Monday, February 21, 2011

Choosing to Follow

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he instructed his disciples to cross to the other side of the lake.  Then one of the teachers of religious law said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”  But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man* has no place even to lay his head.”

Another of his disciples said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.”  But Jesus told him, ”Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.”.  (Matthew 8:18-22)  NLT

There are many who are still trying to figure out the whole Jesus thing.  Maybe you’re in that camp, trying to make sense of the claim that a man went walking around after he died and later just floated on up to heaven.  We want to figure it out intellectually before we can follow and be engaged at the heart level.   Others of us aren’t ready to follow Jesus because there’s still too much fun to be had.  “I don’t have time to follow Jesus.  Spring break is coming up.”  We build timelines in our head about when an appropriate time would be to follow Jesus.  Maybe you want to follow Jesus after you’ve reached a certain age or stage of life.  All the while, Jesus continues to knock and wait… knock and wait…

In this passage from Matthew, we get two insights from Jesus about choosing to be a follower of Christ.  The first one I would paraphrase as “don’t choose lightly.”  We forget sometimes that followers of Jesus are not promised an easy road here in this life.  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.  Jesus told us pretty clearly that we would be despised by the world.  Because they persecuted him, they will persecute us as well.  We will suffer sometimes because God disciplines those he loves when they do things they shouldn’t.  We suffer other times because God wants to show up and shine through us during our suffering and to produce a dependency on Him (1 Corinthians 11:24-32).  We should not look to follow Jesus with the expectation that our lives will be easier here in this life.  Our reward is not here in this life but in what’s after all this.  We need to understand what we’re signing up for so that our faith will not be shaken later on. 

The second insight is “don’t delay.”  When Jesus said “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead”, this was not a reply born out of sensitivity training.  Jesus looked at these men and communicated great urgency.  Don’t wait until after you’ve gotten your personal affairs together.  Even a funeral should not be important enough to prevent you from following Jesus right now.  When we look at that, we might think He is being incredibly insensitive until we stop and consider that this was God talking.  Jesus saw things from an eternal perspective that we often fail to see.  Our eternal future literally hangs in the balance of our decision to follow.  We know instinctively (though we don’t like to think about it) that we aren’t guaranteed to be alive in a week.  Every time we get behind the wheel of the car, we are at some level at the mercy of the people who are driving around us.  Jesus’ sense of urgency should be ours as well. 

If we truly realize what our predicament would be without the cross, we will recognize that we are fully indebted to Him and could never repay that debt in a thousand lifetimes.  If we truly understand how narrowly we escaped disaster, we will make it our mission to do our best to lead those around us to Jesus.  The persecution we receive for being a Jesus follower is nothing compared to the love and compassion He has shown us.  In light of His love and mercy and in light of the potential consequence of delay, we should run (not walk) into the open arms of our savior.  With every day that we wait, it's like the door to heaven closes a little further.  Every day that we wait, the odds of our choosing to follow becomes more and more slim.  Do you hear Him knocking?  Why not answer the door?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Brother's Keeper

Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don't argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. … Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval.  (Romans 14:1,4)  NLT

Christians seem to be known for our ability to judge those around us.  We have it all figured out and if those around us would just listen to us then everything would be fine.  We do our best to fix pretty much everyone, regardless of whether they're inside or outside the church.  Still, isn’t that what we were called to do?  Weren’t we called to straighten out our Christian brothers and sisters when they go down the wrong path?

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin.  But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or who are greedy or are swindlers or idol worshipers.  You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that.  What I meant was that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a Christian yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler.  Don’t even eat with such people.
It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your job to judge those inside the church who are sinning in these ways.  God will judge those on the outside; but as the scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you." (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) NLT

Doesn’t Paul say in this passage that Christians are supposed to judge other Christians?  He seems to say it fairly clearly.   But Romans chapter 14 seems to say exactly the opposite. 

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. … If we live, it's to honor the Lord. And if we die, it's to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead. So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  (Romans 14:5-6, 8-10)  NLT

Paul looks at those of us who are bent out of shape over whether we should worship on Saturday or Sunday and says, worship on the day to which God has lead you!  We get stressed out about following the letter of the law, when instead we should be following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  The direction of the Holy Spirit is our law.  In the passage from 1 Corinthians however, Paul is speaking about morality:  sexual sin, greed, swindlers, idol worshipers.  We are definitely responsible for not associating with Christians who are living an immoral life characterized by sin and selfishness.  But this is not the same thing as “What are we allowed to eat or drink?” or “On what day are we supposed to worship?”  So then why do we look to the left and to the right, searching for those who aren’t following Jesus the way we think they should?  Is that our job?

Those of us who are Christians do not all have identical backgrounds and life experiences.  We do not all grow at the same rate.  Where we are on our faith journey is ultimately between us and God.  Instead of looking around at everyone else and trying to get them to conform to our standard, maybe we should focus on our own spiritual growth and let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit for those around us.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need us to fill in for him.   And I’m just guessing that he’s smarter than us as well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Finding Down Time

“Some of the people went out anyway on the seventh day, but they found no food. The Lord asked Moses, “How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions?  They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why he gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days. On the Sabbath day you must each stay in your place. Do not go out to pick up food on the seventh day.” So the people did not gather any food on the seventh day.”  (Exodus 16:27-30)  NLT

How many hours a week do you work?  According to BillShrink, the average here in the United States is 35 hours a week. 

I’m guessing this is significantly skewed by part time workers.  Most people I know say that they work a lot more hours than 35.  Between 1999 and 2004, I worked for a software company in Roswell, GA.  Most people in my department worked between 50 and 75 hours per week, especially between 2000 and 2001.  The head of the department would actually walk around at 7:00 pm and look to see who was committed to making the dates.  I probably averaged between 50 and 60 hours per week myself for much of that time.  I was in my twenties and desperately wanted to make a good impression.  But I was burning myself out in a bad way.  I was working all through the weekend.  I even took my laptop on vacation with me that year.  One day in 2002, I actually went into the bathroom stall, leaned the top of my head against the wall, and fell asleep right there on the toilet.

But God doesn’t want us to live this way.  He wants us to work incredibly hard while we’re at work and play/rest incredibly hard when we’re not.  We have responsibilities at work, and we also have responsibilities at home.  That’s a lot of work when you add it all up!  We weren’t made to work constantly without down time.  When we read Genesis chapter 1, we see that God rested on the 7th day after spending 6 days creating the world around us.  He rested not because he needed it but as an example to us.  Eventually, God gave us the "Sabbath” (Saturday) and made it a day of rest for us.  Several passages in Exodus give us information about the Sabbath (Exodus 20:9-11, Exodus 16:27-30 shown above).   Our rest is clearly very important to God.  The day of rest has become a day of worship as well.  The early church eventually moved the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday because that was the day of the resurrection.  And, here we are. 

So the question is, what would a day of rest look like?  My wife and I have implemented a day of rest that looks like this:  On Saturday, we clean the house and prepare dinner ahead of time for Sunday.  I take out the trash the night before.  On Sunday, we use paper plates and plastic cups only.  Sunday is relaxing and fun.  We go to church and the rest of the day is spent playing with the 6 year old, swimming, resting, reading a book, etc.  Lunch is something quick (ex. soup and sandwiches, eating out, etc.).  It’s amazing what a difference it makes walking back into the office on Monday after having actually rested the day before.  I have more mental energy, better focus, etc.  I think that’s the point.  God knows what he’s doing, and he knows what we need.  When he tells us that we need rest and how often, maybe we should trust him and follow his leadership.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Pure Heart

Can you be trusted?  I’m sure most of us would say yes.  Selfishness isn’t something that’s easy to see in ourselves, but consider it for a minute.  Do your friends trust you?  For those of you who have borrowed money from friends or relatives in your lifetime, how many times have failed to pay the money back?  How much do you owe?  What about playing games to get ahead at other people’s expense?  Have you ever accidentally damaged someone else’s property and failed to compensate them for the loss?  When you promise to do something, do you follow through?  How often have you lied or withhold information knowing that you would benefit if the other person never found out?   It's not something we like to think about but it's important to see ourselves clearly. 

Think about David and Bathsheba.  David decides Bathsheba is hot and that he's "gotta gotta gotta" have her.  But...  she's married.  So, he decides to send her husband to the front line of David's little seige that's in progress in a city named Rabbah.  And, of course, the husband died there.  Score!  So he let her mourn for a bit and then made his move, undoubtedly impressed with his own brilliance.

“When the period of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her to the palace, and she became one of his wives. Then she gave birth to a son. But the LORD was displeased with what David had done.”  (2 Samuel 11:27)  NLT

God was not as impressed.  While David had seemingly gotten away with it, we see in chapter 12 that he actually hadn't gotten away with anything.

"This is what the LORD says: Because of what you have done, I will cause your own household to rebel against you. I will give your wives to another man before your very eyes, and he will go to bed with them in public view.  You did it secretly, but I will make this happen to you openly in the sight of all Israel."    (2 Samuel 12:11-12)  NLT

This is a tough subject, because at the end of the day we were all born selfish.  We all instinctively and naturally value our own desires above the desires of those around us (even those we love).  While over time God can and will work on our selfishness, none of us are natural-born givers.  We’re takers, with needs and wants and desires.  Haven’t you met seemingly generous people who deep down give out of an ulterior motive?  Maybe they give to get leverage, or they give to get recognition.  Why do we do what we do?  Is it for the benefit of those around us, or for our own benefit?

This is one of many topics where I can honestly say I don’t have it all figured out.  When I write on topics, I often write from the perspective of one who tries to do the right thing and occasionally completely messes it up.  I’ve messed up friendships by speaking out of selfishness not realizing that my words would soon come back to haunt me.  There are ways in which I need to act on this as well. 

Many of you would agree though that selfish behavior can damage or destroy relationships or reputations because you've been the victim (in some cases self inflicted) of this principle.  Some of us are going down a path right now that will damage or destroy relationships that are important to us.  Those around us we care about deserve our integrity and our honesty.  But instead, we claw and fight to get in good with a rich parent so we can be first in line for the inheritance.  We stretch the truth to make coworkers look bad in front of the boss so we will look like the only ones who know what we’re doing.  We know that God disciplines us to bring us back in line, and that when we are faithful the blessings of God far exceed what we could gain by our dishonesty.  And yet we do it anyway, don't we?  For those of us who are Christians, surely we recognize that this will profoundly impact our witness and hamstring our ability to have an impact on people's lives.

Selfishness.  Greed.  Spitefulness.  These are ugly things to see in ourselves.  Is this something you would honestly admit to yourself that you struggle with?  What if you started to put others feelings, needs and desires ahead of your own?  Think about the impact this could have on a marriage, relationships with friends and family, people at work, or even people you don't even know!  And, what if God saw your generosity and your humbleness and blessed you in a way that only God can?  Andy Stanley once said that every night his children pray a specific prayer at bedtime:  "Lord, give me the wisdom to know what's right and the courage to do what's right even when it's hard."  Maybe a good place to start is to apologize...  To repay what we owe...  To stop stomping on other people's fingers as we climb the ladder of success...  Maybe we need to repent and ask God to help us have a pure heart (just like His).

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)  NIV

Monday, February 7, 2011

Andy Stanley: Why Worry?

Are you a worrier?  What kinds of things do you worry about?  Most of us who worry would probably agree that we’ve never actually accomplished anything by worrying.  I’ve never met someone who said they worried themselves into a job or worried themselves into a raise.  Does worrying make healthier kids or stronger relationships?  We can spend hours, weeks, and months doing that and have nothing to show for it.  In fact for some of us, it actually made things worse.  My 6 year old son is learning how to catch a baseball, and his biggest problem is that he closes his eyes and turns away when I throw the ball.  I try to explain to him that if he would keep his eyes on the ball and just try to catch it he would do fine, but he instinctively turns away.  His fear of getting hit is stronger than his desire to catch the ball.  I think worrying is a lot like that.  For some of us its distracting, for others its debilitating.  Worry definitely has the ability to keep us from doing what we need to do.

In this video, Andy Stanley shares with us what Jesus said about worrying and how we can guard against it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Having No Fear

Recently, Warren Larson wrote about St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to go see “the most powerful Muslim in the world.”  An excerpt is shown below.  This is a great story of fearless faith.  This man knew what the end result could be of walking into this Egyptian sultan’s palace and telling him about Jesus.  He did it anyway.  He did not fear death, and God was with him.  What do we have to fear?  We shouldn’t be harassing and antagonizing people.  We should always treat people with respect, and they have the right to make up their own minds.  But do we hide who we are (or whose we are)?  Or are we willing to share the love of a God who completely changed our lives?  What are we afraid of?

The date was 1219. The purposeless Fifth Crusade dragged on and on.  St. Francis of Assisi and a few chosen friends prayed about what most Christians in that day thought was a senseless and foolhardy mission: convert the most powerful Muslim in the world. Attempting to win no less than the Kamil Sultan of Egypt was incredible to say the least. Such faith, holy audacity, and spiritual concern for Muslims provide a shining example in our day, when many Christians are tempted to hate and fear them.

 Francis took a dozen brothers through Syria and then on to Egypt. He had first appealed to Pope Gregory IX, but was denied permission, so he appealed to Cardinal Pelagius for permission to travel to the sultan. So radical was the sultan that he had promised a Byzantine gold piece for anyone who brought the head of a Christian. The cardinal described the sultan as “treacherous, brainless, and false hearted,” but after some delay granted permission because of Francis’s unusual zeal. Where other Christians saw the face of evil, Francis saw a man without the Savior, and compassion welled up inside of him.

For the last lap of the journey Francis and his trusted friend Illumimato left the Crusader’s camp without looking back. As the friars walked straight into the battlefield, they were caught, beaten, and brought to the sultan, who was pleased because he thought they wanted to become Muslims. “On the contrary,” Francis said. “We have a message that you should surrender your soul to God.” With this introduction, he proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ the Savior of all. When the sultan was advised to behead them, he said no, and invited them to stay on as guests. Francis said, “If you are willing to become converts of Christ, you and your people, I shall only be too glad to stay with you.”

Such a response to Arab hospitality was unheard of. Francis then offered to walk through fire if it would help convince the Muslim leader. If he came out unharmed the sultan should be prepared to embrace Christ. The sultan demurred, but was impressed, and offered presents, which Francis declined to accept. Kamil became even more amazed and permitted him to preach the gospel in his house and compound. Upon his departure the sultan asked the friar to pray that God would show him the right way.

Lord, grant me the courage to not hide who you’ve made me to be.  Please help me say what you want me to say when you want me to say it.  May I be a sign always pointing in your direction..

Grace and Mercy à This way.

Complete post about St. Francis:

You Write the Blog

What if you could take over the blog for a day?  What would you write about?  Is there a topic related to Christianity that you’ve been dying to discuss with someone?  Is there a question you’ve  been wanting to ask people to get other opinions?  This post is an open discussion for any of you who just want to get something off your chest (remember "You Make the Call" from back in the 80s?).  So what’s on your mind?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thumbprints of God

Lots of college students refuse to declare a major during their freshman or even sophomore years.  They’re in school studying, taking all of the general coursework common to most majors.  And yet they really aren’t sure why yet.  If you asked them what their goals are, they might say “to graduate.” Most of them will find their purpose eventually.  It just hasn’t happened yet.  Many of us are in that same boat with respect to life in general.  Are you asking yourself why you’re here?  “What is my purpose?”  In his popular book “The Purpose Driven Life”, Rick Warren points out that the Bible says our purpose, identity, and significance are found in God.  
You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense. It is only in God that we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance, and our destiny. Every other path leads to a dead end.  Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization. They want God to be a personal “genie” who serves their self-centered desires. But that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use
you for his purposes, not your using him for your own purposes.  (The Purpose Driven Life, chapter 1)

Isn’t it reasonable to think that God would have a plan specifically for your life?  He is our creator, after all. He certainly had a plan for John the Baptist.  

Before John was born, he was already set apart from God’s perspective.  Isaiah even wrote about him hundreds of years before he was born (Isaiah 40:3), which was later referenced by all four Gospel writers (ex. Matthew 3:1-3 below).  

“In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 'Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.*" The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, "He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,'Prepare the way for the LORD's coming!  Clear the road for him!"'” (Matthew 3:1-3) NLT

John had a purpose given by God--to go ahead of Jesus and announce the coming of the Messiah.  Luke wrote that John was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born!  He was created for this mission.

“God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony.  John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.  The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world...  John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, ‘This is the one I was talking about when I said, 'Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’" (John 1:6-9, 15) NLT

Even for us, God has a plan.  He knew us before we were born as well, and he calls us to follow Him and be his hands and feet.  We have a mission too, chosen for us by God.  We have a specific purpose that we were designed to fufill.  Our talents, our abilities, our personalities, were carefully crafted to live out that purpose.  All we need to do is discover it--to uncover the mystery of that purpose.  Jeff Henderson recently said that everything about us (our personalities, talents, abilities, interests, strengths, weaknesses) are the thumbprints of God--clues about what we were made to be and to do in this life. As you look at the thumbprints of God on your life, what clues do you see?  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Two months ago today was the Son Followers Blog kickoff.  Thirty seven posts later, Diego is still following the sun around in our living room.  Today I was driving to work and noticed it was overcast, which reminded me of something my wife had said not long ago after reading the "Introduction" post from December 1st.  The question was what do you think he'll do on a day where he can't see the sun?  So, I called home to check on the dog, and sure enough he had spent the morning just laying on the couch moping around.  He hadn't bothered to go looking for the sun or lay down by the window waiting for it to reappear.  Out of sight... out of mind.

Isn't that exactly what we do?  When God gets our attention we're interested in him, and when he disappears from view we find other things to hold our attention.  God sent Moses to Pharoah and ten plagues later out walk the people of Israel, freed from the tyranny of Pharoah.  They had just experienced the passover, where God had spared their children and took those of the Egyptians.  Finally they're leaving Egypt, and suddenly they see Pharoah's army chasing them.  Do they seek God?   Nope.

“Then they turned against Moses and complained, ‘Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness?  Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt?  Why did you make us leave?’”  (Exodus 14:11) NLT

So God parted the Red Sea for them.  They were saved, as He promised.  So off they went through the desert, and immediately they began to complain.  “What are we going to drink?”  “At least in Egypt we had plenty to eat.”  Cue manna from heaven and water from a rock.  God provided for them miraculously and over and over they complained about the next problem, the next trial, the next concern. 

God called Moses up onto Mount Sinai to give him the law and the Ten Commandments.  But when it started to take a little longer than they were expecting, they grew impatient.

“When Moses failed to come back down the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron.  ‘Look,’ they said, ‘make us some gods who can lead us.  This man Moses who brought us here from Egypt has disappeared.  We don’t know what has happened to him.’”  (Exodus 32:1) NLT

Out of sight… out of mind.  Just like us.  For those of you who are Christians, think about your spiritual history.  Hasn’t God sustained you?  Hasn’t he been faithful to you?  Do you still find yourself forgetting about the times in your life where you could see His hand so clearly and ignoring Him to run off to take care of things yourself?  God is God all the time, even when the storm clouds hide his face--even when the thunder overpowers his voice.  It’s then that we must look for him and seek him earnestly. It’s then that we discover just how deep our trust goes.  When God hides behind the clouds, do we seek Him anyway?  Do we still look to the heavens in hopes that His light will return and cast out the darkness?  Or do we go find our $2 flashlight and traipse around in the darkness on our own? 

When the sun is out and the light is shining, let’s be followers of that light.  When the sun goes behind the clouds, let us remember that, though hidden for a time, the sun is still there and earnestly seek to catch another glimpse.