Monday, November 24, 2014

New Year's Invitation


Have you ever been stuck on a word?  Stuck on a word in such a way that every time you aren’t fully engaged in something else you get back to thinking about that particular word?  Yesterday I found myself stuck on the word ‘invitation’. ‘Invitation’ is a word that is connected to many of the significant moments in our lives.  We receive invitations to baby showers, invitations to weddings, and invitations to graduation parties.  Even funeral announcements are in essence an invitation as information in regard to times and places are announced so that people can gather together and remember the life of the deceased.  None of these events would be what they are if it weren’t for the invitation.  Imagine if someone were throwing a baby shower and planned the decorations, planned the games, and prepared the snacks, but in their busyness they forgot to actually invite people to be present?  How ridiculous would that be?

As we inch closer to a brand new year I have to wonder if we don’t in many ways do something as ridiculous as forgetting to send out invitations.  We make our plans for the upcoming year, we set our personal/financial/spiritual goals, and we consider what we want 2015 to look like, but in our haste we forget the most important part of the process:  The invitations.  Scripture is full of invitations and in the New Testament we see invitations offered by Jesus.  “Follow me” is an invitation.  “Come to me all who are weary and are burdened” is an invitation.  When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray he teaches them to send out an invitation.  “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer of invitation.  Some invitations are ones that we send out and others are invitations that we respond to.  Let me first focus on the invitations we send out.  

For someone like me, guests showing up unannounced or uninvited is a huge stressor.  I like to have everything straightened up and in it’s place even if it is just for a casual gathering with close friends who could care less if things are a bit messy.  When I look back over the years I’m fairly confident that many of the most difficult things I have had to deal with did not show up uninvited.  Directly or indirectly, actively or passively, I sent out an invitation that brought difficulty to my doorstep.  The only thing worse than an unwelcome guest is an unwelcome guest you actually invited into your home.  How many undesirable situations are having a negative impact on your lives and relationships?  How many of them did you invite into the confines of your home and life? 

What invitations are you responding to?  Each day is filled with enticing offers that sound too good to be true because they are.  We encounter invitations that promise much but provide little.  We accept invitations that cost us much more than we thought they would.  There are also plenty of invitations, even seemingly good invitations, that we should take a pass on.  If you’re not careful you can have your time filled with ‘good’ things and have no room for the ‘God’ things.  You only have so much time and energy which make your priorities important.

As we approach 2015 I would encourage you to consider it a year of invitation.  The invitations we send and the invitations we receive will have a tremendous impact on our year. Don’t wait until January 1st to send out your invitations.  Start now!  What things are you wanting to invite into your life? Into your relationships?  Don’t just imagine the kind of year you want or the kind of person you want to be or the kind of relationships you want to nurture.  Invite God’s Kingdom, with all of it’s power, into the fabric of your life.  Thy Kingdom come.  And as you pray that prayer of invitation, step forward in response to the invitation of Jesus.  The invitation of Jesus isn’t deceptive.  He doesn’t make false promises.  In this world you will have trouble.  However, His grace is sufficient for you and He invites you to follow. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Seesaws and Suicide


Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of media attention concerning a young lady named Brittany.  She was suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer and desired to ‘die with dignity’ by utilizing her ability to decide when and how she will die.  This past Saturday she followed through with her plan surrounded by loved ones.  I will come back to her situation later but first I need to talk about Eric.

Eric is a significant person in the story of my life.  Every story has a beginning and when it comes to my faith story it starts with a good friend committing suicide.  One moment I’m getting ready to run the final leg of a relay race with my friend Eric sitting on a bench a few feet away and a couple hours later I receive a phone call saying that he took his own life.  You can read my previous post where I go through how God revealed himself to an angry and hurting boy in the midst of a horrible situation here:  http://growgraceknowledge.blogspot.com/2014/04/good-news-on-good-friday.html
 
Despite the fact that somehow through that ordeal I found ‘Good News’ there was another troubling side to the coin.  What about ‘Good News’ for Eric?  Over the course of most of my life I’ve had a mix of sorrow and joy when it came to my story.  My understanding of salvation early on made it impossible for me to hope for Eric.  He had committed what I believed was, and what many believe still is, the unforgivable sin.  Suicide, as I understood it, was a sin that had certain and eternal consequences.  Because there was not an opportunity, between the pulling of the trigger and his immediate death, to ask for forgiveness, how is there any room for hope of salvation? 

There are a couple of things that I would like to appeal to when it comes to hope in the midst of suicide situations and neither of them have to do with the grace and mercy of God.  It’s easy for us to impose our views of grace and mercy onto God and how he should respond.  Appeals to God’s grace and mercy are sometimes made with the deep sense that God is going to do exactly as I would do if I were God.  That’s not exactly a biblically sound foundation to build on so I’m not going to do it.  My first appeal will be to the connection of our salvation to a relationship instead of works and the second appeal to the completeness of God’s work in Christ in regard to our sin.

Not By Our Works

You don’t have to be around church very long before you hear that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.  Hopefully that is the case!  However, if you’ve been around the church long enough you’ve also probably heard plenty about what Christians do or do not do in regard to personal behavior/works.  Despite our head knowledge that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ there is still a consistent infatuation with works as it pertains to our salvation.   This infatuation with works has our salvation teetering back and forth between ‘saved’ and ‘damned’ as our lives cycle from sinful acts to holy acts like praying a prayer of repentance.  This is what I call ‘seesaw salvation’ or ‘teeter-totter salvation’, depending on your childhood familiarity.  I call it seesaw salvation because it’s a visual way to see the cycle of sin and repentance as some understand it.  The end result of this ‘works’ logic is that you are saved or damned according to what you’ve done last, which is why suicide is such a huge deal when it comes to determining someone’s salvation.  You don’t need to have any insight into a person’s relationship with Christ because it is pretty clear what the final ‘work’ of their life was.  Presuming a person’s relationship because of an act is simply not our place.  Their salvation is intimately connected to their relationship with Christ and not in any way to their works, good or bad. 

The Complete Work of Christ

Here’s an amazing thing about Christ dying for all of our sin.  We weren’t even around when he did it!  We hadn’t even been born yet, much less sinned yet, when Christ died on the cross.  All of our sins were future sins when Christ died for them and he paid for them all in advance.  All of my sins are covered by his blood because of my being united with him. Jesus doesn’t take care of our sins incrementally with each and every prayer for forgiveness.  He took care of them all once and for all.  If, upon my death, the Father sees me as spotless it’s not because I entered the pearly gates spotless but because I’m covered by Jesus who is spotless.  “Dressed in his righteousness alone.  Faultless to stand before the throne.” as the hymn says.  Even if the last action you or I have in this world is sinful there is still room for hope if we are united with him.  Our relationship status with Christ, along with our salvation, doesn’t precariously seesaw back and forth with each and every action.  And so, for the believer in Christ, we can be assured that all of our sins have already been paid for. 

Once again, our salvation is anchored in the work of Christ and not in our works.  A works based system of salvation is the root of bold declarations as to the certainty of peoples eternal destinations.  That is precisely the kind of thing I see people doing when it comes to suicide, among other things. 

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively confess and repent of our sin as if it doesn’t matter.  We definitely should do that, but it must be pointed out that our act of confession is in many ways a response to something that has already happened.  Christ isn’t going to die again for the new sin you have just committed because his one death is sufficient.  For those already in Christ the debt has already been paid.  In many ways you are asking for something he has already done. 

“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”—1 Corinthians 12:3

We can’t even say “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit already being at work in us.  We can’t even open our mouths to confess our sin to the Lord apart from the Lord already doing a work in our lives.  Salvation is an immediate reality that is not bound to our confession but is bound to our being united with Christ.  Christ died, once for all, and his work is complete.  It is finished.  Sin and death don’t get the last word.  

So what about Eric? Jesus get’s the last word, not Eric’s sin.  My hope and prayer is that he was united with Christ.  I don’t know what kind of work the Spirit was doing within him so I won’t speculate.  It’s not my place, nor is it anybody elses.  No matter how selfish or sinful his final actions were, they did not place him outside the reach of Christ. 

And what about Brittany?  Her situation was different than Eric’s because she had terminal cancer and knew that barring a 11th hour miracle she was going to die and in many ways knew what the dying process was going to look like for her particular disease.  But is it different because she knew she was going to die?  We all know that we’re going to die. No surprise there, although many times we do live in denial about that fact of life judging by the way we drive our vehicles.   It’s not that she knew she was going to die that makes her situation different from suicides like Eric’s but that she knew with more precision than most the likely details of her death and chose a different way to die.

Because I am a violent person in a violent world it is very difficult for me to keep in step with the persistent inner drum beat that calls me to non-violence.  Despite my desire to delineate between one killing and another, to justify one and not the other, the drum beat within says that killing is killing.  Physical pain and suffering is horrible but should it be avoidable?  When it came down to it, even Jesus asked his Father if the path of suffering laid out before him was avoidable.  In Jesus’ acceptance of the path of suffering he made himself accessible to us.  Later on his followers would rejoice in their suffering.

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”—1 Peter 4:12-13

Jesus had intimately participated in the human experience of suffering and now his followers were sharing in the experience of Christ through suffering.

Two final things before I stop my rambling.  First, I want to clarify that this is not about providing any sort of justification for anyone killing themselves.  Just because I believe such a thing does not put someone outside the reach of grace does not mean that this is an appropriate way for our lives to end.  To quote a friend of mine:

 "If we truly love Jesus and have trusted him with all that we are and ever will become, our desire is to please the Lord with our lives, not out of a sense of "works" but because we love Him so much. Therefore, we aren't thinking about whether or not we can "get away with" committing suicide or any other questionable act.”

This is, in large part, for the great number of people I know who have already been impacted by the tragic death of loved ones and struggle to find hope as I did in the case of my friend Eric.  In the final equation Jesus gets the last word and not our works.  For that I’m not only grateful, but hopeful.      

Second, in regard to those who insist on using variations of the word ‘coward’ when talking about people like Brittany or Eric.  Stop.  Please.  My honest assessment is that people who use such words in this context lack understanding and compassion and are ultimately of no earthly comfort to people in pain.  This isn’t about cowardice versus heroism.  This isn’t about the absence of courage but the presence of unbelievable suffering and there’s nothing more disturbing to me than taking what I consider to be a verbal cheap shot at people considering death with dignity or people who have already committed suicide.  There are far greater ways to encourage and comfort the terminally ill and bring joy into their life than by challenging them to not be a coward. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Obedience: Fast Acting or Long Lasting


Have you ever heard your mom say that she has eyes in the back of her head?  On one fateful day when I was little I found that to be painfully true.  I was sitting in the living room when I fully understood that I should be upstairs getting ready to go somewhere.  Mom had already told me once that I needed to be getting dressed and this was now her second trip into the living room because of my stubbornness.  I didn’t want to go wherever we happened to be heading and after she turned and headed off across the house the idea popped into my head that I should do something I had recently learned.  I still don’t know who designated the middle finger as an inappropriate appendage to stand alone but I let it fly.  As I defiantly held my finger up in opposition to the parental regime requiring my compliance my mother did an immediate about face.  As she started her turn I immediately put my hand down but I’m pretty sure that I had a horrified look on my face at the likelihood that she knew what I had done.  Sure enough, she did.  To this day I don’t know how she knew, although I’m betting that my reflection on a window or perhaps the glass door on the China cabinet was the key to my undoing.  I don’t remember where we were going or why I was being so stubborn or even how she caught me but what I do know for sure is the penalty for my crime.  I don’t remember being spanked much as a kid, much less why I got spanked, apart from this particular occasion.  I don’t even remember how bad the spanking hurt because the entire time I was being spanked I was asking myself, “How did she know? How did she see me?” An inquiring mind wanted to know.

In light of the Adrian Peterson situation and since I recently wrote a blogpost on obedience as followers of Christ I feel that this parenting topic is of particular importance and worth writing about.  If you haven’t read my post entitled “The Heart of Obedience” I’d recommend that you read it first because what I will say here in regards to nurturing obedience in your children flows out of what I discuss there, namely the relationship between love and obedience.  You can find my previous post here:

http://growgraceknowledge.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-heart-of-obedience.html    


Let me first state that I in no way feel like I was traumatized as a child because I was spanked.  I don’t think that spanking should automatically be considered abusive.  I do consider what Adrian Peterson did to be more than just a spanking, or a whooping, or whatever term you prefer using.  By all accounts, and by virtue of the graphic photos, what he did was extreme and abusive.  I have plenty of scars by virtue of being a boy doing stupid things but none of my scars come from a beating or from trying to avoid a beating.  What he did was wrong and many times the discussion of spankings get turned into discussions about whether or not they are right or wrong.  What I want to talk about here is not about whether spankings are right or wrong but whether or not they are the best way to raise a child. 

If you were to ask a Christian parent if they wanted to raise their child to be like a Pharisee or a follower of Jesus Christ they would unanimously agree that they want to raise their child to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Here’s the thing about Pharisees: They were extremely obedient.  In regard to the law they were about as faultless as you could get and yet they were far from the kind of people Jesus wanted them to be.  Jesus desired an obedience from his followers that flowed out of their love for him.

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”—John 14:23-24

The path of obedience for Jesus’ followers is rooted in the love of Jesus.  The Pharisees were on a very different path of obedience.  They loved the law itself, not Jesus, and their obedience to the law resulted in a very different lifestyle than that of Jesus and his followers.  These are two very different paths of obedience.    

I think the same holds true when it comes to raising obedient children.  There are various paths to raising obedient children but they don’t all bear the same fruit in the same way that the Pharisees and disciples of Jesus bore very different fruit.  As a parent, would you rather your child obey you because they love you or because they don’t want to be punished by you?  On days when patience may be wearing thin you probably just want obedience in any way that you can get it and that, it seems to me, speaks to the heart of the problem.  If the goal is any kind of obedience as long as it is immediate obedience then spanking works.  You get your desired results and you’ve gotten obedience from your child.  However, the discussion here is not whether it is right or wrong but whether this is the best way and I don’t think that it is.  The problem with rule loving, follow my laws right now, parenting is that you end up with a bunch of Pharisees.  They learn the rules of how far they can go (or how slowly you can count to 3) before they will get into trouble.  Doesn’t this remind you an awful lot like Pharisees arguing over how far you can walk on the Sabbath?  It does to me!  Somewhere along the line someone got in trouble for doing something on the Sabbath and it became the new rule to enforce on others.   

Another problem with this discipline approach is that the behaviors are maintained only as long as there is an enforcer and punisher present.  When a child grows up and can no longer be punished by their parent for the things they grudgingly couldn’t do when they were younger they are now free to do those things spanking free.  Far too often we see kids leaving the homes of their parents only to break every single ‘rule’ they had lived by for years.  There are a variety of factors involved in that but I’m confident that one of them is that kids get raised to follow rules because they have to, not because they want to.  With the possibility of parental punishment removed we see that their obedience wasn’t anything lasting. 

Above all, parents want their kids to have a lasting obedience to something that will bear fruit throughout their lives.  That obedience is the fruit of a different path but what does the other path look like?  There are plenty of more qualified people who could answer that question and I would love to hear how ‘non-spanking’ parents navigate through their particular discipline and behavioral issues.  Instead of offering up specific non-spanking approaches to behavior issues what I would like to draw your attention to are some of the roadblocks to this better and more fruitful path.       


Problem #1

Your kids don’t misbehave in convenient places.  There are reasons that meltdowns happen with an audience and it is in those moments that the desire for immediate obedience overrides the desire for lasting obedience.  The options in these inconvenient places boil down to bribery or a spanking preceded by the slowest counting to 3 ever.  Neither of these will get you the best results in the long run. 

Problem #2

You don’t want a conversation.  You want them to listen to you the first time.  You don’t need to give a reason.  The reason is simply that you told them to do, or not do, what you told them to do, or not do.  The problem with this approach is the fact that conversation leads to understanding.  Want to know why college kids ditch many of the rules they followed as young kids?  They were never given legitimate reasons for those rules in the first place.  They may have followed them previously but not because they understood or agreed with them.  Understanding and agreements happen in the adult world because of conversations.  This is something our government could learn a little bit about.   In this parenting context, however, it gets tricky.  Explaining thing to kids can be challenging.  Using words that very little kids can grasp onto can be ridiculously difficult.  Conversations also take much more time than the usual exchange of spanking threats and immediate obedience.  However, if you’re wanting the kind of obedience bears fruit past the age of 18 you’re going to have to invest more time in the parenting conversations you have with your kids.

Problem #3

I don’t know any other way.  I get it.  I’ve already said that spanking works.  I never flipped my mom off after my spanking.  I did learn something.  While spanking is fast acting, it isn’t long lasting.  If you’re wanting to find something that is longer lasting then you’re going to have to find other ways to discipline your children.  This involves creativity, and unfortunately, also usually involves more time as you have to spend time considering what those options are and what works best with your kid(s).  All kids are different and what works with your older child will probably not work with your youngest.  How you discipline your child should be molded to each child if you want the best results.  If you aren’t creative or struggle for time I would suggest you seek out people who have already found helpful alternative methods.  You can probably find something on Pinterest.

Spanking isn’t the ‘one size fits all’ as it has been described by some.  For every person saying it made them better there is another person saying it has destroyed them.  The question here is about whether or not there are better and more lasting ways to go about disciplining children.   I think there are better ways but it’s going to require your time and I know you are busy.  Fast acting methods are blatantly tempting but I want you to invest in parenting patterns that are longer lasting.  You may not see the fruit until years down the road  but such is life.  My prayer is that the fruit produced later on would be attributed to the time and attention paid by a parent who desired much more than strict obedience.  That happens, I believe, when obedience is rooted in the path of love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gas Pedals, Horsepower, and the Holy Spirit


I have mentioned before that my wife and I spend a decent amount of time on the road traveling throughout the year and a good portion of that time is on the interstate.  With our families spread out over various states the interstate is by far the fastest way for us get where we need to go.  My driving profile is pretty spotless but if there is one criticism it would probably be that I drive a little bit too fast.  Not so fast that I actually get tickets but fast enough to get pulled over and get a warning from time to time.  My tendency to speed is probably why I got a Chevy Monte Carlo in the first place as it is used in NASCAR races. 

It is while I am cruising down the interstate in my Monte Carlo that I come across a situation which makes me shake my head in disbelief.  Because I drive faster than most it is inevitable that I am continually passing other drivers and what bothers me is when I pass people driving cars that could leave my Monte Carlo in the dust.  My car isn’t the Super Sport (SS) version so there really is nothing special under the hood.  So when I pass a Chevy Corvette or a Cobra Mustang or any number of much faster cars I have a few questions being asked in my head.  “Don’t you know what you’re driving? Don’t you know what’s under the hood of that car? Why are you driving THAT car with THAT kind of engine slower than me?” My disappointment in their driving is rooted in the fact that the full potential of that car isn’t being realized.  Their car is capable of So. Much. More. 

I feel the same sense of disbelief and disappointment when I read Paul’s words to the Corinthian church.

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”—1 Corinthians 3:16

In many ways I think that when Paul is addressing a very dysfunctional church body he has many of the same feelings that I experienced while passing sport cars.  “Don’t you know who you are? Don’t you know what resides within you? Why are you living your life, with that kind of Spirit power under the hood, in the way that you are?”  Paul’s sense of the situation is that if they understood the power of God’s Spirit, and fully realized that the same kind of power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead is not only in their midst but readily available , then they would live their lives in a drastically different manner. 
Far too often we read a verse like 1 Corinthians 3:16 and our attention goes to the things we shouldn’t do because we are collectively a temple of God’s Spirit as the body of Christ.  This verse becomes the reason we don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t get tattoos, don’t get piercings, don’t have sex before marriage, don’t don’t don’t don’t don’t.  While I agree that we need the power of the Spirit to resist temptations and avoid things that are detrimental to ourselves and others, such an understanding of the Spirit’s power falls utterly short of the kind of Spirit empowered life that God desires for us.  God’s Spirit empowers us to DO.  Heaven help us if the lives of Christians were to be best described by a list of things that we don’t do.  Hasn’t that in some way already happened?  Our lives as believers ought to be overwhelmingly described by a long list of things we do in this world.  It’s not a list of good things that we do so that God will love us but it’s a list of good things that we do because God has loved us.  Not only has God already loved us but he has also empowered us by filling us with His Spirit. 

How easily we forget the power of God’s Spirit.  It’s the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.  How easily we forget the immediate and abiding presence of the Spirit in and through our lives.  You can’t get any closer than residing within you.  The way to find out the full power of an engine is for you to push the pedal all the way down to the floor.  If only we were to push the gas pedals in our lives further than we have been.  Perhaps it is time for you to lean into the power of the Spirit.  I know that it is long overdue for me.  Maybe you’ve been ‘riding the brake’ a bit.  Instead of pushing the accelerator you’ve got your foot on the brake ready to stop for anything and everything because you are overly cautious and anxious.  If Paul were to write a letter to people like you and I today I think he would write something like this:

Dear ________,

By the power of the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead you are capable of So. Much. More.  Quit riding the brake and give it some gas!

In Christ,

 Paul

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Heart of Obedience


Over the past week I have seen many internet postings in regard to comments made during a church service by Victoria Osteen.  Her husband Joel has been portrayed as the poster-boy for the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ and for many years the criticisms have been heaped upon him and his ministry.  He’s not the first pastor to be publicly bashed online and certainly won’t be the last.  I am not writing this post to add one more shovelful of dirt onto the heap but because Victoria’s comments highlight an invaluable lesson I have learned in the past year or so in regard to obedience.  It’s a lesson taught by Jesus to his disciples in the book of John.

 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” John 14:23-24

Jesus roots our obedience of him and his teaching in our love for him.  It is impossible to obey Jesus without the precondition of loving him.  Those who don’t love Jesus simply won’t live the sort of life that Jesus commands of his disciples.  And the sort of things that Jesus commands don’t originate with him but with his Father.  In chapter 15 Jesus is very clear about his commands.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.”—John 15:12-14

And for the sake of reinforcement:

“This is my command: Love each other.”—John 15:17

My life lesson has been that if I want to be more obedient as a disciple of Jesus Christ then the path I need to go down is the path of loving Jesus.  The more I love Jesus the more I will obey him.  The more I love him the more I will love those he has commanded me to love.  As I draw closer to him the further I find myself from living the life of disobedience I know all too well.  We are disobedient to Jesus and the life he commands when we love other things more than Jesus. 

This is where Victoria’s comments got off base.  She attempts to motivate an obedience rooted in something other than the love of Jesus.  In essence, she says that we should be obedient because there’s happiness in store for you if you do.  Obedience is a smart decision because of the end result.  What she fails to recognize is the root cause of obedience in the first place, namely Jesus and our love of him.  Obedience is the natural response of those who love Jesus and not the vessel by which we gain the things that make us happy.  It is the love of Jesus that motivates our obedience!  No other motivation is necessary, nor will it work.  The things that Victoria suspect will make us happy, whatever those things are, will never provide the amount of motivation or energy necessary to follow the radical commands of Jesus.  Loving your enemies will not seem like the path to happiness apart from love at work in your life.  Those who persecute you will not be a part of your prayer life because you weigh it out to be a smart decision with beneficial results.  Obeying Jesus’ commands will only occur as you love him more and more. 

What are your areas of disobedience?  Maybe you’ve done like I’ve done many times before and prayed for the strength to stand up to temptation.  You’ve asked for forgiveness because of your disobedience/trespasses/transgressions/whatever and then go out into life gritting your teeth trying to be more successful and obedient because you’ve got a better plan, more accountability partners, or a new source of motivation.  I’m sorry to say this, but those efforts can only go so far before they fail.  The plan, the partners, or the new motivational gimmick may be helpful for a time but unless your heart is rooted in the love of Jesus you will fail to be obedient to Jesus.  Instead, try praying as I have been praying. “Lord, help me to love you more.” Or, as Matt Chandler says time and again, “Stir my affections for you.”   At the heart of obedience is a heart that loves Jesus.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mercy in the Rearview Mirror

 
 
 
 

My wife and I spend a decent amount of time on the road.  Our busiest time of the year tends to be in November and early December as we travel for district quizzes, tournaments in Kalamazoo, St. Louis and whenever possible Kansas City.  Throw in a trip to see my parents in Tennessee for Thanksgiving and you’ve got a lot of miles logged.  This past weekend we returned from a weeklong trip to Tennessee where we visited with my parents and officiated for the big end of the year tournament for teen bible quizzing.  I do a majority of the driving while Lori sleeps or crochets and so I’m the one having to navigate through traffic and construction zones.  Since I have a tendency to speed I usually have to change lanes as I pass slower traffic and in order to do that safely I need my rearview mirror.  I consistently use my rearview mirror well in advance of actually changing lanes because I pay attention to traffic that is catching up to me (which rarely happens) or I check to see if that cop I didn’t see early enough is going to let me continue on my way (which always happens).  My rearview mirror is a part of how I navigate my way down the road and around obstacles.

What I read in Romans reminds me of my driving experiences.  As I transition from a quiz year focused on Romans and James to a year focusing on Acts I want to close out the year with some thoughts on a popular passage in Romans.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.—Romans 12:1-2

The first eleven chapters of Romans paint a pretty clear picture of our human situation.  We are sinners, each and every one of us, and the penalty of that sin is death. Our part of the picture doesn’t look good at all but despite our ugliness it isn’t the whole picture.  The rest of the picture involves God the Father’s work in and through his Son on our behalf.  Our lives (our part of the picture) get united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in such a way that we ourselves experience death, burial and resurrection.  It is with this picture in mind that Paul wants us to keep ‘God’s mercy in view’.

What does it mean to keep ‘God’s mercy in view’?  It’s much like what we experience with our rearview mirror.  Our rearview mirror takes what is behind us and places it before us as a helpful guide.  When Paul writes his letters to various churches there are many times that he is reminding them of very important things.  In this passage, Paul is in essence trying to be their rearview mirror.  He wants to remind them of what God did in Christ on their behalf and that what God did was merciful.  Full of mercy.  And by keeping this past act of mercy in view, Paul is confident that it will have a direct impact on the way in which his readers will live in their present.  God’s offering of his Son and the Son’s offering of his life lead to our offering of ourselves.

What have you got in your rearview mirror?  Maybe you have some regrets, missed opportunities or burned bridges.  One thing to note about rearview mirrors is that it’s never healthy to solely look at them.  You need to be looking ahead a majority of time.  Imagine the kind of destruction that would be caused by driving a vehicle while looking only in the rearview mirror!  Nothing good would come from that.  Rearview mirrors are intended to help you as you move forward and make decisions in the here and now.  Spending an inordinate amount of time looking into the negative experiences of the past is not going to help you as you move forward. There are definitely lessons to be learned from our past but we should be careful about how we approach those sorts of things in our rearview mirror.  Paul wants the work of Christ and the mercy of God the Father in our past to be front and center in our lives today.

When it comes to our Christian walk, how can mercy in our rearview mirror help us?  When we forget that we have been recipients of mercy we forget to be merciful.  Along those same lines, when we forget that we have been forgiven we forget to forgive.  When we forget that we are loved as God’s beloved children we forget to love other’s as God’s beloved children.  What if we looked in our spiritual rearview mirror before we approached our spouse? Our children?  Our co-workers?  Our enemies? My bet is that if we consciously and consistently remembered the mercy of God when we were at our worst then we would love others with the kind of love lavished on us.  That kind of love will always stand out in this world because it goes against the way our world operates.  Who loves their enemies?  Who shows mercy to the rightfully convicted?  Who dies for the ungodly? God does. That’s who.  And you should too.                


Friday, June 20, 2014

Immigration and Circumcision: Cutting Edge Stuff!


 
The Statue of Liberty greets people from distant lands and on her pedestal is a poem written by Emma Lazarus.  Here is a portion of that poem:

 "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

What an amazing invitation!  I can’t imagine what it was like for early immigrants traveling across an unforgiving ocean to see such a sight as the Statue of Liberty.  While this monument may be symbolic of different things for different people I think it can be generally agreed upon that it is, above all else, an invitation.  Maybe this open door leads to freedom compared to where you were.  Maybe it is a door of opportunity.  Maybe it is a new start.  No matter what ‘it’ is, it is only the beginning.  This is only the invitation. 

Immigration reform has once again bubbled back to the surface of political conversations and each time that it does I can’t help but think of the invitation we hear from Jesus.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28

I don’t know what influenced Lazarus as she wrote her poem but I get the sense that it just might have been the invitation of Jesus.  She seems to get it.  She understands the kind of burdens that people carry.  She understands the hope and the freedom a new door can offer and Jesus by all means is offering a new door, a new way, to people that are weighed down by the troubles of this world. 

Not only do immigration conversations make me think of the invitation of Jesus but also the dilemma of the early church.  The invitation of Jesus was extended beyond the borders of Israel so that even Gentiles were responding to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  When the door to God’s family was opened up to outsiders this led to issues for those on the inside, the Jews.  How do you graft in the Gentiles?  How do they become citizens of God’s Kingdom?  Citizenship as a Jew was clearly defined and Gentiles didn’t fit the definition.  Some felt that in order to walk through the door they needed to become like the Jews.  Gentiles needed to give up certain practices and the guys in particular needed to be circumcised like every good law abiding Jew.  Undoubtedly there were Gentile males who did just that.  Still others wondered if there was another way into this Kingdom.

When the apostles gathered together to discuss this issue they came to an amazing decision.  Peter concludes that ‘we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.’ (Acts 15:19) And with that end in mind, they provide a few things for Gentiles to abide by and disregard other things like circumcision.  The magnitude of that decision cannot be overstated.  Circumcision was deeply rooted in their identity as Jews and they set it aside for the sake of their newly grafted brothers in Christ. 

Two groups of people would have been upset with this decision.  First, there would have been Jews who still felt that circumcision was a part of their identity and disagreed with the apostle’s conclusion.  We see those divisions reflected in numerous books of the New Testament as people like Paul went around and had to convince them that this was indeed an implication of the gospel of Christ.  Another group of people who would have been upset with this decision would have been those Gentile males who got circumcised because some Jews said they had to go under the knife.  They may have had a mixture of emotions.  They could have been upset with the fact that they went through that painful procedure for nothing.  Ultimately, they didn’t have to do it and maybe felt tricked.  They also may have felt angry at the Gentile males who avoided the knife via the apostles decision.  I imagine they would have been jealous of the Gentiles who got into God’s Kingdom without paying the same physical price that they did.   

Do you want to know who didn’t disagree with this decision?  A bunch of uncircumcised Gentiles!  The golden door into God’s Kingdom was no longer blocked by a huge boulder rolled there by ‘the circumcision group’.  This decision was overflowing with grace toward the outsiders but catch this.  IT WASN’T FAIR!  It wasn’t fair to the already circumcised Jews or the newly circumcised Gentiles but it was by all means graceful toward the Gentiles at the door.  If grace is anything it is unfair and the apostles knew that.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had nothing to do with fairness. 

Take the time to read Jesus’ parable about a vineyard owner.  (Matthew 20:1-16) The owner hires some people in the morning, some later in the day and others at the end of the day.  When it comes time to pay them, they all get the same wage and workers are outraged.  Everyone except the people hired last.  Overlap that with what we see in Acts.  Can you see how envious the circumcised Jews and Gentiles would have been that the uncircumcised Gentiles got the same wage?  Gain without the pain? It wasn’t fair but it was generous.  The owner responds, Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

I strongly believe that things like Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burdened or the situation in Acts can provide helpful insights into immigration reform.  However, that is not my priority here.  America is NOT God’s Kingdom and the Statue of Liberty is NOT Jesus.  My priority is the church that Christ loved (Ephesians 5:25) and whether or not we are adequately reflecting the invitation of Jesus in the way that people are grafted into God’s Kingdom.  We need people protecting the door but not in the way that too often happens.  We need people on the lookout for boulders and the people trying to push them in front of the door.  If you’ve ever sat in church and wondered why new people aren’t coming in, you may want to check out what’s been going on at the figurative front door.  Are there any figurative stumbling blocks to people coming in?  Do what Paul tells the church in Rome and ‘make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister’. 

Oh! And while you’re out there you may want offer the invitation of Jesus to a world that desperately needs it.