Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Taking risks in obedience"

I ran across this phrase today in A Call to Die by David Nasser. It's got me thinking.

What am I willing to risk today in obedience to Jesus?

How about you?

Today I risked the very simple risk of not grumbling. I was driving in traffic and drivers around me were being as patient, cautious, and gracious as drivers usually are. So I was grumbling. The Holy Spirit convicted me about my grumbling and I quit. I stopped complaining about the other guy's driving and started worrying about my own driving. I started noticing the day, the fresh snow, the beauty rather than the mud spattering my windshield when someone cut into my lane right ahead of me. (That's what windshield washer fluid is for, right?)

In the silence that followed the cessation of my grumbling I discovered something. I wrap a lot of my identity in my right to grumble. I gain a sense of superiority by criticizing others. I feel more self-righteous and justified if I point out the faults of others.

At the same time, I stopped grumbling about my schedule. I was on my way to a meeting down in the Cities that was inconvenient in my personal schedule, but fairly urgent in the larger picture of things. So I was grumbling about being inconvenienced. And I quit. I realized that my low-intensity resentment about this meeting, or about other things in my schedule, was keeping me from being sensitive to the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Plus, my grumbling kept me entrenched in my old ways of thinking. Grumbling for me is a kind of self-reinforcing behavior in which I keep telling myself that I'm right and the rest of the world is wrong. When I stop grumbling, suddenly I'm open to see other possibilities. I'm able to look at the good in my appointments, my schedule, and (gasp!) in other people's points of view.

What will you risk in obedience to Jesus? He may ask you to quit grumbling, like me. Or he may ask you to take even greater risks -- to start a conversation, maybe, or to bring up a difficult topic, or to apologize for an old hurt. To shovel your neighbor's sidewalk. To volunteer for something at church. To send flowers or write a letter. Who knows?

Take a risk in obedience to Jesus.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Obedient in the obvious things

I've been preparing to preach this weekend, reading and rereading Acts 10. I love this story, the tale of Cornelius and Peter. Cornelius becomes the first Gentile convert to Christianity. When the story starts, he already has a deep faith in God. Acts says that he is devout, fears God with all his household, gives generously to the poor, and prays constantly.

No wonder it's easy for God to work in Cornelius. He is obedient in the obvious things. In other words, when God makes clear that something is important -- prayer, for example -- Cornelius just does it.

All this obedience creates space in Cornelius' life for God to work. God has access to Cornelius; he doesn't have to fight to get into his life. So when God puts the pieces in place to help Cornelius come to know Jesus, it's not too tough.

Are you obedient in the obvious things? So often we wish we knew what God's will is, like it was some mystery that we'd be glad to obey if only God would show us what his will is. Hogwash. God has made his will obvious, and most of us are dismally disobedient in the obvious things. This might be why our spiritual lives are frustrating and disappointing.

Here's a list of a few of the obvious areas where God has made his will clear. How are you doing in the obedience department?

1. Scripture. Immerse yourself in the Bible. Read it. Read it daily. Study it. Learn it. Memorize it. Talk about it with others.

2. Worship. Make worship a weekly habit. Gather with God's people. Prepare your mind and heart before attending, and meditate on what you've experienced after the fact. Be actively involved in worship, not passively seeking to be "fed" or entertained.

3. Prayer. Spend time in prayer each day. Set aside time just to connect with God. In addition, seek opportunities to talk to God throughout the day about the details. Praise him, confess your faults and seek forgiveness, thank him, and pray for others and their needs.

4. Giving. Give ten percent of your income to your church. Find some other Jesus-focused organizations or missionaries to support in addition to this. Grind your way through the challenges of giving this much money away. Let it fly in the face of your self-centeredness and your greed.

5. Serving. Find a way to invest some time each week in serving others. Yes, you should serve your family members but this goes beyond that. Teach a kids' class. Volunteer in the church nursery. Hand out food at your local food shelf. Show up early to church tomorrow morning to shovel the walks without being asked. Shovel your neighbor's walks. Adopt a class at your local school and ask a teacher how you can serve.

6. Evangelize. Invite someone to attend worship with you. Find a community event sponsored by your church and bring someone along. Start a conversation with someone you don't know and see where God takes it. Become a Confirmation leader or youth leader at your church and give your faith away to some teenagers.

7. Ask for forgiveness. Look at the relationships in your life. Have you hurt any of these people and left a barrier up in the relationship? Seek them out and apologize. Give them the opportunity either to express their anger or to share their forgiveness. Graciously accept either one.

We'll stop there for the moment, though God has made his will clear in lots more areas. How you doing with these seven? These are the obvious things, the obvious areas God has asked us to obey. If you want to do the will of God, these are great places to start. I guarantee you, if you work to be obedient in these areas, God will bless that and will open up new places in your life to his Spirit. You'll experience his presence and his power in new ways.

God's will is not some mysterious thing. It's fairly obvious.

John Ortberg said, "Obedience is the means by which we experience (not earn) God's grace." Amen!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

So let me clarify.

I believe in heaven, and I believe in hell. (Jesus took them both seriously, so I should too.)

So what's my problem?

Mark Twain said something like this: It's amazing to think that Christians are eager to spend eternity worshipping God, an activity which in this life seems tedious after just an hour.

I don't want us to make heaven about us and what we want. Simple as that. It's about God and what he wants.

So God wants lots of company, and he is eager to save people. Those who put their trust in him, he will welcome to heaven. Jesus is the means -- the person, the event, the revelation -- by which God shows us how to trust him. Because Jesus died for me (key words) and I put my trust in him, God is eager to welcome me into his presence when I die.

But here's the thing. If I say I believe that Jesus died for me, that belief should bear some fruit in this life. The fruit Jesus said it should bear is that I should lose myself -- lose my obsession with myself, mostly -- and focus on him.

Too many "Christians" are obsessively focused on themselves and Jesus is just a means to an end. He is a convenient Savior, but he is not really Lord in any sense for these people.

Maybe that's a better way to state this. We are too eager to make Jesus my savior and not interested at all in surrendering to him as Lord. But if you count up the numbers, the New Testament calls Jesus "Lord" far more -- FAR more -- than it calls him Savior.

And if I live a self-centered life in this existence, what makes me think that after I die, I'll be eager to live in heaven where Jesus' lordship is absolute? There people count it a privilege to worship him, and they sing of his glory all the time, not just for an hour on Sunday morning. (See Revelation 4-5 if you doubt this.)

You can tell the saints -- the holy ones -- in this life by this simple test. The saints are the ones who are frustrated by their selfishness. They see the shreds of their old self-obsessed life and they long for Jesus to make them holy. They are tired of looking out for their own welfare. When they see Jesus face to face in heaven and his glory burns away that last bit of self-interest in them, they will be greatly relieved and overjoyed.

In hell, on the other hand, those who have lived in this life with their self-centered interests and agendas may just be given perfect freedom to continue those priorities through all eternity. It's enough to make you weep and gnash your teeth.

Salvation is not about me and what I get. It's about Jesus and what he's already given me. Now I just want to learn to see him, follow him, serve him more and more.

Thought for the day:

Quote from A Call to Die by David Nasser, p. 74:

"Take time to think about what God has done for you. Let the Holy Spirit remind you of how God's great grace has rescued you. No, many things may not have gone the way you hoped. But even in those disappointments, God is still God. He may have been directing you in a better direction. He may have been protecting you from harm you didn't see. He may have been testing you to strengthen you. He may have been stripping away some attitudes that hinder your relationship with him. He may have been preparing you for a deeper walk with him. Recognize that God is at work, and give thanks."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ranting about salvation

I'm ticked off about salvation.

I'm not upset that God wants to save us. I'm not frustrated that Jesus came to "seek and save the lost" by his death and resurrection. I'm not angry that someday God will welcome his faithful ones into a heavenly dwelling because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. All that is good and right and biblical.

I'm ticked about the fact that you and I are worried about whether we're going to heaven.

It's not our business.

I believe that what we have done with salvation is a crime against God and against ourselves. We have made this word, "salvation", about me, and about me going to heaven when I die. I can't tell you how many times I've dealt with people's questions about how much do I have to do, or will this sin keep me out, or how can I be sure I'm going there and not to hell. I'm not happy about it, because as a church culture we have TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT.

(By the way, this is one reason why the world outside the church is totally blowing us off these days, because the idea of heaven is no longer a convincing idea to most people outside the church. Ditto for hell.)

Here's the basic problem with salvation. Most of Christianity -- popular Christianity, anyway -- makes "me getting to heaven" the entire point of the Christian life. Witnessing to others, doing good things, avoiding overt and shameful sins, attending worship services, sponsoring a kid in Africa -- all these things and much, much more is done by many, many people so that they will go to heaven when they die and (in the best cases) so that they'll take a lot of people with them.

We have so missed the point.

Listen to what Jesus said about being saved:

"If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, and for the gospel, you will find it."

Many Christians, and much of the popular imagination about Christianity, and in fact George Barna's whole system about classifying Christianity into several helpful categories, turns on the business of being "born again." This term comes from a conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to him in the dark to talk about Jesus and his identity. (See John 3). Jesus turned the conversation on Nicodemus and said, "Truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Did you hear that? Jesus never says, "If you are born again -- by which I mean you must pray the sinner's prayer and turn your heart and life over to me and accept me as Savior and Lord -- then when you die I'll let you into heaven so you get the double benefit -- you avoid the fires of hell and eternal punishment and all that nasty stuff, and you have pleasure and self-indulgence and the joy of seeing God's face for ever and ever."

No, Jesus says that we won't see the kingdom of God unless we are born again. Or, to use the alternate meaning of the Greek word anothen, born "from above." So Jesus is not even talking about heaven, at least not some after-death paradise of a heaven. He's talking about seeing the kingdom of God.

Here's the tragedy: There are hundreds and thousands and probably millions of people who consider themselves born-again Christians, who went down on their knees and prayed the sinner's prayer and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, who couldn't see the kingdom of God if it parked in their driveway. So if Jesus has it right -- and I'm pretty sure he does, always -- whatever they did in that transaction, it did not involve being born "anothen," born again / from above, at least not in the way Jesus meant the term.

The question really comes down to this. When Jesus talks about us being "saved" what does he mean? We seem to think that has something to do with being saved from the fires of hell. But is that what Jesus thinks?

I did a search on the term "hell" in the gospels. I found eight references in Matthew, three in Mark, and one in Luke. Most of these have to do with the passages where Jesus says, "If your eye (or hand or whatever) offends you, get rid of it -- it's better to enter heaven with one eye than to go to hell with 20/20 vision." I'm paraphrasing, you understand. Jesus never -- NEVER -- says, "believe in me so you will not go to hell."

If we had it right, if this was really the point of believing in Jesus, don't you think he'd at least have said that once? But he doesn't. Ever.

What about heaven? Shake the cobwebs off your preconceptions and think hard about this. Forget your kindergarten understanding of a place in the clouds with glow-in-the-dark Jesus standing by God's big chair. The Bible talks a lot about heaven, but it doesn't describe what you are thinking of.

The gospels use the term "heaven" or some form of it 138 times. Matthew again has the most occurrences -- 75 times he uses the term "heaven" or "heavenly." Most of the time he's using the term to describe God somehow -- Jesus talks a lot about "my Father in heaven." Maybe that's about location, or maybe God the Father being "in heaven" says something about his eternal qualities or his spiritual authority or contrasts him with the corrupted nature of things here on earth. Matthew also cites Jesus talking a great deal about "the kingdom of heaven" which in Luke is usually "the kingdom of God." Here heaven is used to describe whose kingdom it is and what it's about. Jesus doesn't say, "Here's how you get to heaven, which is a place where my Father has his throne set up." The closest I can find to this sort of a statement is where Jesus says in John 14, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me." Notice he's not talking about you getting to a place of perfect delight, he's talking about getting to the Father. Which, throughout the Old Testament anyway, was a place guaranteed to get you killed because God's glory would blow you away in a heartbeat.

Fact is, there is very little support -- almost none -- in the Bible for the way we talk about "being saved," as though Jesus was going to save me from hell so I could go to heaven where I'll be happy.

Now, understand, I am totally in favor of salvation. But I want to understand what Jesus means by it, and if I'm going to set my sights on a goal, I want it to be the goal Jesus wants me to focus on. So what does Jesus mean by salvation?

If this little blog post is under your skin and you want to get to the bottom of this, Matthew 7:13-27 is pretty important. This is the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount, and it includes one of the places where Jesus talks about how important it is to enter through the narrow way. (Luke 13 is the other, where the disciples ask, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" In response Jesus says, "Strive to enter by the narrow door.") Go read that Matthew 7 passage right now, or click on it at the top of this paragraph. Don't read from your own assumptions, but see what Jesus seems obviously to be saying.

Done reading? Good.

Did you notice the bit about false prophets? Judge them by their fruits, namely by their way of life and what it produces. Don't buy everything they tell you.

Did you read the part about building your house on the rock? Jesus says those who hear his words and do them are like people who build on a solid foundation.

Get it? Jesus is talking about a way of life here, not about praying some prayer that gets you through the narrow door. Read what he actually says! Entering through the narrow door has to do with following in the way Jesus walked (see 1 John 2:6 if you need this spelled out plainer).

Some of you are thinking, "Jeff! What are you saying?! Are you saying that we are saved by our works?! I know that's not right!" Stop it, okay? Stop making this about you getting in good with God. Stop making it about you going to heaven or hell. Stop making it about you. Nobody except you is talking about that!

Jesus is talking about a way of life that is full and glorifies God. In John 10 he calls it "abundant life." In John 15 he says that if you don't remain connected to him, you have no life in you. Now we are just beginning to see what Jesus means by "salvation."

Salvation is being connected to Jesus. Many people believe they have accepted Jesus into their hearts and they have done so only out of fear for their own hides. They can't even begin to see the kingdom of God (John 3 again) because they're not concerned about God being in charge of anything unless it keeps them out of the lake of fire. They are using Jesus to help themselves. Jesus says, "If you don't remain connected to me, you have no life in you." In other words, you might believe that Jesus is your personal-Lord-and-Savior but if you don't know him, if you're not connected to him, if you're not trying to build a relationship with him, you're fooling yourself.

Are you connected to Jesus? Are you listening to his words? Are you reading and rereading the gospels? Are you pondering what he did in allowing himself to be crucified? Are you wracking your brains to figure out what it means that he rose out of death? Do you watch him to figure out whether he's joking or pulling your leg or deadly serious? Do you pay attention to what he says? Do you try to get to know people who are close to him, so you can be close to him as well? If you are doing these things you are beginning to understand what Jesus meant by salvation. Because the closer you get to him, the more of his life he will pour into you.

And this will be hard, because the closer you get to him, the more your old ways of thinking and living are going to be exposed, and the more you will have to choose between Jesus and that dream vacation, Jesus and that promotion, Jesus and those lustful thoughts, Jesus and your self-centered security. Don't worry, you won't always choose Jesus. Sometimes you'll choose yourself, and he'll let you, and you'll be miserable. Eventually you'll come back and say, "Break me, Lord, I don't want to live like this anymore." And eventually he'll grant that hard request, but it takes time. Over that time, your life will begin to bear fruit that looks like Jesus is present. He'll work through you to touch the lives of others. He'll speak through you to bring comfort and healing to others. In the most desperate circumstances, he'll pour his peace into your soul and you'll be able to stand like a rock for others to hold onto. Part of the mystery is, most of the time you won't be able to see this fruit but others will see it and want to get closer to you, because unknown to you, you are starting to look more and more like him.

This is the beginning of what Jesus means by salvation. It has very little to do with what happens after we die and a great deal to do with how we live here and now.

Jesus used the term "eternal life," or maybe a better translation is "the life of eternity." The emphasis here -- John 3:16 among others -- is on "life." "Eternal" is just an adjective. Jesus wants you to have real life, and you don't get that by making a self-centered decision to save yourself from hell. You get that by being connected to Jesus.

So what about those who cry out on their death beds? You're worrying about who gets into heaven and who goes to hell again, but I'll indulge you this time. The tragedy is that they have waited so long and missed so much. But the joy and the excitement is that their last-minute appeal shows the depth and the width of God's grace, because he will never turn away a heart that wants to be connected to Jesus. And for those who throw themselves on Jesus like a drowning person grabs for a life preserver, there is now "no condemnation" (Romans 8:1). Even in the last moments of life, a person can -- and often does -- experience a fullness, a richness, of the presence of the Jesus they ran from all their lives.

If we are concerned about getting ourselves out of hell and into heaven, we've missed the point. We are not connecting to Jesus, we're just looking out for number one. If you try to save your life you're going to lose it. But if you lose sight of yourself and focus on Jesus, you'll find that in losing yourself you gain more than you thought possible. Jesus will start to live his life through you and in you.

That's what it means to be saved.

Diognetus weighs in

This is another reprint of one of Pastor Leon Stier's devotions (you can find more info or subscribe here)

From the LETTER TO DIOGNETUS on the Early Christians (2nd century, A. D.)

From The Early Christians: In Their Own Words , (ch. 3, #28); Selected and Edited by Eberhard Arnold (1883-1935)

Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of humankind by country, speech, or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not speak a special language; they do not follow a peculiar manner of life. Their teaching was not invented by the ingenuity or speculation of men, nor do they advocate mere book learning, as other groups do. They live in Greek cities and they live in non-Greek cities according to the lot of each one. They conform to the customs of their country in dress, food, and the general mode of life, and yet they show a remarkable, an admittedly extraordinary structure of their own life together. They live in their own countries, but only as guests and aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign country is their homeland, and every homeland is a foreign country to them. They marry like everyone else, and beget children... They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but through their way of life they surpass these laws. They love all people and are persecuted by all. Nobody knows them, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and just through this they are brought to life. They are as poor as beggars, and yet they make many rich. They lack everything, and yet they have everything in abundance. They are dishonored, and yet have their glory in this very dishonor. They are insulted, and just in this they are vindicated. They are abused, and yet they bless. They are assaulted, and yet it is they who show respect. Doing good, they are sentenced like evildoers. When punished with death, they rejoice in the certainty of being awakened to life. Jews attack them as people of another race, and Greeks persecute them, yet those who hate them cannot give any reason to justify their hostility.... How they are thrown to the wild beasts to make them deny the Lord! How unconquerable they are! Do you not see that the more of them that are executed, the more do the others grow in number? That is clearly not the work of men. That is the power of God. That is proof of his presence.

In a word: what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. As the soul is present in all the members of the body, so Christians are present in all the cities of the world. As the soul lives in the body, yet does not have its origin in the body, so the Christians live in the world yet are not of the world. Invisible, the soul is enclosed by the visible body: in the same way the Christians are known to be in the world, but their religion remains invisible. Even though the flesh suffers no wrong from the soul, it hates the soul and fights against it because it is hindered by the soul from following its lusts; so too the world, though suffering no wrong from the Christians, hates them because they oppose its lusts. The soul loves the flesh, but the flesh hates the soul; as the soul loves the members of the body, so the Christians love those who hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, yet it holds the body together; the Christians are kept prisoners in the world, as it were, yet they are the very ones who hold the world together. Immortal, the soul lives in a mortal house; so too the Christians live in a corruptible existence as strangers and look forward to incorruptible life in heaven. When the body is poorly provided with food and drink, the soul gains strength. In the same way the number of Christians increases day by day when they are punished with death. Such is the important task God has entrusted to the Christians and they must not shirk it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What do you think is possible?

I went to the doctor yesterday. Routine appointment to try to find a good generalist who can deal with physicals, routine prescriptions, and those goofy health forms that require a doctor's signature. Seems like every time I find one, he transfers to Tallahassee or something. I don't think it's about me, but I'm starting to wonder. This is the fourth doc in seven years, so we'll see how long he hangs around.

But that's not what I'm writing about. During the "I'll interview you and make sure you're a good doc and you'll interview me and see if I'm a train wreck" part of the appointment, he asked me what I do for exercise.

This is a difficult question for me because during the summers I do a lot of mountain biking, canoeing, hiking. During the fall I climb trees and do a lot of archery and do anaerobic heart exercises every time a deer walks by. In the winter, I sit in my recliner a lot and think about going snowshoeing, but it's so terribly cold. Sometimes I do go snowshoeing, and other times I get my heart into the myocardial infarction zone by shoveling my driveway. But you and I both know the doctor doesn't want to hear all this, so I just say, "I do some running." And this is true. This year, knowing the siren song of my recliner all too well, I decided I would try hard to run at least three times a week on the treadmills at the YMCA. So I've been doing that, even though I hate treadmills and running indoors is weird and I'd rather be climbing trees or mountain biking. I mumble a few details about a couple miles, a couple times a week, sometimes more, at the Y, dadadadada ...

The doc's face lit up like a laser beam. "Me, too!" he almost shouted. "I started running a year ago, kind of like you, because you look at runners and they're all so FIT, you know, and you think, 'I want to be fit,' so you start running, and I did and I was doing a couple miles a couple times a week and then I signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon and I told everyone in the office I was going to do it and I set the packet they sent me on my dresser so I saw it every morning so I did the whole 'train for eighteen weeks and you, too, can run a marathon' thing and then in October I ran it and I finished and I did it in under four hours, which was my goal, and it was so cool, oh, and the registration opened up like two days ago and you HAVE to do it."

I don't think they teach about run-on sentences in medical school.

There has never been any part of me that wants to run a marathon. I've always been repulsed by the idea of running twenty-six miles non-stop. Besides, if you know the story, the first guy that did it ran from Athens to Marathon, collapsed in the arms of the city elders, whispered, "Rejoice! We conquer!" (which sounds even cooler in Greek than in English) and then he DIED. Why would I want to run a marathon?

The thing is -- and there's really no way around this for me -- is even if I don't ever run a marathon (which I don't think I will) my world got rocked yesterday. The idea that someone who ran about as much as me could register for the TC Marathon and then run it a few short months later is more than what I thought was possible.

So I have to wonder. Have I been selling myself short? Have I been saying, "Oh, I'm forty-four" -- the exact age of my new doctor, by the way -- "and I have to take it easy. It's hard to get in shape. It would take years and more hours than I'm willing to invest and besides, I could never do that anyway, I'm not much of a runner." Have I been taking the coward's way out and not pushing myself to grab all that is possible?

Then I start to think, this is not just about running. What other areas of my life have I been selling myself short? What is possible, but I have been unwilling to try?

I think much of the time we miss God's call because what God calls us to do doesn't sound possible, and we just laugh it off. I wanted to write a book for years and years, and I thought writing a book was kind of like training for a marathon -- it would take me decades. But then one November I just started writing, and I wrote every day. About the time I finished the manuscript, God sent a "chance" conversation with the husband of the acquisitions editor of Augsburg Fortress Publishing (who I said I didn't want to write for, by the way) and voila! I wrote a book and it got published.

"For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37) Maybe that thing you think is impossible is exactly what God is calling you to grab for.