what if we were created to sing in harmony with the One who writes the perfect song? To resist him would be to resist our own good. To harmonize with him would be to sing the song of life. What if obedience is not the requirement of an alien invasion but an invitation to our highest good? What if a life of submission is actually walking in concert with perfect love? All fear would be gone. Our stumblings would be met with our own desire to get back in step. 
There is more good news to believe, even for those of us who call ourselves people of faith. We must dare to believe that the One loves us most is the truest guide, the surest hand, and fully capable of showing us the way. His way really is the best thing for us. We must see obedience as harmony with the Source of life, not rules and laws and regulations and requirements and chains and bondage. We must discover again that He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Cosmic SitCom

It’s the stuff of sitcoms: the authority figure leaves the scene with one final instruction: “Don’t push that button,” or “Don’t drink the wine.”  Halfway through the comedy, the rule is broken, the cover-up begins, hilarity ensues. It’s inevitable, right?
I suspect many people have the same view of their relationship with the Heavenly Father. From the very beginning, God is the one who is absent, the one who leaves behind some kind of warning: “Don’t eat from the fruit from this one tree,” or, “Don’t engage is this (or that) activity.” We are the screw-ups in a mad-cap cosmic comedy: eating, drinking, messing up and covering up. It’s inevitable, right?
Except we give such a viewpoint more respectable, religious, language. We are simply “miserable sinners,” constantly in need of grace and forgiveness, provided without measure by Jesus Christ. It’s inevitable, right? 
It’s true--his mercy and grace flow unending, constantly meeting our need. Yet many followers of Jesus find themselves trapped in what Dallas Willard calls Miserable Sinner Theology: our destiny is constant failure; his ministry is unending forgiveness. When we limit the work of Jesus to nothing but forgiveness, we lose sight of the possibilities of experiencing a new kind life with him here and now.
This week’s meditation finds it’s source in two passages and two questions:
Passage One: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11 - 14)
Passage Two: “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.” (Matthew 28: 18-19)
Question One: Is obedience possible?
Question Two: Is Jesus the kind of person who would demand of us something we can never give?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Body, Soul, and Flu: Why Our Choices Matter

The peaceful hills of Kentucky have been disturbed by flu season. Around my house and the homes of many of my friends we sit coughing, sneezing, running fevers, and--grumbling. You know the feeling: your body is sick and nothing else seems right with the world. Food tastes like cardboard, the best sitcoms can barely raise a laugh, and life seems pretty sucky in general.
But why? True, we’re sick. But we’ve been sick before and we’ll get better after a while. It’s not a big deal. Even in our sickness, the circumstances of our life are unchanged: we have a job, we have food, clothing, money, and shelter in abundance; our dreams and aspirations remain intact. The sun will rise again and in a few days the memory of the illness fades. But in the moment, while we a are sick, our mood is sour and the pleasures of life are lost to us.
Likewise, the beauty of a spring day coupled with the blessing of good health can cause us to embrace the world with hope: we may still have bills to pay and relationships to settle, but sometimes shear goodness forces its way through our pores and into our souls. Try this sometime: give an extravagant and unexpected gift to someone in need, and watch your own personal joy burst through the happiness meter.
Our momentary sickness brings to the surface a lesson about our nature. In these moments we can discover reality of how the Creator designed human life: we are not people who have a body, we are people comprised of body, soul, and spirit, inseparable and united, each part exerting its influence on the whole of our lives.
In Monday’s Meditation I sang a hymn in praise of mindless obedience. Today, with the able assistance of cold and flu season, I would like to suggest that transformation into the likeness of Jesus does not flow solely from the inside out, but we can also participate in his destiny for us by squeezing ourselves into an outward mold, even if it means our hearts are not fully on board with the process. I would like to suggest that while transformation of the heart is paramount, the outward actions of body can promote our inward health.
Our bodies are important, and how we choose to use them--even if it sometimes means “mindless obedience”-- can determine the condition of our souls.
Like the foolish teenager from Monday’s post we might think that the only obedience that “counts” for anything is the free-flow of heart obedience. We think that to obey God against our inner will is somehow inauthentic. But what if obedience can effect change from the outside in, as well as our heart’s ability to effect obedience from the inside out?
For example, when humanity first contemplated jealousy and murder, God came near with important revelation about the interplay of body and spirit. Yahweh expressed a preference for the sacrifice of Abel instead of the one brought by Cain. Cain became angry with God, his brother, and the whole world. Then Yahweh approached him:
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will not your countenance be lifted up? 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 NASB)
In this passage (the first in which the word “sin” is used in the scripture) God reveals the power of doing right, even in the face of our own anger or disappointment. That is, obedience has the power to lift us out of anger and rejection. It’s not a formula: it’s a revelation of how we are made: external choices, even through the struggle of an untoward heart, can lead us out of the pit. Obedience brings the reward of a lifted heart.
The news is even better--to a degree, we can rule over sin. Even when our hearts are angry or hurting, we have the capacity to choose well. The strength comes from Him (after all, the presence of God certainly came near to Cain) but we make the final choice of whether to obey or go our own way. He provides the strength, but we must choose to act in his presence.
All types of obedience, including worship, require the cooperation of his empowerment and our choice. King David looked toward his own heart and commanded himself to praise: “Praise the LORD, my soul . . .” (Psalm 104:1)
The prophet Habakkuk determined to praise God (a response of obedience) simply because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the circumstances. Crop failures, foreign invasion and despair as deep as his bowels do not block his choice: 
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, 
   I will be joyful in God my Savior (Habakkuk 3: 18)
It is God who responds with divine empowerment toward those who have turned his way:
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; 
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, 
   he enables me to tread on the heights. (verse 19)
What we know intuitively through everyday sickness and health in our bodies can also be true for our developing the life of a disciple. Outward choices can shape inner realities just as much as inner motivations can generate outward responses. Choosing well is within our grasp, and when our grasp fails he is there to help us do what we cannot. Our will, in partnership with his grace, can lead us toward the image of Christ.