"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hungry Shepherds

 

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Shepherds must be dear in God’s heart. They certainly have a special place in his book. Jesus described himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Secure in the crook of his arm, he declares that no man can snatch them away. Many of us are used to the beautiful paintings of Jesus, strong and tender, watching the flocks or carrying a lost lamb back to the fold.

The realities of being a shepherd were far from lovely. They lived apart from the cities, those who did not fit in. No doubt about it, they smelled like the sheep they cared for. Uneducated, not considered the portals of God’s news by anyone around them, yet they were the ones God chose to receive the great news.  Of all people—shepherds were the first to hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Another in a series of paradoxes, the good news of great joy came to those at the bottom of the social structure of their time.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Luke 2:8-15 New International Version (NIV)

Born to uneducated teenage parents in an out of the way town they did not live in, a birth of questionable circumstances, in a stable, a manger for a bed. Then came this announcement to social misfits in the middle of nowhere. Today, the births of princes are photographed, bathed in beautiful light, everyone scrubbed clean and airbrushed, so easy to love. But when God came close to us, he did so in a particularly unattractive place and in the most unexpected way.

Mary hinted at God’s surprising ways in her response to the angel who told her she would give birth to the Son of God: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away hungry”( Luke 1:53).

Not far away, priests lay in their warm soft beds, satisfied with their own piety and proud of their knowledge and positions. They were full of themselves. Too full, perhaps, to hear the word of the Lord. The shepherds, hungry and cold in the night, eyes searching the heavens as they had so many times before, looking and listening for God knows what, were filled that night. We know they received the word because of their response—“Let’s go see!”

When the baby became a man, he taught the principles of an inverted kingdom–blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled. There are many ways of being full of ourselves these days. Educated, affluent, comfortable in our soft beds, distracted by a million shiny objects, we risk missing what God wants to say to us. Our lives are not about these comforts or accomplishments but, are meant to be about a relationship with the Prince of Peace. Are you hungry for him? He longs to fill you.

 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Being Light

The recent release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was heralded by trailers, actor interviews, airport events and press releases. Unless you were living off the grid, you knew the movie was coming. When any major event is about to take place, publicity agents make sure it will not go unnoticed. Several months in advance they begin sounding the trumpet to herald the arrival of their “baby,” their project.  Their job is to make sure we know the event is coming. Whether or not we attend is entirely up to us.

The arrival of baby Jesus was not unannounced or unexpected. The prophets of the Old Testament had long predicted his coming…he who would offer salvation and eternal peace to the nation of Israel and the whole world. John the Baptist, as a contemporary of Jesus, was the last prophet to announce his coming, and even John was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:2-3).   John knew his place relative to the Messiah he announced, saying that he would not be worthy to untie his sandals.  Whether people accepted the message or not was not about John.  Rather, it was about Jesus, whom he foretold. To reject the announcement was to reject Jesus, not John the messenger.

The presence and purpose of Jesus is hardly a secret in the world today. He is not unannounced or unexpected. We have many witnesses to him—the record of his life and ministry found in scripture, the sacrificial lives of the apostles and martyrs who knew him personally and were willing to die for the truth of his message, millions of lives changed by the work of his Spirit in and through ordinary broken people—yet not all accept him. We who believe in him and trust him for our now and future redemption are also called to be his witnesses. While we are not all given the gift of evangelist, we are all given the charge to evangelize.

Jesus taught his followers to be light in a dark world where it is easy to get lost. The witness of most believers is not preaching to those around us rather, it is the way we do life. The work of the Holy Spirit enables us to love in ways that we could not otherwise (persevering, forgiving, hoping, believing the best, never giving up…). These are often stronger witnesses than dramatic gifts or eloquent words.  He spoke to the inevitability of our witness in his usual clear and simple language—no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, the purpose of the lamp is to spread light to the entire room. As his followers, we are the lamp intended to light the rooms of life we inhabit.

Please accept this reminder that there is never a time when we are not to be that light for others. There is no encounter—even a non-verbal one—that does not count for the Kingdom.  The woman who holds up the line in the department store, the man who cuts you off in traffic, the difficult person in the workplace, all are in need of his light—an unexpected response from us that stops them in their tracks. It is not us people accept or reject—the gospel is not about us—but  Jesus, the one we are witnesses to.

 “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” John 1:4
 
 

Monday, December 9, 2013

God With Us

There are many things we take for granted in the United States. We can go to a market and choose from an abundance of foods and products. The biggest challenge for most Americans at Christmas is finding a gift another person can use, not because of limited products rather, because most people already have far more stuff than they need.

Spiritually, those of us in the church take a lot for granted as well. Under the Old Testament covenants, a lot was conditional (e.g.,God's covenant with Israel to stay in the Land). God was, more often than not, hidden behind a thick veil, interceded with only by the Levitical priests under specific conditions at preordained times of the year. This was what people were used to. Certainly they could pray to God, but he was, it was assumed, distant.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy, outlining the 14 generations between Abraham and David, the 14 generations between David and the Exile, and the 14 generations between the Exile and the birth of Christ. Matthew seems to be pointing to the divine hand that set the stage for the unlikely story that follows:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).
Matthew 1:18-23

It is the last phrase we are likely to take for granted these days: "God with us." No longer hidden by a mist at the top of a mountain or behind a veil, thick and tall, in the holiest part of a tabernacle, God came near in the form of an infant, born to unlikely teenagers under scandalous circumstances, and was laid in a filthy stable. You have heard it so many times that its impact probably escapes you.

Think of it this way: Where would you be if this now "old news" event had not taken place? What if God had chosen (he had every right) to remain remote and distant, relationship unobtainable for all but a very few  Spirit filled  patriarchs, prophets and, kings? Where would you be if God had not come near in the babe in the stable?

Once in a while, I step from a steamy shower and grab a freshly laundered towel and I say, "Thank you God, for this blessing." I am not entitled to comforts or blessings or a relationship with the King of the Universe. But these blessings are mine. Some will pass away, but one blessing will remain forever:  God with us.

 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Joyful Greetings

When I run into someone who has been a friend for some time, it is not unusual, when we part, for him or her to say something like: "Say hi to Mary for me." So it is not unusual for us to exchange "parting greetings." So did Paul typically send along greetings as he closed a letter to a church. His letter to the church in Philippi is no exception:

"Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with  me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen." Philippians 4:21-23

Unlike some current approaches to Christianity that build a hierarchical structure, in Paul's letters all true believers (followers of Christ) are considered saints. So when he says "greet all the saints," he is basically instructing the recipients to greet all the believers in their town. The same is true of all the brothers and saints who are with him, who send greetings to the saints in Philippi. The reference to Caesar's household might well refer to literal family members of the family of Caesar that Paul has witnessed to during his imprisonment. No wonder Paul could say that his current situation had advanced the gospel of Christ. As usual, Paul gave great prominence to the grace of Jesus Christ as he closed his letter, "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit."

It is always a temptation to skim opening and closing comments in these letters. In doing so, we run the risk of losing some nuggets. Paul's all inclusive language is not accidental, I suspect. I think it fits in, and enhances, his message of unity and joy to the Philippian church. The letter is not only to a pastor, or the elders, or to certain hand-picked individuals who were somehow special or superior. Rather, it was from all the saints to all the saints. The implication is simple and profound...we are all the same. All who come to Jesus are in need of the same grace for salvation and sanctification (Philippians 1:4-6).

When we lose sight of these things, hierarchies develop, people develop superior attitudes and become judgmental about inconsequential things. When our focus is all about Jesus and the things he brings to us, peace, joy, and unity reign in our hearts, in our relationships, and in the body of Christ. This does not happen automatically or without some intentional effort on our parts, but the Holy Spirit assists us to do his will in the work of unity.

So, friends, readers, brothers and sisters, saints, we close this letter with Paul. We have looked at every verse together over the last several months. As you continue to reflect on the book of Philippians, I am certain that the Spirit will show you deeper and deeper understanding, insight and application of these joyous truths. That's what he does, because he loves us so. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all, no exceptions. Amen

 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fragrant Offerings

Sometimes when I am out and about, usually when I am overdue for lunch or dinner, I catch the aroma of delicious food cooking. Winter nights leaving the office, I smell the medley of restaurants downtown, or walking the dogs in the summer, the fragrances of barbeques in the neighborhood envelop me. Then there are the non-food related pleasures of sweet honeysuckle, pine, roses and Colorado rain bringing the evergreen and sage into the valley as an unexpected gift. I count these as gifts from God and, I thank him for them.

In the early church, people were acquainted with the offerings involved in various religions, both pagan and Jewish. No doubt the fragrant offerings from the temple were a part of their lives, even if they were not Jews. So Paul's expression of appreciation to them made perfect sense to them:

"I am amply supplied now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, and acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen" Philippians 4:18-20

It is important to remember, occasionally, that Paul was writing from prison. So, when he speaks of all his needs being amply supplied. it is a testimony to his ability to be content in any and every circumstance (4:11-13). How many of us would feel that God was meeting all our needs under these circumstances? But Paul's focus was not personal comfort or gain (the values embraced even in the church these days), rather to have the resources to spread the gospel as far as possible in his lifetime. Apparently God met these needs a little at a time, repeatedly demonstrating his provision. That believers were God's instruments and the conduits of these fragrant offerings was a blessing to them and to Paul. As they were generous with what God provided, their gifts rose back to God with the sweet aroma of grace.

Paul gives the lesson back to them. Just as God has met all his needs, God will meet all their needs as well. Note that needs and luxuries are two different things entirely. Food, clothing, shelter, and resources to give back to the Kingdom of God...These are needs. God is not challenged by meeting our needs, but does so out of his glorious riches. (Advertising is very good at persuading us that we "need" a lot of other things, and I see this as a friendly attack on our focus and our faith.)

Paul's perspective was one of God's faithfulness to meet his real needs. He saw God's faithfulness in any and every circumstance, and he had some terrible ones to endure. The principle here, to boil it down to its basic elements is this: when your life is all about God, you never have reason to despair. Everything else in this life is temporary (sand) but, he is the Rock upon which to build the purpose of your life. So the closing statement to this paragraph is a natural conclusion: All the glory goes to God our Father for ever and ever. Amen!

 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Cycle of Joy

In the 70's there was a trend in Bible studies (before they were tagged as "small groups" or "life groups"). This new facet was a sign of the times, and it was called "sharing." Truthfully, I am not sure whether it grew out of group therapy or the other way around (I was not involved in the counseling field until the mid-80's). The idea was, everyone had a perspective to contribute. I call it a sign of the times because American society was drifting away from authority (and absolutes) and into individuality, and subjective interpretations and applications.

In the New Testament, sharing has an entirely different meaning. In the early church, each shared according to his or her ability. What set this apart from a socialist state was the voluntary, from-the- heart, aspect of their giving. It was motivated by the Holy Spirit, not by the strong arm of government. Many of Paul's letters include statements of gratitude that the churches he knew and loved shared in his ministry. Such statements are found in his (nearly) closing statements to the church in Philippi:

" I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed you have been concerned but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances...Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out form Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.  Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account." Philippians 4: 10-11; 14-17

Paul found joy in the expression of their concern for him. Apparently this was practical, tangible support as he speaks to his contentment in the material realm (under any circumstances). He has not forgotten earlier days when the Philippians stood alone in their support of him. Interestingly, Paul's maturity shows in that his joy is not in what he has received from them so much as the rewards they will receive for their generosity. They shared in his troubles, they shared in his financial burden, and they will share as well in whatever " may be credited to their account." Such is the nature of Paul's love for the church: he always has their best interest at heart and he is joyful that they will now share in the benefits of giving from gracious hearts. This is not a prosperity doctrine, rather, it is an example of selfless living which finds its reward in the knowledge that God is pleased.

A consistent theme in this book about rejoicing is the focus on God and others. Paul appreciates their gift, and acknowledges it was good of them to give it. He is most excited, though, about what they will receive in the process. This may be eternal reward or spiritual maturity or both (I wonder if they are so different, really).

The cycle we can observe here looks something like this: Jesus laid down his life for us; Paul responded by laying down his life for others (for Christ's sake); others responded to their own opportunities for selfless living; Paul rejoiced and Christ was both pleased and glorified.

These are keys to the Kingdom. We do not earn salvation by good works but, we respond to salvation by good works. We want to please the One who laid his life down for us. Others are blessed and respond in kind and on and on. It is the reverse of cultural values to amass wealth and possessions as the meaning and measure of success. By asking, "How can I be truly helpful?" and, "Does it please God?' we find joy in sharing each other's burdens, triumphs and rewards. The paradox is that to find joy we give it to another. In order to do so, we need to take Jesus at his word when he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Bringing It Home

One of the developments in conveying a message has been the use of multimedia presentations. It is no longer optimal for a speaker to just stand up and talk to an audience. Now we expect to engage more of our senses--we will also see beautiful images projected on large screens, we will hear and sing words which are hopefully congruent with the message, we may see relevant poignant or humorous videos to engage our emotions--all carefully planned to bring the message home to our hearts and lives.

Long before the age of multimedia presentations, Paul invited the members of the Philippian church to think about all the ways his message (of the gospel; of right thinking resulting in peace and unity) had been set before them:

"Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:9

They had been taught and learned these things from Paul. This intellectual grasp, while not the whole enchilada, was a good start. At least (he assumes) they had paid attention and understood the message. They had also received it.  Today we may speak of "receiving Christ," meaning we have accepted the message and believe that his sacrifice was sufficient to redeem us. The Philippians had received Paul's message, as they listened, understood and embraced it. When we receive a thing we call it our own. In the same way, the Philippians had "owned" the message. They had not only heard the message from Paul, but they had seen it in him. The way he lived his life matched what he taught. Paul, though mature, was still a fallible human being. Part of what they had seen in him was a full acknowledgment of his weaknesses, his need for grace and forgiveness, and his dogged determination to forget the past (even the recent past) and press on to the fulfillment of all Christ had in mind for him.

Multimedia presentations are fine. Now that we understand the various ways that people learn and imitate things, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using that understanding to enhance the way we present things. As we do so, it is very important that we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Word to life in the hearts of believers. It is equally important that our walk match our talk.

It is not enough to lecture people about right thinking and living. I believe this is part of what the book of James is talking about when it says that teachers will undergo a stricter judgment. People are right in expecting us to live out what we teach, though imperfectly. In humility, if we seek forgiveness and grace when we falter, we are still teaching by example. We are showing others how to follow Jesus, stumbling and getting back up again and again, forgiving others as we ourselves need ongoing forgiveness, and choosing to train our minds to dwell on all that is good, righteous, pure, true, excellent and praiseworthy.

Walk in what you profess to believe.  Teach truth and love well. Cling to the God of peace who is with you always.

 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Adding On

I have watched with interest the expansion of our local theater here in Montrose, Colorado. As the stockpile of props and properties has grown, the organization had considered relocation but opted for adding on. Sometimes good things can be improved.

 
So it was with Paul's message to the Philippians. He had patiently built a case for love, joy, and unity among them (rooted in their relationship with God through Jesus Christ). He had just given them the take-away: Always rejoice, live gently, trade anxiety for a trusting, grateful relationship with God, and enjoy the resulting peace. Now he gives them some additional advice:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4:8

Long before Albert Ellis coined the terminology "cognitive restructuring," the Word of God was teaching that the thoughts we nurture manifest themselves in our emotions, behaviors, and lives. Here Paul is offering some very specific guidance for peace and unity with God and one another. Today we might say, "look at the bright side." Actually Paul's commands (not to be confused with mere suggestions) go deeper than a sunny outlook because they are rooted in reality, not wishful thinking.

What is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy is, quite simply: Jesus. There are times his glory breaks through the cracks in our jars of clay. When this happens, we can take joy in the evidence of his reality, and of his presence and work in us and in one another. In this way, we believe, not in what we are, but in all we can become in the transforming power of Christ's Spirit of holiness.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Take-Away

A common expression these days is to ask, “What is the take-away?” at the end of a meeting, session, or conference. By this we mean to say, what is the lesson to take with me as I go? The implications have to do with how I will be changed, and consequently, how will my life be different. Nearing the end of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul begins to summarize his take-away message of love and joy to them:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

Paul seems to be saying: “Here is the take-away: Always rejoice. I can’t say it enough: Rejoice!” Certainly joy in the Lord (different from circumstantial or self-focused happiness) is the predominant theme of the letter. Circumstances change, we even let ourselves down, but the love and grace of Jesus Christ is unchanging. Our promises in him are sure and, we can count on him. In him we have relationship now and for eternity! Looking forward to seeing him face to face overshadows our trials, conflicts and problems here below.

The implications of such joy include the ability to demonstrate gentleness (controlled strength). A lack of gentleness is evidence of a need to control things and people. When we are mindful that Jesus is near and coming to bring everything under his benevolent control, we can relax and be gentle. Gentleness is patient and its goal is restoration, as in Galatians 6:1 where Paul taught that if we find someone in a sin, a spiritual one should go to that person in order to restore him gently, taking care not to fall into sin (such as pride) himself.

Another implication of rejoicing is that we do not go on being anxious as the tense of the verb more accurately describes in the Greek. Of course we will experience some anxiety, as did Paul and every human before and since. As with lust, we can’t keep a bird from flying over our head, but we can keep it from building a nest in our hair. When we become aware of anxiousness we can pray and petition (ask) for God’s help, with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving blesses God and it changes our perspectives and hearts. We are reminded of all we already have in God through Christ, and our focus shifts from the perceived empty half of the glass. We realize that our glass is not even merely half full…it overflows!

Paul has a little more to say in terms of the take-away, but for today please grab hold of this. These principles (joy, patient gentleness, peace) arise from an eternal perspective which leaves behind the petty differences we allow to build walls between us. We are reminded of the view from above and, from there, standing shoulder to shoulder, we see indescribable and inexplicable peace!
 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Focused Fellowship

The word fellowship has many meanings. In the church today, it is most often understood to mean a time or opportunity for social interaction. During this time, we get to know one another: career, kids, marriage, geographical background, and the rest of the demographic data. We may discover that we share common interests or passions (fishing, sports, arts and crafts, music). Fellowship in the New Testament, however, had more to do with spiritual agreement and common missions or goals. This sharing of beliefs, goals and missions with our fellows (those around us) became what we call fellowship. The Greek, koinonia means, “ what we have in common,” usually in a spiritual sense.


Having reminded the Philippians of the foundation upon which they can now stand firm, Paul’s argument now finds direct and practical application in the fellowship of those in the church:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Philippians 4:2-3 (italics mine).

Paul reminds them of their fellowship with him, as yokefellows and fellow workers, and that their mission and goals have eternal importance and outcome; their names are in the book of life. In light of these things, and the foundation upon which they stand firm, it is not only possible but necessary that they “agree with one another in the Lord” and that devoted brothers in Christ do what they can to help this agreement along.

Being human, it is entirely too easy for us to focus on our areas of disagreement, our individual preferences and our personality clashes. These things, Paul implies, are unimportant in comparison with what we do have in common: Jesus died to give us eternal life and unity in him, and he is coming again to bring all things under his benevolent control.

When I am tempted to harbor resentment or to fantasize about vindication, I sometimes imagine Jesus walking into the room and settling in beside me. As he looks into my eyes and heart, I am not proud of what he sees there—all the more when he literally comes to the earth again and we see him resurrected and in the flesh! I sincerely doubt that our superficial differences will amount to much at that point. This is what it means to “agree with one another in the Lord.” As we focus on what (and whom) we have in common, we see the trivia for what it is and leave it behind. We press forward, following the example of Paul, to the fulfillment of all that Christ has for us, individually and as the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Stand Firm in Joy


Having just reminded the people of Philippi of his own example of dedication to the gospel of Christ, his own willingness to grow (having not yet achieved all Christ has for him), pressing on toward the goal to win the prize, the Apostle Paul enjoins them to follow his example. Their citizenship is, after all, in heaven. They are to join him in eagerly awaiting the return of their savior Jesus Christ. The capstone of this discourse is welded in with strong affection:

“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” Philippians 4:1

Those reading (or hearing) this letter, are people he considers his brothers. There is an enduring bond between them. Friends come and go, but family remains—that’s the idea here. Their relationship is no passing phase. They are bound together, not just for life, but for eternity.  Paul goes on to say that he both loves and longs for them. The ties that bind them together are so strong that he misses them when they are geographically separated. As if that were not enough, he calls them “my joy and my crown”. Joy, by now is a resounding theme in this letter to the Philippians, in which it has come to mean: rejoicing in our eternal relationship with Christ regardless of our current circumstances. Crown is a greek word stephanos often translated as reward or blessing, and is the root word for the name Stephen.  If all these endearments seem over the top to the modern mind (way to cool and sophisticated for our own good), then we will really wonder why he feels the need to end the exhortation with the words “dear friends!”

Paul is such a study of character transformation!  When we first see him in the book of Acts, he is full of zeal and full of himself. He was born and raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, a Jew of Jews by heritage and education. He had plenty of reasons to be proud, and was so sure of his position and training that he stood by in clear conscience, holding the coats of those stoning Stephen and others (did this occur to Paul as he called the Philippians his stephanos?). He literally breathed threats toward followers of Christ and wanted to obliterate this assumed heresy from the earth…Until the day he encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. This encounter stopped him dead in his tracks and sent him full speed 180 degrees in the opposite direction. He became zealous for the gospel of Christ. Walking with Christ, his passion was tempered and guided by spiritual (agape) love. It is this love that binds him to his mission, to pour himself out for the bride of Christ at virtually any cost. And it bursts forth, unashamedly, in these words: “my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, dear friends!”

Tied up tenderly in this bundle of affectionate words is the reminder that they are to stand firm. They have seen his example, and they are aware of others who are enemies to the gospel of Christ. Their choice is clear, all the more so because they are citizens, not of this world, but of heaven. A savior is coming from there, so they are to live in eager anticipation of him. 

These are the ways they (and we) can stand firm: follow the example of Paul (and other faithful followers of Jesus); remember that this earth is not your home; eagerly expect to see Jesus face to face.; lean into one another with strong affection. This perspective causes all other illusions of what this world is about to dissolve, as we together find our foundation on the solid Rock of the gospel and promises of Christ.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Chutes and Ladders

There is a well-known board game that involves ladders and slides. At any point in the game you are at peril of landing on the top of a slide and ending up at the bottom of the board again. You literally have to start over.

When we experience setbacks, we people have a tendency to say things like, “I just went back to square one.”  I like to remind myself (and others) that it is really not possible, short of a brain injury, to lose what you have learned. You might lose sight of it for a while, you might temporarily forget it, or you might go through seasons of doubt, but you cannot really “unknow” a thing you’ve learned. This is especially true when the Holy Spirit teaches us something. It is there to stay and he will remind us if we are listening to him.

So it is important to learn to sort between what we feel and what we believe. I might feel discouraged or frustrated about my lack of progress in a certain area, while still believing that God will finish his work in me

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  (Phil. 1:6)

So, on tough days, I acknowledge the feelings, I express them to God through prayer or letter writing, and then I choose to focus on what I believe. We see this pattern in the Psalms. First, David describes a seemingly hopeless and incredibly unfair circumstance. Then he concludes by saying, in effect, but I know I will praise God again for his undying faithfulness. Even emotional, passionate David eventually turns back to his faith in the trustworthy nature of God. The result is that his emotions follow his faith.

The hard-hitting book of James demands that we walk the talk. The overall theme of it is “faith without deeds is dead” (2:17,26). But even James allows for our humanity when he says: “We all stumble in many ways.” (3:2).

 In Romans 7 Paul speaks of his ongoing struggles as a Christian, saying that he knows what he should do, but finds himself doing the opposite. His only hope, he concludes, is in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who empowers him to do the will of God. He concludes in Romans 8:1:

 “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”

So, we see in Scripture the dual theme of doing our best, empowered by the Holy Spiirt, while accepting God’s grace. I believe this applies to holiness, personal growth, and ministry. Both the Old and New Testament say that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The word used in these verses in the New Testament is “agape”, the word for grace- centered, Holy Spirit inspired love. When Paul used the derogatory term “lovers of self” (2 Tim. 3:2) to describe the attitude of people in the end times, he used a different word, describing human affections (phileos.)

If you want to know what God’s love is like, look at the life and sacrifice of Jesus. Paul wrote that the way we know the love of God is to realize that while we were still reveling in our sin, Christ died for us. (Ro. 5:8).

So practically speaking, what does this mean? It means coming from a foundation of grace in our relationship with God, others, and self. It means meditating on and claiming Scriptures that affirm that God is not going to give up on us, and that he understands our human weaknesses.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Ps. 103:13-14

We all stumble in many ways. James 3:2

If we confess our sins, God is just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

When we hold ourselves to a different standard than we would another person, or when we refuse to accept grace for our failures or setbacks, we come (unintentionally, I believe) from a place of pride. It’s as if we are saying to God, I know you forgave me, but I have a higher and better standard than you do.

I love attending recitals or events where family and friends are watching kids do their best, nerves and all. In the eyes and ears of those who love them, it is the best performance ever…they are so proud of the honest efforts of their kids. Of course they are not professional musicians, but who cares—That’s my boy! That’s my girl!

I think God sees my efforts through the same loving eyes. Very few people when attempting something new, do that new thing perfectly from day one. The only way to learn or do something unfamiliar is to get in there, make some mistakes, deal with some setbacks and keep plugging away.

This is the kind of attitude described as agape love in I Corinthians 13, where it says that, among other things, love always believes, hopes and perseveres. Love never gives up and love never fails. This is the love God wants us to walk in, to bask in. The blood of Christ is effective. His grace is sufficient for our weaknesses. In fact, Paul learned to rejoice in his weaknesses so that the power of God could shine through. (2 Cor. 12:9-10):

“But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient
for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10) That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So on a difficult day, sorting between faith and feelings, I might say to myself:

“Today I am feeling discouraged and, I feel like giving up on myself. But I believe Jesus will never give up on me. I know that he will complete in me the good things he has started. My feeling will change again and again, but Christ never does. And I know, the more I nurture my faith, my feelings will follow.”

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Aristotle

Hebrews 12:2-3

“Let us fix our eyes upon 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. 3) Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Stopping the Replays

Let's face it. We hurt one another. Every person has been hurt by others and has hurt others. We know as believers that we are to forgive. We can make that decision (out of obedience to Christ) but, how do we stop the mental replays of the offense?

This is where it’s helpful to understand a little about how the mind works. I think it is built into us to solve problems. So we have a tendency to turn issues over in our minds until we find a solution. When this tendency to turn things over, to repeatedly run the movie in our head, becomes an obsession, it stops being helpful. In fact, it can feed anger and “give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26-27). The most harmful part is that it takes our focus off of Jesus, and it unplugs us from the Holy Spirit (our counselor and the source of our power). Sometimes we have to decide that the only “solution” to a past event is to learn a lesson from it and give it to God.

The thing about obsessive thinking is: the more you try to stop it, the more powerful it becomes. You are like an imaginary matador who tries to overpower the bull by meeting it head on. A successful matador is aware of the bull, is not surprised by it or anything it does, but steps aside with grace until the bull passes (and eventually wears him out). So our best control (so to speak) of the movies in our heads, if we are obsessive thinkers, is to take note of them, not be surprised by them, ask God if there is anything we need to learn from them, and if not, give them to God and change the channel.

Changing the channel can be done in a number of ways, such as setting tangible goals and focus, intentionally thinking about the needs of another, praying for others, and scripture meditation. So we are not trying to stop thinking about the obsession so much as we are redirecting our thoughts and energies into positive things.

I love to choose a scripture, especially when I am in emotional pain, and meditate on it phrase by phrase. As I do so, repeating each phrase, I invite the Holy Spirit to teach me what it means to me right now, today, in this difficult situation. He is faithful to do so, and I am training my mind and heart to turn to God and his Word. A couple of favorites are:

Colossians 3:15

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

And Philippians 4:8-9

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

This is another place where letter writing to God can be especially helpful. Lay out your hurts, your fears and even your anger like David did. Then ask God to help you know whether or not to take any action to resolve the problem. If you have tried and the issue remains unresolved, or if there is nothing to be done, ask God to deal with the other person as he sees fit, and let it go. Again, end by handing it all over to God. I like to literally write the words: “God, I give such and such over to you, because you are God, and I, thankfully, am not.” Replaying the movie in our head, so to speak, is a form of obsessive thinking. Writing about it is a tried and true tool to help us let it go for a while, and communicating and giving it to God keeps you in a good relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus taught so clearly on forgiveness. We forgive because we want our Father’s forgiveness; we want to restore full fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then he taught us to go beyond just letting someone off the hook when he commanded that we pray that they be blessed:

Luke 24:27-28

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Jesus knew how hard this would be for us, but it was not a suggestion. It was a clear teaching—a command! We need the Holy Spirit to do this, and he is ready, willing and able to help us accomplish what is commanded. When the person or the incident comes to mind, one way to radically give it to God is to pray for the person who hurt you. In the beginning, you might do it out of duty—because Jesus said so. Eventually, the Spirit does a miracle in your heart and helps you mean the words you say. But forgiving in this way is a commitment—you may want to take it back when a new memory or injury occurs. You have to commit to forgive and bless the person even when you don’t feel like it. That is what commitment means.

The blessing hidden in this command is that we are set free. We are released from the cycle of obsessive thinking. We stop "drinking poison every day hoping it will hurt the other person." In setting them free (from our judgment and desire to punish) we discover that we, ourselves, are free.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Get Real


Some have called lament a lost language (Michael Card, Sacred Sorrow). In a culture where we equate happiness to feeling nice and comfortable, there is not a lot of encouragement to express our painful feelings to God or to one another. People feel uncomfortable with the anguish of others, not knowing what to say, being unable to fix it…so they tend to pull away from people in pain. To some, it feels like a lack of faith to say anything that is not immediately positive, joyful or hopeful.

Think about a relationship with another person, where every time you speak with them, they are “just fine” no matter what has happened. They lose their job, their spouse is diagnosed with a serious illness, their child runs away…and all they say is that they are “fine.” Now, a few rare individuals may actually be fine no matter what happens, but most people need others from time to time…a shoulder to cry on, a friend to lean on. If all someone ever says is that they are fine, how can you support them? How can you feel close to them? When you have a struggle, will you turn to that person or will you fear they won’t understand because they have never been anything but fine? The point is, without honesty, there is no intimacy. As we really open up with others, we experience closeness. It is the same with God.

Much of Scripture is lamentation. A large percentage of the Psalms is the writer crying out to God, wondering out loud, “how long will I have to suffer at the hands of my enemies, why do the wicked prosper, it hurts that I am wrongly accused, etc.” Remember, these Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit who also recorded and preserved them. Why? I believe to show us a picture of emotional vulnerability and authenticity before God. God wants us to be real with him. If we think about it, he already knows how we really feel anyway, so we have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by being authentic with him. Of course, I am not talking about cursing God. I am talking about coming before him and laying everything out. We draw closer to God when we do this. We also feel less alone, and the Holy Spirit can speak to us to heal our brokenness. David, Job and even Jesus lamented at times:

David

“Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, For I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Ps. 43:5

Here David acknowledges and expresses the feelings, and chooses to hope in God. He testifies to his belief that he will praise God for his deliverance when the trial is over.

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Ps. 147:3

This speaks to God’s heart of compassion to the broken and wounded. He is eager to comfort and heal us when we lay our brokenness before him.

Job

“Then Job opened his mouth and curse the day of his birth. 2) He said:

3)’May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, “A boy is born!”’ 3:1-3

So, Job openly lamented that he was even born, death to the suffering he endured.

“I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up but you merely look at me.” 30:20

Here we see that Job lamented the feelings that God was silent and possibly indifferent.

David and Jesus:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ps. 22:1; Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34

God did not strike them down or disown them for lamenting their situations, but in fact loved them through their struggles.

People benefit emotionally from expressing emotions up to a point. Repressing uncomfortable feelings or pretending they are not there can lead to some more serious emotional issues down the road. We are not talking here about throwing an endless pity party, or making wallowing in our sorrows a way of life. We are talking about being real, expressing our pain, asking God to help us deal with things, placing our trust in his faithfulness, finding hope and recovery in an intimate relationship with him. Expressing emotion is not the only step, but it is often a first step. For many people, it is a release and they feel better afterward…sort of the equivalent of what some call “a good cry.” If you have been down or depressed for some time, it may be time to reach out to someone outside yourself who can help you gain a more hopeful perspective (a spiritually mature friend, a pastor or counselor). Sitting in the dark and feeding dark thoughts is not the same thing as biblical lamentation. Biblical lamentation, I believe, is calling out to God in search of help, healing and hope.

A practical exercise is to write a letter to God. If the issue is a big deal, it might become a series of letters. In these letters, express your heartfelt feelings to God, like the psalmists did. The one guiding thing I recommend is, at the end of each letter, to give the problem to God. Ask him to motivate and empower you if you need to take action, and to leave the rest to him. Visualize yourself handing the issue, the problem, the person over to him. He is God, and you are not. You were not meant to bear God-sized burdens. This is healthy lamentation. This exercise is helpful emotionally and spiritually. It stops the obsessive thinking for a while, and it strengthens your relationship with God.
God gave you your emotions. He is not surprised by them, nor is he annoyed by them. He went to great lengths to restore relationship so that you could enjoy intimacy with him. He can handle your feelings. Bring them to him and, allow him to comfort you. Like a loving father, over time he will give you a joyful, hopeful, peaceful perspective. But it begins with being authentic. He draws near to the broken-hearted. Get real.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Entertaining Choices


It is very easy for us to devote our lives, an hour or two at a time, to being entertained.  Movies, games, sports, television programs, hobbies, eating out, vacations--none of these things are necessarily wrong in moderation. But when we let being entertained become the focus and the goal of our lives, we neglect our mission: to make and mature Disciples of Christ to the glory of God.

 
When our lives become all about entertainment, we forget our goal, our destination. A wealth of entertainment options can be used as a friendly attack by Satan. We are not openly persecuted much in the United States, but we are seduced into forgetting the great commission of Christ: to go out and make true disciples.

In Deuteronomy, God (through Moses) warned the children of Israel that their coming prosperity might be spiritually dangerous:

6:10-12) When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large flourishing cities you did not build, 11) houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12) be careful that you do not forget the LORD,  who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

In the United States, we enjoy a lot of prosperity as a nation. We need to heed the same warning. As our wants and desires are satisfied, we need to be careful not to forget the LORD, who brought us believers out of spiritual slavery. I’ve heard it said that if you look at your calendar and checkbook, you will see what matters most to you. Jesus taught that we should think twice about where we store our treasure:

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20) But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matt. 6:19-21

Jesus reminds us that this life is brief and inevitably crumbles, but eternal rewards last forever. I sometimes imagine that I am throwing my heart ahead of me, into heaven where Jesus is.

 Colossians 3 repeatedly encourages us to set our minds on eternal things, saying:

 “Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2) Set you mind on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1-2

That’s a great one to memorize or to write on a sticky note. There are so many shiny things competing for our attention, and so many voices trying to drown out the voice of our Shepherd, we need to be intentional about keeping our focus.

Hebrews 12:1-2 exhorts us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, where it says:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2) 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 God.”

The writer reminds us that Jesus lived against the tide, even dying a criminal’s death, for the sake of the eternal joy the Father set before him. He had to have his eyes on eternity (and not this world’s value system) to do that.

These Scriptures all point to an eternal perspective, and that’s what I am trying to emphasize in the book, “Milestones: On the Road Home.” We have a short time here on earth to invest in eternity. So I encourage asking ourselves questions as we map out our days: What will I contribute to the eternal Kingdom of Christ today? Will these activities build anybody up? Will I invite anyone into relationship (or closer relationship) with Jesus? Will my activities today please and glorify God?

To offer a very practical idea, I use and recommend sticky notes where people will be reminded every day (on the mirror, by the coffee maker, on a computer screen, or on the next page of the calendar) with a question like: How will I serve today?

There is a time for rest and refreshment, of course, and that is fine and even biblical (Luke 5:16 often; Luke 6:31 rest). But the thrust of our lives is to offer our very lives to God:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Breaking Through


 
When you feel the nudge of God to do a thing, to use your gifts to build others up and to glorify God, and you hesitate to do it because you fear failing, getting hurt, being judged or being misunderstood, those are examples of fear getting in the way of living fully for the King. Some people are very aware of their fears, others may tend to get irritable or angry or depressed, but underneath is fear. So it can sometimes be tricky to identify. Asking yourself, for example, “What am I feeling besides anger?” can help you identify the more vulnerable emotion behind it the anger. It will usually be hurt or fear, and even when it is hurt, there is usually fear that the hurt will happen again.

 As a counselor and as someone who has dealt with a lot of fear, I have come to the conclusion that one step is accepting fear as a God given emotion. Without it, we would walk into traffic or into the jaws of hungry animals. A rush of adrenaline gives athletes, performers, firefighters, policemen, soldiers and everyday citizens an edge to do their best. Successful people have learned to channel the fight or flight response into a healthy sense of fight, not flight. “I can do this, God is right here!” Our praise team has often discussed that we do better when we have some butterflies going in. So by welcoming it, we short circuit that potential “fear of fear” that feeds panic and anxiety attacks. Courage is not  the absence of fear, but the decision that something else matters more than fear.

More significantly, the reason we face our fears, as God’s children, is to do his will. In stepping out on faith, we do our best and let the Holy Spirit do his work in us and others. Focus turns from our own fears to the will of God and the needs of others. People need our gifts. Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 speak to the interdependence of God’s church:

In Romans 12:4-6 Paul has just encouraged them to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, conforming no longer to the pattern of this world. He goes on to say:

“4) Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not have the same function, 5) so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”

Ephesians 4:11-12) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12)to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.

These passages show it is God’s will that we use our gifts to build one another up. I need your gifts and you need mine. So, God is eager to answer our prayers to empower us to do his will. That is more important than our fears.

Courage is feeling fear and doing the right thing anyway. If we are full of confidence in self, where is there room for God to work? Thank God that you need him, and that he gives you challenges that require you to count on his strength and not your own! That’s the adventure of following Jesus!

Breaking through:  Often involves taking small faithful steps in the general direction of our goal. So for example if your goal is public speaking, you might read a scripture or lead a small class or discussion on a special occasion. Leaning hard into God, listening for his applause, being gracious with yourself as you make progress, meditating on his promises, remembering that others need your gifts and message,  all these things come together over time to cast out unhealthy fear.

Some helpful promises to claim:

Psalm 56:3

“When I am afraid, I will trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,

In God I trust; I will not be afraid.

What can mortal man do to me?”

This Scripture includes 2 steps: 1) acknowledging the fear, and 2) choosing to trust God and his Word.

Isaiah 41:10

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

This verse reminds us of God’s presence (I am with you), of his relationship with us (I am your God), of his willingness and ability to strengthen us to do his will (I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand).

Philippians 4:13

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

I think it’s important on this one to acknowledge that the context of this verse, (what Paul was talking about when he wrote it) was being content in every situation (whether living in plenty or in want). He was testifying that he could be content, no matter what, because God strengthened him.  That is the interpretation of the verse. In application, I believe it means that we can do anything God wants us to do. It is not saying that God will strengthen you to do selfish things you have dreamed up for your own profit or glory, rather that he will empower you to do his will. So going back to identifying fears that are blocking God’s will for your life, if you become convinced God has something for you to do for his kingdom, he is ready, willing and able to empower you.

A note about easing into things: Sometimes, in his timing, God throws us into the deep end (rather than easing us into things) giving us a large audience right out of the gate. When he does this, he knows best and he meets us there. His grace is always sufficient for us on the day and hour we need it, to empower us to do whatever he asks of us.
 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Look Up Radio Interview, June 2013

Here is today's radio interview including themes from "Milestones: On the Road Home." It was hosted by Cheryl Ott and broadcast via internet on Look Up Radio.

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fsoundcloud.com%2Fhope-for-your-journey%2Fcourage-under-fire&h=VAQHknrIs

I found myself saying some things that surprised even me, so I guess it was a good interview. I pray God carries his message to hearts he has prepared. Amen!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Two Paths

I remember when we first moved to Dallas from Topeka. I was driving a little rental truck with our few pieces of furniture, clothing and books. In our efforts to find the seminary neighborhood, I went a little too far and, landed in what is affectionately called "the spaghetti bowl" for its tangled loops of asphalt. As a result, I got off on the wrong exit. I found myself in a sketchy neighborhood.

In the theology and philosophy of many these days, there is no wrong road, there are no wrong turns. As in my initial Dallas adventure, the Apostle Paul insisted, one is either on the right road or the wrong road:

"Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, which transforms our lowly bodies, so that they will be like his glorious body." Philippians 3:17-21

Paul first refers to "the pattern we gave you." This is both in teaching and the way Paul lived his life. His ultimate priority, his only goal, was to glorify Christ and to bring the good news of grace and truth to as many people as possible. Christ was glorified, not only in the teaching and writings of Paul but, also in the selfless way he lived his life. He willingly left behind position, power, prestige and privilege in order to become all Jesus wanted him to be. Here, he encourages his readers to follow the same pattern.

This pattern is in stark contrast to another path that some take: to live as enemies of the cross. Paul speaks of the destination of these people with clarity and with tears. Like God, Paul does not want to see people walk headlong into destruction. The mindset of these people is "on earthly things" (see Colossians 3), their god is their stomach (hedonism), and their glory (earthly fame) is their shame.

In contrast to this path to destruction, Paul comes back to the path of his redemption: a citizenship in heaven, eagerly awaiting a Savior (the Lord Jesus). Christ has the power to bring everything under his control (to ultimately redeem everything) and, even to transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorified body.

This letter is written to believers who are in need of some joy. Joy is theirs to have and enjoy, but, losing their focus for a while, they have let their minds and hearts slip into the pattern of this world, to dwell on earthly things. These things may bring bursts of happiness, but biblical joy is found in knowing our destination. That destination comes quicker than we think, and it lasts forever. Keep your eyes on Jesus. He alone holds your destiny, hope, and joy.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

View from Above

May's trip to Laguna was the third time I have been there. Before this trip, I would have told you with a clear conscience that I knew what Laguna looks like. The first two times, I drove downtown and walked out on the beach. I truly believed I had seen Laguna Beach, California.

This time, Laguna was not an add-on, it was our main destination. I found an old but nicely remodeled hotel about a mile from the city center. Wanting to avoid walking down Highway 1, I got out a map. What I discovered were several hidden coves with public access, and some parks granting views from above. From this perspective, you can see down through clear water to light sand, dark rocks and kelp forests. From the park closest to our hotel, you can see the city of Laguna and all the way down the coast to Dana Point. The eye level beach views are relaxing; the view from above is, well, breathtaking!

Paul refers to perspectives as he addresses the believers in Philippi. He has just laid out for them his value system: there is nothing in this world he loves as much as Jesus Christ, and he had willingly given it all up for the sake of knowing him. He had gone on to say that he has not arrived in his faith, so keeps straining forward for the fullest realization possible of Jesus' calling on his life. Lest the readers think that this is some ultra-spiritual perspective possible only for Paul and the apostles, he clarifies:

"All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained." Philippians 3:15-16

Paul's "view from above" is to be shared by all who have made reasonable progress in the Christian life. He acknowledges that there may be different points of view and, as if referring to an earlier statement that God will complete in them the good things he has started, he affirms that God will show each of them in due course all they need to see. In the meantime, he reminds them to live the life they claim to believe. God reveals more and more to us as we demonstrate faithfulness where we are, with what we know. It is important to note that this perspective, too, allows Paul to love them where they are without dogmatic insistence on immediate agreement.

From above, we find joy in the present and future, in the darks and lights, and in the ups and downs. Each contrasting feature adds to the beauty of the scene God has created. We just can't see it while we stand at sea level. Be faithful where you are and ask God to create a deep yearning in your soul for the view from above. It will take your breath away.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Press On

On our recent trip to Cali, we passed through parts of 5 states. We saw many types of scenery each day...variations on the desert theme, mountain landscapes, palms, pinions, dramatic rock formations, even Las Vegas rising like a gaudy lady of the night in the unlikely surroundings of a barren landscape. We stopped in a smaller town to be nourished by pool, spa and buffet. For many, this little stop in Mesquite, Nevada was the final destination of their journey. For us, Mesquite represented a milepost along the way, but it was not our destination. While we were clearly no longer in Colorado, we had not yet arrived.

The Apostle Paul speaks of a similar dynamic in his walk with Christ. He lays out the unsurpassed joy and fulfillment of knowing Christ in Philippians 3:7-11. Then he makes sure his readers know what he knows, that he has not yet arrived:

"Not that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:12-14

Like travelers on their way to a destination, Paul knows that he has not yet fully attained his goal: To know Christ, to emulate Christ, to become all Christ wants him to be. He strains toward it with unswerving focus. He will not be satisfied with some lukewarm approximation of the real thing in his life.

Mesquite is okay. Sitting in the hot tub under the sunset, with chattering Mexican Grackles making their nests in the palms overhead, while a sliver of moon arose over the desert mountains, it was not hard to see why some would stop there. How different our trip would have been had we settled for this midpoint in our destination. We would have missed standing on cliffs overlooking the vast Pacific surrounded by lush gardens and the music of surf and gulls.

Keep your eye on the destination. Like Paul, forget what is behind and lean forward to fall head over heals in love with Jesus, becoming him to those around you, absorbed with this goal so that all else pales by comparison, overwhelmed with joy.

He has more in mind for you. He truly has your eternal best interest at heart. Press on!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Knowing Joy

I have become acquainted with a great many leaders and teachers over the decades. Seeing them from a distance, most seem admirable, projecting just the right balance of humility, giftedness and strength. Coming to know them on a more intimate level, their human frailties and flaws become more evident (as with all of us). A few exceptional men have proven over extended periods of  time that they are who they seem to be. When this happens, it is a priceless, inspiring experience. Take that experience and multiply it by an infinite power, and you will begin to understand how Paul felt about knowing Jesus Christ:

"But whatever was my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." Philippians 3:7-11

Paul had just admonished the Philippians not to rely on the works of the flesh (in this case, trying to fulfill the law of Moses) to achieve righteousness before God, and reminded them of his own accomplishments, education and birthright to take pride in such things. Now he elaborates that all of that is less than worthless (counting it all as rubbish) in comparison to knowing Christ. His righteous standing before God is not by keeping the law, or personal perfection of some sort, but is by trusting in the perfection of Christ, who fulfilled the law on our behalf--deep faith in him resulting in a willingness to join in his sufferings--dying as he did, to be raised as he was. I believe that Paul's use of "somehow" here cannot imply that he must be good enough at all this to attain resurrection (thus contradicting the thrust of his argument), but  simply means it is beyond his ability to explain the miracle of it.

Mature faith is so enthralled with Jesus, so obsessed with him, that nothing else matters, or if it does, it only matters as a temporary means of glorifying (and bringing others into relationship with) him. This is true serenity and joy, when all that matters is knowing him in all his excellence, integrity, faithfulness and gifts. It does not happen by straining or human effort, but by giving him our all. We give everything to him, not because he needs it from us, rather so that he can redeem it all in time. Paul could joyfully say that he had lost everything for Jesus. If we see Paul's faith as special and beyond our abilities to achieve, we forget that he was once full of hatred and murderous venom. Jesus took the greatest of sinners and transformed him into a light for the ages so that we would have the same hope, the same possibilities, and the same joy.

Know Jesus, know joy.