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The Most Important Decision

Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.Psalm 135:18, NRSV

Everybody worships something. It may not be God, and most often, sadly, it isn’t. Our idols include celebrities, information, politics, institutions (including religious ones), our nations, families, work, money and others.

There are many things we worship, and, as the Psalmist points out in 135:15-18, our lives reflect this. We treat each other in accordance with our idols, and such things hardly cause us to treat one another well. When we fail to honor the One who is known for His compassion and justice (135:14), we also fail to exhibit those traits as a rule. Instead, our love for our neighbor depends on how they relate to the power, wealth, and desires that actually govern us.

For me, Sundays are a day to decide. I worship because I am grateful for my life. Further, I want to renew my commitment to live and love according to my example in Jesus Christ, rather than allowing the many false gods of our time to dictate my thoughts, words, and actions. I may fail at times throughout the week (duh), but I always come back to my center that I may be empowered by God’s grace to try again.

I don’t know where you’re at or what your idols may be. We all have them. I just want to issue an encouragement to make a different choice.

As my Old Testament professor once said, “You become what you worship.” So let’s examine what drives us, and let’s decide to live according to the image of love, for such life has the power to change everything for the better.

Peace be with you!

Thus Saith the Lord: Quit Yer Bickerin’

How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? — Numbers 23:8, NRSV

It has been a WHILE since my last post, but I needed some space to adjust to an increase in personal training business. I also don’t write as well without “feeling it,” being inspired to share something that I think really needs to be said. So you know this article should be pretty good!

I have been reading through the oft-neglected book of Numbers, and I have to say, it is growing on me. Talking donkeys, fiery snakes, a bronze snake that undoes the fiery ones, all fascinating parts of a narrative that highlights God’s patient faithfulness with human lack thereof. For today, though, I want to emphasize Numbers 23, which captures part of the story of Balaam, a prophet who was summoned to curse Israel on behalf of a Moabite king named Balak.

As per usual, God has other plans for Balak and Balaam. Balaam warns Balak that he is only going to speak what God gives him to speak (22:38), and this is exactly what happens. Balaam gives four oracles, none of which prove favorable to Balak’s cause. As it turns out, God has no qualms about acting contrary to our desires and expectations.

With that in mind, I LOVE the little snippet that opens our article for today. We are currently living in a world of cursing. I am not talking about mother*bleep*ing cursing, but the kind of curses by which we define and attack one another. Here in the U.S., midterm election season has just passed. In that season, we have witnessed the state of animosity that exists between those of different political values and opinions.

Those who subscribe to the Democratic ticket curse their neighbors who are Republican for being racist, bigoted, and callous. Republicans hurl insults at their Democratic fellow citizens regarding their weakness, softness, and lack of practicality. Family members turn on one another, friendships are strained, and the only way to avoid it seems to be silence on the topic. This is stupid, because failure to talk about what is important actually contributes to the division in our country.

Beyond politics, racial conflict is still a problem. Stereotypes become the “facts” by which entire peoples are judged. Humor is used to mask real prejudice, and whether it’s racial, sexual, religious, or any other social category, victims are blamed, sides are taken, and lives are devalued.

In light of this, I think it is vitally important that we heed Balaam’s words from verse 8. What God has not cursed, we should also not curse. What God has not denounced, we should also refrain from denouncing.

God has not cursed us. Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Wiccan, atheist, liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-gun, gay, hetero, somewhere in between, male, female, somewhere in between, soldier, pacifist, immigrant, native, documented, undocumented, rich, poor, middle class, happy, depressed, anxious, and any other conceivable category of person all stand in the “non-cursed” category. How do we know this? Jesus Christ.

While God certainly doesn’t approve of everything we think, say, and do, that doesn’t mean God curses us for our sin. In Jesus Christ, we see that God does the EXACT OPPOSITE. God blesses us and forgives us! As Christ says in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, in Romans 5:8, Paul affirms that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

The witness of Scripture is that God does not curse us, but blesses us by taking on flesh and bearing our sinful burdens in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is not so that we may feel guilty or pained, but so that we may understand the love God has for us, which in turn should become the love we embody for each other. Self-sacrificial love is the nature of God, and it is also to be the nature of His people.

Instead of cursing one another over our differences, we ought to listen. We should set aside our opinions and values, no matter how strongly we may feel about them, so that we can live out the love of Christ in even the most difficult conversations and situations. This may be weakness in the eyes of the world, in this culture of ours that prizes the self above all others. But “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15), and we would do well to remember that reflecting God’s love is a cause far more worthy than any other we may hold dear.

I hope this message comes as a blessing to you. I know it was a wonderful reminder for me, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bear much fruit in us if we keep our hearts open. God has not cursed us, and so we should not curse one another. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)!

Peace be with you!

“Oh, Honey… You’re Not That Powerful”

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”… Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” — Luke 5:8, 10, NRSV

I was having a conversation with a much-beloved friend of mine about the human tendency to exhibit pride through excessive shame. A good example is the person who believes they are too sinful or lost for God to forgive or love them. It’s not that they are intentionally being prideful, but it is in some sense misguided to believe that God’s love (a love that sent Him willingly to execution on a cross) is limited based on our misdeeds. My beloved friend’s response to this was one that made me laugh and think all at once.

“Oh, honey… You’re not that powerful.”

This is, I think, a more sassy interpretation of what Jesus says to Peter in this passage of Luke 5. Jesus instructs Peter’s crew to “put out into the deep water” with the expectation of catching fish, despite them having “worked all night long” without catching a thing (5:4-5). Peter, naturally, expresses some doubt regarding the outcome, but relents.

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ prediction comes to fruition. Tons of fish are caught, and Peter (not for the last time) feels like an ass. In verse 8, he falls down before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Despite evidence to the contrary, Peter believes his sinfulness should keep him from experiencing the power of Christ.

Jesus responds in a way that makes a world of difference. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). There are two sides to this wonderful revelation. First, Peter should stop falling down in fear. Christ’s mission is not to condemn, but to save. This brings in the second piece, which tells us that Peter’s sin not only lacks the power to condemn him, but it also is powerless to prevent the work of God from being done through him. Peter is free to fearlessly follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This interaction should also serve as a powerful lesson for us. We tend to give up on ourselves rather easily. How often have you said or heard someone say, “I am what I am. If I haven’t changed now, I just won’t?” This is really a lack of security masquerading as confidence. Sometimes our insecurities are more pronounced, as we believe ourselves to be so unworthy of love that we almost willingly fall deeper into our self-destructive cycles.

If we examine this passage and allow ourselves a bit of grace, however, we can see that we don’t determine the love that is felt for us by others (especially God). Jesus knew Peter would not only exhibit some disbelief, but that he would also abandon the Son of God to a horrible fate, yet Peter was brought into existence and called to be a leading Apostle. Likewise, God knew all that you would be capable of, both in a positive and negative sense, and He still decided that it would be worth every risk to have you in this world. Further, the same call He offered to Peter is offered to you, that you may experience and participate in the sharing of His unending love.

Of course there will be days when we feel unworthy. We are bound to screw up repeatedly. Luckily, perfection and shame are not requirements for discipleship so much as humility and the willingness to take a chance.

So when you begin to let shame take control, and you fear that you are too low for God to love or forgive, remember the good news of Jesus Christ: “Oh, honey… you’re not that powerful.”

Back In Action!

But to the Kohathites he gave none, because they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders. — Numbers 7:9, NRSV

We just got back from an awesome trip to Colorado. My grandmother turned 90 this week, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and dancing the week away. Believe it or not, that little elderly woman hung in there for 3 hours of Oktoberfest themed dances!

Anyway, this trip also gave me some spiritual insights that I would like to share over the next few days, beginning with this story of the Kohathites from Numbers 7. The other Levite groups receive offerings from the leaders of Israel, which consisted of covered wagons and oxen. The Gershonites and Merarites receive the goods, but the Kohathites, “because they were charged with the care of the holy things,” receive nothing.

One way of looking at this is obvious and practical. Because they were all busy carrying the holy items of the tabernacle, the Kohathites simply didn’t have the capability of taking on even more stuff. For me, though, there is a spiritual teaching here for those of us who try to lead holy lives.

If there is one thing I learned on this trip, it is that we can only carry so much before something has to give. Hauling a backpack, two full suitcases, and four jackets made for quite the waddle to our room in the basement of a lovely rental in Breckenridge. It wasn’t long before the point came when I eventually had to let it all hit the floor.

The same “breaking point” applies to our spiritual lives. There are many things we try to carry all at once, and the burden often causes a disastrous overload. We try to be better people, but we also harbor bitterness, hatred, and a lack of forgiveness. In the pursuit of holiness and “the good life,” we also refuse to let go of our greed, selfishness, and prejudices.

Coming back from this vacation, I’ve realized that I have to be choosy about the things I carry. As with the Kohathites, I cannot expect to bear the love of Jesus in my body if I am also loaded down with a bunch of other distractions. For them, it was the choice to hang on to the holy items rather than receiving oxen and wagons. For me, I must decide to pursue forgiveness, compassion, and loving justice in my life as opposed to clinging to my wounds, anger, and selfish desires.

As we see in Leviticus/Numbers, unholiness cannot remain in the presence of holiness. It is either transformed or renewed. My encouragement for today is for all of us to intentionally decide what we will allow into our finite spiritual space. May we all sift through our wounds and fears to uncover the precious gems of love, healing, and transformation.

Peace be with you!

And The Lord Saith, “Do Nothing”

But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. — Luke 1:20, NRSV

Traditionally, we look at this passage in Scripture and proceed to contrast the story of Zechariah with that of Mary. Zechariah disbelieves Gabriel’s message while Mary embraces it. In standard teachings, Zechariah is merely the negative foil to Mary’s exquisite faith, apart from being the faithful father of John the Baptist.

When I stumbled across this passage recently, though, something different caught my attention. When Zechariah asks, “How will I know this is so?”, he is looking for security, assurance. Sure, he is doing it in the face of a divine messenger who literally appears out of nowhere, but it is something we all do. We crave security, and we want to have as much control as we can in life.

In ancient near eastern culture, childbearing was the greatest sign of blessing. For Israel in particular, bearing a child was a physical reminder of God’s promise to prosper the nation, making them as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). This is why the Bible has such strong opinions on marriage and procreative sexuality. It is also why Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered to be in disgrace, because, despite their righteousness, they were a barren couple.

When we understand that, Zechariah’s skepticism (which mirrors Abraham and Sarah’s), makes sense. He wants to be assured that when he tells his wife (and others) that they’re going to have a baby, it freakin’ happens! Otherwise, their disgrace would be amplified.

The first problem with this, though, is Zechariah’s source. Gabriel, the messenger of God, is probably not one to come play a cruel prank. This is a divine message, not some cosmic episode of Punk’d.

Second, and more importantly, there are no guarantees in life. It’s a cliche, but it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn, just like Zechariah. You see, Zechariah is being told what’s going to happen (“until the day these things occur,” 1:20). Outside of sex with his wife, there is nothing Zechariah is expected to do to bring things to fruition. The results do not depend on him, and we all know how scary it is when important aspects of our lives rest outside of our ability to control them.

In response to Zechariah’s questions, Gabriel does something that seems punitive. I mean, he takes away the guy’s speech, which also probably made seducing Elizabeth hilarious. I imagine lots of eyebrow waggling and gestures… Anyway.

When we look a little closer, though, Gabriel’s action is more of a “blessing in disguise.” All Zechariah can do is sit back, go (quietly) about his regular life, and wait to see what God does. This is also all we can do.

I know this isn’t what some of us want to hear, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Whether it’s a job interview, pregnancy, asking for a date, or awaiting diagnosis, there is a broad spectrum of life events with outcomes we cannot determine. We normally view this as a horrible aspect of living, and many of us refuse to accept or admit it, but what if it is actually a blessing?

When we obsess over the details and outcomes of life various issues, are we being healthy? When last I looked, continuous stress contributes to declines in physical and emotional health (it’s science). Our enjoyment of life is made less and less possible as we try to guide (force?) life to go the way we would prefer.

But what if I told you all you were in charge of is living your life? What if, instead of fighting or fearing the truth of our limited power, we embraced it? Life would consist of actual living, where we take care of business, but also make space for the Spirit of God to do its work. Uncertainty would serve as a reminder to take time to enjoy our short time on this earth as opposed to obsessing over it.

I believe this was Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, and it is God’s message to us. If Gabriel (and God) wanted to punish him, the birth of John could have been given to someone else. Instead, Zechariah gets to learn a powerful lesson about his own powerlessness as he also experiences the birth of his son. In the end, both of these things prove to be sources of joy.

So for us, that which normally worries us can actually provide us happiness. We cannot control everything in life, nor are there any guarantees. When all we can do is wait and see, perhaps it is best we employ a bit of faith and spend our time doing what we can by loving those around us, honoring the gift of life and the One who gives it to us.

I’m not suggesting some “pie in the sky” view of life. I suffer from depression, and I know many of you may suffer from anxiety. It’s important that you realize, dear reader, that I am not advocating the view that anxiety, stress, and worry are sinful. Rather, I am affirming the need for us to engage in self-care and seek treatment so that we may live life fully. It is true, however, that we must be willing to admit when we are being unhealthy, accept our dependence, and find a way to move forward.

So no matter what you have going on in your life, I hope you will accept this teaching from Zechariah. Yes, there are things you and I cannot control, and worry is an inevitable response, but we can also learn to respond with faith. When we understand our own limited power and that each day is ultimately a gift, we are free to guide our efforts away from what we cannot affect and toward those people and causes in our lives that mean the most to us. This is God’s gift to us, and I pray you’ll join me in accepting it.

Peace be with you!

 

 

For the Days I Don’t Believe

No, you didn’t misread the title. There are days when the idea of believing  in and connecting with the Source of all Being in the universe makes no sense to me. Usually, these days are spawned by my rebellious nature. Someone tells me what I should believe or what people of my faith believe, and my instant response is to resist when the subject appears to be arbitrary or unknowable.

Do you ever have those days? I bet you do. I have found that people are reluctant to admit it because, as I covered in a previous post, doubt is not considered acceptable by many in the Christian world. It is often seen as a weakness, and people like me are often blamed for our unbelief and the inability to “feel connected” to God.

This is consistent with current worldly trends. Faith is seen as a matter of feeling, so we seek worship environments with plenty of good music and lighting. When we don’t get what we want, we move on until we do, never thinking that our dependence on how we feel is getting in the way of our worship.

Our world also promotes tribalism. Whether it’s politics, social causes, or our faith, it is considered weakness to question the groups to which belong. After all, there is no security in admitting we might be wrong.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t feel like a believer. My connection to God just wasn’t there, and my mind was deconstructing everything to which I normally devote myself. It was a rough day, but like all such days, an important lesson was close at hand.

Today, I stand as a believer, a person of the Way of Christ, not because I feel fuzzy when I think about it, and not because there was an open, front-row parking spot at Target this morning.  I believe by choice. I believe because I have an entire life story to look back upon wherein I see the power of my faith at work in my life.

My faith has made me a better man. It has sustained me in some of the darkest and most painful moments in my life. Days may come when my feelings and thoughts betray me, but in the end, I have to make a choice. We all do.

I don’t know if this is a struggle you have, but if so, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Instead of relying solely on how you feel or how well you’re able to rationalize your faith, I encourage you to remember the powerful transformation brought about by belief in Jesus. If you don’t have that experience, I pray that you will decide to strive for it. In any case, don’t judge yourself for questioning. It can actually be a healthy practice for your faith!

If you don’t struggle with your faith and tend to… admonish (judge) those who do, please stop. Compassion is part of the Christian witness, and when we fail to show it to everyone, we fail to walk in the Way. It is scary when people we know and love express doubt in something so dear to us, but it’s important to remember that love, support, and camaraderie stand a much better chance of promoting faith and peace than judgment and fear tactics.

Jesus let’s us know that faith is costly, and it won’t bring us all the peace, security, and prosperity we crave in life. Rather, we will be met with persecutions. We are told, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:16-17, NRSV). There are going to be days when the Way of Jesus doesn’t seem appealing. So what then?

We have to make a choice. Faith is a decision to walk in the Way, even when it doesn’t appear to do anything for us. When we make the choice to worship and act in faith in spite of our feelings and doubts, we are actually closer to the heart and mind of Christ.

I pray that you will join me in making this choice. It is a Way of adversity and self-sacrifice. Days will come when it makes perfect sense for us to want to abandon it. However, we must remember that it is also the Way of God’s transforming love, which makes the risks well worth it.

Peace be with you!

Getcha Some Spiritual Wisdom

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. — 1 Corinthians 2:2, NRSV

A lot of people praise what’s known as “common sense.” It’s a slippery concept that is popularly described as the cure for many of today’s issues. For too many people, there is a particular way the world works, and the best we can do is resign ourselves to it.

Now don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t stick a fork into an electrical outlet. Trying to capture a rattlesnake by hand is also a horrible idea. I’m not saying we should live in ignorance of particular facts of life. Electricity and rattlesnakes can kill you. Just imagine if there were electric rattlesnakes…

Anyway.

What I do have a problem with is our all too common practice of merely accepting the world as it is and propping up its unhealthy practices because we don’t believe there to be an alternative. War is just what happens. Politics are dirty. Violence is a necessary evil. You get the idea.

What Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 2 is an alternative way of thinking… assuming we decide to embrace the idea of spiritual truth. You see, in Paul’s time, the Romans and Jewish authorities each believed the world worked in one particular way. Romans saw things in terms of logical arguments, and Jewish authorities wanted to see miraculous signs of power (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). In this world, Caesar is king and the empire is true power… unless you’re Paul and the Christian community.

For those of the faith, a crucified carpenter was considered King above all, and it is in the flesh of this person that the power of God is revealed. This meant the emperor and his minions didn’t have the final word, and for all their killing, torture, and conquest, they would eventually have to pay the piper. There was an alternative to the way the world seemed to work, and this alternative was full of hope and peace for those who were able to embrace it.

Turning to our own time, this alternative still exists. Sure, it’s been buried under thousands of years of violence, oppression, abuse, and scandal. Whenever humans are involved with anything, sin lies close at hand. Underneath all of those layers, though, the truth that began a powerful, transformative movement still remains.

Our world accepts poverty, hatred, and wanton violence as unchangeable aspects of life. You either have to get on board or get out of the way. Even those who claim to be people of faith filter their religious practice through the lens of “realism.” We follow the faith insofar as it doesn’t become inconvenient for us, our loved ones, or our bank account.

To accept the alternative God gives us in Christ, though, we have to start seeing things differently. While worldly wisdom is concerned about the way things are, spiritual wisdom is concerned with the way the world should be. It doesn’t mean ignoring reality, but it does mean looking beyond what is in order to live for what could be. The truth of the Spirit is one we must fight for, and that is a battle that requires us to place our hope and trust in a different place.

Earthly wisdom would have us trust in ourselves, our weapons, and our fear. Spiritual wisdom asks us to trust in God, a reality that is beyond us, the Source of all being.

Earthly wisdom encourages us to look after our own interests. Spiritual wisdom has us look to the cross, where self-sacrifice is the key to meaningful relationships with God and each other.

Earthly wisdom sees victory in conquest and destruction of the enemy. Spiritual wisdom sees victory in love, even for those we don’t believe deserve it.

Earthly wisdom fears death above all else. Spiritual wisdom sees that love and forgiveness are things worth dying for.

Ultimately, the choice lies before each of us. Every decision and every interaction present us with an opportunity to embrace the truth of the Spirit. Day by day, we decide whether we will support the way things are or search out a better alternative. It is my prayer that you will join me in striving to think spiritually. Life in this world can be painful, but that doesn’t have to determine how we choose to live.

Peace be with you!