Posts filed under ‘Devotional Thoughts’

What Does God Ask of Us?

In Matthew 21, the religious leaders are becoming increasingly incredulous toward Jesus. He has just ridden into Jerusalem triumphantly, receiving the praise of adoring throngs. He has also wrecked the temple’s shadow economy by driving out those who were buying and selling there. And He has outwitted and outsmarted the religious leaders after they tried to question Jesus’ authority. Now, Jesus moves on to tell these same religious leaders a story:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28-31)

Jesus tells a story about a father who has two sons. The first son initially verbally spars with his father, but ultimately does what his father asks. The second son pays lip service to honoring his father, but refuses to do what his father asks.

This story is meant to be about the religious leaders, for, although they pay lip service to God, they do not do what God asks. The question that is still hanging in the air at the end of Jesus’ story, however, is this: what does God ask? Jesus’ answer, as He explains His story to the religious leaders, is fascinating:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:31-32)

This, Jesus says, is what God asks: to believe. Jesus puts it this way in John’s Gospel: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29). And yet, this is what the religious leaders refuse to do – to believe in the One God has sent. The religious leaders are so busy following religious rules that their righteous looking actions become the sum total of what they think God wants from them. But God does not need their righteous actions, for He already has all righteousness. So, He simply asks for faith – to stop believing in ourselves and to start believing in His Son. But this is what the religious leaders refuse to give. Faith is the one thing the religious leaders do not do.

The tax collectors and prostitutes to which Jesus refers know they can’t trust themselves, for they have already destroyed themselves. So, instead, they put their faith in One they hope can rescue them from themselves. Thus, they, and not the religious leaders, are the ones who, though they may spar with God, ultimately do what God asks them to do.

Where is your faith? Do you do what God asks of you? It turns out that what God asks you to do is not something you do at all. It’s Someone you trust.

In Christian circles, we will often talk about pointing people like tax collectors and prostitutes – the so-called “broken” and “bad” people of society – to Jesus, because they need Him. This is most certainly true and this is, in fact, something we should do. But let us not forgot that, in Matthew 21, it’s the tax collectors and prostitutes who are pointing religious people like us to Jesus, because, as it turns out, anyone can point someone to Jesus because anyone can have faith in Jesus.

My prayer is that you do.

January 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Learning to Give

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Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Celebrating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Each year, in keeping with a personal tradition, I like to read one of the Thanksgiving Proclamations issued by one of our presidents. This year, I turned my attention to the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1961, issued by President John F. Kennedy:

We have, as in the past, ample reason to be thankful for the abundance of our blessings. We are grateful for the blessings of faith and health and strength and for the imperishable spiritual gifts of love and hope. We give thanks, too, for our freedom as a nation; for the strength of our arms and the faith of our friends; for the beliefs and confidence we share; for our determination to stand firmly for what we believe to be right and to resist mightily what we believe to be base; and for the heritage of liberty bequeathed by our ancestors which we are privileged to preserve for our children and our children’s children.

It is right that we should be grateful for the plenty amidst which we live; the productivity of our farms, the output of our factories, the skill of our artisans, and the ingenuity of our investors. But in the midst of our thanksgiving, let us not be unmindful of the plight of those in many parts of the world to whom hunger is no stranger and the plight of those millions more who live without the blessings of liberty and freedom.

Like many presidents before him, President Kennedy is not short on his list of things for which he and the nation can be thankful. But what I appreciate especially about President Kennedy’s proclamation is that while he calls on the nation to be thankful, he also calls on the nation to be mindful of those for whom blessings may feel as though they’re in short supply. While many Americans gather around lavish feasts, others live with hunger and under oppression.  And these problems are not just international problems. They are domestic as well. A new study published by Dig Deep and the U.S. Water Alliance found that some two million people in the U.S. lack water and basic indoor plumbing. There are blessings that flow. But there is also need that is real.

President Kennedy concludes his Thanksgiving Proclamation with this admonition:

Let us observe this day with reverence and with prayer that will rekindle in us the will and show us the way not only to preserve our blessings, but also to extend them to the four corners of the earth.

The president wanted the nation to give thanks. But he also wanted the nation to give away some of the blessings it had received. He wanted the nation to embrace the “giving” in “Thanksgiving.” Indeed, giving is how we can demonstrate our thankfulness to God. In the words of the preacher of Hebrews:

Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13:16)

I pray that this Thanksgiving, you found many reasons to be thankful. I also pray that this holidays season, you’ll find many ways to be giving. These two things go together. For when you are thankful and giving, you provide others with the opportunity to be thankful and giving, too.

And our world could use more of both.

December 2, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith and Authority

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Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

I find people’s faith stories fascinating.  Take, for instance, Rachel Meyer, who, in an article for the Huffington Post, chronicles her struggle of how she might be able to pass down her faith to her son.

She opens her piece by talking about a man she dated when she was in her early 20s.  When she asked him whether or not he believed in God, he responded, “I believe in ME.”  “I knew in that instant,” she writes, “it would never work between us.”  Why?  Well, she continues:

I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology.  I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world.

Her spiritual world, however, is not what many would expect.  She sums up her creedal commitments by rattling off a litany of things she does not believe:

I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it.  I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks.  I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy.  I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion.

For the record, as a confessional Christian, I don’t believe in many of those things, either.  I do believe in original sin.  But I’m not big on pathological shame.  I do believe in hell.  But I don’t believe that bodily desire gets us there.  I believe that rejecting God’s resurrected Son gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered per se, for He is spirit.  But I do believe that He became incarnate as a man and invites us to approach Him as our Father.  I don’t believe in shutting out LGBTQIA+ people – or anyone else, for that matter – but I do believe we must take seriously the sexual contours outlined in Scripture and consider that perhaps they are there for the sake of our safety and thriving.  I most certainly do believe in the substitutionary atonement.  And I most certainly loathe white supremacy.  It is inimical to the very nature of who the Church is to be – the redeemed “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).  A good portion of the fun of figuring out what you think about nationalism is figuring out how to define it, as this podcast from Arthur Brooks reminds us.  But regardless of how you define nationalism and what you think of it, I most certainly believe that I am a member of God’s household before I am a citizen of any nation.

But behind our individual instances of agreement and disagreement lies some bigger questions:  How does one decide what to believe?  To what authority does one turn to shape one’s beliefs?

There is a canon of beliefs that Rachel Meyer wants to hand down to her son:

I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral.  I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals.  I want him to learn that Jesus – like Buddha and Muhammad – was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.

Okay.  I agree that selflessness is critical – even to the Gospel itself.  Gentleness is a member of the Spirit’s fruit.  And concerning ourselves with justice in society is beautifully prophetic.  But why are selflessness, gentleness, and social justice in while the substitutionary atonement is out?  Rachel never quite answers these questions.

In the end, Rachel seems to have cobbled together a faith that is not based on much of anything besides her own affections and aversions.  What she likes in faith, she keeps.  What she doesn’t like, she trashes.

The humorist Anne Lamott once told the story of a priest friend of hers, Tom, who would say, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Tom is right.  To be a person of faith is to be, among other things, a person under divine authority.  Only a fool would believe that their own opinions and preferences would always match up with God’s commands and revelation.  This is why, for millennia now, Christians have turned to the pages of Scripture to discover God’s commands and character, even when His commands and character unsettle us, puzzle us, or even offend us.  We approach the pages of Holy Writ humbly, wondering what we have missed, what we must learn, and how can change.

If your God always agrees with you, then it’s safe to assume that the “god” you believe in is really just a thinly veiled version of you, which means that your god can’t help you, challenge you, stretch you, or save you because he is you.  So why bother with him at all?

Perhaps Rachel has more in common with her old love interest than she lets on.  “I believe in ME,” he said.  It sounds like she could say the same thing, too.

June 24, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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