Of Blessings, Rewards & Just Plain Luck

God has been really good to us this year. Our business has grown 125%. We are so blessed!

If you are a part of the Christian culture, you’ve surely heard, or even said, something in the same vein as this. On the surface it sounds like a very faith-filled, believing, Christian thing to say. But is it really Christ-like? Does the framework of the thing hold water in light of the gospel?

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Let’s say you’re a farmer, your crops got the ideal amount of rain this year and your coffers are full. What a blessing! On the flip-side of your blessing, the hot shot firefighter has been out of work this summer.

Your snow removal business did very well because of the record snowfall. What a blessing! Just so happens there were also a record number of traffic deaths due to white-out conditions on the roads.

You feel thirsty so turn on the faucet and get yourself a glass of drinkable water. What a blessing! But yet 790 million other people walk to the river 5 miles from their dwelling and fetch a container of contaminated water.

Was the blessing granted to you because God loved you more? Did you serve Him better? Or did you trust Him more? Or did you work hard to create the change that led to the reward you had coming? And if you did work hard, what caused you to do that? Were you brought up in a home that encouraged hard work? Or maybe you were brought up in a much different environment and you overcame. Was your brain wired in such a way as to allow you to overcome from the start? Did God orchestrate your ancestral line for generations past in order to create a mind that works like yours which led you to make those particular choices that brought about your “blessing”? Or were you just damn lucky?

I have a growing distaste for the “blessed” motif in Christianity. I know it’s common in home decorating, clothing, and sermons. But inherent in the “blessed” is some level of “more than others”.  Or “because of who I am or what I’ve done for God”.

This world is not fair. People are not equal. We are for certain of equal value, but we are not equal. As much as we might like to think we all have equal opportunity, we really don’t. The person brought up with abuse does not have equal opportunity as those brought up in a nurturing home. The person with a chemical imbalance does not have an equal likelihood of achieving satisfying relationships as those who have a healthy balance of neurotransmitters and receptors. The person born in an oppressed country does not have the same opportunity as one born in a free country.

Taking these inequalities and saying that the positive things in our lives are the result of our being “blessed” by God puts inequality of all kinds squarely into God’s hands and makes it His doing. I don’t think that’s what He’s about. It’s inconsistent with the basic essence of the gospel message.

I think many of us are just damn lucky ~

for which we can be grateful and from which we can practice generosity.

Can we leave it at that?

The Gospel Lens ~ God Is…

In Mark 4:21-34 Jesus told several parables of small things that mattered.  He paid attention to detail. He was attentive. Since Jesus is God and came to reveal the Father, I believe God is attentive.

The scriptures can be searched to see if what I believe about God is supported elsewhere. Indeed, God is shown to be attentive in other ways ~ He notices when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10:29), captures every tear in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), and can number the hairs on my head (Luke 12:7).

Because God is attentive, in the gospel story I am seen and known.  If I am seen and known, I don’t have to search for relationships to fulfill my need to be understood. I already am understood. Because of that I am able to approach relationships from a stable and firm foundation, already filled, and able to allow others to be themselves. Because God is attentive, I don’t have to clamor for attention when I feel small. I don’t have to make a big splash for God to notice.  This peace and security is available to me because Jesus lived as a man and showed me what God is like, and because He restored my relationship with God.

Jesus is the hero. And it’s good news!

That’s the gospel.

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Some Notes on Gospel Application

Studying the Bible searching for the gospel message and with a goal of getting to know Jesus is a whole different mindset than studying to learn information, instruction or correction. The questions I ask when studying to know Jesus are:

  1. What is God like? “God is…”
  2. What did Jesus do to show me what God is like? “In the Bible reading Jesus….”
  3. Who does that say I am? “In the gospel story I am…”
  4. How does this affect how I live? “Because God is …, then I… “

It’s always a good idea to submit your conclusions to a comparison of other scripture and to share with allies ~ other people who are also searching to know Jesus. In this way you can make sure you didn’t pull some far-out-there idea out of the depths of your brain rather than listening to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will only speak truth concerning God and will not contradict Himself. So the ideas we come upon when studying to know Jesus will broaden and deepen our understanding, but will not contradict what He has already revealed.

Notice the power of my conclusions when they are based on what I have learned about God and who I am in Christ. That’s a picture of my being made whole because of what Jesus did for me. That’s the result of faith in God’s relational consistency towards me.

Imagine that instead of relying on what Jesus had accomplished to change my heart, I had simply said, “I need to be more at peace and feel more secure in my relationships.” While peace and security are healthy, if I am trying hard to act that way because that’s what I believe I must do, my success relies entirely on my own strength and I am the hero… if I succeed.  It’s nothing but self-talk and positive thinking at best ~ even if I got my advice from the Bible.  It’s self-righteousness. It’s not the gospel.

The Bible contains doctrinal proof, standards for moral living and lessons and instruction of various kinds. The text above could have been studied asking the questions of “what does it all mean? What am I supposed to do based on what I read? Where is the lesson? Is there a doctrine hiding in this?” And those answers are all in there.  But that doesn’t save me. That doesn’t give me a new heart. Information can’t save. Jesus saves.

In the list of should’s, must’s and have to’s there is condemnation, a heavy burden and death of the soul. In the gospel of Jesus, there is restoration, a light burden, and eternal life.

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Studying  with the primary purpose of finding information reminds me of John 5:39 “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.”  I challenge you to read the scriptures looking for the testimony of Jesus. And see how He changes your life.

 

Jesus is the Better…

The woman’s life was in shambles. She’d been abused by men in every way since childhood. Her brokenness left her searching ~ searching for love in all the wrong places. Her name was Nikki. “Nikki, I’ve got the perfect man for you,” Jeff said. Nikki shrugged and turned away, certain she’d just be disappointed one more time. “No really,” Jeff insisted. “You should meet him. He listens. He’s patient. He is tender and compassionate. He gently pursues. I’ve never met a more genuine man.” He had Nikki’s attention. “Yes! I want to meet him!” she exclaimed.  Jeff smiled. “His name is Jesus. I’d love to introduce you.”  Nikki eventually did meet Jesus. And she found Him to be the perfect man. He met all of her longings.

As I heard Jeff tell the story, I began to understand how Jesus is the answer for our every longing on an entirely different level. But unless we take the time to get to know Jesus, the solution sounds blind and shallow. “Don’t worry. Jesus is enough. Be happy.”

Another of the stories Jeff told involved a man who was searching for his father’s approval. Unfortunately the man’s dad died when he was 16 and he never experienced his father’s approval. Now as an older man, he was still longing for it. Jeff shared with us some of what he had shared with the man ~ and it was good news!

The man in Jeff’s story is not unique. Our unmet needs from childhood seem to be a very common source of brokenness. All of our parents are imperfect humans doing the best they can. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) their imperfect best will always leave gaps. I’d like to practice speaking gospel truth with you by walking through that particular area of hurt, looking at it through the lens of “Jesus is the better…”. How is Jesus the better parent and what kind of healing can He bring to you and me?  What is the identity He offers?  How did He live out what we are craving?

My first step in this process is to ask, what is it that we need from our parents?  Protection, food, clothing, shelter, affirmation, affection, attentiveness, forgiveness, patience, instruction, unconditional love, medical care, inclusion. The list could go on. If I was talking with someone who was hurting in regards to their parents, I would listen for a recurring theme to discover what area they felt their needs had not been met. The man Jeff was talking with had not gotten approval and affirmation from his father.

The second step is to ask how we can know that Jesus is able to meet that need. What do we see in how He treated others as recorded in the Bible that would indicate He is able to give what we need? What experiences have we had of Him in our own lives? How about in the lives of our friends? How do we know Jesus is the better parent? What kind of parent/ child relationship did Jesus experience that becomes my new identity when I am in Christ?

The good news Jeff shared with the man he was talking with sounded something like this: “I have good news for you! When Jesus was on the earth, before He had even begun His ministry, His Father announced to everyone that He was proud of His Son. He said, “Look everyone – this is My Son! I’m so pleased with Him!” Jesus offers that acceptance to you. It’s not just that Jesus will accept you, but He is willing to trade places with you. He is willing to give you the connection He has with His father, as your own to claim. When God the Father looks at you, He sees Jesus. The admiration and acceptance given to Jesus, becomes yours even though you’ve done nothing to deserve it.”

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By claiming our identity in the gospel, we can let loose of our unreasonable expectations of others because Jesus has already perfectly experienced it and provided it. As we believe that God sees us ~ right now ~ as He sees Jesus, we can let loose of our unreasonable expectations of ourselves because Jesus has already obtained it. We become more loving, not because we tried hard to be loving, but because Jesus is the better answer. He is enough.

Jesus is the hero ~ and it’s good news!

That’s the gospel truth.

The Gospel Lens ~ Studying to Know God

Do you find the Bible boring or irrelevant? Do you try to read and study but get bogged down in details and facts? Many of us have been taught to read the Bible looking for factual information. What can I get from God? What does He want? What should I believe? What do I have to do? But the Bible isn’t just a collection of facts or good advice about how to live. It’s full of Good News and Gospel Truth.  It’s an invitation to a relationship with the living God.

I’m going to walk you through a Bible study method that has shifted my focus from learning information or even appreciating an interesting story, and allowed me to brush against the hem of Jesus. The example I’m going to walk you through is based on my reading of Mark 3: 7-19. Briefly, in this passage of scripture Jesus finds Himself pressed in with crowds of people wanting to be healed. He then took His disciples to a mountain top where He chose 12 apostles. His plan was to teach them, and then send the apostles out to proclaim the Word and free people from the power of demons as He had been doing.

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Question one of the gospel lens:  What does this story tell me about the characteristics of God?

God is generous.

Question two: What has Jesus done in this story to express it?

Jesus healed all who came to Him and selected other apostles so they could do the same work in greater numbers.

Question three: Who are we in the gospel story* because of this story?

Because God is generous, in the gospel story we are needy. After encountering Jesus, we become well cared for.

Question four: What do I now do with this belief? How do I live differently?

Because God is generous and I am well cared for, I can afford to give lavishly to others.

You will notice that my answers to the questions are probably not your answers. There are no “right” answers. Your story and where the Holy Spirit is leading you will affect what you gain from the Bible reading. Your image of who God is will be different than mine because of your perspective and your unique personal relationship with Jesus. It is in studying and sharing with others that we can begin to get a bigger picture of God. It is a process of learning who He is, which then informs me of who I am in Him, and in turn changes how I live.  I don’t behave in a certain way so I can do something for Him, prove something to Him, get something good or avoid something bad from Him. As I practice focusing my eyes on Him, my external life becomes a natural response to the power of God working in my heart.

*The Gospel Story is God’s story of creating a perfect world, having Adam and Eve disbelieve His goodness, and His response of love and grace in His quest to rebuild the broken trust. Through the gift of His Son, He provided a way for mankind to reconnect with Himself and will one day return to erase the blight of sin and restore a face-to-face relationship with His redeemed sons and daughters. The gospel story has been played out over the ages, but is also repeated in each of our lives. 

Smile of God

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” My thoughts turned to that classic children’s song this morning. Perhaps you also know the song but may or may not know the verse that goes like this – “Jesus loves me when I’m good, when I do the things I should. And He loves me when I’m bad, though it makes Him very sad.”

I believed every word of that song as a child. And due to my personal nature, I believed Jesus was sad when I was bad because He was disappointed in my behavior. He would still accept me, but He was disgusted with me. He still loved me – but only because He had to because He was God and He didn’t have a choice.

I think I had it wrong.

At the end of time, the saved and the unsaved will have done some of the very same things in their lives. There will be those on each side of the gates whose behaviors looked very much the same to those around them. Since the Bible tells us that all of our attempts at goodness are filthy rags in the eyes of God, this should not surprise us. So why do we think that we can earn the smiling approval of Jesus with our good works or cause His sad disapproval with our bad works?

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

He came to save, not to condemn.

He came to restore, not to shame.

I still believe every word of the song. But rather than thinking Jesus is sad when I am bad because He is disappointed in me, I now see it this way – He is sad because He knows that the selfish thing I did is going to cause me and others pain. But He’s not frowning on me in disapproval. Nope, He’s headed to the barn to get His Muck boots. After putting them on, He holds out His hand and offers to walk through it with me, helping me grow as we walk.

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It is in reaching out and taking His hand that I bring the smile to His face.

Dare We Believe?

While growing up I attended many an evangelistic series. This was not as a result of any intense spirituality, but was my lot in life. The evangelistic series I attended were presented by my dad. His sermons were full of the good news of God’s love. Often he would end his sermons with an altar call, providing a chance for people to commit their lives to Christ. Generally at least once during each series of meetings a favorite hymn of mine would be sung during the altar call.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

The song is full of good news! Yes! What a safe harbor! What a welcome reprieve His love provides!

However, be it my own flawed perception, or be it the teaching of the day or the church, it seemed that hardly had the good news landed on the ears when the unsuspecting convert was hit with a left hook. It went something like this, “Now, here’s the deal. God loves you for sure, but you need to stop smoking. That’s not too much to ask since you know smoking’s bad for you anyway, right?  Ok. Great. Now, there’s more to the deal. God says if you love Him you’ll obey His commandments. So here, I’ll read them for you. Got it? Great. Now, hang on. Not everything you have to do is listed in the commandments. There’s some more over here. Let me read it for you. … Got it? Great. Just a few more and then we can talk about your being baptized so you can join the body of Christ. I’m so excited for you!”

The bottom line sounds something like this, “If you love God, convince Him and the rest of us by the way you act.” Immediately the list of must’s and should’s grows long and the good news becomes very burdensome and really not good news at all ~ because “now you know better, and now if you don’t ‘do it’ you’re really going to be lost!” (James 4:17)

Salvation in that setting becomes twisted into things I must do rather than a relationship I live with a God who loves me.  Immediately self fights to keep hold of the prospect of salvation and heaven. I start looking around instead of up, and comparison thinking comes to my defense, sounding something like “Well, at least I….

Furthermore, a works oriented model of salvation creates bondage (Gal 5:1) to fearful insecurity where I am plagued with questions.

“Have I done enough yet?”

“Is God pleased with me yet?”

“Have I asked for forgiveness of all of my sins?

“What if I misunderstand what God is saying and do this wrong even though I want to follow Him?”

I would sum them up in two words. “OH NO!”

The good news is, God doesn’t want more of my efforts. He offers me an entirely different quality of life grounded in the life of His Son who was the fulfillment of the law (Mat 5:17-20). Dare we allow God’s message to actually be good news?

The good news is, God says His love for me does not depend on what I do (Rom 5:8). Dare we stop scrambling for His acceptance and instead allow His peace to wash over us?

The good news is, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), the father does not ask the son to do anything. Coming home to be with his father was enough. Dare we believe God is anxious to welcome us into His family just because He is love?

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The good news is, a leopard cannot change his spots – nor can we change our sinful nature (Jer 13:23). Dare we believe our best efforts are a waste in regards to our salvation and sanctification?

The good news is, in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding fathers of the Biblical people of God, outright premeditated sin was present in their lives. And God did not leave them. Dare we believe He will continue to work with us in the midst of our imperfections?

“Yeah, but…” I hear some church folk saying, “if you’re going to be a Christian, you’ve got to…”

I hear Christ saying I must seek first His kingdom of love and His covenant faithfulness with all my heart, and hang out with Him, then all the other things will come in time (Matt 6:33, Jer 29:13, John 15:1-8). 

Rather than being required, obedience to God’s law is inevitable as I spend time with Him. (2 Cor 3:18)

Living a life right with God is not a test of my relationship with Him ~ but it will be the natural long-term result of my relationship (Romans 10:4). Forcing it to happen the other way around may change the outside of me if I am determined enough ~ but it will never change the inside. Only basking in His perfect love and acceptance will change my core.

It is God who does His work in me and in you. (Phil 1:6)

Dare we believe the good news?

Bought with Blood

Bright red blood dripped from the blade. The old man looked down at his bleeding flesh. Pain seared through his body. He slowly sank against the terebinth tree and slid his body to the hot sand to avoid fainting. Beside him was his boy. His boy.  But not the boy of promise. Surrounding them were over 300 men. Some were moaning. All were bleeding just like the old man.  He thought back to the conversation he’d had that morning…with God.

God: Didn’t I promise you that I’d make you a great nation?

Abe: Yes. I am an old man now, God, and my wife is way beyond childbearing years. So I helped You out and got a son for myself – You know, Ishmael…

God: I know Ishmael, Abe, and I will take care of him. But he’s not the boy of promise. Abe, when I make a promise, I keep the promise. That’s how I am. Now here’s the deal. You can’t keep my promises for me. Do you understand?

Abe: I understand.

God: To help you remember, Abe, I need you to do something for me.

Abe: Sure God. You say the word.

God: Cut the tip off of that thing.

Abe: What? I’m not understanding anymore, God. What thing?

God: The thing that you used to try to keep my promise for me. Cut the end of it off.

Abe: THAT?!

God: Yep, THAT! I want you to always remember to rely on me. What I say, I will do. The only thing you need to do is believe. Got it?

Abe: Got it.

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Despite the pain, Abraham smiled as he relaxed into God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.  Praise God, for He changes not and the deal is still the same. All I must do is believe … and quit trying to do God’s work.

The inspiration for this blog was a sermon preached by David Asscherick on 3ABN. Click his name for a link to his Facebook page.

Evening at the Symphony

The winds and stringed instruments volleyed their replies.  The timpani rumbled, joining the crescendo. I appreciated the richness of the combination of instruments as played by the Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra and the Lincoln Youth Symphony. And I acknowledged the tremendous commitment to practice these performers have maintained in order to reach this point in their careers.

As I listened, my thoughts drifted back to my days in the small band at high school.  I was in the flute section, second chair. I didn’t practice a lot, but likely more than most.  I recalled those times sitting in my room practicing: counting, waiting, playing a few measures, counting and waiting some more before my part would join the song again.  While the flute often carries the melody, it doesn’t always.  My efforts while practicing didn’t sound like much of a song until it was played with the whole band together.

There are times in my life when my picture of God seems clear and  beautiful.  Other times I don’t hear anything from Him at all and there is a long, quiet pause in the song He is writing in my life.  Still other times the notes seem discordant and awkwardly timed.  When I fellowship with believers and listen to their testimonies, I realize that what I have experienced and understand is but a small piece of the amazing picture of who God is. It is when we come together and raise our praises to Him that we each become a part of the whole. If you haven’t been to “band” lately, please know the music of God’s orchestra isn’t complete without you.

I Hear Voices

I hear voices in my head. Oh, come on. Admit it!  You do, too.

I’ve had seasons in my life when my commute to work was lengthy.  A few years ago I drove an hour each way most days of the week. My schedule put me in the car when Adrian Rogers was preaching on one of the religious stations.  I enjoyed my drive to work.  He was so inspirational to listen to.  His practical application of the Bible to daily life made things seem so logical and straight-forward.  But every now and then he would throw in a purely theological point that really made no common sense and was directly contrary to very clear verses in the scripture.  It was then that a voice in my head said, “Send him a book.”  How wonderful it would be if Pastor Rogers could preach practical Christian living and Biblical theology!  I was pretty sure it was God telling me to do that.

A few months passed and I was still driving an hour to work every day and still listening to Adrian in the mornings.  I still hadn’t mailed that book because, sadly, I don’t always jump when the voice says jump.  It was then that I learned that Adrian had passed away.  “What a missed opportunity,” you say.  Not really.  Turns out he had passed away several years before that.  I know God had that piece of information all along. So what voice had I been hearing?  Was the book intended for someone else who worked in that ministry?  Or had I made the whole thing up in my own head?

I have a friend who has told me, “If it’s not illegal or immoral and the idea comes in your head, act on it. You never know what opportunity it might open up.”  True.  But that seems like a shotgun approach to life.  Some of us who get a lot of ideas in our heads would be chasing after the wind or our tails for years on end and no forward motion would ever be detected.

So how does one differentiate between God’s leading and speaking to us and our own crazy thoughts and ideas?  John 10 makes it clear that Jesus knows each of us and each of us can know Him well enough to recognize His voice.  Verse 14 says, “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” And verse 27 extends that to include action on the part of His people, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

I wish I could say I’ve got it all figured out.  I don’t.  But knowing the character of God gives me comfort and peace.  He is full of grace.  He wants my heart.  He knows my heart.  If I am searching for Him, I will find Him when I search with all my heart.  Beyond that, He has promised to make good of all things – even my mistakes.  His love, grace and forgiveness reach far beyond any mistake I could make. He is much greater than I am.

We serve an awesome God!