Love, Hope, & Purity

Paula and I recently read a book together about some of our brothers and sisters around the world today who suffer greatly simply because they are followers of Jesus. True stories of courageous faith among contemporary believers challenge some phrases common among Christians in America, including me at times, which imply that we see circumstances as the measure of God’s love. I am not saying I have never experienced my circumstances as a personal indication of God’s love; I have, and do—things as simple as the songs of small birds in the morning or a beautiful sunset. But I was reminded last week of the strong focus of scripture, that God’s love was demonstrated most strongly in sending His Son, Jesus, Who gave Himself for us while we were still hostile toward Him—and through Him we become sons and daughters in God’s forever family. God’s reminder came through Pastor Kevin Murphy (of St. Matthew Lutheran in Walnut Creek) in a message based in the first three verses of First John three.

family-of-godThe first verse of the passage calls us to “behold” the greatness of God’s love for us, “that we should be called the children of God.” Pause and ask God to let you experience the wonder of this. Who am I, that the God of all Creation would call me into His child? John isn’t just sharing “sound doctrine” (although it is that). John is sharing the personal relational experience of an orphan beggar who is now embraced as part of a family—and not just any family, but that of Father God, . . . Abba, . . . Daddy. The NIV says that Abba lavished His love upon us in taking us into His family. What image does lavished bring forth for you? For me, it brought back an object lesson I shared years ago: If our life is a bowl of fresh strawberries, is a single spoon of whipped cream lavish? How about two? What if we piled it on, scoop after scoop, until the whipped cream was dropping off the edges of the bowl? Contemplate the greatness of Abba’s love lavished on us in that we are called the children of God.

John didn’t want us to just hear this, he wanted us to join in His experience of Abba’s lavish love for His children, focused not in our temporal circumstance but in His work for and in us. Lest we miss any of the significance of this, John affirms that Abba doesn’t only “call” us His children, He affirms “and such we are”—we are actually born of God. We are no longer who we once were: Not only do we now belong to God’s forever family, not only do we have a new identity, He has actually made us new.

I hope to share more about this next time, but I encourage you to start talking with Papa now about your personal experience of His lavish love in being brought into His family. But since I try to keep each post short, I don’t want to conclude this one without at least touching on the next two verses—one looking to the future and the other to our present response.

As to the future—we will be like Him. Paula’s grandmother called this “the greatest promise in all of scripture.” The reality of our new family relationship, our new identity, and our new birth is the beginning of a profound transformation which God Himself will take to maturity—for when He appears we will be like Him, we will see Him as He is. Don’t run past this; ask Jesus to allow you to experience the deep emotion evoked in John by God’s lavish love, while also being made aware of the transformation He is effecting in you even now, and will bring to completeness: We will be like Him. For all who have this focus live differently, because lavish love coupled with confident hope produces purity. That’s what John shares in the third verse—all who have this hope fixed on Him purify themselves, just as He is pure.

May you live as God’s lavishly loved child, mindful of your future with Him, so that your life is characterized by purity.

Express Hope for Sweetness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGood Evening Friends,

As some of you know, this evening is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. One great tradition at this season is to eat of apple and honey and express thoughts of hope for sweetness in the coming year. I have no doubt that if we were in Seattle this weekend we would welcome students into our home (this is the Sunday before the first day of fall classes at SPU) and take turns sharing about some sweetness enjoyed in the past year as well as a hope for sweetness in the year about to begin.

Fortunately for us all, such a celebration is not confined to Judaism nor locale—it is something each of us may engage in wherever we are, indeed it is fully consistent with Paul’s encouragement to followers of Jesus to Rejoice in the Lord always!

Some of you have celebrated with us in this way in the past and, although we aren’t present with you this year we could all celebrate “together” by participating in this activity at least once in the next several days. Whether you have joined with us in such an expression of hope in the past or not, I encourage you to take the time to gather with your family and friends and invite them to share in a hopeful look to the continued goodness of God in the days ahead by speaking of your own hope for sweetness in the days ahead.

Oh praise our God,
And magnify His name.
For He is good,
And worthy of all praise.

I will put my trust in You, Oh Lord,
My Rock and My Deliverer.

Your love is everlasting.

(based on Robin Mark’s “Some Trust in Chariots”)

Shalom!

Reflections on Labor and Rest

Friends,

As “Labor Day” draws to a close, I encourage you to reflect a bit on ReOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAst and Labor, perhaps beginning simply with the contemplation of this image and Merriam-Webster’s definition of “reflection” as “something that shows the effect, existence, or character of something else” (www.M-W.com). Perhaps you have caught a more spectacular reflection with your own camera, but I want to address not so much a visual reflection as to contemplate the effect, existence, or character of labor in light of rest.

Jesus spoke of the relationship between labor and rest in a place not far from where this picture was taken, when He offered Himself as the source of rest to those who were weary and heavy laden. Although He was speaking there of a spiritual rest, we should not ignore the connection of physical & emotional weariness and labor. For many of us, the end of a three-day weekend finds us more spent than when we began. Our “pace of life” seems, at times, exhausting—we embody the expression “work hard, play hard” but we should add “constantly” (or, “over and over”). We might attribute that pace to “modern times,” but I think that is a mistake. Even Jesus and His disciples experienced unrelenting demands on their time, for we are told that “there were so many people coming and going that they did not even have time to eat.” (Mk. 6:31) Sound familiar? Yet amid that pressing need and opportunity, Jesus—the One sent not to be served but to serve—says “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest up.” I think He makes that same call to us today, but most of us ignore Him!

I know, for a number of you I’ve now “gone from preaching and started meddling.” If you feel that way, you need to hear this more than most!

Our culture does not value rest. In fact, some of us are not only busy, we like to impress people with how busy we are! Think about it: How often, when someone asks how you are, do you reply: “Busy!” (or some equivalent)? Truth be told, some of us have pretty much welcomed conformity to the world’s standard as our “normal”—like the world, we believe busy people are important people. We manifest this when we can’t enjoy a meal out without succumbing to the urge to check our emails, text messages, or make a post to FaceBook or Twitter. We consider ourselves courteous if we ask consent (sort of) of those we are “with” by explaining, “I need to take this.” I don’t mean to imply there is never a situation where that urgency is not true, but for many of us we only wish it were true—and we want the people around to be aware of our importance.

Pressed on every side, unable to pause even to eat, He gets away for a few hours on the water en route to an afternoon of compassionate service to a crowd of perhaps 15,000 (read again Mark 6:30-44). But I think we often miss the point! If rest is important (and it is), if Jesus’ promise of rest is true (and it is), and if the disciples really needed to rest up (and they did), where is that rest in the story? They were exhausted from service and looking forward to some privacy (hadn’t Jesus said “by yourselves”?), only to be swarmed again on the other side of the lake. No wonder the disciples wanted to “send them away!”

Without diminishing for a moment the importance of substantial time away for rest, I suggest that this time Jesus intended them to rest en route. On the water, amid the sunshine and breeze, they were indeed by themselves. They did have opportunity to rest up. But I suspect they missed it because their expectation was that rest awaited them on shore when, in fact, it was offered them in the boat. As much as I would like to encourage you each to “get away by yourselves and rest up,” for most of you the “desolate place” will only become another place of frenetic activity. But most of you, perhaps all of you, have times en route when you could turn off the radio and commune with The Ageless One. I encourage you to do just that: Allow Him to refresh you and give you rest, even as you travel. Indeed, this can be practiced in such short times as a walk from your office to the copier amid an otherwise pressing meeting. I know. He has granted me rest in such times, and what He does for one of His Beloved He is ready to do for each, if we are willing. While reflecting on that you might also talk to Him about what to say the next time someone asks, “How are you?”

May you enjoy His grace in abundance and His peace beyond measure.

John

I’d Rather be a Forest than a Street!

On Tuesday I was talking with a brother about our life in Jesus, and (of course) His OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlife in us. I shared with him that I had recently been reminded that the Jordan River (pictured here near its source) flows into both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The water is the same, why are the two Seas so different? I haven’t known this brother for long, so he doesn’t know yet what you know about me—that I often see in nature pictures of the Spiritual.

I was trying to encourage/challenge this brother to move from the place of a river to that of a lake: Allow God to flow through you (share with others what God is showing you), yet seek to take in more from Him than you pass on. “So, you think I should be teaching others?” I responded, “Not necessarily in any formal way, but in some regular, meaningful ways—yes. But let the Sea of Galilee be your model, rather than the Dead Sea. Both have the Jordan River as their primary source. But, while the Jordan River runs into both, the Sea of Galilee also allows the river to flow out of it as well—it both receives and gives—while the Dead Sea only receives.” In the Dead Sea, water which was fresh, free flowing, producing lush vegetation for miles and miles, has stopped moving and become toxic to most life. It can be fun to float in, but even a mouthful can be deadly!

I remember an old song titled “channels only.” Now, I don’t intend to ruin the song for those who love it—and I think there is truth conveyed by it—but at the same time it doesn’t speak to the tendency of channels to run dry. Consider a reservoir instead (even though it’s a poor lyric [Reservoirs only, Blessed Master . . . just doesn’t work]). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA reservoir is designed and formed for both distribution and storing, thereby promoting fullness of life even in the “dry times.” I know many will object, saying we should all be so filled with the Spirit at all times that we have a constant supply—and I would affirm all that. But I also know that in our experience of life, even those living “full of the Spirit,” face times when we have a sense of dryness (I recall the chapter in Tozer’s Root of the Righteous, “What About those Dry Spells?”). It doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t present and at work, but the reality of His presence and our experience of His presence do not always coincide. Thus, while I proclaim the reality of Christ in us, flowing through us, I remain convinced that He intends for us to be more of a lake (or at least a deep pool) than a fast-flowing river.

I remember an old folk song, familiar to me as rendered by Simon and Garfunkel, with a lyric “I’d rather be a forest than a street! Yes I would, if I only could, I surely would.” How about you? Would you rather be a river or a lake, if you could? Have you talked to Jesus about your desires? Have you expressed to Him your willingness to be formed by Him into all He intends? For what He intends for you is far better than you can imagine—I’d rather be one of the innumerable little springs at the 02.012headwaters of the Jordan (like this one) than anything else, if that is what Christ intends—but I don’t want to cling to my role as a small spring if He intends to form me into a river or a lake. Indeed, these images, along with those of a pond, stream, deep pool, and many more, might be a fitting description of us at any point in time—for God is infinitely creative in the ways He flows to make His life abundant available to all. My situation, your situation, isn’t static—life always involves change—so the images which depict us will likely vary with time. Yet, as we contemplate such images I think we should honestly talk with Jesus about our desires and His plans. I suggest three questions:

“How do I view myself right now?”

“Jesus, how do you see me?”

And, for the brave, “Jesus, what would you have me become?”

Don’t be too surprised if in your own assessment of yourself you are not yet what you hope, but don’t be surprised either if what you hope to be is what Jesus says He would have you become. He is The One Who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine!

Live as one blessed by God, because you are. (Pass it on!)

John

Bring on the Fruit!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”

The question may be rhetorical, but it is a question just the same. How do you answer? I have done a bit of harvesting in my life and I’ve never looked for apricots on a rose bush, nor cherries on an artichoke. How about you? What would you expect to harvest in a strawberry patch?

We can answer without really thinking when we’re talking about grapes and peaches, but you don’t still think He’s talking just about edible fruit do you? The Creator designed the fruit of the first creation to both nourish us and to give us insight into spiritual reality of the new creation. “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”

How would you answer the question as to the fruit of the new creation, the visible manifestation of the inner saint? You know of my consistent (indeed, nearly constant) reminders of the actual, fundamental, and instantaneous change effected by the Spirit in the innermost being of each person in Christ,  from which transformation flows by His continued working. Transformation, like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, brings into tangible expression the God-implanted new nature. “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”

While nearly all of the letters in the New Testament begin with a greeting to the saints, often followed by some aspect of that truth of particular importance for those to whom the letter is addressed, none of the letters stop there. The letters to the saints of the first century, like mine to you, are not intended to simply make you feel good about yourself. The writers of the letters recognized, more than many of our contemporaries, the reality and importance of the heart-change effected by God in all who are His—a change which dramatically alters our very nature (for we are children of wrath no longer; we are now able to approach Him with a pure heart; though we were once dead, we now have been raised-up alive-after-death with Him). But the truth about who we are is not an end in itself; it is the basis for Spirit-enabled right-living. As Henri Nouwen expresses it, we are to be and to become. So, too, the inspired writers plead proper conduct as the appropriate outcome of the inner-change. With well-known words like the “Walk worthy, therefore” of Ephesians four and “I beseech you, therefore, beloved” of Romans twelve, they call us to live by the Spirit’s dynamic in accordance with who we are. “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”

God has chosen to reveal to us the reality of the (at-first invisible) inner-change so we will respond properly to His calls to right living. He seeks not primarily that we know we are really His children, but that in the knowing we will live as His children. We are able to live holy because The Holy One is our Father. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles.

May all who have ears to hear live accordingly!

 

Alergies, Assaults, and Nature

It happened again this morning! Because of an “allergy attack” (itchy, red, eyes and a very runny nose) I thought I should stay “locked inside” rather than venture out for corporate worship. As I have done on only a few occasions in my life, I turned on Sunday morning television and found a sister, smiling while boldly belting out, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace!” The preacher who followed affirmed that tune with well-worn teachings (which I, too, once espoused) concerning the wretched heart of all mankind. I understand the condition of the lost, but now find the failure to distinguish our former state “in Adam” from our new state “in Christ” an assault on not only my ears but my very being!

If you remain comfortably accustomed to the “just a sinner saved by grace” mantra, you may be confused by my reaction. Yet, this is an area where we (like the Pharisees of old) exalt the teachings of men (“doctrine”) above the Word of God. Like the preacher this morning, who quoted Jesus from Mark’s account about defilement that comes from the heart, without sharing that Christ died and rose again to remedy that condition! For, according to God, in the New Covenant Christ removes our cold, stony heart and gives us a pure heart (consider Mark 7:1-23, Ezek. 36:25-27, and I Peter 1:22, 23). The preacher this morning actually misquoted God’s Word through Paul and claimed that we still are children of wrath: That is not what God says! God is explicit in His declaration (Ephesians 2:3) that while we were (past tense) by nature children of wrath (whose conduct matched that nature), God has made us alive in Christ, raised us up together (into resurrection life now), and has seated us with Him in the heavenly realms. If you are in Christ, you are not “just a sinner saved by grace.” You are redeemed! You are new! You are one of God’s holy ones! You are a saint!

As I was contemplating writing you about this morning’s assault, God had a brother in Seattle phone me. As we were talking about this reality he prayed for me, and told me of a picture he took while on a hike yesterday. He sent it to me, and I include it here, because it displays something of what God speaks life out of death about us. It is a picture of a tree stump. As you can see, the stump has a decent diameter, and remains quite prominent—but it is no longer the tree it once was! Much of what was there is gone, despite the rotting remnant. What is a little harder to see from this angle is that, in place of the old, a new tree is growing. I was a sinner, by nature and by actions; I lived in Adam. But God intervened. Who I was died with Christ, and the new me was raised with Him to newness of life. You cannot yet see all I am in Christ, but increasingly He shows Himself and the real me in how I think, speak, and act.

Some of you may think that “I got what I deserved for having tuned in to a TV evangelist!” Point taken. But it is not that simple. This confusion is spread to thousands over the airwaves while we gather together on Sundays and is also proclaimed from many, many pulpits. The present reality of God’s transforming work in His New Creation is unfamiliar to many (dare I say most) of our brothers and sisters. Often the difficulty seems to be sin by the saints. To address this, most preachers opt to declare ongoing depravity (“I am just a sinner”) rather than God’s Truth of Transformation. It is manifestly evident that in the First Creation, when Adam sinned, all his descendants became sinners by nature. What we must apprehend by faith is that, in the New Creation, all who are in Christ remain saints despite acts of sin! Our nature and our hearts have been made new—we are no longer by nature children of wrath. To claim otherwise denies the “such were some of you” spoken by Paul to the Corinthians (6:11); perhaps a paraphrase will highlight the assault: Rather than the generic “I am just a sinner,” how about, “I am a fornicator,” or “I am an adulterer” or “I am a drunkard” . . . saved by grace.” That is not good news! How can such a person claim to have been “saved from sin” if it still characterizes him or her? That is a huge perversion of the truth! Those things may have characterized me in the past, but no longer! Even if I engage in such an act today, I am more than my sin, much more! Sinful acts no longer characterize or define who I am. Indeed, such acts are contrary to who I really am today. For, I am new! I am a saint! I am in Christ!

May the words of our mouth, and the meditations of our heart, be consistent with God’s Words about us.