Friday, February 16, 2018

To be a G-man: Psalm 4

Psalms 3 and 4 are bedtime psalms, or songs in the night. They are the interactions of people with God in the throes of sleeplessness. And this sleeplessness, rather than being a curse, has turned out to be a blessing. Thoughts were straightened out. Fears laid to rest. Perspective restored. In simple manner, I’ve circled four “G”-words in my Bible: “Be gracious to me” (v.1); the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself (v.3); “Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?”” (v.6); and, “You have put gladness in my heart” (v.7). Let’s think about these in turn.

This non-sleeper finds that he doesn’t fit well into the world in which he lives. He’s struck by his lack of acceptance, and finds himself offended at the behaviors of his neighbors. It’s a lonely life, and one often finds oneself questioning whether we have it right after all. The world seems so sure of itself. And we listen to them way too much.

But God is present, and kind. He pays attention to us. He knows our frame, that we are but dust, and he comes to the aid of the children who are His, who are down and doubting. He is gracious.

When God “sets apart” the godly for Himself, we find a word that is used back in the exodus account. As Moses brought plagues to bear upon the stubbornness of Pharaoh, God would often “make a distinction” between the Egyptians and the descendants of Abraham, between one’s cattle over against the other’s. God was able to carefully direct His punishments, as well as his protections. And so God has special distinctions for those who seeks a view of life shaped not by the world but by God and His Word and will.

The godly man who is the beneficiary of God’s graciousness knows that “good” is defined not merely by what makes me feel good at the moment, or what is popular by today’s notions, but by that which is in concert with God’s character and mission. What seems good for the world is not the good that I choose!

Just before he drops off the sleep, this journeyman of little faith, but nighttime prayer, is made glad by the assurances of God. Whether or not one has the blessings that go along with worldly favor, he is graced with the blessings that belong to the godly. “You have put gladness in my heart.” And that comes as we seek God’s graciousness; as we seek to embrace the life of the godly as opposed to the worldly; as we let God define what is good. Then we have gladness. And then, we can sleep. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Loyal and Truthful

Fear can be a wonderful tonic. And Jacob was now afraid. After years or daring, risking, scheming - in situations where ought to have been afraid, now he anticipates meeting his big brother, Esau, whom he had tricked and cheated years before. He is afraid for his personal safety and that of his family. And so, he prays.
I’ve been marking man’s verbal engagements with God recorded in the Bible - Biblical prayers. What is remarkable about Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is that the many chapters recording his activities reveal no prayers until this late point in his life. Now we know that the Bible does not reveal every detail. But I find it remarkable, and wonder if the record were to reveal the patterns of our own lives, how prevalent prayer would be.

In this late-season prayer, Jacob is amazed at God’s loyalty and truth. Let’s take the latter quality first. To be sure, Jacob should be amazed at God’s tightness with the truth, given Jacob’s looseness with it. God keeps his promises, and Jacob has been the recipient of those promises, at least to this point. But whoever has dealt with Jacob has no assurance what he can count on after Jacob has spoken. Again, simple application, do we play fast and loose with the truth? Do we shade the truth, or leave out key details in order to be deceptive? It does not make sense that a person who truly values the God of Truth would de-value truth in his/her own life.
And then with regard to loyalty, we find Jacob again surprised. Jacob has lived a me-first type of life. That kind of person has a loyalty chiefly to himself, which is not really what the term means. True loyalty is a faithfulness to something or someone other than yourself - to wife and family; to a job or task; to a cause or mission; to God. Jacob has failed in all of these areas out of self-centeredness. But God, amazingly, has not given up on Jacob. He has not discarded him into the trash heap of history, though one would think it justified. But God’s Word determines His loyalty, and His loyalty directs His Word.

Jacob is at a crossroads. Will he cling to his loyal God, or will he continue in the path of a deceitful denier? And what about you?

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Psalm 3: More Impressed with God's Works than with My Enemies

In Psalm 3, David is overwhelmed by his enemies, and prays to God out of assurance and support. He cries aloud to the LORD (v. 4), and God answers, but there are no specific requests mentioned until near the end of the psalm, where we find two appeals: “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God!" 

Most of the psalm, though, is a record of David’s engagement with God in prayer marked by assurance. He is shaken by the number of his enemies, but steadfastly assured of God’s support. It seems to me that he then prays “Arise” and “Save” not so much out of desperation but out of confidence that this is exactly what God intends to do. It is fitting that David would have this confidence, because he has seen God do this so many times before. This psalm, if the heading is correct, occurs later in life, with the usurpation of his son, Absalom, to the throne, and his fleeing of Jerusalem. But God has delivered David so many times before, especially with regard to the years of fleeing from Saul.

I only found one other verse in the OT that begins with the same Hebrew “How many.” 
Psa. 104:24 “How many are Your works!  In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.”
David is more deeply impressed with the magnitude of God’s works than he is with the multitude of his enemies.

And that’s where we will leave it today. How can we be more impressed with the magnitude of God’s works than with the multitude of our enemies? Read that verse, Ps 104:24, again. 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The War Within

Isaac relates personally with God as he prays for his barren wife, having been married 20 years with no children, and she conceives. We will come again to these prayers for offspring. But we consider today Rebekah’s question of Isaac/God, “What is going on in there?”

I’m not sure at the time if she could have known that she was carrying twins. What she knew is that there was a war within. We could read the phrase, “they jostled one another,” though that would be mild. The word is used in other contexts to say that she experienced a “pulverizing,” two bulls in a china shop. Esau was delivered first, but the brothers were still hard at it, with Jacob emerging holding firmly to Esau’s heel.

The battle within Rebekah during the days of her pregnancy was a microcosm of other battles soon to follow. Isaac and Rebekah were not of the same mind, with Isaac determined to bless his older son, and Rebekah scheming to younger Jacob take his place, in accordance with God’s word, but probably not out of desire to do His will. She wanted what she wanted. Don’t we all.

And then of course, there would be the ongoing struggle between the cheated Esau and the opportunistic Jacob - death threats included. And there was the tug-of-war between Jacob and Laban, with one taking his daughters, but the other stealing his years.

But perhaps the most important war within was Jacob’s, and, by the way, your’s. Like Isaac, we are often weak-willed where we should be strong. Like Rebekah, we are strong-willed where we ought to be submissive. Like Laban, we take all that we can get, even if it means bending the truth. Like Esau, we are driven by our appetites, and like Jacob, we find ourselves skilled at deceit and manipulation. We all struggle at some level with the war within, helpless to solve it until we are delivered.

When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Jewish scholars chose to use the word skirtaō, used only by Luke in the New Testament, a situation like Rebekah’s, except opposite. Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist in her womb when Mary appeared, pregnant with Jesus. And Elizabeth felt John leap (skirtaō) as a calf in its stall, not in striving, but in gladness. And that’s what Jesus does, freeing us from our jostling desires, and replacing them with inexpressible joy. The war within will be replaced by peace within, and we look forward to that delivery date.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Make Something Good Happen for me Today

Abraham’s un-named servant had been given a difficult task. He was to go far away to who-knows-where in order to select and bring back a wife for Abraham’s son. It seems to be one of those tasks in which there are 1000 chances of failure, and little chance of success.

But this servant teaches us something important. When we don’t know what we are doing, it is best to pray. As we continue our reflection on Bible passages in which men and women engage with God, Genesis 24 is one of the best. This humble servant asks God for amazing help. While most translations read quite literally, “grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham,” CEB has this rather winsome rendering: “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make something good happen for me today and be loyal to my master Abraham.” I like that - make something good happen for me today. We could all pray that prayer often.

You’ll notice that the servant’s “good day” really wasn’t all about the servant. I’m not sure what would make a good day for you. Getting to do whatever you want? Going all day without anyone making you mad? Avoiding a certain person? Avoiding people in general? Most of these cases revolve right around our own selves. Not so with the servant. His “good day” or “success” has to do with fulfilling his mission for the sake of Abraham, his master.

As followers of Jesus, we are his servants, and He is our master. We are to do his bidding. And so, as with this Old Testament servant, our good days and successes are defined not so much by our individualistic sense of sell-being, but by our proper involvement in carrying out our designated aspect of His mission, not primarily for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of Him.

Our mission may involve mundane service to family, to employer, and engaged in pursuits that seem on the surface to have little to do with God and church. The servant’s mission involved traveling on a dusty road and getting water from a well and negotiating a difficult proposal. But he never lost sight of the honor of his master. Nor should we.

And so even as you serve your employer or children, it is not primarily for their sake, but for the Lord’s honor. And if you don’t know quite how to do that - well, then our passage becomes ever more applicable. Pray, “Lord, God of my master Jesus, make something good happen for me today.”

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Twelve is a strange age. Are you a teen? Or not quite? When I was in school, you were in 6th grade, kings of the elementary school. But now, 12 year olds are the little fish in the big pond of Middle School. At Lake Ann, we run a special camp for 6th graders, for 12 year olds, called Jump Start, as though we understand that they need it. Or maybe it’s just to protect them from the 8th graders.

Luke makes generous use of the number 12. Jesus is 12 when he goes to Jerusalem and stays behind to engage with the teachers and “to be about my Father’s business.” He’s old enough and developed enough to function in an adult world. And yet back-to-back miracles in Luke 8 tragically reveal a woman who receives no help after 12 years of treatment from doctors, and a girl who is dying, and is not likely to make it past twelve. On the one hand it seems like a lot; but on the other, not nearly enough.

And so Jesus assembles a key group of disciples, and they are known as “the Twelve.” Who are these guys? The best and the brightest? The few and the proud? Well, not exactly.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Christ of God.” Way to go Peter. But you know that Peter and the others often follow their best performances with failures. And so Peter soon categorizes Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah, great men to be sure, but not by any means “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to Him.” And the others start a nice little discussion about which one of them would be the greatest. It would have been more helpful if they could have ferreted out the weakest (Judas Iscariot) just a little bit sooner.

Maybe that’s why it worked out (or, Jesus worked it out) that after the feeding of the 5000, the disciples - those disciples who had earlier complained bitterly to Jesus that there was no way all these people could be fed, and that the resources were simply not available - yes, those twelve disciples were instructed by Jesus to go around and collect all the leftovers. How many baskets filled with extra food? Twelve.

The point of this, then, is that as we follow the Twelve into mission, we must realize that the success of mission did not, and does not depend on us. Our words many times are unclear, and our conduct inconsistent. But God’s mission depends primarily, not on the Twelve - those who have just about arrived, but not really - nor on saints who are at the same time sinners. God’s mission depends primarily on … God.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Right Where I Need to Be

When God comes to give you and me instructions, where do we need to be? Front and center, available and attentive. That’s what we find in Abraham’s next interaction with God. The text tells us God’s purpose, to test Abraham. So God calls his name, “Abraham!” Abraham’s interaction - his prayer to God - “Here I am,” right where I need to be. 

In order to arrive at the desired end of a journey, there are many things that must happen first. If it is a road trip as we’ve grown accustomed to road trips, there needs to be a destination and a route planned; a path chosen, and a vehicle prepared. You estimate the time and the costs. God in His wisdom has planned out our lives, and He had a critical, distinctive purpose laid out for Abraham’s life. In fact, success in the fulfillment of Abraham’s journey has much to do with the coming of a Savior and our faith in Him! This testing, or proving of Abraham was an essential part of that journey. It’s a good thing Abraham was right where he needed to be.

Abraham’s journey included a test. Not a test that would provide God with more information. But a test that would actually develop Abraham in ways that could only be accomplished through the test. And it is excruciating. “Abraham, take your son, your only son, - you know, that son that you love so much - and sacrifice him to me.” Ethical dilemmas abound, but Abraham was to leave it up to God to solve the ethical dilemmas, and prove that he did not place love for son above love for God, that he had not exchanged the worship of the Giver for worship of the gift; that he was not in fact idolizing his son at the expense of properly worshipping the one, true God.

If Abraham had known what God was about to demand, would he still have responded “Here I am”? Would you? Which is why we decide the issue ahead to time - that we will be front and center, available and attentive, at all times, starting now, independent of whether the instruction is comfortable, or impossible.

But the more striking prayer is not the “Here I am” of the hearing (Genesis 22:1). It is rather the “Here I am” of the doing (Genesis 22:11). By this time, Abraham has saddled his donkey, gathered the firewood, taken his son and travelled to Mt. Moriah, built the altar, bound his son, and raised the knife. It is then that God once again calls “Abraham!” He says, “Here I am,” taking his son in his arms, with God firmly fixed in his heart, right where He needs to be.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Clean Sweep

We are looking at Biblical accounts of man’s verbal interactions with God. We are thinking about prayer, and how to pray. And in Genesis 18, we see Abraham engaged in active negotiation with God.

In a recent visit with Abraham, we found him thinking that perhaps his servant would be his heir. God said “No, your own son will be your heir.” Ten years passed, and nothing happened, so Sarah suggested that Abe take handmaid Hagar and produce a son. By the time we get to today’s passage, Ishmael, Abe’s son by Hagar, is about 14 years old. Abraham is 99. Sarah is 89. And, God makes the promise again, with more specificity. “At this time next year, Sarah will have a son!” 

Due to the depth of the relationship between God and Abraham, the Lord decides to share what He will do next, in visiting the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah with the intent of destroying them. It is here that Abraham begs for God’s restraint. “Will you destroy it if you find 50 righteous people there? or 45? or 40? How about 30? or 20? Even 10?” God says that He will withhold judgment even if there are 10 righteous people. But there are not.

Abraham pleads for a division of mankind, between those who are proclaimed righteous, and those who are not; between those covered by the blood of the covenant and those who are not. Abraham, based on God’s revelation of Himself, sees all of humanity in this light. There are only two kinds of people: righteous, and unrighteous, not measured in human standards or by human appearances, but by faith in the promises of God.

Will God “sweep away” the righteous with the unrighteous? Will God treat the wheat as though it is chaff? No, He will not, and He does not. And even though He did not find even ten righteous people in Sodom, he still arranged the rescue of “righteous Lot,” his wife (partially), and his two daughters. He made a clean sweep of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not before rescuing the righteous.

God has promised to make a clean sweep of this world in which we live as well. It’s a mess, and God is at odds with sin. We look forward to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Will He sweep away the righteous with the unrighteous? No, He will make a clean sweep of this world, even as He reaches out and saves those who are in right relationship with Him through faith in the covenant formed by Him for the sake of His people, sealed with the blood of Jesus. And this should guide how we pray.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

For What would One Die?

For what would you die? Perhaps for the protection of family and home. Perhaps for freedom and country. Would you die for your faith, for the honor of your Savior? These are all difficult questions. Let’s discover a truth that underlies the commitment of the Christian as we think about Abraham’s prayer/question.

Abraham says to God, “How can I know that I will possess the land You have promised?” As we have previously written, the path forward seemed sketchy at best. “Lord, how do I know I can count on you?”

God then gives some rather strange instructions. Slaughter some animals: a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Cut them in half, and lay those halves parallel with a path in between. What is God doing? He is “cutting” a covenant. He is making a solemn promise in which He communicates to the beneficiary, Abraham, (and by the faith of Abraham, us) something like this: "May what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep My promises to you.” God is saying, I stake my Life on it - the very existence of God. And it’s not mere words, because were God to violate His character - well - it’s impossible. If He did, then God would not be God. 

We can count on God, because God stakes His life on His promise. And we know that He would, because He did. In order to fulfill His promises Abraham and to us, He in fact sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us, bearing the curse of sin for us, that we might receive the righteousness of God. God was “cut in half” for us.

And so, the question in the title is a bit mis-leading. It is a bit of a trick, because we always read ourselves first into every question, into every situation. It’s ingrained in us. For what would I be willing to die? But the foundational truth is that we as Christians may be better prepared to sacrifice our lives because One has already given Himself for us. It’s not so much what we do, as what God has already done. Or, what we do is based on what God done. We love, because God first loved us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We serve, because we have been served.

This passage, Genesis 15, includes this phrase quoted in three places in the New Testament: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Yes, God, having witnessed Your word and action, that “you would really rather die than live without us,” I believe, and I know I can count on You.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Lack of Vision

My wife looks at an old house and sees possibilities. I see lath and plaster and the prospects of lung cancer. She spots an old couch by the side of the road, and, along with Jackie, says, “it’s got good bones.” I say, “Who are we to question the good judgment of the people who ditched it?” She can see it. I can’t. A marriage made in .. heaven?

Abraham, following last post’s story, could not see a way forward. God is making plenty of grand promises about descendants and peoples - that all nations would actually be blessed through his. And yet there was no son, not a single one. A huge roadblock in the road forward. So Abraham now, and Sarah later, begin to rationalize and strategize, both from non-visionary points of view. Abraham thought that perhaps he could pretend that his servant was really his son. God said “no.” Sarah thought a substitute wife might solve the problem. It instead created many more. When there is no human way forward, our prayers should be humble, asking, “Lord, what do you have in mind? I’m willing to wait and see.”

Of course, for Abraham and Sarah, time was a problem. They were already past time for child-bearing, and more time wasn’t going to improve the odds, humanly speaking. They could not conceive of a path forward. They could not imagine a divinely-devised solution. They dared not envision a hopeful future. They failed to see beneath the surface, to the “good bones.”

Our prayers are not purposed to tell God what He can’t do. The impossibilities may flood our minds, but our task is not to inform God of His limitations. As we ponder, we must place God’s promise right before our eyes, so that what we see is colored by what we read and believe. As we pray, we must hold the promise firmly on our tongues, so that the words of our prayers must pass over them, flavoring the doubtings of our own words with heavenly hope.

Abraham prays a very small prayer to God when he says, “What can you possibly give me, since I have no son?” But when he finds himself properly married to the promise of God, he will find himself trusting and obeying, full of faith, and living in expectation rather than dread. He will soon have the experience of being surprised by the magnanimous wonder of a God “who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think,” (Ephesians 3:20 NAS95), something like a marriage made in heaven.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Prayer for Second-Best

If you follow these posts consecutively, you might be picking up that I have begun following Biblical accounts of man’s interactions with God. It might be good to make a couple points before we proceed.

We can only examine what the Bible records. Adam, Cain, and now Abram perhaps had many conversations with God. We must stick to the ones God chose to include in the written revelation. Also, Adam’s “really bad prayer” and Cain’s “really sad prayer” perhaps were not consciously prayers with God - perhaps more excuses, or arguments. But it seems to me, whenever we talk to God, whether reverent or not, we are in fact praying, though we may be doing it very badly. We also find that there are big gaps in recorded prayers. We have none from Enoch, though he walked with God. We have none from Noah, though a righteous man. I’m sure they prayed. But we can only go by the book. “Nothing more.” And we will be accountable unless we also adopt the route “nothing less."

So now we come to the Genesis giant, no, the Biblical giant, Abraham. God has already spoken to Abram on, by my count, four occasions, though we have no recorded replies. Here in Genesis 15, God says “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1 NAS95) Perhaps we could say that God is promising to be both Abram’a protection and his provision. The protection part has already been proven (Gen 14). But the provision part - and the part of that part that really matters - the provision of a son, Abram can’t see how that’s going to happen.

Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abraham is here praying according to the facts on the ground, the ones that he can see. He has looked in the mirror and seen the reflection of a very old man. He has looked across the dinner table at a wife of similar condition. The days of hope are over. So what is left? A second-best solution. Just Eliezer, whose name means “my God is a help.” Yet Abraham at this point seems to have embraced that old line, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Abraham is having a crisis of imagination - specifically, the ability to conceive and fathom possibilities that are only open to God. That is the very point here. Abraham cannot help himself. Only God can. And his prayer, and ours, begins to open our eyes to that truth, and to the experience of something that is better than second-best. 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Really Sad Prayer

We will follow Genesis 3’s “Really Bad Prayer” with Genesis 4’s “Really Sad Prayer.” Cain, fresh off the killing of Abel, is asked by God, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain answers, “I don’t know.” I suppose his answer is somewhat true. He’s dead. His blood has drained out. There is a little bit of him here, a little there. His body is somewhere on or under the ground. His spirit/soul is with the Lord. There’s really no easy answer to his whereabouts. Not so easy as if God had asked him, “Where are you?”

Cain’s next reply sounds insolent: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He assumes the answer is “no,” but we realize that it really is “yes.” God had put Adam in the middle of His creation in order to “cultivate and keep” it. We would assume that if you are to be a keeper of creation, then you would also, necessarily be your brother’s keeper, his guardian, his defender. Cain proved to be the opposite.

So we find that Cain, in his prayer/argument with God, actually uses God’s word, “keep,” in his attempt to relieve himself of responsibility. He has rejected his role in God’s creation, and he throws God’s word back in God’s face (and this is the 2nd recorded interaction between God and man!). So let’s have had enough of the notion that the Christian message is to affirm the innate goodness of man. These two prayers, Genesis 3 and 4, argue the opposite. And further, we ought to be somewhat fearful in our prayers, lest we sink to this level, in which we pray as though the only person on God’s green earth that matters is me, and I can make any vapid excuse I want and expect that God should honor it. God punishes Cain, taking away his ability to do that other thing that God had commended to mankind, not only to “keep,” but to “cultivate.” You violate the one; you lose the other.

But we are not done with Cain (and, neither is God). Cain responds to God’s pronouncement: “The punishment is greater than I can bear.” This is the really sad aspect of this prayer, and it is the cry of humankind ever since, to the degree that we actually understand the predicament of our broken relationship with God. This word “punishment” is also translated “iniquity,” and may include both the offense and the punishment that the offense deserves. Both will crush us, drive us into the dirt, so that we will “surely die,” separated forever from God. But it is exactly this prayer, this bad news, that drives us to be ready for the arrival of promised good news. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Really Bad Prayer

The Garden of Eden, so beautiful in Genesis 2, looks like a crime scene in Genesis 3. There, over in the shadows are two victims, or are they in fact perpetrators. And while it looks like they may be huddling against each other in fear, it also appears that they may have their backs turned toward one another.

If prayer is man talking with God, then the second recorded interaction between God and Adam is really bad prayer. It is the case of dis-eased expression from a sin-sick soul. God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the forbidden tree?” Adam’s (prayer) answer reads like this: “The woman you gave me - she gave to me, and I ate."

In crossing the boundary of disobedience, Adam passed from innocence to enlightenment. But this enlightenment was not progress. It was rather “the knowledge of good and evil,” or, the experience of evil at a physical, sensual level. And having experienced it, he could not un-experience it. His perceptions were forever changed. His partner was now also his rival;  his Friend now invoked servile fear. He had lost something innocent in his humanity, and had sadly become a different kind of creature.
Far from confessing, Adam blames the woman - “she gave it to me.” And he blames God as well: “The woman you gave me,”. As if to say, “God, you are ultimately responsible for this mess. It’s on you.” And far from interceding for his wife, he accuses her (a most devilish activity). Admittedly, it is pretty tough to intercede for someone who has sinned when we have already followed their lead. True intercession requires a connection, but also a distance. Adam blew it on all counts.

When we find ourselves in our own crime scene, and find that we ourselves are the criminals, our prayers need to be clear and accountable. Answer God’s questions. If you honestly don’t know the answer, admit it. Don’t blame. Allow your soul to be dissected. Don’t evade. Be humble and accept responsibility. Don’t make excuses. Admit what you did, take responsibility, and ask for mercy. 

Prayer is a high privilege, and should not be made a mockery. It is an invitation to speak with the Almighty, and we might do well to speak the truth. It is an opportunity to give glory to God, which we steal when we seek to establish our own righteousness. It is a chance to display our intended humanity, as we think, and speak, and ask, and believe - something lesser creatures cannot do.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"Where Are You?"

I’m blind on the inside of my mouth. My tongue is clumsy and can’t see. So when I broke a tooth, and the phone-person was trying to have me do a little self-diagnosis, I wasn’t much help. I’ve heard the hygienist label and describe, but the correspondence is lost on me.

It occurred to me that if I am blind on the inside of my mouth, then I am much more so on the inside of my soul. I am aware of good things, like peace, joy and gratefulness; and also of bad things, like anger, discouragement and bitterness. How these things are related, and where they are rooted, is lost on me.

When the Lord God approached Adam and Eve in the garden, He called out the question, “Where are you?” I do not assume for an instant that God did not know where Adam was. He knew exactly. It was for Adam to figure out the answer. And from the answer he gave, it is clear that Adam was lost in his own mouth, and lost in his own soul. 

This might be regarded as the first prayer in the Bible. God calls. Man answers. And, if this is a prototypical prayer from the prototypical man, then our prayers, like Adam’s, are marked by stuttering and stumbling. “I…I…I…I.” On the outside, “I heard” and “I hid,” but on the inside, how do I describe it, “I was afraid,” because “I was naked.” I don’t know how all these things are related, or where they are rooted, but there’s my answer, such as it is.

It seems that a prayer exercise that seeks to answer the question, “Where are you?” would be good for all of us. Not geographically, though the story might start there. But where are you in relation to God? Where are you in relation to God’s words, God’s commands? This was key for Adam. I suspect that it is for us as well. Where are you in relation to God’s provision, as yet unrevealed to Adam, since God had not yet killed in order to provide adequate covering? Adam was afraid and ashamed partly because of the flimsy, foolish covering that he had made for his own condition.

Here are some soul-searching questions: What have I heard from God that I have ignored? How have I hidden myself from His direction and inspection? What am I really afraid of? Of what am I ashamed? In what ways am I involving myself in a man-made cover-up? These are soul issues. And when we try to self-diagnose, we find that we have to go by feel, because we are mostly blind. But thankfully, Jesus is the surgeon of the soul, and he loves, and he presses in on us to push through our silly reasonings and excuses, “that he might bring us to God,” back where we belong. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

View from the Bottom of the Boat

This past Sunday, we studied the first of four miracles in Luke 8 that help prepare the disciples for mission. Jesus’ stilling of the storm reinforces the truth that Jesus is more than “just another guy,” in that “even the wind and waves obey him.” Also, the experience teaches disciples-like-us that we most need to remember who Jesus is, and of what he is capable, when we are in situations wherein we have lost control and are confronted by chaos.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says that, “in Christ, we are new creatures. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” That is, we begin now to see everything through Jesus’ eyes, even as God sees us through Jesus.

This change of perspective includes a great many things. We see ourselves as sinners differently. We now openly admit sin rather than deny and cover up, because only sinners can claim forgiveness of sins. If we deny our sin, we deny our need for Christ. We see Jesus as the eternal God who walked in human shoes. He is the center of all history, the only one through whom God can be known, and the only one who makes a right relationship with God possible. We see other people not so much as body-types or skin-colors, but we see that each one has an eternal soul - each one of great value; and each one at great risk. We see our temporal lives as but a vaporous moment in comparison to the glories of eternity, and we see the difficulties of this life as opportunities for the cultivation of spiritual virtue and strength. We are grateful and joyful; loving and forgiving. But not perfectly, because, as we said, we are indeed sinners.

One of our greatest sins is forgetting our faith, as did the disciples in this story. They cried out in panic to the sleeping Jesus, “Master, master, we are perishing.” Mark’s Gospel adds the rather impertinent, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Panic, or discouragement, or bitterness, or worldliness - yours and mine - these also cause us to forget our faith, and to live as those who have not come to know and value Christ.

So what should the disciples have done? I suggested last Sunday that they might merely have laid down in the bottom of the boat next to Jesus and watch the whole scenario play out - the wonders of a sometimes-fightening God, and the tenders of a protective Savior. And then, if I could see today’s trials from that same perspective, or that difficult person, or that perceived injustice. Because Jesus has already been there, in the bottom of the boat. And he is there for us. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Life Bound Up with His

We can agree that a baby’s life is bound up with that of one’s mother’s. Yes, there are other helpers or, at times, stand-in’s. But the baby is a largely dependent creature, and in most cases, that weight on mom. So much so, that if something threatens the life of the mother, then the life of the baby is also imperiled. And otherwise, good health for the mom should generally redound to good health for the baby.

For the follower of Jesus, we can also say that the life of the disciple is bound up with the life of Christ. What happens to him happens to his followers, in at least a couple of ways.

This has application for our present lives. Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is ascended to heaven and is at the right hand of the Father, with all enemies placed under his feet. Now not all his (our) enemies have met their final defeat, but the resurrection and ascension show how this is going to go. Therefore, since my life is bound up with his, I need not fear evil. Enemies may not be currently completely vanquished, but they have no enduring power. And even if they are able to bring physical harm or death, my future is secured by the One who lives forevermore. 
But spiritually, our lives are bound up with Jesus’ life in another way. Romans 6 in particular shows that we are bound to Jesus in his death, so that our relationship with servitude to sin and evil is broken. And if we are bound to Jesus in his death, then we are also bound to him in his resurrection, so much so that we now live new kinds of lives, fueled by faith, lived out in love, helped along by hope, all energized by the Holy Spirit given from heaven.

If archeologists were able to find and conclusively prove that they had uncovered the body of the 1st century Jesus - if they were able to disprove the resurrection which is so clearly attested and substantiated in Scripture, then real Christianity would die. Sinners would have lost their Savior. There would be no deliverance, and no hope. Since archeologists and historians can prove little conclusively, my statement is not so helpful, other than to illustrate how literally this maxim is intended: my life is bound up with his. 

Or is it? If we can go from Sunday to Sunday with no thoughts of Jesus in between, is my life really bound up with his? If I face a trial or disappointment, and do not turn to Jesus for direction or help, is my life really bound up with his? Once again, what we say we believe needs to be put into practice.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Cover-Ups and Cover-Alls

Human history is full of cover-ups. Your personal history probably has a few as well. Cover-ups are those hiding tactics that we use to conceal the things of which we are ashamed. We do not want our failings to be made public. So we cover up.

We can conceal with bravado. We suppose that if we look good, people will think that everything is good. We can be experts at the fake smile, as if everything is ok, or with that little lie “fine” in response to “how are things?” They aren’t always “fine,” by the way, but you don’t want to say so, and you are dead sure you don’t want the other person to hear the whole story. We come across people concealing a cancer diagnosis who say, “fine,” or who are about to be foreclosed, and they say “fine.” It’s the human practice of cover-up.

1 John 1 confronts us with the contrast between the truth and cover-ups. In verses 6,8 and 10, John says, “if you say …” something that is not true, then you are a liar, and the truth is not in you, and you are actually making God a liar. But in 1 John 1:9, John offers us another word, But “if we confess …” To “confess” means to agree with God. It means to agree with God about what is right - like God’s perfections, including His righteousness and purity and goodness; and it also means to agree with God about what is wrong - those things that we have been lying about - the things you have been covering up. The verse goes on to say that “if we will confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That brings us to cover-alls.

Cover-alls are used by painters and mechanics to keep the worker clean from paint and grease. Theoretically, you can work all day in all kinds of slop, and then peel off those coveralls at the end of the day, and you’re clean as a whistle. Yes, the illustration suffers from frequent failures.

But the cover-all that God provides in Christ is not a protection from the outside in, but rather a cleansing from the inside out. “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Completely covered.

In the Old Testament, God would look down on us His people through the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the kphr, or covering. In the New Testament, God looks upon His people through the righteousness of Christ, as we place faith in Him. And according to His promise, we are completely “cover-all-ed” by Him, left with no need to cover-up.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Outward vs. Inner

“Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.” (Daniel 1:7 NAS95) 

These four young men from Judah had been taken as prisoners of war away from their homes and families in order to enrich the court of the Babylonian king. Nebuchadnezzar believed in the value of disparate cultures, and wanted to gain the best from them, even as he trained them in his own ways. One step in the process was to change their names. 

This is more significant than first appears. Each of these names communicates something about the faith of their people and of their parents. The Hebrew word for “God” is “El.” And so you can see that the name of God is part of both Daniel’s name (full meaning: God is my judge), and Mishael. God had revealed Himself to Moses and the nation of Israel by His personal name, Yahweh. In Hebrew names, this is often shortened to “Yah,” and so we can see that Hananiah includes this name (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is kind”), and in the name of Azariah (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is my help”). 

Once kidnapped, these young men could not control by what names they would be called. But outside authorities, no matter how prestigious and powerful, could change the commitment of their hearts. And that is the larger story of Daniel 1 - not that non- believing men could affect the outer elements of our persons (that goes without saying); but that they could not man-handle the internal souls of these committed believers. 

I would think that it would have been a distressing thing for these men to have their names changed in attempts to disassociate them with their godly past and to marry them to their pagan future. What we should notice in the text is that they did not whine and complain about this heavy-handed treatment. Rather, they chose to chart a course of faithfulness to their convictions from that internal center of their devotion: what they believed in their hearts and souls. 

I’m not sure we keep that distinction clear. We in America howl at any perceived affront to our Christian rights, even as our souls follow the ways of the world in the pursuit of prosperity, devotion to pleasure, and the care of our own over others. Daniel and his pals, or whatever their names, honored the distinction more clearly. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dear ... ,

Letter-writing has been a large window into which we have come to understand a rather personal side of human history. There was, of course, a time when letters were not circulated. Engravings in stone tablets were slow and difficult. But with pen and paper, time and candlelight, men and women could pour out their heartfelt thoughts in compelling ways.

If there was a time before letters were widely written, I fear there will also be a time (perhaps soon) when they are written no more. Facebook posts do not count as letters and can hardly be regarded as the outpouring of hearts. Tweets and Snapchats are worse. The medium definitely affects the message.

There are things that we learn about a person through their letters that we do not grasp through their other communications. Former president Obama has just released letters written during his presidency. It is much more difficult to vilify a person when seen through such a personal lens. Martin Luther is known through his books, in which he is formidable, and through his essays, which contain verbal daggers. But when you read his letters, it is a man burdened to communicate with another, and the heart is revealed.

We are glad, then, to find so many letters in the Bible. Especially revealing are Paul’s letters written to individuals, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. He writes about himself, and he writes about the recipient. He works to integrate faith with the challenges of life, and he puts his finger on the sore spots, the dangers and deficiencies, as though it is his heart wrestling with theirs. In Scripture, then, we find that we not only come close to the heart of Paul, but also to the heart of God, as God Himself strives to warm and woo our hearts.

And then Paul (and God) helps us take one more step. Paul tells us, in a letter, that we ourselves, whether individually or communally, are a letter of Christ himself, addressed, as it were, to the community around us, that they might know something of the heart of Christ through us. And I wonder, how are we doing at this? Can the heart of Christ, like tear drops on a page, be discerned in our lives? Is his grace and love made clear? Or are we more like a tweet, a post, or a bite. May those rightly related to God through Christ be so moved and motivated by His Spirit that we are actually able to communicate something of His heart and purpose, so that others are drawn, not to the letter, but to the Author.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Burden of Debt

At the time of this writing, the U.S. national debt is over 2 trillion dollars. If that were spread out to each citizen, we would each owe over $62,000 dollars, or, if spread out to each taxpayer, over $168,000. While the budget deficit may grow or shrink, the government is continually spending more than it receives, and thus the debt is growing.

I’m not sure how you and I experience the burden of that debt. Mostly, we do not think about it. Ignorance does not erase the debt. It just erases it from our consciousness. Likewise, if there is such a thing as a spiritual debt, ignorance does not erase it. It merely allows us not to think about it, so as not to feel the burden of debt.

Our problem of sin before a holy God is often pictured as a stain from which only the blood of Christ can cleanse. Also, we find the picture of debt. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus says of the master to the parabolic debtor, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” In this Sunday’s text, Jesus illustrates his forgiveness of the sinful woman by saying in parable, “When (the two debtors) were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both.”

For well over a hundred years (1865) we have been singing “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” More recently (1989), we have sung the chorus “He came from heaven to earth to show the way; from the cross to the grave, my debt to pay.”

The burden of debt is more keenly felt when it is personal - when it affects my home and my children and my reputation. That is why we can seem to distance ourselves from a national debt or divine debt. But the accountants are counting, and the Judge is judging. We don’t like that idea.

Yes, accountants count. But why should God judge? We frame the question in order to excuse ourselves. We actually put the onus on God when we consider (judge) that God owes us - it is His job to serve us and make us happy, as though He were in our debt. But if we are His creatures, as Scripture clearly teaches, and if we were created for His glory, then every time we live for our own glory, we are guilty to stealing His. That results in debt. Moreover, when we violate His moral will expressed in His laws, we offend His holiness, which is a moral debt that must be repaid. The debt is so great, we cannot, so the burden is crushing. Until we hear the Savior say, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

How Did It Come to This?

A fitting question upon hearing of the Las Vegas massacre might be, “How did it come to this?” I’ve been thinking about a phrase that might provide an answer: “inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.”

This actually started with a Bible study in Lamentations, not one of the sunnier books for the Bible. 1:1 begins with “How lonely sits the city ..”, paralleled in Isaiah 1 :21 with “How the faithful city has become a harlot.” How did it come to this? Well, God had made promises - threatening promises - that if Israel did not faithfully follow Him, He would bring punishment. Since God does not lie, that result was to be regarded as inevitable. Then, examining Israel’s studious inattention to God’s Word and ways, and their stubborn habit of wandering off after every other false god, the result was also predictable. What is strange is that, when God does what he says, they acted as though it were totally unexpected.

Let’s apply this to an ethical subject: spending and debt. If we spend more money than we take in, then we will inevitably go broke. But our spending patterns persist, so the end is predictable. Strangely, when we unexpectedly hit rock-bottom, we say something like, “How did it come to this?” It seems we are idiots. Inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.

Now let’s go out on the limb. It seems to me that the number of unbalanced people in our society is increasing. I don’t know how to verify this, or even how to clarify the category so as not to be offensive. We are all bent by sin, some more than others. Some have lost touch with reality and are living in an alternate world of illegitimate values and bankrupt standards of decency. They cannot be trusted to live safely and responsibly among us.

Is it inevitable that such an unbalanced person will lose sense of the value of human life, and will act to destroy as many as possible? And if you place in his hands an army’s worth of weapons, is it inevitable that he will use them in ways similar to what we saw in Las Vegas a few days ago? I’m not sure. But we’ve seen this happen enough times now that it is certainly predictable.

And so, when it happens again, let’s not pretend that it is unexpected. Not unless something changes. I sincerely wish Mr. Las Vegas did not have the access to the cache of weapons that he assembled. But that is not the root of the problem. I also sincerely wish that there were not so many others like him, who are so .. (what’s the word?) .. so desperately lost.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Not Using, but Living

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, 
but living as servants of God.”(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

From last week, we find that we often get that feeling of “being used.” Others are choosing to make use of us for their own ends. That may be acceptable if we agree, but many times, we don’t.

But now we go on and think about what the verse above is advocating. It says, “not using, .. but living.” It implies that we also are not to be “user’s,” taking advantage of others for our own purposes, but we ourselves are to be those who live in the service of God for the sake of others.
Think of the creation mandate. Adam and Eve, and their children, were to subdue creation and to rule over it. They were not to just “use” it in the sense of ransacking it and leaving behind desolation. Rather, they were to organize and creatively develop the good gifts of God’s creation so that it would reflect God’s glory more and more. Even as they “used” creation as their home and recreative space, they were to live as servants of God.

The author Wendell Berry has written about the stewardship of land, which also results in the respect of community. He decries those who sweep in to an area (in his case, Kentucky) to blast the tops off mountains, truck off the resources and leave behind piles of waste and polluted waterways. Both ecology and economy have been ruined. These intruders have not “live(d) as servants of God.
The New Testament, then, also talks about our role in the world, not as “user’s,” but “liver’s.” We can desecrate our homes and communities and the lives of those around us with greed, or we can serve as God’s stewards for the good of others, which often turns out for the good of ourselves. 

But the thrust of this activity in the New Testament is not so much creation care as it is a gospel ethic. This is not to say that creation care has expired, or that it is not a worthy endeavor. But for a Christian to pursue only creation care is to have missed the focus of the Gospel, that we are to do good to others (one of the key themes of the little letter of Paul’s to Titus. Read it and see.) Our “not using,.. but living” now has a redemptive focus - a kind of living that shows that we have ourselves been redeemed from selfishness and grabbing for ourselves, and that we are sincerely grateful for this life-changing redemption found in Christ and His sacrifice for us, that we are eager to take back our lives from those who would use us for their own purposes, give ourselves as servants of God, and pray that people around us would see Christ in us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Using, and Being Used

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

This verse, about the freedom of the Christian, gives important advice on living as free people in an enslaving world. “Not using, but living.”
All of us have had the experience of that feeling of being “used.” Someone has chosen to co-opt my time, my ability, my connections, for their own purposes. They may have been up-front about their intentions, or more secretive or manipulative. But it is, after all, most often, a permitted relationship. That is, I let it happen. It’s what I chose, whether or not I knew the implications at the time. 

“Using” is a term found in connection to drugs and alcohol. I’m interested in thinking about the connection between the terms “using” and “being used.” The person with a substance abuse problem says the word “using” as though they are in control, when we also know that they may be addicted, and so they have switched from an active role to a passive, and they are “being used.” They used their own will to engage with this substance, but that substance has now enslaved them. And we can be enslaved by any number of things. 

God has created us with a large number of traits and gifts. Each of these are for our “use,” but we can also come under their control. So if we have been favored with prosperity, we can use that favor with enjoyment and generosity, or we can be mastered by our money so that it runs us, or ruins us. We can be blessed with children, and commit ourselves to the challenge of raising them to be mature and responsible. During that time, the burden of that commitment is huge. It’s what we agree to when we have kids. But they become enslaving when we do not let go at the proper time. And if we continue to hold on, we are being used, voluntarily submitting ourselves to a kind of slavery. 

This is only half the story, because our verse says, “not using, but living.” How do we give ourselves without being used? That’s for next week. Here, it’s time to examine how we have tacitly agreed to enslavements, and how are we guilty of taking good gifts and using them contrary to their intended purposes. 

In the verse above, the object is freedom. As Christians, we are free from a performance-based morality and from the judgment of mere men. But that precious freedom is not to be used by you and me for selfish purposes. Because if you don’t like that feeling of being used, we should assume that God doesn’t like it either. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When God Pays a Visit

Just about every time a natural disaster happens, someone will attribute it to being a judgment of God. That “someone” will probably seem to know exactly who God is seeking to punish, and exactly what they ought to be punished for. I’m not so sure.

Visits can be good, or bad, depending on the state of our preparation for the visitor, and the disposition of the visitor. If the visitor is angry because he has to come and clean up our mess, then we may dread the visit. But if we have been earnestly preparing for the visitor, and have lived and prepared with his interests in mind  rather than living purely for our own interests - then we greet that visitation with joyous expectation.

So I believe that God “visits” His people and this world in various ways. Scripture speaks poetically of God being in the storm or in the whirlwind. Scripture also speaks of illnesses being allowed by God, or being from God, in order to get one’s attention. These “visitations” should also include, then, the surprising blessings that occur - periods of prosperity; instances of beauty; gracious providences that, too many times, we attribute to good luck, or good living, or human ingenuity. 

In our study of Luke’s Gospel, we read of the key visitation of God, Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. In this week’s miracle account - the raising of the widow’s son - people conclude that “God has visited His people.” And He has, and He did, when Jesus, God’s Son, came to do what no one else could do, whether it be to still the storm, or to heal diseases, cast out demons, to firmly and finally forgive sin, - or even to raise the dead.

In the lengthy introduction to Luke’s Gospel, there are two references to this visitation. Zecharias, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, says “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant —” (Luke 1:68–69 NAS95), referring not to John, but to Jesus. This visit means that we can be, not a rejected people, but a redeemed people. And later in that same speech, he says “To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,” (Luke 1:77–78 NAS95). Here we find that, when God visits, by faith in Him and in His Son, we can experience His visit not as the heat of judgment but as the warmth of Fatherly mercy.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Faith and Faithfulness

Everybody believes in something. Actually, in a lot of things. We may not know what those things are, but it shows. Your beliefs leak out in behavior. In religion, we would say that your faith is shown by the shape of your faithfulness.

We can’t see faith. While faith is confidence is something that cannot be seen, faith also is invisible to others. You can tell me about your faith, but I can’t tell if it is really your life doctrine, or merely a pretended dream. But what I can see is your faithfulness. And often, our faithfulnesses come across as faith(less)nesses, denying what we say we believe.

For instance, when I say that I believe in God who is Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and that He is intimately involved in the affairs of my life, even to the point of allowing/designing trials that are intended to strengthen my faith - and then, I’m hit with something unpleasant, and I moan and complain and get mad - well, my faith(less)ness has denied whatever I might have professed about my faith. I really believe something else, such as, if there is a god at all, he certainly owes me a pleasant and easy life; that he exists to serve me. 

So faithfulness, properly expressed, can be a beautiful thing. But think also about this: faithfulness is not static. Think of a young child, learning to form words and explore. Yes, she wears a diaper which needs to be changed often, but she is being faithful to her nature, given her age and gifts. And we are delighted. But if that child reaches the age of 10 and still wears a diaper, we are dismayed. She no longer is faithful to what should be. So it is with Christians. We come to faith, and there is an infant-faithfulness that arises, including things like worship and fellowship. But along with the expectation of spiritual maturity comes the need for a more mature faithfulness, including the practices of service and sacrifice. Your faithfulness must grow.

Your faithfulness and mine will look different, even given similar beliefs. Your life situation, ordered by God, is different from mine; also your gifts and responsibilities. For some, it is gaining victory over public sins and picking up the fight against those not so obvious. It may be new service that pushes you to love deeply and give freely. It may be a trial that stretches the limits of endurance. But in all these situations, and more, your faith, if it is real, will show itself in faithfulness. And a lack of faithfulness is a denial of faith. Because, “faith without works is dead.”

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Grace and Graciousness

God in His grace has reached out and blessed us in ordinary and extraordinary ways. He did so, not because we deserved such grace, because He desired and chose to do so. This grace is more variegated than the flowers that the ladies will see this coming week on their outing to the dahlia farm. It is a prism of goodness that fills our lives. Every sweet experience, whether pleasing any of our senses or activating our minds our affecting our emotions - all these things are only possible because of the many-colored grace of God.

Of course, God’s grace as applied in redemption is even greater. God blesses His children with a changed past, forgiving their sin. He gives them a new identity, breaking their bondage to Satan and binding them in covenant relationship with Himself. He seals our future with promises and with the heavenly Spirit who now dwells in our hearts, leading and provoking and protecting. We are never alone; we always have Someone who prays for us; and we are invited to call the Ruler of the universe “our Father.”

Such grace is, as John Newton wrote, amazing. It is also infecting. With the gracious Spirit’s help, this grace penetrates deep down into our psyche, so that what rises up and out of us is - gracious. Grace-filled Christians (and there are no other kinds) are gracious. And yet, the world’s experience of professing Christians is often much different. What has gone wrong?

Well, for one, we have. As Martin Luther said, we are at the same time saints, and sinners. I have a t-shirt with that quote on the front. One of our ladies saw me wearing it, and said that the “sinner” was more obvious than the “saint.” I think she was talking about the font and the color. But then, I’m not so sure. Maybe she, or God, was telling me that His infecting grace has not yet penetrated near so deep as it needs, so that my most unguarded responses when stressed or frustrated are not the same as those responses when worshipping alone with Bible open or together with others in song - gracious. Because grace and graciousness must go together.

If you have indeed tasted that the Lord is good, how is the flow of graciousness? Where are the inconsistencies? Are there certain people or places in which the graciousness disappears, and the old man comes out. We know, don’t we, that God’s grace never disappears. Nor should our graciousness. We can be truthful, but gracious. We can disagree, but with grace. The gladness of God’s grace must never give way to the madness of our own malice.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Watch Your Mouth

Throughout the summer months, we have been reading and reflecting on Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about how they should live as his followers (Luke 6) - quite different from those who do not follow Jesus. This past week, Jesus taught us that out of our mouths, our hearts reveal themselves. And therefore, we should watch our mouths, and pray for help for our hearts.

Let me acquaint you with three passages that help us evaluate our words, and thus red-flag our hearts. The first is 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” The last term, slander, is the practice of tearing people down - of tearing down the reputations of people. As we see in the final paragraph of Luke 6, Jesus is much more concerned that we be building up than tearing down. So if you are good at cataloguing and rehearsing the failings and foolishnesses of other people - you’ve been red-flagged. Watch your mouth, and pray for help with your heart.

Another verse is Colossians 3:9 “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” The verse above mentioned “deceit,” but let’s think about the widespread practice of lying - of hiding our faults and offenses behind untruths, and the practice of trumpeting and exaggerating our virtues and good deeds. Now notice, few of us are wholesale liars. We only slip in a “little” lie here and there. But as your good mother taught you, “a half-truth is a whole-lie.” Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

Now this next verse isn’t so specific about talk, but about our attitudes, which also flow from the heart. 1 Timothy 2:8 says: Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” Paul, the writer, assumes the practice of prayer and a pious lifestyle. But he also sees a problem. There were evidently a lot of angry and argumentative men. And, as Paul knew, it is really difficult to pray mad. Oh, you can go through the motions of prayer. It might even sound like passionate prayer. But when your words flow from and angry and argumentative heart, there is something wrong. Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

We live in an angry society. Basic life skills now seem to include roasting others; shading the truth; and, being perpetually upset. But, as I hope to explore next post, grace expresses itself in graciousness. And slander, lying, and angry diatribes do not fit well with grace. Nor do they fit well in a disciple’s heart.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Information/Action Ratio

We live in the information age. We are bombarded with news from all angles. Now, what are we supposed to do with it?

We hear about the president’s tweets. What are we supposed to do. Well, nothing. We hear about North Korea and Russia. What are we supposed to do? It’s not that it doesn’t concern us. There is just nothing for us to do. The stock market goes up, or down. Someone tells us why, though I doubt they really know. And we do what? Nothing. We watch the weather, and there, we may alter our plans. Though the forecast is pretty sketchy, so we don’t always pay too much attention.

We are being trained in our culture to receive information and to then take no action. Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” makes the case, strongly, that it is all entertainment. The videos of people doing dumb things, or stupendous things, is entertainment. The harping and carping about politics is entertainment. The horror of nuclear war is, perversely, more entertainment. The media offers it, and we demand it. And then we do .. nothing.

So then, perhaps, on a Sunday (or whenever), we go to a church worship gathering and, on a good day, Scripture is read and applied. Here we go. More information. And what do we do with it. Well, we often do what we have been trained to do with it, all through the week, and for our whole lives. We hope that it makes a brief impression, and then we move on to .. lunch.

A common theme in Scripture, as with parents, is to remind readers and children to “pay attention.” Jeremiah’s words are only one example out of a thousand: Listen and give heed, do not be haughty,  For the LORD has spoken.” If I could paraphrase, God is saying, “Pay attention to what I have to say. Don’t think I’m saying this merely so that you can be entertained. I will hold you accountable for your response.” God is concerned with my information/action ratio. What I actually do in response to God’s Word matters to Him, and it makes a difference for me.

I’m not going to change the world. I will not slow the flow of information, or cause it to be more deliberative rather than eye-catching. But I will do this. I will implore you to regard God’s news as a message that is qualitatively different than all the rest of the news which is merely noise. Take some time. Turn off the TV or put away the phone. Open God’s Word, and enter a completely different world in which the information/action ratio matters.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Author Wendell Berry uses this phrase, “eyes to acres,” borrowed from the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson, to decry industrial farming -  an approach that measures productivity and dollars above all else, and in the process of amassing thousands of acres and gigantic equipment, fails to value the care of the land, the preserving of its varieties, the health and life of surrounding communities, and the ongoing prosperity that cannot be measured in terms of mere profit.

Industrial approaches have been applied to a great many things, like mining, and forestry. It brings in the machine, replacing the husbandman, the steward, etc., and applies techniques of the factory to a broader environment. Industrial approaches have also been applied to churches, replacing pastor-shepherds with CEO’s and boards of directors, using the machinery of the front office to direct marketing campaigns in order to gin up church growth.

When it so happens that the industrial phase passes - when the mountain has been mined, the soil depleted, the forest left in a tangle - what is left behind will begin to regenerate, but will forever bear the scars of man’s hubris and greed. We got what we wanted, and then we left. What is left has been burned over.

The farming phrase, “eyes to acres,” says that in order to run a farm well, someone who has a personal stake in the enterprise needs to be so familiar with the environment, so in touch with little changes - that he only “pastor” so much. Bigger is not necessarily better. And I think the phrase works well in churches as well. How many people can we know and love? How many  before we can no longer feel their spiritual temperature and discern the distempers robbing their souls of joy and tempting them to hit the road for a life of wandering? 

Now this is not just the job of pastors and elders and deacons, though Scripture clearly gives responsibilities to these. It involves the one-anothering of the whole congregation as well. But it must never be industrial. We will never be successful in a local church environment in manufacturing a productive result measured in attendance or reputation. It will always be that tedious task of making disciples whose weakness is more apparent than their strengths, their humility more notable than their personalities, and their sacrifices more valuable than their salaries. They will be deeply loved, because they are carefully known.

Friday, August 04, 2017

"The Mud will Stick to the Wheel"

This quote comes from Martin Luther, pioneer of the Protestant Reformation - a firebrand whose passion and wit and clarity still speaks today, 500 years later. At this point in time, Martin was holed up in Wartburg Castle, translating the Old Testament Scriptures into the German language. Here is what he says: “I figured from the very beginning that I would find ten thousand to criticize my work before I found one who would accomplish one-twentieth of what I have done.” He knew, and said, that when you are trying to move forward, “the mud will stick to the wheel.”

It reminds me of criticisms that D.L. Moody received regarding his efforts in evangelism and soul-winning. Evidently, many thought that he was doing it wrong. He replied, “I much prefer the way that I do evangelism to the way that you don’t do it.” And I’ve heard criticisms of (usually) older Christians, who when they pray aloud, pray in King James English, as though that is the proper dialect for God’s understanding. But couldn’t the same thing be said? I much prefer the way he prays to the way that you don’t? 

So with that leadership principle firmly in mind - “the mud will stick to the wheel” - let’s turn to the Leader of all leaders, and recognize that Jesus Himself is the wheel that churns forward, and all the rest of us are either the mud who sticks to (him), or else we remain unattached, still lying along the edge of the road, mud none the less.

The metaphor is not difficult. In Genesis, the text tells us that “the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the ground.” A departed business man from Milford who grew up as a farm boy used to, on occasion, refer to a person as “a piece of dirt.” Whether he intended it or not, it’s Biblical. Further, Scripture is fond of the metaphor of the Potter and the clay. Yes, just common clay, carefully and skillfully applied by the Potter to serve His sovereign purpose. And what a privilege, to find oneself of use in the Potter’s hand, not because of some inherent quality inside of us that makes us more useful than some other “piece of dirt,” but because of a usefulness gifted to us from the One who made us and chooses to use us.

So yes, the mud will stick to the wheel. But not all of it, and not automatically. And so, if you are a follower of Christ (to use words of a song with which we often conclude our corporate worship), cling to Christ. Be the mud on that wheel. No, not to criticize and judge. Just to be close, in gratefulness, in hope that he might choose a usefulness for us for His glory.