Sunday, August 31, 2008

Who Am I?

Moses was tending sheep when he saw a bush on fire, but not burning up (see Exodus 3). Having caught his attention, God spoke to Moses: "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land...." This must have sounded wonderful to Moses; they had suffered so much, and waited so long! Then God continues, "So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
Eh? "I have come down to rescue them... so now, you go." Have you ever had a moment like that? You pray and wait and hope for God to take action, and finally sense God's concern, but it is coupled with a command:
  • Perhaps you pray for a homeless person who appears hungry as you walk by, and sense God's gentle nudge: Yes, I hear your prayer, and I do care about the suffering you see. So I am sending you to feed him.
  • Perhaps you pray for a single parent who is struggling to balance work and family, and sense God's gentle nudge: Yes, I hear your prayer, and I do care about the struggles you see. So I am sending you to help that parent in their home for a few hours.
  • Perhaps you pray for someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, and sense God's gentle nudge: Yes, I hear your prayer, and I do care about this person's intense sense of loss. So I am sending you to listen and share this grief.
  • Perhaps you pray for a friend whose young daughter is in the hospital with a serious illness, and sense God's gentle nudge: Yes, I hear your prayer, and I do care about the worries of this family. So I am sending you to sit awhile with the daughter and her mom in the hospital.
And your response might be very much like that of Moses: "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" Ken Davis notes that what God did NOT say is quite instructive. God did not say "Don't worry, I gave you all the skills at birth to prepare you for this," or even "Don't worry, I'll teach you everything you'll need before you get there." Actually, God's answer was more like "You're right. You're not perfectly sufficient for this!" But instead of promising new abilities, God promised something far, far better: "I will be with you." And that is enough.

Let Them Teach

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully" (Romans 12:4-8).

I was privileged to spend a few hours yesterday with ten of the people who will be teaching in Sunday School and other areas of discipleship this fall, and it was a great joy to hear them talk about the upcoming months. They've clearly been thinking about how to approach this great task. Their love for God and for the people they lead is obvious. They're planning ahead so they can be as effective as possible. Quite a few of them know already some of the people who will be in their classes, and they recognize that each one is unique. These teachers enjoy each other, too, and look forward to serving together. All in all, I walked out pretty excited about what is coming up!

The Bible speaks very clearly in a number of places (e.g. Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4) about how each person is created for a purpose. Each one has some gifts; no one has all gifts. We are created this way on purpose, for community. Much like the fingers are really important in the human body, but the body needs much more than just fingers, the church needs all of its different parts, each in its place and functioning well. I'm enthused about the group God has prepared for us for this fall.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I had the privilege of attending the Leadership Summit this year for the first time, at the South Mountain Community Church satellite location. Willow Creek had a small bookstore set up there throughout Summit, and I enjoy book tables. A lot. I spent some time at the book table before finally deciding on a recent book and a DVD set from a previous Summit. I was pretty happy about both, and started reading the book that evening.

The conference had just begun, though, and there was one more book that kept drawing me. During breaks between sessions, I looked it over. Several times. It was well-written and relevant, offering new perspectives and encouragement in an area I'd been wrestling with. But I already had one book and about five hours' worth of DVDs. Did I really need one more? Of course I didn't. It would be useful, of course, but it would not be necessary. I'd survived my whole life without this book; I could be without it and be just fine.

That's when a gentleman approached me, smiled, and told me that book was mine, a complete gift from a perfect stranger. I could take it home, read it, write in it, refer to it later. It belonged to me. I was surprised. I was honored. All I could think was the word "grace," and how this fellow was a living reminder of -- and an active participant in -- God's unmerited favor in my life.

God's grace is unfathomably bigger than a book, of course. But I think He packaged grace that day in one of His people as a blessed reminder of His goodness, and I am thankful.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Which relationships in your life cause you the most pain? And in whose life might you be such a source of pain? Who in your life causes your muscles to tense up and your mind to shift quickly to defensiveness or outright anger when their names are mentioned? And who has been impacted in that way by the mention of your name?

Do you sense your internal walls going up even now as you think about these relationships?

Beyond the MirrorHenri Nouwen wrote Beyond the Mirror as an account of how nearly dying as a result of an auto-pedestrian accident impacted his thoughts and his faith. In the book, he talks about the accident itself, then how the processes of surgery and recovery led him to consider his own death and, ultimately, his life. When asking his prognosis, he told the doctor, "I really want to prepare for my death. I am not afraid to die, but I worry about leaving life unaware." His condition at that point was not fully known, but Nouwen sensed it was precarious. "And so I let myself enter into a place I had never been before: the portal of death. I wanted to know that place, to 'walk around' it, and make myself ready for a life beyond life."

Nouwen wrote of his relationship with God and of the incredible peace he had in that uncertain time. Still, while he did not fear death, he found himself unsettled, resistant. His explanation is telling: "What most prevented me from dying was the sense of unfinished business, unresolved conflicts with people with whom I live or had lived.... They might never think of me, but every time I thought of them I lost some of my inner peace and joy.... I also knew that there were still people angry with me, people who could not think about me or speak about me without experiencing great hostility.... In the face of death, I realized that it was not love that kept me clinging to life but unresolved anger" (emphasis mine).

This morning I read in Genesis 45 about Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers. It's not one of those hopeful and exciting stories about finally finding each other after somehow becoming separated in the hospital at birth or something like that. Instead, Joseph was separated from them when the other eleven threw him into a well, sold him to become a slave in a foreign land, and told his father he'd been killed by wild animals. Their original plan was to kill him, but they figured, "What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" So they sold him instead, saying "After all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood." (This story really starts in Genesis 37, and continues through Genesis 50.) Great family dynamics, eh?

Think back to the original questions. Which of your relationships are broken? Joseph would have understood what it's like. And that is why I am so amazed by his response. He told them who he was, drew them close, reassured them, and moved the whole extended family to live near him so they would have provision in a time of severe famine. We could imagine him being perfectly justified to just let them starve, but he chose to forgive and seek reconciliation: "'Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives...' And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them" (Genesis 50:19-21).

Where have barriers been allowed to develop between you and others? Has bitterness gotten a foothold on your soul? What step can you take today toward forgiveness?

Like Nouwen, I want to experience the freedom of right relationships. "The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world -- free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless; free also to receive love from people and to be grateful for all the signs of God's presence in the world" (Nouwen).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Facing Struggles, Taking Risks

Matthew records Jesus miraculously feeding over five thousand people in Matthew 14, followed by the miracle of Jesus walking on the water to meet up with his disciples as they took a boat to the other shore. A few things catch my attention in the water-walking story:

First, after feeding thousands, Jesus sent the disciples on ahead, then found a place where he could be alone to pray. This was always odd to me as I was growing up. After all, if Jesus is God, why would he pray? But this is part of the mystery of what we know as the Trinity; that is, the one God expressed as three distinct Persons. In prayer, Jesus stayed connected and nourished relationship with the Persons of God the Father and the Holy Spirit. And if Jesus sought that connection, which was already part of his very nature, how much more we need to strengthen such relationship through prayer!

Second, Jesus went to the disciples "during the fourth watch of the night." The night hours were divided into segments of watch duty. In this case, "the fourth watch" was probably sometime between 3:00am and 6:00am. Think about that for a minute. What was it like to be among the disciples then? It had already been a very long day, and here they find themselves fighting difficult weather in the middle of the night as they work very hard with their already-worn bodies to reach their destination. It was dark, too, and things so often feel more hopeless in the wee hours of the morning. But Jesus went to them in that difficult time.

Third, it looks to me like Peter took to the extreme Jesus' encouragement -- "Take courage!" -- by asking Jesus to invite him (Peter) to also walk on water. Wow, Peter had guts! Such gumption can be admirable. And he did wait for Jesus' invitation rather than jumping out into the choppy waters. But...

Then Peter "saw the wind" and became afraid. This makes natural sense, of course, since he was walking on water at the time, and in a strong wind, too. But his response betrays his doubt. Could Jesus really be trusted? Did he really have both the power and the desire to sustain Peter when things got rough? What power was keeping Peter afloat, anyway? Those are questions for all of us to wrestle with.

Finally, while Peter did lose clear sight of Jesus for a moment, he knew who to turn to when he realized his error, and he did so with vigor: "Lord, save me!" And Jesus, ever gracious, "reached out his hand and caught him."

If you were to place yourself in this story right now, where would you be? You might be one of the thousands in the crowd, having experienced divine power and now returning back to home and everyday life. Perhaps you relate more to the disciples in the boat, having also experienced divine power but now facing opposition and you don't quite see him clearly yet. Peter might make sense, too, if you've found yourself facing a challenge and stepping out boldly to meet it. Or if you've stepped out boldly and have slipped up.

Think about where you are in your own story, and consider: "Where is Jesus, and where am I, and what are the two of us going to do about this situation?" Answering that question well, and consistently, will change our lives.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jesus... Withdrew?

Modern Bibles are usually printed with each writing divided into smaller sections, usually with a title to help in finding particular passages by flipping through the general area where they are found. These divisions can be helpful, but it is important to realize that context is often really, really important. When reading a particular portion of scripture, it is useful to look a little before and after that portion to see better where it fits into the whole.

Matthew 14:13 starts one of these sections in this way: "When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place." From there, the story goes on to explain that the crowds found out where he was and went looking for him, seeking help. They became tired from traveling and had little to eat. This led to Jesus miraculously feeding over five thousand people with just a few small pieces of food. Great story.

But don't slip too easily past that first sentence: "When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place."

What is it that had happened? John the Baptist had been beheaded. His head was even delivered to a royal event on a plate. This is the same John who had been born to announce the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. This is the one who had humbly said of Jesus "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30).

There is plenty of other excellent, meaty stuff in here. But today I am imagining Jesus withdrawing from the crowds for a bit. He was divine, yes, but also human. He grieved the loss of one he loved. At such a time, he took the time to step away for a period of time from the many demands of his life. He honored his humanity by living within its confines of weariness and grief and all that. And then he returned, restored.

What about us? It is easy sometimes to see an exceedingly long to-do list and just try to keep working hard to tackle each of those tasks. Sometimes it feels like being pecked to death by ducks. But in times like that, God calls us to withdraw for a period of time, to seek Him and discover again who He is and who we are invited to be in Him. God, knowing our humanity and understanding our limitations, invites us into His presence to be restored before returning to the demands of life. Every day, what a gift!

The Power of an Iota

An iota is a tiny little bit. I learned the word "iota" in Mrs. Brummel's 4th grade class, many years ago. I liked it instantly. I liked the way it is spelled, the way it sounded, the way it looked on paper. And, probably more than anything, I liked the way its spelling and pronunciation and presentation all fit together in my mind in such a way that it somehow represented its definition.

What I did not learn in the 4th grade is that iota is also the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet, corresponding more or less to the letter "i" in English. It is written as just a little line, the smallest letter of the alphabet. Matthew 5:18 speaks of the iota: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." That is why we use the word iota, in the English language, even today.

Matthew 13:31-33 brings me back to that picture in my head of iota:

"He told them another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.' He told them still another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."

mustard seeds, magnifiedLike an iota, a mustard seed is a tiny little bit, about the size of the dot on an "i" typed on the spine of a small book here on my desk. It looks incredibly insignificant. Yet this tiny little seed has within it the potential to develop a big tree which creates habitat and shade, and produces many more seeds for many more trees. Similarly, just a little bit of yeast in a big ball of dough brings about great growth throughout, transforming the whole loaf.

Imagine introducing into our world just a little bit more -- an iota -- of the perfect life and relationships God intends for us to experience. Think about how you have seen even just an iota of that kind of life -- a genuine smile, a well-timed phone call, a gentle response to anger, help with a difficult task -- make a difference in your own experiences. Think your iota of love won't make a difference? Think again. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the iota of the seeds, which by the power of God multiplies in amazing ways!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blessed, Blessing

God told Jacob, "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring...." (Genesis 28:13-14). This is not the first place we read such words. God had promised Abram back in Genesis 12:2-3, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Do you see the blessings here? Yes, God promises offspring to these two men. But much of the blessing He proclaims is that they will bless others. As I read this, I think of how Pastor Sheryl pointed us today to Psalm 145:19. "The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works." At the end of the day, would it surprise you to know that you were used of God to shower His mercy and goodness on someone? That is His plan; that is our blessing!

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Big Idea

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119:105).

My teen years were when I really started to read the Bible for myself and to start wrestling with what to do with it. In our youth group, proof texting (that is, pulling something out of context to make it seem like it means something in particular, even if it was not written with that meaning) was common. Sometimes it was done ignorantly; sometimes it was done out of selfishness. For some, it was almost like a hobby.

I finished up the first half of a class last week: "Tracing the Story of God in the Bible." Our goal is to look at the whole Bible with a big-picture perspective, developing a strong overview understanding. From this, we are able to see more clearly who God is. Many people are familiar with quite a few stories in the Bible (e.g., Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, God's promises to Abraham, etc.), but don't really see how they fit together. Similarly, how does the story of Jesus lead to the formation of the Church, and how does that tie to the various letters in the Bible? It has been a delight many times during the class to see, sometimes for the first time, incredible relationships between writings separated by hundreds of pages, even by thousands of years. It has been a joy to spend this time getting to know God better, to see Him more clearly through a broader, deeper understanding of scripture.

By the way, if you've ever read Matthew 5:38-42 and wondered about Jesus' teaching about getting slapped and getting sued and getting forced to walk a mile, I'd recommend checking out this talk by John Ortberg. Jesus' teaching here was an incredible statement within the culture and structure in which he was teaching. "Now you, as an agent of the Kingdom, can look for a strong, creative way to refuse to participate in mutual ongoing hostility." Fascinating!