Saturday, June 18, 2016

Your Everyday Job

Five days a week, and six for some, it’s hit the road, go to work, do the job, and repeat it all again tomorrow. Why? It’s what we do. If you’re going to eat, . . if you’re going to feed your family and pay the bills, it’s go to work, go to work, go to work.

As followers of Jesus in this present world, we realize that we also have a job to do for him, and yet we are often a little fuzzy about what exactly that job is. Let’s let Noah help us out with an example.
Noah lived in a wicked world as a righteous man, along with his wife, three sons, and their wives. God spoke to Noah and gave him some surprising instructions. “Build an ark!” I’m not at all sure that Noah knew what an ‘ark’ was, but God gave enough details, and I assume Noah figured out the rest. What a project! Some big barge sitting in the middle of a field, with no rain, or water, in sight. And he couldn’t have even known if it would actually float.

So here was Noah, building an ark to save his family from a flood that his mind could not fathom, that would transport him to a washed-from-wickedness world that he could not imagine. And I would suggest that the job of the Christian is somewhat similar. We are to prepare now for coming judgment, and to prepare for life in a brand new world that is not presently within reach. Are we to make an ark? No. Jesus was quite clear. We are to make disciples.

How do we make disciples? Well, the verse linked above gives some specifics. In our scattering (going), we are to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. That is, we are to introduce our families and friends to Jesus with the hope of helping them identify with Him in faith and in life. And then we are use Scripture, God’s Word, to teach them the outlines of God’s plan and Christ’s character in all the ways that good teaching happens - through example; by answering questions; by asking the question that begs asking; by illustrating using object lessons; by persuading; and by listening - realizing that the success of our efforts always relies on God, just as Noah’s family trusted God with this floating barn.


Will others appreciate your efforts? No more than they did Noah’s. They thought he was a crazy fool. Maybe even dangerous. But he and his family escaped judgment. And, if you also escape judgment and embrace salvation in Christ, you’ll one day be able to compare notes on the similarities of building boats and making disciples.

Living Straight in a Crooked World

Can a ‘good Christian’ really be a Christian at all? And further: Can a person be a true Christian, and climb the ladder in politics? Can a person stay true to his faith and be a winning lawyer, or a successful businessman? Or, are there too many deals that have to be cut, corners to be rounded, and half-truths to be told? 

Think about these questions alongside the story of the ruler who came to Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus immediately turned it around and attacked his ‘loose’ use of the word ‘good.’ “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” 

So perhaps we should put the term ‘good Christian’ to rest. True Christians are all, each and every one, sinners saved by grace. We came to Jesus, not because we were so good, but because we weren’t. He alone, as God, is good. And so we will not find Christians who are true to the Gospel going about telling how good they are. We are to be witnesses to God’s grace, not our own goodness.

Now, as for the other questions: Admittedly, we live in a world that works against Christian integrity, like rushing water eroding away sandstone. It is hard to stand for truth and mercy. It is a brutal battle, always trying to put the other person’s interest first. It requires death to self in order to love the unlovely. And, you and I are not all that good. And if you dare enter a field in which the current of this world blows directly into your face, as in politics, or law, or business - can you really expect to rise to the top? Isn’t it just selfish ambition that is going to require you to make pragmatic choices that blur the lines and blot out the light of His glory? 


Not necessarily. God, throughout history, has placed His men and women, and students, in positions of power and influence. And they succeeded (and often suffered). But we must understand that they did not succeed because they were so good. It was not due to their ladder-climbing abilities, nor their skills at slicing and dicing. It was not their highest aim to be powerful or influential or even successful, at all. It was their goal to walk with God, and to honor Him in the small things - to stick close to His Word and His Son - and then to let God chart the course and win the day. In other words, for a Christian to rise to the top in this world and retain his/ her integrity, well, it takes a miracle. Thankfully, miracles happen. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

'Good' Christians

Can a ‘good Christian’ really be a Christian at all? And further: Can a person be a true Christian, and climb the ladder in politics? Can a person stay true to his faith and be a winning lawyer, or a successful businessman? Or, are there too many deals that have to be cut, corners to be rounded, and half-truths to be told?  

Think about these questions alongside the story of the ruler who came to Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus immediately turned it around and attacked his ‘loose’ use of the word ‘good.’ “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” 
So perhaps we should put the term ‘good Christian’ to rest. True Christians are all, each and every one, sinners saved by grace. We came to Jesus, not because we were so good, but because we weren’t. He alone, as God, is good. And so we will not find Christians who are true to the Gospel going about telling how good they are. We are to be witnesses to God’s grace, not our own goodness.

Now, as for the other questions: Admittedly, we live in a world that works against Christian integrity, like rushing water eroding away sandstone. It is hard to stand for truth and mercy. It is a brutal battle, always trying to put the other person’s interest first. It requires death to self in order to love the unlovely. And, you and I are not all that good. And if you dare enter a field in which the current of this world blows directly into your face, as in politics, or law, or business - can you really expect to rise to the top? Isn’t it just selfish ambition that is going to require you to make pragmatic choices that blur the lines and blot out the light of His glory?


Not necessarily. God, throughout history, has placed His men and women, and students, in positions of power and influence. And they succeeded (and often suffered). But we must understand that they did not succeed because they were so good. It was not due to their ladder-climbing abilities, nor their skills at slicing and dicing.  It was not their highest aim to be powerful or influential or even successful, at all. It was their goal to walk with God, and to honor Him in the small things - to stick close to His Word and His Son - and then to let God chart the course and win the day. In other words, for a Christian to rise to the top in this world and retain his/her integrity, well, it takes a miracle. Thankfully, miracles happen.

Blameless and Pure

Can a parked car avoid the yellow film of pollen as it seemingly descends from all creation upon all creation? Or can the west-facing screens of the sanctuary fail to catch floating dandelion spores as they seek their next garden? No, they can’t. It is almost as though they were designed for exactly that purpose.

And so, we may fairly ask, “Can a human person living in this dirty world stay pure?” Can we breath polluted air and not feel the effects in our lungs? Can we drink contaminated water and not retain the poisons in our system? Can we be surrounded by moral decline, and remain untouched?
But slow down. We have begun to confuse categories. You are not a polished surface, nor a wire mesh. The material parts of our bodies are not to be confused with our rational and spiritual capabilities. You are a human person, created in the image of God, designed to reflect His glory as we duplicate His character in finite ways.

And so, yes, you may breathe in pollen and suffer the affects of allergies. But you can also avert your eyes from that which would be tempting or compromising. You can turn your thoughts from an offense to a song of praise and thankfulness. You can bow your knee and confess your sin and chart a new course for the moments ahead. We are not stationary objects, nor victims. We are trained and capable disciples of Jesus who follow our hearts – those hearts that we devote to Jesus each morning, and as many times during the day as needed.

So stop with the whining and excuses. You are not an oil filter. You, by faith in Jesus, are a child of God, with His Word in your hand, and His Spirit in your heart, and you need not “let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts.”


The Old Testament saint named Job was not afflicted as a punishment for sin, but was tested, even as an upright man. He was able to say, “I am pure, without transgression; I am innocent and there is no guilt in me.” Daniel, again, not as punishment for sin, but due to persecution, was able to say from the lion’s den: “My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.” May we, blameless and pure, be able to say the same.

‘Excessive’ and ‘Exceeding’ are not the Same

If one eats in excess, he may well eat to the point of making himself sick. He doesn’t eat exceedingly. He eats excessively. And isn’t that our problem with so many things? We just don’t know when to stop. And so it happens with drinking, and spending, and even exercising. If a little is OK, the a lot must be better. But it’s not.

“Exceedingly” is an adverb used in older translations of the Bible. We don’t see it often in our common communication. One instance that comes to mind is in evaluations. “She exceeded expectations.” It is not A work. It is A+ work. It is over and above. But it is not too much. It is surprisingly good.

This is why we often apply the word “exceedingly” to God. He consistently surprises with exceeding goodness; exceeding grace; exceeding forgiveness. And that is difficult. Because once we experience some kind of service that “exceeds expectations,”, well, then we come to expect that kind of service in the future, and so, the same service no longer exceeds. It simply meets. But with God, there is something that we suspect about ourselves, that we do not naturally deserve such goodness, or grace, or forgiveness; and, we do not find such goodness and grace and love so consistently and extravagantly expressed from other persons – that we are constantly surprised by the surpassing goodness of God.

Again, let’s be clear. Excessive and exceeding are not the same. We would never say, “God is so good, it just makes me sick.” Just as a grown person reflecting on his childhood would never say, “I grew up in a home where love was so abundant, it just about ruined me.” No, there are some things with a bottomless depth whose value only grows and grows. We must learn to distinguish from those other things which may be permissible in moderation, but which become a monstrosity in excess.

Psalm 119:4 says, “You (God) have ordained Your precepts, that we should keep them diligently.” I think the word “diligently” is too weak for the Hebrew term that it translates. Often, we would choose the word “exceedingly.” That is, “You have established and revealed to us these slab stones, so that we would be surprising, even shocking, in the way we build our lives firmly on these truths and principles, especially when they run counter to the values of the world around us.

Monday, June 06, 2016

It’s About Time



Last week we thought about our need for both grace and truth. Not just a slice of each, or a balance - but a full measure of grace (mercy, love) and truth (faithfulness). This week, as Henry Cloud has shown in his book “Changes that Heal,” we also need time.
Al and I were talking recently about how our approach to life learning and discipleship are very classroom oriented and bookish. Now, we are not against books, and especially The Book - but God has so designed our learning that it requires a lab - a place to put the theory into practice - an arena in which we can fail, and try again, all in the context of grace and truth. I fear that we are giving out information which is not being integrated into daily life, and as a result, we are wasting valuable days - times for you to grow in the application of grace and truth tested and proven by experience.
Cloud suggests that the verse at the top of the page taken from Jesus’ parable includes all three of these elements. The failure to produce fruit on the part of the fig tree is only an illustration of our own failures and fruitlessness. His promise to “dig” corresponds to the application of truth, and his promise to “fertilize” speaks of giving grace. And then he begs for time; another year in which to properly administer grace and truth in order to bring about healing and fruitfulness. If it could help a fig tree, do you think it might help you?
If we could understand that as followers of Jesus, every day is designed by God in such a way - that every experience is a lab; every people-contact an opportunity; every inconvenience a training session or a test; every pain a sign of God’s breaking pride and stiff necks in order to bring us into conformity with His Son, who is the very image of God. We can try and run away from these experiences, Jonah-style. Or we can try to plow through life without thinking and without feeling, strong man-style.
But why would we do so? What are we afraid of? Afraid of truth? Afraid of having to admit that we are wrong, and that God is right? Or is it grace? Are you afraid of grace? Afraid to admit that you have sinned and failed; or forgotten and wandered? Afraid to be forgiven?
There may be an area of your life that is stuck in time, brittle and fruitless. It’s about time to do a little digging (truth); time for a little fertilizing (grace), so that, in God’s good time, you can be alive and bear fruit.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Christianity to be Practiced in a Political Season

At this stage of the presidential game, it would be difficult to argue that we are left with any good candidates for President. All candidates in all eras are flawed, but these are worse. When two leading candidates who are strangers to decency, civility and virtue face off against one another, we can safely predict that this is going to get ugly. We should not be surprised.

But we should be Christian; and we should act the part.

If you have a favorite candidate, then I question your judgment. But if you have a despised candidate, then you will be tempted to delight and, worse, join in, when the slurs begin to fly. You must remember that this is not Christian behavior, and not only should Christians not take part in it, but they also should not even listen to it.

We should not repeat the cleverly crude lines, whether with our lips, or in our posts. We should not whisper them to our buddies, and chuckle under our breaths. Let’s listen as Scripture speaks:

“But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Ephesians 5:3–5 NAS95)

The media is going to make a killing off this, in more than one respect. The more vulgar it becomes, the more money they will make. And their celebration of the whole sordid affair will only serve to erode, to kill, any remaining sense of decorum and decency that exists in our culture.
I believe Christians should stay out of it - away from it. I am not saying who you should vote for, or against - or if you should vote at all. Just don’t tune in. Tune out. Shut if off. The holiness and righteousness of God does not and will not take a leave of absence for something so exceptional as presidential politics featuring such unexceptional candidates.

Finally, when this drama is played out, there will be a President elected, whether from the existing candidates or someone as yet unforeseen - and we will be called upon as Christians to pray for the person who fills that office, and to honor him, or her. 

Grace, and Truth


Some Christians are big on grace and love and forgiveness. You can’t have too much of this. This is the right response in every situation. And, there is also a group of non-Christians who believe that this is exactly what Christians should be about.
There are also Christians who are big on truth. They believe that there are right’s, and there are wrong’s, and that you should be able to tell the difference. And they are more than willing to help. And, there is a group of non-Christians who fully expect Christians to be exactly like this.
So would it surprise certain Christians, and certain non-Christians, that Jesus is full of both grace and truth? And would it surprise you that the themes of grace and truth have been intertwined through the whole Bible story, both old and new testaments?
God revealed Himself to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 34:6,7 - identifying Himself by both Name and description. This description contains both grace and truth, translated variously as loyal love or lovingkindness, and faithfulness. He is true to His covenant promises; and He is true to His Word. 
C.S. Lewis, in the quote on the back page, reminds us that if God truly loves us, then He will not leave unaddressed or untouched that which is unlovely in our lives. That is, in His grace, He will apply truth. He exercises grace in a way that does not treat sin as though it is invisible or unoffensive. And He also exercises truth in ways that graciously illuminates what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is evil. 
One church-or-the-other’s over-emphasis on either grace or truth does great damage. And we are continually learning how to balance. And, it is not as though one can ever have too much grace, or too much truth. It is just that they must be joined. I love this verse that says it well: Psalm 85:10 “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

So let’s get rid of the idea that we can go to a “grace” church, or a “truth” church.” Let’s reject the idea that women are for grace, and men are for truth. Let’s not accept a theory that truth is for beginners, and grace for the more mature (or the other way around). Why? Because of this: John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Unwitting, or Unwilling Disbelief

We know many of the stories of faith recorded in the Gospels: like the royal official who was willing to take Jesus at his word, and believe that his son, deathly sick at a distance, would be healed; or the beggar woman who argued with Jesus, that she might receive, like a dog, just the scraps from his table. We also know that these stories of faith are often accompanied by conflict, as the with the man who revealed the struggle of his own soul, crying out to the Lord, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
But we may not so easily notice the stories of stubborn disbelief. We often see what we want to see, and dismiss what is uncomfortable. So let’s notice these verses from Mark 16, about Jesus’ disciples, following His resurrection from the dead:
11 When (the disciples ) heard that (Jesus) was alive and had been seen by (Mary Magdalene), they refused to believe it.
13 (Two disciples who encountered Jesus) went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.
14 Afterward (Jesus) appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.
16 “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
And then we have the well-known story of “doubting” Thomas, who said to the 10 disciples, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” “Doubt” is not a strong enough term for Thomas’ position. In opposition to the evidence; in opposition to the eye-witness testimony of his trusted companions - he refused to believe. Unwitting? or unwilling? Bewildered? or hard-hearted? In need of time and patience? or did he need to be warned, “he who has disbelieved will be condemned”?

There is such a thing as doubt. It is real, and it is common. When we doubt, we must come back to the testimony once again, and ask, “what does the Word of God say?” In accord with God’s gracious and authoritative Word, we have a responsibility to believe, and to obey. In this light, we see that faith is not some strange bird with fuzzy feathers. It is you grabbing hold of revealed truth with determination, and believing that God is real, and that Jesus is alive.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dreaming vs. Scheming


One of the key characters in the Old Testament story of Esther, opposed to the existence of the Jewish people, was Haman. He was involved in an elaborate scheme, not a dream. God, intervened, so that Haman’s scheme was foiled, and the dream of a people for God’s own possession continued toward its fulfillment.
On the other hand, another well-known story from Genesis recounts a young man who had not a scheme, but a dream - a real dream - but also a vision, of a glorious, though difficult future. It wasn’t his dream; it was God’s. And he could not have understood how it would all play out, nor would he have wanted to. It was Joseph. The dream indicated that his father and brothers would one day bow down before him. Now, that may sound like a scheme for self-promotion. But rather than being ginned up to benefit self, this dream looked forward to the salvation of a family - of a people - through the suffering, and elevation, of one. In this case, Joseph.
These stories, and more, come to rest in Jesus, who according to the Father’s good pleasure, suffered and died, and was raised from the dead in vindication, so that God might create a people for Himself, drawn not only from the family of Jacob (Israel), but also from “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.” It is the development of a dream; not the concoction of a scheme.
The verse referenced above indicates that the hearts and minds of these people are “zealous for good works.” The think about zeal is - it’s tough to be zealous for two things at once. We fancy ourselves as multi-taskers. But actually, we major in one area, and pretend in the others. If you are taken up with God’s dream, then you will have little energy for selfish schemes. And vice versa. 
And so, if you are a follower of Jesus, in what schemes are you involved? What flatteries and falsehoods? What hidden agendas and secret dealings? Because it is these to which we often resort when we are building the kingdom of self, at the expense of the kingdom of God. Schemes are not worthy of the kingdom of God. The Father builds His kingdom with the finest of materials - with people who are being purified, and with plans that are prayed-over; with motives that are un-mixed, and with methods that are honest and transparent. 
It is not only that God does not need your schemes to accomplish His purposes. They are, actually, prime indicators that you are not pursuing His dream at all.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Live Like a King

Do you live like a king? I am not talking about ego and extravagance. I’m talking about sphere of influence and responsibility.
There is a sense in which every one of us is called to live like a king, to exercise wisdom and justice in the ‘kingdom’ over which we have authority. The size of my kingdom may be quite small. But it does not relieve me of the responsibility to take responsibility over that realm,no matter its size. 
It might be as small as your own little life. But you are responsible for the choices that you make - for what you allow and disallow - for rules of engagement, and the pursuit of integrity. 
This may involve your role with your family. We must remember that others in our household are kings in their own right, and that we may be in the process of helping them learn to exercise wisdom and justice in their own spheres. But I remember many occasions when my dad would walk past the TV in front of which we were sitting, and turning it off because he deemed what was going on inappropriate. He was living like a king. He was guarding his realm.
Psalm 101, from which the verse above is taken, is David’s manifesto declaring how he would rule his kingdom with regard to moral integrity. It is rather brutal. It is not tolerant. But he was determined to be the king of his kingdom, and to rule accordingly. Further, David knew that he was accountable not merely to himself. He was accountable to God for how he ruled his kingdom, acknowledging that he was but an ‘under-king,’ and that God is the King of the Kingdom, of which all our little kingdoms are but subsets. And so will we. We will answer to God for how we live our lives, and how we rule our kingdoms.
Again, I am not saying that we are to arrogantly seek to extend our authority into the lives of people where it does not belong. I am not in charge of your beliefs, or your morals. But there certainly are lines of authority and responsibility that extend to family, and work, and community, according as we have been assigned or employed. 

A leadership author speaks of areas in which we are to be ‘ridiculously in charge.’ He allows no room for the abdication of responsibility, and the resulting excuse-making and blame-placing. Live like a king! Take charge of your kingdom!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

He Restores My Soul

This phrase, from the 23rd Psalm, that psalm that begins with, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not (be in) want,” - this phrase does not describe a typical relationship between a shepherd and a sheep. Not to offend animal lovers, but a sheep doesn’t have a soul. And even if it did, the shepherd could do precious little to restore it.

Most people shouldn’t even believe that there is such a thing as a soul. If you are a naturalist, then all of our human functions should be able to be explained physically and materially. Every decision; every desire - is solely a product of things like neural impulses and chemical reactions. In fact, for the naturalist, or, the anti-supernaturalist, he/she should not even permit the use of the word ‘psychology,’ the ‘study of the soul.’ 

But many of us are not mere naturalists. We believe that there is something more, so that when the surgeon cracks us open and fails to find a soul, we believe that it is there anyway, immaterial and spiritual, similar to when she goes in to look at your brain and fails to find a mind. His failure to find it does not prove its absence. He/she needs to look with another lens.

And so some, denying the presence of a soul, disregard its need for restoration. And others, believing that there is such a thing, wonder how such restoration can be accomplished.

In children’s Sunday School, where some of the most formidable questions are posed, we watched a digital restoration of great-grandma’s childhood photograph. The photo stock was worn and wrinkled. The image was dull and fuzzy. The color was drab. But with painstaking and detailed work (we watched a time-lapse), that photo was restored so much that great-grandma would have fit right in with the children in the class. Through all that restorative work, she had come, visually, to life.

I do not believe restoring a soul is digital, or much at all like a photo restoration. But what is it like? I picture my soul like a leathery lung, not material, but spiritual. It is the spiritual organ by which we relate to God. And yet, through the pollution of our surroundings, and the pollution of our own person, this lung has been severely damaged. It has become unresponsive. It is not able to apprehend spiritual truth. It does not breathe heavenly air. Until it is restored.

And so, that leathery lung must be made, spiritually, supple and pink once again. It has to be immersed and marinated in a regenerative fluid that will bring back that long-forgotten, oft-forsaken intimacy with a truth and a person that we have tried to ignore.

As far as I know, and this deserves further searching, the Bible does not describe this process of the restoration of the soul. It does, however, speak plainly of the giving of a new (spiritual) heart. This is accomplished as the Holy Spirit applies the redemptive work of Christ to believers. Perhaps, while the new heart is given by grace, the soul is restored by love, as the orphaned and recalcitrant sinner is converted, and as this discovery of the love of God takes place. 


He restores my soul. He immerses and marinates my soul with His love.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Growing into the Clothes of Christ

I don’t share clothes with my son. There’s a reason. He’s 6’5”, and weighs less than me, though I’m half a foot shorter. If we wore each other’s clothes, we would both look ridiculous.
Thankfully, we can all get clothes to fit. We can shop. We can try things on and find what feels comfortable. We want clothes that are suited to us.
I suppose that we would like the whole world to be suited to us - that everything would be fitted to us so that we can remain comfortable, or feel cool. But the world doesn’t work that way. Why? Well, there are at least two reasons:
The first reason is that the world is broken. Everything is bent. Like an arrow that was formed straight, when it warps, it just will not fly straight. And neither does this world - its material parts, and its spiritual parts; its inanimate objects, and its animate, including you and me.
But even if the world were not broken - even if it remained exactly like it was designed by God - and this is important! - the second reason why the world is not suited to us is because it was never designed to be. The reason the world was created, including you as part of this world, was for the glory of God - not for the comfort or convenience of you. And to the extent that this broken/bent world still reflects the glory of God in some way, we will find it more and more uncomfortable so long as we live for the glory of “me” instead of the glory of God.
William Gurnall (1616-1679), in his famous book, “The Christian in Complete Armour,” speaks of the difficulty that we have with God’s ‘prescriptions.’ By ‘prescriptions,’ he means God’s laws or rules. We chafe against some of these, and are tempted to ignore those that are most uncomfortable. We will often hear arguments that they are outdated, and are merely a reflection of an earlier era. But that is not the case. Here is the quote:
(Men’s) laws are often made to fit crooked minds, as tailors alter garments to fit the crooked bodies they are designed for. The commands of God are suited to His holy nature, not to the unholy hearts of men.
We expect that God’s laws, like men’s laws, should have been suited for us. But they aren’t designed to fit us. They are designed to express the holy majesty of God. And if this is true of God’s law,
then it is also true of God’s creation. We, as creatures of God, are designed to reflect His glory, and therefore, we need to be re-shaped to fit His design.

So, the next time you feel the rub of the world against you, stop and think. Yes, the rub could be due to the brokenness of the world. Or, it could be due to the brokenness of you. Don’t ask God to change. Ask God to change you.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Swamp and the Sign

There is a saying that goes something like, “he missed the forest for the trees.” Here is a story about hitting the swamp for the sign.

Imagine a sheriff’s deputy on a Monday night visiting the scene of a traffic accident in which a single car failed to navigate a curve to the right on a gravel road. In the curve, leaving the road to the left, the car and driver ended up in the swamp. The driver was not injured, though the electrical system in the car would probably need some work. “Didn’t you see the sign?” asked the deputy. “Yes,” replied the driver. “That is the most amazing shade of yellow.
On Tuesday night, the deputy finds himself at the same place, with the same situation. He asks the driver, “Didn’t you see the sign?” “Yes, of course,” said the driver. “Why do you think they post that sign on an angle, and not flat?” “You’re missing the point,” the exasperated deputy replied.
On Wednesday night, …, well, you know what happened. Another car; same swamp, similar questions. The driver said, “Yes, and do you suppose that sign is made from metal or fiberglass?” He was an automotive engineer.

The subject of semiotics, and especially its subset, semantics, deals with the relation between signs and the things to which they refer, or, their meaning. The word, semiotics, has a Greek root, the word translated “signs” in the Bible, referring to miracles. In the John’s Gospel, the author consistently uses the word “sign” instead of “miracle.” He wants to communicate that Jesus is not merely interrupting the natural order in order to do something amazing (and he is indeed doing that). No, Jesus is using that act as a sign to point to a truth or reality beyond the sign. If we focus only on the sign, and not the reality, you will end up in a swamp.

The seven signs in John’s Gospel are only a selection of Jesus’ total miracles. But seven is enough. Even one would be enough. In fact, many people come to faith in Jesus without witnessing any sign at all. They simply believe, and they are blessed. But there were many others who saw many signs, and yet they did not believe. They saw the same sign as others, but they did not buy in to the meaning of the sign. Perhaps they were amazed. Maybe they were only amused. Some were irritated at this wonder-worker. But only some saw the sign, and grabbed hold of the meaning behind the sign.

The 4th sign of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Here he provides a meal for thousands of people who followed him out into the countryside, far from the markets. He had compassion for their physical hunger, and used this sign as a pointer to their need for spiritual sustenance, which he made clear, later in the chapter, was himself. “I am the bread of life.” But many who experienced this first free meal only wanted a second. They were interested in supper, not a Savior. They saw the sign, and embraced it. But they failed to embrace Jesus.

You and I are spiritual people who have been trained to live with a materialistic mentality and a temporal time-frame. When a sign points to a spiritual truth, we easily see the sign and miss the truth. When a temporal image is used to refer to that which is eternal, we tend to focus on what is ‘good for me’ in terms of today, or, at best, tomorrow.

Here is one of the saddest verses in the Gospel of John: “But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” I hope this does not describe you. Don’t miss the truth for the trees. Don’t land in the swamp because you see a sign and fail to heed its meaning and message.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Double Commands

The fledgling fellowship in Thessalonica was a community of people who had experienced a radical change in their lives. Paul and had come and proclaimed to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and their God-motivated response had resulted in a “turn(ing) to God from idols”, expressed in the dual activities of “serv(ing) the living and true God”, and “wait(ing) for His Son from heaven.” It is this “serving and waiting” that I am investigating.

I don’t believe that Paul is making this stuff up on the spot. I do not believe that this is original material. Paul is steeped not only in the Old Testament (which he is), but also in the majestic storyline of God’s plan, beginning in creation and culminating in New Creation, tracing the fundamental promises to Abraham, and seeing their fulfillment in God’s new people. So, I wonder if the dual command has a history, a biblical background, that will give depth and context to what it means for us “to serve and wait.”

In the more personal aspect of creation in Genesis 2 (as opposed to the more formal and schematic approach of Genesis 1) we find that God is personally involved with Adam, and gives him a double command: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”(Genesis 2:15 NAS95) This is certainly not all that God says, but these two commands are notable, and perhaps foundational. A literal translation of the Hebrew word rendered above as “cultivate” would be “serve.” Sound familiar? The word rendered “keep” is often literally “guard,” which could easily be understood and waiting and watching, or perhaps, Peter-ishly, “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).

A review of the 43 references1 where “serve” and “guard/keep” are found in association, we find that the servant is one charged with royal responsibility to rule righteously, according to God’s law, which is to be guarded, or kept. “Servant” is who you are as one oriented toward God, and holding/keeping to God’s word/plan is what you do. This line traces through Moses and the prophets, through David, and then finally to Jesus, the ultimate Servant of the Lord who fulfills/keeps God’s word/plan perfectly.

Now, abruptly, come back with me to 1 Thessalonians 4, where I find dual infinitives, a similar construction to what we have in 1:9,10. But here there is a very specific application. With regard to the use/implementation of our physical bodies in sexual relationship, we are to serve and wait. The idea of serving is stated negatively in 4:3, where we are told not to serve the flesh, and by implication, that we must not serve the flesh because who we are as Christians is those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” We are servants of God as followers of Jesus, the ultimate Servant, who perfectly cultivates the royal role of righteous representative of God. As servants, we are to keep, or, according to 4:4, “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.” We are to wait for our body’s prescribed and righteous fulfillment in the marriage relationship. 

Interestingly, there is another infinitive doublet in 4:6, where we are instructed “that no man transgress and defraud his brother,” antithetical actions from cultivating and keeping. Our abandonment of our role as God’s servants, and thus our responsibility to responsibly wait, is a clear violation of the law of love, also a double command, that we love God and love neighbor.

This talk about a proper relationship reserved for marriage leads me, finally (for the purposes of this post) to think about the dual commands given to the husband and wife to “love and submit” in Ephesians 5:22-33, and similarly in 1 Peter 3:1-7. Is there a correspondence here between the responsibilities to “cultivate and keep,” or to “serve and wait”? It at least gives color to these words - that who we are as royal representatives of God, are those who love/serve. And yet, we are not ultimate representatives - only Jesus is, and so we do not simply plough ahead with our own ideas and agendas, but we submit/wait. As broken out in the Ephesians text, it is the husband who is to cultivate the family’s identity as God’s servants,, and it is the ministry of the wife to exemplify that we are not lords, but stewards, who, while responsible, are not ultimate. That would be Jesus, the One for whom we wait. Going back to my review of the OT verses where the Hebrew terms for “cultivate and keep” are associated, it would primarily2 be the husband who is specifically charged with “cultivating” the identity of the household as those who have be oriented toward God, and are thus His servants, and it would be primarily the wife who is charged with “keeping” and ever restraining the functions of the household in order to be consistent with the home’s proper identity.

1Gen 2:15; Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:7; Deut 6:12; 7:8; 11:16; 12:30; 13:4; 16:12; Josh 1:7; 22:2, 5; 24:17; 1 Sam 28:2; 2 Sam 22:44; 1 Kings 3:6; 8:23–25; 9:6; 11:11, 34, 38; 14:8; 20:39; 2 Kings 12:21; 17:13; 21:8; Is 56:6; Jer 16:11; Ezek 37:24; Hos 12:12; Mal 3:14; Psa 19:11; 86:2; 119:17; Neh 1:7; 10:29; 2 Chr 6:14–16


2I use the word “primarily,” because other Scriptures make clear that we all members of the covenant community are called to love, and we are all called to submit, and therefore, we all have responsibility for cultivating our God-given identity and keeping our God-given functions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life: Psalm 128

Psa. 128:1    How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, 
Who walks in His ways. 
2 When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands
You will be happy and it will be well with you. 
3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine 
Within your house
Your children like olive plants 
Around your table
4 Behold, for thus shall the man be blessed 
Who fears the LORD. 

Psa. 128:5 The LORD bless you from Zion
And may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. 
6 Indeed, may you see your children’s children. 
Peace be upon Israel!

Finally, on January 20, I will try and finish my 2014 series on “Songs (psalms) for a Good Life,” 6 psalms that start with “blessed,” and which outline how the God-oriented life is indeed the good life.

Earlier psalms, and posts, are available on Psalm 1, 32, 41, 112, 119, and this post on Psalm 128.

If the colors come through on the psalm, blue shows elements of “the good life.” Certainly, “blessed” is part of this. In this psalm, the first phrase of verse 1 forms a nice inclusio with verse 4, wedded with the idea of fearing this God who blesses. These are not exclusive terms. One does not either fear, or is blessed. It is inclusive: fear and blessedness go together. This is the God who holds us in the palm of His hand, and we are utterly at His disposal, and yet this is also the God who has made us promises. This is the God with whom we are bound by covenant, and we always fall short of our covenant obligations, and yet this is the God who covers are failings and provides a Substitute for us. Fear, and blessedness.

Further, in terms of blessings, more than in the other psalms, this blessedness is drawn out for us with other terms: happy, well, prosperity, peace. There is nothing wrong with these things. The blessing of God works out in ordinary and happy ways when our closest relationship flourish, and we are able to enjoy the simple joys of home and garden without undo fears of outside interruption or interference. If we have enjoyed these things for most of our lives, we may forget that this is not the rule in all places and at all times. Let us not forget to thank the Lord for the blessings that we have enjoyed for these years.

This is a family psalm. It is a garden psalm. It is a psalm that recognizes that family and garden can only thrive and be enjoyed when there is national or social stability.

The family aspect of the psalm is traditional. It is addressed to the father, with references to his wife and children. There is a stability here, an order that is outlined in Scripture as designed by God. Modern renditions of family have not been proven, and I believe that we will soon see increasing, disastrous consequences from this experimentation which will have to be further justified or explained away by social engineers. But this ancient text reminds us that there is old wisdom that is now sadly neglected.

The idea of fruitfulness can be difficult for us in a manufactured society. Fruitfulness should be organic. But when we live by the machine, we tend to think of productivity in manufactured, man-produced ways. You can find a perfect match online, and pick your children from genetic maps. But this is not what God is here describing. Our marriages and families are marked by surprises and delights that are not the product of our careful planning. They are from God, and we are blessed to see how they turn and grow.

We do not live our family/garden lives in a vacuum. There is a capitol, and the reign runs from the throne. There is a King, and we are subjects in the kingdom. And until every enemy has been placed under Christ’s feet, this political center will be contested by would-be powers and potentates. We will be caught in the middle between earthly and heavenly kingdoms, and here there will be rebellions and wars. May God continue to give us that kind of peace and stability, that we could enjoy not only our children, but their children as well.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 119)

The good life1 is lived in attentiveness to God’s Word. In Psalm 119, every verse in this longest psalm2 has a reference to God’s Word, using a variety of vocabulary words. This study will only look at the first section of Psalm 119:1-8. There must be some significance that this psalm pronounces a double blessing (verses 1 and 2) for the one who seeks to live the good life according to this prescription, in order that they may enjoy the blessing of God. There is blessing in the disciplines of submitting, and there is blessing in the receiving.

The first half of the first section, verses 1-4, of Psalm 119, the aleph3 section, verses 1-8, is marked by strong commitment and action. Blessing does not come as one sits passively to see what will happen. It is a walking psalm, not a sitting psalm (verses 1 and 3). It involves close observation and energetic pursuit (verse 2). This person exercises remarkable restraint (verse 3). Verse 4 understands that we are assigned to keep a close watch and careful guard related to God’s instruction.

But the tide turns in the second half. This blessedness depends not only, or even primarily, on the level of our own commitment, nor the heat of our own actions. In verse 5, the psalmist’s intention sounds almost like a dream - far from a certainty. He first hints, then begs, for God’s assistance. He wants to avoid the shame (verse 6), but isn’t quite sure that it is possible. The giving of thanks in verse 7 is not an initiating action plan, but rather a response to God’s necessary activity. The psalm closes with another statement of determination, followed immediately by the plea of the helpless: “don’t leave me hanging out to dry!”

Living the good life is not the lazy life. It requires blood, sweat, and tears. We have to be all in, pledging our whole hearts (verse 2), and clean hearts (verse 7). But we are never self-sufficient. Our labor is ever and always a decorative accessory to the strong framework of God’s grace.

It is not that God helps those who help themselves. Nor is it that we would expect God to bless those who haven’t bothered to attend to their ways. Rather, we are blessed that God would bother to bless us, and His promise holds a power and persuasion over us, so that we want to find our feet on His path, our eyes on His instructions, and our hearts in His hand.        

1The six psalms that begin with “blessed” are: Psalm 1, 32, 41, 112, 119, and 128. Articles analyzing each one begin here.
2Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm. There are 22 stanzas of 8 verses each, totaling 176 verses. The 22 stanzas correspond to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

3’aleph’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. ‘bet’ is the second letter. Get it? alephbet, which spell check, and you, want to change to alphabet.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 112)


I have included Psalm 112 among the 6 Blessed psalms, or, collection of psalms that begin with “blessed.”1 I am calling this series, “Songs (psalms) for a Good Life”, and I am attempting to distill a distinctive teaching from each of these songs.2 

I find Psalm 112 to be a psalm that describes how the blessed person is stretched. Living on earth, halfway between heaven and hell, we live in tension. We are partakers of glory, and yet we deal daily with shame. We are, according to Luther, “Simul Justus et Peccator,” “at the same time just(ified) and a sinner.” 

Notice with me some of these “stretches.” In verse 1, he is a person who both “fears” and “delights.” You have probably heard discussions that attempt to rub the hard edges off these words. But at face value they do not sit comfortably close together. Verse 2 may hold in tension those yet to be born with those whose years linger on - the tension between the young and the old. Do you think no such tension exists? Ask grandpa to listen in on little Johnny’s jam session. It exists. In verse 4, he is the light in the midst of darkness, no simple task, as we learned from Lot. In verse 9, we find that the person who bends low to help the poor is the one who is lifted up in honor, a very common Biblical theme. Finally, in the biggest stretch of all, verse 10 contrasts the plight of the wicked, who will perish, in contrast to the enduring righteousness of the blessed person, which leads to our next theme - but first an application.

If the blessed life is marked by tension, then why do we complain about tension? If the road to blessedness involves being stretched, then why do we think it strange to be stretched? He whom the Lord loves, He disciplines - He stretches with a view to greater usefulness and fruitfulness and blessedness.

Enduring righteousness is mentioned three times, in verses 3b, 6b, and 9b. The long distance runner trains over long distances. How could it be any different? Can a person train for a 5 mile race by running a block? She can get real good at running the block. But she will not be ready for the 5 miler.There is a time component in blessed discipleship. The question is not so much, “how was your day?”, but “how was your year?” “the last 5 years?”

It seems to me that the heart of this psalm can be found in the little chiasmus that occurs in verses 7-8, following a (little bit messy) ABBA structure. The two center phrases are the key to living in tension: steadfast is his heart (Hebrew word order); upheld is his heart. He has learned through the high’s and low’s of life to replace fear with trust. Neither bad news or bad people (the outer phrases) will shake his confidence. The stretching has made him strong; the tensions have made her tough.

Finally, let me ask you a question, and see if your observation matches with mine: Where is God in this psalm? Oh, He is there, but not in the front row. He is the God who is feared (verse 1), and the God in whom we trust (verse7), and, well, that’s about it. What should we make of this?

In this journey of the someday blessed, we walk by faith and not by sight. We believe that God is there. We know that He is there. But we often cannot see Him, hear Him, feel Him, or anything else, other than believe. We walk the wire, not seeing the net, but knowing He’s there. We face the enemy, quite unsure about our abilities, but banking hard on His.  “You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy” (1 Peter 1:8 NLT). It makes you want to shout, “Praise the LORD.” Maybe that’s why they added it to the beginning of this song.

1Psalm 11-113 begin with the phrase, “Praise the LORD!” It seems to me that this serves almost as a title that identifies a mini-collection, similar to the “psalms of ascent” (Pss 120-134). In both cases, the opening words, or heading, are part of the Hebrew text.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 41)

“How blessed1 is he who considers the helpless; The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.” (Psalms 41:1 NAS95)

Certainly we are to help the helpless. We are to give to the poor. And here we are, in the month of December, and there is a lot of giving; a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of extra effort to give to the poor. And we realize the truth of the phrase, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2

But I don’t believe that this is the challenge of this psalm. The first verse does not specifically say to “give” to the helpless, or, poor. Rather, it says to consider, to view the poor with understanding, and to think carefully before you judge that they do not prosper or have success simply because they are poor.Somehow, we must see that "a good life" and poverty or helplessness are not antithetical to one another.

Another reason that I don’t think that this psalm pronounces blessedness of giving to the poor is because of the second sentence: “The LORD will deliver him.” Who is this “him”? Will the Lord protect the one who gives to the poor. That would be nice, though I don’t know why he needs special protection right now. As the psalm flows, it seems, rather, that the “him” of the second sentence is actually the plight of the poor or helpless person. As we consider the poor, we find that they are people who stand under the special protection of God.

And that’s not all. We read that some time, somehow, he will be called “blessed” by people on the earth. His estimation in the eyes of the world will change. I wonder if it is at that time when he inherits the kingdom, because that is the promise of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). They will endure over the ill treatment by their enemies (further described in verses 5-8), and they will be sustained in sickness, even though they have no access a “cadillac” health plan. On their (death?) bed, God will restore, perhaps a veiled Old Testament reference to future resurrection (compare with verse 10). These are things that we do not normally expect, unless we take time to consider the poor, that they are in position to receive a special blessing from God.

The center of the psalm seems to be verse 4: As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” This makes sense to me, if this psalm is a consideration of the plight of the poor, that he is a blessed person; and, if this person who may be poor in material things is also poor or humble spiritually. He is in touch with his need, not only against his enemies, but in relation to his God. And he confesses that here plainly. And there is a blessing in that.

Remember Jesus’ story of the two men who went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The one was so full of himself that it sounds as though he is there to instruct God! But not so the other. “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ This is the Jesus-provided visualization that we need for our consideration of the helpless. He is blessed, in that “this man went to his house justified.”

Psalm 41 not only begins with a blessing, but it also ends with one: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” It is the poor and helpless, who is the midst of their material/spiritual poverty find that God is reaching out to them in mercy and forgiveness - it is this kind of people who are most apt to bless God. And Jesus had a story for that as well.4


1This is the third of six psalms that begin with “Blessed.” Two earlier posts are available on Psalm 1 and Psalm 32.

2Paul ascribes this phrase to Jesus in Acts 20:35, though we do not have that quote recorded in any of the Gospels. Of course Jesus said far more than what was recorded. I don’t doubt that. 
But do you know how some phrases sound like they should be in the Bible, and then you are surprised to find that they aren’t (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness)? Well, in my mind, this is one that I wouldn’t guess would be in the Bible, but it is. 

3Here is a listing from the NAS Hebrew Dictionary on how this Hebrew word is translated in its various uses. You will see that I have used a few of these renditions in giving the sense of our particular usage in Psalm 41: act wisely(1), acts wisely(3), behaved wisely(1), comprehend(1), consider(1), considers(2), discern(1), expert(m)(1), failed*(1), gain insight(2), give heed(1), give insight(1), gives attention(1), giving attention(1), had regard for(1), have insight(4), have success(m)(2), instruct(2), instructed(1), intelligence(1), prosper(1), prospered(3), prospering(2), prospers(1), prudent(2), show discernment(1), showed insight(1), showing intelligence(1), succeed(1), teaches(1), understand(4), understanding(2), understands(2), understood(1), wisdom(1), wise(7), wise behavior(1).


4Luke 7:36-50