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.

May Your Christmas be Filled with Wonder!

image003Have you ever watched a young child playing with tissue paper? Time with the gift will come, but for now there is fascination with the paper. Young children regularly experience wonder. As we grow, we allow wonder to be displaced by knowledge—or the “maturity” of completing one task and moving to the next. Around Christmas in particular I become busy in the activities of the season, to the point I don’t allow time for wonder. Busyness interferes with my enjoyment of the activities, friends, and wonder of the season. I suspect I’m not alone.

I have been struggling with this recently. Wonder is possible when we encounter something beyond our experience or understanding, but we need to give it room. If the Christmas story has become too familiar, if buying gifts is too routine, or if we have allowed our many activities to press us into a rush, wonder will be hard to find. Yet, if we open ourselves to wonder it can come upon us even amid activity. That is what happened to me yesterday, as I was shopping. I had been talking to Papa about my lack of wonder and He had prompted me to think on His extravagant love gift in The Son. Nice thoughts, but too routine, too intellectual; no wonder. But yesterday, as I walked through a store looking at things, I became aware of the music in the background, music that was familiar. Right there, amid my shopping, I focused on the song and remembered the lyric . . . I can only imagine. In that moment I started to tear-up as the Spirit connected ideas of  imagine and great love in the context of The Son laying down His life. Right there, amid my shopping, I experienced a glimmer of renewed wonder. Are you open to wonder?

Read this bit slowly. The Father, Son, and Spirit loved before they created. In their experience of love, the Son was slain before the foundation of the world. The provision for restoring their creation was eternally certain before they created the world. But after creation, there came a particular point where that provision needed to occur in time-space history. So it was, about 2,000 years ago, that The Son set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, He became human! He provided us insight into His motivation during an intimate conversation with eleven of His friends. As John reports it, after His final dinner and before walking outside the city to pray, Jesus explains: Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. I know we frequently think of this lay down one’s life as relating to His death, and it does; but there is more. Much more. Imagine the Creator-Sustainer of All enjoying His rightful status as King of the Universe, add to your image those of some old testament prophets (like Isaiah’s vision of The Lord, High and lifted up) or from a scene of The Throne in the Revelation. Soak in that image. . . . The coming of The Son, which we remember particularly at Christmas, involved His laying aside His life in Heaven in order to benefit men and women, who He made His friends. Greater love has no one than this. That is His love for us, for me and for you.

Jesus, please cause us to think on You, allow us to experience again Your great love, and renew our wonder.

Not for our sake, but for Your glory.
Thank You Jesus.

A Path to . . . somewhere!

Greetings fellow traveler!

As most of you know, we have been in a “step out, not sure where we’re going“ mode since at least last spring. Even before we moved from Seattle, God had me thinking about this, talking with Him, and . . . taking pictures. Here is one I took while on a walk just north of Fort Casey on Whidbey SAMSUNGIsland: notice that the path is clear, a gate is open enough to walk through (but a car would need to wait), but the destination—where the path leads—is not visible. Maybe you feel like you are on a path like this, not at all certain where it will lead. I’m not speaking in an ultimate sense—I think most of you are part of God’s forever family; you know you will spend eternity with Jesus—but where you will live or work, maybe who you will marry, or how many (more) kids you will have (along with innumerable other details) are unknown to you. You might have a reply you give to some of these if asked, because you have learned that our culture definitely favors those who answer such questions with great certainty!

Don’t get me wrong, I think having “goals” and “making plans” are good, as long as we subject them to “if God wills . . ..” I don’t mean we say that as an excuse for not being reliable; I mean we should say it because we actually surrender our plans and goals to Him. I think surrender is the only authentic response if you really follow Jesus. As I was reading again this week in Eugene H. Peterson’s excellent book The Jesus Way I was reminded that, for many people (unfortunately even many within God’s family who live and think in the way of the world), following seems foolish. Think while you read:

            “When we follow Jesus, it means that we don’t know exactly what it means, at least in detail. We follow him, letting him pick the roads, set the timetables, tell us what we need to know but only when we need to know it. Caiaphas knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going, and he had a pretty good idea of how to get there. He was a master at getting what he wanted in religion. . . ..

              “When Jesus says ‘Follow me’ and we follow, we don’t know where we will go next or what we will do next. That is why we follow the one who does know.”

(The Jesus Way, p. 240)

 Peterson’s words suggest that, in truth, nobody knows where they will go next or what they will do next. Many people think their plans are certain, but they are mistaken. Some tragic examples arose in central California this week, I’ll share only one: two families had their lives plunge into inexpressible pain when one mom, making a right turn out of the elementary school driveway after dropping her children for the day, struck and killed a twelve year old on a bike as he approached the same driveway from her right. . . . Papa, bring your tangible presence, including empathetic visits from some of our brothers and sisters, to comfort those who ache because of death. But I don’t know the details. It could be that the parents in one or both of these hurting families are Jesus followers—which brings me to another point from Peterson:

“. . .Following Jesus is not a path to privilege. It is not a way to get what you want. It is not the inside track to a higher standard of living. In both Judaism and the church there have always been a lot of people who expect everything to turn out wonderfully when they commit themselves to God’s ways, worship faithfully, study their Bibles, witness to their friends, and give generously. But it is following Caiaphas that gets you that kind of life, not following Jesus. Jesus makes that explicit when he says, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross . . .’ (Matt. 16:24).”

(The Jesus Way, p. 229).

If you are struggling in the Way today, if life seems confusing or hard (or both), do not despair. It is possible to follow yet not have all the answers. Remember, even though “we don’t know where we will go next or what we will do next, . . . we follow the one who does know.”

Lord Jesus, please allow us to see and hear You in ways which Your Spirit will use to enable us to be good followers.

 

You smell like . . .

The other night I had a group of guys come over to talk and pray. As is common with us, a number of the guys embraced as they greeted on another. One of the guys commented to another, You smell like . . . a man! Great start to another time of real authenticity! Honestly! Turns out the brother had been climbing earlier in the day, hadn’t yet showered and was entirely unaware of any . . . offensive odor—how great to hear the truth from a friend! Ever wonder what odor you give off?

For many reasons this is the time of year when I am particularly aware of God’s work in and through us as described by Paul in II Corinthians 2:14 & 15:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing . . ..

God doesn’t call us to be stinkers! Indeed, His purpose is to manifest the sweet aroma of Jesus through us. Peterson translates it people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. In considering these words several years ago God led me to think of myself as a “diffuser” of His gracious fragrance—I’m just the “reed” in the image; He  has placed me into Himself and Himself into me, so where I go His sweet aroma gets spread, not in an overpowering way but in a way which is refreshing. Like frankincense and myrrh, to some my presence brings a refreshing aroma while to others I have the stench of death—not because of me, but because of their own reaction to Jesus within me, living through me, being real.

Long ago over the hills outside Bethlehem the angels announced that Jesus’ coming was good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). Is that the message you convey about Him? Do you allow His Spirit to overflow joy through you as a sweet aroma? The reed in a diffuser is pretty plain and the role is pretty simple. Yet, it is an important role if the fragrance is to make it out of the bottle!

Last night I was privileged to go with a group of students from Northwest University to share a meal and conversation with some older folks at Operation Nightwatch, Seattle. As we made the arrangements none of us knew that it was the birthday of one of the residents. Miss Linda was turning 64 but planned on just picking up some pizza and going back to her room to eat in the privacy of her room. But Miss Linda is a dearly beloved, blood bought, child of The King and Papa had better things planned for her! As the students engaged with her you could see her countenance change. She joined us for dinner, laughed, and offered up her dominoes (the games lasted for a couple of hours, past her normal bedtime). Pay attention and make note of how much Papa loves us! As I wrote an email earlier today to thank the students, I shared with them one of my favorite benedictions—from Richard C. Halverson:

You go no place by accident. Wherever you go, Christ is sending you.

You are no place by mistake. Wherever you are, Christ has placed you.

You go nowhere by accident—you are nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go–wherever you are—Christ is placing you or sending you,
because Christ has a job He wants to do where you are
and He can only do it in your body.

Think–wherever you are, Jesus Christ is literally present in the flesh.
Believe that, and go in that confidence.

As your thoughts and activities move from Thanksgiving to Christmas, may His exquisite fragrance be diffused through you, and may you too enjoy the aroma!

John

Freed from Sin!

Greetings of Joy!

 Happy are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;

Those words of David are quoted by Paul in the early verses of Romans 4, and may be used to expresses the popular understanding about believers and their sins. Occasionally we dare use a related expression concerning our sins—that they have been “washed as white as snow”. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we sometimes get a demonstration of these ideas—like in this picture of our “picnic table” last November. But this is one of those places where our concepts about sin, and many of our most loved songs, fall short of what Jesus actually accomplished on our behalf. Let me explain.

When the snow fell last November, our picnic table was dirty, we had weeds in our terrace garden, and the pots on the table were laden with moss. But the snow covered it all. You can’t see those “yard work shortcomings” in the photo. But I know the snow—beautiful and white as it was—only hid them from view. Despite our “formal” expression of our “doctrinal position,” we often think about ourselves as if Christ effected a similar covering of our sins (and particularly our sinfulness [make no mistake, His work was effective as to both sins (the thoughts & acts) and sin (who we are)]—but I am getting ahead of myself). Our thoughts of “covered, but still falling short” are regularly reinforced through our words, including our use of the theological term “atonement” (literally “covering”), in spoken or written word (like the phrase “Christ’s atoning work”) or song (“full atonement, can it be?”). What does Papa tell us Jesus’ death accomplished as to sin? Significantly more than covering—much more!

Repeatedly the writers of what we call “the new testament” describe the work of Jesus in strikingly bold terms, expressing not “covering” but “removal”! We hear these descriptions frequently, but (I suggest) we often “mistranslate” them back to “covering”.  Papa, grant us ears to hear as fresh the greatness of Your provision in Jesus. Thank you!

John the baptizer described Jesus as a lamb—the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (resist the tendency to let your theology limit the import of Father’s Word!) I don’t think John is proclaiming “universalism” here, but he is saying something prophetically profound [remember, Jesus says John was the greatest of the prophets]. Try to enter into John’s imagery. A lamb, a sacrifice, but not an ordinary sacrifice—Jesus is God’s lamb, Whose sacrifice will “take away” sin. Such is the consistent testimony of the new testament writers. I will provide only a few examples, without commenting on each. Listen to the Spirit speak:

For the death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. (Romans 6:10)

[A]t the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself . . . having been offered once to bear the sins of many . . .. For the law . . . can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. . . .[I]n those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins . . .. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . . [B]ut He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God . . .. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. . . . Therefore, . . . let us draw near with a sincere [pure] heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience . . .. (Hebrews 9:26, 28, 10:1, 3, 4, 12, 19, 22)

And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation (“full and complete sacrifice which takes away wrath and brings blessing”) for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (I John 2:1 & 2)

This is a lot to take in, so I’m going to stop for now! I’ll send you something more before the end of the week. For the next few days, take the time to talk with Papa about this, read these passages again (or more fully in your own Bible), explore with Him whether Jesus addressed sin and sins at a level well beyond what you have previously accepted—particularly in terms of the significance and application to you personally. Amid all that, ask Him to enable you to follow John’s instruction—

Behold (contemplate, consider, look upon and take notice)!
Jesus, Who took away your sin
.

 Rejoice!

John