A young peasant couple, traveling to a tiny, back-water town simply because of his lineage and a governmental order, find themselves camped out back in the only space available. Ordinary shepherds, just a hillside away, get the first announcement to go see this child. And there, among the animals and the most common of common people, God whispers His greatest message to mankind …
Sunday, December 18, 2011
A young peasant couple, traveling to a tiny, back-water town simply because of his lineage and a governmental order, find themselves camped out back in the only space available. Ordinary shepherds, just a hillside away, get the first announcement to go see this child. And there, among the animals and the most common of common people, God whispers His greatest message to mankind …
Saturday, December 10, 2011
While multiple scriptures pointed to Bethlehem, that was definitely a town to be ignored and disregarded. Think of the small, sleepy village bursting at the seams with grumpy people who only went back there because the authorities wanted to count noses. Then along come this simple carpenter and his pregnant fiancée late one evening and there isn’t a bed to be found anywhere. They finally settle with an innkeeper on the use of his stable. And there, in the most unexpected of places, God places Jesus into humanity to unfold the greatest, if most brief, part of His Master Plan. To add to the “wrong side of the tracks” feel of it, the only witnesses are some local shepherds - and they weren’t members of high society by any means.
You see, the religious of that day some two thousand years ago, were no different from the ones we see so often today. They all have some image of who God is or what He demands and it’s just not the truth. No, the truth is usually unexpected which leads to it being ignored and disregarded. Sadly, it still happens that way today by the same “religious” people who refused to accept the Humble Jesus in that stable. It’s just the way thing happen in this fallen world when people make God out to be something He isn’t and never will be.
But the Truth is that we are loved, we are accepted, and God will never ignore or abandon us. He’s never what the religious ones expect because they can’t fathom He would be that humble and human by nature. The journey on the Crooked Path is filled with fellow travelers who know the True Jesus and are actively spreading His Story. It’s almost as if there is a fresh Advent out there that is pointing back to the First Advent and the Second in new ways. And that’s something I think is worth celebrating this year as I light those candles in my wreath.
May the Joy of the Father overwhelm you and may you also come to see Jesus in a new way this Advent Season.
Friday, December 2, 2011
The obvious signs of Advent season have arrived at my house. There is the calendar with the growing Nativity scene (you put something new up every day), the Advent wreath complete with the high-tech candles sits on the coffee table, and the chosen book is there ready to be read each evening. Even as the girls have grown older, we still love these traditions because they cause us to stop and reflect on the season. This becomes more important as the world around us seems to move at a faster and faster pace - increasing almost daily in its ability to overtake and overwhelm.
As I did last year, I find I don’t want to rush past the wonder and majesty of an Infant Jesus lying humbly in a stable feed trough. This is the gateway to the Story of Redemption God is unfolding. The humanity of Jesus is absolutely critical to the plot and the First Advent is all about His humanity. We can’t fall for some theological thoughts about his Divine nature being only slightly veiled in the midst of that crude cradle. We need to understand that He willingly set aside a great portion of his Divine nature so He could go through the complete human experience. He had to in order to complete the work on our behalf.
My challenge to you is to reflect on the First Advent this year. Consider the important part it plays in God’s Story. Seek to understand the impact of the humanity of Jesus. And perhaps light the weekly candles for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love as a part of your reflection.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Sunday, November 6, 2011
"The gospel declares that no matter how dutiful or prayerful we are, we can't save ourselves ...
"Maybe this is the heart of our hang-up, the root of our dilemma. we fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves. We develop a false sense of security from our good works and scrupulous observance of the law. Our halo gets too tight, and a carefully disguised attitude of moral superiority results. Or, we are appalled by our inconsistency, devastated that we haven't lived up to our lofty expectations of ourselves. The roller-coaster ride of elation and depression continues.
"Why? Because we never lay hold of our nothingness before God, and, consequently, we never enter into the deepest reality of our relationship with him. But when we accept ownership of our powerlessness and helplessness, when we acknowledge that we are paupers at the door of God's mercy, then God can make something beautiful out of us."
Monday, October 24, 2011
Do you see what this means - all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running - and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed - that exhilarating finish in and with God - he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! (Hebrews12:1-3, The Message)
I started the first collection of thoughts I titled "The Crooked Path" over two years ago. Since that time, I've written thoughts that have connected with my past, my present, and even some looking toward the future. It started out as a kind of memorial to my late brother Mike who chose the verse about this them from Ecclesiastes 7 during his battle with cancer. All this has given me pause to think many times in the eleven years since we said our final goodbye to him.
But, as I write this, there are other milestones I encounter. It happens to be my forty-eighth birthday today. And, while that means well wishes, gifts, cards, and such, it also marks the coming of another milestone ... tomorrow (October 25, 2011) marks twenty-five years since we sent Dad on ahead. As I consider the weight of those years - so distant and yet still so heavy - I am also reminded that the Crooked Path still has miles for me to travel.
So, how does one go about remembering the past but not letting it weigh you down? What really does lie ahead? The writer in Hebrews had a few thoughts along these lines. In that letter, after the wonderful section about the heritage of faith that has gone before us, he comes to what we know as chapter twelve and opens it with the thoughts above. In those verses, I find two themes on which to set my heart.
First, I am to lay aside anything that holds me back. All the trappings of this present world, the sin and fault that always seems to try and hold me back, anything that would keep me from what is ahead. And, second, I need to refocus on Jesus and take to the Crooked Path they way He traveled it.
There is no problem I cannot bring to Him. I will find not one square inch of my path where He has not gone before me. He is the seasoned Guide who knows how to make it through. He is my Divine Older Brother, encouraging and lifting me every step - at every turn. I do not travel alone, regardless of how isolated I may feel at times. Plus, I can walk with Him in the courage and strength of those who have gone before me, knowing I am not the first to take this journey and I will not be the last. They line my path and call out from the finish in an echo of God's message to me.
Yet in another, mysterious way, Jesus is also at the end of the Crooked Path. He always has been, ever since the day the Father received Him back into His presence and seated Jesus at His side. It is a place of honor I can think of when the way gets especially weary. I can close my eyes and think about my Lord and Savior waiting at the end of my journey as well.
Oddly enough, the thoughts that speak to me most clearly are those exchanged by a wizard and a Hobbit. The exchange, which happens as the gate is about to be broken down, goes as follows:
Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn't so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.
So, when the "grey rain-curtain" that shrouds my Crooked Path finally rolls back, I can be assured of what I will see. I will see my Dad, Mike, and many others who have gone before me. I believe they will know I am coming, just like the Hebrews passage says. But most of all, I will see Jesus and I'll know this part of my journey is complete. And, as the young Hobbit said, that won't be so bad at all. The journey is temporary, you see, but it leads to a permanent home. That is a very encouraging thought for the journey.
- Is the journey getting difficult for you? Can you trust the words from Hebrews that you can find encouragement, the kind only faith can bring?
- Can you feel your Divine Brother both beside you and ahead of you, helping and also waiting?
- When you can't hold on by yourself, can you trust God to do it for you?
Saturday, October 15, 2011
So Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Acts 10:34-43, ESV)
The news feeds on social media sites can be both a blessing and a curse. More than once, I've ended up blocking a story or a person just because the content isn't what I want to see. Most of the time, it's just something to ignore and move on. Once in a while, I get one that causes me to click and go deeper. And not just to add some inane comment either ... there is just something that draws me there. That is exactly what happened earlier this week. Here it is several days later, and I just can't stop thinking about it.
I've noted before that I like Donald Miller's writing. At least three of his books have served to help prod me along in a change of thought and sustain that line of thinking as well. I've been challenged to think about how much bigger God is than I may have been lead to believe. I've been drawn to my own story as a part of His Great Story and encouraged as I seek to raise my daughters and help them find their best part in what God has in store. But this simple feed on my Facebook account really set me to thinking. And it really wasn't the feed or even the blog post it pointed to. It was a simple phrase within that post where Miller said:
"Christ, defeat me with your goodness."
The instant I read that phrase, lights and alarms went off in the back of my head. Since that point, I've spent time processing the simplicity of the words and the depth it takes to seriously make that kind of a request. My mind has raced in multiple directions, perhaps even trying to minimize or escape the very essence of the words.
I have written so many things over the course of the two-plus years since I started to lay out my thoughts about this Crooked Path. I've shared my journey, my passion, my pain. At times I have railed against those who would seem to make God so very small and angry. I've held out encouragement because I have been encouraged. And I have always said that God is an intensely personal God who pursues us with a passion the likes of which we cannot find elsewhere. But Donald Miller's simple words, uttered in his mind at a communion service and shared on his blog, have given me cause to think about it all over again.
Yes, I still believe that God is pursuing us as individuals. But, perhaps, in my quest for Him to be so personal, I've done much the same thing as I've accused others of doing with Him - making Him out to be less than He truly is. This phrase, these simple six words, bring me back to a place where I must understand and embrace that I bring nothing to the exchange that is worth anything. I come, bereft of worth and a wanting creature, to face the Creator in the person of Jesus and ask Him to knock down all that I work so hard to stand up on my own. I ask, as Miller does, to be defeated by His goodness.
That goodness - the heart and soul of the Gospel - picks me up and carries me along the Crooked Path. Only when I try to stand alone or step away from it do I find myself vulnerable to that which stands in opposition. No, it may not always look or feel "good" as I would define it, but when it comes from the very Son of God, I can trust that it is good. May that be enough for me, for you, for all of us. And may we truly pray with a renewed heart, "Christ, defeat me with your goodness."
- What are you seeking today? Or, perhaps a better question, what are you hiding from?
- Have you started doing things that attempt to shape or mold God into the image you want to see rather than see Him as He really is?
- Are you at the place where you want to ask, deep in your heart, for Christ to "defeat you with His goodness"? Can you trust His goodness to really be that good?
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Then the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them. Now if the avenger of blood pursues him, then they shall not deliver the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the manslayer shall return to his own city and to his own house, to the city from which he fled.'" So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. Beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation. (Joshua 20, NASB)
It was an accident ... I swear before all that is holy ... it was an accident. But even as the last breath of life ebbed from my friend, I knew I had to run. Accident or no, his hot-headed brother would come for me. He never liked me in the first place, despite the fact that we were from the same tribe. And now he had the excuse he had longed for to do me in. Weighing all this very quickly, I dropped my axe right there in the grove and ran. As I ran, I breathed a prayer of thanks to the God who had provided a nearby City of Refuge - the place that would be my home for many years to come.
It had started like any other day. My friend and I had been sent off by our fathers to continue clearing trees from the grove so we could expand our community farm. We weren't alone, either. Other young men were there doing exactly what we were assigned to do. It was a way of life for us and I was happy to be working side-by-side with my friend. But, accidents happen and this particular one was tragic indeed.
How the tree shifted and fell I may never know, but it did. And, as it fell in what seemed to be a pause in time, I could not reach my friend. The tree crushed him and he died. Others around could clearly see that something terrible had happened ... and that included my friend's brother. So, as I said before, I find myself running. I have no time to stop and grieve, for to stop is to die at the hands of the one who pursues me. Oh God! How could this have happened to me?
You can imagine a story such as this playing out in ancient times. The scared young man, out of breath and out of options, arrives at the gate of one of the six cities of refuge. He quickly tells his story and is taken in by the Levites who live there. God has provided a safe haven for him so that justice can be served, in this case meaning a second life isn't wasted in some rash judgment. There will be a death, a substitutionary one.
The young man will live among the Levites in the city of refuge until the High Priest dies. Perhaps this was meant as a way to appease the family who lost their own son. Surely, we see a picture of our gracious God and His provision for our refuge in the death of Christ. We see this again and again as David writes Psalms about the theme of God being his only refuge. And we see an example of what we can be to those around us who need it. We have come to God for our own refuge and, as a result, we can be a people of refuge for everyone we encounter, pointing them to Life!
The Crooked Path offers no promises other than its final destination and the assurance that I do not walk it alone. My Refuge is not only a destination, it is a very present help and encouragement. Just like the Israelite cities of refuge, God in Christ provides it without bias or barrier. We need only to accept that provision and enter the gates. They are always open and we can live there because it is a better place and our new home. At the center we will find our High Priest who will never die again ... that makes this Refuge permanent rather than temporary. I don't have to fear or feel insecure again.
- Are you running today, trying to find someplace to rest from somebody or something that is pursuing you?
- Can you trust the God who provides this refuge to keep you safe? Are you struggling to make your own refuge instead?
- What would it be like if you could find true rest from fear, even if things around you didn't change all that much? What is keeping you from coming in the "gate" and finding just that?
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house." So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner." Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:1-10, NKJV)
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. Sound familiar to you? In my Sunday School past, that was pretty much the theme of the story Luke related in his Gospel account. A short, despised tax collector in Jericho had a desire to see the Rabbi as He passed through town. There were many people pressing in and, because he couldn't get through the crowd and was too short to see over the top, Zacchaeus found a tree beside the road where Jesus would pass so he could at least catch a glimpse of Him. That really was all it seemed he wanted at the time - just a quick look in passing to satisfy his curiosity. What he got goes far beyond this version.
As I was reading recently, I came upon a description of the Eastern practice of meal sharing, the one that would have been the prevalent standard in Jesus' day. While we may think relatively little about having lunch or dinner with somebody, such was not the case when this story unfolded. And we're not talking about offering to take somebody to our favorite restaurant and picking up the check either. This meal shared between Jesus and Zacchaeus was an intimate, extended social engagement.
Brennan Manning (in Reflections for Ragamuffins) notes that "in the East, to share a meal with someone is a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood, and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life." Now, I don't know about you, but that's not something I heard in Sunday School when this story came up. Looking at it through this lens, the heart of the story is the very same as we've seen in so many others. Jesus singles out an individual, presents Himself as only He can, and a life is changed.
Jesus had already been criticized by the religious establishment for his fellowship with the common riff-raff. Knowing what we know of Zacchaeus' reputation in the town, one can only imagine nobody in Jericho looked kindly on Him inviting Himself to the despised tax collector's house. But should we find any of this surprising? Not if we really understand the heart, message, and mission of the Messiah. He knew full well the character of the man he was following down the street. He knew the back-handed deals, the lies, and the cheating. He even knew that Zacchaeus was hiding up in the leaves above the "parade route", hoping only for a glimpse of the Rabbi. And with the compassion that only Jesus can display, He did exactly what we should expect Him to do - He reached out in love and forgiveness. He shared a meal in the man's home, demonstrating that God will go to any length to win back the heart that walked away. No, this was no ordinary lunch date at all.
My travels on the Crooked Path began with an individual encounter with the Savior. Just like He did with Zacchaeus, Jesus sought me out, called me down, and told me that He must come to my house and sit down at the table with me. He offered forgiveness like no one else can provide, and He backed it up by taking on the punishment and shame that were my birthright. He offered me the security of a Shared Life both now and forever. No matter what I come across, He is with me ... and it isn't just some lunch date.
- What are you looking for today - a casual lunch date, or a shared meal leading to a shared life?
- Put yourself in the position of the townspeople Zacchaeus had cheated. What kind of a Rabbi would willingly sit down and offer peace and safety to such a scoundrel?
- Are you keeping Jesus at a distance, offering just to "meet Him for coffee" instead of inviting Him in like He asks? If you are, what's stopping you from trusting Him enough to do what even Zacchaeus did so willingly?
Sunday, September 18, 2011
When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants." So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:17-24, NIV)
Once again, my thoughts have turned to this familiar story about the Prodigal. As I'm reading it through the lenses of some great authors, I'm convinced that a central theme of the story is the huge party the father throws at the end of it. It is obviously a picture of the celebration God invites us to (both here and in the future), but this week I was struck by the different attitudes presented, specifically shown in the four characters who speak in the parable. Now, I know you all thought this was about three characters, but I assure you, if you read on, I'll point out four. Here we go …
The first one invited to the party is the younger son. I see his attitude as penitent and grateful. He had come to his senses enough to consider a job back on the farm rather than slow death in the stockyards. He is shocked when his father not only takes him in, but restores his position in the household and then cranks up the party machine. He enters the feast humbled at the lavish love given to him when he realizes that he deserves to be turned away.
The second one we see (and this is the one you may not think about) is the servant who runs into the older brother. I imagine he's been sent off on some task related to the celebration and, whether he happens to run into him or actually seeks him out, his encounter with the older brother takes place. In his words, I read pure joy at what has transpired. He seems to catch the idea that the younger son was as good as dead and now is back among the living. Perhaps he was close enough to the father to see his daily heartbreak. Maybe he accompanied the old man on his nightly trek down the lane to see when the younger son would return. But whatever has happened in the past, this man shows the joy and excitement that fits right in with the party.
The third person we encounter (through the servant) is the older brother. His attitude, right from the start, is selfish and petty. He woke up that morning as lord of the manor in waiting and now has to split his already cut share with the younger brother. All because dear old dad has let the little wretch back in the house. He is bitter in the truest sense of the word that his father has not only accepted his brother back, but is throwing a huge celebration in his honor. He wants no part of it and, I would reckon, tells the servant as much. This obviously gets conveyed to Dad as we see next.
The father, so joyful in the return of the younger son, has lavishly spread out his best in expression of his love. He holds nothing back … you probably could have heard it from a mile away. The singing, dancing, drinking, and merry laughter light up the night and fill the air. It is an unbridled joy known only to one who has expected the worst but held out hope for the best. And he continues this way until he gets news of the older son's refusal to come inside. You see, this wasn't just a slap at the younger brother. It was an affront to the father as well. And in his encounter with the older son – outside the party still – we hear the pain and loss, much the same as the man felt when he considered his younger son lost or dead. With tears, he begs the older son to come in but is met with refusal and an indignant response. I can imagine that he turns, slowly, shoulders slightly hunched over, and goes back into the feast.
The Crooked Path holds many celebrations along the way, but they pale in comparison to the one they all point to. Our Father waits, at the end of the path, ready to welcome us into His Great Celebration. He wants our attitude to be that of one who knows he is welcome, who knows he has a rightful place at this part. I do nothing on my own to earn that right - it is a free gift from a loving Father who is overjoyed at my return.
- So, what is your attitude about the party? Are you happy that it is going on for you and others who don't deserve it by worldly standards?
- Are you struggling as the "older brother", upset to see such lavish preparations made for those who, in your view, have squandered their chances to do what you think is right?
- Whatever your perspective, can you feel both the joy and pain of the Father who gives this feast for everyone to enjoy and who longs to have both the younger and older son enter and join in the celebration?
Sunday, September 11, 2011
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:14-15, ESV)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, ESV)
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23, ESV)
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11, ESV)
If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19, ESV)
Hope is a good thing. It buoys us up during difficult times. It provides a positive basis from which we can view our lives. It can be the stuff of dreams. But a thought occurred to me this week about hope. All hope is not created equal ... not by a long shot.
To begin, we need to look back to a verse I found when I did a search using the word hope. I think it sets the stage well for what went through my mind this week. It comes, oddly enough, from the aftermath of the story where God told King Saul to wipe out Agag and Saul took the order under his own advisement. As a result, Saul brought back what he thought would be a "pet king" to keep in his jails. Catching up with the story in 1 Samuel 15:32, we learn that the old prophet has called for Agag. The English Standard Version says, "And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, '"Surely the bitterness of death is past.'"
In my search, I checked the New Living Translation and found that verse to say, "Agag arrived full of hope, for he thought, 'Surely the worst is over, and I have been spared!'" I find the use of the word "hope" very telling here, as it represents the kind of hope we see too often. It's a blind hope that isn't really based in trust or even longing. It isn't even a wishful hope (Paul expressed that many times when he "hoped" he would get to go back and visit a particular church or person). As I see it, it's nothing more than a Pollyanna approach that doesn't take much seriously. And I think we all know what happened to Agag right after he met Samuel.
But the good news here, is that we have a HOPE that is more than just a wishful longing or a blind hope like Agag's. It is something solid, something we can stake our life and dependence on. David knew it - he knew that HOPE could and would raise him up from the depths of depressive despair. The saints through the ages knew it - Hebrews 11 tells a long, strong story of men and women who saw HOPE where others saw none. Paul knew it - he even said if you only looked at this life for hope, you were cheating yourself (see Corinthians passage above).
And Peter knew it. Oh, I think Peter knew it best of all. The man who had seen the absolute depths of his own soul without HOPE tells the church they should not only be confident in their HOPE, but they should be ready on a moment's notice to express the true nature of it to anybody they might encounter - so that by demonstrating a gentle, confident spirit that sees something better ahead, a dark and lost world might join them in their commitment to Jesus and know HOPE themselves.
Hope - it's a funny thing. I really wouldn't want to try and get through a day without it, even if it is that wishful longing for something I might experience in this life. But as I face the twists and turns of the Crooked Path, it is not hope, but HOPE that will sustain me. I won't always know what is ahead on the journey, but I can be assured that HOPE is with me and also waits for me, because HOPE in those terms, is just another word for Jesus.
- Where do you find your source of hope today? Is it the transient type, or the kind that endures?
- Is your hope mainly for this life, or for something better like Paul suggests?
- In your current state of struggle (if that is where you are), can you see beyond it like David and call out to the HOPE that can sustain you?
Sunday, September 4, 2011
(Joshua speaking on behalf of God) "I handed you a land for which you did not work, towns you did not build. And here you are now living in them and eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. So now: Fear God. Worship him in total commitment. Get rid of the gods your ancestors worshiped on the far side of The River (the Euphrates) and in Egypt. You, worship God. If you decide that it's a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you'd rather serve - and do it today. Choose one of the gods your ancestors worshiped from the country beyond The River, or one of the gods of the Amorites, on whose land you're now living. As for me and my family, we'll worship God." The people answered, "We'd never forsake God! Never! We'd never leave God to worship other gods. God is our God! He brought up our ancestors from Egypt and from slave conditions. He did all those great signs while we watched. He has kept his eye on us all along the roads we've traveled and among the nations we've passed through. Just for us he drove out all the nations, Amorites and all, who lived in the land. Count us in: We too are going to worship God. He's our God." Then Joshua told the people: "You can't do it; you're not able to worship God. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won't put up with your fooling around and sinning. When you leave God and take up the worship of foreign gods, he'll turn right around and come down on you hard. He'll put an end to you—and after all the good he has done for you!" But the people told Joshua: "No! No! We worship God!" And so Joshua addressed the people: "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen God for yourselves - to worship him."
And they said, "We are witnesses." (Joshua 24:13-22, The Message)
"We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than His inexplicable ways." - Francis Chan in Erasing Hell.
That's exactly what the Israelites said they would not do in this passage. Joshua had challenged them to make up their minds, to choose God or some lesser god that very day and make their commitment. He reminded them of what Jehovah had done in bringing them out of Egypt and giving them the land that lay before them. Of course, they cried out with a fervor that they would commit to the same God Joshua had chosen. Then Joshua comes back with a pretty powerful retort.
He tells the people that they just aren't capable of choosing and following God. Oh, he knows they will serve something or someone, but he challenges the depth of their voiced commitment. He knows from his personal history that the God of Israel is not just some domesticated shelf god ... some pretty little carved image that you can set on a shelf and go visit when you want something. After all, he's just given an address to the people where God has spoken through him in a most powerful way. And he knows that choice is not just a one-time deal. The people, however, seem to see it in a different way. The history we read about them confirms that.
I don't doubt their passion in the responses they give. They too knew their history with God. But this wouldn't be the first time they or their ancestors made a passionate embrace of some ideal. The very valley they are standing in holds multiple reminders of things that have gone on before in their lives. No, they are not strangers to a challenge such as this. Yet in their enthusiasm to respond to the call that day, they overlook the basic concept that "choice" isn't just a matter of decision.
It is a matter of the heart as well. And that takes it to a whole other level in their lives. This is why Joshua challenges them after their initial agreement. He is pointing out their agreement with a shelf God rather than a wild, unpredictable God. The former is the safe choice they will make many times. The latter is the true heart of what has been presented to them ... domesticated shelf God, or the Almighty God Who has brought them this far?
It would seem that we, knowing the full history, would make the choice for the more powerful God. Yet, as Chan noted in the quote I used, we have a habit of trying to domesticate Him even today. No, we may not carve wood or stone and place it on a shelf in our house ... but does our heart choice really reflect something different than what the Israelites chose and did? Have we really embraced God as God and allowed Him to be that powerful?
The Crooked Path offers me a choice between a domesticated shelf God or a wild, unpredictable, all-powerful God. When I try to mold Him into to my ideas, I am looking for a domestic shelf God. And, in His wisdom, He may appear to me that way for a season. He may limit what He will do in and through me as a result of my choice. But that doesn't change Him in the least. It is far better that I understand God is beyond my comprehension ... and that I take Him off the shelf, letting Him be the God He really is. It's a choice I must make daily. May my heart echo along with Bill and Cindy Foote in You are God Alone - "You are God, that's just the way it is."
- One question and only one ... which God are you going to choose today (and every day) - the domesticated shelf God, or the all-powerful one who doesn't have to explain Himself?
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'" And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth." So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
(Luke 18:18-23, NKJV)
I didn't always turn to reading for enrichment or enjoyment (unless it was a "forced issue" based on an assignment - and even than I often skirted the real reading). However, over the last few years I've found that I want at least a couple books on hand so I can pick them up when the opportunity arises. Plane rides, time before bed, lazy afternoons, or waiting for a child during soccer practice all provide me that chance. Leisure reading provides me with a "mental vacation" and doesn't place many demands on me. When I pick up a book for other reasons, I want a highlighter in my hand far more often than not. And when I actively choose to buy a book and dive into it, that highlighter and I become inseparable.
I'm currently reading the book Love Wins by Rob Bell, but that isn't the driver for this entry. It's a small statement he makes - a perspective on an old, familiar story that sparks my thought. The story (found above) is about the rich young man who wanted "in" on what Jesus was teaching and talking about. It's another one of those that many of us have heard since the earliest days of Sunday School. Somehow, Bell brought up a perspective I hadn't ever considered before ... and I got to thinking.
The man approaches Jesus with a business proposition. It is likely (as Bell notes) that Jesus knows something about his reputation, and not because He is the Divine Son. There just aren't that many wealthy people around, and they guy would look wealthy, probably draw some whispers from the crowds, and may have even enjoyed some local "celebrity" status. All this is conjecture, of course, but I think you get the point. The way his exchange with the Rabbi unfolds is what really intrigues me.
We get the description of the introductions, and the man lays out his request. Jesus, in effect, baits him just a bit and then proceeds to recite five of the six "social" commandments. Though these are among the more famous of the Jewish laws, they only represent less than 1% of the written total we know about (well over 600). And it is important to notice that the Teacher leaves out one of those six statements ... the one about coveting.
The young man quickly offers his testimony as having kept all that Jesus stated since he could remember. Whether or not he realizes the sixth one has been omitted, we won't try to analyze. But that skipped item, left silent and yet so completely implied because it was always counted among that side of the Ten, comes back to haunt him. Jesus challenge to the man is to open his wallet and actually invest in the advancement of God's Kingdom right here, right now, and in the most practical of ways. And the man stands there with his mouth wide open, because keeping five of six commands won't cut it and he knows it. He walks away, muttering to himself, and our view into that story fades away.
In the same manner as God uses our particular giftedness to work on His behalf here on Earth, He challenges us to seek out the strongholds we keep hidden that will hinder our effectiveness and would seek to compromise our relationship with Him and with others. He asks us to come to Him and lay our very hearts at His feet so He can do the "hard work" and bring us closer. Keeping any part of ourselves back is the same thing as what we saw the rich young man do ... we seek to retain control over what God has asked us to give up.
The Crooked Path will not be set straight by my own doing and effort. God will straighten it in His time and in His way as He alone sees fit. I can't just give some lip service to doing part of what He asks. Jesus wants complete surrender of my will to His - and it really is easier than I imagine it to be. The part of me that resists shouts in my ear that I can't do it. My Savior says to me, "I already did it for you. Just drop it all and follow Me."
- Doesn't five out of six sound pretty good to you? It seems like more than just a passing grade, doesn't it?
- So what holds you back from giving it all up? Is there something you feel you can't trust to God in some way?
- What's your choice going to be? Will you ask Him to take it from you, do help you drop it? Or will you shake your head and walk away, perhaps thinking about it more?
Saturday, August 20, 2011
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
(John 8:3-11; Romans 8:1-4, NIV)
I may surprise some of my friends with the content of this entry. I may also offend the sensibilities of some. But overall, I hope I encourage you to change the way you have thought and maybe continue to think about a few things. The substance of what I am writing came out of a brief exchange with an old friend. The topic is our attitude toward those around us who have committed some specific sin, the nature of which has become public knowledge within the context of a local church. Bear with me while I set the stage.
The young woman had been involved with a boy and the relationship had produced a child. They were both of legal age and decided to share living arrangements with a commitment toward getting married shortly. A person of stature within their church called them out (her specifically) and said that if she continued on to marry the young man, that God would not bless their marriage. He called her out for what she had done and wanted her to make a public apology in front of the congregation. Failing to do that and moving out, she would be turned out of the church body.
When the story was related to me, multiple thoughts went through my mind. I'm certainly not going to advocate anything that went on here between the young woman and her young man. What I will do is go back to the passages cited above in this entry and try to understand the whole picture as God sees it. You see, I'm of the opinion that Jesus didn't die to forgive our sins ... He came to remove SIN from the equation. That's a big difference as I see it. Sins (with the plural on it) are the individual actions that grow out of SIN (all caps) which is the inherent tool of the Enemy used against us. And God clearly states both through what Paul wrote and what Jesus said that SIN has been removed from the equation and with it the condemnation that seems to so freely flow from people, especially those I've seen in some sort of "spiritual" leadership role.
Sins aren't graded in God's eyes. Each event, each action, each rebellion my heart can conceive has been laid at the foot of the Cross and buried. SIN was erased completely and I now stand completely uncondemned. To force me or someone else through some sort of public display is to cheapen what Grace and Mercy are all about. Sure there are consequences, some of which may linger for a lifetime. And there may be times when a public admission is something that promotes healing and reconciliation. And I am by no means excusing some of the heinous acts we've all seen go on. But I am stating that all those fall under the same redemptive power God offers and we can all stand uncondemned.
The Crooked Path begins at the foot of the Cross. That Cross leaves me uncondemned. It doesn't leave me perfect or take away some of the temporal consequences of my actions. It does leave me redeemed because God has enabled me to accept His Gift. So before I go casting stones or demanding apologies, I would do well to remember my own condition ... and that I stand uncondemned not because of what I do or say, but because of Jesus.
- Do you have a judgmental tendency in you? What makes it flare up and try to take over your life?
- Do you feel condemned by people around you because of something you did or said? Does that make you feel condemned in God's eyes as well?
- Can you embrace the conversation between Jesus and the woman from the passage above? Are you willing to accept His complete forgiveness that leaves you without condemnation?
Sunday, August 14, 2011
(Caleb speaking) "Now, as you can see, the Lord has kept me alive and well as he promised for all these forty-five years since Moses made this promise—even while Israel wandered in the wilderness. Today I am eighty-five years old. I am as strong now as I was when Moses sent me on that journey, and I can still travel and fight as well as I could then. So give me the hill country that the Lord promised me. You will remember that as scouts we found the descendants of Anak living there in great, walled towns. But if the Lord is with me, I will drive them out of the land, just as the Lord said."
He said to himself, "What should I do? I don't have room for all my crops." Then he said, "I know! I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I'll sit back and say to myself, 'My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!'" (Joshua 14:10-12; Luke 12:17-19, NLT)
Once upon a time in America, men would work for a single company for thirty, forty, or even fifty years. When they had accomplished this feat of loyalty and were ready to retire, their employers would give them a token of appreciation for their years of service. Often, as portrayed in movies or books, the man would receive a gold watch. It was a symbol of a job well done, a life well lived in service to a company.
Today, we are encouraged to move around often (I've had more employers than can easily fit on a two-page resume anymore) and gain experience. We are also told to put aside for our future, to "build wealth" that we can use for our "golden years" (a throwback phrase to that gold watch). And, while there is nothing wrong with that goal ... we certainly should take care of our families and ourselves rather than rely on the government or some other social service ... I have to believe the idea of actually retiring is a little more modern in nature. And, if you take it to mean ceasing to work, then it certainly doesn't have a foundation in any Biblical principles I've run across.
Take a look again at the passages I've cited above. Caleb is a unique example of a man who approached his life with a zeal most of us can only dream about. As my own pastor reached this story last week, I glanced across at the other versions I had available and my eyes settled on the New Living Translation's rendering of Caleb's words. I laughed as I read it because it makes it sound like that particular day was Caleb's eighty-fifth birthday ... and what a present he asked for. My thoughts immediately ran to the idea of not asking for a gold watch (i.e. retirement), but asking instead for a challenge.
Caleb wasn't looking for a rest, though he was by far the most senior member of the Israelite coalition. Instead, he showed a determination to follow God with his whole heart - a principle that had guided his life since we first met him some forty-five years earlier. Everything else he does is a sub-point to his desire to follow God.
Then my thoughts circled back around to someone else I had been thinking about for some time. The arrogant farmer from the story in Luke. He is obviously prosperous and there is nothing wrong with that at all. He has taken an assessment of his business operations and determined that he needs to expand in order to accommodate all he has coming in. Again, there isn't anything wrong with doing this. In fact, I'd argue it is prudent to make such provision so things don't go to waste. But just when you might find yourself agreeing with this man, he goes a step beyond ...
"Wow, self! You've done extremely well. You deserve to sit back and do nothing but party for the rest of your days. You now reside on 'Easy Street'." His abundance has bred arrogance, which has lead to complacency, which matures into full-blown contempt. He now regards himself as the be-all-and-end-all for himself and feels he has no need and, probably, no further obligation. And, in the rest of that story, God calls him out as the fool he truly is and requires from him the one thing he cannot safeguard with his wealth. His eternal soul is lost and his fortune left behind.
Bringing this back around to myself, I began to think about my own tendency to be complacent. Even though I've been through an extended period of uncertainty, I've not been in dire straits by anyone's definition. But still, the challenge to be more like Caleb than the farmer rings true for me. As I travel the Crooked Path, with its ups and downs, twists and turns, I need to remember Who I am following and that He has a purpose for me. And, while I do need to prudently plan for today and tomorrow, I should never think about asking God for a "gold watch". It's a much better position to ask Him for the next challenge He has in store for me.
- What's your vision for your future? Are you looking for a time when you can sit back and relax a bit?
- How does the response of Caleb strike you? In contrast, do you see anything of yourself in the farmer?
- So, what do you believe God thinks about the whole matter? Does He expect you to ask for a "gold watch" or for the next challenge? And what would be your response?
Sunday, July 24, 2011
For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay;
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not imagine that you in the king's palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?" Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, "Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish." So Mordecai went away and did just as Esther had commanded him. (Acts 13:36; Esther 4:13-17, NASB)
"Concretely, abandonment to the will of God consists of finding his purpose for you in all the people, events, and circumstances you encounter. If God tears up your beautiful game plan and leads you into a valley instead of onto a mountaintop, it is because he wants you to discover his plan, which is more beautiful than anything you or I could have dreamed up. The response of trust is 'Thank you, Jesus,' even if it is said through clenched teeth." (Brennan Manning, Reflections for Ragamuffins – July 18 entry)
Recently, I had the opportunity to join my wife for a chapel service at the local seminary. It happened to be the very last one for the year and their speaker was Dr. Tony Evans. I had not heard him speak, but his reputation certainly preceded him. As he began, he read the verse above from Acts as his text and began to speak to us. I'm not one for taking a single verse out of its context, but this was some remarkable insight, especially given some of the students sitting there were ready to embark on careers in various ministry opportunities. Dr. Evans plainly speaking about God's purpose for our lives was more than just a passing challenge. He spoke with passion about how God uses our individuality to fulfill what He ultimately sees fit to happen as His greater story unfolds around us.
As I listened again to the recording of this message, my thoughts drifted to the story of Esther and, in particular, her exchange with her uncle regarding whether or not she would go into the king and make a request. The story is unique among canonized scripture in that the actual name of God isn't mentioned even once. Yet the presence of the Almighty could not be more obvious. And Mordecai might has well have said, "Who knows? Perhaps God has specifically put you in this position to serve His purpose for this generation of Israelites." Knowing the story, it most certainly would fit.
Then there was my daily reading from Brennan Manning's writing. The July 18th entry is titled "Abandoned to His Will". At that point, all three of these things converged in my heart and I knew I needed to write about God's purpose for us. Frankly, it seems hard to believe (at least completely) that God not only has a specific purpose for us, but that He takes our individuality into full account when He sees it done.
And while this may sound like some fatalistic situation, nothing could be further from the truth. God does not sit there like some cosmic dictator and puppet master … the fact that He can see all points in what we call "time" from His perspective is something that we will likely never comprehend. I quit trying to do it – it made my head hurt too much. It is just another point where I choose to trust Him to be who He said He is and leave it at that. In doing so, I place myself in a far better position to submit to His purpose for me so that I can fulfill it for my generation just like David and Esther did.
The Crooked Path will be lonely and uncertain at times, but that doesn't mean I am alone or need to lack confidence. My Divine Brother travels with me and we both walk to the rhythm of Our Father. Jesus fulfilled His purpose so that I have the opportunity to fulfill mine. I need only to turn to Him and ask for the courage to persevere until I reach my mortal end. At that point, may it be said of me that I served the purpose of God for my generation.
- Have you thought much about your purpose, what God intends for you to do for the generation around you on His behalf?
- What would it be like for you to "abandon yourself to God's will" as Brennan Manning suggests? Can you see past your fear to do that and embrace the possibilities God has in store?
- Do you hear God's invitation to rely on Him, to embrace His purpose for your life? Can you trust Him enough to let that invitation take root?
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Timothy, I thank God for you - the God I serve with a clear conscience, just as my ancestors did. Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. I long to see you again, for I remember your tears as we parted. And I will be filled with joy when we are together again. I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you. This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:3-7, NLT)
It was most definitely a mixed marriage. Perhaps it was a broken home as well. The young woman had fallen for the Greek man (probably against her own mother's advice) and the union produced a son. He wasn't a strong boy physically, but the evidence we see tells us he had intellect, spirit, heart, and above all a great legacy of faith handed down to him.
Paul has known Timothy for some time when this second letter was written. He has helped to guide the young man's spiritual formation and has come to trust him implicitly to carry forth the Gospel when Paul either cannot or is no longer around. But the statement he makes regarding Timothy's heritage come as a challenge to me. Both Lois and Eunice are specifically tagged as having "genuine faith" and Paul explicitly states that they passed it on to Timothy. I can only infer (though logically so) that Lois passed this on to Eunice and they both participated in doing so with Timothy.
Mind you, this isn't a model family being called out here. That isn't Paul's point at all. We know the family is mixed with Timothy's father being a Greek. Since there is no mention of him participating in the legacy of faith, we can safely assume he either has ignored what is being taught by Eunice and Lois or that he simply isn't around any longer. Yet, the choices of these ladies to invest in Timothy are clear and they obviously produce lasting results.
Lois and Eunice have risen above whatever has happened in their lives to that point and embraced what God has offered in His love through the story He has given them. They have chosen to live in this better story rather than create their own. Paul sees this choice, the honoring of God in the way they have raised Timothy, and he latches on to it. He, too, will invest in Timothy's part in God's story and this second letter serves as the summation, starting with Timothy's legacy of faith. He goes on to encourage this young servant to be faithful and true to that legacy and to reinvest in others so they also might see the benefits of a personal faith in God.
As I write this post, there is activity in the house by my two daughters. It causes me to think about the legacy I provide for them, how I invite them into God's bigger and better story for their own lives. This is an intensely personal thing to be certain (meaning the choice is ultimately theirs to make), but we still have a charge to pass what we have learned on to coming generations. God has placed us in a relational world for just that reason. Timothy didn't grow up the way he did all alone and we shouldn't expect others to do so either. The legacy we leave is important.
My travels on this Crooked Path are sometimes lonely, sometimes filled with people, but they are never alone. In addition to my Older Brother who travels each step with me, I have a legacy of family and influential people who have crossed my path and traveled with or ahead of me. Some have traveled well and given me much to ponder for my own journey. Some have not traveled as well and end up being more like adversaries or stumbling stones. Some will approach and try to get me to quit the path as futile. I am the sum of the life I have lived and I need to pass what I learn on to those who follow and those I come across. We never know when a single encounter will produce something that lasts for eternity. Legacies speak volumes. What does yours say about you?
- Did somebody invest in you? Was it a positive, enduring experience that shapes the way you think and act today?
- Does it surprise you to know that Timothy's upbringing was as mixed as it was? Are there points in what we know about it that you can identify with?
- Have you thought about your legacy much lately? Are you taking the time to invest in somebody else so they might learn and grow?