Shaped by Knowing Him

The Bible has real meaning for our lives, our relationship to God, and to others. It is our primary means of coming to know Him. It is where He has made Himself known to us. As such, it is not simply a book from which to glean principles or instructions for life. It is first and foremost a revelation of God in the person of Christ Jesus.

I don’t mean to suggest that it does not have valuable instructions and great principles to live by; clearly it has both. But I do want to stress that they are not primary. And if they become primary, we can miss the most significant revelations of God, despite having found instructions and principles. We can minimize the more significant in favor of the less significant.

That Jesus walked on the sea is a profound revelation of God. Can you believe it? He walked on a raging storm driven sea. Have you considered the implications? A man walked on, what men sink in. What manner of man must He be? What fear, awe and reverence must He engender? Who does something that? The meaning for all humankind is staggering if, indeed it is true, that this man walked on water. You must weigh heavily whether or not you believe such a thing.

If it is a fable, like those of Aesop, then you can simply ask the moral of the story and find a principle. But if God has revealed something real and true about Jesus, then everything has changed. The world has become a different place. What it means for Jesus to be called Lord is also different now. It’s no longer a personal confession. Belief in a person who can walk on water cannot be relegated to a personal conviction. It cannot be privatized. It, by the shear magnitude of its significance, breaks forth. It demands attention.

It calls upon its hearers to decide for themselves the veracity of the claim. As a result, some will be driven to investigate further. Others will dismiss it right away as impossible. “Men just don’t walk on water,” many will say. Some will find it implausible that a man, by the force of His nature, can lift Himself about the natural laws which bind us earthbound mortals.

All these responses are possible, but what should not be possible is to affirm this monumental moment in history as true, and the most you receive from it is the hope that your finances will be better. It’s significance cannot be reduced to instructions on how to overcome the storms of life. It means so much more than that. If you belief that Jesus actually walked on the sea, then what you know about Him will shape and inform the way you see everything. You should be in awe again and again. Even the sight of the ocean should move you. While I could instruct you from the Bible to worship in response to creation, there is no need if you have been shape by knowing the Lord.

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Reaching

While studying today, I was struck by the presence of a familiar anxiety. As I was reading the scripture and studying it’s flow, I felt myself reaching for something just beyond my grasp. The feelings were familiar, but today was the first time my thoughts turned toward the nature of the longing. What is it I’m so desperate to find?

For much of my ministry-life I have been reaching for something significant. I want to know more. Sometimes what I see does not satisfy. So I look closer. I dig deeper. I study scripture always looking for more. Trying to find what I must be missing. It’s interesting to me that I have unconsciously assumed something was missing. Until now, I have never questioned the desire, neither was I even aware of its hidden drive. But I have been functioning as if something was missing; something significant.

The desire could easily, and often did, slide towards pleasure. Sometimes, deceiving myself, I would look to be entertained to satisfy the deep need. A good movie, a nice dinner, a glass of wine, the good life will make me feel better. But pleasure does not satisfy. I’ve learned that from experience. It has been settled deep within me that the significance is, somehow, in the Lord.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes calls it eternity, and says that the Lord has placed it in the heart of man. Abraham was looking for a better country than the one in which he sojourned. The disciple seemed to be longing for the kingdom. And then, of course, there is heaven. Is it heaven I have been reaching for?

That answer seems too simplistic. It does not satisfy either. It has to be Jesus I’m longing for. As Terence O’Neil said, “heaven ain’t heaven if Jesus is not there.” Yes, it must be Jesus. But even that is not conceivable without context. I don’t believe me and Jesus in a vacuum is what God intended for us.

What God intends for us? Hmmm… I think that’s it. What I have been longing for is existence as God intended. To be fully human as God designed. To live, love, work, in the presence of the Lord and all the glory and well being that comes from His presence. That’s what eternity brings. That’s what the kingdom offers.

As I study, I’m reaching to know and experience that in measure. To settle for the earthly, mundane, and worldly wisdom of men has not been sufficient. Neither has a trite surface reading of scripture, designed to appease me temporarily. It has only left me longing for more. Highlighting how much has been missing.

The closest I can come to that now, however, is meaning found in God’s word. Correction: the closest I can come to that now is worship. But my worship must be true, and the only way I can worship God in spirit and in truth, is by knowing Him as He has made Himself known in His word. And so I must reach for the meaning I find in scripture. I lean in, and grasp for the significance that results in an appropriate response to what I find. Sometimes what I find satisfies. And I worship.

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Home is Never Far Away

You were on the road to intimacy with the Lord, and you were greatly encouraged by the progress. The sense of His presence was unmistakable. You prayed and found your time with Him sweet. His peace was near. You looked forward to being in the congregation of those who love Him too, and the worship and preaching of the word brought you strength and wellness. You’ve been here before, it feels great, but sustaining the effort to remain close always proves too much. The drift is subtle, but because it’s familiar it’s recognizable. Soon you’re not where you used to be, and the the thought of getting back causes the exhaustion to return. It will be a long walk home.

The longer you are away in conscience fellowship with the Lord, the farther you feel from Him. Discouragement settles in because of the perceived distance and the prospect of the long journey back. You are further discouraged by the fear and distrust of yourself to stay the course throughout the return trip. The thought of the exhausting labor and discipline it takes to make up lost ground and lost time, just to get back to where you were, dampens your resolve to get moving. The struggle keeps you feeling isolated and alone, until familiarity finally gives way to comfort in your lostness.

Oh what a graceless picture this is. In Christ there is a better picture. Because of Christ, if you turn there is no journey back to God. There is no lost ground to be made up. The distance is only perceived because we wrongly assume we are pursuing Him. It is He who pursues. If while you were yet a sinner, and God moved toward you to reconcile you to Himself, how much more, having been reconciled, will He remain close. Home is where the Lord is, and the Lord is with you. Just turn and you will find Him there. For the one who promised is faithful.

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The Ways of My House

2 Chronicles 22:3

He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab,

for his mother was his counselor to do wickedly.

I recently attended my annual family reunion. This year we met down in Kema, on the Boardwalk. We had a great time and I learned a great deal about how the branches of the family tree were connected. My cousin shared a list of family members, from her mother’s bible, with the date of birth and the day of their death, going back to March 28, cristina-gottardi-189946-unsplash1898. That was the day the oldest of my grandfather’s siblings was born. What an incredible find? A week later, with the flow of generations still thick in my thoughts, I came across the startling passage above on social media. The verse reached out of the post and grabbed me. It shook me to sobriety with its unabashed indictment of the generations of Ahaziah.

The statement is about Ahaziah the 8th King of Judah, but it’s an indictment upon his family for three generations. His grandfather Ahab’s house is synonymous with wickedness. Do you see the connection between Ahaziah and the ways of his grandfather’s house was his mother? He was like his grandfather because his mother was his counselor. She encouraged him in the wicked ways of his grandfather. Given the explicit description of such biblical characters, we tend to think that they knew and accepted that they were as wicked as they were described. I believe most people God would describe as wicked would see themselves as good people. Ahaziah’s mother probably thought she was doing the best she could.

The passage caused me to think soberly about the ways of my own house. Will my son counsel his children to do righteously or wickedly because he was reared in my house? Will my descendants become unsuspecting counselors of wickedness or of wisdom? If the Lord chooses to memorialize my house in verse will it be synonymous with wickedness or with righteousness? I can offer no quick fixes. I have no steps to breaking generational failure. What we need is to be rescued. Delivered. Saved. A Savior to whom we more closely cling. For unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, do so in vain.

 

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A Theology of Glory

I have felt for sometime that something was wrong. I have never been able to clearly convey the thoughts I’ve had. It has always come out muddled and sounds too much like whining and complaining. I have long sensed a problem, but could not grasp the nature of it. My vocabulary failed me when I tried to explain what I was coming to understand. I lacked the preciseness to convey the difference between what many believe and what the bible teaches. And then it happened. I found the words.fw98ccvzweq-lukas-budimaier

While reading, I found that Martin Luther gave words to what I sensed. He called it a Theology of Glory. This common belief claims presently all the glory we are promised in the age to come. This belief bring a strong entitlement to be happy, blessed, healthy, empowered, strong, victorious, and even prosperous. It embraces all these wonderful promises clearly taught in Scripture. Yet this theology ignores, the reality that presently, between us and the glory that awaits us, stands the cross. The cross brings weakness, suffering, poverty, shame, and the need for hope and endurance. This Luther called a Theology of the Cross. This the bible affirms.

What makes the Theology of Glory dangerous is that if we do not bear our cross, we will forfeit the glory we desire. No cross, no crown. Yet the theology of glory repudiates the cross and looks to avoid everything the cross brings. Long-suffering, weakness, and  burden bearing are not only to be avoided, but are also seen as antithetical to God’s plan for us. It is indeed a theology.

What makes this theology futile is that, no matter how intent we are to achieve glory, it continues to elude us. Something always happens to shatter the illusion. Strife always returns, struggle resurfaces, weakness rears its ugly head. We often blame the flawed people in our lives and are encouraged to severe the relationship, when quite often they are our cross to be bear. Strive as we may, we simply cannot have the promises of the next age now. This world is not our inheritance.

In the cross we come to know God as He has made himself known. In Jesus Christ, the exact radiance of His glory is revealed in the cross he bore. And he has said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

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A Glimpse of its Glory

Grief, anger, lack of forgiveness and a family is being torn apart. After the death of a single mother, from a large and loving extended family, the child is left in the care of his grandparents. They knew and approved of the mother’s secret and kept the father unaware of the child. When he did discover that he was a father, he immediately took custody of the child. This left those who had been caring for the child, the first two years of his life, completely devastated.

fw98ccvzweq-lukas-budimaierThe father set firm boundaries for the family, to establish some sense of normalcy, which they regularly crossed. There was no malicious intent, they just longing to see the child they felt they were beginning to lose. Desiring to make up for lost time with his son, and to discourage the boundary crosssing, the father further limited access to the rest of the family.

Heartbroken and believing they had no other choices, the grandparents finally sued for visitation rights. They did not want custody. They understood the child rightly belonged with his father. They simply wanted to be a part of their grandson’s life. They argued that the child had experienced his first years of life with them and it was not in the best interest of the child to exclude them. They also believed they had a right to see their grandchild. The dispute was tearing their once loving family apart, as others entered the fray and chose sides.

Yet in this dark family fight is the light of the glory of the gospel. The glory of the Lord Jesus that is intended to shine in our hearts, affect us deeply, and transform us into his image. For the light shines in darkness. The light of the glory of the gospel shines through the words of the angry father as he defended his actions in court. He stood before the judge, visibly shaken and through tears, and with a clear and strong voice he said, “He’s my son, and I shouldn’t have to share him with people who hate me.” The simple truth of his statement is immediately apparent. He shouldn’t have to. In his eyes, their behavior made his decision to keep his son from them justifiable. And in that is the great glory of the gospel.

In that father’s sentiment is the magnanimity of our Lord’s decision to share His only Son with us. He was under no obligation, and our behavior gave him every justifiable reason to keep Him from us. But that we would be reconciled to Him, He not only chose to share His Son with those who hate Him, but He also chose to sacrifice His Son’s life. By the Son’s death we have received life, from the Father. The magnitude of the Father’s sacrifice broke through our hatred and animosity for Him and brought reconciliation. By faith, we have our introduction into this grace in which we now stand. And beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image with ever increasing glory, just as from the Lord. Wicked indeed are those who, standing in that kind of grace, do not share with others that same grace that brings reconciliation. So, for all who may be in similarly dark places, in the glory of the gospel, the light is shining.

 

 

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The Uneasy Place of Trusting God

IMG_1788The first time I experienced the necessity of trusting God was on my first mission trip. The safety nets that I had taken for granted were all removed. I remember being keenly aware that they were gone. It began in the airport as customs rummaged through our luggage and the team circled there and began to pray. I battled fear with prayer, like a good Christian. But the need to pray for safety seemed more real. More desperate. I prayed fervently before eating and even before drinking water. The struggle to not give in to fear through prayer was intense and exhausting.

My need to pray became more poignant by the contrast  in feelings when the plane bringing us home finally  landed on US soil. I exhaled and unclenched my insides as I let go of my spiritual vigilance. I felt, being home, I could let my guard down; relax more and pray less. Or, at best, I could pray with less intensity. And so I did. But the experience left an impression.

The second like experience came from being the pastor of a church plant. When the initial financial support came to an end, we had to live by the giving of a small congregation. And, like an unwelcomed visitor, the familiar intense, and exhausting need to trust God returned. This time, however, there was not a schedule flight home to comfort. There was no end in sight. You need to know before I go further, that although there have been many deeply stressful moments, God has been faithful. In fear and often great anguish, I prayed. There were times of despair, as we were taken beyond what we could bare. Only in hindsight can we see that His grace proved sufficient. Yet this too has left an impression.

Those intense times brought the sobering reality that I was unaccustomed to trusting God, and when I was forced to, I felt the need to retreat to the familiar ground of idolatry. The place were mammon ruled and the FDA never slumbered nor slept. The place where the social structure was the reason I feared no evil. I found when I was with God alone, I was uneasy and uncomfortable. I feared that, though He was with me, I would be more secure if I had more money, or if I could dial 911.

I am embarrassed by this reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. There seemed to be no need to hide from myself what God already knew of me. It simply highlighted my need to be more like Christ. It illumines the truth that He alone is my standard. O’ how far from Christlikeness I am. Yet I do not despair my condition, for the Father has promised to conform me to the image of His Son. I am grateful that He will finish what He has begun in me. And though my fear in mission and my anxiety in ministry belied my trust in Him, He proved faithful to me in both. So in a strange paradox, I trust that one day, in Him, I will trust in Him. And I identify with that desperate father who first said, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

 

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Are they itching?

3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3,4

Truer words have not been written, which have been more unreflected. The passage suggests that this will be the reality for the many. Yet not many critically consider their own ears. Can we safely assume that our preaching preferences come from our heart and not from our ears? If you will, let’s briefly consider whether it is our hearts that burn or if it is our ears that itch.

Presently, the inexhaustible source of the tickling can be found in these three areas. 1) The validation of the presence of toxic relationships as a sign in all those God is calling to greatness. This is the all too familiar haters who hate because you’re great. 2) The permission to end all burdensome relationships with those who cannot ascend to the same heights of success to which we have been promised. This one  tickles because we all want to take the easy way out and “close the door” on the difficult task of loving the unlovable.  All we need is permission from a trusted authority figure. 3) The victory measured in personal happiness and wellbeing that is so near to you and near to God’s heart for you that just the right step will bring you into its abundance and overflow. And the next step is always the topic of the day’s sermon. While this list does not represent the full extend of the tickling, it is sufficient and recognizable enough for us to consider if our ears are itching.

Paul warns the young pastor in Ephesus that these ears will turn from the truth because it is not in accordance with their own desires. Well, the truth is that our growth is measured by our enduring relationships and our ability to forego personal happiness and wellbeing for the glory of God. In his wonderful book entitled, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson says,

A successful writer will discover a workable plot and write the same book over and over all his life to the immense satisfaction of his readers. The reader can be literary without thinking or dealing with truth. Prostitute writer.

A successful preacher can also discover a workable sermon plot and preach the same message again and again to the immense satisfaction of his listeners’ ears. The listener can be spiritual without thinking or dealing with truth. Prostitute preacher.

Before I started this post, I considered my intentions. What did I expect to accomplish? My desire is for reflection. That, be still and know, moment. My hope is that you, the reader, will listen more critically to the sermons that so appeal to you. And ask yourself, is it my heart burning from the recognition of truth, or is it my ears itching from my own desires turning me from truth. Consider, reflect, and know that I am praying for your ears.

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A Pastor’s Prayer

I want to do something for thee. I want to show people a better way. A more sure way. The way to the truth of your word. That truth that men’s souls long for. In the word is the living water and the bread of life. That which will fully and forever satisfy our thirst and hunger. I want to show them what is missing when we pay attention myths to right us and allegories to encourage us. Because we are mining for nuggets, we have missed the implications of the great treasure, Christ himself. We cannot have the riches His life brings because, as He said, we are working for the  food which perishes, when the work you require is to believe in the Son.

The great gifts of freedom from sin, guilt, conscience and the emotional health that comes from the liberation have been exchanged for financial freedom and freedom to be all we desire. But the former are the higher things; those things beyond all we can ask or think. These things are well beyond the trifles we settle for in our all too common allegories. Help me to show that the storms of life metaphors are mere distraction from the more fundamental questions about a man who can give orders to nature and they obey.

Father we are lost in the rich, fruitful fields of the Savior. We frantically stuff our pockets with as much as we can carry as if we are pilgrims there. And the Savior Himself stands in His field offering to give us all that is His as an inheritance, if we would but take His hand and cling to Him forever.

That’s what I want to show them. Yet I fear the vision is too big for me. I have but a glimpse of it’s splendor myself. But that which I have seen, I am compelled to share. Help me Lord, lest in my smallness, I fail thee again.

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In His Hands

I am very near fifty now. And in quiet moments of reflection it becomes clear what I am risking. The highest benefits of believing in Jesus are not yet realized. Although it is promised that some will be alive when Christ returns to make good, it is clear that our rewards are not in this life. The older I get the more I understand then, what it means for me to trust Him. My youth is gone, and if we are wrong about Jesus, then I will have wasted my life. The only life I will have. I will have missed my chance to eat, drink, and be merry. I will have spent much of life needlessly fighting the ever-present desire to please myself. Choosing again and again to not seek what I want, but what I believe God desires for me. Never to live my life for myself.

Just to be clear, I’ve sought and caught enough things that I’ve wanted. My conscience has not always prevailed. I’ve silenced it many times, but it has not failed me. I have not seared it completely. I am always called back to the path. We are called to sacrifice our lives, much as Jesus did, in hopes that He will give us another, better life in the age to come. We are called to reserve our highest affections for the better world, and to feel and live as purposeful pilgrims here. And everyday I get closer to the bucket yet farther from it’s list.

No, this is not a crisis of faith, although it used to feel that way. This is a recognition of the presence of faith. It is in these lucid moments that I am finally able to understand what it means to have faith in Jesus; to give my life to Christ. Knowing what I’m losing hasn’t dimmed my hope for what is to come. It simply makes more evident that for my life to have been worth living, Jesus will have to be who He said He was and do what He said He would do. My life depends on Him being faithful. What a great thing the Father has done. I have grown older and found that, indeed, my life is in Jesus’ hand.

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