Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pleasing God

I've been turning over in my head our perennial tendency as believers to please God.

It's not a bad thing - Prov. 16:7 holds out an enticing promise that for those whose ways please Him, their enemies will be at peace. Jesus gave an example of someone whose ways were always pleasing to God (John 8:29). Paul even writes that we should "try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord" (Eph. 5:10; Col. 1:10). There is much to commend the sense of feeling God's pleasure over our decisions and courses of action. We all want to hear Him say, "Well Done."

And yet ... something nags at me. Something tells me it is far to easy to have our focus be "pleasing God". Something tells me that the Pharisees too wanted to please God. So how can I bring the desire to please God into check, to avoid the legalism of the Pharisees? Should "pleasing God" be the motive that gets me through each day?

More and more, I'm thinking - probably not. Maybe it's just me, but living to please opens the door for me to despair when I've failed, and to live for the reward as an end in itself. Instead, I'm seeking to practice as a motive something I learned from our dog: delight in His presence.

Our dog loves nothing more than to be by us. He is 12 1/2 years old and feels every bit the old dog that he is. But he is faithfully up off his bed and excitedly greeting us at the end of the day. He literally lives for the times at night when we call him into our room to sleep next to us. While he sometimes is not pleasing to us in his actions (like finding him in a puddle of water today ... laying down) - he never fails to delight in our presence. And the one discipline that works faster than anything else is to put him away from our presence even for a few minutes. He quickly comes in line when it affects his closeness to us.

So I'm questioning if maybe that's more of the "pleasing" that God wants us to strive for. Desiring His presence so greatly, that we will put aside anything that affects the intimacy of the relationship, make "pleasing Him" more about Him than about the warm fuzzy I get when He pats me on the head. Sure, certain actions please Him. But if those actions are taken apart from a genuine desire for His presence, I'm not sure He's very pleased. The older brother in the story of the prodigal (Luke 15) did the right actions, but didn't truly enjoy his father's presence.

God doesn't want older brothers. I think what He wants are prodigals who can't wait to be with Him and who long to do the right thing because we delight first of all in Him and long to be with Him. He wants people freed from demons who refuse to leave the foot of the cross. He wants those who ignore the crowd and wash His feet with their hair, who love much because they are forgiven much. He wants people who will honor Him for His "scandalous grace" and who can't imagine life without Him.

When He is our all in all, we will find that sin can't stand in His presence. We'll do whatever we can to honor Him. And I think that He will find that very pleasing indeed.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Different Kind of Easter Lesson

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:36-39)

Easter was very different for me this year.

As I blogged previously, I entered this week desperately wanting, needing to fully experience the cross and the resurrection. I needed the perspective of realizing that God has provided in Christ the answer to all my questions about the evil I see in the world.

I proceeded through the week in my usual manner, following through the Gospel accounts on each day of our Lord's last week before the crucifixion. I expected amazing insights each day - wonderful times on the mountaintop, and words I could share with you. After all, that's what happened before; you can read those thoughts under March 2008.

But God had a different kind of Easter lesson for me this year. Because of circumstances my quiet times this week were fragmented. I was tired. I felt like I was desperate to hear from God - not for ministry, but for ME.

And, I did hear from Him. What He impressed upon me more than anything was the realityof the cross, the reality of the resurrection. Let me explain.

Some people in western Christianity today are spiritualizing the cross and resurrection. The cross becomes not a place for Jesus to take our place in death and to die as the lamb of God, but a place of symbolic sacrifice and self-centered "suffering" when our rights are violated. Similarly, in their false teaching the resurrection becomes not the central point of our faith, not even necessarily bodily, but just a symbol of our ability to "rise above" such violations. It's liberation theology for our modern psycho-therapy saturated world.

But this week was a lesson to me that if the cross and resurrection aren't literally real, they are meaningless. As I struggled with the realities of life, I didn't need a spiritual lesson. I needed a Savior. In my fatigue and desperation to hear His voice, I didn't cry out to a principle. I cried out to Jesus.

As I watched The Passion of the Christ Friday night with my church family, I sensed God speak to me about true freedom. He died to set me free from sin and self. He died not so that I can indulge the flesh, but so that I can be victorious over it. The doctrine that rejects the reality of the cross doesn't give me power over my flesh. But Jesus does. True freedom comes because the cross is REAL.

Today as I listened to my pastor teach on Luke 24 and the proofs of the resurrection, I was challenged to ask myself again why I believe. He asked a simple question: "Where is His body?" As I pursued the Scriptures, I realized what great lengths the Gospel writers go through to show us proof of the resurrection. Never are we asked to take this most important of doctrines by faith alone. Does it require faith? Sure, especially 2000 years later when the witnesses are long gone. But for those initial audiences of Scripture, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul go to great lengths to authenticate the resurrection. They answer arguments by showing the source of rumors (Matt. 28:11-15). They include multiple eyewitnesses, including some who wouldn't be expected from the point of view of self-defense (women's testimony was inadmissible). Paul even points to the fact that some of the more than 500 were still alive and thus could be questioned (1 Cor. 15:6). Even Jesus Himself in the passage above invites those in the Upper Room to see that He isn't a spirit. He doesn't say "believe because I said so". He says "touch and see."

"Touch and see". That became the heart of the Apostle John's witness. He would later write:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

You can almost hear his cry: "He's real. I was there. It's all true." I am so grateful that God gives us the gift of faith and enables us to take Him at His Word. But I am also glad that He went to such lengths to undergird the key doctrine of our faith with solid, logical proof. For as Paul points out in 1 Cor. 15, if the resurrection isn't true, our faith is in vain.

The literal reality of His death and resurrection give me hope in a week like this, and every week. On my best days, I might be tempted settle for a spiritualized Savior. But on my weak ones, I know the truth: I need Him to be real.

Praise God, He is. Hallelujah, the Gospel is true!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Eager for Holy Week!

I came into this Resurrection Week feeling more ready than ever before for the perspective it will bring.

For years, I've spent Holy Week re-reading the narratives about Christ's last week of ministry, on the day of the week they occurred (as best we know). It's always great to get a fresh look at The Greatest Story Ever Told. Each year I grasp something new, something I haven't seen before.

But never before do I recall being so eager for Holy Week. Take the tragic shootings this past week (at a nursing home and an immigration center), add an increased awareness of the suffering throughout the world, and throw in the general hopelessness many seem to feel -- I came to today needing to be reminded afresh of the firm reality of The Story.

My first reminder came this morning as I read the Palm Sunday narratives. Jesus' Triumphal Entry - so profound, fulfilling prophecy, yet so different from their human expectations. There was so much He could have done there among those people, those who were waving the branches and welcoming Him, those who were correcting them. But He chose instead to spend time in the temple. One of the things He did there grabbed my attention this morning:

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. (Mt. 21:14)

The "blind and the lame" didn't have a great reputation in Judaism. We first encounter the phrase as a unit in 2 Sam. 5:6, when David goes up against the Jebusites to take Jerusalem. David was warned "the blind and the lame will ward you off" - as the people proudly thought their city was undefeatable. David takes the city by going up through the water shaft and attacking "the blind and the lame" - likely not literal individuals, but statues of Isaac (blind) and Jacob (lame) that guarded the city and were thought to provide divine protection. Whatever the details, this episode led to a saying in Israel that "the blind and the lame" were not welcome in the king's house. (Despite David later reaching out to lame Mephibosheth, this saying prevailed beyond his lifetime.)

By the time Jesus came, this saying had been extended to "the house of the Lord" and there were additions to the temple laws of Scripture ... restrictions that severely (and unbiblically) limited the circumstances under which individuals who were disabled could enter the temple. For example, those whose disabilities required padding (for their stumps) were restricted because of potential uncleanness, though this was not mentioned in Scripture. These people frequented the gates of the temple looking for alms, and some who were partially mobile could enter the temple courts.

But we see Jesus not only healing the lame and blind in his interactions in the countryside, but also in the temple - in the gates and court areas, most likely - we see Him revealing God's heart and showing yet another way religion got it wrong. David had reflected this heart when he had Mephibosheth at his table. He showed that God's heart is not to restrict us but to welcome us - even if we have to be carried to the table (see 2 Sam. 9).

So today, The Story has reminded me that He is ready to receive me in my broken state. It has reminded me that He went out of His way to show God's heart to the "blind and the lame".

Much more awaits this week. This is the perspective I need in light of the sometimes harsh realities of this world. He isn't just a Savior for the afterlife; He is the Transformer of my here and now. But it all starts with His death and resurrection.

I am ready to feel deeply the crucible of Calvary and enthusiastically run to see the empty tomb. Will you join me there?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Hint to Walking in the Spirit

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.(Gal. 5:16-17, ESV)

Walking in the Spirit is hard.

Despite teachings that as a believer we will seemingly "want the right things", Paul presents our faith-walk as a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. We may WANT to do new things, but our flesh will always take us a different direction. We have to rein ourselves in, you might say.

But recently I've found a hint to walking in the Spirit ... a hint tucked right into Paul's letter to Galatia.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself....”If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life... And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal. 5:13-14; 25-26; 6:9-10)

Paul talks about love and serving one another in the same section that he discusses walking in the Spirit. I've never noticed the connection before, but I don't think it's an accident.

I've noticed that it's much easier for me to fight sin when my life is filled with serving others than when I'm focused on my own struggle with sin. The principle is borne out when I watch the lives of others. Whether it's a family member, a Christian co-worker, or someone at church, I see that fleshly patterns are more apparent when people are not serving and using their gifts than when they are. A critical spirit disappears when it is turned outward into a sharp focus in a crisis situation. A pity party ends when the gift of mercy is being used in the life of a needy child. My own tendency to over-intellectualize - and the pride that can stir - is squashed when my efforts are poured into teaching and I'm reminded how many questions I still don't know how to answer.

Are you struggling to walk in the Spirit? Take a hint from Paul. Walk in love and service using the gifts God gave you. See if that makes the Spirit flow much more freely in your life!