Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Rhythm of Grace

Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: "Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You've concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that's the way you like to work." Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. "The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I'm not keeping it to myself; I'm ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (Matthew 11:25-30, The Message)
* * * * * * * *

Sometime back, I was listening to a CD while I was driving. It happened to be a compilation of old Don Francisco tunes, and one in particular caught my attention. The song “Give Your Heart a Home” speaks of our struggle to do things for ourselves and the empty failure that brings. It uses the passage quoted above as Jesus’ voice beckoning us to lay down our own burdens, yoke with Him, and let Him give us true rest and a home. I had been thinking about that song and how Scripture (especially the passage in Matthew) called out to us in our deepest need and want, but I hadn’t been able to bring it all together to the point where I felt like I could write about it … until my pastor, Sam, spoke on it in his sermon.

The call of Jesus in Matthew 11 is not a simple “greeting card” wish for us to come away and find a quick respite in the midst of some momentary difficulty. In fact, the call here is a direct extension of what Jesus taught in the Beatitudes about who heaven was meant for … the lowest of the low among creation. God beckons us to leave behind life spent living without Him and trying to bear a burden we cannot possibly bear. As Francisco’s song said, we spend what we don’t have to buy an emptiness that cannot fulfill. We are lost souls faced with continual disappointment and disillusionment. Our empty hearts cry out for something … anything … that will stave off the pain we feel in the very depths of our being. And in the midst of this, God calls.

Jesus invites us to join with Him and promises a rest from our struggle that we so desperately need. He doesn’t want our religious efforts, hollow as they are. He wants our hearts. He has already paid the price and offers the promise that His burden is light and His yoke is easy. His path is intentionally crooked, as I’ve discussed before, but He offers us something we cannot get elsewhere.

And, taking Him up on his offer, we travel the crooked path not without a companion or a plan. Rather, we travel it yoked to a Divine Brother who leads us and guides us and bears far more of our burden than we can possibly imagine. And as we walk forward, linked with our Master and Savior, we move to the unforced rhythms of Grace.

Our Friend Jesus offers a kind of rest that truly brings new life, a recovered life. We lay our head against His shoulder, and lean on Him, accepting His strength as the substitute for what we cannot do ourselves. And resting on the Rabbi’s shoulder, we hear in the rhythm of grace, His heartbeat keeping time. It isn’t a simple vacation or refreshing getaway, it is the rest of a lifetime. No longer lost souls, our heart has found a permanent home, and our travel along the crooked path lifts and lightens in His presence.

* * * * * * * *

  1. How long has it been since you experienced a complete, deep rest? Or are you satisfied just catching your breath for a minute and keeping on with the chores at hand?
  2. Have you yoked with our Divine Brother, Jesus? Are you ready to experience the complete refreshment only He can offer?
  3. If you do know Him, are you content to walk with Him under His terms? Or are you frightened at the thought of giving up what you consider “control” and relying on Him completely? Are you ready to hear the rhythm of grace in the Rabbi’s heartbeat?

The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Ruler Without a List

But the Lord was displeased with what David had done. So the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to tell David this story: “There were two men in a certain town. One was rich, and one was poor. The rich man owned a great many sheep and cattle. The poor man owned nothing but one little lamb he had bought. He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with his children. It ate from the man’s own plate and drank from his cup. He cuddled it in his arms like a baby daughter. One day a guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of killing an animal from his own flock or herd, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and prepared it for his guest.” David was furious. “As surely as the Lord lives,” he vowed, “any man who would do such a thing deserves to die! He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are that man! The Lord, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. Why, then, have you despised the word of the Lord and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife. From this time on, your family will live by the sword because you have despised me by taking Uriah’s wife to be your own. (2 Samuel 11:27 – 12:10, NLT)
* * * * * * * *
This is NOT the Sunday School version of David’s story. In fact, if you study David’s life directly out of the book of Samuel, it stops sounding like the Sunday School story way earlier than we would imagine. David is still a “man after God’s own heart”, but he also serves as a coarse lesson in the realities of a life lived outside of God’s guidance. And that part is the focus of this particular passage – and the rest of David’s life.

We certainly know the story of 2 Samuel 11. David was at the pinnacle of his kingly time. It is likely about twenty-five years into his reign, his kingdom has expanded and is now about 60,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Georgia and bigger than over half of the other states). The neighbors who would have a friendly tendency are paying tribute and working on behalf of Israel. Those who remain combative are regularly being put back in their places. David has conquered, built, expanded, and now he’s ready to rest. And that is where the trouble sets in.

My friends in my men’s Bible study group analyzed it this way. Billy noted that David had finished his list and failed to consult God on what would be next. In his early life, especially when he’s running from Saul, we find David consulting God via priests, ephods, prayer, fasting, and all kinds of methods. He had a vision for the kingdom God promised him and went about accomplishing it. He sought out Mephibosheth so he could show kindness to the memory of Jonathan. He captured Jerusalem and built a palace the likes of which the world had never seen. And then, one Spring, with his list accomplished, he finds himself in his palace when his army is off fighting.

As if to emphasize the change in David, my friend Todd pointed out that David stopped acting like a leader and started acting like a ruler. Up to this point, we’ve seen David able to command the respect and admiration of men to the point where they would seek him out and join him in an exile’s cave, follow him around the country side without question, and even be willing to climb up the garbage chutes of Jerusalem to conquer it and establish his throne in Israel. And now, he’s dictating memos to send troops off to war, fetch Bathsheba despite multiple warnings, and arrange a cheap hit on Uriah when he showed more integrity drunk than David did sober. All the kind of things a leader who has finished his list would do … and all deadly in the end.

But why don’t we turn the focus from David to ourselves. We have been given a grand opportunity not only to consult God but to learn from David’s mistakes. We can seek Him early and often and constantly check our motives, our goals, and our leadership against His standards. There is no need for a guessing game, and certainly no need to run out of things to do. God has placed us on Earth to reflect His glory and share His message and grace with others around us. We don’t need a special ephod or a priest or some other talisman. We have example after example of men such as David whom God directed and who have provided examples for us to follow (or avoid as the case may be).
So go ahead and finish your list … then start a new one. Continue to lead and resist the urge to just sit back and rule. Be happy for your accomplishments, but seek God and find out what He would have you do next. Don’t let the idleness that David experienced invade your life and make a place for sin. Stay steadfast, whether the path seems crooked or smooth. And remember to consult God every step of the way.
* * * * * * * *
  1. What does your list look like? Who has authored or suggested most of the items on it?
  2. Have you seen tendencies in your life to stop leading and start ruling? How would others rate you, as a leader or as a ruler?
  3. Have you become complacent and idle, thereby giving room for the Enemy to invade your life and bring you to points of temptation? Are you satisfied with the Sunday School version of David’s life, or are you willing to learn from all of it – including the dark years in the latter half of his reign?

NLT – Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lucky Charms

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, "Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies." So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the LORD's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, "What's all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?" When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. "A god has come into the camp," they said. "We're in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!" So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died. (1 Samuel 4:1-11, NIV)
* * * * * * * *
If you read through Judges (and you really should) you know it is a very messy story. The Israelites repeat a cycle of disobedience, captivity, and crying out for help. The continually make choices that are terrible and are constantly oppressed and attacked by the very people they were supposed to drive out of the Promised Land. It is a pretty grim story, to say the least.

Near the end of the time of the judges, God put Eli in the dual position as High Priest and judge over Israel. The enemy-du-jour was the Philistines and the early chapters of Samuel find Israel fighting, and losing, badly once again. At this point, somebody came up with the “great idea” of getting the Ark of the Covenant and hauling it into the battle encampment. Eli’s two sons carried out this request and the spirits of the Israelite soldiers were encouraged. A great story, if it had the expected end.

Initially, the Philistine army was greatly troubled by the cheer they heard across the battlefield. They knew something was up and, being the superstitious lot they were, they started writing their own epitaphs. This “lucky charm” of Israel would surely be their undoing. So, if they were going to go out, they were going out with a bang! They rallied and fought hard.

Apparently, God wasn’t too pleased with the “lucky charm” approach and he allowed the Philistines a victory. The text says 30,000 Israeli foot soldiers were killed and … this is the best part … the Philistines captured the Ark and took it home with them.

I say that is the best part, because I believe the lesson for us lies right there. Israel, the nation God has created and established, figured they could manipulate God in a roundabout way by bringing the Ark to the battle. Almost like Aladdin and his magic lamp, they thought they could just rub the golden box and their God would appear to give them the victory. And I laugh at the story, not only because of their naïve approach, but because I have the exact same tendencies.

If only I get in my 30 minutes of Bible reading each day; if I go on visitation every Tuesday night without fail; if I go to church every time the doors are open, even when I’m feeling sick; you get the picture … you’ve lived it as well. We somehow think all too often that if we do “A” God is obligated to do “B” for us. There is an entire movement in Christian circles that advocates this mindset. In fact, there are many of them. And while I claim to be “above that”, I all too often find myself slipping back down that slope. Somehow, I’ve come to the mistaken conclusion that God owes me something. Just like the Israelites, I couldn’t be more wrong.

God has promised to be present with us, to provide for us, and to love us with an everlasting love. Jesus said He would never leave or forsake us, would be a friend closer than a brother, and would come back for us. The Spirit was given as a Comforter and promise of all the above and to constantly reassure us we have a permanent home waiting. That is basically the extent of the promises and none of them look anything like a lucky charm.
Trust is rarely easy, but I believe the results are worth the “risk” as I perceive it. God grant us a greater ability to trust in Him and reign in our reliance on lucky charms.
* * * * * * * *
  1. What is your favorite lucky charm and how does it affect your Christian walk?
  2. Do you laugh at the story of the Israelites and then live as if your lucky charms worked any better?
  3. Do you have trouble trusting in God when His promises aren’t always as predictable as you want them to be? Can you trust him enough to put away your “lucky charm mindset” and rest in Him completely?

NIV - Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

An Intentional Death

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. (John 12:24-26, NKJV)
* * * * * * * *
John 12 tells the story of Mary (sister of Lazarus) anointing Jesus with a very costly perfume. This happens as a precursor to the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem with all its pomp circumstance, so misunderstood by the people lining the road and watching the King. You may recall Jesus’ rebuke to those around him (including his disciples) who challenged the rationale behind Mary’s simple anointing. Jesus clearly states Mary, whether she knew it or not, did this as a pre-anointment to His pending death and burial.

Later in the chapter, after the fanfare has died away, Jesus give the bit of wisdom we have in our Bibles as verses 24-26. They speak of an intentional death, both on the part of Jesus and one that He requires of all who would truly follow him. Paul echoes this in Romans 12:1 where he writes “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Again, we see the intentional nature of our required act in the service of our Lord and Savior.

I must confess, it is the intentional action that troubles me most. Frankly, I’d like it all to be thrust on me most of the time. If I can reduce my spirituality to some programmed, robotic state my life gets a lot easier. I’m not as accountable for what I do and my list of responsibilities shrinks drastically. It gives me a sanitized situation where everything runs, as they say in the computer world, as “ones and zeros”. But, that isn’t how God operates, nor is it the way He wants to relate to and with us.

And there is the rub … relationships. God by His very nature is a relational being. His infinite existence as the Trinity (and I won’t even pretend to understand or explain that) shows His relational basis for all He does and is. His choice from the beginning, starting with Adam, was about relationship that required intent on the part of His creation.

Jesus, as the ultimate fulfillment of God the Father’s relational plan, takes the intent a step farther. He wants us to die … just like the grain of wheat in our passage. He wants us to be willing to give up everything, lay it all aside, and follow him. He says if we don’t have that perspective, we stay stagnant and cannot produce any fruit. That is the pattern: give it all up, intentionally die, and produce fruit.

Of course, we must contend with the age-old saying about the core problem of a living sacrifice … it can also intentionally crawl off the altar. But, wasn’t that the problem from the beginning? Adam intentionally did what he did and we bear the same image. Thus, our intentional death has to be repeated over and over again as we constantly reaffirm our choice of follow Christ in obedience.

And while we never can do that perfectly, we can rejoice in the one-time-for-all permanence of Jesus original intentional death on the cross. Once for all, never to be repeated or needed again … the perfect intentional death and sacrifice so we can choose to follow Him and be part of His plan of redemption. When I think of it that way, perhaps the choice is a little easier to make.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Have you died? Have you put yourself in the willing position to give up your life, give over your will, and fall into the ground?
  2. What things or circumstances in your current life provide the biggest hindrance to your giving it all over to Christ? What would it take for you to give that up for Him?
  3. While the death is intentional and individual, the act needs to be done as part of a community. Have you put yourself in the company of fellow “grains of wheat” who are willing to intentionally die for Jesus? If not, what is holding you back?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Perhaps God Will ...

One day Jonathan said to his armor bearer, “Come on, let’s go over to where the Philistines have their outpost.” But Jonathan did not tell his father what he was doing. Meanwhile, Saul and his 600 men were camped on the outskirts of Gibeah, around the pomegranate tree at Migron. Among Saul’s men was Ahijah the priest, who was wearing the ephod, the priestly vest. Ahijah was the son of Ichabod’s brother Ahitub, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the Lord who had served at Shiloh. No one realized that Jonathan had left the Israelite camp. To reach the Philistine outpost, Jonathan had to go down between two rocky cliffs that were called Bozez and Seneh. The cliff on the north was in front of Micmash, and the one on the south was in front of Geba. “Let’s go across to the outpost of those pagans,” Jonathan said to his armor bearer. “Perhaps the Lord will help us, for nothing can hinder the Lord. He can win a battle whether he has many warriors or only a few!” “Do what you think is best,” the armor bearer replied. “I’m with you completely, whatever you decide.” ““All right then,” Jonathan told him. “We will cross over and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Stay where you are or we’ll kill you,’ then we will stop and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come on up and fight,’ then we will go up. That will be the Lord’s sign that he will help us defeat them.” (1 Samuel 14:1-10, NLT)
* * * * * * * *
In this passage, we find a stark contrast between the reigning king of Israel (Saul) and the crowned prince (Jonathan). The king and has rag-tag army are hiding out a valley under the cover of some rocks and trees … perhaps a crag or small cave. They are under constant torment from the Philistines and they don’t have nearly enough food, weapons, or hope. Their appointed leader is cowering under the tree, bemoaning the fact that the enemy constantly beats up on them.

It is from this stark scene of despair that we see Jonathan emerge. Jonathan is getting sick and tired of the barrage of fighting, insults, and everything else the Philistines throw their way. He’s read his Scriptures and he has made a decision. God never promised to rescue by might. In fact, Jonathan quite emphatically states God does what He wants however He wants to do it. In this vein and with a renewed courage and trust in the Almighty, Jonathan grabs is armor bearer and utters the phrase “Perhaps the Lord will help us.” He realizes there are no guarantees. God cannot be ordered around one way or the other. But he knows for certain that God will go with them. Jonathan’s armor bearer swallows hard and sees the faith of his master … he’s determined to follow Jonathan, even if it means death. Together, the two of them put the hurt on an entire Philistine garrison.

We know from subsequent passages, that David enters the scene and kills the giant Goliath. David and Jonathan become fast friends, even through some very trying times, because they shared a heart for the God of “perhaps” from this passage. Jonathan was eventually killed by these same Philistines while David continued a successful campaign and went on to rule a relatively powerful Israel.

A recent message by a visiting missionary prompted these thoughts. He spoke from this passage and emphasized the “perhaps” factor in our lives. He had been working contentedly as a pastor in a church when he was asked to go to Russia and teach classes in a bible school. Then he was asked to go for a year while a permanent missionary was home on furlough. Then another year was offered to cover for a second missionary. The request moved on to a short-term position and, before he and his family ever left the States, the mission board asked him to consider a career position. Perhaps God was just moving him along the path and showing him the possibilities. He and his family are serving in Russia in that career position precisely because they were willing to consider what God might have in mind.

Too often, I have the tendency to hold back my commitment and take my time considering one opportunity or another. I want guarantees and concrete evidence. I want assurances that I am “called” to do this or that. I’m not willing to step out on faith like Jonathan did and consider the “perhaps” of God. And, in my hesitation, I miss out on the richest of blessings that my Father would shower on me. I miss the joy of serving and stretching beyond what I consider my comfort zone. I miss the opportunity to be a blessing to someone else and to pass on the wonder of trusting in God to “perhaps” do something far beyond what anyone would have expected.
May God constantly remind us, as we travel on this crooked path, that the only guarantee He has made is wrapped up in the person of Jesus. Beyond that, we are called to be faithful followers who are open to the world of possibilities and plans He has for us. They are, after all, His plans and not mine. I don’t need to act out rashly, but I do need to act rather than sit passively and miss out on “perhaps”.
* * * * * * * *
  1. When was the last time you considered the “perhaps” of God and acted based on what He was able to do?
  2. Have you experienced the remorse and regret of missed opportunities because you were waiting for a more definitive call? Does the possibility exist that you were using that wait as an excuse?
  3. Are you willing to step out in faith, not in some “name-it-claim-it” way that runs contrary to Scriptures, but after the manner Jonathan did in this passage? If you are willing to do so, what do you expect God to do through you?

NLT – Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.