Grace and the Thorn

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Recently I was involved in a deep conversation with a small group of women friends. We were each sharing current life circumstances that bring on the temptation to be afraid. Many of these surrounded family relationships. There was an adoption story, a foster mothering story, marriage stories, toddler stories, and stories of adult children who seem to make one poor decision after another. One friend remarked that she is keenly aware of an extra measure of grace in her life to manage situations that would otherwise seem impossible. My mind went immediately to Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Many have advanced hypotheses about what afflicted Paul. He didn’t reveal it, and maybe there is a good reason for that. It suggests that if he had revealed the exact nature of his chronic irritant, readers might not see the deeper relevance of the text or its application. If he wrote that he had gout, or warts, or migraine headaches, or eye problems (as many people guess), those of us that have never experienced those particular afflictions might get distracted from his real message or fail to apply it.

God’s message to and through Paul has a few aspects. One is that sometimes we don’t get the answer we think we want or need, even after praying over it several (or one thousand) times. Imagine that–we can’t boss God around! Paul had been through so much in his ministry, from great surges of revelation and triumphant power to days on end of hardship and rejection. He had learned, as he wrote to the Philippians, “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12). His life was so surrendered to God’s mission that he didn’t attribute the lack of removal of the thorn as a judgment from God. This requires some maturity in the Lord—to cling to the knowledge of God’s goodness even when the thorn remains.

Secondly, sometimes God does seem to allow his children to struggle with difficulties as he teaches and disciplines them. Many don’t like this thought, and it does arouse theological controversy. Paul wrote that the affliction was sent as “a messenger of Satan” to bring torment.  Why did God allow this? Paul was God’s apostle and faithful servant! Paul’s answer was that it was to keep him from becoming conceited because of the abundance of revelation given to him. God allowed Paul to experience demonic torment to keep him humble? That seems to be Paul’s perspective.

Apparently, our covenant with God does not stipulate that we will never have to fight demonic forces. In fact, Jesus makes clear that advancing his kingdom includes frequently confronting demons. I’m not saying God sends demons to torment us. But neither does he prevent us completely from experiencing some of their trouble-making in our lives. We can trust that if God is allowing it, He has a reason, whether we understand it or not.

It is a legitimate response to pain and suffering to seek freedom and deliverance as soon as possible. But we can also choose to remain alert to the opportunity to grow in character and discipline through our suffering until our answers come. The Christian walk requires perseverance most when the road is most difficult. Or when a thorn is causing throbbing pain.

Finally, we come to the heart of the matter. Paul was not delivered of his thorn, after thrice praying. Instead he received the response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8).  Grace is sufficient. His power shows up perfectly when we acknowledge our dependence upon Him.

When we are weak, he is strong. And when we are even weaker, he is even stronger. Grace fills in the gaps between our own ability and the “all things are possible” promise of God. God’s grace more than compensates for our lack of ability. With or without the thorn.

Another Take on Complementarianism

Last year as I was completing my seminary degree, my penultimate class was a residency in pastoral theology. My professor was an esteemed evangelical pastor, scholar, author, and educator. As we began discussing pertinent theological issues in the life of the contemporary church, I quickly realized that I strongly disagreed with a few of his doctrinal positions. For example, he is a cessationist, believing that the Holy Spirit no longer speaks directly to or through the people of God since the canonization of the Scriptures. In this view, there have been no apostles or prophets in the church since the deaths of the first apostles of Jesus, because God has spoken everything he will ever say in the Bible.  Although he holds this—and all doctrines—quite tenaciously, he does respect a conflicting view of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, appreciating that a legitimate argument can be made from Scripture. He just doesn’t happen to believe that argument.

On the topic of the roles and relationships of men and women in the church, however, he is completely unbending. He declared to the class (comprised of both men and women preparing for pastoral ministry!) that there was little point in even discussing the issue. He is a staunch complementarian, believing that while men and women are of equal value to God, they have different roles that are not to be confused or conflated with each other. Women, in this view, can be highly gifted to serve in various aspects of church life—teaching children or other women, showing hospitality, singing, etc., but they are never to be elders or senior leaders, and are never to preach to mixed groups that include men.  Men occupy the main leadership positions, with women serving in complementary roles under the guidance of their male pastors. This is still a prevailing view in some very conservative denominations, while a majority of denominations are egalitarian. In egalitarian churches, men and women serve according to their recognized giftings and qualifications, and being male is not a requirement for promotion to leadership.

The strongest Scriptural bases for complementarianism based on gender are found in Paul’s pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. Throughout these letters, Paul does indicate that elders and deacons are to be men, while women are cautioned not to “assume authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12). Church leaders like my dear professor believe these standards must be maintained in the church regardless of cultural or other contextual issues.

The problem is that to rigidly adhere to these passages brings one into conflict with some of Paul’s more general theological truths, such as his bold statement that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Egalitarians also point to Paul’s frequent commendations of female leaders in the churches (e.g., Phoebe, Rom 16:1). The first church Paul planted in Macedonia was in Philippi, after the conversion of the devout Lydia; clearly Lydia would have been a prominent leader in that influential church.

But an even more convincing truth–and one I don’t hear mentioned in arguments for egalitarianism—is Paul’s discussion of the distribution and interdependency of the various gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ. Throughout 1 Corinthians 12, Paul masterfully portrays the body as a manifold work of God in which every member’s unique contribution is essential to the working of the whole. Those parts that seem less strong or honorable are given greater honor, “so that there should be no division in the body” (v. 25). In his summary statement, he identifies some of the giftings in the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, helping, guidance, etc. Not once does he mention gender!  If it was so important to Paul to keep women from ministering in certain types of gifts (i.e., leadership or preaching), wouldn’t you think he would include that caveat? Because the caveat is missing, he seems to be recklessly stating (and believing) that the only guiding principle that matters is to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). It seems to me that he is encouraging men and women alike to work to outdo one another in showing love to others and building up the body of believers.

Ironically, it could be said that it is on this issue that both cessationism and complementarianism crash into the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work among us. God has liberally imparted spiritual gifts to men and women, young and old, rich and poor. He desires that all believers, whatever their gender, race, social status, or other identifying factor, zealously pursue ministry to one another and the outside world. When we do this, we discover a peculiar alchemy, in which the Holy Spirit causes our gifts to complement one another, representing God in loving unity.

That’s a complementarianism I can embrace!pexels-photo-1065707.jpeg

Saying and/or Doing

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Jesus was often confronted by religious leaders about his origins, his doctrine, or his allegiance to rabbinic traditions. On one such occasion, he was asked about the source of the power he manifested in healing diseases and delivering from demons. He tilted the conversation back to their faithlessness and hypocrisy with a hypothetical scenario involving a father and two sons.

The father told both sons to go work in his vineyard. The first one said he would not go, but later “changed his mind and went.” The second told the father that he would go, but then did not.  Jesus asked his audience which son had obeyed the father, and they rightly answered, “The first” (Matt 21:28-31).

A simple interpretation and application of the story is that it is not what we say,  but what we actually do that matters in his kingdom. But having an analytical and logical mind, I can’t resist respectfully deconstructing this a bit to give it broader applicability. As many like to say–to “unpack it.”

When it comes to the relationship between saying and doing, there are 4 permutations:

  • We can say no, and then do nothing
  • We can say no but do it anyway (like the first son)
  • We can say yes but do nothing (like the second son)
  • We can say yes and do what we say we will do

If we take the first path, we keep ourselves free from responsibility by promising nothing. This is exactly the right decision if we discern that our participation in a matter would be unwise or inappropriate. People who have poor boundaries really struggle with this one. It is not wrong to say no. But there are times when yes is the right answer, and “no” can’t become an automatic, self-protective response. If it does, we will have little impact for the kingdom of God.

The first son, who took the path Jesus commended, began from a point of rebellion. The father gave an order, the son refused to comply. But later, he changed his mind. He repented of his rebellion and showed up to work in the vineyard. Isn’t this a beautiful picture of our coming to faith? We were all in rebellion, enslaved to our sinful nature, denying God. Then we turned.

Jesus praised the people of Ninevah in Jonah’s day, one of the most wicked cultures that has ever existed on the planet. They were an apt example because they at first refused to honor God, and later changed their minds in response to Jonah’s message. Likewise, Jesus’ lauded those in his midst—the tax collectors and prostitutes–who humbled themselves and repented. Faith turned their no into a yes. This is the spectacle of God’s grace.

Regarding the response of the second son, Jesus cautions about vows or oaths made to God.  When we make them, we are bound by heaven to keep them. Jesus taught his disciples (that’s us) that we are simply to let our yes be yes and our no be no, because “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). When God issues a command, the most noble, godly response is to say yes—to agree with his righteous path—and then act accordingly. When we make a vow, we should make sure it is a “yes” that can be followed by faithful actions. There is often a heavy price to pay for breaking our word.

An obvious example is the marriage vow, which typically promises love, care, and fidelity “until death parts us.” These words should not be spoken hastily or carelessly. A covenant bond is being formed between two individuals in the sight of God, with a congregation of heaven and earth listening and bearing witness.  Many preachers mark this spiritual reality by quoting Jesus at the end of the marriage ceremony, “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:6).

When Christians break a marriage vow, they are acting like the second son. They are saying and not doing; the only difference is perhaps one of duration and consequences.  There are many other examples of saying and not doing in the world these days. Disobedient children, neglectful parents, dishonest politicians, corrupt business people, compromised spiritual leaders, fair-weather friends. We are cautioned not to promise things we lack the ability or intention to perform.

Finally, we have the option to speak a vow and then to fulfill it. This is not presented explicitly but is implied in Jesus’ parable. When the Father issues a command, we say yes, and we follow through on our yes with obedient action, whether convenient or not.   This requires integrity and discipline. James wrote,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word,but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do (James 1:22-25).

As disciples who attend to the commandments of God, and recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit, we are accountable to obey. Lord, bless us with ears to hear, hearts that respond, mouths that only speak truth, and feet that move out to accomplish the good works you assign to us. Let our yes be yes, and our no be no.

 


*When I speak of divorce and breaking of vows, I am not intending to bring a judgment or condemnation on those who have been injured by divorce. I’m using it as a primary example of covenant making and covenant breaking, and the need to take seriously any vows we take, even if our partners in covenant do not.

Tale of Two Doggies

I have two dogs. Scooter is a wonderful older gentleman, a Welsh Terrier, with manners from the old country. He doesn’t say much, but has great expressive ears and eyebrows that tell us what interests him and what disturbs him. He’s quite domesticated. Some of you are his fans on facebook, because he is so extremely charming and photogenic. (He’s also a fabulous singer, by the way).

Then there’s Maggie. Maggie is some sort of terrier mix that was rescued off the streets of Houston, scared, bedraggled and pregnant. We adopted her after she had weaned her puppies, and she is truly a lovely dog, sweet and smart, still cute and puppyish. The only issue I have with her is this: when I am trying to put leashes on both dogs in the morning to take our daily walk, Maggie gets so excited that she makes it nearly impossible to get out the door. She jumps on me, barks and cries, turns in circles, gets tangled in the leash, and is quite frantic until we commence the walk.  Maybe it’s an attachment issue from her troubled past. While this hubbub is going on, Scooter just raises his eyebrows and looks at me as if to say, “Oh brother, not this again.”

I’m working on extinguishing Maggie’s troublesome behavior in all the traditional ways that dog trainers recommend. But as I was walking the dogs one morning, I got a revelation about my dogs, and about myself.

I act just like Maggie toward God sometimes. I want him to do something so badly, to make it happen, to “get on with it,” whatever “it” is, that I ironically make it more difficult for him to do it. I make a fuss, or whine, or experience an inner agitation. People around me (mostly my husband, really), must put up with my restlessness and impatience—like Scooter must put up with Maggie, because she’s his baby sister. Sometimes this behavior is a not-so-subtle form of unbelief—a lack of trust that my heavenly Master really has a plan and purpose, when I don’t yet see it fully.

I have been in relationship with the Lord long enough to know and celebrate that he’s in charge, and that He takes very good care of my needs. He never disappoints me by telling me we are going somewhere and then refusing to take me with him—dangling a leash in front of me, and then putting it back on the hook. But sometimes he does make me wait.  And sometimes I don’t handle the waiting very well.

Just as I am training Maggie to be still and wait until I am ready to go, I sense God is daily training me. “Be still, Ruth, and look at me. When I know I have your attention and that you trust me to lead you, we will go.” He does this in his ever-so-kind manner, kinder than I have been with Maggie.

David wrote in Psalm 131 (TPT):

Lord, my heart is meek before you.
I don’t consider myself better than others.
I’m content to not pursue matters that are over my head—
such as your complex mysteries and wonders—
that I’m not yet ready to understand.
 I am humbled and quieted in your presence.
Like a contented child who rests on its mother’s lap,
I’m your resting child and my soul is content in you.

Other translations tell us that the child is contented because he has been weaned. He is not needy or desperate for his mother’s attention, just quietly enjoying her presence. He trusts that his needs will be met. He is securely attached in a relationship based in love, and not just need.

David concludes the psalm with this exhortation–

 O people of God, your time has come to quietly trust,
waiting upon the Lord now and forever.

We are not to decide when and where He takes us, or try to pull him behind us as we walk together. He likes to walk with us! But He insists that we allow Him to be the leader, just as I must be the leader of my little pack.

Thank you, my sweet dog friends, and Holy Spirit, for teaching me this lesson.

Aging in the Kingdom

Growing older, reaching an age that is considered “senior,” can be quite disconcerting, and it feels like it is closing in on me. What could long be denied through the magical, invincibility delusions of youth become inescapably real. Aches and pains, dyspepsia, insomnia, memory failures, etc.—these are symptoms not entirely unique to older individuals, but they are certainly more common as the body and mind lose some of their youthful elasticity and resiliency. No one has an unconditional guarantee of long life, and no one gets out of being a human being alive. Some age well, and some not so well.

Erik Erikson, a developmental theorist and protegee of Sigmund Freud, differed from Freud in his assumption that identity and personality continue to develop throughout all stages of life. The final developmental stage, with its primary developmental “crisis,” Erikson labeled “Integrity vs. Despair.” This stage, which generally begins after age 60, requires that we reflect on the past, and make judgments about whether our life has been successful or not. My interpretation of success in this stage is that we are able to say, in effect, “I may not have completed everything I wanted to do (yet), but my life has been productive and meaningful, and I have made a difference. All in all, I have lived a life of integrity.” If we judge that our lives have been unproductive, guilt-ridden, or disappointing, we might experience despair and hopelessness. According to Erikson, successful navigation through this crisis will produce wisdom, and the ability to accept death without fear. Visit any nursing home, and you will recognize individuals in both categories.

Erikson was a smart fellow, but what does the Bible teach us about growing old from God’s perspective?  A great deal, from beginning to end.  I would contend that there are significant advantages in being a person of faith as one enters these later years. Here are a few ideas on the topic as represented in Scripture.

  1. Older members of family and community mentor and bless the next generations. This is seen with Moses and Joshua, Jacob with his sons, Eli with Samuel, David with Solomon, Paul with Timothy. As death approached the patriarchs, they solemnly spoke blessing and identity over their children. The Israelites were commanded to impart to their children all of the commandments of God, to “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut . 6:7). The aged Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Imagine how precious were these words to Timothy from his spiritual father!
  2. Older saints encourage the younger saints with their testimonies. The psalmist declared of God’s faithfulness, “I was young and now am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Ps 37:5).  One of the most encouraging testimonies in the Old Testament was spoken by Caleb, as he laid claim to his piece of the Promised Land. He glorified God for keeping him alive for forty-five years after Moses sent him as a spy into the land, and further claimed that he was still strong and vigorous at 85 years old, a reward for his wholehearted obedience to the Lord (Josh 14:6-14). The young soldiers must have been astonished and inspired by Caleb’s courage and faithfulness. Paul declared to Timothy his confidence that because he had “finished the race” and “kept the faith,” he would receive the crown of righteousness the Lord promises to the faithful (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
  3. Older believers model steadfast faith and sacrificial giving. Abraham is the most prominent biblical example. Paul writes about Abraham, that “without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:19-21). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice this promised son shows the extent of his faith in God, making him the father of all who believe. Younger believers are without excuse for quitting or losing heart.
  4. Spirit-filled elders intercede and prophesy to the church. The prophet Joel made clear that when the Spirit comes upon “as many as the Lord our God shall call,” young and old, male and female, will dream dreams and prophesy. Prophets Simeon and Anna, both quite aged physically and in the Lord, were God’s servants who recognized the presence of the promised king when Mary and Joseph brought their child to the temple (Luke 2:25-38). Those with long experience in life are the ideal ones to pray with and prophesy to younger generations.

There is much more that could be added to this list, but this should be enough to compel us to consider whether the church at large takes full advantage of the integrity and wisdom found in her older members. It seems that many leaders, wanting to attract younger people, often ignore the treasures to be mined in their more seasoned brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. If we truly want to cultivate a culture of honor, this is one of the chief ingredients.

 

Shalom!

God-Promotion or Self-Promotion

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We live in a culture that tells us that we must sell and promote ourselves in order to achieve success. We must find the right social identity, message, product, or service, and then fight for “airtime” in the vast and very noisy public arena. Social media reinforces this greatly. When we see someone who seems to be doing well, it may provoke us to jealousy, or evoke feelings of insecurity if we don’t feel we are doing as well. In many of us, it arouses innate competitive impulses, and we resolve to outdo the rest of the pack.

I admit that I wrestle with the temptation to promote myself. I’m not referring to the desire to pursue life goals or to expand my sphere influence.  I’m talking about the tendency to forget that God has not called me to promote myself, but to promote the greatness of Jesus Christ. Not to be famous myself, but to make him famous. Not to have a sales pitch, but to have his beautiful name ever on my lips. I am called to make myself small, and make him great, in my own eyes and the eyes of others. This takes conscious effort, nearly every day. Even in the publishing of this blog, I must guard my heart from wrong motives.

Recently, as I was reading through Genesis, I noticed the contrast between God’s promotion of man and man’s self-promotion.

From the beginning, God gave his human creatures dignity, honor, and dominion. They were made in the very image of God. They were his finest creation!

Then, sin and self-obsession crashed in, spoiling the tranquility of the garden and its residents. And then follows a trilogy of stories.

First is the story of Noah. Amidst the increasing population of the earth, and the wickedness that began to prevail, Noah was identified as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Gen 6:9). This was quite an endorsement, one I’d love to be able to claim for myself. There is no mention of Noah doing anything in particular to get God’s attention.  God protected and promoted Noah simply because he had a right heart toward God, and this was reflected in his upright moral conduct.

Next is the story of Babel, which presents the essence of self-promotion. The people all spoke the same language, and they said to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). Well…God wasn’t crazy about that idea. He scattered them and confused their languages, so they couldn’t work together to make a great name for themselves. God used language and geographic barriers to impede the iniquitous folly of self-promotion.

Finally, there is the call of Abraham. In his first encounter with God, Abraham receives instruction and commissioning, and the first of many promises: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). In other words, you don’t have to promote yourself, Abram. Just do as I instruct you, and let me promote you and multiply your influence in the earth.

So, there you have it. Noah, declared righteous by the mouth of God, and used to save the remnant of humanity from the flood. Then the people of Babel, scattered and confused because of their foolish desire for self-promotion. And then Abraham, blessed and promoted to greatness purely through his faith and obedience to the perfect will of God.

In the short term, self-promotion seems to make sense. But it is so often secretly rooted in either pride or insecurity (two sides of the same demonic coin). When I detect that spirit rising in me, I work to beat it back down. It’s like a wack-a-mole, unfortunately, popping back up when I think I’ve subdued it. I keep wacking away at it, because I’m learning that self-promotion in the long term is a wearying, discouraging dead end if I let it get the better of me.  God’s promotion brings life, honor, joy, and success–on his terms, the only ones that really matter.

Psalm 75:6- For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he puts down one, and sets up another.

Luke 14:11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

1 Peter 5:6-7 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Shalom, my friends.

The Beautiful Law of Gleaning

Many Christian believers find aspects of the Law of Moses found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) unjust, archaic, or just plain baffling. This is because it is nearly impossible to contextualize some of the laws found there to our modern lives and beliefs. For instance, the laws regarding ritual purification, or the harsh penalties prescribed for infractions that today barely get a slap on the wrist.

Amidst some of these difficulties, I find beautiful the laws of gleaning, statutes that are set like gemstones in the midst of commandments that are rather oddly arranged at times. For example, between a commandment to eat the entire remainder of a fellowship offering, and the simple dictate “Do not steal,” is this gem:

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:9-10).”

This on first glance might seem imprudent or wasteful. Shouldn’t we always seek to maximize our profits and make full use of all our resources? No, apparently. Though God commends saving, thrift and resourcefulness, it matters more to Him that his people look beyond their own needs or profits. They must be willing to provide for the needs of others they can reasonably predict, of course, especially within their own families. But going another step, God’s people are to intentionally leave a portion of the proceeds of their labor available to a needy individual who might happen along the way. The poor or foreigner must find something left behind that will sustain him.

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There’s no guarantee this will happen. In the case of agricultural fruits, there’s a chance that the remainders will go unclaimed and just rot on the ground or dry up on the vine.  In modern, monetary terms, there’s a chance that leaving money on the table could limit our bottom line. But that is not to be our concern. When we hold back from greedily grabbing up all of the fruit, we are acting in obedience to the Law of God, and this carries its own reward.

John the Baptist hinted at this principle and its centrality to the advancing kingdom of God he was announcing. Preaching a baptism of repentance, he instructed them to demonstrate their repentance through true acts of generosity, giving away extra food or clothing (Lk 3:11). To contextualize this to the Church age in which we live, the Apostle Paul admonishes the believer not to steal, but to “labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28). Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves, so we do not become a burden to others. But that is not enough. We are to work hard enough at whatever work God has given us to do, so that there is extra on hand to share with those who are in worse circumstances.

I think this also has application to non-material fruits. If we learn great truth through our study or reflection on the Scriptures, or through our life experiences, we ought to be looking diligently for the opportunity to make it available to those who might show up in our lives. Who knows when you or I might be the person with a word for the weary, someone we had no idea was coming? Can we have such abundance of the fruit of the Spirit that we always have plenty for ourselves, plenty to share with those we know and love, and even plenty to give to the one who shows up at the door uninvited.

This is the beautiful law of gleaning.  It releases a spirit of freedom and generosity in those who practice it, and sustenance to those go out to glean in the harvest fields.

It’s a Lonely Road Sometimes

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Recently I was talking and praying with a young woman who comes from a ministry and missionary family, and is a missionary herself. We spoke of the experience of being misunderstood and rejected because of our faith. This can cause a feeling of loneliness, and may tempt us to keep quiet and inconspicuous to avoid the risk of rejection or harassment. Suddenly I began thinking about John the Baptist, and what it might have been like to see life through his eyes.

John was a very unusual character. He wore a camel-hair tunic, not the fashion of the day, and ate bugs with honey, not the typical diet for a Jew in Israel. He lived alone out in the wilderness. Can you picture him next to a campfire, sleeping on the ground? His message of the coming kingdom drew many, but repelled many others. He boldly confronted sin, selfishness, and complacency, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees vipers and hypocrites; this must not have made a lot of points with the religious elites. He cautioned the people about their need for repentance and about the coming fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit. John got in the face of Herod and called out his adultery, an act that ultimately cost him his life.

John knew his God-ordained role—to prepare the way for the Messiah, his own cousin Jesus. He knew that when Jesus came fully into his ministry, his own ministry would decrease, and he accepted this fact. Like the prophets before him, he faithfully delivered the words God gave him, suffering persecution, rejection, banishment, imprisonment, and death.

Jesus also understood and accepted the unique greatness and purpose of John, but saw the bigger picture, saying that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11).  John was just a man. He was God’s man, filled with the Spirit, and given the honor of baptizing and then introducing the Lamb of God to the waiting world. He was destined to exit the story soon after.

I wonder if he got lonely. I wonder if he had any friends he could talk with after a long day of ministry. John probably could have used a really good dog by his side.

I’ll often think about John the Baptist now when people tell me stories about their struggles in ministry. He is worthy of our admiration and emulation for his strength of character and his resolve to complete his unique assignment with dignity.  It must have been a very lonely road sometimes. And when we experience our own moments of loneliness as Jesus-followers, we know we are in the greatest company.

People of the Book: Culture Shock

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Years ago, I fell in love with the words of Scripture before becoming acquainted with their author. I was raised to value education, literature, and learning.

So as soon as someone pointed me to the Bible, I found it incredibly deep, rich, exciting and compelling, and studying it thoroughly became my passionate pursuit.

Before long, I was convinced that the book contained much more than literature. It was a source of life-giving, sanity-restoring truth, leading me to the ultimate source of grace and truth, Jesus Christ. My devotion to the Word of God continues to this day, and will endure, I’m sure, until I cross over the great divide.

It is easy to overlook or take for granted the many ways that engagement with the Bible transforms the mind, the worldview, and even the way the brain works over years under its influence. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. The stories, characters, and teachings of the Bible become such a part of the psyche that they influence every part of life. The protagonists feel like intimate friends, as we so often read of their exploits and imagine ourselves there, observing or even participating in the story.

We are listening in on Eve’s conversation with a beguiling serpent, or trudging up Mt. Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, carrying kindling for the sacrifice. We are mourning with Job, as he scratches himself with shards of pottery, or trembling next to Esther before the scepter of the king.

We are with Ruth, gleaning in the harvest fields of Boaz, or with David, writing poetry by the springs of En Gedi.  We are with Jesus, fighting sleep as he cries out to his Father under the ancient olive trees.

The history of God’s people becomes our story, and we lay claim to their covenant promises. As sons and daughters of Abraham, we seek to take hold, like Paul, of “that for which Christ took hold” of us (Phil 3:12). We marvel at the excruciating beauty of Jesus’ life and the horror of a death that accomplished the redemption of the world. We receive the doctrines and admonitions delivered to the Church as our manual for Christian living amidst a crooked and depraved world.

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even the fine points of Jewish law in Leviticus or the genealogies of Matthew can come alive and find relevance in our daily affairs.

I have come to realize that this makes people like me rather odd in a culture that heaps contempt on our ancient faith. We are strangers, aliens who seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).

In my own experience, even family members who have known me my entire life and are very dear to me do not relate to the vast landscape of biblical experience in my imagination, and that this is the lens through which I view all else. Like those returning from an exotic travel adventure, I can tell stories and show pictures, but there are some things each person must experience for himself or herself.

In the meantime, having been so impacted by my travels in the pages of the Book, I find myself with culture shock as I navigate American culture in the early 21st century.

I want desperately to share my experience of the word of God with those who have never ventured into its magnificence. We all are commanded to be witnesses of its reality. But we must share this awareness of another world gently and kindly, never letting it become a bludgeon, a battering ram or a barrier.

We share our stories, pictures, and experiences with our Lord and King in hopes that it will inspire and motivate others to embark on their own journey of discovery.

The Real Deal

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The Bible really does say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). In fact, Jesus himself said it. It’s in red letters.  What in the world does this mean? I might better frame the question: what does it mean in this world? What does it look like down here on the ground?  What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God first? If we could adequately understand and consistently do this “seeking first”, what “things” would be added to us?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we just pull Scriptures like this out of what Tim Keller calls our “blessing boxes” and quote them, without truly understanding Jesus’ meaning, intent, or context. Doesn’t the apparent bigness of Jesus’ declaration warrant some deeper digging, contemplation and application?  The problem is that if we take it seriously and begin living as though it is true, it just might cost us something.

At this moment in my walk with the Lord, I am hedged in by this saying of Jesus on one side and by another passage by the Apostle Paul (that I’ll share in a minute) on the other. I won’t claim to have full revelation, but I have a few clues.  I believe seeking his kingdom first means that Jesus is not only Savior but Lord. He’s the King of the kingdom, deserving both our wholehearted devotion and our deepest respect. It means we seek to carry out his agendas in our lives, and not our own. It means we don’t have the privilege of picking and choosing the sayings of Jesus that make us feel good and rejecting the ones that make us uncomfortable. It means that as disciples we willingly lay aside all purposes or causes that are contrary to his righteousness.  It means that the distorted ethics of this “present evil age” (Gal  1:4) do not guide or interest us, because only the transformative gospel (as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere) is adequate to motivate our hearts and our actions.

This becomes costly when we realize are not to wait for the lost, lonely, and needy to come to us. We are to go out and find them, loving “the least of these” as though we are doing it for him (Matt 25). This is the priority of the kingdom of God.

If we give these things priority, what does he add?  All that our bodies and souls need. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs—food, clothing, shelter, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization. Theoretically, we’ve been taught to satisfy our most basic physical and safety needs first. But in God’s kingdom, we pursue first the point at the top of the pyramid, his perfect will, and the rest of the pyramid stacks up and fills out just fine. There is no lack in the realm of body and soul when we give up pursuit of self for something better and higher. Yes, this is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, but that is why I’m convinced it is right. The hierarchy gets turned on its point. Resting upon the kingdom of God and his righteousness, everything else trickles down from there.

The second Scripture I mentioned that hedges me in is Paul’s declaration in Philippians 3 that his credentials, heritage and spiritual pedigree is no more than a pile of poop compared to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Really, Paul? Didn’t you work hard to become a Pharisee, with all the status and influence that brings? Are you saying that it doesn’t matter where we come from, how we’re educated, or who sees us as important? Aren’t we supposed to work hard, gain knowledge and experience, to become ‘successful’ people?

I think he might answer that it’s not by definition wrong to be successful in the world. But we can’t ever lose sight of the vast gap between what is possible to achieve in our own abilities, and the perfect righteousness of the Savior and King of the universe.

What I’ve realized is that I might say that I consider all of my accomplishments rubbish in comparison with his kingdom and his righteousness, because it sounds very pious. But if I’m honest about it, I’m not there yet. I confess that I still need to be delivered from my addiction to the approval and affirmation of people. It doesn’t have the same pull on me that it used to, but the traces of it are still there.

My intention and desire is to seek him first in all things and to keep a clear spiritual perspective on how my performance stacks up against his standard of righteousness. Are you with me? I hope so, because I’ll take all the fellow travelers I can get. We can be  greatly comforted by his constant presence as we undertake what Eugene Peterson calls this “long obedience in the same direction.” First things first…..