something to be thankful for

Category : 2 Corinthians, Paul, bible

This is going to be my first thanksgiving with my own family meaning my wife and step-daughter.  Because of that we’ve been talking a lot about family traditions, what holiday’s should look like, etc…  In the midst of all of those conversations I find myself thinking a lot about “what do I have to be thankful for.”

And let me tell you, God has been over-the-top generous with us this year.  After being unemployed for a year, I was able to buy a house, pay for a wedding, buy an engagement ring, and pay for a honeymoon.  And replenish all of my savings.

How you ask?

I have no idea.  The only thing I can say is that it’s a true “fish and loaves” miracle.  For me it’s easy to be thankful this year.  But for a lot of us, 2010 has been a brutal year.  Unemployment.  Foreclosure.  Medical issues.  Family problems.  The list can go on.

So how in the middle of a year like that can you be thankful?

Paul’s answer was, “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day.  For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!  So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18)

Paul recognized that we need to focus on something other than our immediate, Earth-bound troubles.  And that “something” was God.

Now before you think, “well that’s easy for Paul to say.”  Listen to what he had said only moments before, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.  Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies.  So we live in the face of death” (2 Corinthians 4: 8-12)

Paul was someone who knew a thing or two about being beaten, hated, punished, shipwrecked, jailed, and flogged.  But he was also someone who knew a thing or two about God’s redeeming power, and the good news of the cross.

So this thanksgiving, as you’re looking at what you have to be thankful for, don’t forget that we have a loving God, who wants to be involved in your life.  And that’s the best thing we could possibly ask for.

Repentance and Passivity (the Prodigal Son)

Category : bible, faith

Most of us have heard the story of the Prodigal Son.  We know that there are two brothers.  One brother is a major screw-up.  He’s lazy.  A partier.  A womanizer.  And he even wants his father dead.  (At that time if you asked for your inheritance while his father’s still alive, you were sending the not so subtle message of, “I want you dead!”)  He makes most politicians look good.  The other brother is upright.  He does what he’s supposed to.  Always finishes his chores.  And is loyal to his father.  He’s the ______ of brothers.

The younger brother (the screw-up) goes off and does a lot of bad things.  He gets himself in trouble and realizes he has a choice: starve to death or go back to the father he said he wanted dead.  In the end he decides it’s better to go back to his father and ask forgiveness.

When he returns home, his Dad, instead of being upset, comes running towards him.  Not only does the father forgive the son, he actually throws him a massive party.  The older brother, who has never disobeyed his father, becomes furious.  “You never gave me anything!” he yells at his father.

To me one of the strongest points of the story comes as the older brother and father are standing outside the feast to honor his brother’s return.   His father tries to reason with him, but the brother wants none of it.  We’re left wondering what the brother chooses to do.

Each brother has a choice: to return with the father or not.  The screw-up chooses to return.  He shows repentance and seeks forgiveness.  And a party is thrown in celebration.  The older brother chooses to pout.  He sits back and does nothing.  He watches from the outside as the family and friends celebrate the return of his lost brother.

We are often given a choice.  Do we choose the hard thing and ask for forgiveness?  Or do we sit back and do nothing other than pout?

This is part three in a five part series on the dangers of passivity in the kingdom. It was also featured as part of “The Daily” a short devotional geared toward helping people develop regular habits of reading the Bible.  If you would like to subscribe to The Daily, you can do so here.

being broken is a good thing

Category : different

I’m in the midst of moving.  Which means it’s time to pack up my old stuff.  There’s nothing like the thought of carrying heavy boxes to make you really evaluate something’s worth!  I’ve been pretty ruthless so far in getting rid of things.  And one of the underlying questions I ask is simply, “is it broken.”  The last thing I want to do is take the effort to pack something that’s broken.

Let’s face it, we all value things that work.  This is why we throw away VCR’s and 8 track players instead of keeping them forever.  Something eventually comes along that works better, so we jump onto the bandwagon.  The very idea that we should keep something that is broken seems strange to us.

But to consider brokenness as a good thing?  Well that’s just crazy talk.

Yet when we look at life through God’s eyes, brokenness becomes something to seek out.  In fact, I think brokenness is one of the best gifts God has for us.  CS Lewis said that pride was at root of all evil.  That the more prideful we are, the further away from God we are.  Think about your life for a moment.  When do you hurt the people you love the most?  I would bet that the vast majority of the time it’s when you felt you were being prideful.

Pride has a way of making us feel perfect.  Above reproach.  It says, “if I’m not broken, then I don’t need fixing.”

This is why so many people have no need for God.  They see themselves as “good people” who might not be perfect, but they certainly aren’t broken.  They work just fine most days.  “Other people of course,” they reason, “are broken, but certainly not me.”  But that’s not the reality of our lives.  The reality is that we’re all broken.  The whole world isn’t working the way God had planned.  Ever since Adam and Eve, we’ve lost our way.

The people who recognized Jesus for who he was (God) were the ones who recognized they were broken.  It was the prostitute pouring out the perfume that knew what Jesus offered, not the religious leader who was throwing Jesus a dinner party.  (Luke 7: 36-50)

That’s the theme we see throughout history.  The people who were best at keeping up religious pretenses were the ones who didn’t see the need for Jesus.  So they worked to kill him.  They couldn’t understand how he could be the Messiah if he was rejecting the “beautiful people” in favor of your average, run of the mill broken sinner.

Ironically they saw Jesus as broken.  Not themselves.  So my question to you is this: are you broken?  How you answer that question will determine how you respond to Jesus.

photo provided by flickr user wwworks

the death of a son

1

Category : Jesus

Could you kill your own son if God asked you to?  That’s the question Abraham wrestled with as he climbed a mountain with his son.

In most of the Old Testament God speaks with two meaning.  On one level he talks to the people of the time.   He’s literally giving a specific message to Abraham or Adam and Eve.  He is literally saying that Abraham will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3) or that Adam and Eve’s son will kill the snakes they find near their homes (Genesis 3: 14-16).

However, on another level God is speaking to future generations.  He’s preparing us to recognize Jesus when he comes.  To understand who he is, and why he is important.  For instance, the family blessing in Genesis doesn’t just mean Abraham’s family.  It also means the blessings that will come from Jesus (who was a descendent of Abraham).  And it’s not Adam and Eve’s immediate family that will be at war with the snake.  Jesus will also crush the serpent under his heel by dying on the cross.

Wherever you look in the Old Testament God is planting the seeds of Jesus’ arrival.

That’s what’s so remarkable about the story of Abraham and Isaac.  To us this is so scandalous, so offensive, that we don’t even want to believe that it’s a true story.  But back in Abraham’s time, child sacrifice was common.  Children weren’t seen as something to be treasured.  And if a god required a sacrifice?  So be it.

But as we read into the story we see that duality of meaning.

We first see it as Abraham is heading up the mountain; he places “the wood for the burnt offering” on his son.  What other son carried wood on his back?  Jesus, in the form of the cross.

Next we see it as Isaac, while carrying the wood, asks one question, “Father?…The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22: 7)

Where is the lamb?

That’s a good question.  In fact it’s the only thing Isaac says on that journey.  To the reader, it seems as if Isaac has foreshadowed his own death.  But Isaac is not the lamb.  God spares Isaac from being sacrificed (God provides a ram.)

Although Isaac’s life is spared, his question is never answered.  In fact, his question lingers for the next few thousand years until Jesus comes onto the scene.  Jesus is that lamb that God would provide.  Jesus takes the hit that you and I (and Isaac and Abraham) deserve.  God saved us, just as he saved a boy from being sacrificed.  But it came at a great cost…

photo provided by flickr user Scootie

are you living the urgent life?

Category : living a life of faith

“Is there anything more important than your soul?” (Mark 8: 37 NLT)

That question, asked by Jesus, haunts me.  Because I’m not living that way.  When I get frustrated by traffic, am I living as if there is nothing more important than my soul?  How about when I’m frustrated because something I want is out of stock at the store?  Or when a business deal goes bad?

The bottom line is I’m not living my life with any urgency.

I’m realizing just how much stuff creeps in and distracts me from what is really urgent.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Simpsons, Homer is kicked out of Moe’s Tavern.  By sheer coincidence someone who looks exactly like Homer (but with a British accent) goes into Moe’s.  His name, of course, is Guy Incognito.  Everyone thinks it’s Homer, and so he’s thrown out of the bar where we see Homer walking across the street.

Homer’s reaction is natural.  “Hey that guy looks like me!”  But before he can figure out why he has an identical (apparently British) twin, he sees a dog with a fluffy tail.  And that’s the end of Homer’s urgency.  Yelling, “That dog has a fluffy tail!”  He goes off to chase the dog.

That, my friends, is how most of us live.  We experience the amazing, and sometimes miraculous.  But we’re too busy following dogs with fluffy tails that we completely miss out on what’s truly urgent.   We seem to get distracted by everything.  People we work with, family members, bad drivers, movies, TV.  Everything.

That’s not how I want to live my life.  That’s not what it means to live out a life of faith.  In a letter to the city of Corinth, Paul captured that fact, saying, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9: 26-27)

I want to run that race like everything is on the line.  Because you know what?  Everything is on the line.  There is nothing more important than our soul.

How are you running?

photo provided by flickr user yoppy

the scandalous birth of Jesus

Category : Jesus

Some things you never get over.  Like Bambi’s mother dying.  Or that creepy scene in E.T. where all the men in hazmat suits come rushing in to grab the family.  (OK, I was 5 when I saw that.)  But these things are shocking.  They cry out, “that’s not how it’s supposed to be!”  And that’s my reaction to Jesus’ birth.  No matter how many times I read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth I am shocked by three things:

For those of us living today (which would be everyone reading this) these things don’t seem very shocking.  Teen pregnancy, while not fully accepted is pretty common.  They even have a TV show celebrating teen mothers.  We’ve also grown up with this idea that Shepherds are noble people. After all, isn’t that the point of Jesus’ own story about the Good Shepherd?

The only point that gives most of us any pause is the fact that Jesus wasn’t staying at a Holiday Inn Express.

But 2,000 years ago these things were scandalous.  It was no way for the Messiah of Israel to enter into the world.  Kings don’t come in the quiet of night; they come charging in with horns blazing!

Jesus’ birth was different.  It was shocking.  And frankly, it was offensive to your average Jew.  Mary was pregnant, but not married.  That was a punishment worthy of death in Jewish culture.  The future “King of the Jews” was born in an animal’s feeding trough.  Jews would have thought, “And this person is supposed to save Israel?”  Even shepherds were considered sketchy people.  They weren’t seen as trustworthy or honorable.  Jewish mothers didn’t exactly want their little boys to grow up to be shepherds.  For shepherds to be the first people to see Jesus (and then spread news of his birth), it would have been outlandish.

Yet this is how the radical, revolutionary God we believe in chose to come into our lives.  He didn’t show up with an entourage or trappings of wealth and power.  His birth couldn’t have been more humble.  His birth couldn’t have been any more shameful!

In every action Jesus took, he was reminding us that the Kingdom is different from this world.  His birth shows us that the way of the Kingdom is service.  After all, the one person who didn’t deserve a birth like that is the one who chose to be born that way.

Because the story of Jesus is so common, it’s easy to miss the revolutionary nature of God.  It’s easy to go to church and forget how revolutionary God is.  It’s easy to see Christianity as a religion and forget the radical call it makes on our lives.  It’s easy to live life but not live a life of faith.

Which brings us back to where we started.  No matter how often we cry out “that’s not how it’s supposed to be,” God remains revolutionary.  Even today.  And for that I am grateful.

photo provided by flickr user yngrich

small steps to changing history

Category : Luke, bible, living a life of faith, taking action

One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.  That was what Neil Armstrong said as he made history being the first person to step foot onto the moon.  As famous as that line was, did Armstrong really understand what he was doing?  Did he really know how his one step onto the moon would change the course of science, history, and culture?

I often find myself thinking about questions like.  It makes me think about my own life, and my own choices.  What small steps can I take today that may change the course of history?  Okay.  Maybe not world history.  But the history of my life.  Maybe even the history of those around me.

Sometimes the simplest action can transform everything.

That’s what I was thinking of as I read the introduction to Luke’s gospel.  In it he addresses the whole work to a man named Theophilus.  Now historians aren’t exactly sure who Theophilus was.  Some of the leading ideas are that he was a non-believer, but open to the idea of Jesus being God.  Another idea is that Theophilus was a wealthy believer who just wanted to better understand what living out a life of faith looked like.  Something I can relate to.  (The understanding, not the money!)  There are other theories, but those are the most likely.

I have to think that Theophilus had no idea what he was putting into motion.  He had no idea that millions of people would still read the book he had (most likely) funded.  It’s easy to forget that sometimes the littlest actions can have the most impact.  We never know when taking a few minutes to read a story to a kid can change their life.  Or instead of cutting someone off in traffic, we let them merge.  Yet time and again we see major life change happening with a simple moment.

God has a strange way of taking the small and turning it into the extraordinary.

photo provided by NASA

questioning Jesus

Category : taking action

If you had a chance to question Jesus, would you?

Our natural reaction is “you bet I would!”  But that’s a very different picture than the one the Bible paints.  In fact the people closest to Jesus often didn’t question Jesus.

“But they didn’t understand what he meant, and were afraid to ask him about it.” (Mark 9: 32)

The Disciples were an interesting group.  On the one hand they witnessed things that most of us never will.  They saw miracles like people coming back from the dead (in non-zombie form) and the blind seeing.  On top of all that they also had a chance to spend time 1-on-1 with God.

Now we can all talk to God in prayer.  We can all get our questions answered that way.  Prayer is an amazing thing.  But it’s not the same as talking to God while having a cup of Starbucks.  The disciples though did this (although I’m not sure how many Starbucks there were in Galilee).  They were able to talk, laugh, and just spend time with Jesus.  They had a unique opportunity that none of us will get in this life.

And yet time and again they passed up on the opportunity to question Jesus.

Right before Jesus was crucified he began to talk about dying.  The disciples, however, wanted no part of that conversation.  They believed Jesus was going to be a great military leader.  That he was going to reestablish a literal and physical kingdom, much like David.  In short he was going to make Israel a world power again.

They didn’t want to listen to him talk about death.  In their minds it just didn’t make sense.  And it terrified them.  So they did what most of us would do: stick our fingers in our ears and go “la la la la.”

It would be as if George Washington had told his troops on the eve of the Revolutionary War that he was “about to die”?  Or if Lincoln, during the height of the Civil War said he was about to die.  People would have been terrified.  Their leader, the person they put all their faith in, was going to die?  How did that make sense?  What was he talking about?

I think the disciples were afraid not just because Jesus said he would die, but because they couldn’t understand how Jesus’ death would bring about their image of a messiah.  Dead leaders don’t win wars after all.

Out of all of us the disciples were in the best position to question Jesus.  Yet they didn’t.  They let fear hold them back.  They more afraid of the truth than willing to trust Jesus.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the disciples hadn’t let fear rule those moments.  Would the days following the crucifixion look different if they had really understood what Jesus’ death had meant?  What if the disciples had pursued an answer from Jesus?  Would he have given it to them?

Of course that makes me think about you and I.  What would our lives look like if we questioned Jesus for the truth, instead of letting fear stop us short?

We are often too afraid to ask God for help.  We’re afraid to ask because he might say “no.”  We’re afraid to ask, because what does it mean if nothing happens?  We’re afraid to ask, because we can’t see beyond our current problems.  If we’ve only ever known suffering and fear, what else could there be?

We may be angry and yell at God and “question” his authority or justice.  But we rarely question God seeking real answers.  We don’t want to understand what God has in mind for our lives if it means learning that it’s not what we expected.  And isn’t that when we’re the angriest at God?  When our expectations don’t match reality?  How much less suffering we would endure if we just questioned God and actually listened for an answer!

the most shocking thing in the bible

Category : God, Mark, bible, different, miracles

The Bible says many shocking things.  Some of it is so shocking that people say it must be made up (i.e., Moses parting the sea.)   Others are so shocking because they go against how we see the world (Jesus didn’t really mean that we should love our enemies, right?)

But I have a different view.

I think the most shocking thing in the Bible is a story about Jesus returning to his hometown.  This is where Jesus grew up.  Yet people didn’t recognize him.  Jesus’ response was simple, yet profound: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”

Jesus is saying that it’s only around those that know us the best, are we least recognized.  The Bible then goes on to say, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6: 4-6)

Read that last sentence again.  “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d consider healing sick people pretty much a miracle!  Imagine going into a doctors’ office after a horrible car accident.  You found yourself suddenly paralyzed and your entire life was about to change.  Then the doctor walks in, looks at you, touches your leg and suddenly you can walk again.

When the media shows up to talk about how he made you walk, the doctor simply shrugs and says, “Well I didn’t do anything really.  At least nothing important.”

What?!  Are you kidding me?!

But that’s what Jesus just said.  He couldn’t do any miracles, except miraculously healing people!

We have such a world-bound, outcome-based view of things that this sentence is difficult to understand.  It’s shocking.  It rocks our world.

God is more concerned about changing people’s hearts than doing something that defies explanation.  He defines miracles not by amazing feats, but by the simple change in our hearts.

If you ask me, that’s pretty shocking.

would you recognize Jesus if you grew up with him?

Category : Jesus, Mark, bible, different

I don’t get home very often these days.  When I was in college and graduate school I would go home for the holidays, but thanks to something called “work” I just don’t have that luxury anymore.  Now I grew up in a small town.  (It was a great place to grow up, despite having to walk uphill both ways in the snow to school.  But that’s another story.)  Even as a kid I always knew I’d be leaving.  There weren’t many jobs for an aspiring psychologist.  There still aren’t.  Such is the life of a small town.

Each time I went back home, I couldn’t help but notice something: the more I change, the less my home town recognizes it.  When I walk into my old church, or run into my old friends, they see me as the person I was.

I have changed in countless ways since I lived in that small town.  Yet when I go back, I am viewed as that shy, awkward teenager that left.  For them it’s hard to see what I’ve done with my life.

My guess is you have a similar story.  The people you grew up with see you as someone you really aren’t.  You might see this play out in your high school or college reunions.  You might even see this with your family.  They want to see you as someone different, but they just can’t quite wrap their mind around the fact that you are no longer “little Sally.”  (Especially since your name isn’t Sally.)

Jesus faced something similar.  When he went back to the small town he grew up in, people couldn’t quite get their minds around who he was.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked.  “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn’t this the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?  Aren’t his sisters here with us?”  (Mark 6: 2-3)

They saw him as the carpenter’s kid.  Not as God.  “And they took offense at him.”

Here the people who should have known Jesus the best, were the ones who ended up knowing him the least.  They were upset that Jesus was claiming to be God.  (A natural reaction by Jews who believed in only one God – going around claiming you were God was a crime in that culture).  But instead of taking time to re-evaluate their opinions, they just went with their old assumptions.  And they missed out on seeing the change.

The same will be true for you.  As you move closer to Jesus, your life will transform.  But people you don’t talk to regularly will miss that change.  They will want to see you as they’ve always seen you.  That represents a challenge for us.  For one it makes it easier for us to fall into our old habits.  But it also means people aren’t getting to see the best testimony to God’s existence – the changes in your life.

Sadly, it’s often easier to ignore change if it means you need to reevaluate your views.