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 a lot more 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 most honored people 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.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Brave Enough, Dependent Enough, Weak Enough

Almost universally, followers of Christ admit that they experienced the most spiritual growth during times of difficulty.  I know that this is certainly true in my own journey.  The times when we are having to bear the most burden is frequently when we are most willing to rely on God to support us (the saying that "God won't give you more than you can handle" is not in the Bible!).  There seems to be a point in time  during trials that we quite literally "take our hands off the wheel" and ask God to take over.

In my own experience, that inflection point is almost like a revelation, or a reminder from God, that I was never intended to bear the weight of this world. When I am open to the idea of letting him navigate, I always experience a spiritual pat on the back that serves to reinforce what ends up being a very liberating and beneficial move on my part.  As we see the spirit of God help us work through times of trouble, our faith in him grows exponentially.

To get to the inflection point where I grow closer to God, I have to finally admit and embrace my own weakness.  That, my friends, has never been an easy task for me.  My personal history, maleness, and our western culture have always reinforced my natural desire to be extremely self-reliant (being self-reliant is different than being self-responsible which is merely being a good steward of God's gifts and using them within the framework of his will for us - more on that later).  So, I have to finally admit my inability to fully bear a burden asking God to share my yoke which he promises to do.  It is important to note that to share the yoke of God means, not only that he will bear the weight of the burden, but that I have to also be willing to go where He steers me: to learn from the situation, to allow the spiritual growth that occurs, to be dependent upon him.

There is bravery associated with admitting weakness isn't there?  It is a scary thing to say that you don't fully possess the capacity to bear the weight of a trial.  To relinquish control and allow life to be directed by anyone other than ourselves is downright frightening.  But, as frightening as relinquishing control is, the bravery that it takes to initiate the quest for spiritual growth can feel sort of like jumping off of a cliff.  When life seems to be running rather smoothly, to ask God to cause us to grow, while knowing that this growth may cause pain, seems more than a little counter-intuitive.  We have to be willing to accept the fact that it could could hurt a lot.

Frankly, this asking may cause a complete disruption in our lives that may feel like loss.  And by the way, it is.  It is loss because we are assured that there will be a cost to follow Christ.  Things that we have become dependent upon could be ripped away from us.  These could be our job, relationships, money, material possessions - basically, anything that is an idol and taking the place of God in our lives.

Christians are NOT promised the Best Life Now (that reference was intentional) nor are we assured a life in this broken world without hardship.  In fact, we are told that sacrifice is required, pain inevitable and persecution promised.  We are told that there is a cost to discipleship.  Jesus Christ was quite specific about this when he said "whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it".  If the faith of removing our hands from the wheel, sharing a yoke, jumping off of a cliff, and taking up the cross isn't bravery, I'm not sure what is.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Grace - Undeserved Favor

For as long as i can remember, the word grace has stirred my soul.  During my younger days, I didn't really understand the full magnitude behind the meaning of the word.  I certainly didn't know how it applied to my relationship with God.  But, to merely hear the word grace had a tendency to soften me.  Philip Yancey wrote the book "What's So Amazing About Grace" that was devoted to the topic.  Within the book, he explained how the word grace was one of the few uncorrupted words in the english language.  He spoke about how grace resonates with other-worldliness.  He explains that, while justice seems right, grace has a supreme, other-world quality.  Grace is so big that it is troubling to think that I am to possess it.  Not only possess it but, I am to freely dispense it to others.

God is perfect.  God's justice is also perfect - he is the perfect judge.  As the creator and ruler of the universe, we would want him no other way.  A universe ruled by an imperfectly just God?  No thanks.  Within his perfectly just system, he placed grace.  Grace - that wonderful means for us to receive righteousness through Christ.  God's grace was the means through which the sacrifice of his son was accomplished.  Perfect justice will be achieved but, God's grace enables us to bear it!

So, where does my responsibility lay when it comes to grace?  I believe that it starts with me realizing that I am not God (yeah, a universe ruled by me would not be a pretty sight...I have a hard time picking a tie in the morning).  Since I am imperfect, I should not consider myself more capable than God in determining who should receive grace.  In other words, since God willingly displayed his grace on the cross, who am I to withhold grace from anyone?  Yancey also stated that God's grace is like water - it flows to the lowest part.  There is no one that is beyond God's redemption.  How can I rightly receive grace from a perfectly just God if I am not willing to freely dispense it to others...especially when I, an imperfect judge, don't believe that they deserve it?  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Will Bender and the Prayers

Prayer has a designed tendency to merge our will to that of our perfect and all-knowing God.  Because the act of praying helps to keep us in a spirit of consolidation with God, our earthly worries (those that are not of God) begin to overtake us when we drift away from him - when we are less intentional about our prayer life.

Communion with God is seemingly a simple matter of pushing the world aside and dedicating our attention onto the Creator of our universe.  Especially when we are weighed down by troubles or misfortune, our prayers often begin with a purging of all our concerns followed by our requests for God to fix all that ails us.  Both long-time followers of Christ and those that have been newly found have a tendency to pray in this manner.  We do this all the while knowing that God is omniscient - or all knowing; he already knows all that troubles us.

If we are patient enough, we may enter a more solemn time of communion with God during our prayer.  Perhaps we start thanking God for the many blessings he has already bestowed upon us or praising him for who he is (wouldn't it be nice if we always started with this one?).  Maybe we enter into a state of confession and repentance.  At times, we merely listen...sitting quietly while contemplating the presence of the Holy One - listening.  As we continue in earnest loving prayer, our will begins to bend toward him.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) in a fashion that may seem somewhat familiar to us.  The Father had revealed what laid ahead in Jesus' crucifixion.  He showed him that, in those moments of agony and death, Jesus would be made into sin and would bear the weight of the entire world.  Jesus would experience separation from his Father.  The mere thought of this happening troubled Jesus to the point of death. At first, he asked to be spared of the torment that he was facing.  After reaching out for his disciples three consecutive times, he still returned to pray.  Each time he prayed, his prayer turn to the will of the Father.

Jesus ended his prayer by expressing his sole desire: that the Father's will be done.  He desired this regardless of the torment that was about to occur.  Jesus' complete unity with the Father is seen in this prayer.  The Father and Son were united in their will to see that Jesus' crucifixion (and resurrection) would be carried out as was destined from the beginning of time.  As in Jesus' prayer, the Father wants our will to be adjoined to his.

I used to envision God looking at his watch while waiting for me to finish my list of complaints, worries, and requests.  Now I understand that my prayers turn when I remember the pattern of Jesus' prayer in the garden.  Our prayer continues in this same manner if we enter the exchange with a patient, listening, and faith-filled heart.  A heart that is willing to receive its direction from a faithful Holy Spirit.  The bible says that God wants us to come to him with our concerns and so we should.  We also understand that this is just the beginning to a completely fulfilled unity that exists in a heart that is willing to bend.