Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why I Changed Doctors Years Ago

A few years ago I had to find another doctor. My previous one couldn’t help me. He was able to diagnose the problem, but not able to suggest a remedy that would fix things once and for all. I kept going back to him week after week. My appointments began to sound like an old vaudeville routine:
“Your problem is you’re sick.”

“Of course I’m sick,” I replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Have you had this before?”
“You know I’ve had this before. I had it the last time I was here.”
“Well, you’ve got it again.”
I tried demonstrating the problem: “It hurts when I do this.”
“Well, don’t do that,” he advised.
“Doctor, is there any hope for me?”
“Of course there is. Take two aspirin. You’ll feel better when you’re dead.”
After 15 years of being told I was sick, always receiving the same prescription, and always coming back with the same complaint, I began to wonder if my doctor knew what he was talking about. I’m one of the lucky ones because it only took me 15 years to wonder what was going on.
OK . . . I made that up. But many of us have been returning to the same place, year after year, with the same problem. We are offered the same solution and we leave feeling as if there should be a better remedy available, but the professional assures us that we are on the right track. If you haven’t guessed already, the professional is not a doctor but a pastor, and the “doctor’s office” is our regular gathering for church.
Whether it is the repetition of liturgy separated from our daily experience, or it is the repetition of preaching that finds new ways to express the same old message, many followers of Jesus go to church only to experience what Yogi Berra called “Déjà vu all over again.” We are reminded of our sin and God’s grace toward that sin.
Of course this is correct: we are sinful, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross pays the price for our redemption. And, of course, the grace of God should be celebrated and declared by the church. But grace, understood as the one-time event of redemption, is not the sole message the church or the full content of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It is the common experience of church-goers to re-enact the drama of forgiveness each week, or to hear the gospel presented again and again as the call of God to wayward sinners to make things right. If the preaching ever varies from this content, then we are told that we need to carry this good news of God’s grace into our community so that others may be forgiven and redeemed.
This is a great challenge facing followers of Jesus today: we have a limited view of God’s grace. The grace of God, which is a reality greater than the human intellect can gasp and more accessible than the air we breathe, has been captured and domesticated for weekly use. To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but tell only half the truth.
The more I read the New Testament, the more all-encompassing grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as a repeatable sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that continues to reach into our lives day after day and in more ways than we expect. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12)
What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.
Apparently God’s grace is after more than wiping the slate clean week after week. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being forgiven,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensible and upright lives.
Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is something more than merely a means for gaining forgiveness. Sadly, many Christians have been taught that any effort to learn how to live a holy life right now runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. Many church-goers are told week after week that they are miserable sinners in need of the grace of forgiveness. They are told week after week that that there is nothing they can do apart from the grace of forgiveness. And, hearing the same message week after week, along with the same remedy, they remain in the same place. “Having been saved by grace,” Foster writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”
Do you have any examples of grace teaching you a new way to live?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Parable of the Brilliant Baby

Once there was a baby both brilliant and proud. He was brilliant because he grasped human language at just three weeks of age. Indeed, he could talk at six weeks. But he didn’t talk, because he was proud.
Why should I use the same language everyone else uses?” he thought. “That’s just imitating what others do.”
So instead of speaking his mother-tongue he made up his own language. At first everyone thought the infant was simply babbling like all babies do. The baby boy spoke clearly and directly in a way that made perfect sense to him: “Mother, I’m hungry,” he would say, but she did not understand his words. Because she loved her child she was acutely aware of his needs and managed to understand his hunger without understanding his language. “The fools,” thought Baby Brilliant. “Anyone can speak their language, but I have invented my own. I refuse to imitate their common speech.” Indeed, he also rejected the facial expressions common his culture. He knew that smiles meant happiness, but when he was happy he would squeeze his eyes shut and puff out his cheeks. When he was angry he would not frown, but instead hold his ears and breath. He had invented new expressions, but no one knew what he was feeling.
At a time when other children were learning their first words and beginning to communicate with words like “Momma” and “Dadda,” he was ready to discourse on the meaning of life. Of course, he had no one to talk to but it did not matter--his great intellect was company enough. He despised other babies and the parents who insisted they imitate the ways of society. Imitation was for sheep, brilliance demanded a new language, new thoughts, new ways. So great was his pride that he refused to communicate with others or imitate their language.
Eventually, at a time when other babies grew into children and toddled off to school (to imitate their elders even more) the Brilliant Baby was packed off to an institution for children “non-responsive to their surroundings.” 

There, at the institution, the night nurse fell asleep while reading at her desk, but not before underlining these words by the author: "A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon."

What meaning do you assign to this story?  I’d love to know.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seven Keys to Following Jesus

Most of us are keenly aware of the qualities we lack as followers of Jesus. Perhaps you’re like me: from time to time I catch myself thinking, “If I only had a little more faith I could be a better disciple.” Actually, we could substitute nearly any other quality for the word faith, “if I only had a little more teaching, time, energy, money . . .” We possess the assurance of our weakness instead of the assurance of his faithfulness.
Let me share with you a passage from Peter’s second letter that changed my life forever. Several years ago it flashed like lightning across my heart, and the thunder still rattles my everyday life
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 . . .~2 Peter 1: 3-5
Here are seven keys to following Jesus from these amazing words. Perhaps you could carry them with you:
• “His divine power . . .” As followers of Jesus, our everyday life in Christ should be based upon his divine power, not our human strength. Our lives in Christ began with the miracle of the new birth. He did something for us we could not do for ourselves. Each continuing day with him should be based on this same revelation--we need his divine power, daily.
• “has given us everything we need for life and godliness . . .” The problem is, most of us think that God did "His part" on the cross and now the rest is up to us. It’s a common mistake, Paul needed to remind the Galatians that what was begun in the Holy Spirit could not be finished in the flesh. The good news is on-going: he isn’t finished dispensing his grace!
• “through our knowledge of him . . .” Road block! Our western mindset leads us to believe that the knowledge of him comes through mere study. I’m pretty sure Peter is not urging us toward an academic knowledge of Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with the study of Jesus, but a more fruitful approach is to know him by experiencing his presence.
• “his own glory and goodness . . . ” 21st century Americans have difficulty understanding “glory,” but his glory can impact our life. Most of us don’t even have a category called glory, but Peter urges followers of Jesus to soak in God’s glory that way we might soak in a tub. Does that seem strange to you? Perhaps that why we have difficulty trusting in his goodness as well. Yet the testimony of those who have walked with him is: he is good beyond all measure. And better yet: this glory and goodness is directed toward us!
• “He has given us very great and precious promises . . .” Do we ever reflect upon his promises? My unscientific opinion: not one in ten believers can point to a promise made by Jesus beyond the promise of eternal life. For most the benefits of a relationship with Jesus are locked up in the age to come. Such promises may even be true, I’m afraid that for most of us his promises are like autumn leaves: beautiful, but not very useful. But what if there were promises for us to receive today?
• “So that through them you may participate in the divine nature . . .” Here is where the lightning flash knocked me over. We can participate in God’s nature, right here, right now. Part of becoming a child of God is receiving something of his nature. Have you ever reflected on the idea that if you are his child he wants you to enjoy the family identity as well? Who knows the full meaning of this scriptural phrase? Not me, but I’m convinced that whatever it means, it has to be good!
• “and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires . . . “ Many believers are trapped into thinking the gospel is only about forgiveness. They see the Christian life as a cycle of sin, forgiveness, followed by more sin. On and on, until we are transported outta here. But the good news is even better: Peter wants us to know we can be set free from the cycle of corruption!
These are the seven keys, but like all keys they merely unlock the door to the next the passageway. The scripture calls us to action as well. Two final points about taking action:
For this very reason, make every effort . . .” Peter’s exhortation comes after we see things from God’s perspective. The order is important: notice that “effort” comes after we encounter his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. Too many disciples of Jesus, serious in their commitment to follow him, believe that their effort comes first. Instead, our effort is a response to all he has done.
For this very reason, make every effort (part two). . .” But there is another segment of Christians who think effort is opposed to grace. For these friends we can only quote Dallas Willard (as we do so often!) “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”
Peter’s letter goes on to relate a long list of Christian virtues, and all of them are good (of course!). The danger of these next verses is when we believe we can accomplish the list apart from his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. 
First things first, we need to realize that our progress comes from empowerment, followed by our cooperation. Don’t be in a hurry. Take a week to meditate on what he has done. Take more! We have a lifetime to “make every effort.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday's Meditation: His Humanity, Our Example

The great theologian Abraham Lincoln once observed that God must love the common man because he made so many of them. He was on to something. From the beginning God the Father has loved people! He made people, he talks to people, and he accomplishes his work through people. The humanity of Jesus is not so much an exceptional act of God as it is the crowning act of God.  
It should be no surprise then, that when God Himself wanted to accomplish the redemption of the whole earth, He did so through a man.  Jesus, 100% God, was also 100% man.  The religious authorities in his day could not accept the idea that a man could  forgive sin, that a man could open the eyes of the blind, or that a man could cleanse lepers with a touch. Sin, blindness and leprosy were contagious, men should flee from them all!  But the Man Jesus Christ came with a heavenly contagion that set the oppressed free.
God’s method, revealed in scripture, is to use people. Before Jesus, God partnered with people: Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Ruth. In Jesus, God sent a man. After Jesus, he commissioned men, “Go therefore into all the world . . .” (Matthew 28:18) Why is this significant? We need to see that God has always chosen to work through humanity to accomplish his purposes in the earth. Jesus, our model, demonstrated the potential of a human life lived in total submission to the Father. Jesus healed and taught and discipled not by virtue of his divine nature but by the grace of being a Man fully submitted to God. He didn’t raise the dead because he was the Boss’ Son, he did so to display the full potential of a human life in partnership with God.
To grasp the humanity of Jesus is to grasp the hope that Christlikeness is possible for each of us. His intention is to reproduce Himself in the lives of his followers, to launch a community of God’s sons and daughters capable of the kind of character and power demonstrated by the only begotten Son of God. God only "fathered” one child, but He has chosen to adopt untold more, and each adopted child is called to the family business.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Vital Needs of Every Disciple

Paradoxes are fun--they’re like brain-teasers. Some people love to talk about them. It’s something else altogether to live inside of them. Jesus modeled living inside the most difficult paradoxes. For example, how can the ruler of the world become an example of obedience? How can the object of worship himself become an example of how to worship? How can the perfect Son of God call others to follow him, and then demonstrate the way to follow? It’s part of his genius, his glory and his nature. What’s more, he not only showed us how it’s done, he empowered us to do the same. 
Jesus calls us to follow him, and teaches us how to call others. I’m not talking about evangelism, I’m talking about making disciples. Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father. If we’re only talking about Jesus, most of us are comfortable with this paradox, but our comfort is not his first concern. He told the twelve, “I’ve discipled you, now go and do the same.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)
As his followers, we are called to make disciples as well, teaching others to obey everything he commanded. There are two great problems as we attempt to live up to this commission today:

First, many of us see discipleship only in terms of following Jesus--almost never in terms of leading others. How many of us receive the call to be his disciple as a personal call from God to become a leader? That’s right, he’s talking to you. We may come to him because we need a Savior, but if we choose to become a follower of Jesus we must also realize we are also choosing the responsibility to lead others. This is what it means to follow him: we act on his behalf in the lives of others. It’s more than “sharing our faith.” It’s taking responsibility for other people’s lives until they are mature followers of Jesus. He showed us--in very practical ways--exactly how it works.
Second, if we try to lead others, we run the risk of demanding from other people obedience to Jesus without actually equipping them to obey him. Jesus gave his disciples the tools necessary to live a healthy life with God. He did more than demand, he empowered his followers. He did more than point the way, he was the way. He pointed to issues of the heart, he included his students as partners in ministry, giving them hands-on experience, and he introduced them to the Holy Spirit, effectively opening the resources of heaven to each of his disciples. What about us? As disciple makers, do we interact with those God has given us in the same way? Do we teach about heart-matters? Do we release our students into ministry? Do we introduce them to the Holy Spirit?

It starts with a paradigm shift: we cannot equip others until we believe we are called to lead others. It will not do to claim, “I have no one to lead.” Jesus is our model: he came in obedience to the Father and simultaneously became a leader of others. We must do the same. God has provided venues for our leadership: in our homes, among our friends, at work or school, or in our community. We were called to change the world by allowing God to change us--and by becoming change agents wherever he leads us.
Both these challenges are critical to our personal development as students of Jesus. Our personal spiritual growth depends on coming to terms with these challenges, and the destiny of others depends on our response as well. Plenty of Evangelical churches encourage their people to share the gospel. Few of them call their people to disciple others in the Way. By disconnecting evangelism from discipleship our churches are effectively suggesting to believers that’s OK to have spiritual babies and abandon them. 
What if our spiritual growth depended upon raising others in the faith? In fact, our spiritual growth depends on that very thing. Any responsible parent can tell you that having a child--and raising it--changed their lives for the better. When we look to the development of another our selfishness dies away. When our concern is for the spiritual success of another we are forced to determine what really works in the Christian life--and what doesn’t. Something is missing in us until we make disciples. Something is missing in the world around us when we fail to teach others how to obey everything he commanded us.
Who knew discipleship would require everything we have? I suspect the Jesus did.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Ugly/Beautiful Whore/Mother Church

I'm thrilled to present this guest post by my friend Caleb Neff. Part of the fun of being a Baby Boomer is being schooled by guys in their mid-twenties, like Caleb. He's the real deal.

I like The Bachelor. I know it’s shallow and awful, but I can’t stop. I even went on Hulu last week to catch part of an episode I missed. Now that I confessed it, can I throw someone under the bus? I started watching the Bachelor because my wife likes it. At first I would pretend to be reading or playing guitar, but eventually I just gave in. 
When you love someone, you grow to love what they love. Ephesians 5:25 says: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
We often make a big deal about how Jesus loves individuals, which is really important and true. But in the Bible, those individuals are called together as His church, the bride he died for and is coming back for. Jesus deeply loves the church. He is passionately committed to the church. When Jesus talks about the church his voice goes up a notch, his pulse beats faster and there are tears and fire in his eyes--just like when you are sharing about whatever is closest to your heart.
This is why my brain misfires a bit when someone says to me, “I love Jesus, I just don’t care for the church.” They launch into all their issues and frustrations, which are all really valid, but I sit there thinking, “How could I truly love my wife, and at the same time be totally against and actually filled with disgust for the thing that she loves the most?” That would be some kind of dysfunctional relationship.
Sunday after our last service ended I stood at the front of the building surveying “the wreckage:” people still getting prayer over here, people laughing over there, kids running around, people in our welcome center getting connected in groups, new friendships being made, one person who had just made a first time commitment to Christ received her first Bible. My eyes started to well up with tears. I just couldn’t stop thinking, “Jesus loves this stuff.” Really. Not just in the cliché way that we think about him loving kitty-cats. I think he chest-bumps angels when someone gets over their fear and walks through the doors for the first time, or when someone nervously signs up for their first small group.

I’ll be the first to tell you that the church has weaknesses. We have some awful flaws. But when I think of Augustine’s quote, “the church is a whore, and it is my mother,” I think many, many people only see the whore. They look at this whore/church and feel the justification to do what the religious leaders in John 8 would’ve wanted to do to the woman caught in adultery: judge her, stone her, and then (feeling very righteous indeed) wipe the dust of their feet on her dead body. All of this in front of an adoring public. These same people want to create a “real” church, one “filled with the grace and love of God.”
It reminds me of that movie The Village, where some really intelligent people think they are going to escape the brokenness of modern society by setting up an autonomous collective in the woods and living without technology. The problem is, evil doesn’t come from “out there.” Evil comes from within our hearts. As they say in AA: “wherever you go, there you are.” You can’t slam the door quickly enough or run far or fast enough to get away from your own heart. G.K. Chesterton once wrote an award-winning essay in response to the prompt, “What’s wrong with the world today?” He simply responded, “I am.”
That’s the lesson the people in The Village had to learn, and it’s the lesson many Christians need to learn: stop throwing stones. You’re the problem. I’m the problem. We’re all equally broken. If by some miracle you found the perfect church out there, you’d ruin it by attending. Stop trying to create The Village of an emerging church, a house church, or whatever the next hot trend will be.
I mean to say this as lovingly as I can: grow up. Look in the mirror. You have flaws too, and they’re hideous. Most of us have no problem with the fact that God keeps loving us, even though we are big arrogant jerks that keep making the same mistakes, but if the church we attend screws up once, we’re out of there.
I’m not advocating staying in a church that is manipulative and off track, but there are actually very few of those. Mostly what you’ll find is groups of people that love Jesus passionately but are weak, broken hypocrites (like you). Find a church like that and dive in headfirst. A big part of the reason that you keep looking for an awesomely hip church is that you are insecure, like a high school kid looking for a cool group of people to associate with, to help you feel cool.
I’m not saying the church isn’t a whore. I’m saying we should start by asking Jesus how He feels about her. We should follow that up by looking in the mirror and asking if the problem isn’t that the same things that annoy us most about others isn’t the same things we ourselves struggle with. Finally, I’m suggesting that if you stop beating on the church for a minute and start serving her, if you kneel down in a moment of humility and wipe off her bloody, broken face, you might see your mom.

Caleb Neff is an associate pastor, worship leader, and mistake maker at the Vineyard Community Church in Cape Coral, Florida.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday's Meditation: His Fresh Mercy

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
~ Lamentations 3: 22-23

Is there anything quite like the aroma of baking bread? Without overpowering  the house it permeates the air with an invitation to come and eat. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a home that celebrates each morning with fresh biscuits, you woke up to the scent of goodness in the morning.
Perhaps because I’ve never met a carbohydrate I didn’t like, or perhaps because God served fresh biscuits to the people of Israel in the desert wilderness every morning for forty years, I’ve come to expect the smell of his goodness every morning. I’ve begun to train myself to discover his lovingkindness day by day.
Hidden midway through suffering poems of lament is the revelation of God’s constant and faithful provision for each one of us. In part, the lesson of these verses calls us to look for his mercies daily, to sniff them out, because regardless of our circumstances he is present and overflowing with mercy. If the weeping poet of Lamentations became convinced of God’s daily mercies can we not discover the same?
We were made to eat fresh bread. We do not have to live off of aging mercy. Who would be satisfied to breakfast upon biscuits three days old, or those frozen and served a month later? No. The Heavenly Father is a better parent than that. Amazingly, the poet of Lamentations suggested that even when life is at its most difficult stages, we can be assured of God’s constant and daily care.
What if we determined to discover the reality of this revelation? What if each day were a hunt to discover the mercies which he prepared this morning? What if Monday’s Meditation is not simply a good idea, but the grace to restore our senses, heal our eyes and enable us to see his goodness? What if we engaged in the discipline of searching out and identifying his fresh mercy?
This week’s meditation is could be more than a meditation. If we choose, it can move us to daily action, to search for--and discover--the gifts he has placed in our path. Where will you discover the table he has set today?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Home Worthy of Return

It’s one thing to call the prodigals home. It’s quite another to have a home worth returning to.
Monday’s Meditation highlighted Christian prodigals, people who love Jesus but live far from home. They have taken the family inheritance and squandered it on travels in Christendom; left their family in search of something else and live as if their family is dead. In the comments on Monday's post more than one person observed that “home” may not be what Jesus portrayed in his parable:
When you've been harmed by men pursuing their own agenda, it's easy and natural to be skeptical of all church institutions. It becomes hard not to, when it's happened more than once.
It’s a fair question: What if we return home to a place ruled not by the Father, but by older brothers filled with judgment or manipulation?
Another friend texted me to ask what if work or marriage or life have brought about a change of location, and the new landscape is barren and cold? What if you left home for all the right reasons and there is no family of faith healthy enough to adopt a mature son:
My previous church feels like home and everything in my new city feels like a maternity ward.
He has a point: so many Evangelical churches focus on the new birth to exclusion of worship, community or spiritual formation. What happens if you’ve eaten at a healthy table only to find bread and water at the next?
Still another friend observed that the restless heart of the prodigal needs a transplant:
Christians drifters will never find that perfect church, so they are going to stay just long enough until the newness wears off and they see a few flaws, then it's off to some new church that seems more exciting and more spiritual. 
Reminds me of Bonhoeffer: "Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial."
And when you quote D-Bon, it’s the last word, right? Well, no, actually. These friends and others have only opened the conversation.
Students of Jesus is about spiritual formation. It’s about each of us developing the kind of relationship with the Master that leads to rest and peace. It’s about taking the yoke of discipleship. I’ve tried to avoid criticisms of the church at large because I have no voice or control over the church at large. Besides, church-bashing is so fun and easy it requires no particular insight or revelation. Anyone can do it. Still, it’s true that our personal spiritual formation is not complete apart from the community God intended--the church.
Yet each of my friends have pointed out that telling Christian prodigals to go home is not enough. How can we address the deep need for true community of the Spirit when there are churches devoid of such life? How can we hold the Christian prodigal accountable for their own hearts when some have left home out of self-preservation? Can one small blog-post answer the deepest needs of both individual souls and corporate churches?
Today we can only point in the right direction, suggest the possibilities and open ourselves to dialogue with one another and the Spirit.
To those who have been wounded by the church I would point toward the Lord Jesus. The testimony of John reminds us, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) It’s not news that religious houses may be the places most in need of his presence. If we return home with a Christlike character we will be welcomed by some and abused by others. A modern truth: when we return the Father may not be waiting inside the building at all. The older brother may have taken over or--worse--the farm may have failed altogether. In these cases our calling to return may be especially difficult and sacrificial; we will take our place among those Jesus calls “blessed” in the beatitudes.
To those who are searching for a new home I would point toward the journey of Abraham. The father of faith “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrew 11:10) He had seen the blueprint and was searching for where the architect and builder was at work. The benefit of a growing up in a healthy home is that we will not settle for a poor substitute. Our past becomes the blueprint for the future. There is a difference between running from home and looking for a new one: Dr. Tolkien reminds us that “not all who wander are lost.”
To those who see the fatal flaw in human idealism I would point toward the power of the call. Jesus understood that the very offer to “Come and see” can change lives. There was no shortage of idealists in Jesus day. He welcomed those with high ideals and tempered them with down-to-earth teaching about birds, flowers, foxes, wheat and tares. When his disciples believed fire from heaven was the answer he demonstrated the wisdom and true power that flows from keeping after the Father’s business. We can explain there is often a disparity between the builder’s plans and the worker’s craftsmanship. We can help them realize that a thoughtful pastor understands that much of his work may in fact be wood, hay, and stubble.
These are merely fingers in the wind. How should we speak to the Christian prodigal? How can our actions and counsel make a place for those who believe they have no place? There’s no shortage of comment when describing the problem--I hope for twice the comments as we explore together the solutions.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Do You Need to Go Home?

Sometimes I’m tempted to tell them, “Go home.”
Our local church sees plenty of visitors each week: some never come back, others stay a while, and a few adopt our community as their community. What troubles me is the large percentage of prodigals I meet. Not prodigals in the obvious sense--the “sinners” returning to the Heavenly Father after a few years of raising hell. Those prodigals I would welcome with feasting, robes and a ring.
In my years as a pastor I’ve learned to recognize another kind of prodigal: the Christian prodigal. The Christian prodigal loves Jesus but lives far from home. He has taken the family inheritance and squandered it on travels in Christendom. He has left his family in search of something else. He lives as if his family is dead.
North American Evangelicals share a passion for the new birth, and why not? It comes directly from the words of Jesus, “You must be born again.” Yet so many children of God live the rest of their lives in Christ as if there is no such thing as a spiritual family. If we are born again, shouldn’t the metaphor extend to the nurture and maturing of each new son and daughter?
Some prodigals come to our church simply to find a quiet place to rest. Others prodigals come because they are angry with those at home, so they worship somewhere else. Still other prodigals come because they have dreams of living large in the Kingdom of God: large ministry, excitement, and a big name. They want to make their mark in God’s world. They act as if their destiny is divorced from their place of birth. They act as if the Father has a plan for them but somehow He doesn’t have a place for them. They think they must make their own way in God’s world.
Each Sunday I stand at the door and scan the horizon. I’m looking for our prodigals to come home. I’m looking to comfort and encourage the prodigals who have another home but have forgotten their inheritance.
Today’s post is still a meditation for the week:
  • Am I a Christian Prodigal?
  • Do I live as if I have no home in Christ?
  • Have I wished my family dead and sought a far horizon on my own?
If these answers are yes, I want to tell you: “Go home.”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The True Story

There is truth so small it can fit on a bumper sticker, but for my money give me a big story.
We thought Titanic was long at three hours until the Lord of the Rings trilogy weighed in at more than nine hours--but I want more. I need a story big as all creation, one that opens me up to eternity.

Of course, there is a story like that. When the word of God was first breathed out, the Spirit told us a story. Why, then, do we insist on treating the story like a book of law? We have missed the fact that nearly all of the Scripture comes to us as either narrative or poetry. It’s God’s truth, and he chose to reveal the truth by telling stories and singing songs. Why aren’t God’s people the singers and storytellers of our age?
Each generation is born with eternity in their hearts, imaginations capable of capturing the wind, voices eager to sing along with the Creator. But recent generations have been taught neither to sing nor to listen, but to distill God’s creative energy into systematic theology. Yet in my Bible the letters of Paul number 84 pages while the Psalms of Israel number 140 pages and 150 melodies--and that’s just the Psalms!
Consider the Old Testament: the story of God begins when he bends down and shapes humanity from the clay of the earth and kisses them with the breath of life. He made us in his image and walked with us day by day. The story continues through Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s one story, and it’s a story of divine unrelenting love. Nor does it stop in Genesis: the Old Testament narrative continues all the way to Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. One story, many characters, one Lover. Then the poets take over and lay down the soundtrack for the story, followed by the prophets, who--like the bonus features on a DVD--provide the Director’s commentary on all that has gone before. Who could treat the Old Testament as a legal textbook? To do so would be embrace religion while rejecting the Author of the story.
What we call the New Testament provides the most creative shock in history--the Author writes Himself into the story and reveals the full extent of his love. Yet he is not finished: just when we marvel at the climax of the tale, the Author turns his attention to we who are listening to the story and invites us to help write the coming chapters. And indeed, they are still being written. Finally, when it seems like nothing more can be said, the Spirit breaks into an apocalyptic stream of consciousness that seems never-ending. In fact it actually is never-ending: we discover we have only read the prologue. The Author invites us to feast at his house and help with the volumes to come.
Why didn’t someone teach me the Bible as God’s story? I like stories.
Some will mistakenly think I care nothing for truth. My real point is that God has chosen to share his truth in ways that go beyond precept and principle. God has chosen to share his heart, and if we capture his heart we will live in his truth. The truest things I know first took root in my heart and later changed my thinking. The transformations of my lifetime did not come from having a “Christian worldview,” but from the breath of God breathed into my imagination. The motion of his Spirit caused me to believe I could become what he planned for me all along.
I don’t want to read the Bible just so I can go to the head of the class. I want to go home with the Writer, the Singer, the Sculptor, and learn to create the way he creates. It turns out his studio is pretty big. He wouldn’t have told me so unless it were true.