Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Private Side of Grace

The Father communicates his grace in ways both big and small. When you’re on the interstate, doing 85, you need a big sign: white reflective letters two feet high against a green background, shouting “Exit Here.”

Late at night, when your baby is sick, you’re looking for a much smaller sign, in print so small you reach for your glasses and turn on the light, Ages 2-4, one teaspoon every four hours, do not exceed four doses in 24 hours. You read the label twice to make sure you’ve got it right. Both sets of words communicate God’s grace.
It’s easy to see the public side of grace: it’s represented in the cross. The cross is splashed across church buildings like so many interstate signs, signaling that the love of God is available to any who will stop. The news is so good it deserves a elevated platform. But those who see grace written large on the landscape might think that’s all there is. Still, grace has a private side as well.
Consider some of the private sides of God's grace:
  • Richard Foster points out the kind of grace you cannot see from the highway: “Grace saves us from life without God--even more it empowers us for life with God." The grace we receive at the new birth is only the introduction. Students of Jesus need grace for growth as well. Grace opens up the startling possibility that we do not have to yo-yo between sin and forgiveness, sin and forgiveness. It becomes possible to yield every choice, every thought to God, because his grace can teach us to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12).
  • Three times the scripture reminds us, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humility is part of the private side of grace. When the Father sees one of his children willing to take the low place in the family he pours out a special portion of grace to strengthen us in service to one another. Humility draws the blessing and favor of God. The same one who stripped to the waist and washed our feet rejoices when we learn to prefer one another.
  • Dallas Willard’s famous phrase, “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning” reminds us of the proper response to God’s saving work. The Apostle Paul understood the private side of grace as well: “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 “famous” apostle is the same one who described his task as one of “great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger,” all in order to share what he himself had been given. Paul had no trouble seeing the connection between grace and effort.
  • Paul was so convinced of our ongoing need for grace that he opened every letter he wrote (every one!) with the greeting, “grace to you, and peace.” Perhaps--just perhaps--the Holy Spirit and Paul considered grace and peace indispensable to everyday Christian life.
What is the private side of grace? The private side of grace is the discovery that the new birth should be followed by growth into the image of Jesus. The private side of grace is when we begin to take on the family likeness. It begins when his children are old enough to understand that the Father sees what is done in secret--not in order to catch us in transgression--but to reward those hearts who joyfully follow his example.

On January 1st 2012, Students of Jesus moved to a new address.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Jesus the Know-it-All

Consider the burden of the know-it-all: he must sit and listen to the mistakes of others: their opinions un-informed, filled with swiss cheese logic and day-old data. Above all, what he cannot understand is that, after he’s explained everything so clearly, no one wants to listen. Apparently not everyone cares about being right.
When the know-it-all meditates on the life of Jesus, he is filled with wonder at how Jesus could put up with so many idiots. Unless, of course, Jesus had a secret weapon:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
If ever there was someone with a rightful claim to the title, Know-it-All, it was Jesus. Yet clearly, Jesus declined the honor. Turns out being right is not enough. Truth, meet grace.
Grace is love made practical. Grace empowers. Grace cares not for the argument, but for the people arguing. Grace has an agenda beyond the truth. Grace knows that the frustrated heart would rather sit on the sidelines and be wrong than be forced to run with the schoolyard bullies who are right. Grace turns its nose up at winning the fight and aims instead to win the person. Grace plays the long game.
Grace understands that merely knowing the truth is a slippery slope. The problem with knowing it all is the tendency to judgment. Even a smartie like the Apostle Paul recognized, "knowledge puffs up." It’s so easy to wander across the border between truth and disdain, to pity the fools who cannot see what is so clearly true. Before we know it we have crossed into enemy territory, even though we were right all along.
Sometimes the most insightful people appear uncaring and cold, like an oncologist who diagnoses the cancer but misses the human being standing before him. Insight is never enough. The line between insight and judgment is drawn by grace.
This week’s meditation can be applied again and again in the gospel accounts: Jesus was always the smartest guy in the room, but he was also the most gracious. As you bring the gospel scenes to your imagination this week, add one more ingredient to your musing: Jesus embodied what he read in the Psalms:
I will listen to what God the Lord says;
   he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
   but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
   that his glory may dwell in our land.
 Love and faithfulness meet together;
   righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Provoking God's Mercy

Are there any limits to human wickedness? Imagine a guy who practices witchcraft and seances, fortune-telling and necromancy. Picture him engaged in human sacrifice by burning is own children on altars of fire. Give him nationwide authority and influence, so that he not only practices these things, but encourages and trains others to do the same. Now, if there is room left in your imagination, envision this man finding a way to win God’s affection.
What moves God’s heart? Buried deep in the Chronicles of Israel is the story of a despicable ruler guilty of such things. Yet he captured the Father’s grace and mercy by humbling himself before God. His name is Manasseh; you can read about him in 2 Chronicles 33. In the space of one chapter King Manasseh was transformed from a man who provoked God to anger to one who caught God’s attention because of his humble heart. There is a lesson here for every Student of Jesus: it’s not that Manasseh simply experienced God’s mercy, he provoked it.
The Father loves humility. It turns his head. Jesus tried again and again to share this secret pathway to God’s heart: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” He used this phrase no fewer than four times. Jesus demonstrated humility as he lived in the low places of Israel’s society. He portrayed children as exemplars of humble trust in the Father’s care. He derided self-sufficiency.
Humility is an expression of truth and integrity. People intuitively hunger for humility in their spiritual and political leaders. It seems this hunger for authentic humility is growing stronger: the Google search-phrase that has most often brought people to this blog is the simple phrase, “How can we Humble Ourselves?” Although that post is more than two years old, people find their way to it week after week. All over the world people enter search phrases like, “how to be humble like Jesus,” and “how do we humble ourselves before God?” There is beauty in the humble way.
Humility is the sail that captures the grace and mercy of God. His ear is tuned to hear the weakest words of a humbled heart. In King Manasseh’s story we find hope for everyone who has wondered if they could possibly grab God’s attention. Here are four sure lessons from Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33) for those whose hearts are inclined:
  • Even in the midst of gross iniquity, God is still speaking: (v10) Even after a long list of rebellious acts against God, the text reveals that God was still reached out to Manasseh. If you’ve been told that God hides from your sin, you’ve been misled. Our sin is one of the very reasons God continues to reach out to us. He loves us and refuses to give up on us. But it's not just that his love reaches down; a humble heart reaches up.
  • God knows how to humble us: (v11) There’s a massive difference between being humbled by the Almighty and humbling yourself before him. God may arrange circumstances that bring us low in the eyes of others, but only we can lower ourselves before God. He can extend severe mercy, in C.S. Lewis’ phrase, but we remain in control of our own thoughts and hearts.
  • Our hearts can move God’s heart: (v13) This is an astounding revelation! God is not impressed by human power, wealth, or wisdom, but he is impressed by the human heart. When a man or woman chooses contrition, the Father tells all heaven to be quiet. Our prayers never have more power than when we take our proper place before him.
  • Our humble example can influence the generations to come: (v25) Manasseh had a grandson named Josiah, who (as a child) sparked a nationwide revival. I like to imagine that Josiah heard first-hand from his grandfather the horrors of rebellion and the grace of humility. Our life-lessons can become the seed that springs up thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold in the lives of those who follow.
These are more than theological considerations, they are postures of the heart. They are examples for Students of Jesus. Jesus embodied the life of humility before the Father. It worked out pretty well for him--he demonstrated that the humble path leads to glory, a glory unimagined by the wisdom of men.
Even more than Manasseh, Jesus modeled the way of humility. Consider Paul’s magnificent description of the humble way:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death—
      even death on a cross!
 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2: 6-11)
What is whispered in the Old Testament is shouted in the New: humility is the doorway to God’s Kingdom. Humility spared Manasseh's life. It was the way of life for Jesus. It is no less the way for us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday's Meditation: In Which I Am Mostly Sad, and a Little Angry

Last week a nationally-recognized pastor posted comments that were insensitive and unwise. Later, a nationally recognized blogger labeled the pastor with an unflattering name and suggested readers contact the pastor’s church to complain about his actions. In the borough of the blogsophere where I live, it was a pretty big deal.
On Thursday I decided I would try to start my own controversy by wondering out loud why North American Christians seem to be incapable of raising the dead. No one noticed, but these events were related. If the connection seems too subtle, here it is--written plain: the North American church finds itself largely powerless because we are so mean to one another. We have lost sight of what it means to honor one another.
The nationally-recognized blogger is someone whom I’ve never met, but is deserving of honor. This blogger has written one fine book and undoubtedly will write plenty more. The nationally recognized pastor is someone whom I’ve never met, but is deserving of honor. This pastor reaches thousands of people I could never reach. They both have the goods. They both love Jesus. They both deserve respect. The two of them are brother and sister, and I think Dad isn’t happy when his kids fight publicly.
There is room for disagreement within the body of Christ. When Christians work through disagreement with grace and truth it can be an example to the watching world of how the two can walk hand in hand. We owe it to one another to speak the truth in love. If our words are not the truth, then they are not really loving; if our words are not loving, then they are not really the truth. When we walk with both grace and truth we walk in maturity.
We need to examine the connection between lack of honor and lack of power within the church. Consider these words from Holy Spirit:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4: 29-32)
Hidden in the middle of this passage is an important truth: we do not grieve the Holy Spirit by our doctrines or opinions, but by how we speak to one another. When I speak poorly of my brother or sister, I hurt God’s feelings. Is it too hard it imagine that when we grieve the Holy Spirit he says, “I’m outta here?” 
Our western world is word-weary, and the path to their hearts packed hard with the weight of argument after argument. Arguments are easy because everyone thinks they are right--otherwise, why argue? Honor is difficult because it forces us to find practical ways to live out the verse, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter  4:8)
Pastors and writers have this in common: where there is a multitude of words transgression is unavoidable. It’s going to happen. It comes with job, and it comes through our frailty. The larger question is, do we have grace for one another?
Last week’s dust-up is one of many, too common among brothers and sisters. Wait a week and there will be another. And another. Meanwhile the world is waiting for us to raise the dead.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Don't North American Christians Raise the Dead?

Jessica lives among the poorest of the poor just north of Lima, Peru. As a very young child she fell ill, languished for a few days, and died. In her neighborhood there were no telephones--no electricity, no running water. Her mother gathered the women in the neighborhood and began to pray. She sent others to find her husband, and still others to find the elders of the church, who showed up within a couple of hours and joined in prayer. After hours more of prayer, Jessica came back to life.
I met Jessica when she was about eight years old. Her mother told me how Jesus had raised her daughter from the dead. I suggested that perhaps her daughter had been very sick, but not dead. With typical North American smugness, I reasoned with the woman that God most certainly had healed the girl, but remained skeptical of outright resurrection. The woman became incensed and told me she knew very well that her daughter had died, and that Jesus brought her back. Mom was pretty angry with me.
Now, every semester I tell my students of the day I met a little girl raised from the dead. Then I watch them process the story--as I did when I first met Jessica. Then we talk about why North American Christians don’t raise the dead.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we don’t ask. Death has the final word in our society: call the doctor, call the coroner, call the funeral home. Let them make the pronouncement and carry the dead away. Affluent societies are insulated from the dead. The dead are whisked away, cleaned, dressed and embalmed by professionals while we weep and mourn at home. It doesn’t occur to us to stay by their side and ask God to intervene. When a woman named Tabitha died in Joppa, the believers asked Peter to come help. (Acts 9) They didn’t accept death as the final word.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we don’t see death as an enemy. We attribute every death with God’s sovereign plan, and comfort ourselves with superstitions like “everything happens for a reason.” Yet the Apostle Paul makes it clear that death is indeed the enemy of humankind, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15: 25-26) Death is real, and inevitable, but we have forgotten it is also our foe.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because because we have not learned from Jesus. Jesus taught by his actions as well as his words. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, reminds us that Jesus ruined every funeral he attended. True, his actions spoke of his own coming resurrection, but perhaps there was something else to learn from his example. Perhaps Jesus raised the dead because not everyone dies in God’s perfect timing. A quick study of those raised from the dead in the gospels and Acts reveal that Jesus and his disciples intervened in the deaths of those who were young, or who died accidentally.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we have pushed all resurrections into a single event at the end of time. It is a day to be desired: the grave will give up its dead, we will meet him in the clouds. But our faith is about more than the End Times. An illustration: when a local college-aged girl died of a mysterious illness a few years ago we sent a team to pray over her body. One local minister snorted--why would anyone want to bring her back from the dead? She’s happier with Jesus, isn’t she?” The minister could think of no compelling reason for resurrection apart from the Last Day.

Jesus himself gave these instructions to his disciples: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10: 7-8) The scripture presents the example of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, all involved in resurrection ministry. It’s true that we will all taste death eventually, but it’s not true that all death is for us to taste. The Kingdom of God message should be met with Kingdom of God demonstration. Forgiveness, justice, mercy, community, healing, and yes, resurrections are all signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.
Four bullet points aren’t enough to change anyone’s mind. But they should be enough to open the discussion: why don’t North American Christians raise the dead? Believers in Asia, Africa, and South America do. We cannot dismiss their experiences. In many respects believers on those continents are more familiar with death than we are. And more familiar with resurrection.
This is no academic exercise. This discussion is important to individual followers of Jesus. We need to embrace all possibilities of life in Christ, especially, perhaps, the ones that blow our minds.
What do you think? Should we raise the dead? Can we raise the dead? Why are North American and Europeans Christians the exception?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bring the Script to Life

Imagine a world of music, but no sound: a world without iTunes. Great music has been preserved, but only as sheet music. You could Google any song in the world but never get an MP3 file. You could only find sheet music: lines, spaces, quarter notes and rests. Or perhaps you could imagine a world of screenplays without movies? Play-scripts without actors on stage?  You could read whatever you wanted: Shakespeare or Tarantino, but nothing to see or hear.

The only way to make the music come alive is to sing or play. To realize a script requires you and your friends to act, film, and edit.

Students of Jesus have been given a gift filled with music to sing and roles to play. It’s called the Bible. The Father has given us an inspired instrument for taking the yoke of discipleship. He waits for those who will take the instrument and learn to play. One of the great challenges in the life of a believer is learning how to experience the life God intends for us through the instrument of the Scripture.

To some, the Scripture is a book of rules. To others, the Bible is an object of study, not much different from learning math or history. And sadly, for some Christians the Bible is the primary resource for criticizing others. They use the Scripture as a measuring stick--one they hold up against others but rarely to themselves. Perhaps you’ve met believers like this: people who get the words right but the music all wrong. After all, it’s easier to relate to a book than a person.  Books don’t talk back. You can pick and choose where to read. And if you’re among the smart kids in class you can demonstrate your superiority through your mastery of books.

I’ve posted previously my suggestions on how students of Jesus can relate to the Bible. I hope those suggestions are life-giving because the Bible is meant to be a life-giving experience for God’s people. Time with the scripture is meant to be time with the Creator, an event to be lived, breathed, sung, acted, collaborated, shouted, and danced. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s permanent address, and he’s always home--yet he is not confined to ink on a page. He’s the Breath of God, the wind which blows where it wills.

Would it be too heretical to suggest that the words of the Bible on the printed page are not really the word of God until we act upon them? Music on the printed page isn’t really music until the musician brings it to life. When an actor speaks the words of the script a thousand meanings jump to life. The word of God is meant to be living and active. Perhaps that’s why Jesus is called “the Word of God.”

Eugene Peterson says it this way:
“Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in the company of the Son.”
Who could argue with a Bible that's alive in every neighborhood, acting out the love of God? Don't tell me you have the right answers, show me how those answers impact the way you live. Is there really any other kind of Christianity except applied Christianity? That’s the kind of book I want to spend my life with. How about you?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Last Guy at the Party

The bartender probably shouted, "last call" just before I walked in the door, but I didn't hear him so I don't know any better. I'm a little late to the party here, since people have been arguing about Hell ever since Rob Bell’s promotional video a month before his book. Hell, they’ve been arguing about it for several millennia, actually.  Still, I decided to share just two thoughts because they have been so helpful for me personally.

First, C.S. Lewis wrote an absolutely inspired book on the subject of Hell, The Great Divorce. Recommending a book on such a personal topic is about as warm and caring as telling a sick person, "take two aspirin and call me in the morning."  But here’s the deal: Lewis' work is a first-person narrative that never chides, doesn't preach, and brings light instead of heat to the discussion. It is vastly better than Rob Bell’s book. God bless Rob Bell for raising questions about our motives when it seems many Christians are cheering for the fires of torment. We are all the better for giving serious attention to his questions. Sadly, Love Wins falls disappointingly short on answers.

Second, a hundred years ago I took lifeguard training from the Red Cross. One of the situations we trained for is when a panicked swimmer actually resists rescue because of, well . . . panic. The issue of Hell is a lot like that. I've haven't seen any comments during the debate this year on John 3:17 (That's 17, right after the overworked verse, John 3:16): "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Jesus doesn't condemn, he comes to save.

It shouldn't raise much debate: we plainly see people drowning all around us: drowning in sorrow, in fear, addictions, injustice, and ignorance. For many people Hell isn't after they die, it's today. The kind of salvation needed is the kind that lifts and rescues now and in the age to come. Only the most foolish followers of Jesus actually tell others, "you're going to Hell" for three reasons: (1) it rarely changes anyone's heart, (2) we don't know it all, and (3) we're not Jesus, so it's not our call to make. How foolish would it be for a lifeguard to stand on the shore and shout, "Hey! You in the blue swimsuit! You're drowning!" Better to run into the ocean Baywatch style.

Finally (OK, I said two, but this is a bonus), I'd like to suggest a game-changing question: when does eternal life begin? For my money, I'll go with Jesus' words in John 17:3: "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." Only a fool thinks of eternal life in terms of time-orientation. Eternal life is qualitative: knowing the Father and knowing Jesus. How soon can that start? Forget about Hell: how many believers are waiting for eternal life to begin after they die when all the while they could enter in now?

Yep, the party’s just about over. There may not be anyone left to listen. Maybe I’m that guy, sitting at the bar talking to the clean up crew, and they’re thinking, “Dude, give it up and go home.” Either way, be careful, everyone.