Friday, November 18, 2005

Waiting to Fly...

Today our teens had their weekly Friday afternoon Bible class. We are studying 1 John. We were in the beginning of chapter three which talks about our status as "children of God." When we reached John's statement about people who know God being misunderstood by people who do not know God, this struck a chord with most of the kids, who even deal weekly with family members who do not understand their devotion to the church family every weekend. I used an illustration that got a lot of comments from the teens so I wanted to share it with you.
As Christians we are a lot like caterpillars. We crawl into classes and worship services every week and talk about flying. Then we crawl out again and try our wings for a week. When next week roles around we find ourselves crawling back in to the spiritual family to talk more about flying. All our friends simply see us a caterpillars who refuse to accept the truth about our crawling selves. Yet we know that there is flight in our future. For we know that Jesus has flown.
John talks at length about Jesus' appearing: both his initial appearance and his immanent return. When Jesus comes we will no longer see ourselves as we do now, but we will finally see ourselves as we truly are - like Jesus! While you are crawling around this week do not resist the urge to fly and every time you get the chance, test your wings.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Deep Generosity

Last week we celebrated Lexi’s birthday with our church family in Gorlovka, Ukraine. The party was attended by children, teens, and plenty of adults. Lora fixed lots of snacks, we played games and everyone had a wonderful time. During the party I saw something that made me stop and praise God. While everyone was giving Lexi presents, one little girl left the party; she ran away from the worship room, but quickly returned. She had a grocery bag with a present in it. The present was obviously not new. It was a stuffed animal and a small ring. We immediately recognized that Lena had gone home and gotten Lexi presents from her treasured items. Leanna said that she knows that the ring was Lena’s favorite ring. I stood there in awe.
Some claim that the human heart is evil to the core, and there is ample evidence for such an assertion. And yet, there are moments of indescribable goodness. Lena wanted to give something good to Lexi and so she gave things that were precious to her. I call this “deep generosity.” It is a holy act. Every time Jesus saw it, he praised the people who did the deeply generous acts. Remember the woman at the temple who gave her last two coins? The disciples recognized her gift as the small thing it was, but Jesus recognized it as deep generosity – a greater gift than those larger gifts that were not deeply generous. Remember the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume? Some grumbled that the act was a waste of important resources, but Jesus praised her loving act as preparation for his burial. Again he respected deep generosity.
Standing in front of the woman at the temple, or in front of Lena at Lexi’s birthday party is a holy moment. It causes us to look closely at our own hearts. What do you see there? Is there a generosity that comes from deep inside in recognition of what God has done for you? Not surprisingly, the only people who do not stand in awe of deep generosity are those who have never practiced it!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Community of Disciples

I recently picked up a couple of titles by one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson. I was reading along in Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places when I was struck by the following paragraph.

The impulse to sectarianism has its roots in "selfism," the conceit that I don't need others as they are but only for what they can do for me. Selfism reduces life to my appetites and needs and preferences. Selfism results in expulsion from the Garden. But once out there "on our own," east of Eden, we find that we can't quite make it without a little help, so we join forces with a few others out of necessity, meanwhile fiercely insisting on our independence and excluding all who don't fit our preferences. We become a sect. Sects are composed of men and women who reinforce their basic selfism by banding together with others who are pursuing similar brands of selfism, liking the same foods, believing in the same idols, playing the same games, despising the same outsiders. Early on selfism developed into sectarianism to build a tower to heaven without having to bother with the God of heaven. The attempt disintegrated into a snake pit of sects, each incomprehensible to the other. Babel is the mother city of sectarianism. With the call of Abraham, the long, slow, complex, and still continuing movement to pull all these selves into a people of God community began. The birthing of the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism. (From "Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places" by Eugene Peterson page 241-242)

All Christians agree that Jesus wants us to be united, all Christians agree that it is sinful for Christians to be divided, all Christians agree that the world will always have an easy time mocking our faith and Savior so long as we remain divided. Yet few Christians are willing to lay down their "faith family brand" to move closer to the Savior and to one another. Communities are not formed through agreement on doctrine and philosophy, they are formed by people loving one another. That is why Jesus was so insistent that we love one another...

Monday, October 17, 2005

Testimony to the Priests

According to Mark, one of Jesus’ first healings was of a man with leprosy. Here is the account…
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 1:40-44)
While there is much to notice in this short story, I want to focus on the command of Jesus for the man to go show himself to the priest. This was in accordance with the Law of Moses, which gave specific instructions concerning diagnosing various skin diseases (see Leviticus 13). In reading that chapter you will notice that the priest is granted authority for diagnosis, but no authority or power to heal. The priests became experts at determining what was wrong, but had little power to improve the situation. Diagnosis, without corresponding healing, leads inevitably to a loss of expectation. Jesus sent the healed man to the priest “as a testimony to them.” Jesus was interested in giving a serious message to the priests of his day – “God is active and working mightily in Israel. Expect to see more of this!”
Being involved in the work of God always creates a sense of expectation, even a longing for more; a holy anticipation! Yet many Christians are perfectly comfortable living as those ancient priests – as diagnostic experts who are impotent to experience the power of God. Too many Christians feel free to criticize the church, the leaders, the ministers, etc. – giving their version of a diagnostic check-up. Yet when asked what they are contributing to the kingdom work of God they have little to offer. Jesus gives a contemporary testimony to such diagnostic priests today – “God is active and working powerfully through his churches today, you need to expect to see more of his activity. And don’t just expect to see it, expect to be involved in it!” Nothing is more disheartening than diagnosis without healing power. Nothing is more encouraging than being on the cutting edge of what God is doing in the world. What you see, of course, is determined by what you are looking for.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Living In Harmony

I hate conflict; don’t you? It makes me feel uncomfortable; it drains all the energy from my body and all the joy from my soul. Yet however much I dislike conflict, it seems there is always plenty of it in my life. I do know the reason, it’s because everyone refuses to do what I know is best. If everyone would just listen to me then all conflict would cease! (Why are you smiling?)
About a year after I married an older, wiser man told me, “You can be right, or you can be married, but you can’t be both.” It took me some time to discover the truth of his statement. There are times when I would rather win the fight than restore the relationship. Those are the times when I most need to imitate Jesus, and also the times when I am least likely to humble myself and do it. Is that also true for you? God help us.
The good news is that God is waiting to help us. When we cast our burdens on Jesus he takes them away and they no longer harm us or others. When we humble ourselves and make the call or offer the apology, Jesus cleans up the mess in amazing and freeing ways. Once the loads are lifted, the grudges are dropped and the air is cleared we can get back to the business of living in harmony as Jesus desires. The bride of Christ stops looking like a haggard, embittered woman and emerges as a beautiful and glorious lady. It’s time for us to repent and truly become the radiant bride of Christ. We have beaten up the bride of Jesus for too long.

Not sure you can find the strength to repent? Read this verse from a song by Rich Mullins…
Jesus, they drove the cold nails in your tired hands,
rolled a stone to seal your grave.
Feels like the devil rolled a stone onto my heart!
Can you roll that stone away?

Of course Jesus can roll it away…if you will just lay it down.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Afraid God Acts, Afraid God Doesn't

Today we were reading through 2 Kings 10 in our Adult Bible Class in Gorlovka. There were eight ladies and me, and the text was very challenging. As you may remember, 2 Kings 10 is the account of Jehu killing all the relatives, friends and political support of King Ahab. Ahab was a wicked king of Israel, whose wife was the infamous Jezebel. God promised through Elijah that justice would be served one day and that Ahab would pay dearly for his many sins. The entire business is best described as gruesome.
What is fascinating to me is how God uses the text to touch these ladies lives in places where they are already questioning. Before class got started one lady asked if the earthquake in South Asia could be interpreted as God's judgment. Another lady asked why God did not interfere with the plans of wicked people and stop their evil plotting before anyone was hurt or killed by their deeds. A third lady was interested in getting some help in "proving" the existence of God to her brother, who was ridiculing her for her new found faith. After dealing with these questions we read the text of 2 Kings 10 and discussed what in the world God was doing through the murderous acts of Jehu.
We all decided that we would not be very good at being God. God has an unbelievably difficult task of keeping the earth spinning despite all the actions of the wicked and the "help" of his friends. We decided that the text does not shrink from the realities of life and that God is faithful even when we are disappointed by the actions of vengeance ascribed to him or when we are disappointed because he seems to be patient when action is the necessary thing. We also noted that no matter what God does he will not make everyone happy. Maybe that is why God is not too concerned with making people happy. Rather he is concerned with getting to the "renewal of all things" as Jesus called it.
We agreed that we want to be part of God's solution not part of the problem he is trying to solve. Have you read 2 Kings 10 lately? It might spark your thinking if you read it...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Getting to 42 So Fast

The other evening Dima and I were saying our prayers and getting him ready for bed when he asked me a serious question. Now, questions are not unusual from Dima, for he is the master of asking questions, usually the obvious ones... Yet this time he knocked me for a loop. His question? "Dad, how did you get to 42 so fast?" I didn't have a good answer. But I have been thinking about it since then and I have come up with some observations.

First, for the past 20 years I have been in love with his mother, Lora. It seems impossible to believe that it has been so long, already more than half Lora's life and approaching half of mine.

For the past 12 years I have been raising his sister, Leanna. She is an amazing gift from God who is growing up way too fast.

For the past 5 years I have been raising Dima. Is it possible that he has been in our family for five years already? This month in 2001 he started living with us. Our life has surely never been the same...

For the past 2 years I have been loving Lexi. How can my baby already be two years old?

When I think of my years in relation to my family I can see how 20 years can get by.

Another way to count the years is to count ministry locations. Three and a half years as a youth minister at the Leonard Street church in Pensacola. A group of kids who still make me proud. Although I am separated from them by half the world and lots of years, they hold a special place in my heart. Another couple of years as the pulpit minister at the Innerarity Point church. Friendships that have proven to be very strong indeed were forged in a short amount of time. Then there was the year in Gorlovka in 1992. Without a doubt the best and the worst year of our life - Lora and I agree on that one. Then more than six years in Luverne, which provided us with relationships that bless us richly today. Now we have been in Ukraine again for more than six years. Our partnership with the Palo Alto church gets richer and deeper with each passing year. Lots of lives touched, lots of memories made, lots of ministry experienced. 20 years can fly by.

Walking with Jesus produces an ironic result in my life. While I am not worried about each day, I notice that the days seem to get by faster than I would like. I am thrilled to be where I am today, in Ukraine at age 42. Yet I see it all moving faster into the future and I would love for it all to slow down some. Maybe that is why "at the renewal of all things" Jesus will remove time as we know it and exchange it for eternity. With an endless supply of days, maybe there will be time to slow it all down...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Thinking about the Past

Thinking about the important relationship between past events (and the attitudes that follow those events) in the past week with the advent of Victory Day caused me to pick up a book I read several years ago. The opening chapter of the book (The Collapse of History: Reconstructing Old Testament Theology) has an interesting set of quotes. I just wanted to share them with you.

History above all is a cemetery and field of the dead. - K.G. Steck

God created man, because he loves stories. - Elie Wiesel

The past is not dead; it is not even past. - William Faulkner

If thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories. - Eberhard Jungel

Monday, May 09, 2005

Looking Back, Moving Forward?

Today is May 9, 2005 - the 60th Anniversary of VE Day. Sitting in Gorlovka, Ukraine, today is the revered holiday "Victory Day." All day long I have been watching the news and reading some email journals about the differing opinions concerning Victory Day. The Baltic States do not count it as Victory Day because years of Nazi oppression were replaced by decades of Soviet oppression. In Ukraine there are mixed feelings - in the Russian leaning East (where I live) the day is celebrated with gusto. In the nationalist West there is less gusto because of perceived domination by the Soviet Union (some in the West welcomed Hitler's troops as liberators from the Communists). The Baltic States are demanding that Russia offers an apology for the nearly 50 years of communist oppression - and with President Bush's visit to Latvia, the international press is making a lot of their demands. Russian President Putin, however, is saying that the USSR already apologized in 1989 and will not do so again. "Will we have to do this every year? Every day?" And Putin refuses to grant an apology - even putting the world on notice that a great debt is owed the Soviet Union for their costly role in defeating Hitler. The Soviet Union lost nearly 25 million people during the War.

In my city of Gorlovka there is a monument to the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War (what the Soviets call WWII). More than 10 years ago I saw some elderly women laying flowers at this monument in respect for the dead (maybe their husbands, fathers or brothers). The kids loved to play on this monument for it was built to create a hill and it was rather large (in Soviet fashion). Seeing the elderly ladies fussing at the children for playing on the monument I remember writing in my journal about the tension between a "sacred memorial" and a "sacred playground." The past always creates the present and new generations do not understand the past well. I wrote then that those who died paid such a high price so that their children would be free to play in parks like the one where this memorial was located. By playing on this monument, these kids were unknowingly paying tribute to the sacrifices given for them. When does the past give way to the future?

There is a lot of tension right now about how exactly to talk about the past - particularly the events of May 1945. It seems to me that everyone needs to ask for and/or offer forgiveness. If we keep seeking to blame others and shame people we will never move forward. The Germans offered the people of Ukraine an apology for the events of those years and it was graciously accepted. Perhaps if more leaders would humble themselves and reach out to those they have hurt the world could move closer to healing.

Forgiveness is the answer. Repentance is the key.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Resisting Evil with Good

Today we were studying the Non-Resistance passages of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. You remember them don't you? Turn the other cheek, give not only your tunic but also your cloak to the one who is suing you, go two miles with anyone who forces you to go one mile, and give to those who ask from you. These are four "case studies" on the command of Jesus - "Do not resist." While these words are easy to understand - ask a child what they mean if you are confused - they are extremely difficult to practice.

Friday night my college devotional was on this same topic - and a lively discussion resulted from the class concerning the possibility (or impossibility) of obeying Jesus. I am also reading "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard and he spends a lot of time with this material. So most of the week I have been thinking about Jesus' ethic of non-resistance. Last night I was dropping Leanna off at the entry to our building and another car approached in front of me. Since the road is narrow, two cars cannot pass without one leaving the road. While Leanna was exiting the car, the other car pulled up and almost touched my bumper. There was room on his side for a car to pull out of the way, but in the place where I was there was no room. I honked the horn and waved him off. In reply he honked and waved me off. I thought "What a jerk!" But then I backed up and let him pass - but I was not happy about it! I then parked the car in the garage and walked home. It occurred to me while I was fuming about that inconsiderate guy that I was successful in teaching the ethic of non-resistance, but I was failing living it! And all I had experienced was a honking horn and a mean look, not a slap or a cross!

Dallas Willard says that people who think it is impossible to obey Jesus' non-resistance ethic are right - because they assume that they will have to obey it without fundamental change in themselves. "You cannot stay the same and live in this non-resistance lifestyle." That is why Jesus demands a new birth. We are not the same as we once were, that is why we can live like Jesus.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Forgiving Like God

Yesterday at worship we discussed the command of Scripture for Christians to forgive one another. We used as our text Colossians 3:13. "Forgive as the Lord forgave you." That is no small task. We discussed the way God forgives us - by taking the first step, by desiring reconciliation, by not keeping track of our sins, and by forgiving as often as needed. We decided that we, too, should learn to forgive in these ways, because anything less is not imitation of God and not capable of restoring "shalom" to the world.

Following the lesson we always have time for questions and answers. This week there were lots of comments and questions. One man said, "It is hard to forgive, especially when someone has hurt you deeply. But if they ask, and I believe they are sincere (usually they are crying), then I will forgive them." A teenager responded, "I am so mean that I will not usually forgive even when the person is crying!" She was not proud of that fact, just honest enough to admit that she needs to grow in this area. One elderly woman said, "What if the same person does the same thing over and over again? Do I still just keep on forgiving?" When I rephrased that question to apply to her sins against God she admitted that she is a multiple offender herself! The depth and breath of discussion following this lesson confirmed that we have a lot of work to do in forgiving others and receiving forgiveness from others. There is nothing more important in the life of discipleship than learning to forgive like God forgives.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Disorientation and Reorientation

Easter Sunday is generally the high attendance mark for the year at most churches. The week after Easter is also often the lowest attendance Sunday of the year. As a result some churches go to extreme lengths to do something "exciting" on the Sunday following Easter. Church growth analysts work tirelessly to discover the reason for this post-Easter slump.
Fred Craddock suggests that the answer has to do with the sense of "disorientation" that follows Easter. His idea is that the disciples were oriented by their faith in Jesus and they were secure in their role as followers. Then the cross caught them by surprise (although Jesus warned them), and they slipped into a state of disorientation. Then when Jesus rose from the dead the disciples were reoriented in the security of the risen Jesus. But then before they could get too comfortable, Jesus ascended and they were thrown into another state of disorientation. This tension between the presence and absence of Jesus is something all disciples must learn to navigate in their life of faith.
God does not overpower us with his presence, rather he wants us to trust him without the overwhelming sense of his presence. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, has Uncle Screwtape share some powerful insights about God's presence and absence. "You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbid him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For his ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve...Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs - to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish...He cannot "tempt" to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand..Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
What a powerful description of Jesus - and of all who follow him closely. That is the life that has been disoriented by the gospel and then successfully reoriented by that same gospel!

Friday, March 25, 2005

This is How You Should Pray...

In Matthew’s account the model prayer is given in the middle of an explanation of the proper attitude for prayer. In Luke’s account a slightly different version of the prayer is given in response to the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray!”
Prayer is perhaps the most natural AND the most difficult spiritual discipline. Almost everyone prays when they encounter some sort of difficulty. I used t think that God was frustrated by that fact, but now that I am a father I know that the best response from my children when they encounter problems is to cry out to their father or mother. And yet, those who cry out to God only when they are in trouble miss out on the greatest blessings that God has in store for them.
Prayer keeps us in close range to God so that his influence is greater in our lives. Prayer creates an “obedience zone” in our hearts that would not exist without faithfulness in prayer. Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon our loving Father. Prayer is our lifeline to the very heart of God. Since this is true, prayer must never become routine, or ritualized, rather it must be the natural expression of our desire to talk to and listen to God. Are you praying?

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
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 your sins.

(Matthew 6:5-15)

Jesus was a man of prayer. This fact greatly impressed his disciples and they wanted to learn to pray like Jesus. Jesus gave them a “graduate level course on prayer!”

· Prayer is to be a time of solitude with God, not a show for other people.

· Prayer is not effective because it is well crafted or wordy, prayer is effective because it touches God’s heart.

· Prayer is communal. The pronouns used are “our, us, we,” but never “I, me, or mine.”

· Prayer is intimate. Jesus teaches us to address God as our father. Close relationship!

· Prayer contains praise. Acknowledging the goodness of God and seeking the expansion of his influence in the world.

· Prayer contains requests. Acknowledging our needs and the expectation that God is the source of meeting those needs.

· Prayer contains commitments. Acknowledging our responsibility to treat others in the way we are asking God to treat us.

· Prayer seeks the guidance and protection of God. Without the guidance and protection of God the Christian could never survive life in the world. With those gifts we can live up to our full potential that God seeks to create in our lives.

Prayer is our entry way to the throne room of God. It allows us to sit at his feet and express the feelings of our hearts.

An Audience of One

People like to be seen. We style our hair, exercise our bodies, and purchase our outfits so that others will pay attention to us. Our world rewards with fame, those who can put together the best appearance. To see and to be seen seem to be the most important things in life.
Yet Jesus tells us that when it comes to the life of faith, being seen is not only not the most important thing, it is a dangerous desire. Those who practice righteous acts simply for the positive publicity it brings them are living a lie and stand under God’s curse rather than his blessing.
Acts of righteousness, like giving to those in need, prayer and fasting, are designed to be viewed by an audience of One! Our hearts desire should be to show our love and commitment to God alone. God may then reveal our righteousness to others, if it is his desire. But even if no one other than God ever knows of our righteousness, we should be pleased to have been seen by God. By whom do you seek to be seen?

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)

Everyone likes to look good in the eyes of other people. This prompts us to bathe, to clean our clothes and our houses, and to practice personal hygiene. However, this desire can also lead us to value style more than substance and appearances more than reality. The desire to look good is especially dangerous when people use religious practices for personal gain. Jesus warns us about misusing spiritual disciplines to enhance our appearance.

· Beware of your motives! If you are doing good deeds to be seen my people you forfeit your reward from God.

· Practice your spiritual disciplines for an “audience of one.” Only by giving, praying or fasting in secret can we be sure that we are doing these things in the service of God, not self.

· Stand in obvious contrast to the hypocrites, who offend God and people. Nothing is more disgusting than religious shows designed to glorify people rather than God. These displays deny everything religion is supposed to be about.

· Seek the applause of God rather than the applause of people. Jesus makes it plain that if we seek the applause of people we will never please God. If, however, we seek to please God, he will approve of our actions and will reward them in ways that are appropriate. Ironically, those who seek first to please God often find that people applaud their faithful service.

· Secret giving benefits the recipient and reveals our gratitude for God’s gifts to us.

· Secret praying acknowledges our dependence on God and expresses our desire for intimacy with Him.

· Secret fasting indicates our trust in God to sustain us and our desire to surrender our appetites to him.

By seeking to be seen by others, we surrender all the value of spiritual disciplines.
By seeking to be seen by God alone, we purify our hearts and empower our faith.

What Is Love?

Someone once said that “Love is a feeling you feel, when you feel that you are feeling a feeling that you have never felt before!” Unfortunately electric shock would also fit that description.
So what is love? Most of us know love when we feel it, yet have a difficult time giving it a good definition. There will always be elements of emotion and romance in most modern definitions of love. Romantic that I am, I tend to think that is a good thing. Yet Jesus gives us a definition of love that has little to do with either romance or even emotion. Jesus’ definition of love has to do more with the will and the commitment to do what is in the best interest of the other person.
Jesus speaks of loving our enemies, refusing to take vengeance and offering them forgiveness instead, giving more than we are asked to give and going further than we are expected to go. For Jesus, love means laying down our own lives for the sake of others. That is what Jesus taught, and what Jesus did. Now he calls us to “go and do likewise!”

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5:38-48)

It has been said that this section of the Sermon on the Mount is the best known yet least practiced of all the teachings of Jesus. The reason it is often left unpracticed is not because it is difficult to understand—actually it is very plain—but because it is difficult to obey.
Most people define love in ways that make them feel good and keeps them safe from harm. Anything outside these parameters is not their idea of love. Yet Jesus gives a definition of love that goes way beyond our experience of pleasant emotions and is actually quite risky!

· Love does not practice vengeance.
When we are hurt—whether physically of emotionally-we naturally react in the interest of self-preservation. But soon we also seek to avenge our pain. This usually involves inflicting more pain on others than was inflicted on us. Jesus says that this is incompatible with discipleship. Forgiveness, not vengeance, is a mark of discipleship.

· Love willingly goes the second mile.
When we are forced to endure something unpleasant we generally want it to be over as soon as possible. We will suffer all we have to, but not even a little more. Yet Jesus talks of giving more than we are asked to give and going further than we are forced to go. Christians are oddities in the world because they gladly suffer more than they have to suffer and do more than they are forced to do. Second mile service is a mark a discipleship.

· Love offers itself to the enemies.
Loving those who love you is just common sense. It does not demand a great amount of faith or patience. But Jesus calls us to love those who are not “lovable” - who for one reason or another have made themselves enemies in your eyes. Paul reminds us that God loved us while we were still “sinners” and Jesus died for us. (Romans 5:8) Imitating this love for the unlovely is a mark of discipleship.

Loving in these ways is what makes us “perfect” as God is perfect!

Living Freely

Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) He spoke these words to his apostles when he sent them out to minister in Israel. These men were blue collar workers who worked long hard hours to earn their money. What did Jesus mean that they had “freely received?” All those hours on the water pulling nets did not seem free. Neither did the days sitting at the tax table taking abusive words from people who did not want to pay their taxes. They earned a wage; they were not given many gifts.
And yet, Jesus seems to be saying that all they had was given to them as a gift. “Freely you have received…” This strikes hard against our Protestant work ethic – we want to earn everything we have and we do not want to be charity cases! We want this because then we can be the masters of our possessions and our fate. If I earned it, I am completely free to decide what to do with it. It is all mine!
We can, of course, live with clutched hands and stingy minds; but we cannot live this way and be pleasing to God. To please God we have to make some fundamental shifts. First, we have to understand that everything we have is a gift. Everything! We are dependent on God for our next breath, for the sun rising in the morning, and for the health that enables us to work. Second, we have to trust that living with open hands is a better option than trying to grab everything we can.
The desire to hoard is based on the mathematical truism that the more you get the more you have. The words of Jesus are based on the spiritual truth that the more you give the more you are. (Idea borrowed from Frederick Beuchner.) At the end of your life God will be interested in discovering what you are, he will not be interested in or impressed by how much you have. “Freely you have received, freely give.”

The Cross Transformed

It was an unimaginable event on an otherwise ordinary day. Their world came crashing down around them and they could not conceive of any satisfactory outcome to their crisis. Jesus had been arrested by the authorities, deserted by his friends, rushed through a series of illegal trials, and finally executed outside the city gates like a common criminal. Three years of investment on their part ended abruptly on the cross that day.
In some ways they should have seen it coming. Jesus had told them plainly that the cross was on the horizon, but they were oblivious to what he was saying. His conflicts with the religious leaders were increasing in frequency and intensity, but Jesus was winning those conflicts in the court of public opinion. The crowds were swelling again with his arrival in Jerusalem. There was a great sense of expectation and optimism. And then the cross... It turned the entire ministry of Jesus and the lives of all the disciples into a giant question mark!
What will we do now? How could we have been wrong about Jesus and God? What does it mean for our theology that God allowed Jesus to be murdered? The questions were painful and pervasive. They were also unanswered...
The Sunday after the crucifixion started normally enough, but then stories began to circulate. "His body is not in the tomb!" "Mary Magdalene claims to have seen him alive." Their questions deepened even as their faith was stirring. By the end of the day Jesus had presented himself alive to all the apostles (except Thomas). While they did not have the theological words to express what had happened in this incredible weekend, their experience was profound at the deepest level and soon those theological explanations would emerge. "This same Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ" Peter would insist. "The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time" claimed John.
The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. His disciples became relentless witnesses claiming to find the "fullness of God dwelling in Jesus Christ." Men and women who seemed like a "Who's Who List" of outcasts, nobodies, and insignificant people changed the world forever with the story of Jesus conquering death in that amazing weekend. We still celebrate it today - and more importantly we still experience the resurrection through Jesus! The resurrection turns the question mark of the cross into an exclamation point.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Recently a friend of mine who is starting a church plant sent me an email concerning his mother's reaction to his plans of planting a church. She was upset because of something he planned to do in worship that was outside of her (and his previous) church experience. While there are many in the Christian world who practice this thing in worship, she was scandalized that her son would make such a move.

In talking with my friend I reminded him what a good and godly woman his mother is, and that she is part of a religious tradition that does not distinguish between ecclesiology (the things we do as a church family) and Christology (the things we believe about Jesus). Because I, too, was brought up in this faith family I understand it well. It is amazing to me know, however, that an entire church tradition could so closely link a worship tradition to faithfulness to Jesus. In the eyes of my friend's mother, if he does not worship exactly like she does then he has left the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (because "He should know better!"). What a deadly spiritual belief! It was just this type of legalistic abuse of Scripture and tradition that Jesus sought to point out to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They responded by nailing Jesus to the cross. That is about the most creative response possible for people who deliberately confuse Christology and Ecclesiology.

Jesus came to show us what a live lived in obedience to God looked like. He calls us to follow him and live as he lived. It really has very little to do with proper worship acts and functions. It has everything to do with how you respond to God and neighbor.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Dead Sea Scrolls

In late January my family and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in Mobile, Alabama. If you are within a days drive of Mobile, I highly recommend that you make the trip. I was impressed with the quality of the displays serving to set the scene for the scrolls. There was a great deal of pottery and other artifacts that served to introduce the world of both the Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls. When we got to the scrolls themselves the kids were tired and Dima especially was ready to move on to something exciting. I, however, was in artifact heaven. Seeing the Isaiah scroll and noticing that the tetragrammaton (the Hebrew consonants for God) was in a different script every time it occurred was amazing! It really put me in touch with the land and the reality of the biblical world. While I do not think the scrolls are capable of producing faith, I know that at least in me, they were capable of strengthening my faith.

One caution, my seven year old son, Dima, was quite disappointed with the scrolls because he said, "I thought we were going to see the Dead Sea Squirrels!"

Saturday, February 05, 2005

A Tale of Two Women

Recently I visited with two women in the same morning. After the visits I was struck by their similarities and an amazing difference. Both women are over the age of 70, widowed, with children and grand-children they are concerned about, and are in positions of providing care for others in their family. They both have health problems that prevent them from doing all the things they want to do in life. Two women who have lived long lives with both joys and sorrows, pleasures and pain.

In talking with these women I was amazed at one difference between them. One woman was rather bitter, wondering why her life was in such a dismal state. The other was reaching forward, trying to discover what else God has in store for her life. After talking with these two women, you would notice the difference as well. Some would likely tell you that the difference was simply church attendance, for the bitter woman has not darkened the door of the church in more than two decades. The other woman is a regular attender. But I think the difference runs deeper than church attendance. Others might suggest that the difference is a classic case of optimism versus pessimism, one seeing the glass half empty, the other convinced it is half full. Again, I think there is something more important going on.

What then do I think the difference is? It is simply faith. One woman trusts Jesus, talks with him, and listens to his voice. She is not perfect but she is still maturing. The other woman got enough of religion to last a lifetime, but unfortunately she was never in love with Jesus. Her lack of faith (and it's accompanying fruits) is obvious in her life.

There was a point in both life's when decisions were made about trusting Jesus. One said "yes" and the other "no". Everything else is just the result of that decision lived out daily. What are you saying to Jesus?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Can God Do It?

Recently I asked a group of Christians, "What does God want most of all?" They responded with a variety of good answers, but none of them hit the one I wanted them to think about. So I reminded them of the passage that states that God does not want "anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."(2 Peter 3:9)

I then asked them, "what does God want most of all?" and they responded with, "for all people to be saved." So I asked them, "Will all people be saved? Will God get what he wants?" They immediately responded with a unanimous "No!" So I continued, "God is omnipotent - he can do anything - right?" "Yes" they replied. "God is also omniscient - he knows everything - right?" "Of course" they said. I continued, "God is omnipresent - he is everywhere - right?" "Yes" they said. Then I asked, "So you are telling me that God who can do anything, knows everything and exists everywhere will not be able to get what he most wants?" They were rather silent...

But Kenny, this is really close to universalism. "Do you believe that everyone will be saved?" To which I reply - "I sure hope so!" God's grace is much larger than I ever imagined before in my life, maybe I still have too small a view of it. God is working...

Think about it...

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Last night we were doing a Bible study on Conflict Resolution based on the life of Joseph. We talked about his dreams and his wisdom, or the lack thereof, in sharing them with his brothers. Then I asked how we today use our dreams for the future as a weapon to generate conflict with others in our life.

We made the observation that everyone has dreams for their future, no matter how young or old. They may not be able, or willing, to articulate their dreams well, but they still have them. Those who have no dreams despair even of living. Then I opened my mouth and these words came out, "Dreams are the flowers that grow in the field of hope." I do not know if these words originated with me or if I borrowed them from someone else, but either way, I loved the description.

Since I have been reading from Buechner lately, I remember a quote from him about despair...

Despair has been called the unforgivable sin - not presumably because God refuses to forgive it but because it despairs of the possibility of being forgiven. - Wishful Thinking (Page 19)

I hope that if you feel despair you will reach out and pick a dream flower from Jesus' field of hope! Believing is not easy, but it is life changing...

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Toward Perfection?

There is a cultural story of ever increasing prosperity, wisdom, and freedom woven into my experience of the American Dream. That optimistic story was shaken hard by the massive world wars of the last century, but at the popular level the dream lives on according to the script of that story. In my personal story there is the expectation of greater income, increased knowledge (and hopefully wisdom) and the freedom that comes from experience married to vision. In a nutshell, both my country and I believe that things are going to get better with each passing day - we are on a relentless drive to perfection!
There is strong theological pull (and even PUSH) to that story as well. All Christians are praying that there is a better life coming... We know that we have flaws, but we dream of being made perfect. We remember the words of Scripture that Jesus is the "author and perfector of our faith." So we wait, more or less, patiently.
Yet there is a counter story in Scripture that quietly challenges this fatal belief. It is not found in a single text, rather it is the story that emerges when you step far enough away from the story to take it all in. That story declares that perfection is exactly the thing that humans cannot handle. We had it in the garden, but we squandered it. Now we long for a return to the Garden. But God will not allow us to go back (remember the Cherubim?) and so we must move forward. (By the way this is a nice theological reminder for all the restorationists out there). And that forward movement is what the Bible is all about. But it is not the movement that some think it is. We are not moving back to the Garden, but rather we are moving from the Garden to the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. We are not moving back to naivete, but rather we are moving towards an all embracing forgiveness.
It will not be our perfection that finally saves us, but rather our willingness to both receive and give forgiveness. The only way we can truly move toward perfection is to be humble enough to admit our own faults, and seek forgiveness, and to be mature enough to admit the faults of others and offer forgiveness. Nothing else we can do is more godly.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Frederick Buechner on "Hell"

I love the writing of Frederick Buechner. My first introduction to him came about 15 years ago when I found a delightful book of his at a yardsale. It was entitled "Wishful Thinking" A Theological ABC. Here is a sample of this book on the topic of hell...

People are free in this world to live for themselves alone if they want to and let the rest go hang, and they are free to live out the dismal consequences as long as they can stand it. The doctrine of Hell proclaims that they retain this freedom in whatever world comes next. Thus the possibility of making damned fools of ourselves would appear to be limitless.
Or maybe Hell is the limit. Since the damned are said to suffer as dismally in the next world as they do in this one, they must still have enough life left in them to suffer with, which means that in their flight from Love, God apparently stops them just this side of extinguishing themselves utterly. Thus the bottomless pit is not really bottomless. Hell is the bottom beyond which God in his terrible mercy will not let them go.
Dante saw written over the gates of Hell the words "Abandon all hope ye who enter here," but he must have seen wrong. If there is suffering in Hell, there must also be hope in Hell, because where there is life there is the Lord and giver of life, and where there is suffering he is there too because the suffering of the ones he loves is also his suffering.
"He descended into Hell" the Creed says, and "If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there," the Psalmist (139:8). It seems there is no depth to which he will not sink. Maybe not even Old Scratch will be able to hold out against him forever.

That is great food for thought, to which I will only add... "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9)

Amazing Differences

When noticing the interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, there is an amazing disconnect - they seem, not only to be on different pages about God, but from completely different planets. That is why there is so much conflict recorded in the gospels between Jesus and the religious establishment.
What are the reasons for such radical differences in their approaches to faith? While I do not know all the answers, I have noticed a couple of things that may be valuable for those who live in the religious establishment today, but who long to live more like Jesus.
First, I think that Jesus and the religious leaders had different assumptions about sin. For the religious leaders, sin was something external that defiled only upon contact. Therefore their most solemn obligation was to AVOID sinful people, places, and situations. Jesus, on the other hand, said that sin was an internal problem that could never be solved by simple avoidance. What was needed was a heart transplant. This difference led to completely different stances when it came to relating to other people. The Pharisees thought they were the only clean people in the world (their name means "separated ones"), and that they should carefully avoid all sinners. Jesus realized that if you are clean then you will not only not be defiled by sinners but you might be in the position to offer them some help. So the Pharisees were extremely self-righteous and Jesus was the friend of sinners.
Second, Jesus and the religious leaders worked from different texts. To be sure, they both had the same Scriptures, but they emphasized different things from that Scripture. The religious leaders were convinced that "Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy" should be the main text for anyone seeking to please God. It was even essential in their eyes to keep all the extra laws concerning the Sabbath that the elders had formulated over the years. But for Jesus, there was a different set of texts. He loved to quote "I desire mercy not sacrifice" (particularly to the religious leaders) and he was convinced that the entire law was summed up in the commands to love God and neighbor. Jesus knew that laws are important only if they fulfill their function of serving people and pointing them towards God. The religious leaders were more interested in a rigid keeping of the law, regardless of how it affected people.
These two differences (an assumption about sin and a selection of texts) lead the religious leaders to have a sectarian mindset concerning what people can be accepted in God's name, and a tyrannical view of God who is just waiting for people to make a fatal mistake! Jesus offers a much more compelling view of the church and of God. Anyone who will come is welcome, and God is a loving host who delights in throwing parties for people who do not deserve it!
Your choice about what kind of church to be associated with generally still runs along these lines. Think about it...