Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why I Celebrate Christmas

There is no Biblical command to celebrate Christmas, but I do so anyway. Am I dishonoring the very One whose birth is being remembered? I don't believe so.

Every year I'm asked whether we even should be celebrating Christmas. The questions seem to center on a few key points:
  • Jesus wasn't born December 25. 
  • His birth wasn't exactly as pictured in our nativity scenes.
  • We are not commanded to celebrate Christmas, and there is no evidence that the apostles did so.
  • There is a pagan connection, even a possible pagan origin, of some of our Christmas traditions.
There is some truth in each of these concerns. Yet I have examined each one for myself, and still celebrate Christmas. Why? Because I'm convinced that if we celebrate in a way that honors Christ, Christmas provides  incredible opportunities to know Him and make Him known. Here's how I have answered these concerns through my own study.

"Jesus wasn't born December 25."

The date we celebrate, in my opinion, doesn't really matter. Is there any way to know what day Jesus was born? Not really. Yes, based on our Scriptural evidence Jesus was likely born in late fall. But since we don't have a Scripture that gives a precise date, I don't think God is going to hold it against us if we celebrate on a different day. In the U.S., society for the most part comes to a screeching halt one day of the year. What day is that? Dec. 25. (Sure there are things still open, but Wal-Mart even closes down - that says a lot!) So, since I live in this culture, I celebrate Dec. 25 as Christmas Day. If I lived in Eastern Europe where Orthodox tradition prevails, I would celebrate Jan. 7. I believe this falls under Paul's admonition to the Romans regarding the Sabbath: 
"One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord..." (Rom. 14:5-6a)
"His birth wasn't exactly as pictured in our nativity scenes."


No, it wasn't. The stable was likely a cave, the wise men came later to a house, and there's no reason to assume the animals were looking on with awe. For artistic purposes, the nativity combines all the elements of shepherds and wise men into one. It reflects the heart of the stories of the shepherds and wise men: Worship. They came to worship Jesus. The central point of any nativity is the Babe in the manger. Our scene is a cultural adaptation to our understanding of mangers, from our days as a primarily agricultural society. If Jesus had come to 1700s America, the manger would have looked a lot like the ones we see in the nativities. That's why nativities around the world can look different; they have different perspectives when they approach Scripture. God didn't include pictures, because that wasn't the point. He wanted us to see the worship that took place. So I proudly get out the nativity every year, display at work (in my personal workspace) until my vacation begins, then set it up under the tree. I never fail to get comments on it from Christians and non-Christians alike. There is something about the scene that draws people.

Having said that, I do think it's good to educate the church about which elements of that scene are cultural or aritistic and which are Biblical. Just like watching "The Passion of the Christ" involved a understanding that we were seeing an artistic representation of Mary, and Satan, and the Via Dolorosa ... so viewing a nativity should involve an educated understanding of what lies behind the display. I've even had great conversations with people at work pointing out where Scripture differs from the nativity scene. It's a great way to open dialogue and discuss the heart of the nativity, which is worship.

We are not commanded to celebrate Christmas, and there is no evidence that the apostles did so. 
True enough. We are also not commanded to drive cars to church, wear shoes year-round, eat hamburgers, or have a blog. :) I'm pretty sure the apostles did none of those things. The point here is that a lack of a command does not imply the opposite - that it is forbidden. Scripture is written to be valid for ALL people in ALL places and ALL eras. As a result, there are going to be things we have to assess within our culture and determine their place in the larger principles of Scripture. In this case, the question is are we observing it "for the Lord", or is He a veneer for our selfish nature? I thoroughly believe we have to be very intentional to avoid merely allowing Him to be our excuse for a month of gluttony and selfishness.

In our family we have taken some very deliberate steps over the years to make sure we focus on HIM. Each year I ask God to give me a new insight about His birth ... a new way to KNOW Him. We celebrate Advent (a lost tradition among many Protestants, but one that is worth reconsidering) by reading a Scripture every day and lighting a candle with a specific Scriptural focus each Sunday and Christmas night. This season is similar to Lent in that it prepares us for Christmas Day. By the time we get to read the entire Luke 2 Christmas story, I can hardly wait! Additionally, we make sure to purchase Christ-centered cards, include cross-shaped ornaments, and choose movies that are honoring to Him. We say Merry Christmas and listen to Christmas worship music. We enjoy finding inexpensive or homemade gifts - it's fun to see how little we can spend on Christmas gifts. This year we started a diet on Dec. 12 - that's a good way to keep from letting Christmas be a good excuse for gluttony! Giving to others is good any time of the year, but certainly is a great way to fight selfishness. The point isn't so much about what we do - it's that we, like anyone, have to be intentional in the face of commercialism and opportunities for greed.

There is a pagan connection, even a possible pagan origin, of some of our Christmas traditions. 
Sure there is. There is also a connection of organ music to bars; overhead projectors were used for movies way before they were used in the church; and American Christians used to sing only the Psalms before someone started giving Christian lyrics to secular songs. The Gospel came in and changed a lot of things in a lot of places in the world. In every culture, when the Gospel comes and people choose to follow Jesus, they'll look around at their society and see things to embrace without reservation, things to reject utterly, and things that have potential if redeemed "for the Lord". For example: African congo drums can without reservation be a part of worship. There is no command to do so, but Africans can freely use their cultural drumbeats for His glory. On the other hand, the cannibalism of the Auca tribe (that killed Jim Eliot and friends) had to be thoroughly rejected. There is just no positive way to bring murder into a Christian worldview! And a lot of things have potential if redeemed "for the Lord" ... such as the organs that were popular in bars in the 1800s that made their way into churches.

The question to ask is the purpose for each element ... and we can't ask that of anyone other than ourselves. We have a tree, and lights, and decorations, to lavishly show love and honor to the One whose birth we are celebrating. We give gifts to show others that they are more important than ourselves and that they are important to God. We bake and sing and act silly as a family to honor an institution that God Himself set up, and we spend time together as a couple to strengthen our marriage to reflect that picture of Christ and the church. It goes on and on ... and it's been a very personal process along the way.

Christmas is under attack by the world for a reason. As Christians, we can either pick up stones or embrace the opportunity to keep a day set apart to honor Jesus' birth. If we choose to keep Christmas, we certainly will face challenges and have to make some hard choices. We can't compromise its meaning or hide our worship. We can't give in to the world's ways of commercialism and greed and gluttony. But we can find ways to honor Christ's birth and observe it "for the Lord."

 That's why I celebrate Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Flawed Vessel

My mom is authentically sad about Oral Roberts’ passing. She was healed of polio at one of his crusades in the 1950s, which is also when she was saved. Between her reaction and that of Billy Graham (who called him a friend), I have been humbly reminded that God uses even very flawed vessels. My mom held to her belief that Oral Roberts was an instrument of God, even though with his prosperity teaching and the whole “give me money or I’ll die” fiasco, she would later say, “He was so good back then, before he got messed up.”

My life verse is 2 Cor. 4:7 - "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." Am I glad God uses flawed vessels? Absolutely! I AM a flawed vessel. It's easy to compare minister to minister or Christian to Christian, etc., and have reason to boast. Not so if we compare to THE standard - our Lord Himself. We are all flawed; we all have imperfect theology; we all miss the mark; apart from His divine touch, we cannot minister to anyone.

The depth of Oral Roberts' flaws reveals the depth of God’s ability even more, as we are surprised God could use yes, even him. He used Oral Roberts in the life of a scared young girl from Texas who insisted that God wanted her to go to his tent revival one Sunday night, and whose life was changed forever. Was his theology wrong? Yes, in many ways. He got some things right, and a lot wrong. But God used Him, just as He has used some more theologically sound ministers who fell into moral compromise.

Should we strive for better? Of course. We want doctrinal soundness and moral purity, combined. But let’s not have the pride to think that if we have those two, we will necessarily be “better” or even more effective. We are still earthen vessels, and anything that gets done through us is of Him and not ourselves. He’ll make sure that someway, somehow, we know that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rejoice!



Today's Advent focus is JOY. What better reason for Joy than Immanuel, God with us, the promise fulfilled. Hallelujah!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent Week 2: Peace



I've been too busy living out Jesus as my Prince of Peace to write about it.

It's been a busy week - I'm in the middle of a major project, I'm working extra at work to make up for some mandatory vacation days at month's end ... the list goes on. As Gilda Radner said on SNL, "It's always somethin'". Because of that, I'm not really focused on writing. I'm focused on experiencing Him as my Prince of Peace in the midst of life.

So I share this video as my meditation on Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Because we need His peace so much, and the proper response to experiencing it is worshipping Him.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Candle of Hope



Today is the beginning of Advent. In just a few minutes, my husband and I will light the Candle of Hope and read some appropriate scriptures (Lam. 3:21-26; Isa. 11:1-10; Luke 1:26-38; Isa. 7:10-14; and Matt. 1:18-24).

I've come to love Advent. I love that it takes me away from the commercialization of Christmas and shifts my focus to the purpose of the season. We've celebrated it for 7 years now, and each year I find myself more eager for the Christmas season to arrive. I love the lights and decorations, the time with family and friends, the slower pace ... but mainly I love the focus of Advent. We read a Scripture each day and on each Sunday during Advent, there is a special emphasis. Today's emphasis: Hope.

What a significant word. It speaks of promise and future and a brighter tomorrow. Our current president made it one of the two key words of his campaign. Its opposite, hopeless, is one of the most despairing emotions to encounter. Doctors know what happens when a patient gives up hope: Death. A hospital chaplain once told me what he learned from a heart surgeon: "I've had patients who thought they would live but died; but I've never once had a patient that thought they would die that lived." WOW.

This morning at church we sang "Days of Elijah" (above). What a perfect song for the first Sunday of Advent. The song was written in Northern Ireland during a time of struggle for that part of the world. Songwriter Robin Mark prayed to God for revelation about what was happening in what seemed like a hopeless situation. God dropped into his heart "These are the days of Elijah". He realized that underneath the apparent hopelessness God was at work - and there was still a future hope to anticipate.

The days of hopelessness that pained Robin Mark about his native Ireland were not unlike the days before Jesus appeared. God hadn't spoken through prophets for 400 years. Talk about a famine of the word of God, as Amos prophesied. The nation of Israel had lost its political power and was under Roman rule. There was darkness and hopelessness throughout the land. Yet Jesus was born, and light came into darkness. Hope came into hopelessness.

It's still true today. Advent reminds me that He came as a child, grew into a man, suffered and died for our sins, was resurrected, and lives forevermore. He will come again. But for now, He is seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. Getting involved in our lives. Offering hope in His outstretched, nail-scarred hands.

Behold, He comes.


Monday, November 23, 2009

3 John 9-10

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words, and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church.
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Busted! For some reason John's words in these verses remind me of being called out in class during my high school years. At that time I thought nothing could be worse than a public rebuke. Diotrephes though is called out by name on the pages of inspired Scripture for us to read almost 2000 years later. Ouch!

In the wider context of New Testament teaching on the church, we see that unity is prioritized and that where at all possible differences and even sin should be addressed privately. Yet that shouldn't give us a false sense of ignoring wrongdoing. The Scriptural examples of sin and doctrinal error that were addressed publicly and directly show us that grievous actions and teachings call for forthright, strong discipline. John is known as the apostle of love, but this passage shows a little of the "Son of Thunder" from his early years. What made this such a serious issue?

* Diotrephes was a leader. Significantly, Diotrephes was in some sort of leadership position in a local church. He was able to affect the actions of others in the church and even lead to their excommunication. Scripture makes it clear: With leadership comes a higher responsibility. Diotrephes' actions as a leader had to be addressed in a compelling manner to underscore how serious they were. We can see how serious a policy is by how high up it's applied. If the benchwarmer gets kicked off the team but the starting quarterback just gets a one game suspension, we think the coach isn't very serious about discipline. If a freshman Congressman is censured but a committee chair keeps his seat for the same violation, we think there are ethical problems in the party. If the secretary is fired for slipping money from the petty cash fund and the management winks and nods at her boss who pads his expense account, we cry foul. John knew this principle and knew that how he dealt with Diotrephes would establish a tone for the rest of the church.

* Diotrephes rejected the authority of Christ's designated spokesmen. Jesus chose the apostles and gave them a special level of authority. One of the most important elements of that authority is that they spoke on behalf of God. We have many of those messages in the pages of Scripture - written so that we might believe on Christ "through their word" (John 17:20). Prior to the completion of the canon of Scripture, having messengers who spoke with the authority of Christ was critical; they led the church in the early years to properly understand the Old Testament and guided them on what God wanted the church to do and how it should function. Ignoring their authority was akin to ripping out pages of Scripture. If you had a pastor who told you to ignore the book of James or 1 Peter 5 or some other portion of Scripture, you would rightly question his right to minister the word of God. That's the type of action Diotrephes demonstrated in rejecting John's written words.

* Diotrephes wanted attention. He "loves to be first", John said. Contrary to the direct teaching and personal example of Christ to be a servant and put others first, Diotrephes wanted the attention for himself. Well, John is planning to make sure he gets it if he gets to visit the church!

* Diotrephes sowed discord. He made unjust, wicked accusations against the apostles. His own desire for position most likely played into his willingness to undermine the authority given to the apostles. Given the strong emphasis on unity in the New Testament, it's easy to see why John would think this issue was worth addressing publicly.

* Diotrephes missed the big picture of God's kingdom purposes. For whatever reason, he didn't receive the traveling missionary/evangelists; wouldn't allow others to do so; and even ex-communicated those who defied him and received the "brethren". This puts John's previous words to Gaius in sharper focus: Gaius was going against the teachings of a church leader to show hospitality to the brethren; John commends him for it. Diotrephes missed the point: God's purposes were bigger than his position or his church. Rather than using his influence for good, he used it for selflish ambition. Gaius was right to show hospitality and Diotrephes was wrong to forbid it. When leadership is so far off base that the person in the pew has to defy their wishes to do God's will, something needs to change. John expresses his intention that what needs to change is Diotrephes' approach.

* Diotrephes may have been holding on to his former identity. This one is less certain from the Biblical context, but "Diotrephes" means "Zeus-nursed." In "Beloved Disciple", Beth Moore teaches that it was common for former pagans to change their names to something that didn't honor a pagan deity. Diotrephes' failure to change his name could indicate a reluctance to completely let go of his former identity and all that went along with it. I'm not certain about that, but I include it because even if it's not true in this specific case the principle is still valid: We will never fully submit to the authority of God's Word unless we release who we were without Him for who we are in Him. We have to let Him redeem our personality traits and preferences and talents and skills for His purposes, and we have to let Him show us what needs to be fully and completely rejected for us to truly reflect our new selves. And we certainly have to give up all forms of idolatry.

Diotrephes' bad example gives us some key points to take away:
1) Accept the full authority of God's Word.
2) Focus on serving others, not gaining position.
3) Work toward unity, not discord.
4) Be about the big picture of God's kingdom purposes.
5) Let go of past idolatry to embrace who we are in Christ.
6) In a leadership position, be especially careful to set the example you want everyone to follow.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

15 years of grace

Tomorrow, my husband and I celebrate 15 years of marriage. For us,that represents 15 years of grace. On paper, we shouldn't have made it. We both made mistakes and came to our marriage broken individuals. But over the last 15 years I have learned that grace flows best when it has some nooks and crannies to seep into ... when there are cracks to seal and chipped edges to mend.

I'm not perfect, he's not perfect. But we're perfect for each other. And I am inordinately grateful for the partner God has given me. Our marriage, like any, is unique to us. It might look kooky to the outside, but it works. And the main reason is simply ... grace. Unmerited favor. We got it wrong before we got it right, and we still mess up. But we've learned that God's grace is bigger than that and we've learned to let that grace flow to each other. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

I do love the husband God has given me. I love that he happily brings me hot packs for my neck in the mornings before I wake up, when he's barely awake himself. I love that he seems to spontaneously know the practical outworking of Scripture while I hash it out with my word study books. I love that his gift of faith overflows to every aspect of life. I love that after 15 years of marriage he still thinks of me as his princess. I love that every single day of our marriage I have felt loved and treasured. I love knowing that he will always be the one to check out the weird noises and that he reminds me constantly to be more security conscious.

I love that as much as he treasures and protects me, he doesn't have me in a "doll house". Just as much as he takes care of me, he also respects and supports my dreams and interests. In fact, he encourages me to pursue things beyond what I would even consider knowing that God has bigger things for me than I would envision for myself ... because I am not a risk-taker and have trouble dreaming big! It was on our anniversary 5 years ago that he encouraged me to look for a degree program instead of just some Greek/Hebrew classes ... and here I am on the verge of graduating, thanks to his support. I love that he never gets upset when I forget the coffee I made him or leave the dog out too long because I got distracted studying. I love that when I fall asleep reading he tells me I need to come to bed. I love that he cares about what I was reading and asks me about it the next morning.

I love that he enjoys hearing the details of my work day and sharing the details of his. I love our traditions and our reading together and our constant interaction in each other's lives. I love that he gets excited to talk to the kids and sends me emails with multiple exclamation points about the conversations. I love that he couldn't bear to miss the first day of football with his son in Little Rock and drove down for the day at War Memorial on the spur of the moment. I love knowing that his Pawpaw's heart wants to run to Tulsa everytime one of the grandkids has an event or sheds a tear and I love that sometimes he does it, like the day he dropped everything to attend Cassidy's school function and have lunch with Jesse. I love watching him call around and tell grandkid stories after every visit. I love his pride in the technical skills of his youngest daughter, the servant's heart his son has, and the multitasking talents of his oldest, including her ability to bend people in two at their request (aka personal training).

I love that he always has my best interests at heart. And most of all, I love that this man gets up every morning to spend time with God before he spends time with me. That spiritual leadership has helped me in so many ways.

Our marriage is still a miracle of grace, and I treasure every second.

3 John 5-8

Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of The Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers with the truth.
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I could get passionate about this one.

These verses represent the heart of my philosophy of "sending" ... the best description we have in Scripture of the role of those of us who are not "going" in missions. A couple of years ago I sensed God give me these verses as a personal charge, and delving deeper into them is one of the reasons I felt led to memorize 3 John.

But first, let me back up with a little context. In the first century, Christians were very much a minority in the Roman Empire. They were growing quickly, but had none of the privileges we enjoy in the 'free world' today. What they did have was a solid sense of community and shared responsibility.

Then as now, the command to share the Gospel with the whole world resonated differently with individuals. Some like Paul saw the need to prioritize unreached peoples. Others like Timothy felt called to settle in an area and train leadership. Still others went about in "mission bands", carrying the gospel to new people as they went and discipling the churches along the way. We might see them as a combination traveling evangelist/retreat speaker, with an emphasis on missionary activity ("gone forth" refers to mission work in other settings such as Acts 4:20 and 15:40).

These mission bands were completely dependent upon the hospitality of believers in the areas they visited. They were the original "faith missions" groups, down to every detail. The result was an incredible opportunity for unity; my NET Bible notes say that this "built up networks between the scattered churches and fostered a sense of solidarity." Along the way, local churches saw themselves as part of God's big picture purposes!

That's why John, though addressing Gaius personally, says "we" should support such individuals. Support for God's kingdom work is not a job for unbelievers (the "Gentiles"); it's a job for the church. And it includes everyone in the church - all believers. Missions is a community venture and we all have a part to play.

That's why I love this passage. I have lots of friends in lots of countries overseas. I believe strongly in the Great Commission and that we are blessed to be a blessing. But my role is to support such people. God has asked me to show hospitality, provide financial support, pray, and encourage these individuals. What a privilege!

So from that perspective, what can we learn if our role is a "sender" (and if you aren't on the field or preparing for the field, God wants you involved in the sending process!)? Here are a few things I see:

* Whatever we do for missionaries is an act of faithfulness to God. This echoes Mark 9:41, Jesus' instructions to His disciples as He trains them for Kingdom work: "For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward." What we do for them, we do for Him.

* Ministry to missionaries builds relationships. I can honestly say that I feel closer to some of my friends on the field, who I see once every 1-5 years, than I do some people I see daily. True "koinonia" fellowship in its Biblical context is relationship centered around a common purpose. That purpose is God's kingdom - as one missionary friend puts it, the "two-handedness" of the Gospel, bringing temporal help and eternal hope. Those people whom God has partnered me with in that work are some of the dearest in my life.

* Missionary support should be conducted in a manner worthy of God. Wow, here's a sermon. When we "send them on their way" - meaning "send forward", we should do so in a way that would reflect how we would treat God Himself. I seriously doubt that the used tea bags I heard of a missionary family receiving, or the torn clothes, or the near-broken washing machine, would be what we would choose to put before God. Missionaries are the unsung heroes of the church, yet they often feel on the fringes. They tend to be either lumped together with "all the missionaries" and lose a personal connection, or be elevated to a status of super-saint that they know they can never live up to. I've heard of missionaries on the field for decades who never regularly hear from a member of their sending congregation. I'm not trying to beat up on any of us - I know many people who work hard to stay in contact with missionaries and make sure they receive new gifts and warm hospitality. I just want to encourage each of us who are senders to ask ourselves if our actions are consistent with a manner worthy of God.

* Supporting missionaries makes us fellow workers with the truth. Support here literally means to "underwrite". When we support missionaries with finances, prayer, relationship, encouragement, we are part of the sending team. We are fellow workers with the truth! I like to put it this way: The one going is the hands and feet, but we are all the body parts that make the hands and feet operate! If you support a missionary, start seeing yourself as part of the team and ask God what He would have you do to enhance your role!

Some of you may be reading this and realizing that you aren't personally engaged in the missions process. That's okay - awareness is the first step! Begin praying now how God would have you get involved. Does He want you to plan to go? Or does He want you to enhance your sending role? (Some missions strategists have said that every missionary on the field needs 12 team members back home actively supporting in every way.) if you sense a call to enhance your sending role, here are some ideas:

* Start where you are.
If you support a missionary, try to be in more frequent contact, or offer your home, or send a package. If you don't support a missionary, check with your home church. Ask if the church supports any missionaries (which you are then supporting through your tithe) and ask if you can contact them. I promise you they will be thrilled to hear from you. Don't know what to say? Tell them what's going on in the church. What's the sermon about and is it available online? Does the missionary have children - if so, let the kids know what their Sunday School class is doing. Keep them connected to our culture. I recently told a missionary friend what the latest changes were in the Wal-Mart stocking policy. A simple thing, but one that won't take her quite by surprise when she gets home.

* Get others involved. If you're already engaged with missionaries, seek how you can involve others on the team. Does your missionary friend need more financial support? Spread the word (with permission)! Get a small group or Sunday School class together to send a package well in advance of birthdays or holidays. Ask God what one thing you can do to multiply your vision to others. Do it, then ask for another thing.

* Be sensitive to the missionary's location. In some countries you can't use the "m" word (Missions). Some are so restricted that all emails have to be in a 'code' (Dad for God, talk for prayer, etc.). Don't let your enthusiasm put your friend at risk. If you're unsure, ask your pastor or church mission leader, or someone knowledgeable about that region of the world.

I know you'll be richly blessed by the process of sending others on in a manner worthy of God - and becoming fellow workers with the truth!

3 John 1-4

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

Beloved, I pray that in all respected you will prosper and be in good health just as your soul prospers. For I was very glad when brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.
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Don't you just love John? There's a reason we recommend the Gospel of John to new believers - he makes it so obvious what he wants us to learn. It doesn't take a Bible scholar to see that "truth" is a key theme for John - and that he considers Gaius very "beloved".

Gaius was a common name in the ancient Roman empire ... so we can't draw any firm conclusions that this Gaius is or is not one of the "Gaius"'s mentioned in 1 Cor. 1:14; Romans 16:23; and Acts 19:29 and 20:4. We do know that the Gaius in Romans 16:23 was identified as a "host" and we will see that this Gaius also is known for hospitality. Church tradition identifies him as Bishop of Pergamum. But really, we don't know. What is clear is that John considers him orthodox and an ally in the quest for truth.

Truth was under attack, then as now. John deals with issues of deception in each of his letters. 2 John had told specifically how to deal with false teachers who wanted a platform within the house church congregation - don't even let 'em in! John jumps into the issue with both feet here. Even his greeting addresses the topic so near to his heart. 3 of these 4 verses focus on Gaius' truth-walk.

"In truth" - we might think that means "truly" as in, "to the beloved Gaius whom I truly love". It doesn't. it's not an adverb, but a noun - THE truth. It's a theological statement right in the greeting. Gaius and John share the common ground of an orthodox faith - sound doctrine - that is lived out in an authentically loving relationship as fellow workers in Christ.

This is an important point in today's relativistic world. So many are calling, rightly so, for unity in the body of Christ. But unity can never come at the cost of truth.

Now, I'm not saying every single non-essential should line up. I think John Wesley's maxim is biblical: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." But think of the things that Scripture indicates are worth digging in our heels for. There is one God - from the days of Moses the children of Israel and later the church wouldn't budge from that one. He sent His chosen one - His Messiah, the Christ, His Son Jesus - as the sacrifice for our sins. Jesus, fully man and fully God, is the only way to relationship with God.Jesus died and was resurrected - the grave is empty. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This good news, this Gospel, is for all peoples and not to be kept to ourselves.

I'm sure you can think of more, but in just a few minutes those are the things I thought of that scripturally are worth fighting for. These are the things that are essential to unity. These are the things that are necessary for us to love someone "in truth". Sure, we can love them as human beings, we can love them as people made in God's image. But the deep Christian love that John speaks of can only come about "in truth". I love a lot of people who disagree with things on that list. But there is a special love that I have for those who, though extremely different from me in many ways, share those core beliefs. I love them in truth because what we share is much deeper than any differences we may have.

So, John loves Gaius. And his first prayer is for his prosperity and health. Isn't that awesome - Biblical permission to pray that each other stays healthy! I love it - but as we will see, this doesn't come in a vacuum. Gaius is very busy with the work of the kingdom, and he is very intentional to maintain the most important prosperity of all - prosperity of the soul. John acknowledges the importance of spiritual health to our overall well-being. When we hope for physical health we should hope it matches our spiritual health. Some of us think that would be pretty cool. Others are thinking we'd better work on that spiritual health! Which is exactly the point.

I asked God what is the opposite of a prosperous soul? I believe He spoke to my heart that it would be desolation of spirit. What gives you prosperity of soul, versus desolation of spirit? I meditated on that question for myself and came up with a few things:
* Trusting God (Isa. 17 makes that one crystal clear)
* Nature
* Long times with God
* Large chunks of Scripture and in-depth study
* Working on Scripture memory
* Being in constant conversation with Him
* Watching over the temple He gave me (eating right, etc.)
* Rest, and falling asleep talking to Him
* Worship music

I'm sure your list includes some of the same things and some different items. The main idea is to identify what gives you a prosperous soul. If you feel yourself slipping, struggling, then go to your list. See what needs to change to enrich your soul. Prioritize your spiritual health!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lessons from a church mouse

We've just been graced with a visitor the past two weeks ... a church mouse that scurried here and there and quietly came and went, leaving us so much the better for her presence.

This church mouse took the form of a friend from the field in the states on sabbatical and visiting this area briefly ... but her quiet nature and busy schedule led me to nickname her "church mouse". What a blessing and privilege to get to sit at her feet any moment I could glean with her. I learned so much from our church mouse!

Because writing is how I process life, and because I didn't want the lessons I learned to leave my head the minute she gets on that plane - I wrote them down. I thought I'd share them with you because they are lessons we can all benefit from learning.

* It's a marathon, not a sprint. Our church mouse was constantly about the work she came here to do - meeting up with people, speaking at churches and groups, pursuing what is next in God's agenda for her life. Yet she also modeled for me rest and balance. If she needed to sleep 12 hours, she did. If she had to let go of a desired, but not necessary, task, she did that too. She has learned through illness that 20 hour workdays can't last very long. The race we are called to run in this life is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to pace ourselves.

* Prosperity of soul. Our church mouse epitomized a spirit that is at rest in God's hands. She knew what she needed to do to hear His voice, and she did it. She challenged me by her life to refuse the busy-ness that leads to desolation of our spirits.

* Perspective. The night before she arrived, our refrigerator went out. It was completely full of food, and the next day we would be spending 11 hours parking cars for a football game and immediately picking her up. The night she walked into our home, all our cold food was at the neighbor's and the kitchen was a mess. I was apologetic at the state of the house. Her perspective helped so much: "This is nothing compared to where I've been." As happy as I was to get the house put back together and the new refrigerator working, I was even more glad to be reminded that there are worse things than the failure of a modern convenience. Like a war zone, for example.

* Relationships. Our church mouse highly values relationships. Once again, this task-oriented person learned the value of relationship. That's a lesson I can never see too much.

* Honor. Our church mouse told us that our culture is based on fear and guilt. Where she has lived for 7 years is based on honor and shame. When you are in an honor-based culture, honoring others is even more important. And she did that so well. She honored everything about our home. She was completely, totally free of entitlement. She was so honoring at every speaking engagement I attended. When an offering was taken she was authentically surprised. She was truly honored when people wanted to listen to her. She honored people even in disagreements, refusing to burn bridges and constantly reaching out. Watching her relate from an honor-based worldview, I realized how much prayer is about honoring God. Which relates to another lesson ...

* Ask God/Act/Ask again. Part of her story includes a day when she realized she had never asked God what He wanted her to do with the gifts He gave her. She did, and found herself taking her skills around the world, one country at a time. She would ask Him, act, then ask again. She was in constant dialogue with Him. After her illness, she re-learned that lesson, and I saw it at work. I realized that asking HONORS God. Think of Abraham; Job; Habakkuk. All had relationships where they dialogued with God. And God was honored.

* Small acts, big seeds. Our church mouse's story of her faith-walk includes some very "small" acts. A junior high friend asking about church the next day ... a high school friend, years later, inviting her to join a lunch group ... a family who welcomed her into their home every day. She was literally "loved to the cross". The smallest acts were big seeds in her life. 

* The blessing of serving. I used to think I didn't have the gift of hospitality because I am NOT a Martha Stewart type person. My house is tidy but not beautifully decorated. Surely hospitality requires all of that! And really, I don't have the gift. But we do - my husband and I have learned over the years that jointly we can offer that gift, because all it really means is making people feel comfortable. In the process of serving, we get such a blessing and learn so much.

When our church mouse slipped away to another home for her last 3 days in town, we came home to a house that felt empty. It was amazing how much she added to our home in such a short time. We miss her already, but know that she is gracing someone else tonight, and will soon return to the part of the world she loves so much to pour God's grace on many others.

I also want to encourage you to take the time to learn from the church mice in your own lives - those people who are always there, but whose quiet nature might not scream out "here is a lesson". You might be amazed at all the lessons you will learn!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Devotional: Phil. 2:14-18

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, so that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.

But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith I rejoice, and share my joy with you all. And you too, I urge you, in the same way rejoice, and share your joy with me.

There's a lot to our work to be a community in unity. In fact, as Paul makes clear here, it has eternal significance.

Wow. It's one thing to think about how our selfishness and pettiness affects things in the temporal realm. But to realize that how we treat each other will be part of what is shown in heaven as proof that those who brought us the gospel did not do so in vain. Kind of makes the color of the carpet pale in significance!

For the Philippians, the lack of harmony was manifested in grumbling and disputing. This passage does have an outward view in terms of our relationships in the world, but the primary focus is the church. The words speak of an undertone - an undertone of secret whisperings (grumbling) and debate with an undertone of suspicion or doubt (disputing). Paul isn't saying not to ask questions or discuss our differences. He's saying that we should trust each other and stay above board. Differences aired openly can lead to growth, diversity, and unity; differences taken under the surface lead to dissension and divisiveness. John puts it this way: "Walk in the light as He is in the light."

Avoiding such undertones demonstrates who we are in Christ - that we are in the process of becoming blameless and innocent. That is important, because the world will always be crooked (in the sense of turning away from the truth) and perverse (twisting the truth). It is in that context that we are able to make the biggest difference. We can't isolate ourselves from the world. Instead, we need to be ready to engage the world by showing forth who He is. That's why the text says we "appear" as lights int he world. It's the fact of appearing that is in mind here, not the act of shining. That's important, because really we don't shine. He shines through us.

As we appear with His glory shining through us, we have something to offer the world: God's Word of life. "Holding fast" means "holding forth so as to offer" - it was used of offering wine to a houseguest. As they held forth the word of life Paul would have even more reason to glory, as more converts in other places came about through the multiplied efforts of this church he started.

Finally, Paul refers to his efforts in their lives as being "poured out". Here the reference is to pagan Greek religion, where a drink offering was poured directly on a sacrifice. Paul is living out his teaching about consider others as more important here; with humility he puts their life and service as the main sacrifice and his life as the lesser part. Essentially he recognizes that as they take the word of life, greater works are being done through them than he could have done alone - and he rejoices in it. This is so consistent with Jesus' words in John 14:12 that the one who believes in Him will do greater works "because I am going to the Father." Jesus isn't saying we are greater than Him, He is just recognizing the impact of multiplication in the kingdom of God. Through praying, giving, and going, we all have more impact than one. Paul's converts could have more impact than him, if they kept their focus on the mission and not on the things that could easily divide them.

And then we come to the word that many use to characterize Paul's theme in Philippians: "rejoice". One final key to unity is mutual rejoicing. We should rejoice when other believers find their ministry, go to a new country, have a successful conversation with a non-believer. We should not nit-pick their methods, criticize them for the cultural adaptations they have to make, or become envious that God used them instead of us! Even in rejoicing, we should keep the kingdom in mind.

So we come to the end of Philippians 2:1-18. I don't know about you but this has been challenging - not because of the memory work (which I have managed to complete, thank you Lord) but because of the content. It's hard to come face to face with the need to confront my selfishness, my grumbling, the things I do that hinder unity. But it is needed. Because at the end of the day, I want to be all about advancing God's kingdom purposes. And we do that as a community. I'm grateful Paul has given us so much guidance to help stir us in that direction!

What is safe?

Today I am still trying to process a tragedy - yesterday's massive shooting at Fort Hood, Texas ... right in my backyard, so-to-speak, as a Texas native. Everyone knows Fort Hood. Growing up in East Texas with a father who worked for the largest (at that time) Army Depot in the country, in my young eyes Fort Hood was a place filled with heroes. It was also a place filled with tears when time came for deployments, as family members knew the risks involved with front-line assignments. But for the soldiers who were within its large borders, Fort Hood was home.

That's part of the reason processing the tragedy is so hard. Soldiers repeatedly said that of course they weren't armed; this was their home. They didn't walk around the base prepared for battle. Yet the sad reality is that yesterday, as men and women were in a processing center to prepare to go to a war zone, a "dangerous" place ... someone invaded their home. Someone brought danger to their doorstep and burst inside with a sickening spray of ammunition.

Home wasn't safe, after all.

Our spare bedroom temporarily houses a friend who is on a sabbatical from life in one of the most dangerous spots on the planet. She's given 9 years of her life to this place out of a desire to see the glory of God descend and His power transform the society she loves so dearly. Yet this sabbatical was delayed  a year because just before coming home two years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. She endured a year of chemo and treatment in the States and then picked up where she left off with a year's sabbatical, giving her body a chance to recover and her spirit the opportunity to hear God's plan for her to continue serving the people she loves so dearly.

The front line assignment that led so many of us to worry didn't turn out to be the most dangerous thing in her life, after all.

What's the point? The Fort Hood shooting and my friend's cancer are visible reminders that danger isn't confined to the front lines and safety isn't guaranteed if we hold back from total surrender to God's kingdom purposes. I'm not saying that we should act unwisely ... but we also should not let fear hinder our decision to be on mission with God.

Safety is only found in His presence and His purpose. His purpose isn't a cause, it's a kingdom. His kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So often that kingdom ethic is upside down from our human perspective. Love your enemies. Forgive without getting vengeance. Quit holding on to your life in a futile effort to save it - instead, pour it out for the sake of His glory among the nations. These are the messages that come through loud and clear, above all the doctrinal disputes and different perspectives of Scripture.

If you are on mission with God - let these vignettes remind you that holding back for fear of what the front lines might mean isn't necessarily safe. The reality of spiritual warfare is that the front lines come to us if we don't go to them. The fighting is on our knees and in our hearts, whether we stay or go. And the reality is, in the face of this tragedy we have to work extra hard to not let our love grow cold.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Devotional: Phil. 2:12-13

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed
Not as in my presence only but now much more in my absence,
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
For it is God who is at work in you,
Both to will and to work for His good pleasure.


This faith-walk we are on is not a solitary adventure. According to this passage, there are at least three "beings" involved in my process: me, God, and the body of Christ. The "working it out" is something we are meant to do in community.

We see this in the text itself. Remember, Paul started this flow of thought back up in verse 2 when he asked them to consider what has been granted them through Christ and make his joy completed by "being of the same mind" - a thought that is amplified in the phrases to follow. Paul's example of Christ is further instruction toward the unity he desires for them. Here, we see a very practical element of that unity: working it out together.

The theological debate over Paul's meaning of "work out your own salvation" has obscured the larger message that harmony and unity are obligations of the citizens of heaven! John 17:21 makes clear why this is so important: Jesus prayed that believers would be one "so that the world will believe that You sent Me." Simply put, our unity has a missionary purpose.

I sat at the feet of one of my favorite teachers over the weekend - a missionary staying with us while visiting supporters in the area. She has served in Central Asia for years and worked at high levels in the mission world. She talked about one reason church is so hard for her when she is visiting the States: on the field, no one cares what race you are, what denomination you are, or what you think of President Obama. In her words (grabbing my arm for emphasis), you ask someone, "Are you okay? Is your family alive? Do you have enough to eat? How's your walk with the Lord? OK, let's worship." That's all that matters. Somehow living in a war zone has a way of boiling things down to the basics - and she misses that dreadfully.

So when Paul exhorts us to "work out your salvation" - with the "your" being plural and thus referencing the church not individual believers - he isn't merely saying "Can't we all just get along." He knows the very mission of the church is at stake. We'll see that more clearly when we get to verses 14-16. Theologically, this refers to sanctification and not justification. Scripture speaks of 3 tenses of salvation: past (justification-a transaction where we are transferred from the kingdom of satan to the kingdom of God); present (sanctification, a process that will not end until we die); and future (glorification-the fullness of the promise when we are with Christ forever, death is swallowed up in victory, all believers are raised from the dead, and Satan is defeated once and for all). Paul here refers to salvation as a present reality - the sanctification process. We can see this because "work out" is not the same word as "work for". He's not telling us "work for your salvation". "Work out" means literally "carry out to the goal, to the ultimate conclusion" and was used in classical Greek to refer to solving a math problem.

Thankfully we are not alone in this journey. We have each other and even more significantly we have God. We can do this work because we know that  God works in us. He is energizing us, affecting our will and our actions. Wuest puts it this way: "It is this desire to do the good pleasure of God that is produced by divine energy in the heart of the saint as he definitely subjects himself to the Holy Spirit's ministry." In other words - God gives the desire and the power to habitually do  the right thing.

There is a balance of human responsibility and divine enablement - mutual cooperation in the process. It's not "let go and let God"; instead, as Wuest writes, it's "take hold with God." We must depend on the Holy Spirit - but we must also say no to sin and yes to righteousness. I can depend on God all day long, but when the M&M Trail Mix is 10 steps away from me, He isn't going to send an angel to physically confine me to my office. I have to say no. But I do it through His power, not my own.

It's hard work, but it's important. We need each other in the process. And we need to remember that it's for a purpose bigger than all of us. Working together to work out our salvation is one of the ways God spurs us on to unity. When I know that you and I share a struggle I pray for you when I have my problems. When God uses you to restore me after a fall I draw closer to Him and to you. When God breaks down our walls, rips off our masks, and gives us grace to be authentic with each other, I am challenged by your faith. At the end of the day, unity comes when we do this sanctification thing in community.

It's important. The very mission of God is at stake. May we do it well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Devotional: Phil. 2:5-11

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
Who, although He existed in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped
But emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant,
And being made in the likeness of men.

And being found in appearance as a man
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.

Therefore also God highly exalted Him,
and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.


Emptying.

That's the word that keeps coming back as I reflect on this passage. I've studied it all week - Wuest's Word Studies, my Bible notes, all the tools I usually use. But somehow, when I sit here to try to put something into a devotional format, what comes to mind is not the great theological truths of this passage, possibly one of the earliest recorded Christian hymns.

Instead, what I can't get off my mind is the idea of emptying.

Think about it: The Son was eternally co-existent with the Father. They were one, though separate, before the world was. God's eternal nature has always been present in the community of the Trinity.

And yet ... Jesus made a conscious choice - "Have this attitude" literally means "to direct one's mind to a thing, to seek or strive for." It's an intentional direction of thought.

So Jesus, existing eternally in the form of God (meaning the outward expression of an inward nature) voluntarily weighed the facts and chose not to hold on to the expression of Deity as He experienced it before the incarnation. He didn't regard it as something to be grasped - as a "treasure to be clutched and retained at all hazards". He voluntarily waived His right to the treasure of being with the Trinity, the treasure of having all that came with being able to have an unlimited outward expression of His inner Deity. Things like omnipresence that would be immediately limited by the direction He was choosing to follow. Instead of grasping onto these things, He relegated them to the Father for His use.

So He emptied Himself - He waived His rights. He took the form of a servant - again, that was the word for the outward expression of His inner nature. He took the form of a servant because He WAS a servant. Wuest writes beautifully, "Instead of giving the outward expression of His deity to the angels in His preincarnate glory, He gives outward expression of His humility in becoming the servant of mankind." He humbled Himself - made Himself low (the word was also used to describe the Nile lowering) - rather than holding onto the exalted glory He deserved. 

And then ... God "highly exalted" Him. That means that He was given the "highest rank and power...supreme majesty". No human could ever be given a higher rank that Jesus Christ after His death and resurrection. And here's the beauty - God "bestowed on Him" a special name, a name above every name. "Bestowed" is a word of grace. It's the same word used in Rom. 8:32 of grace in salvation. God the Father not only restored the Son to His rightly place of glory, He gave Him a special name as an act of grace. Paul says at the name of Jesus every knee will bow ... and Rev. 19:12 tells us, "He has a name written that no one knows except himself."  This concurs with verse 9 that there has been a special name given to Jesus.

I love what Beth Moore says about this. She reflects on the number of times Jesus' name is taken in vain, used as a curse word or an exclamation. And then she says that these verses show us that God has given Him a name that no one else knows ... a name that has never touched the corrupt lips of humanity.

Think about all this together in the context of Paul's writing. Hoping to develop in the Philippians a unity - teaching them to be of the same mind - Paul says: Here's the mind to have - the attitude of Christ. Humility. Emptying. Servanthood. He uses a poem or hymn they probably already knew to get them to think about what Jesus did ... voluntarily leaving heaven, not holding on to His rights but emptying Himself, giving up the treasure ... and on the other side, receiving the highest exaltation and a precious, never corrupted name. His basic message to them is summarized well by Wuest: "Set self aside for unity to prevail."

So all this reflection and theological consideration has led me to ask some hard questions of myself:

* Where do I need to intentionally set my direction of thought toward servanthood over self? What is the place of struggle that needs a radical change in the direction of my mind?

* What treasure am I grasping, holding on to instead of relegating to His use?

* What of me needs to be emptied? Jesus voluntarily gave up rights and privileges, so I should start there. But what of the flesh also needs to be emptied?

* What of self do I need to set aside so that unity can prevail?

Emptying is never easy. But it must happen for us to be filled with HIM instead of ourselves ... for HIS glory to shine through us. And we have the perfect place to start ... the incarnation of Christ.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Devotional: Philippians 2:3-4

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit,
but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests,
but also for the interests of others."
------------------------

Ouch! Anybody else's toes hurt? This is one of those passages that is not really hard to understand - it's hard to LIVE. Working on memorizing it this week, I've realized how weak I really am - how much I try to rationalize or justify or limit the breadth of what God intends a passage to mean. After the events of this week (see my latest Note if you don't already know) ... and then reading some very wise words tonight from a Christian author ... I'm ready to stretch the limits - to see just how much I can apply verses like these.

When I was studying to prepare this devotional and understand these verses more, I learned that all these phrases are part of one larger thought. Structurally, "being of the same mind" is the predominant thought in verses 2-4. Everything else is a subordinate thought. In modern terminology - "being of the same mind" is the key thought; everything else is a bullet point under it that describes what that thought looks like. Sort of like this:

Being of the same mind:
* Maintaining the same love
* United in Spirit
* Intent on one purpose
* Doing nothing from selfishness or empty conceit - This has a strong structure literally meaning "Don't even think any thoughts motivated by selfish ambition."
* Regarding others are more important than ourselves
* Looking out for the interests of others, not our own - Interestingly in the Greek, this word for "interests" means "different interests". We are to look out for the interests of others - especially those that differ from our own!

Talk about revival! Can you imagine a church full of people who lived this way? That could lead to a true church growth movement!

What I love about these verses is that Paul doesn't erase the individual; he simply addresses our motivations and the bent of our hearts. We don't fulfill this verse by assuming a martyr's pose, a stricken look, and, with Bible in hand, determine to never think of ourselves ever again. That's just another version of pride and self-centeredness, frankly.

Buddhism teaches an extreme self-denial. At the heart of Buddhism is the belief that desire is the root problem of the world and to eliminate desire is to eliminate suffering. So a Buddhist goal would be to truly have no interests, no desires or preferences. That's not what Paul is saying.

Instead, Paul says - don't be motivated by selfishness or personal ambition. That's what characterized the evangelists in chapter 1 that so concerned the Philippians - they were trying to capitalize on Paul's imprisonment by making a name for themselves. I love how Paul doesn't focus on them. He says, essentially - the Gospel is being preached, don't worry about it - and don't be motivated like that in your actions toward one another.

We're supposed to "prefer your brother", as YWAM teaches. But we are told to make others more important than ourselves - not that we are unimportant. We are told to look our for their interests too - not that we should have no interests. Satan would love for us to either ignore or imbalance this teaching. God just wants us to live it out.

The beautiful thing is that it all flows from love...from a heart filled with the Spirit, set on fire for Christ and His people, passionate for the glory of God. Will we have to make hard choices along the way? Sure! But we'll never fulfill this verse by waking up tomorrow morning and thinking of all the things about ourselves that we intend to subdue-all the passions, interests, desires, goals, and preferences that we will ignore today. Instead, we will fulfill this passage by loving without reservation - first God, then by extension others.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Making Sense

I've spent much of this week trying to make sense of the senseless.

On Saturday I received word from a dear friend that a mutual friend's 10-year-old daughter was in critical condition at the hospital. As the story unfolded we learned that beautiful Olivia Ray had been hit by a car 3 hours earlier while in a crosswalk - skipping on her way to run a race at an event she had eagerly anticipated.

As I walked into the waiting area an hour later I saw a mass of people praying and crying. I didn't see my friends, Olivia's parents. Something in me knew - but I didn't want to acknowledge that fervant, worldwide prayers for the previous 4 hours had not been answered. Another friend saw me, hugged me, and told me the sad news. After a few minutes with Olivia's parents, I headed home and found myself unable to concentrate, trying desperately to wrap my mind around what had happened. It didn't make sense. I just couldn't understand why a 10-year-old would die so tragically, why a college student would have to bear such pain and guilt, why parents would have to have their hearts ripped asunder. Along with many others around the world, I lifted up the Rays and felt some measure of burden - part of being in the body of Christ. But I still wondered about the senselessness of it all.


Yesterday I attended Olivia's memorial. It was amazing, Spirit-led, Christ-centered, God-glorifying, encouraging beyond belief. We worshipped, we laughed, we cried. And no one pretended to have the answers to big questions.

One of the things I most appreciated was the pastor who acknowledged, "This isn't good; it's bad. But God can redeem it." It's so easy to mouth religious words: "God is good; He works all together for good; He is in control." We forget the corollary truth: Sin has brought about corruption to God's good plan and design. Death is part of the bad, not the good. It wasn't in the plan at the beginning.

Hebrews 2 called death an enemy - and tells us it's the last one that will be conquered. Bottom line - it's not supposed to make sense. It feels senseless because it IS senseless. It's part of the pain from a fallen world. But it's redeemable.

Romans 8 tells us that creation groans to be redeemed. The pains many of us felt this week reflect sharing the Rays burden ... but also remind us of the groaning of creation that seeks to be redeemed - set free. So behind everything that happens is a sovereign, good God who has redemptive purposes. I've been thinking about the redemptive path I'm supposed to follow after these days.

I think about all of the unengaged and unreached people groups who grieve without the hope that permeated Olivia's service yesterday - those who need to know the hope of redemption. I think about the lessons of community and relationship that showed so strongly throughout this past week in loving the Ray family. I think about Phillipians 2:1-4 and the reminder it gives me to focus on others, not myself. And I think about Olivia, eagerly skipping to run the race set before her. I think about living life with that kind of joyous abandon to what a day might bring.

Then even as the questions remains, peace settles in. And some things start to make sense.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Devotional Phil. 2:1-2

My Facebook Bible memorization group has finished Isa. 58 and moved to Philippians 2. You are welcome to join us at Hiding the Word on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am posting the devotional thoughts here!

If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ,
if there is any consolation of love,
if there is any fellowship of the Spirit,
if any affection and compassion,
Make my joy complete by being of the same mind,
maintaining the same love,
united in spirit,
intent on one purpose.
-------------------

"Therefore." I learned in Precept to ask "what is the therefore there for?" In other words, it connects something. What is "therefore" linked to in this case?

Foundational to 2:1-18 is the context of chapter 1 - Paul's relationship to the church at Phillippi and his prison ministry.This is a book addressed to the body of Christ - the "one anothers" of the New Testament usually are. In chapter 1, Paul encourages the church to focus on the Gospel, not people's motives in sharing it, and on their own conduct.

Significantly, immediately prior to 2:1 Paul exhorts the church that suffering goes hand in hand with faith in Christ. Because of this, Paul asks them to bring him joy by focusing on their relationship with each other, pulling together for a purpose.

He specifically addresses 5 aspects of their relationship with God and each other. He approaches these in a very God-centered way; it all flows from what we've received in our relationship with Christ, but that can and often is manifested through "one another". He asks them to consider if they have received any:

* Encouragement in Christ - that encouragement that can only come through relationship with Christ. At the deepest hurts and pains of life, at the darkest moments, true believers don't need self-help material or Oprah's latest book; they need to be pointed to Jesus. True encouragement is always in Christ.
* Consolation of love - This refers to the comfort that comes from love. Specifically the love of Christ poured within our lives, working through and to one another. Nothing consoles like true love.
* Fellowship of the Spirit - this can mean both "spiritual fellowship" or "fellowship brought about by the Spirit". Biblical fellowship involves more than eating together; it is a sharing of common purposes and goals.
* Affection - Tenderness, feelings of love. It's an emotional term.
* Compassion - Refers to mercy, caring.

The Message puts it this way: If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you [care]--

Paul asks them to first consider what they've received - from God and others - and then exhorts them to consider what to do with that. He doesn't just want them to sit around and feel warm fuzzies. It's not just about the good feeling I get when a friend from church calls me when I'm down, or about the food that people brought over when my mother-in-law died. Paul challenges them to something higher; something purposeful. He wants them to strive to turn what they've received into something that can be given out. And it starts with the exhortations of verse 2:

* Being of the same mind - means literally "feel the same way and think the same thoughts". We will soon see Paul doesn't mean "agree on the color of the carpet" - he means "focus on what's important and be in agreement about it."

* Maintaining the same love - We could debate what the "same love" means but I think in the it most likely refers to keeping that "consolation of love" going - maintaining it. It's easier to pour out love on someone in a crisis time, then back off and return to the corners when things level out. If we've received comforting love from God and other during a tough time - seek to maintain that same love. Don't get bitter or petty just because there is not a crisis to rally around. We see this a lot in our country. Sept. 12, 2001 was a day of unity and love. The 2004 elections were some of the most bitter ever. The love wasn't maintained. Paul wants it to be maintained so we can move on to a purpose!

* "United in spirit." I love this literal word: "fellow-souled." We should be so united that it's as though we share a soul. As Caroline prepares to go to Asia my soul should be bonded with hers for the people there. That's united in spirit.

* "Intent on one purpose." What is the "one purpose?" Another Bible study principle: Let the author define it for you within that book if possible. In Philippians Paul clearly defines the "one purpose": Jesus. Knowing Him and making Him known. Living in Him. Proclaiming Him. Glorifying Him. There will be plenty to divide us. We can unite around Him - around knowing Him and making Him known. We will see as we proceed through this passage that Paul will challenge us to do that very thing!

The bottom line of these first two verses goes back to a principle I've come to rely on. We are "blessed to be a blessing." Paul wants them to be a blessing first to each other, then to the world. That's a challenge to live up to - but so worth it!

May YOU be blessed to be a blessing today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Devotional: Isa. 58:13-14

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
If you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord's holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
Then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
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We love to ride on the heights.

Oh, we know there are times of trials and struggles in the valley. But let's be honest ... it's a lot more fun to reflect back on the valley from the mountaintop than it is to struggle through the reality of life. No wonder Peter wanted to build tents on the mount of transfiguration.

The beauty of Scripture is that it's okay to want the heights. Joy is a great pursuit, and feasting is encouraged! Yet as so often happens, Scripture turns upside down the ways we are to get those things. It's not by financial success, fame, or power. It's not by the number of people in our church or the sales of our Christian self-help books. We don't get to the heights by being invited to speak at more churches than the next gal.

Instead, this Scripture tells us that the way to find joy, ride on the heights, and feast on all God has intended us to inherit, is through ... the Sabbath.

The Sabbath? Wow, that's not what I would have expected. At the end of this oracle about helping others, God suddenly pulls out the 4th Commandment...and takes it much further. He tells us we are to delight in it, find it honorable, and significantly - not do our own thing. Ah, there's the rub - and the link to the rest of the chapter.

Basically, Isa. 58 says to get over the idea that your religious observances are about you. They're not. They are about truly drawing near to God and seeking Him, as evidenced in our relationships with other human beings ... other people made in His image ... others with whom we are in community. And always, always, it's about Him. Does He know our deepest needs? ABSOLUTELY! No one knows them better. Yet He also knows they will never be met until we look up and look out. Up at Him, out at others.

Now, as New Testament believers it is legitimate to ask what we do with these verses about the Sabbath. Are they mere window dressing while we focus on the remaining 12 verses? Do we take them literally? It is only Sunday (or Saturday, if you prefer) that we should honor?

There is room for differences on this point (see Rom. 14:5), but my perspective based on Heb. 4:9-10 is that in Christ we enter a "sabbath rest" and we live "in the Sabbath". Paul repeatedly tells us that we should glorify God in all things at all times ... so we don't get a "day off" from a day that should be holy to God. Think about it in context of verse 13: For a Christian is there ever a day that we should say "OK today, I'm going to do as I please, go my own way, and speak idle words." I can't say that there is.

Now, I don't hesitate to say that I see the wisdom in a day set aside for worship, prayer, and rest. God knows we can't go 24/7 ... He made the "sabbath" for us, because we are human and frail. All I'm saying is that in the context of this passage, I see it most accurately applied to life. If I say, "OK, I want to have joy, ride on the heights, and feast on all God has for me to inherit, what do I do" the answer will come back "quit doing what you please; treat the days God gives you as honorable and delight in doing what He wants instead of going your own way." (And frankly, I'll hear "watch those idle words" more than once.)

The reality is, joy is a fruit of the Spirit, so the real path to experience the fullness of Isa. 58:13-14 is not to try harder to enjoy serving God, it's to be filled with more of His Spirit. Ezekiel 36:26-27 tells us that when God puts His Spirit within us, we want to walk in His ways. More than that, He gives us the love for God that we need. Scripture says we love because He first loved us. So as His Spirit fills us, we love Him more and find ourselves pursuing Him harder with each passing year. "Doing as we please" becomes less appealing.

So from the perspective the full counsel of God's Word, I think I can safely say that if you struggle with "your part" of this passage - the part that delights in God's holy day, the part that rejects selfish ways - then the answer is more of His Spirit. Because as Galatians 5 teaches, the Spirit and the flesh are set against each other. They can't occupy the same space! Something has to give. In submission to Him, we can experience the reality the His Spirit is greater than our flesh.

And that puts me on the heights, indeed!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Devotional: Isa. 58:9b-12

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
With the pointing finger and malicious talk,
And if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry,
And satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
Then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land,
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins,
and will raise up age-old foundations;
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of streets with dwellings.
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Making a difference. For those of us with activist hearts, it's more than the mantra of the current era ... it's our heartcry. Once we "awaken" to the full-orbed teaching of Scripture we see that God's priority on the spiritual doesn't mean he ignores the temporal. In fact, there are plenty of Scriptures to show us that He doesn't want us to ignore the "stuff of earth" either. As Francis Chan observes in "Crazy Love", sometimes God's answer to our question, "Why are people starving?" might be to turn around and ask us that question.

That's why this is one of my favorite sections of this passage. The results of the actions God prescribes will bring light into darkness and restoration into brokenness. And that's pretty cool.

Let's break this down. It's basically a big if-then statement, some cause-and-effect relationships:

If we ...
1) Stop oppressing others (through legalism, or mistreatment, or unfair wages, or any other number of ways.)
2) Stop gossipy, malicious conversation (wounding words)
3) Pour ourselves out for the hungry (the Hebrew translated "spend yourselves" means to "cause to come out from the spirit/soul" ... the KJV says closely "draw out thy soul"). This signifies a meeting of others' needs that comes from deep within our being.
4) and satisfy the needs of the oppressed ("satisfy" meaning to provide more than enough - to fill, to overflow even; and "oppressed" meaning afflicted, humiliated - the same word is used for "rape" in some places in the OT) ...

Then - the effect will be profound.
1) Light in dark places, so much so that night is like noonday;
2) Guidance from God;
3) Satisfaction of our own needs in the midst of a dry place;
4) Physical strength;
5) An inward "watering" that keeps us flourishing and fruitful (reminiscient of the "river of life" Jesus spoke of);
6) Corporate restoration of brokenness - including making unliveable places liveable again!

As we've discussed before, it's easy to spiritualize these verses. Sure, it is referencing spiritual freedom and healing. But again, I go back to the fact that God is chiding them in part for being ONLY focused on spiritual ritual and not the effect their religion should have "where the rubber meets the road". It says a lot to me that in many Third World countries where life conditions are much closer to the culture of the Bible than our own Western "advanced" society, Christians don't hesitate to apply these things very literally. Believers in Israel/Palestine who long for peace, believers in Sudan who are on the run, believers in Pakistan who live in secrecy ... all see these verses and others like them as very practical ways to change their society. They know Christ will come again and make all things new. But they want to experience glimpses of His kingdom on earth ... His will on earth as it is in heaven.

So I've been giving some thought to this as I've worked on memorizing this section. Why does God connect these things? Why this cause-and-effect relationship?

I think part of it simply goes back to the principle of the Great Commission. He promised His presence always as we go. That doesn't mean that just because we are about His business we will never suffer. It does mean that if we are focused on His work, then He will clear obstacles until He has a different plan for our lives or our service is complete. So those personal "cause-and-effect" relationships center on His kingdom purposes - a key distinction missed by prosperity gospel teachers. Significantly, the ones mentioned here whose needs will be met and whose frame will be strengthened are the very ones who in the depth of their souls want to meet the needs of others - not themselves.

The effect on those around us - on the "darkness" in which we live - is another way God's kingdom is revealed on earth as it is in heaven. I think the reason "light in the darkness" is part of the "cause and effect" of these verses is reflected in Jesus words of the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:16: "Let your light shine before men, so they will see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven". If you are in a dark environment, you know the impact of light. It's noticeable. And it's for His glory. So when God tells us our actions will have the effect of making our light brighter and push back the darkness - it's all about His glory.

Finally, the corporate opportunity to rebuild, raise up, restore ... all is part of the Hebrew concept of "shalom" which is much more than peace ... it is wholeness. Verse 12 is a beautiful example of what shalom can look like in the life of a nation - or a church - or a family. We forget, so easily, that even though God allows for our human failures and weaknesses - for example, by allowing that governments have the "sword" to protect good against evil - He also has a perfect will that He wants to see on earth as it is in heaven. He uses everything for His purposes ... but that doesn't mean He doesn't want to see some of the bad things reversed. Shalom is the state that results when those things are reversed and we get a glimpse of His kingdom.

Thomas Merton captured this concept beautifully in his poem, Senescente Mundo:
---------------------
I hear a sovereign talking in my arteries,
Reversing, with His promises,
All things that now go on with fire and thunder.

His truth is greater than disaster,
His peace imposes silence on the evidence against us.
--------------------

We get that, personally and spiritually. What I hear in God's word through Isaiah is that it can also be true on a very practical level. And the actions we take fueled by a heart that has been filled with His Spirit and changed to be in line with His purposes can be part of that incredible process, for His glory.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Isa. 58:5

(Sorry I just now realized I failed to post this!I)

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
Only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
--------------------------
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What sticks out to me here is the repetition of the word "only". God isn't telling them NOT to physically fast ... He is just saying there is more to it than that!

We know God doesn't abhor sackcloth and ashes - Job clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes as an expression of his mourning, and he was called righteous. What God DOES abhor is the heart-set that says this is sufficient, I have fulfilled my religious duty. In fact, I think "duty" is one of the worst words we can use in relationship to God. Throughout Scripture one of the words He seems to love using is "delight".

He wants us to "delight" in Him. He wants our relationships to be characterized by love and joyous service. Matthew 25 records people helping others in such a natural way that they don't even realize that they have served Christ ... they are just overflowing their love to "the least of these".

There is a place for fasting and external positions of humility. But they are worthless when they reflect manipulation, duty, or legalism. What God wants is delight in Him ... a new heart that loves to draw near to Him as much as it desires Him to draw near.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Devotional: Isa. 58:8-9A

"Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I."
----------------------------------------

Promises. I love 'em! I love that Jesus is the "yes" to all God's promises. I also love that God lets us know when it's okay to want something.

It's okay to want to have a light that shines! It's okay to want healing and righteousness. It's okay to desire answered prayers. It's OKAY!

But the path to getting those things is the path of other-centeredness discussed in verses 6-7. Only "then" (3 times repeated) will we experience the promises of God. We tend to get spiritual when we really need something. This passages says that such times might be when we need to get off our knees and start serving instead.

I'm not demeaning prayer - it's crucial. I'm just saying that in this context, God says that we experience these answers as we minister. I don't think God is saying NOT to pray ... verse 5 indicates that He is concerned with people "only" focusing on spiritual rituals. What I envision is God teaching us to pray and even fast, then get up and start serving ... and we will find answers.

We will have a light in the darkness of our community. We will experience healing in areas of struggle or even health issues. We will walk more righteously and God's glory will be apparent in what we do. And our prayers will be answered. His presence will be with us.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the promise that Jesus will be with us always. But the context is conditional: "As you are going"... to fulfill the Great Commission. I think Isa. 58 says something similar: "as you are serving" ... He will be working. Like the 5 loaves and 2 fishes, He will make far more out of what we bring to Him. We'll get answers to prayers we never knew to pray. The divine "if-then" effect will define our lives.

Devotional: Isa. 58:6-7

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-
When you see the naked to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood."
--------------------------------

God's patience amazes me! He is giving the Israelites - and us - through Isaiah and very strong message ... one He wants proclaimed loudly. He doesn't hesitate to declare the errors of their - and our - ways. And yet if you look at the chapter, the majority of the content addresses what is RIGHT and GOOD ... what should be done. He is teaching them - and us - the way out of pathetic self-centeredness. What patience.

If you're like me, you look around at the world and especially our culture and despair at the selfish individualism. It's easy to think we are so steeped in it that there is no way out. Yet God reveals through these verses and the ones to follow that there IS a way out. It's to become other-centered through practical acts of servant love.

It's interesting that even secular psychology recognizes now that morbid introspection is not the way out of depression and other such issues. Where the problem is not clinical in nature, "do something for someone else" has become a common prescription. God knew this a long time ago and these verse reflect a shift of thought that will ultimately remove the root of self-centeredness and as we will soon see, result in true wholeness.

The first thing that struck me was how much of this passage references freedom. Loosing chains, untying cords, setting free, and breaking yokes are all freedom-centered phrases. I think of Chris Tomlin's "Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)" ... truly His amazing love and grace sets us free. But what God says through Isaiah is that we play a role in such freedom! True fasting isn't just about spiritual rituals but about practical actions. It's about having an agenda that promotes freedom.

How can we do this? Spiritualizing this passage is easy - and we can and should pray for spiritual freedom from the enemy's bondage. That is the priority. Yet this passage is such a contrast to the spiritual rituals preceding it, and comes in conjunction with such practical ministries as feeding, clothing, and sheltering, that I can't help but see God intending this in very practical ways.

When we keep Isa. 58:6 on a spiritual shelf, to be taken down and prayed fervently over a wayward child in spiritual darkness, we see some results - but miss the full impact of the verse. Passages like this fueled the anti-slavery movement. They encouraged those fighting against apartheid. They convicted Christians to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

What injustices do you see? What oppressions have stirred your heart? What yokes do you long to see broken after the cords are untied? Maybe, just maybe, God would use this passage to stir you to get involved in a practical way IN ADDITION TO praying for those chains to be broken.

For example, based on this and numerous other passages, I can say unequivocally that God does not want children trafficked in sex slavery. Sure, He wants them saved. But He also wants them FREE. He wants the judges of this world to line up with His justice to end this horrific injustice. So I look for ways to raise awareness of this issue; bills that might make it easier to bring these people to justice; and missionaries who are going to areas where this is a special problem that need to be supported and prayed for. I can honestly say that if I found out a trafficking house was in my area I would be contacting every law enforcement person I could find, rallying women I know to help meet the needs of the girls when they are rescued, and lobbying for asylum so they wouldn't be shipped back to their countries only to be cast aside or sold again.

What stirs you? Maybe it's freedom from drug addiction. Perhaps it's fighting for the unborn. You might cry yourself to sleep thinking of hungry kids on the street. Take what stirs you to God, and see what action steps He might give you to be part of His freedom agenda.

Verse 7 is one of those easy to interpret, hard to apply passages.
+ Share your food. When you have an abundance, Paul teaches in 2 Cor. 8-9, it's to share with others.
+ "Provide shelter to the poor wanderer" - some translations read "homeless person". The KJV captures the sense of "refugee" in the phrase "cast out". The word is not used much in the Old Testament but comes from a root word meaning wandering, in the sense of maltreatment. Basically, it's someone who is both poor and homeless, probably due to someone else's mistreatment.
+ "When you see the naked, clothe him." Provide basic needs - that's the heart of this message.
+ Don't "turn away from your own flesh and blood". "Turn away" can also be translated "hide yourself" or "look the other way". Paul wrote that true ministry begins at home - widows with families were to be cared for by them, partly so they could learn how to minister! (That puts a whole different light on our treatment of the elderly, doesn't it.) He also said failure to provide for one's household makes a man worse than an infidel. In a society without any private or public health insurance, where believers were frequently outcast and expendable. these commands were crucial. The group - Israel here, the church in Paul's day - relied heavily on families to do what was right. Thus, in such a group-oriented society, turning away from one's family was dumping responsibility somewhere else and failing to follow basic commands of Scripture. We can't minister well until we learn to minister to our families.

Upside down thinking. We hear traces of the Sermon on the Mount in this brief but deep passage. But the resulting fruitfulness will be beyond compare!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Characteristics of God's Anointed Work

Recently, I blogged here about the concept of "anointed" work. When I wrote that, I was in the midst of an in-depth study of the concept of anointing as seen in the lives of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. I thought I would share some of the things that I learned from that season of studying their narratives. Specifically, I wanted to learn what characterizes God's anointed work - how does it look in the stuff of life. Here are some of the principles I saw in the lives of these three workers for God's purposes:

God's anointed work is characterized by ...
  • A real context. Each book occurs in a specific historical and situational context. Esther 1 outlines a lot of the background of the context of Esther's rise to the throne. But the context is not the point. Instead, the context is merely the canvas on which God paints His purpose.
  • A mind or spirit stirred in a certain direction (Ezra 1:5). Along with this comes an open door, in God's timing, consistent with the direction we are stirred (vv. 1-4), and provision for the work (vv. 6-11). This stirring can look different for each of us, but Daniel 9 gives one possible way it might happen - through God giving us information consistent with Scripture we are reading at the time. Nehemiah 1:1-4 also illustrates how God can give a call where we are, building on our heartfelt concerns.
  • Preparation (Esther 2; Neh. 1). Esther had to prepare to meet the king. Nehemiah had to prepare to broach the subject to the king. One preparation is practical; the other is spiritual. Both are important. An anointed work requires that we be prepared for the nitty-gritty of the job as well as for the spiritual aspects of the task.
  • The efforts of multiple people with different roles (Ezra 2) . No one person gets the glory - it belongs to God alone! Each person fulfills his or her appropriate role voluntarily. Giving is not compelled. Ezra 8:15-20 shows Ezra even intentionally seeking out those gifts needed but missing within the group. Nehemiah 3 reflects the same concept. Neh. 11:1-2 gives us a picture of different logistical placements being supported and blessed. Esther enlisted others for support before taking a major step (Est. 4:15-17).
  • Responsiveness to God's Word with an authentic, open response to challenges and divine intervention when needed (Ezra 5). Ezra 7:10 reveals that understanding of God's Word is given as we seek it. Nehemiah 8 shows the work as being centered on God's word as foundational, and obedience to what was taught as essential.
  • Authenticity. Ezra 8:24-34 underscores the place that trustworthiness and accountability have in work God anoints. Esther responded openly and authentically when the time was right (Est. 7:3-4).
  • A clear view of good and evil. Nehemiah was very concerned with God's holiness (Neh. 13) and led people in confession of sin (Neh. 9). Esther didn't hesitate to call evil by its name (Est. 7).
  • Confirmation by the facts (Ezra 6:1-2), favor by authorities (6:3-12), perseverance by the people (6:13-15), and finally, celebration upon completion (6:16-22).
  • A plan that understands the way the "real world" works. (Neh. 2). Remember we are talking about God anointing work in the stuff of life. Nehemiah couldn't give his king a spiritual "when the Lord leads" answer. He had to trust God to give him a plan that would meet the needs of his boss to know when he would be back. So, he presented the solution after gathering the facts, respecting the structure he worked within.
  • Hard work. Building a city wall wasn't easy! Nehemiah and the people had to sweat and labor and toil, even though it was a God-given task. Along the same lines, commitment is required to complete the task (Neh. 9-10). This commitment is enhanced by God-centered priorities and the remembrance of God's grace and mercy.
  • Faces reality. None of our protagonists ignored the reality of the situation. Esther 4 poignantly records Esther and Mordecai's conversation about just what could happen. In the context of reality, though, God's anointed work is characterized by the ability to see a larger perspecftive regarding the purpose of our individual roles. We see ourselves on that canvas of life, painted in by God for a specific purpose.
  • Dependence upon God (Ezra 8:21-23). Radical humility and trust in God are key factors in a work that He anoints. Nehemiah exemplifies this as he diligently and intentionally sought God in prayer before approaching the king (Neh. 1:5-11). In fact, Esther 6:1-2 shows that divine intervention in even the smallest of details can occur when He anoints a task.
  • Moving forward despite fear (Ezra 3). Rather than wait on feelings, the person engaged in God's anointed work makes an effort to follow God's Word, giving worshipful support and exuberant praise!
  • Opposition that tries to deceive, discourage, distract, and destroy (Ezra 4). Nehemiah 4 also illustrates examples of challenges that could make us lose heart and shows us that sometimes a position of guardedness is necessary while the work continues.Esther 3 also reveals that these challenges will be intentional.
  • Focus in the face of distractions (Neh. 6). We have to stay where we are placed by HIM. We can expect the enemy to deceive, posture, and attempt to instill fear. In the midst of that, we can regain focus by having a renewal of God's equipping strength (6:9).
  • Others-oriented (Est. 8). Mordecai and Esther could have stopped with their personal victory. However, Esther pressed on to the corporate victory. They weren't just trying to elevate Mordecai; they wanted to see their people victorious. Esther and later Mordecai (Ch. 10) used their positions for purpose, advocating on behalf of others.
  • Joy that is shared with others. Worship, praise, and celebration permeate the successes in each of the three books I reviewed. Neh. 12:31-47 is an especially beautiful picture of delightful praise! Esther 9 records that God's anointed work should be remembered!
What I have learned is that God's anointed work far surpasses the strictly spiritual interpretation I held for years. In fact, my eyes have been so opened to this understanding that it has really expanded my view of work and of the role of Christians in our society. I see my job and my interactions with family and neighbors in a whole new light. I also see that I can't do everything - so I'm learning to identify what God has anointed ME to do on a given day or in a given setting. How is He going to use my gifts; what passions has He placed on my heart; what strengths seem "innate" but are really from Him? These are the questions I am asking to sort out what is "expected" versus what is "anointed".

I want to learn to walk in that anointing! I want my life to be characterized by a firm conviction that this moment, this task is God's place for me right now. I want to be careful not to volunteer for things that He hasn't anointed me to do. And I never want this to be an excuse for inaction - instead, I want to focus on what I am TO DO versus what I am not to do. For example, I am not anointed for children's ministry. That has been confirmed over 3 years in two different settings. However, there are areas where I do sense God's anointing. Some are obviously ministry-related; others are in the stuff of life. That is where I want to give my time and energy, knowing that He has painted me into the portrait on the canvas for His purpose. Based on Neh. 2:18, I want to know that I have the good hand of my God on me for a task HE has given.