Archives For March 2009

Day 28

March 23, 2009 — Leave a comment

Yesterday, my pastor taught on “Finding God in Relationships.” One of the things he hit on was the one-to-one correlation that first century Jews had regarding sin and sickness. This is what Jesus is being questioned about in John 9:1-12. His disciples, faced with the same perplexing questions about suffering we still seek answers to today, asked Jesus why a beggar, blind from birth, had been born blind. Whose fault was it, his or his parents? The underlying assumption is that his blindness was directly related to someones sin. Jesus answer is “neither.”

It’s not always as cut and dry as that. Sickness isn’t always the result of specific sin. Instead, it is more often the result of Sin being in the world at all. Just like innocent people can be caught up in the poor choices of others, sickness can come upon someone without it behind directly related to their sin or choices they’ve made. Jesus uses this opportunity to show his disciples his entire ministry in miniature.

He spits on the ground, makes some mud, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash it off. The man does and he is healed. He can see. Now, that man still ended up dying. He grew older and died. We don’t know how many years he got to walk around on this earth seeing. What Jesus wanted his disciples to see, I think, was two things. First, that his ministry is all about taking away the sin, brokenness and their effects on God’s creation. Though this man’s blindness wasn’t linked directly into his sin, it was linked into the fallen condition of the world. Jesus took those effects away and made the man physically whole.

Second, it takes some faith and action on our part to receive that wholeness. The mud Jesus made wasn’t magic. He doesn’t have super spit. It was the man’s faith in Jesus that healed him. Jesus put goop on his eyes and told him that if he went and washed it off, he would see again (anyone remember Naaman?). In the same way, Jesus asks us today to put faith in him for us to be made whole.

As I go to Servants Quarters tonight to talk about Heaven, I am realizing that my faith in what Jesus has in store for us after this life really does have an impact on how I live now. Do I really believe that Jesus has “sight” in store for me? Am I living my life like the blind man, running to the pool because of what Jesus promised, or like Naaman, who didn’t really believe that washing in a nasty river would really heal him?

Day 27

March 22, 2009 — Leave a comment

Five or six years ago I had this idea that I would start a retreat center. Instead of being a conference-style retreat center or a hermitage-style retreat center, I would start a B&B that would be focused on spiritual retreat and renewal, marketed especially to those in full-time ministry. My dream was to buy a large, old farmhouse on plenty of acreage with a stream or creek on the property. The name: Living Water Retreat Center. Not incredibly original, I know. I took the name from being inspired by today’s passage, John 7:37-39.

The image of living water is one of moving (as opposed to stagnant) water, teeming with energy and life. Jesus, at the Feast of Tabernacles,  proclaims to be the original Gatorade (thirst quencher). He states that out of whoever believes in him would flow living water. I am just coming to understand what an incredible statement that is. He doesn’t limit himself to being the provider of living water. Instead, he opens that up to all believers.

For a people like the people of Israel, whose history is peppered with times of desert living, water holds life. Here in America, we are spoiled with the amount of water we have access to. Those of us who try to conserve water are often looked at as strange. My family and I limit our consumption of water all the time (“If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow”) because we realize that we are fortunate to have so much clean water while so much of the world has none.

The idea that Jesus would both be the source of living water to quench our thirst and that we would then become the suppliers of living water to others must have been astonishing to those listening. Could they even imagine such abundance? What would it be like for Jesus to stand up in our midst today and proclaim, “If anyone is in debt, let him come to me and be paid-in-full. Out of the believer’s heart will flow unrestricted grants!”

Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the source of sustenance and his followers the delivery mechanism. Do we see ourselves that way? Do we feel sustained? Do we realize that we are the vehicle by which others will be sustained? That should be transformational in the way we operate in relationships. As N.T. Wright sums up, “We must come to Jesus and drink of the living water, not only to satisfy our own thirst but so we can be the people through whom God restores the barren and broken land all around us.”

Day 26

March 21, 2009 — Leave a comment

Staying with John, we skip from his Revelation to his Gospel. The passage is a familiar one, to Christians and many non-Christians. It is the preamble to John’s Gospel, 1:1-18. I must admit, I am so familiar with this passage I really wondered whether or not today’s meditations upon it or Wright’s comments regarding it would yield anything new. As if that were a challenge, the Spirit reminded me that the Word is “living and active, sharper that a two-edged sword.”

“Four score and seven years ago.” “We the People.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These are well known first lines. If any author today began his work with any of these lines, we would understand the comparison he would be making between his work and the work to which the line is attributed. Wright notes that John’s audience would have made the same connection when he used, “In the beginning.”

Those three words start the Bible. They set up the entire premise for the Holy Scriptures. They point to the main character of the story: God. In the same way, John sets up his Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He is, in a sense, fleshing out what was already known to his audience. It is interesting that I’d never noticed that before. Already knowing the story it contained, I was predisposed to focus in on “the Word” and have glossed over “In the beginning.”

This led me to wonder what else I’ve been missing in my reading of Scripture, or perhaps in my observations on life in general. Are there connections that I’ve missed? I do have a tendency to get so focused on what is coming that I fail to see that which is right in front of me. This fast is an example of that. In the past week I have found myself looking forward to Easter more and more. While some anticipation is good (it is, after all, the most important and celebratory date in Christendom), my self-centeredness has me awaiting caffeinated coffee more than the resurrection of Christ. So what am I missing out on right now?

I think I’m missing out on God as Provider and Sustainer.  I no longer suffer from caffiene headaches. Many of my cravings for unnecessary snacks are gone. I really don’t miss television or novels as much as I did three weeks ago. Instead I have been enjoying wrestling with my daughters, coloring in their coloring books, watching the hawk in our backyard. Even now, in the midst of a fast, God is the Provider.

This fits in well with the readings I’ve been doing on Heaven over the past few weeks. In a sense, our life right now is a fast. The feast is what happens after we die and Heaven and Earth are reunited. That doesn’t mean, however, that we must pine away for the feast. God sustains us in the fast. Yet we musn’t let the pendulum swing too far the other way and let ourselves be deceived into thinking that now is the feast, that there is no fast.

As I move foward in this second half of Lent I am going to try and take a more balance approach. I am going to anticipate the feast while realizing the blessing of the fast. I hope that I can continue that attitude for the rest of this life.

Day 24

March 20, 2009 — Leave a comment

During the next Servant’s Quarters meeting we will be discussing Heaven. It is appropriate that today’s devotional is taken from Revelation 4:1-11. In the passage John is taken into the throne room of Heaven and describes what he sees. I love the descriptive language used in Revelation. I know it trips some people up, but I find that it paints a beautiful picture of what is going on in Heaven right now, and what we can expect eternity to be like.

What stuck out to me most in the passage this time was the content of the praise of the 24 elders. They cast their crowns before the throne of the King and cry out (v. 11),

Worthy are you, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power,

for you created all things,

and by your will they existed and were created.

Inherent within the praise of the elders is a recognition of why God is worthy to receive praise. He willfully created all things. This is in contrast to the praise of the four living creatures (which Wright asserts represent creation, not the 4 writers of the Gospels), which praise God for who He is. The elders praise him not only for who He is, but what He’s done.

I think that I fall short in that area sometimes. I can praise God for who He is. I know the theological accuracy of those praises. I can even praise Him for what He’s done through Christ. Where I stumble is in remembering to praise Him for what He’s done in my life. The praise of the 24 elders is not future praise, it is praise happening right now. Wright states,

the truth of this vision is that what goes on in the heavenly realm is the counterpart of worship going on in the earthly realm. Throughout the Bible, but particularly in Revelation, heaven and earth are not separate in the sense of heaven being solely in the future and earth in the present, or heaven being ten miles up in the air and earth being down here where we live. Heaven and earth are the two dimensions of God’s whole reality…

There is, then, a kind of symbiosis of praise that is happening. Earthly praise and Heavenly praise join together in a perpetual symphony. It never stops. John writes that the 4 creatures offer God praise all day and all night long. The elders, in response, bow down and praise God every time the creatures praise God. Creation unites in unending praise of who God is and what He’s done, anticipating what He will do. I need to make sure I’m joining in that chorus.

Day 23

March 19, 2009 — Leave a comment

Today is the halfway point of Lent.

I’ll get to my reflections on today’s devotion in a minute. First, a few reflections on the first half of 40 Days of Nothing. It has been hard, much harder than I ever anticipated. There has been plenty of opportunity to suffer. I have hurt physically, and suffered from voluntary inconvenience. I have suffered from temptation. That has been the biggest challenge. Keeping the fast.

It makes me wonder what was going on with Jesus midway through his 40 days in the wilderness. It is clear from Scripture that after spending 40 days in solitude with the Father, he was incredibly prepared to face the temptations the Enemy would throw at him. That bucks conventional wisdom. Most of us would assume that after 40 days of isolation from people, from food, from drink, Jesus would have been very weak. However, the opposite was true. After 40 days of uninterrupted time with God, Jesus was more than ready to take on temptation. But what about the mid-point? How was he feeling then?

It has been rough for me, especially over the last few days. The urge to give in, just a little bit, to the things that I’ve given over, has been immense. If I was doing this alone, without my family, I think I might have caved. It is an amazing testament to the suffering Christ voluntarily endured knowing that, at any time, he could stop it. That is the point of the Lenten fast, though, isn’t it? We enter into the suffering of Christ in a small way to be reminded of the awesomeness of his suffering.

That is why Peter writes, in 1 Peter 2:7-12, that for those of us who believe, we find Jesus to be “precious.” Wright comments that the word “precious” has been overused and lost most of its impact. We coo over even the ugliest babies, “Isn’t he precious?” yet Peter was using a word that meant something more along the lines of “indescribably valuable.” I don’t know if I’ve ever run into anything that I would say was indescribably valuable.

Peter goes on to say that Christ’s value wasn’t even recognized at the time. Imagine digging in your backyard, removing rocks from the soil to prepare for a garden. One of your neighbors comes by and, noticing the rocks you’re getting rid of, asks if he might have them. A strange request. You are happy to oblige, for you have no use for them. It is only later, when your neighbor rolls up in his new Benz, that you understand you gave away something valuable. One of those rocks was a large ruby. You didn’t recognize it as such and so you didn’t ascribe it any value.

Right now I must say that the fast is looking a lot like a grubby, nasty rock. It doesn’t look to valuable to me. In fact, I’d kind of like to get rid of it. But I won’t. I have faith that what I now want to reject is really quite valuable. I trust that I will understand that value in due time.

Day 22

March 18, 2009 — Leave a comment

21 days spent with Paul, now we switch over to Peter for a couple. Knowing Wright, I’m sure we’ll be back with Paul soon enough. Today’s focus is on 1 Peter 2:1-6. At the opening of the passage Peter, addressing an audience of new Jewish converts to Christianity, instructs them to crave for the “pure spiritual milk” just like a newborn baby. I remember in the first days after having our daughters there was an importance placed on breastfeeding. In those first days breast milk contains colostrum, which is like super-charged, nutrient-rich milk. It is designed to get a whole lot of nutrients, vitamins, carbohydrates, and the like into the newborns small digestive system. I think if Peter had known about colostrum, that’s what he’d be saying here. It is important that early on in the faith journey new believers receive spiritual nourishment.

Unlike newborns, though, new Christians sometimes have to go through a detox process. I’m sure we can all think of some of the major sin categories new Christians might have to detox from, but what Peter lists here are things present in many churches today: malice, guile, envy, insincerity and slander. Those need to be gotten rid of as well.

Peter then moves on to talk about allowing ourselves to be built into a “spiritual house” with Christ as the cornerstone. N.T. Wright notes the significance of this imagery to the converts from Judaism,

The temple in Jerusalem was the very centre of the Jewish world view. It was the place where heaven and earth met, and the Jews didn’t mean that metaphorically; they meant it quite literally. For them, heaven and earth were the two basic dimensions of God’s creation, which co-existed unseen to one another. The place where they actually intersected and where you could virtually pass from one to the other was in the temple in Jerusalem.

Now, with the work of Christ, the new High Priest, the temple’s physical location would be within us. Heaven and Earth would intersect in and through us because Heaven and Earth intersected in and through Christ. This ties into his previous comments on ridding oneself of sin and embracing the spiritual milk in that the temple (now us) needs to be holy. Paul speaks similarly in Romans 12:1.

I must say, this whole body-as-a-temple thing blows my mind. I’ve heard so many people interpret it so many ways. For some, it is a mandate to take excellent physical care of themselves. For others it acts as a prohibition against piercings, tattoos, or make-up. For others it relates not to anything physical, only to sin and moral issues. It seems to be a little of all of those things. First, it must have something to do with our physical bodies. We are physical beings. We are promised resurrection and life eternal in physical bodies. The temple was an actual place, a physical structure. If we are to be built into “spiritual houses” there is implied a physical dimension to that.

I think that it follows then that anything we do to our bodies to turn them into places of idol worship is going down the wrong path. That could range from the clothes we choose to wear (what reaction are we trying to evoke?) to the piercings and tattoos we get, to the physique we embody. The other side is that the temple was the place where Heaven intersected the physical. There are definite spiritual components that must be present (and sin that must be expunged) for us to be temples.

No sin has any place in the temple. Yet we are sinful creatures. It is only through the grace of God and the once-and-for-all-yet-perpetual sacrifice of Christ that we are able to present ourselves “clean.” It’s not just the major sins we need to worry about. We need to get on top of those private, seemingly petty things that no one else hears of, that seem to hurt no one.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like quite a challenge, both physically and spiritually.

Day 21

March 17, 2009 — Leave a comment

All of creation is groaning in anticipation of the first fruits of creation (us) to be redeemed. The groaning doesn’t stop there, though. As we read on, Romans 8:26-30 paints a picture of an even deeper groaning; the groaning of the Spirit. Having just talked about Christ’s role in redemption, Paul moves on to talk about what the other two persons of the Trinity are up to in this present age. They are having a conversation. The Spirit is groaning on our behalf, uttering things we can’t even articulate.

Have you ever been so frustrated or sad that you were at a loss for words? On both a cosmic and a personal level the Spirit is giving form to those feelings and bringing them to the ear of the Father. The Father hears the Spirit and knows exactly what those groanings are. This back and forth conversation is what Paul is referring to when he writes, in verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Christians have turned that verse into a simple platitude, thrown around when we want to offer some sort of comfort to people going through difficult times. Unfortunately that strips away a lot of what Paul was saying in context. N.T. Wright notes,

Christians can, too often, take this in a casual, almost flippant, fashion. “Oh well,” someone says with a shrug, “all things work together for good,” as though that explained all the minor catastrophes and hazards of life. It is true that God knows about everything from the fall of the sparrow through to the great and often catastrophic events that happen to nations and kingdoms. But Paul has his eye on the cosmic future, on the revealing of the glory of God in and to the whole created order.

And it is with that eye that Paul continues writing. He jumps into the future and imagines himself standing next to God, looking back on all that has happened up to the return of Christ. Paul observes with confidence that God knew what he was up to all along. In verses 29-30  he traces God’s sovereign knowledge from creation through to restoration, noting that at every point God was in control. All things were working for good, in and through time, leading up to the Messiah and then leading up to his return. Nothing caught God by surprise. Even our suffering and our sin, while painful to us (and God), was not a surprise. Since God has always been in control, Paul can speak of our future glorification as if it is already complete. God is a God who keeps his promises.

Day 20

March 17, 2009 — Leave a comment

Yesterday was Colossians and today is Romans. This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. All of Romans is pretty amazing, but chapter 8, and for me verses 18-25, are filled with some of the most spine-tingling, exciting images in all of the New Testament. As Wright points out,

It is all to easy to shrink our reading and our understanding of a text like this into terms simply of  “me and my salvation.” But for Paul it neither starts nor finishes there. It starts with God the creator, revealing his power and glory in creation, and it ends with the entire created order set free from its present state of corruption and decay.

And to think, the entire created order is looking to us for the coming of that day! We are the first fruits of God’s creation. We are the jewel in the crown. Until we are redeemed, creation must wait. Yet, there is a sense that creation knows more about what is to come than we do. Creation didn’t screw itself up. We did.

I sometimes can’t understand why large groups of Christians so adamently refute claims of global warming or humanities otherwise detrimental effects on nature. They fear that to take responsibility and begin the faithful task of trying to stop perpetrating sin against creation (much less try to be agents of redemption) would be tantamount to engaging in pagan naturalism. Yet I think Paul says differently. He is saying “Of course, it is all spiraling out of control! It’s just following our lead!” All of the scientific predictions that our earth will eventually become uninhabitable do not contradict the gospel, they point to it.

Without the intervention of God everything is headed toward death and decay. The wonderful news of the gospel is that Christ has intervened, not only on our behalf, but on the behalf of all creation. And that creation is waiting. Even as it decays, it is waiting and looking to us to step up to the plate and be redeemed, so that its redemption can soon follow. C.S. Lewis, speaking with the voice of creation, puts it beautifully in The Great Divorce:

The Master says to our master, Come up. Share my rest and splendour till all natures that were your enemies become slaves to dance before you and backs for you to ride, and firmness for your feet to rest on.

From beyond all place and time, out of the very Place, authority will be given to you: the strengths that once opposed your will shall be obedient fire in your blood and heavenly thunder in your voice.

Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves: we desire the beginning of your reign as we desire dawn and dew, wetness at the birth of light.

Master, your Master has appointed you for ever: to be our King of Justice and our high Priest.

Yet even as we look toward that future, toward that end, we experience the pain of brokenness, sin, death and decay. Let us not think that all pain is the result of poor choices on our part. N.T. Wright closes his comments on the Romans 8 selection thusly,

We shouldn’t, therefore, think that if the church finds itself in pain on some issue, some problem, some topic, this indicates that we have taken some terrible wrong turning. It might just be that we have been faithful to our vocation, to groan inwardly because we have the first fruits of the Spirit. Our groaning takes up the groaning of all creation, and brings it mysteriously into the loving and healing presence of God.

Day 19

March 16, 2009 — Leave a comment

After spending a couple weeks in 2 Corinthians, Wright shifts our focus to other Pauline passages that talk of his suffering for the glory of the Gospel. The first of those is Colossians 1:24-29. I like his letter to the Colossians. It is one of those great letters from jail that Paul writes. Part of me is convinced that if Paul hadn’t spent so much time in jail, the New Testament would be a lot shorter! Colossians is also one of Paul’s letters to a church that he’d never visited, hadn’t founded, had probably just heard of through the grapevine. I sometimes marvel at the audacity of Paul.

I balked when I first read, “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Huh?!? It reads as if Paul is saying that what Christ did through his crucifixion and resurrection weren’t enough. I caught my breath and kept reading. It became clear that Paul wasn’t so much talking about the completeness of Christ’s afflictions as he was his own ability to enter into Christ’s suffering through his suffering. Paul sees his ministry as an extension of Christ’s work on earth, which is the fulfillment of the promises God made to Israel, going all the way back to Abraham. Paul extends this forward to the Colossians, who are Gentiles, as proof that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to save the whole world through Israel.

For me the real take away is the holistic way in which Paul explained his approach to his ministry (and his suffering). He says, “I am filling up … to make the word of God fully known.” Wright states that Paul viewed his life as, “a matter of embodying the living and active word of God, the word which is a person, Jesus Christ.” That is what drives Paul, his pursuit of embodying all of Christ, including suffering. But it’s not just for the sake of suffering. He counts it as part of God’s mysterious riches.

One final observation that I found encouraging. In verse 29 Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” I sometimes labor under the friends-of-Job supposition that when I suffer it is because I’m not doing something right. Paul, in this verse, reassures that this is not always so. Sometimes I suffer because of, not in spite of, the work of God in and through me. That’s just part of the deal. It is the part, I think, that will make the eternal absence of suffering so much sweeter. Ahhh, sweet comparison! For what is pleasure without pain? What is light without darkness? Both are marvelous, to be sure, but so much more appreciated when you understand and have experienced their counterparts.

Day 18

March 16, 2009 — Leave a comment

So, I’ve gotten a little behind with the blog, and just after I’d received some kudos from a friend for being so consistent. Well, it’s make-up time.

N.T. Wright wraps up his study on the middle chapters of 2 Corinthians with verses 11-13 of chapter 6. Paul is expressing his openness to the Corinthians and urges the same kind of humility. He is basically saying that he hasn’t censored himself in any way. He hasn’t allowed unnecessary filters to jade his actions or his message. He’s shared his triumphs and struggles. In short, he’s been real. To this Wright wonders,

What would happen in Christian congregations today if clergy, and other people in positions of leadership, were always completely frank about how they felt, and about the relationships between themselves and the community? … from time to time a moment comes when we need to say, “All right, let’s put everything on the table.”

This reminds me of President Obama’s oft-used phrase, “Let me be clear.” We have entered into a political era where words like “transparency” and “accountability” are being bandied about. It seems like many people want to be on the receiving end of transparency and accountability, but few are willing to be transparent or held accountable. We can’t have it both ways. There must be reciprocity. Paul is pointing to a much deeper kind of transparency, however. He is referring to a posture that all Christ followers should take in all aspects of their lives. He says that we should open wide our hearts. This means to lay your heart bear which, necessarily, exposes it to being trampled upon.

Last week I had a conversation in which I became aware that there exists a group of people in my church who think that my attempts to build a relationship with them is motivated by a hidden agenda. I can’t tell you how much that stung. I strive to live my life with my heart open wide, yet I’m still surprised when it gets abused.

My instinct was to build up a wall that would prevent these people from knowing that I was hurt by their suspicions. I still haven’t dealt with the issue fully. It’s one of those “they don’t know that I know” situations. Pretending that nothing is different would be a lie. Withdrawing without a word would be counterproductive. Aggressive confrontation would likely lead to unnecessary conflict. What does it mean for me to open wide my heart to the very people who just finished stepping on it? Yet isn’t that what Christ did in his suffering? Isn’t it what he does every time someone comes to him for forgiveness?

Frank and honest conversation should be possible in Christian community. In fact, it should be one of the hallmarks of Christian community. That doesn’t preclude us from having some measure of tact and decorum, however it does call us to a deeper level of intentional vulnerablity. Wright sums it up well by saying,

It is a matter of somebody who has been entrusted with a ministry by God the Holy Spirit, and exercising that ministry in the knowledge that the same Spirit is at work in the congregation committed to their charge. … Let us be honest and let us above all, individually, and in our relationships with one another, strive to reflect the open generosity of God, the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.