Following Who?

In the digital world, it’s all about being connected. We can be connected with our smart devices and computers to over 900 social media apps. We’re familiar with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Vine. There are others we may not be so familiar with, but in this digital age, the worst thing we can be is disconnected. Here’s the interesting thing, though. The more connected we become digitally, the more disconnected we become literally. Here’s an example: Last Sunday, I’m sitting at my mother’s house watching the Saints (no comments please), and my brother, my brother’s son-in-law and my son are all sitting on the couch—not talking to each other, but all checking their smart phones for the latest update on their “fantasy” football teams. We can’t even watch real football for checking out our fantasy teams! We’re disconnected in a connected world.

alltwitter-twitter-bird-logo-white-on-blueOne of the most popular social media platforms is Twitter. Twitter is a free social networking service that allows registered members to broadcast short posts called tweets. Twitter members can broadcast tweets (limited to 140 characters) and “follow” other users’ tweets. There are 974 million people with Twitter accounts worldwide, and 52.7 million in the U. S. That’s a pretty hefty number.

Twitter is about followers and following. You “follow” someone, and someone “follows” you. That means every time I post a “tweet” it goes out into the “Twitterverse” for all the world to see, but especially to those who have chosen to “follow” me. And, every time someone I’m following “tweets,” it shows up on my Twitter page. In case you’re interested, here are the top three Twitter accounts:

  1. Katy Perry 76 million followers
  2. Justin Bieber 67 million followers
  3. Barack Obama 64 million followers

Personally, I tweet @revlynnmalone, and I have 125 followers. Followers and following—it’s what Twitter is all about.

Following on Twitter is easy. Simply click a button on the app. Yes, following is easy, but it has no real impact on our lives. The fact that Katy Perry posts photos of her in the mountains of Machu Picchu makes no difference in the grand scheme of my life. The danger for us is that we too often see following Jesus with the same philosophy. We think it’s great to follow Jesus, but we don’t give much thought to what it means. What difference does it make to say we’re following Jesus?

It really wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day. Jesus had many followers who were simply catching the latest fad. We read in John’s Gospel in chapter 6 about a group who, John says, “went back and walked with him no more” (6:66). He offered those followers some challenging words, and they decided it just wasn’t for them. They weren’t willing to go the distance. They left and Jesus looked at Peter and asked, “Will you go away, too?” It was then that Peter said, “To whom would we go…and we’ve come to believe you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Interestingly, in Luke 9, Peter makes the same confession about Jesus and when he does, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.”

Being a disciple is not simply saying we will follow Christ. It is believing something specific about Jesus that changes our lives. We must know who Christ is before we will even consider following him because if we don’t believe who he is, we won’t be willing to do what he asks us to do. Our love for Christ is directly related to our understanding of who he is. If we understand who Christ is, we will run to him and leave everything else behind. He is faithful and loving and he cares for us more than we can ever know. But we must never forget that he is our Creator and that we are dependent upon him for our next breath and heartbeat. He is God and we are not, and if we will follow him, he asks only two things: 1) self-denial, and 2) self-sacrifice.

Jesus didn’t want any misunderstanding about what discipleship costs. He said, “Deny yourself.” The call to follow Christ is a call to a transformed life. It’s like Paul said to the Corinthian Christians: “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun” (2 Cor. 5:17). But the call to self-denial is such a radical call. That’s the thing about most social media…including Twitter…it’s so self-centered. Most of the posts we post are focused on the events and attitudes of our lives. We live in a selfie world where one of the top selling gifts last Christmas was the “selfie stick.” Even our President was seen with his new selfie stick! Denying ourselves mean we give up the selfie stick…get the focus off ourselves…and put the focus on Christ, and on others.

Denying self is seldom a dramatic or high profile act, but it is often demanding. It demands we understand that our faith is about far more than our own personal well-being. It is about obeying God and loving humanity.

Secondly, there’s this whole thing about “taking up our cross.” That’s about self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice and self-denial are close cousins. Jesus knew what it meant to take up the cross. He was headed toward Jerusalem and knew what awaited him there. He told his disciples as much. William Barclay tells us that when Jesus was about eleven, Judas the Galilaean led a rebellion against Rome. He had raided the royal armory at Sepphoris, which was only four miles from Nazareth. The Roman vengeance was swift and sudden. Sepphoris was burned to the ground; its inhabitants were sold into slavery; and two thousand of the rebels were crucified on crosses which were set in lines along the road as a warning to others tempted to rebel. To take up our cross means to be prepared to face things like that for loyalty to Jesus; it means to be ready to endure the worst the world can do to us for the sake of being true to him.

For us today, who don’t have a transformative understanding of the image Jesus paints for his disciples, taking up our cross means walking against the grain of cultural values, so that our needs take a back seat to God’s call. Bearing a cross means leaving behind dreams we had in our old life, for new dreams in a new life—a world transformed by the power and glory of God in Jesus Christ.

Our biggest problem is we look at self-denial and self-sacrifice from a negative perspective. What do I mean? Imagine a situation where a homeless man is begging on the streets of New York. A well-dressed man in a long limousine pulls up next to him and offers him a job as vice-president of his company. That seems ludicrous; nothing like that would ever happen. But that is exactly what God has done for us. He rescued us from the gutter. We were homeless and he gave us a new home. We were the rejects of the world, but he gave us self-respect. We had nothing, but he gave us everything. He asks us to be a part of his kingdom and work for it.

But, suppose the homeless man sneers at him and rejects the offer for several reasons. First, he will have to give up what is familiar to him. Obviously, it is a terrible life, but it is the only life he knows how to live. Secondly, he has a few possessions which he pushes around in a cart, and the few clothes he owns are on his back. And one of the conditions the man in the limousine makes is that the man must leave everything and get into the limousine. The third reason is that the man will actually have to work and accept responsibility. Life on the street was bad, but at least no one expected anything from him. No one expected him to be any different. So he turns from the man in the expensive suit and shuffles down the street hoping for a warm grate that he can sleep on for the night.

Does the man in the story understand what he has given up? He would have had a home, a job, a purpose, a great bank account, and a high position in an important business. But he passed it up to keep what he had. This is why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Dallas Willard reminds us that if we are going to talk about the cost of discipleship, we ought to balance it by talking about the cost of non-discipleship.

We are like the homeless man. When Christ comes to ask us to die to ourselves and give up our old life, we refuse. We think about all the stuff in our cart that you will have to give up. We may be miserable, but at least we are used to it, and we know how to get by. We are not sure we would know what to do if we really died to your old life. Besides, change is hard work. We don’t want the responsibility of following Christ fully. We fail to understand that you we’re in line to inherit the business. We’re not merely a partner, we’re an heir. The reason we were selected was that the man in the limousine, unknown to us, was really our father who searched until he found us. He wanted to call us more than vice-president; he wanted to call us son and daughter.

He calls us to follow him so that he might change us, to make us different in the world than we were before we came to know him. He calls us to follow him where he leads. In his leading, he transform us to be more like him, and he reminds us that discipleship is a full-time job, not a weekend hobby. Following Jesus never takes a holiday. We take up the cross daily…multiple times daily. We must be as diligent following Christ as we are posting those tweets to Twitter. That’s when true transformation takes place.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Questions with No Answers (Four Lessons on Trials)…

Dr. James Dobson wrote a book in 1997 entitled When God Doesn’t Make Sense. The book was written for anyone struggling with trials and heartaches—the death of a loved one, disease, divorce, rejection—in the hopes of understanding the meaning of suffering in the world. He takes the reader through eleven chapters until he reaches his conclusion. It’s the conclusion we’re all looking for when it comes to hardships, trials and heartaches in this life. You know his conclusion? “I don’t know.” Eleven chapters, and he finally gets to point—I don’t know.questions and answers

It’s the same answer I give when I’m asked any of the following questions:

  • Why do we go through trials?
  • Why do we face hardships?
  • Why is there suffering in the world?
  • Why does God allow evil?

With all my theological training, the best answer I can give is, “I don’t know.” There is a verse of scripture that is often quoted when trials come. It’s Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (NKJV). Too often, we do with that verse what we do with so many other verses. We take a single verse and form a deep theological answer to a complex issue. Oh, that it were so easy. It leads us to a shaky theology that fails us in times of hardships and difficulties. Scripture is like real estate. In real estate, three things are important: location, location and location. Well, in scripture, three things are important: context, context and context. If we want to understand “all things work together for good,” we have to understand all of what Paul was saying.

If we want to know what Paul meant when he wrote “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes,” we have to understand the verses around it, and we have to understand where it fits in the entirety of the letter he wrote to the Romans. I just would like to know, “Is God working in all this mess of a life of mine?”

The answer, for Paul and for us, is, “Yes.” Paul was no stranger to suffering; his several near-death experiences, beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions were enough to eradicate any “pie-in-the-sky” attitude that might have lurked in his heart. In the immediate context, Paul lists some qualifiers for the good to take place: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NET Bible). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what does this mean? Those who love God are, in this context, Christians, because they are called according to God’s purpose. We have to be careful to not say, “As long as you love God, things work out; but whenever you are not loving God, things do not work out for your good.” That’s bad theology. No, if we have faith in Christ, then all means all. Immediately after, Paul speaks of our conformity to Christ, our glorification, as the inevitable outcome of those who love God. And that is not dependent on how much we love God but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Paul concludes this chapter by making explicit that nothing can separate us from the love of God (vv. 38-39), and by implication, that would include even our temporary lapses in our love for the Savior.

What, then, is the good? The good is conformity to Christ! Ultimately, Paul says, all things work together to bring each of us into conformity to Christ, to bring each of us to glory. Not only is Paul talking about all circumstances, but he’s also talking about all those who believe in Christ. Paul does not say “some of those” or even “most of those” when describing each stage of the salvation journey. From calling to glorification, no one who loves God misses the boat.

Great theology, preacher, but I need practicality. How do these trials and hardships work for good? Okay, here are four lessons to remember about trials.

  1. Trials are a short term reality. I love the theology of the unlettered maid who was great in the kitchen and an immaculate housekeeper, but her main strength was that she was never ruffled by anything. She was always calm and in control. When asked about her secret, she quoted a verse in the Bible: “It came to pass.” When told that this was not the complete verse she replied, “It is for me. It means that whatever comes, comes to pass. It doesn’t come to stay.” We may have short-term pain, but it’s working out a long-term gain. It’s like when we’re sick. We go to the doctor because we trust the doctor knows what he/she is doing. The doctor prescribes the treatment, and it’s painful or unpleasant, but it’s necessary for our ultimate healing. We have to endure a little more pain before we’re better. As followers of Jesus Christ, the better for us is God’s glory, and this short-term pain is working toward a long-term gain.
  1. Trials give us proper perspective. If we never had bad experiences, how would we know to appreciate the good experiences? Our problem is we interpret everything from our human, materialistic perspective. The good is not our comfort or wealth, or even our good health. The good is God’s glory. Part of my daily routine is a short devotional called Our Daily Bread. It recently had a neat prayer that read, “Lord, it is easy to let my circumstances change how I understand You. Help me to remember that You are good and faithful, even though I can’t see everything and may not understand how You are working.
  2. Trials keep us forward-focused. We may see nothing good come of misery and disaster in this world, but this world is not all of reality. There is an ‘until’; there is a place beyond the horizon of what our senses can apprehend, and it is more real and more lasting than what we experience in this life. God is using the present, even the miserable present, to conform us to the image of his Son. If we define the good as only what we can see in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. For, as Paul said earlier in this same chapter, “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18, NET). For Western Christians (especially American Christians), we are prone to think if our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, that is fine and well. But that is not the good that Paul had in mind, and it is not the goal of the Christian life. The famous preacher D.L. Moody told about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman—a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It’s better higher up.” When they arrived at the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in responded, “It’s better higher up.” She was not looking at temporal things. With the eye of faith fixed on the eternal, she had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment.
  1. Trials help us experience God’s presence. Again, Paul gives us the practical over the theological when he reminds us in 8:26: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” As long as we trust, there are times we go through circumstances we don’t know how we got through them. We might say a person had a strong will or a strong character, but it was really the Holy Spirit interceding for them when they couldn’t pray, or didn’t know what to pray. And, God’s grace was provided in just the right measure at just the right time to meet the need. The Psalmist proclaimed, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” (Psalm 23).

“Well, pastor, you haven’t given me my spiritual ‘happy pill’ this morning.” No, sorry, I haven’t, but Romans 8:28 was never meant to be that—although it has been used as such. “So, give me a little hope, please. After all, I don’t want to be like the young man who went to the fortune-teller. She looked at his palm and said, ‘You’ll be poor and very unhappy until you’re 37 years old’.”

“What’ll happen then,” the young man asked? “Will I be rich and happy?”

“No,” the fortune-teller replied, “you’ll still be poor, but you’ll be used to it by then.”

Where do we find hope in the midst of the pain? Paul answers that, too. Paul closes this most beautiful passage of scripture with these words:

37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All our hope is in Jesus Christ. All our life is in Jesus Christ. All our glory is found in trusting Jesus Christ. For Paul, all means all. Theologically, I can’t explain it, but practically, I can face all things because of the One who gave it all for me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Reflecting on Rest (Three Reasons to take a Vacation)…

vanessas beach picIt seems a bit self-serving to reflect on reasons to take a vacation (especially while one is on vacation), and it also seems a bit counter-productive to write a blog while on vacation (isn’t writing a blog considered work?). So, you see the bind people find themselves in when they take vacation? Especially in the “helping” professions, the line between work and rest become incredibly blurred.

My lines have not been quite so blurry this week. I’ve managed a decent week on disconnecting. I’ve only checked work emails a couple of times (one way to avoid doing so is un-sync your phone from your work email), and I’ve only responded to a couple of work related emails. I’ve managed to spend some very relaxing days with my toes in the sand. It’s been a pretty good week…if I do say so myself.

Pastors are notorious for not taking enough vacation. That shouldn’t be surprising. It simply means pastors are a lot like other Americans. The Huffington Post reported that 40% of Americans don’t take all their vacation. 40%! That’s a large number. There are probably a lot of reasons that number is so high, not the least of which is that not many people can afford to “go” on vacation. I know I can’t afford (monetarily speaking) to be away from home four weeks a year. I rather think it has more to do with our need to be needed…which is all the more reason to take the vacation.

“All the more reason to take the vacation…” Because I’m on vacation, let me be brief and offer three reasons it’s important to take the vacation time each of us is given.beach view


As paradoxical as this may be to say, vacation is not ultimately about you. Resting is ultimately about our dependence on our creator. It is an acknowledgement on our part that we are weak and limited. It’s a confession, especially for us pastors, that we’re not the answer to all our church’s issues. Additionally, rest is a great way to break the “works righteousness” mentality. Rest allows us to better understand the theology of grace.

Moreover, rest is as much for those around us. Rest is a gift to our families, especially our spouses. Sure, we might not need a vacation, but our spouse and our children do! Don’t our families deserve as much of us as the world does? Yes, ministry is a calling, but so is being a good spouse and parent.

Taking a vacation is an excellent reminder of our ultimate expendability. That’s really not a fun think to think about, but the reality is that when we’re away, the world keeps right on turning. Tasks get completed without you. Yes, I know. There will be a pile waiting on my desk when I get back…but…they are “waiting.” Nothing earth-shattering happened because you weren’t there to take care of a task.


Vacations lower stress and reduce anxiety (unless you’re one of those rare persons who stresses out because of all the work they’re missing). We need to take a lesson from professional athletes who routinely “recover” between training sessions. We can only push our minds and our bodies so far without them breaking. The tighter the rubber band is wound, the more likely it is to snap. Time off and vacations are some of the healthiest things we can do. And, it’s biblical, too. God built rest into the rhythm of life. There’s a reason He did. (Read more about rest here).

work-vacation-policy-pop_3122Vacations also promote health within the organizations we lead. Vacation by the leader of the organization provides a positive example to staff of the importance of maintaining a proper work/life balance. Additionally, it frees up staff to creatively manage in the leaders absence. In churches, it also empowers the laity to embrace their own gifts for ministry as laity step up to fill roles usually reserved for their clergy leaders. Who knows? A pastor’s vacation may be the very vehicle God uses to allow someone to discern God’s call to ministry in their own life. I’d say that was a pretty healthy thing.


Routine tasks stifle creativity. That’s why it’s called “getting in a rut.” When the mind relaxes, it begins to function in a more creative way. Imagine…getting away from work may be the very thing that frees up the creative juices so you can solve that pesky problem that’s been hindering you at work (see…another paradox). I’ve always had a hard time writing sermons or preparing bible studies when in the office. It’s when I’m away from the “routine” of work that creativity is spawned.

Yeah, I know…it’s not a deep reflection…but, hey…I’m on vacation. You can’t really expect me to think too deeply, can you? Maybe you’ll find these three reasons helpful in encouraging you to take your own vacation.

Until next time, keep looking up…

2,500 Miles in the Wrong Direction…

If I might use the superlative “great” in reference to the AMC series Breaking Bad, I don’t think it would be out of place. Breaking Bad was a great series with great characters, a great storyline, great actors, great dialogue, great drama and a great and tragic ending. That’s a lot of “greats,” isn’t it? One great scene that sticks in my mind is the last episode of the series. Walt and Jesse, his former partner in crime, stand face to face, and Walt is just ready for his life to end, and he taunts Jesse to do the deed. It’s a great ending to a great story.
jonah3The ending to the series Breaking Bad is so incredibly similar to the scene in which the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, finds himself at the end of the book (Read Jonah 4 here). I think I can use the same superlative “great” to describe Jonah’s story. As a matter of fact, the author of the book of Jonah uses the word “great” no less than fifteen times in the fifty-eight verses of the book. There is a “great” city. There is a “great” wind and a “great” storm. There are sailors with “great” fear. There are “great” people. God is “greatly” displeased, and there is “great” calamity. There is also “great” joy, and we must never forget there was a “great” fish that was part of Jonah’s story. We find Jonah sitting outside the city of Nineveh wishing for his life to end. Jonah is angry, and he challenges God to just kill him, already! If anyone ever needed an “attitude adjustment,” it was Jonah. So, how did Jonah get there?

Jonah was one of the “minor” prophets of the Old Testament. He’s best known for being swallowed up by a great fish, but there’s more to the story than that. Jonah’s journey begins when God calls him to “go down to Nineveh and preach.” But, Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he certainly didn’t want to preach to them.

What does Jonah do? He hops a ship and goes 2,500 miles in the opposite direction. He wants to get as much water between he and the city of Nineveh as he can. God calls, and Jonah doesn’t answer, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” He put it in high gear and hightailed it to a place called Tarshish.

It is Jonah’s hightailing response you are most familiar with. You may remember that when he hopped that ship that God went with him, and the story goes there was a great wind and a great storm so that everyone on the ship thought they would perish. Jonah slept through the storm until finally the captain woke him up and challenged him to pray to his god for deliverance as all the other sailors were doing. Jonah eventually admits that he’s the cause of the storm and implores the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Very noble wouldn’t you say? See, it’s not that Jonah is unconcerned for people in general. It’s just the Ninevites that he has a problem with. He was thrown overboard by the sailors and was swallowed by a “great” fish. Three days and three nights of severe indigestion caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land, and wouldn’t you know, it was on the same seashore from which he left. Right back where he started from, and still confronted by God’s call to “go to Nineveh and preach.” So, what’s a guy to do standing on the seashore smelling of fish? “Alright,” Jonah says, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”

Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is so large that it takes three days to cross it (that’s about sixty miles for those of us with pick-up trucks). Jonah arrives on the edge of the city and begins to deliver the shortest sermon in history—one sentence—five words in the Hebrew and eight in the English translation: “Forty days from now, Nineveh will be destroyed.” There are no flowery speeches, no illustrations, no three points and a poem. Short, sweet and to the point.

Someone said, “There’s no such thing as a bad short sermon.” That’s not true! I’ve heard some bad, short sermons. Jonah’s, however, was a great short sermon. It was great, not because it was short, but because it was effective. Jonah didn’t get a third of the way across the city before the people of Nineveh started repenting. They started putting on sackcloth and ashes, and what’s more, even the animals felt the power of Jonah’s message. Even the King, who heard the message second-hand, was touched and commanded the whole kingdom repent and turn to God. WOW! Billy Graham had nothing on Jonah! The problem was that such rousing success only served to make Jonah angry.

Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of Israel at this time in their history. The Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty to the captors, and Israel had experienced that cruelty often during the years of the minor prophets (circa the 5 – 8th centuries B.C.). Assyrian records brag of live dismemberment wherein the victims were often left with only one hand so the Assyrian attacker could shake it before the person died. Another practice was making parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them elevated on poles. Jonah really had no desire to go to Nineveh for obvious reasons. He might well have expected to be arrested, tortured, or become training fodder for the Assyrian army until they got tired of him, and led him through the city streets to hang as an act of national pride and unity.

Not only were the Assyrians enemies, but they were Gentile enemies. Do you know how much the Hebrews hated Gentiles? The daily prayer of the Hebrew man was to thank God they were not born slave, female or Gentile. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. They were not special like the Israelites. Surely, Jonah didn’t expect that God really wanted him to go to Nineveh?

Actually, Jonah knew that’s exactly what God wanted him to do. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, literally went 2,500 miles in the wrong direction, was swallowed and vomited out by a great fish before he finally consented to go because, in his own words, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God.” Imagine! Jonah’s bad attitude is because of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s so bad that it throws him into such a deep depression that he despairs his own life.

“I knew you’d relent, Lord.” “I knew you’d save them, Lord, and I just didn’t really want you to do that!” “They deserve to die for their wickedness and evil ways!” Imagine Jonah saying that, and never stopping for one moment to consider the same gracious and compassionate God had saved him from the belly of a fish not many days before.

In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and sets up camp on the off chance that the Ninevites show their true colors and revert to their evil ways, or God might wise up and destroy them anyway. Underneath his little brush arbor, God decides to give Jonah an attitude adjustment. A vine grows and provides shade for Jonah. “Ah, cool,” he thought, but the next day, a worm comes and destroys the vine while a scorching wind begins to blow. “Awe, man! Just let me die!” exclaims Jonah.

But, God said, “You’re angry because a vine died, and yet you didn’t make it grow or tend it?” The Lord continued, “Look Jonah, there’s a city down there with 120,000 people that I care about, not to mention the animals. You should care about them.” God lets him know that he misses the point totally.

Jonah’s attitude is laughable if it didn’t sound so familiar. A gracious and compassionate God—what a depressing thought! Until, of course, we are confronted with our own enemies and we come face to face with the realization that the same God who is gracious and compassionate to us seeks to be gracious and compassionate to them, too. As those called to follow Christ, we must put feet to our faith, and that is where the rub comes, especially when we realize the desire of God’s heart is to use us as vessels of His grace and compassion even to our enemies.

How do we do that? Listen to what Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.    Matthew 5: 43 – 45 (NLT)

Loving our enemies may never be easy, and our attempts to avoid doing so (though probably not met with encounters with great, stinky fish) will always be met by God’s persistent call to obedience. Giving up deeply held resentments will be the hardest part, but our failure to do so will likely result in heaping anguish and pain on ourselves—not the least of which might be depression not unlike that which Jonah faced. That’s the attitude we need to break. We need God’s attitude to be our attitude. We need to see God’s perspective. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running 2,500 miles in the wrong direction.

A gracious and compassionate God! What a depressing thought!

Until next time, keep looking up…

A “Tragic Mess of a Life”…

I wrote a sermon a couple of weeks ago that included the line “a tragic mess of a life.” I must say that’s one of the best lines I’ve ever come up with. Perhaps I think it’s such a good line because it could so easily describe my own life. It certainly describes the life of Walter White of Breaking Bad, the AMC series. Certainly, Walt was dealt a crummy hand in life, but his bad decisions lead to his own “tragic mess of a life.”

tragedyI can’t think of a “tragic mess of a life” without thinking of Samson, the last in Israel’s line of judges. If you’re like me you remember Samson from Sunday school, and you probably remember him as a hero for killing a lot of Philistines. Samson was held up as a role model for his dedication to God in being willing to follow God all the way to death. As I reflect upon the story of Samson, I’ve come to believe he’s much more a victim of his own decisions than he is a victim of faithful discipleship. There is much about Samson’s story we didn’t hear in Sunday school. His is a tragic story that ends with Samson dealing with the consequences of his own decisions.

Hollywood has nothing on the Bible. In Samson’s story we find supernatural events, intrigue, deception, humor (lots of humor), lust, sex, murder, revenge and obsession, and we find most of it in Samson himself. We read the end of his story and discover he is blind, in prison and being shamed by his captors, the Philistines. In one last heroic act, he cries out to God in prayer to give him strength one more time so he can take revenge on these pagan Philistines. And, God hears his prayer, and amazingly answers him, and Samson, in one final show of strength pushes the pillars of the temple over. The roof falls, crushing everyone in the temple, including Samson, and everyone on the roof of the temple.

Samson’s story begins in Judges 13 with his miraculous birth. His nameless, barren mother is visited by an Angel of the Lord who announced she would have a son (that sounds vaguely familiar), and that he would be dedicated to the Lord as a Nazirite from birth, and he would be the rescuer of Israel from their Philistine oppressors. She named the child Samson which means “sunshine.” If we follow the history of the nation of Israel, we discover the time of the judges are some of the darkest times in its history. God sends “sunshine” in these dark times.

So what is it with this Nazirite vow? Numbers 6 outlines the vows a person had to take to become a Nazirite, and there were three: 1) Drink no wine, nor eat any fruit that grew on a vine, 2) Refrain from touching anything dead, and 3) Never cut your hair for as long as you are under the vow.

Samson grows into a young man, and we are told that “the Lord blessed him as he grew up.” What we hear about in Sunday school is Samson’s strength. We hear about how he slew a lion with his bare hands. What we don’t hear about is that he later returned to the carcass of that lion, and took honey from the bees who had taken residence there, thus breaking one of his Nazirite vows. For some reason, the Sunday school teachers also didn’t tell us that happened while he was in the process of getting married. Nor, do we hear about the woman he jilted and left at the altar after a sumptuous wedding feast, and that feast would include wine, and lots of it. We’re talking gallons here, not bottles. One more time, Samson breaks his vows. And, they neglected to tell us about Samson’s temper that provokes him to kill 30 innocent bystanders at his own wedding so he can settle a gambling debt.

We hear about how he killed 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, but we don’t hear that he killed the 1,000 after he’d been arrested for hunting down 300 foxes, setting their tails on fire, and turning them loose in the grain fields of the people who had done him wrong. They never told us, either, that he broke his Nazirite vow in the act.

We hear about the vixen Delilah who seduces him into telling her the secret of his strength, and we hear of her cutting his hair off, but we don’t hear of his on-going weakness for immoral women. Yes, we hear how, by brute strength, he ripped out the city gates of the Philistine city of Gaza, and carried all 700 pounds of it nearly forty miles to Hebron, but we don’t hear that he was visiting a prostitute at the time. Even though we don’t hear these stories, they are all in Judges 13 – 16. In total, it covers a 20 year period in Israel’s history. We don’t hear them, I think, because in that 20 year period of time, Samson doesn’t do one thing, not one thing to honor or glorify God. Everything he does, he does for his own glory, for his own satisfaction, for his own desires. And, that’s really tragic.

Samson’s is a cautionary tale for us. We encounter Samson at the end of his life in blindness. But, that’s really how he lived his entire life. He was blind to God’s will for his life. He was blind to his sin. He was blind to his need for repentance. He was blind to the consequences of his decisions. He was blinded by his own arrogance and pride. Former NFL coach Eric Mangini. Mangini said, “With confidence you believe you can overcome your weaknesses, with arrogance you don’t believe you have weaknesses.” Samson was arrogant, and his arrogance defeated him.

It’s also serves to caution us that an outpouring of the Holy Spirit does not automatically make us godly. The Holy Spirit gives us the resources to live godly lives, but He doesn’t “do it to us.” We can be wonderfully gifted by the Holy Spirit and yet spiritually, we remain infants. We still have decisions to make, and every gift we have is in our own hands. It remains for us to have our passions under proper discipline, and the fear of God continually before our eyes. We must not think for one moment that our disobedience, our selfishness, or our sin will derail God’s plan. God used even Samson, in all his “tragic mess of a life,” to drive a wedge between the Israelites and the Philistines. That was necessary. King David would complete what Samson started some 50 years later.

God calls us, and desires for us, to live holy lives. God gives us the power through His Holy Spirit; but power for something far more important than ripping apart lions. The Holy Spirit comes to empower us to live for God as we should. God did use Samson mightily; but God used Samson despite his sin, not because of it. Commentator David Guzik says, “Samson shows the danger of underestimating our own sinfulness. He probably figured he had things under control with his own fleshly lusts, but his desire for love, romance, and sex led directly to his destruction. Samson was the great conqueror who never allowed God to properly conquer him.”

Mine will be a tragic story, too, if the same is said about me as I come to the end of my life. You see, we decide to live in the fullness of God’s promise, or we decide not to. It’s our choice. God lets us make it. If we decide not to live in the fullness of who God calls us to be, we must be prepared to live with the consequences, and some of those consequences have an eternal impact.

One of the most transformative ways we can live for Christ is through accountability. Samson shows us the danger of being a loner. Everything Samson did he did alone. He judged for 20 years and never sought or used help from others. The life of discipleship is not meant to be lived alone, and Christian fellowship is not sitting around a table sharing a meal in the fellowship hall. It is being in a relationship with one another where we do as James instructed us:

13 Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. 14 Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. 16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” James 5: 13-16 (NLT)

Fellowship is praying together, for one another and with one another. It is prayer, and it is confession. It is getting in the nitty, gritty of everyday life where temptations lie, and giving ourselves to God in the process, so that He might work His grace in us. Without accountability in our lives, each of us stands to have our lives end as tragically as Samson’s. With accountability, we increase exponentially the capacity to live faithful, holy lives.

I pray, by God’s grace, that mine will not end, and others will say his was a “tragic mess of a life.” I pray that don’t say it about you, either.

Until next time, keep looking up…