Monday, October 19, 2015

How to Be Happy

This article first appeared on The High Calling
A simple summary of Psalm 1 might read, “Happy are those who delight and meditate on the law of the Lord … The wicked will not withstand the coming judgement and will eventually perish.” This dualism permeates the Psalms and is a perfect introduction to the Psalter as a whole.
The righteous followers of the law are introduced as happy, or blessed. And, in Psalm 1, their actions directly impact their happiness. The simile of the fruit tree is the proof: A tree far from water or adequate rain will grow only so large and produce only so much fruit. However, a tree planted by a stream will naturally produce more fruit and grow healthier. This is a direct result of its environment. Likewise, people who truly meditate on the law will naturally flourish and gain blessings—not as a reward, but as a natural result of their focus upon the law.
For us, the law could mean the actual Torah (first five books of the Old Testament). It could be the entire Old Testament. Or it might be a combination of all the written scripture and biblical teachings.
The life of the righteous is affected by what they do, but equally so by what they abstain from. A righteous person meditates upon the law and avoids the advice and lifestyle of the wicked. The wicked are compared to chaff—the useless, lightweight portion of a crop that is easily blown away with the wind. This is a powerful image.
The fruit produced by the righteous can withstand the judgment of God, while the wicked will be blown away.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How can meditation upon scripture lead to happiness? What activities in our lives are like chaff that cannot withstand the judgment of God?
PRAYER: Father in Heaven, thank you for your word. Teach me your ways and your statutes and help me to observe them all the days of my life. My soul yearns for your salvation; I hope in your word. Let your mercy come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. Amen.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Psalm 1

Friday, October 16, 2015

Proverbs 31 Not for Women only

This article first appeared on The High Calling
Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:10-31
The words in Proverbs 31:10-31 form an acrostic hymn. The passage summarizes—from A to Z—the attributes of a woman of wisdom.
This great woman applies wisdom to every aspect of life. She is an entrepreneur who buys fields, plants vineyards, and decides what merchandise is profitable. She is a household leader who directs the servants. She makes and provides clothes for the poor and her household. She is not caught off guard by challenges such as weather, for she is prepared for all situations. She is not easily distracted, working late into the night.
Unlike other proverbs, these thoughts are not Solomon’s. Instead they come from King Lemuel’s mother who advised her son, “Speak for those who cannot speak … Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9). A righteous king with such honorable marching orders might then become a suitable partner for an equally upright woman. A woman like the one King Lemuel’s mother describes in Proverbs 31:10-31.
She is indeed wise.
She is also strong.
Her strength is the Hebrew word chayil and is a reference to military might and power. The same word is used in verse three when Lemuel is warned not to give his strength (chayil) away. This wise woman is clearly his equal, using strength to lead righteously and care for the poor, just as her husband is advised.
Wisdom is more than knowledge. It is knowledge put into positive action. Proverbs is a book of wise sayings, and this passage is a call to action for all who read it.
What common aspects of your life need more wisdom? Do you have a partner of equal strength who stands with you?
Lord Jesus, help me become more like this woman of wisdom. Help me be the partner of equal strength others need me to be. May I become the type of person who willingly and lovingly lives a life of righteousness and wisdom through my actions. Amen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Wright Brothers

This article first appeared at The High Calling
David McCullough is an American author and historian. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner for his historical works 1776John Adams, and Truman. His most recent work, The Wright Brothers, is an engaging study of the birth of aviation from the viewpoint of its two most famous contributors, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and their family. Of their amazing accomplishments and focused dedication to powered manned flight, their nephew stated years later, “History was happening in those moments, there in their shop and in their home, but I didn’t realize it at the time because it seemed so commonplace.”
I like this quote because it says something to me about the way God works in our world and our purpose. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost wrote in The Shaping of Things to Come, “The fact that God became flesh and blood and lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, and nobody noticed, say’s a lot about how God works.” This is a powerful image of the purpose, pace, and intentionality of God. Jesus worked within the everyday context of his setting. He engaged in the commonplace. He invited the working class and the religious elite to his table to break bread with him. He walked from town to town with his followers, talking about the fields he saw along the way. He observed and gave advice to fisherman. He invited himself to dinner. He went to synagogues and read scripture and taught.
Yet, in the midst of the ordinary, something very extraordinary was taking place. Something similar to the Wright brothers’ nephew’s realization dawned on those around Jesus. “History was happening in those moments … [but] it seemed so commonplace.” Jesus took bread and transformed our understanding of community and sacrifice. Jesus used the dinner table to demonstrate hospitality, forgiveness, and community. Jesus pointed to the ordinary field and revealed how it was like the kingdom of heaven. Jesus took the common job of fishing and turned it into a powerful reality of God’s presence on earth. Jesus took the reading of scripture and made it a reading about himself.
God has a purpose for the world around us. But this purpose is not revealed in dramatic ways. Instead, God reveals himself in the slow and ordinarily commonplace avenues of reality. If we are not careful we will be like the Wright brothers’ nephew, only realizing it after it is all over and done.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How is God moving in the commonplace all around you? Do you overlook the simple, everyday elements of life where God is moving?
PRAYER: Lord, open our eyes that we may see you in the commonplace. Help us to see you in the breaking of bread around our dinner tables, in the voice of good council from friends, in the laughter of children, in the vocations we pursue, and in scriptures that shape our lives. Help us not to miss your extraordinary presence in the commonplace. Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walking With God

This article first appeared at The High Calling
A quick internet or dictionary search for a definition of the word purpose yields this result: “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” Purpose provides motive, cause, reason, and justification for our actions. Purpose gives us the answer to the great question, “Why?” Why do we do the things we do? Why do we believe what we believe?
The biggest event in the life of Israel is the Passover/Exodus experience. This experience helped clarify purpose for the people of Israel. Every year when Jewish people celebrate Passover, a child asks, “Why is this night different from every other night?” In other words, “What is the purpose of this celebration?”
The Passover experience tells the story of God’s people being freed from bondage so they can walk unencumbered with him. Micah 6:8 famously states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Walking humbly with God fulfills our very purpose for being.
Later, in the New Testament, Jesus teaches in Matthew 22:34-38 that the greatest commandments are to love God radically and love others radically. A Christian child might ask, “How is this love different from every other love?”
What is our purpose, motivation, and reason as Christians to walk in love? 1 John 3:16 states, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for another.” Our purpose, our motive, cause, reason, and justification for everything we do is rooted in God’s first action. God first created us to walk with him. Jesus first loved us by laying down his life in love for us. This is our purpose, our reason, for loving others. Our purpose is rooted in God’s action; our response is to love God and others because he first loved us.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What does this idea of walking with God look like in your context? How does God’s first action demonstrate how we are to love? Does our purpose change in different seasons of life or only our application of love?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, teach us to trust and understand your purpose for our lives. Help us to walk humbly with you by loving you and others. Teach us to love you and others as you first loved us. Show us the difficult ways of love so that we might truly reflect your purpose for our lives to the world you created. Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The first steps in Speaking Against Evil

This article first appeared on The High Calling
Too often Christians are guilty of standing up and shouting against the evils of this world with such anger and bitterness that we become the very thing we are speaking against.
The task for James, and all Christians, is to speak the truth without grumbling, bitterness, selfishness, and behavior like the “unspiritual wisdom” being called on the carpet in today’s passage. As Christians called to live in community with all kinds of people, we are challenged first to live lives marked by the fruit of the spirit. But we are also called to exercise humble wisdom by being peaceable and gentle. Only after we are actively living with humble wisdom like James can we call out the wickedness in the world around us with credibility and humility.
Bitterness, selfishness, and other unspiritual maladies create pain in individuals and those around them. These people believe themselves to be wise, but James calls such wisdom “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” This kind of wisdom divides, speaks harshly, and creates disorder. Chapter four of James demonstrates how this type of broken-hearted wisdom leads to cravings for war, murder, adultery, and covetousness
So then, it is helpful to remember Christ’s encouragement to us to seek the kingdom of God first and then everything else will come into its proper order (Matt. 6:33).
There are many wicked things in our world, but speaking out against them must be second to our pursuit of the kingdom of God. True wisdom comes from seeking the kingdom first. When we exhibit the qualities of the kingdom, we demonstrate the difference between the “wisdom from above” and the “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom of the world.
Whenever we place an agenda over the kingdom, we have lost our focus. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The one who knows truth and knows how to apply it to life.
What sort of wickedness do you seek to sometimes attack before first seeking the kingdom of God? How might you actively or passively work against God?
Lord Jesus, give us the courage, the wisdom, the strength to always hold the kingdom of God as the number one priority in our lives. Help us live in response to the good wisdom from above and resist the wisdom of this world. Amen.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3:13-18

Less is More

This article first appeared on The High Calling.
“The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds our ancestors recounted to us … ”
Judges 6:12-13
Like many denominations, the churches in our fellowship are experiencing decline in all the areas that used to matter. Smaller budgets, fewer regular attendees, older members, smaller staffs (if they even have a single full-time staff member), and the albatrosses of buildings they cannot afford.
I see many congregations acting like Gideon in Judges 6. They are paralyzed with desperation and unable to move forward, despite God’s hopeful call for them to join him in mission. The band, Colony House, has a song titled “Waiting for My Time to Come.” The second verse puts into words the agony many feel:
I’ve tried, I’ve failed. I thought I gave it my all, now it’s hard to tell. Is this the end of a dream I’ve lost or just an introduction to how much this may cost?
I like the way the final question puts trials into perspective. What if ministry actually costs us something? This is not something we like to hear. It cost Gideon 31,700 troops before he faced a vast army with only 300.
When we first meet him in Judges 6, Gideon is hiding in a wine press (essentially a hole in the ground), savoring what little grain he has, when an angel of the Lord arrives and calls him a mighty warrior. God can see the potential in us even we cannot see it in ourselves. Gideon responds like many of us would, “Who? Me? Surely, not. In case you haven’t noticed I’m nobody special.”
This is the attitude many in our congregations feel. They are at the end of their abilities. They have sacrificed their entire lives for the sake of their congregations and now … well, now it seems there is only a small, sad remnant of what should be. They have tried everything they know to do; they have called in experts, read books, and downloaded the latest program but to no avail.
The greatest moment for Gideon comes in Judges 7 when he assembles a great army to fight the Midianites. But God has Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to a mere 300 before going into battle. That night God caused great confusion amongst the Midianites, and the small band of commandos won the day. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes it takes a reduction in our own abilities for us to begin to really trust God. Sometimes a small group is capable of more effective ministry than a large one. It takes courage for a small church or small association of churches to work together in order to accomplish great ministry.
Gideon’s commandos used torches, horns, and clay pots to defeat their enemies. That’s like going into battle with a flashlight, paper bag, and kazoos! The church that answers the call of God will have to act just as irrationally in our modern world.
I am encouraged when I see congregations take the courageous leap forward out of the winepress. Despite their small number, they invite God to use them in the most surprising ways. These congregations share space in their buildings, exchange volunteer services for goods, partner with non-religious non-profits, use volunteer leaders instead of paid staff, sell buildings or repurpose them, and many other examples. From the uncomfortable safety of a winepress onto the vulnerable hillside with a torch, this is the risky business God calls us to join him in.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What areas do we need to reduce in order to be more flexible and ready to move with the Spirit of God? What individualistic dream needs to die in your life so you can follow the leadings of Christ? What will following Christ deeply cost you and your congregation?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, we fear the unknown. Give us the courage necessary to journey with you into the hard and difficult places of ministry. Help us understand that ministry might cost us more than we ever imagined but that the victory is always yours. Thank you for our many struggling congregations. Guide them, give them wisdom, and the courage to be the mighty warriors you know them to be. Amen.