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.

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.

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.

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.