Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why I Read the Bible Every Day



            My earliest memories of the Bible are in the church in which I grew up.  I remember Bible stories from Sunday School and the pastor talking about particular verses from the Bible while I sat in our regular family pew at church.  But I really have no recall of ever having read the Bible for myself.  It wasn’t until my late teen years that I took up the task of reading the Scriptures.  And, I have to tell you, it absolutely changed my life.  I found that many of the stories I heard as a kid were a lot juicier than I realized.  I also discovered that there were simply a lot of things in the Bible that I didn’t know even existed.  But maybe the most profound breakthrough for me was plowing through all four Gospels and seeing the life and teaching of Jesus.  My adoration and appreciation of Christ rose exponentially after watching him in action throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            I was so impressed with reading the Gospels that I moved into the rest of the New Testament.  Then, I went back to the Old Testament and read it all.  In a matter of months I had read the entire Bible.  But what I then discerned is that, although I had read the whole Bible, I had more questions than when I started.  There was just far too much I didn’t understand about it.  So, I read the whole thing again… then again… and again… somewhere along the line I’ve lost count of how many times I have read the Bible – I estimate that I’ve read the New Testament around four-hundred times and the Old Testament about two hundred.  And I still have so much more to learn, discover, and unearth in this richest of books.

            Maybe all that reading of the Bible seems over the top.  I assure you, it isn’t.  Why in the world would I spend so much of my life in plain straightforward reading of the Scriptures?  Let me offer several reasons:

I cannot lay hold of God’s promises if I don’t know what they are.  Living from a place of faith and calm in the midst of uncertainty and unrest doesn’t just happen.  It comes from knowing the words of Scripture and applying them to everyday life.  The promises of Scripture are like an asthmatic’s inhaler, enabling us to slow down and take a deep breath.

I cannot be like Jesus if I don’t know him very well.  Reading Scripture about Jesus is like eating food. I have to do it regularly.  It nourishes me for the day. Bible reading is stored energy, stockpiled emotional and psychological capital.  I can speak and act like Jesus throughout the day by making moment-by-moment withdrawals from that vast reservoir of stored Scripture knowledge.

I cannot be wise if I am not connected to wisdom literature.  By nature we are all ignorant and have to learn through humility and experience what is wise, just, and good. But over time we can shed folly and become wise. I cannot do it on my own. I need a word from God each and every day to face life’s challenges, its ups-and-downs, as well as its mediocrity and mundane nature.  Every day the Bible tweaks my life and prompts fresh mid-course corrections.

I need to see God for who He is, and not what I think He is.  Everyone has an idea about God.  But I believe the Christian Scriptures tell me who God really is in all of his attributes, character, and sovereignty.  God is pretty big – so big that I can read the Bible for a lifetime and still get to know more about him. I read my Bible in order to sharpen my vision of God and to think more accurately about all that matters most in this life.

I need to see the Church for what it is, and not what I think it is.  Everybody and their dog have an opinion about how church should be and operate.  But I must take my cues from the Bible about what is most important about the church and what it should be doing.  I read the Bible in order to better know and understand who God’s people really are, and what they ought to be doing in this world.

I need God.  Reading the Bible is a personal experience — an actual encounter with the author. Daily Bible reading requires routine and structure, but it is not mechanical—just as a body requires a bony skeleton, but it is not the skeleton that gives it life. We do with the Bible what the Psalms guide us in doing—adore God, thank him, complain to him, wrestle with him, express perplexity to him, etc.  Without God I am lost.  Which is why, apart from Scripture, I am lost.


            Reading the Bible is an investment of time, energy, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  Struggling through its contents can change your life.  It did mine.  One of the most important decisions you could ever make is to read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation because it is God’s Word that reveals to us the God whom we serve.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Humble Leader



            In this Advent season as we anticipate Christmas, I have been reflecting on the great importance of humility.  Since Jesus humbled himself and became one of us, it seems to me that Christian leadership and church ministry really ought to take some cues from the posture of our Lord.

Humility is the queen of all Christian virtue, especially that of leadership.  Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.  Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us.  To be a humble leader means to be obsessed with seeking God’s will and way in everything, and then to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

            Therefore our task as Christ followers is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to our instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views.  We continually need a radical openness to God.  We must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us.  God is up to something and He has plans for us and our community.  Humility allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit.

            But being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds.  We need to recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including ourselves, whom are closed to God.  If our focus is more on creating safety and security, trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, and having the church be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways.

            First, people who want to maintain tradition at all costs may be closed to God.  When doing things the way we have always done them makes us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security makes us angry.  This is the place where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave.  Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them.  But that is what it takes if we are going to follow God.  Like Abraham, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going.

            Second, it is not just members trying to maintain traditions who can be closed to God.  Those who want to get rid of traditions can be just as closed off to God.  Sometimes folks who want new or different music, spiritual practices, and ministries desire to create a church of their own making to serve them and their needs, and not a church that focuses on what God is calling them to do.  Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.



            So, what to do?  Have the humility as leaders to continually and constantly ask the question: “What is God’s will?”  We need to practice leadership that is incredibly open to God.  This allows us to lead from a position of faith, and not fear.  This helps us to let God flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.  This enables us to practice hope and love, and not rely on our own strength and desires.  Humble leadership which is open to God makes prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.  We must read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it, and pray like there is no tomorrow.


            If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen in our churches.  Let our prayer together be this:  “I’m yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Smelling Christmas



When I think about the smells of the Advent and Christmas seasons, my nose immediately goes to my Grandma’s homemade Christmas cookies.  I would gladly spend an afternoon making the dough, rolling it out, using the Christmas cookie cutter shapes, and sprinkling red and green sugar in order to do some kid-serious kind of cookie indulgence.  And the smell!  Oh, my, the whole house would smell something of what I think heaven probably smells like.

            But the smells we might typically associate with Christmas (i.e. Christmas cookies, Christmas evergreen trees, and, Christmas presents) are a far cry from the smells of the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  When Christ was born, he was surrounded by animals.  Jesus was actually placed in a manger, a feeding trough.  Shepherds came to pay him homage.  I don’t know if you have ever been around shepherds.  To put it delicately, they usually stink.  In my first church in Michigan, our immediate neighbor was a shepherd.  He spent his days shepherding his sheep.  His name was Art.  Art always smelled bad.  Art smelled bad because he was constantly dealing with stinky sheep (not to mention that Art also never used deodorant – guess he thought that was pretty useless).



It is interesting that when Jesus grew up and began his ministry as an adult, he continued to associate with people of low position.  The guys he mostly hung out with were his disciples – a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If you put a shepherd and a fisherman side by side, I’m not sure which one would stink more.  But, to Jesus, shepherds and fishermen had the aroma of salvation on them.  Christ purposely sought out those who needed God.

After our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, his disciples continued his ministry of associating with stinky people who need Jesus.  It was the Apostle Paul who encouraged the church to “Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16). 

Jesus did not come to this earth as a privileged upper class king who demanded that others give him honor and obedience.  Instead, he humbled himself and became a servant.  He was born into the most humble of circumstances and never aspired to anything but doing his Father’s will.  As God’s people, we are to carry with us the aroma of Christ – not creatively finding ways to avoid others – but lovingly engaging those who need the message of Christmas.  How do you smell?  What aroma do you give off to others?



“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).

Jesus was a real baby.  There were times he smelled.  Changing diapers is just part of the deal with babies.  The very same baby, Jesus, who had to be cleaned-up and have a first century diaper change, was the person who would one day be stripped of his clothes and hung naked on the cross for the world to see.  There is perhaps no more terrible smell than the smell of death, especially death on a cross.

            I don’t know of anyone who actually likes dirty diapers, except maybe your dog.  You do those endless cleanings and put up with the smell of it because of love.  The reason Jesus came to this earth as a vulnerable little baby who was dependent on someone else cleaning him up, and the reason he became obedient to the horrible smell of death was because of love.  “This is love,” said the Apostle John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And, because Jesus is our pioneer, blazing a trail of salvation love before us, we are to follow him as his devoted disciples.  “Dear friends,” John said, “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).




            We would do well to remember and emphasize such gospel love, especially when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, this year.  In our business and our busy-ness, let’s keep our focus on why we have a Christmas.  May your church season be filled with hope, peace, joy, and love as you anticipate the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Weakness



            When we think of Jesus, we might immediately think of him as Lord and King, the sovereign of nations, the high and exalted ruler above all creation.  But in this time of year, we remember that Christ did not come to this earth with triumphal strength.  Jesus came as a weak little baby.  He purposely divested himself and became just like us – vulnerable and subject to weakness.  “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).  The incarnation is an astounding doctrine.  Such a doctrine really ought to inform our church ministry and how we operate with one another.

            Weakness tends to be one of those things we don’t like.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We fear being taken advantage of if we are exposed.  So, instead, we value self-sufficiency, independence, and holding our own.  Strength is a value we can buy into.  The Apostle Paul struggled with his weaknesses.  Yet, he learned not only to accept human weakness, but to actually value it.  It wasn’t easy, especially since Paul had to hear from Jesus himself:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  It was then that Paul made the decision:  “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

            From a biblical perspective, weakness is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is through the weak that God delights to work.  “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” was Paul’s message to a Corinthian church that esteemed strength and looked down on weakness (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Weakness and strength are not moral or ethical terms.  To be weak is simply to recognize reality.  The goal of life and ministry, of both pastor and parishioner, does not really demand strength.  I always chuckle when a church tells me they are looking for a “strong” pastor to lead them.  Um, maybe they should get their job description from Scripture.  Vitality and vigor among pastor and people are not the goal but by-products of dwelling together in Christ as real people without pretense or posturing.  It is when we insist on strength that we get things like hypocrisy and two-faced behavior.  We keep up appearances so that we can avoid being seen as weak.

            Weakness is vulnerability.  And vulnerability demands reality.  In order to become real people in a real church we must embrace our collective weakness.  Until we can get to that point, there will continually be an emphasis on manipulation and technique to produce strength.  Black and white thinking takes over the unreal church.  The lone ranger and rugged individualist who seem to have it all together are held up as the model.  But Scripture will have none of this.  True community comes through weakness and vulnerability. 

            We cannot truly understand ourselves until we can admit our weakness and our inability to understand everything.  Indeed, one of the great mysteries of Christian faith is that God himself exists as a perfect One in a community of Three.  Embracing weakness allows us to embrace the mystery of God and the Gospel.  This compulsion that so many have to nail every theological statement down in neat packaged solutions is to treat weakness and vulnerability as some disease to be cured.  The obsession for clear answers to every question only creates anxiety, which, in turn, produces irrational behavior.  An anxious church makes decisions with no sense to them because they are always trying to gain the high ground of certainty through strength.


            If we want to live into our weakness, then we need to drop the pretense and admit how we are really doing, feeling, and even believing.  For, no one can truly live life to the full in a fantasy world constructed of our own strong making.  Weakness allows us to experience true community, significant relationships, and connection with God.  God became a baby.  He embraced weakness and vulnerability.  Let that thought marinade in your heart and soul in this season so that the New Year will bring a truly new life.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Taste That the Lord is Good



            Throughout the past thirty-one years of Thanksgivings that my wife and I have celebrated together, many of them have included college students, co-workers, and church members – all with no family in the area.  On one particular Thanksgiving we had a young woman from India over to eat with us.  She was a Hindu from the highest caste in Indian society.  She looked like a real live Indian Barbie doll and carried herself like royalty.  She had never observed Thanksgiving and been with an American family to celebrate it.  It is always our tradition to go around the table during the meal and describe one thing we are thankful for in the past year.  I purposely made sure she was the last one to share, and let her know that she was not obligated to do so.  But she wanted to speak and said this:  “I never knew that there could be love like this amongst a family.  You see, in my culture we are always concerned about how we are displeasing one of our many gods and what we can do to appease them and solicit their help.  Love is not something we think much about.  I do have a question, if I might ask:  Why do you eat this food, and why so much?”  Yeah, good question!  Why do we do that?  And why do we do what we do at Christmas?  Why do we hold to certain traditions and do particular things in the holiday season?

            I said something to her like this:  “The food reminds us that the God we serve is a good God who provides us not only with what we need, but graciously gives us beyond what we even ask or deserve.  This is what we call “grace.”  And the fellowship we share around the table reinforces the story of God – how we were once spiritually hungry – and God sent his Son, Jesus, to give us what we could gain for ourselves.  He satisfied us with the spiritual food of forgiveness and freedom to become the people we were intended to be from the beginning.  The food is symbolic and the celebration is a ritual that reinforces God’s grace to us in Christ.”  She left that day with many questions and lots to think about.

            God uses symbols to reveal himself to us.  For example, when he wanted to show us the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told his people, the Israelites, to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar.  It sounds awful.  But no worshiper ever walked away from that experience scratching his head and wondering what in the heck it was all about.  That’s because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption.  His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

            Symbols have power.  God wants us to know him, and we cannot know him with only our minds.  We are not just brains on a stick.  We need more – we need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals.  We need both words and sacraments.  That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of love in giving gifts and sharing food.  Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people.  Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together.  Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of love and redemption.  Jesus did not just tell them about his upcoming death.  He spoke and acted symbolically.  “Take and eat – this is my body….  Take this cup – this is my blood – drink from it, all of you.”  The disciples did not sit around and analyze the bread and discuss the wine’s vintage.  They ate and drank.  They tasted real food and drink, but they also tasted real spiritual food.  It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.


The taste of bread reminds us of:  the life of Jesus who humbled himself and became a baby; the incarnation of Christ; Christ’s humiliation and death.  The taste of drinking the cup reminds us of:  the blood of Christ; the sacrifice of Christ; the drops of blood which Jesus sweated in Gethsemane; and, the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that resulted in Christ’s bleeding.  Tasting the bread and cup when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper reminds us that:  our sins are forgiven; we are united to Christ; and, we are united together.  We are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes again.  Respond to God’s wooing invitation through his church to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through repentance and faith in Jesus.