Saturday, June 30, 2007

By the sevens

Vengeance tends to expand with attention, gaining on a life of its own as we take it seriously. Take a look at Lamech, for example.

Lamech was the bold grandson of Cain, the first recorded polygamist and a quick-tempered braggard who killed a young man for wounding him. His was the second murder that we read in Genesis, but Lamech took no shame in the act.

His was pride: he’d outdone Cain. Where Cain had avenged himself seven times, Lamech had one-upped him: seventy-seven times.

Cain had only one murder to his name, but Lamech praised Cain for properly avenging his name. Use of “seven” indicated whole or complete. But if Cain did a good job in seeking vengeance, then Lamech had done even better: seventy-seven times, meaning unsurpassed completeness.

Lamech boasted of his conquest: If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times."
(Gen 4:24)

That’s how vengeance works. Always there’s the intent to even the score but it’s never evened. Vengeance is a greedy monster, taking more and more.

But the Bible is full of contrasts. Where there’s hatred, there’s love. Into defeat comes hope. Into loss comes life. And into vengeance comes forgiveness.

Jesus discussed the very matter with Peter who, proud of his goodness, intended to forgive a man seven times. That should be complete.

But Jesus one-upped him: "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matt 18:22)

Cain’s lineage trumpeted unsurpassed vengeance. Seven’s not enough, try for seventy-seven.

Jesus had an answer: forgive. Seven’s not enough, try for seventy-seven.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Five: God's mercy

Five Old Testament instances of God’s mercy:

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.

Ex 34:6-7

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

1 Chron 16:34

The LORD is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
The LORD is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made.

Psalms 145:8-9

For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jer 29:11

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Jonah 4:2

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The first-born

I’ve been puzzling over the story of Cain and Abel for a few days with this question in mind: Why did God allow Cain to live?

There are plenty of historical instances where God responded to rebellion with death. Why not this time?

Cain was the first-born, the first-ever born and Eve rejoiced that God had given her this son. Did she hope he was the anticipated savior, the seed who would crush evil?

We might credit Cain with offering the first sacrifice, but we see that he did not please God. The rhythm of the written account pulses: we go from Cain to Abel, from Abel to Cain. One farmed the ground; one tended the sheep. Abel’s sacrifice pleased God; Cain’s did not. The heartbeat of the story screeches to a halt when God confronts Cain: don’t let sin overtake you.

We see why Cain’s sacrifice was inadequate: his heart is selfish. In jealousy, he kills Abel. He sneers at God: am I my brother’s keeper?

Where Adam and Eve regretted their sin, Cain does not. He doesn't hesitate to kill as a solution. God banishes him. The farmer is sent away from the land. It is only in that judgment that Cain finally cries out to God for help.

God reveals how he values life. The promise of fruitfulness, given to Adam and Eve, trumped a need for vengeance. God may have also stemmed a bloodbath as other family members rushed to avenge Abel’s murder. He quarantines Cain – even from his own presence. Cain becomes a wanderer, sent far from Eden and away from God.

It’s a picture of hell, that separation. Yet God in his mercy gave Cain time to be restored.

I know many who have let sin overtake them. I know how God treasures life. And I have seen the two intertwine in joyous reconciliation.

The first-born of man failed; sin crushed him. But the first-born of God won; he crushed sin. God’s mercy extended to Cain – and well beyond.

But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.

2 Sam 14:14

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign LORD. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Ezek 18:23

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Yearning for order

Chaos just repels. Whether it’s my son’s jumbled bedroom floor or the drug addict’s shattered life, my heart cries for harmony. Maybe yours, too?

I think it’s been that way since the beginning. Literally.

Eugene Peterson’s translation of Genesis 1:2 calls the beginning “a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” Other versions describe it as “formless and void” or “formless and empty.”

That’s chaos. But there was hope, for the spirit of God was hovering, about to act.

To the ancient Hebrew, this account showed how God shattered chaos, bringing order where there had been none. Even the days of creation illustrate the structure of God’s hand. He formed time from nothing, order from disarray.

There’s no other way. The soup of nothingness doesn’t coagulate into gardens and rivers by itself. God’s Word was the catalyst, for he spoke harmony into being. From chaos came order.

That concord only lasted until Eve took the fruit in the garden, but it was God’s plan and we still yearn for his order. The story of the Bible is the account of God's plan to restore order to our lives, plucking us out of our chaos.

From turmoil can come harmony, as God’s Word works. That’s good news for my son’s bedroom but even better news for the addict and the mourning and the captive.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Gen 1:2

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Messy ministry

Darla was the answer to prayer when I decided to go on a hunt for non-Christians.

In an innocent moment of prayer, I told God that I needed to expand my circle of friends. Before long, I was invited to join a bowling team. My teammates were a lusty, energetic, opinionated group, with loud laughs and salty talk. I washed the smoke out when I came home. But I listened, I asked questions, I stayed.

Darla was a young mother filled with the salty bitterness of new divorce. Every week, she cursed her ex-husband while I tried to encourage her to move on from the hatred. She was scraping along financially. Did she have a church to help her? No, her husband had been the church-goer and she detested him.

But she eventually began to chuckle at my innocence, because I didn’t join her in censuring her husband – or insulting mine, for that matter. And then, one weekend, her ex stopped by to visit their daughter, as he often did. But this time was different.

She bounced onto the lanes the next week announcing that they were reconciling. Her heart softened, she and I began to talk about Jesus and church blessings and growth. When they remarried, she asked me to be her matron of honor. They settled into a church a few hours away and we often wrote letters about what she was learning and how God had rescued her family.

This is not a story about the formula I used to bring her to Christ, because there is none. I did little but, oh, what God did!

Here’s what I did: I went to where people were and I listened to what they said. I didn’t check out at the first swear word or the first cigarette lit. I was determined to hang around long enough to see what God was going to do in that place.

Jesus went to tax collectors and prostitutes and Samaritans. He went to the unclean and the needy. He risked reputation and prestige for the unlovable. His ministry was not bright lights but apparent failure and defeat.

We need to identify the needy around us. They may be newly divorced, or newly bankrupt, or sorrowing. Their child may have run away or their boss just deemed them too old to stay. They may smoke or swear or drink. They probably have opinions that will frost your hair. When we find them, we need to love them. God’s love changes people. A good friend calls it the ministry of presence, being available and loving.

Ministry is messy. Jesus was bloodied, bruised, mocked, killed. Following him means….well…..following him.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet.

John 13:14

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kidnapping a laptop

Who: one 16 year old daughter (names are changed to protect the guilty)

Where: at a summer leadership conference at a local university

What: E-mail updates

Why: we’ll talk later.

The first e-mail was unexpected: “Mom, I’m writing this in our bathroom on Steve’s laptop computer. I can only write until the battery dies because Justin snuck it out of their room and Steve doesn’t know he has it. Justin used it first and I don’t know what he did. We’re having a lot of fun here! Love, Kerry. BTW: Justin says don’t tell his mom what we’re doing!”

I wrote back: “Is this a joke?????? I think you and Justin are having TOO MUCH FUN!”

Later that day, she wrote: “Bad news. Steve found out we borrowed his computer and he is MAD! He threatened to tell Mrs. Blake and then we’d get sent home. So Justin tied him up and gagged him and put him in their tub til he promises not to tell. I miss you! The conference is really good and I’m glad I’m here. Love, Kerry.”

My e-mail probably scorched cyberspace as it screeched back to her with advice: “Don’t let her ship you home in a box. And be sure to FEED Steve. He could get hungry. Offer him some chocolate chip cookies – maybe he’ll forgive you both.”

The next e-mail was slower in arriving, probably because the watched Thunderbird inbox doesn’t boil. “Dear Mom, I’m glad you knew it was a joke! The college has a bunch of computers we can use and I wanted to practice some creative writing. [Where’d she get an idea like that?] I made it all up.”

Do you think God laughs with us? He must laugh at us sometimes. Can’t you just see him shaking his head, “Child, child, what were you thinking?”

Someone said that God must have a sense of humor or he’d never have created monkeys. I’m thinking that he must have a sense of humor or he’d never expect mothers to understand 11-year-old boys (or 16-year-old daughters).

My son recently told me that he likes the color purple unless it looks like pink.

I’m thinking God probably laughs, too.

It’s all about relationship. Remember when Jesus called the Father “Abba,” which means “Daddy.” Don’t we love a tender relationship? It’s the fabric of our lives. We’re torn if it is lost. Whether with family or with God, we love relationship.

Tend to the relationship and laugh with the Lord sometimes.

“He fell to the ground and prayed… "Papa, Father…”

Mark 14:35-36 (The Message)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Flames of passion

The woman was indignant. “I’d better be in heaven someday,” she said heatedly, “because I know my mother is!”

She could have been a third-generation Puritan. In the mid-1600’s, the Puritans had fled English with the hot flames of persecution on their tails. Rather than adapt their beliefs, they adopted a new homeland.

But that first generation of Puritans, passionate and committed, failed to pass on the fervor. The following generations drifted toward spiritual lethargy. Churches once filled with energetic followers of Jesus were now seeing empty pews. The youth were out late, pursuing lewd practices with no time for Sunday morning worship.

We obviously expect too much, responded the Puritan fathers. They wanted to increase church membership, which had been based on spiritual conversion, and so decided to make it easier. Thus developed the Half-Way Covenant, which allowed membership based on baptism. If and when conversion occurred, the member was then allowed full membership but in the meantime, they were half-way members.

These half-way members couldn’t vote but they could inflate the membership roll. The hope was that the younger generations would eventually make a conversion to Christianity. Without the expectation of conversion, the younger generation became more and more self-indulgence and immoral.

By reducing membership to baptism, Puritans communicated that faith wasn’t necessary. Membership was. The sluggish results of the Half-way Covenant made the Great Awakening of the early 1700’s an amazing work of God, injecting fervor and commitment into the cool listless spirituality of the times. When people found Jesus, they responded with enthusiasm and ardor.

Jesus started with a large group of disciples but followers kept peeling off as the cost of following became clearer. Jesus didn’t come up with a Half-way Covenant to keep them. He upped the ante: in comparison to your love for me, it’ll seem like you hate your family. (Luke 14:26)

To follow Jesus means to leave attachments, to cultivate zeal, to risk all. He expected obsession from his followers. The Puritans were hoping to boost church membership with the Half-way Covenant. Their focus should have been on the passion of the people, not the numbers on the pews.

Jesus never made it easy to follow him and neither should we.

And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:27

Friday, June 22, 2007

Friday Five: God's name

Five times that God reveals his name in the Old Testament:

God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM.

Ex 3:14

The Lord came down in a cloud, stood with him there, and proclaimed [His] name Yahweh (THE LORD)

Ex 34:5

Then God spoke to Moses, telling him, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai) but I did not make My name Yahweh known to them.

Ex 6:2-3

The Lord is a warrior; Yahweh is His name.

Ex 15:3

Then they'll learn your name: "God," the one and only High God on earth.

Psalms 83:18

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Dead Sea Principle

Sometimes you just gotta pull the plug. It’s a sordid tale in my life.

I spent many years polishing The Dead Sea Principle. Let me remind you about the Dead Sea. With salinity levels hovering between 30-35%, there are no fish or other sea animals. Little bacteria can even survive. In other words, there’s no life in the Dead Sea.

How did it get that way? Fresh water flows into the sea but there’s no outlet. Fresh water is changed to a stagnant saline solution as it’s stored there.

I tended my words the same way, pouring in a river of fresh water. I attended conferences, went to Bible studies, never missed a special speaker or a retreat. My car radio was tuned to Christian station and my friends were all believers.

Except one.

The water flowed in and the salt thickened.

One day, in a rush of spiritual energy, I decided to witness to my unbelieving friend. Flush with training from a new conference, I practiced my lines all the way to her house. I promised God I’d bring up the subject. I don’t remember praying for my friend but I did get my part memorized.

I did it. I got through the presentation. She listened politely and recited her part just like the conference teacher had suggested. (I don’t think she’d been at the conference…) In the end, she courteously told me that she had already figured out her own way to God and she’d just stick with that.

By my standards, I’d failed. But something interesting happened through that adventure. God pulled the plug on my Dead Sea. I was changed.

My outreach effort was stiff and formulaic, but I talked about my relationship with Jesus. It isn’t about a Roman road or debating points of doctrine. The Word had poured in to my life for many years but it was time to bless others with the grace, love and compassion I had received.

Did you know that you don’t need to swim in the Dead Sea? The salt level is so high you float on top. It’s safe and easy. But it’s dead.

Give me fresh water.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Eph 4:29

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Real relationship

It was an ugly line, coming from a man who pretended to be Truman’s best friend. The kids and I watched The Truman Show the other night, aghast to see Marlin assure Truman, cued through an earpiece by the producer of the show, that he was as close as a brother. “I’d never lie to you,” he lied to Truman.

Have you seen the movie? Truman grew up on a TV set, not realizing that everyone in his world (except him) was acting. He was the star of a fabulously popular TV show, but he had no idea. Instead, the artificial world as all he’d ever known. Seahaven was a pleasant town with blue skies, sunshine, friendly neighbors, and safety.

Christof was the designer of the show, the maker of Seahaven, creator of the world where Truman lived. He had great affection for Truman but he didn’t hesitate to conjure up a near-fatal windstorm trying to keep Truman from escaping. (The ratings were great for that episode.) He manipulated people in and out of Truman’s life for the sake of the story.

But the comfortable safe world that he created for Truman turned out not to be enough, for the young man walked away from all he had known in pursuit of freedom and reality.

The story makes me think about Adam in the Garden. Adam lived in a nice place too. There was plenty to eat, safety, comfort. But there were differences, too. Christof remained hidden away while he tinkered with Truman’s world. God walked in the cool of the evening with Adam and, moved by Adam’s need for companionship, formed Eve – flesh of his flesh, no actress sporting a glowing smile while collecting a paycheck.

Christof embodies much of others’ suspicions about God: a creator who is kind and benevolent as long as it suits him, distant and unknown while tweaking reality for his own purposes. Comfort trumps freedom, influence routs relationship in that worldview.

But while Christof surrounded Truman with a fake world – fake interaction, fake sand, fake smiles – God formed a world of fruitfulness and abundance and freedom for Adam.

Christof created Truman for ratings but God…well, he created Adam for relationship. The reality of sincere relationship was what Truman longed for. So do we all.

Our Creator longs for it, too. Not for what he gains, but for what he gives.

But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.

Romans 5:8

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Eating the elephant

Remember the joke about the woman who, after procuring a delicious recipe from her neighbor, was hopping mad because it turned out awful when she mixed it up? Turned out she had been out of the ingredients and so substituted something “close enough.”

We as followers of Jesus often do the “close enough” shuffle ourselves. This weakness shish-kabobbed me this morning. I was searching for a quote by Pascal about the “God-shaped vacuum” in each of us. We all know that he or C.S. Lewis or Augustine or somebody said that. Close enough, right?

Well, Pascal didn’t say that quote. He wrote something similar but those words didn’t pop up in his Pensees. What I did learn, in my searching for the quote that doesn’t exist, is that a lot of atheists mock us for our laziness. We follow rumor and legend without investigating, and they assume that such is our faith in Jesus as well.

Want to get the Christians going? Send out an e-mail about Madeline Murray O’Hair and the believers get whipped up in a frenzy without ever checking to see if there’s an ounce of fact. We look like we believe anything.

We claim to revere God’s Word and yet we don’t memorize it accurately. We use the “close enough” shuffle to hand out holy advice and bend the text to fit either the situation or our personal bias. Do we read Scriptures enough to be accurate with them?

What we tell others, in our “close enough” stance, is that the Bible is not really worth being accurate about – certainly not important enough to sacrifice time over.

It is a tragedy that in America, where we have how many translations of the Bible sitting on our shelf, that we are bored with the Word of God, content with “close enough” quotes and hazy observations.

I’m not asking you to read Pascal today. But I am asking you to read Genesis or John or Ruth. Remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We need to start eating.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Which wall?

Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?

James 2:24

When James links faith and action, his example is, of all people, Rahab the prostitute!

Why Rahab?

She lived in the wall of Jericho when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. That wall was thick enough to contain a home and probably was wide enough for a chariot path at the top. The people of Jericho had trusted that wall to keep them safe for many years.

Remember that Rahab did not know how God would conquer the land, but she had heard about his power in the wilderness and she believed. She put herself at odds with her own people because her faith was rock-solid (unlike the wall, as it turned out). She housed strangers who could have taken advantage of her for their own gain. She made herself vulnerable because she trusted God.

She saved herself and her family by her actions – and is a honored member of the line of Jesus.

Rahab had heard about God’s power and she acted. That’s James’ point. Believe and act. If we concoct backup plans or analyze escape routes, our faith is in our wall. Rahab saw a wall but believed the all-powerful God. And her actions proved it.

Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:25-26 (NIV)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

This is for the fathers

I know a man who wrenched his own heritage away from his children and planted a new legacy in its place. He started life like many of us, with a rebellious self-indulgent spirit. He left home at 16 and sired a child out of wedlock at 19. Theft, speeding, reckless driving pepper his background.

But, like so many, the day came when he had a wife and young children. He was just doing his fatherly duty in joining them at church when the Fisher of men hooked him. He was changed.

After that, he never hesitated to write a check for his children to go on mission trips or youth conferences or Bible studies. Summer church camps were a given. His kids were always there. He drove many van loads of kids to rallies and meetings.

I know another man who also did his duty. His kids were in church every Sunday and heard Bible texts every day. He taught them to fish and to pray, to shovel walks and carry groceries for the widows.

Lives are changed as fathers set aside their own schedule and appetite for their family. Not every father warms to the responsibilities of being a dad. Fathers disappoint, as do children.

But our measure is to be found in God, who always does his duty as our father. We don’t always deserve it, but he can change our lives with his devotion.

Happy Father’s Day! There are many men who have made a difference in their children’s heritage. They deserve our honor and respect. And praises to our Heavenly Father, who illustrates daily the love and wisdom of a faithful Dad.

O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:8

Practicing the presence of God

Brother Lawrence didn’t like doing dishes any more than I do, but he found pleasure and peace in the business. That catches my attention.

He lived in the 1600’s but he was searching for the same thing that we hunger for today: peace and purpose. He started life as soldier, fighting in the Thirty Years War for the French. He tried studies, civil work (he described himself as a “footman who was clumsy and broke everything”), and spent time living in the wilderness. Searching.

But eventually he washed dishes in a monastery and thought about the presence of God.

That may seem a little tame today with our insatiable appetite for entertainment and a new adrenalin rush. We avoid dull tasks, convinced that life has new zest in adventure. But we are a troubled people, anxious to find purpose and peace as we rush to new quests.

Brother Lawrence found it.

Through a quiet life that embraced menial tasks, Brother Lawrence remained in God’s presence. It didn’t matter the assignment. No matter how our head is occupied, our heart can be melded with God. Anytime. In any task.

If you haven’t read The Practice of the Presence of God, you’ll find it surprisingly refreshing.


“We should feed and nourish our souls with high notions of GOD; which would yield us great joy in being devoted to Him.”

"He was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of GOD, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts."

“In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of GOD, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.”

Friday, June 15, 2007

In Memory

Ruth Bell Graham

The world has lost a gracious, tenacious, compassionate woman of God; heaven welcomes her home.

Ruth Graham dies at 87
Ruth Graham

Friday Five: Jesus' I am.....

Five times that Jesus describes himself using “I am…”

“I am the bread of life.” John 6:48

“I am the light of the world.” John 8:12

“I am the gate.” John 10:9

“I am the good shepherd.” John 10:11

“ I am God’s son.” John 10:36

Plus a few more because these are good, too!

“I am the way, the truth, the life.” John 14:6

“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11:25

“I am the vine and you are the branches.” John 15:5

(See Exodus 3:15 for God’s name, which is “I AM.”)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Our part of the deal

About once a week, a generous friend of a friend (his description of my character is so glowing) e-mails me about a new opportunity to help him and earn some money as well. His bank account might be in Nigeria or somewhere in Europe. It seems to move somewhat, but I could make several million dollars if I just did a couple of simple things out of the kindness of my heart.

I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Yesterday we talked about God’s part in the contract with us. He initiates it and he remembers it forever.

This can look like a Nigerian scam: too good to be true. But that’s why we have to start by looking at the contract maker. I know nothing about this “friend of a friend” who e-mails me from all over the world. If I were going to pursue his proposal, I would spend a lot of time getting acquainted.

What do I know about God, the great contract-maker? Am I willing to investigate, to try him, to ask questions? Am I willing to consider a relationship with him – to check this out?

God is clear on his contract: I will be your God and you will be my people.

My part is clear: to be his. This is not about my efforts or a list of laws to be done. This is about relationship.

Scams appeal to greed but God invites us to join his family. Be my people. Love me as I love you. Obey me because you love me.

Check it out.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”

Jer 31:3

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What a deal!

I once signed a contract that I had no intention of keeping. I was new out of college, naïve in the world’s ways, and didn’t know how to get rid of the insurance salesman except to sign his contract and then cancel after he left.

It was a desperate strategy. But what if the insurance had gone on, even in the face of my cancellation letter? What if the insurance covered me without any premium money?

Ridiculous. Imagine, however, that a day came when I was hospitalized. The tab kept climbing as tests ordered and remedies attempted. The bill would be staggering, beyond my ability to pay. But, behold, this long-forgotten insurance kicked in, paying the full cost. This insurance I had never acted upon had paid my bill.

God made a contract with Adam: I will be your God and you will be my people. Adam thought he had a better plan.

God came to Abraham: Follow me. I will be your God, making your offspring into a great nation on this land. Abraham thought, what offspring? What land?

Jacob forgot the contract for a long time. It hadn’t been made to him anyway – or so he thought. But God had not forgotten. God renewed the contract even though the human parties often didn’t do their part.

This contract-making business is serious to God.

I have failed him a thousand times but his contract remains. I will be your God and you will be my people.

His people neglected to pay their premiums and tried to buy other plans. God never forgot the contract. As surely as the sun comes up every morning, God remembers his agreement.

'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant…can be broken’

Jer 33:20-21

TOMORROW: Our part of the contract

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What language?

Latin may be considered a dead language today, but in its day it was the English of the empire. Through the muscle of the Romans, everyone spoke Latin. So as the early church developed, the liturgy was naturally done in Latin- the common tongue.

But then came a twist.

As the Roman Empire crumbled in the 400’s, people tossed aside their imposed Latin language and returned to their native tongues. But the church didn’t notice. For the next 1000 years, the church continued to worship in Latin even though most people didn’t know what was being said.

Today we might call that “lack of contextualization” or “stubborn narrowness.”

As you might predict, the church grew dustier and drier over the centuries. The freshness of the first few centuries faded into a predictable, irrelevant institution that eventually collapsed in a heap of corruption, triggering the Reformation.

Some scholars suggest that once the church became a formality rather than a doorway to a relationship to God, the door was opened in the 600’s for the rapid expansion of Islam across north Africa and even into Europe. The church was too weak and isolated from the people to respond to Islamic evangelism.

There’s the lesson for us today: is the church tuned to the needs of the people? Is the church aware of the language of the community? Or is the church logged onto a dusty expression that connects with only an elite few?

Jesus spoke the language of the people. Do we?

Monday, June 11, 2007

A genuine choice

This was a well-tended garden, with trees bent down under their fruit. You could pluck a juicy plum or toss a ripe strawberry into your mouth. If your tastes ran more toward full red tomatoes or cucumbers, they were within reach. Melons, raspberries, sweet peas, peaches – the garden dripped with succulent produce.

In the midst of all that was a bowl of colorful hard candy. Just leave that alone, advised the gardener. It’s not good for you.

Temptation whispered a different song, however. The gardener is withholding from you. It was an astonishing claim, in the midst of the green grass and rich yield.

You know how it is. The candy looks like the rest of the fruit, but once we taste that, the fruit loses its flavor. Once we get a taste of sugar, the fruit is no longer so sweet. The sugar nabs our soul.

And, in the midst of an abundant harvest of delicious fruit, our mind is only for the candy. And we believe the tempter: the gardener withholds. Do we know the nature of God? In Genesis, we see his generous wealth. He does not withhold – even to the point of giving choice.

"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."(Gen 2:16-17)

Do we see the choice in that statement? God allowed Adam to eat from any tree but advised him to stay away from the tree that would destroy him. Adam had to choose. Although we cling to the conviction that our Gardener denies, we can’t defend that. He gives us fruit; we insist on candy. He offers us health and abundance; we fixate on our own sweet tooth. We blame God as we take the choice he gives us to select destruction.

Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. (Gen 2:9)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Flexing spiritual muscles

If you wanted to have a Roman experience, Ephesus in the first century wasn’t a bad place to go. Ephesus, located on the western coastline of what’s modern-day Turkey, was the fourth largest city in the empire, with just under a half million people calling it home. Ephesus was a cultured, orderly city.

There was plenty of spiritual muscle in Ephesus as well. It was the home of Artemis’ temple. An earlier version had been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and even the re-built version (the first had burned centuries before) was spectacular, drawing many tourists and faithful to honor the goddess of fertility.

Besides that, the city housed many magicians. We’d probably call them shamans or witch doctors today. They worked their illusions to create the image of spiritual authority. Into this rich stew of superstition walked Paul the evangelist.

Paul had debated debaters in Athens and taught the teachable in Berea. But something different was needed in Ephesus. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. (Acts 19:11)

Magicians would have recognized tricks. There were healings and exorcisms. God flexed his power in Ephesus, doing things that no magician could do. There’s a story in Acts 19 about wanna-be-priests trying to cast out an evil spirit using the name of Jesus as a magic incantation. They had no license and were beaten to a pulp for their audacity.

Ephesus knew about spiritual activity – and recognized God’s authentic power. Paul stayed in Ephesus longer than any other city on his missionary journeys. In the shadow of the incredible temple of Artemis, side by side with shamans, God illustrated spiritual muscle.

God revealed unexplainable power in Ephesus – to a group who would have recognized trickery and learned true spiritual authority. The name of Jesus was held in such high honor that the magicians burned their books. Those books were valued at 50,000 drachmas, or 50,000 day’s wages. That’s commitment.

God communicates truth understandably. In Ephesus, the people knew magic. When they saw acts that the shamans could not duplicate, they understood. God sent Paul to Ephesus not to condemn but to set free. This was not formula evangelism or salvation-by-guilt, but love spoken so that the people connected.

Paul preached in Ephesus as he did in all the cities he visited. But in Ephesus, it was the power of God that convinced many. God cared for their individuality, speaking to them in a language they understood, and they responded with honor and belief. They were given new life.

In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Acts 19:20

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Rights of passage

It was probably the Sunday afternoon polkafest that really got me started. My father was a polka fan (I cannot explain this) and tuned the car radio to polka music on the way to Grandma’s house.

As he rocked his shoulders to the rhythm of accordions, his children in the back seat sent up a howl of protests. I’m surprised he didn’t leave us on the side of the road.

I thought I deserved to listen to my music. Always.

I figured that there ought to be some joys to getting older and one included getting tmy music now and my favorite foods and my movies. The apostle Paul punctured my balloon.

It really came to a head when my son invited me to listen to some of his favorite Christian tunes. I had politely declined many times but now I had Paul’s words ringing in my ears.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. (Romans 15:1)

“Strong” has to do with maturity and influence. Paul also discusses, in this passage, how many things are morally neutral and need not be points of conflict.

And it came to me in a rush: if I had to listen to Christian rap and metallic rhythms to help my teenagers get through those years of turmoil, that was a small price to pay. If I joined their search for meaning through a style of music that was, well, difficult for me, the price was worth it.

Like Jesus did: For even Christ did not please himself…(Romans 15:3). He, the King of kings, was even washing men’s feet like a simple servant. He suffered, the God of the universe putting on skin and walking the path of a frail man.

Although we tend to glorify youthfulness and ridicule old age in our culture, we do reserve one privilege for the old, the right to be selfish. The “come around” rule (“what goes around comes around”) meant it was finally my turn to get what I wanted.

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. (Romans 14:20)

Today, it isn’t about food but about length of hair or style of music or favorite celebrity. We who are older sometimes make a stand on our right to what we prefer rather than our responsibility to nurture those who are younger and weaker.

Unfortunately, our churches bear witness to this for many are filled with elders and not many teens. Teens can be selfish and demanding and, well, weak. Paul is clear: it is the strong who submit to nurture the weak, not the other way around.

Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself. (Romans 15:3)

Friday, June 8, 2007

Friday Five: God the Creator

I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

Psalms 8:3

You formed the mountains by your power,
having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations.

Psalms 65:6-7

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?

Isaiah 40:12

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Heb 11:3

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being."

Rev 4:11

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Aching for presence

My husband spent three weeks in Chile a few years ago. Through the magic of e-mail and faxes, we were able to communicate daily. Yet I counted down the days until he was home. I wanted more than communication – I wanted presence.

Jesus was questioned once by John’s disciples: why don’t your disciples fast? A pious Jew of the day fasted twice a week but Jesus and his followers did not. Jesus’ answer was a classic: why fast while the guest of honor is here?

Fasting, for the Jew of that day, carried the flavor of mourning and loss. Jews grieved their sins and the loss of Eden.

Jesus was the restoration of presence. There was no need to mourn while his followers were with him. That came later.

Does your heart ache for the presence of Jesus? We have his Spirit within us and so we rejoice in intimate communication. But do you ache for his presence? There’s a bittersweet aroma to our walk. We have Jesus’ Spirit, we have his Word, we have permission to stand boldly before the throne of grace. But we long for his presence.

Although I filled my days with activities while my beloved was in Chile, I don’t remember what they were. I remember his messages and I remember watching the highway on the day of his return. I remember the joy of his arms.

The bridegroom is coming. We fill our days with activities but they are nothing. May our arms ache for Jesus’ presence. May our hearts pound with anticipation, for the day is coming when we will feel the joy of his arms.

Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

John 16:22

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Speaking in code

It looked like a casual brushing of errands. I was trying to open my new post office box. She was a little sprite of a woman, well into retirement and sorting through junk mail, apologizing for taking up the table. I assured her there was no problem and turned my attention to figuring out the combination lock.

She pursued the conversation. “We’re so glad that God allows us to pay all these bills.”
I had just turned the lock tumbler to the left when I needed the right, so my reply was distracted. “It is a blessing to be able to do that,” I agreed.

“God takes good care of us,” she said. Then, as she gathered her mail and started out the door, she stopped and faced me intentionally. “May you go today in the circle of God’s love.”

And I turned to her. “Do you know Jesus?”

Her smile brightened the room. “Yes, I do! I love to talk about him!”

Then she told me a story about blessing a man as she has blessed me. He had left the post office and then returned to thank her. “I drive a lot,” he said, “and I needed to hear that.”

Recently I exchanged e-mails with a new friend who used the name “Aslan” in her address. Yes, that really meant “Jesus” to her and she used the questions to tell a little about her connection.

Many American Christians have resorted to codes in talking about our faith. We’re doing the equivalent of drawing fish in the dust, like the early Christians. We don’t face arrest for our faith and sometimes I lash myself for lack of courage. Why should I care if I offend someone with my declaration of faith? Isn’t my allegiance to Christ?

And yet… Remember Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman? She drew water from a well and so he talked about living water. When Nicodemus came in the night with questions about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus talked about being born a second time. He told parables that confused many.

He spoke in a code of sorts. There’s a time to whip out the four spiritual laws or walk someone through Romans, but for many, their journey is not that far. They may need to hear about living water or about starting over. They may need to think about God today rather than their problems.

Our conversation doesn’t need to be dripping with a gospel presentation. Sometimes we need only to open a conversation and mention God’s name. Sometimes their thirst becomes apparent.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?"
John 4:7

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Keeping what they could not lose

The days held the anticipation of spring, with new fragrance and life at every turn. The sisters both looked forward to weddings within a year, easily financed by their well-placed father. To top it off, the sisters shared their new-found faith with their fiancés. The four often attended worship services together, joyfully singing and praying to their Savior.

The fly in the ointment was the year, for the sisters had the misfortune to be born into third century Rome. Their father was an important gentleman in Rome under the emperor Valerian, who reigned during an unsettled time for the empire. Whatever his motivation, Valerian massacred Christians.

Refina and Secunda, our beautiful and accomplished sisters, were engaged to Armentarius and Verinus. The two men renounced their new faith when faced with financial loss, and encouraged their fiancees’ to do the same.

This was not the first time that Rome had gone after Christians, although there had been no problems for 10 years or so. Refina and Secunda refused to deny their Savior. Disappointed with this stubbornness, the young men then reversed their bad situation. They turned in their betrothed.

Refina and Secunda were arrested and killed. No trial, no probation.

These women shed an idyllic life – the dream of many – for a brutal death. Not only were they forced to make a difficult stand for their faith, but they were betrayed by the young men they loved and trusted.

I wonder what their neighbors thought. Or the boy at the market? The soldier who arrested them? Some today want to portray Christianity as a religion of blessings and happiness: pray, open your Bible, and you’ll reap the harvest of good fortune and contentment. What if it isn't?

Conviction is convincing.

Jim Elliot said it well: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

The author of Hebrews said it even better:

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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Heb 12:2-3

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wrestling with God

Maybe he built a small campfire and ate a simple supper of cheese and bread. Maybe he paced the campsite counting the stars. We don’t know for sure, but we know the night began with haunting emptiness. Jacob had sent his family ahead of him. His possessions were split into two groups, a practical precaution in case his brother started a war. Hopefully one group could escape.

Jacob’s life had been about accumulating. He had coveted Esau’s birthright and the blessing as well, scheming to get both. He had desired Rachel and worked 14 years to her hand. Many years before, on his way to Paddam Aram where he was to meet Rachel and Laban, he had encountered God in a dream.

God made a simple contract with him: I am the Lord your God. Your descendants will be as plentiful as dust. I will not leave you until my promises are complete. (Gen. 28:10-22)

Now, the schemer sat alone. He had prayed: God, please don’t let Esau kill me or my family (in that order). Remember that you promised descendants as plentiful as the sand. Please don’t let them be killed.

After he prayed, Jacob, the man with a thousand schemes, had played his hand and spun his plans. Now he waited alongside a stream, isolated. What could he trust? An old dream about God’s promises? His strategies?

Jacob thought his problem is Esau. His problem was his allegiance. He had met God and basked in God’s provisions. “I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.” (Gen 32:10) God kept his part of the bargain.

Many years before, Jacob had promised that, if God brought him back to his father’s house safely, then the Lord would be his God. Now the time of reckoning was at hand. Esau stood in his way, a formidable foe who might be looking for an understandable righting of wrongs.

And so the schemer wrestled with God. He had given the Lord lip service and had basked in the riches of provision. But when the crisis came, Jacob trusted in his own schemes. He did the “first I’ll pray, then I’ll take care of this” approach to his problem.

God was not to be set aside. He came to Jacob on that lonely campsite. They wrestled. They struggled. Jacob demanded blessing. God wanted commitment. He continued the scuffle until it was Jacob who refused to let go. Jacob was so changed by the encounter that he was given a new name. No longer was he “deceiver” but Israel, “he struggles with God.”

The schemes were over in that incredible reversal. Jacob had a new name and a new identity. He had met God in a powerful, painful battle and he had chosen to grab hold of God rather than his own methods.

His life had been about gathering in God’s promises. But now it was about hanging on to God. Once his hand had been open to receive; now it was clasped tight on the Lord.

“I saw God face to face”

Gen 32:30

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Morning light

What’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up each morning?

The first time I heard that question, I wanted to say that I awoke reciting Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. But the Lord gently popped that bubble, reminding me that I awoke thinking about my to-do list for the day.

No wonder I dreaded the morning. I hit the floor running. Empty the dishwasher. Start the laundry. Fix breakfast. Plan supper. Get a shower. The list had become the driving force of my day, starting from the very first.

I am starting to learn the principle of First Fruits: give God the first and the best. For me, that is my morning. I had to wrench myself away from the kitchen, where the dishes whispered my name. I had to ignore all the work that I served.

This journey is barely underway but the morning sun now brings joy for I spend the first hour of my day in praise, prayer, and study. I read the Word waiting for the dawn of new insight by the Spirit's grace. I sip tea listening to music. I bask in the warm light of God’s presence.

My plans are like the new grass, easily crushed. My work is dust, easily blown away. But my hours with my King are precious, an incredible regeneration of my spirit and my dreams as I sit at the feed of the great Redeemer. My work and plans become his.

I thought the First Fruits meant that I give away the best but I have learned that, when I come to the presence of the Best, he restores my soul and gives me a better best.

The mighty man will become tinder
and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
with no one to quench the fire."

Isaiah 1:31