Thursday, January 19, 2017

Teach Your Children Well

I'm in Chicago this week to celebrate the wedding of our dear friends' daughter.  We came early to help with some of the preparations and to spend some time with them before festivities begin this weekend.  

As I was driving through the city with my youngest son, I began pointing out landmarks, showing him where his mother and I (along with his oldest brother) lived downtown.  

I showed him the park we used to frequent, where we got our Christmas trees every year, and as we drove I talked to him about our visits to Grant Park, Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, the hospital where his brother, our middle son was born. 

Through the rear view mirror, I could see his face was filled with the most thoughtful expression.  I realized he was processing the fact that there was a history of our family that he shared but had not experienced.  He didn't know exactly how, but Chicago was a part of him.  

As I watched my son, I thought about the way families pass these things down to children and grandchildren.  I wondered if one day he would drive his own children through the streets of Chicago, telling them about his family, and tell them of his own trips there.  

That moment with my son got me thinking about how faith is passed down to children, and what can be done to ensure the next generations receive it well, and (even more importantly) make it their own. 

Deuteronomy 6:4-8 contains an exhortation concerning the passing of faith experiences and traditions from one generation to the next.  It reads: 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

At the heart of this exhortation is the story of God's great love and rescue of God's people from slavery.  It is the story of how God led them through the wilderness to the land God had promised them.  That story is what must get passed down, the passage teaches us. It's what must be retained more than anything else.  

Throughout the passing of faith from one generation to the next, some of the doctrines, dogmas and pointless traditions, even some of the rules and regulations, often get lost along the way... and that's perfectly all right.   

But the experience of God, the milestones of family life lived together in shared faith, the stories of rescue, redemption, love, forgiveness, mercy and grace---those are the things that must be shared, passed down and retained.  

So, tell your stories of experiencing God to your children, and grandchildren.  Tell them to your nieces and nephews.  Tell them to the children in your community of faith.  Tell them that even though they may not have your experiences, they share them in a way, and one day they will have their own stories of God to tell.   

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

She Is Worth More Than Diamonds (Way More)

Today is my wife Merideth's birthday, which ought to be a national holiday as far as I am concerned.  The other day someone told me that I had most assuredly and without any question married "up."  I couldn't agree more.  

Almost every single day I sit down to write these devotions, Merideth is either sitting across from me at our shared desk, or she's somewhere ready to read them, and offer her praise or her advice.  And the ones that didn't have a typo or a grammatical error... Well, Merideth most likely proofread those.

This will undoubtedly embarrass her. But this is her birthday, and other than our anniversary (which is in three days) it is one of the most important days of the year to me. So, I am going to share.  

In Proverbs 31 there is a description of a woman from the ancient Near East, "a good wife," who is "worth more than diamonds," according to the ancient text.  

This woman  demonstrates all of the finest qualities a woman in those ancient times might possess. She  buys property, runs her own business, manages her household and employees.  She takes care of her children and builds her husband up publicly in front of his associates and friends.  

I've heard Proverbs 31 get twisted and abused far too many times in an attempt to silence Christian women, to relegate them to lesser roles in society, church and the family.  What a terrible interpretation!  

The way I see it, the Proverbs 31 woman is a warrior, a fierce defender of her family, a businesswoman, a leader, and a partner with her husband.  That guy and I have a lot in common.  We both married up--way up.  

Can I tell that you there are a hundred little things that Merideth does every single day to make our home brighter and our family stronger?  On top of that, every day she strives not only to further the kingdom of God but also to help build me up in my ministry.  

No one typically sees these quiet meaningful moments.  Merideth prefers it that way.  She doesn't crave the limelight--only the love of her husband and the affirmation of her God.  

And don't even get me started on all of the uplifting conversations she has with people in need.  Then there are all of the notes, cards, emails, texts, phone calls that she sends and makes right when the people hearing or receiving them need a word of encouragement, a sympathetic ear or a discerning heart. 

I hope you all will indulge me a bit on this.  As you have probably come to know by now, (if you've been reading these awhile) I often write about what I am feeling in the moment or experiencing on a given day.  

For the record, what I am feeling today is deep and abiding love for my soul-mate, best friend, traveling companion and the love of my life.  And what I am experiencing is intense gratitude that God saw fit to let us find one another all those twenty five years ago.  

Happy Birthday, Merideth.  

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you, my love... and with all of God's children today and every day.  Amen.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

God Wants A Bunch Of God-Wrestlers

Many years ago, I was leading a study at my church entitled Experiencing God.  There was a moment in the study when I invited the group to talk about times when they struggled to understand why God allowed suffering and pain. 

Most of the members shared their own stories--seasons of their life when they had more questions for God than answers.  But there was one couple who seemed perplexed by the exercise.  Finally, the man spoke up.  "We've never doubted God for a second," he said. His wife nodded in agreement.  "We always just assume that God knows what he's doing," she added. 

As we dug deeper, I soon realized that their dogged belief really stemmed from something that they had been taught when they were very young:  Never. Question. God. 

That sweet couple in my Bible study had a very simple image of God.  In their belief system, God's wider view affords God wisdom we'll never attain.  God is God, we are not.  The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll be.  

There's a great deal of truth embedded into this way of thinking about God, but it's an incomplete view of the Almighty. 

The essential problem with this belief system, is that it isn't at all biblical.  The Bible is full of stories of heroes of the faith who struggled with their doubts, cried out to God with questions, and contended with the Creator over issues of God's will, suffering and pain.  

What we find in the Scriptures is a God, who doesn't condemn people from asking questions, far from it.  Even the name Israel, which was given to God's people in the Hebrew Scriptures, means "God-wrestler."  As I wrote recently in a sermon on this very topic:  

God honors our relationship with God by engaging and persisting in the struggle---just so we will know God is with us, truly with us.

I read something today from blogger/author Mark Manson that gave me some additional clarity about this issue.  He wrote, "The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships."  

In other words, crying out to God when we are in pain... asking questions when we are struggling to understand... confronting God about the injustice in the world...  are all ways that we give pain and suffering meaning when we are willing to be honest with God about how we feel.  

Jesus exhorted his followers to engage in an honest, active and engaging relationship with God. "Ask and it will be given to you," Jesus taught.  "Seek and you will find; Knock and the door will be opened to you."  (Mat 7:7)

Beloved, don't ever be afraid of your questions for God.  What God desires is for you to struggle with God, to wrestle with God's will, to ask your questions, cry out in prayer, and to know in the struggle that God is near.  

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

May The Redeemed Of The Lord Live Like It

One of the stories in the Gospels that has always captured my imagination is from John 8:1-11. In the passage, we find that some legalistic religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman, who had been caught in the act of adulteryA strict interpretation of Mosaic law meant that the woman should be executed by stoning.  

The purpose of these religious leaders was to discredit Jesus as a false teacher, who didn't uphold their religious laws.   The text later reveals that these guys already had stones in their hands, ready to throw at her.  Her verdict, as far as they were concerned, was decided.  

But Jesus offers a strange response.  He kneels down and begins drawing on the ground in front of these men, and then invites any of them "who is completely sinless" to throw the first stone at her.   

John's Gospel reveals that "one by one" they dropped their stones and left.  And then Jesus turns to her and asks her "Who is here to condemn you?"  She replies "No one." Then Jesus says to her, "I don't condemn you either.  Now go, and sin no longer."  

I've always loved this moment in the Gospels, and I've often wondered what it must have been like for this woman as she knelt there on the ground in front of Jesus.  He didn't say to her, "You aren't guilty," because her guilt was undisputed.  Jesus told her she wasn't condemned.  

And then Jesus sends her on her way with an exhortation to live a changed life.  To live like she'd been set free.  To live like she'd been redeemed, rescued and restored---because she was.  

I read something recently that Ann Voskamp wrote in her excellent book The Broken Way. She said, "There is always more grace in Christ than there is guilt in us."  Come on!  How good is that?  So why is that so many Christians don't live like they are redeemed, rescued and restored people? Why are so many of us who follow Jesus living our lives downcast, filled with remorse, hopeless in our outlook? 

I once read a quote from Thomas Merton that speaks directly into this very thing.  He wrote, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun... If only they could see themselves as they really are."   

Remember that you are not condemned, and have been set free. Live your life filled with joy, hope and abundance.  Lift up you head and hear the words of our brother, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: "The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again...."  (Romans 8:15)

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Foundations Week 3: I'm Not Letting Go

Today we are going to be exploring the third of a five part sermon series for the month of January--a series we've entitled Foundations.  The basic idea behind this series is pretty simple:  We want to explore what we need in order to have the best foundation to step off in the right direction for 2017.  

As we learned the first week in this series, it's important to take a good first step in the right direction because--as Pastor Andy Stanley wrote in his fine book The Principle of The Path--"It's your direction, not your intention that determines your destination."  In other words, it doesn't matter how good your intentions are, if you step off in the wrong direction, you won't get where you want to go. 

The last two weeks we've learned some valuable lessons.  We learned that we need some solid foundations stones--faith and trust to be precise.  Today we're going to be focusing on the foundation stone of Hope. 

I want you to remember one thing today--it's my central point today, and it's an important one.  If you recall nothing else from this morning, I want you to hold on to this:  

A genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope-filled future.  

About thirteen years ago, I took about a dozen middle school students on a mission trip to one of the worst neighborhoods in Nashville, TN.  We worked in a neighborhood that had been decimated by drug trafficking and violence.  

As part of our mission, we went along wth an organization that was setting up events in public parks--to keep the drug dealers away.  Before we went out to serve the community, we had a worship and prayer service to prepare our hearts and minds for what we were about to do. 

No one knew this, but I was going through a real crisis of faith at the time.  On the surface, everything was awesome.  I was leading a youth ministry with around 350 high school and middle school youth.  Our budget was six figures. I had pastors and youth pastors coming to me trying to figure out what we were doing to have such a successful youth ministry in a stodgy, old Presbyterian church.   But in reality, I was going through the motions, struggling to believe that anything I was doing was really making a difference.  Seminary was hard, my belief system was being torn apart and reassembled.  

During the worship service that day in Nashville I found myself being torn apart inside as I realized what was at the heart of all of my struggles:  I had built a life, an image with my hands, and my own effort and for my own benefit in a lot of ways.   I felt broken.  I felt like a hypocrite.  I was the wrong person.  I had done too many things to disqualify myself from serving God in any capacity.  

I was angry, and bitter because of this---but I was mostly scared.  

There was this mean little voice inside my head--we all have that mean little voice that pops up when we are feeling vulnerable to tell us that we aren't worthy.  "If everyone knew what was really going in inside you--they wouldn't think you were so great."    

For so many of us, coming face to face with our brokenness is often the very thing that keeps us from being the people that God has dreamed for us to be.  It also robs us of our hope for the future, and keeps us from stepping in the right direction.  

Some of us know that we are broken and messed up because of our past, and sometimes it's hard to shake that, to come to grips with it.  And there are some of us in here who have been doing things on our own strength for so long that we've gotten used to doing it our way---but deep down inside there's that little voice that keeps whispering, "If people really knew... If they really knew... boy oh boy..."  

Genesis 32:22-32 contains one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and it also happens to be one of the foundational scripture passages for my life.  It's the story of what happens when you have a genuine encounter with God that changes you forever.  

Genesis 32 is the story of the patriarch Jacob's wrestling match with God--an encounter that left him changed forever.  If you aren't familiar with the story of Jacob, let me give you a primer.  

Jacob was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  He was a twin, but was born second in the birth order, which meant his brother Esau was going to be the head of the family when their father died.  

Esau was Isaac's favorite son, and in his old age, when he was blind and nearing death, he meant to give Esau the patriarchal blessing before he died.  This was a huge deal in the ancient Near East.  Once given, the blessing could not be re-given.  It was a sacred act. 

 So, Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks his blind father by disguising himself as his brother, and steals the blessing, which incensed Esauh.  Esau vowed that when Isaac was dead, he would kill Jacob and so Jacob is forced to flee his homeland and remains in exile for 20 years. 

Those 20 years are spent scheming, hustling, trying to make his own way in the world.  He ends up marrying the love of his life, but not before he's tricked into marrying her sister first.  It's a soap opera.  "   

But we're not there yet.  In this account, Jacob is returning to his homeland after being away for those twenty years and he finds out that Esau is on his way with a bunch of armed men.  Jacob's strategy is to keep sending servants loaded down with gifts of livestock and other goods to bring to Esau as he is pursuing Jacob.  The strategy is meant to slow his brother down so he can put some distance between them and muster his own forces, and also to try to placate Esau.  

Finally, he knows that he can't postpone the inevitable meeting with his brother, and he resigns himself with finally coming face to face with his past.  

Let's pick up the story already in progress:  

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 

The text says that "a man" wrestled with Jacob.  The Hebrew word here is "ish" which literally just means "man."  Lots of scholars have debated what this meant.  Was Jacob wrestling with himself in a dream?  Was this an angel?  Was this actually Esau?  Lots of ink has been spilled over this.

I believe that clearly this story was about Jacob having an earthy, genuine encounter with God.  Yahweh meets Jacob right where he is. 

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Isn't this incredible?  The ONE THING that Jacob wanted more than anything else was to be blessed.  He'd stolen his father's blessing, but he knew it wasn't the real thing.  He'd lived his whole life with that shadow hanging over him: Pretender, Usuper, Liar, Fraud, Con-Man, Schemer.  

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Some scholars believe that the name Jacob is actually derived from a word that means "May God protect," but the Genesis account explains that Jacob's name actually means "One who takes hold of the heel," or more plainly, "Second Place."  

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

I read somewhere that Jacob's limp reminded him for the rest of his life that he not only couldn't run away from God, but that more than anything he needed God.  

I love this story for so many reasons.  It teaches me that God breaks into our plans and forces a new direction.  It teaches me that God is always looking for openings to enhance the divine purpose in our life.  

And it teaches me most of all that a genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope-filled future.

So... I was sitting there in Nashville praying to God with my face buried in the carpet of a musty Pentecostal church in the "bad" part of town.  I was feeling like I had made a terrible mistake.  Because of who I'd been, what I'd done, what I was feeling, the doubts I had about myself...  I just knew I had no business trying to do anything church-y at all. 

And as I laid there on the floor with face in the dirty carpet, I caught a vision of myself holding on to God's knees, wrestling and struggling.  And I started to pray, "I am not letting go until you bless me. I am not letting go until you bless me."  

All I wanted was to feel chosen, to feel whole, to know that God accepted me in spite of what I knew about myself and all of the things I'd done while I was running from God, and all the ways I'd covered up the truth about myself.   

"I'm not letting go until you bless me." I prayed.  "I'm not letting go until you bless me."  

Just at that point, a pastor, who was part of the organizing group we were working with, came over to me and put his hands on my shoulders.  The guy's name was like Reggie or something, but he had legally changed it to Dov, which was Hebrew for "bear."  

With his hands on my shoulders Dov spoke into my ear.  "I don't know why," he said, "but I feel like I am supposed to tell you this:  'Rest.  It's all right.  You are enough."  

An incredible peace washed over me then like a warm wave.  I found myself smiling into the carpet, which made me get a whole bunch of carpet gunk in my mouth.  I didn't care, though.  For the first time... in a very long time... I felt like I was enough--as broken and messed up, prideful and stubborn as I was---I was enough.  I felt like the facade I'd put up was being torn down, and my inside was coming in line with my outside. 

A genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope filled future.  

What are you facing right now?  What is it that is waiting for you across the river?  Is it your past?  Things you've done?  People you've hurt?  Mistakes that you've made? Broken relationships?  Are you facing doubts?  Struggling to believe?  Do you put on a show that everything is all right?  That you've got it all figured out?  

So many of us walk around displaying a cardboard Christianity.  We say the right things at the right times... We post the nice church-y posts on our Facebook... We might even have convinced ourselves to a point that we are doing just fine without having to really wrestle with God.  

Maybe you''re acting like Jacob did at first when he was running from Esau.  Maybe you are busy planning... trying to avoid confronting who you really are...  or maybe you are flat out running from it...  Maybe you've been living with the feeling that you are not good enough, or too good for God for so long, you don't know how else to feel.  

Maybe you need to stop being so busy planning.... and start getting busy praying.  

Because God just wants to mix it up with us.  God honors our relationship with God by engaging and persisting in the struggle---just so we will know God is with us, truly with us.

And sisters and brothers... the blessing of God is there for you.  You are not defined by the life you have constructed.  By your past.  By who you think you are.  You are not defined by the stuff you've accumulated, the success you think you've attained.  

You are defined and blessed by the One who has given everything to rescue you from all of that.  

And God doesn't care who you think you are.  God cares about who you are becoming when you finally encounter God and walk away limping, changed, transformed forever. 

So how do we have these genuine encounters with God?  

Well, first and foremost you have to desire it with your whole heart.  You have to be willing to admit that you need God. If you've never really done that--it's the first step.  If you have and forgotten it, it's your first step back.  

And then you wrestle.  

You never let go of praying. 

You never let go of reading and struggling with the Bible. 

You never let go of giving of yourself to others.  

You never let go of coming to church, worshipping God with others. 

You never let go of surrendering your life in a thousand ways every day to God's will.  

You never let go of what it means to stumble after Jesus.  

You never let go...  

You never let go of God as you pray, "I'm not letting go until you bless me."  "I'm not letting go until you bless me."