Archive for November, 2008

The Dead Must Bury Themselves

November 28, 2008

Another disciple said to Him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

But Jesus told him,  “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”  Matthew 8:21, 22.

He said to  another man,  “Follow me.”

But the man replied,  “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him,  “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said,  “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.”

Jesus replied,  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:59-62.

Hard sayings, wouldn’t you say?  How do we respond to something this matter of fact and in what way do we understand such cut and dried demands?

I think the answer lies in Jesus’ life itself.  His purpose could not be interrupted for the sake of family, friends or religious preferences.  On the other hand, His compassion for Mary, His mom, shows a conscientiousness that goes beyond many who claim to be in service for God.  Even on the cross He looked after His mother’s future needs by commending her to His best friend, John.  Yet on an earlier occasion Jesus actually denied His family access to Him:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that He and His disciples were not even able to eat.  When His family heard about this, they went to take charge of Him, for they said,  “He is out of His mind.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.  Standing outside, they sent someone in to call Him.  A crowd was sitting around Him, and they told Him,  “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”  He asked.

Then He looked at those seated in a circle around Him and said,  “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whosoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”  Mark 3:20, 21, 31-35.

I hate to say this but Jesus creates a puzzle for us to put together.  It’s one of the principles of the kingdom of God, to tell the truth, for God even said through the Proverbs, It is to the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.  Think of the parables Jesus told about the lost coin, the pearl of great price and others where those who valued what they either lost or found spent great amounts of energy, effort and focus trying to find it.  So it is with the truths of Scripture.  We must connect the dots and follow the logic that flows through the stories and teachings.

So in light of this what does Jesus mean?

For us to simply extract the above passage by itself we would conclude that Jesus dissed His family for the sake of the work of God.  Nothing is further from the truth; the dissing didn’t come from Him but them!  They thought Him insane because He was teaching and serving others to His own “hurt” in their minds.  By denying the wisdom in His actions they were closing off Jesus’ mission and teaching from their own hearts, thereby removing themselves from both God’s will and His family mission.  If Jesus had submitted to them, He would have been saying that His mission and methods were of human origin and frail instead of godly, effective and eternally vital.  His family didn’t believe in Him totally, by this attitude they placed their “wisdom” for the situation outside the realm of God’s will so that they were denied any authority over Him in this situation.

What Jesus’ response teaches us is simply this:  Our first duty is to God and His mission.  If we are fulfilling our mission to God through our choices, we can rest easy in our connection with Him.  Jesus’ logic simply confronted the man’s desire to sidetrack his calling.  In a time of war, we don’t usually get time off for a funeral, though sometimes it will happen that they will let an only son out early to care for the family.  Since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but spiritual, Jesus made it clear that the time for action was now not later.

Take the case of the man who wanted to bury his father.  Notice he didn’t tell Jesus,  “My father just died and I need to go bury him.”  No, it was,  “First let me go bury my father.”  Implying that he would serve Jesus once his father passed away–no timeframe offered or known.  In other words, Jesus’ call needed to be put on hold for an event that may or may not have occurred as yet. 

The same thing happens with the man who wants to go home and say goodbye to his family.  Requests like these were delay tactics at worst and mixed priorities at best.  The biggest problem wasn’t that these men cared about their families but that they thought God’s calling negotiable.  I don’t think Jesus was so hard-hearted that He would have prevented a man from attending his own father’s funeral.  Indeed, Jesus went to Lazarus’ funeral, albeit late, and so we can conclude it must not have been an issue.  What He confronted seemed to be the men’s need to put other things before the work of God.  It’s kind of like going to a funeral on a day at work where one takes off the afternoon but gets back to it the next day.  Jesus wouldn’t have begrudged the person that kind of delay, but an extended or indeterminate amount of time was out of the question.  Funerals in that day and age could take a while as could the arrangements afterward.

In the previous entries on this subject I have called to task ministers who neglect their children or family obligations for the sake of the “work of the Lord,” but now I must speak to the balance.

The prophet who disobeyed, though he had received clear instructions, did so at the loss of his life.  To respond to God’s call is no light or casual matter but vital and important.  We can be unsure of ourselves, our understanding, our perceptions, our spiritual connection, but once we know the call and what is required of us, we must move forward no matter the opposition. 

We are called to love everyone and care for everyone equally.  When the apostles were confronted with men neglecting their families or elders who couldn’t control them either, they gave instructions that covered such problems.  Paul told Timothy that an man could not be an elder unless he had learned to control his own children and take care of his family first.  Why?  He who is faithful in little will be faithful in much.  It becomes a characteristic of a transformed mind.

We are not God, therefore within our physical limitations, we do our best to meet the needs around us.

I guess what I’m attempting to say is that our children are part of the great commission.  Our spouse is as vital to our witness as is our knowledge of the Bible; our love for our families as important as any doctrine we practice.  Yet when these interfere with the call of God and not only distract us for a time but stop us from performing our duties to the Lord, they have to be repositioned into the place that God sets for them.  We in the service of the Lord Jesus will be judged more stictly than the average because we must know better!  Our relationships with our families witness to the connection of God to His children; our connection and treatment of our spouse is a direct human corrolation to God’s relationship within the Trinity.  If we show a divided, dissonent and disconnected personal camp, we have set the stage for misunderstandings in both our families and those with whom we would share the gospel.

The flip side of this is that many in the congregation have been taught by the clergy that personal wealth or possessions are worldly.  Practically speaking this points to missionaries owning expensive stuff not owning necessities to do the job.  Yet some in the church believe a pastor should live on the edge of poverty or his/her calling will be compromised.

Susan (again of TLC for Women) brought up in a comment that a pastor was run out of the ministry because someone thought his new couch a extravagance, sacrilege and unworthy of a pastor–even though it was a gift and paid for by others!  This is what I mean, we strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.  We have these false assumptions about God and our part in it to the point that these petty, foolish and wholly ungodly attitudes dominate our reasoning–or lack thereof.  This woman misunderstood the gospel.  She needed to look at the passage where Jesus said,   “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask of Him?”

It is unworthy of us to be superficial in our assessment of God.  We are not to worry about money or possessions but be responsible for it in a godly manner.  We are not wear ourselves out to get rich but we are to use our riches to the glory of God.

I believe our current twisted understanding of this issue comes from the enemy of our souls, The Accuser of the Brothers, to undo our love for God, our Father, and make us ineffective and powerless in the world.  His method is to divide and conquer, which so far has succeeded quite well.

The bottom line for us that we don’t sacrifice the work of God for anything or anyone.  Yet our view about what the work is needs to be filtered through the Scriptures to grow in our understanding of how love, grace and carrying our cross works in the practical world.  If we love one another, we will benefit all and be careful of our flocks at home, in the church and those lost looking for refuge.  It’s a balancing act, for sure, but Christ’s grace covers our failures as well as our successes.

Only let us live up to the light we have already attained.


On the Flip Side

November 24, 2008

While they were sitting at the table, the word of the LORD came to the old prophet who had brought him back.  He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah,  “This is what the LORD says:  ‘You have defied the word of the LORD and have not kept the command of the LORD your God gave you.  You came back and ate bread and drank water in the place where He told you not to eat or drink.  Therefore your body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers.’ ”  1 Kings 13:20-22.

Finding the balance between one’s own beliefs and the instructions of others is a harsh reality we face.  In the story above we find one prophet given very specific instructions by God, when another prophet comes along to tell the first guy differently.  It’s hard not to sympathize with the younger prophet in a culture which pounded home respect for one’s elders.  Plus, there is the factor that the old man might have had years of practice in persuading people to believe whatever he was pushing.

I don’t pretend to understand everything about Scripture, but I find it very frustrating that the younger prophet lost his life over this incident.  Why?  Because it puts the fear of God in my soul as well.  The new “evidence” of the respected prophet/elder presents a problem for the younger man:  1.  Should he trust his own calling when he might be wrong?  2.  Was this a test by God or a reward for faithfulness?  3.  Was this a new development or a ruse?

The question comes up in our own walk with Jesus constantly doesn’t it?  If we have any wisdom at all, we question our motives, understanding and egos so that we are not outside of God’s will.  The problem becomes more complicated when we add into the mix other “counselors”–even respected ones–because they might have a different call on their lives and believe that same call should become common for everyone else.

The Scripture says flat out the older prophet was lying (see verse 18).  This also presents a conundrum for us because why would an older prophet lie?  The younger man could stand up to the king bravely facing whatever power of the throne could throw at him but his weakness appears to be trusting in his own call in the face of others peers’ pressure.  Self-doubt is good, but unless we are sinning in our understanding or outside the boundaries of Scripture, our calling is sure.

Romans 11:29:  …For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.

My last entry noted that many pastors neglect their children for the sake of ministry.  While this is a truth, Susan, of TLC for Women (you can follow the link to her site in the blog roll), brought up the other side of the coin about the unnatural pressure the children experience being in a pastor’s home.  They are like celebrities kids who can’t even wet their pants in public without comment.  It’s like they have no right to be children or fail like other people.  We expect the same of our pastors and spiritual leaders.  They have no leeway to fall and if they do, we crucify them anew in our harsh assessment of the facts, using their failure as either justification for our own unbelief, disobedience or a means to push our own agenda.

David was called (by God no less) a man who pursued God’s heart, yet this man committed murder and adultery in one fell swoop.  Which should be a warning to all of us that we are not exempt from failure, at the same time it should instill in all a compassion and willingness to restore those who fall gently.

Our challenge then is to strike a balance between serving others and stabilizing our families.  I am sure that I’m not equal to the task of judging for anyone where the fulcrum sits in order to do that, but I do know that we have to prioritize our families in a way that the rest of the world sees evidence of it for it communicates to all concerned who God is to us.  Not only the welfare of our children but the future of those who observe our priorities in action will too.

As we thoughtfully, prayerfully and humbly give ourselves to our Master’s service, let us hold ourselves up to the standard of love and meet the needs around us and within ourselves without prejudice or preference.  If we fail to hit the target (the Greek word for sin, by the way), then there’s grace from on high to cover us and restore.

We serve a wonderful, merciful and gracious Savior and God.

Learning to Listen

November 22, 2008

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more.  How gracious He will be when you cry for help!  As soon as He hears, He will answer you.  Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them.  Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying,  “This is the way; walk in it.”  Isaiah 30:19-21.

Learning to listen to God’s voice is probably the toughest assignment Christians get once they become followers of the Way.  I know God wants to give us good gifts but I’m many times stumped as to which way to turn and how to operate.

So many times we hear confident people in church telling us they have a word from the Lord.  The rhetoric ends up sounding like a quote straight from the Bible somewhere with new words, to the point that these same people could have just quoted the Scripture and stood on a foundation with more authority than their own clay feet.  I don’t object to prophecy in church nor exhortation, but for someone to speak in the assembly, they must have something to say not just be filled with the need to speak.  In fact, Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 exhorts us to be extremely careful about saying anything when we come into the house of God, going so far as to say,  Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  We need to beware of “prophesying” just because God has spoken to us in the past.  I am not rebuking the desire to encourage others or the rhema that comes as a result of the Spirit’s promptings, rather I believe many times we speak because we simply desire to have something to say.

That is foolish.

We all struggle to understand God, if we didn’t we would be either angels or extremely close to Him like Enoch.  But since we all travel the same basic road to knowledge of the Holy One, I would say we should be more careful how we approach the Word of God in all its forms.  Two questions immediately present themselves for us to ponder:

1.  How do we know when someone is speaking the Word of God to us or not? 

2.  How do we know to distinguish the voice of the Lord in our own hearts?

In one of the churches I attend we have a testimonial time to tell others where God has led us the past week.  Anyone can say what’s on their hearts, and many times I’m just eager to do so but have nothing specific in my spirit to say.  I’m learning silence and the art of listening, for many times other people come up with things that speak to my heart as an exhortation or encouragement.  Even though I am in leadership, I’m not whole except before the cross like everyone else.  Neither am I sinless, hold all knowledge or have the edge on heavenly wisdom, so listening for the voice of the Lord is as vital to us teachers as it is for the laymen.

To answer both questions above in one fell swoop we turn to another quote from Isaiah in chapter 8:19, 20, which reads,  When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God?  Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?  To the law and to the testimony!  If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.

So we see that written Word is the basis for judging the voice of God speaking to our hearts either internally or from an external source.  Sometimes we have to boil down a situation to its basic ingredients before we know what we’re facing.  I mean the Bible doesn’t deal with the computer age neither does it address archeology or any of the sciences directly.  But what we have are solid foundational guidelines for our service both to God and other people.  To know the voice of God we have to know how He has spoken to people in the past and judge according to the Word we already have in Jesus.

Four gospels give us the blueprint of Jesus’ voice.  Four different vantage points from which to know Him.  Each one is vital to a complete understanding of the God-man we follow.  Yet I would also say that without the writings of Paul, Peter, James and others, we wouldn’t understand the practical lifestyle we must live while we wait for Jesus’ return.  The Word of God is powerful and effective, dividing between soul and spirit, bone and muscle.

When we are contemplating serving God, we have to judge our choices by what He has given to other servants in the past.  Our call to serve is not unique as such, but divinely tailored to our nature individually.  This takes faith in God not ourselves, otherwise we might, just for the sensational value of it, run around like Isaiah naked for three years (see Isaiah 20).  While Isaiah ran this way for a time, he had ample evidence from God to do so and it was to force the people to listen to the warnings the prophets were giving them.  Drastic measures for hardened hearts.

Yet these kinds of examples were not common nor were they flagrantly demonstrated throughout the history of Israel.  Instead they were strategically placed at a point in history where they would have the most effect–if anything could.  The methods we use have to fall in line with the message we are given.

For example, if someone tells you that we should be rich in worldly goods because Jesus was poor, they have ignored the Word for the sake of their earthly security.  Jesus promised us persecution, going so far as to say,  “If they treated the Master like this, what will they do to the servants?”  John 15-17 is one big warning about what we can expect if we follow Him.  So those who preach a prosperity “doctrine” have to deal with the written Word before they can espouse the spoken.  Discernment comes only through knowing God’s mind and prophecy itself is not about being a fortune teller, but speaking the mind of God.

But if Jesus told us we would do greater things than these (His miracles), then we know that we are safe to step out of the boat for He will guide us and hold us up.  On the other hand, we have to be careful that we are stepping out in wisdom.  For instance, a father should never take a call which subtracts his children from his duties in the Lord.  In other words, if he brought the children into the world, the responsibility falls directly on him to raise them in the fear of the Lord.  Without direct visions from God or incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, his path is already set.  This goes for a mother as well.  Nothing is more lost than a child that has “godly” parents who ignore him or her.  What does an attitude of “ministry first” say to them about God Himself?  What does it say to our children about the nature of Jesus’ love for them?  How important do children to God if their own parents, who supposedly serve Him, don’t prioritize them?

The reason I say this is that I have seen so many pastor’s kids run away from God into all sorts of pain from being a low priority and also I have a four year old red headed boy who craves my approval, is devoted to me with a passion and needs my love unconditionally.  Sound familiar?  It’s exactly what we need from God isn’t it?  We are His hands, His feet, His mouth and out of our lives people will either see a demonstration of His character and love for them or a sense of disconnect.

The greatest miracle in the world is not a body healed but a heart which is turned to God.  The rest is important but not the crux of God’s purpose.  Physical healing is a means to impress upon the the minds and hearts of humans that if God cures the body, what can He do with the soul?

So, my devotions have steered toward faith and knowing God’s call.  I am reassessing from the Word and personal experience what this means.  As we all can claim, I am a work in progress and as such will discover new ideas and “truths” (quotes mean they aren’t new truths just new to me) which will affect and change my understanding as well as how I live my life–hopefully.

Faith’s Children

November 21, 2008

Each one should test his own actions.  Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself with anybody else, for each one should carry his own load.  Galatians 6:4, 5.

1/12 of the disciples took life and limb in hand to step out of the boat to then walk on water, but even that one failed to have faith and began to sink.

I’ve heard Peter criticized in sermon after sermon about how faithless he was but what about the other eleven still in the boat?  The experience of watching someone walk on water must have been just as amazing for the other guys worried that they were seeing a ghost or gonna’ drown.  In fact, seeing a ghost on the water for them must have been an omen of death for they lived in a very superstitious age so that their fear went through the roof thinking they were going to die.

Walking on water is not for everybody.  Peter asked Jesus about what would happen to John once, and Jesus basically told him to mind his own business (see the last chapter of John for this story).  One person’s outcome is not necessarily another’s, though they might be similar.

If we look at the way Jesus taught, He always spoke about using the measure of faith a person is given to its potential.  Sometimes when I write about these things, I realize that I put a load of guilt on those who think they should be doing more wild things for God–and may be they are called to do so, but then again, may be they’re not.  Not everybody is slated for mission fields, not everyone is slated to die on a cross upside down, nor did every disciple experience the same end.  Sure all died in some form, but each one went through a specific experience all their own.  All the disciples except John died martyr’s deaths, yet John lived to be about 90, if the histories are correct.

My experience is not yours, yours is not mine.  The main point, I believe, is:  Are you being faithful where God puts you?  Are you following what He asks of you?

If you have children, you have a ready made discipleship group right in front of you.  Work to live Jesus in front of your children so that they may grow into people of faith.  Put the time into their lives the way you believe Jesus puts time into you.  By being like Jesus for our children we stamp a memory of His image on their developing psyches which cannot be erased.  Our marriages represent the God-head, Trinity’s three-in-one package, do we see our love for our spouses and our children as a witness?  If our love for our spouse is less than a building up of unity and devotion, we have failed in the great commission.  Our family life is by definition a greater testimony to the love and grace of God than our preaching and teaching, because it demonstrates a rubber-meets-the-road lifestyle.

The Children of Israel doubted God despite His many manifestations and daily provision.  As a result of their rebellious doubt, they wandered in the wilderness until all of the old guard, soaked with the mindset of slavery, died off.

I have wandered in a wasteland of sorts where my gifts were recognized but barely used because I doubted God would want to use my abilities.  I was so worried about being prideful because I’m a published artist (only in South Africa before the government change) that I sought out the most obscure types of jobs and probably defeated God’s purpose for me in the area of my art.  I felt unworthy to be a musician because, as all are, I am such a sinner.

But looking at the disciples, how are we any different?  Our lives work around what we know and see not the unseen.  Our psyches admit the possibility of walking on water but our practical natures recoil from the actual actions it takes to move out and take hold of what God has for us to do.  I’m beginning to see now that I would rather sink out on the water with Jesus there to grab my hand than be in the boat aghast at the folly it took just to step out of it.

I don’t know what God has called you to do, but whatever it is do it with all your might.  Let the joy of the Lord be your strength and He will use you effectively where you are.  Though I wandered in a wasteland of sorts over the past few years, I have found that my ability to minister to others has not only increased but I have grown in sympathy for the travails of the human race.

Let me say that being in business for myself is a whole new world of struggle that I never wanted.  It’s easy to preach from the pulpit or stage about faith but a whole other thing to actually live it out in the daily grind.  Right now I’m walking on water through this week because both my bank accounts are dry to being in the hole.  God brought me through last week in similar circumstances and is leading me through this one in triumph of faith over means.  George MacDonald said something (I can’t remember where I read this, forgive me),  “I would never let a man become minister until he had first lived in the world of men.  To advise others about how to deal with loss and struggle he must experience the same in order to give wise counsel.” 

Now I know that’s a slightly paraphrased version of what he said but the point I took from it is our lack of empathy for the world is the greatest enemy to our witness.  If we have everything going good all the time, we cannot be bothered to reach out to those who struggle because we consider them stupid or cursed.  Only once we have done everything in our power to succeed and still failed will we understand Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12, that the race doesn’t always go to those who work hard or are the most qualified but time and chance step in to influence the outcome.

I am not preaching out of both sides of my mouth but setting up the balance I find in Scripture:  If a man does not work, he does not eat.  2 Thessalonians 3:10.  Our understanding of the Word of God must become balanced and mature.  Instead of wishing that God would provide manna from the sky, we must keep our eyes open to the possibility that He just might be providing a menial job for the same purpose.  God hates idleness, not because He can’t provide for us but because it usually means we begin to feel a sense of entitlement then grow lazy or become co-dependent to the point of not being able to live at all.
A full life in Christ is not just being busy but industrious and restful at the same time.  It’s full of a peace about our lives that transcends (goes beyond) our understanding.  That peace comes through faith in the God we serve.  Faith is believing in God to be right and trusting His word to be true.
In all our circumstances He will be faithful.  Our job is to follow Him wherever He wants us to go.

Faith Again

November 19, 2008

There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  1 John 4:18.

Saturday, November 15, 2008 was a revelation.  Okay, not the day itself but what I heard.

I went to church (yes there are evangelical churches which meet on Saturday morning, and I’ll explain why some other time) to pay a friend some money I owed him for working for me.  When I got there, he was sitting in the back with his wife so I went and sat down next to him and gave him the money.  I made a few crazy comments that he laughed at, then the sermon began to seep into my consciousness.

The pastor was speaking on humility and what it looked like.

Before I get into his description, I need to say that I have come to the realization over the years that humility is a state of mind not an attitude of the body or condition by which we are known.  What started me on this path of understanding was a quote from Martin Luther,  “Some people are so humble they’re proud of it!” in a sermon some years ago.  I began to understand humility as not so much a performance of abstinence or self-flagellation, but a realization of who I am in relation to God.  It made sense that when I understood that God is God and I am not that my self perception would fall into place.

That’s why when the pastor came to the phrase,  “I am not God,” my ears perked up and I began to really take note of what he was saying next.  His understanding followed my own, therefore at once reaffirming my current stance, then expanding it by what he said next.  He spoke of fear to be ourselves as a form of pride.  A person who performs music is no better in God’s eyes than those who do other things but these people either have to live in denial of their gift or be thought of as prideful.  In other words, we should be able to say,  “Yes, I sing well” or “I have a good voice” without being conceited.  Knowing we are talented and using that talent is not conceit but knowledge.

So not performing up to our potential with our gifts flies in the face of the Creator who gave them.  This means that false humility which claims we cannot pursue our service through our gifts is just as much a lack of faith and form of pride as being boastful and self-centered.  Yet pride always becomes a problem because it is as subtle as a breath of wind bringing along with it the stench of decay.  Pride is an issue of constant comparison with either gods or men.  It carries a certain attitude of being above something or someone else.

For example:  One person won’t date another person because they don’t meet the standard.  Or someone won’t take a job because it’s beneath them or lower in pay than they feel they deserve.

The only way to escape this attitude is to recognize our place in the universe.  David could boast about his purity before God because he had performed the rites which allowed him to do so.  We can look to our own gifts as of use to God and work within their confines to the utmost of our ability.  This is not arrogance nor is it conceit, it is simply offering back to God what was instilled in us and given to us as a means to serve Him and others.

I know this by experience.  I’m afraid to use my gifts to their potential.  I worry that no one will listen to my music, read my devotionals or that I won’t survive financially well enough to provide for my own needs (which include a my son as well) while performing my duties as a lay minister.  Worry, anxiety and doubt plague all of us and I am not exempt from these things.  Just because we know the Scriptures and God’s promises, doesn’t mean that we escape the pressure of living.  Just because we have evidence in our past that God will provide for our present doesn’t mean that we escape the need to remind ourselves daily of His promises, answers to prayer in the past or that following Him will attract abuse from those who don’t.

Faith in Christ means that we become like Him.  Jesus said,  ” ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  John 15:20b

Most of us will think if our car doesn’t start properly it’s Satan persecuting us or if we don’t get that promotion…or…you get the idea.  I don’t believe this is the case.  Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12 says,  I have seen something else under the sun:  The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.  Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:  As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Time and chance mean to me improvisation not dictation or some form of programmed destiny that God sets up.  I am not a predestionalist in the sense that I believe God chooses our very color preferences, rather I believe we are given two choices, which are predestined to be given.  Those who choose Christ are predestined for life; those who choose against Him are predestined for destruction.  A destination is an end or place to arrive not the road itself.

Picture travelling a road with four lanes–two going one way, to the other.  If we think about it carefully, no two cars travel the same exact spots on the road continuously, though they might hit them momentarily.  Our experience is our own.  It might mirror another’s by default that we are all human, it might reflect in experience another’s by dent of the place our foot lands, but each one of us are given free will to exercise as we choose because God wills this for us.  He created it and it is our “destiny” to be free to choose.

Faith is about this choice.  Our lives will be full of frustration not because God wants that for us or wills it exactly but because we live in an evil world where the improvisation takes on a negative spin.  God’s world has been diverted to experience death for a time so that those who wake up to life will appreciate Him all the more for His efforts to rescue us.  This gift of salvation is free to all but not all (and I’d say not most from what Jesus said) will choose Him.

Our faith means believing in God, sure, but also means trusting and believing that what He says He will do, He will do!  We can walk on water if we have faith enough to get out of the boat, otherwise the story of Peter doing so and almost drowning in his efforts wouldn’t have been told or lived.  Jesus told him to step out on the water and walk to Him.  Peter could trust Jesus’ command as a promise.

I don’t know about you, but I ache to get out of the boat.  Yet I’m afraid of the wind and waves…I want to walk on water.  But I fear that I will fail or misunderstand God’s voice or think I hear it and really be doing what I want to do outside of God’s will instead.

If nothing else, Peter had the distinct experience of walking on water for however brief a time.  What do you think he learned from it once he was converted?

And now, just as importantly:  What do we learn from his experience?

When Jesus Gets Angry, pt 2

November 15, 2008

When they kept on questioning Him, He straightened up and said to them,  “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”  Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her,  “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,”  she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,”  Jesus declared.  “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  John 8:7-11.

Notice that Jesus didn’t get angry with the mob of Jews trying to trap Him into condemning the woman.  The Pharisees knew they couldn’t condemn even a prostitute to death without the express permission of the Romans, so their question of Jesus was a test, nothing more.

Notice something about this story and others like in Scripture:  Jesus didn’t condemn her though she was an obvious “sinner” and had been caught doing it.  There was no anger for her sin, no weighty, vitriolic or pious sermons to guilt her into changing her ways.  Only quietness, patience and mercy extended through a grace incomprehensible to her day and age.  Not only does Jesus not condemn the woman, but He gives her permission to leave her life of sin.

I guess my thought here is best said simply:  Jesus doesn’t get angry at sinners for being sinful.  He gets angry at His servants for polluting His message, mishandling what they already know to be true and using His grace as a means to wealth.  If someone is getting rich off the gospel, they should beware of their motives and what they do with that wealth, for they know the Scriptures which say that the one who teaches the Word of truth will be held to higher standard and called to account.

If we look at all the “condemnation” prophecies and judgmental sermons in the Bible, most aim the arrows of conviction and guilt at those who should know better (and probably do) but are unreprentent and taking advantage of the gifts God has given to embezzle from others for their own gain.

But there is nowhere a condemnation of the fallen, by Jesus.  His is a message of grace, forgiveness and new life for those who want it.

In God’s Image

November 14, 2008

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  Genesis 1:27.

The first thing I learned in exegesis class from this text was that no where does it describe God physically.  The entire first chapter of Genesis discusses what God did but never what He looks like.  To understand who we are, then, we must first take a look at who God is for we are in His image, and what that image looks like is different than we imagine most of the time. 

How can I say that conclusively?

Well, number 1, because the first chapters about creation describe God’s work not His physicality.  By that I conclude the first “image” of God stamped on our beings is creativity.  Sounds like a stretch of the text to you?  God created the heavens and the earth, according to Genesis, so our logical deduction from the text is that our first trait is being creative.  In fact, out of two beings comes a new life in the form of a child.  This is what God did out of nothing, yet we are given a means to understanding His joy by being able to take two non-sentient cells and create a sentient being.

Secondly, God said that it is not good for man to be alone, so He created a companion.  This tells us something about God that most don’t grasp–even after years of study:  God is a social being.  An intelligence cannot create what it cannot imagine or desire itself.  The fact that God said “it is not good…” means that He put a value on community.

Now I’ve said quite a bit about community, I know, but there’s reason for it.  It’s vital that we grasp our need of each other, or we will continue to ignore our community to its detriment.

A word of caution, however, is in order.  Putting God on a physical level along with mankind is probably missing the point; making God out to be a slavering sexual being is also out of the picture.  Jesus told the woman at the well in Samaria that “God is spirit, and His followers will worship Him in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24) yet He made us male and female in His image.  Now both sexes individually cannot be the exact image of God, only one of them, unless…  Unless the image of God is the imprint of the soul.  The physical attributes could speak to the ability God has within Himself to create life out of nothing–or in the human case, two completely different cells (sperm and egg) that must interact to make replicated life.  The simple unity of two people completes the puzzle in that coupling.  By becoming “one flesh” we complete our picture of God and thereby begin to grasp who He is within Himself.

Now some would conclude that I’m speaking about a duel natured God.  I believe that is bringing God down and missing the point.  One of the reasons God can be in our bedrooms without being a drooling voyeur is because He doesn’t have the desire for sex that He created in us, though He takes an innocent pleasure in our joy.  Yet His very nature suggests that He creates life by Himself.  Those existential people who need to understand everything in human terms would see God as either male and female within one being (thus making Him a sexual being) or the Christian God-head as Father, Mother (Holy Spirit), and Son (Jesus).  Again, I need to stress that this doesn’t necessarily explain God at all.  The fact that God created the sexes may just mean that He wishes to share the joy and pleasure He receives from creating life with His creation.  In other words the orgasm we experience in sex, which thus produces life, God used as a physical example of what it feels like to speak whole galaxies into existence.  But His ability to create goes far beyond our comprehension of two sexes into the realm of deity–or beyond human capability.

As Christians we believe in a triune God–three distinct entities with a unified purpose.  God’s purpose then for us is to reflect that in our relationships with each other.  In fact it is stressed over and over again in the NT to the point that I wonder how any denominations got started in the first place.  (I know, I know, the mother church kicked some out, others left in a huff, while still others left because they couldn’t accomplish anything where they were.)

We see through this unity of purpose a reflection of God’s image.  Perhaps the greatest sin against God we humans have ever perpetrated is our break in community.  When we war with each other, we fight the very design He placed within us and fragment His creation…I think the enemy of our souls has a part in this destruction.  For us to complete the picture of God, we need the diversified body of Christ.  I believe if we are to understand that picture at all, we must be able to see the unity in our diversity.  This doesn’t mean our sin, but our oneness in Jesus.

Our purpose has changed from being religious to being one.  Jesus said,  “I in them and You in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.”  John 17:23.  I think that about sums up God’s desire for us and what it means to be like Him.  It also tells us why Jesus died, to restore unity with God and man.  In fact, isn’t that what the angels sang at Jesus’ birth,  “Peace on earth, good will towards man!”

God’s image is about us being unified in our faith and faithful in our love and obedience.  We are never more like God as a church than when we show love for one another and unity of purpose.

Yet, when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth?

When Jesus Gets Angry

November 12, 2008

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts He found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves He said,  “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”  John 2:13-16.

You gotta’ wonder if Jesus just snapped.  I mean, this stuff of the money changers and animals in the court of the Gentiles had been going on for years, so He had to know about it.  It would seem logical to assume that He’d witnessed it since His childhood, so what was different now?  Well, partly, I believe Jesus announced His mission, authority and established place in Jewish society by making His declaration.  He was known around the country as a miracle worker and teacher, so with that street cred, He had some power to throw around and used it to clean up and clear up some misunderstandings the leaders had about worship.

Did it do any good?

No, these guys just brought their stuff back in after Jesus left.  I’m not saying Jesus’ actions were an empty gesture, but that He didn’t expect there to be a great change.  He knew the mind of mankind intimately and held no illusions about them, so I’m sure He wasn’t surprised when things didn’t change.  On the other hand, His move declared God’s displeasure with the state of Israel at the time.

The temple represented more than just a place for people to come and worship, it was a symbol of the heart.  Four major chambers for worship and purging one’s soul.  Two brought people in to confess and bring their lives for cleansing, two purified them and presented their requests to God then sent them out with renewed life.  So Jesus’ anger wasn’t just about a place but symbolic of His attitude about us.  He doesn’t want our hearts being sold to the highest bidder or up for sale at all.

We as the body of Christ are His temple, as is every single human heart an individual dwelling place for the Lord’s presence.

It appears from John’s account compared to the other gospels that Jesus may have actually done this twice.  Once at the beginning of His ministry as recorded in John and once again toward the end just before His death right after the triumphal entry.  Of course, it could also be that John wasn’t as concerned with linear time so that His record is more about making whatever point He wanted to emphasize rather than following a timeline.  But, if it’s true that Jesus did this twice, it shows how utterly hard hearted those who were supposed to protect God’s glory had become.  They went right back to their desecration ignoring even the rebuke of the Scripture Jesus flung at them while He was chasing people out.

The temple should be used for God’s business not noisy, greedy, extortionists who use the gospel for their own ends.  Jesus drove out the money changers but kept the children later after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, who were probably making just as much noise.  Which says something about Him, wouldn’t you say?

There are only a couple of examples where Jesus is recorded getting angry, this is one and the other is when He healed a man with a withered hand (see Mark 3:5).  In the case of the withered hand guy Jesus was about to heal him, yet those who stood against Him were worried more about their traditions than a man who’s physical condition limited his life.  They witnessed a healing, the hand became whole, then went straight out and plotted how to kill Jesus.  Do you see the irony?  If they needed any better proof of Jesus’ authority, they couldn’t have asked for it.  Yet they remained stubborn, stiff-necked and closed minded to who He showed Himself to be.  Mark says,  Jesus looked around in anger…deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.

Can you imagine the frustration?  Here He’s about to do what had never been done up to that time and still they refused to even acknowledge Him.  They hated Him for calling them on the temple desecration (a thing the law forbade anyway, though they created loopholes for that too) and then hated Him because He cured a man on the Sabbath.  Here’s where we have to take stock of ourselves as well.  When we care more about our own welfare (the wealth garnered at the money changers’ tables and animals sold in the temple) than we do God’s glory, we are in danger of choosing tradition and our own concerns over truth.  When we are more concerned with our own definition of righteousness than God’s simple explanation, we show that we don’t respect Him as sovereign.  Jesus is the boss.

If John 1 is correct, then Jesus gave the laws, created the world and is the one to interpret what they meant.  So the Pharisees and leaders wanting to kill Him is just plain rebellion against their God.  Many an atheist would accept Jesus if they saw the miracles day after day that the disciples and leaders of Israel saw; many an agnostic would be convinced and know His claims were true if they witnessed even one of the many things Jesus did.  The fact that these people fought Him tooth and nail says something about us in general–not just them.

We want what we want and nothing, even the truth, is gonna’ stand in our way.  How do I know this?

Jesus was crucified and died because He simply stood for a more compassionate life.  John 15:25,  “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law:  ‘They hated me without reason.’ “

I don’t think Jesus gets angry at unbelief that is uninformed or hasn’t seen the clear truth yet.  I believe He is distressed and angry when a person can see it clear as day yet still rejects it.  I mean, come on, doesn’t it bug us all when someone stubbornly refuses to accept reality in favor of their ignorance?

We only have a few examples of Jesus getting angry, but the ones we have speak volumes about what distresses Him to the point anger.  Funny, it’s never directed at a person who knows they’re a sinner and seeks forgiveness.

An Issue of Faith–Or, How to Please God

November 9, 2008

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.  Hebrews 11:6.

Have you ever thought about whether you really believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists?  Many people claim strong belief yet live as enemies of the cross.  What do I mean by “enemies of the cross”?

Philippians 3: 18, 19:  For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame.  Their mind is on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven.

Though a person might claim the name of Jesus, their lifestyle and attitude belies their declaration of service.  Jesus never told us to move off-planet but to refuse to be part of its attitudes and sin.  I know it’s hard to resist but the point of saving grace is not so that we can continue in the old way we’re used to doing things but to find new fresh, life-giving and wholly uplifting ways of thinking and living.  The new also doesn’t mean we live outside the realm of reality either.

The writer of Hebrews is making crucial point throughout chapter 11 and 12 about faith being the means to God’s pleasure.  We humans have tried everything to please our gods, and I mean everything.  Yet here is a simple solution God sets out for us to focus on:  Believe that He exists and have faith in Him as both sovereign and Savior.  It’s quite simple when we realize that God is not out to get us but anxious to heal the broken relationship begun at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Now think about that point for moment.

Here’s a Being who doesn’t need us to exist, to be in good company or be complete, yet He desires to heal the rift we made in our relationship with Him.  God desires to rebuild that relationship, it doesn’t come from us.  If this is how God relates to us, we see the cross in a whole new light.  It wasn’t about suffering, though that certainly played a part in it, but about showing us the lengths God would go to to rescue those who have walked away from Him.

Many in the world would be asking right about now (if they heard that last statement),  “Hold on just a second there, Maynard!  What do we need rescuing from?  Are you saying there’s something wrong with us?”

To answer the first question:  We are self-destructive as a general rule.  O, we don’t mean to be but just can’t help ourselves, so that’s part of our need for rescue.  Secondly, yes there’s something wrong with us because we can’t seem to be unified even when we hold the same general opinions about God or gods.  Look at every belief system in the world and you will see clear divisions–and some pretty vehement or violent discussions on the matters of truth, faith and what is accurate.

Science isn’t unified, religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity (to name the major ones) are constantly in turmoil over their interpretations of their own writings.  One faction splits off from another and begins espousing specific “truths” that go against either the traditional view or interpretation of the main body.  Many times these splits have resulted in wars or just plain violence.  Science hasn’t gotten violent exactly yet, but they do have another means of fighting:  words.  One scientist will vilify another over a discovery or study, to which the vilified one will respond in turn.  The Nazis used science to justify euthenizing thousands of disabled people (according to Ben Stein’s “Expelled”), so science has been as misused as religion.

George Orwell warned us against the misuse or abuse of science.  Big Brother, as a metaphor for government, watched its citizens “to keep them safe” from themselves.  It’s one of the big themes in Scifi books and movies, the big bad government or power-hungry person goes after dictatorship of the world and the hero who loves freedom of speech, action and the right to privacy defeats ’em.  The recurring theme only works because we see it in such subtle ways the world-over and most of us feel helpless to stop it.

Until humanity stops this behavior, I will continue to believe we need a Savior from ourselves.

Our main point above speaks to how to please our God, however.  The main way, according to Hebrews, is faith.  Faith is our jumping off point right after belief.   What’s the difference?  Well, James says,  You believe there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that–and shudder.  James 2:19.  So belief is not enough.  The demons know God from their time in His service as angels in His throne room, but their belief (first hand knowledge based, by the way) does them absolutely no good since they don’t have faith in His goodness or any desire for His sovereignty.

So we have to move to faith.  What is faith?  It is choosing to trust what God says to be true and in His character in general.

Yet to accurately follow through on belief and faith, we need to act on what we say.  If I tell you that I believe that board will hold me up the air suspended between two supports while I paint the house but never use it, my faith is only word based not action.  For me to be truly complete in faith I have to use the board.  It’s basically the same with Jesus.  If we claim to have faith in Him (which means we trust the source as well as the teachings in them), then I have follow through with conforming to His way of thinking (Romans 12:1-3).  The actions that come from a cerebral decision alone are not enough, we must be convinced that His way is the only one or our faith is empty words.

James makes it pretty clear that if our faith is not followed by works we are no better than the rebellious angels who work with Lucifer and crucified Christ.  So our actions must back up our words.  We must be engaged, involved and choose to believe through faith (remember that means “trust in that what God says is true”).

So pleasing God is just a matter of faith.

Extending Forgiveness

November 5, 2008

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you sins.”  Matthew 6:14, 15.

It’s really easy to see how things got so confusing over the years.  The english language compounds the problem by including words from every other language as well and now we use one word to mean several different things.  Not that this is abnormal for other languages do the same thing, but when we speak of forgiveness in the Scripture, we must return to the original context for the word used to grasp what Jesus is saying.

In Vine’s Expository Dictionary of the Bible, one of the primary meanings of the word forgiveness is “to let go of” or “release.”  Now let’s take Jesus’ statement above and plug this new phrase in for the word forgiveness and see how it reads:  “For if you *release* men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also *release* you.  But if you do not *let go of* men’s sins, your Father will not *let go of* your sins.” 

Do you see the difference that phraseology makes?  It also helps us grasp what forgiveness of others does in us.  As I was listening to a sermon Saturday on another subject, the pastor mentioned forgiveness and the word “absolution” popped into my mind like a light going on.  The primary meaning of the word absolve is:  Pronounce somebody blameless; to state publicly or officially that somebody is not guilty and not to be held responsible.

When understood in this light, we see how forgiveness has changed to mean something other than what Jesus intended in our passage above.  For without confession, repentence and contrition, there can be no absolution for the other person only forgiveness on our part.  Unless the person who sins against us actually comes to us with the sin and asks for absolution, we cannot extend this to them, all we can do is release it for ourselves by forgiving them.  This message Jesus taught is more about telling us not to hold a grudge.

So does this mean, that we act like the sin never happened?

Not at all, for we cannot deny the reality of the past, what we can do is let go of their sin against us and release them in our own hearts so that we can love them as Jesus does.  Yet it doesn’t mean that we trust them if they haven’t repented or shown a change of attitude for the sin itself is still being practiced.  Here is the delicate balance where the difference between letting go of what we hold against them and pronouncing them innocent comes. 

The only person who can extend the saving forgiveness is Jesus, for sure, but we are His mouthpiece on this truth as well.  What I mean by that is when a person sins, we can assure them of their spiritual release from their past sins once they confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, which by default means that they have renounced their past–the sin essentially.  Those of us who know the Word of God and the message of the cross are commissioned to extend this to whoever will receive it.

OK, let’s be clear:  The forgiveness or release of their sin against us is our responsibility; the covering blood of Jesus makes these people innocent if they receive it.

So what is the point of having me release or let go of someone’s sin against me?

The writer of Hebrews hints at this when he says,  See to it that no misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.  12:15.  Bitterness grows out of holding grudges.  It doesn’t allow us to release what we have against others because the root problem goes down deep and makes a permanent home in our souls.  The danger then is not about denying their sin against me but what holding onto their guilt will do to my soul.  Hebrews claims bitterness defiles many by its touch and we know by experience what sour bitter people are like, don’t we?

If we are to be people of God, who is the source of love, then bitterness has to be eradicated from our very consciousness.  The benefit is not only to the one with whom I have an issue but to my very being.  A bitter spring is not one from which anyone wants to drink, so, too, a bitter soul cannot communicate the message of forgiveness and absolution.  How can we be so harsh with one another yet not see what this says to the world around us?

Jesus commanded in John 15 that we love each other as He loved us.  Paul goes on to say how Jesus loves us (and by default He’s our example) in Romans 5:8:  But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  That gives a whole new meaning to the concept of forgiveness now doesn’t it?  Recognizing that another person refuses to resolve an issue with us is not unforgiveness on our part, because for a problem to be resolved both parties must come to the negotiating table and discuss terms of peace.  If only one side sues for peace but the other refuses it, we have a stalemate.  A person who is unrepentent and by default unwilling to acknowledge their sin cannot be negotiated with to resolve the issue now can they?  But we can release them before they are absolved or the slate is cleared, can’t we?

That’s what I believe Jesus speaks to here.  Paul says something else I think clarifies our subject a bit:  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Romans 12:18.

We extend the intention of peace from our side as a constant desire.  This allows us to be a witness to the love of God and the cross to those who don’t know–or who declare they know but live as enemies of the cross.  We will not convert those around us who fight our peace nor will we be the one to convince them of their wrong, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.  But in the course of our example, the Holy Spirit will bring to their minds our witness and here is the crux of letting go of all bitterness and every grudge.

A person who holds to a grudge and becomes bitter is entrenched in a negative, hateful, most likely spiteful and wholly unregenerated attitude.  One who has been cleansed of their past sins cannot remain in this lost state for it flies in the face of the love of Christ.  Therefore forgiveness is not simply about absolution but the healing of my (I’m using the my as a collective statement not merely personal) soul as well.  A person who has not released the sins of others is closed to God and entrenched in a sin which hardens the heart to the Holy Spirit’s voice.  The continued denial of the Spirit’s voice leads one to the rejection of God eventually because the Spirit came into the world to convict it of sin, righteousness and judgment.  If we harbor unforgiveness, we put up a wall between us and God for we show that His love is not our desire.  If He loved us before we were repententant or even knew anything about Him, then for us to be like Him we must let go of the sins of others so that we might be healed.

He must change our desires, it’s not something we can do ourselves.  Only a person who has experienced the release Jesus gives will be able to extend this kind of mercy to another.  Our healing depends on our openness to His presence in our lives.  Harboring bitterness, anger, envy or whatever else we could hold against another person, blocks out the the light of Christ in our lives and makes our witness to His saving grace ineffective and an empty claim.  Judgmental attitudes as well show that we are not in the business of grace but condemnation–which points to pride in some form anyway, since we have a clear command not to judge anything before its time.

So forgiving others even before they desire it is not only about the wholeness of our souls but the for the purpose of a clear witness to the saving grace, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus.