Sunday, January 25, 2015

You Really Can't Make This Stuff Up - the Spirit's Work in the Disciples and Others

Followers understand that God continues to reveal himself throughout the entirety of our spiritual lives.  As the "scales are lifted from our eyes", we begin to see new meaning in Word of God and better understand how God continues to work in the world around us.  We even begin to comprehend how the two parallel one another.  One of the biblical stories that, to me, is one of the most incredible and currently relevant stories in the Holy Bible is that of the Pentecost.

Pentecost is the day in which the Spirit of God filled each of the disciples as they gathered together.  This was after Jesus resurrected and ascended to heaven and the disciples undoubtedly were still questioning what lay ahead for them.  These followers had not been the steadfast group of believers that many perceive them to be.  They had continually doubted and stumbled as they attempted to follow Jesus.  They questioned him, rebuked him, doubted him and finally left him.  During Jesus' trial, torture and execution, they completely abandoned him where he suffered in agony alone.  Peter, the rock on which the church was to be built, fearfully denied any association with Jesus.  Things started changing when Jesus resurrected and spent the next six weeks ministering to them.  This completely radical change continued in the disciples when the Spirit entered them on the day of Pentecost after Jesus ascended to heaven.

When the Spirit of God was poured out on them, the disciples were changed in an dramatic fashion.  They immediately began speaking foreign languages and Peter stood and gave his first sermon as the winds whipped around them.  That day, three thousand people gave themselves to Christ and began to give all of their possessions away.  While these events are miraculous, the testimony of the lives of the disciples in the years to follow was equally incredible.  

The once floundering disciples eventually traveled throughout the world and testified about the story of Jesus Christ.  As a result, they suffered persecution, beatings, and execution - they willingly died horrific deaths as martyrs for Christ.  They were beheaded, crucified upside down, tortured, and exiled.  Where they previously feared being associated with Jesus, their weaknesses which were overcome by the strength of God, were transformed into a fearless passion for Jesus Christ. 

The transformation of these ordinary people cause me to begin to understand the dramatic reality of the power of our God.  Subject to my own limitations, I can see how he works in truly miraculous ways even in the most dire of circumstances.  I also understand that these stories could not be conceived by man and that God is full of astonishing surprises.

The miracle of the Pentecost continues to be revealed similarly in the lives of millions to this day.  It is revealed in the addict who finds the power to defeat the monkey on his back, the person suffering catastrophic loss who is lifted and strengthened, the convicted felon who spends her remaining days helping others avoid similar mistakes, the quadriplegic whose disability becomes a source of inspiration for others.  As incredibly reaffirming as the story of Pentecost is, I believe that the narrative of that day continues to reverberate around us.  These reverberations continue to be a witness to the unending power of God.  I pray that we are willing to pause long enough to recognize and accept them.            

Friday, November 28, 2014

Saved by a Lamb (The Greatest Story Ever Told)

My blog is usually written with the believer as its intended audience.  This entry is meant to shed light on what is the basis for much of Christianity to those that don't share our beliefs.  As followers, our behavior sometimes seems strange to others.  Hopefully, through being reformed by the Holy Spirit, we continue to evolve in a way that our value system is in stark contrast to the world's.  This doesn't mean that we think ourselves perfect or superior (to the contrary, we generally understand that we are not).  But, it should mean that our focus is increasingly on something different than those who do not believe in the things that we do.

As a test, Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac after having lived until his old age without any children.  Abraham and Sarah had longed for a child and finally were blessed with one only to have God make this dreadful demand upon them.  Being a dutiful follower, Abraham begrudgingly took his son to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him.  On their way to the sacrificial alter, Isaac asked his father what he and his father were intending to sacrifice (because they had no animal in their possession).  Abraham answered with some very insightful words that had a much deeper meaning than even Abraham understood: "God will provide himself a lamb". God did provide a lamb that day and, of course, Isaac was spared.  That sacrificed lamb foreshadowed God's true intent to provide his Son as a sacrifice thousands of years later.

The blood of a lamb played an important role in Israelite history in later years as well.  What is celebrated as Passover in Judaism, commemorates a time when the Hebrews were freed from the bondage of slavery and the unblemished lamb's blood was spread on the doorways to their homes in order to mark those who were to be protected from the angel of death.  Death "passed over" those homes on whom this blood was shed.

Sacrifice had become a central tenant to the daily lives of these people as a way to attempt reconciliation with God for their sins (ancient sacrificial alters can still be seen in the ruins of Israel).  In that culture, animal after animal was sacrificed in order to attempt payment for their transgressions and to please God.  So, the system of sacrificing unblemished animals became the norm. But, we know that in a crazy mixed-up, broken world, there aren't enough animals to make up for all of the bad.  So, it was all for naught.  But, the Israelites did this because they knew of God's goodness; his absolutely perfect justice.  They knew that God's perfect justice would prevail.

The circular rock formation is an ancient sacrificial alter in Israel.
I took this picture in 2013.
The Israelites understood that the Creator of the entire universe demanded one thing: that he be the center of all existence.  He demanded this because he is the creator of all and like our sun is needed to keep the gravitational order of our solar system, God's own "gravitational pull" is required to keep the order of the entirety of creation.  The moment we attempt to become the center, which we have done since the Garden of Eden, the whole system fails (imagine Mercury trying to keep the orbital order of our solar system and the catastrophic failure that would result).  Most of us want a universe ruled by a perfect God of justice.  We may not like the idea of that justice falling onto us however.

Biblical prophets (like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel), foresaw a time when man would be reconciled to God.  The prophet Isaiah (as can be read in Isaiah 53) had some striking visions approximately 600 years before Jesus was crucified: "But he was wounded for our transgressions.  He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (the "stripes are the beating he which was typical during a Roman crucifixion).  "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."  The iniquity of us all fell on one person, Jesus.

Upon seeing Jesus for apparently the first time, John the Baptist yelled out to the crowd: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!".  Approximately three years after this encounter, The Lamb of God Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration.  So, at a time when the Jewish population was celebrating their release from the bondage and oppression of slavery, the blood of Jesus was shed.  The perfect justice of God, the atonement for all who believe, was exercised that day and God himself, the perfect and unblemished lamb - the only One who could pay the price for a world gone astray, bore the brunt of it.

The time of year (Passover) that this occurred is important because of the meaning of the Passover celebration.  The lamb's blood that was shed and displayed on the homes of those who believed, provided a means of escaping bondage and avoiding death.  The tradition of Jesus' time during the Passover celebration was similar: sacrificial offerings to offer atonement for sin - to be reconciled to God.  Jesus' sacrifice ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son") offered an escape from death and a release from bondage for those who believe.  Jesus said "...everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin".  God, keeping true to his perfect justice, but also to his undying and overwhelming love, offered an escape from this bondage and into everlasting life.

"Then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne"~ Revelation 5:6.  Yes, I'll take my chances that this is true.  This is what we believe.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Making God Fit (How We Try to Recreate the Creator)

In an attempt to reconcile our standing with God and our living in the world, I think we've attempted to change and modify him.  In fact, we have a history of attempting to reduce God to a political platform, a few standard cultural norms, or even a figure who just doesn't like whomever we hold in contempt.  In other words, we try to recreate the Creator. 

Do we really believe God would be either a democrat or republican?  Certainly, he has a set of ideals (would we want the ruler of the universe to have none?).  But, try to imagine Jesus running for President.  First of all, he wouldn't.  He was explicit in saying that his kingdom is not of this world.  He also instructed his followers to give their hearts to God...and give Caesar what is Caesar's.  In other words, your most important possession belongs to God.  Secondly, his political platform would look a little unusual by the worlds standards, wouldn't it?  Try to make a political commercial out of the Beatitudes.  The response would certainly include how "impractical" Jesus' espoused values are in the modern world (author's note: by the way, Jesus meant that stuff).

Neither does God fit into our cultural norms.  Sure, God has blessed America.  But, I'm not entirely convinced that he recognizes our borders with Canada and Mexico and he has blessed many other nations besides the USA.  Kenya is desperately poor but has one of the most devout Christian populations in the world!  Why do we say God has blessed us only when we are prospering (or when we win the game - not when we get beat)?  Do we really think that our struggles and weaknesses contain no blessings as well?  What if our prosperity and/or strengths are only serving to distract us from our need for God (this was the case with the rich young ruler)?  What if God has intentionally left us with a weakness in order to further demonstrate his power through us as was the case with Paul's thorn?  Mother Theresa was like 4' 9" tall in heels.  Moses stuttered and was orphaned.  John the Baptist ate bugs.  Jesus himself was poor and despised by the majority.

Finally, we tend to justify ourselves to God by pretending that he is more accepting of our shortcomings as opposed to the shortcomings of those people around us.  In our minds, this makes us slightly better than "the bad guy" standing next to us thinking that God then holds us in higher esteem.  For instance, if we fail to recognize our pride and arrogance, but hold the drug addict in contempt, are we sounding a lot like the Pharisee who prayed "at least I'm not like this poor tax collector"?  According to Jesus, it was that heathen tax collector who made it to heaven...

God is obviously too expansive to reduce and recreate but we try to do it anyway.  Anne Lamott said it nicely" You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do".  In this sentence, you could substitute the word "people" with: things, ideals, or shortcomings as well.  I pray to have continued faith that his word will hold true.  That he alone is sufficient.  That he will provide my needs just as he is ... and that I not attempt to reduce him to whatever I see as normal and/or acceptable. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Real Faith, Real Living

I believe that one of the reasons that God created human freewill was so that faith and love would exist within us.  He loves us enough to allow us to choose whether or not to follow him.  So, while our broken world is full of hurt, love does exist and it carries the most incredible and overwhelming power.  True love manifests itself in us in ways that can be quite surprising.  Who among us hasn't been surprised by what people are willing to sacrifice for someone for whom they have deep adoring affection?  Thus, Jesus said that those who truly believe in him will lose their life for his sake; they place his interests before their own. They end up seeking to glorify him in how they live.  Paul called this "being a living sacrifice"

Some people picture Christians as self-loathing religious rule-followers. They think that we live in a state of shame and guilt subjected to oppressive rules and regulations of a controlling church.  Some churchgoers have an equally distorted image of what it means to follow Christ believing that merely repeating a particular prayer, kneeling before an altar, or robotically following a set of rules (Jesus called this last group "whitewashed tombs") will lead to a fulfilled life with Christ.  Unfortunately, disappointment follows this approach when their spiritual walk is short-lived and empty.  They find that a formulaic approach to God is a dead-end road leaving them further from God rather than closer.

When true belief is found, the disciple approaches God in a manner that can be somewhat similar to other relationships in their lives.  A follower feels compelled to learn as much as possible about the incredible one with whom this relationship has started.  The more we understand him, the more we grow to appreciate how truly magnificent God is.  The more we appreciate him, the closer we grow in our relationship with him.  We also see that while we can never fully understand God, we are called to trust him.  To trust in the unseen and to believe his promises.  This is where our faith lies.

Followers get joy from following Jesus.  They pray by speaking and listening to him, study the bible to learn more of him, and observe his works in their lives in order to better understand him.  They desire to please him in all that they do - not because they are forced to but because they wish to offer themselves as living sacrifices to the everlasting God.  They trust what he says and follow him because they know and love him.  They even pray that he will strengthen their desire to live in a manner that brings glory to him and not to themselves.  This is massively different than being a religious rule-follower isn't it?  Regimented rule-following is founded in self-interest, staying out of trouble, fear and appearances.  It is a sham.  I am most happy when my children do good because they have the desire to do so - rather than because it has been demanded of them.  I imagine God feels the same about me.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Big Feeling from Humility

Christ's disciples understand that his teachings were radically different than what the world values or believes.  But, sometimes those values are difficult to understand.  When he, the very Son of God, knelt to wash the filthy feet of his followers, Peter was aghast!  He thought: how could the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Son of God place himself in such a lowly position as to wash another person's dirty feet?  Jesus' response to Peter was very direct:  "unless I wash you, you have no part with me".  Jesus was teaching Peter a different way - a humble way which he commands us to follow.

When the two brothers, James and John, approached Jesus with a request to receive a special seat of honor next to Jesus, they were also rebuked.  Jesus responded in a manner that turned the world's values upside down when he said "whoever wants to be first must be slave of all".  Jesus was teaching them a different way - a humble way which he commands us to follow.  These examples are consistently in the forefront of Jesus' teachings and seen throughout the New Testament.  Even though the Son of Man himself "came not to be served, but to serve" and we are commanded "to do likewise", the world does not reward this humility.  The world does not revere the least, the last, the lowest.  But, we should absolutely take heart in that fact!

Like Peter, James and John, many Christians have difficulty embracing God's value system.  At best, we are sometimes fearful to live by these values because of our need to survive in the world (which this fear is caused by a lack of faith in the very Creator of the entire universe).  At our worst, we sometimes seek the rewards of the world for our own glory while placing those rewards ahead of One who created even our very breath.  There is a better way, Christian.

As a natural extension of following God's leading, Christians will most typically observe modesty and simplicity in their lifestyle, language, and mannerisms.  They will lean away from pretensions and feelings of superiority (or as the Amish say gross feelich or big feeling).  In a win at all cost, toot your own horn, dog eat dog, pat yourself on the back world, modesty has no natural place.  So, it certainly isn't easy.  Jesus said that we were "sheep among wolves" indicating that we are naturally exposed to certain vulnerabilities because of our beliefs.  I laughed (because I absolutely loved it) when I heard a baptist preacher say to his congregation: "if you feel like an alien in this world, I have great news for are!".

But, the follower understands that living for the glory of God (and not ourselves) has greater rewards that are impossible to put into words - because those words would have to reflect an eternal and everlasting God.  Those words would have to reflect the amazingly endless acts of a Creator that are seen only by eyes that he has opened.  Those words would have to describe a love received that is absolutely and wonderfully boundless.  Those words would have to describe the One who has served to a degree that we can only aspire.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Encouraging the Inconceivable (Am I a Stumbling Block?)

While some people are blessed to find God early in life, others like Saul of Tarsus, can take many years consisting of twists and turns that no man could possibly conceive.

We know how the story ended with Saul (mostly known as Paul after his conversion).  So, it is easy for us to not be shocked by the complete transformation of the man who personally oversaw the murder of Christ followers.  In modern terms, prior to becoming an apostle, he was a terrorist that was involved in a horrendous genocide.  But, we now recognize him primarily for his zeal for Jesus Christ.

Apparently, the prayer of the apostle Stephen was heard by God when he prayed for the forgiveness of his attackers while he was being beaten to death.  That prayer was answered by God's deliverance of the gang's ringleader, Paul who wrote most of the New Testament books.  No man could write Pauls's story - nor could any man foresee his deliverance from an evil past.  In fact, when Paul was converted, Jesus' disciples were still initially afraid of Paul and skeptical of whether he had truly been changed.

At a minimum, this wildly radical story of deliverance should cause Christ followers to pause when attempting to determine another person's station in life.  Today, a person's journey to Jesus Christ can no more be determined by man than could Saul's path be comprehended nearly 2000 years ago.  The question is whether we can finally stand before God as one who provided encouragement, or conversely, a stumbling block toward their final destination.

A homeless man once told me that this story of Stephen's stoning has resonated with him his entire life.  Stephen's unearthly reaction to his execution has been an encouragement to a man that has no earthly hope.  I have no doubt that, when reflecting on that horrible day, Paul somehow found encouragement in Stephen as well.  Maybe this homeless man finds his way to finally have hope in Christ partly due to the God given grace of Stephen - or maybe he will simply be encouraged by a believer that is a source of love and care.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, I pray that I am able to be a source of encouragement, not to serve as a stumbling block, to those unknown pilgrims around me.  Like Paul's journey, the path they are on is sometimes impossible for me to see or even comprehend.    

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Blend In (Jesus meant what he said)

When I was a kid, I thought that being a follower of Christ meant that you were in the mainstream of society.  Christians were people who would dress nicely, smile a lot, and knew a few special words and phrases.  Certainly, their behavior was completely acceptable because they pretty much just blended in with everyone else.  They weren't really that different than non-believers.  They just didn't swear, drink much, or cuss.  That was the image that I had of a "typical" Christian.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus would have been difficult to classify as mainstream.  He combated the traditions of the religious elite, told his followers to lose their lives in order to follow him, and dined with people with whom most of us would be embarrassed to be seen.  Downtrodden people were honored by him and the people, most honored by society, walked away with their heads hanging.  Jesus took man-made religious convention and stomped it into the sand like a scorpion.  The Jesus that I have come to know and love was a counter-culture radical that turned the values of the world on its head.  He continues to do that today.

What if Jesus actually meant what he said and did?  For example, Jesus kept company with some pretty rough characters; he seemed to prefer the company of the least desirable.  How might we treat someone (like Levi) who collected taxes for a hostile occupying foreign government and profited from these activities by skimming money from the top?  Would we be embarrassed if a prostitute barged into the room to wash our feet while we dined with the local pastor or priest?  Would we try so hard to be first if we really believed him when he said that "the last will be first, and the first will be last"?  Do we really believe that we are feeding Christ when we are feeding the lost and forgotten?  Questions like these make me wonder how accepting Christians actually are of the one we profess to follow.

This message of Jesus' is as radical today as it was then: the values of this world have no place in a person's heart.  We are simply called to be different.  In his book "The Cost of Discipleship", Dietrich Bonhoeffer disposes of the myth that Jesus' messages (like that pesky Sermon on the Mount) were merely an ideal and not practical to live by.  Executed in a martyr's death in Nazi Germany because of his faith, Bonhoeffer explained that Jesus meant what he said and that we shouldn't skip past the hard stuff - especially when that means we won't blend in so much.