Points? . . . Really?

Not4Points“That’ll get you points!”

That is what a total stranger said to me Thursday morning as we passed on my way to the checkout with these flowers for my bride of forty-three years. Points? Really? While I’m aware of the commercialism associated with Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but comment on the idea (held by many) which transmutes an act of unconditional love into a manipulative ploy. Points? . . . At the same time, I recognize that not all gifts of love are received as readily as candy and flowers—sometimes the most loving thing (that which is best for the other person and which meets their deep need) is something they don’t like or enjoy. Whether it is speaking truth or allowing the one I love to suffer pain or loss in hopes of achieving needed growth, not all acts of love are enjoyable! Sometimes hardship, difficulty, and even suffering is needed for proper growth.  I want to explore this with you a bit as I continue to encourage you to allow Papa God, Abba, to grow your experience of His love for you, as we consider Jesus the beloved—though He was a  Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. Papa, we open our hearts to You today.

 The writer to the Hebrews (at our chapter 5, verse 8) is trying to get his readers to understand something of the greatness of Jesus by these words: Though He was a Son, yet . . .—Jesus’ “core identity” as My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased was central to who Jesus was and how He lived—but that didn’t mean that Abba shielded Him from all pain. He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. I draw your attention to two words in particular: suffering and obedience. We do not use suffering to describe things we enjoy: We don’t suffer through a great meal.  We suffer when things are hard, difficult, or even excruciatingly painful—if you are recovering from knee surgery you may suffer through another physical therapy session—in the therapy there is great pain, but there is a good outcome worth pursuing so you endure the suffering. In a similar way, Jesus’ suffering brought great benefits—for us, absolutely, but for Him too—He learned obedience. We see a similar idea in Paul’s words about Jesus to those in Philippi, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. I suggest that what made such painful obedience possible was Jesus’ absolute certainty (His “core identity”) as My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

These things are not true only of Jesus, they are true for us as well—for Jesus says, in the very same way Abba sent Me, I send you—as My Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Go. Do all that I ask of you. Even amid suffering and pain—those do not diminish the reality or greatness of My love—they are as necessary for you as they were for Me. Papa, allow us to think right thoughts. You see, allowing Papa to confirm us in the reality of His love is essential for the shaping of our core identity as His new creation, but He didn’t go through death, burial, and resurrection solely so we could experience love. He loves us and makes us new so we can live whole and holy. I hope to talk with you more in the days ahead about some of the truth of who we are as those made new in Christ Jesus, but for now I want you to contemplate just one element—that our nature is now that of obedient children. That is the import of Papa’s words through Peter’s Hebraism (I Pet. 1:14) which describes our character—we are children of obedience—obedience is part of who we are by nature as God’s children. Children have characteristics of their parents—their nature is tied to the nature of their parents—so God’s children are characterized by obedience, although our growth in obedience may require suffering—if Jesus learned obedience by the things He suffered, why would we think it would be any different for us? Papa God, Abba, loves us too much to shield us from suffering necessary for our growth. Like Jesus, the anguish of life does not diminish in the least the reality of His great love for you—though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience through the things which He suffered.

Because we are loved, we love. Because we love, we obey. We do not obey in order to earn love! Love can’t be earned. Yet, because we are loved, we love; and because we love, we obey. We don’t love or obey to earn points! Points?

Like plants grow in sunshine, may you grow in Papa’s love.

Beloved and “at home”

Shortly after my post last week one friend wrote, “How do we live loved? I see the need for it. I understand the idea of it. But the word “abide” can seem so amorphous and non-concrete. How do you abide?” What great questions! Perhaps you have a similar desire for specifics in hopes of doing what we are talking about—moving beyond information about God’s love on to actually living in the conscious experience of Jesus’ love (“abiding” or being “at home” in His love). Significantly, that is exactly Paul’s prayer for Jesus followers in Ephesus in the First Century, which I pray for you in the Twenty First:

“My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
Eph. 3:14-19 (The Message, emphasis mine)

To experience (“take in”) the vastness of Jesus’ love involves . . . prayer—talking with Papa God (our magnificent, loving Daddy) and asking Him, by His Spirit, to enable you to “take in” His limitless love (consider the translation “to comprehend with all the saints . . . and to know [by personal experience] the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge”—which develops the meaning of Paul’s words, that his friends might begin to grasp and then experience personally, intimately, the great, expansive, beyond-the-horizon to beyond-the-horizon, love of Jesus). Open yourself to Papa’s answering this prayer, pray it for others, and talk with Him whenever the events of life cause you to doubt the reality of His love.

I can speak truth, but my telling you over and over that You ARE God’s Beloved will not get you there. Your repeating it over and over (especially if you doubt the truth) may actually move you backwards! This is not an area for “self-help!” We need the Spirit to embrace us, welcome us, speak love over us—like the Father loving the prodigal (as depicted here by Rembrandt), rembrandt_prodigalwhich Jesus says is exactly what our Abba is like. Only as His Spirit communicates affirmation to our spirit will we be able to begin to live as His Beloved. Fortunately, that is exactly what His Spirit does, for we have received the Spirit of a true child of the Father, and by that Spirit we call out “Abba” (Daddy!). (Romans 8:15; read also Gal. 4:6, 7). This is how Jesus lived; it is central to living the Jesus Way.

“Jesus had the Heart of a Son . . .  knew himself to be the Son, felt very much like a [Beloved] Son, looked on God as “Abba,” his dear Father, lived in a Father-Son relationship. The divine relationship Son-Father filled his human heart; it was his secret, his joy; a constant awareness; a basic attitude that determined his behavior.” (Jan Bovenmars, A Biblical Spirituality of the Heart)

What Jesus experienced as the Beloved, He wants us to experience—He died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into Heaven so we could experience being His Beloved, so we could live enjoying the love of Abba—today, tomorrow, . . . always. You may not have known this as His purpose, but The Enemy knows, and thus The Enemy seeks at every turn to cause us to doubt God’s love. Most often we are so uncertain of God’s personal, intimate love for us that we misinterpret our experience—like the disciples and the man born blind, we misconstrue our circumstance. Jesus steadfastly refused to live that way—His Abba’s affirmation, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” was a core reality which He would not abandon despite hunger, lack of sleep, lack of money, lack of a place to “lay His head,” pressures of ministry, popularity, rejection, beatings, and even crucifixion. Being Beloved doesn’t protect us from hardship, but living as Beloved by God is essential to joyfully loving others in the midst of our pain.

Perhaps your contemplation of Jesus as The Beloved will be used by Papa to adjust some of your misinterpretations of life thus far; perhaps you will hear His affirmation of love for you through a song; or perhaps you will experience His embrace as you open yourself honestly to Him–expressing your pain . . . and doubt. To that end, I offer a paraphrase of a prayer by John Eldredge, from Fathered by God,

Abba, . . . Papa, . . . Daddy, what did I miss of your loving me? Did I ever hear that I am Your Beloved, that You are well pleased with me? Do I believe it even now? Come to me, in this place, transcend the years. Speak to me in ways meaningful to me, so I know it is you. Do I believe you want good things for me? Is my heart secure in your love? How was my young heart wounded in my early years? . . .  And Jesus, you who came to heal broken hearts, come to me here. Heal these wounds in my heart. Restore me so I may live as Your Beloved. Father me, . . . please. In faith, trusting you to answer beyond my imaginings, I say . . . Thank you.

 

 

On Being and Becoming

Earlier this week I read again the words of Jesus recorded in John 15,

I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me.
Make yourselves at home in my love.
(The Message)

This statement is amazing, but we often read past it with not so much as a notice. Yet our failure to hear the truth of these words and to acknowledge their significance is the root of many of our struggles and failures in life. We do not believe we are intimately and fully loved by Jesus and we have not taken the time to make ourselves at home in His love. Jesus expressed his love for us and told us to make ourselves at home in his love for a reason, but we seldom think on such things. There is so much going on around us, so many things pulling on us and pushing us that this truth, this reality, is often lost to us. It is a great loss. So over the next few weeks I hope to prompt us all to ponder, think on, contemplate these words—for we pass over them to our peril!

Let’s begin at the beginning—allow your thoughts to move toward the distant past, allow your imagination to enter into that era before Earth came to be, before there was time or space, back to where the only existence, the only reality was God . . . in glorious light, expressing love. Pause there. Listen again to Jesus, a little later in John’s narrative, where he speaks of this way of existing as he talks with Abba (Daddy or Papa), that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John. 17:24c nasb). Think about the connection between the glory of Christ and His Father’s love for Him. Better yet, ask Jesus to let you see the connections between His glory and the Father’s love. Do it now, and ask Jesus to take you there again at various times over the next week or so. Allow yourself to wonder at the greatness of their love for one another.

Hold that as The Son creates the world, the stars, light, plants, animals, humans . . . humans loved by The Son . . ., sin enters and relationships shatter. Eons pass and then, in the fullness of time, The Son takes on flesh and at what I believe is the crucial point in his earthly existence, he receives affirmation of his core identity—he is The Son beloved by his Papa. Before he begins that difficult journey of teaching, healing, bringing freedom in the power of the Spirit, as he publicly identifies himself with fallen humanity in his baptism, Papa speaks to him from heaven—You are My beloved son, in You I am well-pleased. (Luke 3:22, nasb) jesusbaptism1Immediately after his baptism and affirmation as Papa’s beloved son, Jesus is compelled by the Spirit to go into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan to act contrary to his core identity as the beloved. As Henri Nouwen says, “He was tempted to believe he was someone else: You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump from the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Jesus said, ‘No, no, no. I am the Beloved of God.’”

How do you face temptation? Is it by your own power, strength, and willpower, or is it rooted in your core identity as God’s Beloved? That is Nouwen’s point, for he says “The greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power but self-rejection, doubting who we really are.” The greatest trap? It is not that those other things are not traps, but that our mere doubts about being Beloved makes all the other temptations so much more attractive. This is why we need to not only know we are loved, but also make ourselves at home in his love. We are loved whether we recognize it or not, but we don’t enjoy being loved and it doesn’t affect how we live unless we are really “comfortable in our own skin” as Jesus’ Beloved. This is taking the being into the becoming—into living as who we are: Beloved.

Jesus, Wow! This is too much for me! Please take my thoughts often to the place before time when Papa loved You. Take me from there, please, into the truth that even then, before the foundation of the world, you loved me. Allow me to experience Your speaking to me affirmation as Your Beloved, for You said:

I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me.
And please enable me to make myself at home in Your love.

Thank You.

 John 

Happy New Year!

1388261919_nyc times square 2014 A clock striking twelve.

Fireworks.

Times Square ablaze in light.

What images does New Years bring to mine for you?

For me, the latter part of 2013 has been filled with images of grape vines, and the transition to 2014 is no exception. Perhaps it is because we are back in northern California and, seemingly, more and more of the flat “farmland” and rolling hills are given over to vineyards. There must be big money in wine! But the theme has come up in several other contexts as well—in books that I’ve been reading and in conversations with friends, images of the vine abound. In a book by that name (The Vine), Andrew Murray points out that in John 15 Jesus reveals Himself as “the true vine” and Abba (Papa) as the vine-keeper before He introduces us as the branches. The image of life originating in and flowing from The Vine into and through the branch to accomplish the vine-keeper’s purpose (Fruit! More fruit!) is powerful.  John Eldredge speaks of this in Beautiful Outlaw (another book I read recently, and highly recommend) in these words:

“The secret of Christianity is something else altogether—the life of Christ in you. Allowing his life to become your life. His revolution is not self-transformation, but his transformation of us, from the inside out, as we receive his life and allow him to live through us. Vine, branch. Anything else is madness.”

I agree. But our mental image of the vine is usually before harvest, loaded with clusters of grapes (like the close up I shared with you a few months ago from a vineyard north of Napa). Yet the vine weathers many, many seasons. Spring is very different than harvest, and the vine after harvest—in mid-winter—very different still. Here is an image I captured last week on my cell phone camera from that same vineyard. For me, it is a SAMSUNGfitting image as 2013 concludes and 2014 begins—

He is the true vine, Papa the vine-keeper, I am a branch

—sort of a tangled mess of a branch (made more evident by the absence of leaves). In a few more weeks the vine-keeper will come through and prune these branches in preparation for a new season, pressing ever for fruit, more fruit, lasting fruit. But for now, the vine-keeper knows a bare tangle after the most recent season of fruitfulness is best. Thus, for me, this is a hopeful image. It reminds me that I don’t need to “have it all together.” I am not the one in-charge. Even though the branches look tangled and bare right now, Papa is doing His work. In yet another book I am reading, Henri Nouwen shares:

“. . . We suffer from a fear of the empty space. We are so concerned with being useful, effective, and in control that a useless, ineffective, and uncontrollable moment scares us and drives us right back to the security of having something valuable to do.

“There is a real tendency to think of the spiritual life as a life that will begin when we have certain feelings, think certain thoughts, or gain certain insights. The problem, however, is not how to make the spiritual life happen, but to see where it actually is happening. We work on the premise that God acts in this world and in the lives of individuals and communities. God is doing something right now. The chipping away and sculpting is taking place whether we are aware of it or not. Our task is to recognize that, indeed, it is God who is acting, and we are involved already in the spiritual life.”

That reminds me of a refrigerator magnet we once had! It was a small, simple, written reminder:

Faith is not “God can act.”
Faith is not “God will act.”
Faith is “God is acting.”

 Last Sunday we were in Pittsburg, heading for Roseville. We weren’t sure where we should join with others in worship. I asked Papa. He put on my heart a place where I don’t know the pastor, but we have one dear friend who goes there regularly. I thought we were to go there to see her. We looked, but did not see her. I left Paula watching for her while I went back for something. As I walked along one side of the sanctuary someone called out to me by name! It was one of my former students from Northwest University! His parents had moved up from San Diego and now go to that church; he was “home” for Christmas break and his new girlfriend was with him (also a former student—they met in my American Government course! Who says nothing good can come from political science?). I enjoyed seeing them both and talking with them, and I got to meet his father; I took them outside to introduce them to Paula. I found her laughing with two other dear friends, who were visiting there that morning at the invitation of some of their other friends. As Paula and I walked toward the parking lot we met yet another friend—one we haven’t seen for many years. Again, a happy encounter. We thought we went there to see one person, who we never saw! Instead, Papa had sent us there to encourage us through others we weren’t expecting, and to touch them through us as well. You see, the incarnation didn’t just happen 2000 years ago, and it didn’t end at the tomb. The incarnation continues . . . in you.

I am the true vine.
My father is the vine-keeper.
You are the branches . . .

 Friend, even if your life is feeling a bit bare, tangled, and unproductive right now, Papa is at work. He has great plans for showing off the life of Jesus through you. There are people Jesus wants to touch, and He wants to touch them through you. As you listen and respond, He will touch them—and more—and when it’s all over there will be an image which remains in their memory, not you—bare and tangled—but of Jesus Himself.

Happy New Year!

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.

Prepare Him Room!

On Thursday I saw a friend who had just returned from a trip to Burma. He shared about the conditions in a town he had visited along the Burma-Thailand border and how—during a lay-over in South Korea on the return trip—he was struck by news coverage there of “Black Friday in America.” Theblack-friday-macys contrast between poverty and wealth was huge, but the stronger affront was our materialism—not only do we have great abundance, we constantly want more. I say “we” because Christians in America most often live the American Way, which is not the Jesus Way. I wonder, for me and you, as we journey from Thanksgiving to Christmas, will we simply repeat the words “Let every heart prepare Him room,” or will we actually make room for Him?

For me, these thoughts follow on the heels of some conviction by Papa concerning gratefulness and my expression of thanks. As Thanksgiving approached I knew my own “level of gratitude” was . . . low. The Spirit used this to reveal how, for me, “thankfulness” too often relates to the tangible. Even my response to the musical encouragement, “Count your blessings. Name them one by one” moves me toward a listing of family, friends, ministry opportunities, and material comforts. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be thankful for all God provides, but I do think we need to acknowledge that the American Way has tainted even our theology. Can you imagine trying to explain your view of “blessings from God” to a brother in Ethiopia who is rejoicing in the love of Jesus, even though he will die of starvation later today? Thus, I ask—is our thankfulness and gratitude based in Jesus or in some American dream?

Part of how Jesus was convicting me about these issues was through a simple yet painful thought (which He brought to me more than a week before I learned that a friend’s father had been diagnosed with ALS [“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”]). Here is that painful thought: If you were confined to a bed, able to think clearly but totally unable to move or speak, about what would you give thanks? I have long insisted that we are told to give thanks “in” all things, not “for” all things—but that distinction doesn’t answer the Spirit’s inquiry. My thoughts took the question to a different place: If I owned nothing, had no money, no job, no family, no public ministry (I acknowledged that I could still pray, even if I couldn’t speak)—about what would I give thanks? In such a situation, what would be included on my “Count your blessings” list? Where are those things on my list today?

Amid all this I was quick to affirm the truth of Ephesians 1:3, that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. And, perhaps as a result, my thoughts moved to a question which I believe is rooted in The Jesus Way: Is God Himself the core of my gratitude and thankfulness? Not the material. Not the tangible–not family, not friends, not service (“ministry”). Not even the spiritual blessings. God. I am not sure it is accurate, but my mind went to a sort of “cake and frosting” image: To a fair degree, I have made the “tangible” things of family, friends, and ministry (along with material wealth and possessions) the “cake” and His promises and spiritual blessings the “frosting.” Yet the example of Jesus is the different—for those who would live His Way, the intimate experience of God Himself is the “cake” (the substance) and whatever other “tangible benefits” we receive—especially the material—is “frosting.” Is this not the import of the words, this is eternal life, to experientially know Abba, the only true God, and Messiah Jesus whom He sent (John 17:3). While all this was fresh in my mind, my reading brought me to Luke 12, where Eugene Peterson quotes Jesus saying:

Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed.
Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.

 I don’t share all this to play Scrooge! Most of us enjoy a level of material wealth which allows us to select and give some wonderful presents. Considering the greatness of the gift of The Son, extravagant giving may actually offer others a good image of how Papa acts toward the whole world. Yet, even the good can be corrupted by the ways and thinking of the world. What a sad commentary on Christians in America when at Christmas we focus on things and make gifts based in the American Way rather than in The Way of Jesus. The One who left His throne and kingly crown and came to earth of lowly birth (who “laid down His life for His friends”) says we show we are His when we become “at home” (abide) in His love and love one another as He loved us. He doesn’t call upon us to do this in our own strength or resources; His love for us fills us first, then overflows to others. But it is hard for Him to fill us when we are full of ourselves, our accomplishments, our material possessions, our life, our plans, oustar_over_bethlehem-163441r . . ..

In anticipation of a new intimacy with Him this season, I encourage you to invite His Spirit to speak to your spirit about what you value. Listen, and allow Him to move you further toward the Jesus Way.

May we all prepare Him room.  

John