A Child’s Eye of Wonder

Jesus said to be like a child. In Mark 10:15, he specifically says,  I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Those are not only surprising words, but they are an ultimatum. These are even more startling considering that at the time they were spoken, children had little intrinsic value in their childhood state. Their value being only in the future functioning adult years.  Those of us with children, who can be overwhelmed by the tasks of taking care of what is by nature immature and often challenging can ask, like the disciples who pushed away the children, what could the God man be saying?

There are, of course, two elements of a child. There is the selfish element that seems to disregard any thought of anyone else in the world’s needs besides themselves. This is what we see with the crying toddler throwing a tantrum in the grocery store when they aren’t allowed to buy the candy bar. This is a bare bones expression of the childishness of our original sin nature inherited from Adam. But I think we all suspect that this is not what Jesus is getting at here. There is an innocent element to children. And this is the intrinsic value to children, this is what we celebrate. The child with no guile, no alternative motive, who sees everything with a new and uncynical light. Good is good and evil is evil.

It this second element that Jesus is obviously referring too.  We must be like a paidion (Greek for young child) in approaching God. This is the attitude that Jesus commands us to have. We are to have the joy, beauty, and wonder of children as we approach our loving heavenly Father. There is also a secondary element coming out of this that may be worth calling attention to. And that is it what a child sees. The child sees and pays attention to the smallest of things. They can take pleasure in the most innocuous of items, a cardboard box becomes a castle, a small puddle becomes an ocean, a dandelion a thing of beauty to behold. They have joy in these small things. They grasp on to moment. They are not worrying about the big picture. They are lacking suspicion, their thoughts are not cluttered, they have trust, and they are into the now without the distraction of the past or the future just as we should be in prayer, bible study, and loving our neighbor. They can be this way because they are trusting their parents to take care of the rest just like we can trust our Father God.  

We do take all scripture in context. Jesus is not saying for us to abandon stewardship, parenthood, good government and other important things of mature adulthood to go and play unicorns in the field.  The scriptures are overwhelming in the call for responsibility. But we can take with us our maturity, and integrate it with the required wonder, vision, and trust of the small child and count on Jesus and the cross to “cover our backs.” We can put off the worry of the moment to take on the wonder of the day. In so doing, we take one more step to be more like Jesus Christ. Strangely, child-likeness with God is an unwavering command and not an optional lifestyle.

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A God Focused Desire

I was sitting on an airplane and someone had a book that was entitled, essentially that the secret of happiness, had to do with not giving a “blank” (fill in your favorite offensive word here) about what others think.  At that moment, the thought of not having to worry about anyone else but just myself seemed appealing. It would be great just to free myself up from all the multi-layers of obligations that I have.  When someone bothered me with work, family, or ministry issues, and I didn’t feel like dealing with it, I could simply say I am tired of this. I have decided I am just going to be happy and “blank” everyone else.

This is initially attractive because we all know how disappointing other people, and other people’s opinions of us can be. But slowly as I walked through the airport terminal the truth sank in. Yes, being a slave to others opinions can be exhausting. But pleasing ourselves only can also a very fickle and disappointing project.  The Bible tells us that “the human heart is the most deceitful of all things.” (NLT) As many of us have discovered, we often think we know what we need to be happy then find out later that we didn’t have a clue. In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that as a punishment God gave men over to their own desires, and he lets us get what we want until we find out that our own self-focused desires destroy us. The substance lover is destroyed by the drugs, alcohol, or food, the lottery winner devastated by his riches, or the social-approval-driven come face to face with their phoniness. Our hearts deceive us.

When the selfishness of the moment passed, I thought that we as Christians, as followers of Jesus, have agreed to take on a better task than just pleasing ourselves. We need only to please God. When we chafe at this as we often do, it is because we lack wisdom. But it is easier to please God than ourselves because we all know that we have a tendency to misjudge ourselves. But God does not misjudge us. He knows what is in man and knows what we need in order to grow and be sanctified. He knows what gives a peace beyond understanding. That is a peace that can go beyond the happening based happiness of the moment to a joy that has eternal capabilities.   

God’s commands, what God wants us to do, are not a secret. Often however, we think we need to guess at what they are. His commands, the outline for our lives, are given to us in the Bible. (As a warning to many, they are not found from the self-appointed “apostle” down the street.) We can wake up the next morning and set off to do them. But God also does a very strange thing. When we believe on Jesus, he also transforms our hearts from one of “stone” to one of “flesh,” and he begins to expose the good things in our hearts. He gives us desires and then tells us to pursue them. Something my pastor said a few weeks back caught me off guard when he said that yes, we really can do what we want and pursue our desires. They just need to be in the parameters of our loving God’s design. God is lover of pleasure, joy, and peace.  As we live for God, he takes away our deceitful desires and fills our hearts with our true desires that he has built into us.

In Psalms 37 God says,

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.
Delight yourself also in the Lord,
And He shall give you the desires of your heart.

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It’s ok…you can resign as commander of the universe.

Have you ever secretly felt you had the job of ruler of the universe? Perhaps, like most, you didn’t realize you had taken on this tough job.  And perhaps, those around you didn’t realize you were the ruler.  We had a pastor who had everyone raise their right hand and resign as ruler of the universe. We all did it and laughed. But you know what they say about comedy, its funny because it can be strikingly true.  If we were to authentically analyze our worries, a lot of us think that we are responsible for the universe. For those of us carrying this burden, I have good news: Today is your day of freedom!  Both you and I can quit worrying about everything, everywhere, all the time.

A lot of us spend a lot of time worrying about things that we have no control over and have no way of effecting. Even the best of self-help realizes this, anyone of the millions of people who have read Mormon Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, knows that we need to spend our time where our circles of influence (what we can do something about) and our circle of concern (what bothers us) intersect.

But hold on a second! Doesn’t the Bible spend a lot of time telling us to get involved? The Bible doesn’t call for a self centered disconnected life. In Matthew it says, go into all the world and make disciples. After all, we get to be part of the work God is doing in the final defeat of his enemy, in the salvation of others, and in the sanctification of those who believe on him.   Our lives have effects in far greater spheres than we imagine, and we need to be concerned about what is going on in far off places, after all we need to be reaching them for Christ. We need to be interceding in prayer. And we need to be vigilant about false teaching, and we need to support the innocent, and so on and so on. 

Are we just supposed to sit by the pool and chill out and just let anyone do anything they want? No. (At least not most of the time). But God told us we don’t have to be the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner of everything. He told us we are not responsible for everything. He is. We don’t need to stay up night worrying if evil is going to win. We know ultimately it loses. And we are given a clear standard to judge. We are to judge as we would want to be judged against the Bible and to judge the fruit of others as it corresponds with the fruits of the Spirit (see Galations 5: 22-23).

Jesus told us we don’t need to worry about being ultimate judge and executioner because we aren’t capable or gifted to do it. But by our pride we are determined that we are. We are under literal orders to absolutely not to stay up late into the night worrying that we have unsuccessfully directed the universe and separated good from bad. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 13:24-27

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’  But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (nkjv)

In 20 A.D., a plant called darnel, which looks a lot like the wheat, would get caught up in the wheat. In fact, you could not tell it apart until the harvest and much damage to the wheat could be done trying. When the church has tried (i.e. the inquisition) it has gotten it very, very wrong. Let’s go forth and sow wheat, but leave the final harvest and ruling the universe to God.

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Got the Easter Spirit?

I have been driving around town looking for the Easter banners put up by the local civic authorities with the word Believe on them like they did at Christmas. But apparently they had forgotten to put them up.

I was at the mall looking for the mass of shoppers preparing for Easter Day, and thought I would wander through the store looking at and enjoying the Easter decorations. It must have been an economic malaise that has recently hit the country, because except for the card store it seems everyone forgot to check their calendar. Easter is just a few weeks away.

On the drive back to my house, I turned on the radio to listen to some Easter music on the easy listening pop channel that each year plays holiday music. There wasn’t any. I clicked on the Christian radio station to catch a couple of hip updated versions of “He is Risen.” But alas nothing.

I know that Easter has not been completely forgotten. There was a nice collection of dresses for little girls at the department store. I got an advertisement from a local church on special services. And I did read that the average family spends $200.00 on Easter each year for candy, decoration, and dinner. But lets just be honest here, society just doesn’t change like it does at Christmas. There is no Easter Spirit among the community at large.

Like it or not, people have a tendency to be different at Christmas. More prone to be generous, secular musicians sing songs about Christ, and profound atheists have symbols of a Turkish Bishop named St. Nicholas all over their children’s rooms. But at Easter…it…well…just doesn’t happen.

Is it that  bunny that lays eggs and decorates with pastels? Or is it that secular society says enough is enough. We will go along with you on Christmas and give you the virgin birth. But raised from the dead, that we call a halt on. I just don’t know. It is just that, be honest, for most of America Easter doesn’t have it.

However, one of the great problems with Christmas is that it doesn’t stick around. All those good feelings slide away as the credit card bills come at the end of January. Those who catch the Easter vision. It is more than just catching a wave of societal goodness. The realization that you have been chosen by God for eternal life. That Christ died and rose again for you is permanently life changing, and the spirit doesn’t quit two weeks into January.

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It’s my journal and I will cry if I want to. (Rules for Complaining)

Fifty four years ago teenager Lesley Gore made famous the song, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”  For a lot of people journaling is just that. It’s our journal and we’re going to cry if we want to because for the most part no one will ever read it. Why not let it all hang out?

But is that the best use of your journals? A better question to ask would be is it a Biblical use of journaling? How should our journals compare against say…King David and the psalmists? One source claims 40% of the Psalms are laments, 30% praises, and 17% thanksgiving, and 13% other topics. The Psalms are full of complaints against the status quo. A calling out on justice to be done. It would seem lamenting or complaining would be a legitimate us of journal time. But is that all our journals are about: Me, myself, and I? Our are complaints just affronts to ourselves or injustice against God? Do our journals also show ourselves as people who are patient in tribulation, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep? Do we hate iniquity or are we just obsessed that we have been affronted.

Here our five self-imposed complaint rules.

  • Complaining is OK. It’s even Biblical. But let’s realize that it is God who is in control.
  • Does our complaint show a desire for repentance and improvement?
  • Is it something God would be dismayed with also?
  • Is what we are writing something that we are going to be able stomach reading 5 years from now?
  • Are we asking and giving solutions in line with his Word to God. God commands, encourages, cajoles us to ask. But he want us to ask for things in line with his will shown in the Bible.

The Biblical life is not one of grinning and bearing it. It is not telling everyone everywhere all the time that everything is just fine. There is a time and a place for lament, apparently according to the Bible a lot of time and place for lament. In addition, the damage the enemy does to ourselves, our world, and most horribly to those who reject God is worthy of great dismay. But God does not leave us there to dwell in the valleys of life forever and without hope even in this world. (See Psalms 27) It also a world of new dawns and rejoicing. A world of rising out of the sadness to the glory of God. Lament but don’t stay there forever. Kind David didn’t and neither should we.

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Are you being indoctrinated? or taught?

                      Looking into North Korea from a Church on the border

I recently read a book on the education of some of the college age students in the repressive nation of North Korea. Believe it or not, there is a University in North Korea sponsored and ran by Christians in order to get a foothold in starting a relationship with this nation who is desperate for both money and information.  (The wisdom of this approach has pros and cons given that Christianity or anything unapproved by the North Korean leadership cannot be mentioned.)

The book had an interesting twist. It was written by a reporter who pretended to be a Christian missionary in order to teach at the school and get access into the country. The book itself, except for showing a very bleak picture of life even for the best of the best, was rather self indulgent of the author and uneventful except for a couple of interesting proclamations the author gave.

  • At one time, the author wondered if the students were simply insane when it came to the worship of the then leader Kim Jon-il.
  • At another time, due to the constant amount of lies told by the students she doubted the students had any concept of what truth actually is.
  • At another time, she wondered if the indoctrination that the students were receiving from the state in their worship of Kim Jong-il was equivalent to the indoctrination that the Christian missionaries received in their following of Jesus.

It is this last point, I want to talk about. It is a valid question we all have to ask ourselves. Why do we believe something? Are we as Christians any different from the North Korean worshipers of the Korean political ruler?

Certainly, I think there are some key differences in Christian training and what happens in North Korea. The fact that every one of the Christian teachers who were volunteering in North Korea were free to leave and  switch their religion at any time may be the initial self-evident difference. However, many people are indoctrinated into false belief systems in much less extreme situations than North Korea. Some differences between being taught verses being indoctrinated are listed below:

Signs you are being taught:

  • Multiple sources are provided if available
  • Counter arguments are explained and given their day in court when age appropriate
  • Freedom is given to investigate alternatives
  • The truth is presented even when it is unflattering to your point of view
  • The raw data is made available for investigation
  • The motivation of the teacher is out in the open
  • Trust is given to the decision maker to make the final decision

Signs you are indoctrinated

  • One or very limited sources (usually generating from the one source)
  • No freedom is provided to investigate
  • Unflattering moments are covered up by lies
  • Raw data is hidden or non-existent
  • Motivation which is typically self-enriching of the trainer or leader is hidden
  • Trust is not given to the decision maker

Ultimately, indoctrination is consuming of the person being indoctrinated. They are being manipulated typically by dishonesty or partial truth (the father of lies is of course the devil or enemy of God) for the enrichment of the trainer or teacher. Teaching is the opposite. True Christianity must be taught, and Jesus was the great teacher. (He compelled no one to follow him and got nothing out of it merely for himself.) In teaching, the student is uplifted to as high a level of the teacher as possible. In a sharing of true knowledge, it can ultimately be used as a blessing to all. As you may have noticed, indoctrination is not just limited to repressive political regimes. We can see the elements of it in our public schools and many false religions here in the United States.

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Manchester by the Sea: No Hope of Redemption?

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 4:21)

The academy awards come up Sunday. I recently saw one of the movies which will be considered for best picture. I saw it mostly by accident. I don’t see many first run movies anymore due to both limited time (I have seven children) and often inclination.  My wife and I were away for the weekend in a seaside town in Washington state celebrating our 23rd anniversary. 

There was not much to do in the evening. But there was an old-fashioned movie theater with one selection. The ticket taker smiled when telling us that they didn’t take credit cards, but said she was glad we had some cash that way she didn’t have to let us in for free.  The film playing that night was Manchester by the Sea. I had heard a little about the movie (which turned out to be mostly wrong), but I thought what could be more delightful than to attend a thought provoking movie about relationships in a small seaside town while in another small seaside town on the other side of America.

I would have walked out and never looked back about 30 minutes into the movie had not been for the peer pressure of sitting in the front of the theater. I would have had to walked past 100 grey headed retirees who had thicker skin than I did. The language was awful, the relationships lacked any sort of gentle affection, and the view of sex was pathetically low. However, ultimately I am glad I didn’t leave, because in the end I thought that writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, had made a brutally honest movie about a world where there is in essence no God. 

The plot is relatively simple. The main character has committed a tragic and accidental act to those he loves the most. This act was driven by substance abuse and it cannot be undone. In a series of tragedies, interspersed with subtle humor, he tells a young man whom he has now become the legal guardian, “I can’t beat this.”  He cannot overcome and make peace with his awful mistake. It haunts him, and he has become a shell of the man he once was.

Manchester by the Sea, in its slow moving gritty blue-collar New England world, brings out the one key things that can never occur in a world without God. In a world where there is no God there is no chance for redemption. There is no removal for eternity of the damage that our sin does to others and ourselves.

Most of us, never get to see that deep behind the curtain. We never get to see the whole picture of our sins of commission and omission and their effects on those around us. God knows most of us could never handle it. The protagonist here, in a world where the beauty of the ocean side scenery given to us by God himself is the backdrop for mankind’s failings, understands the pain of sin. He realizes there is no fixing it. There is no undoing it. 

Even though many these days have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality, we can be glad that Manchester by the Sea is a fictional story. The good news is that in the world of reality there is redemption. Odd it may be that many try to pass off this good news as fiction despite overwhelming evidence of its truth, and they would rather find themselves lost in the created world of movies and video games.

But in Jesus Christ we have redemption. God himself takes the pain and punishment we deserve for our tragic mistakes. And in his heaven, God washes away the suffering and makes each person new. When we glimpse this now, it is the beginning of genuine healing of the effects of our mistakes and sin no matter how aweful our mistakes are. However, there must be an active trust in God for that to happen. Jesus cannot help us if we reject him. We must call out on his name.

In a world where there is no God, the honest writer can only come to the conclusion given to us by this movie. There can be a little kindness, a little friendship, a little improvement but there is no brand new. There is nothing really to break us out of the darkness. In the end, there is only death.

That is why Jesus said he did not come into the world to condemn the world. But that world would be saved.  

It may be nice despite its crudeness that Manchester by the Sea wins the Academy Award for best picture. I think we sometimes put too much of a covering on the effects of sin. The world doesn’t like the truth. I won’t be watching the academy awards. But I will be pondering this great hymn written by Edward Mote over 200 years ago. That in the real world; we can stand faultless before the throne of Jesus Christ. That is the amazing in life. That is the magnitude of the greatness of real love. We see that here in the last stanza.

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

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Peace Through Prayer (Part IV)

We are going to finish our study on Peace and Prayer (Philippians 4: 4-13) by addressing some key issues that are easy to overlook. I hope at the end we will arrive at our goal of understanding the very sweet and precious context of, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

An issue we have not addressed yet when it comes to prayer is opposition. Our prayers can be delayed because of opposition from those who oppose Christ. We need to look no further than the life of one of the greatest men ever to have lived. That is Jewish captive and ancient Babylonian leader Daniel who faced incredible opposition to his life of prayer. It is also needed to realize who our opposition is. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (NASB)

There is a pivotal point we need to address in Philippians 4:8. It is the million-dollar difference in how we look at “the whatevers.”   How we approach these verses that encourage correct focus on what is good, true, pure etc., and how they relate to prayer will determine if we have peace or frustration.

Paul encountering Jesus

We will finish our four week study looking at the life of the apostle Paul and ask why it matters. Often we ask WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)? This is not a bad question, but the only problem with it is that we are not God and Jesus was. This sometimes may lead us into a self-dependency that we are not able to fulfill. Never- the-less, we can always ask what would Paul do? (This is not for cowards. The world hated Paul in the year 60 AD and it still hates Paul today. We talk about why.) Paul is the example we need. His example of prayer and action as set forth in scripture is the route to peace beyond understanding as he encourages us to follow Christ in doing all things through Christ who strengthens us.

 

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Peace Through Prayer (Part Three)

This week we talk about how God responds to prayer and get to the core of just what is the “peace beyond understanding” that the apostle Paul talks about. First, we are going to start off reviewing how Jesus told us to pray. He gave us instructions that are in some ways counter intuitive. (See Overcoming Barriers to Prayer). There is an unexpected heavy emphasis on forgiving and an ultimate goal of not necessary getting what we want but being delivered from evil.

We will address some reasons why our prayers may not be answered as we would like them. This is humbling and requires self-examinations of our motives. (Yes, we are still part of the faithless and perverse generation though we work hard to cover it up.) We will look at just how in specific ways God answers prayer. 

Even though there is a good case for miracles, the vast majority of miracles as we think of them are not miracles in the true sense of the word. Most are Gods amazing work of providence or circumstances. However, God’s greatest work is not in miracles, but in the day in and day out work of providence relating to the salvation and sanctification of us.

We will also touch on a different kind of unanswered prayer: The good kind. We take a look at the best extra biblical text I know of to make the case that this is often God’s most loving response.  (It is from an unlikely and “low” place.) In the end however, the result of our prayers according to Paul in Philippians will be peace beyond understanding. Just what is this peace? We will try to give an answer. 

 

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Peace Through Prayer (Part Two)

Now that we are broken of our self-reliance and are coming to the feet of Jesus. This week we are going to dive specifically into what some of the key elements Paul talks about when we pray.

One key element that is often overlooked is the asking. This is something that we would think would be obvious and easy to us, but if often isn’t especially for those of us do-it-yourself types who never want to admit that they need some help. We hope to give some encouragement that all of us would not be afraid to courageously ask.

Paul gives us another key component that we should have in our prayers and that is thanksgiving. We will take a look at some examples of just how we can and should be thankful.

We also then examine a third important factor involved in prayer and that is faith. But just what is faith? We will look at some definitions and encouraging examples of faith from the life of King David and Joseph where we define faith as an “active trust in God even when we don’t know where we are in the story.”   

 

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