Sunday, December 29, 2013

Genesis: Little question, colossal conclusion

Ever get asked what seems to be a little question only to discover that it has a huge answer? Sort of like when your kid asks, "Where do babies come from?" Recently I was asked, "What do you think God did before the creation of the world?" Little did I realize the significance of the question at the moment.

You see, whatever God was doing pre-time is probably what he will be doing post-time. So once we are past the pretty descriptions of heaven, what will actually be happening for eternity? What are we being called to? I think the answer is "relationship within the trinity."

Jesus' prayer in John 17 seems so crucial to this concept. In it he affirms that he was sharing the glory and love of the trinity before creation (17:5, 24) and that he received blessings - work, words and the Name - from the Father. So before creation, the Trinity was sharing love, glory and gifts internally. That sharing spilled over into what we call creation and, more importantly, the creation of us. We are the product of a relational Trinity and follow Jesus back into that relationship.

The "so what" is that it demonstrates the core nature and identity of God to us. We are not called to serve the "unmovable mover" - a distant non-relational power - nor a tyrant seeking servants nor the "judge in the sky" who is watching for my next error to condemn me. We are made in the image of and called to return to a relationship. We function best in the here and now when we function in relationships. What we leave behind in legacy after death are relationships. What we cherish most are relationships. What Jesus established on earth was a community ("church" - followers in relationship).  Why? Because our core identity - the image of God from creation (Genesis 1:26-27) - is the image of a relationship. No wonder Jesus said the most important commandments are love God and love your neighbor.

And so that little question of "What do you think God did before the creation of the world?" is not such a little question after all. It only affects who I believe God is, why I was created, how I should live now and what to expect after death. Little question, colossal conclusion.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lord's Prayer: If he's leading, why do I need deliverance?

"Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil (one)."

Long have I thought on this verse and struggled with its implications. We pray for God to lead us like the Psalm 23 shepherd who guides by relationship but also has tools to keep his sheep from danger. He can protect the sheep with his rod or block the departure from safety with his staff.  We long to be guided with such security.

Yet, sheep are stupid. As a veterinarian, I watched a shepherd gently call all his sheep to himself and lead them expertly through multiple gates to better pasture - except for the little guy on the side of the flock who just seemed absurdly impatient. He came to the gate and decided it would be quicker to jump around the fencepost to the right rather than the left like everyone else. And so jumped squarely into the fence itself. Next came panic and running back and forth behind the fence as the flock walked away down the path. He was trapped, victimized by his own poor judgment. Anatomically, sheep have big brains; physiologically, they seem underused. Sounds like a good spiritual description of me.

Hence my thinking about "lead and deliver" in the Lord's prayer is shaped by a vivid memory of that stupid little lamb. The shepherd's leading was there all along and most of the time, the little guy followed it. Yet with just one split-second of poor judgment disaster developed. After that, forget leading, he needed deliverance.

So I pray that the good shepherd chooses paths for me that do not lead me into circumstances like Abraham's "offer thine only son", or Job's "have you considered my servant", or Jesus's "he was led by the Spirit into the desert". I pray that he just leads me through the gates and down the smooth path to better pasture. Yet along that path I know there will be fence posts and I'll jump the wrong way occasionally - whether by ignorance, allurement or evil influence. I just know that I'll end up looking stupid, running around behind a barrier bleating loudly as I watch the shepherd walk away. In those moments, "Lord, deliver me."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lord's Prayer: As we (maybe) forgive others

"Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors."

I don't know anyone who has a problem with part A of this phrase; we like and understand "forgive us our debts". Its part B of the sentence that sends us to commentaries, dictionaries, and any other "aries" we can think of. I typically do that when I have no idea what the verse means or - this case - I know what it means but prefer to act like I don't.

If my heart beat in Jesus - rather than letting his dictate me  - maybe this verse would read, "forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven the debts of people we really, really like and who have not hurt us too deeply." Its those deep wounds that present the problem because once I am hurt deeply, I can turn the other person into a demon in my mind. Once I achieve the feat of converting them from being a human into being a demon, then they are basically evil personified. This allows me to not be responsible for forgiving them; after all, evil needs to be judged, condemned, and avoided. So the verse becomes "forgive my sins as I judge, condemn and avoid certain people." It is so much easier.

Over the past year, rather than wrestle with who or what needs to be forgiven, I've tried to embrace the heart of Jesus behind the phrase. This means my heart now prays, "I want to be a forgiving person." It really doesn't matter who the other person is, this is my choice. The debt - the wound - can be legitimate or illegitimate, one-time or on-going, deep or superficial; it really doesn't matter. The issue at stake is not the offense committed against me, who the other person is or even what their intention was. The issue is who am I. Will I hold poison in my heart or do I have the heart of Jesus?

Am I a forgiver?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lord's Prayer: The Anti-Success Line

"Give us this day our daily bread."

I think Jesus was pulling from Proverbs 30:8-9 which reads, ". . . give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God"

As middle class North Americans we believe ours is a world where resources are plentiful, even unlimited; only those who do not try hard enough are poor. The dude at the corner with a cardboard sign must be lazy or, worse, cursed for disobedience to God. That would be the only explanation for not having a piece of the unlimited pie. Therefore being poor is connected to sin and sloth in our minds. This means we often interpret "give us our daily bread" as "give me the strength to get my piece of the pie."

Yet as flawed as that argument might be, the really tragedy is our blindness to the other end of the spectrum. We ignore the portion of the proverb which warns against having too much. We skip over Deuteronomy 8 and its repeated warnings of the deceitfulness of success. We send our young to school to be successful and we honor those who succeed financially by making them elders and deacons.

So what does God really hear when we as the successful middle class pray "give me daily bread?" Maybe he hears our hearts confessing to reliance on something other than him; may he hears our problem handling success.
I wonder if his answer addresses a different need than our petition? Perhaps his words to Haggai still speak to us, "Give careful thought to your ways. . . You expected much, be see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why? Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house."

I think its still worth some thought.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lord's Prayer: Who's will?

"Your kingdom come, your will be done."
Really? I’m not so sure I always like this portion. As my mouth utters “your will be done” my heart sticks an asterisk on it.  Scroll down to the footnote in my subconscious and you find something like this.
“What I really mean, God, is that I like to think you are in charge; it helps my self esteem to think that I’m submitting to you. And it is great to do your will when it fits into my schedule and dovetails with what I have planned anyway. So please take my plans and bless them so that they can be called yours. After all, frustrating the plans that I have already made while thinking that I was doing your will probably won’t go well for me. It would result in me having to spend a lot of time and energy to change; as an American, time and energy are always in short supply. In fact, my time and energy could be better spent if you bless my plans rather than make me shift to yours. So, since I’ve already made plans while deceiving myself that I know what is best, let’s just avoid the frustration altogether and let’s call my will yours. Amen.”
For me, living out “your will be done” is not the hard part. What trips me up is honestly desiring “your will be done” in the first place.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lord's Prayer: Hallowed Verbs?

As a kid I had a hard time understanding the connection between "hallowed by thy name" and Halloween. They both were "hallowed" right? Since I understood Halloween with its goblins and ghosts, I struggled with how that fit into the Lord's Prayer. I figured it would make sense one day.

What came to make sense was the heart of this prayer. I was teaching in Venezuela and asked the men to spend time alone with the prayer, elongating each line with their own thoughts. As we debriefed, I did not give much time to this line and a young Christian called me out. "Isn't it the primary thought of the prayer?", he asked.  I had just enough intelligence to pay attention to people with fresh perspectives. And he was so right.

A look at the rest of the prayer confirms it. After praying for "your kingdom and your will" - as opposed to my efforts and my will - comes a list of verbs that are all about submission. "Give us", "lead us", "deliver us", and "forgive us" are all verbs where the action is done either to me or for me. This is not a prayer stating "here is what I think I should do; please bless it" but rather "I am powerless; I surrender". It is submission to a powerful yet caring father God.

The prayer is not very North American - independent, pull yourself up by your bootstraps - and thus it frequently alludes us, becoming a ritual void of meaning. Yet if we pay attention, if we pray from the heart as well as the head, it reminds us of who is really in control and that he cares for us. That makes him worthy of praise. It makes him hallowed.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lord's Prayer: Father in Heaven

For years I breezed through the first line of this prayer as if they were the first words to a friend on the phone. "Hi, how are you?" "Hey, whats up, John?" It was just the line Jesus used to jump start the prayer, right? After all you have to start somewhere. I overlooked the depth of the words that Jesus chose, words that seem to hark back to creation.

In Genesis 1, God is presented to us as powerful, distant, and awe-inspiring. He stands at a distance and orchestrates creation "ex-nihilo". Whatever our understanding of Genesis 1, we have some form of incomprehensibility and otherness mixed with it. In Genesis 2, God is presented with his hands in the dirt and breathing into our nostrils. He is close, intimate and connected. We see a personal side we did not see in Genesis 1.

So Genesis begins with "in heaven" - the powerful and otherly God followed by "father" - the personal God. We are reminded of both his essence and his power when we pray to "our father who is in heaven."

Jesus had a way of saying so much even when he said so little.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thoughts from the Lord's Prayer

I am amazed at how new things jump off the pages of scripture through the years. How can you find new meaning, new applications from a text that is thousands of years old and that you have read over and over? Yet, it stays new. The author of Hebrews was right, "The Word of God is living and active."

Lately I've spent hours with the Lord's Prayer - not studying it, just praying it. This has been my norm for the past few years. In the morning, I take my cup of coffee and stroll the neighborhood to talk with God. When I get distracted by the ducks flying over or a pretty tree - it really doesn't take much - I take my thoughts captive by falling back on the Lord's Prayer.  The next few blogs will be what I've discovered from this ancient prayer.

When I begin to say the prayer, I usually get stuck on the first word - "our". I want to start with "my". Yet there is a reason for the communal nature of this prayer. It makes me aware of my neighbors. It makes me think about my family. It reminds me of my students. And it flies in the face of everything North American.

Despite what the advertisements say, life is not about me; its about him and its about us. I'm terrible about that. "Me" somehow crawls up on the throne when I'm asleep. Everyday I wake up to this prayer and find that the first word calls me to repentance. I've tried to skip it or ignore it. Then a passing car honks at me, a jogger shouts "good morning" or a neighbor getting the paper waves. And I know deep in my heart that life is about "our" rather than "my". I also know that tomorrow morning, I will start the day repenting.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

God Told Me To

Jesus’ ministry was framed by a desire to do God’s will. It started with a prayer of "your kingdom come, your will be done" and ended with "not my will but yours". All true followers of Jesus cultivate that same desire. The rub comes in figuring out exactly what his will is. 
A growing number of students are coming to me with "God told me to X". What drives this is probably a combination of things. If we could step back and view all factors, I think we would find some to be legitimate and some to be wishful / hopeful thinking attributed to God. Its when God seems to change his mind between Thursday and Friday that I get concerned. Or when God seems to be saying what the student wanted to here. (Ever notice how God always seems to directly command people to take the higher salary job, date the prettier girl or move to the more beautiful location?) I've always thought that if God is thinking the way I think, he is probably not very godly and we are all in big trouble.

So how do YOU determine God's will?
Food for thought; more later.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Material or Spiritual Worldview?

Recently (May 24-26) I was blessed to present at the Capital Forum on Global Missions in DC. It was a great experience to be with many missionaries from the Dominican Republic, Swaziland, Scotland and other places.

I was moved to speak about how we as North American Christians view our world. If you look at our recent history, I think it speaks volumes about how we view the world. We are moved when a disaster destroys material goods but not when a spiritual disaster strikes. I fear we are more North American than Christian.

Jr Sheets of Peterhead, Scotland transcribed some of what I said and elaborated on it in his own blog posts. Here are links you might check out:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What does it mean to be broken?

So what does it meant to a “fallen” or “broken” person? Does it simply mean that I sometimes drive too fast on the highway, let my temper get the better of me (no one hits a 4 iron perfectly!) or respond too strongly to a comment? Is that what it means to sin?

Recent study has caused me to think that it goes much deeper. Adam’s sin was to rely on self rather than God, thinking that he knew better than divinity. His motivation and focus ceased to be his relationship with his Creator and became self. So how deep does that run?

Is it possible that even in my good moments of advice giving, sharing, caring, etc., I still am broken? Is it possible that my good efforts are driven neither by the Spirit of God nor a concern that wells up from a redeemed image of God in me but rather from a desire to be seen as good? Are good actions that come from the wrong motivation still considered good? Can they ever reach their potential in the life of another? Do they honor a good Creator if they originate from a self-centered heart? Do they bless others or simply propagate another level of brokenness?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

I Know You

"I know you." Its what we say to someone that we have not seen in a long time but whose face is familiar. Its what we love to hear from the lips of those we respect. Yet its significance goes deeper than that.

I've spend a lot of time in the sermon on the mount over the past few months. Matthew 7:21-23 is intriguing and even a little scary to me. People come before God at the end of time and recount their deeds performed in Jesus' name. These are not charlatans but people who used his name. They did the right things at the right times . . . and got results. Not many people can say they cast out demons, performed miracles and prophesied. Yet, they fell short. Not only short, but they missed out on eternity.

When all is said and done, what counts will be hearing the creator say, "I know you". It won't be my list of accomplishments or nice resume. It won't matter at all if I know him. I can claim a relationship with God just like those who missed out. The only thing that will matter is whether the one who holds the keys to eternity looks at me and says, "I know you."

That reframes everything. I can read the sermon on the mount and still view it as a list of things to do. But remembering that the last judgment is whether God knows me or not suddenly shifts the focus from performing deeds to putting myself in a relationship. Its not about being accomplished, its only about being acknowledged -- acknowledged tomorrow by the One that I must acknowledge today.