"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.
One of the primary points I have tried to make in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy is that we cannot wait for others to act or speak. As Christians, we have a responsibility to act now. We can't simply be people who complain about what's wrong, but rather take part in forming the positive side of a solution.
It's similar to the old question: when is the best time to plant a tree? Answer: 20 years ago. We need to take steps today that will bear fruit for many years to come. For example, a group of multi-ethnic pastors that I am part of began meeting after the Trayvon Martin shooting. We recognized we needed to build deeper relationships with each other in order to foster strong bonds and deeper understanding in our community. Events are fine, but we need more than events. We need relational investment and shared partnerships that transform and shape communities. So think about it: what can you do? Read More
At some point, we will all face the reality of a loved one near death, perhaps even suffering to some degree as they approach the end of this life. If we are in the bed, or it's our loved one, how will we make the necessary choices that surely come? If there is pain, do we end that life on purpose? What if they are mentally or physically handicapped? Does the life of a person who has lost their memory no longer have worth or value? The individualism of our culture now demands that each person, or their guardians, be allowed to chose how and when life ends. This, of course, is the result of no longer believing in a Creator God, one Who infuses this life with purpose and meaning beyond ourselves. In the absence of such, the meaning of life is determined only by its "quality", and so we now have groups of people behind closed doors deciding who is worthy of being cared for - or not. As the number of retired people explodes in the next 30 years, the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide will become all the more prevalent. 130,000 were euthanized last year in the UK alone. God declares an emphatic NO to this logic. Genesis 9:5–6 again reveals that we are made in His image and thus possess inherent worth and value. Not only that, but we are to protect the lives of our fellow human beings. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that those we think are weak - or who have "less honor" – are actually those with "special honor" - for by loving and serving them, we learn about the model and manner of Jesus. We are not merely "individuals" as the culture would have us believe, but we are part of a larger community – the Kingdom of God – through which God is working out HIs plan to redeem the world. Even when we are faced with hard or inexplicable situations, we still value the life that is before us and trusts the Sovereignty of God as He works out HIs good and perfect will, one which is not always known to us. Read More
From this Psalm, George Handel crafted his famous Aria in The Messiah, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" We saw that rage in Charlottesville on Saturday - hatred and anger spewing from a false nation of those who espouse evil. It is the abject denial of Revelation 7:9, that glorious view of heaven containing people from "every tongue, tribe and nation." The gospel calls us to relationships of mutual understanding and love, relationships which Christians must pursue while standing strongly against the violence and bigotry. For that reason, I am grateful for my friendships with men like Bishop Allen T D Wiggins, Pastor Tim Johnson, Pastor William Andrews, and Pastor David DL Outing. Pastor Tim Johnson will preach for me at First Presbyterian on September 10, and I am honored to be Preaching for Bishop Wiggins at the Hope Church on August 27. We stand together, but that started years ago. We meet regularly. It is intentional, and God will use it for just such moments as these. For more on the responsibility we bear, especially in predominantly white churches, here is the link to my sermon on racism from April, 2016. Message: "Racism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ" Read More
One of the true wonders of having faith in God is the realization that our lives have been crafted by His almighty Hand. Though fallen in nature, each one of us has been known and planned for since the foundations of the world, declared by God to be HIs "image bearers." (Gen. 1). Thus, no matter the circumstances behind any life, it matters. God, in His sovereign nature, is the author, sustainer, redeemer and defender of life. This is the essence of the cross. Therefore, hardwired into each one His "image-bearers" is an inherent instinct to care for and defend others. God actually commands it in Gen 9:6. Our society consistently reveals this ethic. For example, Chesley Sullenberger is hailed as a hero for his selfless actions in saving every passenger on the plane he crash-landed on the Hudson while Franciso Schettino was reviled as "Captian Coward" for quickly abandoning the Costa Concordia after the ship ran aground leaving hundreds injured and 32 dead. We affirm those who care for and defend life; we denounce those who don't – all with one exception: abortion. In that case, we yield to the individualism of our day. We fail to realize that our "right" to choose is never absolute. 1 Cor 6:19 reminds us that we have been bought at a price, and that we are free to honor God with our bodies, for we are His dwelling place. From the moment a life begins, when God sets the miracle in motion, that human life is sacred and purposed by God to thrive in this world. I pray we will reclaim the wonder of God's created order, and choose to value and protect what He has made! Read More
As our community remembers the Pulse tragedy from one year ago today, our hearts yearn to know, "How much longer, O God, will this go on? What can we do?" With each tragedy, we think "maybe that will be the end of it" but it never is – and that is the sad reality. From Revelation 10, the trajectory of our world is not changing anytime soon. Pulse was yet another sign of the broken nature of our human condition, yet that is precisely why Christ came. He came to answer Pulse and Paris and Brussels and all the other pains of this life such that they will NEVER have the final word. While the timing of God's ultimate work is not known to us, it IS KNOWN to Him. In that, we can take solace. It may be a mystery to us, but it is not a mystery to Him. He also gives us His instruction for living in this "in between" season. He tells John in verse 11 that he is to continue his ministry of the Word – telling others "again" about the nature of the world and the reasons we are to hope in Christ. Again and again, we serve. We love. We give. Yes, we weep with those who weep and we mourn with those who mourn, but we know that our tears will one day be taken up in the larger joy of God's redemptive plan. Yes, the world is going to end, but in that day, in the word's of Tolkien, "A great shadow has departed…and everything sad is going to come untrue." Read More
David Brooks began his column yesterday by comparing the ways in which different international leaders view the world. It was fascinating, but the question of "worldview" is not just for world leaders. We all have one. The question is: do we have the right one? This was exactly what the two disciples wrestled with as they walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24. Jesus has been killed, there are rumors of resurrection, but they didn't know what to make of it. They didn't "see." When Jesus encounters them, they basically ask, "Are you the only one on the planet that doesn't know what's going on?" We do this often. When we are confused or pained by life, we will often ask God, "Don't you know what's going on down here? Do you not know how bad this is?" We see it through our lens instead of His. It is rich with irony. We who are blind trying to explain life to the only One who can see. What we need is what Jesus did with those two disciples. He moved towards them. He "encountered" them on the road of life. How comforting to know that Almighty God pursues us as His own. Jesus then helps them reframe their worldview - He helps them "see" their world through the right lens. He opened up the Scriptures and said, "Look, this is the story that frames everything, the story in which you find ME" - and when He did, He lit a fire in the hearts of those disciples even as God did on the day of Pentecost. Their hearts "burned" with the reality of God's revealed presence. Such revelation then leads to pure joy. The disciples ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem because of the joy that had been poured into them through the risen Christ. Their circumstances hadn't changed. Persecution and suffering still awaited, but their perspective had changed. They finally understood the story behind the story - the redeeming work of Christ playing out in the whole of life. May God allows us those same eyes that we might see Him at work in all things. Read More