Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lazarus Quenby and the Reasonable Dinner Party

Lazarus Quenby, bored with the reasonable and respectable conversation at dinner, discreetly glanced at his pocket watch at the very moment the dinner party at Waddesford Manor came to an unexpected end. The ninth-century floor support beam gave way, plunging the dinner party deep into the caverns beneath the manor. There, buried beneath the rubble and Tudor-style furniture, six people found themselves under the banquet table which had served twelve generations of Waddesfords by holding their dinner. The table’s last service to the family was to hold the debris at bay while the six dinners scrambled toward the cavern and took inventory of their injuries and each other.
“Is everyone all right?”
“Charles? Is that you? I’m well, my dear,” answered Victoria. “But I seem to have someone’s limb in my face.”
“That would be me, Vickie.”
“Good God, David!” barked Sir Charles Waddesford, who always felt the need to take charge. “Remove your limb from my wife at once.”
“Yes, thank you, Charles. I’m all right.” said David, “What of Eleanore, Mary and Lazarus?”
“We are fine,” said Lazarus. “Eleanore, Mary and I are over here--and we’ve accounted for our limbs as well.”
Beneath the Manor were ancient caverns discovered when builders laid foundations for the main hall at Waddesford ten centuries before. They very reasonably sank foundations into the bedrock forty feet below. They failed to reason that both the cavern and the Manor were living things in their own right, and that a thousand years of even the subtlest movements would cause the disruption of soups served a millennium hence.
Perhaps more distressing than the interruption of the meal was the darkness of their present situation: the six diners were unharmed but found themselves accosted by deep darkness. Not the kind of darkness to which one could become accustomed after a few moments. Pitch darkness, the sort of which one could not see a hand six inches in front of one’s face. The kind of darkness that removes all other sense of place and time: there remains only a dread blackness.
“Everyone remain calm,” ordered Sir Charles, though no one had shown the slightest inclination toward panic. “Surely six reasonable adults can find our way back up to the Manor.”
“Reason’s not the thing, Charlie,” said Lazarus. “What we need is a damned bit of light.”

Lazarus Quenby was correct. If they were ever to get back to soups and finally see the main course, the dinner party needed light, not reason. Their greatest need was to have their situation illuminated, so they could make wise decisions based upon what they saw . . . 
From the distress of our aristocratic friends we can learn the difference between reason and revelation, which are in no way opposed to one another.

Reason is what we use once we seen things for what they are; revelation enables us to see what we would not be able to see otherwise. A little bit of light goes a long way. Forever, in fact. Perhaps light comes first in the order of creation because it is of first importance.
Some people suppose that revelation and faith are the same thing. Hardly. The Biblical notion of faith springs from trust. Revelation is to see things at last as they really are--with a clarity so vivid that trust is no longer an issue. When the two met on the road to Damascus, the Apostle Paul did not need faith to know that Jesus was real. Jesus settled the question of his resurrected reality with a blinding light. Paul did require, however, faith to trust in the goodness and kindness of Jesus.
To those living in darkness--including many who claim to have faith in Christ--the in breaking of light reveals powerfully the need to change course, to re-prioritize, or to re-order our lives around what is clearly true.
The light is not always convenient to those who have learned to navigate the shadowlands of self-sufficiency. The light is seldom welcomed amidst religious tradition because they believe they have ordered their world properly, and so have been unable to see the changes in the new landscape. The light always presents a challenge to those trust in their own intelligence. Not because their intelligence is invalid but because in the darkness they have launched out in the wrong direction, and if you’re lost no amount of reason can show you the right path.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen,” said C.S. Lewis. “Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That’s why Christianity begins with revelation. After we see things clearly God encourages us to use the rational mind to order our affairs in light of his revelation.
“How will we find our way out?” asked Victoria.
“It only stands to reason we should feel our way along, and follow any path that leads upward,” commanded Charles.
Just then Lazarus remembered the penlight attached to his key chain. Its dim beam was bright enough to cause the party to blink and shield their eyes.
“There appears to be something of a worn path in this direction,” he observed. “but it leads slightly down.” Charles remained adamant: the smart way out was up. He didn’t need the light to work his way back to the Manor. He turned and felt his way along the walls.
The rest of the dinner party quickly decided to follow Lazarus Quenby, who discovered a path that lead down and out to the place where a subterranean stream broke into an open field.
Even though the survivors sent search parties back underground, Sir Charles was never heard from again. Quenby married the widow Victoria and inherited the estate.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Grace for Birth, Grace for Life

A parable: two students each received scholarships to Harvard University. Full rides, every possible expense paid. Both were bright kids, and both felt intimidated by the reputation of such a great college. They each thought, “I don’t deserve to be here.”
One student studied day and night. She gave it all she had. The other student began to enjoy the thrill of college life: parties, the big-city and the freedom of being on his own for the very first time. By mid term the first student was still working hard, earning C’s and B’s in her classes. The other was failing every class and placed on academic probation. By Christmas the first student had earned a 3.0 GPA, but the second had flunked out of Harvard. Which of these two students laid hold of the opportunity given to them?
Of course the answer is the first student, humble and hard working. The gossips wagged their heads over the second: “How could he throw away an opportunity like that?” 
The scholarship to Harvard was a gift of grace, but the truth was the work was just beginning. God’s grace does for us what we could not possibly do for ourselves. What is beyond our reach is joyfully paid in full by Jesus Christ, but the work is just beginning. The new birth is by grace, but what lies ahead is growth in Christ. God’s grace stands ready to supply the energy needed to navigate new life in Jesus, yet we must sadly acknowledge that there are many who squander the possibilities of new life in him.
Some people might object to the close association between grace and work. God’s grace comes with no strings attached, doesn’t it? No amount of effort on our part could win his pardon. True enough—it’s just not the whole story.
Consider another young man who received a full ride from Jesus:  “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 15: 9-10) The Apostle Paul had no trouble seeing the connections between grace and work.
The grace of God is a calling to a new life. The only reasonable response to such grace is gratitude that moves us to action.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

When We Expect God to do His Job

Poor, sickly Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine lay on his deathbed in 1856. The German poet called his bed “the mattress grave” because he had been confined there for eight years. Born Jewish, converted to Christianity, living in Paris with his wife and mistress, he spoke his last words: “Of course God will forgive me, it’s his job.”
Sometimes I just want forgiveness. I want to be sure I won’t be hit by a lightning bolt. I want assurance there is a way out of the mess I’ve made. I want a system I can depend on, one that guarantees the outcome: forgiven. 
I can find the Bible passage I need: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and send us away with the feeling that he has done his job.” (1 John 1:9, kind of) We want a God who is in the forgiveness business the way WalMart is in the cheap junk business: always open, ubiquitous, and always the low price. Always. We want the Jerusalem Temple system of sacrifice, except with as many locations as Starbucks, or more. 
The book of Hebrews describes the Old Testament system of sacrifice for sin. Hebrews explains there was a High Priest who represented all the people of Israel. Once a year this priest performed his duties and gained forgiveness for all the people--for one more year. The next year he would do it again. And again. And so on. The High Priest followed the Old Testament instructions to the letter, and the people of the nation found them selves forgiven. Again. And again.
I like to try to imagine the High Priest sitting down with the people one-on-one after the annual ritual of sacrifice:
“Look,” the High Priest asks the busy Jerusalem businessman. “Aren’t you tired of doing the same thing every year? Don’t you ever want to learn how to live a better life? To grow so close to God that we don’t have to do this again and again?”
“Not really,” answers the man. “I’m a sinner. It’s what I do. You’re the Priest--you cleanse me--it’s what you do. Why don’t we both just do our jobs? See you next year.”
The Old Testament system provided atonement but was incapable of changing the heart. Forget about a change of heart: I just need forgiveness. I suspect many Christians see Jesus as a WalMart version the High Priest. We’ve found a Savior who forgives and forgives, and forgives again.
It’s true: in Jesus there are springs of forgiveness without end. But there’s more. If we want more. There’s relationship, empowerment, wisdom, insight, guidance, and strength to break the pattern of sin-and-forgiveness, sin-and-forgiveness. To see the work of Jesus as only an endless offering for sin is to consign him to the Old Testament priesthood, which may have provided atonement but was incapable of pulling us up from our lives of selfishness, foolishness, and the folly of our own way.
But Jesus is of a greater priesthood, capable of altering us at the very core. Hebrews tells us that Jesus wasn’t even an Old Testament priest in the sense of those who worked at the Temple. Hebrews points us to the shadowy figure named Melchidedek, from the book of Genesis:
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Hebrews 7:1-3)
This means Jesus offers something more than forgiveness. He offers right relationship and peace as well. In part, the message of Hebrews is about finding a way to break the sin-and-forgiveness cycle. What good is forgiveness if we remain the kind of people who are deeply broken in the center of our being? Who needs a priest who fixes up the outside of a person without repairing the inside? 
Many believers have come to expect nothing but forgiveness from Jesus. All the while he stands ready to make us a new creation. He is the kind of priest who wants to work from the inside out. He’s the best kind of Savior, then kind who can transform us from habitual sinners into sons and daughters of the Most High.
The Old Testament prophets tried again and again to warn the people of Israel not to trust in religious formulas or systems. They pointed to a personal God who wanted children of his own.
  • I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; (Ezekiel 36:26)
  • “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
  • Wait! There are too many examples to cite. You can trust me on this.
Over and over the prophets urged the people of Israel not to turn their relationship with God into a transaction. They cried out on God’s behalf, “I want relationship, not ritual.”
The powerful inclination of men, however, is to reduce the offer of new birth, new creation, new life and new relationship into nothing more than, “you do your job, and I’ll do mine.” How many of us do the same with Jesus? It’s the difference between getting what we want out of him, or whether he gets what he wants from us--a loving relationship built to last forever. 
If I can find my way out of WalMart, I’ll choose the relationship. How about you?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Riotous Faith

From: "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc"
N.T. Wright is fond of quoting an Anglican bishop from the last century: “Everywhere St. Paul went, there was a riot; everywhere I go, they serve tea.” It’s a great laugh-line, yet beneath the laughs lies a dangerous question: Do I have riotous faith?

It’s a worthy meditation for the week, and altogether appropriate for a Monday-mood: what is threatening about my faith? Acts chapter 19 details the story of Paul’s three years in Ephesus. During that time Paul took off his apostle robe and wore instead the garb of a pastor. Under his direction the church in Ephesus impacted the city socially and economically as well as spiritually. There was plenty at stake. Ephesus was no small city. The growing Christian community began to change the behavior patterns associated with the town--think of New Orleans gaining a new reputation as the city of holy living.

When their way of life was threatened the ruling powers in Ephesus manifested violence and anger toward Jesus and his followers. In fact, Ephesus was not the exception: consider Jerusalem, Thessalonica, Berea, or Rome.

Do I have riotous faith? Do we? Is there anything about the way we follow Jesus capable of threatening those around us?
  • Does our faith threaten our family?
  • Does our faith threaten the economy?
  • Does our faith threaten the powers and principalities about us?
The earliest communities of faith were not politically organized, they threatened political organizations of every persuasion. The first followers of Jesus were not tied to home, they left everything to follow him. The early church caused the gates of Hell to tremble. Do I have riotous faith? Is there anything about my devotion to Jesus that makes anyone nervous?

I have no death wish. Believe me. I’m also allergic to pain because, well, pain hurts. Yet today’s meditation is about the kind of faith that leads to pain, or even death. It's about beligerent faith.

Finally, consider this worship song from the house churches in China. When our Chinese brothers and sisters gather, this is one of the songs they sing:

To be a martyr for the Lord, to be a martyr for the Lord

I am willing to die gloriously for the Lord

Those apostles who loved the Lord to the end

Willingly followed the Lord down the path of suffering

John was exiled to the lonely isle of Patmos

Stephen was stoned to death by an angry crowd

Matthew was stabbed to death in Persia by a mob

Mark died as horses pulled his two legs apart

Doctor Luke was cruelly hanged

Peter, Philip and Simon were crucified on a cross

Bartholoew was skinned alive by the heathen

Thomas died in India as five horses pulled his body apart

The apostle James was beheaded by King Herod

Little James was cut in half by a sharp saw

James the brother of the Lord was stoned to death

Judas was tied to a pillar and shot by arrows

Matthias had his head cut off in Jerusalem

Paul was a martyr under Emperor Nero

I am willing to take up the cross and go forward

To follow the apostles down the road to sacrifice

That tens of thousands of precious souls can be saved

I am willing to leave all and be a martyr for the Lord.

Perhaps we could sing with our Asian brothers and sisters? Imagine using those lyrics as an act of worship!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Freely Received, Freely Given

There’s only a small difference between the words, “Give what you have,” and “Give what you’ve received,” but it’s the difference between two kingdoms.

Jesus commissioned his disciples on their very first assignment with these words: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

The North American church has been big on the “go, proclaim” part of his instructions: so big, in fact, that in our haste we’ve sometimes failed to grasp his words, “Freely you have received; freely give.” One of the secrets to ministry lies in discovering what you have received before you rush off to give.

These words come from Matthew, chapter 10. It was the first time Jesus sent his disciples out into the field of ministry. Apparently, the Lord considered them prepared--or prepared enough to begin to put their lessons into practice. The disciples had left everything behind to follow Jesus: their businesses as fishermen, their roles as tax collectors, zealots, or whatever had occupied their time before they heard the call, “Come, follow me.”

The difference between giving what you have and giving what you’ve received is the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of the age to come. What the disciples received from Jesus was a new way of life. It was the vision of God’s Kingdom breaking into the here and now. Consider these three points:

“Give what you have” focuses on our talents, our abilities, and our wealth. The starting point is what we have. We bring our not only our resources to the party but also our understanding, our methods and our values. One of the telltales of lifeless religion is people working hard to serve God, bringing the sacrifice of their time, energy and money. A sign of the Kingdom is people who joyfully share what they’ve received.

The disciples listened in amazement when Jesus suggested that a rich young ruler should “sell everything you have . . . then come, follow me.” The logic of the world would suggest that a rich man is already poised to serve the King: he need only redirect his wealth toward God, as if God would benefit from deep pockets. In my imagination I see the rich young ruler walking away, shaking his head, thinking, “Jesus missed the boat. I have a lot to offer.” Meanwhile Peter speaks up: “we’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus tells Peter that those who serve him will receive “many times over” what they have given up. I’ve learned that we not only receive more, but we receive resurrected relationships, resurrected perspective, and resurrected resources.

“Give what you’ve received” focuses on what God does in us and through us instead of our own abilities. Jesus’ instructions to the disciples were simple, and simply impossible: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” Easy, right? In reality, Jesus gave them a commission that required them to figure out a way to take the Master’s presence and power along with them, even when Jesus stayed behind.

A parable: Jesus sent out the twelve to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. When they returned the first ten said, “Master, in your name we established hospitals, consoled the grieving, developed a leprosy research institute, and a psychiatric hospital.” The other two returned and Jesus asked, “Where are the buildings? How did the fund-raising go?” They answered, “Master, we have none, but we healed the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the lepers, and drove out demons. But we have nothing to show for it.”

What have we received? Some will dismiss these words as simplistic yearning for signs and wonders, for flash and dazzle. But no: the essence of our calling is to first receive from him--whatever he has to give--and then share his life with others.

Have we ever taken time to sit in silence and reflect on what he has given us? What abilities, insights, anointings or empowerments can we confidently say we have received from Jesus? The passage from Matthew 10 highlights the supernatural, but Jesus has more to give than we imagine. For example, he also said to his friends, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Is this a reality for any of us? Then we should share the peace of Jesus with others.

Can you imagine yourself standing next to someone filled with fear, placing your hands upon them, and imparting the peace of Christ? If you’ve received any measure of peace from him, then it’s yours to give. He is the giver of supernatural gifts. He also gives us the fruit of the Spirit: do we have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? Then these, too, we should give.

Let’s use our imagination one more time: what if each follower of Jesus determined to receive from him each morning, and returned home empty each night. What would the Master say when we returned?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Three for Eternity, Please

It was the first wedding I ever officiated. Just before walking out with the groom I suggested we pray. It was more to calm my nerves than his.

Ten years ago, in a hundred year-old church building of wood the Saturday evening light turned the foolish stained glass windows into something truly beautiful. Together the young man and I walked out and faced the assembled families. Together we looked up the aisle to the walnut double-doors.

They opened. Backlit like movie characters, the bride and her father began the joyful stroll forward. She smiled with genuine joy, and I began to cry. It was a very small building, and I had just 30 feet to pull it together before these two young people would become forever one. I croaked a prayer, invited the guests to take a seat, and managed a joke that was good enough to put everyone at ease.

I realized then that the best seat at a wedding is when you get to stand before the bride and groom and do the service. That’s why last weekend I was eager to drive 840 miles just to have the opportunity to perform one-third of a wedding ceremony. I served communion to a young couple who had just moments before recited the vows that made them husband and wife.

The narrow building that hosted the wedding had brick walls and a store-front feel. Gathered around banquet tables were just 80 or 90 guests. We worshiped like it was church and invited Jesus, the guest of honor. The local pastor took my two friends through the vows and the rings. Half whispered and half wept, they repeated sacred promises which no one could keep apart from God’s grace: then I stood before them with the elements of communion. In their first act as husband and wife, they chose to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

I said simply, “Jesus is the bread of life,” and they both broke into tears and grateful sobs. My knees went weak. The same one who celebrated in Cana of Galilee had chosen to honor them with his presence. I stammered a few more words but they ate and drank with him. I was no more than a table to hold the feast. A third pastor prayed and spoke prophetic words of hope and calling over their lives, and the two became one. An outpost of God’s Kingdom was birthed. Once again I had seen the miracle and watched in awe.

Each wedding brings me closer to my wife, and Jesus. The three of us have been entwined for 26 years, which is barely the seashore of eternity. Last Saturday my friends Luke and Kristy felt the ocean touch their toes. The powerful, loving tide will carry them on.

Friday, June 10, 2011

One True Thing: Forgiveness

This week is vacation time for the Hollenbach clan. We invited friends to stay in our home and we hit the road: 13 states in 10 days (3,000 miles!). So this week is retro-post “One True Thing Week,” in which I share previous posts about the truest things I know. Today: Forgiveness.

From May, 2010: Beautiful People?

This weekend I read a touching and transparent blog post by Jon Reid called “Repentance.”  Jon details attending a leadership retreat for his church, The Journey, located in San Jose, California. I’ve never been to The Journey, but I can assure you it’s a church capable of making big-time mistakes: mistakes in representing the Lord Jesus, the gospel, or mistakes that would certainly provide good reason for those who are wounded to hold enmity against the people in leadership. I know this because The Journey is staffed by people, and people can be a real pain in the . . . well, you know.

Jon mentions his own history of frustration and pain, disagreement and ambivalence (even now) toward The Journey, yet found himself in close and apparently revealing quarters with the church’s leadership team. Jon found them to be “beautiful people,” even though clearly he has been at odds with some of them. And this impressed me.

I wondered if I had ever referred to those who had hurt me as “beautiful people.” I’ve certainly been willing to give others the benefit of a doubt, but also reserved the right to consider them misguided, selfish, clueless, or even wicked. I’m not sure “Beautiful” has ever made it into my list of adjectives. Perhaps they could become beautiful if they would just see things correctly (and I’d be glad to enlighten them on that account).

So this meditation is an invitation to us all. Without excusing selfish and sinful behavior for even a moment, I believe we have to acknowledge Jesus himself chose to “staff” churches with . . . people. And people can be a real pain in the--well, you know. In my frustration I’ve frequently turned to Colossians 3: 12-14. Perhaps it will hold some meaning for you, too:
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
Either Jesus miscalculated, or part of our own personal spiritual formation depends upon practicing these words. Admiring these words is not enough: the life of God is found in the act of living them out. But where? Then I think to myself, “where else can I put these words into practice--other than my family and my church?” I never seem to come up with a better answer than either of those two places. Blessings abundant to you, Jon, and to all of us on our journey.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

One True Thing: Live in the Moment

This week is vacation time for the Hollenbach clan. We invited friends to stay in our home and we hit the road: 13 states in 10 days (3,000 miles!). So this week is retro-post “One True Thing Week,” in which I share previous posts about the truest things I know. Today: God created time for our benefit.

From April, 2011: God of the Present Moment

Last night I dreamed of a parade, and a strange affair it was. Interminably long, an odd single-file line of marchers walked past, each person a virtual twin of the one before them, yet with only the slightest differences. After a thousand or so had passed by the small changes had added up to someone who looked very different from the marchers so far ahead. On and on went the line: 25,000 long, perhaps 30,000 or more before I woke. Above each one arched the sun and the moon in their turn, casting golden--then silver, light upon each person. Some marchers danced, others wept, still others trudged in dreary sameness. 
Through the night I dreamt and the parade continued by, each member ever-so slightly older than the one before. As I began the transition between sleep and wakefulness I realized I had witnessed the march of a single lifetime: 70 years, or eighty if our strength endures. I was awake, and the revelation was complete: we experience life in a single-file parade of 25,000 days or more, each one so much like the day before, yet unique as if a new creation.
Which of us has ever lived life backwards? Even Benjamin Button, who grew from old to young, lived his life in a succession of days, one after the other, never two together. The days march in line, each one connected to the previous, linked to the next, but never overlapping.
It is a quiet revelation, but no less true: God created the march of days and has ordained that each one of us will experience them in the same manner. Which of us has ever lived two days simultaneously? Or jumped from day 4,000 to day 7,000? It is beyond us to do so, though in our hearts and thoughts we may try. It may seem like a no-brainer, but we all are given the gift of life one day at a time, and our attempts to live them out of order come at great expense.
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself,” said Jesus. Then he added one of the strangest promises found in scripture: “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 34)
Yet some people are obsessed with future days. The financial advisor pushes his chair away from his desk after reading these words and thinks, surely he can’t be serious. The student facing final exams in the coming weeks wonders if Jesus has lost his mind. The family trying to find the money for the next mortgage payment are convinced he never had a bill to pay. For each of them, sleep is a fair-weather friend. Meanwhile Jesus rambles on about birds and flowers. He instructs us to seek first God’s Kingdom and everything else will be magically “added to us.” Clearly, he doesn’t get the same emails we do.
The Creator, who exists outside of time and space, has ordained that should live in a world mediated by the passage of time. God set the whole thing up: we live our lives in the succession of days one after another because he wanted it to be so. Have we ever considered the fact that God chose this manner of living for us? He designed our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to live in this moment and not any other. He demonstrates his wisdom and care for us in the passage of time: we do not have to drag the past along with us nor bear the burden of future days on our shoulders all at once.
The past can store the treasures of lessons and memories, the future can be the repository of hopes or fears, but both of them are inhospitable homes for our hearts--or his Spirit.
He is the Eternal Now. God’s presence is available to us only in the now. We cannot experience his presence in the future because we do not live there. We cannot experience his presence in the past because we have moved on. His presence is here for us today. We do not need to worry about the future because he is not bound by time. He sits in the future and awaits our arrival. He’ll be there when we get there, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss him in the now?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One True Thing: The Gospel of the Kingdom of God

This week is vacation time for the Hollenbach clan. We invited friends to stay in our home and we hit the road: 13 states in 10 days (3,000 miles!). So this week is retro-post “One True Thing Week,” in which I share previous posts about the truest things I know. Today: The Gospel of the Kingdom of God.

From February, 2010: 
Hearing the Gospel for the First Time

I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel.  One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin.  My sin.  I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.

Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.

Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:
  • John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
  • The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
  • Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
  • He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
That’s all four gospels, and we’re just getting started:
  • The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
  • The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
  • The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
  • Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
  • The Holy Spirit inspired more than 150 references to God’s Kingdom in the pages of the New Testament.  And don’t even get me started on pictures of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.
If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.  Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom.  Heaven is a great place.  I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now.  I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added)  Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33)  Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?

Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry.  Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3)  In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.

The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship.  No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom.  Yes: demonstration.  Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God.  Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God.  The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus.  In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today.  To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.

Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom.  In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans.  Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward.  He wants us to join him in the family business.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

One True Thing: Worship

This week is vacation time for the Hollenbach clan, so we invited friends to stay in our home and we hit the road: 13 states in 10 days (3,000 miles!). So this week is retro-post “One True Thing Week,” in which I share previous posts about the truest things I know. Today: Worship.

From September, 2010: Worship in the Midst of Doubt

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
  (Matthew 28: 16-17)

Why doesn’t everyone include verses 16 and 17 in the “Great Commission?” I suspect because these two verses include topics rarely discussed in the lives a disciple: obedience, worship, and doubt. Can we worship in the midst of doubt?

Imagine the scene around the resurrected Jesus: his best friends giving him worship in a private setting, yet in some minds and hearts there was still doubt. Yet their doubt did not disqualify them. He still received them, and he gave the “Great Commission.”

Doubt is a solitary struggle. Most expressions of worship are outward: we sing, kneel, pray, dance, bow, read, listen, and fellowship. Others see our actions, but this passage reminds us Jesus knows our hearts and thoughts as well. What kind of doubts did some of the disciples have? Matthew does not tell us. We are left to speculate: perhaps, “I don’t belong here . . . I denied the Lord . . . Have I gone mad? . . . Is this really Jesus? . . . What will he require of me?” I believe their worship was sincere; so were their doubts.

The doubting disciples had obeyed. They had made their way to Galilee, just as Jesus instructed. Jesus did not turn away the doubters, he received their worship and included them in his mission. Disobedience would have kept them from hearing his voice; doubt did not.

What if worship is giving all of ourselves to God--even the parts that struggle to believe, to trust, to surrender? Perhaps that day the doubters discovered Isaiah’s description of Jesus was true: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Matt. 12:20)

Earlier in his ministry Jesus told his friends, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Some people have interpreted "truth" to mean "doctrine," but what if Jesus also meant the truth about ourselves? Here’s a meditation worthy for the week: can I bring my doubts as an act of worship?

Monday, June 6, 2011

One True Thing: Thankfulness

This week is vacation time for the Hollenbach clan. We invited friends to stay in our home and we hit the road: 13 states in 10 days (3,000 miles!). So this week is retro-post “One True Thing Week,” in which I share previous posts about the truest things I know. Today: Thankfulness.

From November, 2010: The Thanksgiving Diet

There are just 10 shopping days left until Thanksgiving! If that sounds strange, perhaps it’s because everywhere you look retailers have moved on from Halloween to Christmas. I don’t blame them--their job is to sell product, and retailers promote Christmas in November because they understand it's hard to sell stuff to people filled with thankfulness and contentment.

I promise this isn’t the standard “isn’t it a shame Christmas starts so early” rant. It’s not a rant at all, it’s the non-standard “do we understand the importance of giving thanks” meditation.

There are more than a hundred scriptural references to giving thanks. Consider just two Old Testament verses:
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. (Psalm 100: 4)
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever (Psalm 107:1)
These verses are more than poetry. There reveal the crucial importance of the spiritual discipline of giving thanks. Yes--giving thanks is a spiritual discipline, a practice, a habit, developed by those growing in God’s grace.

We enter the gates of God’s courtyard by giving thanks. The image is drawn from the Temple in Jerusalem: a massive structure whose courtyard was open to nearly everyone. The Psalmist instructs us, though, that the only way in was through thanksgiving. Not the mere attitude of gratitude, but the active giving of thanks: outward, vocal, and communal.

The Psalmist also teaches us that the proper response to God’s goodness is giving thanks. If we can catch the smallest glimpse of his goodness, it will generate thanks. Conversely, if we are not in the habit of giving thanks, perhaps it’s because we have not seen his goodness. And since his love endures forever, our thanks should be unending, and always new.

Thanksgiving is where Students of Jesus begin. The measure of our spirituality is not how much scripture we can recite. It’s not whether we can heal the sick. Nor is it prophetic insight worthy of Jeremiah. It is, simply, to see God’s goodness and respond in the appropriate way: with thanksgiving.

Finally, the good news gets better. In the U.S. we have a holiday devoted to the giving of thanks. Why wait until the fourth Thursday of November? Our Thanksgiving diet can begin today, by meditating on his goodness and giving thanks.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Truest Things I Know (So Far)

When something you discovered twenty years ago can still overpower you with tsunami-strength, you know you’ve found one of the truest things you know.
Truth varies depending on its degree of impact. Two plus two will always equal four, but such truth does not lift my heart or draw me closer to Jesus. Jeremiah warned us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” which is certainly true but it doesn’t move me to worship or action. Some truth is practical: my father taught me: “Never play cards with a man named Slick.” It has saved me tens of thousands of dollars, but it’s hardly a life-mantra.
God’s truth, like his creation, is infinitely-faceted. It fills the universe and moves the hearts of men and women. While I am not moved by the structure of numbers, the mathematician extends his arms in worship for God’s order, majesty, and wisdom. The Father has made all things beautiful in their time. I believe he has also made each of us individually to marvel at certain aspects of his revelation. If we discover just one breath-taking aspect of his truth for each decade we live, we will go to the grave with as much wonder and worship as a child who has first discovered mother-love.
I still have some decades to go, but I’d like to share five of the truest things I know. The kind of things that can still cause my heart to skip a beat, like the first time I saw my wife.
Thankfulness is the doorway to God’s presence. Eugene Peterson says “Thank You” is the password to God’s presence. G.K. Chesterton became a believer by recognizing impossibility of feeling thankfulness apart from having Someone to thank. I have been a father for twenty-five years: when one of my children expresses gratitude, my heart leaps inwardly--not because it strokes my ego but because I know it is the key their advancement in the Spirit. Thankfulness opens the way. Won't you come in?
Worship and sanity walk together. You should come, too. For some people the 30-45 minutes of praise and worship on Sunday mornings is the only time of the week in which they are in their right mind. Music is song-voice of mathematics. Lyrics focused on Jesus is the true end of language. That our mouths and ears can be simultaneously focused on him is to surround ourselves with truth.We needn’t wait until Sunday: some people are wise enough to worship at every free moment of the week. They are saturated in adoration. They are the sober ones in a world drunk on selfishness.
The gospel is “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” I’m grateful for my Evangelical roots, but I’ve discovered that the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die differs radically from the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Isaiah saw the Kingdom as a present reality. John the Baptist proclaimed the Kingdom. Jesus did the same. The story of the early church opens and closes with the Kingdom of God. The irrepressible E. Stanley Jones declared the secret of the universe is the Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person. I am following the trail Dr. Jones left behind. You should come, too.
God created time for our benefit. This is the most recent discovery for me: life is daily because the Creator set it up that way. The creation-song of Genesis repeats the chorus over and over: “there was evening, and there was morning, another day.” Do not set these lyrics aside a no-brainer. It is the revelation of God’s wisdom for his children: we cannot live in the past, the future is beyond our understanding, we were made to live in the moment--with Him.
Forgiveness is perhaps the most essential life skill. “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” St. Augustine’s counsel is still wise today. Jesus not only forgave the sins the world, he modeled forgiveness so that we should do the same. Who could disagree? The challenge is in the doing. “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Forgiveness contains so many other truths: we are sinful people; we live in a sinful world; sin hurts us all. Yet the One wounded most by sin is the One who demonstrated the only way through: Forgive.
In fifty-plus years I have a handful of the truest things I know. Perhaps, by the grace of God, I will end up with two hands full.
What about you? What has found its way into your hand? Why not leave a comment and share the truest things you know.