Friday, January 22, 2010

Pouring Water on Saturated Sponges

I have recently heard some teachers who involved their listeners with dialogue. Dialogue is great in the learning setting because it informs us as teacher as to whether or not we are on target. In the situations I observed, it became obvious that the listeners knew just about everything before the teacher spoke. I wondered what the teacher up front had to add to their students’ knowledge, and I also wondered if the listeners ought to be teaching someone somewhere rather than sitting like saturated sponges!

Jesus came to a generation that “knew everything,” or at least everything that the teachers of the Law could give them. But Jesus astonished the listeners by moving them deeper than their saturated knowledge level to the dry bed of their hearts. He began to challenge their attitudes and life motivations. He began to challenge their current view of God and their understanding of God’s expectations. Jesus recognized their gap and stepped in. What is the gap that today’s teachers face in their learners? Is it a knowledge gap or is it really an application gap? Maybe there is an ocean-width gap between what believers know and their daily attitudes or choices. Or maybe there is an understanding gap that leaves listeners helpless to respond biblically to ethical dilemmas. Teachers are sent by God to address issues He sees, not just dispense knowledge or insight they have received.

As a teacher I am challenged to prayerfully consider what gaps God sees in my learners’ lives and what gaps he wants me to address, challenge, confront, or nudge. I seriously need his perspective or I will be inclined to pour water on saturated sponges. But, I also need to pause on a personal note. There are times I am prone to fill my head with knowledge while my heart remains as dry as a desert. I need to invite God’s Spirit to take his Word deeply into the recesses of my life motivations and to challenge my underlying belief system and attitudes. May I never be a saturated sponge. I want his Word to soak into every crevice of my soul and produce life-fruit that pleases Him.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Call Me on It

I was buzzing along planning for upcoming meetings and teaching and experienced a bit of anxiety when I realized some responsibilities that were falling my way. As I began praying over these ministry challenges, God drew me up short. “Why are you so fearful? Who are you trying to please?” And in that flash I realized my fear was because I was thinking about having to impress certain people and being afraid that I would come up short. And I glimpsed in that moment how easy it is to please God – just do what he says!!! He has no hidden agendas, just simple instructions to obey. Without the added pressure of also having to please others, ministry is simple. Ministry is a light burden just as Jesus said.

Now I’m really good at teaching about fearing God and not man. Invite me to teach and I’ll give you an hour just on this subject. But, I just found myself trapped in the fear of man! The fact is I continue to need my faithful teacher to point out when my thinking and behavior don’t line up with truth I know. We see Jesus doing this with the disciples.

Jesus had taught the disciples that they needed to take up their cross to follow him (Matt 10:39). Great teaching. But when Jesus talked to the disciples about going up to Jerusalem to be crucified, he was rebuked by Peter, “Never, Lord. This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16:22). Jesus’ teaching on the cross was great teaching, but not just words. Jesus really meant them. Peter’s response revealed that his own thinking was very far away from taking up his cross. How could Peter take up his cross when he didn’t even think Jesus should take up his cross! So Jesus called him on it in front of all the disciples! And He repeated the cross teaching in this context closer to the impending reality of the cross.

I’m no different from the disciples. I love Jesus’ teaching. I sacrificially follow him and share his teaching with others. But I still need his regular input and correction. Jesus, I invite your loving instruction and rebuke. I really do want to walk in your ways and live your Word. So I’m saying today, “Call me on it, Lord.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dissipating My Time

The whole day stretched out in front of me like a sparkling untouched field of snow. My heart longed for time spent in secluded worship and intimate reconnecting with God. Fast forward to night time. What happened to all those hours? What happened to my admirable intentions? Tossing restlessly, I rewound and played the video of the day. I sadly viewed so many choices I made that dribbled away my time. I had a hazy picture of the woman in the Song of Solomon whose lover knocked on the door while she lazily delayed in getting up. She missed him. And I missed my special time with the Lord that day. I drifted off to sleep with many questions and few answers.

How do I manage my time in a godly way when distractions abound – always something to do other than my central desires. Distractions eat away at my dedicated focus, Errands nibble away at my daily treasure trove of time. Curiosity pulls me away from the pursuit of assigned challenges. I live a vicariously adventurous life through reading rather than creating my own adventure through sacrificial risky faith. I grab present opportunities and things rather than summoning the unseen into being on my knees.

So how do I want to live? Lord, open my eyes to recognize the lurking enemy and his clever strategies to water down my passion and to dissipate the time and energy of a life dedicated to his service. Give me the courage and determination to refuse to wash my time and energy down the drain with temporal interests and alluring curiosities. And give me discernment to see the difference between needed rest and distractions! In the midst of the cacophony of distractions, help me discern your still small voice gently directing me, and let me care deeply about what you think about my time stewardship. May my time decisions delight you!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Palatable Messages

There are accusations being thrown around the internet against certain Christian proponents eager to be relevant to our rapidly changing society. The accusations suggest that these leaders recommend adjusting our message in order to better reach the emerging generation of post moderns. Now, I’m pretty open to change, but I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about this recommendation.

There is no question that we need to be more relevant and that we really miss that goal a lot of the time. But do we change our message to be more acceptable or politically correct? (Don’t attack me. I see our message being diluted everywhere!) To me the question is what can I change in order to be more relevant? This question begs serious meditation time. Of course, the safest place to go for answers is to Jesus.

If anyone could have been tempted to change his message to be more “palatable” it would have been Jesus. He received so much opposition, criticism, and hatred for his teaching. While he had crowds following him, there were many secret meetings of people to plan ways to trip him up publicly and to plot his demise. He actually changed a lot of things from the traditional ways. So what can we change? These are some of my thoughts:

1. Our Attitudes

When Jesus began his teaching ministry, the religious leaders were, frankly speaking, bigots. Their attitudes towards sinners, adulterers, publicans, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, and Gentiles were appalling. I see Jesus ministering with a totally different attitude. He ate with sinners and publicans, touched lepers, sat with Samaritans, ministered to prostitutes and adulterers, and healed Gentiles. His attitude enraged the religious leaders and endeared him to the needy. He never compromised holiness to love the sinners.

Not only did Jesus model godly attitudes, he spent significant discipling time in nurturing attitude change in his disciples. He addressed their bigotry, ethnocentricity, pride, and indifference to children and beggars. He took them places that made them uncomfortable and stretched their love muscles.

An American survey done among young people found “the most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are antihomosexual (an image held by 91 percent of young outsiders), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent)” (Kinnaman & Lyons, p. 27). Maybe the first thing I need to consider changing is not my message but my attitudes. Would I fit into the Pharisee category, Jesus category, or the disciple category in terms of my attitude towards sinners and the needy? What needs to change?

2. Our Commitment to Truth

When Jesus appeared on the religious scene he found the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law very committed to their truth and their traditions, but when it came to making a public statement about John the Baptist they showed the real nature of their truth commitment, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet” (Mat 21;26). I overhear their debate about what the people will think and say, thus exposing their determiner of truth - people’s possible responses! So much for commitment to truth.

In contrast, Jesus taught truth no matter who was offended or who was delighted. His message was not swayed by response, even when the disciples expressed their fear that the Pharisees were offended. His message was undiluted truth in all its sharp lines and cutting edges.

I can sit in my chair and criticize the Pharisees, but know the reality is that the Pharisaical responses go through my head also when I need to speak truth. If I say that Jesus is the Son of God will I offend my listener? If I say Jesus is the only way, will I be considered judgmental and switched off or excluded? My challenge is to be so radically committed to truth and speaking truth that God can call on me at any time, any place, to any person, and to speak any word that he directs. Truth remains undiluted truth.

3. Our Methods

It’s interesting to consider how Jesus changed methods and why. I don’t think that Jesus changed his approach because the religious leaders’ methods were outdated or irrelevant. I’d like to suggest that his methods came from the heart of the Father. Not just the how-to strategies, but the heart of the Father to touch the people. Jesus walked among the common throng. He preached in the synagogues and on the hillside and lake side. He taught in homes, at feasts, and parties. He taught in parables and stunned the people with his simplicity and authority. He healed crowds of the infirm from a home. His methods conveyed acceptance and compassion. He made himself accessible to the most common inquirer.

So, yes, I think it is valid to change methods if my changes are directed by God’s heart. There is nothing so sacred about preaching from a pulpit, or preaching in a church, or preaching from the front that we cannot lay down our traditions to use other methods that will get us with people and express acceptance and compassion to those outside of normal religious gatherings. There’s nothing so sacred about door to door evangelism or crusades that we can’t change them for other methods that are more likely to reach people where they are at. And there is nothing so sacred about teaching an hour lecture and closing in prayer that I cannot change methodologies for better dialogue and understanding.

4. Our Understanding of People

One thing that has struck me while meditating on Jesus’ teaching methods was how clearly he understood his audience – to the point that he seemed to be a mind reader. Oh, yes, he had divine ability to read minds, but I’m not sure that all of his understanding came from divine revelation. He literally walked with the crowds, and he ate at their homes. He was an astute observer of behavior and attitudes. His teaching was eerily relevant to their lifestyle. In contrast, the religious leaders seemed to be way out of sync with the people and primarily taught the Law supported by historical interpretations.

As I look at myself, I must ask how well I understand the audience to whom I am ministering. How much time do I spend walking with them and talking in their homes? Do I understand what they are thinking, what conclusions they would lean towards when hearing teaching, what burning questions they have, or what issues they are wrestling with when they are alone? And finally I have to ask, what changes should I make so that I can understand them better?

Do I need to change my message to be more relevant? I don’t think so. I think there are a lot more changes I can make to be more relevant and Christ-like in this generation – changes that can make my message more palatable without comprising truth. How about you?

Kinnaman, David. UnChristian. 2007. Baker Books.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

God’s Grip on Sovereignty

We had the privilege of attending a “spiritual gathering” that was radically different than our traditional church. Yes, the music was way too loud for our “ancient” ears, but the youth were passionately engaged, expressing a longing after seeing God’s Kingdom extended in their generation. The preacher openly addressed sexual purity. While old timers shifted around a bit uncomfortably, most of us welcomed someone with courage enough to challenge Christians with healthy sexual restraint. The speaker humorously highlighted the strangeness of some of our “normal” spiritual practices, and his message conveyed thought provoking interpretations of very familiar Scriptures. He even dared to end the service without an altar call and instead we held hands and lifted our voices in passionate prayer for the persons on our right and left. Strange, but challenging!

And God did amazing things in this strange atmosphere! Isn’t it remarkable that God can do stunning things without our traditions, without our organization, or without our church? This Kingdom thing is a God thing, not a man thing, much to our chagrin! We can so easily shift subtly into the idea that we have a corner on truth or even a monopoly on God’s strategy and become quite arrogant servants.

I love the fact that God never allows one man or one organization or one church to have a monopoly on success. He even seems eager to launch surprise “nobodies” into effective ministries in places where others have failed or plateaued. He seems to delight in surprising us with shocking new approaches. What a King! He is still very much in charge and exercising his sovereignty in surprising ways to extend his rule into the hearts of all men everywhere. Lord, may we see more surprises! We love your sovereignty.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Obnoxious Commercials & God’s Ways

Maybe you too have been annoyed by the loud commercials that explode onto your TV while you’re watching your favorite program. The commercials insist on our attention and force their message on its captive audience. Do you need a lawyer to represent you? I’m sure you do, so call now! How about some newly improved garbage bags to enhance the quality of your life and rid you of the inconvenience of collapsing bags? Some of us have become quite adept at using the mute button, but even that can’t hide the visual effect of some commercials. Even the Senate has been called on to help out with this daily irritation. Some sage politician has put a bill before the Senate to force TV advertisers to lower the volume of their advertisements to a normal level.

God’s communications methods are in extreme contrast, God speaks gently and quietly to us. He never insists on our attention or pushes his way into our home. He stands quietly waiting at the door to be invited in. And when he is invited in, he meekly and gently invites us to choose to give him our attention. He doesn’t raise his voice or shout for our attention.

And God never pushes us to “buy” something that we clearly don’t need. Yes, he has the greatest treasure available to man and offers solutions to every single problem. But he’s put his offer in a book that we choose to pick up; and we choose to read; and we choose to search. And he comes close when we are in need and waits for us to invite his help.

This really puts the onus on me to seek him out and to listen to his whisper. His counsel is a valuable resource available to me at the cost of listening time and quiet exploration of his Word. He’s always ready with a word of encouragement, but waits in the periphery for me to seek him out. He has the greatest plans for my life and ministry, but never shoves them in my face. He waits for me to seek his counsel.

This also puts the onus on me to represent God’s invitation appropriately to other people without loud insistence and high powered salesman tactics. I know who the Treasure is and I know he’s more valuable than anything any person could pursue here on earth. As God’s representative I can help others to discover the treasure for themselves without pushing past the present level of interest and without intimidation. No loud Gospel commercials, just patient discussion and gentle answers.

We know what annoys us about commercials and we know what delights us about God. I revel in God’s ways and long to be quickly responsive to his quiet voice. And I pray that no one needs to propose a bill to God to quiet those obnoxious noisy Christians.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Repacking for This Decade

It’s already 3 January in the new decade. Yes, I made some New Year’s resolutions centering around time management, but for the most part, I’ve been holding back from making resolutions for anything else. The next year just doesn’t seem clear enough yet to make resolutions. Instead I’m a couple days late in trying to unpack from last year and repack for 2010.

I don’t know what your 2009 held, but I encountered some troubling circumstances that challenged what I thought was “stout” faith. I would love to say I was completely victorious, but I’m not declaring that. I would love to say it’s been worth it all because I grew so much. But I’m not saying that. It was just a hard year. I have memories of my struggles to be victorious and memories of floundering failures. A lot of veneer was stripped off and my heart was laid bare. I am not applauding. I was not only disappointed with myself, I also came away a bit jaded about other believers and have a more clear understanding of our humanness and desperate need for the daily transforming power of Jesus.

So today I am grappling with bringing closure to 2009. The good thing is that I reached the point where I could say to God that I want to move beyond all the hurts. I want to see others clothed in his righteousness and not clothed in their failings and foibles. And yes I want to reenter my ministry not so much saturated with an awareness of the absence of God, but an awareness of striding side by side with my awesome God. And I do want to enter this decade conscious of the changes God made in my life through the trials of the last year and a deeper sense of peace that he continues to transform me not just through my successes but through difficulties and suffering.

I’ve chucked a lot of accumulated junk out of my suitcase today, and I’m ready to repack for this year. I may not yet have clarity for everything that lies ahead, but I think I’m in far better shape for the journey. How about you?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Who is this Jesus?

Many of us have a rather narrow view of Jesus. We have fallen in love with this Jesus who loved us unconditionally, courageously shouldered our sins on the cross, and tenderly comforts us in our sorrows, But I have to say, a detailed reading of the Gospels reveals a different side of Jesus that many of us would be uncomfortable with.

The disciples faced a similar dilemma. They had left all to follow this Jesus who healed the sick, cast out demons, and awed the crowds with his teaching. But one day the Pharisees asked him an “innocent” question about why the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. Now this new image of Jesus emerges (Matt 15:12-14). He directly challenged the Pharisees about preferring their own traditions over obeying God’s commands. He called them hypocrites to their face and quoted an Old Testament passage that stripped away the pretentious outward religious trappings and exposed the vanity of their hearts and teaching. And then he calmly walked away and addressed the crowds about the same issue.

Needless to say, the Pharisees were offended. Surprise! The puzzled disciples came to Jesus with their question, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” Maybe they thought Jesus didn’t notice the Pharisees’ reaction. I actually think they were shocked by Jesus’ approach. Why would he address the Pharisees in such an offensive way?

Lest we quickly jump to hammering the disciples, let’s picture Jesus doing this in 2010. Imagine Jesus going up to a political leader and directly challenging him on his public decisions and using Scripture to expose the rottenness of his heart attitudes. As Jesus’ coworker would you feel like hiding in the shadows or would you also like to question Jesus about his approach. Isn’t there a way he could be more subtle? After all we are called to be peacemakers. People won’t listen to us if we offend them?

I love how Jesus responded to the disciples’ question. Jesus was not ignorant of the Pharisees’ reaction, but neither did he take offense at their negative reaction. Jesus had not been speaking his personal opinion so he did not take their offense personally! He clearly left the judging to God. He calmly told his disciples that God would pluck any weeds that needed picking. (When’s the last time you said that?) He also told the disciples to let the Pharisees be. And that is just what Jesus modeled. He sensed and knew the reaction and just moved on to the next event.

I have to say that I’m much more comfortable with following and imitating the loving Jesus I’m familiar with. And I so much long to teach like him. This picture of Jesus is downright scary, but just as valid as tender baby Jesus in a manger and Jesus’ gentle touch on a toddler. So my question – how will I follow this Jesus I read about today? My first challenge is to be ready and willing to be confrontative if necessary and be so in touch with God that I know when gentle compassion is necessary and when bold truth is required. I also need to avoid speaking my own opinions that require personal defense and end in personal offense. I can courageously speak God’s Word with boldness, knowing that God will defend his own word. I want to learn to leave situations and attendant emotions to move onto the next event with confidence. And finally, I want to live life intentionally as Jesus did and be able to clearly explain my actions from God’s perspective. This Jesus I love.