Monday, September 29, 2008

The Kingdom and Starbucks

“The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

Do you remember what you did on February 26, 2008 between the hours of 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.? It was a Tuesday, if that helps. There’s one thing you probably did not do. You didn’t go to Starbucks for coffee. On that day Starbucks closed 7000 stores for three hours to re-train 135,000 baristas. That three hour continuing ed. session cost the company 10 million dollars in wages and lost revenue. The aim of the training was simple: learn how to make decent espresso.

Espresso is basic to the whole Starbucks enterprise. Apparently, mastery of this basic skill among Starbucks baristas had gotten sloppy. It was time to get back to basics and learn or re-learn how to do what it is that Starbucks does. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says he’s “looking to the company’s future with ‘laser intensity’ by looking back to where it all began: the coffee.” The coffee is everything.[1]

In the coming weeks we’ll be doing the same thing with regard to living as followers of Jesus. If we look back to where things started with Jesus we find this: Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, right here among us.

Kingdom of God. Those words have grown moldy for many of us. They smack of too much religiosity, a high sounding notion that’s hard to apply to daily life. We’re not entirely sure what the Kingdom of God is. Time to learn or re-learn what Jesus was talking about – and he talked about it often.

Here’s a place to start today. When Jesus announced the Kingdom he called for two specific responses.

First, repent: change the direction of your life. The kingdom is a new reality that brings “up there down here.” The Kingdom redefines our values and our priorities and asks us to make adjustments to the way we live. Turns out, the Kingdom is very practical.

Second, believe the good news. With all that’s happening in our world today, we need some good news. The good news is that God is real and God is in charge. Appearances to the contrary aside, God is in control of all we see, and that includes you and all that concerns you.

What does the reality of this Kingdom mean for you today? Is it time for a change of course? Are you struggling to believe good news, overwhelmed with the bad news that meets us every morning?

Let’s get back to basics. Life isn’t defined by Washington and Wall Street. The Kingdom of God is real. Let’s figure out what it means to live there.

Lord Jesus, the Kingdom you announced sounds like the stuff of fantasy and wishful thinking. Help us to see it and believe it. Even more, help us to live in the reality of your ruling presence among us, we pray. Amen.

[1] From an article by David Margolick in the July 2008 issue of Portfolio magazine.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Balance of Things

Then all the people of the region asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear (Luke 8:37).

Fall began this week – at 11:40 a.m. on Monday to be precise. When the garage doors open in the morning there’s a chill in the air that bears witness to the new season and makes the folded and stored away beach chairs look odd and unfamiliar.

The cool air of the week has also been tainted with an element of tension, even fear. The financial news and the activity of the markets coupled with the scarcity of gas in Atlanta have left an edgy feel to the week. Though vaguely defined, the word “normal” keeps coming to mind. It’s what we yearn for – a return to normal.

Maybe that’s why the people of Gerasa asked Jesus to leave them (Luke 8:37). As Mark tells it they were slightly more urgent in their request. They begged Jesus to go away. The presence of a changed life, a shattered soul reassembled, dressed and in his right mind – this was not a cause for celebration or worship. The people were afraid.

We can understand fearing the demons, but why did the merciful kindness and powerful authority of Jesus evoke fear? Jesus casts out the demon. The people cast out Jesus.

Perhaps the normal they knew had been disturbed. A demon-possessed man in the area isn’t something the chamber of commerce puts in a brochure, but it isn’t a problem as long as he stays among the tombs. At least they knew where he was. They knew not to go there. It’s like thinking that everything is fine as long as the prostitutes and drug dealers stay downtown. We just don’t want them in our neighborhoods.

When Jesus spoke peace to the demoniac all hell broke loose. Once loosed it entered a herd of pigs and drove the pork market straight in to the sea. Floating carcasses washed ashore and everyone freaked out a little over what that meant for the local economy. A neighbor made well didn’t get as much press as pigs made dead.

Jesus had disturbed the balance of things. Like it or not, that’s what Jesus does.

Jesus’ presence is never benign. It demands response. Jesus shows up and disturbs what we know as normal. He shifts the balance of things and ushers in a new reality. We can either embrace this reality, or we can insist in living in a reality of our own making. Either way, we must respond to Jesus.

We can respond by rejecting Jesus. We do this with outright hostility. Sometimes we reject him by our casual indifference. The result is the same.

The other choice of course is to follow him. We can obediently go where he sends us. This may not be easy. The demoniac was sent back to his village and home, a place where people knew his story and had watched his out of control life. But he goes, obedient to the one who had spoken the word that restored him to life (Luke 8:39).

When Jesus shows up, he changes the balance of things. But at the same time he himself is the center that anchors us. That’s what we need, especially when “normal” is hard to find. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

These are anxious days, Lord Jesus. How quick we are to seek our security and well being in something other than you and your word. Strengthen our faith, we pray, that we might live as confident people – not fearful. Help us to follow where you lead and go where you send, ready to tell the goodness of the Lord. Amen

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Will 700 Billion Do It?

For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet (Mark 5:4).

That seems to be the question this week. You can’t escape it. Congress is hashing out the details, and who knows where they’ll end up. Some voices are urgently calling for a do something and do it now approach. Others seem to be asking questions, wondering what do-it-now means. If we do-it-now, what exactly will we be doing?

Candidates are sparring over the question; a few are shaking their fingers with an air of “I tried to warn you.” Beneath the clamor and carping this much seems clear: The 700 billion will get us through, but it won’t make us right.

You don’t need a graduate degree in economics to pick up on the fact that this mess is deep and systemic. The seeds that are bearing fruit today have been germinating for a long time. In the weeks ahead Congress may come up with a plan to get us through, but it’ll take much longer to make things right. Something will have to happen deep down

In the region of the Gerasenes people probably argued about how to get a handle on the out of control lunatic who lived among the tombs. The end of the story suggests that this man was someone who lived in one of the nearby villages. Some probably knew him by name. His gradual slide into darkness and isolation and madness had been something they watched happen.

Maybe some wanted to leave him alone. Apparently others feared him. He needed to be controlled lest he harm children and destroy property. So they tried to put chains on him. They tried to contain him. They tried to keep him away from decent families and nice neighborhoods. Chains and shackles on the hands and feet should do it.

But the chains didn’t work. They never do.

Chains can only restrain what is out of control. They cannot restore wholeness. Chains keep the unsightly unseen. They cannot transform the appearance. Chains might make people feel safe, but they cannot make things right.

Sadly, chains are about the best we can do with our demons, those things that torment us deep down. We make promises to do better. We self-medicate with alcohol or food. We throw ourselves into our work to stay busy and distracted. Chains may work for a while, but eventually we break them.

Only Jesus can work change from the inside out. Real transformation isn’t imposed upon us. It emerges from within us. Jesus does this with his words, words of command and blessing. Even now, Jesus works deep within us by his Spirit and his word.

Jesus wants to work in the deep places of your life today. He wants you to be done with chains and all other imposed efforts at managing life. Jesus begins his work by inviting you to listen. His words go deep. They will get you through - but more than that, they will make you right. Thanks be to God.

Lord Jesus, we do our best to manage the mess that life can be – but our efforts are frail chains. They work for a while, but they do not work long or well. We turn to you for something more. We ask you to change us deep within and bring transformation from the inside out, that others might see your peace in our lives. Begin that life changing work today we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Tale of Two Storms

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided and all was calm (Luke 8:24)

When they came to Jesus they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35).

What is it about stories?

While waiting in a doctor’s office not long ago, my two kids were growing restless, getting on each others nerves and fraying my own as well. I reached into a plastic magazine rack mounted to the wall and pulled out a thin book. It was the story of some chubby little animal having a birthday party or some such infantile plot line. The sentences were all short, one or two on a page, written in big letters. This was not a book for a fourth or fifth grader. But I started to read it aloud and to my surprise, my kids got still. Stories of all kinds are powerful. They captivate us, pull us in.

In the pages of scripture the gospel writers prove themselves to be first-rate story tellers, each in their own way. Mark and Luke both tell the story of Jesus’ encounter with the demon possessed man in Gerasa. They both tell the story well, but as master story tellers they do something else. The story of the demon possessed man is coupled with the story of a storm at sea. Mark and Luke seem to have done this on purpose. One story mirrors the other. Echoes of the sea storm are heard again in the voice of the demoniac.

On the sea: A squall comes down on the lake
On the land: A man cries out and cuts himself and cannot be subdued with chains.

On the sea: Jesus calms the winds and the waves.
On the land: the man is found dressed and in his right mind.

On the sea: Jesus speaks a word of command – “peace, be still.”
On the land: Jesus speaks a word of command – “come out of him.”

With both stories, Mark and Luke are trying to convey a simple message about the power of Jesus. Jesus subdues storms.

Some of those storms rage around us. These storms happen to us and are beyond our capacities to manage them. It may be a hurricane that literally floods your home or a disease that invades your body or a dip in the stock market that sets you back and nearly puts you under.

Other storms rage within us. Addictions and depression, guilt over wrongs we’ve done and bitterness over wrongs done to us, fear of the future and memories of the past. These storms ravage mind and heart and soul.

And to each of them Jesus speaks peace.

The good news for us is that Jesus still speaks peace to our storms. It has been said and sung that Jesus may let the storms rage, but he speaks peace to us in the midst of the tempest. Whether those storms are happening to us, happening around us, or churning within us, only Jesus can speak stillness into our fidgety lives.

A boat at sea, a crazed man in Gerasa: suddenly those stories are our stories. Take time today to listen for Jesus’ word to you. Enter the peace Christ offers.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging . . . The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:1-3, 7). Amen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Caves

. . . And though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places (Luke 8:29).

It is the nature of our demons to isolate us, to drive us from the land of the living and the company of those who love us. Our demons isolate us because their survival depends upon our being beyond reach, seemingly out of control.

Before we explore this story further, let’s be honest about the word “demon.” Some will read the word and dismiss this story as the best efforts of a primitive mind to explain behavior that everyone feared and no one understood. When Luke tells us that Jesus “stepped ashore and was met by a demon possessed man” we can take that at face value and let it mean exactly what it says – but we’re wrong to feel superior to the story or to Luke who just didn’t know better.

Demons were and are real. However, they do not always appear in ways that are obviously frightening. Their most well-practiced strategies don’t make for box-office hits. One such strategy is to isolate, to drive us into solitary places.

A spirit of shame can do this, isolating us with secrets we can’t share, shortcomings we simply will not acknowledge.

A spirit of driven-ness can do this, forcing us to prove ourselves day after long day, keeping us from those we love while we chase the approval of those we resent.

An accusatory spirit can do this, keeping others at a distance with a sharp tongue and ready word of criticism.

A spirit of lust, a spirit of anger, a spirit anxious care – all of these can drive us to isolation. Our demons thrive in darkness.

When Jesus shows up he enters the isolation. Jesus finds us in those solitary places; his presence draws us out of the caves where we’ve hidden. Luke tells us that Jesus sailed to the region of the Gerasenes (Luke 8:26). By proper Jewish standards, this is a rough neighborhood. This is no place for a respected Rabbi to hang out. It’s Gentile territory; the pigs that inhabit the land are unclean and the people aren’t much better.

But that’s where Jesus goes. Luke is telling us that the presence and power of Jesus are at work even here. Jesus has a way of finding us, even in those dark unclean places. Others had tried to intervene with this wild boar of a man, but only Jesus could show up and draw him out and make him whole.

Only Jesus can step into those solitary places of our lives and shine light on what we’ve kept hidden. Paul asked it like this: “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Nothing can. But some things will try. Are there any “demons” driving you to isolation today? Invite Jesus to that place. He’s looking for you even now.

Lord Jesus, you ask us to name our demons. You invite us to identify what it that drives us from you and from others. Sometimes we wish you’d leave us alone, and yet being alone is what we fear. Find us today, wherever we may be, and draw us from the shadows. You are the light of the world. Shine on us we pray. Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Your Life, His Heart

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus . . . (Philippians 2:5)

“What if, for one day, Jesus were to become you?”

With that question Max Lucado opens the first chapter of his book Just Like Jesus. He lingers with the question, letting the implications of it touch every area of our lives. That basic question gives rise to a series of other questions. Lucado continues by asking

What if for twenty-four hours Jesus lives in your house, assumes your schedule? Your boss becomes his boss, your mother becomes his mother, your pains become his pains . . . what if for one day and one night Jesus lives your life with his heart. Your heart gets the day off, and your life is led by the heart of Christ. His priorities govern your actions. His passions drive your decisions. His love directs your behavior.

What would you be like? Would people notice a change? Your family – would they see something new? Your co-workers – would they sense a difference? And you? How would you feel? What alterations would this transplant have on your stress level? Your mood swings? Your temper? Would you sleep better? Would you see sunsets differently? Death differently? Taxes differently? With Jesus taking over your heart would anything change?

Keep working on this for a moment. Keep adjusting the lens of your imagination until you have a clear picture of Jesus leading your life, then snap the shutter and frame the image. What you see is what God wants. He wants you to “think and act like Christ Jesus.” (Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus, 1-2).

I recently listened to a podcast in which John Ortberg observed how the entire nation had watched in awe as Michael Phelps broke multiple world records and won eight Olympic gold medals.

Many of us admire what he did. Nearly all of us respect what he achieved. But for some kid somewhere, what he felt went beyond respect and admiration. He watched Michael Phelps and said to himself, “I can do that too.” This kid and his parents now plan his week around time in the pool. He’s dreaming and visualizing what it’s like to win races in the water. He may have gotten a coach. He is actually shaping his life to be like Mike.

Plenty of people respect Jesus, admire him for his moral teachings, stand in awe of the miracles recorded in scripture. But Jesus calls us to do more than admire. He asks us to follow. He wants us to live like he lived. A transformation of life in which we increasingly become like Jesus – that’s what God wants to do in your life.

This week we’ll linger with a story from Luke 8 and watch how Jesus changed a badly damaged and broken man, made his soul whole and well. And we’ll reflect on how Jesus wants to do the same thing in our lives.

I want to do more than admire you from afar, Lord Jesus. Help me to become more like you and let that change begin today. Help me to live this day with your heart. Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A No Shirking Zone

Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to selfish gain (Psalm 119:36)

Remember the reindeer games from which poor Rudolph was excluded? Seems there’s more to that than a cute Christmas ditty.

In his fine book Death by Suburb, David Goetz tells about Valerius Geist. Geist is a cervid biologist, which means he knows more about the deer family than most people will ever care to know. Geist generated a buzz among biologists by positing the theory of the “shirker bull.” Shirker bulls are bulls that don’t like to play the reindeer games or any other kind of deer games for that matter.

Among elk and deer there’s a fall ritual in which the bulls square off against each other, butting heads and seeking dominance over other bulls and favor with the does. According to Geist, a “shirker bull” refuses to knock heads. This means that the shirker often grows very large antlers. Geist suggested that those prize heads mounted over lodge fireplaces are likely the heads of shirkers. They have a full spread of antlers because they won’t fight. They won’t engage.

For reasons that escape me, when it comes to the Bible it’s far too easy to be a shirker. We simply will not engage the text. I caught myself this morning. I was supposed to be reading my Bible. Instead I let most of an hour get by me while I sat and thought of something to write that would encourage people to read their Bibles. What’s wrong with that picture?

We talk about the bible and listen to others talk about it in sermons. We debate the Bible with folks we don’t like and give Bibles as gifts to those we do like. Some of us even grew up singing about the B-I-B-L-E yes that’s the book for me.

However, when it comes to reading the Bible we’re somewhat haphazard. We may go long stretches and not read it at all. We don’t engage the text, wrestle with what it means, grapple with how its words speak to 21st century people. That’s hard work, easily left undone. We’re shirkers.

The Bible is a book that requires engagement on two levels.

First, we have to engage the text itself. Let’s admit that the Bible isn’t always an easy book. Getting those words from there to here is sometimes heavy lifting. It’s worth noting that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert by quoting the Bible. His application was faulty but he knew the words. How do we know who is handling scripture responsibly? We won’t know without some effort. Engage the text.

But as we engage the text we also need to engage the world. Shirkers are sometimes those who know alot about the Bible, but never live it in service to others. Their heads are full of bible knowledge, but their lives are narrow and insulated. Hands that hold the sacred book ought not to be too clean.

Today would be a great day to declare your Bible a “no shirking zone.” Open the Bible, lower your head over the text and engage. Engage the words. Engage the world.

Give me a willing heart and a searching mind, O Lord. Teach me to read your words with a listening ear. Help me to be diligent and attentive before you, that what I learn I may then live to the glory of your name and for the good of the world you love. Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Making Sense of What You See

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).

It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. Temptation links Jesus with Adam and Eve, and it pulls us into the mix as well. The letter to the Hebrews encouraged believers by reminding them that Jesus was tempted, that his experience and ours is not so different (Hebrews 2:18).

Every temptation is a chance for us to choose what reality we will live in. Details of temptation vary: eat this fruit, turn stones to bread, fudge the numbers on your tax return. But every stripe of temptation has this in common – the nature of reality is at stake.

This is the enemy’s strategy. The serpent in the garden and the devil in the desert were doing the same thing. He wants us to choose a reality that places God in the nose-bleed seats or removes God altogether.

Adam and Eve bought the lie. They defined reality minus God. God was out to deprive them of their rightful independence. They exerted their autonomy and ate of the tree. Jesus had a chance to do the same thing. Make food to feed the masses, draw followers by an act of great showmanship. He refused. Something else defined reality for Jesus.

Defining reality is a major task of every person who seeks to follow Jesus and live the Jesus way. And like Jesus, we define reality by God’s written word.

Not long ago I sensed a presence standing by my bed. With heavy lids half opened I saw my son standing over me. I looked at the clock. 3:55 a.m. He told me he wanted to go downstairs and eat breakfast. I told him no way and marched him back to his room. After a few minutes he was back asleep. I was wide awake.

While helping John get back to sleep I had heard the sound of a garbage truck starting and stopping at houses along the street. Hmm . . . they’re at it early. I noticed that the light coming through the window seemed a little bright. Wow, nice full moon. Finally, when I went downstairs to make coffee, I saw something that changed my reality. The oven displayed two large red letters that said “PF”. This means “Power Failure.” The digital clock next to the PF said 7:03. John had not gotten up at 4:00 am; he had gotten up at 7:00 a.m. Things suddenly got very busy around our house.

The simple act of reading re-defined reality for me. That’s what happens when we read the Bible. In fact, that’s the primary reason for reading God’s word. Reading tells us what’s real. Neglect scripture, and reality is distorted.

From time to time I’ll have the chance to talk with someone who’s living through a hard season. Their struggle is often voiced as a struggle to make sense of what is happening to them. We’re doing that all the time. We hear garbage trucks on the street and we see light coming through the window, but we’re not grasping the reality of what’s going on. Not until we read God’s story and get an entirely different picture of what’s real.

For those who struggle to make sense of what they see, there is rarely an answer. But there is a story. The Bible is the story of God’s work to make the world right, and that story defines reality. What do you see today? What reality will define how you live this day? Remember, whatever you see is a part of God’s story. For real.

Lord Jesus, help us to make sense of what we see today by seeing it within the context of your story. Help us to live with the confidence that comes from knowing that you are at work in the world, working all things together for good. We give you thanks for your written word, the story that reads us and makes sense of our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bread Alone

. . . man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Jesus answered, “It is written, man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4).

Bread alone. Jesus said we couldn’t live on that, but I’ve tried. Seems I keep trying.

I took the kids to Roasters last night. That’s a favorite of ours. Good food, very kid friendly. And on top of that, before your meal comes out they bring you a basket of rolls and cornbread muffins. That means that for about ten minutes you’re sitting there with bread alone – and when the rolls are hot, that’s almost all you need. It requires great discipline to keep from making a meal out of bread alone.

Bread alone can be a problem and here’s why: It fills you up so that you don’t have an appetite for anything else. You’re full, but with nothing but rolls and muffins you are not well fed. There’s a difference.

Jesus knew this well. That’s why after a forty day fast, when the adversary came and tempted him with the immediate availability of warm rolls, Jesus reached back to Deuteronomy 8:3. Our craving for bread is misleading. The rolls can fill our stomachs – but what we need to truly live comes from God. God’s words give life. The bread basket will eventually be empty, and those who chow down on the rolls will be hungry again. But God’s words feed us in way that satisfies something deep within.

Throughout the Bible, the ordinary experiences of physical hunger and thirst serve as powerful metaphors for the spiritual life. Standing at a well with a Samaritan woman, Jesus said that he could give her water that would mean never being thirsty again (John 4:14). Jesus stood up at the height of a religious festival and told all who were thirsty to come to him; he would cause springs of living water to bubble up within them (John 7:38). The Psalmist observed that we tend to go to bed late and get up early, “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2).

In the wilderness God gave bread from heaven every morning, but the bread wasn’t the point. Trusting God’s promise to provide was the point. We don’t live by bread alone. We live by the words God speaks. For you and me, those words are heard in the text of scripture.

But still, we fill ourselves with bread alone. And that’s not confined to hot rolls and muffins. Bread alone is a steady paycheck and adequate insurance. It can be clothes that make us feel good. Bread alone is a car with a fresh oil change and decent tires. Bread alone is getting the kids registered for the next season’s sports activities and taking satisfaction in their good grades. Bread is anything of which we say, “as long as we have that, we’ll be fine.”

And the bread is good, even necessary. But bread alone cannot truly fill us. We need God’s word. The question comes back to your appetite. What do you fill yourself with every day? Leave room for the words that truly give you life.

Gracious God, the bread offered to me by the world I live in is appealing. It seems to promise so much – and yet it doesn’t last long. I find myself hungry again. Give me an appetite for your words. Teach me how to feed on what you have spoken so that my hope will not be placed entirely on bread alone. Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

God's Word: Handled and Hidden

Jesus answered, “It is written . . .” (Luke 4:4, 8, 12)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it he found the place where it is written . . . (Luke 4:17)

. . . You’ve gotten a call that you need to come to the emergency room. No details. You just need to come. On the way every light you hit is red . . . and eternal.

. . . 2 a.m. - You wake up in a hotel room far from home. Stressed and wound tight, very alone. It’s too late to call home. There’s the TV. And a menu of movies to distract you in any way you wish. Just push the buttons and pay the charge.

. . . The party your friends threw for you is over. The good-byes have been said more than once, promises to visit soon and stay in touch. There’s not much left to say. Your earthly belongings are in a truck somewhere, and with the car loaded down you drive beyond the city limits of the place you’ve called home, wondering if you made the right decision.

The Psalmist spoke of having God’s word hidden in the heart (Psalm 119:11). There are moments, like the ones just described, when the word you’ve hidden in your heart is the only word you have. You can’t reach for a Bible and comb through the concordance looking for just the right word of hope and strength and assurance. The mind grapples for a life-giving word the way a drowning man flails about for a rope. It reaches to your heart for the hidden word.

Jesus had obviously hidden God’s word in his heart. Psalm 119 was composed with memorization in mind, and Jesus no doubt knew verse 11. But Luke 4 shows us something more than Jesus quoting the hidden word. We also see Jesus handling the written text of scripture.

In the Nazareth synagogue – his hometown place of worship – Jesus was invited to teach one Sabbath day. They handed him the scroll of Isaiah. He opened it and found the exact chapter and verse of the prophetic writing that spoke to his own identity as the Lord’s anointed. Jesus knew how to handle the scroll. He knew his way around the text.

But in the wilderness there was no scroll. The wilderness was a place of struggle, a place of temptation, the place where seeds of doubt could be planted and flourish. In the wilderness you can’t reach for chapter and verse. The desert moments demand that we look to the word hidden away in the heart.

Those who handle the written word are more likely to have that word hidden away when the day of testing comes.

It is true that you can read the Bible and not memorize it. But if you never read it, you’ll never have the word you need when the hospital calls, when you’re alone late at night, when you’re moving toward the unknown. Those who handle the word may find some of those words hidden in the heart.

Desert moments will eventually come and test us, but the word of God sustains us in those barren places. Handle the word today so that you’ll find it hidden away when the desert days come.

Your word, O Lord, is a lamp to my feet and light to my path. Teach me to handle your word in the light of day, to read it and ponder it at peace, so that when darkness falls I may still hear those words and follow you through the wilderness places. Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It Doesn't Take Much

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)

". . . Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

Ever heard of the Armoured Mistfrog? Me neither. Australia’s tropical northern region is home to this species, but none have been seen since 1991. At 1.5 inches long that’s not surprising. They’re easy to miss. But the long absence of their short bodies has led scientists to conclude that the species is extinct, killed off by a fungus that has infected the area.

Now the scientists are re-visiting that conclusion. A doctoral student at James Cook University in Townsville recently came across the Armoured Mistfrog while conducting research on another frog species. This has to be the academic equivalent of winning the lottery!

So . . . we thought they were extinct, gone, wiped out. But we’ve seen them again. They exist. They live. They aren’t mighty and numerous, but they are there.

Once, Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow and her repeated demands for justice. The parable was told so that we would not grow weary and falter in our prayers. At the end of the story, Jesus asked a question. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Good question. I’ve wondered that myself a time or two. There are days when it seems extinct, real faith that is. I know it must be out there somewhere, but there are moments when I’m not sure it’s in me. Too much tragedy and senseless violence and starving masses and children orphaned by AIDS – all of that erodes what faith we have. We’re not sure it’s still around.

I understand well the urgent request of Jesus’ first followers. “Increase our faith.” The Greek is better rendered “add faith to us.” However you say it, the gist is the same. We need more faith. We don’t think we have enough, and we know there’s more to be had.

Jesus’ reply to their request should encourage us. Jesus said that the faith of a mustard seed could do powerful things. With mustard seed faith they could command a tree to throw itself into the ocean and it would happen. In other words, we want more faith – but Jesus tells us it doesn’t take much.

This may be one of those days when faith seems hard to find. You haven’t seen it in a while and you’re not sure it’s there. But remember, it doesn’t take much. God does great things with mustard seed faith.

Like the Armoured Mistfrog, you may not have seen it for a while, but that doesn’t mean your faith is extinct. It may be small, but it’s there – and that’s o.k. Offer God what faith you have and live this day knowing that God can do plenty with that.

Lord Jesus, we ask today what your first followers asked: increase our faith. We want our faith to grow and flourish – and yet we know that you can do great things with even a little faith. So help us to live this day trusting in what you will do more than in what we feel or see. Our faith – every bit of it - is in you, our great and good God. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Verdicts Old and New

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20).

Judge Jackie Glass has a tough job on her hands. She’s presiding over the trial in Las Vegas in which O.J. Simpson is being charged with various felonies. The work of a judge is hard enough, but Judge Glass is faced with the task of seating a jury that will consider the charges against Simpson without being influenced by another trial – the one Simpson sat through 13 years ago.

Addressing the pool of potential jurors this week, Judge Glass asked a straightforward question: “Can you put aside your feelings about that verdict?” More than few folks are being sent home because they can’t.

The Simpson trial happening now makes me wonder about old verdicts and what we do with them.

Those old verdicts may be verdicts that we silently passed on another person. Sometimes those old verdicts are judgments we rendered against ourselves.

The “guilty” verdict is heavy weight we carry around. With regard to someone else, it’s a label we can’t forget or ignore. The “not guilty” verdict is often one that we refuse to believe. We’re suspicious of others and our own guilt sits like a stain on the soul.

As the debris fell from the ceiling above Jesus’ head and the paralyzed man was lowered on his mat, Jesus rendered a verdict. “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” That verdict evoked an outcry from some who heard it. They were very serious about right and wrong and what it meant to keep God’s law. Maybe they had already rendered a verdict of their own, deciding that crippled legs meant punishment for some sin. They didn’t know what, but whatever it was only God could forgive and God’s verdict seemed clear.

Jesus saw their hearts. Judge Glass’ question comes to mind; “Can you set aside your feelings about that verdict?” Apparently they could not.

Jesus renders a new verdict. Just as he spoke forgiveness to the paralytic, he speaks it to us. The act of faith is coming to Jesus knowing that his verdict is final. No one reverses the old verdicts by becoming more adept at keeping the rules. We come to Jesus in faith, and Jesus forgives our sin. And then at his word we live a new life.

Those treasured words from 1 Corinthians 13 tell us that love is patient and kind . . . and does not keep a record of wrongs. Faith knows it to be true, and lives as if a new verdict has been handed down: Forgiven. When we hear that new verdict it changes us. We take up our mat and walk. People see something different. New verdict, new life.

What verdict shapes the way you live every day?

We give you thanks Lord Jesus for your grace and the new verdict you speak over our lives. Give us faith to believe it, and then help us to live a new way. Change us, and teach us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Amen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof . . . (Luke 5:18-19).

I don’t understand the world of finance very well, but I’ve been hearing plenty this week about the Federal Government’s bail-out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Listening to the news this week, what I’ve come away with is this: the government’s action isn’t a great plan, but it’s far better than the alternative.

Not unlike the decision to carry a paralyzed man to a rooftop, make a hole, and then lower him into the house.

The rooftop was “plan B.” As Luke tells it, the original plan was far simpler. These friends planned to take their buddy to see Jesus. They would lift his mat, carry him to the place was Jesus was reported to be, and make their way to the teacher as the crowd parted like a thin curtain.

It didn’t happen that way. They carried their friend to the house . . . where they were promptly told to take a number. Seems that no one had the slightest interest in letting them through. They regroup. And then they look up. The rooftop wasn’t the easiest way to get into the house. Getting there was physically demanding, making a hole would be messy, and some homeowner would be bent out of shape.

The rooftop was innovation and ingenuity. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was better than the alternative. Either go through the roof, or go home.

At some level, faith can be understood this way: whatever it is that drives us toward Jesus is stronger than the things that would keep us away. We simply must lay our burdens, our lives, our loved ones before Jesus. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will work.

I’m writing this much earlier in the day than usual. My son woke up around 3:30 a.m., bad dream or something. He was calling for his mom and it woke both of us. As Marnie calmed him, I went in to check on him – but he wasn’t too interested in Dad. This was something that only Mom could make right.

There are some things that only Jesus can make right. And when we act on that conviction, we’re living by faith.

Knowing how to get to Jesus is what we struggle with. In our minds we know that Jesus hears our prayers. But so often, even when we pray fervently, the way seems blocked. One option is to decide you’ve done all you can do and go home. A better option is to keep looking for a way to get in front of Jesus. Keep praying. Keep seeking. Refuse to carry the burden any longer.

In the Old Testament Jacob wrestled with God and said “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). Faith does that. It wrestles its way into the presence of Jesus because going home isn’t an option. Only Jesus will do. How will you climb to the rooftop today – and what will you take up there with you?

Lord Jesus, I bring my life before you today, undaunted by the obstacles that seem to block the way: busy-ness, fatigue, the presence of others who tell me not to bother. In you and you alone are hope and healing. Give us faith strong enough to wrestle. “Our eyes look to the Lord our God till he shows us his mercy” (Psalm 123:2). Amen.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Faith Sightings

. . . They went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus (Luke 5:19).

Jesus saw their faith. And if he saw theirs he can see mine. Or can he?

Theirs was obvious. Their faith was evident as they ripped a hole in the ceiling above Jesus’ head. They were bold in their determination to place their paralyzed friend before Jesus. They were unshakable in their conviction that Jesus could do something, that Jesus could redefine reality.

That kind of thing is hard to miss. It’s go-for-broke, nothing-held-back behavior. What is it that motivates this kind of living? Faith. Jesus looked up and saw their faith.

I’m not ripping holes in too many rooftops these days. When I served a small congregation in southern Oklahoma, I would occasionally go out and knock tentatively on peoples’ front doors. I’ll be honest – that wasn’t an act of faith. That was fear. I was afraid of empty seats on Sunday morning, of failure, of being sent back to Fort Worth and told that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to drive up again next weekend.

I don’t knock on doors anymore, but I don’t climb up on rooftops either. I read this story from Luke 5 and I wonder how Jesus will see my faith. Maybe it’s a question for you to ask of your own life.

To read Luke’s story of Jesus healing the paralytic is to come away with a definition of faith that looks like this: Faith is a way of living that factors Jesus into every circumstance of your life, and then behaves accordingly. Faith is behavior that expects Jesus to make a difference.

You may not be tearing holes in rooftops – but maybe you can make a list of what others will see when faith is at work, shaping your life. Here’s my short list.

Prayer: People may not actually observe this, but I know that when faith is at work in my life I pray more often about more things. Prayer is a way to rip a hole in the roof and bring someone or something directly to Jesus. Prayer is an exercise that works the muscle of faith and makes it stronger.

Laughter: When faith is at work in my life I think I’m less tense, less prone to stress out over things that aren’t going like I thought they would or should go. When you’re really convinced that God has your day in hand, you’ll stress less and laugh more.

Really pay attention to other people: Maybe we can look for signs of faith in others, search out what God is doing in their lives. If Jesus is at work, he’s at work everywhere. Faith means listening to someone’s story, asking a thoughtful question about them. A self-consumed life doesn’t have room for others.

That’s a start. There’s more to add to the list. What might you add? How will faith be seen in your life today?

Help me today, Lord Jesus, to live as if you are present and actively involved in my life and in my world. Give me the kind of faith that others can see, and may my life point them to you – the one in whom all faith rests. Amen.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Boat Full of Fish Isn't the Point

So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him (Luke 5:11).

I’m thinking this morning about Simon’s boat. It’s a minor character in the story, a silent supporting role. But the real meaning of the story we’ve been looking at this week is captured in the boat.

At the start: Jesus is teaching, backed knee-deep into the water by the crowd. What to do? He sees the boat. An ordinary boat put to sacred use. Jesus does that – loaves and fishes, bread and wine, spitting in dirt to heal blind eyes. And speaking God’s word from a boat.

In the middle: The boats nearly sink from the huge draw of fish. Full boats mean strong sales, a good day at market and a significant profit margin. A full boat means success.

Final scene: the boat is unloaded and left on shore. No more fish, no more fishermen. They’ve left it all to follow Jesus.

It seems that the boat full of fish is what grabs our attention. It’s the miracle moment. Simon has fished all night to no avail, but when he goes out with Jesus he gets more than he can manage by himself. He calls for help and dumps loads of fish in the boats.

That’s an exciting moment, but here’s the danger: Plenty of people are waiting for Jesus to fill their boats. But boats full of fish are not the point.

We do better to notice how Jesus takes the ordinary things of our work-a-day world and puts them to sacred use. Nets and internet, boats and board meetings, fish and finances. The purposes of God get worked out in all of those things.

And we should take particular note of the boats left on the shore. The dormant vessel signals the close of one drama and the start of a new one. Catching fish takes a back seat to catching people. Boats pulled up on shore and left there make it clear that Jesus changes everything.

We don’t follow Jesus as the key to getting boatloads of blessing. We don’t obey the word of Jesus so that we’ll be successful and make a killing in the market place. That might happen – but it’s not the point.

The point is Jesus. Grace rearranges our lives. We get a glimpse of who Jesus is and it puts us on our knees in worship and confession. We see who Jesus is, and suddenly our full boats are not as important to us as we once thought they might be.

Must everyone who follows Jesus leave their day job? No. But for followers of Jesus, the day job is a place to serve Christ. That’s a shift from simply asking Christ to bless your day job. A boat full of fish is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the point. Following Jesus is.

Lord Jesus, you are at the center of it all. The story of our life is about you – not about achieving success or breaking sales records or boasting in our full boats. Above all, we want to follow you. We give you thanks for every blessing, and we hold them all loosely, ready to go wherever you might lead us. Amen.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


“Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).

Every fishing trip should be this easy.

John and I walked onto the pier. I baited his hook with a slimy piece of shrimp. John cast his line in such a way that the bait flopped into the water not far from us. And then before the ripples had time to settle a fish took the bait. One cast, one fish. Another dad and his son had been on the pier for much longer without catching anything. “You just hit a home run your first time at bat,” he said.

Cast and catch. That would have made Simon envious. Simon spent an entire night lowering his nets – and came up with nothing.

I’m rethinking Simon’s role in this story. I’ve usually understood Simon’s response to Jesus as a begrudging compliance. He seems to humor Jesus, winking at his business partners as he puts back out to deeper waters. I’ve seen him as one who has little more than a polite respect for Jesus. That’s the only thing that gets him back out after a night of futile fishing: mere obedience to Jesus’ word.

But it’s a hard thing to lower your net and bring it up empty again and again. The repeated nothingness begins to raise questions, it shakes our hope, it breeds anger. When the nets come up empty often enough, mere obedience to Jesus’ word is all we have. But maybe that’s enough.

We pray only because Jesus said to ask and seek. Those prayers are still heard and answered.

We love our neighbor only because Jesus told us to do so. It still counts and it’s still radical in our world of self-interest.

We serve others only because Jesus modeled being a servant and told us to follow his example. The act of serving still forms in us the likeness of Jesus.

And then the blessing comes. Peter’s reluctant response to Jesus’ word couldn’t stop it. Grace came and stretched nets to the breaking-point and nearly sank the boats with fullness.

Jesus speaks his word into your life today, perhaps calling you back to a place where your net has come up empty time after time. It’s hard to go there, but Jesus goes with you. Your act of obedience is enough for this day. Keep doing what Jesus asks. Keep walking where Jesus leads.

There are days, Lord Jesus, when I think I cannot bear to see the nets empty again. There are days when I question you because of what my life lacks. And yet you speak. You speak the word of invitation, and in your word is all my hope. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope” (Psalm 30:5). Amen.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Jesus is Smart

When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

It was a nice idea that came along at the wrong time. Jesus had just finished teaching, using Simon’s boat as a makeshift lectern. Now that the lesson had ended Jesus wanted to go out and do some fishing. The problem was Simon & Co. had already been doing that all night long. They were tired. And what’s more they knew there was nothing out there to catch.

Peter didn’t think Jesus’ plan to head back out to those deep waters was such a good idea. Peter knew those waters the way a pitcher knows a baseball diamond. He could sense movement, knew where the play would be made, knew exactly where to cast the net, how to throw the next pitch. Peter knew what was out there, and in his mind he knew more about it than Jesus did. Fishing with Jesus was a nice idea, but a waste of time. Fundamentally, this was a matter of trust.

When Jesus asks us to “put out into deep water” he asks us to go back to a place we’ve been time after time. The deep waters are familiar territory. We’re sure we know what’s there. We’re sure we know what not there too.

The deep waters are where our expectations have shriveled, where we simply go through the motions, where nothing seems to be happening.

Some deep waters are relational. Old arguments that never seem to get resolved, painful memories that won’t heal, acts of love never reciprocated. We stop going there – until Jesus shows up and invites us to put out into those deep waters again.

Some deep waters are professional. We can go to the same job every day and get nothing from it except a paycheck. We can search for work day after day and bring the net up empty time after time.

Peter sailed back out to those deep waters weary and certain of catching nothing. What he failed to grasp was that this time Jesus was guiding the expedition. The catch was enormous. Jesus knows exactly what is in those deep waters. Jesus understands fishing. Jesus understands organic chemistry. Jesus understands your work. Jesus understands your family. Jesus can be trusted with anything and everything that concerns your life.

Dallas Willard has been quoted as saying that we cannot say that Jesus is Lord unless we can also affirm that Jesus is smart. The question for us is will we trust him. Do we trust Jesus enough to put out into deep waters, confident that he knows more about that place than we do?

Lord Jesus, teach us to trust you. Remind us daily that there’s nothing about our lives that baffles you, that you understand completely all that concerns us. Today and every day we will go with you to the familiar deep waters, safe in the knowledge that you are with us in all things. Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ready or Not

When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

When Jesus invited Simon to “put out into deep water,” Simon answered with some reluctance. Who can blame him? He had already been out there all night long – and the entire night of fishing was an exercise in futility.

What a lousy time for Jesus to show up. Simon & Co. had already been washing their nets. They had already worked through the night. Their bodies are tired. Their equipment is clean and hanging to dry. And yet Jesus has the nerve to say, “Let’s go out again. Put out into deep water.”

Sometimes Jesus asks us to do things that we don’t feel ready to do. The problem is timing. We want to obey, but we’ll have to obey later. If we can just get ourselves together, get ready, get rested, make arrangements, then we will serve God much more effectively.

But maybe God is most glorified in your life when you are least ready.

There’s a great story in the Old Testament about a man named Gideon (Judges 7). God asked Gideon to gather an army to fight the Midianites. That’s what Gideon did, only to have God tell him that the army was too big. If Gideon won the battle with his large army, then the credit would go to those who fought. They would boast in their own strength. When we are most prepared and ready we are most likely to boast, to take credit. We point toward heaven, but the cameras are pointed at us.

So Gideon reduced his army from 30,000 to 300. What we call desperate, God calls ready. When the victory comes we get the gift, but God gets all the glory.

This may be one of those days when you don’t feel very “spiritual.” You’re not entering this day with a great vision of what God will do in those deep waters of your life. You’d like to stay home and channel surf or just go shopping. But Jesus is asking you to live in obedience. Jesus invites you to trust him. Jesus invites you do put out into deep waters one more time.

You may not feel ready. But sometimes in the grind of the day you see the glory of God. Simon did. So go ahead, put out into the deep waters, ready or not.

Lord Jesus, we will once again put out into the deep waters in obedience to you. Give us the grace we need for this day so that even in our fatigue, in our distraction, in our lack of readiness we will see your glory. Amen.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gustav and the Glory of God

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8).

As I write this, all eyes are to the south. South and West, Gustav is churning through the Gulf of Mexico. Within hours this massive hurricane will hit the coast of Louisiana – almost exactly three years after Katrina.

South and East, Hannah seems to be gaining strength, possibly threatening Florida or the Southeast, but it’s too early to tell right now.

In Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ John Piper writes, “The deepest longing of the human heart is to know and enjoy the glory of God. We were made for this . . . To see it, to savor it, and to show it – that is why we exist.” Later in the book Piper tells the story of being in Pensacola Florida in July 1995 when Hurricane Erin hit the Florida Panhandle. After briefly recounting that experience Piper adds, “beneath the wreckage of such wind you have two choices: worship or curse” (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 50).

I’m not exactly cursing. After all, I don’t live in Louisiana. But I’m not worshiping either. What almost everyone sees approaching the Gulf Coast is destruction. And in anticipation of the destruction we lament the plight of those who live in the path of nature’s fury. And if you happen to be one of those living in that path, it’s highly likely that you feel some fury of your own. Prayer and cursing get mingled.

We are slow to see the glory of God in hurricanes, especially the ones that bring harm right to our door. And yet, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

At Jesus’ command Peter sailed his vessel back to the same waters he had been fishing all night long without catching anything. At Jesus’ command Peter lowered his nets – and the catch was enormous; the nets were ripping and boat sat low in the water from the weight of the catch. And Peter worshiped. He fell at Jesus’ knees because he saw that Jesus was not simply good, he was powerful.

I can understand worship as a fitting response to great blessing and abundance. It’s not too hard to worship when your nets are ripping and your boat is sinking because God has been so good.

But when the storm’s projected path is coming straight for your house, worship is hard. When the heavens and skies seem only to announce loss and pain, worship won’t come easy.

Either way, the Glory of God surrounds you today. It is out in the Gulf and in your home and in the faces of people you’ll talk to today. God’s glory is everywhere. We need to learn to see it. Pray today for people who are being impacted by Gustav. And worship the one who “sends lightning with the rain, and brings out the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:7).

Almighty God, teach us to see your glory – and to see it in all things, not simply those things that please us or bring us pleasure and comfort. Where people are in need of help, display your glory through your Church. Move your people to acts of service and compassion. Let my life today point to your goodness, that others may see your glory and be drawn to the one who commands wind and waves. Amen.