"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

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:


“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.


“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.