Saturday, October 18, 2008

Step On It

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

                        James 1.2-3


My former pastor told a story that’s stayed with me for over 20 years. A farmer had an old mule no longer useful to him yet, given their long history together, he couldn’t bear the thought of putting the beast down. A friend offered a more “painless” solution. “Dig a deep hole, cover it with plywood, and lure the mule onto the wood. When it gives way, the fall will kill the mule and if not, his agony will remain out of sight. The hole doubles as a grave. If you throw garbage on top of the mule, it will be dead and buried in no time!” The plan went off without a hitch. The farmer got so accustomed to dumping trash down the hole he forgot the mule buried at its bottom. Then, one day, he went to the pit and there the mule stood, staring him in the face. It seems he climbed atop each new heap and regained his health by salvaging what nourishment the rubbish contained. The mule looked as strong as an ox; the farmer felt like an ass.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

No one skates through life without enemies, even if he/she does nothing to earn them. For some, merely how God created us—our gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—is sufficient reason to hate us. Others turn on us once we’re no longer useful to them. This is especially true when we come into our own, accepting ourselves and knowing God accepts us. Many who reject us contrive means to destroy us. They dig pits and attempt to bury us in malicious, malevolent trash. Not only does this remove us conveniently out of the picture. It conceals their hateful deeds from themselves. Indeed, the clean efficiency of their plan convinces them it’s the right, the best, the only thing to do. But keeping us—and their hatred—out of sight, out of mind also prohibits them from seeing another plan in play to foil their foul intentions and confront their evil.

Pure Joy

“Consider it pure joy,” James tells us, “when you face many trials.” From time to time we land in a dark hole, broken, anguished, and confused about how we got there. Adversaries throw all their garbage at us. We see why; the overt fear behind their covert hatred can’t be missed. But their reasons and the real reason why we’re here aren’t the same. James teaches that trials develop patience. “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1.4) We bolster our courage, summon our faith, and envision joy we’ll experience in coming out of this hole. It may take a while, but we persevere, emerging older, wiser, fully intact and fit. Knowing this, we find strength in each fresh deluge of insults and condemnation. Rather than smothering in filth hurled at us, we step on it, patiently climbing layer upon layer until we stare into our unnerved enemies’ eyes, unflinching, unfazed, and completely unafraid.

We may not know how we landed at the bottom of a hole, but we know how to climb out.

(Tomorrow: Hear Here)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Home at Last

His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

                        Matthew 25.21

A Few Things

In our examination of The Lord’s Prayer these past few days, I’ve sensed an undertow of anxiety mounting with each post. What it says about our lives—and what it asks us to do—is basic and sound, yet nonetheless daunting to embrace and accomplish. Live up to the highest standards of God’s name. Activate His kingdom in us. Step aside so His will can be done. Trust Him daily for our needs. Forgive heinous wrongs against us before asking His forgiveness. Maintain vigilant awareness of temptation’s pitfalls. Dispel evil’s prevalence and influence in our lives. Day after day, the Prayer's requests of us seemed to get tougher, more intimidating, and ever more thick-skinned about personal emotions and history it expects us to rise above.

These are big-ticket items. They require sober introspection and willingness to let go of responses ingrained in our character. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to dig up facts and feelings we've buried in deep graves piled high with all sorts of denial, magical thinking, and rationalization. If we acted on all of the Prayer’s principles simultaneously, we’d be overwhelmed—completely lost, actually—at dealing with so much at once. It makes more sense to attend to a few things at a time. When we get one or two under control, we can take on others.

What We’ve Got

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells of three servants whose master gave them small sums of money. The first took five coins he received, worked with them, and returned with 10. The second likewise doubled his two coins. But the third servant, who got only one coin, was so afraid of losing the little he had he buried it. When time came to account for his actions, neither he nor his master was any better off. The master lambasted him as “wicked” and “lazy,” and handed his coin to the servant with 10. To the other two, however, he said, “Well done!” He rewarded their faithfulness over a few things by placing them in charge of many things and invited them to share his happiness.

This story is most often associated with positive gifts we’ve been given, primarily because the Bible calls the coins “talents.” But we might also apply it to everything we receive in life, good or bad. Instead of focusing on what insults and abuses steal from us—and, no doubt, they leave huge deficits in our lives, our psyches, and our emotions—we should recognize they’re also given to us. Perhaps we should work with what we’ve got, all of it, including the worst.

Processing Pain

Some of our issues spring from such traumatic experiences it’s inconceivable to imagine they conceal a higher purpose. Their impact has resulted in withdrawal into feelings of alienation, fear, emotional insecurity, and spiritual homelessness. Yet if we can look past our suffering, we’ll see God transforming pain into profit. Here’s how Paul charted the process: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5.3-5)

Burying pain because we’re afraid of handling it, as the third servant did with his coin, yields nothing positive. It gets us no more than what we’ve always had. It fails to increase perseverance, improve character, or inspire hope. But, like the other two servants, we can invest all that we’ve received toward personal and spiritual development. We parlay it into empathy and concern for others. We use it as a springboard to love our neighbors as ourselves—including those responsible for the pain we suffer. Being faithful in a few things, we take charge of many more. Our Master welcomes us to His happiness. And after years of feeling ostracized, abused, and alone, we experience the joy of His acceptance. We’re home at last.

Rather than burying our pain, we need to work with it, investing it to reap rewards for others and ourselves.

(Tomorrow: Step On It)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Deliver Us

  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

                        Matthew 6.13

Requesting a Break

It’s not incorrect to read deliver as save, as in “protect” or “spare us” from the evil one. But it also misses an aspect that adds understanding to what Jesus teaches us to pray. Deliver in this case also implies vacating space—much like an expectant mother is delivered of her infant. When a mother “delivers,” the symbiotic relationship between her and her child is interrupted. Her body’s involuntary responses to her baby’s needs—his/her hunger, growth, etc.—now become voluntary responsibilities. Admittedly, this comparison is not the best. Motherhood is a sacred trust that begins in the womb and continues through life; it’s humankind’s highest example of our Creator’s power and love. Yet it’s also instructive, I think, to apply a similar dynamic to this prayer phrase. We ask God to deliver us, requesting a break in the symbiotic relationship between the Tempter and us. We want him out and we want God’s kingdom, power, and glory in.

Change that Matters

“Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father,” Romans 6.4 tells us, “we too may live a new life.” The seed of Christianity’s promise of new life is planted right here, in the closing phrase of The Lord’s Prayer. Asking our Father to unseat the reigning evil influences in our lives—the Tempter and his “What-about-me?” selfishness, insecurity, and fear—is the first step to experience change that matters. It has to happen before new life begins in us.

In his first epistle, John said he wrote to young readers “because the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1 John 2.14) When God’s word is alive in us, when we nurture it, let it shape our behavior, and govern our hopes for the future—just like pregnant mothers do in response the new life developing within them—deliverance from the evil one is a fait accompli. We’ve overcome him, released ourselves from his force and influence.

Post-Partum Complications

Expelling the evil one’s presence from our hearts and minds doesn’t fully banish him from our lives, though. There are post-partum complications: he continues to beg for our love, attention, and nourishment. For the sake of the new life growing in us, we can’t feed his demands. That’s why John followed his statement above with, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2.15) For some of us, it’s harder to purposefully deprive former desires and habits than it initially was to give them up. We hate what they do to our lives, but we love them, too. We have to let them go, let them starve, let them die slow, natural deaths.

We can’t feed the Tempter and nurture new life at the same time. So we consistently pray that God will deliver us from the evil one—that he’ll remove his influence over us and protect us from his attempts to draw our attention away from what matters. James tells us that when we ask God for anything, we “must believe and not doubt.” The man who asks and yet doubts “is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (James 1.6-8) We ask God to deliver us from the evil one. We believe He will. And then we live and nurture newness of life.

God delivers us from evil so we can nurture His new life in us.

(Tomorrow: Home at Last)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

And lead us not into temptation…
Matthew 6.13

I find this to be the toughest phrase in The Lord’s Prayer. It seems completely antithetical to God’s nature that He ever would lead us into temptation. Repeatedly, the Bible says what’s best for us is His top priority. Psalm 84.11, for example, says, “The LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” If that’s true—and it is—why would we even think to pray, “Lead us not into temptation?”

If we look at Scripture’s explanation of how temptation works, though, we get a clearer understanding of what we’re actually asking for. In warning against the love of wealth, Paul provides a vivid picture of temptation’s modus operandi. He writes: “Godliness with contentment is great gain… People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6.6, 9) When discontentment seizes control of our hearts and minds, temptation snares us. It plunges us into ruinous, destructive behaviors. Therefore, when we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we’re actually asking to be steered away from discontentment.

Changing the Rules
Modern thinking places very little value on contentment—mostly because marketing, advertising, and self-help/success gurus have rerouted the concept’s meaning to coincide with complacency. At the heart of this, we find men and women whose personal discontentment tempts to them to stir up and promote our discontentment. The more they can convince us we’re unhappy, the happier they’ll be. Their success depends on a fact we may recognize but somehow fail to resist: they keep changing the rules. What’s “in” and “hot” only lasts as long as it takes to convince us to buy into it. Then, once we’re fully on-board with that, it becomes passé. But where exactly is all this leading? For some reason, it never gets us where it’s supposed to go: contentment and happiness. It invariably leads us into temptation.

Awake and Alert
In Gethsemane, Jesus’s life and ministry teetered on imminent disaster. He agonized over whether or not this was God’s will for Him. Not far from Him, His followers—who also would be forever changed by events of the next 72 hours—should also have been asking God’s will in their lives. But they were complacent; they snoozed. “Why are you sleeping?” Jesus asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Luke 22.46) When we ask our Father not to lead us into temptation, we’re really praying He’ll help us stay awake and alert to snares set for us. As followers of Christ, we can’t complacently sleepwalk through life, getting trapped by manufactured mindsets and media-driven desires. We seek godly contentment—there’s great gain there. The rest of this stuff is just pipe dreams others try to project into our lives. Born of someone else’s desire for happiness, they breed unnecessary discontentment and temptation in us.

Asking our Father to guide us away from temptation is asking Him to keep us awake and alert to snares that we may fall into.

(Tomorrow: Deliver Us)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Forgive Our Debts

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

                        Matthew 6.12

Past Imperfect

I was raised with the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer, which reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The space between its active tense (“forgive”) and most other translations’ past perfect (“have forgiven”) covers a lot of territory. The KJV gives off a slightly transactional aroma: You forgive me, I forgive them, everybody’s happy. But the more accurate rendition appropriates sizably different meaning. It assumes we’ve already forgiven those who wronged us as we pray forgiveness for our wrongs.

God’s love, acceptance, mercy, and grace come without condition. They’re gifts. But forgiveness is quid pro quo. We forgive others; He forgives us. This is so central to our relationship that Jesus calls it out immediately after His prayer example. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6.14-15) Asking God’s forgiveness without ridding ourselves of resentments against others is praying in the past imperfect, a tense that doesn’t exist and our Father doesn’t understand.


We practice God’s forgiveness prior to asking for it. So how does God forgive? David said, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103.12) This puzzled me because regardless where God threw our sins, east or west, they’d resurface. Circumnavigation sees to it. Then I realized David had no idea the planet was round. As he saw it, God puts our sins behind Him, makes a 180-degree turn, walks away from them, and keeps on walking straight into eternity.

Often we forgive sin in theory and spend our lives staring at it across the east-west border—or constantly crisscrossing the line to pick it up and lay it back down, pick it up again, lay it down again... God-like forgiveness requires we do an immediate 180 and head in the opposite direction. It may be impossible to forget wrongs done to us. But the sooner and farther we walk, the smaller and less significant they’ll be. “Time heals all wounds,” we’re told. In David’s paradigm, it’s distance that does it—leaving wrongs behind, not living with them.

The Pre-Prayer List

Before beginning The Lord’s Prayer, we check our pre-prayer list of hurts, grudges, abuses, insults, and every other outstanding debt we’ve yet to put behind us. We know what’s in the Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” There’s no use saying it if we haven’t already done it.

A written reminder to forgive others before asking God's forgiveness isn't such a bad idea...

(Tomorrow: Lead Us Not Into Temptation)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Our Daily Bread

Give us today our daily bread.

                        Matthew 6.11

Wonder Bread

Roughly six weeks after the Israelites’ amazing escape from Pharaoh, Exodus 16 finds them lost in the desert without provisions—again. Previously, they ran out of water and blamed Moses. God miraculously purified bitter water for them to drink and off they went. Now they had no food and—again—they grumbled, “Better God should have killed us in Egypt! At least we’d have died with full stomachs instead of starving to death in the middle of nowhere!” With no edible plant or animal in sight, they lost short-term memory of how God satisfied their thirst. Long-term recollection was worse; cramping hunger cleared away decades of enslaved poverty to sketch up fantasies of feasts.

Unlike the water crisis, God didn’t wait for Moses’s request for intervention. He stepped in right away. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” He said. “Each morning, I’ll pour down enough bread for everyone; at twilight, I’ll send all the quail you need so you’ll have meat.” And sure enough, before nightfall the ground was carpeted with quail. In the morning, it was layered with frost-like flakes of bread. The Israelites called the wonder bread “manna,” which means, “What is it?” This phenomenon repeated itself daily for the entire 40 years the Israelites roamed the wilderness. They never groaned or worried with hunger again.

Maximum Daily Requirements

God also corrected their habit of taking His provision for granted. He instructed the people to collect only what they needed for each day. Hoarding in excess of their maximum daily requirements equated to doubting He would provide in the future. Those who tried soon learned God’s blessings contain no chemical preservatives or additives. The overstock spoiled overnight, leaving “better-safe-than-sorry” types to gather each day’s groceries like everyone else.

I’ve been thinking about manna a lot these days, especially when clicking on the financial news. The nose-diving graphics look more like Looney Tunes charts than anything in real life. And when I hear the shock-and-awe analysts use phrases like “unprecedented” and “meltdown,” I wish I could steer them to Exodus 16. Someone needs to tell us, “The manna is spoiling. Our habitual distrust of God’s provision, not the markets, is what’s being corrected.”

Securities and Futures

Jesus stressed, “Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6.34) That’s not what we’d like hear right now, as our financial condition erodes. But it proves His point. We’ve put far too much faith in bought-and-sold “economic instruments” instead of a God Who provides. And now we’re discovering how unreliable such investments really are. God isn't an inside trader. He doesn’t broker securities, insurance, and futures because He secures everything, never fails, and holds the future. Most definitely, His strategy pays the highest returns on long-term investment. Yet its real asset comes in daily dividends.

Philippians 4.19 assures us, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” If we truly believe that, it’s time to trust it. There’s an implicit fact in “Give us today our daily bread” we shouldn’t forget. We’ll pray this same prayer tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after that. Without fail, it will be answered and manna will fall. It will arrive in proper amounts needed for each day. We can’t afford to let our eyes get bigger than our stomachs. We can’t confuse what we want with what we need. We can’t allow our faith to weaken as we watch each day’s provisions deplete. At the end of the day, we rest in knowing that when tomorrow comes, its needs will be supplied.

Manna spoiling.

(Tomorrow: Forgive Our Debts)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Your Will Be Done

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

                        Matthew 6.10 

What to Do?

This business of God’s will is challenging. Driven to please Him, we strive to do whatever He asks. But are we ever 100% sure what that is? Knowing God’s will requires knowing His mind. That’s not feasible. Over and over, His Word insists we can’t penetrate His thoughts. A personal favorite is Romans 11.33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” If we don’t know all of how and what God thinks, we can’t fully ascertain His will. Not knowing the whole of His plan, how can we effectively follow it? What to do? What to do?

Purposefully Vague

We don’t get much help from Scripture. It seems purposefully vague about God’s will. Most often, it’s invoked vis-à-vis something else—submission or faith, e.g.—or explained with hazy clues that provide little clarity. When Ephesians 1.9 says God “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure,” we hold our breath. Finally, an answer! No such luck. It reverts to the big picture: God’s will is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” That’s His general plan. But what’s His specific plan for each of us?

Perhaps it’s better to ponder why there’s no airtight solution. Here’s a strong candidate: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2.13) Might God tailor His will for each of us with such precise purpose a one-size-fits-all explanation would be impractical, misleading? That appears to be the case, yet it still puts no end to our quandary.

Tense Issues

Though Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6.38), He wasn’t always clear about God’s plan either. In Gethsemane, He sought confirmation of God’s intentions. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42) This directly echoes what He taught us to pray: “Your will be done.”

Listen closely. “Your will be done”—not, “I’ll do your will.” Worries about God’s plan boil down to tense issues. Our role is passive (grammatically); His is active. An apt comparison casts Him as the Master Chef and us as wait staff. He writes the menu, combines the ingredients, and says when everything’s ready. If He needs help, He shows us what to do. Otherwise, hovering around, asking, “Should I do this? Should I do that?” gets in His way. God performs His will. We let it be done. That’s how it works in Heaven; it’s no different here. When our anxiety and curiosity interfere with what He’s doing, it’s time we got out of His kitchen.

Like too many chefs in the kitchen, we complicate God's will when we get overly anxious about what we should do, rather letting it be done.

(Tomorrow: Our Daily Bread)

Postscript: Shower the People

I hoped to start this with a Scriptural wallop leading to how Christ would have us respond to the story I’m about to introduce. Yet while there was no shortage of verses I could use, my mind kept returning to James Taylor’s “Shower the People."

Shower the people you love with love/Show them way that you feel/Things will be much better if you only will.

Fran, of FranIAm, left a comment yesterday regarding Father Geoff Farrow, a California priest who courageously defied his Bishop's instruction to preach against Proposition 8, California's initiative to ban same-sex marriages. He has launched a blog to publicly document intensely personal moments in his battle with religiously sanctioned homophobia. It's remarkable in many ways, most of all for its transparency and sincere desire that others learn to draw inspiration from his experience.

I resist saying any more to give you the privilege of discovering his heroism and compassion for yourself. He epitomizes every meaning in Taylor’s song. But I can’t resist pointing out our opportunity to shower him with love. He needs to be surrounded with love, prayer, and solidarity right now. Please invest time and effort to go to him. Offer any comments of support you may have. Invite anyone you know who's willing and able to do the same.

As a rule, I add a postscript to each Sunday’s devotion about seeing the church in a new light. Today is different. Today’s PS is about being the church. 

Here's his link: