Thursday, May 29, 2014

What Christ's Ascension Means For Us

            Jesus Christ ascended to heaven nearly two-thousand years ago, and since that time much in history has changed; yet, on the other hand, we are still in the situation of the early church:  Jesus is still up there, and we are still down here.  Because we still await Christ’s return, the original call and practice of the church is still in effect for us. 

            As far as experiences go, it would be hard to top being one of the original disciples and see Jesus ascend into heaven (Acts 1:1-10).  Christ was crucified, dead, and buried.  Then, he rose from the grave.  For forty days Jesus appeared on and off to his disciples.  Then the day came when he ascended.  All of those redemptive events of Jesus and those powerful experiences being with the risen Lord, and actually seeing him go to heaven.  Now what?  How do you top that?

            In the spiritual life, we move back and forth between moments of genuine inspiration and the sheer routine of our daily mundane lives.  Both the uplifting mountain-top experiences and the hard work of walking through the valley are important.  The trick is to channel the energy from one into the other.  We need to work out rhythms of grace, daily liturgies that connect expectant prayer with the action of being witnesses in the culture.

            Prayer and action – both are necessary to the church.  And both are closely tied to the risen and ascended Christ.  The Ascension of our Lord Jesus is important because it means that Christ is exalted above everything.  His glorification translates into our sharing with him in his glory.  The Ascension means that Jesus is in charge, by his authority he has given us a task to do, and he has given us the means of carrying-out that job.

            Jesus and the disciples, even after our Lord’s forty days with them after the resurrection, were not on the same page together.  The disciples were anticipating a restoration of David’s kingdom; in other words, their vision of what was going to take place is that there would be a great apocalypse in which Jesus would beat up all their enemies and set up a political kingdom just like King David of old. 

            But Jesus has a different agenda.  Instead of creating a Jewish-Christian utopia where the disciples would be in charge and in control of the world, Jesus bluntly told them that knowing God’s timetable is not in their pay grade.  The disciples were commanded and commissioned to do a job, and that job was not to gawk at the sky and figure-out all the blood moons so that we can anticipate when the end of the world will happen.
            Yet, we keep trying to predict the time.  Like the original disciples, who wanted to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority, we are tired of all the effects of sin in the world and all the people, institutions, and governments that are opposed to Christian ways of thinking and acting.  We are anxious for Jesus to return and make everything that is wrong, right again.  We deservedly want peace and justice. 
            But Jesus didn’t go there, and he essentially said to quit thinking about stuff that is none of our business.  Instead, our business is being witnesses of Jesus.  The angels came along right after Jesus ascended and nicely said to the disciples to stop standing there with their mouths open and understand that Jesus is coming back and there is a job to do – and that job is to be witnesses of Christ’s redemptive events.  The power for being witnesses will come from the Holy Spirit; therefore, prayer is a necessary and essential practice (Acts 1:14).

            Jesus is Lord over all creation.  He is Lord of the church.  He is Lord of our families.  He is Lord at our workplaces.  There is not one square inch of all this earth that Jesus is not Lord.  What this means for us, since Christ is Lord of all, since we possess the Holy Spirit, we can and should live our lives devoted to prayer and to being witnesses in this world for Jesus.  The kind of prayer that Jesus is looking for from his followers is prayer that expects God’s promises to be fulfilled; prayer that is united in spirit and in purpose; and, prayer that is persistent.  That kind of prayer characterized the early believers, and that same kind of prayer is required from Jesus our Lord.  Just as a cup of coffee needs a continual warm-up, so our prayers need to be frequent and constantly refreshed so that God’s purposes will be accomplished.  And his purposes are that all of creation comes, in a real and practical way, under Christ’s lordship.

            Prayer is not all we do.  Jesus has also told us to be witnesses.  Jesus is Lord, and so all persons must submit to his lordship through obedient action.  This task is far from finished.  According to The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, we know of 11,646 distinct people groups on this planet.  6,734 of those groups are less than 2% Christian and most of them have no churches, no Bibles, no Christian literature, and no mission agencies seeking to reach them.  That, by the way, is in the neighborhood of about 3 ½ billion people.  The Center also cites that 1 out of 5 non-Christians in North America do not personally know a single follower of Jesus.  What can we do?  We can pray.  We can witness.  We can pray for spiritual power.  We can witness by loving our neighbor as ourselves and telling a simple story of Jesus.

            Let me give you an example.  My wife used to work at a company in which she befriended a Hindu woman from India.  She was from the highest caste in India, and looked the part – she literally looked like an Indian Barbie doll.  Whenever I saw her I thought I should bow in her presence because she carried herself like a princess.  She had never experienced an American Thanksgiving.  So, Mary simply invited her to a Thanksgiving dinner out our house with our family.  As we typically do each Thanksgiving, we all took turns going around the table and describing what we were thankful to God for.  When it came time for this lovely Indian woman to speak she said:  “I am thankful to be here and to know you all.  It is evident that your God is very personal and precious to you, and I have never known that people could have such love for a God they do not see.”  That, my friends, is one way of being a witness – having a large enough ‘inner space’ to invite another person very different from myself into my life to see the unseen God.

            Christ’s Ascension means that Jesus is Lord, and I am not!  Therefore, we as Christians and as churches are to submit to King Jesus and do what he has commanded us to do.  And he has given the church a mission:  be witnesses to the risen and ascended Lord.  May it be so.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Love and Obedience

Throughout this week, as I reflected on the lectionary text of Scripture from John 14:15-21, my thoughts kept coming back to my late brother-in-law, Todd Dawson.  In the Fall of 1992, Todd was on his deathbed in a small sterile hospital room at the University of Iowa, his body ravaged by AIDS.  At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation.  My parents came and stayed with our girls as my wife and I went to be with Todd since we were told he did not have much time left.  As it turned out we were in Iowa City for a week, spending our days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night.  It was my habit during those days to rise about 5am, make my way to Todd’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before other family members arrived.  Todd was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper.  But those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.  To think that only a year before Todd and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and very much a person who had given up on the church.  Yet, here I was with him; we were now devoted brothers to one another.  Through a series of circumstances that can only be ascribed as God’s gracious hand, Todd had given his life fully to Jesus Christ just six months before his hospital stay (that conversion is a lengthy story for another time).

            In that week I watched in the background as day after day, cousin after cousin, and relative after relative came into Todd’s room to see him for the last time.  The majority of those cousins were much like Todd before giving his life to Jesus – having made a profession of faith as children they had long since outgrown their belief and lived for the most part as they wanted.  With each and every person, as frail as Todd was, he would grab a hold of the relative, pull them close and say into their ear:  “Look at me!  I am dying.  Is this how you want to end up?”  And then he would say this to each and every one:  “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”

            Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove.  Chapters 13-17 of the Gospel of John are our Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – this is quite literally Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved.  In other words, these are the words that Jesus did not want his disciples to forget.  Those disciples were distressed and troubled over the reality that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some words of both comfort and focus in order to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.

            The job of obedience is so importantly huge that Jesus did not ascend to heaven and leave us like orphans wondering where our next spiritual meal is coming from.  Instead of leaving us to fend for ourselves, Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit in order to help us have the attitudes we are supposed to have, and live the way we are supposed to live as commanded by Jesus.

            Jesus has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever.  The term “Counselor” here is translated in various ways in different versions of the New Testament.  The reason for this is because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with just one English word.  So, we get terms in other versions like “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.”  They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit.  Yet, I think the best term to really portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is the term, “True Friend.” 

            A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen.  A true friend is the kind of person you can contact and they will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need.  A true friend is the kind of person that will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them.  A true friend is there for you and maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you.  And, a true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.  That is what the Holy Spirit is – He helps us when we need help; He encourages us when we are down; He comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, He gives us good loving kick in the pants when we need it.  The Holy Spirit is our True Friend, our Best Friend in the world.  And that is the best way to understand Him as being described as “the Spirit of Truth.”  That is, the Holy Spirit is true to us and constantly speaks truth to us and leads us into truth.  It is the Spirit that will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.

            Christianity, then, is neither just a warm-hearted love with obedience as optional, nor is it a life of drudgery in just gritting-out sheer obedience with no love behind it.  Instead, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together with perfect harmony.

            On June 18, 1993, at 29 years of age, Todd Dawson went to be with his Lord.  Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a man in whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission.  And never have I had such a relationship that was totally changed from one of distance and animosity to a relationship that could be characterized as “true friend.”  Todd lived through his deathbed experience in the Fall of 1992 by the gracious hand of God who was not quite finished with him yet.  What Todd’s Christian life displayed to me more than anyone I have known is that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a radical no-holds-barred obedience that is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.  And because of his love for God he has seen Jesus.  I look forward to seeing Jesus with him someday.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"What Do I Say?"

            So far this year I have had an unusual amount of persons within my congregation who have and are experiencing significant health issues, especially cancer.  The church, of course, has a wonderful opportunity in such occasions to offer prayer, comfort, and encouragement.  However, oftentimes church members struggle with knowing what to say to persons going through such physical trials.  They may feel unable to truly say something helpful, so they do not say anything at all.  They might avoid going to visit someone in the hospital because they are too intimidated about the situation.  Even pastors and church leaders may feel so inadequate and small in dealing with some parishioners’ overwhelming pain and disease that they fail to say anything substantive.  This is a problem that does not really need to be a problem because we possess the words of God contained in Holy Scripture.

            Here’s the deal:  it is not really our words that bring health and healing to a person in need; it is God’s words.  Much more important than believing our speech is going to make or break a patient or victim’s health or happiness is our very presence.  Taking the time to be with someone in need and simply hold their hand and sit for a while can communicate more comfort and care than a bevy of forced words out of our mouths.  So, then, when we visit someone either at home or in the hospital our presence coupled with God’s Word are the vital tools of building encouragement into a patient’s heart. 

            Knowing the Bible is crucial to knowing what to say to a person in need.  Even the most shy among us does not need to put pressure on ourselves to come up with something to say when we are equipped with the Book of Psalms.  Whether it is reading Psalm 23 with its comforting promise of God’s provision, protection, and presence, or Psalm 91 with its grand vision of a God who shelters His people in a time of upheaval, the psalms offer us words to say that transcend anything we might come up with on our own.  More than once I have gone into a hospital room or a bedroom at home and simply spent my time reading Scripture after Scripture and allowing the Spirit of God to seep down into the fearful recesses of a person or a family’s innermost soul, bringing a sliver of light into the clouds of doubt and darkness that loom within.

            Another great fear of the one who would like to comfort another is whether they will be able to answer the difficult questions brought forth by the afflicted.  And, yes, they do often have questions of life and death on their lips, like an impetuous four year old peppering his mother with inquisitions for which she becomes exhausted over.  Yet, as human beings, we are not so grandiose as to have the answers to questions that only God glories to know.  “I don’t know” is a phrase that is not only perfectly acceptable to say, it may even be the best response to a large query.  Trying to drain all the mystery out of life by claiming to know the hidden places of the universe strikes me as, at best, hubris, and, at worst, leaves a person feeling more awful than they did before their inquiry.

            The only obstacles that stand in the way of our ministering care and compassion to a hurting person is our own self-made walls of excuses and fears.  If our presence and God’s Word are truly the best companions, then we can walk with confidence into the life of another and know that we are being conduits of grace to those who need it most. 

            If you are not sure about what kind of Scripture to use in a person’s life, every pastor on planet earth enjoys suggesting portions of God’s Word to use.  If you do not want to go alone to encourage another, there is likely a genuine follower of Jesus who would jump at the chance to be with you and assist in any way possible.  Too many hurting people’s pain is compounded by a well-intentioned person who simply says and does nothing out of a misguided belief that they have nothing to offer.  To feel ill or dying is to feel discomfort; to feel ignored is to suffer a terrible agony worse than death.  May God’s people use God’s Word to edify God’s people and transform God’s creation for God’s sake.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Experiencing Grace... Again

It may be that, at some point in your life, you were deeply touched by a profound encounter with Jesus Christ.  You found peace, love, and joy.  Your mind and heart was swept up in the awe and wonder of God.  Perhaps you were deeply moved for a few hours, days, or weeks.  And then, eventually, you returned to a more normal routine of daily existence.  Over time you drifted from your spiritual experience and got caught up in the demands of career and family.  What happened next is that you began to treat Jesus like some old friend from another town whom you dearly loved in years past but have just lost track of.  Of course, it was unintentional.  You simply allowed circumstances to separate the relationship.  Preoccupation with something else took over.  Now, you often find yourself with this low level irritation, frustrated with others and unable to love as you ought.  You have become what the late author Brennan Manning called a “Christian agnostic” – people who do not deny Jesus, but just ignore him.

            If your days are trivial and hectic; if the clock determines what you do; if you are numb to the news and headlines around you; if you are all jangled and jittered by life’s circumstances; if phones and computers and gadgets rule your day; if there is little room for responding to humanity humanely; if you have settled into a comfortable piety and a well-fed virtue; if you have grown complacent and lead a practical life; then you are in need of being touched again by the grace and love of God in Christ by treating Jesus as if he were your very best friend as well as the awesome Son of God.

            We are all still here walking on this earth because none of our failures and lack of faith have proved terminal.  We are alive today because of God’s radical grace.  The forgiveness of God is a gratuitous liberation from guilt and regret.  It is an extreme amnesty.  Through looking in the mirror and seeing personal sinfulness we amazingly end up encountering the merciful love of the redeeming God.  The grace of God says to us, “Hush, child, I don’t need to know where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to; just let me love you.”  When we have experienced that kind of love, we are then in a position to love one another deeply from the heart.  It is a new life of love, the kind of love that comes from God – an unconditional love that is permanent and will never go away – it is imperishable (1 Peter 1:17-23).

            What this all means for us as God’s people is that we will not just show love when we are assured that we will be loved in return; we will not just wait for others to show love to us first; we will not expect to reach some higher level of knowledge or spirituality in order to be gracious and loving; we will simply love with the kind of love that has been given to us by Jesus. 

As God’s born again people, we love with a gracious, sacrificial, vulnerable, and desperate kind of love.  It is the kind of love that is like the intensive care waiting room in a hospital.  I have spent hours with people in such waiting rooms.  In the intensive care waiting room we are strangers, but there is a loving vulnerability to being together.  I have sat waiting with anguished people and listened to urgent questions: Will my husband make it? Will my child walk again even she lives? How do you live without your companion of thirty years?  The hospital waiting room is different from any other place in the world. And the people who wait are different. They can't do enough for each other. No one is rude. The distinctions of race and class melt away. Each person pulls for everyone else.  Vanity and pretense vanish. No one is embarrassed about crying or asking tough questions.  In that moment their whole world is focused on the doctor's next report. Everyone intuitively knows that loving someone else is what life is all about.  By God’s amazing grace we will all learn to live like that without having to learn it the hard way in a place of intense anxiety and suffering.

            There is always someone who needs God’s love as much or more than we do.  Christ’s resurrection is not some flash-in-a-pan – it has staying power – it is real and permanent.  And it is our hope of living a new life of gracious unconditional love.  Scores of people today look for love in all the wrong places.  As followers of Jesus, let’s show them the source of true love:  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.  Jesus has come to you and shown you the full extent of his love through the cross.  Jesus chose to enter this broken world and limp through life with you.  Jesus actually expects more failure from you than you expect from yourself.  And he gives grace.  So, all of our failures to love as we ought can be laid before Jesus because there is grace that covers it all – a deep love that forgives, redeems, and makes new.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Lifestyle of Grace

            I just want to say straight-up that last week was a very difficult time for me.  My wife, Mary, had surgery two weeks ago.  Praise God that the surgery went as planned with no surprises.  After two nights in the hospital she was released to come home.  However, she ended up having severe complications and landed back into the hospital.  Quite honestly, it was a serious situation and hard for me to deal with.  She literally has no memory of all that transpired in those days.  Mary is now home again and seems on a more normal trajectory of recovery.  But, I have to tell you, that I did not at all like what I saw in myself during those hard days of last week.  I found myself being irritated, frustrated, and even angry instead of caring, nurturing, and loving. 

            In the middle of that difficult time God and I ended-up having a spirited come-to-Jesus-meeting together.  In that rather intense prayer meeting, which was more like the Lord’s gracious confrontation to me, God showed me that I was not living according to my highest value in life.  You see, I really do believe that everything in life and ministry ought to, and needs to center completely and totally around the grace of God in Christ.  But what I was doing was extending love and caring for Mary as long as she reciprocated that love.  In other words, my love was conditional and God called me on it. 

Mutual love is a beautiful thing.  But what happens when only one person can give love?  What do we do when grace is the only option?  I had to come to the point of giving the very same kind of love that God shows to me in Christ.  I had to decide that grace was going to be my lifestyle.  I decided that it just did not matter what condition Mary was in; it did not matter what she said or did not say; nothing on her part mattered.  What mattered was my loving her deeply from the heart each and every hour I was with her; and, it did not matter if she was able to love me back or not.

            Since Christians are redeemed people; since they have acknowledged the truth of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection; since they are recipients of God’s great love in Jesus, every believer must make the decision to live a life of grace and love no matter what!  It does not matter what others may do or say, or fail to do or say; as God’s redeemed people, purchased by the precious blood of Christ, the church will love one another unconditionally.

            I do not often read novels because frankly I am really an egghead who enjoys delving into thick theological and historical books.  But lately I have been reading a novel written by a Swedish Lutheran bishop back in the 1930s.  The book, entitled The Hammer of God, is a story of a pastor in Sweden who got into the ministry as a respectable option for his life’s work.  The problem was that his life and ministry revolved around the Law.  Everything was about being the right kind of person and doing the right things, of preaching what people ought to be doing and what kind of people they ought to be.  But something happened to him, and that something was grace.  The love and grace of God in Christ got ahold of this pastor just at the point when he was removed from his clergy position by no fault of his own, but because of mean-spirited persons who wanted to see him gone.

            The pastor’s response to the congregation and his fellow pastors, many of whom were simply awful to him and glad to see him go at the denominational body’s ruling of ousting him was not to blast them all for their lack of love, but this:  “Not until today have I really understood the depth of the message I ought to have preached.  Now I beg you all to forgive everything I have said and done that has been lacking in love.  When it comes to zeal, I regret that I have been too lukewarm in seeking the good of your souls, and that I have made a distinction among people, so that I have loved the little more than the big.  With regard to love, I regret that I have wounded and chastised more than I have bound up and healed.  But most of all I am sorry that I have so seldom preached the full gospel of unmerited grace, which I long for and need more than any of you.  My only prayer now is that God in his grace may wipe away the memories of all that was faulty and wrong and let that grow and increase which has truly been the work of his incorruptible Word.  And I pray also that there may now be peace and that our hearts may be free from all hard feelings, just as I now would thank God that he still, perhaps, may have some use for me, a sinner, in his church.”

            Although this is not what the people listening to the pastor deserved to hear, he told them what he needed to tell them.  Grace means loving people when they are unlovely, or when they have no ability to love you back.  It is not an overstatement to say that every problem and situation in the church can be effectively and lovingly dealt with by means of grace.  People wrangle and wrestle with each other because their love has limits and conditions to it.  If we would all learn to walk in the ways of Jesus and determine to live a lifestyle of grace no matter what, then, it seems to me, the church would explode with love and there would not be enough room to handle all the people in need of God’s touch.