Sunday, December 30, 2007

Learning to Tremble: Something for the New Year from Isaiah 66

I was supposed to read Isaiah 66 this morning, or at some point during the day. The Bible reading plan I use stopped assigning readings on December 28th. But the last OT reading of the month was Isaiah 66, so that’s what I started to do – until I was needed elsewhere in the house. Hiding out in the study when the kids are out of school will only work for so long.

However, I did make it to verse 2: “But this is the one to whom I will look; he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” The NIV renders the first part of the verse as “this is the one I esteem.” What is it that God regards or values? Humility of spirit and trembling at God’s word.

I wonder about that word “tremble.” It’s late right now, late for me at least, and I haven’t bothered to do a word study. But the sense of “tremble” seems fairly obvious. It suggests being overcome with awe or fear; deeply moved, disturbed, shaken. It says that God has spoken and the message we hear from God has somehow gotten beyond the brain and into our gut. Tremble doesn’t necessarily sound like a negative word. In fact, it may be delightful – the delight itself may be experienced as trembling.

The word gets my attention because I’m not sure it’s something I do. I can study what it means and offer a fairly cogent explanation of the meaning without in-depth study. But I don’t know if I actually tremble at God’s word. Maybe this is why James warned that not many should be teachers. After a few hundred lessons and sermons, the trembling stops. We may become more effective communicators, but we speak with steady hands and firm knees. Not much trembling.

I can’t resolve this tonight – but maybe this is something for the New Year, something to be intentional about. I want to learn to tremble at God’s word. I want to hear it in such a way that the power of the word penetrates my life, cuts like the sword God intended it to be. And then I want to handle it in such a way that the same power is somehow evident in the teaching moment.

Can this kind of thing be learned or learned again?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bethlehem Brawl: We really do need a Savior

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11 ESV)

The task of cleaning up after Christmas is enough to put anyone in a foul mood. We do our best around our house to maintain order as we go, promptly placing tattered wrapping paper in a trash bags as we open gifts, running the dishwasher in a timely way and thus keeping the sink empty. We’ve done a fairly respectable job so far – but keep in mind the kids are home all day every day for two weeks. Our place doesn’t just look lived in, it truly is lived in. Someone has to take on the job of tidying up, and that job isn’t easy. It elicits snippity remarks and barked-out orders and resentments about help not given and being taken for granted.

If that’s true around here, imagine trying to restore order to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after hordes of tourists have traipsed through the place. Maybe we can understand the frustration that erupted on Thursday when priests who were cleaning and scrubbing came to blows with each other. The Christmas contingent had probably left the place in bad shape, and the Orthodox crowds have yet to come since they celebrate the birth of Jesus in early January. So maybe we can understand why these followers of Jesus who tend the supposed site of his birth reached the point of striking each other with their fists and with brooms and whatever they could find. But then again . . .

There's something appalling about what we’ve done to that place, carving it up along the lines of our differences, becoming possessive and defensive, like kid brothers who have to share a room and draw a line down the middle to mark their territory. And of all places . . . the site of the birth of Jesus, Prince of Peace. The image of priests fighting each other at the birth place of the one who sharply rebuked sword wielding ways in those who would follow him is pathetic. It’s laughable and embarrassing.

And at the same time, the fighting among the priests in Bethlehem speaks to the whole point of the Christmas story; it exposes what is at the core of the incarnation. Defensive priests and all broken families the world over are uncomfortable reminders of our need for a savior. The mending we need is beyond us. We don’t need religious observances or pilgrimages to holy sites or noble principles and ideas. We need a savior. At Bethlehem, that’s exactly what God gave us.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Light: A Reflection on Isaiah 9:2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:5, 9 NRSV).

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Light and lights are at the heart of our Christmas celebrations: lights on the tree, lights in windows, lights in our yard, wrapped around porch railing and strung from the edge of the roof. Some enthusiasts excel at finding ways to place lights in every available square foot of acreage they own. Some insist that lights be all white, others prefer multi colored arrangements and still others like the pulsating in-and-out glow that makes you dizzy after watching it a while. And of course, let’s not forget the candle-lighting at church.

We love lights – but the beauty of light is never fully seen apart from darkness. Few of us burn our Christmas lights during the day. We wait for night time. This simple fact helps us make sense of the prophet’s words. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light is the child that is born to usher in a new era of peace and righteousness. But that light cannot be fully appreciated until we truly grasp what it means to walk in darkness.

There is a darkness that comes about uninvited, seemingly out of nowhere. It steals sleep and appetite, it saps energy and laughter, it breeds a hundred little anxieties. It refuses to be shaken. Many among us today walk in that darkness. This is especially painful at Christmas time. The sights and sounds and activities of the season assume that we’re all walking and basking in the light of life’s blessings. This isn’t always true.

And then there are those among us who walk in darkness because they’ve made choices that placed them there. There was a moment when the dark seemed to be light; there was good faith decision that triggered unintended and uninvited consequences. In some instances, the choice was nothing more than stubborn willfulness. No matter – sometimes the darkness we walk in is the darkness we chose.

The words of the prophet are good news for all who walk in darkness, regardless of how they got there. There is light; the light dawns as a gift of God’s grace. This light is Jesus . . . Jesus the light of the world.

We started a series of reflections several weeks ago that address our yearnings at Christmas. Maybe what we yearn for most is that the light spoken of by the prophet and embodied in Jesus would penetrate our world. Perhaps this is a season in your life when you are thoroughly drenched in the light of God’s good gifts to you. Maybe the faintest glimmer of that light is beginning to rise in the distance. Whatever the light looks like today, you can know with confidence that it is not God’s plan to leave you staggering around in darkness. That’s why Jesus came.

Light of the world, penetrate the darkness that seems so prevalent around us today: The darkness of warring nations, estranged families, broken dreams, and expectations. On this Christmas Eve we yearn for the light that only you can give. We yearn for the light that you gave to us in your son Jesus. Thank you for entering our dark world and transforming it with the light of your presence. Empower us by that same presence to be salt and light in the world, changing darkness to light wherever you call us to be. Amen.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

By Name

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s child (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48)

Now given to you . . .
It had been a while since she worked on our church staff, but that’s not much of an excuse. I called her by the wrong name. Not just once; not just an innocent slip. Repeatedly. Over and over again. She was kind enough to correct me with gentleness and tact. I tried to recover, but the damage was done. I’m not so good with names. Maybe I’ll run into her again in a few months, a totally random meeting in Publix or at the gas pumps somewhere, and I’ll get the name right and redeem myself. Maybe.

God is very good with names, yours included. To be God’s child is to be known personally, by name, in detail. The implications of this are significant. We all know how to sing “Jesus loves me,” but Jesus and Isaiah show us something more than that. We have been summoned by name. We are not simply loved, we are known. Better said, to be loved is to be known.

Many, like Nathanael, are genuinely surprised to discover that Jesus knows them; saw them long before they took note of Jesus; knew them by name long before they called upon his. Our soul yearns for something more than generic religious affirmations about God’s love for humankind. We yearn to be known.

Everything about this day that seems important to you is important to God who has redeemed you and called you by name: the plans you’ve made for next week, the work you’re trying to finish before Friday, the errands yet to be completed. God knows your life as well as your name.

As you pray, allow yourself to be Nathanael in the story from John 1. Imagine Jesus speaking to you and saying “I saw you . . .” Jesus is present with you and sees you in the most ordinary places. And he knows you by name.

In these moments of prayer, Lord Jesus, grant a stillness that allows me to hear you speak my name. And having heard, send me into the world and help me to do all things to the glory of your name. Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Presence

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s children (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you . . . when you pass through the waters I will be with you . . . when you walk through the fire you will not be burned (Isaiah 43:1-2).

As seen in Jesus . . .
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20)

Now given to you . . .
The route I drive every morning on my way to work takes me by some of the most beautiful homes in Atlanta. Last week, one of them went up in flames. There isn’t much left of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the utterly destructive power of fire. And the violence of burning lingers long after the fire itself. Almost 48 hours after the night of the fire, the site was still smoldering as I drove home.

That image stays with me as I read the words of the prophet. “When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” What I wish the prophet had said was that we would not have to deal with the fire – not get anywhere near it. God’s promise to us provides no such assurance. What we are told is that the intensity of the flames can never consume the reality of God’s presence. The prophet’s words assume that we will walk through fire, pass through threatening waters that could sweep us away. This is a given – but so is the presence. The presence of God trumps the flood, douses the flames.

But here’s our struggle: the interpretive skills by which we make sense of life are not what they should be. We read the fire and raging waters as indicators of God’s absence. The flames burn and the rivers rise and sweep away, and we take this to mean that God never really claimed us as his children. If he had, he’d have done a better job of keeping us clear of those threats. We get it wrong.

If we want to know with certainty that we are God’s children we need to pass through the flames and the waters that threaten us. The trouble we live through is an occasion for God’s presence to become more than theory, more than a comforting thought or nice idea.

Maybe today you’re feeling the heat of a threat, choking on the smoke of something that’s gone wrong, barely keeping your head above circumstances that are nearly smothering you. Typically we look for a way out. God invites us to make our way through. God is present with us. In prayerful stillness we become present to God.

We give you thanks, O God, for your faithful presence in all things. May we know ourselves as your children in both trouble and in blessing. Use whatever this day may bring to confirm who we are in you. In all things help us to be present to you and your steadfast love. Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

With Certainty

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s child (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you . . . you are mine (Isaiah 43:1)

As seen in Jesus . . .
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. (John 15:9)

Now given to you . . .
Perhaps what we yearn for more than anything is not simply to be cherished as a child of God, but to know this with absolute certainty. There’s plenty of scriptural evidence that God loves us. In fact, the entire Bible is one long narrative of God’s repeated attempts to help us understand his love. God has claimed us as his children. God loves us. The question is . . . do we know that?

I’m writing this on a day when my drive time to school with my children didn’t go so well. The details involve garden variety sibling annoyances that somehow got out of hand. I came unglued. Thank God for that upholstered buffer that kept me from reaching them and the light that turned green just as I hit my boiling point. After a couple of miles things settled down. The car was very quiet. By the time I let them out at school we had recovered, but those tense moments always leave me with regret. I found myself alone in the quiet car hoping that my kids knew that I loved them. My suspicion is that they were more aware of my contorted demeanor reflected in the rear view mirror.

My less than perfect parenting doesn’t always come across as loving to my children. Not so with God. God has shown his love to us in the giving of his Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And yet, far too many of us live with a nagging doubt. We’re not sure. We know what the Bible says – but there’s a gap between what we read and what we live, between the truth we hear proclaimed and the truth we feel deep within us. What we yearn for is more than being cherished. We want the kind of confident unshakable life that comes with knowing that God loves us.

Knowing that God loves us changes everything. So how can we come to know what God has long shown us to be true?

We begin our reflections this week with a statement of fact and with a question. The fact: God is a perfect parent and cherishes you as his child. The question: what does the truth change for you today? What circumstance might potentially be transformed when held up to the light of God’s relentless love for you. Begin this day by thanking God for the gift of his love.

Loving God, in this season of Christmas we celebrate the gift of your son – that amazing expression of your great love for the world. We give you thanks for that incredible gift. We praise you for your perfect love. Help us to truly receive the gift, that your love might change us and in turn change the world in which we live. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1)

As seen in Jesus . . .
On the eighth day when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived . . . Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:21-24)

Now given to you . . .
How easily they could have been missed. The temple that day probably looked like Disney in June – masses of people, bumping shoulders every few steps, animal sounds, prayer sounds.

The young couple was there to do what the Law required. Their plan was to present their son Jesus and to make the sacrifice commanded in the Torah. Far more at ease in the setting of a small town, they would not likely linger in Jerusalem or in the temple precincts. The fact that they would present a dove or two pigeons as their sacrifice spoke to their status; lambs were offered by the more well to do.

Somewhere among the masses a man called Simeon was also being obedient. A righteous and devout man, he was there again to worship – but he was also watching. A promise had been made to him. The Lord had told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. And on that day, somehow, Simeon noticed this couple; he approached with firm but careful steps. He knew this child, the knowing coming from somewhere deep within – the same place where the Spirit had made that promise. He reaches out his arms and the young parents allow him to hold their boy.

How many people in the temple that day missed this drama entirely? How many busy, religious, habitual temple-goers walked by it? How many priests failed to detect the presence of the Holy because the holy wasn’t where they thought it would be?

Everyone at the center of this moment lacked notable status in that setting. They didn’t stand out: elderly Simeon, Anna the 84 year old prophetess – neither of them is mentioned again in the Bible. Joseph and Mary, young and poor.

The underdogs are not simply the ones that God notices; they seem most likely to notice God. What kind of holy drama might be unfolding around you today, and what would it mean for you to notice it?

Your works are great, O Lord, and yet so easily missed. Teach me to notice the ones you notice. Above all, teach me to notice your presence in the unlikely places and people that will surround me this day. Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Trading Up

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
. . . the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair (Isaiah 61:3b)

As seen in Jesus . . .
He has filled the hungry with good things, but he has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53)

Now given to you . . .
The world is full of underdogs, the kind Isaiah speaks of: the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, the grieving. These are not too hard to recognize. They populate our city streets, they sit alone in nursing homes, they don’t say much at work and their eyes appear red and tired. If we pay attention we can spot the underdogs.

But the world is also filled with the underdogged. The underdogged lug around a heaviness that we cannot see. They are typically well dressed, surrounded by friends, socially busy, seemingly successful; they are the ones we call “beautiful people.” But in the silent places they feel a metallic cold, an anchor that they alone carry. They may not feel beautiful or successful or even loved. The busy calendar is exhausting and the constant interaction with people has the warmth and depth of a shingle.

The quiet heaviness may be variously named: a deep regret, a nagging shame, a dashed hope, a stabbing memory, bewilderment at having it all but having so little. They are lowly, but you’d never know it. While the underdogs are surprised by God’s favor because they seem the least likely to receive it, the underdogged feel disqualified.

There is good news for the underdogged: the secret failures do not disqualify. According to Isaiah and Mary, the one thing that truly distances us from the Lord’s favor is our pride. God lifts the lowly and brings down the proud – but God never seems to take those who are weighed down and throw more on them. Jesus invited all who were heavy laden to come to him to find rest for their souls (Matthew 11:28).

Mary’s song describes a great reversal: the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. Isaiah describes a great exchange: beauty for ashes, gladness instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.

Christmas is a time for celebrating the fact that Jesus came to us. This same Jesus invites us to come to him . . . and make a trade. What silent weight might you trade in today?

Merciful God, you have invited us to cast our care upon you because of your great love for us. We walk through too many of our days beset with a weight that you have offered to carry. Show us what we need to lay aside today, and as we do so lift us up that we might taste and see your good favor. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Why We Love Underdogs

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the lord for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:3b).

As seen in Jesus . . .
. . . He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts (Luke 1:51b).

Now given to you . . .
Everyone loves a good underdog story. Strangely, however, our affinity for underdog stories doesn’t say much about our affinity for underdogs themselves. The stories we love usually end up with the underdog becoming the top dog. In other words, what we love about underdog stories is the way they fuel our ambition. We don’t care for underdogs . . . unless they get the upper hand and shove it back in the face of their oppressor.

There is a shadowy possibility that we love underdog stories because we are proud – and this misses the point of the Biblical examples entirely.

The peasant girl chosen to be the mother of Jesus is noted for her humility. The truly amazing feature of Mary’s story is that after the angel’s announcement she remains humble; she doesn’t change and suddenly boast in her new role. She never becomes a top-dog at all. The birth announced by the angel eventually happened in a way that was fittingly obscure, relegated to the stable, announced to blue-collar shepherds and revealed to foreign astrologers.

Isaiah said that God’s Spirit was at work bringing good news to the poor, the brokenhearted, the prisoners, the grieving. But the work of the Spirit doesn’t elevate these to super-star status. What happens is that these underdogs become “a planting of the Lord” for the display of God’s splendor. God is made great through the humble. Mary said it simply and best in her song: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46-47 KJV). Our souls are to do the same.

Yesterday you were urged to look for the hidden glory people around you. Today, you are being asked to search out the pride that hides in your own heart. This is what keeps us from knowing the blessing that God pours out on the underdogs; we don’t miss this blessing because of the money we earn and the clothes we wear and the homes we live in. We miss the blessing because we use these things as an indicator of our own greatness; we give more attention to what magnifies us rather than what magnifies the Lord. We are proud in our inmost thoughts. Blessing missed.

O God, you give grace to the humble and set yourself against the proud. I confess that I am too often proud, sometimes in ways that escape my awareness. I don’t want to miss the grace you have for those who live for your glory. Do your work in me today and teach me humility. Make me a “planting of the Lord.” Let my life today be a display of your goodness. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

God and Paul Potts

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted . . . to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:1-3).

As seen in Jesus . . .
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant (Luke 1:46-48).

Now given to you . . .
The stone-faced, sharp-tongued, typically disgruntled judge of “American Idol” was clearly taken aback. “I wasn’t expecting that Paul,” said Simon Cowell after the portly car phone salesman had sung a piece from the operatic work “Nessun Dorma.”

Paul Potts seemingly came out of nowhere. The 37 year old employee of Carphone Warehouse had done some amateur opera singing in the late 90s but made little progress as a singer, derailed by illness and a biking accident. His shocker performance on the televised “Britain’s Got Talent” gripped the attention of the UK and the world. The fact that the You-Tube video clip of Paul’s performance has been viewed tens of millions of times reflects our affinity for the underdog. It thrills us when no-names hit the big-time. And it seems to thrill God as well, because he does that kind of thing over and over again in the pages of the Bible.

Jesus took the words of Isaiah as the text for the sermon that launched his ministry. Good news would be proclaimed to the poor; the brokenhearted would be gently tended and cared for; they would be crowned with beauty, not the ashes of grief and dishonor. Jesus lived these words as he took notice of people like Zacchaeus and blind Bartimaeus and the woman who touched the hem of his robe and common fishermen like Peter and shady tax collectors like Levi.

This was the story of Jesus’ own birth. His mother was a peasant . . . and favored by the Lord. Mary marveled at this – that God had even noticed her in her humble no-name state. But this is God’s way.

Maybe today it can become your way as well. There’s a chance that many of you feel like the underdog – but it is certain that you will cross paths with someone today who is like Paul Potts. Their glory is hidden behind ordinariness; they are the people you’ll easily rush past and ignore. Let God’s way be yours as you live this day. Search out the hidden glory of each person who comes your way.

In your mercy, O Lord, you take notice of what we ignore. You treasure what we despise. You use the foolish things and the weak things of this world to shame those of us who live with a glutted sense of our own power and smarts. Transform us today by your Spirit that we might be as you are and love what you love, seeing the glory you’ve placed in the most humble among us. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jesus in the 'Hood: Advent Reflections on "Death by Suburb"

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message)

Like many, I have books stacked all over my house. I’m reading several of them – some with intent, and others in bits and pieces. The unfinished reading occasionally shames me. I started George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards years ago. I’m close to the end, but not there yet. I got interested in Jan Karon’s “At Home in Mitford” after reading Lauren Winner’s memoir, so I started that. Luci Shaw’s “The Crime of Living Cautiously” caught my attention while browsing around in our church library so I checked that out (they’re probably wondering where it is). This past summer I purchased Michael Card’s “Scribbling in the Sand” after someone had given me a gift certificate to our church bookstore. I have yet to complete Adam Nicholson’s “God’s Secretaries.” And then there’s the massive “Team of Rivals” that I had heard was good . . . got through chapter one or two, and then laid it aside. Honestly, I have no idea when I’ll get back to that one.

But from time to time I do finish a book – and the last one I closed having made it to the endnotes is a fine volume by David Goetz, “Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul.”

The premise is simple enough and clear from the title. Life in the suburbs is spiritually hazardous. There’s something about the way we live out here that shrivels the soul, the way we shop and drive and shuttle kids about and choose schools and eat out and TIVO programs we couldn’t sit and watch. Goetz takes what looks comfortable and enviable and names it a whitewashed tomb; pretty outside and rotting inside.

This gets my attention because I live in the suburbs. The life he’s talking about is my life. I did carpool this morning and then delivered my daughter’s overnight bag to the mother who’s hosting a spend-the-night birthday party tonight. Tomorrow I’ll go to my son’s basketball game.

As for the content of Goetz’s book, what I love are the eight spiritual disciplines for suburban life. This appeals to me because it is fundamentally positive and redemptive. It says that life in the suburbs does not have to be spiritually deadening, “toxic” to use Goetz’s adjective of choice. That’s good news, especially if you’re a suburbanite.

It seems to me that the danger of living in the suburbs can be summed up this way: the suburbs quietly cultivate an expectation of ease and attractiveness that shapes how we look at the world and live our days. Without knowing it we begin to expect that our lives should be comfortable; comfortable homes and well kept yards and easy to access stores that have anything and everything we might need at any hour of the day. My son recently needed a prescription filled. I had forgotten to do it and this oversight hit my awareness at about 10:00 p.m. The next day was scheduled in a way that made it difficult for Marnie and me to run this errand – so I went to the 24 hr CVS. No problem.

Suburban life produces people that don’t know how to suffer, that can’t grasp phrases like “cost of discipleship.” Luci Shaw (in her book mentioned above) maintains that the point of life is not my security. But security is exactly what lures many to the suburbs. There is a hint of escapism out here. Out here we’ll not have to deal wit all the crap that happens in the city and all the crappy people who make that stuff happen. Out here we’ll put our kids in large SUVs and they’ll be safe on the roads. Or so we think. The escapism is mingled with a fair amount of illusion.

The aim of life in the suburbs is the same as life anywhere: to follow Jesus and live the Jesus life. That can be done in the suburbs. What Goetz is warning us against is the very subtle tendency to use the suburbs as a way of buffering ourselves against the Jesus way.

In his oft quoted translation of John 1:14, Eugene Peterson says that “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” That includes the neighborhood you live in, regardless of where it’s located. This is a season for declaring the presence of God among us. Our task is to search him out, to seek him with all our hearts. Some places make that particularly hard to do. Thanks to Goetz and the disciplines explored in “Death by Suburb,” I’ve got a better sense of how to do it in my place.

Not a Possession - but Power

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse . . . the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him (Isaiah 11:1-2)

As seen in Jesus . . .
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 21:21-22)

Now given to you . . . .
When we think of “peace on earth” we too often think of something that is over-idealized and thus unattainable. When we think of “peace of mind” we too often think of something that over-psychologized and thus individualistic; something we possess within ourselves.

The words of Isaiah and Jesus help us walk a path between those two errors. To follow this path is to learn daily what it means to be both “at peace” within while “making peace” without.

There is a flow or direction in the words of the prophet and the words of our savior. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon the shoot from Jesse, the one God is raising up to establish peace. This Spirit manifests itself in things like wisdom and power – but it also creates a different kind of world. The Spirit isn’t a possession; it is power to change things. The Spirit moves outward and creates a world where the wolf and the lamb dwell together and nations rally to God’s chosen peacemaker.

This is the Spirit that Jesus gave to his disciples. He finds them in their fear and doubt and “breathes” the Spirit upon them. This isn’t simply something to help them feel better. The spirit is God’s gift of power for changing the world.

As you go through this day, the peace you have within you will impact the peace that exists around you. Peace isn’t a cozy possession. It is power to change things, and it comes from the indwelling life of God in you.

Lord Jesus, the peace I try to make in my own power is short-lived. I ask you to breathe on me again this day; fill me with your very life and empower me as you send me into the world. Grant me your gift of peace, and then do your work of changing the world in ways that I cannot imagine. Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

He Strikes and Slays?

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4b)

As seen in Jesus . . .
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many is Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35).

Now given to you . . . .
This is the kind of thing we choke on when we read the Bible. In public settings where scripture is read, these are verses we’re tempted to skip. We worry what marginally religious people will think when they hear us mention a God who slays the wicked. They might be uneasy or offended. They might decide that we’re raving fundamentalists and seek a more sophisticated place of worship. Can’t we just delete these lines, do a little editing for the Almighty?

Short answer: No.

We may not like the fact that a passage from the Bible that envisions a world at harmony somehow manages to mention a God who strikes the earth and slays the wicked, but that’s because we don’t fully grasp the kind of harmony God intends to establish. We think that peace is the absence of conflict, that being at harmony means making nice. But the harmony Isaiah speaks of comes about because the earth is filled with the knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:9). That’s a different kind of peace. It’s a peace that requires more than being nice; it requires proclaiming truth to the world – a truth that will not always be embraced.

When the infant Jesus was dedicated at the temple, an elderly man by the name of Simeon uttered his own word of prophecy to Mary. This child will cause some to rise and some to fall; some will love him, others will despise him; some will follow him, others will insist on going a different way. With Jesus, God has drawn a dividing line
in history.

That’s not a mandate for believers to accost or attack anyone who disagrees with us. It is however a mandate for mission, for the proclamation of who Jesus is. Peace isn’t what happens as we all learn to be nice to each other. Peace is what happens as the earth is covered with the knowledge of God. And this is a peace that only God can establish.

It is beyond me, O God, to understand how this world will ever be at peace. I just want everyone to get along. You want everyone to know you. Guard me from the sin of hatred that creeps up when others don’t agree with me. Grant me a sense of being on mission in this world, sharing the love of Jesus, living a life that points to you. In some small way use me to bring peace to the earth. Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Delight and Fear

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him . . . and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11: 3a)

As seen in Jesus . . .
He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:40-41)

Now given to you . . . .
Peace is not the absence of fear; it is fear rightly formed.

The one whom God raises up to establish peace and justice is one whose delight is in the fear of the Lord. That’s evidence of the life of God’s Spirit. This is what happens as God’s Spirit lives in us. The Spirit of the Lord produces a deep reverence for God, a sobering sense of God’s presence that is at the same time a great delight. This sounds peculiar to us – but the words of Jesus help clarify he connection between delight and fear.

Caught in the bluster and spray of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, the companions of Jesus were gripped with fear – the anxious kind of fear that says, “We’re about to die.” Jesus speaks peace to the elements, and then he turns and speaks peace to his friends. He does so with a question: “Why are you so afraid?” The implication is clear. Jesus is present; no need to live anxious fretful lives.

Great! No need to fear. But the friends of Jesus respond to this assurance with . . . well, more fear. “They were filled with great fear.” Only this is fear of a different kind. It’s the kind of fear that knows that God is present, firmly in control of all things, commanding the elements and guiding the most ordinary events of each and every day. This is the fear of the Lord. And it is our delight. Those at peace delight in the fear of the Lord.

Our fears are many, some of them common and obvious, some of them deeply personal and unnamed. What are yours? Both Jesus and Isaiah invite us to transform fear into delight. That is to say, take what you fear and place in the setting of God’s inescapable and powerful presence. Fear the Lord: be stunned at God’s detailed knowledge of every thought and emotion that fills your soul, every circumstance that shapes your life today. And then, by the work of the Spirit, be at peace.

Almighty God, I bring my fears before you now. I ask you to teach me what it means to fear you – and then help me to delight in what you teach me. Grant peace by the presence of your Spirit, both in my own life and in this troubled world. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As Spoken by the Prophet . . .
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears . . . (Isaiah 11:3b).

As seen in Jesus . . .
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).

Now given to you . . .
Our peace – peace within and peace with others – is closely connected to our thinking, the judgments we make about what we see and hear. We can believe the rumor and regard another person differently, with suspicion, keeping our distance. We can see someone wearing expensive clothes and driving the high-dollar vehicle and conclude that they merit a certain awe and respect because of that. Far too often, we judge by what we see and what we hear.

The one God raises up from Jesse’s root, the one who establishes peace, is distinguished by a fine tuned capacity for discernment. God’s anointed ruler will not judge by sight and sound, by impressions and the latest buzz on the streets. No, this one will see things differently; he will see deep into the reality of things and reach conclusions that are just and right.

Jesus and the twelve were seeking rest and solitude, time to reflect and debrief what God the Father was doing through them and around them. They needed a staff retreat, but the crowds kept tracking them down. Wherever Jesus tried to go, the crowds would get their first. Such crowds appear to be an annoyance; they are too demanding, too needy. But Jesus sees them differently. He isn’t annoyed. He is moved with compassion.

Living at peace means we develop the capacity to make careful discernment about what we see and hear. Discernment shapes thinking, and thoughts can help secure our peace or disturb it. What kinds of judgments are you making about the people you interact with every day? What do you truly know about their lives? How easily do you accept what you hear about someone or some situation? When the Spirit of Jesus takes up residence in your heart, you’ll begin too see deeper into things. Where do you need discernment today?

Lord Jesus, I make plenty of judgments based on what I see and what I hear. Failing to wait and watch prayerfully, I sacrifice peace and accept superficial conclusions. Grant me a discerning mind today – a mind that sees and thinks as you yourself see and think. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Stump

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As Spoken by the Prophet . . .
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David (Luke 2:4).

Now given to you . . .
As we begin our reflections on “peace on earth” this week, we need to get honest about our hopes for peace – or, better said perhaps, our lack of hope. When it comes to our desires, peace is easily at the top of our wish list. When it comes to our expectations, peace barely makes the list at all.

We are not the first to have felt this way, yearning for peace and despairing of its reality. The words of the prophet were spoken into an ominous setting; the landscape would eventually be charred by violence and warfare. Judah would become a forest that had been plowed down, “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be a stump in the land” (Isaiah 6:13). But among the stumps one would put forth life; a tiny sprig of green, bearing hope. A shoot would come from the stump of Jesse. This frail beginning is the source of all hopes for peace.

The tender shoot seen so long ago by Isaiah finally emerged when a man named Joseph took his pregnant wife to the town of Bethlehem. The sovereign work of God and the decree of the government mingled in a single moment that confirmed the prophet’s words: the line of Jesse, father of David; Bethlehem, the town of David; Joseph, of the line and house of David. And then Jesus – the source of life and hope and peace.

The peace we yearn for is often found in the wastelands of our lives where it seems that nothing of worth is happening. There may be such a place in your life today. Ponder it for a moment; peace isn’t very compelling unless we see with clarity those places where we need it most. The yearning for peace isn’t generic, it’s specific. Specific relationships need mending, specific resentments need to be let go of, specific nations with people who have names and families need security in their borders. The wastelands are vast. Can you identify such a place in your life? And can you see the promise of life and peace restored?

God of peace, you take what seems lifeless and hopeless and you bring forth more than we dreamed could ever be. We don’t see much peace in our world and we don’t experience it in our lives nearly as much as we’d like. We yearn for peace, and we look to you as the only one who can make it real, even from the stumps of our broken world. Hear us in these moments as we lift the barren places of our lives and our world to you. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Holy Wild

Our yearning: A sense of wonder (Read Isaiah 6:1-8).

As spoken by the prophet . . .
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-2).

As seen in Jesus . . .
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
(Mark 1:23-24)

Now given to you . . .
Holiness is recognized by both demons and angels. In heaven, holiness calls forth songs and shouts of celebration. In hell, holiness calls forth derision and curses. And here, in the place and time in which we live, the same is true. We are drawn in or distanced by what is holy.

The one reaction which seems absent from the biblical stories, and far too common in our day, is casual disregard. Holiness isn’t boring in the scriptures; it is either embraced with adoration or rejected with disdain. No one gets around the Holy and yawns. Isaiah’s temple vision and Jesus’ confrontation with the demon possessed man both reflect the power of holiness. It’s a power to either attract or repel – but it is power any way you look at it.

Our capacity to recognize holiness will determine, to some degree, whether we live with a sense of wonder. Sadly, holiness is a shriveled word in our time. It suggests prudery, a life defined by avoidance strategies: avoiding the wrong movies, avoiding the wrong people, avoiding the wrong neckline on the blouse and the wrong word when you hit your finger with a hammer. The avoidance strategies bear little resemblance to biblical holiness. Holiness – the kind that evokes wonder – is the presence of God laid bare, seen in all things; a world inundated with God. You inhabit a Holy world, and by faith a Holy God (Spirit) inhabits you

Gracious God, we ask you for many things. On our list of needs and wants, holiness shows up near the bottom if it shows up at all. But today we ask you to make us holy – not by what we avoid, but by what we behold. Help us to see that the whole earth is full of your glory. Help us then to reflect to others what we have seen. Amen.

("The Holy Wild" is a phrase borrowed fom the Mark Buchanan's book by the same title)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Partial Eclipse

Our Yearning: A sense of wonder (Read Isaiah 6:1-8)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15)

Now given to you . . .
God’s revelation comes to us in the middle of life’s mundane and even unsightly realities. This is never truer than during the Advent and Christmas season. These are days filled with glorious language about God: “God with us” and “glory to God in the highest,” on and on. And these same days are also filled with relentless demands on your time, the reality of a drought, jobs that don’t stop and bills that keep coming. The most ordinary aspects of your life will continue unabated over the next month, and that fact alone easily eclipses our sense of wonder.

But God was revealed to Isaiah in the midst of a political crisis, the death of King Uzziah. Jesus appeared in a setting of civil unrest, Herod having thrown John in prison. Glorious things were happening; God was on the move, history was being shaped, not by Kings and governors, but by the words of a prophet and the presence of the Messiah. Uzziah and Herod probably got the headlines. Isaiah and Jesus did not.

We will not live with wonder by trying to escape the ordinary. We don’t get a clearer look at God by rising above the life we’ve been given. Wonder and Awe do not demand that we rinse away the grime of the daily. Rather we find God deep in the heart of the life we’re living this very moment. Political events, major news stories, dental appointments and dance recitals – there’s wonder to be found in all of it.

Lord Jesus, aside from the glittering decorations, our world barely takes notice of your coming to us. History keeps unfolding and the redundant details of life don’t take a vacation. How easily these things eclipse our vision of your presence among us; how easily we lose our sense of wonder. We yearn to see your glory in the things we see every day. Help us to see afresh in this wonder-filled season of the year. Amen.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Yearnings: A Series of Advent Reflections from Isaiah

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2)

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” (From “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks, 1867)

Everywhere you look the trappings of the season are on full display. Retailers know we’re shopping for Christmas and they won’t lose a day in helping us complete the task. The Starbucks cups have been seasonal red for weeks already. It’s here, ready or not.

At our house it’s more “not” than “ready.” I’m sure it’ll be a few days yet before I venture into the attic and pull down the tired boxes marked “Christmas.” The boxes will be emptied and we’ll soon give our home the look of being ready for Christmas; our own inner readiness will catch up eventually.

Of all the things we set out around our home to get ready for Christmas, the most treasured for me is a set of pictures. Starting with my son’s first Christmas, when he was our only child, we have a picture of the kids and Santa from every Christmas. I can look at that set of pictures and see their growth, the way they slightly morphed over a twelve month period; I see my babies becoming “kids.” I’m not sure how long we’ll keep doing this, but I don’t plan on stopping this year.

That image – children on Santa’s knees – captures in 5x7 color how this season of the year stirs up desire. Something about the days leading to Christmas nudges yearnings deep within us. In fact, as those pictures of my children remind me, from our earliest years we have been asked over and over again, “What do you want for Christmas?” Christmas invites us to desire, to want, to wish and dream.

Some of our desires are trivial and change every year, from action figures and dolls to iPods and gift cards. But some of our wants, our truest desires, are far more enduring. Those deep yearnings will provide the focus of Dr. Vic Pentz’s sermon series during the weeks of Advent. Each week the message will complete this sentence: “All I Want for Christmas is . . .”

Once again, these daily reflections will follow the sermon series. They will assume a very simple and straightforward format. Each week will focus on a deep yearning of soul. Each day will provide you with a scripture text from the prophet Isaiah, as well as a scripture from the gospels that shows how Jesus answers and meets our deepest longings. The reflection will conclude with a brief application of the scripture and a prayer.

With each day of the coming Advent season you will be reminded of this simple truth: Every yearning of the heart is answered in Jesus Christ. Those yearnings of soul are not there to drive us in a frenetic search for something to buy or accumulate that will make us “happy.” Our yearnings are there to tell us that we were made for God. In his book, Yearning: Living Between How it Is and How It Ought to Be, Craig Barnes states that

"Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation." (Yearning, p. 21)

“The great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.” That is the story of the incarnation. That is the story of Christmas. Our culture speaks to our yearnings by telling us to chase happiness. Our faith speaks to our yearnings by inviting us to follow the Savior, to live the Jesus life and walk the Jesus way. Listening to Isaiah and Jesus, that’s what we’ll do in the weeks ahead.

So . . . what is the deepest yearning of your heart right now? What do you really want for Christmas?

Walk with us, O Christ, into this wonderful season of the year. Help our bleary and dulled eyes to see true wonder; help our heavy hearts to find comfort. Above all, help us to find you – the answer to our deepest yearnings. Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

God's Name, Our Delight

O Lord, let you ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name . . . I was cupbearer to the King (Nehemiah 1:11a).

Atlantans love their decals. Around here, decals are one of the ways that people tell you who they are; little bits and pieces of their identity are stuck to the back window of the SUV. If you spend any time in a car-pool line you are likely to learn where people vacation, what other schools they’ve attended or attend, how many years they gave money to that school, what sports their kids play and in what program. It’s a mini-resume on adhesive. We have a school decal on both of our vehicles, so I write this as confession, not criticism.

The decals make me wonder about how we understand our identity. What is it about our life that most truly captures who we are? What are we most eager for someone else to know about us? What would help a person truly “get” us? If it’s not the decals on our car, then often it’s the job we wake up to every morning, or the neighborhood we live in, or the friends we run with, or the clothes we wear, or the degrees we’ve earned.

The real action of Nehemiah begins in chapter two with his journey back to Jerusalem and his midnight inspection of the city’s walls. But everything that Nehemiah does is grounded in who Nehemiah is; his own deep sense of identity defines his commitments, the task to which he gives himself. To understand who Nehemiah is, we need to hang out a little longer in chapter one.

There is something distinctive about how Nehemiah understands himself, his life, his identity. He only makes one reference to his job. “I was cupbearer to the King.” Plenty of folks would have killed for that job – prestige, access to the King, authority over a large staff. It was a decent job, to be sure. But Nehemiah only mentions it once – almost a throw-away comment. When it comes to his identity, Nehemiah’s word of choice is “servant.” He is a servant of God. The English word “servant” (NIV) shows up seven times in Nehemiah’s prayer. At the end of the prayer he gives the word a definition: servants are those who “delight in revering [God’s] name.”

What would change about this day and your plans for the weekend if above all else you saw yourself as God’s servant? That means that today in the office, tomorrow at the game, next week on the business trip – whatever and wherever you are - you are God’s servant. This is who you are, and it shapes what you do and how you do it.

When Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls it his aim was not merely well constructed and fully repaired walls around the city. Nehemiah’s aim was to honor God and God’s name. Because of that – because he defined himself as a servant of God, he went to work restoring order to the city. More than anything, God calls you to serve him. The great news is that you don’t need a special assignment to do that. You can start today, right where you are.

There are days, O Lord, when I forget who I am. I define myself in ways and with words that come from the world around me. These leave me unsatisfied, restless. Remind me today of who you created me to be and teach me to be your servant in all that I do. Amen.

Friday, October 19, 2007

God is Still Great

“When I heard these things I sat down and wept . . . then I said: “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God . . . let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night . . .” (Nehemiah 1:4-5)

“God is great, God is good.” For many of us, these were the first words of prayer we ever learned. Before we could adequately pronounce those simple words, and long before we could ever grasp the meaning of what we were saying, we learned to fold our hands and affirm the goodness and greatness of God.

And then we got older. As we got older life happened, and those happenings sometimes challenged the words of that prayer. Sure, we may still teach the words to our children, but silently we have some objections – or at least some questions. We’ve seen things, or experienced things, or learned some things that make us wonder about the goodness and greatness of God.

Those six little words we learned as toddlers are joined by a maturing vocabulary: death and divorce, breakups and bankruptcy, I.E.Ds and M.I.As. The list is long. Our sentences become more complicated, the verbs more harsh and the adjectives more grim. We begin to wonder about the greatness of God. In our wondering we come across a book title that bluntly rejects what we’ve always believed, or tried to believe – “God is Not Great” sneers at us from the cover of Christopher Hitchens’s recent volume. Part of us resents the book, and part of us wonders.

After learning of the wretched conditions in Jerusalem, Nehemiah prays. The opening words of the prayer are remarkable, stunning even. In his grief and anguish over Jerusalem we might excuse Nehemiah for railing against God. The NIV bible uses an English word to describe the state of the city: “disgraced.” Grace removed, undone, taken away. Jerusalem is dis-graced, and when grace is nullified God’s character may likely be vilified. But that’s not what we get from Nehemiah. Instead, what we hear from this heartbroken man is the kind of thing that flows naturally from the lips of children. God is great. Great and awesome.

We might think of Nehemiah as a “visionary” because he was able to see what the walls of Jerusalem could become. Not so. Nehemiah was a visionary because he saw the true character of God: great and awesome. Once he grasped the reality of God he began to see what God wanted for the city.

You may find yourself in your own season of mourning and weeping. Something you care deeply about is damaged; it seems that grace is absent. The good news this morning is that God is still great. Don’t simply ask God to fix a situation. Ask for a restored vision of who God is; the kind of vision you might have had a long time ago when you learned the words of that simple prayer. The prayer words you learned when you could barely talk may be the prayer you need to pray today. Learn from Nehemiah. There is a foundational truth that will not be changed by bad news and dis-grace. God is still great.

Great and awesome God, when I look at the trouble and devastation of the world around me I get things backwards. You seem distant and small. The problems of the world seem enormous. Help me to see things rightly. Restore to me a vision of your great power and love, reminding me that the whole world is held in your mighty and tender hand. Amen.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Broken, then Busy

When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4)

“For some days . . .”

These three words from Nehemiah 1:4 are misleading. We are likely to read right over them; blow right by in our rush to get to the real drama of the book – the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Our failure to grasp what’s happening in this little phrase is only reinforced when we read the words of Nehemiah’s prayer as recorded in verses 5-11. I just finished reading the prayer out loud at a deliberate pace. It took me one minute and twenty seconds. You could easily get through it faster.

What only takes eighty seconds to read is given to us as a sample of what Nehemiah did “for some days.” And what’s more, the “some days” is actually closer to four months. Nehemiah learns of Jerusalem’s condition in the month of Kislev (1:1). He finally presents a plan and request to King Artaxerxes in the month of Nisan (2:1). That means Nehemiah’s prayer is no meager “Please help us God” offered up in an eighty second interlude before getting down to business. No, Nehemiah’s weeping and fasting and praying covered a period of four months.

This was said a couple of days ago, but it’s worth repeating: before Nehemiah presents a plan to the King he offers prayer to God. Lingering prayer: repetitive, passionate, heart wrenching petition. Brokenness precedes busyness. Those who are broken before God will be used by God to change the world.

I am particularly challenged by Nehemiah’s example at this point. I never fast. I see plenty in the world to weep over, but my tears are slow to come. And then there’s the praying. I wish I were better at it, more consistent. I’m afraid I give up on prayer to easily, or I’m quickly satisfied that I’ve said all that needs to be said to God. No need to go on for four months, or a year, or four years. God knows my heart. Make the request clear to God a few times and then let it go at that. Mine is not a problem of belief, but a problem of will. I believe in prayer, but I don’t wrestle with God for as long as it takes.

Getting our arms around the city begins with kneeling before the God who loves the city far more than we do. In fact, getting a handle on anything that matters deeply to us starts with prayer. Prayer is not a substitute for action. It is the soil out of which meaningful action grows. Maybe you’re facing something today that confronts you with two temptations. On one hand, you may be tempted to despair and you’ve stopped talking to God about whatever it might be. On the other hand, your fear may be driving you to take immediate action, to get busy and get busy now.

Maybe this morning God is simply inviting you to linger in his presence; to linger and to listen. In his presence you may weep, you may complain, you may question. Our confidence to pray, and keep on praying, comes from knowing that God gladly hears it all and is already at work in those things that concern us.

Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation (Psalm 5:1-3).

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Escape or Engage

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men . . . I was cupbearer to the King (Nehemiah 1:1, 11b).

On Mondays I leave the house early to get to church for a 7:00 men’s Bible study. Two left turn lanes funnel traffic from the south Marietta loop to I-75 southbound to Atlanta. Typically I avoid this route, but the early hour on Mondays usually works in my favor. While waiting for the green arrow that will allow me to take my place in the stampeding herd, I strain to look over the bridge railing to the south. In the early morning darkness red taillights provide an indicator of what awaits me. When the glowing red is well spaced and moving swiftly, that’s a good sign. Thick red that creeps like sludge means I should have gone another way.

Funny thing about the morning commute: thousands of people get up every day and make their way into the city . . . for the purpose of being able to avoid the city. The work that brings them into the city makes it possible for them to create a citadel to which they will escape at day’s end. The fortress they take refuge in may be a gated apartment complex, a home surrounded by spiked wrought iron, or a house on a quiet street with garage doors that can be opened safely from the car and closed upon entering the citadel . . . uh, house. Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing the American dream. But in the pursuit we may one day discover that we’re actually running from something; running from the God who pursues us and wants to use us in the world.

The thing that draws those thousands of taillights onto I-75 every morning was something that Nehemiah had obtained. Nehemiah had a comfortable place and a respectable position. As his story opens, he is in the Citadel of Susa. Susa was the winter residence of the King of Persia. There in the fortress Nehemiah was highly trusted as the King’s cupbearer. This position meant that Nehemiah was more than a royal official; he was intimately acquainted with the King’s household, practically a member of the family. Who could ask for more? A comfortable dwelling (citadel) and a prestigious job (cupbearer) – millions chase that dream every day.

And who would ever want to leave that kind arrangement for the poverty and rubble of a wrecked city like Jerusalem? We work hard to protect ourselves from poverty and trash. But here’s the thing: You can’t put your arms around the city if you won’t leave the citadel. Every day we are confronted with a choice about how we’ll live life. The direction of our life’s energies will be aimed either at escape or engagement. You can work hard to escape the brokenness and shield yourself from it, or you can work hard to engage the brokenness and bring about transformation.

How are you living life today? Did God put you here and place his gifts in your life so that you can hunker down in your citadel, collecting comforts, distancing yourself from pain? Nehemiah, highly esteemed and very comfortable, ached to get back to the shattered remains of Jerusalem. What are you aching to do with your life? Where does God want to use you today?

Gracious God, send me into the world today intent on engaging those you love, ready to bring your grace wherever it is needed. Don’t let my energies be spent avoiding what you are doing in the city around me. Give me courage to step outside the gates of the fortresses I’ve so carefully built, and help me to put my arms around the city. Amen.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Never Too Far Gone

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)

When my cell phone rang, disturbing the relative quiet of the Border’s bookstore, the caller i.d. displayed “Al’s Automotive.” I was eager to hear from Al – or his guys. Our not-often-trusty family vehicle had been leaving a spotty trail for some time. Seems that wherever we parked we would leave the world an oily reminder of our presence there. The left side floor of our garage was a mess. Time to get that fixed, and so to Al’s. When the call came in I found a secluded place between some tall bookshelves and answered.

Al – or whoever actually called me – didn’t have good news. With language that escapes me now, he detailed the parts of the engine that were loosing oil; this was done with a pleasant and helpful tone, as if he were giving me directions to the Georgia Aquarium. The report concluded with a grand total figure, a figure that easily exceeded the value of the vehicle. Reality began to set in as I realized that toddler-hood along with nine years of wear and tear had taken its toll. This time things were simply too far gone.

Nehemiah’s story is slightly different. When Nehemiah learned from Hanani about the condition of Jerusalem, he was not learning something new or unheard of. In fact, roughly 140 years before this event, long before Nehemiah’s birth, Jerusalem had been destroyed by Babylon (587 BC). To some extent, the destruction of Jerusalem had been a persistent problem throughout Nehemiah’s lifetime. He could have written Jerusalem off as too far gone . . . but he didn’t. One of the first remarkable things we notice about Nehemiah is the absence of a resigned fatalism. Nehemiah is deeply stirred by the plight of Jerusalem – even with its long standing and deeply entrenched problems. The city is not beyond hope and help; things are not too far gone.

The fact that Nehemiah can still weep is significant. Typically, long-term persistent problems that never change leave us numb. We wake up to the same thing every morning just as we have for a thousand mornings, bracing ourselves for a thousand more. Whatever it is, God seems to have forgotten it and we’re left to live with it. We stop weeping. Sure, we want to believe that God is still around, somehow tending the shop, but the realities we see mock that kind of thinking as escapist or childish; wishful thinking, not faith. When the world we see appears to be beyond repair, we don’t know what to believe. We don’t know how to believe. Nehemiah’s example emboldens us because he insists on dealing with God about an intractable issue that won’t go away and can’t be fixed, or so it seems.

Like Nehemiah, we bring before God those issues that have dogged us for years; a marriage that’s long been on the brink of collapse, an addicted family member who can’t get on top of their illness, a persistent health problem, relentless financial crises that won’t stop coming. Nehemiah reminds us that things are never too far gone, never beyond the scope of God’s reach, never outside the sphere of God’s grace. It was true of Jerusalem, it is true of Atlanta, and it’s true of your life.

But before Nehemiah formulates a plan he offers a prayer. His brokenness precedes his busyness. Maybe before we work with God we’ll need to deal honestly and directly with God. We’ll be thinking this week about what that means. With Nehemiah we go to our knees, and we start right now.

Merciful God, when I think about the problems that confront our city, I am tempted to see the place as beyond help, or at least beyond my help. The same is true of the wreckage I see in people’s lives and even in my own life. Give me a new vision for what you are doing in me and around me. I bring my city, my very life, before you today in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What I'm Learning This Summer: Faith "in" or Faith "of"

“They say the same creed but do they share the same faith?”

With that question I was hooked. The teacher was John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The setting was the Christian Life Conference at Montreat, North Carolina, the opening plenary session on Saturday night.

The question came after an exercise in imagining two people who attend the same church every week where they regularly recite the same statement of faith, “The Apostles Creed.” One person is easily irritated, often caustic and unkind in their speech, a bit self absorbed, rarely generous with what they have, rarely evidencing joy in life, often proud and careful about impression management.

The other person is experienced as kind in both manner and speech, patient with others, frequently an encourager, genuinely interested in things and people beyond themselves, always eager to give or serve, always laughing or making others laugh.

They say the same creed, but do they share the same faith?

Ortberg eventually made this distinction:

There is faith “in” Jesus: usually presented as what one must believe about Jesus in order to be saved and go to heaven.

And then there is the faith “of” Jesus: this is the faith that Jesus himself had; it means believing as he believed so that we live the kind of life he lived.

The gist of the message that night was that the Christian life is really about living as Jesus lived; it is just that – a life. A way of being in the world. This life comes from having the faith of Jesus. It comes from believing and living in communion with God in such way that we internalize the life Jesus lived. What Ortberg called our “mental map.”

The Christian life is not about meeting the bare minimal entrance requirements to get to heaven. Here Ortberg acknowledges his indebtedness to the work of Dallas Willard. Simply giving assent to statements about Jesus (it was implied) will not produce the kind of life that Jesus lived. That’s why two people can state the same creed but have a different faith.

I agree with that. I am drawn to the distinction between “faith in” and “faith of.” And yet, now at a distance of more than a week from the conference, I sense some anxieties about this. My anxiety boils down to this: too many churches do not do a good job of teaching doctrine. In fact, too many churches don’t teach doctrine at all. While Ortberg would not intend this, his distinction feeds our proclivity to be dismissive of doctrinal language and ideas.

What would it take to present doctrine in such a way that it produced transformed lives that increasingly resemble Jesus? That’s what doctrine ought to do. In canonical scripture, the gospels are neighbor to Romans and Hebrews. The didactic voice harmonizes with the narrative voice. Teacher and story-teller, thinker and exemplar live side by side in the pages of the Bible.

Yes – there is a difference between “faith in” and “faith of.” And yes, I’ve heard far more in my lifetime about having faith in Jesus than I’ve heard abut having the faith of Jesus. And yes, my personal shortcomings have more to do with my life than with my knowledge.

But in my calling to live the Jesus way, I’m almost certain I’ll continually struggle with getting it right. The Christian life then becomes an exercise in frustration . . . unless we know some good doctrine that makes sense of it all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

test, test

Learning to post pictures . . . These are "my girls."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Zeal and Affliction

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline (Revelation 3:19).

More than once this week this point has been made: self-satisfaction kills spiritual zeal. A passion for God will not grow from the soil of boasting. A preacher from an earlier century (whose name escapes me now) has been quoted as saying that we cannot demonstrate that we are clever and that God is mighty to save at the same time. The church of Laodicea has been introduced as exhibit ‘A’ for this truth all week long.

It seems clear that self-satisfaction kills zeal, but what about affliction? What about suffering? I’ve wondered from time to time this week about readers who are reading these reflections, seeing passion and zeal exalted and encouraged while lukewarm faith is rebuked. I’ve wondered about anyone who might be feeling that lukewarm is about the best they can do right now.

Is there anyone who reads these reflections in the morning having not slept at night, having wept from grief and the memories that come with it, having received abusive words from a child or spouse or parent, having fought the nausea of a medication or the loss of appetite it brings? As James asked “is any among you sick?” (James 5:14) The answer, it seems to me, has to be yes. And if so, what does zeal look like? If the answer is yes, are the wounded among us consigned to a lukewarm faith?

The answer to that final question is a resounding and clarion “no.” There are some good scriptural reasons to support the answer and I’d like to enumerate them clearly and briefly.

1. It is possible to be zealous in the midst of affliction.

Job sat on the ash heap, using a piece of broken pottery to scrape the dripping sores that mottled his flesh. Things couldn’t be worse. He could not get any lower. His children had been killed by the kind of senseless tragedy that natural disasters inflict. He had lost his wealth, his assets. He had lost his health, gripped in excruciating anguish but not able to die. Things were so bad that his own wife counseled him to curse God. Curse God and die.

At one point Job processed the whole experience with these words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” This is zeal.

Zeal isn’t always an enthusiastic charge forward. Sometimes it’s a deeply rooted stance that will not be moved; faith that doesn’t fold or whither. Sometimes zeal means we turn up the heat. Sometimes it means we take the heat. Zeal allows Paul and Silas to sit on the floor of the jail, shackled and beaten and bruised, singing hymns of praise. This is zeal, and occasionally we find it in the midst of affliction.

2. It is possible to forge zeal from affliction.

The words of Christ to Laodicea need to be read along with the words written to the Hebrews (see Hebrews 12:7-10). Listening carefully, here’s what we discover: we are to endure hardship as discipline. God disciplines those whom he loves. The hardships have a purpose, namely, that we may share in God’s holiness.

We suffer affliction as a means of participating in the holiness of God. God is at work, using our afflictions to forge his own character, his holiness in us. That holiness is sometimes pictured in scripture as a consuming fire, white hot holiness . . . zeal. Zeal can be forged from the experience of affliction.

If we were to travel to some of the most difficult places on the globe, places of deprivation and disease, places of war and persecution, we would likely find there Christians who are zealous for Christ, bold and passionate disciples of Jesus. They might tell us that their passion grows in the midst of affliction; that it is forged from their afflictions. And what is true for them can be true for us as well.

Is any among you sick? You need not settle for a lukewarm walk with Christ. The closing prayer is a prayer for all who suffer today. If you suffer, pray it for yourself if you wish, but know that many are praying it for you. May your heart be encouraged and strengthened in zeal, even in the midst of affliction.

Prayer: Almighty God, we pray today for the afflicted among us; for friends and co-workers, for our neighbors and loved ones, for people we know well and for those with whom we are barely acquainted. Lord Jesus, strengthen their hearts and use their hardships to form your character in them. In their suffering, make them zealous – and prepare us all for the day of trial and testing, that we may stand fast in passionate faith. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Free to Dance

Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might . . . (2 Samuel 6:14)

Were it not for my wife I’m not sure I would ever dance. My wife has exuberance built into her DNA. She brings a certain energy and delight to everything she does – and she shares that energy with me and it permeates our home. But at wedding receptions my range of motion takes place between the table at which I’m seated and the mashed-potato bar. Marnie gravitates to the dance floor, and eventually I find myself out there too. But it’s a stretch for me. I’m not sure why, but something about dancing makes me self-conscious. I feel dorky – and self-conscious people don’t dance well, not nearly as well as they could were they more self-forgetful.

There’s a wonderful story in 2 Samuel 6 about David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. For twenty years the Ark had been kept at Kiriath Jearim. At one point there was an effort to move the Ark, but it was done carelessly and God foiled the entire parade. When a priest dropped dead in the middle of the festivities everything came to a grinding halt and the ark went nowhere. After a while, it seemed right to try again. A celebratory processional escorted the Ark, and at the front was King David. And the King was dancing. What’s more, he was dancing in a rather exposed state, a bit like jumping around in your boxers in a public place (2 Samuel 6:20).

David’s wife was horrified, and later when the party had wrapped up and they were back home she lit into him. Her basic grievance reveals her high level of self-consciousness and impression management. “You’re the King . . . and you made a fool of yourself today. You’re the King . . . act like it!”

David answered her with the words of a God-centered zeal, a passion for the holy. “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this and I will be humiliated in my own eyes” (2 Samuel 6:22). David was zealous, and if others thought him foolish – or a dork – it mattered to him not at all.

Earlier this week we noted that the lukewarm Christians of Laodicea were quite self-satisfied. What’s more, the self-satisfied are often self-absorbed. The Laodiceans sound that way. They are highly aware of their wealth, of their productivity, of their resources for the production of goods and their skills in the healing arts. They are so aware of themselves, proud even, that they relate to Christ without urgency and without intensity. They have concluded that they have need of nothing. Thus they are lukewarm.

Zeal is stirred as the focus shifts away from us and toward Jesus. Christ invites us to shift our focus as he stands at the door and says, “Behold” or “Here I am.” We move our gaze Christ-ward as we come to him for what we most need. Christ is the source of true wealth that cannot be devalued with a bad market. Christ covers us with his purity – white garments better than anything we could make on our own. Christ gives us wisdom and insight and allows us to see things clearly, things our eyes cannot perceive. What we need comes from Jesus, not from ourselves.

David’s self-forgetfulness reminds us that zeal for God will not be too careful about remaining dignified. Zeal does not constantly measure public opinion. It’s not unusual for us to regulate our zeal depending upon our setting. We may be more zealous about our faith with this group, less zealous with that group – and then some groups may quench our zeal entirely. David’s example encourages us to be God aware no matter where we are or who’s around. How will you live his example today?

Living with passion will likely require us to get over ourselves . . . and get into God. As we look to Christ we get a passion for the holy. Christ breathes into us a sacred zeal. Christ sets us free to dance.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I am easily preoccupied with myself – my successes and failures, my connections and reputation. I sometimes treat you as my assistant in the life-management program I’ve devised. Forgive me – and draw the focus of my life ever toward you. Be the center of my work, my home, my relationships. As you take center stage, breathe the zeal of your Spirit into my life. Amen.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Do Open Doors Let Out the Heat? A Meditation on Revelation 3:20

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

Christ stands at the door knocking. It is he who extends the first invitation as he asks us to open the door. Typically those on the inside invite the one knocking to come in. But our invitation is always a response to his.

I remember very well the day I opened the door. The tradition that nurtured my young faith was very clear and specific about how the door was opened. There were even a series of questions to be answered that would help one open the door (if you were to die tonight . . . etc.). Of course, there were variations on the theme, but generally the time for door opening came every week at the end of a worship service. A hymn was sung, and in one way or another, the invitation to open the door to Christ was extended.

Now, even in our reformed tradition invitations are still offered. At Peachtree we endeavor to do this every week. But in the church of my childhood the invitation assumed a specific action that constituted opening the door. One who was answering the door would walk forward and basically say to the pastor “I’m here to get the door.”

I was eight years old when I slipped out my pew and went forward to get the door. The preacher standing at the front to receive me was my uncle Earl. The pastor seated on the platform who had just preached the message was my dad. So I was walking toward my uncle and my dad . . . and I was still nervous, petrified actually. It was April of 1970 as I recall. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I think my desire to avoid hell was in there somehow – but whatever it was, the door was opened.

To read the words of Christ to Laodicea might leave you with the impression that the way to take care of a lukewarm faith is to open the door to Jesus who patiently knocks and waits and wants to have fellowship with us. No doubt, that’s part of the solution. But when I think about that I realize that I opened the door long ago . . . and I’ve been lukewarm; long stretches of lukewarmness.

As a kid I’d sometimes run into the house after being outside, and I’d leave the door open. This would evoke a short lesson from one of my parents about the science of indoor refrigeration and / or heating. In the summer, open doors let out the cool air. In the winter, open doors let out the heat. Those lessons sunk in. Just last week I pulled into my own garage to see the door to the house standing open. “That’ll be great for our heating bill,” I said to myself - the voices of my parents channeled through my own.

As with houses, so with the soul. The open door sometimes lets the heat out. After we’ve invited Christ to come in, after we’ve given him a seat at the table, eventually the conversation lags. Some of you who are reading this have walked with Jesus for a long time. You too opened the door years ago.

It may be that your parents turned the knob and left the door cracked slightly when you were an infant; you opened it wide at your confirmation. And what’s more, it may be that you too know of a dulling familiarity in your walk with Jesus. Perhaps you’ve told yourself that you are “seasoned” in the faith. The truth of the matter may be more Laodicean. You’re lukewarm.

For those of us who opened the door only to let the heat out, we may do well to focus carefully on the image in Revelation 3:20. Christ comes in; we give him a place at the table. This is good – but being at the table gets old if nothing is served. Jesus says he comes in for a reason. He comes to eat or “to sup” with us. What we need is a regular, continual feeding on food that nourishes our life with Christ. Passion grows as we feed on the word of God, on worship with God’s people, on service for God’s glory. Apart from these things there’s not much on the table. Soon we find ourselves fiddling with the utensils in our awkward lukewarm silences.

I guess what I’m writing today is a confession. I opened the door years ago. And I still battle a lukewarm soul, a lack of zeal, the absence of spiritual passion. The question I know I need to answer every day is this: what’s on the table. Maybe that’s the question for you today as well. How will you keep company with Jesus and feed your soul today?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, the doors of my life are open to you, and yet somehow the heat escapes and my zeal fades. As you meet me at the table today, feed me by your Holy Spirit. Give me insight into your word, move my heart to worship, lead me to avenues of service – and in all this kindle a growing passion for you. Amen.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Zeal: A Meditation on Revelation 3:19

“Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17)

“. . . be zealous and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock. (Rev. 3:19-20)

John tells us that Jesus made a whip. He made a whip out of cords. I imagine him having to braid the cords together, a task that took a little time. All the while he’s thinking, praying. As his fingers weave and wrap he’s pondering what he’s just seen, and as he ponders he burns. He can feel it in his face. It’s anger, yes – but not petulant anger. The sight of money-changers in the temple, the shouts of sleazy opportunists selling animals for sacrifice to pilgrims at a jacked-up price, this he would not bear. So he made a whip, deliberately, patiently, with steely resolve. And he walked back to the temple courts.

As he overturned tables, as the coins jangled and bounced across the stone floors, as the small-time hacks ducked or scattered, grabbing their goods and shouting back their curses, as all of this was happening the disciples of Jesus watched and remembered. They remembered a line of scripture from the “Tehelim,” the book of praises or Psalms. We know it as Psalm 69:9. “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

It’s interesting that the Greek word for “zeal” used in this line from John 2:17 is the same word that shows up in the words of Christ to the church at Laodicea; words also written by John’s hand. In Revelation 3:19 Jesus calls upon the Laodiceans to “be zealous and repent.”

If we ponder that word from John 2 and the same word in Revelation 3:19, we gain some insight into the nature of both zeal and repentance. We get an idea of where zeal comes from, and what it means to repent of our lukewarm condition.

Jesus cleared the temple of money changers because he saw something about the holiness of God and the sacredness of worship that was being defamed by the carnival-like bazaar that had been set up in the temple courts. His vision of God gave birth to his zeal. His braiding of the whip, his shouting of Jeremiah’s words – these were not a temper tantrum. This was a God-drenched zeal, a zeal that the Psalmist described as consuming.

This kind of vision and the zeal that it exudes will never be had as long as Jesus is left standing at the door, outside the intimacies of the home and heart. That’s exactly what had happened in Laodicea, and that partially explains their lukewarm state. Christ, standing on the outside or in the margins, appeals to them with words that convey a kind of longing. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” As long as Christ as left at the door our vision of him will be stunted and our zeal will be, well, lukewarm.

I can’t help but think of a recent ad campaign for Domino’s pizza. The brand line on the commercials says “Get the door . . . it’s Domino’s.” At the risk of irreverence, “Get the door . . . it’s Jesus.”

What does it take to be done with a lukewarm faith and to be consumed with zeal? Nothing less than a vision of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and as close to us as a friend across the table. Do you see him that way? Do you know him that way? Until you do your zeal will be short-lived, sporadic. So get the door.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I yearn to be consumed with zeal – not the kind of zeal the world offers me, but the kind that comes from seeing you in a fresh and powerful and compelling way. So many things in my life, in my daily routine, eclipse that vision of you. Come today and restore it; I gladly invite you in. Amen.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reality Check: A meditation on Revelation 3:14-22

You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. (Romans 12:11)

When my children were a few years younger, Marnie and I realized that their experience of dining out almost always included fried chicken tenders and a placemat that came with crayons. This was not good. My imagination got away with me when I pictured them at their wedding rehearsal dinner . . . coloring at the table. It was time for some parental intervention. Time to school them in the experience of eating at a “real” restaurant. Time to help them identify a salad fork and a butter knife. I was further convinced that the time was right because I happened to have in my possession a treasured gift: the much-loved Buckhead Life card.

With the card tucked safely in my wallet I made reservations at Chops. We put on dressier clothes – the kind you wear when you don’t plan to romp in the play room at Chik-fil-a.

It was a great time with the kids, and the meal was fantastic; not carrying our trays to the trash can afterwards. . . this was living! The Buckhead Life card emboldened me. We felt free to order whatever we wanted and we even did dessert. Then came the check.

Having given my card the server, he very politely returned to our table and handed me the elegant black folder into which the record of our damage for the evening had been tastefully placed. “This can’t be right,” I said (not out loud – not yet). But a murmured conversation with our server confirmed the dreaded truth. The card I had placed in my wallet was an old card with a balance left on it of $15.00. That meal stung more than I had thought it might. My dinner check had become a reality check.

The letter to Laodicea is a reality check. They are primarily rebuked for being lukewarm, but their lukewarm condition is simply a consequence of a deeper problem. Their real problem is that they think they are one way (wealthy, sufficient) – but in reality they are not.

It might help us to understand that being lukewarm is not a feeling; it is not an emotional state in which we dangle between eager excitement on one hand and bored disinterest on the other. Lukewarm is a condition, a reality. It is a reality rooted in a false sense of satisfaction; a false security with how we’re doing. It’s a reality rooted in a deception that has us thinking we’re bringing far more to the table than we really are. Spiritually speaking, we find we’ve only got $15.00 credit when we thought we we’re bringing far more to our relationship with Jesus Christ.

And here’s the real kicker. Not only is the lukewarm state not an emotion, most of those bogged down in it do not perceive it at all. Most lukewarm followers of Jesus are actually quite content in their lukewarmness. Lukewarmness is masked by satisfaction.

This connection quickly becomes apparent. Where there is no sense of need, there will be no passion. If we want to get zeal, we had better get real.

As we begin our reflections on the words of Christ to Laodicea, perhaps the place to begin is with a reality check. As you spend some time in prayer today, invite the Spirit to show you where you need to be restless, dissatisfied. Be honest about the gradual complacency that might have taken up residence in your soul. Ask the Spirit to do a reality check. And know this: whatever is lacking, Christ will gladly and abundantly supply.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, create within me a restless desire to know you better. Let that desire become a passion. Free me from any sense of satisfaction or complacency that makes me lethargic and lukewarm in my walk with you. Amen.