Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Were you there? Lent 35

"My kingdom is not of this world".... "Do you want me to release the king of the Jews"? They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!"

My wife, Rebekah, shared a short story with me one day that had won a competition (years ago) sponsored by a British newspaper. The essential idea concerned a time in the future where people could travel through history for their vacation.

The family in question considered several key historical events. One child wanted to attend the Battle of Hastings in 1066; another was interested in the Mayflower landing in the New World. Finally they chose the crucifixion of Jesus for their "Destination Vacation." "Very educational," the parents agreed.

So they entered a chamber with around 100 others. In preparation they were given special pills that changed their appearance and their language to that of the local inhabitants - in this case, Hebrews. They were also dressed accordingly.

"It is critical," the tour guide explained, "that we all fit in. Under no circumstance should your behavior deviate from that expected of history. It's dangerous to stand out." He went on to detail several examples, including the famous crowd response to call for Barabbas. "No matter what you feel, you must shout out, 'Crucify Jesus!' along with everyone else."

Once in Jerusalem, they found themselves carried by a huge throng into the market place. There were also many people congregated in doorways, shops and alleys, looking at the growing crowd with suspicion and something resembling fear. Something just didn't feel right, but they went along with their instructions. But there was something about those people cowering in the shadows that nagged at their minds.

As soon as Jesus was dragged out there was a hushed silence. It was quiet across the square; you could have heard a shekel drop. Then, nervous about being exposed, mindful of their instructions, one of the vacation family yelled out, timidly but clearly, "Crucify him!" It actually sounded out of place. Quickly, the rest of the group joined in and before a second or two had passed the entire crowd picked up the cry. "CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY!"

It almost sounded rehearsed.

Suddenly, the family realised with an awful shock what was happening. The market place was packed with time-travel tourists from the future. They had all been instructed to act in the same way. Their group was just one of many. It was the indigenous population and those visiting for the passover who were hiding in the shops and the doorways.

"It is us! We're the ones who are crucifying Jesus!"

What a stunning indictment! Yes, it was us; it is us. In a sense, we were there. Jesus went to the cross with our shortcomings in mind; our separation from God. He died with my name on his final breath.

PRAYER: It is amazing to think about our own complicity; yet we must own our own sin if we are to adequately experience your forgiveness. Amen

Monday, March 30, 2009

You Can't Handle the Truth - Lent 34

Meanwhile - continuing our walk through Christ's last hours before his death - Jesus was dragged into a "Kangaroo Court" so that his accusers could yell at him and try to justify their actions. John picks up the story in chapter 18 and verses 19-45:
  • One of the officials nearby struck Jesus in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. "If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" (John 18:22-23)
Jesus spoke the truth, and that is exactly why he was hit in the face. The official merely did what many nervous people tend to do when they are confronted with the truth - he lashed out. There was no way that anyone on the scene could articulate anything that Jesus had done that was wrong... and so there was nothing else do do but to hit him.

When I worked in the classroom I knew a lot of children who responded just like that. Unfortunately, I know a bunch of adults like that too. The high priest's officials stamped their feet, they raised their voices, and they lashed out because they couldn't even try to bully the Master without him turning it into some kind of a lesson.

Because there is no antidote to the truth, just as there is no darkness that can possibly eradicate light. Jesus stood in what had become a dark place, and the light of his incisive truth was simply too much for them to deal with.

When questioned, Jesus immediately reminded them about the openness in his ministry, and openness is inherent to light and truth. "I taught in the synagogues or at the temple," he said. "I said nothing in secret."

Jesus pointed out that everything about his ministry was open, available to inspection; it was a truth evidenced by the throngs of people who were always welcome and always encouraged to ask questions. Even when Christ was teaching his close-knit group of disciples there was often a fair crowd gathered, looking on, just to listen and to learn.

There was a fair crowd of people at my church yesterday morning, somewhere between 375 and 400, and I am sure that some of us there were a little like the high priest's officials. You know what I mean; too much light tends to make us nervous, and we want to either find fault with Jesus or just thrash around in our frustration, trying hard to be mad about something so that we can avoid dealing with God's kind of truth.

Jesus understands. "Please tell me what it is that is wrong?" But at the same time he is not willing to let us off the hook. No, it's too important for that, and things have gone too far for that kind of a graceful exit! His truth is designed to expose our lie, and his light illuminates our need for the kind of grace God always has in mind.

Annas (the priest) passed up his opportunity to learn from the Savior, and he sent him on his way to the cross. There is always the possibility that we will do the same thing....

PRAYER: Please don't let us off the hook either, Lord. Expose our need with the light of your truth and heal us with your grace. Amen.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don't be so hard on Peter

"'You are not one of his disciples, are you?' the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, 'I am not.'" (John 18:17)

We live in a day and an age where there's a lot of confusion about what it means to be a Christian. Fact is, many people have good reason to steer clear of religion. The term "Christian" has been associated with so much hypocrisy and so may carnival acts and so much public indecency that I'm inclined to sympathize with those who turn away without a second thought.

Our job - our OPPORTUNITY - is to do such a great job of representing the authentic Christ that the cynicism loses its potency. Personally, I've started telling people I'm "A Jesus-follower." It's a moniker that circumnavigates some of the "knee-jerk" closing of minds and hearts.... Then I can explain more about what I mean when they look confused.

The disciple Peter made a big show of saying he wasn't a disciple of Jesus; it's right there in today's scripture. But I believe he gets a bum rap. For all his bull-in-a-china-shop passion, his inconsistency, his impulsiveness, and his tendency to just blurt things out, Peter turns out - in the long run - to be an extremely sensitive, thoughtful and courageous leader in the early church.

Yet this is the incident he's most famous for!

It seemed as if events had been accelerating in a downhill spiral for Christ's friends that week. At the beginning they must have all felt so "up", so on top of things; the Triumphal Entry into town was the crest of a new wave. Yet that wave quickly dashed against the rocks of disappointment, and their lives were spinning out of control.

Peter - especially - had always been so sure, so confident. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Up to this point Jesus had been just about immune to opposition. He sparred with his detractors, he healed the sick, he challenged convention, and he taught so convincingly that anything had seemed possible. Anything but this.

Jesus had alluded to the possibility, spoken indirectly, even told them flat out he would be killed. But it wasn't something they wanted to deal with and so they didn't really hear him. This man was going to redeem Israel! This man was their Messiah! This man was the Christ! Those facts didn't add up to anything near what Peter was experiencing the night Jesus was arrested, the night things started to unravel, that night in the high priest's courtyard.

Peter and all the others had still not managed to grasp the essential idea of Christ's teaching. Jesus was not about creating a "successful" movement according to the world's definition of the word success. Instead, he was intent on re-casting the meaning of words like "revolution", "freedom", and "victory."

Maybe, in that unique moment, Peter really wasn't one of Christ's disciples. Maybe he wasn't following Jesus when the girl asked the question. Maybe he was thinking "What can I do for a dead leader?" "How can I follow someone who is not going where I want to go?"

It's quite possible that Peter wasn't afraid... but instead he was disillusioned and confused. I've been there myself. I think we all have. And we already know the rest of the Easter story.

PRAYER: Loving God, please visit us with your spirit of assurance and encouragement. It is easy for us, still, to misunderstand your message. Amen.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The right idea - the wrong motivation: Lent 32

"Caiaphas was the one who advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people." (John 18:14)

Caiaphas was high priest in Jerusalem, and he saw "the big picture." Turns our that "the big picture" is usually impacted by politics. So, Caiaphas was right on the money with his assessment, but his wisdom was limited and his vision restricted. He was right but for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, and we have been following much of what he shared with his friends at the Last Supper. But the pandemonium of unfolding events began the moment he set foot in the city, a headlong rush toward the darkness of Good Friday and the startling light of coming Easter.

So Caiaphas was not the first person that week to use the correct words yet miss their meaning by a wide margin. All those teeming, cheering crowds and masses who originally greeted the Teacher missed the meaning of his coming in the "couldn't hit the broad side of a barn" category of misses.

The triumphal entry showed all too clearly the potential of Christ to attract and excite large throngs of people. And this was the fear the civic and religious leaders responded to; it was also Christ's fear - but for different reasons.

Jesus was concerned that a large groundswell of emotional response - without the benefit of discipleship - would misinterpret his vision of God's coming kingdom. Good grief, even his closest friends had a hard enough time grasping things clearly! But, as for Caiaphas, the high priest feared that they really would understand this teacher entirely - and that simply would not do...

Of course, Caiaphas was nowhere near to understanding the teachings of the Master, and consequently the idea of thousands of impassioned followers scared the living daylights out of him. Such a danger simply had to be stopped; such unrest might bring down the ire of Rome; such a response might cost the Jewish leaders what little autonomy remained in the midst of such a harsh Roman regime.

Didn't they all notice that he rode in on a donkey, a symbol of peace? Didn't they understand the Lord's utter indifference to the power structures that define our misguided planet? Hadn't they heard about the pain Jesus felt when he looked over Jerusalem and wept?

Caiaphas way the death of Jesus as a bone to throw the Romans, a demonstration that the Hebrew people wee committed to peaceful co-existence, a way to save lives.
  • Instead, Christ was led to his death as a lamb to the slaughter...
  • Passover blood splashed across the doorways of believers...
  • Revolution on a scale not even Rome could hope to oppose...
  • Danger unimaginable.
PRAYER: If I can ever understand the extent of your love, Lord, I will find the words to thank you. Amen

Friday, March 27, 2009

Loving Out Loud for God - Lent + 31

Here's a useful question: Why does the church exist? What makes us different from any other organization that provides community and seeks to do good? Jesus said something about this in his prayer (John 17). Jesus suggested that the reason we exist as a community to faith is to "Continue to make the Father known." Why? "In order that the love [the Father] has for me may be in them." This is why I have a photo of our church sign here at the top, with our pastors - Rebekah and Tim. God intends to love out loud through us. (click on the photo to visit our NEW church web-site)

"I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." Jesus - (John 18:26)

Jesus - and I can't help but re-wind a few verses today and jump back into his prayer at the conclusion of the Last Supper - hits this theme fairly hard, quite often, and from a number of angles. He's talking about love; love in the context of knowing, and he suggests in a number of ways that authentic love is best experience through interpersonal knowledge - that loving and knowing cannot be separated.

Making God - the Father - known is achieved more in terms of self-giving relationships than it is by just about every other vehicle combined. Yet so many religious people apply tremendous energy to "witnessing" via condemnation (not our job), conviction (the Holy Spirit's job), guilt, judgment ("I came not to condemn the world"), "holier-than-thou"-ness etc...

But Jesus talks about God's kind of love taking up residence in people, and he talks about it so much that it's impossible to miss the message that "They will know you are my followers by the love that you live out loud".

Jesus wants to live in us, he said, and he prays earnestly that the love the Father has for the Son will also take residence in our very being.

That kind of love is TRANSFORMATIONAL.

There's often a sense in which the affiliation of a Christian (the Christian being me, or you) with a church is not really distinct from any other affiliation. Maybe I'm also a member of a golf club, or the gym, or some kind of service organization or fraternal order.

Where I live a lot of people demonstrate their allegiance to a certain University via particular colors that they wear; they get very excited about it on game days, they pepper their conversation with references to their school, and they're not shy about letting the world know how faithful and committed they are - it's a defining association. To be honest, it's a lot easier to tell that some folk are "Gators" than to know if they possibly follow Christ.

Transformational faith is not just one more affiliation. Transformational faith changes us systemically, not topically. Transformational faith tells the truth about Jesus, and the truth is love that lives in us to the extent that we become an extension of God's love for the Son.

That's what Jesus said.

PRAYER: Please help me to live my faith with more transformational conviction, Lord. I want people to see you when they interact with me. I believe this is your plan for my life in your kingdom. Amen.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Leaning in Gethsemane - Lent 30

Stock image of the Garden of Gethsemane from the BBC (UK)

"Shall I not drink of the cup the Father has given me?" - Jesus (John 18:11)

I have been to Gethsemane. You cross the Kidron Valley, right under the Mount of Olives, and enter an ancient grove of olive trees. Some of the specimens have been dated by scientists at over two thousand years. There, across from the Old City, I was able to sit on the stony ground and lean against a tree - an olive that, maybe, Christ had leaned against on that awful, blessed night.

And now, sitting here at the computer contemplating the fact that it's my birthday today, I like to imagine that - deep in the heart of that particular tree and resonating in the prehistoric stones - were the literal echoes of my Savior's defiant, courageous words. Words not just to the impulsive Peter but to all who listened, all who listen still, all who can grasp the timelessness of his intention and the integrity of his willing sacrifice.

"Shall I not drink of the cup the Father has given me?" Jesus did not want to experience the coming 72 hours of pain and anguish; the power of his action is revealed in its incredible cost. He was not simply Immortal God going on a symbolic jaunt to salve the legal price of human rebellion. Not at all; he was flesh and blood, human being, faced with the horror of torture, shame and painful death. Christ was God Incarnate, bearing the cumulative burden of all our shortcomings. And he did this willingly, with his eyes wide open, of his own free will...

I saw this unbelievable advertisement one year, it came out at the beginning of Holy Week to promote the Spring Sale at a large department store. Anxious to let us all know how much we could save by shopping at their location, the merchant made this improbable gaffe: The banner read "NEVER BEFORE HAS EASTER BEEN SO CHEAP!"

How wrong is it possible to be!!?? Easter is costly to the extreme. Easter purchased my redemption. Easter even stretched the commitment of Christ to the extent that he spoke his reservations aloud, maybe to drive the point of it home to himself.

Thank God that he did. Thank you, God, that you did.

When I got to my feet that day at Gethsemane, and wandered along the rocky path up the mountain to see the magnificent view of the Golden City, Jerusalem, I fancied that I felt the presence of God more clearly, that maybe a residue of his physical nearness was resonating in my very bones - that I might carry Christ's spirit and purpose more eloquently, now that I had leaned against those ancient witnesses to such love.

PRAYER: "Amazing Love, how can it be." Thanks so much, Lord God, for making the first move in our evolving relationship. Amen

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Where eternity washes up against time - Lent 29

Sometimes life and work and people can get a little overwhelming. So I drove Rebekah out to the beach yesterday, and we had one of those "seafood and sunset" experiences Florida is famous for. After dinner we walked where the ocean laps against the land and I couldn't help but think about how - in Jesus - eternity washes into the edges of time. Christ is the interface of the infinite and the sublime.

Nowhere else in Scripture is this phenomenon illustrated so clearly as when Jesus, limited by the confines of human flesh, prays to the Eternal Father on behalf of his friends.
  • My prayer is not for my disciples alone, he says. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.
Slosh... splash... lap... the tide recedes... the water throws itself against the beach.
  • There had to have been tears in his eyes.
  • There had to have been a catch or two in his breath.
  • There had to have been a break in his voice.
  • Christ's prayer is so poetically tender, so compassionate, and completely empathetic.
The Lord loved this small group of men. I'm sure that he must have forged deep and personal friendships - because he himself is the author of relationship. God created us for the experience of community. Relationship to one-another, and relationship to himself. Jesus, fully human and fully God, understood and desired both ends of the equation. For him, relationships must have defined both his complete humanity and his intention - as God - toward humankind.

Our struggle to respond appropriately to the eternal is revealed in our response to Jesus. Jesus, in turn, was reaching out (is reaching out) to us, individually, in this prayer. Walking with us, as the Father originally intended in the Garden of Eden.

I love the way Jesus references those of us who are yet to come, traced through the eons of time; the way he appeals to God for the opportunity to share his glory with us, the same way he trusts us with his Father's message of active love.

I am so grateful that Jesus expressed his intention to continue to make God know to us, that he understood the comfort and the promise involved in that more complete realization of Grace... "That I myself may be in them," he prays.

It is certainly fitting that Christ's last words at that Last Supper were a prayer; that his benediction was a commitment to make God's perfect love known, evident, in the world. That he would accomplish all of this through his ongoing investment in us, in Derek Maul, in each soul reading today. "That the love you have for me may be in them."
  • How great is the love the father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are. (1 John 3:1)
PRAYER: Your love is so great that we cannot contain it sometimes, God. We are overwhelmed and we are humbled by you grace. Amen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Full Measure of Joy - Lent 28

One of my friends has a well-used caution he likes to roll out, pretty much every other week or so in my Sunday-morning "Practical Christianity" adult Christian-Ed class. "But we weren't there, were we?" he'll remind us. "We have no way of knowing exactly what Jesus (or Paul, or Mark, or John) meant when he said those words - other than the words themselves. We must respond to the text without inserting our own thoughts or motivations and ascribing them to people who are not our contemporaries."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that is - essentially - the gist of his position: We must be careful not to make the Bible say what we want it to say, without regard to context or historicity or what we actually do know via thoughtful scholarship.

And so we arrive at day 28 of Lent, and we are confronted by another saying of Jesus; one that is rich and instructive on so many levels. Let's read with my friend's caution in mind, and in light of this companion truth: The Word is a living document, provided by a Living God, and this living document is often quickened in our minds and hearts by the Living Holy Spirit.

  • "I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them... They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth...." - Jesus - (John 17: 13 and 16-17)
Joy is one of those words that is thrown around easily and often at Christmas (read "In My Heart I Carry A Star" for more). Yet joy does not command that much attention the rest of the year - and most especially Lent, the season of self-examination. The word is just too exuberant for most of us, more robust and intrusive than the terms we're ordinarily comfortable using to describe the subdued lives of faith we tend to lead.

I'm also thinking that we actually misunderstand what Jesus is saying when he speaks of his "full measure of joy," and in particular when we consider the way our society uses the word. We're likely to limit ourselves to images of uproarious laughter, backslapping, playtime, and the extravagances of our affluent American life.

Jesus was nowhere near that definition - although I'm convinced the Savior was not only capable but well practiced when it came to parties and laughter and fun. However, that was not the context from which he spoke about joy. Jesus spoke often and genuinely about joy and here, in the final tense hours before facing a horrible death - one he knew was coming, Christ refers to this "full measure of joy". What in the world was he talking about?

Fact is, the kind of joy Jesus talked about had very little to do with the inconsequential elements that confuse our orientation so much of the time - things like possessions, power, excess and amusing diversions. But joy did have - and does have - everything to do with understanding and experiencing the possibility of an authentic relationship with the Living God.
  • "I have given them your word," Jesus says, "and the world has hated them."
I detect here in Jesus a hint of inevitability, as if Christ is not at all surprised that the world hates his disciples because of the truth resident on God's Word.
  • "Sanctify them by the truth," he continues; "your word is truth."
And there we have the crux of the problem. It is truth that is often too much for people. The devil, Satan, is defined as much by the word "lie" as anything else; and God's word is truth. The most insidious work of evil is the presentation of the lie - or the misrepresentation of the truth - to confuse people so that God's Word is rejected even as they believe that they are being honest.

Our joy, then, is found in the truth; God's Word. There is only sorrow and futility outside of the truth. It follows that the full measure of our joy is in knowing the truth more completely, in knowing God, and in allowing ourselves to be known by the truth.

PRAYER: Teach us your way, dear Lord, that we might walk in the joy of your truth. Amen

Monday, March 23, 2009

Unity in Jesus - Lent 17

Picture: People-watching in San Francisco...

"Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name - the name you gave me - so that they may be one as we are one." - Jesus (John 17:11)

I am quite sure that Jesus looked around the room as he prayed - very deliberately. None of this "all heads bowed and eyes closed" disassociation for Jesus; I'll bet he named the disciples, one by one.

Jesus was aware of what made each of his friends unique; he knew their personalities; he understood that their individuality is what made them strong. He was conscious, too, of the difficulties inherent in blending such characters into an effective team.

I am sure that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing; because he chose them, because he knew them. I am sure that Jesus knows exactly what he is doing; because he chooses us, because he knows us... because he knows me.

I love people-watching. Sometimes I arrive early for my flight at an airport, and I have to wait; or my daughter drags me to the mall and she goes into one of those smelly stores that I can't stand, and I sit outside for a few minutes so I can breathe. Either way, the parade of people walking by is well worth the few minutes I have to hang around.

Sometimes I try to categorize the people I see milling around:
  • "Not from around here."
  • "Older than she dresses."
  • "Retired schoolteacher."
  • "Lawyer."
  • "Beautician."
  • "Escaped from the children for the afternoon."
  • "Not pleased to be shopping."
When things really get slow I even try to sort by denomination:
  • "That one shops like an Episcopalian..."
  • "Haven't seen a plaid shirt like that since last time I was in Wisconsin - must be a Lutheran..."
  • " Would you look at the size of the cross around his neck? Assemblies of God for sure..."
  • "Peace beads and a CROP Walk t-shirt? gotta be Presbyterian..."
But we really are "one," as Jesus prayed. I enjoy conferences where Jesus followers of all theological stripes celebrate what we have in common. It's about the saving grace of Jesus, the journey to the Cross - and beyond - and the imperative to share Christ's transforming love with this hurting world.

Christ is passionate when he prays for me... for you... for each one of us. "I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me for they are yours..." (verse 9). Jesus is focusing the amazing authority of his personal prayer to the Father on our well-being. Jesus is praying for all of us, even today!

It's quite startling, when I think about it. Jesus Christ himself lifts me before the Father. The prayer is earnest, ardent and tender. When I read this passage I get the feeling that Jesus held the image of my family in his mind, and of me as a individual, when he prayed.

Jesus really does love us.

PRAYER: I can only echo your sentiments, Lord. Holy Father, unite us by the power of your name. Amen

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jesus talks about real life - Lent 26

OK, just for clarification: Yes, that's me smiling on the golf course this weekend. But... no, that's not me playing golf instead of attending church this morning! Much as I love golf and much as I enjoy the outdoors - especially Florida at 80 degrees in the middle of March - I could never use the "I worship God on the golf course, that's how I thank God for nature and beauty" rationalization. There's something about authentic worship in the context of the community of faith - prayer and music and time set aside for focused attentiveness to the Spirit - that's incomparable; a polite nod to God by way of justifying church-avoidance via golf fools neither me nor the Almighty!

So, this is a picture of me on the golf course on Friday afternoon. I hit the ball lots of times, getting much better value for money "per stroke" than those who post a lower score (think about it!). I played with Tim Black, the mission and discipleship pastor at our church; Tim got even more value for his money. 

Golf is a fun part of my life - but the game fails to even remotely define me. It's my ongoing fellowship with Christ that makes absolutely every element of this life meaningful in the most amazing way.

SUNDAY: Lent, day 26. "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you." - Jesus (John 17:3)
  • Here's the context, John 17:1-5. "After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: 'Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began...'"
Talk about an incredible affirmation! Just in case there's any confusion as to what exactly is involved in the hereafter, Jesus clarifies things with this powerful promise and description of what eternal life means - both in substance and in spirit.

C.S. Lewis - one of my "Top Ten" favorite authors - argues that Hell is, quite simply, eternal life without God (The Great Divorce). Or, put another way, Hell is exactly what people who have rejected God want to experience. The place achieves its unpleasant character, Lewis suggests, as people live out their personal desires and gratifications without the mitigating influence of following Jesus and placing God at the center of their hopes and dreams.

"The Great Divorce" rings true, it always has. But now, reading Christ's definition of eternal life, I find myself even further convinced that Lewis was right on the mark. Because, when Jesus talks of "knowing the Father", it conjures up a more complete image of heaven than, say, day after day of golf, or a trouble free life, or undisturbed tranquility - in other words the limited perspective of my self-oriented wishes.

Christ's invitation is always to restoration, to a "stepping back into God's presence" so that we have this ongoing opportunity to renew the redemptive relationship which was intended from the very beginning of Creation.

I have this image in my head of an amazing heavenly library/learning center, where C.S. Lewis himself offers readings from his writings; where St. Francis facilitates symposiums on simplicity; where the Apostle Paul offers discussion on "Romans for Dummies", Graham Green lectures on "The Power and the Glory", and George Frederick Handle sits at the piano, annotating a lively "Messiah" master-class with commentary on his own work....

To know God! To engage the fount of creativity on a fundamental level and to enjoy intimate conversation. The first step, of course, on this journey into eternity, is to enter into God's presence each and every day and to actualize the possibility of deeper knowledge by accepting the work Christ has already done; to accept on an emotional as well as an intellectual level; to accept this invitation to live.

PRAYER: We knew about you, Lord God, before we started to know you more personally. Please encourage us in the purpose that we have, and please teach us how to know you on a deeper level still. Amen

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Washed in the Water: Take Heart part two - Lent 25

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - Jesus. (John 16:33)

My wife, Rebekah, tells of a woman who came to see her; she needed to talk about a deep grief in her family. The root of the anguish was her adult son, who often disappeared, unheard from, for several days and even weeks on end. His slides into oblivion were frequent - but he often bounced back and returned home for a while. There was substance abuse as well, in addition to the constant battle with his toxic anti-social behavior. Always it seemed there were more holes to dig out of, more heartache, ever growing grief.
  • "I promise I will pray for your son," Rebekah told her. "And I'm praying for you too, because I know that you must be in real despair."
  • "Thank you," the woman replied graciously. "It's very difficult, and we certainly do need the prayers. But I'm not in despair, you know..." and she lowered her voice, almost conspiratorially, "... You see he's baptized, and I know that God's promises are vested deep inside him. That gives me so much hope."
I have overcome the world....

Sometimes, early in the morning, I pray for the people who live inside the homes I walk by during my three-mile trek with Scout Labradoodle. I cover the occupants with prayer, giving the potentiality of their coming day to my Lord. It may be that a child had to step over the prone body of a drunken parent that morning on the way to the school bus; it's possible that there is going to be tension over a breakfast table, or tears over a family member struggling like the women with the fractious son; there may be unemployment, financial hardship, disease, or tragedy.

Despair, you see, has its fair swing at all of us, both people I know and those I may never meet. But I believe on some level there's bonafide spiritual warfare going on, and I demand equal time and attention from the One who brings peace and meaning. Take heart! I have overcome the world.

Lent is a good time to take a close look at our spiritual journey, The Life Examined, and to consider what exactly was at stake (is at stake) when Jesus finally got up from the table and went to the Garden and eventually the Cross. The victory has already been won! Take heart! Each individual battle is played against the backdrop of the final curtain, the foregone conclusion. "Oh death, where is your victory? oh death, where is your sting?"
  • "I am persuaded," Paul write in his letter to the Romans. "That neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
PRAYER: Dear God, thank you for your strength, your faithfulness, and your assurance. Amen

Friday, March 20, 2009

Trouble in the world - Lent day 24

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - Jesus (John 16:33)

Our world is vast and complex; even America by itself can be overwhelming at times. I remember my first trip on a Greyhound bus, out from Philadelphia when I was 19. Up to Buffalo; across the border to London, Ontario; on to Toronto, then Detroit; later Chicago, lots of nothing before running into Minneapolis; lots more nothing (including Fargo, N. Dakota) and eventually into Montana, Billings then Bozeman. I had the Simon and Garfunkel song "Gone to look for America" stuck in my head for weeks.

Actual travel, running road-time, was 82 hours. I was , quite simply, blown away by the scope of the United States! There were stretches of North Dakota where the bus ran full tilt without deviating for several hours with barely a change of scenery. America was so big that first year that I could scarcely take it in.

Europe is quite the opposite, but just as impressive in its own way. Our son, Andrew, is driving from Germany and through Switzerland on his way to Italy today. A trip covering the same number of miles as my Greyhound odyssey would take someone through the entire European continent and deep into North Africa, or wind through the capitals of every major nation; condensed history and culture and countless varieties of topography at a mind-boggling rate.

Kings, dictators, heads of state - leaders of all variety. Mighty armies; nuclear arsenals; aircraft carriers; fanatical Islamic fighters; vast treasure troves; powerful economies; multi-billionaire software executives; railroad barons; oil Sheiks; financial empires; vast political systems; capitalism; communism; free markets....

This world, with its collective resources and fragmented will, is becoming a vast network of development, invention, poverty, abuse, learning, exploitation, opportunity, oppression, freedom, weakness and strength. The application of technology is increasing wealth and power... and depleting resources... and squandering fortunes... and creating jobs... and leaving economies strong - or reeling - at a hard-to-quantify rate.

The small band of Jesus-followers, Christ's disciples seated around the dinner table, could see clearly the evidence of some of the most abusive and corrupt power the planet had ever known. The Roman Empire has its iron fist clamped tightly around the tiny nation of Israel... and today the world offers just as much danger and repression in its own version of "... you will have trouble."

Yet,Jesus states, quite categorically, "Take heart, for I have overcome the world."

PRAYER. "We shall overcome; we shall overcome; we shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day...." Thank you, God. Amen

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Teaching as Performance Art - Lent + 23

"Now we understand...." - The Disciples (John 16:30)
(Photographs taken between 1986 and 1993;
Derek Maul and a variety of his students in north Florida)

Teaching, as most of us already know, is not an exact science. Oh, they'd like to make you think it is back at the university in the teacher's college: Just do this, plus this, and then mix in a little of this... and the little darlings will be eating out of your hands and they'll all become scholars.

Not exactly.

Those of us who have read the novel Jurassic Park will understand the basic idea of "Chaos Theory". Simply put, Chaos Theory states that, given the amazing number of possible variables (from small things like the time of day or what I had for breakfast to more large-scale factors such as a natural disaster - most of which are beyond anyone's control), there is no way to conclusively predict with 100% accuracy exactly what will happen - and that includes the physical world - presented with a given set of circumstances.

This leads to concepts such as "Somebody sneezes in New York and three days later there's a tornado in Kansas"! One measurable event affects the outcome of another measurable event - that much we understand. But, by the time just a few seconds have passed there is too much information, too many possible permutations, too many impossible to measure variables in play, and our ability to draw conclusions or make reasonable predictions is severely compromised.

All this brings us back around to teaching, and why it is more of an art than a science. I used to tell student teachers that the classroom experience is 20% preparation and 80% theater. Teaching is, at best, Performance Art. It's almost a joke but not really, because teachers work with a pallet that is 100% unpredictability multiplied exponentially by the human failings of teacher plus student plus administration plus family.

Chaos Theory is purely a statistical analysis concept. based on the behavior of physical objects that react according to the laws of nature as best we understand them. Children, on the other hand, are people, and they behave according to moral law - something that is at play in varying degrees from one day to another.

The 12 disciples were Christ's classroom; a Master-Class. Training these folk had been a three year process of mentoring, lecture, dialog, study and practical experience. We have already discussed the predilection of Andrew, Peter and company toward denseness - and I can imagine that Jesus experienced his share of "Teacher exasperation".

I can picture the expression on the Savior's face when his crew finally "got it." This was important stuff, and it was (it IS) imperative that the disciples understand not only the depths of Christ's love but also some of the theology and rational behind it all.

It is also imperative that we, too, understand the deeper meanings of our faith, "Blessed is the man," the Psalmist exclaims, "whose delight is in the law of the Lord, who meditates on it day and night..." (Psalms 1).

PRAYER: Guide our minds, Lord, and help us to understand the remarkable depths of your generous love for us. Amen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Redemption of Promise - Lent day 22

I'm continuing the Lent series this morning. These three weeks so far have been a helpful discipline for me, getting into the scripture and asking God to speak in a fresh way each new day.

In my book "GET REAL", I talked about the fact that only 10% of professing Christians engage a deliberate, routine devotional life; I went on to point out the startling companion statistic, that 100% of people who do spend time with God every day report radically positive results. I'm here this morning to report the absolute veracity of that truth in my personal day-to-day experience.

So I invite everyone, even the casual reader who just discovered this blog today, to join me as I continue my journey through Lent; the journey to the cross; the pathway to Easter; following Jesus one moment at a time.

"In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God" - Jesus (John 16:26-27)

Think "Priestly Tradition."

In Old Testament times, priests communicated to God on behalf of regular people; they were still doing this when Jesus came along. But even the priests could not handle the actual presence of God.

When Moses went up the mountain to speak with God he had to hide in a fissure in the rock so that, when God walked by behind him, he would not be struck dead by God's shadow passing by. Then, when he returned to the Israelite camp, the people couldn't stand to see the residual evidence of God's glory shine from their leader's face. So Moses had to wear a veil in order to protect them.

How complicated was that! It's like a reflection of the Moon's borrowed light somehow remaining on another surface well after the sun has actually gone down for the night. Still, it was too much for the children of Israel and so they hid.

So now along comes Jesus:
  • "No," the Master says, "you do not need an intermediary any more if you want to access the Father. I'm not even saying that I will have to ask the Father on your behalf; you can just go ahead and talk with God directly. Use my name as a good introduction - that much is very important - but go ahead and do your own asking."

That is one amazingly remarkable truth! Direct access to the Living God.

Of course, that's exactly what God had intended all along. Back in the garden, after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, it was they who hid themselves behind some bushes and away from God's presence. When God walked in the garden - in the cool of the day - he expected to be able to dialog with his children - a little tête-à-tête with the people he loved so deeply. God was disappointed when he found they had driven a wedge between themselves and the relationship they were created to enjoy.

Because of Jesus we can walk with God in the garden once again in the cool of the day. What a wonderful privilege.

The time was coming when Jesus would tell them plainly about everything. That time was his death. The most direct and unequivocal message is Christ's eloquent sacrifice, and the result is the redemption of promise, a new relationship with the Father.

PRAYER: No more veil. Lord, we are humbled by our admission into your presence. Sometimes I wish that we would glimpse more of your glory than we can reasonably handle. Surprise us, Lord. Amen

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lent Day 21 - No one will take away the joy

"A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." - Jesus (John 16:21-22)

I remember each detail so clearly. Father's Day, June 2o 1982, 2:45 in the afternoon, after what had been a very, very long night and morning.

What a roller-coaster of feelings that day was! Rebekah and I were both exhausted and spent, physically and emotionally. And, then, when we thought that we had nothing left, a baby was born! Andrew Kemp Maul was as tired as we were, and visibly upset at being disturbed so rudely. But he settled easily into his mother's arms - and then mine, more than ready to get a little bit of rest.

And there we all were, just a minute into his new life; a small family huddled together in the hospital room united and bound in the fabric of joy. We knew that every minute of pain and anguish was just a prologue to the unimagined gladness that was instantly ours.

Jesus uses this exact image, the picture of birth, to prepare his friends for what was about to come.
  • "You are about to experience real pain," he explains, "as well as genuine grief. You are going to weep and mourn while the world around you rejoices. But just imagine how difficult it is to give birth. Like new parents throughout time, the anguish that you feel will be nothing compared to the amazing joy of new life.
  • "I am new life. I am the way, the truth and the life. You will discover that the miracle of birth is not limited to the moment a child comes into this world. And it is going to be your joy - your very own - no one will be able to take it away."
Hold that moment, if you will. Recapture the instant you first held a newborn child in your arms - maybe your own. Consider your Christian experience and think back to when you first understood the message of Jesus as being uniquely for you. Jesus wants us to take hold of that wonder now; he wants us to hold his love and the promise of his grace with such tenderness and such emotional clarity.

The wonder of children, new-born babies especially, is in the magical ability they have to reconnect all of us with our own deep and vulnerable places. Are we willing to invite God into those places today?

PRAYER: We know that in you our joy is made complete, God. Grant us the courage to become vulnerable in your presence so we can invite you into the deep places. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday - Day 20 - Pop Quiz

"They [the disciples] kept asking 'What does he mean by a little while? We don't understand what he is saying...'" (John 16:17-18)

OK; pop quiz. What did the disciples say more than almost anything (other than "Who remembered to bring lunch?") during their three years of ministry and travel together?

Answer: "Huh?" "Duh?" "Run that by us again..." or "We don't understand what the Master is saying."

That said, we have to give these guys some credit. This was two thousand years ago and the world was very flat - almost two dimensional. Everything they understood was clearly definable in terms of "This is what we see." "This is what we feel." "This is what we have been taught is true." and "This is what we can know experientially."

In developmental psychology - and this played out exactly in my years of classroom experience with developmentally delayed children -there is a concept known as "conservation."

Conservation is a landmark in a child's learning. Put a rattle in front of a baby and the infant will reach for it. Move the rattle within the field of vision and the child will still reach for the toy. Place the rattle under a blanket, though, and it has essentially fallen away from the infant's experience; the child will not reach for the object because the rattle simply does not exist any more. There is no knowing without a direct connection via the five basic senses. Conservation means to conserve the image or the possibility of the desired object even when it has been hidden. At some point in development the child will continue to grope for the rattle even when it is hidden from sight - understanding that it is still there, even though it is beyond the parameters of his or her five senses.

Likewise, it was a real struggle for the twelve disciples to grasp some of Christ's teaching, because he referenced a world that was beyond the scope of their language or their experience. Traditionally, God had performed Mighty Acts - discrete and measurable - in history, in real observable time and space. Jesus, however, was talking about the spiritual world, of going away and of coming back, of sending another Comforter.

I believe it was to the disciples' credit that they didn't just swallow every ounce of this stuff hook line and sinker. They were willing to ask questions.

Jesus is still willing for us to ask questions; hard ones and more basic ones too. Our God is not so small that we cannot sit back and wonder sometimes. In fact, the more tidy and neatly wrapped my God is, the more I have diminished the idea of deity through my small imagination and lack of faith.

I know this much in the realm of conservation. "Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have entrusted to him against that day." (2 Timothy 1:12)

PRAYER: Sometimes your majesty and power and awesome greatness seem beyond our ability to understand. Help us to keep our feet on the ground. Grounded, that is, in the experience of your marvelous grace. Amen

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Discovering "God's Will" - Lent Day 19

"But when he, the spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." Jesus (John 16:13)

I remember reading a book several years ago that advertised itself as the definitive resource necessary for any Christian to discover God's will. By the time I had finished I was so confused that I could barely pick out a pair of pants without wondering  if I had the right style or color according to God's master plan for my life!

Believe me, it doesn't have to be that hard. There are two approaches to the basic problem:
  • One is to feel that God has reviewed every possible permutation, every eventuality, every accident or every potential choice we could possibly make, extrapolating from the various variables that might potentially come into play. We, then, straining to review or preview all of these details, chose which ever direction fits best with our emerging understanding of God's perfect plan. That just sounds exhausting!
  • The second approach would be to get to know God more deeply, more honestly, more completely... and to yield our selves to The Way. Paul, writing in 2nd Corinthians and the third chapter, suggests that we "Behold Christ (spend time in the presence of Jesus) so that we (in response to our beholding) reflect the Lord's glory, being transformed into his likeness." Additionally, as Paul goes on to remind his readers, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."
Freedom! If we are guided by the Spirit of Truth, then, we are no longer in bondage to the obsession of trying to figure out the correct response to every decision - big or small. Instead, as Christians being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, we develop what Paul calls - in Philippians chapter two - "The same mind as Christ." Now that really is freedom!

What was it Jesus said? "I am the way, the truth and the life..." I am the truth. If we are guided into truth, then we are guided into Christ. If we seek the presence of God, and in so doing become transformed into the likeness of the Son, then we are indeed walking in the truth... walking in the light... walking in the will of God...

"I will send you a Counselor. I will send you a guide."

PRAYER: Spirit of all truth... Author of truth... Lead us into the presence of Christ; lead us into your perfect way. We will follow. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Behind the Iron Curtain with much to learn

USSR (1975) Continued...
When we arrived in Kiev we immediately visited the registered Baptist church. The pastor there had made arrangements for us to pass our contraband on the his colleague in the Underground Church.

He explained to me that registration as part of an approved congregation enabled people to maintain access to basic services and a minimal education. In exchange for such tolerance, Sunday-school classes for children were prohibited, the content of his preaching carefully reviewed by the state, and church activities had to be pre-approved, monitored, and corrected when necessary.

Participants in the unregistered church, on the other hand, suffered persecution when they were found out. Their families were denied access to medical help, they were ineligible for official employment, and educational opportunities were routinely withdrawn. Disappearances were frequent, along with visits to the Gulag as well as mysterious deaths - especially among the clergy.

The romanticism and mystique of spy movies now thoroughly behind me, I quickly unburdened myself of what had obviously been a dangerous game. And it wasn't until we reached Yugoslavia, almost two weeks later (Romania is another story - see my new book!) that my heart rate returned to normal!

That was 1975. Today, in the year 2009, it is not terribly difficult to be identified as a Christian in the United States. I sometimes wonder, though, if our comfort is not related to our tendency to re-interpret Christ's radical message so that it fits more easily into the affluent, consumer driven society we enjoy. Our religion is not that counter-cultural, so most people simply ignore us and leave us alone.

Philip Yancey, in his excellent book "The Jesus I Never Knew", suggests that we have recreated Jesus in an image less threatening to expected modern day religious practice. Christ has been sanitized, rough edges sanded down, radical fringe elements carefully rephrased, re-packaged so as not to offend...

Christ-followers all around the world are still being tortured and slaughtered because they dare to take seriously the radical message of their revolutionary Savior. Can we not at least take a more effective stand for goodness, a more costly position regarding decency, and be more self-sacrificial advocates for His agenda?

Our call is - still - to be counter-cultural. How will they know the Father? How will anyone know Jesus? Unless we are willing to put ourselves on the line...?

PRAYER: Use us, Lord, use us to communicate your radical message of redemption and your costly message of sacrifice. Amen

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jesus Gets Serious

"In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God... They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me." - Jesus (John 16:2-3)

Back in 1975, I took a trip into the Soviet Union with a busload of 37 Christians. Apart from the whole touristy thing, and the educational value of Eastern Bloc travel at the height of the Cold War, one of our goals was to take Bibles, encouragement, and much needed medical supplies to members of an Underground Church in the Ukraine.

My job for the entire tour had been packing and unpacking the decrepit truck we took along with all the camping equipment, food, suitcases and supplies we needed to support the busload of people during three months of camping throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Consequently it fell to me to assist the officials who inspected our vehicles when we crossed the border from Romania into the USSR. Already deep behind the Iron Curtain, we could feel the darkness thicken as we handed over our passports. The rude, bullying behavior of the guards only aggravated our sense of anxiety.

They even went so far as to cut open 20-pound bags of rice and empty large containers of freeze-dried foods; they made as much disruptive mess as possible :
  • We know you are Christian, yes?" a uniformed officer said to me from behind reflective sunglasses. "We guess you visit other Jesus people we do not know. Maybe you have letters, names, address. Very interesting for us...."
When it came to suitcases, they needed my help to unravel the mess. Carefully, I played an elaborate version of a "Shell Game", the three suitcases stuffed with medicine and Russian language Bibles caught in an endless loop of passing, dumping, searching and repacking. Mercifully, we made it through after close to four grueling hours.

Our tour guide, "Nikita," spoke cryptically yet candidly with us as we gathered around the camp-fire that night:
  • Here in Soviet Union we have no problems with secret police... What they do is NO secret! We have other joke: K.G.B. stand for 'Kind Good Boys." Remember this please, and be extra careful."
... (Story to be continued tomorrow, day eighteen.)

Love and blessings - DEREK

PRAYER: Help us to understand, Lord, the tremendous blessings of our freedom here in our home. Be with those in other nations who are struggling with persecution and oppression, even as we pray. Amen.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Friends who love me and encourage my path

Continuing through Lent... "All this I have told you so that you will not go astray..." - Jesus (John 16:1)

Yesterday evening my "Mens Room " Bible study group changed our typical routine, and we invited a handful of other guys to join us for dinner. Several of my "Most Excellent Dudes" are involved in hunger programs and we wanted to raise both awareness and dollars for our congregation's hunger initiatives while at the same time exposing some additional men to our Bible-study.

After we gathered and said the blessing I made the guys go out to the church parking lot. There my friend, Gerard, handed out paper bags (stuffed with simple sandwiches and fruit) and bottled water from the back of his car - just like he does when he meets homeless folk in the various places they hang out around town. We then shared a powerful time together, talking about the deep impact hunger ministries have on those privileged to participate.

The call to discipleship, our deliberate and purposeful decision to follow Jesus, necessarily includes acts of mercy and kindness. In fact, the more time we spend in the presence of the Master, the more our fundamental life-style will incorporate Christ-likeness. Then, as we listen more attentively to God's voice, specific acts of mercy and kindness will give way to a lives functionally defined by those qualities. Instead of topical, the nature of Jesus will be systemic.

Most of the Bible verses we're using during these 40 days of Lent are from John's account of "The Last Supper." Jesus seems concerned that his friends still don't quite "get" what he is saying. "All this I have told you so that you will not go astray," Jesus points out, as if he wants to hammer some of his essential teachings one more time.

That's one reason I am committed to my Wednesday Men's Room Bible study. God works powerfully and compellingly through my brothers. These are men unafraid to hold one-another accountable (Well, some of them are a teensy-bit resistant to transparency beyond a certain threshold), and they understand the value of prayer-support and encouragement during the week.

It's a kind of Wednesday grounding. Yesterday comprised one of those occasions where there was no equivocation regarding how important we are to one another.

It is my prayer that each one of us engage the friendship of other believers - people who love God in the way that they love you. Then we can love them back, grow in faith, and serve God more faithfully in this hurting world.

PRAYER. Ditto the last line. Amen

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Living in the Truth - Lent day 15

"And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning." - Jesus (John 15:27)

This past Saturday I flew from Tampa to Wichita, via Dallas/Ft. Worth. I was flying the friendly skies - up up and away, hoping the airline was ready when I was, so they could earn their wings every day and tell me I was now free to move about the country.

On one leg I sat next to a lawyer and former attorney general; the man was bona fide character. He noticed I was reading from my book, "GET REAL", and we talked about faith for a while.
  • "My wife is really interested in that kind of thing," was all he would say.
He was returning from a mission to hand-deliver a check for $260,000 to a poor family in Florida. It was the last action of a complex trust settlement and the recipients did not know they were beneficiaries.
  • "Mark," I said (not his real name). "Did they accept the check?"
  • "Of course," he replied.
  • "Were you enthusiastic about handing it over?" I asked. "Or did you just deliver the check and walk away?"
  • "It was a great experience!" he said. "Why do you ask."
You see I was thinking about faith again. We have this amazing treasure; much more interesting than two hundred sixty thousand dollars. You can't even begin to price the value of a relationship with the Living God. Yet, more often than not, we fail to deliver the news with any real enthusiasm, and people decline the inheritance as if they're merely passing up another magazine subscription or a life insurance sales pitch.

I've been wearing out this central theme recently, but it bears repeating because the implications are so powerful and far reaching.
  • "We need to live as if we mean it! Why? Because God most certainly does."
I'm convinced that if more people of faith lived in a spirit of authentic meaning, modeling an apprehension of the implications of Grace that re-tools us down to our very foundations as people, then it wouldn't be so hard, or so false, or so staged for us to share the good news. Instead, we'd simply have to live in a manner that reveals the truth.

Think about it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Friends of God - Lent Day 14

THE FIRST SUPPER by Colin O'Loughlin

Lent series, continued. Day 14:
"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead I call you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made know to you." - Jesus (John 15:15)

Sometimes I try to get my mind (my very small mind) around the astonishing fact that Jesus values me as a friend. Yes, the Son of the Living God, of one substance (homo-ousia) with the Father, Emmanuel, Creator of the Universe, Prince of Peace - has made the deliberate point of calling us his friends.

I typically don't begin to realize just how mind-boggling this is. To put it into perspective, think about those people you know who are name-droppers; maybe you're one yourself.: "Yes, congressman so and so... Neighbors of mine... Played golf with him... Cute kids too..."

In England there is a whole series of circles that emanates from the social epicenter known as "The Royal Family" or "The Royals" for those in the know. Apparently jockeying for position and trying to be in contact with someone one level closer to ground zero is serious business for social climbers; and people achieve something resembling Nirvana when Queen Elizabeth II actually calls them by name. (I know this because my cousin, one of the Queen's closest friends - she likes to play Monopoly with him - told me about it).

Now conceptualize this: The King of Kings and Lord of Lords knows us by name. God calls us friends. Grasp even a small part of what that really means - especially as compared to some terrestrial luminary reading your name from a card while waiting for the next 300 people to shake hands and promise campaign money!
  • "And I love you so much that I am prepared to lay down my life for you. Do you understand the measure of my personal regard for you? Peter... David... Sally... Derek... Steve... Rebekah... JoEllen... Karin... Lee... I love you so completely..."
Jesus loves us so completely that obedience, love, joy, and death can all be uttered in the same paragraph. Remember that fruit we were talking about yesterday, connected to the true vine, sustained by Jesus; that fruit is love, and it is personal, and it is alive.

PRAYER: It's the fact that you walked right into the Garden of Gethsemane knowing, Lord; knowing exactly what would happen. I'm so glad that I do not need to be worthy of such love via my achievements. I can't imagine where I would be if you held law or worthiness over my head. Thanks. Amen

Monday, March 9, 2009

I don't think we're in Kansas any more

Belle Plaine, Kansas - Men's Charge leaders Doug and David outside the United Methodist Church

"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine." - Jesus (John 15:1-8, v 4)

Yesterday evening I returned home from my two-day trip to Kansas. I'd been invited to keynote at a "Men's Charge" event that bought Jesus-followers from several churches together for fellowship, learning, and mutual encouragement.

These guys were living the spiritual truth that "No branch can bear fruit by itself." The leaders came from the Belle Plaine United Methodist Church, the Belle Plaine Church of Christ, and the Belle Plaine Baptist Church.

In this particular community the enthusiastic participation of those three churches in an "I am the vine, you are the vine, we are the vine together..." event was explained to me as nothing short of a "Major Miracle."

Jesus would have said something like this. "No duh! My body is a connectional system; you need me, and the way the Father designed things you also need each other. To abide in me, to 'remain' in me, you must stay connected to the vine; end of story."

Back in Pensacola we had a troublesome wisteria that kept cropping up all over. One of its favorite venues was the telephone pole on the edge of our property; it also liked the adjacent fence. The thing was relentless.

Every once in a while I'd go out with huge pruning shears and cut the vine carefully where it first emerged from the ground. In a few hours the wisteria would droop, the turn brown. A few days later I could easily pull it all down.

Jesus wants us to understand that we are as vitally connected to him - and to one another - as the fruit is to a vine. Without his sustaining grace we simply wither and die.

The church is part of the system of sustenance that keeps us connected and nourished. When I say "The Church" I don't mean my denomination or yours. The Church is known as "The Body of Christ" because Jesus ministers to the world through the church, and it's through us that the vine continues to grow and bear fruit.

Growth is part of the definition of life; Jesus is unequivocal regarding this. And life is never stagnant, quiescent, or listless. Rot and decay have no place in the vine. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

"Check out the fruit," Jesus said; "That's how you're going to know my disciples."

PRAYER: You are the true vine, dear Lord. Help us to recognize our deep thirst for your nurture, and then fill us with your grace. Amen.

Picture: That's me, with my new friend and brother, Doug Hisken

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sunday - Lent Day 12 - The Prince of this World

Today I'm continuing the Lent Devotional series. Writing and posting late Saturday evening in Belle Plaine, Kansas....

“I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” - Jesus (John 14:30-31)

If you are ever tempted to doubt the reality of evil as an active force in this world, simply remember that Jesus believed it to be so. A Pollyanna outlook - unwilling to confront the possibility of darkness - simply plays into the hands of evil. In C. S.Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the older demon acknowledges that his cause has much more power when Christians fail to concede that they are real.

At the same time we also have to understand that evil has no power over us. But we cannot defeat an enemy we refuse to name. Having named evil for what it is, we can go on to declare that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that he is Lord....” (Phil 2:10-11) And that includes evil. Darkness has no hold on the Master - or Jesus followers.

Jesus often talked about how important it is to follow the Father’s commandments. Evil may have no power over us, but there is a condition to such assurance. The condition is our commitment to do God’s will and to follow his way.

“That is such narrow and old-fashioned thinking,” people say. “You sound legalistic, why should we act like robots, afraid to step off the straight and narrow?”

Not at all. We follow God’s commandments because we love him. When we stray from the path it is because our dialog has broken down, not because we forgot some trivial rule. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” scripture tells us, “there is liberty.”

A useful discipline of Lent, then, is to place ourselves where we know we will meet Jesus on a regular basis, and then we'll know his way. Because of this commitment, Christ's way will become our way, and the Pilgrim Path will become increasingly natural and clear.

What a remarkable place to be. Christ's assurance gives both hope and freedom. What a wonderful Savior.

PRAYER: “Jesus is a wonderful Savior, he will carry me through. Jesus is a wonderful Savior, he will carry me through. Jesus is a wonderful Savior, he will carry me through. And when the battle is done and the victory won: my Lord will carry me through.” (Source of lyrics: unknown) Amen

Saturday - Lent Day Eleven

(Picture courtesy of America Airlines)
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid." - Jesus: (John 14:27)

- Dateline: Tampa International Airport, 7:00 AM
I'm writing this post waiting to board a flight to Kansas - via Dallas Fort Worth. Yes, I know what you're thinking: I wonder, did he remember his ruby slippers....? Ha ha; nice one.But I already tried that joke on the people who invited me to Kansas and they just ignored it, let it slip right by without comment. I'm guessing they've been over the whole Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz thing for some time now.

But I'm sitting here, pounding on this keyboard like someone who still hasn't quite made the transition from his manual typewriter, looking ahead and running through everything I have to do over the weekend. And, despite the frenetic rush through details and traffic and airport security, and notwithstanding the bona fide awful music mix dominating the background - I can honestly say I am experiencing an authentic peace.

I've got to tell you, this is a Jesus kind of peace. It's the kind of deep inner-soul conviction that Jesus is able to talk about with his friends just hours before his betrayal, arrest, mockery of a trial, humiliation and the unspeakable horror of death via crucifixion. 

Interesting thought I'm having about the crucifixion at this moment. Jews were required to go through ritual cleansing before they could bring a sacrifice before God. But Jesus was bloody (unclean), Jesus had been manhandled by Gentiles (unclean). Jesus was stripped naked and publicly exposed (unclean). Jesus was not offered the opportunity to wash ritualistically (unclean). Jesus was - eventually - dead (as unclean as it gets). Yet he presented himself as an atonement,,. an offering... a sacrifice. And, let me say this, Jesus got the job done.

So I'm sitting in this uncomfortable seat out at Gate 77, contemplating my next cup of Starbucks - extra strong, and the sense of peace I'm experiencing has everything to do with the fact that "I know who holds the future (and I'm guided by God's hand"). Listening to God first thing in the morning, having already made plans for the day based on my conviction regarding what God wants me to be up to, gives me peace.

Peace is not simply resting in the presence of God so much as it is moving forward in the presence of God. Peace is about God-saturated behavior. Peace is a state of being more than a state of mind. Peace is an action word.

That's why Jesus said "Not like the world gives..." That's why my heart is seldom troubled any more. That's why I;m here at the airport. That's where Lent is taking me, one prayer, one conscious thought, one simple decision at a time.

PRAYER: We all have something to do today that is exclusively Kingdom behavior. Guide us in these few quiet moments to listen to your voice and to bring your kind of peace into this anxiety ridden world. Amen