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Friday, January 19, 2018

Victory On Our Knees

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2.

 “I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.”
Isaiah 57:15 (Common English Bible)

Recently Grace and I spent a weekend in the Florida Keys with two dear friends. In addition to sharing meals together, shopping, stimulating conversation about our families and an evening of bicycling, the four of us summoned the courage to try something we had never done before – paddle boarding. Popularity of the sport seems to be growing exponentially in South Florida, particularly the Keys. It looked fun and appeared to be a sport that would be easy for beginners. It was not. Paddle boarding challenges both core strength and balance and beginners spend more time falling from the board than standing. My wife, Grace, perhaps an exception; other people asking me how long she had been paddle boarding.

After several attempts at standing – and failing – Grace said to me to begin on my knees, “you have more control on your knees.” Hearing my wife’s words, my friend commented, “I hear a sermon in there somewhere!” Naturally, I was frustrated that I was unable to master paddle boarding immediately. But then, where would have been the satisfaction in that? Satisfaction of life is often preceded by considerable effort and discipline. So it is with our Christian faith. We must experience failure on our own before we can value God’s presence and strength that enables us to stand. The pinnacle of joy and satisfaction in our faith is our communion with the Risen Christ. That communion begins on our knees in prayer – our demonstration that we can’t do life apart from God.

To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. And his own life was no leap from the cradle in Bethlehem to the victory of Easter morning. Victory implies something was defeated. Between birth and resurrection, Jesus lived deeply. It was a life that knew suffering, betrayal and abandonment. We experience with Jesus the victory and joy of the Resurrection because we know all too well his hell of loneliness and pain. It was a hell that Jesus defeated because he spent so much of his life on his knees. Grace is absolutely right, “You have more control on your knees.”

The central question that confronts many today is where is God in the darkness of the present world – the darkness that seems to defeat a hope for tomorrow? Isaiah declares that our God lives with the crushed and the lowly. God is not only present in our darkness; God is at work, “reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.” God did so for Jesus. God will do so for us. What is needed is that we wait for God’s victory on our knees.

Joy,


Friday, January 12, 2018

How to Know God Better

“…growing in the knowledge of God.”
Colossians 1:10 (Common English Bible)

John Leith, theologian and teacher of the faith, once told me in a personal conversation, that the single greatest threat to the vitality of the Christian church is amnesia – the failure of the typical church member to remember the most rudimentary content of the Bible. Increasingly, those who self-identify as followers of Jesus Christ have no intentional and regular plan for reading the Old and New Testament. Yet, there remains no substitute for strengthening our grip of spiritual matters and personally contributing to a fresh and robust witness of the Christian faith. The Bible must be read regularly by God’s people for spiritual transformation.

Growth in the knowledge of God always begins with stillness. That is one of the non-negotiable conditions of knowledge of any subject. Stillness, as modeled by Jesus, is not necessarily the opposite of noise and tumult, though neither contributes to thoughtful reflection. Rather, stillness is slowing down, withdrawing from the routine of life, and turning one’s focus to one thing. The four gospels record Jesus regularly “withdrawing” from his disciples and other people to turn his attention to God alone. If we want to know more of God – indeed, to know God better – we must relax the strain of constant daily demands that are placed upon us and read God’s word.

Experiencing God deeply, as a reality in our lives, increases as we read the biblical witness of God’s mighty acts upon God’s people. Through the pages of scripture we hear God whispering, “I am with you!” But there is more. As we penetrate the stories of the Bible and listen to their claim upon us, we also hear an invitation: “Are you willing to be with me; to live into a relationship with me?” The biblical witness is always calling to us, imploring us to turn away from choices that ultimately result in our disappointment, injury or death. Attention to God in the pages of the Bible impacts the decisions we make each day. Measure upon measure we discover that we not only know God better. Our lives are changed.

As we enter the unsearchable riches of God, in the pages of the Bible, our growth in the knowledge of God becomes as organic and natural as the growth of a seed planted in rich, fertile soil. Growth is a mysterious process that belongs to God. Our responsibility, as with the planting of seed in the ground, is to provide the necessary nurture – the daily watering of the seed until we see the growth and eventual maturity of what was planted. Daily placing ourselves before God’s word in a time of stillness is God’s method for experiencing larger and larger growth in the knowledge of God. The witness and vitality of the church once known by a previous generation can happen again. It begins when the people of God recover the urgency to immerse themselves in the knowledge of God from reading the Bible.


Joy,


Friday, January 5, 2018

The Trouble with Pessimists

“At that the boy’s father cried out, ‘I have faith; help my lack of faith’”
Mark 9:23 (Common English Bible)

     Here is a remarkable story of a man with remarkable candor and honesty before Jesus, “I have faith; help my lack of faith.” The man has faith but that faith seems to be running low like a car’s gas tank that is not quite empty but requiring a stop at a gas station nonetheless. The man’s son is ill. He has tried every avenue of hope, sought everyone for help, including Jesus’ disciples. No one has been able to do anything for the boy. The boy remains with his illness. Calling from a crowd that had gathered around Jesus, the man asks Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” (Mark 9: 22b CEB) It is a plea that shows evidence of life’s failures and frustrations. Repeated disappointments in securing healing for his son has sapped the man’s reserve of faith, of his capacity to hold onto hope.

     As faith for this man wanes, nearly being dowsed by negative experiences, pessimism grows; “If you can do anything…” What is clear in this biblical narrative is that when faith diminishes, a void isn’t what remains. As faith is depleted, pessimism enlarges to fill the space. Simply, a person either lives with a narrative that with God all things are possible or they question the existence and activity of God. Life is lived with faith or with pessimism – or something between the two. This man is moving from the former to the latter. The concern for this man is that pessimism is growing rapidly as faith is withering. Pessimists are not people who don’t believe. They are people who believe in the wrong thing. The denial of God and God’s capacity to change our lives is every bit a belief structure.

     Perhaps what is most remarkable about this story is that the man recognizes within himself the withering of faith and the flourishing of pessimism, “Help my lack of faith.” He wants to turn things around in his belief narrative. Yet, he can’t do it alone. When personal faith has reached its limits, the man throws himself on the grace of God. The man asks God to supply what the man cannot, a faith that once again expands measure upon measure until pessimism is choked-out. He is unwilling to concede to the growth of pessimism.

     This man becomes our example. Repeated disappointments and difficulties can culminate in the unfortunate experience of believing in the wrong thing; of believing that life has no purpose and that we are victims of circumstance, some of it good and some that results in pain and loss. This remarkable story is a call to not settle when life disappoints. There is pain and failure and brokenness enough for all people to experience from time to time. But God remains God. The man in this story, from Mark’s Gospel, grabs hold of whatever faith he has that remains and clings to God, trusting that it will be enough. And it is.


Joy,

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Long Way

“God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! 
They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!”
Romans 11:33 (Common English Bible)

The Long Way is a midtempo country ballad written and recorded by American country music singer Brett Eldredge. Matthew Rogers co-wrote the song. Eldredge says that the song is “a look into what I want to find in love.”[i] Careful attention to the lyrics reveals how someone can get to know their partner on a deeper level by paying attention to the particulars and nuances of their life; by learning deeply about their history and hometown. Eldredge says that he co-wrote the song with Rogers during a time when he was looking for true love. Matthew Rogers was engaged to be married during the writing and the circumstances of the two writers inspired the romantic lyrics.

Here, in his letter to the Christian Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul shares that he has taken The Long Way in his deep desire to know God: “God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!” (Romans 11:33). Paul has sought “to track” God’s paths, to explore deeply all he can discover about God. Paul longs to bathe in as much detail of God’s backstory as possible; God’s riches, God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge, and God’s judgments. Paul wants it all. Paul has come to a deeper knowledge of God in the person of Jesus Christ and that knowledge – and personal experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus – has changed him. Paul dearly loves and constantly delights in his “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus.

The Long Way is a song that I wish I had written. I have downloaded the song and listen to it during my morning runs. “Take me the long way around your town. Were you the queen with the silver crown? I want the secrets you keep, the shine underneath. Of the diamond I think I just found. Take me the long way around.” As I approach the thirty-first anniversary of marriage to my wife, Grace, I can’t seem to discover enough about her. Grace is a diamond that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon so many years ago and my love for her seems to grow more expansive each day. Gladly, I take The Long Way in searching for the riches that makes her the woman she is. I don’t want to miss anything.

Paul doesn’t want to miss anything about his Lord. In a world where we don’t have meaningful conversations anymore with those we love, distracted by this and that, Paul invites us to slow down. Put away the mobile phones and the iPads and social media platforms and listen to God in the Holy Scriptures, The Bible. Permit your mind – and heart – to take The Long Way to discover again this great and beautiful God we see in Jesus Christ. Once we have, our hearts will sing along with Brett Eldredge, “Didn’t think tonight when I walked in, I’d be falling for somewhere I’ve never been.”

Joy,




[i] Kelly Brickey, “Brett Eldredge Gets Vulnerable About Love in ‘The Long Way.’” (Sounds Like Nashville: SpinMedia, August 11, 2017).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

No Place Available

“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
 Luke 2:7 (Common English Bible)

     No single incident in Jesus’ life captures more powerfully, and clearly, his reception here on earth: “there was no place for them.” In only moments prior to his birth, the words were spoken, “no place.” In his life, there would be no place in people’s hearts for a meaningful relationship with him. During his ministry, there would be no place for his teachings in the minds of those who heard him. In the synagogue, there would be no place for his prophetic message.  As Harry Emerson Fosdick once observed, “inhospitality was the central tragedy of Jesus’ life.”i

     Today, this remains a difficulty for Jesus, finding a place in our lives. It has been suggested that atheism – the denial of God’s existence – is not the major enemy of Christianity. The major enemy of the Christian faith is the inhospitality of those who will say that they believe in Jesus. Belief is important. It is the beginning place of a vital, life-giving faith. But belief without hospitality, belief without making a place for Jesus in one’s life, results in the suffocation of faith. Faith is nourished and grows in strength by an ongoing, daily relationship with Jesus. Neglect any relationship, fail to make a place for those who love you, and the consequence is the loss of that relationship. 

     Some will say that the difficulty is simply overcrowded lives. We have become increasingly busy and there is little “place in our life” left over at the end of the day. Few will question how busy we have become. That would be difficult to debate. The question that presses is, “Busy doing what?” What occupies the place of those hours that we are awake? We find places for the things we really care about. We may say that there is no place for Jesus in our life today. And then we say the same thing tomorrow. We then discover that weeks have passed without any meaningful time with God and God’s Word in the Bible. What is inescapable is that we gave our time to matters for which we cared more deeply than Jesus.

     Tonight is Christmas Eve. What we recall tonight is the birth of the Christ child. Most people know that, believers and unbelievers. But there is something else that happens on this night, something that we would do well not to forget. For the first time, the words, “there is no place” is spoken. There is no place in the guestroom for the family of Jesus Christ; no place for Jesus to be born. Someone once wisely said, “You can’t un-ring the bell.” Well, there is nothing we can do about those words spoken so long ago, “there is no place.” But tonight, as we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, we can answer for ourselves, “Will there be a place for Jesus in our life?”


Joy,
____________________

ͥ Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Hospitality to the Highest”, Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 275. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Weight of Guilt

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2.
  
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, 
and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. 
And you will find rest for yourselves.”
Matthew 11: 28, 29 (Common English Bible)

     During my recent trip to the Holy Land I saw a donkey carrying a heavy load, with heaving sides and hanging its head, it’s strength almost spent. It appeared as though this animal was ready to sink. Certainly, Jesus saw something similar. A master teacher, Jesus would take what was familiar to the people of his day, point to it, and then make use of it as an object lesson for opening-up the great truths of God’s presence and work. A donkey, struggling hard under the weight of a heavy load, may be the object lesson here in these few sentences of Matthew’s Gospel.

     There are moments in our life when we know the burden of that donkey. We struggle hard, carry heavy loads and our bodies – and spirit – become weary. Our strength is not equal to the weight. We feel as though we will sink under it all. It is precisely at that moment, the moment we fear that we will collapse, that Jesus promises “rest.” There is an intense force and allure to this gracious promise.  When our own strength has been spent, Jesus shows-up. And our gigantic weight, whatever it may be, is made manageable once again.

     I am convinced that of the scattered army of things that weigh heavily upon the human heart, none is greater than guilt. There is no exhaustion like the exhaustion created by guilt. It marshals our best efforts to defeat it only to exact a terrible drain upon our energies, dragging many into hopelessness and despair. What I am now certain of is that there is only one hope for those sinking beneath the crushing weight of guilt. It is found in the infinite power of divine forgiveness, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

     Jesus’ invitation is, “Come to me.” So rest is to be gained by finding Christ. Pay attention to Christ long enough and what will be discovered is that Christ himself found rest in his heavenly Father. What’s more, that rest he found was sought each day. Jesus never was content to live on stale grace from his Father. It was sought fresh each day. So that is our example. Christ wants his gift of “rest” to be a daily find; something we seek from him each day. And that is how it is to be retained, seeking it day after day. Christ’s desire is that life will be a prolonged spiritual quest, seeking Christ and knowing Christ more fully each day. It will be then that the weight of guilt is removed and rest is found.

Joy,

Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas Confidence

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2

“But right now, we don’t see everything under their control yet. However, we do see the one who was made lower in order than the angels for a little while – it’s Jesus!”
 Portions of Hebrews 2:8, 9 (Common English Bible)

     This Christmas season finds us rather bewildered, facing confusion, uncertainty and fear. The world seems dangerously out of control and political leaders have failed to offer a neat formula that can solve our problems or allay our anxiety. We seem a long way from the promise of Isaiah that instruments of war will become farming equipment. But as Christmas draws near, Hebrews reminds us of a man who lived in a world not unlike our own, and yet, carried with him hope and confidence – Jesus Christ. Specifically, Hebrews tells us that we may not yet see everything “under control” but we do see Jesus!

     Harry Emerson Fosdick once commented that in pointing to Jesus, Hebrews does not seek to distract us from realistic facts to a beautiful ideal; Hebrews is simply turning our attention from one set of facts to another fact. Jesus is a fact. He lived and his life left an indelible imprint upon the world. Some may question the nature of Jesus, may question the identity of Jesus as anything more than a mortal, but few question that Jesus lived. Yet, women and men of faith accept Jesus as more; accept, as fact, that Jesus is God’s decisive interruption in history to bring all things “under control”. Jesus is a towering, challenging, revealing fact that casts a whole new outlook on the present groaning of life today.

     In this season of Advent – a season of anticipation – those faithful to the Lordship of Jesus see something tremendous occurring in the midst of the daily news: they see the emergence of a disruptive force that will overcome the wild, uncivilized and uncontrolled powers that tear at the world. In the birth of Jesus, God announces that the forces of darkness now have reason to tremble. No, we do not yet see all things “under control” – far from it – but we do see Jesus! And that means that God is on the move.


     Our world today is one where fear seems to grow unchecked and uncertainty enlarges upon our consciousness. But God has come in Jesus to change the whole complexion of the world. What is required is that we open ourselves to Jesus in a manner that he can get at us and live in us so that he shapes our thoughts and behavior. One person of faith after another, opening their hearts and minds to receive the transforming power of God, makes all the difference in the world. That is our Christmas confidence.

Joy,