Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday Meditation: Complete in Him?

Back in fifth grade I talked in class--a lot. When saintly Mrs. Wilson reached the limit of her patience, she made me write, “I will not talk in class” one hundred times on the blackboard. It was a classic educational moment. I was so short I needed to use a chair to reach the top of the board. I thought I would never finish. If only they had cut and paste back then! When I returned to school the next day--you guessed it--I still spoke out of turn in class.
The list of things I should not do has grown longer since those days: I should not slap people in the face when they drive me crazy; I should not wager the mortgage money on my lucky Lotto numbers; I should not text in the movie theater (or while driving); and I should not spend as much time as I do cruising the social network. Perhaps you can add to the list of things I should not do.
Don’t bother: I’ve given up trying not to do things. There are several problems with trying not to do things. I have a bad memory for rules, I lack the discipline, and I usually lack the will to follow them.
The Apostle Paul was one of the greatest rule-followers ever, yet he became a messenger of freedom.  Imagine a man who had memorized every one of the 614 points of the Old Testament law writing these freedom-filled words:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2: 20 - 23)
This same Apostle of freedom had exchanged one kind of teaching for another. As a result, he had but one goal for his converts: that they would resemble Jesus:
“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” (Colossians 1: 28)
Both passages refer to “teaching.” Both teachings have perfection as the goal, yet the two kinds teaching produce very different results. Part of the the mystery of Paul’s letter to the Colossians revolves around this very issue, and provides the perfect week’s meditation:
  • What kind of teaching can lead me to perfection in Christ? 
  • What does “perfection” mean?
  • Is it possible in my life?
  • What does the Spirit mean when he says “in Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10 - NASB)?
We could spend a lifetime in Paul’s letter to the Colossians looking for answers, but in my experience these questions are rarely asked. Perhaps dwelling on them this week could change the course of your life as a follower of Jesus. Do you dare?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I'm Cured (except I'm still always sick)

One day my doctor told me I was sick, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him.
“Believe me,” he said. “You’re sick, and you’re going to die without the cure.”
“I don’t feel sick.”
“And you won’t. Right up ‘til when you die.”
It went on like this week after week. He wore me down. Then I took the medicine.
But something strange happened: just about the time I took the medicine I became convinced I was sick. Sure, I took the medicine, because that’s what sick people do. My doctor tried to tell me the medicine had worked.
“OK, then,” he said. “All finished. Off you go. You’re healed.”
“But you told me I was sick.”
“Yes. You were, but now you’re healed.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m sick. You said I would die without the cure.”
“And so you would have. But you took the cure. It did its work. You’re all better. In fact, you’re better than better: it’s exactly like you’re completely new.”
I argued with him for a while because I knew I was sick. Deep down. I’d need the cure every day. Because I’m a sicko. That was 41 years ago, ever since I took the cure. But this is my story, in fact, it’s my song: I’m sick and I’ve taken the cure. I’ll always be sick because that’s what sick people do.

All right. Time to come clean. I made that up. Or did I? Because I’ve overheard people who have taken the cure, and they still talk like they’re sick. Perhaps you’ve heard them, too.
“I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” they say (or sing). “There’s nothing good inside of me, I’ll always be a sinner, because that’s what I always do.” I’ve known people who have sung the same song for 40 years. It seems when they agreed with the sin-diagnosis, they apparently thought it described a permanent condition. I know one guy who has memorized Jeremiah 17:9. He apparently made it the signature theme of his walk with God. Funny, I thought the cure included a heart transplant.
Dr. Willard, my family physician, agrees. He warns us against the idea “that the low level of spiritual living among professing Christians is to be regarded as ‘only natural,’ only what is to be expected.” He taught me to reject the notion that our destiny is constant failure and that Christ’s ministry is nothing but unending forgiveness. Many believers have experienced the new birth and are convinced their cosmic state is forever a babe. 
We have over-talked about what sin takes away and under-talked about what the Spirit has put in us. Dr. Willard is concerned with more than the cure. True, our life with God must start with the cure, but the possibilities of new life in Christ are--quite literally--endless. 
Make no mistake: sin is cancer, and it will kill us in this life and the next. It’s serious business, so the Father has provided a serious remedy. It’s called the new birth. Paul calls it the new creation, Peter calls us new-born babes. We must determine whether these phrases are merely religious metaphors or if they depict a spiritual reality. The image of spiritual birth also contains the hope of spiritual growth. Are we forever trapped within the cancer of sin?
There’s a cure, not just a treatment. Our challenge is how we see Jesus, and for many of us, he is only a treatment. When we limit the work of Jesus to nothing but forgiveness, we lose sight of the possibilities of experiencing a new kind life with him here and now. That would be a shame, because the Cure really does work: not only in the next life but right here in this one as well.
So--how are you feeling now?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Aroma of Christ

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2: 14-16)
Perhaps it’s the smell of donuts and tea, all yeasty and sweet. Or roses: nuanced and subtle, filling the room. Or the smell of baking bread where there should be the stench of burning flesh.
This week’s meditation is an invitation to breathe deep and discover the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ. Of course, the Apostle Paul was only using a metaphor, right? The intellectual colossus of Christianity would have never intended we could actually smell the presence of Jesus, would he?
I was away on a business trip last week. My 8 year-old daughter used my Cheerios Tee as a nightshirt, but not before smelling all the T-shirts in the closet because they reminded her of Daddy. We could never remember Jesus like that. Never? Widows tell of opening a dresser drawer and catching the fragrance of their husband long departed. Our brain recalls the decades past by the faintest whiff of a meal we ate as children. We smell the beach before we see the ocean. 
Check the commentaries and you’ll find the musty smell of books and study. The commentators will remind you of Roman processions and temples filled with incense. The learned professors will explain these words were the stuff of Paul’s creative metaphor.
But there is another way: you can check the history of the people of God, common folk who have experienced uncommon things:
John the Apostle had a disciple named Polycarp. In 155 A.D. he was arrested and threatened with fire because he loved John’s Master, Jesus. “You threaten fire which burns for an hour and is soon quenched.” he said. “Why do you wait? Come, do what you will!” When the authorities tied him to a stake and set him ablaze, his skin turned golden brown and witnesses smelled the smell of baking bread. Since the witnesses were not theologians they reported their experience and not a metaphor: the aroma of the bread of life. 
But who can trust witnesses dead for 18 centuries? Something like that could never happen today.
That’s what I thought until a gnarly old musician, a 60’s throwback who sang worship songs to Jesus came to our little town. Barely 40 people gathered to hear him sing and minister. Yet when he prayed one-on-one for those who stayed until the end, the room swelled with rose-scent, a bouquet of God’s presence right before my very nose. It happened again the next day as I drove him to the airport. Our car filled with perfume as if an alabaster jar had been broken before me.
Still, it’s hard to believe, I grant you. And who could possibly expect it to happen again:
Until one Sunday morning when two rows of worshipers in our church encountered the smell of donuts and tea while they sang and raised their hands, each one sure they were the only ones until one looked at another and said, “This is weird, but do you smell tea?”
Of course, the commentators are right: Paul's words are allusions to the practices of the day. He was merely drawing on the common understanding of his times. But what if Paul also wrote his experiences down? What if there is also a spiritual reality long lost, and the Spirit is trying to whet our appetite for his presence again today?
How about you? Do you have a story to tell? Has his fragrance ever settled on you?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Deep Friendship, Deep Prayer

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples." ~ Luke 11: 1
Have you ever asked someone a question and then stopped listening too soon? The disciples asked Jesus for a lesson on prayer, but many of us quit listening after the first few verses. His answer stretches all the way to verse 13.
After Jesus provided a sample prayer he continued with seven simple words that can forever change our idea of prayer: “Suppose one of you has a friend . . .” (Luke 11: 5) Jesus moved the conversation from the content of prayer to the relationship between God and man. He calls the relationship friendship.
Some friendships stand on stick-legs: they can’t hold much weight. Every conversation has to be measured carefully to avoid damaging the relationship. Jesus, on the other hand, presents the example of a friendship so strong that both men can say exactly what they think without any worry of ruining their bond.
The story is of two men who knew each other so well they could be completely honest. One guy receives an unexpected visitor late at night and needs to provide hospitality. He goes to his friend’s house--even though it’s too late at night to drop by--and asks for extra food. His friend says, “Are you nuts? It’s way too late, come back tomorrow.” Yet the relationship is so strong that the first guy can say, “I’m not leaving until I get what I need.”
Bible scholars will tell you that Jesus paints this picture to illustrate the importance of persistence in prayer, and of course that’s true. But there’s something more: Jesus invites us to imagine prayer as an extension of honest, real friendship. If we approach prayer academically we will rush past Jesus' simple introduction, “Suppose you have a friend.” He asks us to draw on our experience and imagine the best friendship we have, then apply that kind of security and strength to the way we talk to God.
The point of his illustration is that friendship itself is the reason we can persist. The reason we can be so bold to knock on the door at midnight is that we know our rude behavior will not sever the relationship. We can continue to ask, seek, and knock because we know the heart of the one we are bothering. He’s our friend. The kind of friend for whom the rules don’t count.
I’d like to suggest at least five thoughts that may change your prayers:
We don’t have to wait for the “proper time” to come and ask. If the situation calls for it, bang on the door in the middle of the night. That’s what real friends are for.
The friendship door swings both ways: the second friend is comfortable in the relationship, too. So comfortable, in fact, that the first answer might be, “Don’t bother me!” Does our picture of God allow for the possibility that I could press through the first answer? Would you ever ask God to change his mind?
When my friend does answer, he will give me “as much as I need.” Friends don’t keep score: what’s yours is mine, and vice versa. The basis for his generosity is the relationship, not the rules of etiquette.
I can have the boldness to keep on asking when I’m asking on behalf of someone else. Remember how the story starts? There’s a third party in the picture. They are the ones who will eat the bread; they are the ones in need. Jesus is suggesting that when we pray out of our need to bless others, God is more than generous, but how many times have I limited my prayers to my needs?
Finally, Jesus is unafraid to mix metaphors. Just as the power of this imaginary scene is beginning to sink in, Jesus begins to talk about fathers, children, and the Holy Spirit (verses 11-13). Can we turn our imagination in still more directions?
Perhaps, but that’s another blog for another day.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Monday Meditation: Rethinking the Daily Mail

Let me confess something: I used to hate bringing the mail in from the mailbox. I would let it build up for days and pretend it wasn't there. I was upset if my wife or kids brought it in.
“No good thing can possibly come in the mail,” I instructed my family, and I really meant it.
Then one day I began to apply my imagination to the possibilities of receiving mail so good that it could change my life. Try to apply your imagination with me:

  • The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and now--suddenly--they tell you your house is paid off. In fact, they owe you a rebate as well.
  • A total stranger has paid off your student loans.
  • The doctors write to tell you the diagnosis was wrong and you don’t have cancer after all.
These examples represent the best kind of news. No more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; your fears of endless treatment and medicines vanish in a moment. Who wouldn’t welcome such great news?
But now imagine that the day after you receive such wonderful mail, you wake up and find yourself worried about money or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. Old habits die hard, and habits of the mind may not die at all.
To receive good news, to really receive it—to take it in and discover new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know. You thought repentance meant things like remorse, feeling guilty, determination and trying harder.
Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word “repent” means rethink your life. The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change your world.
There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, something that wipes away the past, or presents a future that cannot be denied. Better yet, all three. Jesus presented just that hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus challenged people to recognize that the world would be forever different because God had come down and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.
God could not be stopped, the old order of things was condemned and a new order was made real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”
Good news requires that we rethink our way of life. Have you recalculated yours in the light of his Kingdom? May I suggest this mediation for the coming week? Instead of trying to imagine going to heaven after you die, try to imagine what it would be like if heaven began breaking into your world here and now, because that’s precisely what happened in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tasting the Family Heritage

God’s presence is the family heritage. I turn page after page in the family album of scripture and discover my God is highly relational. He wants us to know him. Let’s pull out the album and remind ourselves of the past. Can you hear the pages crackle with the testimony of lives impacted by his touch?
There’s our father, Abraham. He was visited personally by the creator of the universe no fewer than four times. God spoke to Abraham, and Abraham spoke to God. They discussed where Abraham should live, what he should do and how he should raise his family. Abraham served God a meal, heard God laugh, and bargained with him for the lives of the righteous.
Abraham’s son, Isaac, shared his life with God as well. God helped him through difficult economic times with specific advice. Isaac waited a long time for the God of his father to become his God, but it was worth the wait. Isaac’s wife asked of God and discovered why her pregnancy was so difficult; in the process she learned the secret destiny of her twin sons.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, did his best to avoid the presence of God. Yet even while running away he stumbled into God’s house. He didn’t know where he was, but he awoke at the base of Heaven’s gate. Later in his life he found himself in hand-to-hand combat with the Almighty, and the experience changed his identity forever: “I’m the one who wrestled with God” (and I have the limp to prove it).
This is our family album as well. Our ancestors conversed with God, questioned God, wrestled with God, and heard his secrets. They bargained and pleaded with him, and--most amazingly--they experienced his presence even while they were in conflict with him.
Those of us with a high view of scripture should allow it to whet our appetite, to provoke our thirst for his tangible presence.  We have a choice: if our experience does not match the revealed word of God, we should change our way of life and pursue the experience we see. Instead we have settled for knowing the record of the past, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Monday’s post collected stories from everyday people who have felt his touch in our time. Their stories should encourage us that Abraham’s blessing can be ours as well. God’s relationship with others is a promise to us. We were made to be with him. Do we experience his presence? Are we aware when God is in the room? Jesus intended that, like our family, we should know his presence. We should settle for nothing less. One taste is enough to bring hunger for life. We should feel him for real or wrestle with the lack until he comes and touches us himself.
Many Christians have no story to tell because they have been taught avoid subjective experience. They’ve been taught the facts of God’s presence, but what good is it to have a theology that asserts God’s presence is everywhere if there is no evidence of it? It may be the central failing of the North American church: His presence is rarely manifest. We do not even feel the lack. He is indeed with everyone, but everyone is not always with him. God is present with everyone; more important, He longs for everyone to be present with him.

We have settled. The presence of God has been canned, preserved and placed in the pantry. Our taste for the freshness of his presence has been dulled. We have subsisted on the remains of his presence when just one taste of the real thing is enough to cause us to hunger for the rest of our lives. It’s the kind of hunger that will keep us filled for life.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Experiencing His Presence

One night God came to dinner with me and five of my friends. We’ve never been the same.
We were a team of six college students who found ourselves unexpectedly joined together because our backyard Bible study had blossomed into a small church. Our ragtag group of believers were like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan--not a true adult among us. We sang silly songs and engaged in Bible teaching, even though we ourselves knew nothing. We had seen our fellowship grow into 120 people, but the only thing we knew for sure is that the six of us were called by God into mutual commitment to him and one another.
Alone in a church basement, around the scent of roast lamb rising from our plates we celebrated what God had done between us. We ate a covenant meal and expressed our commitment to one another.
What happened next changed my life: God became present in a tangible way. He was in the room with us. We stopped praying and sat in silence. The room was heavy: the air lay upon my shoulders like a weight. None of us dared speak. The silence was so thick it seemed like a substance. Each of us knew that God had joined us. We felt small and insignificant even while we also felt eternity welling inside of our very bodies.
After he left, we sat together stunned, and shared our experiences. My tiny mind knew that, technically, God was everywhere all the time, but in that moment I experienced his presence for the first time. In the decades since I have encountered God again and again, now aware that there is a difference between the knowledge of his omni-presence and the experience of his presence. 
I’ve listened to other people speak of their experiences as well: 
“God met me in a hotel room one night;” 
“God visited me in my childhood as I looked out my bedroom window;” 
“The presence of God filled the room like a cloud as we worshipped.” 
I know their accounts are true simply because I have eaten at the same table and sipped the same wine. I’ve read the accounts of people like Jacob the slickster, who awoke one night and gasped, “‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28: 16-17)
This week’s Meditation is a two-fold invitation to this community of readers: 
  • If you’re never experienced the presence of God in a tangible way, ask him to come and open yourself to the possibility.
  • If you have experienced his presence, click on the comments below and share your story. Let deep call to deep so we might all hunger again for that banqueting table.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Surpassing Peace

What if the opposite of fear is not courage, but peace?

Peace I leave with you,” Jesus told his friends at the Last Supper. “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)

Our day and age is characterized by activity, energy, and action. Peace is not an attribute of our times. When magazines and television broadcasts highlight the lives of celebrities, peace is not mentioned as one of the advantages of “the good life.”

Jesus, however, offered his disciples the yoke of discipleship, and under his instruction they would experience rest and peace. He spoke about peace often: peace is among the fruit of the Spirit. Peace is an attribute of believers even when they face persecution or violence. Peace is the fingerprint of Jesus upon the lives he has crafted. He can teach us how to live a life of peace.

The Apostle Paul, writing to a healthy group of believers in Philippi, gave these words as his final command:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6 – 7) 
These are famous verses. Perhaps you have heard of this incredible promise of “the peace which transcends understanding.” But has anyone taught us how to receive the gift of God, this perfect peace? We can be free from fear and anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving.

For many followers of Jesus, prayer is more a source of frustration than peace. We know that we are supposed to pray, but who has instructed us how to pray? For some of us, our prayers are driven by need or fear. For others prayer is a duty and a mystery. One reason we do not experience the peace that passes understanding after we pray is that we have not learned how to pray as Jesus taught.

The passage in Philippians also reveals the key ingredient in prayer: thanksgiving. A thankful heart is the foundation for peace in God’s Kingdom. As we “present our requests to God,” we are instructed to do so with thanksgiving. It’s OK to have requests, we simply need to do so with thanksgiving. These need not be opposed to each other. Thanksgiving changes the atmosphere. Thanksgiving orders our world properly.

A heart thankful toward him is a heart in right relationship with him. Do we need to petition God? Absolutely! But the life-giving way to bring our requests before him is with a genuinely thankful heart. Many of us pray from a place of worry and fear, and so we emerge from prayer even more anxious than when we started! We can learn to be thankful, and we must pursue this heart-quality if we are to follow him.

Finally, we need to see the connection between our understanding and peace. Many Christians are driven by the need to control our circumstances. Part of that control is the driving need to “understand” what is going on in our lives. We believe that if we can understand what is happening, we will somehow have the power to affect our situation. This is largely an illusion. We rarely are capable of the perspective needed to understand our complicated lives. Until we give up our right to understand we can't have the peace that passes understanding.

We worry about so many things! We want to know: why have we been treated unfairly? Why did our loved one make such a foolish choices? The “why” questions reveal our inner desire to be in control, and when we are not in control we are filled with worry, grief, and care. God gives understanding, but it is a gift to the heart at rest in him.

Good news: we can learn the things that make for peace. We can learn to pray the Jesus way. We can cultivate thankfulness that springs from the heart. We can experience transcendent peace. He calls us to learn from him. We can start here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Glory and Goodness

Just when everything seems to be going wrong, God reveals his goodness and his glory.

Consider the amazing events recorded in Exodus 32 & 33. Moses has experienced unimaginable victory: the Egyptians have been defeated, God’s people have been delivered from slavery into freedom, and Moses has received ten life-giving words that will re-order Israel’s new identity as God’s very own society.

Moses was literally at the heights of revelation and victory. When he came down from the mountaintop he got the surprise of his life: the people of Israel, freshly rescued from 400 years of misery, had turned away from God, created a golden statue of a calf, and bowed down to their newly-created idol. Worse still, the “worship” of the man-made statue involved the kind of party that would make your mother blush.

When you turn to Exodus 33, that’s the story so far. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, and some days are calf manure. In that very place of betrayal and spiritual adultery, God chose to demonstrate his goodness to Moses. Exodus 33: 12 – 23 takes only a moment to read, and we can discover at least four meditations:

1). As Moses pleads with God for help, and God answers simply, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God’s first answer is to offer his presence. It’s what we need most. Selah: pause, and think about that!

2). Moses responds with wisdom that still applies for us today: regarding God’s presence Moses says, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” The distinguishing mark of God’s people is his presence. In times of victory or trouble, his presence is our identity. I know it’s Monday, but Selah: pause, and think about that!

3). God’s assurances are personal and filled with approval. Moses is bold enough to push all the chips into the middle of the table and say, “Show me your glory.” What a strange request when there are so many problems to solve! Today, make time and Selah: pause, and think about that!

4). Finally, even as God himself says, “yes,” to Moses, God offers a gentle instruction. Moses asked, “show me your glory,” and God says, “I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you.” The lesson is: one of the ways God demonstrates his glory is to show us his goodness. Why not ask him today to open your eyes to his goodness?