"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…" Matthew 6:33
- You learn early on in life that the best things – the most important things – are the first things. You block time on your calendar FIRST for the most important things. You budget the priority of your money FIRST for the most important things. You don't go to a sale on the third day. You go on the first day, because the best things are out first. This challenges us to our core when we realize how it plays into our relationship with God. In our hyper-individualized culture, we have learned to put ourselves first. We work hard to build our own kingdom, but when we come to know Christ, we are called to lay that down in favor of HIs Kingdom. We become part of something larger than ourselves. We want what HE wants. Leviticus 23:9 reminds us that this applies to our generosity or lack thereof. We are called to bring God our "firstfruits" – the very first of what He provides for us - as a sign of our trust and thanks. The Hebrew word means literally "choicest, finest." When we do, He tells us that it will bring us "near to Him" while helping us maintain an attitude of thanksgiving. It makes sense. When our Creator commands that we give Him the firstfruits of our income – the very best tithe – then we become more deeply engaged in His Kingdom – and thus much closer to the One who is Savior and Lord. So as we gaze upon the buffet of God's blessings bestowed on us, where is He in the line? Do we serve Him first, honoring Him as we do, or is He the one left with the remnants – the dregs – the last fruits? And is that the message we want to send?
- This also has deep implications for how we understand the dynamics surrounding the Parkland, FL shooting last week. We grieve. We mourn. We pray. We seek God first. I have seen people diminish the phrase "our thoughts and prayers" as if it has no meaning. We can't say, "Well, we prayed after each tragedy and they are still happening, so prayer doesn't work." You can't hold God to promises He never made. He never said that if we believed in Him, there would be a protective bubble around us. He DID say "in this world you WILL have trouble." How can we not? It's filled with evil that still reigns, but that's precisely why Christ came. He came so that the pain and grief we experience now would never be the final word. He came to defeat sin and evil by HIs cross and resurrection, and we wait for the full consummation of that victory. Between now and then, we gain strength in his promised presence, the presence we experience through prayer. #GodFirst #prayfirst
- MY RESPONSE: I have had a significant number of people ask me to "speak out" or "say something" about this latest tragedy. I shared an initial post late last week, but here's the reality: each time such a tragedy occurs, our nation appropriately cries out for action in the wake of agony. Some say "gun control!" Some say "mental health!" Some say "better FBI/law enforcement!" All of that is true. We can't expect there is one solution. We desperately need sensible gun control laws that allow people the right to bear arms, but not arms designed for terror. No one needs an assault rifle. Naturally, people respond with "It's my right!" True, but let's go back to #1. When we enter God's Kingdom by faith, we are not merely living for ourselves any more. Individualism dies, and we now live for a greater good. We grow to want what God wants. We become willing to lay down our wants and desires for the greater good of the lives of others. So, maybe we don't get to shoot an assault rifle for fun. If that means that bad guys won't get them, then I'm willing to lay that down because there is a larger value at work: the value of ALL LIFE. Thus, I yield to His larger Kingdom purpose to protect life wherever I can.
- WHILE THAT IS TRUE, we can't act as if gun control is a panacea. It's not. If we enacted it tomorrow, it would still take years to get the 350 million guns currently in circulation off the streets. So, yes, start there, but at the SAME TIME, let's work on mental health deficiencies where Florida ranks dead last in spending. We need to look hard at our society and ask why anxiety and depression rates – as well as suicides – are soaring. There is a growing hopelessness that few seem to want to acknowledge. We have more material goods than ever before, but we are more unhappy than we have ever been before. The UK has even appointed a Cabinet Secretary with the title "Minister of Happiness" to try to understand the root cause. I think you'll find the answer rooted in our lack of faith in anything beyond ourselves. If we are depending on ourselves to satisfy us in life, we will be greatly disappointed. We must find purpose and meaning in something larger than ourselves. The things that need to change to fix our culture cannot be focused on one thing. We have to look at everything. It's not either/or; it's ALL of it.
- HERE'S THE HARD PART: We have to be consistent in our outrage and the issues we champion. My heart was broken, as I am sure yours was, to see parents and teens crying out to government leaders, "Protect us! Do something! You must protect our children!" Choked by that emotion, we concur. Absolutely, we must and I pray that we will. However, if we demand that life be protected, we can't stop at school children, can we? How can our government, our political leaders, or we as individuals, have any theological integrity if we only protect some lives but look away from countless others that are being lost? We can't cherrypick which lives matter. The life of a homeless man who wanders into Lake Eola and drowns because he is drunk and can't swim is just as valuable, but we look away. The life of a paranoid schizophrenic locked in the prison of his mind is just as valuable, but we look away. We spend our state funds elsewhere and hardly anyone blinks. The lives of unborn children are just as valuable. Do we protect them? We must SPEAK OUT for all life. Once again, it's not either/or; it's all life. We have to follow where our theology leads us and stand for life wherever it may be threatened.
- OLYMPICS: I love the winter Olympics because you see sports you never get to see. Skeleton? Luge? Snowboard cross? It's GREAT, but the really good things are all on too late. Come on! Why can't they show the good things in the early time slots? CRINGEWORTHY: USA Skating must have gulped when Adam Rippon was asked what he was thinking before his performance. Answer: "I wanted a drink and a Xanax." Whoops. NORTH KOREAN CHEER SQUADS: They have been ubiquitous, but according to the NYT, the selection process for these homogenous looking women was rigorous: early 20's, exactly 5'3", from the right political family, and deeply ingrained in the NK political system. Why do we keep showing them?
- OBAMA PORTRAITS: When it comes to art, I am no expert, but I do prefer traditional and historic. Did a two-term President sitting amongst a bunch of flowers, symbolic though they might be, seem a little strange to anyone else? While I like the First Lady's portrait design, it didn't seem to look much like her.
- RESTAURANT REVIEW: Lazy Moon Pizza. Wow. Just wow.
- To all of you who asked for one of the "When I get up, all I need is a little bit of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus" coffee mugs, we're working on it!!
"This is a profound mystery… but I am talking about Christ and the Church." Eph 5:32
- The FPCO Marriage Retreat was a rich encouragement to me. The presence of God was thick in such palpable ways - a wonderful sense of community and growing relationships, heartfelt testimony, hearty laughter, and the joy of seeing couples sitting together all over the property (Mission Inn) talking through the dynamics of Christian marriage. Paul alludes to the "mystery" in the Ephesian text above when after describing the Christ-like manner in which husbands and wives are to love each other, he says that he is actually talking about Christ and the Church. Marriage, then, has a far more significant purpose. It is not merely about the happiness of a husband or wife; it is about the larger purpose for which God brought them together. As husbands and wives love each sacrificially, they bear witness to the world of the way in which Christ loved His Bride, the Church, by laying down HIs life for her. It is quite a contrast to the cultural view of marriage, one based on consumerism – not convenient. As Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "We don't fall in love and then get married; instead we get married and then learn what love requires." Love is not a feeling to be felt; it is a commitment to be kept.
- The greatest blessing of the weekend was talking to couples who had never been to church or a church event. Their view of "the church" was completely built on what they had heard or read – all negative – which created tremendous anxiety beforehand, but they came nonetheless at the invitation of friends. It was such a joy to watch that melt away in mere hours as they found community and love and grace. "We thought it would be about shame and rigid rules. We had no idea that it would be FUN and that we would find such community and warmth – and a new understanding of God.
- Furious would be a good word to describe my feelings regarding the Florida House decision to sweep $182M from an affordable housing fund and use it for other purposes. Thankfully, the Senate has it fully funded, so I am praying the House does the right thing and restores the fund. The affordable housing crisis in this state is only going to get worse, so the last thing we need to be doing is taking money away in order to serve more self-serving interests.
- One of the great movies of all time is Sandlot. If you have not seen it, give yourself a gift and watch it. It's childhood and growing up and boyhood friendships and baseball – and the fabulous scene where Squints feigns drowning in order to steal a kiss from the oh so beautiful lifeguard, Wendy Peffercorn.
- Douglas McKinnon, former Pentagon official and now a consultant on space, shared that asteroids measuring 50 to 400 feet are not detectable and could strike our planet at any time, causing catastrophic loss of life depending on location.
- THE QUESTION: After watching the last two episodes of This Is Us, and also reflecting on the many funerals I have done, there is a question that people ask in those moments. It is the question that show has made me ask as Jack's children reflected on their father's life – and it is this: What will they say of me? I'll be standing at a post-funeral reception, and people invariably will ask, "Well, when you're doing my service, what will you say about me?" As I think about my own life – and what my children would say of me – I find my answer is still the same when people ask: "Well, that story is still being written, isn't it? It's never too late to do what God is calling you to do."
- As I spoke this weekend about the nature of love: "phileo", "storge", "agape" and "eros"… it was an "aha" moment to realize that eros – erotic, physical love based on attraction - a love that asks 'what can you do for me?'… the love of our culture… is actually one that never shows up in the Bible. Only the first three are used – but not eros. If we'll take time to learn the other three, eros will happen naturally with our spouses – for we have learned the art of love that is Christlike – and true.
- What I'm reading: A Lifelong Love, Gary Thomas
- What I'm listening to: The Rest of our Life, Tim McGraw/Faith Hill
"For He will be like a refiner's fire....and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have people who will offer themselves in righteousness." Malachi 3:2–3
- Fire is a fascinating thing. It attracts us by its beauty as it dances and moves, yet it is simultaneously dangerous. We cannot get too close. Interesting, then, that God often uses fire to describe… Himself. As Moses found in Exodus 3:3 at the burning bush, God is a fire. He draws us over to look - we are attracted - while at the same time He demands we remove our sandals. Moses gave all manner of reasons why he didn't like the way God was acting, but God ultimately says, "I am who I am." In other words, "I give the orders, Moses, not you." God will be who He will be. We don't shape him according to what we want or who we think He should be. He shapes us. If God always corresponds to what we think or believe, then we are not worshipping the Fire. We are in love with a god of our own creation, a god who looks just like us. The good news is that when we encounter God as Fire, as Moses did, He always sends us out to be burning bushes - to be those who, by His presence within us, draw people over to look at the hope of Christ. Moses became a burning bush to Pharaoh. He made Egypt's ruler consider the things of God. The disciples became burning bushes in the early church even to the point of their death. And remember: we can all do this. It wasn't a burning redwood. It was a burning bush. It's not about how fabulous we are. The power was not in the bush but in the fire. Are you trying to shape Him or is He shaping you? And once encountered, where is He calling you to be a burning bush in this world?
- The other thing about the burning bush (a nod to Tim Keller here) is what we often overlook: the presence of the pre-existent Christ in Exodus 3:2. It says, "The angel of the Lord called out to him...." And then in verse 4, God speaks. Two voices come from the bush, not one. Who is the angel? Like the fiery furnace and Lion's den of Daniel, the burning bush reveals the presence of Christ, our mediator. How do we know? Moses could never have gotten that close and lived. You could not come that near the fire of God's holiness and survive, but Moses did. How? The presence of our mediator, Christ. Remember, Jesus Christ didn't just pop into existence at Christmas. John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…"
- POWER OF TELEVISION: ("This is Us Spoiler" warning) Last week on one of America's most popular shows, This Is Us, a fire started in the family kitchen because of a faulty Crock Pot. The next day, Crock Pot stock fell TWENTY percent. Crock Pot's name was not visible, but the company was forced to go into damage control about the safety of their products.
- As our culture continues to search for answers in a faithless world, there is yet more evidence for the emptiness of that search. The most popular class at Yale EVER is taking place this semester. It is called unofficially "Happiness" or Psychology and The Good Life. 25% of the student body is taking it – 1,200 people - and the professor believes it will be the roots of "needed social change." The course basically teaches students how to find the things - and invest in the things – that make THEM happy. Sadly, if we think our happiness rests in ourselves, we'll always be lost. We have to understand the larger story we are part of and our purpose in it. That's when we find more than happiness, but true meaning. #youcantfinditinaclass
- PARENTAL STRUGGLE: The most pressing question for parents these days seems to be "when do I give my child a smartphone?" Children put enormous pressure on parents as their peers now receive them at far younger ages. Yet, those who make the technology - execs at Apple and Google – are admitting their addictive power and keeping their children from them. One parent said in the WSJ, "It's like trying to teach your kid to use cocaine, but in a balanced way." Parents readily admit, as soon as their child has one, it reshapes their lives. Said another, "You think you're buying technology, but now it's like oxygen to her." Children unable to use their phones show marked increases in anxiety. Half of the teens surveyed in 2016 said they felt addicted to their phones. Their exposure to both dangerous content and the scorn of others is beyond measure. And then there are parents like Felice Ahn who will not allow her children to have them. She says, "Maybe people are finally realizing and the pendulum will swing back. We are just fine being different." I think the right answer varies according to the child, but I would recommend reading Andy Crouch's, The Tech-Wise Family. Having a smartphone requires AT LEAST the same maturity as driving a car. Parents have to decide when their child has reached that point. Can they handle something that has the power not only to improve their lives, but destroy them?
- AIRPORT FUMBLE: I went to Dallas last week and flew out of MCO. I got all the way through security, but at 6:30am was not paying attention and got on the wrong train. I went to the wrong gate pod, realized my mistake, and caught the train back to the terminal. However, TSA agents would not let me simply walk around to the right train! They made me go through security all over again!! I don't get it... I had come from a secure area – why was I somehow contaminated? Anyone?
- I saw a tweet yesterday from someone stating that being a student at a seminary does not make you a theologian. I disagree. We are all doing theology every day. It reminded me of Martin Luther's comment: "You don't become a theologian by understanding, reading and speculating. You become a theologian by living. No, you become a theologian by dying and giving yourself up."
- IGGLES FOR THE WIN: Congrats to Nick Foles, a good Austin, TX boy, on a great game, great character and a great win for the Eagles. Especially for one without a dog in the fight, it was a fun game to watch.
- NEW FEATURE: I get asked quite often about what I am reading or listening to (not into podcasts, but music :), so I'll use my last item to share some of that most weeks.....
- WHAT I'M READING: Hope For a Cool Pillow, Margaret Overton. A deeply poignant yet witty reflection on the author's journey with her parents through aging to their eventual death, especially her struggles with her mother's dementia. If you are caring for aging parents, this is for you.
- WHAT I'M LISTENING TO: "Drunk Girl," Chris Janson (great country song on manhood) and the audio testimony of Rachael Denhollander at the Larry Nassar trial. Hers was one of the most mature, Biblically sound expressions of forgiveness I have ever heard. Truth with love and love with truth. Great counsel for the church today.
"He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand or say to Him 'What have you done?" – Daniel 4:35
- Living with the realities of a broken, sinful world can leave us wondering, "Who's in charge around here?" Those without faith conclude that life is fate or chance because if God was truly loving and good, the world would not be the mess that it is. Since it is, God cannot possibly be real. Before we go wandering down that road let's remember: we can't hold God to promises He never made. He said that we would have trouble in this world (John 16:33), but that He has overcome that same trouble. Hebrews 2:8 is another good reminder: all things are subject to Christ, but we do not see them as such… yet. As Joseph found in Genesis 50, what others (our world) might intend for evil, God can – and does – use for good and the greater purpose of the "saving of many lives." If you look at the Bible, it is a story of great pain and suffering, but God is the One behind the scenes, sovereignly pulling the strings to bring about His purposes. Joseph was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, yet that evil act was used by God to ultimately save His people. And Jesus was thrown into the pit of evil and death, but God used it once more for the salvation of His people. No matter our circumstances, God is the One who is in charge, and He uses suffering and evil redemptively in our lives. It's never wasted. Further, ALL things are beneath His authority, including life and death, kings and rulers. There is no such thing as fate or chance. God reigns. He has shown that He is infinitely wise and perfectly loving; thus, we trust that while we may not see it, it is His purpose and plan that will always prevail, all to His glory.
"My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness." 2 Corinthians 12:9
- Everyone reaches a point in life when they realize they are powerless. Perhaps its the struggle of watching a loved one with a terminal illness or a friend struggle with the power of addiction or an adult child in need yet far from home. Those moments throw us because we are not accustomed to being unable to provide what is needed. The only thing we can do is cry out to God, but even then, we wonder if 2 Cor 12:9 is actually true. Will God provide what is needed? The answer is found in the beauty of Genesis 22 as Abraham is called to sacrifice Issac. It is a command that makes no sense, yet Abraham is obedient to the end that God gloriously provides a substitutionary sacrifice for Issac. It is the foreshadowing of what God would do for us in Christ. Like Abraham, even in times of mystery or in the face of commands we think to make no sense, obedience is always the best path. Instead, we seem to think that if a command doesn't make sense to us, that God can't be any wiser than we are. Really? In so doing, we bail out on God. We blame him or get angry far too fast and thus deprive him of showing us the great provision He had waiting for us at the end. Don't do it! Persevere all the way to provision. Why? God will always provide for us because he provides in Christ the very thing He demands. Just as Issac willingly allowed himself to be bound and laid on the wood after carrying it, Christ carried his cross and laid on it willingly, trusting in the provision of the Father. Jesus then becomes the greater Issac for God did NOT spare his own son. Thus, we know we are loved – and we know we will always have what we need. When you have Jesus, everything else we need in life is thrown in. (Matthew 6:33).
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you…" John 14:27
- "Can't we all just get along?" That was the question posed by Rodney King following the LA Riots in 1992 and it seems to still be the yearning in all of us. It is, at its core, a quest for peace. In spite of humanity's best efforts – peace summits and peace rallies and peace prizes - we are decidedly NOT at peace. As our church launches The Year of the Book in 2018, I find the Bible delivers in that quest. It is the story of God's plan to redeem and save the world through Christ, His plan to usher in lasting, eternal peace. It goes back to Noah in Genesis 9 when, following the great flood, God put a rainbow in the sky and said, "From here on out, I'll always see the rainbow as a sign of my promise to RE-MEMBER you - a promise that the storms of life will never prevail again.." Thus, the rainbow is a sign of God's PEACE. It is a bow pointed AWAY from us, not at us. The just consequences of sin are now provided by the One who demands them. God took our punishment on Himself, and thus opened the path of peace to us eternally, reconciling us to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19-20). The key is found in the word remember, meaning "to make something a member again." Our desire to go our own way removed us from the heart of God, but now that Christ has taken our due, God has made us members of His heart – His presence – again, never to be cut off. The storms of sin and death – the storms of life – will not prevail, but remember: without the storm – the tears – there's no rainbow. The light of Christ shines through them, refracting through our storms and tears, to produce the rainbow – the very beauty and glory of God. So, the next time you see a rainbow – in the sky or maybe on a Skittles commercial – see it for what it is: a sign of God's path to peace for us and this world through the shed blood of Christ.
"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16:18
"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates
- As always, the New Year leads people to moments of reflection and introspection as well it should. What I find, however, is that we spend far less time thinking about what's going on in us and far more time musing about what's wrong with others. Thus, we lack self-awareness. Jesus was quite frank about it in Luke 6 when he called his followers "hypocrites." Why? They were spending all their time working on the "speck" in the eye of their brother while ignoring the telephone pole in their own. Jesus was saying there is something pervasively wrong with you that impacts every dimension of your life, but all you want to do is talk about what's wrong with your brother. We're pulling the wool over our own eyes. People, there's a plank in our eye and we all have to deal with it. We can't be a good friend or love another well until we first deal with our own heart. The word in Greek means "the load bearing beam to a house." Until we deal with the beam, we will always be trying to cover the nagging sense that something is deeply wrong in us. And that beam is sin – our quest to be our own god. Freedom comes when we realize that God in Christ dealt with our beam…by dying on it. Only when we realize that we are eternally loved by God, warts and all, will we be able to humbly love and serve others regarding the specks which pain them.
"Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting…" –Ralph Waldo Emerson
- I have laughed a bit at the recent accounts of "baby Jesus being stolen from local nativity scene – news at 11!" In places near and far, people are lifting Jesus from his "crib", but the question is not why that is happening. The question is: why did God put him there in the first place? The answer is where we find the wonder. In my effort this Advent to help deliver us from our cynical, jaded ways, we find in the manger a God who pursues us – even to a messy, smelly, darkened space. This is exceedingly good news since we are a people who tend to run. We run from God for all manner of reasons, but don't you get tired of running? Even in our darkness, God is with us. Thus, we are never, ever alone. In an age when we are losing the ability to function in face to face relationships – losing the joy of what it is to look across the table at another human being – to listen and laugh and share – what I find is that God's presence is most often felt through the presence of others. As you are with me and I am with you, I find God present. As I serve you and you serve me, I find God to present. More even than these, however, is the wonder of a God who is willing to be humble, a God who is willing to sacrifice, to trade heaven for a manager. This was the model of Jesus' entire ministry, and so we who follow Him mimic the manager. We become less that He might become more. We go to the dark and shadowy places, the places of deep human need, the messy places, and there we serve and love without expectation or condition. Linger at the manager and recover its wonder.
"Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you…" Psalm 40:5
- Part of Swanson family Christmas tradition is reading The Polar Express just before bed on Christmas Eve. When the kids were little, I loved seeing their starry-eyed wonder as they lost themselves in the possibilities of Christmas, and we have kept reading it because I never want them – or me – to forget that sense of wonder. It is easy to get swept up in the ills of our world, to fade into a mindset of cynicism, skepticism, and negativity, but the incarnation reminds us that anything is possible in a world God inhabits. The magi had just enough "wonder" to follow a star, believing it was a sign from God that might lead them to the hope and promise of life. They followed it because, in spite of their wealth, power, education, and social status, something was still missing. It's why our churches swell this time of year. I think people realize that all they have is not enough, so they return to the story of Christmas, hoping against hope that perhaps it is true. Are you tired of being that person who is always negative? Are you nagged by the thought that there must be something more?
"I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." 2 Timothy 4:7
- We all know that building on Interstate 4: "the eyesore on I-4." We know it because it has been sitting there for years, unfinished. It is the perfect analogy for our human tendency to start things, but not finish them. God, on the other hand, is complete in His nature. He has never started anything which He did not finish, which is why Jesus said from the cross, "it is finished." The work of salvation is complete. It is why Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." One day, we will be "finished" beings in Christ. Therefore, as God lives in us, we should reflect His nature by the manner in which we finish the commitments He calls us to make. In Nehemiah 6, he made a commitment to complete the rebuilding of the wall, but he faced many distractions and heavy opposition. Nonetheless, by depending on God's strength, he completed the project in 52 days. What's more, the surrounding community knew that GOD had done it. What has God called you to do that remains undone? And why? Are you afraid of what is next, perhaps afraid that God will not provide in the next season as He has in this one? Trust God as Nehemiah did, and glorify Him by learning to be a finisher – a closer. Take the steps necessary in whatever commitment you have made – personal, financial, physical, spiritual – and finish for the glory of God!
"The most disturbing thing about the fact that greed is idolatry is that hardly anyone owns up to being a worshipper." Brian Rosser
- Money is an interesting topic in life. We'll talk about almost anything OTHER than our money. We hold that information very closely. It's ours and it's no one else's business. Jesus blows that up in Luke 12 when he makes two statements: 1. "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed" and 2. "To whom much is given, much will be required." We've been given the incredible privilege of serving as the stewards of God's good gifts – an incredible privilege and yet a daunting responsibility. He knows what we are doing with His things, and He asks us to be both faithful and wise. Our temptation, however, as Rosser suggests above, is to worship at the altar of greed: using the Master's things for OUR pleasure. I have certainly bowed down there many times. The antidote to that temptation is generosity. God leaves no ambiguity in regard to how we steward His things: if He gives us a lot, He has higher expectations - and make no mistake, if you are reading this, you most likely have more income and education than 99% of the rest of the world. He expects us to do what He asks, and to do so wisely. I pray we'll ENJOY God's good gifts while recognizing the responsibility they carry.
"Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." - 1 Timothy 6:11
- Right about this time of year, the materialism of our culture becomes almost overwhelming. It is not a stretch to say we are a money-obsessed society, and unfortunately, that easily bleeds over into dependence. We give our earthly treasures the power to make us feel secure, worthy or safe. In Matthew 6:19, Jesus is pretty clear that our earthly treasures don't last, and if we depend on them to give us what we hope for in life, that will be a fruitless, unsatisfying strategy. We wind up "piercing" ourselves with our own idolatry. Spiritual maturity happens when we get our hearts and desires aligned with God's. We want what He wants, and that's what Jesus says. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When our hearts want what God wants, then our treasure follows and we are freed from the earthly obsessions that get us pierced. As we get blasted for the next six weeks with all the items we should want, let's invest our treasures in the things that last: God's people and His Kingdom.
As I write these words today, I do so deeply grieving the horrific church shooting yesterday in Sutherland Springs, TX, taking the lives of at least 25 people gathered in worship. It is yet another sign of the inherent evil which still exists in our world and why Christ's Church matters more than ever before. May we endeavor to lift her always before God as His Bride, one without wrinkle or stain or blemish. "Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice." Psalm 130:1)
"For all the saints who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confess, Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest, Alleluia! Alleluia!" For All the Saints, William How
- Reflecting on the past week, it always strikes me a bit odd the amount of time we spend celebrating, playing with, even mocking the specter of death. I realize it has become our culture's way of dealing with its deep-seated fears regarding the issue. If we can laugh at it a bit, somehow it seems less ominous. I get it, but death is not a game. It is our greatest enemy (1 Cor 15:26), but by faith, it is a vanquished foe! For that reason, I love the lyrics to the hymn often sung on All Saints Day (Nov 1) when we remember those who have gone before us, confessing the name of Jesus. If you forgot to reflect on this during your Halloween festivities last week, I hope you'll take some time this week to remember those you have loved and lost, those who shaped and molded your faith, the faith by which YOU will endure. As I attended the wedding of my niece in Memphis on Saturday, I thought of my grandmother, decreased nearly 20 years ago, who still remains fresh in my heart and mind. I thought of my friends Todd Mack and Lane Newsom and John Ellisor taken far too soon. I thought of Davis Harper and Bob Hewitt and Dick Bywaters and Barrett Burchak and Danny Fulford and David Heine and Mallory Blake. For all the saints, indeed.
In this age of individualism, it seems the dominant question people want to be answered before making any decision or choice is "what's in it for me?" This has bled over into church and faith. People look at both their faith in God and their local church and wonder, "What's in it for me?", turning pastors turning into salesmen as they promote what their brand offers over another, including the slippery slope of consumerist theology (Come to Jesus and all your needs, material and otherwise, are met!). 500 years ago, the Reformers had an answer for all of that: Solus Christus – Christ alone. The Church of Jesus Christ has one thing to offer and one thing only: Jesus. The Church offers only that One because that One is all we need and is the One who is unto Life Eternal. He alone is the means of our salvation (If there were other ways, then God has killed his Son for no reason. Thus, Jesus is the way or we're all fools. Intellectually, there are no other options.) as He fulfills the trifold office of prophet, priest, and king. May the Church move away from her consumerist tendencies and learn the satisfying wonder of depending on Christ alone. Read More
The whole concept of faith is often misunderstood in our spiritually pluralist culture. Faith is not necessarily even a "spiritual" concept, but an expression of whatever it is we trust to bring us what we want or need in life. So the question becomes: What do you put your faith in? Is it your financial security, your spouse, yourself, or something else? And is the object of your faith delivering for you what you thought it would? Christian faith makes the bold declaration that we trust NOT in the things of this world, but the redeeming work of Christ ALONE. Further, faith in God is not our creation. It is God's gift to us as Paul notes above. We didn't simply have a great day a while ago and figure out the redemptive nature of God. What could the finite know of the infinite unless the infinite chooses to be known? It makes no sense to give ourselves credit for faith. Instead, by God's Spirit, our eyes are opened to His redemptive work and, by faith, we receive it and are forgiven, justified before our heavenly Father as one wholly righteous. By faith, we apprehend the work of Christ on our behalf and are then transformed as we appropriate His benefits. By faith, God's words to His son become His words to us: "This is my son (or daughter) whom I love; in him I am well pleased." Read More
In an age where people constantly feel the burden of proving themselves worthy, Sola Gratia – Grace Alone – may well be the sola most needed today. We can often feel crushed at having to constantly earn the love and approval of others by what we do, how we look, who we're with, what we drive, what we make, or where we live. To make matters worse, the perfect lives of our "friends" are constantly before us on social media, whispering the lie that we don't measure up. How refreshing then is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the lavish manner of God's grace. He loves us just as we are – and where we are. He knows our flaws and our pains and all our past actions and still opens His arms wide to receive us. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." All we need do is receive it by faith, but therein lies the problem. We think it too easy, so we quickly fall back into the false notion of needing to appease God by our actions. However, in Christ, we see the truth. We could never hope to earn salvation by our goodness. Such a notion is ludicrous. Every other religious tradition in the world is trying to move up to heaven by their works; in Christianity, God declares such to be impossible, so He comes down to us. God graciously accomplishes salvation for us and then invites us to freely receive it. Stop trying, stop working, and delight in God's gracious love for you. Read More
In 2004, doctors in Michigan created The Checklist Strategy, a simple method to reduce infections by requiring all medical personnel to follow five basic steps, checking them off as they did them. Why? Administrators found that 33% of the time, at least one of the steps was being skipped. For example, step one: wash your hands with soap and water. Once all five were followed and checked, infections dropped 66% in just six months. Over eighteen months, 1500 lives had been saved. It is now a standard in most hospitals. As we move into October and the coming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we need to get back to basics. Our culture has been skipping those essential steps - those core truths - that lead to life, health and wholeness. We are an infected culture, and we need to reclaim those basic steps that bring healing. They are grounded in the Word of God, and through the Reformers, became the five Solas: Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone - to the glory of God alone. As Paul said in 2 Tim 3:14-17, the Scriptures are "useful" for "teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." When we skip steps - when we miss that first box which is the Word - we miss the basic teaching and training we need - as well as the corrections for our human errors. Get back to the basics. Stop skipping steps, and ground your life in the Word! Read More
As Hurricane Irma bore down upon us days ago, I found it sobering to hear Emergency Management Officials say, "If you need help during the storm, you're on your own until it's safe for our people to be out." In other words, for this period of time, you're alone. Certainly, some of us had family members or friends huddled with us, but even then, it was a lonely feeling. We can all experience such seasons in life – periods of time where loneliness is our constant companion – and it's painful. Studies have shown that loneliness is part of the same human systemic reaction as hunger and thirst. When essential food is missing, we get hungry; when essential relationships are missing, we get lonely. Unfortunately, our culture is forcing us into patterns of behavior that increase that loneliness. The New York Times recently called it an epidemic. We are losing the important relational connection of face to face relationship and replacing it with a screen – a smart device – and it's not at all the same. If we want to fight those feelings, or help others, it's time to look up from those screens and pay attention to the PEOPLE around us every day. Read More
Last week, I'm out downtown and I run into someone that I know. I am also convinced her name is Susan. I enthusiastically greet her, "Susan! Hey!" She smiles and greets me in return, then says, "You know my name is Beth, right?" Argh. I hate that. Hate, hate, hate it! I hate it because names matter, and while I try hard to remember, I blow it more than I care to admit. A name is a powerful thing. It is history, identity and reputation all rolled into one. For that reason, understanding the names of God is critical. He is not generic "God", but He has named Himself so that we might more fully understand His being, nature, character, and history. That revelation is seen most fully in God made flesh, Jesus Christ. His is the name that is above all names, the only name given to us by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). And unbelievably, our Creator God knows OUR names. It is the answer to our deepest longing: to be known. He knows us fully, calls us by name, and claims us as His own. He never forgets our names, for we "are graven on the palms of HIs hands." (Packer) Read More
"Home" is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It is an ideal for which we yearn, one that connotes security, peace, love, and relationship. Right about now as the world seems to have lost its mind, things don't feel much like "home." C.S. Lewis wrote, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world." Read More
Indeed, we are. Scripture affirms this world is not our home. We are "aliens and strangers" living in a foreign land, but this has actually been the experience of God's people from the beginning. We have often lived as "exiles" - as a minority culture, not majority culture. It was true in Jeremiah 29 as the Israelites were taken into exile in Babylon, and it is true now. Even so, God gives us specific instructions on how to live in such seasons. We don't hide and isolate; we don't angrily complain which embitters our hearts; we don't accommodate to avoid offending. God makes it clear this is going to be home for awhile, so settle in. Build houses - put down roots - and be productive. Use your gifts to offer something that improves the community in which you live – a good or a service. Create Godly marriages and Godly homes that produce Godly children. The family is always God's building block for culture. As Christians, we SEEK the prosperity of the city to which God has carried us, and we pray for that city. It's not our permanent home, but while we're here, we live with Kingdom purpose and Kingdom focus for His greater glory.