The Good News – Part 3

This past Sunday many Christians around the world celebrated what is known as Pentecost Sunday, which officially marked fifty days after Easter Sunday.  I’m sure that for most of those who celebrated Pentecost, it was a time to reflect on the power of the Holy Spirit being unleashed on some of the first followers of Jesus, and a time to marvel at some of the things they did through that power.

Me?  I woke up groggy, went to church, heard the word “Pentecost” and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, Easter Sunday…that actually happened…”

Fifty days can seem like an eternity, and eternity can seem like fifty days sometimes (isn’t that a Bible verse somewhere?)  when you’re a graduating senior, completing a double major, wedding planning, and job hunting.  So pardon me on my “waking up,” so to speak, to the huge, massive, INCREDIBLY-HUGE-MASSIVE-AWESOME-INCREDIBLE-GAMECHANGING-LIFECHANGING-FREAKISHLY-EXPANSIVE-AND-AWESOME realities and implications of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  But I’m finally awake, and I’d like to share some of my post-Easter reflections here with you.

And yes, if you’re wondering, the resurrection of Jesus is really that big of a deal.  Because the worst possible thing that could have ever happened to a human being happened…and it wasn’t the end of the story.

Claims of deities rising from the dead were not uncommon in Jesus’s day; there were dozens of stories circulating around about deities dying and then coming back to life.  “The Greek god Dionysus had been brought back from death, so had the Egyptian god Osiris, the Hindu god Ganesha, a hero from Finnish mythology, and a Japanese goddess”  (Ryan Duncan, http://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/easter/christs-resurrection-vs-those-of-other-gods.html).  What makes Jesus’s resurrection account so remarkable are a few things: (1) None of these other beings knew they were going to die, but Jesus did (Luke 22:39-45).  (2) None of these other beings willingly went to their death, but Jesus did (John 18-36-37).  (3) These beings cheated death, but Jesus defeated death (2 Timothy 1:10).  The point I’m trying to make here is this: Jesus’s resurrection is truly one of a kind.  For a broader exposition of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, check out N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God; I highly recommend it.

So, Jesus really did rise from the dead.  Great – what does it have to do with us and the universe 2000 years later?  Glad you asked.  A lot, actually.  It means everything…but maybe not everything you think it does.

See, for a lot of Christians, Jesus rising from the dead means that we can have salvation, that we can be reconciled to God, and that we can go to heaven when we die.  Which is true!  Absolutely, unequivocally true.  No doubt about it.  The subtle danger, though, that may arise in viewing the resurrection of Jesus like this is that it can become a purely self-serving, self-referencing, self-centered idea. “It’s all about me and my salvation.”  Here’s the thing though: we are not the center of the universe.  Indeed, the resurrection does have personal dimensions and implications, but it doesn’t start with us at the center.  It starts with the entire created order at the center – cosmic dimensions and implications.   In other words, we’re just part of the bigger picture, a larger story.

To flesh this larger story out, let’s look at the resurrection from John’s perspective, found in John 20.  If you’ve ever read John’s gospel straight through in one sitting, you’ll start to pick up some of the Jewish patterns of writing that, to us, are mere nuances, but to Jewish readers would have been like this: DSFIOFBGIFGBIBEIRPGERPGPIIPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  (That’s the Greek and Hebrew word for wink wink, nudge, nudge).  One of these patterns is numbering major miracles Jesus performed and referring to them as signs.  The first sign is found in John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:11).  The second sign is found in John 4, where Jesus healed an official’s son (John 4:54).  John numbers the first few signs, and then expects his readers to pick up on the remaining signs.  Tracking through the gospel, we arrive at John 11, where Jesus raised a man from the dead (wink wink, nudge nudge).  This also happens to be the seventh sign (wink wink, nudge nudge).  For Jewish readers, the number seven would have reminded them of the seven days of creation, which rested deep within their hearts, minds, and souls.  So for John to reference Jesus’s seventh sign as raising a man, namely Lazarus, from the dead would have been huge, sort of like the ultimate “keep that in mind for later” phrase.

To summarize, John is writing his gospel intentionally to Jewish readers, showing them the importance of viewing rising from the dead in terms of creation.  Get this though: there’s actually eight signs in John’s gospel.  The eighth sign occurs in John 20, which is when Jesus rises from the dead.  If raising Lazarus from the dead was massive, then this is just, well, massive times infinite.  Let’s take a closer look from a Jewish reader’s perspective to see what we can gleam from this eighth sign.

Right before John 20, John tells us that “in the place where He was crucified there was a garden” (John 19:41).  (1) Jesus was buried in a garden (wink wink, nudge nudge).

When Mary goes to the tomb, we’re told explicitly that it was “on the first day of the week” (John 20:1).  (2) Jesus’s resurrection occurred on the first day of the week (wink wink, nudge nudge).

Mary was crying outside of the tomb, when a stranger, none other than Jesus, comes up to her and asks her why she’s crying.  John tells us in a fast passing comment that “she thought he was the gardner” (John 20:15).  (3) Jesus is thought to be a gardner (wink wink, nudge nudge).

And on top of all of that, it’s the eighth sign, which, in a creation-week framework would be the first sign in a new creation week (WINK WINK, NUDGE NUDGE).

Are you slowly beginning to get the point that John is trying to make here?  If not, here’s the big reveal: “It’s the eight sign, the first day of a new week, the first day of the new creation.  The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus Himself right here in the midst of the first creation.”  (Rob Bell, Love Wins, 133).  DSFIOFBGIFGBIBEIRPGERPGPIIPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

John is telling his readers that Jesus’s resurrection not only has personal implications, but cosmic implications, on the size and order-of-magnitude of the entire created order.  We, as individuals, are then invited to see our story of salvation in the larger story of Jesus’s renewing and reclaiming all of creation.  Paul echoes this idea in his letter to the Philippians, where he says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  The words began, good work, and complete first appear in the creation story of Genesis in that particular order. Paul, a man well versed in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, uses those words in the same order to say that by trusting in Jesus personally, we are able to take our place in God’s cosmic-wide mission of redemption and new creation.  This, of course, has many implications, including reconciliation, eternal life, and hope.

First, reconciliation.  Reconciliation entails the restoration of a broken relationship.  Viewing the resurrection in terms of new creation means talking about reconciliation from a personal and cosmic standpoint.  On a personal level, we are “implored on behalf of Christ (to) be reconciled to God,” which is possible because “Christ reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5).  On a cosmic level, Paul writes about how it pleased God to “reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” through Jesus (Colossians 1).  Does it seem odd to talk about God’s relationship with the cosmos to be restored?  It should – He made it!  He created it purely from Himself and for Himself, out of joy, love, and goodness.  This is His universe, His world, His people, and He has been reconciled to all of it – “each little flow’r that opens, each little bird that sings,” and each and every single human being on planet Earth (lyrics in quotations from All Things Bright and Beautiful).

Second, eternal life.  This is a big one, and one that often has many misconceptions surrounding it.  Many people believe that eternal life starts when we die.  Which is somewhat true, but not really: eternal life starts now, and continues on after you die.  A life experiencing truth, beauty, shalom, and the presence of Jesus is available for here and now.  This was the dominant message of Jesus, who always talked about bringing the life of heaven to earth, and who talked about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven being among us, upon us, and in us.  And eternal life involves, you guessed it, all of creation.  The life of heaven is described throughout the Bible, especially Isaiah, using very “earthy” language.  Isaiah talks about how the earth will be “filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea,” (Isaiah 11) and how people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2).  Amos speaks of “new wine [dripping] from the mountains” and how people will “plant vineyards” and “make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9). Again, Isaiah describes a “feast of rich food for all peoples” and a “highway from Egypt to Assyria,” which will allow Israel, Egypt, and Assyria to be “a blessing on the earth,” which, in modern terms is like saying America, the Middle East, and North Korea will, together, be a blessing on God’s earth (Isaiah 19).  Heaven on earth, literally, which we get to partake of and catch glimpses of in the here and now.  The bodily resurrection of Jesus shows us that God has not abandoned the world.  He wants to dwell here, with His people.  This world is good!  It is not perfect (yet), but it is very good.  And the resurrection is God’s way of laying claims to it over the powers of evil, darkness, and death.  His kingdom is not of/from this world, but it surely is for it.

Third, and last, hope.  Hope has been defined as a “feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen” (New Oxford American Dictionary).  All of us experience moments of intense anticipation and times of deep yearning for something or someone – that’s not a surprise.  It may surprise you that creation itself yearns too; Paul tells us “creation eagerly waits” and that the “whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains” for new creation to come to its full fruition, for the world to be restored to righteousness.  Eventually, “death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away,” and because God will make “all things new” (Revelation 21).  At the center of new creation is hope, for without it, our faith is in vain.  But, praise God, it is not in vain.  Jesus gave Mary hope that first Easter Sunday, just as He gives the entire created order hope, and just as He promises to fill our hearts with hope, if we trust and accept that, through Him, God has reconciled the world to Himself, ensuring the promise of eternal life, both in this life and the next.

Needing strength for my journey, I knelt at the cross
Where Jesus once died for me
And I asked, “Is this the place where hope abides?”
And this He said to me:

“Beyond the Cross is a tomb that is empty
You won’t find Me there anymore
And beyond the tomb is life ever-lasting
And hope forever more.”

Then I sought reassurance and I went to the tomb
To the place where His body once laid
And I cried, “Lord, help me see. Is there hope here for me?”
And this I heard Him say:

“Beyond the Cross is a tomb that is empty
You won’t find Me there anymore
And beyond the tomb is life ever-lasting
And hope forever more.” (Mosie Lister, Beyond the Cross)

Do you trust this, deep within your bones?  Do you accept this, in your heart of hearts?  New creation is at the heart of the resurrection of Jesus, which has personal and cosmic implications of reconciliation, eternal life, and hope.  How’s that for INCREDIBLY-HUGE-MASSIVE-AWESOME-INCREDIBLE-GAMECHANGING-LIFECHANGING-FREAKISHLY-EXPANSIVE-AND-AWESOME?

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The Good News – Part 2

On a rainy Spring night in Ohio, I sit down at my desk to write these words. For the past few days, I have been reflecting on Jesus as mystery, and how we are to have a mindset of experiencing Him rather than solving Him, and a heart filled with wonder, not formulas.

And then it occurred to me – tonight is Maundy Thursday.

This week denotes “Passion Week” in Christendom – the week leading up to Easter Sunday, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding on Easter Sunday.  The Thursday of Passion Week is known as “Maundy Thursday,” where members of certain churches gather to celebrate the events of the Last Supper, where Jesus also established the institution of Communion, also known as the Eucharist.

Eucharist is the term some of the first followers of Jesus used to describe what we know today as Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.  Paul uses this word in 1 Corinthians 11 when he talks about the institution of Communion in the local church: “On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it.”  Jesus Himself also uses the word when He moves from the bread to the wine in Mark 14: “And He took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it.”  So, the word Eucharist means, “to give thanks,” or “to be truly grateful.”  Thus we, according to Paul, are instructed to perform this ritual and remember the great sacrifice Christ offered  – His body, the bread, broken in pieces, and His blood, poured out for the initiation of a new covenant, a new relationship, between God and His people.  Further, the word Eucharist actually comes from the Greek word eucharizomai, which itself is a combination of two Greek words – eu, meaning “good,” and “charizomai,” meaning “to grant or give.”  So, Eucharist can also be translated as “the good gift.”  In other words, by remembering Christ’s sacrifice, we remember and acknowledge “how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16).

Putting these two meanings of Eucharist together then, we can say that the institution of the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a time of thankful remembrance of God’s good gift for the world – Jesus.  And to that I say, “Hallelujah!  Amen!”

But wait…there’s more.

Why is there more?  Well, in my last post, I used this statement: “It’s possible to be so caught up with what God did back then that you’re not open to the new thing that God is doing right here, right now.”  You’re probably asking yourself, “Isn’t it a good thing to be caught up with what God did back then?  Isn’t that the whole point of remembering and giving thanks anyway?  To remember what God did back then through Jesus?”  To which the answer of course is…yes!  Here’s the thing though – there’s a difference between understanding Christ’s sacrifice as something done for you, and something done in you.

Let me explain.  We know that Christ’s sacrifice was the way that “God demonstrated his love for us” (Romans 5:8).  We know that when He cried, “It is finished,” it really was finished (John 19:30).  We know that “God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time” (Hebrews 10:10).  When we talk about these verses, we talk about something that been done for us, a past, historical incident.  But when we talk about something that has been done in us, we are talking about a present, ongoing reality.  This means that while you talk about Christ’s sacrifice for you back then, you also talk about how “Christ lives in you” (Colossians 1:27).  While you talk about how God demonstrated His love for you, you also talk about Jesus’s “new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are My disciples” (John 13:34-35).  And while you talk about how the cross was sufficient and the victory was accomplished completely, you also talk about how we are to be a “living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Ultimately, there’s no dichotomy between the for us and in us.  As a result of Christ’s complete work being done for us in the past, we are called in the present to live our lives in such a way that demonstrates Christ in us – which was always the point to begin with.  Paul puts it this way: we “continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10).  And this takes “daily yielding,”  a dying to ambition, self-seeking gratification, and pride, to pursue the life, wholeness, and joy found in Christ.

So, how does this tie into the Eucharist?  It’s really easy once something has been institutionalized and ritualized to allow it to stop there, to let it be another Communion service, another Mass, another Breaking of Bread service where we sing the same songs and read the same verses and talk about what Christ did for us the same way and pray the same prayers and…you get the point.  Just another cognitive exercise.  But the buck doesn’t stop there.  The remembrance of Christ’s body being broken and His blood being poured out should motivate us to live lives that are broken and poured out for the sake of Jesus and the good news that He brings.  We should be dripping with good works, being the hands and feet of Jesus, the Church, all the while loving people and showing them by this love that we do indeed follow Him.  Anne Lamott said that one of the greatest sermons you can preach is, “Me too.”  When we live our lives in a Eucharistic way, we are actively remembering the Last Supper and obeying the commandment Jesus issued during the supper, which was to love your neighbor as yourself by being a servant leader.  May this Maundy Thursday be the day we start not just statically remembering the Lord’s work for us, but actively remembering it by allowing it to be a reality true of our own lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.

For consideration:  

1.  The next time you experience a Communion/Eucharist service, allow the remembrance of the institution to propel you into a life broken and poured out for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

2.  Be open to the new thing that God wants to do in you, as a result of having accomplished something for you.

3.  Allow some aspect of yourself to be used as a gift for someone else to be thankful for – your time, energy, money, service, etc.

3.  Always carry an umbrella around if you live in Ohio!

The Good News – Part 1

I have a confession to make: I’m dissatisfied.  Utterly dissatisfied.  I have been for a while now.  Why?  Glad you asked!  Here’s why:  I’ve been reading stories in the Bible about people’s encounters with Jesus.  Here’s just a few of them:

I read about the the woman at the well, who after encountering Jesus “left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, ‘Come and see the man who told me everything I ever did!  Could He possibly be the Messiah?  So the people came streaming from the village to see Him” (John 4:28-30).

I read about the disciples, who were constantly “amazed” and “astonished” at the words and miracles of Jesus (Matthew 8:27, 19:25).

I read about the leper who Jesus healed.  “When he saw that he was healed, [he] came back to Jesus, shouting, ‘Praise God!’  He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking Him for what He had done” (Luke 17:15-16).

I read about the time when Jesus went to Nazareth and announced His kingdom manifesto, so to speak.  “Everyone spoke well of Him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from His lips” (Luke 4:22).

I read about the shepherds, who after seeing the Christ child “hurried to the village” and “told everyone what had happened and what the angel said to them about this child.  All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished…The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:16-20).

There are dozens more stories like these in the Gospels, where people who encountered Jesus were so elated over what they had experienced with Jesus that they could do nothing less than exclaim it to everyone around them, while praising and giving thanks to God.

Are you starting to see why I am a bit dissatisfied, even a little annoyed at myself?  Jesus, the very God-of-the-universe in the flesh, came to bring good news and abundant life for all, and somedays, if I’m being honest, I could care less.

See, I’m an engineer by training; I love to solve problems.  I love to analyze every detail of a problem and figure it out, or come to a solution.  That’s what I’ve been doing in every homework assignment for six years – solving problems, analyzing the data given to me, and figuring out the answers based on that analysis.  “Just the facts, ma’am.”

As I continue to read the Bible and let it soak in my soul, one thing I’ve come to learn is this: God is not a problem meant to be solved; He’s a mystery waiting to be experienced.  You might think it odd for me to talk about God and Jesus as a mystery, but take it up with Paul; he describes Jesus as the “mystery of God” in his letter to the Colossians (Colossians 2:2).  Robert Capon in The Mystery of Christ describes Jesus as being “a gift hidden in every particle of creation, a gift that goes by the name of the Mystery of Christ.”  There is an imbedded sense of mystery in the world in which we live, the sense that things are what they are, but also, at the same time, point to invisible realities outside themselves that we can’t quite understand, but experience all the time.

Ah…experience.  That’s the key.  Let me explain.  It’s possible to know all the words to a song, without ever actually hearing it.  It’s possible to place so much emphasis on being correct and right that you have no idea what it means to be filled with wonder anymore.  It’s possible to be so caught up with what God did back then that you’re not open to the new thing that God is doing right here, right now.  It’s possible to have your quiet time everyday, and not be inspired.  It’s possible to have a consistent doctrinal statement and not be astonished and amazed.

It’s possible to know all the facts, and not know Jesus.

Acknowledging God as a mystery waiting to be experienced echoes Paul’s prayer in Ephesians: “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to fully understand” (Ephesians 3:16).  God doesn’t want to be fact-checked; He wants to be enjoyed.

My question to you, and me, is this: Have you experienced the mystery that is in every single particle of creation?  Have you tasted and seen that God is good?  When is the last time you’ve been so elated about Jesus and His good news that you could do nothing but shout it out and tell everyone?  Or fallen to your feet in humble, overwhelming gratitude?  Have you experienced the love of Christ and the good news that He came to bring?

Or are you merely content with “just the facts, ma’am?”

Jesus, your name is power,
Breath, and living water,
Such a marvelous mystery.

2015: New Year’s Reflection

I never would have dreamed of hearing a theologically thought-provoking idea on the Food Network channel…but boy did I ever get one.  It was New Year’s Day 2014 – they were airing a New Year’s Day special where some of the chefs got together to cook food while chatting about their own New Year’s resolutions.  One of the celebrity chefs, Sunny Anderson, was asked what her New Year’s resolutions were.  She replied with this (paraphrased): “Well, I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions.  I have a faith that says everyday is a new day, full of new mercies and new opportunities for me to start over.  Everyday is New Year’s day to me!”

Stop.  Read that quote again – take a deep, deep breath (inhale…exhale), and then read it again.

I was utterly taken aback by that quote because I think there’s so much truth that can be gleamed from it.  I want to use this quote as a starting , foundational point in order to briefly share just a few of my own thoughts and ideas about New Year’s Day based on a passage of Scripture that have been percolating in my mind all day.

The passage I thought of when I heard Sunny’s quote was Lamentations 3:22-24 – “The faithful love of the Lord never ends!  His mercies never cease.  Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each morning.  I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in Him!’” (NLT).  Could this be the passage Sunny thought of when she talked about how we can experience new mercies and new opportunities everyday?  I have no idea…but nonetheless, I think it’s worth taking some time to ponder the passage anew.  

Let’s zoom in on the last clause – His mercies begin afresh each morning.  Think about it – each and every morning we wake up, we get a chance to take solace in knowing we serve a God who is faithful, loving, and who continuously pours out new mercies, new opportunities, and second chances.  I can’t even begin to describe how massive these few verses were for the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, to write in Lamentations.  The Hebrew word for lamentation‘Ekahdidn’t just mean a brief time of sadness or crying; it was a word commonly used at Israelite funeral dirges.  This sets the stage for the context of the entire book – Jeremiah is weeping bitterly because of the recent destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by Babylon.  After so many warnings of judgement and destruction from prophets called by God, the people of Israel were thrown into captivity.  

Read the entire book – it is utterly depressing and full of sorrow from start to finish.  These verses, and a few others, are the only glimpses of hope in the entire book, and they occur smack-dab in the middle of the book.  This is where the structure of the book comes in – it’s an arch structure, with Lamentations 3:22-24 as the peak of the arch.  Lamentations 1-2 and 4-5 are bleak, but Lamentations 3 speaks of the “hope for the people of God: the chastisement would only be for their good; a better day would dawn for them.”  Theological scholars such as John MacArthur suggest that the point of having this type of arch structure to the book is to draw the attention and focus on Lamentations 3 – the chapter of new life, new hope, God’s faithful love, and new mercies every morning…to focus, not on the destruction which has happened, but on the reality of hope, faithful love, and new mercies.

I couldn’t agree more.  In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes this:  “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecc. 3:1 NKJV).  After listing all the designated times for things, he goes on to say, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecc. 3:11a NKJV).  I absolutely love that verse; it reminds me of a song I used to sing all the time in Sunday School:

“In His time, In His Time
He makes all things beautiful in His time.
Lord please show me every day
As You’re teaching me Your way
That You do just what You say
In Your time.

In Your time, In Your Time
You make all things beautiful in Your time.
Lord my life to You I bring
May each song I have to sing
Be to you a lovely thing
In Your time.”

For the believer in Christ, this could not be a more beautiful truth.  It’s also echoed by Paul in the New Testament: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 ESV).  Paul intentionally uses the words begangood, and complete in that specific order because that is the same order that they appear in the Genesis account of creation (Paul is using the Principle of First Mention).  What he’s saying here is this: the same creative expression that formed the entire universe and everything in it out of nothing is unleashed in us through our trust in what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ (Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God).  Which reminds me of anther Sunday School song:

“He’s still working on me
To make me what I need to be
It took him just a week to make the moon and stars
The sun and the earth and Jupiter and Mars
How loving and patient He must be
‘Cause He’s still workin’ on me” -The Hemphills

Let’s wrap things up here.  What does all this Bible commentary on Lamentations have to do with a Food Network chef’s quote about New Year’s time?  I’m glad you asked.

First, it means that everyday is a new day.  I’m not talking about the mushy-gushy-feel-good-prosperity gospel; I’m talking about the reality of who God is – a God who continuously ushers new mercies into each and every day.  What does this mean?  You don’t need to wait until January 1st to make new resolutions.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t make resolutions on January 1st, but it does mean that you don’t have to limit yourself to making sincere resolutions only one day out of the year.

Second, we’re all a work in progress; we’re all on a journey.  According to statistics from the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 8% of people are successful in keeping their resolutions.  Why?  My guess is that people simply give up entirely on keeping their resolutions as soon as they make a mistake and break them one time.  Relax, friends.  We’re all works in progress; He’s still working on us…in His time.  You will probably break your New Year’s resolutions at least once – breathe, it’s going to be okay.

Third, remember that hope is real, and is present even in our darkest times.  God never promises that there won’t be dark times throughout our years, but He does promise that He will be with you in the midst of them to carry you through them, even if those dark times are a result of complete and utter disobedience to Him, as was the case with Israel.  God is faithful, and His love is faithful.  We can trust that!  He wants us to trust that.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, my hope is that you would pray this prayer: “Teach us to number each of our days so that we may grow in wisdom” -Ps. 90:12 (GW).  Believe it or not, our days, months, and years are numbered.  Let’s make the most of them by growing in wisdom, wisdom that comes by yielding and surrendering our hearts to the new mercies of the Lord each and every morning.

Hopes and Fears: A Christmas Reflection

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” -Is. 9:2 (NLT)

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” -Jn. 1:14 (ESV)

“’I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” -Jn. 8:12 (ESV)

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” -1 Jn. 1:5b-7 (ESV)

You are light for the world.  A city cannot be hidden when it is located on a hill.  No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.  Instead, everyone who lights a lamp puts it on a lamp stand.  Then its light shines on everyone in the house.  In the same way let your light shine in front of people.  Then they will see the good that you do and praise your Father in heaven.” -Matt. 5:14-16 (GW)

“For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” -2 Tim. 1:7 (NET)

“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” -Phillip Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

“‘Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.” -John Wesley

Those who know me know how much I enjoy singing, especially Christmas songs, and most especially, Christmas carols and hymns.  Growing up, my family and I would gather around our piano at parties and sing Christmas hymns until we couldn’t sing anymore.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been realizing just how it easy it is to slip into singing Christmas carols almost unconsciously, without being present with what we’re actually singing.  One of these moments occurred a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

My family and I were at a concert, and during the concert we got to sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.  As we sang through the first verse, we quickly arrived at the last few phrases of the verse, quoted above.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.  I realized that the phrase had gone by way too quickly, or, more likely, I wasn’t aware of it going by at all.  Let me quote it again, just in case you might have experienced the same thing I experienced:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

I started to ponder how this phrase and the one before it, Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light, is so timely for recent events that have transpired in our tired, groaning, confusing, beautiful, wonderful world.  I’ll end this post with the reflection.  But first, some appropriate Biblical commentary to set up that reflection.

Throughout the Bible, the writers of the Bible describe God as light.  In a previous post, I mentioned how it’s often difficult to imagine God as being a substance that is so infinite, so unquantifiable, yet incredibly simple and profound…unless you’re surrounded by darkness.  Then, of course, you stop trying to figure it out and begin to simply experience it for what it is – light banishes the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  No matter how much darkness you have, light always overcomes the darkness.

At Christmas, we celebrate that truth in the reality of the Incarnation: God with us, the Word becoming flesh, the Light of the world, piercing through the darkness of sin that resides not just in humanity, but the entire created order.  And to think – this was prophesied hundreds of years earlier in Isaiah 7 and 9.  (Interestingly enough, the word ‘Isaiah’ means ‘God saves’).

The book begins with pronouncements of judgement from God because His people have worshipped Him hypocritically, complained about everything, and failed to treat the poor among them justly (funny how that would describe many folks today, including myself…).  As a result, Assyria invaded Israel, and Israel sunk into deep darkness – “They will look to the earth, and see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish, and they will be driven into darkness” (Is. 8:22 NKJV).

But wait…that’s not the end of the story.  In the very next chapter, Isaiah gives a prophecy: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.  Hope is not lost in the midst of darkness, some sort of great light, we’re told, will overcome it.  He continues: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgement and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Is. 9:6-7 NKJV).  Interesting…so, this great light is actually going to be a child?  And this child will, at some point in His life, be declared king?  Crazy talk.

What’s even more fascinating is that, as true followers of Jesus – the King who is the light of the world, born in a barn – we have the light of the world indwelling us.  We are specifically called by the light of the world to be light for the world – to have the light of Christ shine so brightly through us that people will actually get to glimpse the person of Christ in us!

Let’s tie all these threads together and begin to wrap it up.  We live in a world ravaged by darkness. If you don’t believe me, Google Ferguson protests, New York riots, Pakistan school shooting, or Bahamas crime statistics.  This same darkness also wreaks havoc within our own hearts – when we hate instead of love or take selfishly instead of give selflessly.  Something I remember about the dark when I was young: it was scary.  Darkness has a slippery way of instilling a spirit of insecurity, terror, and fear in our hearts and minds.  Friends, take this to heart: God has given us a spirit of power and love.  He is love! And He is light.  The light of the world is Jesus Christ.  I believe this is precisely what Phillip Brooks is talking about in O Little Town of Bethlehem:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.

In the dark streets, alleys, and corners of our cities around the world, the Light still shines.  It is too easy to become overwhelmed by the thickness of the darkness and wonder, “Is there really any light here?”  The answer: look at those who claim to follow Jesus.  As long as people are loving Jesus and loving their neighbors with everything they’ve got, there is still light.  There will always be light.  And finally,

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

And every night, for that matter.  All of our hopes and fears – past, present, future – all our yearnings for light, truth, beauty, all our moments of wandering in darkness, uncertainties, doubts, worries, and troubles, big or small, all of them converge in all their messy collisions onto Jesus Christ: the Light of the world, the child born in Bethlehem’s dark streets to shed light on the dark streets of our cities and in our hearts.

So, to conclude, a call and an exhortation.  The call: we are promised by the Light Himself that if we walk in His ways and follow Him (see Matt. 5-7 for Jesus’s sermon/manifesto), our hearts will be set ablaze by His light, so much so that others will come and see Jesus through and in you.  I urge you – follow Him today.  Lastly, the exhortation: For those of us who already claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, are we letting our lights shine?  Or are we doing precisely what got Israel thrown into exile – worshipping hypocritically, complaining, and not caring for the poor/busted-up/broken-hearted among us?  Let’s shine our light in the places that need it the most in our world, and not just at each other.

“Walk in the light, beautiful light,
come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.
Oh shine all around us by day and by night,
Jesus is, Jesus is the light of the world.

No need to worry, no need to fret,
all of my needs, the man named Jesus has met.
His love protects me from hurt and from harm,
Jesus is, Jesus is the light of the world.

If the gospel be hid, it’s hid from the lost,
my Jesus is waiting to look past your faults.
Arise and shine, your light has come,
Jesus is, I know that He is the only light of this world.” -Thomas Whitfield, Walk in the Light

The Pursuit of God – Chapter 2

Quote #1: “There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess.  It covets ‘things’ with a deep and fierce passion.  The pronouns ‘my’ and ‘mine’ look innocent enough in print, but their constant and universal use is significant…The roots of our hearts have grown down into things and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die.” -A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

Quote #2: “The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things.” -Tozer, Pursuit of God

Quote #3: “There can be no doubt that this possessive clinging to things is one of the most harmful habits in the life.  Because it is so natural it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is; but its outworkings are tragic.  We are often hindered from giving up treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety; this is especially true when those treasures are loved relatives and friends.  But we need have no such fears.  Our Lord came not to destroy but to save.  Everything is safe which we commit to Him, and nothing is really safe which is not so committed.”

Let’s talk for a moment about these quotes and the ideas they present.  But first, some context.  Tozer in this chapter focuses on the letting go of things in our lives, both good and bad, and uses the story of Abraham and Issac (Gen. 22) to explain his points.  In the story, God called Abraham to let go of Issac, so to speak – actually, it was more like sacrifice him on an altar…no big deal.  Abraham and his only son travelled for days up to Moriah.  Once they arrived, “Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it.  He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (Gen. 22:9-10).  

To put it simply, Abraham let go.  In this moment of letting go, God intervenes and says this: “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ He said.  ‘Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.'”  Tozer imagines God saying it this way: “It’s alright, Abraham.  I never intended that you should actually slay the lad.  I only wanted to remove him from the temple of your heart that I might remain unchallenged there.”  This leads me to ask my two questions:

Question #1: What are the “Issacs” in my life?  What things might be taking the seat of God in the temple of my life and thus robbing me of fully experiencing His presence?

Question #2: How can I tell the difference between God’s tests and experiencing the natural consequences of my sin?

Of course, this whole idea of latching on to things, good or bad, isn’t new.  Ever since the first humans in the creation story exchanged the glory and presence of God for something other than God, this has been the defining condition of the human heart.  Someone put it this way: “The human heart is an idol-making factory.”  It’s difficult for us to realize, truly, if we have Christ, we have everything.  In order to have Christ and experience Him fully, we have to both establish Him at the center of our hearts and destroy the things that we latch on so closely to.

Lose your life, to find it?  Empty yourself, to be filled?  Poor in spirit, to inherit the kingdom of God?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  May we become aware of just how much things insulate us from experiencing God’s presence and, through the power of the Spirit of God, begin to uproot the tight grasp that these things have on our hearts and lives.

The Pursuit of God – Chapter 1

Quote #1: “We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.” -St. Bernard, quoted in The Pursuit of God

Quote #2: “Right now we are in an age of religious complexity.  The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us.  In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart.  The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.” -A. W. Tozer The Pursuit of God

Quote #3: “The evil habit of seeking God-and effectively prevents us from finding God in full revelation.  In the “and” lies our great woe.  If we omit the “and” we shall soon find God, and in Him we shall find that for which we have all our lives been secretly longing.” -Tozer Pursuit of God

Quote #4: “The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One.” -Tozer Pursuit of God

A few thoughts before each question:

(1) Many times, Jesus uses highly metaphorical language to describe Himself; for example, He refers to Himself as “bread” for the hungry (Jn. 6:35), “living water” for the thirsty (Jn. 7:38), and the “light of the world” for those in darkness (Jn. 8:12).  It’s hard to quantify or rationalize these concepts in our minds…unless, of course, we’re hungry, thirsty, or in utter darkness.  It’s in these times and places, when we’re hungry, thirsty, in darkness – when we’re broken, humbled, and at the end of who we are – that we stop trying to rationalize, and we simply receive.  It’s a gift, after all.  Jesus feeds us, give us something to drink, and sheds light on all our darkness.  He continues to do so day in and day out.  May we, as St. Bernard states, long to feast upon the Bread of Life, and may our thirst never quench for the Living Water, Jesus Christ.  May we truly “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

Question #1: Have I reached a point in my life where I am no longer hungry or thirsty for God?  What is filling my need for my soul’s nourishment other than Jesus?

(2) Tozer writes of “programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart.”  And this was in 1948! I shudder at the phrase “nervous activities which occupy time but can never satisfy the longing of the heart.”  Busy, busy, busy!  It’s interesting – with all the things Jesus did, He always designated time off for prayer, silence, and solitude (Lk. 22:41; Mt. 6:30-32; Mt. 14:22-23).  In fact, Jesus spent an entire night alone with His Father in prayer (Lk. 6:12).  Inhale, exhale – it’s going to be okay.

Question #2: Do I take time to be with God in prayer, silence, and solitude?  When do I sense major disconnects in my life, or times when the peace of God seems to be a nice thought, but an impossible reality?

(3) This quote is my second favorite of all four listed.  It’s short, simple, self-explanatory, and straight to the point.

Question #3: What are the “God-ands” in my life?  How can I get to the place where I just seek God, and not, say God-and-job, God-and-relationship, God-and-money, or God-and-knowledge?

(4) This one is my favorite. A good friend of mine has recently been struggling with God and faith; we would often have long conversations in his car about it during the summer months.  One day, I could sense that he really wasn’t okay – at all .  So right then and there, in his car, as he was sharing his questions, struggles, and worries with me, I prayed that God would give me words to say to him.  I listened for a while, and then he said this: “Brian, I don’t get the rest of it, but man, I really dig Jesus a lot.  He just makes sense.”  I replied, “[Friend’s name], if you have Jesus, you have everything.”  God gave me those words that day, and they’ve stuck with me ever since.  Evidently, he gave those same words to A. W. Tozer too.

Question #4: Is Jesus enough?