Tuesday, September 30, 2008

don't serve god

“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you in earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” – Col 3:5

How peculiar. Paul is smack dab in the middle of exhorting the Christians at Colossae to embrace God’s new life of the Spirit, and Paul spouts off the usual suspects of Judeo-Christian “no-nos” that don’t mesh with life in God’s new age. So far, so good. But then Paul throws a curve ball. After greed, at the end of his list, Paul uses the Greek equivalent of parenthesis to add a footnote: greed (which is idolatry). Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire – Paul lets these stand alone. But after greed Paul adds, “FYI, to be greedy is to break commandment #2. It’s the equivalent of worshiping Baal or the golden calf. This is serious stuff. Greed is idolatry.” But why? That’s what I’d like to reflect on for a bit this morning.

We mainly associate idolatry with worshipping other gods. And of course this is true. But I want to scrap this traditional definition of idolatry for a moment. I also refuse to define idolatry as “the god that we choose to serve.” To be honest, and I’m speaking for myself, I don’t serve any god. Of course, Jesus tells his disciples they are to serve only one Master. And if someone were to ask, “Do you want to serve Jesus?” it would be appropriate to say yes. But ultimately, defining who or what we worship as “who or what we serve” is problematic. By definition, a servant is useful and needed by their master. Servants add value to those whom they serve. Masters depend on their servants to accomplish their purposes. And as we all know, God isn’t “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). How can we serve a God who needs nothing? Or in the case of money, how can we serve, i.e., assist or be useful to, something that doesn’t breathe or think? We can’t. And that’s what I mean when I say I don’t serve any God or god.

And so here is my working definition of idolatry. Idolatry is whenever we strategically position ourselves to be served by anything other than the God who loves us and calls us by name. Now, of course it’s appropriate that we call ourselves servants of God. After all, Jesus does. But what we’re really saying is that we have first and foremost been “served by” God. We’ve been offered life and peace and wholeness. We’ve been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Before we do anything for God, Jesus washes our feet (Jn 13:5), calls us friends (Jn 15:15), and prepares a place for us (Jn 14:3). In other words, in Christ, God serves us. And so to worship God is to constantly place ourselves in God’s competent care, allowing Him to serve us. Of course, if we do this we will be transformed to such an extent that we serve others in Jesus’ name. And so if it’s even possible to serve God, it happens whenever we bless others because Jesus has blessed us. “As you did it to the least of one of these you did it also to me” (Mt 25:40).

And so that’s where our formula, greed = idolatry, comes into play. By definition, greed is when our hunger to be served by money is so great that it blinds us to God’s desire to serve us. We all want life and happiness and joy and peace and security. And we all know that we don’t possess any of these things within ourselves. Like Paul says, we simply can’t “live to ourselves” (Rom 14:7). It’s just not possible. We have to live for, and be served by, Someone or something. To live for God, to be served by God, is one way to seek life. To live for money, to be served by money, is a second way.

That being said, Christians aren’t dualists. God says that his creation is “very good.” And many of the things that money affords us (get it?) are part of God’s good creation. Nor should we suppose that one has to have money to be greedy or to seek to be served by money. In our consumerist society of constant advertising and “buy me” evangelizing, it always remains a possibility that the people who love money the most desperately and unrealistically are the ones who don’t have any. And so I guess the question to ask ourselves is, where is our heart? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:34).

FOR TODAY: If you’re upset that the market plummeted yesterday, speak candidly with God about it. Seriously. God wants to hear from you, to know why you’re upset and anxious. Don’t worry about your motives, or if the reason you’re upset is misguided. God doesn’t care. He just wants us to speak freely with Him. And if we do this, God will serve us. He’ll remind us that in Him we have more life and happiness and joy and peace and security than we ever imagined was possible.

Monday, September 29, 2008

sow what?

“A Sower went out to sow.” – Matt 13:3

Most of us are familiar with this parable. A Sower goes out to sow seeds – some seed falls on the path, some seed falls on the rocky ground, some seed falls on the thorns, but the rest falls on the good soil and bears a whole lot of fruit. The end. Only in private, at a later time, will Jesus unlock the mysteries of this parable to his disciples. And here’s the gist of what Jesus says: seeds are “sown in the heart” (Matt 13:19). And so Jesus’ parable of the Sower, among other things, is a parable about the human heart. And as we’ve already seen, the new Moses’ new Law aims to transform the human heart.

Why does Jesus tell the parable of the Sower? For the same reason Jesus tells all of his parables. Jesus wants to shake us from our complacency. Jesus wants us to repent – or “change our mind” – about the many ways we oppose God’s will for our life. Jesus wants us to anchor ourselves in God’s kingdom that is even now in our midst.

That being said, what does this mean practically for the disciple of Jesus? It means that we examine the state of our hearts. Is the soil soft and fertile, rocky, or infested with weeds? What we can do – and what we must do – is prepare and tend the soil. We are to prepare our hearts not only to receive, but to be transformed by, God’s Word.

Of course, this parable made a lot of sense to Jesus’ contemporaries in a 1st century agrarian society. Farmers have always understood the relationship between soil and seed. Farmers understand that they have a real and crucial part to play – that they have to prepare the soil for planting if the crops are going to be any good at all. Preparing the soil never guarantees a bountiful crop. The Son of Man must sow the seed. That being said, if there’s no preparation at all – if the soil isn’t given proper attention – then either little or no harvest is guaranteed.

Farmers, for example, can’t control the weather. And there’s only so much a famer can do about bugs and weeds and drought. And so farmers have to leave some things in God’s capable hands. But what farmers can do – and what farmers must do – is prepare the soil.

So too must the disciple of Jesus. We can do our part – and we must do our part – for God’s Living Word to bear fruit. We must watch and tend the crop, remove the weeds, add water, and pray. Christians have always called these things spiritual disciplines – prayer, solitude, silence, service, tithing, fasting, worship, bible study, meditation, submission, and of course Jesus’ favorite, blogging. A spiritual discipline isn’t a rule. Not one of these things earns us “points” with God. God isn’t a scorekeeper. What spiritual disciplines do is prepare our hearts, make the soil rich.

To switch metaphors, think of sailing. Only God can send the wind. And if God never sends the wind then we’ll forever be stuck at sea. But through the intentional practice of spiritual discipline, we prepare the soil. We put up the sails.

Of course, our God of grace does send wind. God does bring forth a harvest. Think of the Sower. What kind of Sower would sow so recklessly? What kind of Sower would dump seed all over the place, hoping against hope, to bring forth a harvest, even in the most unlikely of places? Do you know any farmer who scatters seed on the path? Or in the thorns? Of course not. Because there’s only One. And that our God is willing, and eager, to sow seeds everywhere is a testament to His grace.

FOR TODAY: Take on a spiritual discipline for the month of October – something small. Maybe you prayerfully read one chapter of the Gospels each day and talk to God about what you read. Maybe you set aside ten minutes in the morning to sit in silence. Or maybe you make your commute to work each day a time to turn off the radio and speak to God. But add something concrete to your spiritual repertoire to prepare the soil, to put up the sails. Remember - God’s grace is opposed to earning. But grace thrives on our effort.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

forever young

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matt 18:3

Jesus tells his disciples they need to become like children to enter his kingdom. Why? What qualities do children embody that make them fit for Jesus’ kingdom?

Well, its not innocence. Children have to learn not to be selfish, not to occupy the center of their own little world. Of course, most of us never learn any of these lessons. That being said, children are not innocent. Children steal other children’s toys. They say mean things. We’re not born innocent and then learn to be selfish. We’re not born selfless and kind and then learn to be selfish and mean. No, our ingrained biological tendency (what Paul calls “life in the flesh”) is to look out for numbero uno. And so children aren’t innocent. And Jesus isn’t telling us to become innocent like children to enter his kingdom. And so what does Jesus mean when he says that we have to change and become like children?

First, children are socially insignificant. In Jesus’ day, the ladder of social prominence went something like this: state officials, men, slaves, women, cockroaches, children. Children were the lowest rung on the ladder. They had no social status. Children were drains on the household income. Now, this is so far removed from our western view of children that it’s really hard to grasp. But children were nobodies in Jesus’ day. Many people despised them (they hated dogs too). And that’s why Jesus says, to enter my kingdom, you have to “go and sit down at the lowest place” when you’re invited to a dinner (Lk 14:10). Becoming a child is the basis of Jesus’ statement that “all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12). In other words, Jesus’ kingdom, in a real way, is found in the “least likely, lowest rung” places in our society. To become a child is to descend into greatness, to climb down that ladder of social prominence and to spend time on the lowest rung of the ladder. That’s a piece of the change that must take place inside of us. And it’s a matter of the heart. After all, Jesus never began a parable with the words, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a country club.”

Second, children are incompetent. And they know it. They depend entirely on their daily bread from others. And this is how Jesus wants his disciples to be with their Father in the heavens. Jesus wants us to live lives of radical trust and dependence. Jesus doesn’t want us thinking that we can do anything on our own. He wants us to learn to rely on heaven’s resources and God’s abundance. That’s what childlike dependence is all about. And it’s necessary if we’re to move deeper into God’s kingdom.

FOR THE WEEKEND: Seek creative ways to change and to become like a child. Maybe God will give you an interesting opportunity to spend time with people on the lowest rung of the societal ladder. Or maybe you’ll take “baby steps” towards a greater life of dependence on God in all that you do. Either way, do something this weekend to change, to become like a child, and to move deeper into God’s kingdom.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

who's the boss? (not tony danza)

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority” – Matt 8: 8-9

Jesus has just healed a leper, and now a pagan centurion approaches Jesus seeking healing for his homebound paralytic slave. Jesus graciously offers to come into the centurion’s house. And the centurion’s response, when properly grasped, blows us away: “no need to come to my house Jesus. As a centurion, I have authority. I know what authority is. And I trust that you have authority too. And so just speak the word, and I’ll know it’s a done deal.” Jesus then praises this man for his faith, his servant is healed, and all is well. But, we can’t overlook the nature of faith, what Jesus is actually praising. According to this passage, faith is believing, and being transformed by, the authority of Jesus.

Jesus’ authority is a central theme in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, when Jesus climbs down from the mountain – after the new Moses has given God’s new law – we’re told that the crowds were “astounded” (not a good thing) that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:29). Similarly, Jesus’ opponents – the chief priests and the elders – take issue with Jesus’ authority. “The chief priests and the elders came to Jesus as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority’” (Matt 21:23)? In other words, faith – which the centurion displays – is inextricably bound to trusting in Jesus’ authority. On the other hand, questioning and mocking Jesus’ authority is always what Jesus’ opponents do. Needless to say, faith and authority are like macaroni and cheese, like peanut butter and jelly, like mayonnaise and the trashcan – they go together. Faith is believing, and being transformed by, the authority of Jesus.

Why? I’m glad you asked. Faith in Jesus and the authority of Jesus go together because faith in Jesus can’t be removed from a life lived – here and now – in the kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim. To have faith in Jesus, to trust Jesus, is to live, move, and have our being in the kingdom of God that is in our midst. And the word translated authority, exousia, is a political word. Exousia is linked with the power of rule or the power of government. And so to acknowledge Jesus’ authority is to trust the supremacy of God’s rule, God’s government, or God’s kingdom that is already available to us through faith in Jesus – a rule, a government, a kingdom that will one day trump all other kingdoms. Revelation’s vision captures this idea: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Why is this important? Far too often, we make faith about trusting only what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf – as if Christianity can be reduced to a cosmic transaction made for us and yet have no authority over our present lives. But Christians aren’t asked to trust an arrangement, or a theory of atonement, above all else (not that these aren’t important). Christians are asked to trust a Person. And it only makes sense to trust a person if you believe that He’s alive and that he has authority – that His rule, His government, His kingdom is a “good deal,” a present reality, and (because we’re all investors) something that will last forever.

FOR TODAY: Jesus’ final words to his disciples, after his resurrection, are spoken to remind them, and us, of His authority. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). For today, ponder what Jesus’ authority means to you. Is your faith about trusting a Living Person, Someone with authority over your present life? We worship a God “not of the dead, but of the living” (Mk 12:27). And the Living God, even now, has authority.

Monday, September 22, 2008

i could really care less

“When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt down before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose you can make me clean.’ Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” – Matt 8:1-3

The moment Jesus comes down from the mountain he is accosted by a desperate leper. And being a leper in Jesus’ day was about as bad as it gets. Lepers were unclean. And if you touched a leper, you too became unclean. And uncleanness wasn’t something to take lightly. As a result, lepers were forced live outside God’s camp in the wilderness (Num 5:2). But it got worst. Lepers had to humiliate themselves to be faithful to the Torah. “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and … shall cover his upper lip and cry out, Unclean, Unclean!” (Lev 13:45) Now think about this for a moment. This is like forcing someone with AIDS or herpes to run around in a hospital gown and perpetually scream “Stay away! I have AIDS! I have herpes!” anytime they’re in public. Like I said, being a leper in Jesus’ day was about as bad as it gets.

In other words, this particular leper was desperate. He runs to Jesus and kneels before Jesus – a desperate, unclean, outcast. And if Jesus followed the letter of the Mosaic Law, there’s no way he would have touched this leper. The Law commanded Israel to exhibit “holy carefulness” – to “guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful” (Deut 24:7). But Jesus, the new Moses, who forms a new family, came to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). And in order to do so, Jesus shows his disciples what holy carelessness is all about. Jesus touches the desperate outcast and then declares him to be clean.

Now, we can’t miss what the leper – what the desperate outcast – teaches us. The leper kneels before Jesus and acknowledges his utter inability to make himself clean. Only Jesus can choose to make him clean. In other words, it is God’s sovereign choice to heal us. All we bring to the table is our disease. All we contribute to our salvation is our sin. Jesus alone can choose to heal us. And the good news of the Christian Gospel is summed up in Jesus’ response to this leper: “I do choose.”

We all need to take our place in this biblical story. More specifically, I see us in two different roles. First, we’re the leper. Apart from God’s grace, we’re all desperate outcasts – the very ones condemned to live outside God’s camp. We’re the ones who must kneel before Jesus and stake our lives on this one man. We’re the ones who must cry out from our knees, and from our hearts, Lord if you choose!” And of course, we’re the ones privileged to hear Jesus’ words – I do choose! You’re clean!

But, we’re also Jesus’ disciples. We are already cleansed by the word Jesus has spoken to us (Jn 15:3). We’ve followed him down the mountain and we’ve asked him to teach us his new law – what life in God’s kingdom is all about. And now Jesus begins to model the kingdom-life of holy carelessness. He touches the leper. He embraces the outcast, the unclean, and the desperate of our world. This is a large part of what Jesus’ kingdom-life is all about. For now, the disciples can only watch and relearn. After all, touching lepers is part of the new Moses’ new law. A shift has taken place – from holy carefulness to holy carelessness.

UNTIL WEDNESDAY: We are privileged to be careless because the kingdom-life is all about the Father’s care, presence, and provision. In other words, we’re free to do what Jesus does. We don’t have to live guarded lives. Like Jesus says, the Father has every single one of our hairs numbered (Lk 12:7). And because of that, we can live lives of holy carelessness as we learn from Jesus what the kingdom-life is all about. For today and tomorrow, take your place in this story. First, know yourself as the one touched by Jesus. Know and feel what it means for God – who is holy and clean and pure – to stretch out his hand and touch you. Second, practice the holy carelessness of Jesus’ kingdom. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

don't drink ekplesso

“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching.” – Matt 7:28

Jesus’ mountain-speech has come to an end. Jesus has instructed his disciples, and the crowds, on the way of kingdom-living. The new Moses stands on the new mountain, where even the crowds are welcome, and has given God’s new law, which perfectly fulfills all that went before him. Jesus’ disciples are still at his feet – it’s hard to know exactly what they’re feeling. The crowds, on the other hand, stand around astounded.

Being “astounded” at Jesus’ teaching isn’t the disciple’s goal. After all, this is how Matthew describes the “crowds.” And discipleship is not about blending in with the crowd. The Greek word translated “astounded,” ekplesso, can also mean “panic-stricken” or “taken aback by amazement.” Of course, ekplesso also means fascinated or amazed. But whatever Matthew intends it to mean, ekplesso isn’t the primary posture of a Christ-follower.

The crowds are still astounded by Jesus – even today. Jesus’ social prominence in our world, from a mere sociological perspective, is mind-boggling. It’s astounding that a humble, 1st century Jewish peasant from an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire launched a worldwide revolution with a handful of fisherman and hookers – a revolution that ended with his crucifixion. Sociologically speaking, this is mind-boggling and astounding. And the crowds are still astounded. Look for Jesus on the cover of Time Magazine around Christmas. He’s made the cover far more than anyone else.

I have to admit, Jesus astounds me too sometimes. That being said, I think the disciple’s primary emotional response to Jesus’ words should not be the same as “the crowds.” Jesus’ words should “pierce our soul” (Lk 2:35). Jesus’ words should “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Jesus’ words should leave us with an odd mix of “fear and great joy” (Matt 28:8).

Mountain-top experiences are great. But Jesus’ time on the mountain has come to an end. He begins a long trek to Jerusalem. And he’s looking for a few intentional and joyful students to go along with him – people who aren’t too “astounded” to follow.

FOR THE WEEKEND: Do the hard work of taking your place on the mountain and asking yourself where you fit in. Are we sitting at Jesus’ feet, ready to follow him down the mountain? Or maybe we’re just standing around astounded?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

the construction business

"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” – Matt 7:24

Each one of us is in the construction business, whether we like it or not. We’re all building something. Our lives revolve around something, or someone, for good or for ill. Jesus wants his students, his apprentices, to build wisely and on a solid foundation. Jesus doesn’t want us stacking cards next to a 5-speed fan.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). Well, Jesus shows his fellow mountain-climbers what wisdom, what the fear of the Lord, actually entails. It means hearing. It means acting. It means building.

First, we hear Jesus’ words – not read them, not listen to them, not memorize them – but we hear what Jesus has to say to us. Hearing is an advanced form of listening. Hearing entails perceiving, i.e., listening attentively with favor, assent, compliance, and humility. Jesus laments that most people “will indeed listen, but never understand, will indeed look, but never perceive” (Matt 13:14). And hearing Jesus is hard. It’s hard to hear “lose your life” in a world that reinforces selfishness. It’s hard to hear “love your enemies” in a world that reinforces hate.

Second, we act on Jesus’ words. Sure, there will come times when we’re too afraid, and too faithless, to act. If Jesus’ first disciples betrayed him, my guess is that all of us will too. And that’s why Jesus is our Savior before He is anything else. That being said, Jesus’ question is fair: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you” (Lk 6:46)? I’ll be bold and take a crack at this one. I think we fail to act because we fail to hear. Jesus offers us rest and refreshment. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30). I think the moment we hear these words, acting becomes a whole lot easier.

Finally, we build. Building for God’s kingdom is the natural outgrowth of hearing and acting on Jesus’ words. We don’t build God’s kingdom. Only God builds God’s kingdom. We build for God’s kingdom. Think of building a house. One person blows glass, another makes bricks, still another manages the glass-blowers and the brick makers. But none of these people build the house. They build for the house. Behind each worker is an Architect and a master plan. In the same way, God wants to use our small acts of love and discipleship as the building blocks of His kingdom. This is what Jesus calls storing “up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20). And no act is too small or too insignificant in God’s building process. “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will by no means “lose their reward” (Matt 10:42). But the key is that we build on rock. “And the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4).

FOR TODAY: Intentionally build for God’s kingdom. Hear Jesus. And act on what you hear. To hear Jesus’ words and to act on them is what wisdom, what building on rock, is all about. No act done in Jesus’ name will ever be lost. And so speak a kind word to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Give a candy bar and a coke to the homeless man outside of the gas station. Do something to bless the lives of others. For “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it” (1 Cor 3:13). Like I said, we’re all in the construction business. Hear. Act. Build wisely.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

being fruity

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” – Matt 7:18

Jesus changes us when we follow him. We become a different kind of person. Ultimately, discipleship isn’t about doing. Discipleship is about being. It’s about Jesus changing us into people who by nature produce good works – what Jesus calls “bearing fruit.” That being said, “our nature” needs some tweaking to say the least. And our nature, what Jesus calls “our heart,” is exactly what Jesus starts tinkering with the moment we decide to follow him. Jesus slowly transforms us into good trees. And good trees by nature bear good fruit. For a good tree to do anything else would be unnatural.

Far too often, we experience our “good works” as tasks foreign to our nature, tasks that force us to muster every ounce of energy that we have in order to accomplish them. And of course, until we are completely changed into good trees, a process that will never be completed in this life, our “good works” will feel “forced” at times. But Jesus isn’t about “forcing” us to do anything – He’s not a pearl-pusher. And so when our good works inconvenience us, when they drain us of all energy and joy, Jesus is gently reminding us that something needs to change inside of us. We don’t yet see things the right way. We need a new heart. We need a new perspective. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt 6:22).

A changed perspective, a changed heart, is exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus even calls himself a physician (Matt 9:12). And Jesus’ specialty is cardiology. In fact, he’s a world-renowned heart surgeon. Jesus perfectly grants what Ezekiel longed to see happen among God’s people: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26).

Jesus’ ability to change hearts is central to his life and work. It’s inextricably bound to what it means for Jesus to be our Savior. It’s the reason He calls us up the mountain in the first place. After all, Jesus lamented that his “people’s heart has grown dull” (Matt 13:15). He understood that what “proceeds from the heart … is what defiles” (Matt 15:18). He taught that “where your treasure is your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). In other words, the state of one’s heart was everything for Jesus – it separated good trees from bad ones.

In a very real sense, the Divine Physician still performs “heart transplants.” Bad trees turn good – and good trees, by nature, bear good fruit. And “bearing fruit,” so to speak, is what following Jesus is all about. Like the Dr. himself once said, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (Jn 15:8).

FOR TODAY: Shift your attention away from doing. Instead, focus your energy and your prayers on being. In other words, ask Jesus to work on your heart today. Jesus is a Good Cardiologist. But remember, He’s slow. He doesn’t completely change us over night. That being said, we should be changing into good trees, albeit slowly. Like Paul says, God raised Jesus “from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4). And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Go. Be fruity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

on having a big nose

“If you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment.” – Matt 5:22

Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be angry with one another. Jesus knows that anger can be poisonous. And Jesus doesn’t want his secret service agents infected.

The problem with anger isn’t that it’s inherently bad or sinful. Anger is a mere feeling that overtakes us, that seizes our bodies, when our will is thwarted. And the feeling of anger isn’t our problem. Our problem, our sin, comes when we indulge our anger – when our anger makes us feel alive, when we become anger-addicts, when we get infected.

Think about it. Every time we indulge our anger an element of self-righteousness and vanity (subscript pride) is at work within us. In fact, behind every angry person is his or her wounded ego. We’re angry because someone has thwarted our will and, as we all know, our will should never be thwarted. And round and round we go Jack – with an inflated ego, with a thwarted will, and with a seething anger than inhibits us from loving. Is this what Jesus has in mind when he tells his disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? Yea, I didn’t think so.

And so Jesus doesn’t want us to be angry. And the reason Jesus doesn’t want us to be angry is because Jesus wants us to perfectly image his Father in the heavens. After all, Jesus knows that his Father is “longsuffering” (Ex 34:6). And so Jesus wants his disciples to be longsuffering as well.

“Longsuffering” is how the KJV translates the Hebrew ‘arek (more commonly translated “slow to anger”). But translating this Hebrew phrase at face value, ‘arek means “long of nose.” That’s right. A “big nose” is a divine attribute. Of course, God’s big nose doesn’t speak to God’s physical or bodily characteristics. God is Spirit. The Triune God doesn’t have a nose like ours (let alone three of them). To speak of God as “long of nose” is to make a statement about God’s character, i.e., that God doesn’t anger easily. In antiquity, anger was associated with the flaring and snorting of the nostrils. That’s why “the rebuke of the Lord” is associated with “the blast of the breath of his nostrils” (2 Sam 22:16). I guess the idea is that it takes a long time for God’s wrath to kindle because He is “long of nose.” But that’s not the point. The point is that our Father is slow to anger and that Jesus wants us to be like his Father.

FOR TODAY: Pay attention to what angers you. Don’t indulge your anger. If another person makes you angry, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matt 18:15). But do some self-examination first. Maybe your anger comes from a false sense of self-importance and pride. If you’re like me, your anger needs to be repented of more often than anything. After all, only God understands what “righteous anger” is. I’m not sure that we small-nosed humans have any real concept. That being said, when you do get angry “do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). After all, “a fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back” (Prov 29:11). Remember - our God is “long of nose.” May our noses be large as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

pigs don't eat pearls

"Do not throw your pearls before swine." – Matt 7:6

Jesus doesn't want his secret service agents to be pushy – he doesn't want us to force "good things" onto the people we love, to hurl things at them that they're unable to digest. Jesus doesn't want us throwing our pearls before swine.

Now, it's not that Jesus thinks that some people are unworthy swine and don't deserve our pearls. That's not Jesus' way – he's not making a statement about some people's unworthiness. After all, the Gospel is that God's Pearl graciously embraced a world of unworthy people. Like the prodigal son, none of us are "worthy to be called [God's] son" (Lk 15:19). This is discipleship 101 – all are sick and in need of a physician. We're all sinful piglets in that sense. But that's not the sense that Jesus uses the word here.

And so Jesus' problem with pearl-pushing isn't one of worthiness. For Jesus, pearl-pushing is an issue of helpfulness. Jesus wants his disciples to bless people with God's kingdom – not bulldoze them with their own. In other words, Jesus is saying that pigs don't value pearls. Pigs need something to digest, something that nourishes them. And pigs can't eat pearls. And so Jesus gives pearl-pushers a warning: be careful, the pigs will "turn and tear you to pieces" (Matt 7:6).

And doesn't this always happen when we force "good things" onto others? Sure, we always have "the best" intentions (please note my sarcasm). In other words, we love pearls and so we push them onto others. And in doing so, we become pushy and irrelevant. We've forgotten the truth of God's love - it "never insists on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5).

FOR TODAY: Consider your closest relationships. Are you nagging anyone, or being "pushy" about something? If so, consider what it means for Jesus' disciples to be salt and light – to preserve and to illumine. To do this well, we need to trust that our heavenly Father knows everyone else's needs a whole lot better than we do. We can pray for them. We can love them. We can "restore them in a spirit of gentleness" (Gal 6:13). But we can't throw our pearls before them and expect to be any help at all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

get off the seat

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” – Matt 7:1

Jesus’ secret service agents not only pray “a tension.” We strive to rid ourselves of all condemnation as well. In other words, we strive to be persons that don’t condemn or blame others. We let go of the subtle ways we tell others that we disapprove of who they are, of what they do. We strive not to judge.

Judging others is always a failure to recognize who we are before God: servants. And “who are we to pass judgment on servants of another” (Rom 14:3)? It’s not that there isn’t a Judge or that Judgment doesn’t exist. There is. It does. It’s just that we’re going to “stand before the judgment seat of God” with everyone else (Rom 14:10). And there’s a big difference between standing before the seat and sitting on the seat. To sit on the seat is to forget who we are before God – and for our amnesia Paul says there is “no excuse.” “When you judge others you condemn yourself” (Rom 2:1).

Jesus tells us not to judge. He doesn’t qualify it by saying “don’t judge others.” No, we can’t judge at all. We’re to be like Paul who said, “I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor 4:3). Once again, we’re servants. We can’t sit on the seat and stand before it simultaneously. We have to choose.

FOR TODAY: Consider the many ways you sit on that seat reserved for God alone. And focus on the character of the One who does sit on that seat. Like Paul says, “It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn” (Rom 8:33-34)? Hopefully not us. Step down from that seat and stand humbly alongside everyone else.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

pray "a tension"

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” – Matt 6:7

We can all struggle with prayer. We don’t know exactly how to pray. And we’re not completely sure why prayer is important to begin with. And people have always felt this way. Jesus’ disciples did. So they asked. “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1). And Jesus did.

First, Jesus says that prayer isn’t about heaping up empty phrases. It’s not about using “many words.” We never inform God of anything. On this matter Jesus is clear. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). This is lesson #1. God knows. And so don’t babble.

Now, if we stop here, we’d be tempted to think that prayer is pointless. But it’s not. Jesus prayed. And Jesus assumes that we’ll pray too. When you are praying” isn’t Jesus’ way of saying “if you feel the need to pray.” When means when. And so here’s lesson #2. “Your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11). God’s knows. Don’t babble. But do ask him.

In a very real sense, this is the tension of all authentic prayer. Too many words can be bad – a lack of faith in our God who knows. And yet, too few words can be even worst – a lack of faith in our God who desires that we ask.

The good news is that we’re never alone when we pray. Prayer is so much more mystical than we think. It’s not a psychological exercise – it’s an encounter with the Living God. God’s “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Notice two things. First, God’s Spirit intercedes for us. In other words, God isn’t just the recipient of our prayers. God is also the Source of our prayers. Second, some prayers are just “too deep for words.” Life is complex. We’re a paradoxical bundle of wants and desires and needs and fears so complex that, at times, we can’t even speak. The good news is that God’s Spirit speaks for us, and in us, during these moments. God knows. God prays. There’s no need to babble.

And yet, we are in a relationship with God. And we are told to ask for the things we need. James’ words are still true for some of us. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jas 4:2). And “asking” is what prayer is all about. We ask for peace and health and faith. We ask for rest and wisdom. We ask things on behalf of our friends and our family. And whenever we ask in faith, we pray. Sometimes God says “yes.” Sometimes God says “no.” And our God, who dwells in eternity, is never rushed or frantic or desperate. Sometimes God’s “yeses” don’t come right away. But we ask nevertheless. And when we ask, we pray. And when we pray, we grow and live into the tension.

FOR TODAY: Pray. Live into the tension of Christian prayer. Ask for what you need. And be confident that God’s answer is wise and wonderful and full of grace. And be encouraged by that inner-gnawing that you can’t even give voice to. No need to babble. The Spirit knows exactly what to say. And God’s Spirit intercedes for you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

secret service agents

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matt 6:1

There’s something inside of us that demands recognition. We hate when our good works go unnoticed. We hate when we’re not appreciated. If we’ve been attending church regularly, we want others to know. And if we tithe, we want others to know “what a sacrifice” we’ve made (perhaps by engraving it on a gold plaque designed for the walls of the church we’ve been attending regularly). In other words, we demand recognition. It’s hard to be virtuous when no one else knows.

And yet Jesus tells his students, his apprentices, his disciples, his agents, his mountain-climbers to do their good works in secret. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). Prayer, fasting, tithing, spending time with the disenfranchised, etc. – do it in secret Jesus says. In other words, Jesus tells his disciples not to perform for others. He wants them to perform for their Father alone – to perform for an Audience of One. Jesus tells us to live our lives as if only God were watching. And Jesus promises us that we will be blessed beyond measure if we learn to live this way.

Every fiber of our being cries out against the “secret service” that discipleship entails. And yet Jesus is clear: “learn to perform for an Audience of One, and you’ll be blessed beyond measure.” And here’s why: performing for our heavenly Father alone sets us free.

It’s so easy for our lives to become one big exercise in expectation-meeting. In other words, we all appreciate having other people’s respect. We love being “thought well of” so to speak. But when our life becomes one big effort to maintain respectability, to keep our “thought well of” status, we become the worst kind of slaves. And we worship a God of freedom. Performing for an Audience of One is what “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” is all about (Rom 8:21).

Think for a moment about our desire “to be seen.” We want other’s approval. Perhaps our desire wouldn’t be so strong if we grasped the reality that “we have been approved by God” (1 Thess 2:4). We want other’s acceptance. Perhaps our desire wouldn’t be as strong if we grasped the reality that “the one who serves Christ is acceptable to God” (Rom 14:18). In other words, performing for others is a symptom of a greater problem – a lack of faith. We lack faith in a God that approves of us, that accepts us, a God who sees in secret and who desires to reward us personally.

FOR TODAY: Do a good work, some form of secret service, for God’s kingdom. And don’t tell anyone. Make a real sacrifice – whether it’s your time or your money or something else. But sacrifice something. And pay attention to how badly you wish someone else witnessed it. And then be joyful as you realize that Someone Else did.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

practicing law

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” – Matt 5:17

To speak of Jesus as the new Moses doesn’t mean that we scrap everything that went before him. Jesus didn’t start something radically new. He perfectly fulfilled something wonderfully old. Jesus, the new Moses, fulfills the covenant between Israel and God.

Jesus reveals God’s intent behind the Law. In other words, God never intended the Law to be its own end. Nor did God intend the Law to be a “checklist” of external chores for obtaining righteousness. God’s law was (and is) about the formation of a holy and peculiar people zealous for God’s Name.

For example, the Law says “keep an oath if you make it” (Num 30:2). But behind this law is much more than God’s desire that we keep our oaths. What God desires is that we become people of integrity. But by Jesus’ day, this law was so distorted, misunderstood, and caricatured that God’s intent behind this law was unrecognizable. The Pharisees, for example, taught that people who swore by the sanctuary were free to break their oath, but that people who swore by the gold of the sanctuary were not free to break their oath (Matt 23:16). Seriously? We’re talking about God’s Law – about God’s vision of what it means to be a “good” person. And the Pharisees turned this particular law (and many others) into a legalistic game. This is the modern equivalent of telling someone to cross their fingers if they intend to tell a lie.

And so Jesus takes a stand. Jesus reveals God’s intent behind the law on keeping oaths. Jesus says, “You’ve heard that it was said to those of ancient times that you shall not swear falsely, but I say to you do not swear at all” (Matt 5:33-34). In other words, Jesus wants his disciples to be honest – to be people of integrity, people others can trust. He wants our “yes” to have power. He wants our “no to mean no” (Matt 5:37). And think about it. The only reason oaths are necessary is because people lie. In other words, by eliminating oaths Jesus eliminates the possibility that his disciples will be liars. Jesus isn’t giving them a new law. In other words, Christians aren’t supposed to take Num 30:2 off their checklist and replace it with Matt 5:34. Because Christians aren’t supposed to have a checklist. Following Jesus isn’t about a checklist. Following Jesus is about obedience to God’s law from the heart. And as the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets, heart-obedience is exactly what Jesus aims to teach.

I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says “the law was our babysitter until Christ came” (Gal 3:24). God has always desired obedience from the heart. And so judgment isn’t based on how well we keep a checklist. Crossing our fingers doesn’t get us anywhere with God. Judgment is about God “disclosing the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:5).

FOR THE WEEKEND: Do a little self-examination. Have you made your faith about following certain laws or about keeping a checklist? If so, look at a few of them and ask yourself: what is God’s intent behind this law?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

do not worry

“Do not worry about anything.” – Phil 4:6

Someone once told me that “real writers write about what they know.” This morning, all I know is my anxiety. I’m anxious. I feel like I’ve got a whole lot to do and a whole lot to accomplish and that I’m running out of the time, energy, and cleverness I need to get it all done. You may feel anxious like me from time to time. If you don’t I’d like to congratulate you - you’ve either reached enlightenment or else you’re a robot.

For the homo sapiens still reading, I’d like to tackle the question of “why?” Why do we get anxious? The simple answer is that we don’t have faith. I don’t say this in a pejorative way. I’m just trying to come to terms with our broken and redeemed existence as we experience it here and now. We’re not always faith-full. We’re like Jesus’ first disciples – people of “little faith” (Matt 6:30).

After all, Jesus tells his disciples (we’re still on the mountain by the way) “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). This is why Jesus says “do not worry about your life” (Matt 6:25). But we go and do just the opposite. There is no end to how much we worry about our life (not to mention other people’s lives). You and I are little, breathing, faithless balls of anxiety. Plain and simple.

I think half the battle is admitting that we have a problem, i.e., coming to terms with the real unbelief that exists in us. In my opinion, the most courageous prayer in scripture is found in Mark’s Gospel: “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). We should pray this prayer 163 times a day.

But admitting our problem is only half the battle. The other half is repentance – a word that literally means “to turn back.” When our anxiety reaches its peak, we need to turn back to God, to seek his Fatherly love and care. If you’re an anxious person, the worst thing you can do is to be around anxious people. Anxiety begets anxiety. You need what our social scientists like to call a “non-anxious” presence. And isn’t this who God is? Do Christians not worship the Non-Anxious Presence? After all, God isn’t anxious. And there’s something about spending time in the Presence that diffuses our anxiety. In God’s presence, we remember that God knows our every need. We remember that we don’t know our every need (we know our every “want”). We remember that God is good; that God is in control; that God is both Creator and Redeemer; that we are not; that every hair on our head is numbered; that our anxiety is a mere symptom of a greater problem; and most importantly, we remember that “our greater problem” has been nailed to a cross.

FOR TODAY: Look at your anxiety from a “spiritual” perspective. Don’t try to lower your own anxiety. You can’t. And your failure will just make you more anxious. Instead, sit still and be found by the Non-Anxious Presence. And remember: you’re loved beyond anything you could ever ask or imagine.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

we gotta sea the future

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” – Rev 21:1

In the wake of Gustav, recalling Revelation’s vision of God’s sea-less future seems fitting. At times like this, we’re all just a little too familiar with the power of the sea. Our hearts go out to the people of New Orleans. My personal prayer is that Gustav doesn’t destroy too many lives. And then there’s Hurricane Hannah, which is gathering strength near the Bahamas even as I type. Unless “the first heaven and the first earth” pass away by mid-November, more hurricanes will come, more damage will be done, and more lives will be ruined. The sea thunders.

No one denies that the sea can be a source of chaos and destruction. But for people of Jesus’ day, the sea was the epitome of chaos and destruction. People feared the sea. The sea was a place of confusion and darkness. In the biblical worldview, there was no “thunder like the thundering of the sea” (Is 17:12). Of course, we no longer feel this way about the sea. Like many aspects of creation, we’ve “conquered” the sea. We sail on its waters. We cage-dive with its sharks. We surf on its waves. And then Gustav surfaces and we’re forced to leave our homes and our false sense of security behind. And we remember – “there is no thunder like the thundering of the sea.”

The question I’d like to pose this morning is this: have we made room for Gustav or Hannah in how we understand Christian salvation? Because if we don’t have hope in the face of Gustav, I’m not sure that we have anything, as Jesus’ disciples, to offer our hope-deprived world. But as Christians we do have hope – for God is making a new heavens and a new earth, and the sea will be no more.

In other words, it’s not just that we are fallen. It’s not just that we are out-of-joint. Everything is connected. If we’re out of joint, if we’re in need of restoration, so too is our world that God entrusted to us. And if God intends to restore us, God also intends to restore his good creation. Salvation isn’t about plucking a few individuals out of a leaky, sinking ship. Salvation is about God’s plan to remake both the ship and the people that are in the ship (and about God teaching us to sail it properly, but alas I digress).

After all, Jesus isn’t just “our personal” savior (though he certainly is that as well). No, God sent his Son in order that “the kosmos might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). In other words, it’s not just you and me who anxiously wait for something better. No, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). When you and I are remade and restored, the creation, the world, the entire kosmos is going to join in the celebration. This is our hope. “The sea will be no more.”

Think about it for a moment. It’s not a coincidence that God’s great acts of salvation prior to Jesus involved God trampling over the sea. Noah safely glided through the flood. God parted the raging waters of the Red Sea in order to save Israel from the Egyptians. Our God “tramples the waves of the Sea” (Job 9:8). God confronts the epitome of chaos and destruction, that place of confusion and darkness, and comes out victorious.

In the midst Gustav, in the midst of Hannah, we can’t forget that our Lord is “walking on the sea” (Mt 14:26). We don’t have to explain or understand “why” certain things happen. After all, “we see in a mirror, dimly. We know only in part” (1 Cor 13:12). That being said, what we do know is glorious. God is making a new heaven and a new earth, and the sea will be no more. God will trample over all chaos and destruction, all confusion and darkness. This is our Christian hope. Our vessel may seem leaky, especially when Gustav shows its claws, but this ship we call creation isn’t going down. It’s being remade. And the sea will be no more.

FOR TODAY: Be hopeful. “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:9).

Monday, September 1, 2008

laborless day

“Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest; you shall do no work.” – Lev 23:3

The last few days, we’ve been climbing the mountain with Jesus. Today we take a brief detour and contemplate the spiritual practice of “rest.” After all, today is “Labor Day” – the one day in the year that Congress has set aside as a “day off for the working citizens.” When Labor Day rolls around, even workaholics take picnics, go to barbeques, watch fireworks, go skiing, or just spend time with their family. 364 days out of the year they work, work, and then do a little more work. But Labor Day is their day of rest – on this day, no work is done.

And for Labor Day I am grateful, because our world is full of people who don’t know how to rest (laziness is a different phenomenon). Our culture may assume that rest is bad. But rest is good – and that’s why God gave Israel the Sabbath Day. For Israel, “Labor Day” was a weekly celebration.

I think a lot of Christians are confused about the spirit of the Sabbath. As commandment #4, the Sabbath made God’s “top ten list” – and so it’s pretty important. And this is the case for two primary reasons. First, God is the Creator – which means that we are not. Second, God is the Savior – which means that we are not.

First, God is the Creator. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex 20:11). In essence, God tells Israel to rest because God is ultimately responsible for everything Israel works for. No matter how hard Israel worked, they still looked to God “to give them their food in due season” (Ps 104:27). God is the Creator. And no matter how hard we work, all that we have, and all that we are, is a gift from the God who creates and the God who provides. Whenever we rest, we remember Who is actually in charge.

Second, God is the Savior. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath Day” (Deut 5:15). God told Israel to rest because He alone saved them from Egyptian slavery. And God’s salvation was an unmerited gift. Israel didn’t do anything to earn their salvation. God chose Israel. Israel didn’t choose God. And God’s free gift of salvation gave Israel the freedom to rest and to enjoy their “saved” existence as God’s “saved” people.

It’s easy in our world to believe that we are the Creator, i.e., that we are in charge and that the fate of the world ultimately depends on us. It doesn’t. Not only did God create the heavens and the earth, He’s also creating a new heavens and a new earth. The One through whom the heavens and the earth were made is still “making all things new” (Rev 21:5). We don’t have to make all things new. God is doing that. And so we have the freedom to rest.

It’s even easier in our world to believe that we are the Savior, i.e., that we can bring health and wholeness and restoration to ourselves. We can’t. No matter how hard we work, or how good we are, we can never save ourselves. And this is good news, for “we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (1 Jn 4:14).

Enjoy not working today. Be labor-less. Rejoice. You’re not the Creator. You’re not the Savior. And neither am I. Thanks be to God.

FOR TODAY: Celebrate Labor Day. And don’t wait 364 days to celebrate it again.