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.