Yesterday I made a mistake.
I have been taking Chinese lessons for about a year now, from 3 different teachers, and am progressing painfully slow. It took me 6 months to be able to distinguish between all the Chinese consonants. It took almost another 4 months to be able to hear the tones they use in every word. I'm not a linguist.
But I try. In rehearsing last week's lesson, I tried to get creative and create my own sentence instead of just repeating the phrase in front of me. I tried to say, "I have brothers.", but due to a slight mispronunciation I instead said, "I have God." My teacher had a perplexed look on her face and told me that was not the correct way to say that phrase, that I should say "I believe in God", not "I have God."
I explained I was trying to say "brothers" and not "God" and we had a good laugh. This mistake has stuck with me though. There is a difference between belief and possession. I have brothers. I have sisters. I have a wife. I believe in them as well, but saying I believe in brothers does not mean that I have one myself. I think this is more than just a problem in Chinese linguistics. It is a perspective on what it means to be a human being, what it means to be God, and the kinds of relationships possible between the two.
The Bible itself tells us that we have to do more than believe in God.
So believing in God does necessarily make you good or put you in right standing with God.
The idea of "having" God seems to be a bit of a stretch as well. If God truly is the Creator of everything, certainly he can "have" us as his possessions, but how could we possibly "have" him as well. It all comes down to semantics. In some cases, possession signifies a subject-object relationship, as in. "I have a car.". However, you can also say, "I have a president." while someone else can claim, "I have a king.". This is a change in semantics that does not assume that the president or king does not have a free will of their own, nor does it assume that because you have them, that you are somehow superior to them. Those people are more than their titles.
This is probably best expressed by the fact that most cultures (perhaps all cultures) consider it appropriate for children to refer to their parents by their functional title, not by their actual or chosen names. It doesn't matter how old the parents or children are, it is always more honorable to be called "Mom" than it is to be called "Linda" or "Jessica" by your children. Similarly, if anyone is asked if they "have" a mother, anyone would say yes without feeling like they were somehow objectifying that important person in their life.
God wants to be in a relationship with us, just like that… like a heavenly parent. He wants to have us, and he wants us to have him. I'm reminded of the traditional wedding vows - "…to have and to hold, from this day forth, til death do us part.". We understand what it is to have a relationship, Sometimes we just get a little shy of applying that same reasoning to a God who is so much greater than us.
We are approaching Advent, a time when we celebrate the grace and goodness of God, who could have stayed back and objectified us, but instead chose to come near to us all in Jesus Christ and lets us all know that he wants to have us and his own people as he offers himself to us as well.
Do you have God?
Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
How do you change the flavor of the earth and shine God's light in the world?
Give. Fast. Pray.
Bank with God, not with the world… and don't spend your days worrying about all the details.
It's not complicated. Everything we do comes back to the questions…
Do you truly trust God?
How does that affect the way you live on a daily basis?
Let's break this down a little bit more. Jesus calls us to give as we love. We give to our neighbors as we are called to love them. We become neighbors to those we find in need and give, not because it is our quick and easy response, but because giving is a part of loving. If our loved ones were in need, we would give to help them. We would not stop an analyze our giving. We would not begin a tally of what we might be owed back. We give because we are called to love.
We give to God as well though. What can we give the one who already has everything? We give ourselves. We take away from the things we want and waste it lavishly on Him, not because He needs it, but because we want to show Him love. We give our time, energy, strength… We turn off the television and we hand the remote to God. We find ways to stop doing our own business and focus in entirely upon Him. We give like this because we love God. This is fasting.
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show love to others?
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show your love to God?
When we pray, we don't pray with empty words. We pray to the one who created us, who knows and loves us more than any other. He is our hiding place, no matter where we find ourselves, and there is no place else that we come alive the way we do when we are in God's presence. We do not speak His name in hushed tones. We rejoice in it! All the desires of our heart pale and melt away into the single plea that God would come establish His kingdom here among us. We do not pray for revival. We pray for heaven to come down here, so that when the day comes that we pass from this life into the next, we don't miss a beat. We will do whatever it takes for God to have His way with us here. We know that life comes from God and we are dependent upon Him, so we ask for whatever we need to be strengthened and inspired to serve Him well today. We freely release the debts of those who owe us as we ask forgiveness for our own debts that we have yet to repay to God. We will not let the problem of debt hold any of us back, or anyone around us, from serving God to their full capacity. We ask for guidance, not trusting our own understanding but acknowledging that He is the one who directs our path. We ask that He release us from the snares and pits of the enemy.
Looking at this model of prayer, what kinds of small prayer types would you divide it into?
Which of those types of prayers do you find yourself praying most often/least often?
Our world is on life support and it is fighting to pull the plug on itself. There is nothing in this world that will last. There is nothing in this world that will truly satisfy us. There is nothing in this world that will make us secure. There is nothing in this world that will save us. Every dollar we invest outside of God's will is a dollar lost. Every drop of sweat we spend trying to build something in this world apart from God is a wasted effort. We proclaim that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13) not because He somehow gives us superpowers, but because apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5).
It's not just our actions that demonstrate our faith either. It is our thoughts as well. When we dwell upon things that do not matter or are outside of our control, instead of seeking God and trusting in His provision, we are tossed about like waves, unstable in all we do, and should not expect to receive what we ask because we are full of doubt, instead of full of faith. (James 1:6-8) We either believe that God created us in love, watches over and provides for us with love, and will never forsake us… or we don’t. Oh but we all worry every day you say! Perhaps, but we do many things every day that we do not let linger in our lives. Worry is spiritual uncleanliness that will lead us in spiritual sickness the way a household that is unable to dispose of sewage will soon become filled with disease, not only unlivable itself, but contagious to those around it.
What is one thing you have found helps you stop worrying and trust that God will provide?
- from Matthew 6
"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
Following up on Friday night’s blog about 2x2 ministry, here are 2 questions that we need to ask if we are going to move into the next generation.
1. What values do we have that we know they will need when we are gone?
2. As we envision the future generation, where do we draw blanks and need to seek outside counsel in order to create new values to fill out that vision?
The fact is, my values that I have are personal and many of them are not just taught, they are learned through experience. Some of us can learn not to touch fire by watching others get burnt, while others of us have to experience the pain ourselves before we will truly value and respect fire. I cannot expect others to take our word at face value when I often have not taken things at face value.
Some of my values are important and need to be passed on. Others however, are more contextual and will matter less over time. I saw a statistic today that said 60% of people get there television programming through Internet resources rather than live TV programming. I imagine that the way people keep up with the news is a greater percent social media. In years past, it was important not to schedule events at 6pm or in the early mornings when people would watch the news on TV or listen to it on the radio. There was a very specific time-frame they could receive that in. Nowadays though, anyone can get the latest breaking news simply by clicking on their phone, so the value of those times has changed already. The value of keeping up with the news though has probably grown. So I need to keep a value for current events, but leave the values surrounding whatever method I myself rely on, as it may change again in the next 10-20 years.
The second question regards those blind spots I have… how things may change. Much of it will be speculation and probably should remain flexible, but those are areas I need to seek outside perspective, and in many situations, a specifically younger perspective. Those who are shaping the future are the ones who will be closest to understanding what will be of value down the road. No perspective is perfect, but it’s best to make the best attempt I can.
Those two questions may help us all weather the storm of time and the inevitable change it brings, helping us to reshape and discern which values are timeless and which are timely.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 5:13–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
I am helping out with Vacation Bible School this week, using the Cave Quest curriculum from Group. During our lesson tonight on a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount, our lesson teacher passed out popcorn to demonstrate the value of salt. All but one of the children (and there is always one) said they liked the salted popcorn better than the unsalted. Salt, among its many values, makes thing taste better and so we are to share our faith in a way that makes life better around us. (And preserve life, etc. for the bible scholars out there...)
Jesus goes on to talk about light though, which was the next example our teacher tried to explain. She asked the children, "Jesus wants us to be salt and ______?" and in one big voice they all said, "Butter!". So much for a smooth transition. I wonder if Jesus had as much trouble the first few times He preached the Sermon on the Mount.
There may be a lesson in here. Salt and butter have a way of making things easier to swallow. Butter is very different from the concept of light, which is not about making things easier to take, but about revealing truth to us. Contrary to our own desires, sometimes the truth is painful.
We have a duty to be salt and light, and to do so in love. This applies to our relationships at home, at work, among friends, among neighbors, and also with our leaders. We struggle with that in all areas of our life, but today, we especially struggle with that in regard to those who lead us. I have read and heard many criticisms of leaders, often made disrespectfully. I have also witnessed others refuse to stand up and speak truth when something was wrong for fear of being disrespectful. It is not easy to be salt and light to those authority figures in our lives. There is an excellent example of this in the Acts of the Apostles.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ac 18:24–28). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Priscilla and Aquila discovered a problem with the leadership of Apollos and they chose to be salt and light to him. They pulled him aside and explained what he was still lacking. It was not a scolding or shaming, nor were they hesitant in reaching to them. It was not done for the sake of saving the congregation, it was done out of love for the Truth and love for Apollos. They did not turn the light on him, they turned the light on the blind spot in his vision, and everyone was blessed by their efforts. They chose to be light rather than butter.
It must have worked well because the church there wrote him a letter of recommendation when he was ready to move on to his next church and Luke records that his amazing ministry continued there as well. That would not have been possible if Priscilla and Aquila had kept quiet and refused to be light. Our words to one another should be salt and light - love and truth, not just one or the other.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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