Muelling It Over

Today we hear a lot of tweeting, postulating, conjecturing, speculating, and a whole lot more about this whole Russia investigation.   Parties and media guess about what it means that certain folks have been interviewed.   Some holler that it’s a witch hunt and a hoax.  Some holler collusion.   Others simply say they don’t care what it is, they just want to get to the bottom of any interference in and election so we can prevent it from happening again.    Others still say it’s a waste of time and we should let it go and get down to more pressing matters like economics, immigration, budgets, military, and so forth.

I’m not trying to get political here.   Just pointing out that in this instance in American history when there is a special counsel investigation underway we’re hearing from almost everyone.   And depending on who it as or where they are aligned, what is being said is intended to form some kind of narrative to frame whatever eventual outcome awaits.

What I want to weigh in on is something that has caused me to marvel in an era where folks are on a hair trigger when accused or criticized.    An era where everything seems worthy of a rebuttal or retort.   An era where leaks abound in every form and fashion.   What I marvel at is that while the circus rages all about, there is one person, and his team, that seem to be able to stay tight lipped, out of the public eye, and, at least in the public eye. immune to the chatter, spin, and guesswork.    Mueller.

I haven’t heard of a peep coming from him or his camp.   The biggest thing seems to be something that happened some time ago when he let go the agents whose tweets about Trump have been tossed all over the air waves.    And even there, I don’t recall Meuller addressing it.   Simply that when he was informed of the tweets, off the team they went.

All we know is the bare bones.   Who has been interviewed.   What indictments have been made.   But no commentary fleshing anything out from the actual team or man.   Any guesses we have heard or made by talking heads are just that.  Guesses.

How this will bear out is anyone’s guess.   I don’t suppose to have a clue.    But what I do see in this operation is something that is sorely lacking today.   Discipline in staying out of the mess we see all over the public discourse.

It takes discipline to keep quiet when we want to shout from the rooftops.   It takes discipline to keep something air tight when it would be easy to feed the media dogs or in most of our cases, the gossip mill.    It takes discipline to simply keep head down and be about our work when so much swirls overhead and on every side.

Discipline lends a certain credibility to us.   It commands a certain respect from people who understand the nature of discipline.   To those who seek truth, discipline lends regard, even if in the end there isn’t full agreement, because as much as possible it has the marks of honest searching, seeking, and discerning.

We could learn a lot from this sense of discipline as Christians.

How often do Christians get baited into arguments and before long are heated, or making comments that are outside the realm of reason or respect because they feel backed into a corner?   How often do Christians spout authoritatively on subjects about which we have no genuine understanding, and undercut our credibility in the process?  How often do Christians, desperate to prove ourselves right, stretch our claims or “dot connecting” far beyond what is rationale?  How often do we speak boldly, forgetting to listen?

How often do we allow ourselves to get into drawn out, undisciplined arguments and debates?

How often do we engage in conversations that jump the line from conversation to gossip?  How often does it happen not because of intention, but because we haven’t the discipline to pay attention to our own emotions and desire for “juicy details” when they rear up?

When James talks about the difficulty controlling the tongue, he’s talking about discipline.   When Jesus says “let your yes be yes and no be no”, he’s relying on us to be people of discipline.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that the root of discipline is disciple.   If we are to be true disciples of Christ, it means we need to, ourselves, be models of a calm amidst the storm.  We need to hold an assured center, knowing that our goal isn’t to impress some mere person or ingratiate ourselves to another, it is to honor Christ.

Honoring Christ means measuring our words.   Making sure that if we speak, our words are laced with love, imbued with humility, and speak as true as we can to the greatest of our understanding.   It means taking stock of more than the feeling of a moment, but of all that is entailed in a commitment or decision so that our yes or no can be genuine and reliable.    It means mirroring the wisdom of Jesus who found a way to engage the spirit of those who were against him in a fashion that revealed truth without compromising His own integrity.

How this whole thing with Mueller will pan out is a mystery at the moment.   Have whatever opinion you wish about him, his team, and all the fracas around them.   But don’t miss this simple point that will yield Christ driven results in our own lives today.   Discipline matters.   Jesus had it.   Peter struggled with it.  When Peter got a hold of it, he changed the world for Jesus.   So can we.

 

Descriptive vs. Exhaustive

There is a constant in life.   That constant is change.    Everything changes over time.   Our bodies change.   Our priorities and perspectives change.    Jobs change.   Families change.   We change locations and houses.    We change an old car for a new one.  Regimes and administrations change.    Everything.   Even faith….”gaassp”.

Faith is something that provides such an anchor for us that suggesting it changes for many is unsettling.   We believe that the Word and will of God are constant. I would suggest that they are.   What changes isn’t the Word or will of God.   What changes is how we understand or interpret it.    What changes is the light we see it in as new discoveries are made.    This is a good thing as we hope and pray that what we are doing is getting closer to the genuine intent of God expressed through the Word.

The importance of this is that the reality that our understanding changes, and often rightly so, needs to inform how dogmatic and inflexible we are about scripture and some of our traditions.

There is an assumption among some that scripture is strictly prescriptive and overly exhaustive in it’s labeling.   I respectfully disagree.

We look at passages in the epistles and come up with “5 fold ministry” plans that are correct because they are explicitly Biblical.   We see the spiritual gifts listed in scripture and tailor our “spiritual gifts inventories” to only include those because, after all, it’s in the Bible.    We look at Paul’s vice lists and form our own new list of “do not” commandments.    We put parameters on what faith looks like that perhaps God didn’t intend.

Perhaps God’s word is descriptive without intending in these kinds of areas to be exhaustive.    Should we assume it’s exhaustive,how many possible new and relevant ministries might we avoid or never consider?   How deaf do we become to the Holy Spirit?

Think about the world in which we live today.    There are avenues of ministry that were undreamt of two thousand years ago.     We have seen so many creative uses of talent and occupation that absolutely qualifies as ministry yet not generally falling under the heading of an explicit scripture.

We have people who answer phones in the church office.    There are set up and clean up crews.    Folks use their art to create movement and inspiration.    Heck, I teach Tae Kwon Do as an outreach and there are many Christians who would not back this as a “genuine” ministry.    Clearly I think otherwise and wouldn’t continue doing it were I not seeing God’s hand somewhere in the mix with it.

My point today isn’t to be willy nilly about ministry and life.   It isn’t to discount scripture or somehow give permission to go off the rails and not consider those things explicitly stated.    Scripture is given to us so we have the story of redemption and can be inspired to come into relationship with the Redeemer.    It is given to us to help us understand what it looks like to live a life that has been redeemed.   It is given to us to inspire us to never be satisfied with the bare bones of personal redemption, but to seek to always be growing and inviting others into a community of those who have been redeemed.

With all of the above as a foundation, we can be secure in trusting that God has more things in store than we currently grasp in our walks of faith.   The Holy Spirit will continue to correct and guide our understanding of God and God’s Word.    The Holy Spirit will continue to inspire out of the box ways of communicating Christ and serving the world that don’t fit neatly into our preconceived standards and structures.    As our understanding grows, so too do our opportunities.    They are never exhausted.

So listen up with your heart and spirit.    Hear with God is saying and see what God is doing.   Let go of some of you rules and regulations or regimented strictures and see what new and good things God is seeking to unveil and unleash.    This is part of what it means to live the adventure of faith.

Shaking It Off

When Jesus sent His disciples out to minister, he gave them an interesting direction.   He told them that if any town refused to welcome them and their message, they were to “shake the dust off of their sandals” as a symbol that the people had self-selected judgmentwould be  from God.       In Mark, we are told that they went out healing and exorcising demons, and preaching a message of repentance.

When we look at chapter 6, we see discussion of John the Baptist and what led to his demise.     Not dissimilar from the message of the disciples, he pointed out the need to identify sinful behavior and repent of it.     Indeed at the early outset, Jesus’ message wasn’t terribly different from John’s.    The call being made was for people to do more than embrace the rituals of faith.   They were called to participate in the fullness of faith so that God’s will would be done in their lives.  They were called to allow their relationship with God to make a difference in their character and their choices.

This gets a bit at the root of why the disciples could walk away from people and allow that they were earning some deserved judgment from God.

I would argue that the hardest pill for people to swallow was the call to repent.

Healings and miracles easy to embrace.   Needs are getting met, and the supernatural is at work delivering folks from things they want to be rid of.    No big stretch there.

Repentance, on the other hand, is a tall order.    Repenting requires humility.   We have to admit something about us is wrong.   We have to look in the mirror with honest and open eyes to see ourselves truthfully.   The nature of repentance is that it requires change.   Not only do we have to admit where we are off base, but we have to desire to let go of attitudes, actions, and habits.   Some of them we may be rather attached to.     Yet we are called to relinquish our comfort and preferences in favor of what God wants to do in our lives.

Not everyone is interested in this.

In fact, a great many are most interested in the putting up a facade that they are perfect.  Many have a real problem admitting wrongdoing or any measure of incorrectness.     Many make a habit of shifting blame or passing off responsibility.     Many simply have no desire to change. And the one bringing the message that change is necessary and required is not necessarily welcome.

If this be the case, there is a futility in trying to hammer the message home.     The only outcome will be escalating tension and hostility.     Part of the foundation of change is a desire for it.   No matter how necessary change may be, without motivation it simply won’t happen.     Attempting to force it wastes time that could be used to share the message with those who are ready for it.

Sometimes we have to realize the timing isn’t right and we need to shake it off and move along.

The other side to this is that as people of faith, we need to be on the lookout for those people God sends to help us locate and transform what is amiss in our own lives.    Care must be taken to guard against a prideful heart that assumes personal correctness in all things.   Just like we need to discern when something isn’t working and shake it off, we also need to ensure that we embrace a grace and humility that prevents us from being shaken off.

Christians have an odd tension always at work.    We are simultaneously saints and sinners.    We are both messengers and ones desperately still in need of the message.   Understanding this keeps us focused both on what we are called to do as well as the fashion and character we need to exhibit while doing it.

Miracles of the Heart

In case you haven’t realized, relationships aren’t always easy.    They can be downright complicated, exhausting, fickle, and even maddening.    Even with folks we love dearly, indeed sometimes particularly with them, things can get quite prickly and complex.    Sadly, this complicated nature can lead to breaks and bitterness that is difficult to overcome.   Splits occur.   Grudges can go on for days, weeks, and even decades.

One of the places in life that can bridge a long held gap is the great equalizer among us.   Death.   When people are dying, often this becomes the impetus for amends to be made.   Either the one passing wants to set things right so they can move on with a peaceful heart. or the one who will remain steps forward so they don’t live with the regret of never reconciling.    Unfortunately, not everyone gets this chance, and a not insignificant aspect of “survivor’s guilt” can be failing to have made peace when the opportunity was available.

When this does occur, it is one of the places where death and dying produces a shining miracle of the heart.   The specter of loss can be what opens the heart to allow God to do the work of softening and healing.     Knowing that we may not see someone again has a way of humbling us and putting things in perspective.    This reality kindles the miraculous, for when a heart transforms away from the human nature of self and pride something uncommon and supernatural has occurred.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the prospect of tragedy to let God work this miracle within us.

Forgiveness is a common and passionate theme in the gospel.    It is actually demanded of us.     So often when we think of forgiveness we think of forgiveness aimed at us by God.   Forgiveness of our sin.   Forgiveness that wipes the slate clean and erases our guilt.   Forgiveness that paves the way for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven when our time on earth is done.

All of that is good, but focusing primarily on it misses the point, and arguably can prevent us from receiving that very blessing.

The more critical aspect in our lives is less about mercy shown to us, and far more about the mercy that we show.    We are called to be quick to forgive and let bygones be bygone.   Jesus was clear when the disciples asked Him how often they needed to forgive someone who offends them.    Essentially He told them that as many times as they are offended that is how many times forgiveness needs to be extended.    Read this clearly,  there is no circumstance that God entitles us to hold on to bitterness and grudge.    We are to be people who extent radical mercy and grace.

The reason is simple.   It’s not just about releasing another from our “right” to be mad at them or to hold something over their head.   It’s about the miracle that happens when we forgive.

When we forgive our hearts become lighter.    Our mind is more peaceful.    Contentment is ours.    Relationships mend, deepen and grow.     Life becomes a reflection of what God wants for us rather than a mere shadow because we hang on to affronts and offenses.

All of these things are miracles.

Lightness of heart in a world that so often lays heavy burdens on us.    Peaceful and serene mind and conscience that defies a world that is confusing and chaotic.   Contentment and satisfaction in a world that thrives on cultivating envy, desire, and greed.    Restored relationships that have overcome struggle and conflict that stands in stark contrast to a world that pushes individualism and aggressively holding to what we think over and above letting love and understanding rule the day.

Forgiveness is the key to unlocking miracles in our lives that bless us day after day.

Whatever that thing is that you may be hanging on to, when we consider all that awaits us on the other side of letting it go there is not contest.    Surrender it and embrace all that God wants to do in the heart.    Then take heart knowing that when we do our part, God’s part is a given.    As Jesus clearly stated, the forgiveness we long for hinges entirely on the forgiveness we offer one another.

Charming Snakes

I was reading a passage in Ecclesiastes chapter 10 today and the following verse jumped out at me:

11 If the snake bites before it is charmed,
there is no advantage in a charmer.
This is a wonderfully instructive verse for us today.   Most specifically, it is instructive for how we evangelize, and how we assess the effectiveness of our evangelism.
I read this verse as assuming that there is a snake  charmer at work in the situation.   The charmer is trying to soothe the nature of the snake and make it docile.    This kind of skill would be wonderful should one come across one or more snakes.    It would help ensure safety for those who are with the charmer.   The point of the charmer, then, is to protect or perhaps even save those with him from the bite of the snake.
Sometimes, however, a charmer may not be adequate to the task.   In fact, a truly inept charmer will fail time and again to ease the attitude of the snake.   The result is biting after biting.   And so having this “charmer” in the midst avails nothing.    The task for which he is employed isn’t working.
The question is “who is at fault?”   I would argue the charmer.
Snakes act on instinct.  They have a nature and they behave predictably and accordingly.    The task is to the charmer to influence this behavior.   This is a skill set that needs to be developed.   The charmer needs to have done due diligence in understanding the snake and the kind of snake.   He needs to have learned how to apply the charming techniques.    He needs to understand himself, and how his own attitude, spirit, and energy contributes to the success of failure of his craft.
So it is with evangelism.
Too often I hear Christians blaming the failure of evangelism on the person they target.   “They are too stubborn.”   “They are more concerned about their money/time/partying/sin than they are about Jesus.”   “They don’t want to hear it.”   “They think they have better things to do.”   “They are blinded by the devil.”
Some of those things may be true.    But that is the nature of unbelief.   These things are predictable.   They should be expected.
The question so often isn’t with the target of evangelism, but the nature of the evangelism offered and the spirit of the evangelist.
Cold targeted evangelism misses part of the heart of what it means to influence another person.   Influence comes from knowing someone and understanding them.   It comes from building on relationship.   Evangelism means understanding what Jesus means to them in their context, not to them in the fashion I want to frame it.    The subject of the message is clear, Jesus.   What the evangelist must consider is the one the message is aimed at.    Relevance is far less about “culture” and far more about individuals and their personal lives and challenges.
In another sense, sometimes evangelism fails not because someone doesn’t want to hear the message.   They just can’t hear it from that particular messenger.   Typically these are the messengers constantly quick to blame the receiver of the message and infrequently willing to entertain the delivery of it.
Condescending attitudes.   Guilt and fear laden presentations.   Ignoring the imminent need at hand like hunger or sickness and bypassing works of mercy just to force feel the gospel.    Insider language and jargon that mean nothing to someone who is outside of the Christian culture.   Judgmental statements.    Overt living that contradicts the very message being offered.   All of these are enemies of evangelism and prevalent in many Christian circles.    In these cases, the charmer’s spirit, energy, and attitude are what get them bit.
This simple verse about the snake charmer is so profound to our call to invite the world into relationship with Jesus.   The formula is simple but the path and journey are not.
Take time to understand the world and people around you.   It  makes all the difference to them.   It humbly opens the door to let the Holy Spirit speak insight into what needs need met and how God wants to work in the life of the other.   It takes the emphasis off of the evangelist’s need to speak and puts it on the other’s need to be able to hear and receive the message.
Take time to do self assessment about how you present the gospel.  Is Jesus truly evidenced in your own life?   Is the spirit in which the message offered truly humble?   Is it truly compassionate?   Does it love the person where they are?   Does it welcome “as is” and trust that Jesus does the transforming or does it hammer judgment on what needs to transform before really “accepting Jesus”?    Is the intent of delivery about the sender or the receiver?
While this doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly puts the odds better in that favor.

Blessed Assurance

Getting to be near people who are ready to pass on from this world to the next is edifying.   Pastors get to do this more often than the average person simply by the nature of our calling.    Recently I have been inspired by one such case and I’d like to share a little with you today.

I remember a few years ago a woman who was 101 years of age.   Her body had been failing for some time yet her mind was sharp as a tack.   She could carry on wonderful conversation and had stories galore to tell.  Each and every time I’d see her I’d ask how she was.   She’d say something to the effect of “well, I’m sitting at the station ready to go, but the train keeps leaving without me.”   When the day came that died, she did so with gratitude for the event, and confidence that whatever came next would be peaceful, and wondrous.

More recently I’ve been with someone who is also ready to pass on.    And once again, there is a quiet confidence coupled with a genuine readiness.    A lifetime of faith and family undergirding her, she faces the prospect of death with gratitude for the life that’s gone before and anticipation of what is to come.    All of this with a humility and honesty that is remarkable.    She is both ready and fearless.

I’ve also seen the opposite.  I’ve seen people terrified at the prospect of death.    Many if not most times it’s because of a lack of sense of what comes next.    Sometimes there is the question of what kind of life has been lived and what that means for the next leg of the journey.   Often there are unresolved family circumstances.    Peace hasn’t been made and so there is a hanging on and fear for what will happen to those who are left behind.    All of these are understandable, but also sad.   Death holds a place of worry rather than a place of release.

The most unifying factor I’ve seen in those that are ready to go is that they have a sense of faith.    This isn’t to say people of faith have a corner on embracing dying.    Rather it’s that percentage wise, the stronger the faith, the more likely it seems that folks are comfortable with the reality that death is knocking at the door.

Our relationship with God is of utmost importance in our wrestling with mortality.     We need to remember that the strength of this relationship lies not just in word, but in heart and in deed.

In order to know that our faith is well placed in death, we need to live it out in life.    We must be willing to place other outcomes and circumstances in God’s hands all along the journey.   We have to let go of our notions of control and pride as we go about life day to day.    We need to feel God’s blessing and presence as we sacrifice and offer up ourselves in service to know that the promises of God when we leave this world are sure and true.

Christ calls us to radical forgiveness and reconciliation.   This is not just about life here, but also about life hereafter.    Grudges and bitterness are not only poison to us in health, they are toxic to our ability to die in peace.    Unfinished business, particularly with those we love, is a burden best relieved as soon as possible.    It makes living so much better, and when the time comes that we face death we simply embrace one another in genuine love.  The burden of righting wrongs and managing guilt are distant memories.    We can move on in peace knowing that we’ve done our best and those left behind can rest easy in that knowledge.

All of us one day will face the grave.    The question is whether or not we will face it squarely, boldly, and with a peaceful heart.    The answer to the question doesn’t wait until that moment.   The answer begins right now with how we approach God, connect with the Holy Spirit, and live out the call and mind of Christ day in and day out.

Known Commodities

I always finding it amusing how we associate one another with singular activities or places.  We see people at work and their uniform our the dress code suddenly becomes an integral part of identifying them.   We see someone at aerobics or karate and when we see them elsewhere out of uniform we don’t recognize them.  If we figure out who they are, we laugh because we also recognize how ridiculous it is to pigeonhole one another so severely.

Depending on where we are, we may not always look the same. Sunday morning me doesn’t look like Monday morning me.   Karate me doesn’t look like swimming pool me.   Winter cold me doesn’t look like lawn mowing me.    And this is how it should be.  I would look pretty ridiculous preaching in a karate uniform or floating around a lazy river in a suit and tie.

Yet while attire makes sense to be malleable to the situation, the question is also relevant to personality, character, and how and who we are.  The question is whether we are dependable to be the same person no matter where we are or what we happen to be wearing.

This is one of the great criticisms of Christianity.  Folks see us acting high and mighty at some points.  Then we are seen in other settings and it’s like our personality has shifted.   It’s almost as if we have different compartments in our lives that don’t feel the need to spill into one another.

I can have my Christian persona that looks and sounds super holy on Sundays and at Bible studies.    I can be wonderfully righteous when it comes to discussing matters that I deem worthy of judgment.    Meanwhile at work, dishonesty is perfectly acceptable if it gets me ahead.   Revenge is sweet on those who cross me.   In the parking lot of a club, a fistfight is a perfectly acceptable alternative if someone looks at me wrong, or perhaps if I can’t see straight from the libation of the evening.

While this certainly does no favors to my ability to evangelize, there is a more central problem at hand.   If this is how I live my life, there is no true “me”.    I’m not whole.  I’m not consistent.   I’m an unknown commodity to others because there is no predictability in my character, priorities, or values.   I’m even an unknown commodity to myself because I haven’t truly found the “me” that is a constant.

This is important as a person of faith.  God calls us to discern who we are at our center.    God desires that we be whole.   The expression “let your yes by your yes and your no your no” is all about integrity.    Not just of word, but of character.   After all, how can someone trust my word if they can’t depend on the continuity of character of the one giving it?

The beauty of following Christ is that who He calls us to be fits into just about any condition or circumstance.   We don’t necessarily give up our likes and dislikes, livelihoods and hobbies.    What happens is the transformed heart we receive informs all of the above.  What happens is that we suddenly become consistent because we uncover who we are, and the fullest expression of who we are comes to the fore when we discover it in Christ.

We become consistently loving, merciful, patient, compassionate, gracious, honest, reliable, and kind.    We become these things everywhere, all the time.

We become a wonderfully known commodity.

Strive for this.   Strive to be consistent as a person, and make that consistency in keeping with the mind of Christ.   You will be an anomaly in a fickle world, and a bright, burning light for Jesus.

Everyone Needs Some Love

It never fails week in and week out that multiple situations arise reminding me that there is a reason the center of Jesus’ message is love.   There’s a reason He modeled radical acceptance and understanding and got uppity with those who looked down at others or treated people as “less than”.    There’s a reason He gave no exceptions or loopholes regarding who we are called to love, to forgive, and on whom to show mercy and compassion.

It’s because we all need it.

It also happens to be that not only do we need it, but we have a need to demonstrate it.  Loving others requires humility and strength.    It requires patience and openness.   It requires an ability to see inherent worth and value.   In other words the things required to demonstrate love also happen to be necessary traits to live a life full of faith and in relationship with God.

Of course not all love looks alike.

Love can be the simplicity of a smile at someone who needs it, a kind word or greeting,  or an intentional moment of levity to ease tension in the day.

It can be offering hope to someone who feels hopeless or broken.   Reminding them of their worth and potential.  Heartfelt pep talks convey a love that says “I’m with you, and I believe in you.”

Love looks like, at times with the same brokenness above, silently sitting with another just so they aren’t alone.

It is a listening ear free of judgment.

Love is a meal showing up at the door in a time of need or sorrow.

It can be honest correction and gracious accountability.

Love is a game of chess, or cards, or sharing a movie or concert.

Love is anything that shows another we care, that uplifts, builds up, and embodies the grace that God showers on us day to day.

Loving someone can take a long time or almost no time at all depending.   One of the places that never ceases to keep me in awe is how much even a brief visit with someone who is going through a rough patch means.  Loving enough to simply show up speaks untold volumes.

Everyone needs it.   In different ways, at different times, but we all require the knowledge that we are loved.

And note what’s not in here.   Harshness.   Knowing offense.   Abuse.   Ridicule.   Abandonent.

Sometimes we hear people somehow try to excuse hard attitudes, language, and writing another off as the “loving thing” to do.   I recently saw a video of a man standing in front of a lesbian couple holding a sign about how God wants them to repent and hollering at them about their lifestyle.    It was crass.  It was harsh.   It built walls.   It did nothing to inspire any movement toward Jesus on the part of the couple.

No matter what our position on any behavior, there is a loving way to express it.   One standard we can use is whether our expressing draws the other in or repels them away.   If we are alienating, we need to ask some questions of ourselves.

What blew me away in the video is that the young son of the couple walked over to the man and set a bottle of water at his feet to drink.   His mother simply pleaded with the man to take a drink because it was a blazing hot day and an unhealthy idea to stand in it holding a sign and hollering without hydration.

That, my friends, is love.

No matter our similarities or differences, if we want the world to see Jesus, we need to love it like He does.    Love is the greatest grease for helping the wheels of conversation, understanding, and reconciliation to turn.    It doesn’t guarantee any results because every relationship is a two way street, but it certainly has the best chance of bringing us together or at least ensuring something that may be going bad doesn’t take a turn for the worse.

Am I being loving?   One of the most important questions to ask ourselves.   Hopefully the more we ask it, the more loving we become.   If we can all get to this point, what a world it would be.

Focused Up Means Focused Out

I serve what would be considered on the larger side of small churches.   The community is close knit.   There is amazing love and grace shared among us.   There are relationships between people that likely span almost double my lifetime.   It is an amazing place.   Tonight we had two great things going on.   There was an outreach/witness event inviting church and community in to do tie dying, and others gathered to pack backpacks to give away this weekend at a community ice cream social.   As I headed from the church to the parsonage I was overwhelmed with pride at the willingness of our congregation to focus more and more outward.

I am also reminded of an incident at my last appointment.   A neighbor came over to the church incensed.  The preschool renting space from us had put up a fence with some netting along our property line that was adjacent to the bed of bushes our neighbors had planted some time ago, also on our property, to keep balls from bouncing into their yard during recess.    I was reamed out about this apparent travesty and then dressed down because we had “too much” going on and there were people constantly in our parking lot.  “You’re a church not a community center!” came out of her mouth.   She also professed to be a devout, card carrying, born again, blood bought Christian as well.

She had missed the point that I got to celebrate tonight.

Jesus was all about reaching outside His  circle.  He sent the disciples OUT to share the message and do His work.   He reached OUT to those in need.   Everything He did was about the other rather than Himself.  In fact, if we’re really honest, the religious leaders that were so often opposed to Him were so because they were so focused in keeping their OWN in line, and what this  message of love and grace might cause IN the community over which they claimed authority.

In other words, the one who was focused on those OUTside the circle was upsetting the ones who were more interested in controlling those withIN the circle.

Jesus’ “OUTness” is evidenced in inviting the average or the wretched into His inner circle of disciples.   Zealots, fishermen, tax collectors.   It’s evidenced in His standing beside an adulteress, and healing lepers and the man with the withered hand.   It’s evidenced in His hanging out with “sinners” to the chagrin of the “holy and righteous” religious leaders.

If we are about Jesus, we are about those outside the church.  Those outside of our faith.  Those outside of the redeeming grace of Jesus.   And there is no Biblical excuse to avoid embracing these folks in love and compassion.   It’s what Jesus did simply because they were people.   And the hope that a result is that they will come to know Him as we do.

If we are focused “upward” on God, then we also must be focused outward on our communities.

We must reach out.  We must embrace.   We have to set aside assumptions that everyone should be where we are in faith and morality and accept that if we are in Christ our journey is at a different place.   That place is a wonderful place of redemption and also at an obligated place to love others so they see Jesus in us, and hopefully are inspired to get to know Him for themselves.   Reaching out is indeed one full half of the great command.

Love God and Love each other.

Truly if we grasp 1 John we recognize that these two aren’t separate but linked.  If we love God we must love each other, and if we don’t love each other we don’t love God.

Reach out.  Love unconditionally.   Embrace people in hope that they will see Jesus and accept him.   Embrace people in patience that this seeing of Jesus may take time and acceptance even longer still.   But never stop reaching out.

Jesus never stops reaching for us.    Let us never stop reaching for one another.

The Why and What of Prayer

Every time I get to be part of some kind of prayer oriented event I walk away contemplating the nature of prayer.   I find that in modern Christianity we have a lot of different flavors of prayer.   Unfortunately many of those flavors move us away from the actual intent of prayer.   Private prayer is one thing.   What we focus on today is more public prayer.

Now, understand this first and foremost, when I say I contemplate the nature of prayer I contemplate as part of it whether I myself really have any genuine grip on the subject as my sense of it is in concert with many but at the same time at odds with many more.    Just truth in advertising here.

Nevertheless, for me the standard for anything, should He have demonstrated or spoken on it, is Jesus.   Two things hit me regarding prayer.   The first is that He was very clear that showy, lengthy public prayer is a trap and should be avoided.   Mind you I’m not saying public prayer should be avoided, just certain manifestations of it.    He also gave us the Lord’s prayer which I think we misunderstand.    We repeat it as THE “go to” prayer verbatim.  I suggest it’s a model.   Start by acknowledging God’s greatness.  Seek God’s will.   Petition our needs.   Confess and ask forgiveness.   Ask for the strength to stay on the straight and narrow.   And ultimately recognize that all things belong to and are subject to God.

But this public piece really seems to get us.    Here are a few ideas on kinds of prayer that miss it.

Preaching Prayer-  This is prayer that is aimed more at the people listening than at God.   The “prayer” is geared at sending a message to a congregation of people.    This misses the point of prayer, which is an intimate connection between the one offering it and God.

The “Father God” and others Prayer-  This prayer misses the point of clear direction.   Things like “Father”, “Father God”, “Lord God”, and so forth are repeated time after time in the prayer.    I once counted one of these crutches occurring no less than 50 times in just a few moments of prayer.   This kind of verbal crutch to me is evidence of trying to search for more things to pray about.   It runs the error of assuming prayer power and length of prayer are connected.    But it has it backwards.   Many times brevity has more power than length in my estimation because it is focused, specific, and passionately clear.

The Bible Study Prayer-  This prayer is overladen with Biblical references.   Often the intent is to somehow justify or bolster the credibility of the prayer to those looking on.   Remember, though, we’re talking to God, not them.   God doesn’t need to be reminded of scripture.   God inspired it.    Our job is to pray within the parameters set by it.

The Bossy Prayer-  This is the prayer that misplaces authority.     We give God permission to do this or that.   We invite and give permission for the Holy Spirit to be at work.    We try to direct God’s blessing by “claiming” something.      The problem here is that we are assuming two faulty things.

First, we assume that God needs our permission.   We assume that somehow there are places where God’s spirit is off limits unless we, through our prayerful hocus pocus, open the door.   God is everywhere.   God is constantly working.   God doesn’t need our permission.   What is needed is our present and persistent acknowledgement that God is always speaking so we need to be always listening and responding.

Second, “claiming” anything is quite arrogant.    Claiming has at its heart the assumption that we have cornered the mind and will of God.    It is assuming that my agenda is, of course, God’s.    What is needed here is continued, humble petition for discernment and clarity of God’s purpose.

Performance Prayer-  This is prayer that is flowery and showy.   I suggest it is the kind of prayer Jesus was specifically referring to in the story of the Religious and common man praying in the same space with one sounding quite impressed with himself and the other simply owning his sinfulness and asking for mercy.      The underlying purpose of this prayer is on the one doing the praying rather than the one being prayed to, the people prayed for, or the needs prayed about.

There are, of course, many other categories I’m sure we could list.   These seem to be the big ones.   So if these are off, what are some guides to help us pray better?

I suggest we begin by remembering that it is a conversation.   When we pray, we need to keep in mind the general rules of conversation.   Stay focused on the one we are speaking to.   Address that individual as such.    Respect the nature of what is happening as well.   And since we tend to not hear an audible voice, perhaps ask for the wisdom and insight to hear God respond.

Keep in mind the model of the Lord’s prayer.   It keeps things tethered to God, to what we should be focused on, and covers the bases of what God wants us to pray about as well as reminding us of who is in what place in the relationship.

Know that God knows what we need before we even ask.   This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask.  It simply means that, particularly publicly, there isn’t a need to draw out the process.     If anything it is a comfort to know that we don’t have to “inform” God of what’s up.   We can approach God confident that God knows the circumstance and is primed to respond.

Remember that prayer is intimate, and therefore in many ways private.   Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to go into our “prayer closet” away from prying ears and eyes.   Public prayer has a wonderful place, but baring it all may not be its intent.

Keep it humble.   Not only do we “see through a glass darkly”, but we also, at best, see the tiniest part of an unimaginable whole.   Requests must be made with reverence and awe.   Requests for action on God’s part must be balanced with requests for peace and acceptance of what we request doesn’t come to pass.

And finally, with public prayer, remember that the intent is to draw us into connection with God in a singular way.   Mixing and matching purposes like study, preaching, and sometimes even sending a message to someone in the onlooking group, detract from the point of prayer.    Focus is important, and using co-opting something as profound and personal as prayer for a more self-directed purpose affects its integrity and authenticity.

All that said, if you get invited to lead a group in prayer, take it.   It is a wonderful, humbling, and privileged task to lead.   Public prayer has the grand ability to draw people into an experience where together we both invite and inspire the Holy Spirit to manifest in extraordinary personal and communal ways.   Corporate, led prayer has a power that is unique to the experience when all of us are of one mind and spirit.   Which is kind of the point of this devotion.

When we have a fuller understanding of our purpose, we can do what we do in the most effective and meaningful fashion.   So pray.   Lead prayer.   Just keep in mind who the prayer is to and what the purpose happens to be.

Remember Where You Came From

In 1 Corinthians Paul begins with a discussion about wisdom and power.   He instructs that Godly wisdom and strength is not the same as worldly.  He warns that following the Christlike understanding of these things will seem like foolishness and weakness to those who don’t share our beliefs.    Of course we understand given Paul’s own life and ministry that in his estimation, the blessing we receive, transformation that occurs, and impact we have on the world are well worth it.

He also reminds them to recall who they were before they received the call of Christ and came to faith.  Essentially he reminds them that when they first believed even by human standards they were a bit dim and weak.  Yet God chooses what is foolish and weak to upend the perceived wise and strong and in the doing glorify Christ and transform the world.

Don’t forget where you came from.  What a great lesson much needed in every age.

We have all heard or experienced people who achieve a level of notoriety, wealth, or status, and suddenly their values and priorities shift.   They forget what it was like to do without.  The forget the struggle of having to claw for every ounce of notice as they began their journey.   They can’t seem to recall how much they relied on the grace, support, and assistance of others along the way.

In turn the way they treat others changes.   More judgmental.  Less understanding.   Less grace and compassion.   More expectations than they themselves even had to meet.   Sometimes perhaps the reason is fear of being supplanted or surpassed.   So they can’t possibly foster let alone allow another to get near them.

And invariably the expression is uttered.   So and so forgot where they came from.

The other side, however, is beautiful to behold.    Those who remember where they started see others with great understanding and compassionate eyes because they know what it’s like in their shoes.    They see potential and foster it because they remember how nice it would have been to have someone to do that on their own path.    They even hope to see someone they help on the way surpass themselves because they know one day whatever the one on top is doing will need someone to take over.   And they want to have someone to hand it off to.

These people are respected.  They are loved.   They are living into the image and example of Christ.

Everyone has a past.   Struggles shape us.  They can define us in the best of ways.   They also keep us honest and humble.    Remembering who we were serves to foster appreciation for who we are.   Knowing where we started, and seeing how far we’ve come, gives us hope that we’ll get where we are still going.

Remembering that we don’t get anywhere on our own makes all the difference.  When we acknowledge how Christ plays into all of it we keep our eyes on Him.   Doing this helps us make the most of who we are by passing the grace along to those around us.   All of this is key if we want to see the world transform more into the Kingdom of God.