ONE BIG DISTRACTION

The National Safety Council reports several thousand deaths each year due to distracted drivers on our highways. I think most of them are in Colorado where I am told people feel a certain entitlement while driving meaning they can pretty much do whatever they like. Everything from cellphone use to adjusting the radio to just plain daydreaming and not thinking about what they heck they are doing.

Anyway. Enough of that. What I am writing about today is the DISTRACTION OF COMPLACENCY within the Christian faith. Driving the highway of life.

I recall Jesus speaking with his disciples not long before his arrest. He told them to WATCH and PRAY so that they would not be led into temptation away from God- their true source of life. (See Matthew 26:41f) He concludes by saying that the ‘spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’.

We grow complacent when we stop watching and praying thinking that all is well for us at the moment. It happens when we are not vigilant about what is going on around us. So many times Jesus told stories about a master going away and leaving his servants to care for his estate. The creation and the people of it are so important to our Lord. We dare not just take care of our selves while the world suffers.

And it can get to the point where we are like the church of Laodicea, a city just southeast of Philly (not the one in Pa.), which is now in ruins. But back their heyday they had it made. And in the book of Revelation Jesus speaks to the church there: “you all say that you are rich and have need of nothing not realizing how pitifully poor and naked you are even with all your wealth and finery.” (See Rev. 3:17f)

Complacency distracts us from the Christ at the center of all life. Even in this season I am troubled by the bumper stickers that say KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS. What that does is legitimize the extravagance of Christmas for the ‘well off’. Keeping Christ at the center of our lives would be to recall that Jesus came with nothing worldly for those who were poor, marginalized and treated unjustly.

So now in this beautiful season we have a TAX PLAN. I guess that’s great for some folks but it is a distraction of complacency from the threat of poverty, poor health coverage, nuclear war, and a nationalism that says, ‘US FIRST’ at the expense of so many in want and in need of some of the basic necessities of life. The better economy and the greater number of jobs and general political euphoria on the part of at least one party provide the same situation that we find in Laodicea.

“We have all we need.” “What a great Christmas present.” And let me repeat that for some it may be ‘life saving’. I am personally for a more robust economy from which America can help the poor. And recall that ‘the poor’ are the centerpiece of God’s attention for this earth.

Prov. 14:31 Anyone who oppresses the poor is insulting God who made them. To help the poor is to honor God.

Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Is. 58:10. “And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”

But forgive me if I am a bit suspect on how this new economy will help the poor.

Recall God’s words in Deuteronomy 4:25f “When the time comes that you have children and grandchildren, are growing older and you start taking things for granted and growing complacent and start to make any idol no matter what kind and form – well then I can tell you. You are in big trouble.”

What does the Lord really require of us but TO DO JUSTICE (this doesn’t mean arresting undocumented people) LOVE MERCY, AND WALK HUMBLY WITH OUR GOD. Humble means acting in the attitude and manner of Jesus. (And just so you know. I have a long way to go in this regard.) See Amos 6.

Now I realize that our country is not a theocracy and that’s a good thing but as Christians we, in this country, are called to be a LIGHT FOR THE WORLD. Let us not be distracted or grow weary from doing good.

The other day I encountered a man on a street corner asking for some money for his family. I’m not sure how he will benefit from the new tax law but I care more about how Christian lawyers and laypeople can help our country to help those like him. (See Matthew 25)

I was hungry and you fed me

Thirsty and you gave me drink

Homeless and you gave me a room

Sick and imprisoned and you visited me.

 

And one more thing. Let’s enjoy ourselves this festive season but let not our religious ceremonies distract us into thinking what good people we are to observe the day. No, Jesus doesn’t call us to ‘religion’ but to life …. important and maybe more so on the 26th (oh by the way, that’s my birthday, speaking of distractions) and beyond. Watch and Pray.

 

Grace and Peace to all. And God bless us EVERYONE.

ORDINARY PEOPLE , THE NARROW WAY AND GRACE

The MSG version of the Bible says that God has not revealed himself to the sophisticated people but to the little ones, the children, and the ordinary folks. See below in Matthew 11:25-30.

25-26 Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.” (I have left out some verses that don’t affect the context.)

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

 

‘Know it alls’ need not apply.

 

So what about theology, philosophy and the other ‘sophisticated’ means of understanding God? Well, Jesus himself was wearied by the lack of simple trust on the part of the ‘smart’ people. It’s very simple, this Gospel. Simple enough for a child.

Jesus comes as the very presence and essence of God among us and invites us to place our confidence in him for every aspect of our lives. He says to us that he is humble and being his apprentice, or student is not as difficult as might think. It is surely not as difficult as the religious leaders made it for the first century people with their 613 laws to follow. Jesus will in fact, at some point, say that the two great commandments are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (See Matthew 22) Paul will even break that down for believers in God already when he says the whole law is summed up in ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ (See Galatians 5:14)

See living with Christ is only difficult when you leave decisions about life till the last moment instead of trust him all the time and practicing that trust. It’s a relationship, a daily connection with Jesus.

Sometimes, though, we read another passage in the Bible and get nervous about this ‘faith’ thing. You might remember in Matthew 7 that Jesus says enter through the narrow gate.

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

We westerners misunderstand that verse to mean that the way to salvation is through the narrow gate, like you have to have your life so in order to get into heaven but no, Jesus means something very different.

Jesus is saying that if we want the fullness of life that he offers right here and now then come to him, take that easy yoke and learn from this gentle and humble master how to best live.

When I was in the Coast Guard Academy we had a leader of our platoon who was exemplary for his apprentices. He put us through some rigorous activities and exercises and here’s the thing. He did everyone one of them with us to show us that they could be done and that this training would prepare us for the life for which we signed up.

Jesus will never ask us to do anything or live in any manner that he has not lived or understood. Remember, he is God. He is the full expression of our Father in heaven and we are asked and invited to live as he lives, in love with those nearest to us.

Let me give an example:

Here’s the wide way, the large way to live- someone curses you, gives you the finger or cuts you off on the highway. The world says, cuss ’em out, blow them off, and curse the suckers. That’s ok but…and here’s the thing (again) by doing so you and I will not learn the heart of the Father revealed in Jesus.

The world says that when someone wrongs you get even. That ‘way’ is broad and you can wander it to your delight but Jesus invites us into the Father’s heart by saying ‘forgive’.

Now the wide path is full of reasons, good reasons NOT to forgive. The narrow path along which Jesus walks has one purpose: to have the heart of the Father.

Certainly all of us will graduate to the sky. Not sure of a better phrase. And that’s fine but I for one want to live with Jesus who says to me, ‘Take my hand, I will lead you even when you don’t know where the heck you are going.’ But he has laid out the plans for our lives.

See, anybody can get married and that’s about it for most people. A vow, a ring and a few words and voila. Married. But followers of Jesus want more. They want love, a love that is shared and a love that cares deeply for the ‘other’ first.

Most anybody can build a house (well that’s arguable). Some nails, wood, a hammer and you could put up some kind of structure. But if you want to live in that home you need to follow the teachings of a master builder.

Jesus isn’t laying down a law that says if you don’t do such and such God won’t love you or accept you. No, certainly not. That’s not grace. Jesus is simply stating that living the ‘good’ ‘full’ and even ‘abundant life’ means looking for the best way to working with him, to access God’s grace.

If this life is ‘just’ about being forgiven then we can consider ourselves ‘in’. Scriptures says such in John 1:29 and 2Corinthians 5:19. But if we want LIFE a life that will last forever then here’s the little path through the woods, through the entanglements of life and the temptations for self- sufficiency. Here’s a life of love with the Father, Son and Spirit.

These folks to whom Jesus is speaking are just ordinary folks with no degrees. They are gathered on a hill in Galilee. And they were looking for a Messiah, a purpose, and deliverance. Up to now they were excluded by their world. And Jesus words become a gift to them.

By the way, the narrow way may appear difficult at times. No doubt. But not to worry. Jesus will make sure you get through. All you need is the will to find it.

 

PRO LIFE SHOULD MEAN PRO LIFE ALWAYS. BABIES & GUNS.

PRO LIFE SHOULD MEAN PRO LIFE ALWAYS. BABIES & GUNS.

I am a Conservative, theologically, in that I believe in a sound Biblical, Christ- centered reading of Scripture, one that informs life within the church and within society. I am pro life, for life, for the flourishing of life by all means possible since life comes to us through Christ and in the image of God.

So here’s what I don’t understand. How can Conservatives say that they are ‘pro life’ and deny a woman’s right to choose what happens to and within her own body to save to life of a child that is to be born, and then in the same discussion NOT be willing to somehow deny the right to GUNS in order that little children as well as adults might have life along with their families and the society that would benefit from their lives.

Please don’t tell me it has to do with some obscure reference to ‘swords’ that Jesus makes when you can readily assess the heart and mind of Jesus with regards to peace and violence and ‘enemies’. Is it because we good capitalists don’t want to destroy the arms industry? Are we as conservative Christians so callous to life and so conformed to the world that we are so afraid of giving up guns rights to save more lives?

Help me out here. How can I defend the little child’s right to life within the womb when some of my brothers and sisters aren’t willing to TRY to save the lives of children in the school, on the streets, and in their homes and when they grow up?

This is a decision of THE CHURCH and not just an individual opinion based on a misinformed conscience. This is an opportunity for the church to speak a prophetic word to the church and say, in ‘Christ’s name, STOP.’

Don’t blame the criminals. They are only doing what they know to do. Blame the good people for doing nothing.

A Tight Squeeze

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy [a that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. –Jesus in Mathew 7

We don’t go willy-nilly into Kingdom Life with Jesus. He inaugurated the Kingdom on earth and explained it in the Sermon on the Mount and invites his hearers to follow him, to listen to his words and do the things he says as a way towards transformation of their hearts and a way to build strong and joyful lives, knowing that no matter their circumstances they can place their confidence in him and experience the Kingdom life.

He calls the entrance into this kind of life a narrow gate, a hard way yet one that leads to life. We cannot enter it unless we are vigorous, trusting and obedient. It’s just the way it is. Life is like that in so many ways. I like the analogy Dallas Willard uses in his book ‘The Divine Conspiracy’. He writes that a math teacher tells his students, ‘Unless you can do decimals and fractions there is no way you will be able to do algebra.’ Some of us have had that experience. You can’t just do life your own way. There are ways and means and disciplines that are strenuous but lead to better life and I the case of the Kingdom, eternal life.

If you want to play the piano there are elementary things you must do first like learning the keys and the scales and then you must practice, practice and practice some more to be good and to enjoy the piano.

If you want to play basketball you must learn that the ball needs to go into the hoop and not in just some vicinity of the basket. You must learn how to dribble, pass and work as a team or you will not make it.

If we are going to follow Jesus then we must know the way that Jesus teaches, the path he sets for us. For example he tells us to forgive. If we say ‘no’, then we will never experience God’s forgiveness. That’s just the law of Kingdom life. Do we want to live that way knowing Jesus is the greatest teacher that ever lived and he is the Son of God as well? He tells us to pray, to love, to rest, and to trust and he tells us to believe that we are the children of God, that God is our Father, our Abba in the intimate Aramaic term.

He tells us there is a door of self-denial through which we must pass. It’s narrow, stress producing and confining but through it leads to open, freeing, joyous life. Not biological life but God’s eternal life that begins now.

Jesus says to stay in his word, read his word. Read it over and over until you have mastered its contents and then mastered its heart, the heart of Jesus. Those words in the Bible have life in them. Paul writes somewhere for us to let them dwell in our hearts.

I live in a gated community and to take my dog, Lucy, for a walk I have to enter through two posts where two different gates come together separating the properties. It is one tight squeeze and here’s the thing, if I gain any more weight I will not be able to get through. Through the gate is life and a long beautiful walk through the woods. Through the narrow gate is life with Jesus, with God’s spirit, with the Father. I don’t have to lose weight to get through but I might just need to lose ‘myself’.

THE CROSS TODAY

Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him. What precisely is that cross for us in 21st century America? (See Matthew 16:24) Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have been reading a wonderful book by John Bright entitled THE KINGDOM OF GOD, in which he details from Old Testament through New Testament the meaning of God’s Kingdom. In his book he writes about the cross and what it means to take up that cross today. “This, then, is our cross: that we lay down our unrighteousness, and that easy righteousness which is our deepest sin, that the righteousness of God may rule in us; … it means total surrender in faith to the Kingdom of God. It is also our victory for the cross and the victory are one. (Page 271 of The Kingdom of God).

All that we desire for ourselves must be relinquished in order that we say to God as Jesus did, THY WILL BE DONE. Those words do not come to us with unhindered ease if they are to mean anything at all. And so we in our most humble way let God know that our desire is for his Kingdom and that we are willing to take up the cross to live in that Kingdom. I think of the thief on the cross, next to Jesus, who said, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ That is a cry that we can only make from the place of the cross in our lives.

We want peace. We want comfort. We want love. We want life. But Jesus tells us to seek more than anything else God’s rule, God’s governance, which includes the loving providence of God in all things. (See Matthew 6:33) Jesus follows that statement by one of profound significance. And everything you need shall be given to you. 33 Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well. (New Century Version) The ‘other needs’ is reference to that about which we are so anxious. Think of a place where you have had to give up your own will, willingly or not and that will be a place of the cross for you. It will mean both death and life. And the only way we will know it is true is to place our confidence in Jesus who has told us that the way to life is through death knowing that the victory has been promised to us.

Remember that Jesus, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross. And none but God’s Spirit can truly confirm this in us. And all of this should happen within the context of the fellowship of believers who know God’s word and God’s love. Today such an opportunity may come to you. Pray to receive it in Christ.

Freedom

Romans 8:21  ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ ESV

Here’s my take on what Paul is writing in these verses. Yes, creation is groaning. The world is groaning but one day it will experience the same freedom and new life that the children of God are experiencing today.
This is the reality of the Kingdom of God. The creation will take its cue from those who enter the Kingdom of God right now. Jesus said that the truth will set us free if we stay connected to him and to his word.(John 8)  It is the only way to be free of the shackles with which this world wants to imprison us. In John 16 Jesus tells his disciples that while in the world there will be tribulation we don’t have to be afraid because Jesus has overcome the world. Overcome in the sense that darkness and death do not have the final world. Fear is not the final word. The word of God in Jesus is the final word. The Kingdom of God is the final word. Resurrection is the final word. LIFE is the final word.

Jesus said to a hurting world that he had come to give life abundant (John 10) which means that we are fully embraced into the love of God by the words and works of Jesus.
We are free. Really. No matter what scene the cosmic powers of darkness may put before you eyes, God places the life and light of Jesus before us so that as we look into him we may experience the glory, the radiance of our God. And as Paul will later write, ‘if God is for us who can be against us.’ So, children of God, let’s set a good example to help free this creation from its bondage to decay.
That’s like a New Year’s resolution- if you are into that sort of thing. My life will not be darkened by the world but will rather be that light set on a hill, light that comes from the glory of God.

Comfort from the King

Imagine for a moment that Jesus is speaking to a group of people on a hillside.  He is offering them the Kingdom of God. He is the presence of the Kingdom of God and he is making his life, God’s life, available to anyone who wants to place his or her confidence in him. He is not challenging them to be a certain kind of character. He is addressing their character as they are and saying that in God’s Kingdom they are welcomed and they are blessed, favored as it were, by God.  He has already addressed those who are poor and now as he looks around he issues an invitation to another group of people who well may include those who are impoverished in spirit or material goods. Here’s what he says:

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. These are the people who hurt. Some of them may think they deserved their lot. They hurt for themselves and perhaps for others. Their pain is deep and they see no relief. It may be thought that blessings come in the form of wellness and being pain-free but Jesus says that those who place their confidence in him, again the embodiment of the Kingdom of God, will experience the comfort of the Kingdom of God. Like the Psalmist they will say, ‘your love is better than life’(Psalm 63). And the comfort that these mourners will experience may come as a surprise to them in some form that brings happiness to their souls.

Jesus knows full well that the Kingdom has been mainly shut to such people as he addresses but he welcomes them, blesses them and will eventually call some of them to follow him. This is indeed the good news that was issued to shepherds, to Mary and to many who were waiting for the Messiah of God’s Kingdom. Let us, particularly we who hurt right now see our place in the embrace of God’s comfort.

THE KITCHEN SINK, A PARABLE.

 

Well, the other day my brother and I decided to install a new kitchen sink and countertop in his home. We have lots of tools but little wisdom or skill about how to use them. A daunting task awaited. I however went on YouTube. So now have more information but still not much skill to do a good job.

Enter the Master.

So I stopped at my friend, Dan’s, house who just happened to have the day free. Now, Dan is a Master Carpenter, meticulous in detail, and a gentle spirit to work with. So Dan offered to come and help my brother and me. Inside my heart leapt. And thus began our day. What a joy to work with someone who knows what they are doing. We called Dan the ‘Master’ and we became the apprentices for the day, watching, listening, learning and even doing (under the watchful eye of the Master).  Out came the tools. Dan has all the tools and the knowledge and skill to use them all. A framing square, special saw for cutting laminate. Even a router to trim the laminate edges that meet. And Dan abides by the rule ‘measure three times and cut once’. I said he was meticulous. And then Dan handed some of the tools to us to use under his careful supervision. Dan didn’t say it but we knew he meant for us to watch him, listen to him and then put into practice what he said to do.

And the end of the day there was installed a beautiful new countertop and stainless steel sink. We were all much satisfied as was my sister-in-law when she came home.

That day was a parable. See, you and I are students of the Master trying to carve out, build, repair and otherwise complete our lives here on earth in the best fashion possible and what we do matters here and for eternity, which is a tad longer than that new sink will last.

Jesus is our Master in this process we call discipleship. He knows his stuff. He wrote the book. He is a loving and skilled teacher as well as Lord. If we listen to him and put his words into practice we will do very well indeed. We will become craftsmen in our own right. Happy craftsmen at that. But we must surrender to him in matters of life and eternal life, in relationships, in work and in personal quiet times of prayer. We must stop thinking that somehow we can do life by ourselves. We can’t. We were made for him, created to live and work with him. (I thought of moving in with Dan but his wife had other plans.)

And Jesus doesn’t just give us good advice and send us on our way. He promises to be with us, to go with us, to share his life, wisdom and love with us as we live his life in this world.

But it all takes practice. It takes discipline. And sometimes we fall on our faces and botch up the job but he picks us up and says, ‘Let’s try that one again.’

Think about your life, relationships, and your temperament. Think about serving God and then go to the Master, say, ‘ take my life and let it be consecrated to thee.’ (This is a wonderful hymn by Frances Havergal.)