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Back to Speech Class

“If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.” — James 1:26, CEB

Wow, James, way to be kinda harsh… Eh, that’s how he is. He has a point, though. How many of us have been or have known supposedly Bible-believing, faithful people who spewed the most venomous cruelty once the coast was clear? I have to say, in my time with certain holiness traditions of Christianity (Methodism and Assemblies of God), the most unholy moments were when it was perceived to be a safe space, wherein those who constantly extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion became the harshest judges in the room. This includes me, who had a lot to vent after a long day of ministering to and with other human beings.

It is this kind of behavior that put me off from the church while at university, and it honestly still bothers me. Now, like I said, I am guilty of this behavior as well. In some way, I think we all are. Watching our words is probably the hardest task to ask of a culture that so prizes instant, inflammatory, uncensored speech. I’m not just talking about swearing, but also gossip, our private hate speech, and the flat-out insensitive vitriol that we tend to release most when surrounded by those we trust, never mind the terrible witness this is to our character and beliefs.

Those of us who claim to believe in a higher power and way of living ought to know and do better, especially if we are claiming to follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus is very clear that our whether or not we practice our religion in the most secretive parts of our lives determines whether or not we are true followers (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18). When it comes to how we speak about each other, Jesus is even more clear in the previous chapter.

So how do we start to develop habits of watching how we represent ourselves (and our God) through words? James, luckily, never stops at criticism. He always includes some manner of advice on the topic, so let’s take a look!

James addresses temptation, anger, and speech all in chapter 1, and as we will see, all of these are related in our current problem. In verse 13, James informs us that “No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me!’… Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them.” Normally, this passage evokes images of adultery, greed, theft, or murder. It also, however, works very well for explaining our poor speaking habits. No outside force (including God) is to blame for the decisions we make to be cruel. Think about it. If we are angry enough to spew our careless words, it’s not because God or others made us do it; it’s because something that affects us and how we feel has entered the equation, and the feelings that we experience are then used as license to say and express whatever we want, however we want. It is an act of pure selfishness that we think we can mask with our righteous indignation or justifiable feelings.

While we can’t control the feelings that are provoked in us in any given situation, we are responsible for what we do with them. They can either yield something righteous, something helpful, or something utterly damaging and unhelpful. When we opt to justify ourselves in using hateful speech, we potentially render meaningless any of the outward devotion to the cause of righteousness that we might otherwise have to our credit (verse 26). This may sound harsh or unforgiving, but again, think about the people you know that were supposedly faithful and righteous and loving, yet that changed the moment doors closed and the crowds departed. It’s not an unfair judgment, it is just a truth.

Now, this article is not meant to inspire guilt or shame. It is, however, designed to make us all think about how we speak and act in the moments that no one of note is watching. Shame is useless when it comes to repentance, and guilt is only useful if we refuse to remain guilty, meaning we decide to start doing some things differently. The goal of this Scripture and of the Gospel in general is not to impart judgment, but to impart grace through the understanding that we are good, that others are good, and we are free to actually act like it. Even when others don’t seem so good, we are to show grace because of the grace we would like to be shown when we don’t seem so good (Golden Rule, anyone?)

A great, often cited Scripture to help us with this is found in verses 19 and 20. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” Indeed, we can’t always control how slowly we experience anger. Anger can be a healthy emotion. What we can do is develop the habits of listening, acknowledging our feelings, and processing our feelings all before we decide to speak and act, because it is when we let our anger dictate our speech that we end up saying, typing, or screaming some really messed up things that throw our relationship with God and others all out of whack. 

This is a lifelong endeavor. It takes work and grace for others and for ourselves. It takes the willingness to apologize and mend relationships. It takes dedication to the constant practice of these habits, and faith in the hope that this practice will lead to a better world for us and for others.

Like I said, I have a big problem with this in my own life. I actually dislike these Scriptures because they are instantly convicting. However, I also see the grace in them that tells me that I am made and meant for more. Indeed, we all are. We don’t make these mistakes because we are bad. We make them because we are human, and we all have ways in which we can  grow healthier and healthier in our love of God and others. So as we go out into the rest of our day, and the rest of our lives, let’s go forward resolved to make kindness and compassion our lifestyle, not just in the light of day, but also in the darkness of night when we think or know no one is watching. In doing so, we witness to the transforming power of love and grace, and we add just a little more light to our world.

Peace be with you!

 

What Will We Build?

“All of these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth.” — Hebrews 11:13, CEB

We’ve got a short one today, folks! Honestly, that may make this post more “devotional-like,” as opposed to the longer ones I typically put up. Anyway, I have been reading the Letter to the Hebrews as my New Testament devotional text for the last few days. I love Hebrews because every time I read it, I get a personal experience of God’s love and grace (just a warmth of heart, not a “swing from the ceiling fan, visions with fire” kind of thing), in addition to seeing an ancient Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that is fascinating. All in all, I definitely recommend Hebrews for a good, challenging, but hopeful read!

As indicated, the passage that stuck out to me for today was chapter 11. The quote above sort of captures what I love about it, but follow this link to see the whole text so that the quote will make more sense. Chapter 11 of Hebrews re-tells the stories of many of the “heroes” in the Judeo-Christian faith, specifically those who, despite many setbacks, persecutions, or shortcomings, were able to do amazing things through faith in God.

Because the author is a Christian, they do present the Hebrew Bible as a foreshadowing of the true salvation of God, which occurs in Christ. With that in mind, the author presents these “heroes” as being even more wonderful because they operated faithfully knowing they probably wouldn’t live to see the revelation of God that saves all people and redeems the whole of creation. This brings us to the quote that inspired this post.

These people knew they may not see the fruit or fulfillment of their labors… They, however, persisted in faith nonetheless. They “saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them,” knowing that their example was still important for future generations to be inspired, come to faith, and feel empowered to pursue their own walk with God through Christ.

I can’t help but feel that we need more of this in our world today. It seems that we have gotten so lost in the wants and needs that pertain to us alone that we forget how temporary we are. We are here for the blink of an eye in historical terms. We are merely visitors to this life, to this world. When we forget that, and when we forget the fact that we will be leaving SOMETHING behind, we often run the risk of punishing future generations for our self-serving decisions.

Sure, we may be able to enjoy life and feel like it was all good, but is that what our children and their children (the children of others, as well) are going to be experiencing? Are we leaving them with a good example of faith and self-giving, or are we leaving them the tools with which they can further dismantle faith and use the scraps to craft yet another idol? We have to decide now what it is we will be leaving behind in this world, no matter if you are in your mid-twenties (like me) or much older/younger. We are not eternal, and we do not last forever. We do not have the time as so many think they do, that we may waste it on only providing comfort for ourselves, leaving the work of love, compassion, and service to others.

Instead, we are better off looking to our exemplars in the faith, looking most of all to Christ, and finding ways in which we can impart the best of ourselves, our faith, and what we know to the world, even if in the smallest of moments in our everyday lives. We must recognize that we are all building something that will outlast us, and whether that is good and glorifying of God is up to us. We don’t always get it right. We make mistakes, break our promises, and fail. It happens. However, even those occasions can serve as a witness to our faith in something so much greater than ourselves if we but choose to get back up, get healthy, and move forward with love.

Today, I hope you will join me in looking inward and asking, “What am I building? Will the world be better because I was here and because of my faith? How can I ensure that it will?” As the text says, we may never see the fruit of our faithful work. We may never see the completed structure that we contribute to. However, if our foundation is Christ, and if our work is full of love, healing, grace, and as much “right” as we can possibly muster (so help us, God), we can rest assured that we have run our race and offered some small hope to those who come after us, honoring those who came before. 

Peace be with you!

Jesus Said… What?

“He replied, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” — Matthew 15:26, CEB

You know, this is probably the closest to sinning I see from Jesus.. We know Jesus to have been without sin from the Scriptures, but surely talking to someone like this counts as some kind of problem, right? Then again, are we sure that Jesus is the main feature of this text? Could Matthew’s (and Christ’s) intent be that we look somewhere surprising for inspiration? Let’s take a look!

The passage is Matthew 15:21-28, but the story is also found in Mark. The reason it is absent in Luke and John could be attributed to the fact that these are later-written Gospels, composed at a time when the Jewish/Christian divide was growing due to the influx of Gentiles joining the Christian movement. As such, the Gospel writers probably took exception to Jesus taking such a strong stance on being “sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Luke strongly emphasizes inclusion of those who are cast aside, so this story wouldn’t make sense to tell. Going even further, John’s Gospel is told in a way that clearly shows the growing gap between what was traditional Judaism and the Christian sect that would soon grow into its own separate body of faith. Remember, the different Gospels emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ministry and reflect the experience of the church at the times they were written. 

With that in mind, we can look at the text from Matthew 15. First of all, we see that Matthew describes the woman as a Canaanite (verse 22). Interestingly, enough, those people were not around anymore. Between conquest and the passage of many, many years, no one that fit the description of Canaanite (an umbrella term) was just meandering around the area. This word choice, then, is intentional and geared toward making a point. What point? Perhaps we will find out.

She calls out to Jesus twice. Once, she is ignored (verse 23). The second time, Jesus reiterates his mission as being first and foremost to Israel (verse 24). The third time she calls out, Jesus issues the wildly insulting response we saw at the start of the post, implying that she is a dog. Now let’s talk about modern sensibilities.

Yes, this is insulting. To us, it’s unbelievably rude and makes no sense for the Jesus we were all taught to know and love (a big reason why this text is avoided by preachers). The truth is, even back then in the 1st Century, this was not a kind thing to say. Jesus exemplifies the standard Jewish attitude that Gentiles (non-Jews) are a secondary people in God’s eyes, and says that using what would be standard terminology. Remember, Jesus is a human in a particular time and place, ministering to a particular people. The notion of the Messiah is, after all, a Jewish concept. That said, he is also God Incarnate, and we would like to expect more.

My question, though, is whether or not Jesus is the one we are supposed to be looking at and emulating in this passage, and my answer would be no. You see, Matthew has a habit of revealing the least expected as the most faithful, while the children of the promise (Israel) turn out to be rather faithless when it come to the Christ walking around healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom. Examples include:

  1. Matthew 3:5-9, where right off the bat, John hints that being a child of Abraham isn’t just about your genetics (*hint*)
  2. Matthew 8:5-13 and the healing of the Centurion’s servant
  3. Matthew 11:20-24, as Jesus remarks that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be better off than predominantly Jewish areas on the judgment day due to their willingness to repent
  4. THIS PASSAGE WE ARE LOOKING AT!

Truly, at the end of this seemingly disheartening passage, Jesus heals the woman’s daughter, praising her faith (verse 28). What faith? That would be the kind of faith that would move a woman to ignore the sting of prejudice in order to pursue the gifts of healing that the kingdom of God has to offer. After Jesus responds with the dog comment, we see that her answer is not to stomp off angrily or curse him as you and I probably would. Instead, she responds in a witty way, saying, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (verse 27).

BOOM. She takes his metaphor and expands on it, resulting in a spectacular show of persistence. After being ignored on the first try, dismissed on the second, and insulted on the third, this very strong mother, who is supposed to be of no account, shows greater faith and devotion than even the disciples end up having, and she actually shows this by besting Jesus in a battle of metaphors. 

First of all, what an awesome passage. It’s wildly uncomfortable, but full of so much meaning and intrigue. Secondly, though, we need to address how this fits into our perspective of Jesus. Everything written in every Gospel is designed to make a point, and often this is done by making us look at Jesus as the exemplar of the perfect unity of God and humanity. However, there are also passages that emphasize the faithfully persistent actions of others that we are intended to emulate. 

To me, this is one of those passages. Now, this doesn’t mean I am advocating that women be walked all over for the sake of the kingdom. Women have paid a steep price for such interpretations throughout the history of the church, and many still do today. What I am advocating is that we emulate her faithful persistence.

When we seek Christ, and when we seek the blessings of the kingdom of God for ourselves and for others, we will meet resistance. It will seem like God isn’t answering, has better things to do, or doesn’t believe us to be worthy of the effort. More often than not, we impose all of that on ourselves when we don’t see what we would like to see. However, like the Canaanite woman, perhaps we are being given an occasion to be persistent and to prove what is really important to us.

Would you stop seeking healing for your child or loved ones after being turned away by one doctor? Would you stop seeking fair compensation for employment after a difficult talk with your boss? Would you end a marriage because things got hard with the person you love with all your heart? I would hope not. So why do we give up and abandon faith when we meet resistance, knowing that we will absolutely face adversity when attempting to be faithful to God? When we are met with uncertainty, unkindness, loss, or despair, we often abandon faith, not by becoming atheists (though it can happen), but by reverting to our old, sinful habits and turning inward to a selfish worldview that denies God and others. We are unkind in response to unkindness, selfish in response to selfishness, and disparaging in response to despair and difference.

But what if we look to this Canaanite woman, the centurion, and, yes, to Christ, seeking to imitate their example as people who remain faithful in the face of rejection, uncertainty, and even the cross? Maybe then we would remember that the kingdom of God has come to us in Christ, and that whatever resistance we meet does not have the power to take the Spirit of God within us away. Maybe then we would be empowered to live life in light of faith and hope, rather than selfishness and despair.

It is my opinion that Matthew uses this story not to emphasize the humanity of Christ, but the faith of the Canaanite woman. No, the situation is not flattering and should not be imitated by God’s people (or anyone for that matter). However, the powerful faith and persistence of this remarkable woman are something that we can all learn from and be inspired by. As you go into the rest of your day, remember this woman. Remember her faith, and remember that if we are that faithful and persistent, we will experience the awareness that God is present in our lives, and, even better, we will be able to share that love and presence with a world that desperately needs it.

Peace be with you!

Resurrection Matters

“Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” — 1 Thessalonians 4:13, CEB

It would seem that I like to harp on hope, given the title of this site and yesterday’s post. Honestly, though, I think because hope is something that has gotten me through so much, it’s worth sharing and talking about. I answer questions on Quora, a website devoted to questions and answers, and I have seen so many that talk about what hope there is for our race (human) and for our world. It stands to reason, then, that we could all use a daily reminder of how to maintain hope and what hope the Christian faith offers us.

For me, the story of the resurrection of Jesus is all about hope, and not just for the end of days. As the quote above indicates, Paul is wanting his people to have hope NOW.

So now, I must confess: Easter is often one of the most frustrating holidays for me to endure.

“But, Jordan [my name], why??? It is the day Jesus rose!”

Exactly. See the verb tense? “Rose?” Easter exemplifies part of our problem as a faith. We focus either too far in the past or too far in the future. I mean, let’s be honest, if all we do on Easter is commemorate an event from 2,000 years ago as a mere corpse being re-animated… that’s not a major incentive to get involved. It’s over! Done! Likewise, if all we do is point to the future and say, “Just wait,” again we miss an opportunity to fully witness to the breadth and depth of Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus’ resurrection was not just about God coming back from the dead and thereby doing something magical and impressive. Everything Jesus does has to do with the redemption of humanity and hope for creation. The teachings of Christ, the miracles of Christ, the crucifixion of Christ, and, yes, the resurrection of Christ are all geared toward getting us humans into right relationship with God and with each other (Matthew 22:34-40).

How is this so? If we take a look at the Letter to the Hebrews, we find a great summary of how the crucifixion and the resurrection are meant to impact us today. The author writes of Jesus, “He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death–the devil–by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by the fear of death.” The fear of death has a lot to do with the decisions we make, especially the sinful ones. Our fear of death causes us to fear or hate each other for various reasons, causes us to betray our faith and act against God to save ourselves. This fear is the greatest enemy because it turns us into selfish puppets. The issue is not our instinct to survive, so much as what allowing that instinct to govern our every action does to the rest of creation.

In the resurrection, we find that death does not have the final word, because death is not more powerful than the One who is the source of all life: God, made incarnate in Jesus. Jesus is the incarnation of the perfect union of divinity and humanity, and as such, we see in Jesus what our lives are to look like if we want to be restored to relationship with God for the improvement of our world. The resurrection takes the brutality of the crucifixion, brutality that we see every day, and puts it in hopeful perspective, because life is found not in the avoidance of death at all costs, but in paying whatever cost is necessary to ensure love, life, and light for others in the name of God.

So when we turn to the Scripture for today, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, we see Paul’s practical teaching on bringing the power of the resurrection into our lives TODAY. For the Christians of Thessalonica, they were concerned and mourning for those who died before Jesus’ return (verse 13), believing it would be too late for them to experience that salvation. Paul, then, turns the resurrection into a cause for hope, saying, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus” (verse 14). We are then treated to a beautiful vision of what this may look like in verses 15-17.

Finally, Paul encourages us to “encourage each other with these words” (verse 18). There have been, are, and will be many reasons for us to mourn. Loss of life, growing hatred and tensions, abuse, mistakes, prejudice, poverty, starvation; the list goes on and on. We should mourn. We should take time to acknowledge when a wrong has occurred. However, the trend has been to base our lives off of those wrongs, and this is a mistake. Looking to Christ, we must be able to mourn while maintaining hope. This is not a hope that just waits for the future, but it is a hope that enables us to follow in the footsteps of Christ, righting the wrongs we can, and shining the light of God into every shadow we can reach. In doing so, we cease to yield to despair and we greatly inhibit its spread. 

There is hope for the future, but there is also hope for today. You are loved, and were purchased at great price, and we are all empowered and charged by the Gospel to share that love with others. If we can decide to give that a shot, I can’t help but believe that things can and will change for the better.

Peace be with you!

The Art of Seeking

“I have asked one thing from the LORD– it’s all I seek– to live in the LORD’s house all the days of my life, seeing the LORD’s beauty and constantly adoring his temple.” — Psalm 27:4, CEB

Like the furry little friend in the image above, we are always seeking something. Life is lived in pursuit of something, and we are constantly fed ideas of what it is we should be seeking. We need the perfect body, all the money we can possibly get, the biggest house, the most friends, the most likes, the most re-tweets, the most intelligence, the best clothes, the dream job, the dream car, a ticket to heaven, along with a million other things, and too often, these are the things we live our life in pursuit of, intentionally or not. We all fall into the trap laid for us by the world, which seeks to keep us buying what it is selling. After all, nothing stimulates the economy and the status quo more than a nation of people seeking after themselves.

This self-serving trend that consumes our culture threatens to cause humanity to implode. All of creation (including us) suffers because of the things we seek, and, perhaps more importantly, the things we don’t. Even today’s churches, peddling the all too pervasive Prosperity “Gospel,” cater to our desires in order to keep the pews full and the money coming in. Ever heard how the faith makes your life more fulfilling? How if you sow generously, you will reap a generous harvest (as the offering plates make their way around)? Have you been told your prayers will be answered affirmatively if you have enough faith, or that praying circles around whatever it is you want will almost certainly (unless it’s not God’s will) yield the results you want or better? Yeah, none of that is really promised in Scripture (at least, not for these purposes), and more and more people are growing disillusioned with a Church that uses what should actually be comforting news and a powerful story for the purposes of gaining people, money, and relevance.

So what is the alternative? What are we to be seeking and searching for as we try to make our way through this life? I could just say, “God,” in the spirit of Sunday schools everywhere, but without a decent explanation, that’s really more of a cop-out. So, as per usual, I’m going to attempt (God help me) to take a walk through the Scriptures, and hopefully find a decent direction in which we all may start moving. Deal? Let’s give it a try, starting with the Scripture that kicked off this post.

The Psalmist seeks after one thing: “to live in the LORD’s house… seeing the LORD’s beauty and constantly adoring his temple” (27:4). Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but what the Psalmist seeks after seems to have much more to do with God than it does with him (the Psalm is listed as being “of David,” so I’m rolling with it), and maybe that is the first step to re-orienting our worldview, values, and priorities in a better direction: turning the emphasis of our lives away from ourselves. This results in a fearlessness that is pretty unheard of in our world today. In the opening verses of the Psalm, the writer is frightened of nothing, even “when evildoers come at [him] trying to eat [him] up,” or “if an army camps against [him]… if war comes up against [him]” (27:2-3). If the author had been too inwardly centered, rather than mindful of the greater realities of life, I bet this would have read quite differently!

The second step follows closely to the first. Our new worldview that is mindful of the vast reality beyond ourselves should also come with a generous spirit. The Psalmist indicates in verse 6 that he “will offer sacrifices in God’s tent– sacrifices with shouts of joy!” Sacrifices were not just theatrical acts of slaughter. Rather, sacrifices often involved feasts that brought the people together to all be fed and share life together, and so it should be today. No, don’t go killing animals and inviting your friends over, but yes, be willing to sacrifice what you have (money, talents, privilege, health, intellect, resources, etc.) for the benefit of others. Dare to be generous and factor the well-being of others into your decision-making, even if it would cost you something to do so. The world could benefit so much from having a group of people willing to care for others regularly, rather than when it was scheduled, convenient, and not burdensome. 

The third and final step that I will address in this article has to do with the final verse, verse 14. “Hope in the LORD! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!” That’s right, the final step to a life better lived has to do with hope and being brave enough to have it. Cynicism is rampant in our world as people turn inward because it is better than being let down by life time and time again. There is also a big problem with hoping in things that ultimately can’t give us what we want, such as wealth, weapons, security, and other modern-day idols.

So what should we place our hope in? Why should we even bother with hope?

I will answer the first question in a Sunday school fashion: God is what we should hope in. Now for those of us who believe and are comfortable with this (I’ll address others momentarily), there is a practical way to do this, and that is to live like the kingdom of God is here already. To hope and trust in God is a habit that is developed through how we live our lives. It is the courage to give when we would rather not, to speak up when we would rather hide, to be silent when we’d rather assert our opinion, to forgive when we’d rather avenge, to seek peace when we’d rather come to blows, and to embrace others when we’d rather avoid or condemn them. This takes a lifetime of work and practice, and the true transformation occurs through the effort, rather than the mere accomplishment of all of them, as if it were a matter of checking a box. 

To those of us who are iffy about God (trust me, I get it), I strongly suggest that you reconsider. I wouldn’t be a minister if I didn’t. Some people assign their meaning and hope in life to their family or career, but all of that can go away in a few tragic moments (God forbid), whereas the love of God in Christ doesn’t go anywhere.

THAT SAID…

Even if you are not a believer, it is important to maintain hope. Hope doesn’t mean shallow optimism or denial, but it does mean that you have to find something that is beyond you that keeps you living life in the best, most self-giving way possible. Maybe it is your calling in life, that thing that you can turn to that fills you with love, compassion, and the drive to share those things with the world. Maybe it is those people in your life who bring out the best in you. Either way, ponder it, find it, and grasp that hope with all you have.

Now to everybody, believer or not…

Why is it important to maintain hope? Presence. “Even if my father and mother left me all alone, the LORD would take me in” (Psalm 27:10). Presence matters a lot to everyone, and we can’t be present for others when we are too caught up just trying to keep ourselves afloat. If we maintain hope in our lives, we can also share it with those who need it. There are those in the world that need to hear that they are not alone, and that they are loved. There are those who need to know that the future doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and that there is still light shining in the darkness.

There is a reason God’s biggest promises involve presence: Creation is made to be in community. Even if you aren’t a creation believer, you can’t deny that the world’s life-systems are all interconnected, and when one part fails or is lost, the whole suffers. This world (indeed, this universe) functions in a connected way, from the largest cosmic movements to the daily, seemingly mundane interactions you have with those around you. To ignore this is to deny the sense of community and dependence that was breathed into this reality in which we live, and we have to do better.

As you go out into the rest of your day, my encouragement to you (and myself) is to take the Scripture’s advice. Look beyond yourself, find opportunities to make sacrifices in the spirit of generosity, and keep hope alive for yourself. In doing so, you will find that you are equipped to live a life that seeks what is truly important: the inspired, hope-filled communal reality that this world was always designed to be. 

Peace be with you!

A Shout-Out to the Unlikely

“The advanced in days aren’t wise; the old don’t understand what’s right.” — Job 32:9

Wow, nothing like some ancient, biblical age-ism, am I right??? Of course there is a context to this quote by Elihu (Eh-Lee-Hoo), the fourth person to appear and speak in light of Job’s suffering and by far the most fun person to summon from afar (“Elihoooooo!”). He has a particular complaint about the other three “friends” of Job who have thus far done a bad job of defending God and comforting their afflicted friend. They are older, so surely the wisdom of God should be more prominent among them, but instead, they completely mess it up. It seems to be a constant theme in Scripture that God, who defies all definition (on purpose), speaks wisdom through the most unlikely of sources… And THAT is a vital lesson for everyone living in these days of “my ignorance is as good as your fact” dialogue.

Rant Alert!

Oh, how I hate this opinion-based world we live in. It doesn’t matter whether or not one is speaking a good, formative bit of truth. If they are the wrong age, class, race, gender, or lack the appropriate sense of style or speech, they will be discredited for the sake of everyone’s ability to cling to their opinions, even if misinformed, because, as Scripture shows time and time again, WE JUST. WON’T. LEARN.

Rant is over, and it’s back to God stuffs. First, we will look at the need to listen. We also, however, are going to look at the need to speak, so don’t go anywhere.

Seriously, though, how often have we discredited the advice of others simply because of the package it came in? Sure, our older relatives can be out of touch, assuming everything still costs a dollar and the greatest achievement one can have in life is parenthood, but that doesn’t mean we ignore everything they say, especially if it rubs us the wrong way because it presents a different perspective. Maybe we need that perspective.

On the flip side, young people aren’t just hormone-driven idiots who are too spoiled to know real life. Are we spoiled? Often, yes. Are we idiots? Sure. EVERYONE is an idiot at one time or another, but that doesn’t mean that what we see, feel, learn, and experience isn’t real or informative. After all, who we are was largely learned from somewhere, so maybe some introspection would do us all some good. Again, maybe what we are saying or putting forth seems contradictory to what you feel you can be certain of, but maybe that’s a sign you need to listen, not shut down, because guess who learns to do the same…

The same applies to literally anyone. It doesn’t matter if they have a tin foil hat on their head, pushing a shopping cart across the highway. Sure, there may be some babble, but in one of those situations, I actually had a world of wisdom revealed to me. I’ve actually used this story as a sermon illustration before, but it is a great truth that gets to the heart of what I am saying.

I was walking across the highway to class at Southern Methodist University, where I attended seminary. As I was walking, a guy came up and asked if I have anything to give him. I had a few bucks, so I handed it over. He said, “God bless you.” I responded with, “I hope God blesses you.” What a moronic thing to say. Luckily, I was about to be reminded of something very important by a filthy man in ratty clothes that smelled as though he hadn’t showered. Ever. He looked at me with a confused look and said, “He just did.”

BOOM. See the lesson there? I had fallen into the trap of assuming that being blessed meant having all the material possessions I wanted and needed. It meant status and comfort. This guy reminded me that blessedness is encountering the presence and grace of God, whether that be through acts of kindness or some other avenue. Had I simply looked at his outward appearance, and had God not opened my ears, I would have missed a vital lesson.

Everyone can be a vessel for God’s wisdom and instruction, and if we close our minds to those we deem unlikely, we are wrong. As Elihu points out in our passage for today, Job 32:6-9“the spirit in a person, the Almighty’s breath, gives understanding.” This is a reference to Genesis 2, when God brings humanity to life by breathing into them, but it also reveals something important: it’s not age, race, class, sin, innocence, orthodoxy, or heresy that determines whether or not a person is credible; it is whether or not God is speaking through them, and the only way to know whether or not that is the case is to shut up and listen. Is everything everyone ever says gold? Of course not, but how can we possibly know if we’ve already decided we aren’t listening? How many times have we missed opportunities to hear God speak because we didn’t like the person speaking for one reason or another?

NOW!

Changing gears, what if you’re that “unlikely” person, the person who has been told they have nothing good to bring? Whether it’s by family, friends, peers, or that voice in your head and heart that constantly nag you to stay quiet, even when you feel that sensation in your gut telling you to chime in, you need to know that the Spirit of God gives you life, too. This means that you are someone through whom God could be trying to speak. While you still have to be open to learning, you also are someone who God made, who God loves, and whose insights matter. The world is worse off if you don’t offer your insight.

Will what you say always be welcome? No. Will it always be correct? No. If, however, you have special insight into a particular situation, if you have a question, or if you simply feel the overwhelming need to get something off your chest, do it. Even if it comes out wrong and results in a conversation that everyone learns from, you did something great. Yes, wait for clarification, wait until others get the chance to speak, listen first and wholeheartedly, but also trust God to speak through you and get in there!

Want to see some biblical examples of the unlikely becoming the vessel of God’s story?

  1. The classic: Balaam’s Donkey, Numbers 22. Numbers has some really good stuff in the midst of all the counting, and this story is one of them. A donkey corrects the donkey owner on his mistreatment of the poor beast of burden, all because the donkey saw the Angel of God, but the human owner (supposedly superior) could not. Interesting…
  2. Our current passage from Job. Elihu is the youngest guy there. To be young in ancient Israel was to be relatively useless, especially in matters of wisdom. However, Elihu is the only one God doesn’t correct or rebuke in the closing chapter. He seems to have gotten something right that the others did not.
  3. Have we thought about, I don’t know, JESUS? Jesus was, as far as anyone knew, the son of a carpenter. On top of that, this carpenter married an already pregnant girl. On top of all of those scandalous details (1st Century standards), they were from Nazareth, the no account city full of presumably no account people. Look at Mark 6:1-6. There are many stories that don’t match up among the Gospels, but Jesus not being listened to because of who he “was” and where he came from is a constant in ALL FOUR OF THEM. And this is the One who is the Incarnation of God!

These are just a few examples of this kind of behavior on the part of God. What behavior? The behavior of picking the least likely to bring some important stuff to the table. As you go out into the rest of your day, and as you go about your doings, join me in the effort to remember that you, me, and everyone/everything else in all of creation is made by God, marked by God, and sustained by God. As such, we all have the capability of being a vessel for God’s wisdom and love, if we would be brave enough to speak and, more importantly, wise enough to listen.

Peace be with you!

Saved and Being Saved

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world.” — Titus 2:11-12

Salvation is a tricky concept. Some people are never able to accept that they need to be saved, never mind the differences in opinion on what exactly that means. Is it just going to heaven? Is it a state of superiority to others? Is it instantaneous and everlasting? How can I still mess up if I am saved? I’m not saying this post has the answers to all those questions… but I hope it will at least help!

Having been a Methodist for much of my life, the word “grace” gets thrown around a lot. Specifically, there is a belief in three manifestations of grace. Grace means the unmerited, even undeserved love and favor of God that is given just because, and the first manifestation of grace is called Prevenient Grace. This is when the grace of God continually surrounds us, reaches out to us, and calls us to Christ. There is Justifying Grace, which is the forgiveness of our sin and the moment we enter into relationship with God through Jesus, becoming apart of the Church Universal (the spiritual church, not necessarily any particular institutional church, though this is the recommended route). This is the first moment of salvation, which, quoting Jesus in the Gospel of John, we believe is “eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (17:3).

The final manifestation of grace that we enter into after our initial entrance into relationship with God. This is called Sanctifying Grace, and it is what the text from Titus at the beginning of this post is getting at (in my opinion). Sanctifying Grace is the phase of grace we remain in until our dying day. It is the love of God that helps us become more and more like Jesus in how we act, speak, and think. It helps us achieve more and more “oneness” with God. We are, of course, human and can never be God, but we are expected to strive for a relationship in which God’s love and life are visible through us. This is the completion of salvation, and it is a lifelong pursuit.

I often like to say that I am saved and I am being saved, all at the same time. Look at the text for today. God has offered salvation to all people, and this salvation “educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives.” Education implies learning, improvement. Think about this. Many times, salvation is treated like a once in a lifetime moment where this instantaneous change is supposed to happen… but what if that isn’t how it is working for you? It’s not how it has worked for me.

Have you ever felt like you were doing or believing something wrong because you still have flaws even after “giving it to God?” Has this ever left you feeling ashamed or less than? Due to your struggles, have you ever felt that you must somehow be beyond saving? I have. This is why the text we are looking at is so important. Part of salvation is education, and learning how to change our ways for the better. This is a process, not a singular moment. It means we have to be willing to keep trying, even when we fail, and have the grace to forgive ourselves so that we continue in our walk with Christ.

Now is salvation only about our current reality? No! “At the same time we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior Jesus Christ” (2:13). There will be a time when all the afflictions that draw us into sin will be no more, and everything will be made right and brought back into balance, and, yes, we will experience the fullness of heaven. However, salvation is not just about having your ticket punched, even if this is comforting to think about. It is also not solely about just becoming a better person. It is about becoming more like Christ by sharing the grace we have received, and, when times get difficult, remaining fueled by hope for the day when we will finally know peace. 

As you consider your own life, your many flaws or mistakes, remember to be gracious with yourself. Yes, stop the sin that currently has you pinned. Yes, choose to do differently and seek help and support from others so that you may heal and keep moving forward. But also be sure to understand that this is a lifelong process that is about building new habits. This is difficult, but also exceedingly rewarding. Most of all, remember that God knows this process of salvation. God chose to offer you grace anyway, and God is with you every step of the way, even if you fall. This is the Gospel, and it is offered to you.

Peace be with you!