Saturday, July 25, 2009

Top Down

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.

                        Ecclesiastes 5.8

Beneath the Debris

The changing moral climate came up two or three times during last Thursday evening’s online study. We remarked how the last year’s tsunami of trouble appears to be reawakening the masses to their responsibilities. Outcries for social justice, equal rights, and sweeping reform resound from every quarter. Awareness of accountability for social inequities, indifference, and greedy opportunism rises as disgust mounts over abuse of power. Each day, more of us see the damage and dangers piled around us. At last, we’re deciding this is no way to live. We stumble clumsily, blearily through our recent past, seeking to reclaim higher hopes buried beneath the debris of low-minded cynicism.

As believers stubbornly clinging to Christ’s laws of love and service, we know what’s wrong, what must be done, and how to do it. Yet as we set our minds on rebuilding a society founded on compassion and equality, we must heed Solomon’s advisory in Ecclesiastes 5.8. While digging out people and principles trapped at the bottom, it tells us to expect resistance from those at the top—because the greater our conviction things must change becomes, the stronger their determination to stall change will be.

No Surprise

“A fish rots from the head down,” the Chinese proverb says. That’s what Solomon means. According to Ecclesiastes 5.8, it’s no surprise to see deprived and disenfranchised citizens anywhere officials skim and scheme. They eye one another, Solomon says, adding in the next verse, “The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.” Accumulation of great wealth by a few at the expense of many is as old as time. So why the shock that banks persist in earning big profits and awarding huge bonuses while their coffers stay closed and homeless families sleep in shelters? Why such disbelief that politicians still nursing the sour milk of Reaganomics care more about stock prices and special interests than uninsured citizens? Why the impatience with time and costs to dismantle a war meticulously constructed to purchase political capital and enrich profiteers? None of this is any surprise, or its continuation in plain sight while unsightly decay filters through the land.

When rot runs deep at the top, its poisons naturally spread to society’s extremities. Short a revolution closer to the French uprising of 1787 than its American precursor, there’s no earthly way the body politic can sever its gangrenous head. (Besides, radical removal of corrupt figures doesn’t inoculate future leaders from rot.) Long before we figured out how to take political revolt to the streets, God Himself called for a spiritual revolution in our hearts.

God’s Manifesto

Somewhat inexplicably, God’s manifesto comes when all is well. Solomon dedicates a new temple where God manifests His glory with overpowering magnificence. After the ceremony, He visits Solomon privately, advising him not to expect these glory days to last forever—but also outlining a protocol to stimulate their return. Listen closely to 2 Chronicles 7.13-14: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

At first, it sounds like God arbitrarily visits drought, devastation, and sickness on His people, when He’s actually responding to our arbitrarily wicked ways—the presumptive pride, hubris, and unaccountability in our behavior. Because disobedience in upper echelons inevitably trickles down (and wealth does not), God gives His people a plan to reverse the flow. Left to kings, it won’t happen. It’s up to us. Humbling ourselves admits we haven’t power or insight to fix our mess. Praying confesses we’re without answers. Seeking God owns our responsibility to please Him above all else. And together these tactics stimulate moral righteousness that captures God’s attention, wins His mercy, and restores social health.

A rectified mainstream cures a diseased power structure. People who replace disgust for rotten rulers with accountability to God and one another accrue force and momentum to hold their leaders accountable. Oppression and poverty won’t be tolerated. Denial of justice and rights cannot last. In Matthew 7.4, Jesus warns about trying to fix others before us: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?’” He includes no exceptions to demand change at the top without first correcting our errors, accepting our responsibilities, and meeting local obligations in our districts. Change we seek at the top starts by seeking God’s help to create change where we are.

A fish rots from the head down. God’s revolutionary manifesto tells us how to reverse the flow by changing our hearts to create change where we are.

(Tomorrow: Beautiful Worship)

Personal Postscript: Thanks!

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week’s online Bible studies. It was a great joy to share the Word with you. I learned a great deal and was greatly inspire by your company and insights.

Friday, July 24, 2009

All Things at All Times

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

                                      2 Corinthians 9.8

Getting to Give

I was a high school debater from a working-class suburb and without boasting I can say I was good. My partner and I sailed through the elimination rounds into the semis and finals to face off against elite teams from posh schools. Their snootiness hardly intimidated us. We were scrappy and sly and often outwitted them simply by pretending their smug barbs didn’t register. Fashion was where they got me, though. My church suits looked corny up against their preppy outfits. In sophomore year, I made it very clear all I wanted for Christmas was a corduroy sports coat with suede elbow patches. What joy when it landed under our tree! 

I never wore it. Two days before the holiday, the son of a family in our church hanged himself in jail and his parents couldn’t afford proper burial clothes. My folks brought the need to me, asking me to pray about offering my jacket to them. Getting to give to someone in need brings blessings, they said. I told them I knew that. But you’ve never had an opportunity to experience it for yourself, they answered. What could I to do? 

In 2 Corinthians 9.7, Paul says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9.7) I gave up my sports coat, but I doubt I made God happy, as there wasn’t one iota of cheer in the gesture. It called for more grace than I possessed and having to do it hurt worse than losing the jacket. When I tell this story, after they quit laughing, people usually say, “How awful!” It was, I say, and it wasn’t. Although it took years to sink in, it taught me the delicate balance of grace and giving. If we’re light on the former, we’ll find no joy in the latter.

Ways and Means

We misuse a number of words as synonyms for giving when, in fact, they imply markedly different ways of distributing personal means. “Giving” suggests transfer of goods—“Here. Take it. It’s yours.” “Generosity” means volunteering wealth to those in need; not giving ‘til it hurts, but giving because it doesn’t hurt. “Sharing” is, well, sharing; giving a portion while keeping some for you. “Charity” springs from compassion. “Sacrifice” is doing without so others can have. “Contributing” is adding our part to a larger collection. “Doling” is concerned that each person receives his/her fair share.

Paul teaches us to give so that our ways and means synch up. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” In other words, it’s important we stay within our comfort zones. If we permit ourselves to be goaded into giving more than we feel moved to offer or more than we can spare, we rob giving of its joy. And this may surprise some people, but joyless giving displeases God. On the other hand, when we give wisely, according to our hearts and realistic abilities, we give happily. This makes God happy. He blesses us—not just with more to give, but also with more grace to give. Furthermore, He sustains our grace to give by seeing our needs are met.

Mangling the Principle

It’s true: the more we give, the more we receive. In verse 6 Paul writes: “Whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” But we sometimes mangle this principle by thinking giving more gets more. We go beyond our level of comfort expecting we’ll live more comfortably for it. Unless we’re obeying what God places in our hearts to give, however, we’ll soon discover this version doesn’t work very well. Why not? Because we’ve stopped giving and started gambling—and it takes all of a minute at a slot machine to figure out when we gamble, the house always wins. Giving to get isn’t cheerful; it’s greedy. Getting to give and trusting God’s grace for more to give bring cheer into the picture.

“God is able to make all grace abound in you, so that in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work.” Just as we mature in our faith, our relationship with Christ, and our love for God and our neighbors, we also grow in the knowledge of giving. God provides “all things at all times” so we can “abound in every good work.” Anxiety and regret from overly zealous, immature giving take us off doing good work. As silly as this sounds, some Christians get so carried away with giving they don’t take care of themselves. They become worse than useless; they defeat giving’s purpose by creating need. “The Lord will provide,” they say as they sign away their mortgage payment. Then, when the bank seizes their home, they’re too disillusioned to see the Lord did provide and they gave it away. The reason God provides what we need when it’s needed is to free us of worry and care to give what we can to others. Means at the moment dictate ways we give. At times we can be cheerfully generous; at others, we must cheerfully share. There’s no excuse for giving too little; but there’s equally no excuse for giving too much.

(Tomorrow: Top Down)

Don’t forget: Online Bible Study this Saturday at 11 AM CDT. For more information, click on the link at the top of the right column.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Personal Reflection: A Better Country

They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

                        Hebrews 11.16 


This comes from a heart overflowing with praise to a God Who never ceases to prove His wisdom, love, and concern for us. What should have been a regular post has become a momentous opportunity to rejoice and be glad. God’s goodness and love have filled Walt and me with joy. After spending better than two hours taking inventory of how many blessings were stored up, fell into place, and braced us for what's just happened, we stood in awe of all we’ve got to thank God for. But before I share a little of what we’re marveling about and how it affected today’s post, suppose I bring you up to speed.

Walt lost his job yesterday.


When I finish a post, I sit still for a bit, trying to “listen” for keywords, verses, or themes leading me to the next day’s topic. In no way am I intimating subjects come via epiphany. Mostly, I rummage around in my head for something I pray will inspire you—a thought or two that hasn’t gone stale or popped up recently. Night before last, “Heaven” kept crossing my mind, I kept pushing it aside, and it refused to go away. 

Writing about Heaven makes me nervous, since many Christians view it as our reason instead of our reward. I’m convinced following Jesus in this life is what our purpose must be. Doing it to ensure eternal bliss and/or escape torture strikes me as self-serving, contrary to His example and teachings. So I’m wary about even slightly suggesting faith’s driving goal is getting us to Heaven or saving us from Hell. If we obey Christ, our hope for Heaven is secure. When the urge to write about Heaven wouldn’t be ignored, however, I clicked on to do a keyword search. My eyes fell on Hebrews 11.16, nestled in the epistle’s famous roll call of faith heroes. Here’s the full passage:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11.13-16)

From a Distance

When Walt called with the news he no longer was a TV news writer, I understood. I’d been led to Hebrews because less than 24 hours later, we’d be challenged to see and welcome God’s promises from a distance, to know a better country lay ahead. It’s far too early and completely impossible to speculate what it is or where it will be, but we know with all certainty it’s prepared and waiting to be found. As 1 Corinthians 2.9 explains, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

This Word is true for each and every one of us. Setbacks will force us to view and embrace God’s promises from afar. As with Abraham and Moses, we may not see all God’s promised us reach fruition in this life. Nonetheless, in His time per His plan, He’ll honor His word. If we feel like aliens and strangers here, it’s because we long for a better country, a home of our own. And by faith we’ll find it, if not now, most assuredly in the life to come. Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven?” Yielding to God’s will is our greatest desire and only hope. If we discipline our hearts and minds to that end, no matter what we’re told or who believes otherwise, God is honored to be called our God and prepares a place for us.

Perfectly Timed

The possibility Walt’s position might close has been on our radar for some time. His station started slashing jobs months before the economic meltdown led its nightly newscasts. The cuts got wider and deeper with each round until they sliced into the newsroom’s marrow. Things got to the point Walt was doing the work of three people. It was tough, discouraging, and exhausting. We prayed for the best, prepared for the worst, and believed however it went, we’d be better for it. While Walt’s misery got real old real fast, fresh promises were on the rise, set in motion two years ago when he decided to explore a new interest. It seemed like a lark at the time. We now know it was much more.

He signed up for an improv comedy class, thinking it might be fun. It was. So he took another, then another, and finished the series of classes open to the public. (The famous theater offering the classes forbids students to publicize any affiliation with it prior to their "graduation show." But as we live in Chicago, you probably know what it is.) Again, on a lark, he auditioned for admission to the school's conservatory—the professional training ground for countless comedy legends. It took two tries, but he got in and has been working diligently on his new endeavor ever since. (He’s terrifically funny on-stage, by the way.)

Now, for those still with me, here are a few things that stoked our joy and amazement at how perfectly timed God’s plan for each of us is. What began as a casual pastime two years ago formally ended with Walt's very last session of instruction on Monday. All of the layoffs occurred on Tuesday except his, as it was his day off. When we got wind of them that evening, the size and nature of the cuts told us what to expect. Yet Walt's joy over an achievement two years in the making blunted all anger and anxiety. He went to work ready to respond with gratitude to his bosses and colleagues for their contributions to his career. They hardly anticipated that from one who should be outraged at getting tossed after 12 years of service. Nor were they poised for his treating this like the gift it is, giving him time for other classes, workshops, and performances he couldn’t attend because he worked evenings. (They’re underwriting it, too; his severance package combined with unused vacation will carry him through Christmas Day.) Closing their door opens dozens of new doors for him. He’s looking for a better country.

One Step of Faith

Is it foolish to believe a few coincidences weakly tied to a darkly clouded day harbinger far brighter ones? Some may think so. But 1 Corinthians 1.27 tells us foolishness and weakness are God’s preferred tools: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” We see this repeatedly in His Word. It’s foolish to imagine an elderly, barren couple can give birth to a nation. Yet Abraham and Sarah did. It’s weak-minded to think a wanted killer can defy a king to free thousands of slaves. Yet Moses did. It’s crazy to suggest an untried leader can conquer a city by organizing a march. Yet Joshua did. They and so many others saw and welcomed God’s promises from a distance. Looking weak and sounding foolish didn’t frighten them. They longed for a better country, a home of their own prepared by God. He’s got a better country prepared for us all. We get there by following Jesus one step of faith at a time.

Especially for Walt, but also for all of us longing for a better country: Kirk Franklin’s “Looking for You.”

(Tomorrow: All Things at All Times)

Online Bible Study Tonight! “Thinking Like Christ”

Click here for details.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

                        Genesis 4.9 

(A little longer than usual, but hopefully a rewarding read.)


We don’t know the age difference between Cain and Abel or how old they are when The Incident takes place. They might be 18 and 16, respectively, or 30 and 21. The little we’re told, however, provides telling clues about their home life and personal characters. Cain is Adam and Eve’s firstborn—the first child ever conceived by humans. They name him for the Hebrew word meaning “acquired,” a gift, in other words, leading us to suspect they prize him as a miracle baby, which he is. Abel’s name supports this. When he comes along, they label him with the word for “vaporous breath,” a rough equivalent of “candle in the wind,” i.e., worthless. Although Abel’s name ends up ironically apt for one whose life is snuffed out, it’s hard to imagine a brother called “Gift” and another called “Worthless” getting along very well.

The disparity in names helps explain why Abel becomes a rancher and Cain a farmer. It also hints at why God honors Abel’s meat sacrifices above Cain’s vegetable offerings. Ranching removes Abel from constantly hearing he’s useless, while farming keeps Cain at home where he’s adored. God accepts Abel’s offerings because his family is less accepting; He grants him favor He withholds from Adam and Eve’s favorite son. This drives Cain crazy. Years of coddling leave him stunted, too immature to recognize God’s justice in offsetting Abel’s deficits at home with rewards at the altar. God challenges Cain to see his jealous anger only wedges him further from the acceptance and favor he envies. “If you do what is right,” God asks, “will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4.7) So how does Cain master his sinful urges? He kills Abel. When God comes looking for Abel, Cain—whether 18 or 80—answers like a snotty adolescent. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Genetic Wars and Survival Strategies

Before we posse up to avenge Abel, however, let’s step back to see the situation through Cain’s eyes, because as vicious as his crime is, we can empathize with the weaknesses that prompt it. Cain’s greatest mistake is not mastering the urges crouched at his door. Having been told in the plainest possible way to control his resentment, why does he ignore the warning and succumb to it? The answer comes by asking another question. Why do we ignore what we’re told and yield to our harmful natures? Now the whole can of worms opens. If we’re willing to dig down to the bottom of the can, we’ll pull up a surprising answer.

We’re no different than Cain. We enter the world genetically predisposed to sin and every day thereafter we’re socially conditioned to sin. Paul writes in Romans 5.12: “Sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” As beings handmade to reflect God, we arrive in perfect shape. As mortals conceived by mortals, however, we carry the recessive gene of human will. Cain first inherited it and it’s been passed down to every generation since. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good: we also carry the dominant gene of obedience, which Romans 2.14-15 describes as inherent capacity to “do by nature things required of the law… written on [our] hearts” according to our beings’ conscience.

Our minds and bodies are battlegrounds for genetic wars between unconscious willfulness and conscientious obedience. Paul’s examination of this conflict reads like a front-line report: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.21-24) Referring to “this body of death” nails our struggles, because mortal fear and human will are natural allies. They marshal their forces in an overwhelming show of weakness determined to conquer the strengths of obedience.

After Adam and Eve get bellies full of knowledge, they learn something they were never meant to know: death. Immediately, they couple fear of death with ill-gotten knowledge to devise survival strategies. Ability to discern between good and bad creates social conditioning. Do this, think that, and you’ll live long and prosper; avoid this, forget that, or you’ll never survive. The problem comes when survival skills based on imperfect understanding and fear overpower our desire to obey God. This is precisely what happens to Cain. He’s been conditioned by name and nurture to expect preferential treatment. When God honors Abel over him, instead of conscientiously obeying, he yields to his own will. Predatory instincts take over and when he’s called on his actions, he cites survival of the fittest. “I don’t know where Abel is,” he tells God. “He’s not my responsibility.”

Created to Live, Born to Rise

We are created to live. God shapes us in His image and brings us to life with His breath for one reason only—to embody His presence in the world. Whatever we’re called, what we’re conditioned to believe, and how we relate to one another has no bearing on our collective purpose as God’s physical expression. Our commitment to Him obligates us to be our brother and sister’s keepers. It’s not ours to understand, let alone judge, their lives or compete with them for survival. God does with each of us as He wills. He compensates for deficits and favors people others regard as useless and unworthy. Resenting those who get more than we’re conditioned to think they deserve brings sin to our doors. Striking out because we receive less than we’re conditioned to expect ends with answering to God. And a survival-of-the-fittest defense doesn’t hold up in His court. In Matthew 25.45, Jesus says neglecting others will be held as a personal offense against Him: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Our will to survive and succeed is moot now that Christ revoked Adam’s death sentence. In Romans 5.17 we read, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Despite our predisposition to sin and conditioning to survive at all costs, we are not born to die. We’re born to rise. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul taunts in 1 Corinthians 15.55. Attacking our brothers, abandoning our sisters, is rooted in an absurd idea that caring for them threatens our survival. Once we’re convinced we’re created to live and born to rise, fear and willfulness vanish. We promote life for all. We live for resurrection.

In need of keeping—a California tent city for dispossessed families.

(Tomorrow: A Better Country)

Postscript: Online Bible Study - Thinking Like Christ

Here are the instructions for how you (yes, you) can participate in this week’s online Bible study, “Thinking Like Christ.” This is a fascinating subject that will be all the richer with your thoughts added to the discussion. I look forward to “meeting” you this week!

Two sessions are scheduled for everyone's convenience: Thursday, July 23, at 7.45 PM CDT and Saturday, July 25, at 10.45 AM CDT. The first 15 minutes will be "gathering time" for anyone who's interested in visiting and getting to know each other better. The study will begin on the hour and run 60-90 minutes, depending on the time needed.

Here's how you access the site:

Go to

Type or paste in the Meeting ID.

Thursday, July 23’s ID is 508-277-290; Saturday, July 25’s ID is 630-930-387.

Click "Yes" or "Always" (or "Trust" on a Mac) if prompted to accept the download.

Follow additional personal ID prompts and you're in!

To add the conference call audio (or simply join by telephone):

US participants dial 1-800-445-7784; international callers dial 1-630-424-2331.

The passcode for both is 981-5123#.

A downloadable study guide is available here.

I hope as many as possible can join--and invite friends and family, too. If you're fairly (75%) sure you'll be participating, I'd be so grateful to know in advance. Comment here or email me at Breaking bread is one of the most enlivening, rewarding things believers can do together. See you there!

Fine Print Department

Here are the system requirements for the site:

To attend a meeting on a PC, the following is required:

Internet Explorer® 6.0 or newer, Mozilla® Firefox® 2.0 or newer (JavaScript™ and Java™ enabled)

Windows® 2000, XP, 2003 Server or Vista

Cable modem, DSL, or better Internet connection

Minimum of Pentium® class 1GHz CPU with 512 MB of RAM (recommended) (2 GB of RAM for Windows® Vista)

For Mac:

Safari™ 3.0 or newer, Firefox® 2.0 or newer (JavaScript™ and Java™ enabled)

Mac OS® X 10.4 (Tiger®) or newer

PowerPC G4/G5 or Intel processor (512 MB of RAM or better recommended)

Cable modem, DSL, or better Internet connection

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All of Me

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

                        John 13.8-9

Resignation vs. Surrender

Most of us in the pre-MTV generation at least can hum our way through “All of Me”. Since its 1931 publication pop vocalists from Ella, Frank, Dean, and Satchmo to Willie Nelson and Pia Zadora have covered it. It’s a perky swing tune with a tart underbite. A discarded lover tells his/her ex, “You took the part that once was my heart. So why not take all of me?” The customary arrangement is up-tempo and frivolous, suggesting survivor’s bravado and painting the ex as a heel. But have you heard Billie Holliday’s 1941 recording? She slows the song down and polishes every word with pain. By the time she gets to the line “Can’t you see I’m no good without you?” the ache is wrenching. She exposes frailties the sassy lyrics mean to obscure. She’s mentally and emotionally depleted, and you can’t help thinking this an old, old song for her. Snappier versions come off like poison pen notes. Billie turns “All of Me” into a resignation letter.

Often (and rather oddly) I hear Billie’s “All of Me” when I’m drawn to contemplate total surrender. I’m not sure why her song should surface since there are so many truly moving hymns on the subject: “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “I Surrender All,” “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” and probably a dozen others. Thinking about surrender seems to trip my jukebox head to play “All of Me” in reminder of the big difference between passive resignation and full-on submission. Surrendering to God isn’t giving up or letting go. It’s giving in and taking on. When we bow to God’s will, surrender raises us. It lifts us out of ourselves and opens our eyes to a higher purpose. We see and experience ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Where resignation says, “No,” surrender says, “Yes.”

Immediate Reversal

Surrender is a tough concept, because it swims against everything we’re taught to survive and succeed in the world. Time and again Jesus refutes pragmatic notions about life with terse directives to surrender entirely to God’s plan. Every statement provokes head scratching among His listeners. They’re no less puzzling to us. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16.25) “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9.35) “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Processing these teachings demands faith, and after we get our minds to accept them, they still don’t reveal what surrender looks like or how it’s done. For that we go to the Last Supper, where Peter gets a crash course in surrender before our eyes.

The disciples gather to dine. It’s been a rugged week—a lot of tension in the air. In the middle of dinner, as if on a whim, Jesus leaves the table and commences to wash the disciples’ feet. This is most unbecoming, a servant or housewife’s task, nothing a man, let alone a rabbi, let alone Jesus, should lower Himself to do. When it’s Peter’s turn, he asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus says, “You don’t understand, but eventually you will.” No kidding, he doesn’t understand. Not long ago he confessed Jesus as The Christ. No way will he allow God Incarnate to stoop so low. “Absolutely not,” he says. “You’ll never wash my feet.” Jesus replies, “If I don’t do this, you’ll have no part with Me.” In an immediate reversal, Peter surrenders. “Don’t just wash my feet. Wash my hands. Wash my head.” Head to toe, top to bottom, all of me.

A Parting Gift

John begins his account with an intriguing observation. He writes, “Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” (John 13.1) When Jesus kneels before the disciples one by one, He offers a parting gift, a final act of love and service to each of them. They don’t know it’s the last time Jesus will touch them, their last opportunity to feel His personal care. They won’t understand this until He’s taken from them. Much like Billie Holliday reverses the dynamic of “All of Me” to make it about her rather than her lost love, Peter steals focus from what Jesus wants to what he doesn’t want. He’s resigned to never know the love Jesus conveys in His humble gesture of servitude. Peter means well. He protests to prove he’s unworthy. But that’s the thing with resignation. It mistakes pride for humility and compromise for self-denial. Not so with surrender.

One of the most treasured legacies of my spiritual upbringing is this mantra: “Yes to Your will. Yes to Your Word. Yes to Your way.” Indeed, the awesome power and freedom that grows from saying yes was so integral to our faith very few services ended without singing “My soul says, ‘Yes!’” That’s all there is to the song. Yet it never grows old, because it epitomizes complete surrender. By surrendering, we ensure our place in Christ. We avail our lives to His touch. We experience His tender care. Once Peter grasped what he’d lose in saying “No,” he surrendered his will to Christ’s on the spot. “Yes! Wash all of me!” Complete surrender costs us nothing and provides us everything. It only takes a moment to say, “Yes.” What comes of that moment lasts forever.

Surrender says, “Yes.”

(Tomorrow: Brothers)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Thinking Like Christ - Online Bible Study Guide

The online Bible study originally scheduled for Thursday, July 30, and Saturday, August 1, has been moved to this week due to recently added work commitments. The new dates are:

Thursday, July 23, at 8 PM CDT
Saturday, July 25, at 11 AM CDT

I apologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may cause. I'm finalizing the access codes for the virtual meeting site and will publish them ASAP. Meanwhile, you can download the study guide here. Information about how you can join the discussion--a simultaneous Web "meeting" and toll-free conference call--will be published within the next day or so.

The topic is "Thinking Like Christ," a particularly rich one that will prove exciting, challenging, and enlightening as we open God's Word together. I hope as many as possible can participate, as your insights will no doubt add much to the discussion.

"I AM"

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

                        Exodus 3.14 

Destiny’s Pattern

A two-season fascination with The Tudors spurred me to pick up Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Although I’ve only got through Katherine of Aragon, I’m dumbfounded at how many random events across Europe shaped Henry’s destiny as Britain’s greatest sovereign. Gripping as this is, I put the book down yesterday to watch the webcast from my former church in LA. The guest preacher, Charles Stith, previously the pastor of Boston’s Union Methodist Church and US ambassador to Tanzania, spoke from Isaiah 43.18: “Behold, I will do a new thing.” Destiny also figured prominently in his message. In a riveting recital of Barack Obama’s rise from obscure state legislator to leader of the free world, Dr. Stith cited a pattern of occurrences—sickness, scandals, and misfires—that cleared formidable opponents from the candidate’s path. He should have lost every race he entered. Yet Providence willed otherwise. A new thing was in the works. Past precedents and predictors were pointless. The circumspect “community organizer” had a destiny to fulfill.

Like Henry, Obama, and numerous other legendary figures, Moses too is cut from destiny’s pattern. He’s born in Egypt to Hebrew slaves at the height of a baby boom. To control the surging slave population, Pharaoh kills every male Hebrew infant. Moses’s mother tries to protect her son by hiding him in a thicket of reeds along the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, adopts him, and enlists his mother as his nurse. He’s raised as an Egyptian prince, yet through his mother’s guidance he also retains his ethnic identity. When he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he kills and buries the taskmaster, thinking he’s concealed his deed. He learns otherwise, though. He flees Pharaoh’s wrath to live in exile as a shepherd, a man without a country, equally suspect to Hebrews and Egyptians with no viable future. But God endows Moses with great promise. Despite every indicator of his insignificance, destiny’s pattern emerges.

“Who Am I?”

While tending sheep, Moses is oblivious that the Hebrews’ suffering has reached crisis level. He moves his flock to the foot of Mt. Horeb, “the mountain of God.” A nearby bush bursts into flames—unusual though not inexplicable, since the pasture abuts a hot desert. But after the fire blazes without consuming the bush, Moses thinks, “I will go over and see this strange sight.” (Exodus 3.3) A voice inside the bush calls him by name. He answers, only to be told to keep his distance and remove his sandals “for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (v5) The voice identifies itself as the God of his ancestors, explaining He intends to send Moses back to Pharaoh to bring His people out of Egypt. “Who am I, that I should do this?” Moses asks. God assures him, “I will be with you.” Next, Moses asks, “Suppose I tell the Israelites You’ve sent me and they ask for Your name? What do I say?”  God replies with the most conclusive declaration of His supremacy on record: “I am Who I am. Tell them I AM sent you.”

Destiny calls, Moses answers, and he’s transformed from a frightened loner hiding in self-imposed exile into the fearless deliverer of an enslaved nation. The pattern falls into place. Nothing God does with Moses meets past precedents or predictors. Seas part. Bread falls from the sky. Water gushes from rock. Hovering clouds guide through dry desert days and billowing flames light night travels. Enemy tribes are decimated. Lifeless tablets are emblazoned with living truth. At every turn, God accomplishes the completely unexpected, the impossible to explain, and the altogether new.


God is. When we know that, no further explanation is needed. All we want, need, or expect Him to be exists in the truth that He is Who He is. This truth is timeless because He’s timeless. It’s inescapable because He exceeds all boundaries. It’s incontrovertible because He defies logical proof. In Revelation 1.8, He declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” No earth-shattering event, scientific breakthrough, natural cataclysm, or manmade phenomenon can alter the reality of His existence or the nature of His being. “I the LORD do not change,” He tells us in Malachi 3.6. And the same God Who held Moses’s destiny—Who called a displaced, frightened shepherd to lead His people to freedom—holds our destinies. “I AM,” He says to us. Not “I WAS.” Not “I WILL BE.” “I AM.”

God isn’t merely present. He is the present. He is this moment. He is this place. He is where we are right now. And when what’s next becomes what’s now He’s there. Acts 17.28 states, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Our destiny isn’t a final destination set at a future date. It’s a living thing already underway, taking shape in us. Precedents and predictors are meaningless. Future worries and wishes waste present minutes. Destiny calls us day by day. Its pattern emerges minute by minute as God does new things. We live in Him now, move in Him now, and have our being in Him now. “Who am I, that God should use me?” we ask. “Who’ll believe He sent me?” We are and they will because I AM is.

Destiny happens now, minute by minute, day by day.

(Tomorrow: All of Me)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hands Up

Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.
Psalm 63.3-4

What’s Up with That?
As kids, our Sunday school teachers encouraged my brother and me (and our classmates) to invite friends and neighbors to church. They weren’t training us to proselytize as much as hoping to sensitize us to how many people around us had no faith tradition at all. They referred to unchurched folks as “lost” and it was our job “to reach the ‘lost.’” In all honesty, we weren’t too hot on the idea. We cared about our friends and all that, but we didn’t worship like most other churches and inviting kids we liked to worship with us entailed some risk.

You see, Pentecostal services typically open in communal prayer, with everyone praying aloud in concert, personally inviting God’s presence to fill the sanctuary. And when Pentecostal believers pray together, they tend to lift their hands to God. So, imagine you’re a ‘tween who’s seldom been to a worship service of any kind. Now that you’re here, the adults are already praying out loud and waving their arms in the air. Now go one better and imagine you’re the Pentecostal kid who invited his friend and knows just from the look on his/her face you’re going to have answer the same question as always: “What’s up with that?”

Theories Galore
When we turned to our elders for answers, we discovered there were theories galore. We heard the “surrender theory”—raising our hands in prayer signified we released ourselves from every sin and desire that displeased our Maker. There was the “praise theory”—raised hands were symbols of heralding a conqueror, a King Who triumphed over sin and death. There was the “reach theory”—raised hands signaled of our need for God. These ideas had collateral value, but none of them captured the whole of the gesture any more than defining the sign of the cross as "reverence" scratches the surface of its meaning as a sign of humility and gratitude, an alignment of mind, heart, and body , contrition and praise swept into one physical prayer. Watching my friends cross themselves often brings joyful tears to my eyes—the beauty of their actions reflects the beauty I see in their lives. There’s something equally beautiful and moving about fellow believers raising hands to God. (And this practice has spread far beyond Pentecostal circles, by the way.) But it’s more than surrender and praise and reach. Whether or not we ever physically raise our hands in worship, we need to “lift our hands” to God in spirit. The Bible teaches us hands-up prayer comes from a very special place in our beings and means something very specific that we should treasure.

In Lamentations 3.40-42, Jeremiah urges us: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: ‘We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.’” When we look at our lives and realize we need to return to God’s ways, we lift our hearts and our hands. We come to Him in honesty and humility—surrendering and reaching, as it were—with pure hearts. We tell Him, “We’ve done wrong. We’ve disobeyed. We’ve not asked your pardon and you’ve not yet forgiven us.” We raise our hands in innocence, as if to tell God, “All I’ve got is what I am. Nothing I hold or claim for my own holds any importance.” Now hear Jeremiah in verses 57-58: “You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.’ O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life.” When we approach God with hands raised in innocence, we’re spared fears and turmoil wrought by our pride and knowledge. We come to Him in faith and He takes up our case. He redeems our lives. Coming to God in innocence restores our innocence.

“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2.8. Releasing resentments, frustrations, arguments, and every other self-driven behavior returns our minds and hearts to Garden-like innocence. Our communication with God becomes communion. Prayer becomes conversation; praise becomes love talk. David communed with God unlike any other Bible figure. He was a rascal, a ne’er-do-well who screwed up more often than he got things right. Yet he came to God over and over in unabashed innocence, acknowledging Him and glorifying His name above all else. “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands,” he sings in Psalm 63. When we lift up holy, innocent hands in God’s name, holiness and innocence are what He sees. Our desires to please Him eclipse our failures to obey. With hands up, we have nothing to fear. We have everything to gain. Raise your hands to God in innocence—how, when, and where you do it doesn’t matter. Actually do it or do it in your heart. Do it in public; do it when you’re alone. Just do it.

Raised hands in prayer = innocence.

(Tomorrow: “I AM”)
Postscript: Bible Study This Week
I return to Chicago this evening after a week away on business and visiting my parents. (Hence all the goofy formatting issues lately--I've published on three different computers!) Late this evening, I'll publish the guide for this week's online Bible study, along with access codes and instructions. If you're free this Thursday evening at 8 PM CDT or Saturday morning at 11 AM CDT, I encourage you join in. We need your knowledge and insight!