When the Honeymoon is Over…

You know my friend, Boudreaux? I think I’ve told you about him before. Well, Boudreaux and his wife, Clotile, go down to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and down there at St. Peter’s, they hold weekly husband’s marriage seminars.

At the session one week, the priest asked Boudreaux, who was approaching his 50th wedding anniversary to Clotile, to take a few minutes and share some insight into how he had managed to stay married to the same woman all these years.

Boudreaux replied to the assembled husbands: “Well, I’ve tried to treat her nice, spend the money on her, but best of all is, I took her to Italy for the 25th anniversary!”

The priest responded: “Boudreaux, you are an amazing inspiration to all the husbands here! Please tell us what you are planning for your wife for your 50th anniversary?”

Boudreaux proudly replied: “I’m gonna’ go pick her up.”

A METAPHOR FOR GRACE

Oh, that life were that easy, right? We all know it’s not. Those of us who have been married any length of time know that marriage is hard work. As we continue resetting our understanding of God’s grace and how we experience our relationship with God, I remind us that our relationship with God can somewhat be compared to a relationship of a husband and wife in marriage. There is the courtship stage of the relationship, where one partner “woos” the other, inviting them into a relationship. That courtship stage, when God is wooing us into a relationship with Himself, we experience God’s prevenient grace.

Then, there is the moment we say “I do” to God, when we are, by grace, able to acknowledge that God desires to have a relationship with us…we hear His voice…and we say “Yes” to Him. That moment, that part of the relationship, we experience the justifying grace of God. We experience the forgiveness of our sins, and we are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a husband and wife stand before the altar and publicly proclaim their love and say “I do” to each other, so we proclaim our love and commitment to Christ.

Something happens after the wedding ceremony, though. Yes, I know we like to think it’s called the honeymoon, and there is that honeymoon phase of marriage that everything seems to be wonderful. Of course, I can say I’ve been on an almost 40-year honeymoon, but that’s for another day. Seriously, though, we know what happens…and it’s called life. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, in the everyday times…when life happens.

A CALL TO HOLINESS

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy,” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

Let me pause here and insert that living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a sinless life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. Certainly, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, but he also delivers us from the power of sin.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will be angry. We will be frustrated. That’s life! In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser instincts of our fallen nature. Christ gives us new life. Christ gives us new hope. It is Christ who sustains us through the journey.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

Holiness is about growing up in love. It is growth, and as I anticipate the coming of summer and that first ripe tomato of the season, I’m reminded that growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give him something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

God’s sanctifying grace works on those problematic places…those sinful places in our lives. Conviction is part of His sanctifying work. Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of Scripture is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination… closer to holiness

THE HARD WORK OF HOLINESS

Any relationship takes work. Whether it’s the relationship between a husband and wife, or between parents and children, friends or co-workers. If we don’t do the work to sustain relationships, they will break down and there will be distance between the persons in the relationship. In our relationship with God, it is God’s desire to make us holy. I think I’ve written before that God is not nearly as concerned about our happiness as he is about our holiness.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12: 1-2 (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Church, says “be transformed” (Romans 12: 2). That’s passive, my friends. Transformation is something that happens to us and in us. We can’t say, “I’m going to transform myself, I’m going to change.” We may give it the old college try, but we’ll most probably fail because it is God and His grace that does the work.

I hear you asking, “How?” What makes us holy? I remind us of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability.

Accountability? Let’s not blow by that one. Yes, accountability is a spiritual discipline. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must hold each other accountable to living the “holy” life-the Christian life. We are meant to do life together. We can’t simply watch a brother or sister in Christ who struggles with sin and not offer encouragement, correction and hope. Jesus didn’t mind challenging his disciples when their faith waned, and he certainly never backed down from challenging the Pharisees. That’s accountability at work, and it is a means of experiencing God’s sanctifying grace.

We know about bible study, too. There is another one without which no transformation will occur. It is the spiritual discipline of submission.

Submission is the spiritual discipline that frees us from the burden of always needing to get our own way. In submission we learn to hold things loosely. We also learn to diligently watch over the spirit in which we hold others— honoring them, preferring them, loving them.

Submission is not age or gender specific. We learn to follow the wise counsel of the apostle Paul to ​“be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). In Ephesians 5, Paul is introducing the “household code” for the Christian, and he uses the analogy of husband and wife in speaking of the idea of mutual submission, but this submission is not limited to that relationship alone. Each of us is to engage in mutual submission out of reverence for Christ. 

The touchstone for the Christian understanding of submission is Jesus’s statement, ​“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).” This call of Jesus to ​“self-denial” is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. It has nothing to do with self-contempt or self-hatred. It does not mean the loss of our identity or our individuality. It means quite simply the freedom to give way to others. It means to hold the interests of others above our own. It means freedom from self-pity and self-absorption. 

Indeed, to save our life is to lose it; to lose our life for Christ’s sake is to save it (see Mark 8:35). The cross is the ultimate symbol of submission. ​Again, the Apostle Paul writes, “And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7 – 8).

Jesus didn’t just die a “cross death.” He lived a “cross life” of daily submission to God the Father. We, too are called to this constant, everyday ​“cross life” of submission. It is as we submit to the Holy Spirit that He does His transforming work in us and we grow in holiness by His sanctifying grace. 

A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other, except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.

For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day, the little old woman got very sick, and the doctor said she would not recover.

In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife’s bedside.

She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.

He asked her about the contents. “When we were to be married,” she said, “my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.”

The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.

“Honey,” he said, “that explains the dolls, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s the money I made from selling the dolls.” 

Day after day, year after year, life happens and we make the daily choice to submit to the other, and we wake up forty, fifty years later and the love has grown deeper and more meaningful, and we discover our life in the other. Ultimately, the other for the disciple of Jesus, is Jesus Himself. We love Him and we love like Him. That is holiness. That is God’s sanctifying grace at work.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Click here for the video version of today’s blog…

Just Trying to Make a Point…

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. I had three points (which some folks argue is two too many!), and I thought I was well prepared to make all three points. I was wrong. I did a terrible job making my third point (judge for yourself by clicking here), so I figured I’d use this space to make the point I wanted to make Sunday.

I should have known it was not going to be a good day for preaching when I mysteriously turned a six foot white rabbit into a six foot white monkey in my opening illustration. It was pretty much down hill from there. Oh, the rabbit that mysteriously became a monkey was the pooka from the movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. The premise of the sermon was a play off one line in the film–“the evening wore on” (See the clip here). Mark in his gospel uses a turn of phrase that is (to me) equally compelling–“just at sunrise” (Mark 16: 1-8).

The point? The sunrise (the resurrection) overcomes the darkness…of sin with the promise of forgiveness, of death with the promise of our resurrection, and of fear with the promise of eternal life. It was the last point where I failed to make my point (not counting the whole rabbit/monkey affair).

Here is what I said:

As the evening wore on, the darkness of death would also shadow the promise of eternal life, but just at sunrise the joy comes. The 24-hour news cycle is killing us. We hear the news, see the Facebook feeds and watch in amazement as the culture continues its steep decline. The evening appears to go on endlessly. We long for the sunrise. We wonder when will the night be over.

Are you looking for a sunrise? Turn off CNN and Fox News. Take a break from scrolling your Facebook feed, and pick up a bible. Open its pages and pray. There you’ll meet the risen Jesus, and you’ll experience the sunrise, and you’ll know a hope that never disappoints.

James Moore tells the story when The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers.

“Compliments of the Captain,” the sailor said. “He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you’d still like to be rescued!”     

Sometimes the headlines do scare us. There are times we feel evil is winning, but then along comes Easter, to remind us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the grave. God keeps his promises. We can’t always see it until the sunrise.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad point, but the point I really wanted to make is that the darkness of fear has overshadowed our deep theology surrounding death itself. If nothing else, the past year has shown that the church’s theology of death doesn’t extend much past the point of dying. I do have to be careful how I say this. It could too easily be politicized, and that is not my intention, at all.

It’s just that I’ve watched with some amazement over the past year as many “followers of Christ” acted as though death was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. Death, for a believer, is not the end. This life…this earthly life…isn’t all there is. The resurrection (Easter) is our reminder of the promise of eternal life.

We say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The doctrine of eternal life is historic, orthodox Christian theology. Because of Easter we do not face death with fear, but with peace and with an assurance that Christ waits for us just beyond the veil that separates this life from the next one. Or, so the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthian church that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

It was also the Apostle Paul who shared his own inner conflict with the church at Philippi:

20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 

Philippians 1: 20 – 25

Yes, I know that “eternal life” is more quality of life than quantity of life. I know eternal life is living a Christ-centered life now, but even acknowledging that fact should never diminish our understanding of the glory we shall one day share with Jesus Christ, Himself.

Embracing a broader theology of death doesn’t compel us to seek to become martyrs, nor does it cause us to take foolish chances with the gift that is this life, but it should free us from cowering in fear of death’s approach. The reality is that the death rate is 100%. If we live long enough everyone of us will die. And, we all know there are times when death does, in fact, come as a friend. The question becomes will we face death with confidence, hope and faith, or will we do so in the darkness of fear?

If we live long enough everyone of us will die.

Me? I’m going to chose to live in the confident expectation of eternal life because “just at sunrise,” hope dawned. Yes, I’m going to live today for Jesus. I’m going to love Him, and I’m going to love my neighbor, and by God’s grace, I’m going to love my enemy. I’m not going to hasten death (at least not intentionally), but I’m not going to live in fear of it, either.

It was April Fool’s Day 2007 and Vanessa and I had just dropped our daughters off for youth group at the church. We decided we needed our favorite indulgence, so we headed to the local Dairy Queen for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. We had made our turn onto the Main Street of our town and as we slowed to turn into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car quickly approaching. I shouted to Vanessa, “Hold on, they’re going to hit us!”

Hit us, they did. I’m told by folks who witnessed the event that my truck flipped four times into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Thankfully, Vanessa and I escaped relatively unscathed with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises, but I told Vanessa later that as we were making those flips the only thought I had was, “Death ain’t no big deal.” I’ve since thought, “That’s the most expensive ice cream I never had!”

I share that story not arrogantly, but confidently…confident in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom I believe. That’s the point I was trying to make. I’ll not say it’s the whole point of Easter, but it is certainly one of the main points of it. And, it’s not to say that death is not a big deal. It is a big deal, but for the believer, it’s not the only deal, nor is it necessarily the worst deal.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t make the point better on Sunday. Maybe it was the rabbit that threw me off my game…or the monkey. Hopefully, I’ve made the point better here, but if not, there’s always next Easter.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus Needs Your Ass…Again!

So, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. Because I have several things going on this week, and in honor of Palm Sunday, I’m digging back into the archives of my previous blog, theunexpectedds.com for a replay of one of the most read blogs from that site. This post originally appeared March 21, 2013. Eight years seems like a generation ago. I’ve made a few edits, but enjoy the repeat! 😉

It really is dawning on me that I have to start preaching again every Sunday. I’m preaching this Sunday, and I’ve returned again to the lectionary to begin preparations. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, it’s Palm Sunday. But, then again…it’s Palm Sunday. How does one remain fresh on a passage of Scripture that is preached every year at this same time. What is God saying to us this year that He hasn’t said for over two thousand years? Yes, I feel the pain of all my sisters and brothers who are busy preparing for their Palm Sunday sermon.

I have often sought to title my sermon and have the title serve as the “big idea” of the sermon. I try to let the Scripture guide me to the point of the message and then formulate a title around that point. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this week (while spending long hours in the Cabinet room dealing with appointments) and it’s a little more difficult because it’s Palm Sunday.

There is rich fodder in Luke 19:28-40. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry is filled with imagery for good sermon titles, and points to make. Of course, there is the whole matter of expectations. The crowd had their expectations of Jesus. The disciples had their expectations of Jesus. The Pharisees had their expectations of Jesus. Jesus had his own expectations of what the week ahead was to be like, and he was the only one who knew what lay at the end of the week.

Imagine how our lives would be different if we expected that next week would be our last. I am reminded of what Steve Jobs said after he discovered he was dying with cancer: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yeah. I could do something with that. I might title it “Expecting the Unexpected” or “What Did You Expect?” That could work.

I might make something out of the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. After all, that’s what this whole scene is about, isn’t it? I mean donkeys and palm branches take us back to prophetic readings in Zechariah and the Psalms that deal with the Messiah. Jesus was making a great proclamation by choosing to enter Jerusalem this way. We could talk about that, and I could have a title like “A New Kind of King.”

Let’s see…there’s the issue of Jesus crying. How about “From Cheers to Tears”?

Or, Jesus talking to the Pharisees about the rocks crying out in praise. Maybe “The First True Rock Star”?

I think what I really like is the part about Jesus, his disciples and the donkey. That’s an interesting account. Jesus simply sends his disciples to get the colt. “Go over there and get it. You’ll know it when you see it.” And, the disciples go, and sure enough they find the donkey, and sure enough, the owners asks the disciples, “What are you doing with my ass?” I can imagine the disciples’ response being, “The Lord needs your ass.”

Well, now, that’s a loaded question, and the response is equally as loaded. I can probably get a lot of mileage out of this point. Do we all have an ass Jesus can use? Not quite sure how the folks this Sunday would respond when they show up and the title of the sermon is printed across the bulletin “Jesus Needs Your Ass.” I suspect it would be somewhat akin to the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus came riding into town that day. Hm? Maybe I’m on to something here.

This is a confusing scene for us who live in 21st century North America. Seriously, think of it this way. Two guys walk up to your garage, jump in your brand new Ford F-150, start it up and begin to drive away. You look at them and ask, “What are you doing with my truck?” One of the guys responds, “The Lord needs it,” and you just look dumbfounded as they drive away. If you’re like me, I’m calling the police to report a stolen vehicle. Not these owners on this day.

So why would they let the disciples take the donkey? Well, there might be this whole hospitality thing going on. Remember, it’s the beginning of the Passover week, and the city is teeming with activity. Travelers from all over the ancient world are making their way to Jerusalem. Hospitality was a big thing in 1st century eastern culture. To be known as inhospitable was one of the worst things you could be. To lend the donkey was seen simply as a way to help another.

Another reason may be pride on the part of the owners. Jesus was in town. I don’t think there would have been too many folks in Bethany or Bethphage that would not have known who Jesus was. Remember again, that it was only a couple days earlier that Jesus was in town doing a little thing like raising a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Recall the scene from John 11…there are a lot of people who witnessed that miracle, and word got around pretty fast. Jesus had made quite the name for himself in that little miracle. He was a famous rabbi now. There would have been honor in allowing a famous rabbi to ride my donkey.

Then again, some have suggested that Jesus had pre-arranged this scene. Perhaps the animal belonged to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus had already made preparations with them for the disciples to come get the donkey. I don’t believe this to be the case, otherwise, Luke, the historian, one who is intentional in giving us details, would have given us a clue that this was what had happened. Surely this was not simply some pre-arranged business deal on Jesus’ part.

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps the key is found in the use of the term “Lord.” Perhaps the owners knew who Jesus was, and when the disciples referred to “The Lord,” there was little doubt in the owners minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If Jesus needed something they had, to offer it to him would be an act of devotion and love. No, it became an act of worship.

Here’s why I believe this is the case. Two significant pieces of evidence: One, no questions on the part of the owners. What questions would you and I ask? 

  • What are you doing with my donkey?
  • Who is “the Lord?”
  • How far will you take him?
  • Will you bring him back when you’re done?

Again, these are not details Luke is likely to omit. But he does.

The second significant piece of evidence Luke gives us is the telling of the story of the king and the ten servants immediately preceding this scene. Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who went away to be crowned king, but before he leaves he entrusts his silver to ten of his servants. Upon his return he calls the servants to give account of his silver. The first two return the king’s silver with interest. The third, because he was afraid of the king, simply returned what had been given to him. The story is about stewardship. 

Then, Luke gives a living example of the parable…a man with a donkey, offering what he has to the Jesus. It was an investment, and no small one at that. This was a valuable asset for the owners. Think about wealth in the 1stcentury…often measured by the ownership of livestock. The ass was referred to as a “beast of burden,” meaning it was used to transport things…it was the 1st century equivalent of a moving van. But, the ass was used for various tasks around the family farm and so it was also the equivalent of the modern day tractor. And, then, like Jesus does in today’s passage, people would use the ass as a means of transportation…the equivalent of a car. A moving van, a tractor, a car…a very valuable animal indeed, and here, Jesus commands a brand new one, one that has never been ridden. This was no small request on Jesus’ part. This was a sacrificial gift.

The ass was a gift given to Jesus to help usher in the Kingdom. This was the dawning of the Kingdom. This unknown, unnamed person probably had little clue what he was involving himself in, but he knew Jesus, and he trusted Jesus, and he gave to Jesus…and literally, he helped usher in the Kingdom. His gift changed the world.

What is Jesus asking for from us? What do we have to offer that will usher in the Kingdom? What resource is available to be utilized to literally carry Jesus down the road?

“Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.

Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.

Whichever, that’s your donkey.

Whichever, your donkey belongs to him.

It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’”

Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, pg. 54

Our resources, our time, our money, our talents, our jobs, our families, our homes…our lives are gift from God for God. What has been entrusted to you for Jesus to use? What ass is Jesus asking for?

Nah! I probably won’t use that title. A bit too shocking. A bit too much to leave to the imagination. A bit too much to be misconstrued. It’s a novel thought, though. Maybe it’s time we were a bit more shocking in our preaching. After all, it will be a shocking end to the week when Jesus rises from the grave.

My! My! My! The task of preaching on Palm Sunday and Holy Week. What’s a preacher to do? I suppose it’s time to live into the reality that Jesus needs my ass.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Spiritual Seeking…

There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism. 

I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.

Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.

That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.

Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.

We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:


“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:


“The Lord gave me a message. He said, [5] "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.

The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.

God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).

Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:


“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).

That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”

The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.

Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.

The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives. 

There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.

The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.

Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. 

One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. 

Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. 

A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” 

And Christina went home.

God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it. 

It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.

It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Word for the Day…

It’s Tuesday! That means I have to write something. No, there’s no law that says I do, and it’s only been a few weeks since I didn’t write on a Tuesday (I wrote on Wednesday that week), but writing has become a discipline for me, so it is a way for me to hold myself accountable. Of course, if you’re going to write, it helps to have something to write about. Paraphrasing an old preacher: “It’s better to have something to write than to have to write something.” Yet, I write for the sake of writing. I suppose this is your invitation to join me in my scattered thoughts.

TRUST?

There is one word on my mind today that I really should write about. That word? Trust. Actually, what’s on my mind in the trust that is lacking in our world today. It bothers me. Hardly anyone trusts anyone else these days. Democrats don’t trust Republicans. That’s fine. Republicans return the favor. Average everyday citizens don’t trust the government. That’s fine, too. The government pretty much returns the favor.

I could expand the thought to include the lack of trust that exists in the religious world, too. Let’s face it, the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the split in the Anglican communion and the soon-coming split in the United Methodist Church has created an environment where trust has been greatly diminished in the venerable institution that is called “The Church.” I could write more on the lack of trust in the church, but it wouldn’t be helpful in restoring trust (it might actually hurt), and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’ve been committed the ministry of reconciliation, so I’ll just move on from the topic.

Of course, there is a growing distrust of our educational institutions, as well. Let’s see? What are people distrustful of? “Progressive” curriculum. Parents who chose to home-school. Teacher’s unions. The student loan debacle. School closings during the pandemic. I don’t know, these seem to only be scratching the surface of where people are displaying their mistrust of the educational institution.

I could probably go on, but I hope you get my point. Trust, or the lack thereof, is on my mind this morning, but I refuse to let distrust dominate my thoughts today. Rather, I’m going to chose another word–grace. Why? Because as I ponder the trust deficit among us, I am concerned about the part I’ve played in increasing that deficit, and I am reminded of how much I need grace.

GRACE

I am going to chose this morning to allow my mind to be drawn to what has been called the Magna Carta of grace:

     8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2: 8 – 10 (New Living Translation

Grace, God’s grace is the only thing that will save us, and I need it in abundance, not only today, but everyday, so I’ll focus on His grace today, rather than my distrust. God’s grace can take a heinous murderer and turn him into the world’s greatest evangelist. That’s powerful stuff right there!

Need I remind you of the Apostle Paul? When the church was in its infancy, Paul was a Pharisee threatened by the insurgency being created by these rabble rousers who followed an itinerant rabbi put to death by the Roman authorities. Paul was so zealous to squash this “movement” that he went and offered himself as a bounty hunter to the religious authorities so he could hunt down these people who followed “The Way.”

He was successful, too. The Book of Acts tells us a young man named Saul was consenting at the death of Stephen. But, we also know Paul as the person who would pen 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. We also know Paul as the person most responsible for modern Christian theology, and we know Paul as the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity into Europe. This Paul, would place God’s grace at the center of his theology, and thus it became the center of ours, too.

It would be really easy to define grace again, but rather than do that, I invite you to click here. Suffice it to say that for reasons I don’t fully understand, yet rooted in the nature of God, God gives Himself to us, attaches Himself to us, and acts to rescue us. Because of His mercy and love, God saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. If we were to read Ephesians 2: 1 – 7, we would see that Paul is clear—wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. The gospel of grace says God gives Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, and if so, then we are given significance, and we find our value in God’s relationship to us. The attention is not on us, though, but upon the One who loves us so deeply. 

THE CHALLENGE OF GRACE

The gospel of grace challenges us. It challenges us by the very fact that a murderer’s life can be changed. We applaud the Apostle Paul for the transformation that God did in his life. Our trust in the gospel of grace wanes though when we think about Jeffery Dahmer (caution–graphic material). Dahmer was a child molesting, cannibalistic, serial killer responsible for raping, murdering, dismembering and consuming 17 men and boys. After his arrest and conviction Dahmer had, by all accounts, an authentic conversion to Christianity. He experienced the gospel of grace, and that makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Why are we surprised that God could do that for Jeffery Dahmer? He does it for us, doesn’t he? J. D. Walt, who was Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Seminary for a while, expresses this sentiment in a recent devotional:

“Grace is incomprehensibly comforting yet incomparably devastating. Grace kills the human made economy of performance and merit. Grace breaks down every good thought (and every bad thought) I have about myself and replaces them with God’s good thought about me alone. He does the same for Jeffrey Dahmer and Saul of Tarsus. In and of myself, I bring before Almighty God the same merit that they do– which is none. If I can enter on these terms, I will receive the very same gift they do– which is everything. If I can’t exchange my nothing for God’s everything, just like everybody else, Jesus may as well be speaking to me when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’.”

J. D. Walt, The Seedbed Daily Text

There is so much more I want to write about grace, but my time is short this morning. I’m simply going to put distrust out of my mind and focus on the wonderful gift God has given me (and you, too!)–the gift of grace. I need to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God this morning. By grace, I’ll see it. I have to trust Him. I have no other choice. May I invite you to do the same?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Life’s Greatest Challenge…

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning to love again. I say again. It may be for the first time, but I rather hope that it’s simply a reset of love. I have learned that love from the biblical perspective—that sacrificial, self-denying love—is first, the greatest characteristic that is displayed by those called disciples of Christ. I’ve also learned that love is also the greatest commandment as Jesus himself affirmed that we are to love God and love others. What I’m learning more and more is that love—transformative, life-giving love—is also the greatest challenge I will face as a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells me as much in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7. Most times, it’s enough to let scripture speak for itself:

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. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5: 43 – 48 (New Living Translation)

The Transformative Power of Love

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has called his disciples together and said, “Come here and sit down. Let me tell you what life will look like as my disciples.” Jesus is seeking to give his disciples a new worldview—not so much new as corrected because Jesus wasn’t making new laws for his disciples but correcting some false assumptions about the law as it had evolved through the years.

Jesus would say to them, “You’ve heard it said…,” yet it’s like Jesus was recalling other parts of the law—parts like Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Or, perhaps Exodus 23: 4 -5–“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s remember what the Law really says, and I remind you that we love everyone—even our enemies.”

Hard words, indeed! Love God? Sure. Love our neighbors? Working on that one. But, love our enemy? How do we do that? More importantly, why would we do that? Because Jesus knew that love–biblical love–is the most transformative force in the universe.

A little girl was given candy by her friend. She got home to show her mother, and mother said, “Your friend was really sweet.”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “she gave me more, but I gave some away.”

Mom said, “Who did you give it too?”

The daughter said, “I gave it to a girl who pushes me off the sidewalk and makes faces at me.”

“Why in the world would you do that,” the mother asked?

“Because I thought it would help her know I want to be kind to her, and maybe then she won’t be so unkind to me,” the daughter replied.

Perhaps Solomon knew something about the transformative power of love when he wrote “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25: 21 – 22).

I’ve learned that love–any love–requires an emotional engagement. If I love God with all my heart and soul, that requires emotional engagement. If I would love my neighbor, I must be moved with compassion (or pity), and that’s an emotions. If I would love my enemies, it’s really no different. It’s likely only to be that I hate them, but guess what? Hate is an emotion! The truth is our engagement may not necessarily be a positive one, but at least it’s a starting place.

Love is a Decision

Beyond connecting on the emotional level, I’ve also learned that love is a decision of the will. It is a decision of the will that transforms the heart. It is a victory of over our rational and our natural instincts. In Jesus’ day, the natural and rational had taken over the law. The Law was used for revenge and retribution. If we were to read the surrounding passages of scripture we’d hear all that “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” talk. That’s our natural inclination. Jesus wants to elevate us to a different level. He wants to elevate his disciples to God’s level, and he knew our love for even our enemies would do just that.

Corrie ten Boom shares this true story:

     “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

     He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

     Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

     As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

The love that loves our enemies is not a natural thing. It is a supernatural thing. It comes only from God, yet it comes when we act in obedience to his call on our lives. See, we don’t have to like it to be faithful, we just have to do it.

If love is a decision of the will, I have to make three decisions to be obedient to Jesus. First, I must decide to bless my enemies. That’s how Luke’s gospel records this account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6: 27 – 28 (NIV), Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this same sermon, Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek,” and he introduces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. That’s what we do when we decide to bless our enemies.

Robert E. Lee was asked what he thought of a fellow Confederate officer who had made derogatory remarks about Lee. General Lee rated him to be a rather satisfactory fellow. Perplexed, the man who asked Lee the question said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you?”

“I know,” Lee responded, “but, you asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

The second decision I need to make is to pray for my enemies. I am thoroughly convinced that I can’t pray for a person and hate them at the same time. It’s impossible. William Barclay says, “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.” While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us. I must decide to bless my enemies, and pray for my enemies.

Finally, I need to decide to forgive my enemies. Forgiveness, like love itself, is a choice. As Corrie Ten Boom gave testimony, forgiveness was transformative, not only for the relationship between her and the guard, but inside herself. Why is that so? Because forgiveness is what makes us “perfect.” The word Matthew uses for perfect is teleios, and it doesn’t mean without flaw or blemish, as we so often use it in English.

While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us.

The word Matthew uses means “brought to completion, mature, full-grown.” We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like God, and when we love our enemies we are acting like children of God.  The Bible teaches that we realize our full humanity only by becoming more and more like Christ. The one thing that distinguishes us and makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for people, no matter what they do to us. We realize our humanity, we become perfect, when we learn to forgive as God forgives and love as God loves.

Bambalang

That’s exactly what the people in the village of Bambalang, in Cameroon, Africa discovered. Pastor Pius Mbahlegue tells the story in March, 2011, the village had a dispute with a neighboring village over traditional burial rights. The rival village attacked. 300 homes were burned, and 3,000 people were displaced. The residents of Bambalang were unable to return to their village until the Cameroon military came and drove the rival villagers out.

The Bambalang residents returned and found nothing left. Even their rice field had been burned. The attack began on a Sunday and lasted through the following Thursday. As the villagers returned to worship the following Sunday, it was the very day planned to dedicate the Gospel of Luke which had been translated into their native language. As the residents read from Luke’s Gospel, they came to chapter 6:27 and read of loving your enemies.

One resident, upon reading the words in her own language said it was like a dream, that the words were for her and for her village, and with that the villagers made the decision to overcome hate with love, and to love the rival villagers with the love of Christ. Thus, began a transformation in them, and in their relationship with the rival village. As one villager said, “I can’t hate them and not forgive them because I would want people to forgive me.” 

I’ve learned a lot as I’ve sought to reset the love in my life. I’ve learned that love is, indeed, hard work. It’s hard work to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And, it’s hard work to love my neighbor as myself. As hard work as those two loves are, there is no harder work than loving my enemy. It is, perhaps, this life’s greatest challenge.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning to Love (Part 2)…

There is a passage in 1 John that haunts me often: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). It haunts me in light of the second part of the “Great Commandment” that Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question in Mark 12:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28 – 31

I know that I love that which I’m passionate about, and as I’ve contemplated the first part of Jesus’s great commandment, I pray that I’m passionate about God, and that to love Him passionately is to desire Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to discipline our lives to be with him through windows of grace like prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and others.

There is, then, this second part that troubles me–love my neighbor as myself. As Jesus gives the commandment, it seems as though the two are eternally woven together, that there cannot be the one without the other. It seems as the Apostle John views them the same way.

The starting place, perhaps, is to love myself. That seems a bit selfish on its face. Love myself? That seems too deep a subject to delve into in this blog. There would be too much navel gazing that would, in fact, become self-centered. Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Let me focus on that one…

Jesus Tells a Story

The thought makes me like another lawyer Jesus encountered. We read that story in Luke’s gospel. You can read the encounter here, but let me offer the Lynn paraphrase. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story to a lawyer who wanted to know how to receive eternal life, and he answered his own question with a reciting of the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6—“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, he adds, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke adds in verse 29 that the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to justify himself. After all, you really don’t expect me to love everyone, do you? If we want to justify what we do, we can simply define people and circumstances using our own definition and thereby absolve ourselves from any guilt for not doing what we knew we should do, or for doing something we knew we shouldn’t. We’ve all got a little bit of lawyer in us, don’t we?

In response, Jesus tells the story: A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They beat him up, stripped him and left him for dead beside the road. We could stop right there and say the man had no business going from Jerusalem to Jericho alone. It was a road known to be frequented by bandits. See, it was the man’s own fault. He should have been smarter. He took a risk and the risk didn’t pay off. Certainly, that’s what those who stood around Jesus listening that day would have thought initially. It’s the man’s own fault. How often have we seen someone broken and beat up by life, and we thought, “Well, they made an unwise decision. They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it?” Probably, much too often.

Jesus continues by saying a Jewish priest came along, but saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. Next, a Levite (or Temple assistant) came by, and likewise went around the man on the other side of the road. The good Jews listening to the story would have said, “Yup. That’s what I would have done.”

Neither a priest nor a Levite could sully themselves with the blood of a beaten man. It would have rendered them unclean and they would not be fit for service in the Temple. They would have to go through a drawn-out cleansing process, and it simply was not worth the effort. They made a prioritized decision. They had more pressing business to which to attend.

Then, Jesus says, a dreaded (Jesus’s word–not mine) Samaritan came by. Jesus is setting his listeners up, and he’s also setting up this lawyer. Samaritan’s were hated by Jews, and no good Jew, would want a Samaritan to help even if they were lying in a ditch dying. That’s exactly what the listeners and the lawyer are thinking, but Jesus’ story reminds us our neighbor isn’t necessarily who we think it is.

So, this Samaritan sees the man, and Jesus says, “he felt deep pity.” So, the Samaritan kneels, soothes and bandages the wounds. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and cares for him. The next day, he offers the innkeeper money to take care of the man. He does, after all, have to go on about his business, but he tells the innkeeper, “if you have any other expenses beyond what I’ve paid you, when I come back, I’ll settle up with you.”

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now who was a neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Yup. Now, go and do the same.”

Love IS Emotional

So, what can I learn from this encounter about showing love to my neighbor? First, I can acknowledge that love engages me on an emotional level. Certainly, that’s true with romantic love, but I’m reminded that we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about “agape” love—that sacrificial, self-denying kind of love. Yet, even agape love engages us on an emotional level.

The Samaritan, Jesus said, “felt deep pity.” In other words, he felt compassion. Pity and compassion are both emotions, so love is emotional, but it isn’t ONLY emotional. It is the emotion, the compassion that motivates us to act, so even though it may be emotional, it becomes tangible. Compassion was the Samaritan’s motivation, and it had nothing to do with the fact the man should not have ventured down the Jericho road alone. We think, for some reason, that because a person has made a decision that led to bad consequences that we should have less compassion for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is broken and battered, we have a responsibility to love them the more. 

We should have compassion because Jesus had compassion on the crowds who sought him:

Jesus traveled through all the cities and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And wherever he went, he healed people of every sort of disease and illness. He felt great pity for the crowds, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9: 35-36

The NIV says, “he was moved with compassion.” Jesus, moved with compassion, healed, restored, forgave and died. He did it all for us because he loved us. What started in the heart of God as compassion, mercy and pity ended at the cross in deep love and grace, and from that came the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls.

Love IS Tangible

So, love is rooted on the emotional level, but quickly becomes tangible. If we love others, it will begin as we connect on an emotional level with others. We must remove ourselves from the center of life and feel compassion and concern for others. Else, we’ll be like the priest and the Levite. We’ll say, “I’ve got other things that demand my attention. I have my agenda. You’re not a priority right now.” To love others is to see a need and to be moved with compassion so that we desire to see lives different, better, more whole.

Emotion sustains us as we move to action. Without emotional engagement, the commitment to act will wane. Love is both emotional commitment and tangible action—the action is like that we see in the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knelt, bandaged the wounds and carried the man to safety. The tangible act confirmed his compassion.

Love IS Sacrificial

But, this love was also sacrificial. The Samaritan had already invested his time by stopping, bandaging and carrying the man to the inn, and yes, even he took the risk of being rejected. Some Jews would rather die than have a Samaritan help them, much less touch them. It’s possible that the beaten man could have said, “Get away from me. I’ll die first!” I think, though, that only healthy people are quite so stubborn. When we’re desperately clinging to life, we’ll grasp at any straw, accept any help. The prospect of terminal circumstances changes our perspective rather quickly. Yet, rejection remains a real possibility. The lesson? We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

The Samaritan not only sacrificed his time and energy, but he sacrificed his money, as well. He paid the innkeeper to care for the man. His money became a tool he used to demonstrate his love for others. Money is amoral. Our morals determine how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. If we ever get to the point that we see money as anything other than a tool for promoting life-transforming ministry, that’s the day our discipleship begins to die because that’s the day we turn inward and become selfish. 

Financial resources can be blessing, or they can be curse. Giving generously is a core value of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a means of showing our love in tangible ways. If we utilize money as a means of glorifying God, we’ll discover His blessings in ways we can only begin to imagine. But, if we grasp tightly to money in fear of losing it, we’ll discover that it will soon vanish, and we’ll be left wondering what happened, and why God seems so far away.     

One more thing I see, and that is that love is on-going. Loving others is not a one-time endeavor. Love is lived in relationship, and the Samaritan said to the inn keeper, “When I come back…” He gave money to the inn-keeper, and he had every intention of returning to check on things.

Life transformation happens in relationship. That’s why a church’s mission outreach must be more deep than broad. We can do a little good in a lot of places, but little transformation takes place, either for others or for us. Or, we can do a lot in a few places, and thereby build relationships that begin to transform the world, one relationship at a time.

I’m not sure that I’ve really learned anything about loving my neighbor as myself or not. Most days, I don’t even really know where to start, but if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned maybe I need to start with the person in front of me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning How to Love (Part 1)…

I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m thinking a lot about love this week. After all, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I shared a message with the folks at Beulah Community Church on the biblical understanding of love (watch it here). As much as I think I understand the concept of love, I find that I struggle greatly with the actual act of loving. That’s the rub for me.

Those of us who have grown up in church have heard these words all our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31, Lynn Paraphrase). We’ve heard them, and I, for one, have always asked, “What does it mean to love God?” Let’s not talk about loving others. I want to know what it looks like to love God? What does it feel like to love God? Sometimes I think it’s easier to love others than it is to love God. Of course, the Apostle John wonders, “if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:21). I assume if you’re reading this that you do, deep in your heart want to love God, too. Like me, you just want to know how.

An Encounter with Jesus

I think to know how to love God, we first need to understand the context in which Jesus made the statement. Jesus made the statement after his authority was challenged. The Pharisees were attempting to entrap him, so they had challenged him on the issue of Jews paying taxes. Pharisees didn’t like paying taxes to the occupying government, and worse, they hated the Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. Inhabitants were responsible for paying 1% of the income as an income tax, but in addition to that tax there were import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, an emergency tax and others. Sounds familiar to me! Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” He wasn’t going to be trapped.

Then, some Sadducees approached and asked a question about the resurrection. Hey? If the Pharisees couldn’t trap him, perhaps the Sadducees might. Sadducees and Pharisees were like political parties in the United States, except they were religious parties and they held differing opinions on theological issues. It might be more akin to Baptists and Methodists today. They’re both Christian, but with different understandings on certain issues. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, and to prove their point, they chose to challenge Jesus with an outrageous puzzle. We won’t go into what Jesus said to them. Suffice it to say, Jesus answered well.

One lawyer who had been witnessing the entire episode perceived that Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, so he thought he might give it a try. Now, think about this: a lawyer is steeped in the law—even the religious law. So, the lawyer asks a religious question, and if he was asking a religious question, he was expecting a religious answer. That’s exactly what Jesus gave him.

Jesus answered the Jewish lawyer with the Jewish “Shema.” It’s Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, and every self-respecting Jewish male recited it every morning as part of his daily devotional. Listen to Deut. 6: 4 – 9: 

4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Loving God, for the Jew, as it was meant to be, was about living in the constant awareness of God’s presence and grace. The purpose of the Shema was to incorporate God into daily life. Daily living was the context for teaching children about God. Daily living was the context for experiencing God. God was not just for one day a week. God was for every day. God IS for every day. If we don’t experience God somewhere, some way every day, we need to question whether we experience God at all.

Jesus told the lawyer, “Love God with all your life—heart and soul (the emotional & spiritual self), mind (the intellectual self), and strength (the physical self). Jesus was saying, “Employ all your energies—put your whole self into it. In one word—be passionate. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’

What are we passionate about? That’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s fair because we know we invest in those things we’re passionate about. Here’s a list of passions. Where’s yours?

  • Movies
  • Clothes
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Music
  • Food (my personal favorite)

We can even be passionate about faith, but that’s usually only one day a week. If we’re not careful, we can let life steal our passion. That’s what happens to most of us in our relationship with God.

Passion Killers

Pastor Rick Warren has a list of what he calls passion killers. He says these things are what kill our passion for Christ. First is an unbalanced schedule. Life is about balance. Too much of anything, even a good thing can be bad. Work is a great thing, but too much work can kill our passion for our spouse, our hobby, our children, or our relationship with God. 

Second is an unused talent. I know when I was a DS, and I wasn’t preaching every week, I could feel myself losing that passion. I’m passionate about preaching. I may not be very good at it, but I love to do it. You pay me to be your pastor, but I preach for free. 

A third passion killer Warren identifies is unconfessed sin. Guilt is a great passion killer. Warren says that, “We don’t walk around thinking, ‘I have a sin in my life. I am a guilty person’.” Rather, we rationalize it. Consciously we think, “It’s no big deal,” but subconsciously it gnaws at us. We don’t have to carry that guilt, though. Christ died for our sin. Confess it, and move on. Don’t let guilt kill your passion for God.

A fourth passion killer is unresolved conflict. Conflict divides us from one another. If there’s conflict at work, you don’t want to go to work. If there’s conflict at home, you don’t want to go home. If there’s conflict at church, you don’t want to go to church. Conflict will kill our passion for anything, and that includes God.

A fifth passion killer Warren notes is an unsupported lifestyle. He says we’re created for relationship, and if we live in loneliness, we find our passion for most all life diminished. God created us for relationship with himself, and with each other.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is about rediscovering that passion. How do we restore the passion in our lives? Three words: desire, devotion and discipline.

Three D’s

Desire is the first characteristic of loving God. We’ll never love God unless we first desire Him. We pursue the passions of our lives –whatever they are—yet, they too often leave us unfulfilled. It might just be because our hearts are made for God. I love how the wisdom writer says it in Ecclesiastes 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Devotion is the next characteristic of loving God. There is no better picture of absolute devotion than a man and woman standing at the altar on their wedding day. The smiles, the endearing gazes into each other’s eyes, the little wink as the vows are spoken to each other, and the anticipation of the coming night.

I get a good view of this every time I perform a wedding, and even the worst couple, in that moment, are carried away in heart, soul, mind and strength. The great A. W. Tozer said, “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” That is devotion, and as husband and wife stand at the altar hopelessly devoted to each other, I am reminded that we are the bride of Christ.

The final word is discipline. I don’t like that word mainly because I have little self-will. It makes me cringe and think I have to do legalistic things to meet God’s approval. I think it’s being “obedient.” Obedience is not how we love God. Obedience is a response to love. Obedience is evidence of our love. Discipline is not law, but is a means of experiencing God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, confession, Bible reading, solitude, worship and prayer are tangible ways we incorporate God in the every day.

As I write this morning, I am reminded that Lent begins Wednesday, and Lent is the perfect time to practice the spiritual disciplines more intentionally so that I can love God more meaningfully. Oh, and there’s one more discipline—the sacrament of Holy communion—it, too, is a way to incorporate God in the everyday. That’s what it means to love God—experiencing Him every day!

How will you experience God today…and everyday?

Until next time, keep looking up…

All I See is Trees…

Helen Keller said, “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” Those of us who follow Jesus often have this problem. We just can’t seem to see what Jesus is doing in us, or what he wants to do through us.

Jesus’ first disciples were that way, too. They could see all that Jesus had done, but they could not see the greater vision Jesus was casting among them. So, what does Jesus do? Jesus uses a man with a vision problem to demonstrate to his disciples (and, I might add, the Pharisees) that they had a vision problem. Maybe I can use their experience to correct my vision. Their encounter with Jesus is recorded in Mark 8:

14 But the disciples had forgotten to bring any food. They had only one loaf of bread with them in the boat. 15 As they were crossing the lake, Jesus warned them, “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

16 At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread. 17 Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? 18 ‘You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?’ Don’t you remember anything at all? 19 When I fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up afterward?”

“Twelve,” they said.

20 “And when I fed the 4,000 with seven loaves, how many large baskets of leftovers did you pick up?”

“Seven,” they said.

21 “Don’t you understand yet?” he asked them.

22 When they arrived at Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and they begged him to touch the man and heal him. 23 Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. Then, spitting on the man’s eyes, he laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything now?”

24 The man looked around. “Yes,” he said, “I see people, but I can’t see them very clearly. They look like trees walking around.”

25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t go back into the village on your way home.”

Mark 8:14-26 (New Living Translation)

Seeing Without Seeing

The Gospel of Mark is unique in that it is not a biography of Jesus, like Matthew or Luke. It does not dwell on the family history with all the begets and genealogy. Mark’s Gospel is a record of Jesus’ actions. Mark’s action-packed Gospel is the only one that records the healing of this blind man, and it is the only recorded miracle in the Bible where progressive healing was used.

The background for the encounter is important to understand. At the end of chapter seven, Jesus and the disciples are in the region of the 10 cities, and while there he heals (instantaneously) a deaf mute man.

While still in the region, a large crowd gathered. It reached dinner time, and just as on another occasion when a crowd was gathered at dinner time, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd. This time, the disciples take their seven loaves of bread, Jesus blesses it and commences to feed 4,000 men…not counting women and children…so roughly 8,000. When the meal is done, the disciples pick up seven baskets full of left overs. They all get in a boat and head over to a place called Dalmanutha.

In Dalmanutha a group of Pharisees come to argue with Jesus, demanding that he give them a sign from heaven. Jesus told them he wasn’t going to give them a sign, got back in the boat and headed back across the Sea of Galilee. It’s then the disciples discover they’ve only got one loaf of bread. Who knows what happened to the seven baskets of left overs, but they only have one loaf of bread between them.

Jesus overhears their conversation and tells them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

Well, the disciples think Jesus is talking about them not having any bread, so they start arguing among themselves. Jesus just looks at them and says, “Seriously, guys! Don’t you get it? You can see, but you don’t have vision? You have ears, but you can’t hear? I fed 5,000 men and 4,000 men with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Don’t you think I can feed you?” The disciples could see, but they lacked vision. They could see, but only partially.

It’s then that the blind man is brought to Jesus. Going into great detail, Mark describes how Jesus whisks the blind man out of the village, spits into his eyes and meets with only partial success. For the first time, Jesus asks an afflicted person about the success of his healing attempt. The man replies, “Well, I think I see people, but they look like trees.” Jesus touches the man’s eyes again, and then his sight is fully restored. It’s a two-stage miracle, but with immense significance. The miracle is significant because it is a paradigm for the spiritual healing of the disciples’ sight which, as Mark gives evidence, comes gradually and with some difficulty.

We find Mark’s evidence in what follows the healing. While walking along the road with his disciples, Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?”

The disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say one of the other prophets.”

Jesus changes the question, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter answers, “You are the Messiah!”

With Peter’s declaration, the eyes of the disciples were opened more to the vision of who Jesus was, but as we read the rest of Mark’s Gospel, we discover they still had some healing to do as they caught the vision of Jesus’ mission. They saw something, even if there weren’t quite sure what it was.

Seeing Without Vision

I, too, often have a vision problem. I have eyes yet I can’t always see the vision God is laying out before me. I catch glimpses of what God is doing in the world, but I don’t always recognize the totality of its scope. Being able to see what God is doing and where it will all lead is like being able to visualize the building of a church (or any building, really). An architect can step on to a piece of property and can see where the sanctuary will be, and in it, the choir loft and pulpit. It’s just there in the architect’s mind. The person who is just tagging along with the architect only sees bushes and rocks and trees.

Jesus had a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like. The disciples, no matter how hard they strained, could only see a barren landscape. They couldn’t see the people for the trees, yet Jesus doesn’t give up on them, and he calls them to continue to trust him. They may doubt because their resources seem so slim (after all, we’ve only got one loaf of bread), even while forgetting God’s bounteous provision they enjoyed only a short time before. They may even become like the Pharisees who wanted a sign and will hold back any commitment until they get the sign they seek. “Let me see the evidence and then I’ll believe.”

That’s the way I am, too! My prayer is forever and always, “Lord, don’t let me become a Pharisee.” In praying that prayer, I fear already have.

Instead of simply seeing trees, I want desperately to trust Jesus so much that I follow Him anywhere. I want to see the vision of His Kingdom fulfilled, and I want to trust Him enough to abandon everything to participate with Him in its coming. I want to trust Him enough to risk failure for doing what is right rather than succeeding greatly accepting what I know is wrong. I wonder if my lack of vision is rooted in my lack of trust?

Belief is not trust, friends. Belief can exist and not affect our conduct. We can believe the statistical evidence that says flying is far safer than traveling in a car, but fear of flying still prevents us from ever booking a flight. Trust, however, issues forth in action because trust is a voluntary act of the will.

I know I need to trust Jesus more, even when all I see is trees.

I’ve said as long as I’ve been in ministry that I’m not afraid to fail (I’ve said it, but I haven’t always lived it). What I am is afraid not to try. I’ll try some things that won’t work. Hopefully, I’ll learn and move on. And, I’ll keep looking for the Lord’s vision, trusting he will reveal it to me, and the trees I see now will become the people in need…in need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ.

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Constant Prayer…

If you’ve been around the church at all, you’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing.” It comes from Paul’s instruction to the church at a place called Thessolinica, and it follows right after he told them to rejoice always and right before he tells them give thanks in everything. I don’t know about you, but there are a few times that I find it hard to rejoice, and there are probably a lot more times that I fail to give thanks, so that little “pray without ceasing” thing that falls in the middle finds me coming up short, too.

Paul wasn’t the only person to commend constant prayer to us. Jesus pointed out the necessity of constant prayer to his disciples before Paul ever showed up. Luke records this in his gospel:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18: 1 – 8 (NIV)

Jesus, as he was prone to doing, told his disciples a story to illustrate his point. He tells the story of a godless judge who was always put upon by a widow seeking justice for some wrong done to her. In the story, the judge granted her request because she was constantly brining her petition to him. Don’t think for a moment that Jesus was comparing God the Father to the wicked judge. He was rather saying, “If wicked men can do justice, how much more can God do justice.” He was saying to his disciples, “If you want to see God work among His people, keep praying.”

If we want to see Jesus work among us, if we want to see answers, and see lives changed, and see OUR lives changed, we must learn this discipline of constant prayer. We should pray always. I have learned, however, that constant prayer is a hard thing.

When We Pray

We all pray (see last week’s blog). Many, if not all, of us pray in the crisis times of our lives. In a time of desperation, prayer becomes the last resort, and let me say—it’s okay! Even that prayer is better than no prayer!

Jesus prayed in the crisis. On the night he was arrested, Luke tells us Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and he told his disciples to pray that they might not be overcome by temptation. Gives me the indication that temptation might, in fact, be a moment of crisis for us, you think? But then, he went further on, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Luke says an angel appeared and ministered to him, and as Jesus continued praying great sweat drops of blood dripped from his brow. For Jesus, the cross lay just ahead of him. It was a crisis moment, and Jesus prayed. The great difference in Jesus and us? Jesus prayed before the crisis of the cross. We usually wait until the crisis hits.

We pray at other times, too. Many of us pray when we’re facing a major decision in our lives. Job opportunities open us for us, and many of us pray about those opportunities. We pray for guidance and wisdom to make the correct choice. Or marriage. How many of you reading this actually prayed before you got married? I’d be interested to know (share your story in the comments section below). I’ll confess. I didn’t. Or at least, I don’t remember doing it.

How about praying before we purchase a new car? Major decisions offer an excellent opportunity to pray. It raises an interesting question. Does God really care what type of car we buy? Probably not, but prayer before major decisions of life show trust and dependence on God, and that’s one of the things prayer is meant to develop.

Buying a new car can change our lives completely, though. That new car might mean extra hours at work in order to afford the payment, and that means less time with our family. It may mean less expendable income to use when we do get that time away with family to develop those relationships that will last far longer than material possessions. It may also mean the difference in being able to support the work of the Kingdom of God, which, in turn, affects our spiritual lives. Major decisions are life-changing. Why would we ever consider changing our lives without first praying about those decisions?

Finding Time to Pray

We don’t face major decisions every day, and by God’s grace, we don’t face a crisis every day, so what about this constant prayer thing? Time has been called the greatest currency and the greatest commodity of contemporary culture. In this world moving at breakneck speed, we have come to value time more than anything else. You know how it is?

The daily schedule looks like this:

  • 6:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off. Wonder why it takes so long for Saturday to get here.
  • 6:05 a.m. – Drag self out of bed. Look in mirror for signs of life.
  • 6:10 a.m. – Wake kids up, make coffee, get Pop-Tarts in toaster and cereal on table.
  • 6:15 a.m. – Shout at kids!
  • 6:16 a.m. – Get first cup of coffee. Survival looking possible.
  • 6:20 a.m. – Shot at kids!
  • 6:30 a.m. – Get in shower, while shouting at kids!
  • 6:40 a.m. – Get dressed, while shouting at kids!
  • 7:00 a.m. – Get kids loaded for school.
  • 7:05 a.m. – Get stuck in traffic (now shouting at other drivers and traffic signals)
  • 7:25 a.m. – Drop kids off at school, head to the office, while continuing to shout at traffic
  • 8:00 a.m. – Get to work, wondering why I keep this job

That’s just two hours out of our schedule. Most of the rest of our day continues that same way. We start early and we don’t slow down until our heads hit the pillow, and then we realize we haven’t really prayed. Sound familiar? Uh, huh! Me, too, and I’m a preacher. With the schedules we keep, when do we pray? How do I fit prayer into my schedule?

How We Pray

Let me first offer a word of advice on what NOT to do: Do not put prayer on your “To-do” list. When we put things on our “to-do” list, we feel guilty when we get to the end of the day, and we haven’t checked those boxes off. Prayer, or lack thereof, is never meant to make us feel guilty. Prayer is meant to usher us into God’s presence, and God wants us to know his presence in the “to-do’s” of life. Home, school, family and work are all legitimate concerns that conspire to make life a blur, but we cannot adore life unless we adore the one who gives us life. Prayer helps us adore Him. So, how? Tell me how, please?

How about starting right where we are? Rather than trying to pray in some fanciful isolation that we almost never find, we need to discover God in our times. What do I mean? Mothers, especially mothers of infants, discover God in your times with your baby. God will become real to you through your infant. Times of play with your baby are your prayer. When you are feeding your baby, sing your prayer to God.

When we’re driving down the road, instead of listening to the endless drones of another news program, turn off the radio and listen for God amidst the honking horns. Here’s my growing edge: Instead of shouting at the person who cuts you off in traffic, pray for him or her in that moment. I said that was my growing edge.

Or, how about this? Let your favorite color become a prompt for an instant of prayer. When you see purple, pray a prayer of thanksgiving.

When you hear your favorite song, let it remind you to say a prayer for your family.

When you pass a person you know on the road, pray a prayer of safety for them.

These are called breath prayers.

There are countless more ways to be in prayer. Prayer is not stopping at a specified time and saying a specified set of words. Prayer is living in God’s presence in the midst of what is happening around us. God invites us to see and hear what is around us, and through it all, to discern the footprints of the Holy.

Just Do It!

We develop the capacity for constant prayer by doing it. We can’t assume that time will magically appear for us to pray. We’ll never HAVE time for prayer—we have to make time. Don’t feel guilty because you don’t have time for prayer on a daily basis. Rather, find a time that you do have for prayer, and do it.

John Dalrymple said, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.” Constant prayer produces the miracle we are looking for in life. The miracle of constant prayer is the daily realization of God’s power, presence, and purpose in us, and ultimately, through us.

There was a man who would pass the church every day on his way home from work. He would stop, and go in and sit on the pew for an hour. This happened for several months. Finally, the pastor approached the man and asked what he did in those quiet times.

“Oh, I just look up at Him, and He looks back at me.”

When we look up at Him, and He looks back at us, when to pray will never be a problem. Whether at work, or on the street, or in the church, or at home, we know that prayer is a continuing experience, and an ever-present comfort.

Until next time, keep looking up…oh, and keep praying 😉