Saturday, December 31, 2005

Advent: Not So Silent Night

Did you realize that Advent continues through January 7th? Yup.

Today Phil Yancey (in Watch for the Light) looks at the incongruency of the warm and fuzzy Christmas cards he receives and the reality of what was taking place when Jesus was born. He says...

Sorting through the stack of cards that arrived at our house...I noted that all kinds of symbols have edged their way into the celebration. Overwhelmingly, the landscape scenes render New England towns buried in snow, usually with the added touch of a horse-drawn sleigh. On other cards, animals frolic: not only reindeer but also chipmunks, raccoons, cardinals and cute gray mice...And yet when I turn to the gospel accounts of the first Christmas, I hear a very different tone, and sense mainly disruption at work...

Yancey delineates the political unrest at the time and how even Mary's song refers to rulers being thrown down and proud men being scattered. He said that in contrast to what the cards imply, Jesus being born did not make life better or simpler. In fact, for Mary, becoming an unwed pregnant teenager was only the beginning of her trials.

Then Yancey looks at the book of Revelation where the birth of Jesus is talked about in apocalyptic terms. When God's child is born the devil's space is invaded and a mighty battle begins in the heavens. So, whether on earth or in heaven, Jesus' birth did not bring such a silent night at the song says.

As Jesus said himself, he didn't come to bring peace but a sword. His presence was never meant to lull us to sleep but to call us to action. What action has his coming prompted in you?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Advent: You are a Manger!

These are my closing comments from our Christmas service regarding the manger.

I want you to consider one last thing about this manger. Look at it. Look how simple it is – just a couple of 2x4’s and plywood. Every day of the year it holds grain and hay. Nothing special. Very ordinary. But then, suddenly, it becomes the throne of God. The moment that Jesus was placed in that manger its role changed. As common as it was its sole purpose was to feature and honor Jesus.

Have you ever considered that God wants us all to be mangers? We are all very common. And most of us perform very mundane tasks on a day to day basis. But when we receive Jesus that all changes. We become a throne for God. Suddenly we are called to feature and honor Jesus in all that we do. We’ve gone from being common to royal simply because we are holding Jesus.

As you leave today or as you wake up tomorrow, I hope you’ll consider that. I hope you’ll consider how you can receive Jesus into your life if you haven’t yet done so. And if you have, I hope you’ll consider how your purpose in life is radically different than it was before. Your daily tasks may be just as mundane as they were before but your purpose is different. You are now the showcase of God. (Note that I didn’t say that you are showing off for God.) God wants to use you to reveal to the world that he is approachable, condescending and subtle. So subtle that he’s working through you! Will you accept that role? Let me pray for you...

Father, thank you for breaking into history. I never would have done it like you did. Who could even conceive it? Yet you knew what you were doing. Nothing was by chance or coincidence. You were making a statement to the world, even in having Jesus placed in a manger. Father, I pray for everyone here to receive you into their life just like that manger did. As common as we are, might we embrace you and let people see Jesus in our lives. Thank you that you are willing to meet us where we are at. Thank you that you aren’t offended by us. Might we have eyes to see you and ears to hear you so we never miss what you are doing. Amen.

You can visit the Cedarbrook website for the full text of this message.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

Our Christmas services are over now. I enjoyed seeing so many people at the Mabel Tainter Theatre. If you weren't there I shared my reflections on the manger. The following is a brief summary (I'll be posting the full message later this week).

God revealed three aspects of his character when he had Jesus born in a stable and placed in a manger.

First, God is approachable. There's nothing more approachable than a baby. Place a baby in a room and everyone gathers around. There's something about a baby's vulnerability that draws you to it.

But just coming as a child didn't make Jesus approachable. He had to also be accessible. Jesus could have been born in a palace with guards. To be fully approachable Jesus was born in a stable. Stable hands don't check I.D.'s screening people at the door. And that's why Jesus was born there. Everyone is welcome. God is approachable.

Second, God is condescending. That's a negative term when applied to a human but it's a compliment to God. God is willing to humble himself and come down to our level. Jesus emptied himself of his divine nature to meet us where we are at. He didn't hold any special privileges in coming. He didn't require a clean hospital or guards at the door. And that tells me that if God is willing to come into a dirty stable he's willing to come into my dirty life. It doesn't matter who I am or what I've done. He'll lower him self to whereever I'm at to relate to me personally.

Third, God is subtle. Jesus didn't come with a parade or fireworks or a trumpet fanfare. It was the opposite. It was almost a secret. God seems to take pleasure in revealing himself only to true seekers. He won't shake us until we believe. He can only be seen by those looking for him. I'm sure it was tempting for the shepherds to leave the stable. It didn't LOOK like God was there. But something inside of them told them to stay. God, indeed, was there.

We too need to have that same kind of discernment to see God where others don't.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Advent: Shipwrecked at the Stable

Brennan Manning (Watch for the Light) uses the metaphor of shipwreck survivors who find the stable and worship Jesus. He says that it is these people, people who have experienced the humbling of a pain-filled life, that can appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. Let me quote from him extensively because I can't do him justice with a summary...

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything.

The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences ("Doesn't going to church on Christmas make you feel good!"). They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plan of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn't know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

On this Christmas Eve, I hope we can all come to the stable with this same purity of heart. It's not a purity that comes from a perfect life but a purity that comes from being solely focused on the Source of perfect Life. Might we not use Him but might we offer ourselves to be used by HIm to bring the good news of his coming to others. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Advent: Finding Jesus Today

Dorothy Day (Watch for the Light) challenges those of us who have said, "If Mary were looking for a room today to give birth to Jesus, I would have given her a room. Too bad I was born 2000 years too late!" Day says that Jesus is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts, and doing it through other people.

The early church was so profoundly aware of blessing Jesus through others that it was common practice to keep a "stranger's room" ready to offer shelter to those passing through town. Today, we have "guest rooms" for our close friends and family. How quick would we be to offer that to a stranger? The hosts didn't do this in memory of Jesus but, to them, the stranger was Jesus.

Day mentions how various people blessed Jesus; whether that was the shepherds and the wise men at his birth or those who prepared Jesus for the tomb after his death. Then she says...

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with.

Day says that Jesus will ask of us...

Did you give me food when I was hungry?
Did you give me drink when I was thirsty?
Did you give me clothes when my own were rags?
Did you come to see me when I was sick, or in prison or in trouble?

And to those who say, aghast, that they never had a chance to do such a thing, that they lived two thousand years too late, he will say again what they had the chance of knowing all their lives, that if these were done for the very least of his brethren they were done to him.

Day closes by saying that there is only one motivation for helping others...

Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ...but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for him, exactly as he did at the first Christmas.

Take another look around and see if Jesus is asking for room in your heart today through someone you least expect.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Advent: A Checkered Geneology

Gail Goodwin, in Watch for the LIght, looks at the potentially boring geneology of Jesus (see Matthew 1:1-17). It takes over three minutes to read and mentions names that you've never heard of in the Bible. Most of us skip right over it. But the Jews of Jesus' day knew their Bible and every name meant something. Strung together, the names each told a story and made a powerful point.

Abraham was a reformed pagan. Isaac was the second try after a bastard child. Jacob was that shifty guy who stole the birthright from his brother. Judah was one of the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery. And Tamar, now that's an interesting story! She was a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah to get a son out of him. Or how about Rahab, the prostitute that was saved from Jericho for helping the spies escape. She ended up as a great, great, great grandmother of Jesus.

As long as we are discussing the women, there's also Ruth and Bathsheba. Ruth was an outsider from Moab. I'm sure it was a disappointment to Boaz's parents that their son looked to someone other than a Jew for a wife. And we all know about Bathsheba. The wife of Uriah whom David slept with and conceived a child. To cover up the scandal he had her husband sent to the front lines of battle to be killed.

I bet your family tree is looking pretty good by now! David's "problem" with Bathsheba was just one of a long list of sin. Then his son Solomon worshipped gods that required child sacrifice. Rehoboam, his son, split the kingdom in two. It's a sad list for sure. There's more names but I don't have the space and you don't have the time!

So what's the point? There were plenty of good people to highlight in Jesus' past. Why go out of your way to mention the shady characters? Because Mary was potentially a "shady" character and Matthew was sensitive to these kinds of accusations. He was saying right from the beginning, "Jesus comes from questionable stock and therefore every person who is questionable is welcome, including Mary."

Maybe you are of "questionable stock" yourself. Maybe you have felt like you don't deserve to be named as a follower of Jesus. You don't think you are worthy. Hey...join the crowd. No one is, but the beauty of Jesus is that he seems to revel in being associated with us low-lifes! He's not ashamed of us. I'm sure he'd be quick to tell us that "some of my 'best relatives' were low-lifes!"

So this Christmas, gather around the manger along with everyone else. There's a place waiting for you. You'll fit right in!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Get Your Site Feed Link

I've added some links to your right. The newest one is the "Blog Site Feed". If you have a browser home page with Yahoo! or whomever, there are usually places for you to add site feeds to your favorite blog. That way you don't have to save them to your favorites and go visit them. They are all right on your home page.

If you want "Thinking Out Loud" on your homepage, click on the link to the right and copy/paste the URL address to where it asks for the site feed address on your browser. Yahoo!'s new email now has site feeds built right into the mailbox area (by the files). I hope this all makes sense! Good luck.

Advent: Overcoming Our Fears

In Watch for the Light (see "Currently Reading" link), Johann Arnold focuses on the words of the angel to Mary when he said "Fear not!" He concludes that this exhortation means that the fear that grips human hearts will have to give way to the far greater power of love.

We don't fear the plagues of death that used to ravage the land (at least in the USA) but there is still plenty of fear to go around. We fear addiction, divorce, abortion, violence, racisim, poverty and war. As Pope John Paul II said, we live in a "culture of death".

Plus we fear the old, hiding them in nursing homes. We fear crime, buying guns and fleeing the urban areas. We fear anyone who doesn't look like us, choosing to live in gated communities. And of course we fear terrorism.

For those of us that seek to follow Jesus, there is plenty of reason to fear because Jesus often walks in vulnerable places. Born in a manger? That doesn't sound safe. Challenging the religious? Not wise. Entrusting his ministry to teenage dropouts? Petrifying! Claiming to be God? Well, we know where that got him. Arnold said...

But by overcoming death he took away all our reasons for fear, forever. Of course, it does no good to recognize this in a merely intellectual way. Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death. And so it comes down to this: the only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to live life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.

Arnold admits that this sounds simplistic and grandiose but he insists that it is very practical.

It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves, instead of for others. It means choosing generosity over greed. It also means living humbly, rather than seeking influence and power. Finally, it means being ready to die again and again - to ourselves, and to every self-serving opinion or agenda.

Arnold says that this kind of lifestyle is what true love is all about. It's not about a fuzzy emotion.

Love is a tangible reality...But when we live for love, we will be able to meet any challenge that comes our way - even the final one, death.

And when you can look death in the eye, any other fear that we may confront pales in comparison.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Advent: Learning to Receive

In Watch for the Light, William Willimon questions our ability to receive. He thinks that we are much more comfortable in the role of giving. He notes that the first thing we often do when given a gift is to want to give a gift in return...not necessarily out of love or kindness but...

We don't want to be indebted. The gift seems to lay a claim upon us... By giving us a gift, the person has power over us.

We to prefer to think of ourselves as givers - powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate.

But in the story of Christmas, God has given to us in a way that we can never return payment and we don't know how to handle that. Again, Willimon says...

It's tough to be on the receiving end of love. God's or anybody else's... "Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace, " wrote John Wesley a long time ago.

This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn't need, which transform us into people we don't necessarily want to be.

This last quote is the most profound for me. Because we are so ingrained in our way of thinking and not in tune with God, his actions often seem foreign and even inappropriate, so we often reject them out right - barely giving them any consideration. (Hasn't this happened even in the Christmas story itself?)

This Advent I encourage you to receive the gift that God wants to give you - not the one that you think you need. What is it that he's been trying to give you (think character qualities or relationships) that you have resisted because that's just "not you". It's in receiving that gift and becoming the person he wants you to be that you will find peace and fulfillment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Advent: A Call for Revolution

John Yoder gives us a totally different look at Advent. He notes in Mary's song in Luke (after hearing that she'll give birth to Jesus) that this is not a song of a sweet maiden but...

...of Maccabees (the Jewish revolutionaries): it speaks of dethroning the mighty and exalting the lowly, of filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. Mary's praise to God is a revolutionary battle cry.

He goes on to say that every revolutionary thinks that "the system" is corrupt and needs overthrowing - and that's what the "gospel" is - a call to revolt - a call to do away with the old and to bring in the new. In defining the word "gospel" or (evangelion in Greek) he says...

Originally it is not a religious or a personal term, it is news which impinges upon the fate of the community. [The gospel or] "Good news" is the report brought by a runner to a Greek city, that a distant battle has been won, preserving their freedom; or that a son has been born to the king, assuring a generation of political stability. "Gospel" is good news having seriously to do with the people's welfare.

What a great take on a word that we have allowed to grow boring and mundane. The good news of Jesus' birth isn't meant to make us warm and fuzzy but to stir us to action- casting off the old system of selfishness and pride and working to build a new community of sacrificial love and good works. Yoder closes by saying...

The need is not for consolation or acceptance but for a new order in which men may live together in love. In his time, therefore, as in ours, the question of revolution, the judgment of God upon the present order and the imminent promise of another one, is the language in which the gospel must speak. What most people mean by revolution, the answer they want, is not the gospel; but the gospel, if it be authentic, must so speak as to answer the question of revolution. This Jesus did.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Advent: Pregnant with God

In his entry, "Yielding to God", Philip Britts considers the response of Mary when the angel told her that God would give her a child. She said...

Behold the handmaiden of the Lord;
be it unto me according to your word.

This most spiritual moment wasn't marked by Mary's activity (working to bring something to God) but her humbly receiving what God had brought to her. And as every pregnant woman soon realizes, this new life overtook and dominated her own; not in a bad way, not in a way that detracted from her life or robbed her of her identity. But in a way that added to who she was and her purpose in life. The sacrifice she made brought meaning and fullness to her life.

As humans, we tend to want to do things to manufacture some kind of spiritual experience. We will travel to holy places, light candles, offer prayers, wear crosses, read the Bible, etc., etc. - all fine and good- but if we are doing those things in hopes of earning God's favor or bringing his presence into our lives, we've missed the point. Britts says...

It is not that we, as pilgrims, climb to a celestial city,
but that the Christ child is born in the poverty of our hearts.

That is, God purposefully comes to us because there's nothing that we can do that will get us to him. And notice how Jesus came - in the most accessible form possible. There is nothing more approachable than a baby and no where more available than in a stable (He could have been born in a royal courtyard surrounded by guards).

This Advent, put aside your religious chores and simply receive the presence of Jesus. Then, let him fill every part of your heart and mind until he is "birthed" in your life.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Advent: The Shame of Inactivity

Loretta Ross-Gotta is our author du jour. She goes straight for the jugular when she challenges our need to be active instead of waiting for God. She says that we fear doing nothing. We fear that ...

this offering of oneself for God to be the actor, cannot possibly be enough. It all seems so passive. Do something, produce, perform, earn your keep. Don't just sit there.

Loretta challenges us to be more like Mary as she waits for Jesus to be born in us...

We create holy ground and give birth to Christ in our time not by doing but by believing and by loving the mysterious Infinite One who stirs within. This requires trust that something of great and saving importance is growing and kicking its heels in you.

The greatest challenge from Loretta may be her parting words. She suggests that we risk it all by not engaging in any of the cultural aspects of Christmas. No presents, no lights, no decorating. No worrying about uncle Fred's obnoxious behavior or if the sweater you bought for Michelle is the right color. Instead she imagines attending a church service, void of carols and candles, to only focus on the presence of God...

All of that would seem gaudy and shallow in comparison to the sanctity of that still sanctuary. And we, hushed and awed by something greater and wiser and kinder than we, would kneel of one accord in the stillness. A peace would settle over the planet like a velvet coverlet drawn over a sleeping child...We would be filled with the fullness of God...What if, instead of doing something, we were to be something special? Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.

It's probably telling of us as a people, but simply being the dwelling place of God isn't enough for us. We seem to need the bells and whistles

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Advent: God Comes to Shake Us

It's interesting to read a book where a different author gives their own perspective on Christmas. Today, Alfred Delp, shares his thoughts as a prisoner in Hitler's prison, condemned to death for his opposition to Hitler's regime. He was hanged in 1945. Delp was a Jesuit priest.

From his war torn perspective, Advent wasn't a time when God comes gently. Advent was a time when God comes and shakes you up. He was convinced that Hitler was being used by God to show the world it's weak foundation. He then says...

The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth...

...God's coming and the shaking up of humanity are somehow connected. If we are inwardly unshaken, inwardly incapable of being genuinely shaken, if we become obstinate and hard and superficial and cheap, then God will himself intervene in world events and teach us what it means to be placed in this agitation and be stirred inwardly...Advent is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to a realization of ourselves.

Delp concludes by encouraging those that have been shaken to become messengers of peace to those living in the tumult of the day. People need to look at their lives from God's perspective otherwise they will be overcome with the despair of the day.

Thankfully we aren't in prison this Christmas but we may be in self-made prisons of hate or addiction or depression. Let Advent be a time when God shakes you up. Let God show you your weak foundations that you might be strengthened. And then may you be one that is sent out to encourage others to experience the same.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Advent: Love Comes to Earth

December 4th's reading in Watch for the Light is from Madeleine L'Engle. She says that you really can't explain the incarnation (God becoming human) but she wonders...

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

She goes on to say that God abandoned his power to become powerless in Jesus - identifying with the frustration of being human - and then continues...

Christ...the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be. Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God's image.

It's because of this that we have hope - for both today and the days to come. We are never stuck. As long as we look for his coming there is always hope of our lives being transformed.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Will Your Pet Be in Heaven?

Ten years ago I would have laughed off the question, "Will my pet be in heaven?" It seemed trivial in the scheme of spiritual things. Of course pets wouldn't be in heaven...not to say there wouldn't be animals in heaven... but why would God resurrect a pet?

Maybe it's old age setting in and I'm getting soft. Maybe it's my heretical tendencies. Or maybe it's the fact that I just put my eleven year old dog to sleep...but I take that question much more seriously today. (Someone just asked me this recently)

First of all, in answering this question, you have to loosen up your idea of heaven. Ideas of heaven, much like ideas of hell, are more manufactured from popular culture than they are found in the Bible. There are many prophetic passages in the Bible that speak of heaven as a restoration of the earth. Rather than God destroying the earth and creating something totally new, God restores the earth that was corrupted by sin. He puts it back the way it was...the way it was supposed to be in the first place.

I like that. It sounds exactly like what God does in people. Rather than wiping us out and starting over, he renews us.

So, my idea about pets is based on that understanding of heaven. It's a restoration of all that is good. It's not another world that we know nothing about. It's what we've always longed for earth to be. If that's right (and I'm not convinced that it is but intrigued by the thought) then it wouldn't surprise me at all if your pet is one of the first to greet you when you pass to the other side. ( Oh yeah, more speculation here...the natural question is...If heaven is a restored earth...where is heaven now? It's in another dimension! And when Jesus returns, the two dimensions will merge into one. Hey, I SAID it was speculation!)

I think every pet owner will agree that pets are not human, but they are much more than flesh and bone. There is a connection made that goes beyond the owner merely projecting their emotions onto their pet. Because of this, and because I believe that God loves and values all of his creation, I'm looking forward to running through some fields in heaven with my German Shepherd!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Advent: An Unimpressive Coming

My readings in Watch for the Light this week haven't moved me enough to write specifically about what the authors' said but they have got me thinking in more general terms about Advent.

I'm struck by the subtlety of Jesus' birth and how that is true even today regarding his coming. We often talk about the Bethlehem star like it was a neon sign or sky spotlight boldly announcing his birth. But it was only the discerning wise men who recognized what the star meant. And when they arrived at Jesus' home, their first thought was probably that they had it wrong. In fact, they missed the birth by about two years! (See Matthew 2 - Herod killed boys under two, meaning Jesus was up to two years old by the time the wise men arrived.)

We need to remember this as we look for God today. Even believers get sucked into the mind-set that "if it's God, it has to be obvious." That kind of thinking motivates the people looking for weekly signs and wonders. But I would venture to say that if it's God, He might be so subtle that we miss it. God might come to us in the scent of a flower, a gentle breeze off a lake, a smile from a stranger, or the radical thought that flits through our mind calling us to a place of humility and dependence on Him.

God is always speaking yet we so often limit our listening to the obvious (Bible reading, a sermon, worship music, etc.). This Advent, slow down and expand the possibilities of how God might speak to you...then, listen.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Advent: Waiting in Fear or Hope

In "Watch for the Light", Henri Nouwen talks about waiting for God. He observes that most people think waiting is a waste of time. Or worse, it's a time filled with fear as they dread what might happen to them. It's the fear in waiting that often causes people to strike out in anger or even violence trying to control their situation - stifling what they fear may happen at the end of their waiting.

But Nouwen notes that in the pre-birth stories of Jesus, everyone is waiting - not in fear but in hope. They are content to let God's will be revealed in his timing. Nouwen says that for the faithful, waiting is active. They believe that God is doing something in their heart; correcting them, directing them, maturing them - even if nothing is happening on the outside. And therefore the waiting of the faithful is open-ended - they never know all that God will do in a time of waiting. They have no preconceived ideas.

Close-ended waiting is when you think you know what the outcome of your waiting should be. You are just passing the time until you get what you want/expect. In a sense, close-ended waiting is a way of controlling your future. You wait until you get what you want. Open-ended waiting means that you have let go of your agenda and are willing to receive whatever it is that God has for you. You have relinquished your control. You will not "make something happen". You have chosen not to let your fear of the future intimidate others in order to manipulate the outcome.

Jesus' family (Elizabeth, Mary, etc.) waited as a community for the hope of the Messiah through them. According to Nouwen, their waiting was a model for how the church should wait for his coming. In the midst of a chaotic world, we wait patiently, encouraging each other, reminding one another of what is true - open to whatever it is that God wants to go both without and within.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reflections on Christmas (Advent)

A friend gave me a devotional book last year that I've been saving for November. It's called, "Watch for the Light"...reading for Advent and Christmas. I thought I'd pass along some thoughts to you as I read through this over the coming days.

In "Action in Waiting" by Christoph Blumhardt, he challenges us to open ourselves to receiving Jesus. That's what Advent is about...preparing for his coming. But he's not talking about getting out the decorations and buying presents. He's talking about how we need to be alert to hear what God is saying to us when he speaks. So, he's broadening the idea of Advent to our entire life. Will we receive God's word - even his correction - when it comes?

He gives an example by saying that the cook learns to cook well and the farmer learns to farm well (today he might say the computer analyst learns to analyze well). But suppose that God comes to you and says, "Listen, don't simply cook as the world cooks or farm as the world farms. Stop and think how to do things in a way as to please ME!"

Then he says, "Maybe you will say, 'What do you mean? That's the way I learned it and that's how everybody else does it'. True, everybody does it that way; but you do not need to. Those intent on Christ coming into their lives have to bring a different way to their lives."

It's a subtle thing...doing things well versus doing things as to please God. But to those that want to receive Jesus' coming, it's an important distinction. Blumhardt challenges us to humble our hearts in order to hear God speaking softly to us.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Passing (or Failing) the "Test"

In the past three years at Cedarbrook, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. Occassionally, someone will come up to me or call me and ask me a series of questions. Questions like; What denomination are you? Do you say the Lord's Prayer on Sunday? Do you baptize infants or adults? Do you allow women in leadership positions? Do you preach "once saved, always saved."

Now, in one respect, there's nothing wrong with these questions. People certainly have the right to know the answer to these questions and most others. Many people are trying to find out if Cedarbrook is like the church that they are used to attending. But it always makes me feel a bit odd. I feel like I'm being tested and I can almost guarantee that whenever I'm asked these questions, I fail the test! In fact, sometimes I'll good-naturedly tease people a bit by smiling and asking, "How'd I do? Did I pass?"

I think what makes me uneasy (especially when the questions are more theological in nature) is that people are presuming that what THEY believe about God is true. And if Cedarbrook doesn't believe what they believe, then we are wrong. That may be. I don't make any claim to having the corner on all truth.

But it's important to remember that every church in the New Testament had its share of bad theology. The apostle Paul didn't write his letters to the churches merely to affirm how well they were doing. He often wrote them to correct their bad theology. Yet, in spite of this, lives were being changed and set free and miracles were being performed. I don't know about you, but I much rather attend the Church at Corinth, with all their problems and experience the gifts of the Spirit, than attend some church that has perfect theology but bores me to tears. It's so sad to see people walk away from a church experience that I know will bless them simply because my answers failed their test.

Let me suggest some better questions if you are ever looking for a church:

  • Are lives being changed here ?
  • Do people get to know God better here ?
  • Is the fruit of God's Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) manifested in people's lives ?
  • Do people learn not only how to know the Bible but how to live the Bible ?
  • Do people that attend here become better people ?

Now that's a "test" that I think I could pass!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Distinguishing Belief and Faith

As I worked my way through my recent series on How to Find Faith, I found myself distinguishing between "belief" and "faith". People often use them interchangably but they are worlds apart.

To believe is merely an intellectual exercise. You can believe in all kinds of things and not have it impact your life. For example, I've believed in George Washington all my life, but George has never made a difference in my life. The same is true for people who believe in Jesus. Simply believing in the fact that he lived on earth and even was/is the Son of God is meaningless if you haven't allowed that belief to impact you. Faith begins where belief ends.

To believe in Jesus is rational. But putting faith in Jesus is irrational! It doesn't make sense to the logical mind. The person who puts faith in Jesus risks giving up control of their daily life to entrust it to an invisible God. Think of two people who "believe" in airplanes yet one never risks flying while the other does. The person who flies has "faith" in airplanes. They have so much confidence in airplanes that they are willing to risk their life to ride one. And since they are willing to risk giving up control and riding an airplane, their life is dramatically impacted. They can be across the world in less than a day to see things that they would never see otherwise.

So it is with faith in God. To "believe" in God means nothing unless you are willing to risk your life to his guidance and yield yourself to His power to live a new life. Don't kid yourself into thinking that believing is enough. God asks for more than your belief. The Bible tells us that God's people live by faith. For more on this read sermons 8 & 9 of my series, How to Find Faith in a World of Doubt.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

How to Approach Reading the Bible (Part 5)

Here are my last two thoughts on how to approach the Bible...

9. Read the Bible to be more, live more and do more, not just know more.
The Bible is such a fascinating book that it’s easy to read it and never apply it. I was talking to someone yesterday about end time prophecy. They wondered if I ever taught on it and I said “No, I don’t. I purposefully avoid it because it’s too easy for people to get caught up in the end times discussion and forget about how God wants them to live their life today.”

Some times we forget that the goal of our Bible reading should be to know God, to know our own heart, to live life more fully and to learn how to love others. It shouldn't be a contest to see who can quote the most Bible verses or who can read the most pages.

10. Approach the Bible often.
Don’t let it collect dust. Two years ago I spoke on the importance of reading the Bible at church and one of my members decided that he knew a lot about a many things but he had never read the Bible through from cover to cover. So he decided he was going to do just that. Now, two years later, he is just finishing the last few pages of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. He said that he was surprised how enjoyable his daily reading was. He could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next in each story. He kept notes of key themes and verses and he reduced it to three pages of notes to help him remember the most important things that God showed him in his reading. I recommend the same to you. You don't have to believe that the Bible is divine to get anything out of it. Just read it. You might be surprised to hear God speaking to you through it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

How to Approach Reading the Bible (Part 4)

7. Know the Big Story before you interpret the small ones.
If you don’t know the big picture in the Bible, you will tend to interpret verses according to your own biases. For example, the overall story has to do with God including people. So if you find yourself always reading the Bible in a way that judges and excludes people, then you are probably missing the point.

Read the Bible with others, not just by yourself.
The Bible wasn’t written for individuals. It was written for the community of faith. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have our own Bible or that we should never read it alone but we need to understand that God wants to speak to us as a community of believers, not a group of individuals. Most of the New Testament is letters written to churches not individuals. So I encourage you to read your Bible but get together with other believers to read it with them as well as.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

How to Approach Reading the Bible (Part 3)

5. Read the Bible like a story book, not a cookbook.
What I mean by this is that our lives are stories, not recipes. We have a tendency to want to make everything simple. We want to read about three easy steps to health, wealth and success in life – add a cup of this and a pinch of that and presto! – the results you wanted. But the stories aren’t like that in the Bible and they aren’t like that in our lives either.

Have you noticed? Marriages don’t always work. Children don’t always turn out the way you planned. We don’t always get the perfect job that solves all of our financial problems. But what’s true of every story in the Bible is that God is there. God is there in the midst of the pain and the problems. And God wants us to know that that can be our story too. If we will start to acknowledge God in our presence then our circumstances may not change but our sense of turmoil will. With our hand in God’s hand, suddenly life is not so threatening and we can see more clearly and breathe more easily.

Let the Bible conquer you instead of you trying to conquer it.
Part of approaching the Bible with humility is understanding that no matter how much you read or how much you know, it will always be bigger than you are. You can’t master the Bible like you can some other book. The Bible is too deep to master. So rather than try to master the Bible, why not let it master you? Let it transform you by doing what it says and not just reading what it says. I bet there are a lot of people in Bible schools and seminaries today who have the wrong motivation in their study. They want to become “experts of the Bible” but God is simply calling them to become “experts at life” and wants them to read the Bible as their guidebook.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

How to Approach Reading the Bible (Part 2)

I make attempts at playing golf. People in the know tell me that how you approach the ball has alot to do with how well you will hit it. I'm not talking about how you walk up to the ball but how you position your body in relation to the ball...the distance between you and the ball, where the ball is in relation to your left or right foot, your posture, etc.

I think the same can be said about approaching the Bible. What you get out of it has a lot to do with the attitudes that you bring to it. Here are my next two points (out of ten)...

Read for quality, not quantity.
I think it’s great when people get ambitious and decide to read the whole Bible in a year. Or they decide to read a chapter a day. That can be good to give you the big picture of what’s going on. But it can also make you miss the point of why you are reading the Bible in the first place. Our goal is to hear from God so don’t be afraid to just read a few words or sentences and meditate on them until they become relevant to your life. Let the words be a mirror, giving you insight into your own heart and then ask God what he wants to tell you about what you see. (Hint: God's voice is encouraging, not condemning.)

Read for questions, not just answers.
Some times people say things like: The Bible will answer all your questions about God and life. No it won’t. If it could then it would only prove that either the Bible is false or God doesn’t exist! Nothing can answer all your questions about God because God is too big to be reduced to words. So, when you read the Bible, expect to have questions and don’t worry if you don’t get them answered right away. Questions stimulate us to want to know more about God while too many answers tend to make us think that we’ve got God all figured out.

part three to follow...

Monday, October 17, 2005

How to Approach Reading the Bible

The Bible has taken a lot of flack over the years for not being all that people have made it out to be but I think it's greatest claim to truth is how it speaks to an individuals heart. You see, the Bible is a book of stories, stories of people who walk with God or without God. When we compare our story to these stories we often find our heart resonating. We go "Hey, this happened 3,000 years ago but it's happening in my life today in the same way." That's because we are all human and as humans we share a lot of things in common. This resonance gives the Bible a lot of credibility to me and I think it will to you too if you just read it.

I shared seven examples of how the Bible rings true to me in my message yesterday, Can the Bible Help Me To Find Faith? I'll let you click the link to read about that but I'll share here, Ten Ways to Approach Reading the Bible, also in my sermon (loosely adapted from Brian McLaren's book Adventures in Missing the Point).

1. Come with an open mind and a humble heart.
Too often people come to the Bible with an attitude of unbelief or an agenda to prove. They come doubting everything or just wanting to justify what they already believe. But you need to check all that at the door and simply ask God to show you what is true. You can’t hear from God when you’ve got earplugs in! So come like an innocent child with fresh ears to hear what God has to say to you.

Understand and appreciate the literature forms.
This has to do with interpreting the Bible literally versus figuratively. Some times we are supposed to take the Bible literally and you need to learn when that is. Other times you need to take it figuratively so you need to understand the cues to know which is which. You see, the Bible uses a variety of ways to communicate its message. Some times it uses poetry, some times it tells a story, and sometimes it just gives commands. Sometimes the writer exaggerates to make his point. Some times he uses understatement or even sarcasm. So just be aware of these styles when you read.

more points to come...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Is there one way, or many ways, to God?

I came across a great Hoobastank song that expresses frustration at people who are so narrow minded as to believe that there is only one way to God. Here are some of the lyrics for "Same Direction"...
...everyone thinks they're right
And nobody thinks that there just might
Be more than one road to our final destination
So why does there only have to be one correct philosophy?
I don't want to go and follow you just to end up like one of them
And why are you always telling me what you want me to believe?
I'd like to think that i can go my own way and meet you in the end.
I think the song embodies the belief of many people today. But are they right? I know it sounds good. I addressed this in my Sunday message, Faith Options...Are there many ways to God? Let me share four points that I closed with from Brian McLaren's book, Finding Faith. I really think they bring a good balance to the whole discussion...
  1. Honor the truth wherever you find it. Jesus may be the way to connect with God, but that doesn't mean that other religions don't have any truth. It's important that we have the honesty to admit it.
  2. Honor the glory wherever you find it. When we find examples of dedication, faith, compassion, sacrifice or beauty, it doesn't matter what faith the person has. These qualities are good regardless of the faith. The fact that the person is not Christian doesn't invalidate the virtue.
  3. Honor people, even when you disagree. When we honor people, we honor God, even when people don't agree with us.
  4. It's okay to not know. The big question that people often have about Christianity is, "What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?" Many people have assumed that they automatically go to hell. That answer has turned people away from the faith. They don't want to be a part of that kind of religion. But the truth is we don't know. The Bible doesn't say. It's pure speculation, and personally, I think it's poor speculation. It's not consistent with what we know about God. But I won't speculate the other way either. That's the point - it's okay to not know. I like what Abraham said, "Won't the Judge of the whole earth do justly?" I rest in that.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Am I Seeker Sensitive?

I had a conversation with some folks recently about my philosophy of preaching and I thought it might interest some people, at least who attend Cedarbrook. It got started as we talked about whether Cedarbrook is a "seeker" church or "seeker-sensitive".

You might not know this but churches often categorize themselves as "believer focused" (having the committed Christian in mind), "seeker focused" (having the spiritual seeker in mind), and "seeker sensitive" (having the believer in mind but also sensitive to the fact that there are seekers in the audience). Many people would say that Cedarbrook is a seeker church, but as is often the case, I reject being labeled.

In regard to preaching, my goal is to address the needs of seekers and believers because we are all human and as humans we share common needs. I don't like making distinctions because I think we have much more in common as just plain people than we care to admit. We all have fears, we all get angry, we all long for God (at least at some level), etc. etc. Maybe the best term for me is "people-sensitive".

While I'm teaching the seeker the basics, I'm trying to re-teach the believer because I don't think they necessarily see things from a biblical viewpoint. Many people learned about God, Jesus and faith through a very "works" oriented grid tinged with judgmentalism. I try to teach people how to think through a grid of grace. And I try to teach them how to do what they believe, not to just know what they believe.

Some people may not be used to how practical I am and confuse that with being seeker oriented. Maybe they think that believers should be taught more about what the Bible says and not spend so much time on the application - that the application is obvious. But the application isn't obvious. That's why believers get accused of being hypocrites. We talk a good game but we don't live it. More on this later...

Monday, October 03, 2005

Reflecting on Intelligient Design

I graduated from college with a degree in Biology. So looking at faith with a scientific eye was not foreign to me. I became a Christian in college and so I read a lot about the creation vs. evolution debate back then. But eventually I grew tired of it. There was so much to know and everyone was convinced that the other side was stupid. It was a negative conversation, so I dropped it. I haven't read or talked much about it. When someone raised the issue I often deflected it by recommending a book, but not wanting to get sucked into the debate myself.

But my recent sermon series (How to Find Faith in a World of Doubt) led me to address the need for evidence for God. I read two excellent books, The Case for a Creator and More Than Meets the Eye. I was surprised how science had swung so much in the past thirty years to support faith rather than contradict it. I admit I gave these books a quick read, but I came up with six observations that I think can be converted into evidence for God if someone chose to believe that God was behind these observations. Here they are;
  1. The universe was created. It didn't always exist. Einstein's theory tells us that there was a starting point to the universe. And it came from nothing.
  2. The earth is located in a life-friendly pocket of a life-threatening universe. What are the odds of earth being so perfectly located in a place that supports life? (Not to mention the coincidence that life was created in the first place).
  3. Many variables have converged to make life possible. Science has proven that there is an incredible number of variables that have been calibrated to infintisimal decimal points to sustain life. It's as if they have all lined up on a razor's edge - if they were to tip in one direction or another, life would not be sustainable on earth.
  4. Irreducibly complex entities exist. Entities like the human cell or the eyeball need to have every component in place to exist. So how does an entity like this evolve, one mutation at a time?
  5. DNA is a program for life. There are three billion pairings in the human genome. It looks very much like a computer code. We would never suggest that a computer program spontaneously evolved over time yet we are comfortable to say that this happened in DNA.
  6. Human beings have consciousness. Why? How? We take our ability to reflect and observe for granted yet it is unique to humans, at least at the sophisticated level that it is.

There is an eight page summary of The Case for a Creator on our website. But the book itself is a great read if you have the time. (By the way, for those of you in the know, the writer of the summary made a mistake when he referred to the type of galaxy that we are in.)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Role of Doubt in Finding Faith

Doubt is an interesting topic in the search for faith. It's often seen as the antithesis of faith but it's not. Apathy is. If you truly didn't believe, you wouldn't even care about God. But doubt shows that you do believe, you are just struggling with your belief.

The truth is that we often doubt what we believe just like we argue with those we love. If we didn't love them, we wouldn't bother to argue. In the same way, if we didn't believe at some level, we'd have no reason to doubt. So doubt doesn't prove you don't believe in God any more than an argument with my wife proves that I don't love her.

Many of us hate conflict because we don't like to argue. We'll avoid it like the plague, just trying to act like everything is okay when it's really not. It dawned on me a number of years ago that conflict can actually produce intimacy in a relationship if I'll let it. You see, it's through disagreeing with someone and talking about that disagreement that I come to know them better. They get to know me better as well. Talking through a conflict will help me to draw closer to my wife or child or friend because we'll both appreciate things about each other that we never knew before.

It's the same with doubt. We are often so ashamed of our doubt (regarding God) that we don't want to admit it to anyone, even ourselves. We just quietly nod in agreement when God is discussed and hope that our nagging doubt gets resolved on its own.

But doubt can actually be good for our faith. Healthy doubt tells us that there's something wrong in our thinking that we need to take a look at. Doubt is really internal conflict. And, if you are willing to face it, it will produce a greater sense of intimacy with God. So don't fear your doubt, face it, and invite God into the process of resolving your doubt. It's not something that you have to suffer alone. He WANTS to help you sort everything out.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bad Faith vs. Good Faith (Part 4)

See posts below for background... (read the full sermon here)

Monologue vs. Dialogue - Bad faith has everything figured out and wants to tell you all about it. But don't try to talk back because they don't want to hear it. Bad faith only has one-way conversations whereas good faith is open to dialogue. I have a friend who has engaged me in dialogue about the possibility of gay marriages. He is working through his theology and thinking and turned to me for my input since he knows that I don't agree with gay marriage. I'm happy to correspond about this because it's an important issue. I could tell him to not waste his time, it's wrong and why bother. But I told him just the opposite. I told him that even though I don't agree, someone has to be asking these questions - turning over every rock, so to speak, to make sure that we haven't missed anything in our certainty. Love and grace demands it, don't you think?

Selfishness vs. Sacrifice - Bad faith is in it just for what they can get out of it. The corrupt TV evangelist wants your money and a diamond ring, we want to be saved from hell and happy. But good faith moves beyond self-interest and seeks the benefit of God and others. How do we benefit God? I suppose we can't, but thanking, praising and obeying him are means to honor him with our lives. We recognize him in these ways just like we would any other person. In addition to God, good faith seeks to be people through our personal sacrifice - the giving of our time, our talent and our finances.

Mutual respect, Free Choice, Responsibility, Relationship, Dialogue and Sacrifice are all markers of good faith. When we see these things eminately from a person we are attracted to faith. It lifts our spirit and draws us to God. But when we see the opposite, it drops a wall in our heart and turns us inward. We go into a defensive posture and insist that we will never become a person of faith if faith means to be these things.

If you are seeking to find faith, I hope that you won't be scared away by bad faith. And in your pursuit of faith, I hope that you will cling to only that which is good and reject all that's bad.

Bad Faith vs. Good Faith (Part 3)

See previous posts for background...

Irresponsible vs. Responsible - We've all known people of faith who would rather talk about Jesus saving them than lifting a finger to help with the job at hand. They leave the work to "unbelievers" while they do "the work of God". The truth is they are using bad faith as an excuse to shirk their responsibility - just another form of denial that has probably defined their life. Bad faith may be used on a larger scale, say, regarding the environment. Rather than deal with the problems and complexities of being a good steward of God's creation, bad faith says that "Jesus is coming soon so it doesn't matter what we do to the earth."

But good faith actually takes on more responsibility. Good faith sees that life is not about the individual but life is about the community; family, local and global. Where they were once concerned only for themselves they are suddenly concerned about all people everywhere as well as all of God's creation. Good faith sees life as a stewardship or an entrustment of the riches that God has given to us.

Rules vs. Relationships - Like the Pharisees of Jesus day, bad faith focuses on obeying rules not developing relationship. Relationships are expendible but rules are sacred. Bad faith spends an inordinate amount of time of studying the rules, executing the rules and judging the success and (mostly) failure of others who attempt to fulfill the rules. But good faith understands that "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life" and that "mercy triumphs over judgment". Good faith seeks to keep the unity of the faith, prefers one another and accepts one another. Good faith goes out of it's way to maintain relationship and only breaks relationship after every other attempt at reconciliation and restoration fails.

Bad Faith vs. Good Faith (Part 2)

I'm continuing on from the post below contrasting bad faith with good faith...

Simplistic vs. Complex - I've always appreciated the focused simplicity of what Paul said in Corinthians, that, he preached Christ and him crucified, period. I even wrote here in my blog about that a while ago. Every believer should keep their faith that simple. But simple does not mean simplistic. When seekers have troubling questions about evil and hatred and car bombs and hurricanes that destroy entire cities it's offensive to resort to the refrain, "You just have to believe!" or "It's all about loving Jesus!"

We are complex people living in a complex world in a complex universe. Any microscope or telescope will tell you that. Bad faith always wants to reduce lifes complexities and loses the wonder of creation. Bad faith seems to fear that if the big questions are asked that it may destroy faith and then where would it be? So it's safer to just play dumb, kind of a "don't ask, don't tell" mentality regarding faith.

But good faith believes that God is bigger than any question. No answer will destroy God. We don't have to fear losing God among the complexities of life. In fact, without God the complexities can never be unearthed, mined and marveled at.

Bad Faith vs. Good Faith

I'm fleshing out my message for Sunday so let me use you as my guinea pig! Brian Mclaren (see post below about the book "Finding Faith") says that the number one enemy of true faith isn't atheism or false religion but bad faith, that is, bad examples of what it means to know and/or follow God.

It's easy to take pot-shots at the big hyocrisy of others; the Crusades, the foolish and corrupt TV evangelists or the child molestation cases among priests and other ministers. But bad faith is more pervasive and subtle than that. Let me list six contrasts between bad and good faith.

Unquestioned Authority vs. Mutual Respect. Bad faith is final. It's set in stone. There is little or no mystery to God. It's been disected and labeled so that there is no longer a reason to think or question. That's all been done for you by people much wiser and more spiritual. But good faith allows questions because it knows that God is bigger than any box you can put him in. Questions enlarge our view of God and makes him even more worthy of praise. Plus, questions make sure that our faith is good, that we haven't overlooked something or assumed something or taken things for granted. A questioning faith is what keeps faith fresh, authentic and true. Good faith respects, honors and encourages the right of people to think their thoughts and hear from God, not just parrot the thoughts of others.

Forced Choice vs. Free Choice. Bad faith has a surprisingly low view of God. Bad faith doesn't think that God can speak to people, or at least that people don't have the ability to hear from God when he speaks. It doesn't believe what Jesus said, that "My sheep hear my voice" and "I will send my Spirit to lead them into all truth." Because of this, bad faith feels compelled to coerce people into their way of thinking. They would confess, "Yes, it's a bit manipulative but it's really for their own good. They'll thank us some day!" But good faith, though passionate and directive, leaves the choice to the individual. Each person is responsible to God alone, which frees good faith from the burden of having to make sure that everyone does the right thing all the time.

More later...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Choosing Between Dread and Desire

Proverbs 10:24 struck me as I read it this morning...
"What the wicked dread will overtake them;
What the righteous desire will be granted."

I love Proverbs because its sayings are able to capture truth and relate it so concisely. It takes things that I have observed and puts them into a memorable saying.

This proverb immediately reminded me of people that have complained to me about their lives. Their lives have been misfortune after another. In fact there are so many misfortunes lined up that after a while it appears that they are almost cursed. This sense of doom ( or "dread") then leaves a cloud over them. Their head is cast down as they brace for the next storm.

But what they don't see in all of this doom and gloom is that, where the original misfortunes were truly coincidental, much of the subsequent pain was self-induced. They rarely see it. They would protest wildly if pointed out. But they have no concept of how their negative attitude has altered their thinking and they are now actually choosing problems. Of course, they don't choose a specific calamity. For example, if someone is hit by a car, they didn't throw themselves in front of it. But maybe they were so down on their luck that they drank all day. Then they chose to walk in the street instead of the sidewalk. When they saw the car they couldn't react in time and BAM, they got hit. Now they have another tragic story to sing their dirge about. Do you see what I mean when I say that it is self-induced? But they interpret that event as God punishing them.

In contrast to this is the person with a godly desire. They are filled with the hope and joy that only God can give. Though trials come their way they keep the hope of resurrection ever before them because that is God's story - not only for Jesus - but for all of his children. No matter what comes their way, they are convinced that they can be an overcomer. They have a desire to succeed, to be victorious in spite of their circumstances and Proverbs tells us that that desire will be granted by God.

Two people. Two lives. One leads to ruin and the other to victory. Is God playing favorites? No. One has chosen desire and one dread. Choice is a powerful thing - for good and evil. The moment you choose to let God be a part of your life equation and expect him to do good things, you have just opened up the windows of heaven to receive all it's blessing. But when you are filled with dread you nail those same windows shut.

We all have a lot more to say about how our story reads than we realize. Choose wisely.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Cost of Finding Faith

Last week I shared how I came to faith along with some principles that others can glean from my experience (at church). This week I'll be looking at an overview of what a search for faith entails.

Jesus said that it's wise for a person to count the cost of anything they decide to do. So what is the cost of a search for faith? Four things come to mind...
  1. Determination & Patience. Faith isn't something you can pick up over your lunch hour or during halftime on Sunday. Finding faith takes work. Nothing good comes easy and it's foolish to search for the most important thing in life half-heartedly.
  2. Honesty. A true search for faith is a look inward as much as it is a look outward. A search for faith is ultimately a search for God and the closer you get to God the greater a sense of self-awareness you'll have. Are you willing to look in the mirror and see the layers of denial and self-interest peeled back?
  3. Reason. We often speak of faith as if it were a substitute for reason..."blind faith" or a "leap of faith". When someone asks a person of faith for some hard evidence, the simplistic answer is often "Just believe". Sorry, that doesn't cut it. True faith IS based on evidence just like a good jury trial. We collect evidence until we can make a conclusion - not based on being at the scene of the crime - but the quality of evidence at hand. Faith doesn't negate intelligence, it engages it.
  4. Your whole life. You may not start your quest for faith willing to give your life but I assure you that that is where it will end if you do indeed find faith. God doesn't negotiate with us in this venture. At some point you will need to decide if you are willing to go all the way with God or not. He doesn't bargain. There are no half-price sales in faith. The cost is your life.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Bad Reasons to Believe

In the faith process there are good reasons to believe and bad ones.

Some people come to "faith" out of desperation. Their world caved in on them and they are looking for a quick fix. I'm not saying that a time of crisis is never a time to come to faith. To the contrary, it happens all the time. Often, times of crisis are what opens our eyes and ears to finally hear what God has been saying to us for a long time.

But many people aren't sincere when they come to God in crisis. I see this often as a pastor. People show up to a service or call for prayer or meet me once or twice in counseling. They'll "do anything" for God but what they really want is to rub a genie's lantern and get their wish. When God doesn't perform for them they "lose" their faith. The truth is, they never had faith. They just wanted their problems to go away.

There is danger in desperation not only because it can lead to insincerity but because desperation may cause a person to grab onto a bad faith that promises more than it can deliver. Brian McLaren talks about this type person when he says...
"...they jump on the assembly line of cults and extremist groups, ready to conform, ready to make false confessions, ready to sacrifice their personal responsibilty for the benefit of belonging to a group that is sure about everything." (Finding Faith, page 15)

In times of crisis and chaos, we can be so desperate for an answer that we'll accept any answer as long as it's certain. We may not want to hear, "We don't know how this is going to turn out but you can trust that God will be with you through it." That's often not good enough and so we look for the person who will tell us what we want to hear.

But desperation isn't the only bad reason to believe. Maybe you are lonely and looking for relationships. Maybe you are insecure and looking for affirmation. Maybe you are rebellious and looking to make a statement to your parents or others. Again, faith can answer the loneliness and insecurity issues but if you are grasping at anything to kill the pain then it's not a good reason for faith. Once your need is pacified you'll move on to other things.

Surprisingly, bad reasons to believe don't always end in an aborted faith. Sometimes people are truly converted in spite of themselves! Their mixed motives bring them close to God where God is able to gain their ear and draw them to Himself. But ideally we want to approach God with purer motives if possible.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Deconstructing Your Faith

As I approach my new series on "how to find faith" (September 4) I'm anticipating that for many believers, this series will challenge their faith in a way that's surprising. As I help those with no faith process the road to faith, undoubtedly there will be some (if not many) that have a faith that will realize that the faith they have no longer holds water. They will realize that their faith is not a good faith and before they can go forward they really need to go back - to "deconstruct" their faith - to dismantle it and start over.

For some, this will feel like losing faith. What once was so sure, so settled, will suddenly become weak and possibly even give way completely. That's not a bad thing if their faith was built on a foundation of sand to begin with. What IS bad is to have a faith that leads to a superficial or self-serving lifestyle. What IS bad is to have a faith that allows oppression and injustice in the home the church or the world. What IS bad is to have a faith that doesn't connect with God but only produces meaningless religious activity. So the best thing a true seeker can do is to back up and make sure their faith is solid - that it's a faith that pleases God.

I think many people come to a quick conclusion about faith and as a result it either leads them to a bad place or a boring place. But I want to encourage you to take time in your approach to faith. I don't mean be lax or lazy about it. I mean be willing to ask lots of questions. Don't assume too much or jump to conclusions. It's like marriage. There are many divorces because there are few that take a slow and reasoned approach to their commitment. In the same way, there are many who jettison their "faith" because they mistakenly "came to faith" for the wrong reasons. I'll talk about those reasons soon.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Are You Afraid of Jesus?

I met with a young man the other day who was clearly in the grasp of God. It was like I could see his mind changing and his whole life shifting in front of me.

I got a kick out of what he said though. He said he was reading through the Old Testament and enjoying it. But he was afraid to get to the part about Jesus. When I asked him why he said that, he was afraid that he'd believe it. I said, "So what's wrong with that?" And he said, "I don't know if I can do it. And I don't know if I want to be like that." "Be like what?" I asked. "Well, you know, religious - go to church all the time and never swear and be nice." I laughed and told him that God wasn't grabbing a hold of him so he could be nice and religious. How boring is that?

Did he really think that the God of the universe, the God who spoke the world into existence, has nothing more exciting to do in his life than to make him nice? I told him that God wants to flip every switch inside of him and make him more alive than he's ever been. God wants to "pull out all the stops" and breathe life into him like he's never lived it before.

He stopped me and said that that was already true. He said that his world had turned to black and white after his girlfriend died. He became self-destructive and cruel. But ever since he started being open to God the color has come back into his life. The grass was greener and the sky was bluer than it had ever been. He smelled things that he hadn't smelled in years.

I said, "That's just the beginning. God wants to show you things and do things in your life that you haven't even dreamed of. So throw out your ideas of what it means to be religious and get ready for God to blow you away."

It was quite the conversation. I don't know if I've ever shared my faith with someone who lit up quite like he did. I tell you about it here because maybe you need to hear these things. Maybe you are hesitating to follow Jesus because you are afraid that he will subtract from your life and not add to it. Don't believe that for a minute. He's got things in store for you that you can't imagine. So don't lose another minute. Life is too short.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Blue Like Jazz

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In preparing for my series on "How to Find Faith" I'm gathering stories of people coming to faith, in books, in personal stories and, hopefully, by your posting to this blog! Blue Like Jazz is the musings of a young man (Donald Miller) who has a knack of talking about coming to faith in a very "unchurchy" way - very refreshing for those of us who are sick of the jargon and cliches that seem to come with the faith package.

I was captured by the "authors note" at the beginning of the book. He says...

"I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theatre in Portland one night when I saw a man playing a saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened."

You see, this is how a post-modern thinks...sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. In our presentation of Jesus and faith, we so often shove factoids at people and wonder why they don't get excited. I think it's because they wonder why we aren't excited. They wonder - if this is such "good news" then why do they share it like it's medicine - not enjoyable...but something you just endure for your own good? People want to see that we are in love with Jesus ourselves and being transformed by him. When they see that in us, then they might be willing to consider what we have to say.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

How to Find Faith

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I've talked about a few Brian McLaren books in my posts. I've backed up to read one of his early one's called "Finding Faith". I'm so impressed with it that I decided to preach an eight week series on the topic. McLaren hits on a part of faith that seems to have gone untouched by other writers/ to come to faith. It's amazing that there are not more books like this but I guess that shows our "modern" mind-set (vs. a post-modern one).

The modern mind just wants the facts, thinking that the facts speak for themselves. The post-modern mind wants more. It wants context. It wants relationship. It wants to know how the "what" will play out on a daily basis. The post-modern person doesn't just believe because it's "the right thing to do". They believe because it makes their life better.

When I was a new believer I read books like "Know Why You Believe" and "Evidence that Demands a Verdict". These were books about what you need to know about Christianity, i.e. who Jesus was, what he did, why his death was important, etc. These are obviously important things but in the scheme of things, they are way down the line in the faith process. Before we can come to faith we really need to know how to believe first, then what to believe.

I'd love to hear back from my readers on where you are at in the faith process and how you got there. I haven't had much luck in getting people to post - I don't if it takes too much time or it's too intimidating to see your thoughts on-line, even though anonymous, but it would be a great discussion to hear from believers at various stages of faith and even non-believers who want to tell me why they don't have a faith.

  • What are your struggles?
  • What have been stumble blocks in your faith experience?
  • What made it easy?
  • How has it changed (or not changed) your life?

Over the past few decades, faith has been painted as very black and white in my circles. Either you are in or out with few, if any, shades of gray. But faith is a process. We are all at different points in the journey. We don't have to be ashamed of where we are at in the process. Some of us have hit a dead-end and need to back up and take another run at it. That's okay. Some times you have to tear down before you can build up.

So, let me hear from you. Take the time and the risk and let's hear what you have to say about your process of coming/not coming to faith. Thanks! I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Finding True Freedom

I heard the author of the book "Smart Sex" on the radio the other day. I liked what she had to say about personal freedom. She said that the goal of everyone in our culture is to be unencumbered - that is, we seek to have as few restrictions on us as possible. We don't want anyone telling us what to do about our sex life or anything for that matter.

As I thought about that, I had to agree. Even my discussion below about casual dress is about our desire to be free of anyone telling us how to dress. We want as much personal freedom as possible with as few people telling us what to do as possible.

But the desire for personal freedom flies in the face of what it means to follow Jesus. There's not one part of our life that is "free" from the call of God. The true follower makes it their goal to give up their personal agenda/desire for personal freedom to align themselves with God's design.

The Christian message is a tough "sell" when seen in this light. Why would anyone want to give up their agenda for God's?

The answer lies in realizing what true freedom is. It is a myth to believe that we are free when we throw off all encumbrances and call all of our own shots in life. True freedom comes when we submit ourselves to someone who cares for us and knows more than we do. How free are we when we reject the care and wisdom of physicians? How free is a child when she rejects the care and wisdom of her parents? How free are we when we reject the care and wisdom of a tour guide in an unknown land? Rejecting the care of these people can lead to great pain and even death.

In the same way, throwing off the "shackles" of God is not freedom but bondage. No one cares for us more and no one is wiser than God. I fear for what people will need to experience in life before they understand this. But, unfortunately, sometimes experience is the only way we learn. Hopefully there will be someone there to help us when we "hit the wall" and start looking for a better way.