Father to the Heavenly Father

Since posting about Mary's act of worship yesterday, my thoughts have turned to Joseph's worship and God's calling on Joseph's life.  When talking about worshipping fully and thinking about Joseph, Joseph's act of worship was the act of obedience.

Matthew 1:24 - "When Joseph awoke, he did exactly what the angel had instructed him to do."  EXACTLY!!!  That's so important.  As a parent I try to teach my children that delayed obedience or partial obedience is not obedience at all!  That is a principle that I need to incorporate more into my spiritual life.  And Joseph shows us how obedience is worship.

Jesus tells us in John 14 that if we love Him we will obey all that he teaches us.  (Did you notice that word all?  I did.)  God loves us and gave Himself up for us.  And we love God and obey Him.  Obedience is not some bargaining tool with God.  It is not some means of appeasement of God to keep Him at a distance.  And it does not have to be forced on us or given out of fear either.  It can be and IS a loving response to His love for us - that indeed brings Him closer.  The Holy Spirit teaches us through the Apostle Paul in Romans 12 that offering our lives as living sacrifices is our spiritual act of worship.  That is to say that we sacrifice ourselves to God's instructions, living by them as an act of worship!!!  Obedience is loving worship!

I could get stuck there, preaching, pretty easily.  And in fact, I did for a minute there.  And my point is really somewhere else today.

So, I am thinking about Joseph and the fact that God chose him as an earthly father.  Now, this is not a new thought to me, but the depth of it seems newly significant today.

God is the eternal Father in Heaven.  All fathers, everywhere on earth are by virtue of being human inferior fathers in comparison to the fatherhood of God.  But in God's plan to come to earth and save us He needed a father.  And He chose Joseph.

What about this man would inspire God to choose Joseph has His protector, provider, spiritual guide through childhood, teacher, discipliner, instructor, and nurturer?  I mean God who Himself knows fatherhood better than any of us has the opportunity to choose his own earthly father and because He is God would have made the perfect choice.  That choice was Joseph!

And here is just about all we know about Joseph.  He was likely a carpenter.  He was from Nazareth in Galilee.  He was from the lineage of King David.  And then we have two glimpses into his character.  As mentioned above, we see that he knew how to obey God.  Or could we conclude that he loved God enough to obey Him?  Was it this kind of love that made God choose Joseph for the role of earthly father to the Heavenly Father?

But there is one more glimpse into his character.  In Matthew 1:19 we are told that Joseph, when made aware of Mary's apparent infidelity had decided not to accuse in public - exposing her to the death penalty. Instead he had decided to divorce her quietly 'to protect her from public disgrace.'  And we see that Joseph was a grace-filled man.  Grace filled!

Of all the descendants of King David, when God was choosing a suitable dad for Himself, grace-filled, obedient Joseph was the one man to make the cut.  And the world was changed because in these ways Joseph made himself available to be used by God.

I wonder what God could do through you and me if we engendered more of these character traits in our own lives.  I wonder how our neighborhoods, workplaces, friendships, and families could be transformed if we did.

Have a Joseph Christmas too!

I had to add one more image...  As a dad, I really love this idea of Joseph with Jesus.


The Worship of Submission

We're talking about worshipping fully this Christmas.  Of all the things the manger inspires, worship tops the list.  I mean, the fact that God came to me... revealed Himself to me... announced it to me...  became flesh like me... made His dwelling place with me...  It is incredible (in the literal definition of the word)!  And yet it is the central truth of Christianity.  He did!

An authentic trip to manger makes consumer products so trivial, twinkling lights so dim, festive trees so uninspiring.  An authentic trip to the manger makes worship what Christmas is all about.

I like Mary's expression of worship.  This past Sunday we talked about Mary's worship along with the worship of Joseph and of the magi.  And all week long I have been pondering the incredible example that Mary give us.  Mary's worship came primarily in the form of submission.

Luke 1:38 - Mary says, "I am the Lord's servant.  May it be to me as you have said."

Submission to God's will.  God's will would cost her dearly.  It would taint the girlhood dreams of marriage for her.  It would mark her for all of her life as the subject of the local gossip.  It would put her in danger of the death penalty...  There is no way that God's will looked good to Mary at the time she heard it.  In fact, her question about how this could be because of her virginity, reveals that she knew what accusation lay ahead for her.  And yet, submission is what she offered.  She set aside her will and embraced God's will.  her heart was turned and her actions followed.

When our actions are turned but our hearts are not, we are merely being religious.  But Mary shows us how obedience and worship are joined in the act of submission.  When heart and action are coupled, it is worship!

This submission of the heart is very difficult.  Like Mary, we must first hear God's will.  This requires us to study and meditate.  We must learn to incorporate listening into our daily quiet time habit.  We must become familiar with the still small voice of our God, so as to avoid any misinterpretation of our own desires for God's desires.  AND THEN, we must give up what we want for what God wants.  It would be so nice to give up things we don't like for things that God wants for us, but the problem is that we must often give up the things we do like: comfort, privilege, respect, finances, fun.  Often God's way includes difficulty, struggle, sorrow, hard work.  It's hard to get inspired to worship this way.  It's way easier to go and sing exciting songs with a rockin' band and dance to the thrilling rhythms of amazing music and to walk away without thinking about God's will for the next day.

Mary's way was the hard way.  Mary's way would be reflected in the teaching that Jesus would give us when He taught us to pray, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."  'Thy will be done.'  The submission in that is so often lost.  We think about God's will in terms of the greater story of the planet and not in the personal way of surrendering our own desires to His will.

Mary's way was the hard way.  Mary's way would also be reflected in the obedience of Christ when He said, "if it is possible for this cup to pass from me, let it be so.  Never the less, NOT MY WILL, BUT THY WILL BE DONE."  (Can you tell that when I went to Sunday School the KJV was the version du jour?)  Yes, that is worship.  In that worship God can do things.  In that worship God is lifted up.  In that worship all men can be drawn to God.  Yes the worship of submission is the worship that is central to the Christian experience and theology.

Mary Christmas!
Let's worship!

Check out this song that is written to reflect Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel and her worshipful response to God's instructions to her.  (if you want to get right to the song, skip ahead to 3:57.)


Sabbath - The Inspiration

For 3 years now I have pondered the idea of establishing a true sabbath in my life.  I mean - I rest.  Sometimes I wonder if I am slothful because I rest everyday.  But what about the sabbath?

Recently God has brought this notion back to the forefront of my thinking.  During the summer, while visiting our friends Tyler and Dusti in Bellingham, WA (A BEAUTIFUL PLACE very near the Canadian border), we attended church with them. The pastor was returning to the preaching ministry after a prolonged sabbatical and he shared his story.  In the sharing of his story he preached from the passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:11.
...and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you...
He mentioned the rhythm of life that God had prescribed for his people, the Jews: a weekly sabbath, annual feasts and fasts, and a 7 year cycle of taking an entire year off (if the ground was fallow, then the economy was fallow too).  And my 2 year long pondering of the idea was rekindled with fresh attention.  I wondered what the condition of the church might be like if God's people, the Christ-followers, actually had a day every week that was holy.

Then just this week my life group was talking about Galatians 3:1-14.  (We have been studying the book of Galatians recently.)  And in our core question of the night was, "How do we begin, in our own lives this week, to practice trust in the Spirit instead of trust in our human effort?"  And Rhonda mentioned that a photography mentor had recently said that good photographers 'pause' because clarity comes in the pause.  Rhonda said that she immediately knew this was a principle for Christian living.  In other words, we know and experience God, gaining His insight, power, and guidance when we slow down and get away to listen to Him.

And it was the same morning that I was sitting at Starbucks with my friend JB talking about a spiritual dream he had earlier in the week.  He said that he had been given a verse from Nehemiah in his dream, that it was spoken to him in his dream and he 'knew' that it was from Nehemiah.  He didn't remember the verse, but he woke up with a fresh desire and commitment to press into God's activity in His life.  So, right in Starbucks, we read the whole book of Nehemiah aloud together.  He remembered the verse(s).  They were a conglomerate of the passages that described the dedication of the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem, the confession of sins, the complete reading of the law of Moses for 7 days, and the worshiping of all the citizens along the tops of the walls.  BUT, in our reading at the end of the book, when Nehemiah had gone back to his service of Babylonian King Artxerxes and then returned to Jerusalem, we read that Nehemiah had found the restored citizens of Jerusalem, THE PEOPLE OF GOD REDEEMED FROM EXILE, he found them living life without sabbath.  And he chastised them, "wasn't it for this reason that God allowed you to be conquered to begin with."

Then, Rhonda brought the subject up for our household as we discussed our plans to rebuild our home's order after my return from the exile of depression.  Hmmmmmmm.

And the question rose up in my heart again.  What would the Kingdom of God look like today if God's people practiced a true sabbath.  Not some legalistic observance of a rule that was part of a system that could not save or redeem.  But, recognition that God is in the pause and to truly experience Him in His fullness, a rhythm of pause will benefit us.  O, sure, we can continue exercising God's grace by putting the concerns of this world system ahead of the concerns of God.  And God's grace will continue to be sufficient.  But what about the Kingdom of God?  What about the great commission?  What about glorious church?  What about offering our bodies as living sacrifices?  Can we reach those objectives without a sabbath.

More and more I think not!

What are your thoughts on the subject?
Do you practice a Christian sabbath?  If so, how do you do it and what have been the affects?

I'll be blogging more about this as I work it out in weeks and months ahead.  Help me work it out by posting your thoughts as we go.


Knowing by Heart

My new phone.  WHAT A WONDERFUL THING...  I must confess that I have avoided the new phone dilemma for quite some time, forcing myself to be satisfied with my functional phone of old.  Recently, however, my FPOO (functional phone of old) stopped working.  This is the second version of this phone that has stopped working in exactly the same way for me.  Boooooooo Samsung!  So it was time for a new phone.  And I got a great one with all the bells and whistles... 

My new phone.  It still calls.  It texts just as most phones now do.  And it is a smart phone.  REALLY SMART.  It is so smart that it makes me feel dumb sometimes. 

Now my FPOO was supposed to be smart, but when trying to load a mobile version of the Bible on it, I was always so dissatisfied that I never used that function.  But my new phone is really smart and I have my Bible out at the whip of a finger.  And I love it.

One of the things I have been doing with my new TSP (truly smart phone) is memorizing scripture.  One of my pastoral confessions is that I have been a big fat failure when it comes to scripture memorization.  Oh I can recite some pretty well.  I actually know where to find a few.  But for the most part, I don't have that much memorized.  Pastoral Failure #762.

I recently came across this quote and it has motivated me to use my smart phone to become a smarter Christain. 

"What a heart knows by heart is what a heart really know."

After coming through a prolonged season of discouragement and depression, I have to ask myself. "if my heart had been smarter abour scripture, whould I have believed the lies that plunged me into that darkness?"

So here it begins.  Instead of bejeweled or solitaire during those down times in line, I will be tuning my phone into my heart-smartening Bible app for memorization.  If you see me with my nose in my phone, ask me, "how's the memorization?"  Test me even.  I suppose a little accountability won't hurt me one little bit.


Hmmmmm! You Have to Wonder About That

"I used to phone my best friend.
Now my phone is my best friend."

Crazy thought.  Had to share it!


More about Luke 18:9-14

  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
   “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
   “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

This is a great passage of scripture.  Not only does it teach a meaningful lesson on living in God's Kingdom, it also shows us the powerful way that Jesus used words.

The obvious lesson of the parable is summed up in v. 14.  Faith in the Kingdom of God is expressed in humility over sin, not in the pride of human piety.  This past Sunday morning we discussed the real danger of pride.  (We have been studying the Seven Deadly Sins for 6 weeks now.)  It was great to look at this passage and others that urge us to keep an honest estimation of ourselves in relationship to God, and to 'consider others better than ourselves.'

One very interesting part of this passage that I didn't have time to bring out on Sunday morning is found in verse 11 where it says, 'the Pharisee stood and prayed about himself...'  Notice that I emphasized the word 'about' in that sentence.  The grammar of this sentence in it's original language makes this word very poignant.  In fact the sentence has a double meaning.

You know how in Spanish, por que and porque mean why and because.  And when they are spoken they sound exactly the same.  When spoken, the Spanish words require context to distinguish between their meanings.  Well so it is with the 'about' in verse 11 of Luke 18.  The sentence does not give enough context clues to tell if it should most correctly read, 'the Pharisee stood and prayer about himself,' OR 'the Pharisee stood and prayed to himself.'

So to hear Jesus tell the story in His original context is to wrestle with the question, is Jesus condemning his pride in praying about himself or to himself?  And the answer seems to be BOTH.  For Jesus slyly equates the two.  An obsession with self in prayer is, in practice, the same as the idolatry of making one's self out to be god.

While we may not be as obvious as the Pharisee in Jesus' parable, in so many ways we can be obsessed with ourselves in our prayers.  I know that many times I get so caught up in what I need and want from God that my 'prayer' becomes as much centered on me as was the Pharisee's prayer centered on him.  And so I rob God of His rightful place in my worship life and put myself there instead.  And instead of being humbled by my sin and thankful for what I have already received from God (namely eternal life in His Kingdom), I pridefully ask for what I think I deserve from Him...

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant that I should learn to keep you in the center of my prayers and worship.  Have mercy on me Lord.


NOISE - Fear

Once again in our conversation about noise, the things that interfere and distract us from out vibrant relationship with Christ as followers, we address noise that comes from within.  This time the noise is the sound of our own minds and hearts that convinces us to be afraid.

For Christians, fear comes in many forms.  Some of us are afraid of making truly meaningful Christian friendships because we are sure that people, no matter how much they love Jesus are destined to hurt us.  Some of us are afraid to worship in one particular style or another.  I don't believe that this fear is actually about style as much as it is an expression of fear of true intimacy with God: either emotional closeness, or intellectual closeness, or even physical expressions that cause us discomfort.  Maybe we fear praying aloud (or people's response to us doing it).  Maybe we fear reading the Bible and studying because we don't feel like we're good students or because we think it takes some special skill to rightly interpret the Bible.  But I think the noisy fear that grips most American Christians is the fear of sharing our faith with someone and/or inviting someone to respond to Christ's invitation to newness of life.

I know that I have had certain fears about it over my Christian experience.  I have feared that I would do it wrong.  I have feared that I was too wrong to do it.  I have feared that it was the wrong time for someone.  I have feared that I would be judged through the filter of the bad press Christianity sometimes gets.  I have feared that if they rejected my invitation they would also reject me.  I have feared that if I shared my faith in some circumstance that was deemed inappropriate, somehow my life would be completely derailed some official administrative committee somewhere.

I don't think that many of us would argue that it's not part of our Christian faith to be witnesses for Christ.  In fact, most of us feel an obligation or responsibility to share our faith as part of our Christianity.  However, our fear has become a louder noise in our head than our faith.  In fact the noisy fear in our head has become more authoritative in our lives than the Biblical injunctions to be witnesses.

In the book of Joshua God warns his people against fear and instructs us to be bold and courageous.  Now is the time for courage when it comes to Christians sharing their faith.

I recently read a statistic that listed the US as the third most "unreached" nation in the world.  Whereas once the US was the leader in missionary sending, it is not quickly reaching the top of the list of missionary destinations for the rest of the world's Christians.  And as far as I am concerned the real tragedy is this:  the US is already full of missionaries.  Every Christian here is a witness and a missionary.  Unfortunately we are not bold or courageous.  We are fearful and quiet.

Here is the good news.  The Barna institute recently released a study that showed a few encouraging signs for American Christian missionaries (all of us who follow Christ).  First, less than 1% of Americans think of Christians as offensive in their witness.  That means that our perception of resistance to the gospel because of negative previous experience or pre-existing negative perceptions is inaccurate.  Almost no Americans expect a negative experience in the witness of a Christian.  Second, more that 1/4 of non-Christian Americans think that Christians have a positive effect on our country.

Perhaps it is time to take on our fear and silence the noise that keeps us silent.  Perhaps its time to fulfill our missionary calling.  Yes, we all have one.  It's known as the great commission.  Missionaries are not a subgroup of Christians who travel far and wide to establish foreign works.  Every Christian IS a missionary right where we are.  Some of us are just inactive in our calling.

Pray for your neighborhood.  Commit to walking around your neighborhood 2x/month and just praying silently as you walk.  Commit to make a friendship with someone in your neighborhood who is not an active Christian.  And commit to look for an opportunity in that new friendship to share why you follow Christ actively.

Don't be afraid any longer.


"...I'm spiritual, not relgious."

I've heard it.  And I know that you've heard it too.  It goes something like this, "I'm spiritual, but I'm just not religious."  And sometimes this is a mantra for people who really don't want to address their wither their situations or their concepts of what being a Christian really means.  But, sometimes it is something else all together.

I have more than one friend who is a genuinely faithful Christ-follower who loves God, worships Him, accepts the redemption and renewal of Jesus, believes the Bible and practices it's message as authoritative, and serves a global mission to express and live the gospel.  But for some reason or reasons has found identity with the 'church,' as we currently know it, extremely difficult.  And as such experiences faith and the practice of faith in an odd kind of public solitude.

This scenario is both painful and detrimental to me.  And I suspect (well, I've seen and heard the symptoms of it) that it is painful to them.  I'm sure that it is detrimental.

Christian faith is at it's core a collective experience.  Yes, even salvation is a collective experience.  It is a kingdom, body, family, experience.  If we are to use Jesus' description of rebirth or spiritual birth, it is birth into a family (as birth always is).  If we are to use the Apostle Paul's description of salvation, then it is a rescue mission, delivering one from a kingdom of darkness that is shared with those who are darkened.  But also a deliverance into a new kingdom of light where light is lived out in a kingdom of light.  A kingdom has always been a community.  It was a city state where life was reliant upon the teamwork of a group of people who shared a geographic locality, and who lived under the protection of a regional land-holder.  If we are to see redemption as our primary definition of salvation, then it is redemption from uselessness in a function that did not fit us into a function in a body that perfectly fits us.  While we experience conversion on an individual basis, it is fundamentally a part of the life of Christ's community of believers.  It is a shared experience.

And so the axiom, "spiritual but not religious," seems to me to epitomize a cataclysmic failure on our part, their part, on my part.  This parsing of terms is a revelation of our failure to be a Christ-like community.

Unfortunately, I don't know that I can blog a singular entry that will propose a complete solution.  Nor am I willing to suggest that I'm the right guy to fully identify the solution.  I am only saying that our community needs improvement.  Since I need improvement, we need improvement.  (This is just one expression of the community experience.)

We must begin to do something to reunite these faithful ones with their community.  We must reconnect with our lost sheep.  (Not lost because they have become goats instead of sheep...  but because they are not living in and with the fold.)  There is a Christian expression that says that Satan looks for a vessel sailing with out a fleet.  And so our current propensity toward isolation appears to be a Satanic endeavor.

Life together is a gift.  It is not a curse or an obligation.  It is a gift.  It should seem as such.  And something about our ability to accept one another, forgive one another, spur one another on to love and good deeds, to encourage one another, to pray for one another...  something about these elements of Christian community must again become desirable.  We must shed the deception of the enemy of our souls who wants to delude us/them into a modern individualism and separate us/them from God's kingdom, His family, His body.  We must pursue wondering sheep, welcome them, love them, understand them, include them, rely on them.  We must make Christian community a gift that we give to them and to ourselves.  And we must preserve it.

It may seem uncomfortable as we begin to pursue it, but it will prove to be beneficial as we learn to live it.

I turn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for one final thought.  As he wrestled in Life Together with the practice of confession of sins to one another, he laid out these thoughts:
"The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain; his brother's is sure."
Christian community is a gift.  As image bearers of God, our triune creator, we are made for relationship with one another.  Christian community is a gift given to us by God.  We dare not refuse it.


The Necessity of Christian Community

“The experience of authentic community is one of the purposes God intends to be fulfilled by the church. The writings of Scripture lead one to conclude that God intends the church, not to be one more bolt on the wheel of activity in our lives, but the very hub at the center of one’s life…..”  Randy Frazee - The Connecting Church

Growing up in Central California, I was very early in life introduced to the natural marvel of Giant Redwoods.  There are 3 "giant" varieties on the planet, and 2 of them are natural residents of California.  There are a ton of things about things about these trees that fascinate me.  One of them is the root system.  

As a rule of thumb, the height of a tree is generally comparable to the depth of it's roots.  However, with a giant redwood, the roots are extremely shallow.  There is a unique strength of the root system which allows these trees to reach the highest heights of any trees in the world and which feeds these giants enough nutrients to sustain them for thousands of years.  The secret is that the roots of these giants are intertwined.  And that is where the trees get the strength to become giants.

The church is designed in the very same way.  Our strength is not found in our individualism, our personal fortitude, our singular accomplishment.  It is found in the intertwining of our lives into a shared faith that extends our spirituality beyond what could be sustained by our individuality.

Of course, the ultimate strength of the church and of believers is in the strength of our Lord, Father, and Spirit God.  But we cannot deny the zenith of God's plan is in the connectedness of His people:  His church.  
What does His Spirit do?  He equips us to serve 'one another.'
What did Jesus do?  He 'built his church,' not built his loosely connected web of folks who happen to have the same faith.  It is the connected church that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against.
What has God always done?  He has elected 'a people' to bear His name.  Not a person...

As Frazee states above, meaningful friendships in a congregation are not one of the available activities provided on a menu of optional courses for an individual to order up when they are in the mood for that, and then to ignore when they are not in the mood.  The community of Christians living life and faith in togetherness IS the church. It is our strength to bring our giftedness together.
It is our hope to bring our service together.
It is our inspiration to bring our offering of praise together.
It is our victory to bring our experiences together.
In all of these ways and in innumerable additional ways, God works in our togetherness.

It is a serious problem in the state of our American churches that togetherness has become so self-serving that when we are not in the mood or when we have more desirable activities available, we evaluate gathering for collective worship as not important...  because it feels less important that what we want for ourselves at that moment.  

But, in the unfolding plan of God, in the witness of the church, in the lives of others who also wear the name of Christ, in honor of God's name and fame - it is ultimately important.  It is central in what makes us the church... what makes us Christian.  Not because of the production that is planned for that gathering, but because of the unity of believers reaching the fullness of Christ together.  See Ephesians 3.

"Let us not forsake the assembling together of the faithful, as some are in the practice of doing..."  (Hebrews 10:25)


NOISE - Success

Have you ever had a ringing in your ears?  It's a really irritating experience, and thankfully it is usually quite temporary.  I have read that the ringing is caused by the breaking of the small strands inside the eardrum which resonate with auditory stimulus.  It is these strands which first pick up the sound waves which are later translated in our brains into words, music, sirens, etc.  The breaking of these strands represents hearing loss.  For that reason, ringing in my ears has become considerably more irritating than it used to be.  It has always been irritating though.

Sometimes ear ringing can last for dreadfully long periods of time.  I have only experienced this on one or two occasions.  Occasions when I could measure the duration in minutes instead of seconds.  These long periods of ringing present now a more dreadful experience than mere irritation.

Sometimes distracting noise comes from inside our own head.  When we talk about spiritual noise, success is one of those distractions that comes from within.

I love success.  I love a job well-done.  I love to stand back and admire the completed task at the end of a day of painting, gardening, or organization.  The thing with success, is that in many circumstances it is quite measurable.  If we're an actor, we can measure it by movie profits and academy awards.  If we're an insurance salesman, we can measure it in contracts signed and commissions collected.  If we're counselor, we can measure it by clients served and relationships restored.  No matter who we are, we like to measure it in our paycheck, our title, our popularity, and our accumulations.  But we do like to measure it.

I have run into a couple of problems in this respect.  First, no matter what success I have already accomplished, there is always a new one laying ahead of me to which I must strive.  And second, the most important things in this world are not so easy to measure.

Rarely are spiritual things quickly achieved in increments that more in a consistently forward momentum.  But often include (and necessarily so) backtracking and side journeys.  The things that seem like struggles or curses are lessons in spiritual maturity taught in the classroom of day to day living.  What may be a setback in our career may be a leap forward in our spiritual life.  The financial misfortune can be a spiritual boost.  The physical ailment can be a spiritual vitamin boost.  What may seem to be a loss can be a gain. What seems to be a burden can be an aid.

And so in my head is this noise that tries to lead my focus to measure things in terms of immediate success. I can easily be so enamored with a promotion or a raise that I begin to focus on achieving the next one.  I can easily become so busy looking at numeric measuring tools that I am not listening to the still small voice of God leading me.

Yes, this noise in my head is such a distraction that I have missed many significant opportunities to see God and His plan clearly.  This noise in my head is powerful and destructive.  And sometimes the duration of the noise in potently long and leads me to grief.

It is said that God is looking for faithful people, not necessarily successful people.  Or that God's definition of success is not the same as ours.  Or that God doesn't need our success to accomplish His objective.  If God's greatest success, the cross, looked like an unequivocal failure, then I am probably significantly handicapped at understanding His measure of success.  I should therefor not strive for success by my own definition.


NOISE - Entertainment

So, after my last post regarding "Noise," I knew that the next thing about which the Holy Spirit was going to deal with me would be entertainment.  I even thought to myself, "I'm not going to post about that one, because then I won't ever be able to watch a movie with a friend again without feeling like I'm being hypocritical or something."  So there's a great deal of resistance in me to address this source of spiritual distraction.

Now, let me say something before I continue any further in this series of posts that reflect my personal battle against spiritual distraction.  I do not believe that a Christian is not allowed to have fun or that we are not allowed to have moments or seasons of personal enjoyment simply for the purpose of relaxation and happiness.
Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work-this is a gift of God. Ecclesiastes 5:19
The Bible teaches that the practice of "enjoyment" of things and experiences that are purchased through our income is a "gift of God."  Enjoyment is a good thing.  It can be a God thing.

I think the problem may begin with our inability to practice the contentment that we are instructed through Paul.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  (Philippians 4:12)
And it's notable that in the book of Proverbs, foolishness - when characterized as a prostitute soliciting business - uses enjoyment as her sales pitch.  Certainly enjoyment can lead us downward into foolishness and sin.
Come, let's drink deep of love till morning; let's enjoy ourselves with love. (Proverbs 7:18)

OK, now all of this was swirling in my mind after my last post.  And then, this past weekend I had a chance to hang out with a friend whom I had not seen in some time.  And in our conversation Tom began to talk about this great discipleship training ministry at his new church.  My ears initially perked up because I have always envisioned a discipleship training institute as part of the epic vision.  And as he went along, he repeated several ways and in several contexts that the course included, in ever-increasing increments, a requirement to limit the use of media in your life: ultimately attaining a limitation to 1 hour per week of all secular use of media in your life.  Media is defined to include TV, movies, music, social networking, internet surfing for entertainment sake, books, and the like.

Honestly, my skin rippled at the thought.  But then I began to ponder how much garbage goes in to my mind and spirit for the sake of entertainment.  And I think of how much profitable spiritual enrichment could be fed to my spirit if I watched fewer movies, were committed to fewer shows, found less relaxation in mindless TV, played less "bejeweled"...  (Of course, I would have to discipline myself to replace those things with truly spiritual things.)  But, because I value entertainment so highly as a source of contentment and as a personal counselor to ease my mind at the end of a stressful day, it has become noise and distraction.  It could be argued that in some areas it has become idolatry.

I have to one degree or another made entertainment a source for my personal happiness and well-being.  There is such a fine line between enjoyment and reliance.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)
The truth is that while it is good to enjoy the things God brings into my life, those things were not created for or necessarily intended for my enjoyment.  They are intended for God's enjoyment.  And when they distract me from my growing relationship with God, they bring God displeasure instead.  They are noise and sin for me.
Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:11)  I use King James here because I learned a worship song as a child that quotes this verse in this language.


Noise - Internet Social Networking

Well, this is certainly not an original thought... but one that is currently necessary in my spiritual journey. Our lives are full of noise.  Not necessarily auditory stimulus, but a variety of input that clutters up our heart.  (In the Jewish mind, the heart is the center of the being and includes the elements of our mind, emotions, soul, and will.  It is this definition that I am referencing.)  It has been referred to as noise, because all of this clutter has the net effect of deafening us to God's still small voice.  That is significant because as Christ followers, we are specifically instructed to keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), as we follow His voice (John 10:27).


So, I am determining to examine the noise in my life.  I am going to look at the things that distract and why they are so charming to me and so tempt me into comfortable distance from God.  This exercise may not be helpful to you.  I hope that it is though.

I can get very engrossed in facebook.  I never got into myspace.  It just seemed like e-clubbing and had no lure for me.  But the simplicity of shooting out some thoughts or updates to a select group of friends and family who may like to engage in an on-going conversation seemed much more legitimate to me.  And when I bought into the idea that I could keep in contact with friends and relatives who are far off, I was sold.  Truthfully, there is some real benefit in those areas.  I really know several of my cousins much better because of our facebook connection.  I have found a college friend with whom I had a very significant connection during that era of my life, and who I could not get a hold of by other means even though I had tried.  I am aware of the goings on in some of my high school friends lives and even get a chance to have light discussion of some of those goings on.

But here's the noisy part.  Sometimes, I get caught up.  I'll sign on to just "check my facebook."  And before I know it, I'll be commenting on dozens of my friends posts.  And then, after commenting I'll refresh the page to see if any new posts show up on my home page.  And then I'll go back through all of my comments to see if any re-comments have been posted.  And if none have, I'll read any messages that are in my message box to waste some time and then I'll look back through my comments to make sure that my jokes were funny to my friend and their friends too.  And there's no responsive comment, I'll just break down and send them a message with the joke that I already posted as a comment.  And then I'll notice someone who commented on the same post who either looks familiar to me or whose comment intrigued me and I'll go to their profile to see if I really know them...  And before I realize it, I have spent an hour posting and researching unnecessary and insignificant pithy little remarks.  And I have eventually run out.

And then sometimes I log on to facebook just to post something from my own life.  And the more I think about this, the more noisy this practice seems to me.  I mean seriously, I rarely post some significant accomplishment or earth-changing event.  I sometimes share developments in my kid's lives. And occasionally I post something that relates to my ministry or that reflects God to the facebook world.  But most often my posts go something like this:  "stuck in line at WalMart... guess I'll catch up on Linday Lohan."  Or how about this one, "LOST tonight - can't wait to see Smokey bite the dust!"  Now what is the real purpose of such posts?

I can't help but remember how in my youth I walked through the world as if I always had an audience.  I thought everyone around me was somehow so interested in my life that they watched my every move.  Of course then, it was all based on some kind of low self-esteem and an intense anxiety that I was always doomed to mess up somehow.  But, why to I think anyone cares what I am watching on TV or that I am standing in line at the local branch of the world's discount czar.  I mean is there some kind of narcissism going on here?  Why would I think that 687 friends really want to know that kind of minutia?  Do I like deluding myself into the belief that I really am the star of my own movie?  I think of the worship song (the title of which I can't remember at the moment) that talks about the importance of an 'audience of One.'  Living for God alone!!!

Now, just one more tangent before I conclude.  What's up with facebook on the cell phone?  Not only do we (I) allow it to eat up too much time at home and work, now I can actually tune out of my real and personal conversations to rudely dismiss the people who I am physically with to play to my audience via the cell phone.  How ridiculous!  How absurd!  Just more proof that there is some kind of imbalance in the whole thing.

Noise!  If just the fancy of the current trend or if truly a self-obsession that borders on idolatry, this kind of obsessive use of internet social networking is a problem.  I'm not saying that all internet social networking is idolatry or sin.  I'm saying that to one extent or another we have a new source of noise in our lives that has varying degrees of potential to drown out the voice of God.

Perhaps a internet fast would be revelatory to us all!
Perhaps creating a strictly enforced social networking 'diet' which allowed us no more than a cumulative time of 45 minutes/day!
Perhaps giving it up all together!

I am fully aware that blogging is one of these venues to which I am referring and my use of it for this subject may seem somehow hypocritical.  We'll all have to judge that for ourselves.  But here is my first installment of "noise."  What are your thoughts?


A Succinct Description of God

Here is just one of my thoughts so far during my vacation...  Among several others, this thought keeps me thinking and working within myself for more of God and less of me...  

(Sorry I haven't blogged more or facebooked.  I have tried to really unplug during this vacation, other than the promised 'Adventures of Ruby' on the photog.  Click on the photog link in the upper right to catch up on the family trip through Ruby's eyes.  God is using this time to refresh us.)

Michael DiMarco says, “the best way to describe God is, ‘love.’”  Now, I certainly know that God is love. (1John 4:8)  and I have likely over pontificated the fact in more than one sermon.  It has in fact been one of my favorite points to make when counseling people who carry the unnecessary baggage of guilt and shame.  I say, “God doesn’t have love, create love, own love, or even give love...  God IS love.  It is His very nature and we cannot have any kind of relationship with Him, than a love relationship.”  It is certainly a well-known theological position for me...
But, a description of Him?  I usually launch into quite a long diatribe when describing God.  And honestly, nobody ever asks me to describe Him.  And certainly I don’t remember ever being asked, or being given an cause, to describe God succinctly.  So I ponder, “the best way to describe God is, ‘love.’”  Simple.  That’s it.
The Bible tells us that God is powerful and majestic, that He is jealous, that He is faithful, worthy.  (ie. Ps 29:4; Dt 4:24; Ps 25:10; Ps 18:3)  And there are many other adjectives used to tell us what God is like and what is character is.  But, to use a noun in description of God.   To say that God is love is and reciprocal statement.  The verb IS creates a powerful statement in which subject and object are interchangeable.  I mean this statement can be said, ‘love is God,‘ just as truthfully as it is stated in it’s original form.  That makes this a unique statement in the scripture.
OK, there I go pontificating again.
Here is what I am challenged with.  If it is best to describe God as love, how am I doing at that?
Do my friends see love in me (I mean God in me)?   
Am I patient with them?
Am I completely trustworthy for them?
Am I authentic with them?
Do they think of me when they have a need?
Do I turn the other cheek when I am wounded in our friendship?
What about strangers?
Am I patient with them?
Is kindness their first impression?
Do they recognize meekness, and humility in whatever strengths they see in me?
Do I make a positive impact on their situation?
What about widows and orphans?
What about prisoners, the hungry, those needing clothes?
If it is best to describe God as ‘love,’ I had better make love the cornerstone of my relationships...  I want people to say that my God is love and they can tell by the way He acts through me.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.  (Romans 13:8)


Thinking about Predestination and Freewill

Moses calls the people to choose the way of life (following the instruction of God) or the way of death (serving the false gods of the pagan peoples around them) 
"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Joshua tells the people to choose to serve God or the idols of their neighbors.
"And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:15)
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ died for the sins of all people and wants all people to come to repentance. This does not mean that Jesus' death affects salvation for those who resist God's call.
  • "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
  • "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." (John 12:32)
  • For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God." (Romans 6:10)
  • "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22)
  • "For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." (2 Corinthians 5:15)
  • "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers." (1 Timothy 4:10)
  • "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men..." (Titus 2:11)
  • "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9)
  • "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit..." (1 Peter 3:18)
Yet, as we have faith to share the gospel with every person, we have to admit that the will to call, the act of saving, the justification of sin are completely in the hands of God and administered at His will.  It is at this activity of His divine will that we are called His "elect:" 
  • "And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short. (Matthew 24:22); 
  • "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:24); 
  • "And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." (Matthew 24:31); 
  • "And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect whom He chose, He shortened the days. (Mark 13:20); 
  • "...for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order, if possible, to lead the elect astray. (Mark 13:22);  
  • "And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth, to the farthest end of heaven." (Mark 13:27);  
  • "...now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?" (Luke 18:7)
In as much as we are instructed in the scripture to choose between God and the the ways of the world, the enemy, false gods; we are also told that it is Christ who chooses us.  
  • "Jesus answered them, "Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?" (John 6:70); 
  • "You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you." (John 15:16);
  • "...just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will..." (Ephesians 1:4-5)
I don't intend to give you a fully developed theological position here.  I'm mostly sharing some of the things I have been thinking about lately.  I have a couple of friends who occasionally like to plumb the depths of this particular subject with me.  I thought it might be worth sharing some of the verses that recently came up in our studied conversation.
One thought that I have on the subject is that most of us don't like the tension that this subject brings on.  But, I think that in the same way that we have to accept some tension in our faithful belief in the triune God in order to bring harmony to God's revealed word, we also have to accept that this discussion of predestination, election, and free will is a matter of divine mystery.  It inherently beholds tension for us and wherever we land on the topic, the tension should keep us in check, so as not to wonder either into legalism or into license.  ('License' is a blanket term that refers to exercising sin because of a perception of guaranteed grace.  This is another tense subject all together.)
Please share some of your thoughts.


Grading Ourselves as Christ-Followers

C. Peter Wagner, brilliant teacher and leader in the arena of Christian discipleship compiled a survey of measurable factors in Christian growth.  I recently came across some of my notes from my college days and took some time to reflect on these things for myself.  I thought you might like to spend some time meditating on them and giving yourself a spiritual check-up.

Wagner assembled the data from a nation-wide interview process in which he discovered these similarities in Christ-followers who claimed to experience a stronger faith and a closer connection to Christ.  Wagner asserts that these factors both contribute to and result from that experience.  

1. Bible knowledge. Growing Christians are increasing in their grasp of the teachings of the Bible. They can integrate this with a theological system that enables them to apply the Bible's teachings to their life situation.

2. Personal devotions. Growing Christians spend time daily in prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and other personal spiritual exercises.

3. Worship. Growing Christians regularly participate in the worship services scheduled by the church.

4. Witnessing. Growing Christians regularly attempt to share their faith in Jesus Christ with unbelievers.

5. Lay ministry. Growing Christians are involved in such ministries as teaching and discipling. In some cases this happens through consciously discovering, developing, and using their spiritual gifts.

6. Missions. They actively supports missions, participating in and financing home and foreign missionaries.

7. Giving. Growing Christians give an appropriate portion of their income to the local church and/or to other Christian causes.

8. Fellowship. Growing Christians are growing in their personal relationships with each other through regular participation in church fellowship groups of one kind or another.

9. Distinctive life-style. Growing Christians generally manifest their faith in Christ by living a life-style clearly and noticeable distinct from that of non-Christians in the same community.

10. Attitude toward religion. Growing Christians regard their involvement in the church primarily as a service to God rather than a means to fulfill personal needs.

11. Social service. Growing Christians are serving others outside the congregation. This includes direct personal involvement with the poor and needy, or in programs designed to help the needy.

12. Social justice. Either through the congregation as a whole or through specialized Christian agencies, growing Christians are striving to make changes in sociopolitical structures that will contribute to a more moral and just society.

I give myself a C.  I have been too focussed on my own struggles to flourish in my Christian growth for some time now.  I am experiencing healing and restoration over time and in increasing volume.  As God gives me strength, I hope to improve my social service, fellowship, social justice and my distinctive lifestyle.  How about you.  Which of these indicators will you focus on God's calling and empowerment in order to see growth?


A Grace Parable

John was a university student: brainy, eccentric, unkempt, and solitary.  Unaware that his personality was a put off to those around him, John was a bit of a character on the campus.  Everyone knew him, chuckled a bit at the mention of him, but when it came to competing for the grade, they all respected or even feared him.

Near John's campus was a well-respected church with a long history in the community.  A decade before John came to school, the church had incorporated the name of the university into it's name in an effort to launch a ministry to the students there.  However, the church remained mostly effective in ministering to established, wealthier, conservative, people.  Sundays were characterized by people dressed in their best attire and following a well-known, yet unspoken code of Sunday behavior.

One Sunday John decided to turn his attention away from academic pursuits and examine the condition of his own soul by attending church.  He walked into the church late, after the pastor had already begun to preach.  He wore his personal uniform of grungy jeans, a holey white T-shirt, and sockless Birkenstock sandals. When he arrived, the sanctuary was full to capacity with people in suit and skirt.  He tried to find a seat near the back to begin his spiritual search in anonymity, but none could be found.  Unwittingly finding himself in the center aisle, he slowly continued forward looking for the first available seat.

Eventually, John commanded more and more attention from the congregants and the environment of the room became uncomfortable as this obvious outsider upset the delicate balance of the church's culture by his mere presence.  John continued forward looking for a seat and stealing more attention from the minister.  Eventually the minister himself struggled to continue with his sermon as he wondered what would transpire next. 

John did not find an available seat in the rows of pews and finally gave up.  So, John picked up his head and turned his attention to a seat that no one expected.  John walked up to the pulpit and sat down about four feet away, cross-legged on the ground.  

The congregation could feel the oxygen in the room become suddenly thick and their padded seats become increasingly uncomfortable.  And then a church deacon from the back of the room began to make his way forward, up the same aisle that just moments before had ushered John to the very front.  After all, something had to be done.  Everyone knew it and everyone knew what IT was.  

The deacon, along in age, moved slowly toward John and his keys jingled in his pocket in cadence with his slight limp.  With every jingle a new tension was born in the room ans the congregation looked on in expectation of IT.  The situation would soon be dealt with and soon all would feel relieved.

The minister saw what was about to transpire and struggled to keep to his notes, eventually giving way to the silence that had already enshrouded the rest of the room.

When the deacon got to the front of the room, he painfully climbed the steps to the stage, laboring with each climbing step.  Then finally reaching John, he reached over and put his hand on John's shoulder and using the stability he gained, lowed himself to a seated position next to John, took off his coat and tie, and motioned to the pastor to continue.

The minister looked up at the members of his flock.  He wept.  And eventually gaining his composure said, "Nothing I could say to you would measure up to the sermon on grace that you have just witnessed. " And with that he dismissed them all and took John to lunch.
"Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10)

(This is a well known story and the telling above is my version.  I first heard it in college and heard it recently re-told by Rick McCullough.)

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