Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Imperishable Seed, Daily Choices

Part of the mystery of the new birth is the power of the seed. New life in Jesus is something more than a resolution to follow him, more than human determination to become a better person. It really is a new birth. It is a new creation: something that did not exist before is called into being by God's voice. Peter, friend and follower of Jesus, describes this new birth in terms of an imperishable seed.

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” ~ I Peter 1:23

Inside of an apple seed are the instructions--the potential for an entire apple tree. Deep inside the seed is the DNA, and the genetic code sets the course for the seed, the sprout, the plant and the tree. An apple seed will produce an apple tree, nothing else. The natural world reflects the wisdom of the spiritual world. Have we ever stopped to consider, "What is the destiny of God's imperishable seed planted in me?"
Yet DNA is not destiny: it is potential. Without the right soil or the right temperature, without enough water, the seed cannot reach its potential. The imperishable seed inside of each believer contains the possibilities of Christlikeness. To be born from above means that we have heaven’s genetic code implanted within us. But we are the soil: the choices we make shape our future in Christ. Becoming like Jesus is a partnership: his DNA points to our destiny, our choices shape the outcome. Fortunately, the seed is imperishable: it is far more resilient than any flower or vegetable you have ever tried to grow!
Peter was there when Jesus talked about seed falling into the ground. He heard the Lord teach about the different kind of soil and their effect on the seed. Here in Peter’s letter, written decades after Jesus ascended to heaven, he reflects on the potential of that imperishable seed. He encourages us to choose heart-felt love that leads to obedience, because these ingredients are essential to reaching the full destiny of the seed.
Today's meditation: how will I tend the seed inside of me? His grace planted it there. Christlikeness is built into the imperishable seed. His DNA makes it possible for me to become like him, but my choices contribute to the outcome.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ever-Increasing Glory: A Life of Constant Change

New life in Christ should be a life of constant transformation. Because we follow an infinite Lord our possibilities are infinite as well. Can you imagine a life of being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory? You should: it’s a Biblical description of your potential in Christ.

I’ve discovered that becoming a follower of Jesus begins with at least three initial transformations: we must be born from above; we must acquire his character; and we must imitate his works. Most believers North America have some grasp on the first, a hope of the second, and almost no concept of the third.
The gospel accounts are filled with the miscalculations, the infighting and the petty pride exhibited by Jesus’ original followers. Yet as Jesus prepared to leave, he charged his disciples with the impossible. 
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14: 12-14)
In the years after Jesus ascended to heaven, the Book of Acts records that the seed of heaven broke through the soil of their humanity in amazing ways. The first disciples demonstrated they were up to the task because the life of Jesus had been planted in them as an imperishable seed. Consider these three transformations:
1). The first disciples found themselves transformed by the new birth. They really were a new creation. Heaven’s DNA had altered their very being. Timid, self-absorbed, working class men became world changers capable of threatening the Roman Empire just as their Master had done. We should ask ourselves, “If we have the family DNA, where is the family resemblance?” Perhaps the new birth is not accomplished by mere agreement with a few simple faith propositions. Many Christians are troubled by their past, troubled by their sin, and troubled by their futures.They’ve prayed “the sinner’s prayer” and been assured they are going to heaven, but they experience no change. If the power of God can assure our eternal destiny, shouldn’t it be able to impact our thoughts and actions here and now? That was the record of the early church.  
2). The first disciples found themselves transformed in character. As a result they demonstrated the character of Christ to a degree not possible by their own good intentions or human effort. In our day, we are tempted to think we should “act better” because we are Christians. It’s a trap: we will only “act better” as long as our will power holds up--just ask anyone who has every started a diet! Eventually it will fail us even as it failed the disciples the night Jesus was arrested. What we need is change from the inside out. Change flows from the new birth the way spring water flows from the source. Our job is not to try harder, but to get out of the way. The transformation of new birth finds its way into our character by the hunger and thirst for the stuff of heaven. A newborn infant without hunger or thirst is desperately ill: why should it be any different in our life with Christ?
3). The first disciples found themselves transformed by power for ministry. The Book of Acts records the first followers of Jesus were startlingly like Jesus, in thought, word and deed. The history of the early church is filled with descriptions of ordinary people who declared the message of the Kingdom of God (as Jesus had done) and demonstrated the coming of that Kingdom with powerful actions--just as Jesus had done. What they experienced in ministry at Jesus’ side turned out to be merely a learner’s permit. With the coming of the Holy Spirit the first believers discovered a transformation from the impossibilities of the flesh to the possibilities of heaven. What does it mean to do the works of Jesus? How we answer the question reveals our understanding of what it means to live “in Christ.” In his day, Jesus had a high view of his followers. He believed in them more than they believed in themselves. It’s still his day if we will let him have his way.
The first disciples were up to the task. In the intervening centuries the people of God have sometimes lived up to the charge left by our Lord, and sometimes have changed the task into something attainable by human effort.  I believe every generation must wrestle with the challenge Jesus left us. The first disciples were up to the task. The obvious question is whether we are up to the task as well.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Grenade!

Nearly every World War II war movie ever made contains the sacrificial scene: in the middle of a firefight a hand grenade bounces into the foxhole. Some expendable character in the movie dives atop the thing before it explodes. The hero of the movie sees the valour and sacrifice of his buddy and leads the good guys to victory.
My warped sense of humor wonders about the timing device on the grenade. What if--after covering the grenade with his body--there was a moment’s delay before the explosion? “Dang!” thinks the guy lying on the ground. “I probably had time to pick this thing up and BOOM!” Too late.
I see a connection between cheesy WWII movies and these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23) Death on the installment plan is much more difficult than dying in a single moment.
Under the right circumstances anyone could give their life once. To give it up  daily is something else altogether. The call of discipleship begins with “come and follow.” We follow Jesus in his devotion to the Father. We follow him in his ministry to the masses. And we discover as the first disciples did, we follow him to the cross. The cross of Christ was unique because the perfect Son of God paid what no one on earth could afford. The cross of each disciple is unique because the life of Jesus waits to flow through each one to the waiting world. The cross is the pathway to the resurrection kind of life.
Once you’ve been to the cross, everything changes. Stumbling blocks and foolishness turn into power and wisdom. The Cross changes everything. If something’s pursuing us, then perhaps the event that will change everything is the Cross. If nothing is changing, maybe we haven’t been to the Cross. We cannot carry the same world-changing cross Jesus took up the hill, but we can carry a cross capable of changing our world. It’s smaller, it fits us, and it waits for us each day.
This week’s meditation isn’t morbid or self-loathing. It merely asks whether we have given our lives to the Lord only once or whether we make the same choice each new morning. It looks to imitate the Lord himself with the same hope of reward. Am I willing to die each day, again and again? If so, the resurrection kind of life can become a daily fact of life.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jesus: My Favorite Old Testament Priest

I have a friend who ends every prayer with, “Forgive us for the many ways we’ve failed you, In Your name we pray, Amen.” It doesn’t matter if he’s blessing the food before a meal or asking for wisdom in an important decision. The closing is his default praise, like a customized signature at the end of every email.
I’m sure he’s sincere--every time he prays it. Yet I wonder if Jesus ever gets tired of hearing it. Do you think Infinite Patience ever rolls his eyes at something that just gets old? OK, that’s snarky, I know. But no friendship or marriage on earth could survive if one partner constantly affirmed, “I’m no good.” What kind of relationship requires a constant--constant--rehashing of our inadequacy? I’d like to suggest an answer: an Old Testament relationship.
The book of Hebrews discusses the practice of forgiveness before Jesus came:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. (Hebrews 10: 1-3, my emphasis)
Note the final phrase: the people of Old Testament experienced an annual reminder of their sins. My friend reminds himself of his sin as often as he prays. The unspoken message is that he was powerless against sin before he came to Jesus and he is apparently powerless against it after he received him.
Dallas Willard refers to this as miserable sinner theology.  Simply put, if we are told often enough that we are miserable sinners who are unable to overcome our shortcomings in God’s eyes, sooner or later we will begin to see ourselves in that light—even though we have turned to Christ! This problem is widespread: the substance of most evangelical preaching is "sin management." (Willard again) by which Christians are reminded of their sin problem and God’s sin solution. It reinforces the idea they can find forgiveness apart from the call to come and follow Jesus. Yet following Jesus includes the possibility of being formed into his likeness.
Since many believers only hear about God’s grace in the context of forgiveness, their expectation of the Christian life is a cycle of sin, forgiveness, and more sin.  Perhaps most dangerously, the presence of sin is considered normal in the life of a believer. Any real attempt at imitating Jesus is considered a presumption upon God’s grace because we cannot save ourselves through “works.” The Apostle Paul had a larger vision for the grace of God. It included the possibly of learning how to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2: 11-12). The grace of God in Jesus Christ is so much bigger than forgiveness: it does forgive, but it also teaches. Perhaps that’s why Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?
It’s not just a problem with our understanding of grace, it’s also our understanding of Jesus: his message, his sacrifice, his Kingdom and his mission for us. To see the work of Jesus as only an endless offering for sin is to consign him to the Old Testament priesthood.
Surely his is a greater priesthood, capable of altering us at the very core. I’m grateful that he paid the price for my sin--eternally grateful. I am also grateful for his resurrection empowerment, which is capable of changing me from the inside out. Perhaps we can usher Jesus out of the Temple once and for all, and receive him not only as the source of forgiveness, but also the Master teacher of life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday's Meditation: With a god like that, who needs a devil?

Some images go beyond metaphor. They are deep-down truth. We can meditate on deep-down truth each day of our lives; such truth will never run dry because we are in touch with the fabric of creation, the heart of God. Perhaps today we could muse on the revelation that, as followers of Jesus, God is our Father.

He’s not like a father. He is our Father. It’s how the universe works: the transcendent creator of the universe, the One who spun the galaxies off his fingertips while wisdom danced with delight, is our Father. And Jesus, the Son, came to reveal the Father so that we might see him and grow in the family likeness. Consider this simple statement from the Perfect Son:
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11)
These words of Jesus are vital to our everyday walk with God.
Many believers have no trouble with the idea that God is great and powerful. We have been told all our lives of the power of God. We have not been told enough of his role as Father. If we see the greatness of God without recognizing his Father’s heart, we will find ourselves at a distance from him. Because of his greatness and majesty, God is capable of working all things after the counsel of his will. The thoughts and plans of humanity cannot overcome the purpose of God. Yet apart from understanding the nature of his fatherhood, we are tempted to see every event in our lives as the work of the all-powerful God. A few examples:
  • My cancer is a gift from God,” says a daughter of God. “Through this ordeal I have discovered his tender care and the love of my family.”
  • I wouldn’t trade that auto accident for anything,” says a son of God. “Even though I am paralyzed I realize it was God’s will to humble me.”
  • When my spouse left me I was devastated,” says a child of God. “Now I see it was God’s plan all along.
To be sure, the Father is at work in each of these settings, bringing grace and hope to the lives of each one touched by the sin and sorrow of this world: but are we really willing to say that our Heavenly Father is the author of such things? With a god like that, who needs a devil? What earthly parent would bestow sickness, accident or betrayal upon their children? 
Like any loving parent, our Heavenly Father is present through times of trial and sorrow which are inevitable in a sinful and ailing world. Unlike an earthly parent the Heavenly Father has the wisdom and power to redeem the loss, repair the hurt, and bring a greater good beyond the tragedy.
So many of us are convinced of God’s power. Are we equally convinced of his goodness? I’d like to suggest this week we should meditate on the staggering revelation of Father.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Follow the Loser

The class held about thirty students. A class that size guarantees a mix of sleepers, zombies, texters and those rare few who participate in discussion. We spent the whole hour talking about the words of Jesus, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Is is possible? Can we really become like God? Was Jesus serious? 
One student seemed to pay particular attention but hadn’t spoken up once during the period. I decided to draw her into the discussion: “We’re just about done for today. Tiffanie, you’ve been listening hard but haven’t offered your opinion. Why don’t you have the last word?”
She shifted in her seat uncomfortably and said, “I don’t know if He was serious, but one thing’s for sure: you ain’t Jesus.”
She got that right.
Yet somehow Jesus asks us to lift our vision higher--high enough to see the possibilities of becoming like our Heavenly Father. That’s a problem: how are we to become like him? The problem grows deeper when we discover that he has ordained the use of imperfect and frail human beings to shape others into the image of Christ. 
Most believers quickly jump to the defense of their own shortcomings with the excuse, “I’m not Jesus.” Of course not. Who could be? So deeply do we hold the conviction that we cannot measure up, it also becomes our handy defense to keep other believers at arms length--far enough away to prevent them from effectively shaping us into the image of Jesus.
We welcome the idea that--someday--we will be conformed to the image of Christ. We‘re a little fuzzier on how, exactly, that happens. The answer is both obvious and surprising: the Father uses other people to fashion us into the pattern of Christ.
For many Christians, this is a frightening prospect. This conversation could happen at nearly any church between an earnest disciple and a pastor:
“You're trying to change me!” complains the disciple.
“You don't think you need to change?” asks the pastor.
“Well, yes, but not by you!”
In other words, we acknowledge our need of Christlikeness but feel no one is qualified to help effect the change.
How does our perfect Lord expect imperfect people to shape others into his image? The hyper-spiritual answer is usually, “No one can do that: He has to do it, by his Spirit.” Such an answer sounds spiritual, but ignores that God has chosen to much of his work through other people.
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
The Apostle Paul had little trouble offering himself as an example of the path to spiritual transformation. Was he proud, or practical? His words appear at the end of a long theological discussion about whether the Christians of that day should eat meet offered to pagan idols (1 Corinthians 10 & 11). The real issue was whether these believers would judge one another over the choices they made. Sound familiar? Finally, after looking at all sides of the question, Paul got practical: “Look, just do what I do.” He could offer himself as an example not because he was so smart, but because he could demonstrate how to live in peace among Christians of differing opinion. The unspoken message is that Christlikeness is not a matter of opinion, but of how we live out our life with one another. Having examples helps: not amount of theology can replace the need for a living example.
Paul had no trouble suggesting that Timothy should follow his example: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose . . . But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3: 10 & 14) And this is from Paul, who earlier described himself to Timothy as “the foremost of sinners!”
What about us? Do we have someone to imitate? Before we jump in with the spiritual answer, I imitate Jesus, perhaps we should consider if Jesus himself has not given us someone a little closer to home as an intermediate step. Who can I imitate? It worked for Timothy, and it worked for Paul.
I can almost hear the voice of that girl from my classroom: “One thing’s for sure: you ain’t Paul, either!”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Ministry and Grief

John the Baptist was a great man. So great, Jesus said, that up until his day, no one born of a woman was greater than John. Yet in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 14) we read of his death: a death so random, unfortunate and petty we could be excused for looking up from the pages to ask, “Father, how could you let this happen?” I wonder if Jesus had the same question. 
In the verses that follow the news of John’s death we are given a window into how Jesus dealt with bad news. There are at least five meditations on how to process the senseless sadness we sometimes encounter:
  1. Jesus had the experience of receiving unexpected bad news. (v13) We are not alone in our surprise and grief: our Lord himself lived through events unforeseen and had to deal with shock and sadness. When we are overcome with senseless suffering we will find Jesus there with us.
  2. Jesus needed space and time to process: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (v13). This was his way. Time and again the gospels share one of the primary sources of the Lord’s strength--he took measures to be alone with the Father. The solitary place need not be the place grief, it can also be the place of comfort.
  3. Sometimes events overtake our personal needs: “Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (vs 13-14). Most people knew nothing or cared little for Jesus’ sadness. They had their own sadness, and they looked to him for relief. Amazingly, Jesus didn’t hang “Do Not Disturb” on the doorknob. He was filled with compassion for them and took action. Setting aside his own need, he modeled for us again that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve others.
  4. Jesus taught the disciples to follow his example: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v16). At least two of Jesus’ disciples had been with John the Baptist previously. The Lord wanted them to focus on the needs of others as those needs presented themselves. Five thousand people were fed, even as Jesus and his disciples wrestled with their own pain. It’s a parable: when we are weak, he is strong. Miraculously strong on behalf of others.
  5. Still, Jesus needed time alone: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone” (v23). Events had overtaken Jesus’ original plan. The narrative starts with him slipping away in a boat for some down time. He remembered his initial purpose and took the opportunity to see it through. Jesus demonstrates the balance between his own need and the needs of others. Even while he displayed compassion he did not lose sight of his deep need to process with the Father. Eventually he got there. With some intentionality we can, too.
These five meditations are ours for the taking. The life Jesus lived was a life just like ours. He modeled the way of peace, both for himself and others.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

If Only The Future Were Now

Here’s a no-brainer:
The heavens declare the glory of God; 
   the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 
Together, we stand awed by creation. Stars, mountains, plains, wind, sea and sky: each of them has the power to ravish our hearts and mess with our minds. It’s no less true simply because everyone knows it: all creation sings the greatness and God’s glory.
Even our fallen creation--a world beset by storm and drought--reflects the mind-numbing image of the infinite Creator-God. It doesn’t matter if nature is ‘red in tooth and claw:’ through the veil of sin-afflicted creation we can still catch a glimpse of eternity, and what we see is enough to stagger our footing.
Yet today I’m wondering about something beyond creation. If nature reflects the glory of God, how much more should the new creation? The day will come when all creation is restored to a magnificence beyond the garden of Eden. Revelation describes a paradise/city, given directly from God, occupying the space we call “Earth.” Lions lie down with lambs. The tree of life bears fruit in every season, its leaves healing the nations. The river of God flows to the ends of the earth. It sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Creation will be so glorious that every atom and molecule will itself sing the praise of God.
If only there were some way for the glory of that future world--restored and redeemed, empowered with resurrection life--to declare the glory of God even more fully than the heavens and all of creation in this age. If only.
But wait: I seem to recall something about a new creation among us, in the here and now. Let’s see . . . it’s here somewhere . . . just a moment . . . yes, here it is:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthian 5: 17)
Here is an amazing fact: the citizens of the restored heaven and earth (which is not yet revealed) are being born now. Born from above. And even more staggering: we are the glory of the future age made manifest now.
Is it possible that the majesty of the age to come could be exhibited in us, now? Paul wrote these words to a rag-tag group of believers in the City of Corinth. He had carefully laid the foundation for his amazing statement throughout 2nd Corinthians:
  • In chapter one he reveals that whatever comfort he has received is his to give to others (vs 3-7). In the age to come God himself comforts his people; in this present age his new creation people are here now to comfort others,
  • In chapter two Paul describes an aroma of the age to come (vs 14-16) To some it smells lovely, to others it is the stench of death--but its source is not of this age.
  • In chapter three he reminds us that the Old Covenant was capable of generating a visible glow on Moses' face. The New Covenant is capable of an even greater impact on our physical bodies (vs 12-18)
  • In chapter four we discover that we are vessels of an “all-surpassing power” (vs 7-12). These are the powers of the age to come, which we steward in jars of clay, leaking bits of eternity into this present age.

Paul is trying to indicate that we are the harbingers of the age to come. The cracked and flawed containers so characteristic of the fading glory of fallen creation are revealing the glory of a new creation. It’s not simply a theological position: Paul is describing a reality. Followers of Jesus carry resurrection-life within them. That resurrection-life is given by God at the new birth to glow through us, radiate from us, even fill the room with a fragrance of flowers from paradise. We must choose whether these are mere metaphors, or if Paul is describing the reality of new creation--a new creation implanted within us when we are born from above.
Would it be too mystical for me to tell you I’ve met followers of Jesus who quite literally glow with his glory and smell of eternity? I have. And my contact with such believers stirs in me the desire to live as if the age to come could be manifested in my body as well. They radiate the age to come, and I am filled with yearning for a homeland I've yet to see.

John Mark McMillan expresses the same desire:
I want to shine with the glory of an unveiled face
I want to radiate with the fire of You
I want to shout from the roof what I hear in dark
I want to be dangerous with the truth
I will be Your lamp if You will pour the oil
If You light the incense, I will be Your censer
I will be Your tabernacle if You will be my ark
I will be Your body if You will be my heart
Perhaps we could pray together: “Let it come through me, because I am a part of the new creation.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Depth of Stillness

I used to think the silence meant God wasn’t speaking. Now, in the silence, he’s all I hear.
As a young man I would look to the stars, overwhelmed by the beauty of the night sky. I knew from Psalm 19 that the heavens declared the glory of God. I could see his greatness, but could not hear his voice. Even in their majesty I would wonder why God was so silent. My prayers, especially at night, were filled with requests and concerns. I would list my needs one by one, unaware that my greatest need was stillness.
Of the many needs of North American believers, silence is among the greatest. Silence is the blank page on which God writes his word. Our noisy world scribbles on the page continually, overlaying sound and word on top of word and sound until the page becomes black. Unless the page is clean we cannot read what God has written. 
The pathway of modern life has been hardened, trampled by words. Back in the day you had to visit Times Square; now Times Square visits you. The sower sows the seed but it falls on the path and is carried away by SportsCenter, YouTube, NPR, FoxNews, and our ubiquitous earbuds. Quiet is an aberration. When Maxwell Smart uses the Cone of Silence, the point is that everyone simply has to shout louder. Drop any comedian into a monastery and he’ll have the monks doing hip-hop before it’s over. Even our Bibles are cluttered with sidebars and graphics, pictures and celebrity interpretations. 
But what if God is in the silence? He wasn’t in the whirlwind or earthquake for Elijah. The “still, small voice” is still a whisper. Perhaps the Father has his reasons for not raising is voice. I suspect it’s for our good that we find him in the secret place, well away from Times Square. This week’s meditation is actually quite, well, meditative: why not create a secret place each day and give him just three minutes of blank slate? The Father doesn’t need a podcast to reach our hearts. If we find his presence in the silence it will be enough.