The Revealing

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“The Revealing”

I was looking out my office window early this morning…fresh snow had fallen yesterday. It was laying gently on tree branches…a few of our local “herd” of deer were casually venturing through our forest area near our worship facility…there was a gentle light that was causing the snow to almost glisten…wow, was it beautiful. Truly a revealing…truly an unveiling of the gift of God’s creation. As I was standing and viewing that beauty in that moment, it reminded me of a time that I had with my sons years ago.

We decided to go to the beach so the boys could continue working on the driftwood forts that they started a few days earlier. As I carefully walked over and through the huge pile of driftwood left by the shifting tides, I saw one of the boys’ forts nearby. They had laid rows of straight pieces of driftwood over two large logs to form a room underneath. After surveying their driftwood forts, I commented, “The tide is low today. It’s a great time to go down to the water to look for things that the tides bring in.” The beach reminded me of the movie, Castaway, that I had just seen a couple of days earlier, in which the main character said, “Tomorrow is always a new day because you never know what tide will bring in.” As in all castaway challenges and island living, foraging food and items from the ocean is a critical part of surviving.

As I headed toward the edge of the water, nothing really stood out; just the usual broken pieces of seashells and algae covered rocks spread across the length of the beach as far as could be seen in both directions. The rocks were just the right size to walk on without touching the water that was flowing back and forth between them from the bay. Then, I started to see small clams and barnacles attached to rocks in many varying size groups. Some of the groupings were quite unique and beautiful. I called to the boys to come join me. As Aaron was showing me a white rock with bands of ore running through it, I pointed out a grouping of barnacles that had formed on a flat, round, smooth rock that left a perfect open circle of exposed rock in the center. When I reached down and pulled a group of barnacles off another rock, that’s when it happened. Something moved! “Boys did you see that?!” As I pulled more barnacles off the side of the same rock down towards the water, there is was again. A small round black shape smaller than the size of my smallest fingernail skittered away. It was the smallest crab I had ever seen.

We then started pulling more barnacles off and turning rocks over to look underneath them. The boys hollered with delight as they found more and bigger crabs. Once you knew what to look for, they were everywhere. I started to see things that I didn’t see before without moving things; crabs just sitting in the shallow layer of silt in the water between the rocks. It was amazing!

There’s nothing like the excitement of discovering something new that you didn’t see before. The beach reminded me of the power of God and creation (Genesis 1:20). And, as the creatures moved before me, the Holy Spirit moved within me. Once again, the Spirit needed to remind me of something I often taken for granted – the power and beauty of God’s creatures coming forth from the sea.

The more we interact with nature, the more the HOLY and CREATIVE Spirit of God is revealed to us. I have always found more of God in nature than in any religious building. I see the Earth as God’s Cathedral…God’s Canvas…God’s Revealing, His “advent” if you will. God arrives in every magnificent aspect of His creation. God shows us to refresh our memories…stir in our hearts…speak gently to our spirits of the power and beauty of His love for us. Those who have traveled the world looking through the eyes of faith have said that even man’s tallest gothic spired structures are no match for the beauty of nature. I see God’s work in everything from glacial mountain hanging valleys, to alpine meadow flowers, to tree lined water worn creek stones, to wind carved desert sands, to ocean side seashells. In these moments, all is right in the world, in which I’m a better person for having experienced it and sharing it with others. Hopefully, as I said on that day years ago, my boys remembered many of the adventures we’ve had together, the fun and joy of discovering aspects of God’s creation, to some day pass them on to their own children and others throughout the world. Lord willing, as YOU stop long enough in your daily grind to behold the revelation of the Lord in and through His creation, it will also assure you of God’s love and inspire you to direct others to peek into the awesomeness of what God has made. It’s there for the viewing…His presence dripping in every revelation of color, stature, and mystery.

Take time each day to stop and admire God’s work. It was created for you. That’s God’s revealing!

I love this – Thanksgiving – starts with “small things”

44163-6a00d83451607369e20120a608f539970c-piIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am very appreciative to God for “voices” in my life (many of which I have NEVER met) that speak truth and impact my soul.  Ann Voscamp never fails me…nor you for that matter.  In this post, she outlines what can be a truly revolutionary of living life – being thankful.  In addition, she gives a practical step that can change your life – commit to keep a “thanks” journal.  Imagine your life, focused more on the things you are thankful for then on any other thing – news (which is always depressing), chores, duties, responsibilities, etc., etc.  Thanksgiving IS more than a holiday – it can be a way of life!  Check out her wonderful words:

Thanksgiving is More Than a Holiday: It’s Meant to Change Your Life

Some days I pick up a camera and the lens is my ink, for cameras have sensor eyes, and pixels record.  I slide it into a pocket, the camera in phone, and find another way to chronicle, to force the lids open; another way to receive the moment with reverential thanks.

When he comes in from the barn, The Farmer Husband finds me leaning over a plate of cheese grated and sitting in sunlight. It is true. And yeah — I do feel foolish.  I mean, it’s curls of mozzarella and cheddar piled high in a pond of golden day.

And I’m changing the settings to macro, increasing the ISO, pulling in for a close-up frame.  He’s fed 650 sows with one strong arm this morning, flicked on a welder and melded the steel. So it is quite possible that the God-glory of a ring of shredded cheese may be lost on him.

It isn’t.

“I like finding you just like this.” He wraps one arm around my bowed middle, draws me close and up into him strong.  “Crazy like this?” I blush with my silliness, and he brushes close with the four-day stubble. He laughs.  “Perfect like this.” He nods toward the cheese plate. “You being happy in all these little things that God gives. This makes me happy.”

Happy in all these little things that God gives. Ridiculously happy over slips of cheese.

That I am, and it’s wild, and, oh, I am the one who laughs. Me! Changed! Changed by giving thanks and surprised by joy!

God gives gifts and I give thanks and I unwrap the gift given: joy.  And gratitude for the seemingly insignificant—a seed—this plants the giant miracle.  Do not disdain the small. The whole of the life—even the hard—is made up of the minute parts, and if I miss the infinitesimals, I miss the whole.

“There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things. It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing. The moments will add up.”

There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things. It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing. The moments will add up.  I, too, had read it often, the oft-quoted verse:

“And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

And I, too, would nod and say straight-faced, “I’m thankful for everything.”  But in this counting gifts, to one thousand, more, I discover that slapping a sloppy brush of thanksgiving over everything in my life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life…

If gratitude is an antidote for anxiety…and giving thanks is a real cure for stress — why relegate thanksgiving to a holiday when giving thanks can revolutionize our whole lives?

I do this, record the gifts, gather the moments like manna.

“Joy is always a function of gratitude — and gratitude is always a function of perspective.”

It’s could be this feast everyday — a Thanksgiving Feast everyday.  People who keep gratitude journals are 25% happier. Twenty-five percent happier.  Is this why God commands us to always give thanks? What sane person doesn’t want to be 25% happier?

Why in the world don’t we do this?

Joy is always a function of gratitude — and gratitude is always a function of perspective.  If we are going to change our lives, we’re going to have to change the way we see.

This recording our gratitudes, this looking for blessings everywhere, this counting of gifts— this is what changes what we are looking for. This is what changes our perspective. Thanksgiving is the lens God means for us to see joy all year round.

The light’s igniting a plate of cheese and there’s sunlight falling in planks across the floor.  The stress untangles.  The moment’s a gift, a grace…

The sound of kids laughing and my mama’s knitting needles clicking and the girls baking in the kitchen….and speed slows to wonder.

Why miss our lives? Why miss all the ways He loves?

This is the gift all the children want: us all here and awake to crazy Grace.

Us all in this world addicted to speed, unwrapping the real secret of time management, unwrapping the fullest life:

In the stressful times : seek God
In the painful times : praise God
In the harried times : hallow God
In the terrible times : trust God.
And at all times — and at all times –
Thank God.

“Wherever you are, count your blessings, collect gifts, count it all joy.”

Because Thanksgiving is more than holiday–It’s the season to Wake up to Really, Fully Living.

Wherever you are, count your blessings, collect gifts, count it all joy.

The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world.

This thanks for the minute, it is to say the prayer of the most blessed of women about to participate in one of the most transformative events the world has ever known.

Mary, with embryonic God Himself filling her womb, exalts in quiet ways: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46 KJV)….

And when I do this, give thanks for the seemingly microscopic, I make a place for God to grow within me. This, this, makes me full. I “magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30 KJV) — and more of God’s glory enters the world.

What will a life magnify? The world’s stress cracks, the grubbiness of a day, all that is wholly wrong and terribly busted?

Or God?

There’s no way to enter into His courts but through the gates of Thanksgiving — and it’s only in His presence is fullness of Joy and I snap a picture of cheese.

Yeah right, Jesus!

5856756683_yes_its_true_tshirt_p235468792175613195b77an_400_answer_2_xlarge“Yeah right, Jesus!”

Vicky and I were on our vacation this past week…it is my 65th year of life and this November’s birthday celebration included ten days in Hawaii with some great pals. I was minding my own business…and why shouldn’t I? It’s a VACATION! I’m supposed to be simply taking a relaxed pace throughout the day. I was minding my own business and I was ambushed. No, there weren’t people hiding in bushes waiting to pounce on me. And no, I didn’t get one of those dreaded phone calls or disturbing texts that share news that always seems to upset life’s applecart. No, I was just about to sit down and rest a second before taking a morning stroll and my buddy, Larry (whom we were sharing our vacation with – both Larry and his wife, Kim) says, “Robin, did you read Oswald yet?” “Who’s Oswald,” you ask? Oswald Chambers – the man who wrote what some would exclaim to be the foremost spiritual devotional for Jesus followers ever written. You see, Larry and I made a commitment as friends to read Oswald daily during 2019. The truth is, though I have often missed a day or two over the years, I would have to confess that Oswald has been a much-cherished companion in my journey with Jesus for over 40 years. So, I sit down before I lace up my walking shoes and BOOM! Oswald “hits me!” You know, for those of you who are familiar with My Utmost for His Highest, you can totally relate, can’t you? I’ve often thought to myself that they should put a warning label on Oswald’s book…”Read at your own risk and peril.” I’ve experienced it time and again through the years…what seems so familiar at times gets juiced spiritually at key moments in life. I don’t even realize how much I need specific spiritual encouragement when I am ambushed with Chamber’s piercing but prophetic ruminations.

I read just the following…the opening paragraph of the day’s devotional for November 15th…three days into the new year God has put before me:

“One of the hardest lessons to learn comes from our stubborn refusal to refrain from interfering in other people’s lives. It takes a long time to realize the danger of being an amateur providence, that is, interfering with God’s plan for others. You see someone suffering and say, “He will not suffer, and I will make sure that he doesn’t.” You put your hand right in front of God’s permissive will to stop it, and then God says, “What is that to you?” Is there stagnation in your spiritual life? Don’t allow it to continue but get into God’s presence and find out the reason for it. You will possibly find it is because you have been interfering in the life of another— proposing things you had no right to propose or advising when you had no right to advise. When you do have to give advice to another person, God will advise through you with the direct understanding of His Spirit. Your part is to maintain the right relationship with God so that His discernment can come through you continually for the purpose of blessing someone else.”

Oh, aren’t I wise? Oh, aren’t I insightful? Oh, aren’t I entitled to pontificate pearls of “Robin wisdom” on any and all innocent bystander? Oh, haven’t I paid the dues necessary to be able to speak into any and all lives who have the “honor” of being in the shadow of my intellectual greatness? Oh, especially those who have shared a life-long journey with me whether they be child, grandchild, or dear friend…haven’t I earned the right to say anything that pops into my head for the purpose of guiding them to the true path to which they should aspire? Ah, no! That’s Oswald’s point. All of us believe that we know how to live other people’s lives better than they. All of us believe that if only we could tell our cherished “other” what they should know or think or do then their life will be filled with nothing but blessed bliss. So, we interfere…we counsel…we advise…we find ways to squirrel our way into the recesses of their soul with so-called discernment which we are more than willing to offer without regard to how it may condemn them to a destination that they do NOT seek.

I think God’s trying to tell me something…you’ve heard it said before, we have “two ears and one mouth.” There’s a reason for that! We have been designed by the Lord with a MUCH GREATER capacity for listening, loving and supporting then for guiding, bossing, and giving others the benefit of our omniscience…oops, that’s right. You and me, we are NOT omniscient. But we know the ONE who is…Jesus. Larry and I went on that walk…we talked about the implications of Oswald’s challenging phrases…we tried as best we could to defend the personal strategies that both of us have long employed of nosing our way into that which should cause us to pause and ask, “what is that to me?” In the course of that walk, the Spirit did what the Spirit always does if we have open hearts…the Spirit transformed our way of thinking and, consequently, our way of doing life in relationship with those we love. At least that is our goal…at least that is our humble and willing surrender to the will of our Lord.

I thought about this a lot this past week. I don’t have it all figured out…but I do intend to take more of a backseat to God’s desire to give personal direction to the one who seeks it instead of me cutting in God’s line. I have decided that I am going to take up more of a posture where I seek the Lord in all of my relationships to have God “bless them and change me” versus me potentially violating how God is attempting to speak to them about their life’s choices and challenges. I have decided to stop playing “amateur providence” and to start dishing out, as consistently and as generously as possible, that which I have received in spades – amazing grace. Jesus has called me to love…not be someone’s “god” but point that someone TO GOD! I need to help those whom I love to see Jesus clearly and respond to His voice instead of hearing the nagging advice of my oft confused, self-focused ego. As John the Baptist once remarked, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Instead of me working overtime to prove to others my worth and the astuteness of my life’s perspective, I need to up my commitment to let others see Jesus…He is the way, truth, and life. He is God’s wisdom incarnate. He has the words of eternal life. It is Jesus who will make our path straight. John the Baptist realized that early on…Peter had to be reminded of it up until almost the last day of Jesus’ walk on earth. Oh, to be more like John than Peter. My role in the lives of the people I love. Point them to the life-giver, the soul soother, the direction clarifier, the forgiver of mistakes and the empowerer of those who reach out to Him for help, strength and the ability to take another step. Maybe then, will this next year of my life be that which brings true honor and glory to the Lord. Maybe then will my most cherished relationships be blessed not by what I can bring to their “table” but how God can change me to help them see the “table” from which comes true life’s feasting and life in abundance.

How about you? Give that some thought. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that those words really made a HUGE difference while walking in the Hawaiian paradise but even if you can’t get there, trust me, they’ll do fine busting into your heart and life today no matter where you are!

Reflections on getting on in age…

“To everything, turn, turn, turn…” The Byrds, 1968
Reflections on getting on in age

I’m sure that many of you have heard of the PBS television series, “Antique Road Show.” If you haven’t, let me give you a snapshot of its presentation: a team of antique experts wanders from city to city in the USA, inviting people from the location to present artifacts, furniture and other treasures for evaluation and dollar calculation. Once an appraisal is made, the expert will then tell the individual or family what the “piece” is worth in open auction. Most times, the owner of the family heirloom or possession is told that their assumed “priceless” treasure is worth no more than a cup of Starbucks coffee. At times though, it’s one item that catches the auctioneer’s attention and the news of its high dollar value is shared with the owner with delight. Lovers of the show, at least I’m told, squeal in these moments and begin to carefully scheme how they too will one day discover immeasurable treasure buried deep within the bowels of the stack of goods they own. The point of the show is this, MOST older “antiques” are essentially useless. There are a few, and I underscore few, that end up having some sort of worth on the open market. Actually, friends, I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of this show during my life…I’d rather drink a glass of Liquid Plummer than watch another if you know what I mean.

This month, I’ll be turning the “young” age of 65. Getting older is surprisingly easy but enlightening. I look at the mirror on a day to day basis either to shave, clip my ever-growing eyebrows, or simply to be able to see how much more my face is deteriorating with a sense of inevitable resignation. Most of us, I know it’s true for me, never believe that we will get old like “those people” – what we see wandering through the halls of Long-term care facilities, buying a cheap meal at a local fast food place, or who are addicted to antique television presentations. They park in the handicap slots at the store, slowly wander through the aisles many times appearing lost at times. I know for me, I smile at most and have often offered to help many. I was always taught to respect my elders something that I do with ease.

Yet, I never see myself in their skin. I know intellectually that it is my future in one way or another but it never occurs to me that I’ll be donning the same outfit one day myself. Those “clothes” don’t fit my mental picture of myself. And although the march of time continues to drone on and the days that pass are more like check marks on a growing “to-do” list of accomplishments more than a reality that I eventually need to embrace, I’d rather live in my dream world believing that I and I alone have bathed in the fountain of youth.

I don’t feel older. Most older people that I know feel EXACTLY the same way. Yet, I know I am getting older because the guy looking at me in my mirror has a similarity to someone I know very well, but I still don’t recognize him completely. Even so, deep down in my “denial focused” heart, I know that’s me. I also feel the inevitable pains of the passage of time in the body I have been given as a gift. I wish the Lord would have given me a time table of what to expect as this aspect of my individuality and personhood starts to show wear and tear. It may have been helpful to have a warranty, like that of a car, to know how time much I could expect from my transmission and suspension. My “power train” is still showing some life but the brakes and body are simply not working the way they were originally designed. My problem is that I can’t find a good mechanic who can put slap something new on and give me better performance. All I can do is continue to live day by day with the realization that I’m out of warranty.

The “wheels” of my legs are in need of some serious overhaul…gout has deteriorated my toe joints, old basketball wounds cause my ankles and knees to be looser than is healthy, my shoulders don’t work because of countless swimming and surfing strokes, my skin (as my new dermatologist just told me two weeks ago) will continue to have to be analyzed for “issues” because of all that damn sunlight that I was addicted to for years during my younger days. It takes more work to stay healthy, I have to deny more and more types of food because they are increasingly bad for me, and the piles of vitamins and other medications that I take will soon equal the height of Mt. Everest. I was told a few years back that I couldn’t qualify for a job because I was a “50-year-old white guy” and I know that a few of my resumes have been used for “wastebasket basketball practice” simply because the employer looked at my birth date. Oh, what a world.

Seriously though, it is easy to get old. The hours and days pass gracefully without thought or intentionality. Although I still recognize parts of myself in photos and videos, there is an increasing resignation to the inevitable truth. I guess the issue that bothers me to the most has to do with culture’s worship of the young. Why we do that is beyond me and definitely beyond my pay grade. Other cultures in the world revere those with higher mileage. We in the western world look at a person’s odometer and start to theorize, quantify, and plan on the soon to be obsolescence based upon some mechanistic and utilitarian criteria. I’m getting a new computer this coming year and I realized long ago that electronics manufacturers conspiratorially plotted its demise. I feel like it is just a matter of time before society does the same to me…wise or not, educated or not, vital or not, energetic or not, willingness to produce or not…I’ll still, one day, will be deemed obsolete.

Well, society and culture be damned. I’m going to offer what I can despite the fact that my body is looking more like a melting candle day by day. I still have thoughts that need to be expressed, music that needs to be played, sermons to preach, studies to teach, love to give, laughs to inspire, books that need to be read and gifts that I can share…whether anyone wants to appreciate them will be up to them. I’ve always envied women for culture’s sensitivity to inquiring about a woman’s age. As many of you know, it is wiser to NOT ask a woman how old she is after she has reached adulthood than to do otherwise. I’ve tasted my foot in my mouth more times than I care to admit because I ventured into that forbidden territory. I find myself, when asked, fudging a bit on answering the question, “how old are you?” I was fine saying 40…I’m getting apprehensive about answering with the words, “well, uh, 65.”

But the days keep going by and, as a good book and therapist taught me years ago, its hard and deadly to deny reality. What the coming days hold is in no one else’s hand than a God I know, who loves me and sees my priceless worth. That brings me hope. For the rest of the world, you are just going to have to deal with my fuzzy head hairline, sagging waddle under my chin, and my inability to look more “chiseled” no matter how many workouts I do per week. I’ll be ordering more salads, thank you! And maybe I’ll be drinking a few more glasses of wine because I’d rather celebrate life than whine about it (oh, that was clever, huh?). No matter who assesses what they see in my life, I know many people (at least I think I do) who really don’t care how the culture appraises my life. For many that give my life meaning, they aren’t surprised when some “antique” assessor says I’m not as valuable as they think I am. That’s Ok…my children, grandkids and friends who are walking this journey with me have not put me in some basement or shelf in the garage as of yet. When they do, I guess I’ll just have to accept it and make a home there. After all, I’ve been through, that basement or often ignored shelf won’t be that bad of a home. By then, I’ll probably not be able to walk up the stairs or find the energy or where with all to get off the shelf. Priceless or not, I’m going to be around until my number is up. And that is only in the Lord’s hands…thank goodness.

Wow! Is this needed today! Life-giving words!

1Sometimes you read something that LEAPS off the page (or in this case, the screen).  Here is a devotional featured on Ann Voscamp’s website – so desperately needed!

More Than a Conversation: Discovering the Power in Life-Giving Words by Mark Batterson

During a fragile time in my teenage years, I was given the gift of life-giving words.

I was kneeling at an altar when a missionary put a hand on my shoulder and started praying over me.

Then his prayer turned prophetic: “God is going to use you in a great way.”

It was only one sentence, but I’ve held on to those words through thick and thin. And I’ve tried to flip that blessing by speaking life-giving words to others.

One of the most powerful blessings you can bestow on another person is well-timed words.

Remember the woman who broke open her alabaster jar of perfume and anointed Jesus? Remember the way the Pharisees and the disciples criticized her?

Jesus counteracted their criticism with the gift of life-giving words: “Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).

Can you imagine the way those words buoyed her spirit the rest of her life?

“It’s our job to declare God’s praises and pronounce God’s blessings.”

Those are the kinds of words you have tattooed on your body or inscribed on your tombstone! Jesus blessed her with prophetic words, and they were fulfilled one more time with your reading of them just now.

As children of God and followers of Christ, we assume the mantle of the Old Testament priests who administered the blessing. We are part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)!

It’s our job to declare God’s praises and pronounce God’s blessings.

Blessing and cursing are not compartmentalized biblical concepts. They are two very different ways of life, two very different ways of treating people.

If the transcript of your life were read aloud, what would your words reveal?

How do you talk about people when they aren’t present?

Do you berate them or brag about them behind their backs?

How do you talk to people when they’re present? Do you put them down, or do you look them in the eye and compliment them to their faces?

I have a three-inch-thick file that is filled with kind notes and thoughtful letters that I’ve received from readers of my books and from people I have the privilege of pastoring. Why do I keep them? Because every word of encouragement is a keepsake!

“Every word of encouragement breathes new life into me.”Every word of encouragement breathes new life into me.

In light of the power of words in our lives, does it come as any surprise that the Enemy of our souls is called the Father of Lies and the Accuser of the Brethren?

He speaks lies that can suck the life out of us.

How do we overcome his lies and his accusations? According to the writer of Revelation, we overcome them “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [our] testimony” (Revelation 12:10–11).

At first glance, one of those things is not like the other! I would not put my testimony on par with the precious blood of Christ, but it’s one key to overcoming the Enemy.

Your testimony of God’s work in your life has the power to set other people free!

That’s how powerful your words can be.

“Your testimony of God’s work in your life has the power to set other people free!”
How? Well, if God did it for you, He can do it for them. And if God did it before, He can do it again.

A number of years ago, I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. When we got to Dead Woman’s Pass, I had a throbbing headache caused by oxygen deprivation.

At that elevation, the atmosphere has 37 percent less oxygen.

Fortunately, our guide pulled out a can of pure oxygen. As I inhaled, the headache went away.

Life-giving words are pure oxygen.

The right words at the right time can change everything.

They can even change a life.

Devotional on the Prodigal Son story

1There are many things that could be said and HAVE been said about this story. Out of all the parables that Jesus told, this one has the most “legs” and the most impact. The story itself has spawned countless sermons, bible studies, pieces of art, meditations and devotionals. The fact is that the story strikes home in our hearts in so many manners…it is piercingly true and spiritually incisive. When the Bible talks about the power of God’s Word in the book of Hebrews…that it is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” well, if that definition was in a dictionary with a specific external reference…the prodigal son (aka the “waiting, loving Father” story) story would be in the limelight.

A few things to remember about the story – it comes from the heart of God. It is more about God than us…though its personal impact is immeasurably profound. Jesus was a metaphorical teacher rather than conceptual. He created meaning like an artist and a poet rather than a philosopher or academic. So Jesus’ goal in this story, to encourage those who sense no grace and to challenge those whose pride leads them to believe that they always have to be at the “front of the line,” is masterfully communicated through metaphor and characters to which everyone can relate. One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr, once said that “metaphor is the Only Possible language available to Religion.” He is SO right! Metaphor is “honest” in its approach to mystery, especially spiritual mysteries. Metaphor carries, invariably, MORE meaning, not less. For how else could we explain the essence of the nature of our God except through means that come alive in our imaginations and hearts. Metaphors allow us to reframe, reorganize, and reset the core meanings of our lives again and again. Jesus used parables (which already had a rich history in Judaism) not as a delivery system for an idea but rather as a means to invite readers/hearers to take up residence” in the story.

The Parable of the Lost Son/Parable of the Waiting Father/Parable of the Stubborn Son (Luke 15 is the specific reference) is embedded in Luke’s gospel within a contextual conversation with religious leaders. There were few things that got Jesus’ goad – pride, hypocrisy, spiritual stubbornness and arrogance always touched off in and through Jesus a pointed response and challenge. In Luke 15, Luke tells us as a response to a conversation with those religious leaders, Jesus “machine guns” (rapid-fire, so to speak) three stories…each tells something about who God is and how God acts.

Even though the parable begins simply (verse 11-12, “dad had two sons”), it soon unfolds to the reader that this isn’t some ordinary story. For example, if any middle eastern son in Jesus’ context requested his inheritance from a healthy father, it would have been understood that he was essentially saying, “dad, why don’t you drop dead.” The fact that the father, who had every right to get angry, slap boy in the face and/or drive him out of the house, DIDN’T respond as such would have been shocking to Jesus’ crowd.

Throughout the story, the action of the Dad is breathtaking. The father’s actions are unique and marvelous. It was Jesus’ way to highlight the fact that God’s actions HAVE NOT been performed by any earthy father in the past. It would have been at this point, where there would have been a critical interaction between the storyteller and audience…for the audience is drawn in now. They are no longer objective observers because every one of these people listening to Jesus had very specific ideas of what was right and wrong. For Jesus’ first-century audience, these moves by the son were powerful and repulsive. But I want you to understand…the reason they are repulsive isn’t because the son breaks the law (Torah) but rather because he broke relationship (with the father). You see, “sin” is not necessarily something that perpetrated against a hard, cold law. Sin is something that damages relationship (with God and others – greatest commandment NOT to keep commandments but to LOVE God and others). There is no doubt that the son is a lawbreaker, but what was really offensive and unthinkable was what the son had done to his family and community. That’s why the acceptance of the father of his wayward son is so poignant and transformative. The son’s actions went right to the core of his most basic relationships…he betrayed trust; he turned his back on love and acceptance; the prodigal is a prodigal because a relationship is broken and, until the dramatic action of the father, bound to lead to personal shame and destruction.

Then starting in verse 20, the dad, who is the real focal point of the story, begins to act and his actions change not only one boy’s young life but the rest of human history. The dad sees his broken son at a great distance. He’s been out there, on street looking…why? Because he knows once his son sets foot in town, he WILL BE badly treated (and rightly so) by the village. Yet, dad has a plan…to reach the kid before he sets foot in village and protect him from harm and shame. Jesus’ point is remarkably clear – the person from which you would expect judgment demonstrates just the opposite – compassion. “Compassion” in Greek and Hebrew is a “GUT WORD”…it arises deep from within the character and nature of an individual…in this case, our God! The intimacy of an embrace, the initiating of loving acceptance…all this played out IN PUBLIC, has HUGE implications for how we understand God. Friends, God’s love is public. It is not just a private, “me and Jesus” thing. The cross and empty tomb are public truths. It is all the story of God’s public mission to unveil the mysteries of His will and love to us through Jesus (see Ephesians 1 for more). Jesus is saying, “this is what God does”…the father in the story moves from his house onto the street (image of incarnation); he seeks the lost and hurt one (image of humiliation and identification with brokenness (see c.f. Philippians 2 – “emptied himself…”) and restores those lost and damage to full inheritance as sons and daughters. The parable is a metaphor is about God – HIS nature – HIS action toward you and me. It is about His love, a COSTLY love…a love is that is poured all over the son even before the son makes a confession. You see, the love of the father was there before the son departed, while the son was gone and especially during the son’s restoration. Paul once wrote in Ephesians 2 – “you were once far off, NOW you have been brought near by Jesus.” Friends, God’s love is VISIBLE…it is tangible. It is not just a feeling but something that is palatable and meant for you today! Not just so that you’ll know of love but that your identity will be restored as a beloved child of the King. This is a story of HUGE love – not love pressed and contained in time..but timeless and eternal and personal love for you and me. Will you let that love restore you where you are in these very moments? Yes, it is easy to question the core of who you are…we all mess up and we easily fall into the trash bin of our own self-condemnation. We question our identity as children of the Heavenly King…we question His care…we doubt His love. But the love of OUR Lord looks down the dust-filled streets of our wayward choices and actions…Jesus keeps seeking after you when the best you can muster is a desire to trade in your inheritance as a beloved child for the pittance of the pigpens of life. You don’t have to look for God’s love out in the distance…for Jesus comes to you with costly love. His embrace is one that can transform even the hardest of hearts and the most stubborn of wills. His love melts the resistant soul and breaks the bonds of the presumption of our own goodness. It is the love of Jesus that is reaching out to you today, ready to put a ring on your finger, cover you with a robe of righteousness that you can’t achieve on your own and throw for you the biggest feast in the history of the cosmos. Remember? God so loved…that “so loved” is meant for you! Open your hands and heart and receive it again this very moment!

More isn’t Better!

1More isn’t better – It’s exhausting and counter-productive

The editor of a GREAT blog started “thinking out loud” and, in the process, requested a bit more from a reply that I posted to “Volunteers Wanted.” This issue has been the story of much of my professional life in the Church.  Without bringing up at all any thoughts regarding the differentiation between “volunteers” and those using their gifts in ministry as an expression of their unique Kingdom calling, I’ll wade into the invitational waters.

I never thought I would say this much less write it, but I’ve lived a good majority of my 65 years of life involved in some manner or form of “Church.”  From parachurch ministries to outdoor ministries…from small congregational ministries to what used to be regarded as “large” church settings.  Thanks to the Lord, I’ve never had the opportunity to live my Kingdom life within the sphere of the megachurch.  There is a part of me that cringes simply imagining the intensity of financial and organizational pressure that goes along with the management of any large “company.”  As a “churchworld” (I’ll define that term below) leader, my responsibilities have ranged from that which would be regarded by some as the sphere of the Senior Pastor to the leadership of a plethora of “sub-ministries” including children’s, youth, music, small groups, leadership and theological/biblical development.  So, in regard to this issue of “Volunteerism” and what it takes these days to not only “do” ministry but enable and equip Jesus following people to be responsive to the call of God upon their lives, I’ve had my share of experience.

I must say that I’ve made some drastic, strategic and, in my mind, God-honoring changes in my ministry philosophy over the past two decades.  Much of those changes have occurred because of witnessing the futility and counter-productivity of the “more is better” mentality.  I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. We operated under with the mindset that the “calendar HAD to be full.”  Subsequently, it was.  It wasn’t simply the fact that I was out of my home probably five to six out of seven nights per week, but we constantly felt the overwhelming pressure as leaders to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved. The key aspect of the previous phrase is “pressure people”…and, trust me, that’s what happened.  When Christendom ruled, the belief stood that the Church should be the center of life.  And, in some respects, Christendom did appropriately draw one’s faith journey into a rich life of worship, fellowship, and encouragement in faithfulness. Yet what has occurred over time as many Christians have bemoaned Christendom’s demise is that a form of institutional tyranny arose in its place.  The Church was no longer the center of culture, so Church people formed a hybrid (more of a mutation) of Christendom to take its place – something I call, “churchworld.”  When I talk about “churchworld” I am attempting to put into approachable language some way to clarify the overwhelming, insatiable “hunger” of religious institutionalism to demand the whole of a person’s life and attention.  “Churchworld” is one-part theme park and one-part assembly line…one part “money pit” and one-part shopping mall.  It is built upon the values of consumerism and utilitarianism – in other words, how can we get the most out of people in order to give back to people what we perceive they need.  In my humble opinion, that’s what “churchworld” does…just as the price of a ticket to any Disney park has insanely and prohibitively increased in cost for day’s excursion, so has the “cost” in time, energy, money, and “personnel” of feeding the demands of “churchworld.”  My wife and I have adult children that are involved in “churchworld” ministries.  They constantly give witness to the increasing demands for the totality of their lives to be focused on sustaining the institution’s strategy of ministry.  They have shared with me the fact that many people who are their friends in the Lord have made it a habit to leave churches after a year or so simply because of the increasing burdens and demands of involvement.  Once involved in feeding the “beast,” it is hard to back away graciously without risking the subsequent woes and grief given by overwhelmed staff.  I would never coin myself as a predictive prophecy individual, yet it doesn’t take much forethought to see the coming fall of “churchworld.”  One of my favorite authors, John Kavanaugh compares Ancient Rome’s adherence to “bread and circus” (the book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society; John Drane says the same in his books on the McDonaldization of the Church) to that of “churchworld’s” fascination with entertainment and feeding/attracting the masses.

Contrast that experience with what happened in my life as a leader and fellow disciple when I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion and sense of calling for that ministry.  Some call this ministry strategy, “Organic.”  Truthfully, that kind of language aptly describes what occurs in reality.  The kingdom of God that Jesus described is viral, organic and, by nature, a movement.  It grows where no apparent strategy or potential can be found…and it lives, not by human energy and ingenuity, but by spiritual mystery.  In the organic ministry realm, we are much more apt to be praising God for his leadership and fruitfulness in people’s lives than praising ourselves for the plethora of activities that we can effectively manage and multiply by sheer effort and relational intimidation.  Personally, I found so much freedom living as a living “organism.”  With that mindset, with a renewed embrace of the dynamic spiritual nature of the Body of Christ, I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul.  For example, in my current congregational setting, we have a few teenagers who would benefit from a good youth ministry program.  Now, I could for a ministry team, hire a youth worker and build an entire infrastructure to handle that ministry need…that’s the programmatic approach.  Even so, we have no one in the church who is sensing the “call” of God to form another program.  In the past, I would have beaten down people in an attempt to build another program.  I chose not to do that.  Instead, I called a pastor friend of mine who leads another church in town.  They have an amazing youth ministry program and have built a solid ministry strategy to disciple teens.  I talked to the pastor; told him I was interested in “investing” the kids in our church into their youth ministry program.  I felt that partnership was more important than simply duplicating what is happening right down our street (so to speak).  I talked to the parents of the teens, the youth themselves and now they are loving what God is doing in their lives as they participate in that other church’s ministry.  Some might say, “well, aren’t you fearful that you will lose that family to that other church?”  No, I’m not and if they did leave, I would bless them on their way.  I’m not going to try to be “all things to all people” any longer.  I’m not going to fear ministry partnerships…in fact, I want so desperately to affirm them.

Church, at least in what I read in the New Testament, has more to do with organic living than most people want to admit.  I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about 1/2 of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier. The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. This explains why Jesus did not ask us to go and “make gatherings or churches or home groups or…”  He did not ask us to go and “make house churches.”  He said, “go and make disciples.”  Discipling viral disciplers is the end game.  This places YOU and ME squarely in the midst of reproductive life that the kingdom is intrinsically about.  We become movement-starters, not church-starters.  We release disciples who will influence the world throughout their lifetime and beyond.  When we start “churches, communities, meetings, etc.”, our focus tends to be on the communal gathering—what to do, how to do it, what it looks like, etc.  We may say to ourselves that we are learning to “be” the church but often our priority remains on developing the structure/form/institution.  When following Jesus and inviting others to follow him becomes our focus (discipling viral disciples), we have to shift from the “gathering” mentality to the “lifestyle-going” mentality.  This shift will propel us from being church-starters to movement starters (where churches and gatherings spring up along the way).

One more thought  – consider “wiki-based ministry.”   In other words, I desire to build a “Collaboration based” ministry environment. I believe that God is active in EVERY person so that our community creates meaning – our ministry partnership is a reflection of a descriptive process with no prescribed meaning; we fix us, no experts are needed; leadership teams and pastors are good but only one of the gifts of community.  We believe in a distinctly relational ecclesiology.  That is organic…that is a celebration of less is more.

For more information on Ministry Dynamics and Organic Systems – download a document here.

 

 

Re-post – “Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women? (Musings on Science and Theology, thanks!)

Here’s a great post that I, essentially, “borrowed.”  Musings on Science and Theology is an awesome blog that regularly reviews books and articles that impact contemporary Christianity.  This article is worthy of your attention…most of the culture, in my opinion, is not asking this question…this is a question I hear more from WITHIN the Church than outside of it.  I think the culture “gets” the idea of equality (in fact, culture fights for equality).  The Church?  Now that’s another story.  There are ALL sorts of subtle and blatant issues in the Church regarding misogyny and keeping “women in their place”…which primarily means out of key leadership and “submissive” within marriage.  That’s why this article is worthy of your attention.  In addition, the author actually “takes on” the book he is reviewing for NOT going far enough when it comes to our mutual “submission” to each other in Christ.  But you can read that for yourself…

hans_memling_-_triptych_of_jan_crabbe_-_wga14810Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?
How can you be a Christian?

In my experience there are three big subtexts to this question these days, science, women, and sexuality. Other questions are important as well … but these are the showstoppers.

How can you be a Christian when it is antiscience, oppresses women, and is homophobic?

Rebecca McLaughlin addresses these as seven, eight, and nine in her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion….

The short answer to the second question doesn’t Christianity denigrate women? is a resounding no. Christianity might not go as far as some in our culture today would like, but it certainly does not denigrate women. Women play important roles in many places throughout Scripture. I’ve highlighted a wide selection of these in several posts – most recently A Look at Biblical Womanhood and Women of the New Testament.

Rebecca emphasizes the way women are portrayed in the Gospels to make the point.

The portrayal of women in the Gospels – particularly in Luke’s Gospel – is stunningly countercultural. Luke constantly pairs men with women, and when he compares the two, it is almost always in the woman’s favor. Before Jesus’ birth, two people are visited by the angel Gabriel and told they are going to become parents. One is Zechariah who becomes John the Baptist’s father. The other is Jesus’ mother Mary. Both ask Gabriel how this can be. But while Zechariah is punished with months of dumbness for his unbelief, Mary is only commended. (p. 136)

The pairings continue – with Simeon and Anna, the lost coin and the lost sheep, the parable of the persistent widow followed by the pharisee and the tax collector. The Twelve were all male – but for the most part, the segregation stops there. Women were with Jesus and involved in his ministry from beginning to end, at the cross, the first at the empty tomb. And turning to Acts, they were with the apostles in Jerusalem where … They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (1:14)

Many of the first converts in Acts or mentioned in Paul’s letters are women, important for the prominent roles they play … Junia, Lydia, Priscilla among them.

There is a reason why women are heavily represented in the church today and throughout history. For all the human failings that crop up from time to time, women acknowledged as equal before God. “Jesus’s valuing of women in unmistakable. In a culture in which women were devalued and often exploited, it underscores their equal status before God and his desire for personal relationship with them.” (p. 138)

Paul puts it succinctly in Gal. 3:26-29: So in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This is powerful stuff.

But then we come to marriage. Here Rebecca and I part ways, slightly. This isn’t surprising in a book published by Crossway and TGC. She looks at Ephesians 5:21-33 (below) and focuses on the metaphor. “Ultimately, my marriage isn’t about me and my husband any more than Romeo and Juliet is about the actors playing the title roles.” (p. 140) and later “Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology.” (p. 141) Here is the point as I paraphrase it – when we play our proper roles in marriage we are enacting the metaphor and mirroring God to the world. Women submit as to God and husbands love as Christ.

But read the passage below. Is this really about enacting a metaphor? I would suggest that the first line interprets the whole. It is about mutual submission in a partnership before God that revolutionizes relationships. Paul uses a metaphor that illustrates the truly revolutionary nature of our relationships in Christ. Throughout history, husbands have generally been the ones with power and have often exercised it for their own benefit and women have often resorted to nagging and subterfuge (a kind of revolt) to assert and strengthen their own positions. I rather expect that this was as true in the first century Greek and Roman world as at any other time in history. But in the Christian message, this should all go out the window along with many other human failings. Positions of power should be exercised on behalf of the others involved, and this includes the husband’s role toward the wife. The socially acceptable practice of women gossiping about and undermining their husbands is no better than practice of autocratic authority.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. … However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

No mere human truly stands in the place of Christ. But we are all called to follow his lead. Marriage isn’t about authority and submission. When the topper question is “who gets the last word?” the focus is entirely wrong.

But on this Rebecca and I both agree. The command to follow Christ does not denigrate women, in fact, it empowers and promotes women in ways that are more often than not revolutionary in the surrounding culture.

Much more could be said. Rebecca has a discussion of abortion and sexual freedom, both issues where Christianity is said to denigrate women. And she does not really touch on the questions surrounding women in ministry. But this is a good start.