Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Psalm 119 Heth: God Seeks You

You are my portion, LORD;
I have promised to obey your words.
I have sought your face with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.
I have considered my ways
and have turned my steps to your statutes.
I will hasten and not delay
to obey your commands.
Though the wicked bind me with ropes,
I will not forget your law.
At midnight I rise to give you thanks
for your righteous laws.
I am a friend to all who fear you,
to all who follow your precepts.
The earth is filled with your love, LORD;
teach me your decrees.

There's a new book out titled, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine (Eric Weiner, Twelve, 2011)
In the end, Weiner didn't come away with something entirely new to believe in. Instead, what he found is what he calls an "IKEA God."

"Some assembly required," he says. "[The] idea is that you can cobble together your sort of own personal religion, a sort of mixed tape of God."

What he concluded is that you need a foundation. In his case, that foundation was Judaism and Kabbalah.

"But on top of that foundation, you can add all kinds of things," he says. "So I'm sort of in perpetual seeker mode, but I think that's OK." (npr.org, 12/5/11)
At first glance, this section of Psalm 119 could bear the same title: Man Seeks God.

When David says God is his "portion" he's saying that God is all he needs out of life.

He seeks Him with his whole heart.  He examines his life and lives intentionally for God.  He hurries to learn and live out His commands. No matter the situation, no matter the time of day, he is eager to seek God and honor Him.  He begs to be taught more.

We need to notice, though, that woven into David's story of seeking God, we see the parallel tale that God seeks us.

The very fact that God has entrusted us with His words should reveal that He cares enough to communicate His will to us. As David acknowledges, God has made promises to be gracious toward us - something He is under no compulsion to do. All of those commands and laws and precepts were cataloged for our benefit, and for the purpose of drawing us back into a close relationship with Him.

To many, God is a being of wrath, someone to avoid. Or they see God as a capricious, indifferent or elusive deity.

But God has reached out to us, has made a connection with us "at sundry times and in diverse ways".

The earth is filled with His love. He not only reaches out His hand to grant us the spark life, as pictured in the famous painting. He continues to reach out his hand toward us, eager for us to reach our hands back to him in fellowship.

He seeks you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lunatic Fringe

It could be that our faithlessness is a cowering cowardice born of our very smallness, a massive failure of imagination.  Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy.  If we were to judge nature by its common sense or likelihood, we wouldn't believe the world existed.  In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade.  The whole creation is one lunatic fringe.  If creation had been left up to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.  No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Friday, November 25, 2011

Psalm 119: Teach me

Praise be to you, LORD;
teach me your decrees.

Psalm 119 Beth
Purity is learned the hard way, through the hard parts of life.

I have a choice: Will I let God purify me through trials? Or will I let Satan drag me down through trials?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Psalm 119: On Fire


How can a young person stay on the path of purity? 

By living according to your word. 
I seek you with all my heart; 
do not let me stray from your commands. 
I have hidden your word in my heart 
that I might not sin against you. 

Psalm 119 Beth
The purity talked about in scriptures is the kind that comes from exposure to flame, the purifying of molten gold, the cauterizing of a wound.

Standing close to the flame doesn’t cauterize a wound – it only gives you a tan, makes you look good.

Putting the Word into your heart is like handling hot coals. The Word purifies your heart, burns it.

Are you standing close to God, going to church, carrying a Bible just to look good? Or are you clutching His Word close to you, letting it purify you, setting your life aflame?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Psalm 119: Pure Study

I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119 Beth
David didn't say, I have filed away your word in my brain, so that I might an encyclopedic knowledge of your Word.

There's a place for studying for theology or studying for outlines. But the Word is meant to transform your heart, not just educate your mind.

Memorization is the topic usually associated with this verse, but it goes beyond that. It's not just recommending the storage of words and phrases in your brain, but memorizing the meaning and intent of the words as well – Memorization with Meditation.

Studying and meditating on the Word must be about absorbing the words and the intent and the transforming life of God's Word into your heart.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Meditation Metaphor: 4 Hours

Over a shared meal with my wife at the romantic venue of Wendy's, I found myself reading the carefully composed verses on the side of the small chili bowl.
So-so chili simmers for 2 hours
Good chili simmers for 3 hours
Our chili simmers for 4 hours
Wendy's chili is very good, I must agree.  I can even say it's better than it was the last time I ordered their chili, a few years back.

I was disappointed with the chili on that prior occasion because the meat in the chili consisted largely of broken-up pieces of Wendy's hamburger patties.  I spent the entire time wondering if the patty pieces were left-overs from the day before {not a particularly appetizing thought), burgers that were rescued from the floor (not at all appetizing), or - charitably - simply the result of convenience, all the ground beef ingredients for Wendy's menu coming from the same packaged and delivered source.

But this chili, the current cardboard bowl of chili in front of me, contained no pieces of patties, but has been made from loose ground beef, providing a more pleasurable - and less distracting - dining experience.

And the long simmering of their claim is no doubt true.  The flavors of meat, stock, sauces and spices present themselves as a single flavor, the result of prolong intermingling and absorption of one another's essence.

Wherein lies the Meditation Metaphor.

Occasional times spent reading small sections of the Word, quickly read and quickly done, are of some benefit.  They're certainly preferable to no Bible time at all.

The longer we spend in the Word the better, obviously.  But also, the more we vary our diet in the Word the better.

We all have our pet sections we can never get too much of, whether it's the Psalms or the Gospels or those great Old Testament stories of kings and patriarchs.  But our meditation on the Word will e richer, more filling and satisfying, if we spice it up with a few Proverbs or add in a particularly meaty but obscure section of the minor prophets.

And spending "quality time"  in the vast variety of the scriptures is like letting the recipe simmer in the mind and heart.  The sundry and diverse flavors and varieties of His Word begin to blend together, to absorb characteristics from one another, until what we are tasting and allowing to transform our lives is a unified experience of the full-bodied nature and character of God Himself.

I did make one mistake in my approach to the bowl of chili tonight, though.  The young man at the counter asked if I wanted hot sauce with my chili.  Being in a mood for muy caliente, I said Yes.

But when I added the small packet of hot sauce into the chili after the first few spoons-full, I found that it distracted from the good taste of the chili.  You see, the hot sauce hadn't been included in the 4 hours of simmering, and it therefore stood out distinctly from the well-blended presentation of the perfect Wendy's chili experience.  It somewhat overwhelmed the other flavors.

We risk doing the same to our absorption of God's well-rounded Word when we take it upon ourselves to top off a session reading the Bible with a too-hasty and too-distinctive dash of reading the opinions in our Study Bible notes or a separate commentary.

We will learn and absorb the character of God best by spending hours simmering in the very Word itself before we reach outside the scriptures for other flavoring.


Either by happenstance or by the providential nudge of His finger, just a couple of hours after we finished our meal at Wendy's, a friend of mine came to our house for the monthly "Guys' Night" portion of our Small Group, and brought with him his supper, which he had picked up on his way.  A bowl of Wendy's chili, of course.

Guys' Night turned out to be just Steve and I on this night - due in great part to deer season.  But we had a good talk and prayed together.

After the prayer, I pointed out to Steve that his chili bowl had a great spiritual lesson - a meditation metaphor - written on the side.

He looked at the bowl for a moment, and then smiled.

"Rich & Meaty!" he exclaimed.  "That's what I'll tell my wife when she asks how Guys' Night went.  It was Rich and Meaty!  And then then I'll lick my lips."
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
  Colossians 3

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Psalm 119: Pure Direction


How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.

Psalm 119 Beth

The key to purity is not found in focusing on God's commands as a list of rules, but by seeking a pure direction through seeking God Himself. Purity comes through seeking a pure relationship with Him:. “I seek YOU with all my heart”

My heart seeks God’s heart; I seek to understand the heart and mind that produced those commands.

The reason police officers ask drivers to walk a straight line is because a drunk person has difficulty keeping their mind focused on the right thing. They'll either focus on the officer's directions to walk "a straight line", and thus look down at their feet and the imaginary straight line, or they'll be looking all over the place at whatever is a momentary distraction. A person in their right mind knows to just focus on something in the distance, along the path you want to walk, and just begin walking.

The pathway to purity is the pathway to God.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12

Monday, November 7, 2011

Read beyond your borders

Reading has given me fluency in the language of sorrow, the grammar of grace, experiences that unite us across borders and time zones.
Marita Golden, The Word
I believe that it's the duty of of every truly free citizen to read, especially to read beyond your borders.
Edwidge Danticat

Saturday, November 5, 2011

In the beginning was the Word

"If you open up scripture, the Gospel according to John starts: "In the beginning was the Word." Although this has a very particular meaning in Scripture, more broadly what it speaks to is the critical importance of language, of writing, of reading, of communication, of books as a means of transmitting culture and binding us together as a people "
- Barack Obama, then US senator from Illinois speaking before the annual conference of the American Library Association, July 23, 2005

copied from The Word, edited by Marita Golden, Broadway Paperbacks, 2012

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seeing

"I've been thinking about seeing.  There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But - and this is the point - who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go on your rueful way?  It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get."
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Aim for the Heart

Fishermen get a bad rap. They've been pegged for centuries as a class of sportsmen who love to tell “fish stories”, embellishing the adventurous story of their latest catch, and exaggerating the size of “the one that got away”.

Let me tell you – fishermen have nothing on deer hunters for the gift of gabbing about their experiences in the field.

For over thirty years I've worked with and been friends with a never-ending succession of men who plan their annual vacations around mid-November, when deer season opens in Missouri. And without exception they love to talk about their sport.

One friend, Jack, came back to work from a weekend in the woods with a tall tale about seeing an enormous buck silhouetted against the sky in the first light of pre-dawn.

“I was absolutely mesmerized by the size of the thing, and the beauty of the scene,” he said. “Of course, I had to wait until actual sunrise to legally shoot it, and I sat there praying the buck would stay where he was for another fifteen minutes.” The part about the praying was for my benefit, since I doubt Jack had prayed more than a sentence or two since he last uttered “Now I lay me down to sleep” as a very, very young child.

Just as the legal hunting time was arriving, the deer took a step forward. Jack nearly pulled the trigger at that moment out of fear he was about to lose his prey one minute before he could legally shoot it. But then he saw something that truly amazed him.

“It wasn’t one buck at all,” he said, awe filing his voice. “A second deer – a doe – was standing on the other side of the buck. She had been completely hidden by the buck in the shadows of the sunrise."

“I checked my watch, and when the second hand hit twelve, I sighted on the buck’s heart and squeezed the trigger. I figured if I dropped him I might still get a chance at the doe behind him.”

Now, here comes the part that separates Jack from the other “deer story” tellers I’ve known. He’s already got a great story going, but he adds the whipped cream on top.

“To my surprise,” he added, “the buck bolted and ran off as soon as he heard the shot. The doe behind him, though, dropped dead on the ground. In the sunrise silhouette, I thought I was aiming at his heart, but it passed right beneath him and struck her in the kill spot.”

That, he explained, was why he only filled his doe tag that year, and missed the buck he really wanted.

Then there was Bob. Bob was a firearms nut. A collector. He loved to talk about his guns and to engage other hunters in spirited debates about the relative merits of different models and manufacturers and the endless choices of accessories and features.

One year Bob went to the big city and bought the rifle he had wanted for years. A Ruger International. Mannlicher-stocked, 18" barrel, trim classic style walnut stock, controlled feed, integral scope base. Short action .308 Winchester caliber. A real beauty.

As deer season approached, Bob talked endlessly about his new rifle and how great it was going to be to have it in November for the big hunt.

When deer season ended, all the guys asked Bob how the new rifle worked.

“Didn’t get a thing,” he said. “I saw several, including a huge buck with irregular antlers - at least 20 points. But every time I would site a deer in with the adjustable iron sites, I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger and spoil the perfect condition of the new rifle."

As the little gecko says in the commercial, "that story is a complete dramatization".

But my imaginary friend Bob reminds me of some preachers I know. They’ve spent years in seminary, studying the scriptures, honing their exegetical and homiletical skills. They’ve filled their office shelves with all the best books. But when they get up into the pulpit to speak, all they end up doing is showing off their fancy skills, failing to actually take aim at the specific needs and problems of the specific people in front of them, too enamored with their eloquence to actually pull the trigger and risk messing up the performance by offending someone.

They're like a hunter waving his fancy rifle at a buck, expecting the deer to fall over dead because it's so impressed with the hunter's arsenal.

The apostle Paul never had that problem. Just picture the scene as Epaphroditus is standing in front of the church at Philippi, reading the letter he has carried from Paul's Roman prison to these Christians. The congregation has been inspired by Paul's exhortations to live a life of joy, they have wept as Paul talked about the real possibility of his death and his courage in the face of it, they have pondered Paul's words about fellowship and unity in Christ. A very well crafted piece of exhortation.

And then, when they least expect it, Paul drags out into the open the dirty little secret that has been dragging the Philippian church down for a very long time:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 
Philippians 4
I can picture jaws dropping all over the crowd.

Jesus was also not afraid to offend.

He could have gone on literally forever putting on a dazzling miracle show, hoping to impress the Jewish religious leaders with His powers. Instead, he called them a "brood of vipers" and "whitewashed sepulchers", and cataloged their many sins against the flock they were supposed to be leading.

Maybe the pulpit isn't always the best place to "call out" church members who are squabbling – and maybe sometimes it is the right place. And maybe the preacher doesn't need to always refer to the sinners who are in the audience by pejorative names and accusatory titles. Then again, maybe sometimes he should.

Sometimes what people need is not encouragement and edification, but correction and rebuke.

And sometimes we could stand to deliver a dose of rebuke and correction to ourselves. Our time spent in the Word shouldn't just be spent looking for an uplifting quote. We need to be looking for God's blessings, even when the blessing is in the form of a well-aimed shot to the heart.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

II Timothy 3

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Holiday Curse: Halloween

A couple of years ago, on October 31st, I was on my second day of taking  a new medicine my doctor had prescribed at my annual check-up.  I had taken the pills at about 4:00 PM, and was relaxing in the living room with my wife.

My skin began to tingle lightly and my face flushed, which had happened the first few times I took the medicine.

"I'm tingling again," I said.  She looked over at me with a bemused smile, and returned to her book.

Then the tingling became stronger, like needles all over my skin.  I turned to mention this new feeling to Karen.

The next thing I knew, my eyes opened and she was in my face, shouting my name.  Apparently I had begun to shake and then slumped in the chair, my mouth hanging open to one side.

Understandably, she was frightened.  She told me later she thought I was having a stroke.  She somehow got me to walk to the car and drove me to the Emergency Room. (My son asked her later why she didn't call 9-1-1).

We sat at the front desk while the registrar started on her list of questions.  I slowly began to slump and then slide down the chair toward the floor, like a melting man.  Someone finally came and transported me to an examining room.

About half an hour after we arrived, my adult son came walking in.

"Are you OK?" he asked.  I assured him I was going to be fine and explained what had happened.  They confirmed it was a reaction to the new medicine, nothing overly serious.  Needless to say, I'm not taking that particular drug any longer.

Having settled that matter, he asked another question, the one I knew was coming next.

"Dad?  Do you realize what day this is?"  And he started to laugh.

Anyone else would have thought him rude and unfeeling.  Me?  I began to laugh along with him.

You see, our family has a curse.  A holiday curse.

We have learned to approach holidays with caution.  We tend to stay at home.


We have found ourselves stranded with major car problems in distant cities on our way to visit relatives for holidays.  More than once. 

On a single Thanksgiving weekend a couple of years ago, we managed to get into separate wrecks with both of the family cars.  

We have been sick with an impressive variety of illnesses and maladies during various holidays.  The local emergency room staff has learned to expect us during the holidays – and not just to wish them a happy holiday.
 
This “holiday curse” is not limited to just Thanksgiving and Christmas, but strikes on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Easter, Valentine's Day and more.  Any time the mall stores have special holiday sales, we get ready for the worst.

The sad part of this story is that it took us so many years to realize that hidden somewhere in each of these holiday mishaps was a Divine Appointment created by God.

A sign you're growing in grace:  You've learned to see the inevitable holiday debacles as God-created opportunities for mission. #asygig

Not giving back evil for evil, 
or curse for curse, 
but in place of cursing, blessing; 
because this is the purpose of God for you
that you may have a heritage of blessing.
I Peter 3

By the way, Halloween this year falls on a Monday night.  So we're laughing in the face of the curse and celebrating the holiday by doing what we always do on Mondays.
We're going to prison.

Friday, October 28, 2011

That's What HE Said


"Magic," the man in the grey suit repeats, turning the word into a laugh. "This is not magic.  This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it.  Look around you," he says, waving a hand at the surrounding tables.  "Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in the world, and what's worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them.  They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it is real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence."
from The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
from John 1

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A prayer asking God to do stuff beyond our power

A Prayer Asking God to Do Stuff Beyond Our Power (Heavenward by Scotty Smith)
It’s always been about your great faithfulness, not our great faith. The only real hero in your story is Jesus—in whom all your promises find their “Yes!” (2 Cor. 1:20) And so we come to you today asking you to do things well beyond our power—looking to Jesus, not to ourselves.
There are things many of us are facing which, on the surface, seem just as unlikely, just as daunting, just as impossible as Sarah giving birth to Isaac. Bring much glory to yourself as you hear and answer the cries of our hearts, Father.

Read more HERE

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Psalm 119: Upright Rebar

I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119 Aleph
My friend Steve invited me on a mission trip to Mexico about three years ago. We were taking a group of 30 college students to a town called Villa Union, where we would spend five says doing a construction project for a small congregation.

Steve told me up front that what he needed most from me was to do a lot of driving (24 hours one way), and to help corral the students and keep them on task. He knew that I wasn't going to be a big help in terms of my construction skills. He'd seen first hand why I said I would be scared for my family to live in a house that I built myself.

While Steve, who had extensive experience in construction, supervised what had turned out to be TWO separate construction projects, I got put doing things that I couldn't hardly mess up. Twisting wire. Moving rocks. Straightening rebar.

It's that last one that turned out to be the most difficult. The Mexican preacher quickly showed us how it was done, turning out three perfectly straight bars in just a couple of minutes.

A day later Steve put me together with three students who were as un-handy as I am, and told us we needed to straighten out some of the supposedly-straight rebar that looked more like a herd of snakes in motion.

I knew that Steve, who could do a job like this in his sleep, was working hard not to be impatient with us. I'd heard him grumble on more than one occasion, back in our real lives, about students who wanted to help but only made things more difficult.

But he patiently took a few minutes that he did not have to give us a few tips.

After he moved on to another task, one of the students in my charge looked at Steve's retreating back and then at me, and said, "We don't know how to do this. He could do in half an hour what it's going to take us the rest of the day to do, and a lot better."

He was right. The thing is, Steve knew that too. But he still didn't take the job away from us. He was counting on us.

"You're right," I told the young man. "Problem is, he doesn't have time to do it. Everyone else is doing other projects. The four of us don't know how to do much of anything on this construction project, but we're the only ones to do this job. So let's do the best we can, even if it takes us all week."

It only took us about three hours. I kept my little team working at it until we had that pile of rebar a little bit straighter than it was when we started.

God could fulfill his mission much more efficiently without having to use a mess-up like me. But he doesn't give up on me. He lets me learn; he lets me grow.

He doesn't expect me to do things as well as he would.

He just expects me to do.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Radical Christianity

I know a lot of people think the life of a Christian must be very boring.  Actually, I'm pretty sure that a lot of Christians think the life of a Christian is pretty tame and boring.

Don't do this.  Don't do that.  Can't participate in that.  Avoid this at all costs.

If only they knew.

If only they knew that a person who gets to the "root" of being a Christian, the radical-root of opening yourself and your life up to whatever Divine Appointments God puts in front of you every day - that sort of radical Christianity is anything but boring.

That small nudging that God gave us over 25 years ago to say "yes" to foster parenting - that has continued to make our lives very interesting, very non-boring.

That quiet but insistent invitation God sent through his servant Roy Weece 6 or 7 years ago - "I need you to help out with the prison ministry" - has not only made our Monday nights an endless source of surprise and adventure, but continues to provide ample opportunities for non-boring involvement in the lives of struggling ex-offenders.

Every day He puts people in our paths, opportunities in our laps and suggestions in our minds - small seeds that grow into grand adventures for Him.

Get to the root of righteousness and keep the eyes of your heart open for those Divine Appointments.
radical: late 14c. (adj.), in a medieval philosophical sense, from L.L. radicalis "of or having roots," from L. radix (gen. radicis) "root" (see radish). Meaning "going to the origin, essential" is from 1650s.
(Online Etymology Dictionary)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I Declare

I declare the glory of God; I am his handiwork, always on display. Day after day I pour forth words that will either glorify or horrify my God; night after night God gives me opportunities to share with others the knowledge he has given me.

There is no time or place where serious discussion takes place when God’s voice cannot be heard through me. My voice goes out into all the earth, wherever his commission sends me.

From I Declare, by TR Robertson in The Lookout

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Psalm 119: Shame


Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.

Psalm 119 Aleph
As a dedicated follower of Jesus, Bill knew that he should read his Bible and pray. And so he would set aside time each evening to open up the scriptures and spend time with God.

At first his young wife thought this was a wonderful idea. Bill, a former drug addict, was prone to moods, and perhaps this daily time with God would help him.

But when Bill read the Bible, all he could see, over and over again, was his sin. He compared himself with what he read and understood just how wretched a person he really was. And when he compared his wife to the Bible, he came to the same conclusions.

His nightly devotional time would turn into a nightly bout of ranting and raving, keening and moaning, frightening his wife and their infant daughter.


Another friend of ours, Nicky, was just a baby Christian, with no church background whatsoever.

She wanted to know more about the Bible, so she began to read. But she confessed to us that reading the Bible made her extremely afraid.

"I read the Bible and all I see is how much God must hate me."

That's the flip-side of the Bible. It can bless us so much, but one of the blessings is that it's also a two-edged sword, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.  Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.

Romans 7
Bill and Nicky both properly saw their sin more clearly because of God's Word. We all need to be forced to acknowledge the horror of our lives.  That's the starting place for changing our ways.
What a wretched man I am!
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The World is a Classroom that Teaches us about God

God is No Drunkard; or What's With Psalm 78? (The Gospel Coalition)
Third, we should see the world as a classroom that teaches us about God. He is the author of all creation, which reflects upon him. God the Father is reflected in the way a father loves and instructs his children. Husbands mirror the kind of relationship Christ has with the church. When mothers rejoice over their babies with singing, or wives remain faithful to their unfaithful husband, they reflect God.

Fourth, Scripture can use images and actions that by themselves are perceived negatively, even sinfully, to give meaning. . .

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Psalm 119: Trying & Training


Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!

Psalm 119 Aleph
Our friend Susan lives and works in a place where she is constantly surrounded by people whose mouths are filled with foul language and foul smokes. Their greatest priority in life is to satisfy whatever desire or lust rises up to demand attention at any given moment.

No wonder then that Susan has struggled mightily as she tries to give up smoking, tries to clean up her language, tries to be a different person than she had allowed herself to become.

She has become a Christian and wonders why she still struggles to live a better life.

And then she grasped hold of a concept from John Ortberg's The Life You've Always Wanted:
"Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely."
David echoes this in Psalm 119. He understands that if his "ways" - his habits, his disciplines, his 'rule of life' - is steadfast, then he will be the kind of person who obeys the decrees of God.

Susan began focusing more on the Word of God than on the words coming from her mouth. She became addicted to her daily regimen of Bible meditation and prayer, and stopped worrying about her addiction to nicotine (and other things even more deadly).

The more she becomes consistent and steadfast in her new spiritually disciplined way of life, the easier it is to feed her hunger for fellowship with God and for his righteousness. And the less she feels compelled to satisfy every other desire and hunger that nags at her for attention.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Word on the Tweet

"Some of us need a sighting of the occupied throne of heaven right about now". (@scottywardsmith)

"Goodwin: "The gospel contains two depths in it, one to fill your understanding, the other to fill your will and affections forever.". (@tonyreinke)

"God’s silences are actually His answers. bit.ly/mu1011 " (@oschambers)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Psalm 119: Picture Perfect


Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.

Psalm 119 Aleph

Do you know anyone who fits the description in those verses?

I'v found it easy in my life to look at other Christians and believe they're the next best thing to perfect. They seem to have it all together. No spiritual valleys. No hidden sins.

While it's good to have people we can imitate, people to learn from, we shouldn't delude ourselves into putting them up on a pedestal of perfection.

When they fail - and they will - what happens to our faith?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Meditation Metaphor: Give Us This Day Our Daily Oatmeal

1934 Quaker Oats ad
I've been eating oatmeal for breakfast every day since 1993.  On average I miss maybe once morning per month in pursuing the Oat.

I remember the beginning of my oatmeal marathon because 1993 was when I started going to a new doctor, who told me I needed to do something to control my cholesterol level, and asked me, "Do you like oatmeal?"

Let me tell you:  My "yes" answer to that question was really put to test by the subsequent 6,685 servings of oatmeal.

I quickly became a student of all the different ways oatmeal can be made, and all the various ingredients that can be added to a bowl of oats.  I read somewhere that the way to find new and unique ideas for oatmeal is to look for oatmeal cookie recipes.  If it can be put into an oatmeal cookie, it can be put into oatmeal.

In theory.  Peanut butter didn't work well.  Chocolate (syrup, chips, powder, etc) also just didn't taste right in a bowl of oatmeal - although white chocolate chips mixed with dried cranberries was surprisingly good.

Some suggestions I've not yet been brave enough to try include parmesan cheese and a mixture of cottage cheese, pears, Splenda and ginger.

But many things were a success:  Raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, vanilla, walnuts, almonds, pecans, peaches, coconut, apples, applesauce, wheat bran, maple syrup, pumpkin pie mix, blueberries, mashed up over-ripe bananas, crumbled up banana bread (or date nut bread, zucchini bread, gingerbread, etcetera-bread), yogurt (various flavors), honey, coffee (liquid), coffee creamer (various flavors), apple butter, granola, and all sorts of crumbled up cold cereals.

But on most mornings I'm not energetic enough to get that creative, so I settle for the basic daily additives:  raisins (I put raisins in my oatmeal no matter what else I'm adding), cinnamon and Splenda.

Truth be told, though, real trick to good oatmeal is the making of the oatmeal itself.  There are some basic non-negotiable rules I live by for oatmeal preparation:

  • Always use the old-fashioned whole oats.  Not the "quick" oats, that are tiny little parts of the oats.  And most definitely not microwave oats, which are made from tiny little parts of construction paper.  I used to insist on genuine Quaker brand old-fashioned oats, but I've learned that the cheaper store brands are just as good, as long as it's whole oats.
  • Measure out the appropriate amount of oats and water into a pan and set to slowly heat to a boil.  I set  my stove burner between 5 and 6, on a scale of 10.  I also add a splash of milk for a more creamy texture.
  • While it's building up toward boiling, I add whatever ingredients I'm tossing in - raisins plus whatever else I've decided on that day.
  • When it begins to boil I turn off the burner control and let it continue to cook for about a minute, and then dump it into a bowl sometime after it moves from mostly liquid consistency and begins to set up, and before it sets up so much that I'll have to throw the pan away.
  • Once it's in the bowl, add a little milk to cool it down and slightly thin it out.
The slowness of the cooking is the most important part of the process.  As the oats soak slowly in the warming water and milk, the grain transforms into a palatable texture and absorbs the flavors of the spices and other added ingredients.  Cook it too fast (or too slow) and the consistency will be wrong and the blending of the add-ons will be wrong.

Meditation Metaphor

Cooking oatmeal is like meditating on the Word.
  • Meditate on the whole Word, not just bits and pieces and by-products.  Reading your daily devotional or just a verse here or there is like trying to make oatmeal out of Quick Oats.  It's sort of like meditating on the Word, but not nearly as satisfying or nutritious.  And reading books or blogs  about the Bible is like eating mass-produced oatmeal-flavored cookies

  • Just like the oats have to be cooked slowly (but not too slowly), speed-reading through the Bible has some benefit, but its not as beneficial as taking your time, reading it slowly enough to let it soak in, to contemplate what it means, to let it become part of you.

  • And just like you don't want to overcook your oats into a gelatinous mass, always remember that God has a mission for you beyond the written Word.  Once you've let it simmer in your pot awhile, you need to go out and Be the Word in the world.

  • Find a version to read that delivers the maximum amount and flavor of the Biblical author's original intended message.  Study Bibles and paraphrases (The Message, New Living Translation) have their purpose, but they're akin to letting the cottage cheese, pears, Splenda and ginger overwhelm the great flavor of God's good oats.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Meditation Metaphor: The Dermal Patch Version

My 81-year-old mother is in the hospital with heart problems. They've placed what looks like a piece of adhesive-backed paper on her skin just below the collar bone. Scribbled on the patch is the word "NITRO".

It's a nitroglycerin patch, similar to a smoker's patch. It's designed to deliver a slow and steady supply of the drug into her system.

Wouldn't it be great if some publishing house would come out with the Dermal Patch Version of the Bible? Slap it onto your skin and it delivers a steady dose of God's Word into your system.

Some people would fasten it onto their foreheads like a phylactery, delivering the teachings of the Bible directly into their minds. Perhaps better would be to fasten the patch over your heart (Thy Word have I delivered dermalLy into my heart that I might not sin against Thee).

We don't need an adhesive patch, though. If we structure our days and order our habits in such a way that we are continually, repeatedly bathing our hearts in the Word and in prayer, then we can have the same sort of life-changing absorption of the God's ways into our heart.

It's called meditation.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reflected Glory


Gracious words are a honeycomb,
tweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Proverbs 16
Imagine yourself at a baseball game, but you can't see or hear the action on the field.  The only way you know what's going on in the game is by the reactions and conversations of the fans in the stands.

That's pretty much what I did last night.  The New York Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers in a playoff game.  I wanted to be watching the game, because former Mizzou Tiger pitcher Max Scherzer plays for Detroit.

But the first two rounds of the MLB post-season are on TV only on TBS, a cable/satellite channel, which I don't have.  And this first round of games is not even on national radio.

So, I "watched" last night's game on Twitter.  By alternating between search terms of #NYY and #DET and #Scherzer, I followed the progress of the game for several innings by reading the comments and reactions of tweeters all over the world (some of them were in Spanish - interestingly most of those were fans of the Yanquis).
@JulieAnnDobbs: Tiger Max Scherzer he has 2 diff colored eyes which is kinda cool?” Just like David Bowie. 
@TylerKnepper: That strike three from Scherzer to Martin was one of the nastiest pitches I've seen. Absolutely vicious movement. 
@beckjason: Posada and Cabrera looked like they were battling for position on the low post before Scherzer struck out Russell Martin. #Tigers up 3-1 
@beckjason: Scherzer back out for bottom 7th. Gardner leading off. 
@JayScott1914: Good Grief Scherzer! He twisted Jeter in a knot on that fastball. 
@MzFuller8: When Scherzer throws, it's like his whole body whips it in there. It's a crazy when you watch him! 
@The1Tab: ARod clearly only drives automatic cars #CantHandleTheClutch 
@DJJordanV: Woooooo! Detroit wins! #MLB 
Obviously, it took a lot more than some sample tweets to keep up with the game.  But keep up I did.  On twitter there's always someone at the game, in front of a TV, listening to the radio that want sto tell the world what's going on and what they think about it.

And for the broadcast-blind like me, they're the only link to what's going on.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?
And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
  Romans 9
There are people around you and me every day who are blind to the excitement of what's really going on around them. It's up to us to tell them about it.

But often they aren't tuned in to spiritual things enough to want to pay attention or to even comprehend the truth if we try to tell it to them directly.

For many, the only way they're going hear the good news is by seeing the reflected glory in our lives. As we walk through our lives, showing in small ways and large ways that we are walking to the beat of a higher drummer, they notice. As our conversation is full of grace and seasoned with salt, their lives will be blessed by the overflow our God in our lives.
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception,
nor do we distort the word of God.
 
On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ who is the image of God.  
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”made his light shine in our hearts
to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
 
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  
For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.  
So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

II Corinthians 4

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tearing Up the Bible

Lowell McCoy
One of the key people in my life who taught me to love the Word of God was Lowell McCoy. He was the preacher at Westside Christian Church in Columbia, MO, in the '60s. He was my preacher during the formative years from 10 to 12.

Back in those days I seldom actually listened to sermons. (Some who know me will wonder if anything has changed in that regard). But I do remember one particular sermon he preached.

It was during a Sunday evening service, back when churches had Sunday evening services.

On this particular Sunday evening, Mr. McCoy held a small black Bible in his hand and began to preach about people who want to remove parts of the scriptures.

I don't remember the details. Knowing Mr. McCoy and knowing the 60s in a conservative "non-denominational" Restoration Movement church, I have a pretty good idea.

He most likely button-holed the liberals who want to say Isaiah wasn't really written by Isaiah, the prophecies weren't really written hundreds of years before the fulfillment of those prophecies, and such stories as the virgin birth, the raising of Lazarus, and Jesus' death and resurrection never happened.

Mr. McCoy, a veteran of the wars fought over ownership of church properties between autonomous congregations and a denominational hierarchy, was not a fan of the "liberals".

What made the sermon memorable, though, was not the specifics targets of his attack.

As he detailed the various critics and criticisms of the Bible, he methodically ripped pages out of the Bible and let them drop to the floor. He talked about evolutionists questioning the story of creation and ripped several pages out of the front of the book and tossed them aside. He talked about accusations that Paul created an entire theology that Jesus never intended, while he ripped out the middle of the New Testament.

My friends and I watched in shock as our strait-laced preacher ripped the Holy Bible to shreds in front of us.

I mentioned this sermon on Facebook a few months ago, and a couple of my friends from back then said they too have never forgotten this spectacle.

And while I don't remember all the details, I did listen to that sermon. And what I remember is that I was struck by the fact that Mr. McCoy, who loved the Bible dearly, was willing to rip a Bible into tatters in order to demonstrate how horrible it is to disrespect the Word of God.

Some 45 years later, I feel just as strongly about it as did Mr. McCoy. As strongly as I'm sure he still does.

If I were to put on the same show, I'd point my aim at some of my own pet peeves about more current attacks on the integrity of the scriptures.
  • Celebrity preachers and authors who start with their own prejudices and doubts rather than letting the Word speak for itself, and then famously choose to ignore the scriptures on the existence of Hell or invent imaginary revelations about gender roles.

  • Christians who let their political obsessions drive their speech and their interaction with non-believers, ignoring the heart and mission of God revealed in the scriptures.

  • Consumer Christians who spend more time reading Christian books, Christian novels, Christian blogs and listening to Christian radio celebrities than they do meditating on the Word of God
Seems I've become someone not so different than Mr. McCoy.  A love for God's Word has a flip side - an exasperation with people who disrespect the God-breathed scriptures.

Back then, as soon as Mr. McCoy finished the sermon, extended the invitation, and pronounced the closing prayer, I made a bee-line for the podium. I was joined by a couple of my friends, and we picked up the pieces of the shredded Bible.

No, it wasn't a Bible. He had put a black cover on a paperback novel. I don't remember the title.

But I do remember the lesson.

Thank you, Mr. McCoy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Psalm 119: Rules to Live By

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119 Aleph
It's fashionable among many preachers today to say that Christianity is not about following a bunch of rules.

I've said it myself.

But David was not very fashionable. All through Psalm 119 he insists on using a bunch of rule-like terms to describe the scriptures and our relationship to them.

You have to blind to not see that there really are a lot of laws, statutes, ways, precepts, decrees and commands in the book God gave us.

And it says we're to walk according to them, keep them, follow them, fully obey them, consider them and learn them.

I think we're absolutely correct that it isn't about a bunch of rules. But it isn't NOT about a bunch of rules either.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Finger of God

Melissa: "Is there an F5? . . . What would that be like?"

'Preacher' Rowe: "The Finger of God."
That quote, from the movie "Twister", echoes a phrase used by some storm chasers to describe the the most destructive of tornadoes. Insurance companies sometimes refer to damage like what happened in Joplin on May 22nd, 2011, as an "Act of God".

The storm, though, reflects the presence of God only in that He is the creator of the world and of weather. He blessed the earth with a complex climate system that provides the regularity of seasonal change, bringing life-giving rain, snows that blanket the slumbering winter ecosystem, and sunshiny days for baseball games. That same climate can turn against itself, spawning blizzards and floods and even a history-making tornado season like the Spring of 2011.

But I saw God's presence in other ways in the wake of that storm.

♦ When news of the Joplin destruction came on that early Sunday evening, my son, Cody, along with thousands of other emergency workers throughout the Midwest, responded instinctively with one determined thought: I need to be there and help.

As Cody wrote later, "I can still remember the feeling. I lost all desire for chasing. All I wanted to do was push the pedal to the floor and drive south and not stop until I got to Joplin." (http://midweststormchaser.tumblr.com/)

By the time Cody and his friends had finished their first day of recovery work in Joplin, there were so many firefighters, EMTs, police officers, medical workers and other first responders in the town, all of them having dropped everything and headed for Joplin, that they were told to go on back to their jobs if they needed to.  the response to the need was overwhelming.

For Cody and many other trained emergency responders, the urge to act, the urge to help people in trouble, comes from something deep inside that has been there since they were born. Many of them are not at all aware of it, but they are working out what God worked in when He created them in His image. The God who saves revealed Himself that week in the actions and lives of the many rescuers who dropped everything and headed to Joplin.

♦ On that save evening, in the town of Joplin itself, another friend of mine dropped everything and moved to respond. Jay St. Clair, Community Outreach Minister at College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, heard the news and immediately headed out to the damaged part of the city. For the next week and more, he rarely slept, spending his time organizing recovery efforts, recruiting help, arranging for emergency shelter and food and water. Jay and the other volunteers from his church were the hands and feet and heart of God in the midst of the devastation - and they continue to do so still.  (Read more HERE)

♦ At my home church in Columbia, MO, the response was also quick.  Blue Ridge Christian Church includes some members who are former residents of Joplin and who have friends and relatives living in Joplin.  By the morning after the tornado, plans were in motion to collect needed water and food and other supplies being requested by our contacts in Joplin.  By mid-week the church building looked more like a garage sale than a church building.  People from the neighborhood who were not even affiliated with the congregation dropped off supplies and volunteered help.  A crew from the church drove to Joplin toward the end of the week to deliver supplies and offer assistance.  They were eager to go, eager to do what Jesus would do, to let Jesus shine through them.  (See more HERE)

♦ This coming weekend Mizzou Baseball is hosting a pair of exhibition games against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Taylor Stadium in Columbia.  All proceeds will go toward the Joplin Little League, to help rebuild and resupply their program.   (Details about the Mizzou-Iowa Joplin Relief Game HERE)

Raising money for kids to play ball may seem like a small thing compared to lives lost and entire neighborhoods destroyed.  But for those kids, the people who buy tickets and otherwise contribute to MU's recovery efforts are burden-lifters. It's an opportunity for those kids and their community to return to something approaching life as it was before the storm.

It's just a game, just a fund-raiser, no religious trappings at all.  But those who know the heart of God see His compassion and mercy displayed in the efforts of Tim Jamieson and his team, and in every 5-dollar bill spent on a ticket to help the needy.

God reveals himself in the most unlikely of people and places, even if those people don't even know it.

That's the finger of God you feel touching your heart, giving you a gentle shove in the back to lend a hand.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
Isaiah 61

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Surprised by the Seasons

Autumn on the Seine, by Monet
"I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth.  What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights?  you could say. "it's cold again; it was cold before," but you couldn't make the key connection and say, "it was cold this time last year," because the notion of "year" is precisely the one you lack.  Assuming you hadn't yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel any assurance that one one long particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?  "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease":  God makes this guarantee very early in Genesis to a people whose fears on this point had perhaps not been completely allayed."

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Monday, September 26, 2011

Meditation Metaphor: Strap It On Your Forehead

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

The way to truly know the heart of God is to constantly have His words at the forefront of your attention. We don't have to strap them to our heads like the Jewish leaders did. But we do need to hide them in our hearts, constantly meditate on them.

And it's not a bad idea to create habits in your day that remind you to meditate on them - times to talk about the scriptures, times to read them and memorize them, posting scriptures on your bathroom mirror and on the refrigerator door, configuring your Outlook program to pop up scripture reminders, following Twitter accounts that provide daily scriptures (I like @proverbsfeed).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Do God's Will

"The goal of the missionary is to do God’s will, not to be useful or to win the lost. A missionary is useful and he does win the lost, but that is not his goal. His goal is to do the will of his Lord."
Oswald Chambers (utmost.org)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Psalm 119: Love Letters

Would you be able to write 176 statements about your love of God’s Word and your dedication to it?

The Bible has been out of style lately.

There was a time not too many decades ago when most people, even those who weren't really "religious", treated the Bible with respect. They knew a few popular verses and held it in high regard.

Now it seems more in vogue to treat the Bible like a waste of ink and paper.

The really sad thing, though, is that a lot of believers have gotten into the habit of disrespecting the scriptures. Obeying laws is something churches emphasized back in the day, back when theology was king and rules were made to be idolized.

It would do us all good to spend time inhaling the perfumed fragrance of David's love letter. Or should I say letters?

David alphabetized this Psalm. It's like he was saying, How do I love the Word? Let me spell out the ways . . .
Great peace have those who love your law,
and nothing can make them stumble.
Psalm 119 Sin & Shin