Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Radical Inclusion"

            In the early 1960s, racial tensions were at a great height, with sit-ins and demonstrations taking place around the country to protest segregation.  On May 6, 1960, President Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights act of 1960.  Under the new Kennedy administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed on in March of 1961.  In May of the same year, the first Freedom Rides took place in Washington, DC.  Violent white resistance in three southern states prompted President Kennedy to dispatch federal marshals to keep the peace.  It was in this turbulent year that Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) published his lovely little story, The Sneetches, highlighting the pointless artificial separations we create between people who are basically the same.

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they'd snort
“We'll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!"
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They'd hike right on past them without even talking.

            Star-belly Sneetches left Plain-belly Sneetches out of their children’s games, out of their social events, out of every aspect of life, insisting that Star-bellies were superior in every way.  When a salesman came to town, offering to put stars on Plain-bellies for only $3 each, everybody made the change.  But the originally-starred Sneetches complained because they wanted to maintain their superior status.  So, the salesman told them that it was no longer fashionable to wear stars, and removed all their stars for $10.  But then the newly-starred Sneetches wanted to be like the newly-plain Sneetches, so they had theirs removed.  And on and on it went.

Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch!"

But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say
The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.[i]

            We’d like to say that history, or Dr. Seuss, or somebody, has taught us a lesson, but today it seems we have the same issues with who’s in and who’s out as we did in the early 1960s.  Some of the “in” people have changed, and some of the “out” people have, too.  Many of them have remained the same.  But society and churches still resound with voices of judgment and exclusion, rather than the radical inclusion taught by Jesus.

            In the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel, Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration (v. 20).”[ii]  Like many African-Americans in 1960s America, who wanted equal rights, opportunities, and access—Many Greeks in Jesus’ day wanted to be included in the religious practices of the Jewish people.  These “Greeks” weren’t necessarily from Greece; this was a nickname among Jesus’ people for Gentiles—anybody who was not Jewish.  These spiritually seeking outsiders were so attracted to the Jewish worship of God that they were willing to risk becoming social and political outcasts in order to find the truth.  So they came to Jesus’ disciple Philip looking for answers.

            Most students of most rabbis would have turned these Gentile seekers away, but Jesus was no ordinary teacher, and Philip was no ordinary disciple.  Nearly every time we see Philip in the Gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, he introduces Nathanael to the Master, and then he is one of two disciples involved in bringing the boy whose lunch would feed a multitude.  So instead of turning them away, Philip thought, “Perhaps Jesus would welcome even people such as these.”  Without another moment of hesitation, he told Andrew about it, and the two disciples told Jesus.

            It’s easy to picture Jesus’ welcoming face as He meets these spiritual seekers, these “outsiders.”  He trusts them by dropping truth about His own death and calling them to abandon all their false priorities in exchange for eternal life.  Then He says a radical thing: Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me (verse 26).”  In a land of Star-bellied Sneetches, Jesus told these Plain-bellies that they were acceptable too, without having to change a thing.  All that’s necessary is that they follow Him and serve Him.  Later, Jesus underscores this radical inclusion by saying of His own crucifixion, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself (verse 32).” In fact, in this same story, God speaks from the heavens and many in the crowd only hear it as thunder.  Only those with seekers’ hearts discern that something supernatural has happened—might these observant people have been the same Gentiles who came to Jesus?

            Paul echoes this radical inclusion when he says in Romans 10:12-13, “For there is no difference between Jew and Greek: The same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on Him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  In addition to ethnic or language differences, Paul adds gender and economic differences to those things that God cares nothing about (Galatians 3:28).  Romans 2:11 (GWT) says, “God does not play favorites”—and neither should we.  To God, Sneetches are Sneetches—people are people.  And when churches and Christian groups say, “all are welcome,” the should mean it—with no exceptions.

[i] Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches and Other Stories.  New York: Random House.  1961.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.  Underlined words are my own emphasis.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Kingdom of Heaven"

                Leonidas, King of Sparta, was preparing to make a stand with his Greek troops against the Persian army in 480 B.C. when a Persian envoy arrived. The man urged on Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army. "Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."
"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade.”.[i]

            It was this kind of hero that the people of Israel were looking for as they prayed God would send them a Messiah.  Someone with so much courage that he would stand against Roman tyranny and cast the oppressors out of the Holy Land.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The people hailed a king, because they had seen much and come to the wrong conclusions.  You might mistake Jesus for a kingly candidate, too, if you had seen what they saw.  Because, like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we often don’t see Jesus’ kingdom for what it truly is.

            For example, What if you took Jesus’ miracles, and instead of looking at them on a personal level, you applied them on a national level?  What if Jesus were running for President of Israel—I mean, if they elected leaders instead of declaring a king?  What would His platform look like?  That depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?  According to some in Israel, they expected that Jesus would:

  • ·         Provide bumper crops like He supplied a great catch of fish (Jn 21)
  • ·         Tax the fish instead of the people (Mt 17)
  • ·         Throw lavish parties with ever-flowing wine (Jn 2)
  • ·         Provide national healthcare (Mt 15:30)
  • ·         Set right all environmental problems (Mk 4:35-41)
  • ·         Feed an army just like He had fed the multitude (Mt 14, 15)
  • ·         Raise the dead (ensuring an unbeatable military) (Jn 11)
  • ·         Command legions of angels (Mt 26:53) for military and secret service
  • ·         Save them from the Romans (Jn 12:12-19)

But that’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.  Though He often spoke in terms of God as King, and God’s reign as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus meant something different by it than what His hearers understood.  They were looking for an earthly monarchy, but Jesus meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, Jesus’ policies would never work on a national level—and that’s one of the reasons the people ultimately turned against Him.  I mean, if Jesus’ Way were turned into law, there would be public outcry.  His agenda would include:

  • ·         Praying for your enemies, and doing good to them (Mt 5:44)
  • ·         Helping your enemies out when they’re in trouble (Lk 10:25-37)
  • ·         Lending, expecting nothing back (Lk 6:35)
  • ·         Practicing unlimited forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35)
  • ·         Putting other people first, and yourself last (Mark 9:35)
  • ·         Refusing to take up the sword (Mt 26:52)
  • ·         Welcoming strangers, feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick (Mt 25:31-46)
  • ·         Refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1-6)

Nobody would win a national election with a platform like that!  Winners who are good at winning win by telling people that their group is the best, by teaching them how they can defeat their enemies, make a profit, win military victories—and they do so by reinforcing to people that they are in the right and everybody else is in the wrong.  But that’s not who Jesus was.  He didn’t come to rule the nation, but to be a role model for all who would follow Him.  He came not to conquer, but to die in order to demonstrate God’s great love.

The problem is that somewhere along the way—when Christianity went from being a minority persecuted by the Roman Empire, to the majority backed by a converted Roman Empire—religion and the throne married one another.  People were baptized not because they believed, but because it was fashionable and profitable and advantageous.  From that day, religion used the power of the state to enforce itself, and the state used the authority of religion to back its claims.  A new word was born: Christendom was the geo-political designation of all nations that claimed Christianity as the state religion.  People began to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven for every realm on the globe that claimed to be a Christian nation.  They forgot that Jesus didn’t come to establish kingdoms, but to reign in the human heart.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He didn’t gallop in on a white stallion, waving a banner and calling men to arms.  Instead, He came humbly, riding on a donkey.  When he stood beaten before Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36 NLT).”  Since Jesus said it from His own mouth, Pilate could see no reason to execute Him.  Jesus clearly was not an earthly King.  He did not come to challenge Rome or to change any human government.  Instead, He came to change people’s hearts.  Yet, Jesus’ opponents wanted to maintain their little kingdoms and power structures, so He was executed nonetheless.

Much like Jesus’ own opponents, Christians today get far too caught up in worldly kingdoms, and lose track of the true Realm of Heaven.  Some of our worldly kingdoms are political—like our egocentric belief that government should reflect Christian values rather than what’s good for people of all backgrounds.  Just like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who became too embroiled in the politics of Israel and Rome, Christians get too tangled up in the matters of this world, forgetting that “our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20 NIV).”  Other kingdoms are the little territories in our own lives that we seek to control, at work, at church, in our families, and in our other occupations.  We become possessive, manipulative, and deceitful, engaging in the kinds of intrigues one might normally expect from government officers and spies.  We fancy ourselves as heroes like Leonidas, rather than remembering that Jesus calls us not to be lions, but lambs.  Instead of fighting for our little kingdoms, or even for some idea of governmental Christendom, the Spirit of God calls us to model our lives after the One who saves through sacrifice.  Just like Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, neither will the people around you.  But you’ll be living the life of a prince or princess in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’ll be living a life of peace.

[i] Today in the Word, November 4, 1993.  June 15, 2017.

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Give and Take"

                If you’re like me, then periodically you take a look at your money, to figure out where your spending, saving, or investing is on target, where you might be underspending, and where you might be overspending.  According to a Mental Floss article by Lucas Reilly,[i] “Last year, Americans spent $10.7 trillion shopping. With that much dough, you could buy over 2000 aircraft carriers, 300 private islands, and still have money left over for a latte. Here’s a taste of the things we bought—and how much we spent on them.”

  • ·         Beer: $96 billion
  • ·         Over-the-Counter Teeth Whiteners: $1.4 billion
  • ·         Pet Halloween Costumes: $310 million 
  • ·         Romance Novels: $10 billion
  • ·         Chocolate: $16 billion
  • ·         Perfume: $4.2 billion
  • ·         Gambling: $34.6 billion
  • ·         Coffee: $11 billion 
  • ·         Tattoos: $2.3 billion
  • ·         Tattoo Removal: $66 million
  • ·         Golf Balls: $500 million
  • ·         Girl Scout Cookies: $800 million
  • ·         Taxidermy: $800 million
  • ·         Video Games: $17 billion dollars
  • ·         Soft Drinks: $65 billion
  • ·         Bottled Water: $11 billion
  • ·         Fast Food: $117 billion
  • ·         Professional Sports: $25.4 billion
  • ·         Ringtones: $5 billion worldwide

Certainly, there are areas of extravagance in your own life that you look at and consider justifiable.  Recently, I spent a considerable sum on travel, and it was totally worth it!  Then, other times, you evaluate your spending and determine where to cut back on your opulence.  How we determine our priorities involves a little give-and-take within our lives and budgets.  John 12:1-8 (NLT) gives an example of two opposite approaches and attitudes to our personal finances, and the way we give to God.
 Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary’s attitude toward money came from a perspective of gratitude.  We know that the Master frequently visited their home in Bethany.  In Luke 10, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to receive His teaching, and Jesus defended her right to do so.  In John 11, Jesus raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead.  So her extravagant giving reflected her gratitude for what God had done for her.  Seeing that God had already provided her needs, she had faith that God would do so again.  This faith prompted her to spend and give from an attitude of abundance.

Judas, on the other hand, came from a perspective of scarcity and greed.  These two go hand in hand.  Because a person believes in a limited amount of good, greed says they have to hoard it all for themselves and not let others have it.  Judas’ objection had nothing to do with real charity, but was truly motivated out of greed because he stole from the common purse.  Rather than wanting the poor to be blessed, or even for Jesus to be honored with Mary’s lavish gift, Judas wanted to line his own pockets.

When faced with a choice as to how to spend, save, invest, and give, we need to check our attitudes and see whether we are really grateful for God’s provision and therefore generous, or whether we have a scarcity perspective and are therefore greedy.  Our attitude will either make us like extravagant Mary or thieving Judas.  Yes, it’s possible for us to cheat God and therefore cheat ourselves, if we have the wrong attitudes.  In Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT), God says:

 “Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me!
“But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’
“You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me.You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!
These verses have been misused by Prosperity Gospel preachers who say you can get rich by giving to the church.  While they don’t promise that, they do indicate two things.  First, that a Mary-like perspective of abundance enables you to be generous with God and with other people.  2 Corinthians 9:6-7 says, “Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”  Because you reap what you sow, when you give blessing into the world, you also reap blessing.  So through Malachi’s voice, God offers a challenge—to test God in this and try generosity as a way of life.

The second thing Malachi says is that it’s possible for us to be like Judas, who dipped his hand into the purse.  You might not be literally stealing from the offering plate, but you could be robbing God by withholding generosity from God or from people.  Your church has budgetary needs, and Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you.”  God asks believers to support good work.  Greedy, grasping hands like Judas’ might deprive the church and its ministries (like benevolence) of sustenance.  If you have an attitude of scarcity, you might unwittingly be cheating God, others, and yourself of blessing.

When I look at the things Americans overspend on, I find my own spirit convicted by some aspects of that list.  Do you?  How can you add a little give-and-take to your budget, so that you increase your giving and decrease your taking?  Like Malachi, I challenge you to pray about it—and test God in it.  See how you can be less like Judas and more like Mary

[i] Reilly, Lucas.  “By the Numbers: How Americans Spend Their Money.”  Mental Floss.  

Monday, July 3, 2017


             On this Fourth of July week, we celebrate American freedom, and remember the history that made her great.  One of the hallmarks of the American experience is our belief in religious freedom.  But is that freedom all that the history books have reported?  Smithsonian Magazine’s Kenneth C. Davis writes that the storybook version we have learned may contain fact, but that it also neglects some key points of history. In 1620, pilgrims from the Mayflower settled in Massachusetts, fleeing religious persecution in England.  But far from creating a bastion of religious freedom, they became intolerant of anyone whose views differed from their own.  Davis says:

The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.” [i]

Let me step outside of the American experience and look at the violent history of our own faith on a global scale. From the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine enforced Christianity with the sword, and made heresy a crime punishable by death.  In the Middle Ages, crusaders were guaranteed salvation if they marched to Jerusalem and took it for Jesus—because as the pope said, “God wills it!”  Millions of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the name of Christ.  Then there were the tortures and executions of the Spanish Inquisition, and the extermination of Native Americans by the Conquistadores in the New World.  Violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Jesus is a horrible scar on our faith.  This is why we must not define a “Christian” as someone who is baptized, who is a member of the church, or who signs a creed on the dotted line.  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:35[ii]).”  So we must ask ourselves, How Christian is the history of Christianity?

You see, we Christians have a bit of a martyr complex.  Certainly, we have been the victims of much persecution and violence, but we need to come to terms with our own history of violence in God’s name.  As we say in the South, “we come by it honestly,” meaning that we inherited this legacy through many generations.  Even in Jesus’ day, religious people persecuted other religious people who didn’t see things the same way.  In John 11:45-57, the high priest (who should have been the most godly man in the nation) conspired with other religious leaders to put Jesus to death.  Jesus had to go into hiding and stop His public ministry because of their persecution.  John 12:9-11 tells us that they not only planned to kill Jesus, but that they wanted to kill Lazarus too, because he was evidence of Jesus’ claims.  Violence perpetrated by religious people for the sake of religion is all over the Bible—and it seems that Jesus’ followers have learned from this example.

How different this is from the character of Christ himself—who never wielded His word as a weapon, and who spoke against violence and advocated peace.  “Those who use the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:52).  The problem is that many Christians who have learned about the “sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)” have forgotten that the Bible is a weapon against demonic strongholds (Ephesians 6:12), and have instead used physical or verbal violence against people for religious ends.  In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.”  But we have taken up the sword instead of the cross.  Instead of laying down our lives for others as Jesus did, we choose to sacrifice others at the altars of our own spiritual smugness and religious egos. 

We do this every time we degrade others because of their ethnicity, gender identity, nation of origin, their faith, or lack of faith.

We do this whenever we deny others the same rights we enjoy, because they follow different convictions from our own.

We do this whenever we insist that our way is the way it ought to be, because we happen to be in the majority. 

What if one day they (whoever they are) are in the majority?  Do we want the religious views of the majority to be the law of the land?  Or do we want a land that is governed by equality, where people of every faith, and no faith at all, stand on level ground?  Those who stood opposed to Jesus decided that verbal and physical violence was the way to accomplish their goals.  Too often, Christians have learned from biblical violence and become persecutors instead of peacemakers.  Jesus told Saul on the road to Damascus that when he persecuted others, he was persecuting Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4).  Jesus said whatever we do to others, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40).  So, when we marginalize others for the sake of our religious convictions, we marginalize Jesus too.  Jesus’ Golden Rule teaches us to do to others what we would have done to us (Matthew 7:12).   What could be more plain?  Why can’t Christians just treat others nicely, even if they have different views?  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  This Fourth of July weekend, as we celebrate our freedom, let’s never let our religious liberty be a stick we use to beat others with, and take away their freedom.  Instead, let’s show we are Christians by our love.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Lost Causes"

In August, 2010, reported the following story:

It was a final chance to say goodbye for grieving mother Kate Ogg after doctors gave up hope of saving her premature baby.
She tearfully told her lifeless son - born at 27 weeks weighing 2lb - how much she loved him and cuddled him tightly, not wanting to let him go.
Although little Jamie's twin sister Emily had been delivered successfully, doctors had given Mrs Ogg the news all mothers dread - that after 20 minutes of battling to get her son to breathe, they had declared him dead.
Having given up on a miracle, Mrs Ogg unwrapped the baby from his blanket and held him against her skin. And then an extraordinary thing happened.
After two hours of being hugged, touched and spoken to by his mother, the little boy began showing signs of life…
[The mother said,], 'A short time later he opened his eyes. It was a miracle. Then he held out his hand and grabbed my finger.
'He opened his eyes and moved his head from side to side. The doctor kept shaking his head saying, "I don't believe it, I don't believe it".'
The Australian mother spoke publicly for the first time…to highlight the importance of skin-on-skin care for sick babies, which is being used at an increasing number of British hospitals.
In most cases, babies are rushed off to intensive care if there is a serious problem during the birth.
But the 'kangaroo care' technique, named after the way kangaroos hold their young in a pouch next to their bodies, allows the mother to act as a human incubator to keep babies warm, stimulated and fed.[i]

            It is clear that not all lost causes are lost.  Sometimes, life wins despite amazing odds.  In John 11:1-44, Jesus faces the hopeless situation of his friend’s death.  You’d think that if anybody was a lost cause, it’d be Lazarus.  By the time Jesus arrives, the body has been in the grave four days.  His sisters have no imagination that there’s anything that Jesus can do at this point.  They know that He can heal, but raising the dead—that’s another matter.  Each of the sisters expresses their sadness and disappointment, and Jesus cries.  But his tears are for their sadness and not for his own loss, because He knows what He is about to do.  This lost cause is not a lost cause.  Lazarus will rise from the grave.  Jesus has them remove the stone, and He calls Lazarus out.  After a pregnant silence where everybody watches and waits, the dead man steps from the darkness, alive!”

            Lazarus had been bound in the grave, wrapped in the rags of death, and captivated by his coffin.  Yet Jesus knew that his friend’s story wasn’t over—that there was more to come.  His sisters didn’t have the insight that Jesus had.  They thought his life was a lost cause, but Jesus knew better.  For this reason, the Master could ask the Father, and God could raise him to life. 

Maybe you’ve got some “lost causes” in your own life that you’re not sure about.  You don’t know whether to have faith for a miracle, or whether to accept loss.  Jesus could tell the difference between a lost cause and a miracle about to happen—but sometimes we have a tough time discerning that.  The Serenity Prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  How do you know the difference?  One way is the presence of serenity.  Sometimes, when serenity comes over you, you know it’s time to give up, and it’s okay.  There are times when a person knows that it’s okay to let Grandma or Grandpa go, remove life support, and let them slip away.  But with Lazarus, this was not one of those times.  Maybe your lack of serenity says that this “lost cause” isn’t really lost—and that you need to keep praying.

In Luke 11, Jesus teaches about persistence in prayer.  Jesus says, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened (vv. 9-10 NLT).”  Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re always going to get what you want, if you just harass God enough.  You have to be praying according to God’s will.  With people, persisting with something they don’t want simply becomes harassment—and it’s the same with God.  Sometimes persistence is the key, but other times, persistence can be harmful.

Once I counseled a woman whose relationship with her adult daughter was broken.  In a controlling, harassing way, she pursued her daughter.  I explained to her that the more she tightened her grip, like water her daughter would run through her fingers.  Sometimes, you may be persisting to keep something, but your persistence is driving a wedge or causing more harm than your fear of losing.  In this woman’s case, her lack of serenity wasn’t an indication that it was spiritually time to fight the good fight—it simply meant that she was pig-headed and manipulative.  You’ve got to get to the place where you’re willing to fight for what you believe is best, to pray for it, to work for it, but also to let it go if God grants otherwise.  It could be that your tenacity is hurting yourself and others, and doing more damage than the problem itself. Sometimes, by pushing for what you want, you violate the rights and dignity of other people.  This is not the kind of persistence that Jesus taught.
The song “Even If” by MercyMe illustrates the point of trusting God for a solution, but trusting God even if the solution we want isn’t what we get:

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well, good thing
A little faith is all I have right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You'd just say the word
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

            In times of struggle, your hope needs to be in God alone—whether or not you get what you want.  When faced with mountains that need to be moved, or flames that need to be gotten through, the serenity prayer asks for the kind of courage that changes things through persistence and faith.  But it also recognizes that there are some things that can’t be changed, and asks for wisdom to know the difference.  Not all lost causes are lost.  Some aren’t lost because they are won with courage and persistence.  Some aren’t lost because the serene person is able to graciously let them go.  The wise person knows the difference between holding, and holding on too much.  Only if you choose to fight a losing battle is a cause ever lost.  “Ask, seek, knock,” Jesus says.  The guarantee isn’t that you’ll get what you want—but that if you keep seeing God, you’ll have the wisdom to know the difference.  In John 11:40, Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?”  This glory isn’t found in getting exactly what you’re praying for, but in finding courage, serenity, and wisdom in the midst of suffering.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"Son of God"

           Once there was an emperor whose dominion spread over many lands.  The king had one son born to him, and this son was the crown prince.  Yet the ruler was also so generous that he had taken in many orphaned children and raised them as his own.  Only the crown prince would ever sit on the throne, yet the other princes and princesses enjoyed the same status as if they were of royal blood.  Because the emperor’s duties ranged far and wide and he could not be in every place at the same time, he appointed his son the prince as his chief ambassador.  This prince not only met with heads of state, but also oversaw the ambassadorial work of his adopted sisters and brothers.  Wherever they went, the royal children wore robes of purple and carried the royal crest.  Once, when the crown prince was visiting a minor country that was part of his empire, and negotiating with that tribute nation’s head of state, the ruler refused to listen to his counsel.  Without being prideful, the prince simply displayed the signet ring that he bore and reminded the lesser king of his position.  “One day, I will sit on my father’s throne,” he said.  “You want to make sure that the prince who becomes the next emperor remembers you as someone who recognizes authority.  I have the emperor’s mind on this matter.  When you are talking with me, you are talking with the father.”

          This is the kind of authority that Jesus carried as He walked upon the earth.  In John 10:30, Jesus gets Himself in trouble for saying, “The Father and I are one.”  In John 14:9-11, three times, Jesus says variants of the same statement: “The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”  One of the fundamental statements of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the Son of God.  John 3:16-17 says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.”  The Greek word that the King James Version translates as “begotten” is better rendered as “one and only.”  God did not “create” Jesus, because Jesus has always existed as an eternal part of the Trinity.  Yet, Jesus is unique in the sense that He is the only Son of God who has God-DNA.  Colossians 1:15-20 describes Jesus as being the “image of the invisible God,” and the pre-existent agent of creation.  “He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.”  While Jesus was born physically, He was never created.  Jesus always has been, and always will be.

We do not possess these attributes, yet John1:12-13 says that we too can become children of God.  “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.”  Romans 8:15-17 tells us that, just like the emperor had one crown prince but many adopted children who bore the same authority, so too, we who are adopted by God are co-heirs with Christ.  Once someone has been adopted, they can’t be un-adopted.  Jesus says in John 10:28-29, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.”  For this reason, those who have placed their trust in Jesus can be completely secure in their salvation.  We can know that we are permanently adopted sons and daughters of Almighty God.

Watchman Nee tells about a new convert who came in deep distress to see him. "No matter how much I pray, no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot seem to be faithful to my Lord. I think I'm losing my salvation." Nee said, "Do you see this dog here? He is my dog. He is house-trained; he never makes a mess; he is obedient; he is a pure delight to me. Out in the kitchen I have a son, a baby son. He makes a mess, he throws his food around, he fouls his clothes, he is a total mess. But who is going to inherit my kingdom? Not my dog; my son is my heir. You are Jesus Christ's heir because it is for you that He died." We are Christ's heirs, not through our perfection but by means of His grace.[i]

          In John 10:22-42, Jesus gets in trouble for claiming to be one with the Father. And for claiming to do the things that He did by the authority of God.  In fact, they got so angry that they picked up stones to kill Him.  But Jesus knew that He couldn’t do anything but what the Father wanted.  In John 5:19, He says, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”  If we are adopted sons and daughters of God, then it’s clear that we ought to be doing the same thing.  Yes—in this world, it’s dangerous for us too when we claim to speak for God.  But if we listen and obey as Jesus did, then we who wear the robes of royalty can show the signets that we bear and claim our right as heirs.  Jesus says in John 14:12, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.”  Through the Holy Spirit, God gifts adopted sons and daughters to carry on the work of Christ in the world.  We become heirs, not just of the treasures of heaven, but of the responsibility borne by children of the King, to be ambassadors of His love wherever we go.  I pray that you’ll put your trust in God’s one and only Son, that you’ll know the blessing of adoption, and that you’ll carry on the work of God in the world.