God is not on your side

Words like “us” and “them” and “those people” can roll easily off the tongue.

Those words tell who we are by telling who we are not.  We are not “them.”

Those words tell where we belong.  We are “us.”  We are not “them.”

Those words tell what makes us unique.  We are like “us.”  We are not like “them.”

Those words are important.  We need a sense of identity, autonomy and affinity.  We need to know who we are, why we uniquely matter and where we belong.

But those words are also dangerous.  They draw lines in the sand.  They can create sides and force people to choose.  At best they create distance between people.  At worst they make enemies.

Whose side are you on?

Joshua asked the question to an angel that he mistook for a human soldier.  “Are you for us or for our foes?”

The angel’s answer?  Neither.

NEITHER?

Camped just inside the Jordan river in the land that had been promised for generations.

NEITHER?

Just at the edge of taking hold of the dream God inspired after having wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

NEITHER?

How could God (and his army) not be for “us?”  We are the people of God!  He just led us through the waters of Jordan.  He has promised this land to us.  We just renewed our covenant with him…in fact, painfully (see Joshua 5:8 if you dare).

Surely God is for “us!”

But…that would mean He is against “them.”  And in an “us” and “them” world it is easy to forget that He made them just like He made us, that He loves them just like He loves us.

He loves “us” all.  Even “them.”  For God so loved…the world…

Does God listen to me?

“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”                                                                                                            Psalm 22:1-2

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I li                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Psalm 116:1-2

You are not the only one…

There is great comfort in those words. Sometimes what we really need to know is that we are not alone in our experience, that others have walked a similar journey or that we are not crazy or irresponsible or evil for thinking what we were thinking.

So you are not the only one…

…who has ever wondered whether God was really listening to you at all. And you are not evil or even crazy for wondering how and why the God who shaped everything would take our advice about anything.

I mean if God is sovereign why would anything I have to say really matter? Sure it might change my heart to pray but does it really change God’s mind? How could I presume to change God’s mind? And if God already has it all figured out anyway then isn’t everything already predetermined. Doesn’t He already have it all mapped out? Who am I to ask Him to change His plans?

All of this makes perfect, rational sense. The problem…

…there are far too many examples in the experiences of people and the teachings of Jesus when God not only hears but responds with action.

At one point Jesus’ followers ask Him to teach them how to pray.

(A side not here: one of the longings of my heart is to have the kind of conversation and relationship with God that compels people to ask about it. And I feel certain they were not impressed by His word choice. They were, after all, living in a time when religious people had a tendency to pray wordy/eloquent prayers. So much so that Jesus feels the need in his teaching to call them out. I am convinced that it was not the eloquence with which Jesus prayed but the sincerity and familiarity with which He prayed that intrigued those who listened.)

When they asked, Jesus first taught them some of the elements of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (at least in Luke’s account). But then he goes on…

“Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’

And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”

Many of Jesus’ parables leave us with as many questions as answers. This one is no different. But it’s important not to miss the obvious.

Jesus, at least in part, is painting a picture that claims bold prayers change what God intends to do. The man was in his house, in his bed. His intention was to stay in his house and in his bed. But the bold pleading of his friend outside the door changed his mind.

At base level Jesus is making plain that our prayers have the potential to change what God intends to do.

Does God listen to me?   Why would He listen to me?

Jesus’ teaching on prayer isn’t finished yet, according to Luke. He goes on to say…

Ask.

Seek.

Knock.

 

It will be given.

You will find.

The door will be opened.

 

And then He says that fathers don’t dole out snakes or scorpions or even stones when their children ask for food. They are motivated by love to give good gifts.

God, motivated by love, gives good gifts when his children ask. God does thing that are different than what He intended to do when He is asked boldly.

The parables may say other things as well, but it seems that they at least say those two things.

Now, that all sounds nice and neat until you pray boldly to a loving Father and nothing happens. Once again, you are not alone.

There are some things that God intends to do that He WILL NOT change his mind about. God’s ultimate desire seems clear. He WILL set the world right. He WILL make things right. And in our day He is making things right. All of humanity and history is headed somewhere. And God has showed His cards on this. The cross and resurrection and ascension makes clear that the ultimate will of God is for as many as possible to come home to Him. The parable of the prodigal son is a pivotal story.

Consider this…all things will be made right when all people come back to God in love and obedience. Think of what a different kind of world this would be if all people were in love with and listened to God. No more stealing or looting. No more hording or positioning. No more rioting or violence. No more…

This is the ultimate will of God. This is where all things are headed. We are NOT going to change God’s mind on that. But how we get there….   well, there are nuances to that.

It’s like working on a group project in school. The goal is to adequately fulfill the requirements of the assignment. But there are many ways to accomplish that goal. There are many directions that the group project could take. And most certainly the collaboration will take the project in directions that it never would have gone if any one of those involved had done it all by themselves. When we work together things go differently than when we work alone.

God has invited us to participate. We are co laborers and collaborators. We work together with the end goal in mind and He, as a loving Father, listens and responds to our input.

So this is where prayer begins to change our heart. We pray with the end goal in mind. Our prayers are aimed at accomplishing the will of God in the world. So we pray things like… Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

James writes, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

But when we pray with the same heartbeat of our Father, He is inclined to listen. When we pray with the end goal in mind our prayers take this project in ways that it might not have gone if God had been doing it all on His own. What a magnificent and humbling thought.

Even still, there continue to be moments when God simply says “no.” And this requires trust. He sees more than we do. We may be confident that our prayer is in line with the end goal but He may be able to see that what we are praying for is ultimately a dead end. So we pray boldly, to a Father who loves to give good gifts for the sake of accomplishing even greater things for our good and for His glory. And we trust in those moments when we pray boldly and nothing seems to happen. Even then, He is still listening. And He is still good.

Does God want me to be happy?

He told Noah to build a big boat when it had never rained.

He told Abraham to leave everything familiar to go to a place that he didn’t know.

He told Moses to go toe to toe with the most powerful man in the world and then to lead a stubborn people on an impossible journey.

He told Joshua to conquer a land filled with giants.

He told Esther to confront a dangerous king.

He told David he would be king and then made him wait for years.

He told Jonah to go to Ninevah.

He told Isaiah to preach to a people who didn’t really want to hear it.

He told the disciples to leave their nets and their tax collector booths and everything else.

He told a rich man to sell everything and come follow.

He told a grieving man to leave and come and follow without first even taking the time to bury his dead father.

He told His Son to go to a cross.

He told Peter to go to a Gentile’s house.

He told Paul to go all over the place no matter how much he suffered for it.

He told us to count it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds…

 

What is He telling you to do?

Does He want us to be happy?

 

We sing about “How He Loves” but does that mean that He wants us to be happy? Is God’s greatest goal for us that we would be comfortable? He is a God of comfort but is He a God of the comfortable?

 

Past experience would say “no.” He pushes us out of our easy chair. He shakes us up. He sends us into difficult circumstances. So we also sing…

 

“Spirit lead me where my faith is without borders

let me walk upon the waters

wherever you would call me.

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander

and my faith will be made stronger

in the presence of my Savior.”

 

His is a call to come and live but on the way it is a call to come and die.

So we deny ourselves. We take up our crosses. We do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility we value others above ourselves.

 

Does He want us to be happy?

He has promised to rescue us out of troubles but strangely He has not promised to keep us from ever having troubles in the first place.   At the very least He allows our struggles and He may, at times, even orchestrate them. In fact He says that we are blessed if we face persecution or hardship because of Him.

 

Does He want us to be happy?

Does He want us to be unhappy?

 

What if His highest goal for us is not that we would be comfortable or content or happy? Does that mean that He is not good? Does it make Him evil?

 

We are like water running toward the ocean. Our natural tendency is to take the path of least resistance. Rather than live adventurously we are tempted to safely watch the adventurous (and often fictitious) endeavors of someone else flash across a screen while we safely snack on popcorn and sip coke.   We presume this will make us happy. We wonder why it doesn’t.

 

Does He want us to be happy?

 

He tells us NOT to do some things. He empties our hands of things. He strips us naked and then re-clothes us. He starves us and parches us and then says, “Come all who are thirsty.” He blinds us and then says “Come and See.” He makes uncertain what we were convinced we knew and then says, “Whoever has ears to hear let them hear.”

 

Does He want us to be happy?

 

There is no mountain peak without a climb. There is no victory without a battle. There is no resurrection unless there is death. Those who have suffered the most seem to celebrate the loudest. Those who have lost the most or who have had the least seem to give the most. And there are boundless depths and seeming unending riches wrapped up in a simple idea…

 

It’s not about me.

 

I fight with myself over the validity and truth of that statement. There are moments when it is as plain as day. But every day I make personal decisions, both great and small, as if it were a lie, as if the ultimate truth were that it is all about me.

 

I really want to be happy.

Does He want for me to be happy?

 

I really want to be comfortable. I really want to have all of the answers. I really want to know exactly where I am going. I really want to have control. I really want to do what I want. I really want for others to do things for me.

 

God doesn’t seem the least bit interested in making any of those things happen.

Does He want me to be happy?

 

Blessed are…

Rejoice…

Be strong and courageous…

Do not be afraid…

Come…

Taste…

Immeasurably more…

With…

Satisfied…

Loved…

Go…

 

Happy doesn’t even begin to describe all that God wants for us. In comparison to all that He promises, I’m not sure it’s really even on His radar.

Heavy Collection Plate

Just then he looked up and saw the rich people dropping offerings in the collection plate. Then he saw a poor widow put in two pennies. He said, “The plain truth is that this widow has given by far the largest offering today. All these others made offerings that they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all!”

Luke 21:1-4 (MSG)

 

My family sat together in worship yesterday but we didn’t sit in our normal spot. We didn’t even sit in our normal building. We, like so many from Harpeth Hills and Ethos, participated in a “Serve Our City” project. So we found ourselves sitting in the Nashville Rescue Mission worshipping among a scattering of familiar and unfamiliar faces before the same groups pilled out into the parking lot for a block party together. The anticipation (and the aroma) of grilled cheeseburgers and popcorn and music and basketball and friendly faces filled the worship center. So too did the sound of singing and praying and preaching. What happened inside those walls and what happened in the parking lot afterward…it was all worship. It was all holy. It was all about ONE far greater.

But in the midst of the “appointed time” a moment caught me off guard. There was a pause between a time of singing and the preaching that would follow. And in that “in between time” something happened that I did not expect. And the fact that it caught me off guard exposed a prejudice in me.

“We understand that at this point in your service you traditionally take time for an offering. Give freely. God doesn’t need your money. Giving is a gift God gives to us. Does anyone from the program here want to help pass the plates?”

And then familiar golden plates began circulating.

The first to give was an elderly man who had been sitting and standing and walking around in the front, dressed far more formally than most of the rest of the crowd. His wrinkled and worn hands had been outstretched to the ceiling when we worshipped. Now they were outstretched toward an offering plate. The sound that coins make when they are dropped into a metal tray seemed to ring like an accompanying instrument as we continued to sing.

We were near the back of the room. When the plate finally got to our row it was literally overflowing with smaller bills. So much so that each person that passed it on to the next placed one hand underneath and one overtop to try to keep money from falling out into their laps. Person by person the plate made its way in my direction. When I reached out to grab it my son offered a warning, “It’s heavy dad.” He was right. It was far heavier than the plates that I have been used to passing in church and I suspect that has little to do with the fact that we typically sit more toward the front.

People at my church don’t give the way the people in the rescue mission did that day. Don’t get me wrong. People give. They give generously. They give incredibly generously. They just do it by check, or maybe online. You rarely hear the rattle of coins. Bills of any kind are the minority. Just words and numbers and zeroes and scribbled signatures. If coins hit the plate it usually comes from the hand of a small child and is accompanied by the embarrassed look of a nearby parent.

Several things dawned on me all at once…

I didn’t expect an offering. “Why would you ask these poor people to give when many of them are struggling to secure basic necessities?”

I didn’t expect the plate to be heavy or overflowing. I saw these hands mostly as outstretched to receive, not to give.

It had been a long time since I noticed the absence of coins or bills in my normal worship routine.

And there she was, as if sitting right beside me. The widow whispered into my ear. “This is what it really looks like to give recklessly and trustingly.”

Somehow my regular experience of the appointed time of giving had been far too quiet for me to hear her. And with her, there was Jesus.

“I tell you the truth…”

He always does when we are willing to listen.

“…this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

When the Rescue Mission counted the money that was spilling out of those collection plates I don’t have any idea what they found to be the total amount in dollars and cents. But according to Jesus’ economy, whatever it was, I am confident that they out gave me, and the church that I call home.

“Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself. Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”        – Mother Teresa

HHYG Advent Scripture Reading 2014

#anticipate

 

November 30 – Romans 13:11-14

December 1 – 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

December 2 – Mark 13:33-37

December 3 – John 1:1-5

December 4 – John 1:6-9

December 5 – Jeremiah 33:14-16

December 6 – Isaiah 6

December 7 – Romans 15: 4-13

December 8 – Psalm 43: 3-6

December 9 – Psalm 27: 1-4

December 10 – Psalm 119:105-106

December 11 – John 12:35-36

December 12 – Ephesians 5:6-14

December 13 – 1 Peter 2:5-9

December 14 – Isaiah 60:1-3

December 15 – 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

December 16 – 1 John 1:4-7

December 17 – John 3:16-21

December 18 – Isaiah 40:1-11

December 19 – John 9:1-7

December 20 – Luke 3:1-6

December 21 –Isaiah 11: 1-10

December 22 – Zephaniah 3:14-17

December 23 – Matthew 1:18-25

December 24 – Luke 2:8-20

December 25 – Matthew 4:14-16

December 26 – Isaiah 2:1-5

December 27 – Luke 2:25-33

Don’t let the lights go out…

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the world. Live as children of light…                        Ephesians 5:8

 

Are things getting better or are they getting worse?

It might simply be a question of optimism or pessimism, but I tend to think it is so much more.

One leads to hope, the other to despair.

One leads to action, the other to resignation.

One assumes a God who is present, active, on the move; the other sees Him as distant, uninvolved, waiting.

And if things are only getting worse then what in the world is He waiting for?

 

Are things getting better or are they getting worse?

You can take it generally as it applies to all the world.

Or you can take it personally as it applies to your own life; your own direction; your particular circumstances.

 

Are things getting better or are they getting worse?

When I polled a gathering of adolescents (HHYGers) the vast majority of hands raised went toward worse.

I find myself wondering why.

Do they speak from personal experience, another confirmation that they believe themselves to be in a struggle of simple survival?

Is this an effort to “toe the party line,” an example of giving the “church answer” in Sunday School?   Have we conditioned them to see their world as digressing, unraveling, darkening?

 

I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. Trying to figure out why a teenager does or says or thinks is as convoluted as trying to decipher the same about myself   Sometimes there is no clear answer. Perhaps it is all of the above (or none of the above).

 

Still, regardless of their rationale, in this case it is difficult to completely dispute their conclusion. When God created, fashioned, made he declared it all to be “good.” One certainly wonders if He would say the same today. It’s clearly not all good. But does this necessarily mean that it’s not good at all?

 

A case might be made that in some sense things are indeed better than they once were…even in the beginning. When He created he asked those he had made to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Surely He could have filled the earth on His own but He asked us to participate…and we have. Mission accomplished, or at least much further along than it was…in the beginning. Progress was HIS idea. And since the time of His original fashioning some pretty amazing things have happened. Countless songs have been written, many of which declare the praises of the One who created. Countless stories have been lived and told. Countless innovations. Countless “advancements.” Countless love stories. Countless acts of kindness and mercy and compassion. It hasn’t all been bad. It’s not all bad now. In fact in some ways it may be better than it was, or at least more complete, which, by the way, is what is so often meant by the word translated “perfect” throughout the Bible…complete.

 

Is it possible that we live in the context of two divergent but simultaneous trajectories, one demonstrating the catastrophic effects of a fall that is plummeting and spiraling and reeking more and more havoc, the other steadily and methodically climbing and advancing according to His design and as a testimony to His continued presence and involvement?

 

In this conversation the contrast between light and darkness has often been used as an analogy. In some confounding but unmistakable way the world may be getting darker and brighter at the same time. The difference between the two is as much within as it is without.

 

We are either getting brighter or darker. It’s as if we are born with a thousand tiny lights within, capable of personally becoming brighter or darker, capable of either contributing to the global brightening or the darkening. The things we do and say and think have the potential either to bring light or to take it away. The temptation is to assume that the difference between the two is a private affair but we are all far too connected for that. The judicial system of our country is not satisfactory to describe things as they are. The idea that we are free and have the right to do and say and think as we please as long as our decisions do not infringe upon the same rights of those around us lulls us into thinking that our apparent isolation keeps us from really affecting those around us. Radical independence is a fallacy. EVERYTHING that we do or say or even think affects those around us. Like a string of twinkling Christmas lights, when one of our own tiny lights goes out so do several others. When a light within us is extinguished there is an inevitable series of further consequences. Those who love us, those who look up to us, even casual acquaintances are all affected. Lights go out. Darkness gains ground. Things get worse.

But the reverse is also true. When a light comes on in us, other lights return. Light expels darkness. Things get better.

 

With all of this in mind there are two important things that we must understand.

 

1) Trust turns on the lights.

Live as children of light…and find out what pleases the Lord. (5:8,10)

Perhaps nothing extinguishes the light within us more quickly or rampantly than rationalization. We assume that something is only worth doing (or avoiding) if the rationale for it makes sense to us. There was a time for each of us when we reached out toward a brilliant flickering fire, or a sweet smelling stovetop or an inviting power socket. Someone cried out for us to “STOP.” We didn’t understand why at the time. Now we get it (either because we waited until we got wiser or we reached out anyway and still bear the memories and scars). Living as “children of light” compels us to trust the One who beckons, by responding with obedience even when we don’t fully “get it.” We choose sexual purity even though so much within and around us provides rationale to “go for it.” We choose holy living even when we can come up with all sorts of excuses. We choose to believe that what He wants (what pleases Him) is better than anything we could come up with on our own. And we obey. And our hearts get brighter. And the world around us does too.

 

2) It’s NOT too late.
Wake up, O sleeper

rise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you. (5:14)

As unnerving as darkness can be, it does not have to be permanent. Grace says that lights can come back on. Light has come into the world. The one who said, “Let there be light” has not forgotten those words. In fact He sent that WORD and continues to send light even still into the darkest recesses. Things CAN get better. If God has anything to say about it things WILL get better.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts… – 2 Corinthians 4:6

 

But though His light expels darkness it is not forcefully invasive…it waits for an invitation.

Zombies Are For Real…don’t just survive.

Aron Lee Ralston cut his own hand off with a dull pocketknife after it became trapped by a boulder in a canyoneering accident in 2003. The story spawned the acclaimed movie “127 hours.”

Pi was always taught to take care of and be respectful to all animals but when he was stranded on a boat in the middle of the Pacific he ate algae, dead animals, drank ocean water and even killed and ate the meat and blood of a sea turtle. (Life of Pi, 2012)

Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) names and carries on conversations with a volley ball and performs oral surgery with a rock and an ice skate in the struggle to survive alone on a deserted island. (Cast Away, 2000)

Recently Jennifer and I have been watching the television sitcom, “The Walking Dead.” It is gruesome and gory, violent and vile. More than once either Jennifer or I have looked at the other in the middle of an episode and asked “Why are we watching this?” Two things keep me coming back beyond the riveting character portrayals.

First, the fascination with zombies is intriguing. I wonder if it is because it hits a little too close to home. We are fascinated because we identify the with animation of life mixed with the stench of death. An insatiable appetite that devours others. Frantic activity that ultimately seems empty and purposeless and devoid of the real substance of life. It would seem that zombies are a fanciful but horrifically accurate depiction of what we fear to be the reality of everyday existence.

Secondly, beyond the general zombie craze, “The Walking Dead” offers a glimpse into the survivalist mentality. Aron Lee Ralston, Pi, and Chuck Noland represent other examples. We seem absolutely captivated by the question, “What would you be willing to do in order to survive?”

As the plot of “The Walking Dead” series has continued to play out, the characters have increasingly found themselves wrestling with the juxtaposition of morality and survival.   In a recent episode a character is shown gazing out of a window at a sea of frenzied zombie faces. In a clever and artistic use of camera angle and lighting the person’s reflection appears among the zombie faces as if to suggest (or at least raise the question) that the distance that separates this living person from the unfeeling and amoral actions of the zombies is as thin as glass. In an effort to survive, the characters find themselves continually having to decide whether they will concede another part of who they are and what they believe to be right and wrong, good and evil, human and inhumane in order to “live” another day. It raises the question, “what really makes life…life? What separates the living from the zombies? At what point do you die even while you still are physically alive? At what point do you give up so much of who you are and who you wanted to be that you cease to really exist even though all of the signs of carnal life remain?

I believe in many ways this unsettlingly describes so many of our adolescents. For a variety of reasons they find themselves in survival mode. Many have astutely suggested that morality and ethics are seemingly “up for grabs” when it comes to young people (and perhaps our world and particularly western culture in general). Should we be surprised by this? This is what people in survival mode do. They wrestle with ethical (and previously settled upon) codes of conduct out of what is perceived as the greater and more fundamental concern for basic survival.

Why are our young people in survival mode? That is a lengthier discussion perhaps for another day. I would recommend asking a teenager, if you haven’t already. Even then they may not be able to rationally put it all into words, though they likely recognize and feel on some level the effects of the condition. But for the sake of a quick glimpse consider these….

Adolescents feel harried and stressed. The temporal and success-driven pressures that we have put on our children are harrowing. There is a reason why so many of our teens answer, “How are you?” with “Tired.” They aren’t just lazy. They are exhausted.

Adolescents don’t know who they can trust. Can you blame them? Everyone is trying to sell them something. Many, even with seemingly pure motivations, are ultimately trying to exploit them. Even, and perhaps especially, those whom they ought to most naturally trust.

Their peers can be fickle and even threatening. Their teachers are often motivated by incentives attached to higher test scores. Their youth ministers are often motivated to build a bigger and flashier youth ministry in order to receive the acclaim and pats on the back. Their parents are often motivated to see them succeed in order to find personal validation among their own peers. It is not difficult to understand why an adolescent might feel used and mistrusting.

Families are often unstable. Friendships can be brutal. Social media and the way it makes public what was often privatized or makes numerical what was once only suggested. How many friends do I have? How many likes will I get? How many people saw and agree with the negative comment that person just posted?

Our young people are in survival mode. And as such they are doing what they perceive that it takes to survive, even if that means sacrificing some of their previously settled upon moral and ethical standards. They cheat to succeed. They medicate to numb or to feel at least temporarily alive. They give far too much of their purity and their bodies away in order to feel, even if just for a moment, loved and appreciated. And they lie, out of both guilt and what they perceive to be necessity.

With each decision, each concession, they feel more and more like zombies.

This has to STOP.

In some ways it is just that simple, though admittedly application is often far more complex than the ideals that motivate. It has to STOP with us who have been charged with caring for and protecting and mentoring adolescents, which ultimately includes every person beyond adolescence. But it must also STOP with them. And the halt BEGINS with a decision to STOP, to not give away anymore of who they are, to not compromise another conviction, to not let fear leave them with one more regret.

No they cannot be perfect anymore than we can. But they, like us CAN stand in the way of the “new thing” that God intends to do in their life.

Ephesians 4 (NCV) says it like this…

“Do not continue living like those who do not believe…” (4:17)

“…what you learned in Christ was not like this.” (4:20)

“..STOP living the evil way you lived before.” (4:22)

“…you must STOP telling lies.” (4:25)

“When you are angry do not sin, and be sure to STOP being angry before the end of the day.” (4:26)

“…STOP stealing…” (4:28)

“,,,do not say harmful things….” (4:29)

“…do not make the Holy Spirit sad.” (4:30)

It continues in chapter 5.

This is hard. When you are in survival mode you find yourself doing things you never thought you would, or could, do. Sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes you have to cut your arm off with a dull pocketknife. Sometimes you have to knock your infected tooth out with an ice skate.

Other times we give away too much. Our compromises leave us wondering if we are really living at all even though we are seemingly surviving.

Our job as mentors, as protectors, as lovers of young people is to show them that there is another way. It is possible not only to survive but to thrive. They don’t just have the puny potential of perpetuating existence. They CAN and SHOULD actually be living. They have more power available to them than they might have imagined. They are NOT powerless.

“I pray also…you will know that God’s power is very great for us who believe. That power is the same as the great strength God used to raise Christ from the dead…” (Eph 1:19-20)

God is in the business of raising people from the dead. And he doesn’t just clear out tombs or empty graves. He breathes life into zombies.

Part of the process lies in our decision to STOP slowly giving our life away.

Grace in the Dark

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received… But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Ephesians 4:1, 7

It happens in chapter 3 of Ephesians…

“For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of you Gentiles – “ (v 1)

“I became a servant of the gospel by the gift of God’s grace…” (v 7)

 

It happens again in chapter 4…

“As a prisoner for the Lord…” (v 1)

“But to each of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it….” (v 7)

 

It’s as if Paul is pleading, ”Make sure you notice the return address on the envelope of this letter!”

 

Paul was no stranger to suffering. This wasn’t the first time he had been in prison, (although depending on which prison stay you believe this to have been it might very well have been his last.) And this makes words like “grace” jump off the page in an unthinkable juxtaposition.

 

His ministry landed him in prison…several times.

His ministry was the reason his body was pelted with stones until it seemed that there was no way he could still be alive.

His ministry was what constantly got him in trouble with city officials, religious leaders, street peddlers…

 

AND his ministry was a “gift of God’s grace?”

In fact “to each one of us grace has been given?”

 

At times, grace is unmistakable. All the world seems light and fresh and aglow.

Other times the darkness is so oppressive that even the sun seems like a faint and distant and unreachable light.

 

But those who have gone before us seem to beckon that grace is not ultimately tied to circumstances, even when those circumstances are suffocating.

 


 

That we currently live in the cold, dark days of winter is probably starkly and even painfully obvious to you. Not just because you recognize it in the story but in an even greater and much more personal way you aware of it in the context of your everyday existence. In his book Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey describes our current circumstance in three simultaneous and equally potent movements.

  • The world is good
  • The world is fallen
  • The world can be redeemed

This creates a tension within which we live every single day. Consider the first two of Yancey’s propositions:

 

You stand on the shore taking in the incredible scene as the last rays of daylight streak across the sky in an array of vibrant color…the world is good.

 

In the same moment a mosquito buzzes around your face eventually catching you in an unguarded moment long enough to get his snout into your skin before you smack him down splattering a small portion of your own blood (at least you hope it’s yours) on your cheek…the world is fallen.

 

The example is overly simplistic and petty but you get the idea. At any given moment we are both surrounded and saturated by these two dichotomies. Sometimes one seems far more apparent than the other but the two are always present.

 

Most of the time, depending upon the circumstances, we focus primarily on one or the other. So while the mosquito is an annoyance you still find yourself completely enamored with the goodness and beauty of the sunset. On the other hand if the same sort of striking sunset is happening over the crumpled and steaming hood of your new and now wrecked car, you are rather unlikely to even notice the way the light plays off of the clouds.

 

But then there are times when the paradox of it all comes in like a swift kick in the butt and you find yourself trying to make sense of the irreconcilable.

 (excerpt from Ellipsis curriculum)

 


 

 

For a mother who holds her newborn, healthy baby, grace is easily recognized.

But when a mother is making preparations to bury her son…?”

 

Grace carries with it faith and hope, especially in seasons and at times when those both seem in short supply.

 

The world is good.

The world is fallen.

How can the world be redeemed?

…at least in part by the very ministry that Paul calls grace despite his current circumstances.

 

It takes courage and conviction to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” regardless of the circumstances. And this courage and conviction overflowing into action is what demonstrates and unleashes the redemptive work of God in the midst of a broken world.

 

Relenting to the darkness doesn’t usher in the light.

Fighting back against evil using the same sort of weapons only perpetuates the evil that we long to expel.

Allowing anxiety or depression or anger to roam unexamined and unrestrained leads only to even more brokenness.

 

But grace in the midst of suffering changes things. The cross bears testimony as do those who walk in it’s light.

 

Even when the return address is a Roman jail…

Even when darkness seems to run rampant…

Even when you are so overwhelmed with the brokenness of our world that you wonder how you will even survive….

 

“…live a life worthy of the calling you have received…to each one of us his grace has been given…”

Love is HARD…but it’s not too hard to love.

“…that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Ephesians 3:17-19

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

– Fredrick Lehman (quoting Rabbi Hertz?)

Love is not our first impulse. At least it doesn’t seem to be mine. Not when I’m driving and someone pulls out in front of me. Not when the latest celebrity scandal is being broadcast on every channel.   Not when someone disagrees via social media with what I believe to be true…about religion…or politics…or college football. Not when the fast food or express checkout line is taking too long.

 

You might say, “Actually Jason, it sounds like you are talking more about mercy or grace or even patience than love.” Truth be told, I assume those ideas to be deeply and inescapably intertwined, like a fishing line in the hands of my eight year old son….every single time he casts.

 

This is both the power and the powerlessness of love. Love compels inexplicable and unexpected grace. And this is perhaps what has the most power to change the world. It also leaves the lover, the mercy shower, the grace patron extremely exposed and vulnerable.

 

Because love is not our first impulse…even when we are offered mercy. Upon reflection at the end of the day we may often find our greatest struggle to be an inability to fully receive and extend love. We are bad at this…really bad. It has been our ruin. It continues to be our ruin.

 

We are far too prone to exchange the power of love for our love of power.

Control. Bartering. Manipulation. Positioning. Comparing. Coveting. Lusting. Coercing. Rejecting. Hurting. Gossiping.

 

We are much better at these. They seem to come more easily, more naturally, more…impulsively. Love takes work. It doesn’t come easy for us.

 

In the latter part of Ephesians 3, Paul prays that we would “…know this love that surpasses knowledge.”

 I have found myself, on more than one occasion, proclaiming that someone, “will never fully know how much I love them” without pausing to wonder why this is the case. I say it in a way that is almost haughty, convinced that this expresses in a fuller way how very much I love the person. But is the fact that they cannot fully know my love some sort of merit badge for a deeper sort of love? Or does it simply highlight how very bad at love we all really are? Is the problem in my inability to fully communicate my love or their inability to fully receive it? What is the barrier that makes love so hard to fully grasp, to rest in, to live out? After all…was it not for this very thing that we were made?

 

We were made by love, out of the overflow of love, for the purpose of love.

 

How in the world did we get so bad at this?

 

In our “better” moments we catch glimpses of how things could be. Compassion wells up in our heart for the hurting. Mercy replaces anger. Selflessness stands in for greed.

But it doesn’t take much to disturb the moment and blur our clarity, like a rock thrown into the waters where we once stared at our own reflection. And we revert. We go back to what we know best. We give ourselves over to familiar impulses. And it all leaves us feeling, rather…empty.

 

“…that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

 

We are drawn to the words in the latter part of Ephesians 3. They flutter in our ears and off of our lips, reminiscent of a truth we once knew but struggle to remember. Their power is not lost on us even if their application far too often is. Somehow we know that if we could just “get” this, everything else would fall into place; personally, globally, eternally.

 

Like so much of what Christ taught and exemplified, the concept is simple, almost cliché, but the challenge of living into the simple truth proves much, much more difficult.

 

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generation, for ever and ever! Amen.”

The Secret is Out

Ephesians 3:3-13

I can’t remember the last time I stood before a large group of teenagers and trembled… but last Sunday my hands were shaking. I could barely hold the iPad steady enough to capture the video footage that I knew would be so incredibly precious to this young couple in the years to come. In fact I wish that there had been a recording of the night when my wife and I made a similar announcement, though even now, over twelve years later, I can remember the emotion and the celebration of it all as if it had happened this past Sunday for us as well. But this time it wasn’t my news I was sharing, it was someone else’s. I think maybe that is what made it all so overwhelming. I was about to tell a room full of people a secret that I had previously been asked to keep. A secret worth celebrating. A secret that in many ways was going to change everything. And the anticipation and excitement of it had my hands and voice quivering almost uncontrollably.

Lately we have been commissioning our teenagers to help us with the usual clutter of announcements by submitting video (or allowing us to film them) in interesting locations listing upcoming information. So with an iPad held awkwardly out in front of my face I asked the entire group to help me make a video announcement, assumedly to be used in an upcoming version of these video announcements. “On the count of three we are all going to say…”

“Tristan and Hannah are pregnant.”

A moment of pause as the words sunk in. Then gasps, and smiles, and cheers. All captured by an iPad that appeared to be held by a person experiencing an earthquake.

What a gift, pure delight, to be a part of sharing a secret… to see the looks on their faces as they processed the depth of what had just been said…to know that you just participated in a moment that will be remembered as significant years and years later.

It makes you want to be part of moments like that. We really ought to be part of more moments like that. We have been invited to be part of more moments like that. It’s just that I far too often struggle to see it that way.

“In reading this then you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of God…not made known to people in other generations as it has not been revealed by the Spirit…””

The mystery? The secret now made known?

Salvation is not for the select few. God’s purpose for the world includes everyone.

What is true of the mercy of God is also true of the mission of God.

We have been given the green light to tell the secret. Paul takes the invitation personally…

“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given to me…to make plain to everyone…this mystery.”

But just as grace is not for the select few so Paul believes that the gift of sharing that very secret is not for the select few either…

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known…”

So how are we doing? How is the church doing in its mission to “make known?”

There is incredible joy to be found as we tremble with anticipation in the presence of those who do not yet know. I think we may be missing out.