Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Wisdom Says "Wait"

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor. 3:19).

The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant. Perhaps I can build a family through her (Genesis 16:2).

Our admiration is drawn toward those who know how to make things happen. People who make things happen get promoted and praised. Schooled in the world’s wisdom, we are inclined to be proactive, to take initiative. Knowing how to make things happen is an indispensable quality of leadership.

But sometimes in our drive to make things happen we end up making a mess. We run out of patience and we run over people. Our efforts to shake things up leave a trail of pieces that have to be put back in place. Maybe God never asked us to make things happen.

Sometimes wisdom says “wait.”


It looked as if Eliezer of Damascus would get it all. The estate, such as it was, would go to him. That didn’t seem like such tragedy to Abraham. Eliezer had been a faithful servant in Abraham’s household. Given that Abraham and Sarah had no children, it seemed only right that Eliezer would be the heir. Law and custom deemed in fitting.

But there was one thing that bothered Abraham about this, nagged at him and wouldn’t leave him alone. It was God’s promise. Abraham wondered at times if he had gotten it wrong, but he kept coming back to the same answer: No. He knew what God had said. God had said that Abraham and Sarah would have their own child. In fact, Abraham and Sarah would have a family that would in turn give rise to more families.

God confirmed the promise. “A son from your own body will be your heir.”

Great. Only one problem. Abraham and Sarah were old. Really old. Knowing this, Sarah decided to make things happen. She took the initiative, giving her maidservant Hagar to Abraham. “Perhaps I can build a family through her.”

In that culture what Sarah did made sense. It was legal, and what’s more, it was effective. Hagar conceived a son, Ishmael. The problem, however, is that God had never asked Sarah to build a family. That was never her job to do. Sarah made things happen and in doing so she made herself and Abraham miserable. She despised Hagar and the child she bore. What Sarah really made was a mess.


Few things are harder for us than waiting.

The wisdom of the age is informed by pragmatic concerns. We know what needs to happen. If we can see a way to obtain the desired outcome by means that are both legal and effective, then we should act. Not to act is to be passive and to be passive is to be weak. And, again, the wisdom of this world holds no place for weakness.

But maybe there are times when wisdom – God’s wisdom – says “wait.”

We need to be careful here because a falsely spiritualized kind of “waiting” can be used as a cover for laziness. Mixing our “waiting” with a little God-talk can be a way of avoiding responsibility or refusing to take a risk.

But rightly practiced waiting is a bold expression of trust. It is God’s wisdom, taking the spotlight off of our efforts and skills and plans. God shows our wisdom to be foolishness so that no one may boast. Holy waiting is the means by which we get out of the way and trust God to do what God has promised to do.

When we will not wait, it usually has to do with our fears, and fear is contrary to faith. Those fears lead us to take the wrong job just to get a paycheck, marry the wrong person just to avoid being alone, spend money we don’t really have because we don’t think a deal like that will ever come along again. Fear makes it hard to wait.

Are you taking actions today, making things happen, that are fear-driven? What would happen if you listened to the wisdom that says “wait?”

Give us the grace, O God, to wait on you and your promises. Grant us discerning minds and hearts that we might know when to act. Grant us courage to wait, guarding us from decisions and actions that are driven by fear and not faith. Amen.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When Wisdom says "Simplify"

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor. 3:19).

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands” (Judges 7:2).

Schooled in the wisdom of this world we work hard to accumulate things. Our aspirations and ambitions are generally shaped by more, bigger, better. We not only work hard to gather and grow, we work hard to work hard. To be busy is to be important. To be constantly sought after is proof of competence and worth.

But in the rare still moment we sense that the busier we get and the more we accumulate, the emptier we feel. Exhausted and glutted we wonder what’s missing.

Sometimes wisdom says “simplify.”

Gideon wasn’t stupid. Israel was being oppressed by the Midianites, a ravenous enemy whose terrorist-type tactics involved attacking the food supply. Like a swarm of locusts, they would strike during planting season, destroying crops.

Gideon, exercising good common sense, had taken to threshing his wheat in the confines of a winepress. He was hiding his stuff from the enemy, protecting his assets, guarding what was his. He was living his life defensively because times were hard. That’s when an angel came and appeared to Gideon and commissioned him to raise an army and deliver Israel from Midian.

Gideon obeyed, but cautiously. He asked for signs of God’s presence and favor and God patiently complied. Eventually Gideon amassed an army of 32,000 men.

Having gathered Israel’s strength at full capacity, Gideon was given the battle plan. “You have too many men.” For Gideon to fight at full strength meant that Israel might boast; the people might begin to think that their own strength had won the day.

So God told Gideon to divest, downsize, get small – and then go to battle. With a small army, Israel would come to know the size and might of their God


We much prefer to live life at the full capacity of our strength: our full earning potential, our complete health, our maximum influence. For most of us the aim of life is to maximize and the key to living well is to maximize even more.

But sometimes wisdom says, “You have too much.”

We have too much stuff, and we worry about protecting it, insuring it, keeping it safe. We have too much to do, and we run ourselves into the ground keeping up with it all, meeting demands and expectations, pleasing superiors and managing those not-so-superior. We have too many options and we feel bored with all of them.

But the world in its wisdom applauds us. God’s wisdom says to slow down and strip down. Simplify. With less of us and our stuff and our agenda, there’s more of God. God removes our sense of pride, takes away our reason for boasting, and invites us to live by grace. But living by grace is foolishness to the world. Living by and for anything else is foolishness to God.

What would it mean today for you to simplify?

You must increase, O God. We must decrease. Make us bold like Gideon and help us to obey you, trusting you rather than what we have. Looking you o you for our identity rather than our tasks or careers. Be large in our living today as we seek to simplify and become small in simple acts of service and obedience. Amen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life Received

For I received from the Lord what I passed on to you (1 Cor. 11:23)

What do you have that you did not receive? (1 Cor. 4:7)

I owned a set of dishes before I got married. They were very functional and nearly impossible to break. The bowls, the cups, the plates – everything was made of thick hard plastic. And they were blue. The set was accented with a collection of cups from places like the 7-11 store and various sporting events. I liked my dishes just fine.

Marnie managed to dump all of it once the vows were exchanged.

That didn’t bother me. It wasn’t much of a loss compared to the new stuff that filled the cabinets of our Houston apartment. Marriage improved my lot in life in a number of ways, one of which was drinking from clear glass and eating off of matching plates adorned with an artistic pattern – something other than the words “Big Gulp” stamped on the outside of the vessel.

When Marnie and I married we lived in Houston. However, our wedding was here in Atlanta. A week or so after the wedding it was my job to drive back to Texas with a car full of wedding gifts. The word full isn’t quite adequate. There was hardly a square inch of free space in our white ‘94 Honda Accord. Just enough room for the driver and whatever space was required to make breathing possible.

One of the great things about early married life – at least for us – is that for a while immediately following the wedding, everything in your home is from someone else. Marnie and I each brought a few items of furniture into our marriage, but most of what we had in our newlywed apartment was given to us. Everything around us reminded us of someone we knew and loved, and who apparently loved us. A set of knives, a coffee maker, a picture frame, a desk lamp or tool box or anything. Every time I handled the gift I thought of who gave it. We were literally surrounded by grace.

And we still are.


Paul’s distress with the Corinthians and their careless approach to the Lord’s Supper had to do with the given nature of the meal. Paul made it clear: “I passed on to you what I received.” This meal wasn’t an innovation Paul had introduced to Corinth. It wasn’t a work in progress. It was the Lord’s meal: Given by Jesus and handed down to all believers.

The crisis over the Lord’s Supper came about because certain Corinthians were acting as if the meal was theirs: something for their enjoyment, something to satisfy their appetites, something to host for their closest friends.

When grace was taken out of the meal, grace was also taken from the community itself. Once they forgot that the meal had been given, they no longer knew how to share it.

Everything in your life that truly matters is given to you. There’s nothing of true worth and value that you can look at and say “I deserved that” or “I earned that.” Paul confronted the Corinthians with this truth. “What do you have that you didn’t receive?” The answer is simply “nothing.”

Your family, your health, the sunlight or rain, the green light you barely made, the phone call from someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, the words of affirmation that you never expected, the kiss your daughter placed on the back of your hand. Anything that comes to you and makes you say, “I don’t want to ever forget this; I want to stay in this moment for as long as I possibly can.” Whatever that might be is a gift.

Life is received. It comes by grace. When you forget the grace, life is diminished.

What have you received today and how will that grace shape your living?

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of this day and every other gift that will come with it. Whatever the day brings, I will receive it as from you. Help me to live this day thankfully, surrounded and sustained by your grace, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interruptions and Inconveniences

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you (1 Cor. 11:23).

Taking the Lord’s Supper hasn’t changed much since I was eight years old. As a general rule it has been a Sunday morning experience, often involving small cubes of Wonder Bread and little cups of Welch’s grape juice passed in silver trays. Honestly, I’ve probably invested more mental energy in not dropping the silver trays than I have in meditating on Jesus’ body and blood.

In the midst of this standard practice, two Lord’s Supper experiences stand out in my mind. One took place at a Promise Keepers conference, a stadium event that gathered thousands of men for worship and teaching and plenty of brotherly admonition to Godly manhood. At Promise Keepers the elements came to us in a little two-unit package. A foil cover would be peeled off of the little plastic cup of grape juice and the smaller compartment that held some kind of unidentifiable bread-like substance. This allowed thousands to be served quickly. No silver trays at Promise Keepers.

The second experience that stands out in my mind was the time I took communion with an Episcopal congregation in Fort Worth, Texas. This was eye-opening for a Baptist seminary student. We walked forward and knelt at a padded rail. The priest gave us a wafer and then we all drank from the same silver cup. I told a nurse about this experience and she was horrified. I explained that the priest wiped the cup with a cloth after every person drank from it. She didn’t care. No way would she do that.

The Promise Keepers experience reminds me that ours is a world that values time and efficiency. The nurse’s reaction to my Episcopal experience reminds me that ours is a world that values the preferences that suit the individual. We share a common meal, but drink from your own cup.


When the Corinthians gathered for the Lord’s Supper they were being driven by individual preferences and the efficient use of time. The wealthy folks took what they wanted (preference) and they didn’t sit around waiting for the others to show up (time). Paul had to remind them that the meal wasn’t theirs to do with as they saw fit. This meal was given. “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you.”

We live in a world that encourages and extols two values that are detrimental to the Christian community and the Jesus way of life: Efficient use of time and personal preference or taste. This means that many of us live life in a hurry, and we resent the inconveniences that interfere with our personal preferences. This works well in America – but it presents a challenge for those who follow Jesus.

You may already be planning your day in a way that allows you to use time efficiently and avoid inconvenience. You may already feel rushed. You don’t need anyone getting in the way of what you’ve got to do. But interruptions and inconvenience can be a spiritual discipline in your life. You are invited to receive them, not resent them.

This is hard for us. The Jesus way is not always efficient in its use of time. This way of living welcomes interruptions and lingers long. We prefer to get to the point and then get to the next thing. The Jesus way also means that sometimes I set aside my personal tastes and preferences in deference to another. Sometimes we are called upon to be willingly inconvenienced.

How do you typically respond to interruptions and inconvenience? What would it mean to receive these as God given appointments in your day?

Help us, O God, to receive every experience of this day as divinely appointed. Forgive us for assuming that we control our days, that we truly manage our own time and that all things should work according to our preference and plan. Grant to us a humility that truly seeks to follow where you lead, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Get in the Same Room

. . . no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).

From time to time, for whatever reason, my wife and I will carry on conversation while we’re in different rooms of the house. I don’t recommend this as a primary form of marital communication. It’s good for brief exchanges of information, but not so good for conveying deep concern about a matter or deep affection for one another.

These conversations are particularly risky for someone like me. Unlike my wife, I do not process things verbally. I don’t “think out loud.” The book of James says something about being “slow to speak.” I have no trouble being obedient to that biblical admonition. I like to take my time before I say something, and the process of figuring out exactly what I want to say happens somewhere between my ears, quietly.

Thus the following scenario: My wife, in one room of the house, will ask me a question. I, in an adjacent room, will hear the question and begin formulating a response. Again (see above) the response is prepared in the quiet recesses of my brain. This means that my wife, still in the other room, believes that her question is being met with stone-cold silence, and a question met with silence is a question ignored. Being ignored is an unpleasant thing and does little to facilitate a helpful conversation.

My take-away: Thoughts are best revealed by words and words are best exchanged in the same room.


There are several places in the New Testament that list various spiritual gifts. Study them closely and you’ll note that mind reading is not named in any of them. Not even once. No one knows your thoughts but you, and those thoughts remain hidden unless you speak.

Paul seized upon this truth and reminded the Corinthians that “no one knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him. In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).

There are moments when we’d give anything to know the thoughts of God. So many of God’s thoughts have been recorded for us in the written words of scripture. But what about those moments when you’re trying to make a decision between two equally compelling options? What about those moments when you’re making plans for the future or when a friend asks you for advice about a very difficult situation? What about moments when you’re trying to know exactly how to discipline your child or when you’re not sure if something violates business ethics?

How do you know the thoughts of God? Paul’s letter says it plainly: they are revealed by the Spirit. And we answer, “Great. What does that mean?”

For one thing it means we don’t have to guess or play games. God wants you to know those thoughts just as much as you want to know them. God wants to reveal things to us – to guide us and give us understanding. We are not asked to “figure out” what God wants to do in our lives.

But it also means that at some point we must get in the same room with the Spirit. My wife will be my wife whether we are in different rooms or different states. The relationship remains. But we cannot truly connect unless we get in the same room. Knowing God’s thoughts as revealed by the Spirit requires the same kind of thing. We’ve got to be in the same room. The Spirit present with us, we present to the Spirit.

There’s no formula for this. Connecting with another person requires an investment of time and energy and attention. This is no less true of the Spirit of God. Start by getting in the same room with the Spirit – and then be still and listen. God is eager to speak to you.

We want to know your thoughts, O God. We give you thanks for the gift of your written word and the treasure we find there. Grant to us a willingness to be present to you, in the same room, attentive and eager to hear. Reveal your thoughts to us as you will and in your time, we pray. Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Being Made Ready

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it (1 Cor. 3:2).

I probably shouldn’t have looked back, but I couldn’t help myself. Sixth grade boys don’t need a parent to make sure they get inside the front door of the school. And the middle-school principal and school counselor have issued repeated warnings to us about being “helicopter parents,” hovering. “Step way from the child,” they say.

But I did it. I let him out of the car and then I looked back.

It was Monday morning and the day’s events meant that my son was loaded down when he got out of the car. I pulled up in the carpool line and when we had rolled to just the right spot John executed a deployment worthy of a Marine hitting a beachhead. He slipped out of the back seat, deftly pulling with him a book-bag, a laptop computer case, and the small backpack filled with his cross country clothes.

He quickly went to the back of the vehicle and opened the hatch, grabbing his saxophone case and slamming the hatch shut before I could get a good look at him in the rear-view mirror. At that moment he was on his own. Plenty of parents behind me had patiently sat through these maneuvers and they were ready for me to move on. The teacher monitoring carpool that morning seemed ready for me to move on as well. And so I did.

But I looked back. I looked back because he had so much stuff – books, cross country, laptop, saxophone. I looked back because I wasn’t sure he could carry it all. Like David wearing Saul’s armor, he would surely stagger under the weight of it.

I looked back because I thought he had more than he could bear.


“God won’t give us more than we can bear.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say it, and I do believe it’s true. But I wonder sometimes.

For one thing, I don’t think you’ll find those exact words in the Bible. It’s a truth that the Bible supports, but doesn’t explicitly state. The closest thing is something about how God helps us bear up under temptation (1 Cor. 10:13).

And I also wonder about what it says about God and the things we bear in this life. “God won’t give us more than we can bear” makes God sound like the gate-keeper who checks every hardship the way TSA agents check your shoes in airport security lines. Some burdens seem bearable and God lets them pass. Others are just too much so God confiscates them. Maybe the truth about God and our burdens is something other than that.

When Paul told the Corinthians they were not yet ready for “solid food” he implied that they should be, as if being a follower of Jesus meant becoming ready for more substantive things. When Jesus told his followers that he had more to say to them but they could not bear it now he implied that at some point they would be able to bear it. They just had to get ready (John 16:12-15).

Maybe the life of faith means that in some way we are constantly being made ready for more, prepared for the next thing. God is not in the business of guarding our comfort, protecting us from the heavy burdens. Rather, God makes us ready for the burdens we will be called upon to bear. Growing strong in the Spirit means being made ready.

You may be especially weighed down today. We step into every day encumbered by something, pulling all kinds of baggage with us. But God our Father turns his face toward us. God is ever watchful and the Spirit is ever present, making sure we can bear what we have until we’re ready for what comes next.

Work in us today, O God, and make us equal to the burdens we bear. Strengthen us with power by your Spirit so that we might be ready for all that you have for us – both blessings and burdens. We would become people who are ready for solid food, who are ready for more of your truth. We thank you for your faithfulness and ask that in all things we might be a faithful people, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Were You Thinking?

But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

“What were you thinking?”

The question is short and tight. You won’t find four words that better convey disbelief and utter exasperation. I’ve asked the question. I’ve asked it of my kids. I’ve asked it of myself. My wife has directed the question my way on occasion.

The question is somewhat misleading because it really has little to do with thought. It tends to come up in connection with some kind of action or behavior. Typically, the behavior is totally incomprehensible and so someone else is trying to make sense of what was done or said. The attempt to discern or understand the otherwise senseless act is thus framed with this question: “What were you thinking?”

Among other things that the question so powerfully conveys is the assumed link between thought and action. Thinking and speaking and doing are inseparable.


Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “We have the mind of Christ.”

Now that’s interesting. Thanks to the written text of scripture I know plenty about what Jesus did. Those same scriptures have preserved much of what Jesus said. But what was he thinking? What was on his mind when he did and said those things?

“We have the mind of Christ.”

I so want to believe that. But when I look at what Christians do and say – more to the point, when I look at what I do and say – I so have my doubts.

The mind of Christ didn’t rationalize temptation. His thoughts were steely and focused and filled with the words of God.

The mind of Christ didn’t hold a grudge. When a Samaritan village rejected him as he journeyed to Jerusalem he rebuked the indignant James and John who wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the place.

The mind of Christ could be inundated with the noise of an adoring crowd and not get swept up in it. In the clamor he heard the cries of a blind man, a man ignored by the crowd.

The mind of Christ could wrestle with God and then finally submit entirely and without reservation to whatever God willed to do. .


“We have the mind of Christ.” But we don’t come by it naturally, the way some people are effortlessly good at math. And we don’t come by it by effort. The mind of Christ comes to us by the work of the Spirit.

By the work of the Spirit – grace at work in your life – you can think differently today about yourself and your circumstances. With the mind of Christ you know what’s true about you. You are not a failure. You are not a rock star. You need not live with shame and you have no cause for arrogance or pride.

With the mind of Christ you can see your life as Jesus sees it: you need not be afraid and anxious. You need not carry the burdens of regret and guilt. You can genuinely care about your co-workers rather than fear them or compete with them. You can risk being a servant and not fear getting used.

We have the mind of Christ. His mind is a gift that comes by the Spirit working in us. As followers of Jesus we don’t simply do what Jesus did. We think like he thought and gradually his life takes shape in our own.

How are you thinking about yourself and your circumstances today?

Form your mind in me today, Lord Jesus. Help me to see others as you see them, to think your thoughts about them. Help me to see myself and my life with your mind. By the work of your Spirit in me, take away the lies that pose as truth. Let my thoughts and actions and words honor you throughout this day, I pray. Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

There's More

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it (1 Cor. 3:2).

I have much more to say to you, more than you can bear now (John 16:12).

The stories don’t change much.

Every Christmas Jesus is born in the Bethlehem stable, visited by shepherds and sought out by wise men. Every year Caesar Augustus takes a census and taxes his constituency.
And every year the angelic choir trots out the same anthem. Same song, first and only verse, over and over.

Every Easter the stone is rolled away. Every year we get a week of anticipated suffering that includes a very somber day of execution. The women go early in the morning to properly anoint the body of Jesus and every year they are surprised by a blazing figure sitting where Jesus had been laid. Every year the good news is announced “He is not here. He is risen.”

The stories don’t change much. In fact, they don’t change at all. But the occasion for telling them keeps coming around, relentlessly, year after year, ready or not.


We didn’t have enough pews to fill the sanctuary we had built. One day we would need more – but for now we had plenty of pews and plenty of floor space with which to do something else. So in the back corner of the sanctuary there was a table where a Sunday school class met every week before the worship service.

Early one Easter morning, long before anyone else would be at church, I went in the sanctuary and took a seat at that table. I was the church’s pastor and within a few hours it would be up to me to tell the never changing story. I would be called upon to announce the good news. That day, however, it didn’t feel like good news to me. It just felt like news, often told and barely heard.

I sat in the sanctuary feeling kind of dead inside and then feeling ashamed because I felt that way. I had heard that story so many times. I hadn’t preached very many Easter sermons, but I’d spent a lifetime on the receiving end. Now it was my turn: my turn to say what people expect me to say or what I think they expect to hear. It’s a good message, it’s a true message. But it’s always the same message.

Looking back, I know now that my problem that Easter morning had nothing to do with the story. The problem was me. I thought I’d heard it before. I thought I’d heard it all.


“I have much more to say to you,” said Jesus to his anxious followers. And he still has more to say. Jesus has more to say even to those who think they’ve heard it all before. Jesus has more to say to us about what we think we understand.

It’s not hard to get stuck spiritually. Stuck-ness doesn’t mean you no longer believe; it means that what you believe is no longer helpful as you live your life. To use Paul’s image, you’re still on a diet of milk when you should have moved on to solid food. In our infancy, milk supplied what we needed. But it didn’t take long to grow out of that. We needed more.

Jesus has more to say to us. None of us has exhausted the limits of our spiritual life. But when we think we’ve heard it before or we think we’ve heard it all, we stop paying attention. We hear but we don’t listen very well. We settle for milk when our souls need something more substantive.

The good news for those who find themselves stuck somewhere in their faith journey is this: Jesus has more to say to you, and the Spirit will lead you to what it is. Our task is to listen carefully, for when we do our “soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Ps. 63:5).

We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, that your word is a living word and that you still have more to say to us. Help us to hear familiar truths in ways that we’ve never heard them before. Give us fresh eyes as we read the scriptures. Reveal to us more of who you are that we might share more of your love with the world around us, we pray. Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Was and What Will Be

Think of what you were when you were called (1 Cor. 1:26).

At first it sounded like thunder. After a few seconds I realized it wasn’t thunder at all, but the Wheeler High School drum line.

If I could blaze a trail directly to Wheeler, cutting through my neighbors’ yards, I could walk there in less than five minutes. My house sits almost directly behind the school, and the sounds of the drum line mark the fall season as surely as the leaves that are now being scattered about on my lawn. September means high school football and high school football means marching bands and drum lines.

The sounds evoked memory. Those distant rumbling cadences on Friday morning became a bridge that took me back to my own days on the drum line – only it wasn’t called a drum line back then, at least not at my school. I loved the drums during football season, but I wasn’t so enthusiastic about being a “band geek.” It was far cooler to dress out for football even you never got on the field except to do pre-game stretching. Our band uniforms were, for lack of a better word, goofy. But I tolerated that for the sound and energy of the drums. To use current vocabulary, we rocked.

“I can’t do that anymore.”

At some point remembering my drumming days morphed into acknowledging present reality. My drumming days are done. Truthfully, I don’t think I ever played as well as what I heard coming from Wheeler High on Friday morning. The bar seems to have been raised a good bit higher. Other thoughts followed. “What if I could do that again? I’d work harder. I’d be better.” And almost as quickly – “I’m so glad to be done with high school.”


In his letters to the Christians in Corinth Paul is continually holding up before them who they once were and who they are becoming.

“Remember who you were when you were called” (1 Cor. 1:26). In Christ they are a new creation. “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). When Christ returns they will be “blameless” (1 Cor. 1:8).

Our thinking easily drifts in these same directions, looking back to what was or looking ahead to what will be. The looking back sometimes raises all the “what if” questions: what if we had chosen differently or tried harder or understood more. The looking ahead raises all the “what’s up” questions: what is God up to, where is this headed, what’s up next?

For Paul, and for us, the answer to the “what if” questions and the “what’s up” questions is found in Jesus. God is at work forming Christ in you and that redefines everything, past, present and future.

From time to time you may hear the rhythms of a distant cadence echoing from days long gone. You may look back with regret. You may look back with longing. But you are not who you once were. And sometimes you may feel a restlessness that pushes you to your future, the next thing out there that isn’t clear to you now. You are not yet who you will be.

And what holds it together – what holds us together – is grace: All that was, all that is today, all that yet will be is God’s relentless work to form the image of Jesus in you. As the familiar hymn says, “’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”

What is God using these days to shape the likeness of Jesus in you?

Our hearts are filled with thanks, O God, for what has been and what will be. Redeem our yesterdays as you prepare us for days yet to come. Use all that this day will bring to shape the likeness of your son in us, we pray. Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Slow to Unlearn

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (1 Cor. 3:16).

I learned at a very early age that God had a house and that God’s house was called “church.” And somehow I also came to love that house.

I know this isn’t true for everyone. Some people grow up in houses that they can’t wait to get out of. Once out of the house they return only on holidays, an obligatory visit that is more endured than enjoyed, more tolerated than treasured.

The same happens with God’s house. For whatever reason, there are many who know its rooms and corridors but are only too glad to be done with it. They make it back a couple of times a year, but it’s not home for them in any meaningful way.

For reasons I can’t explain, that’s not my story. I don’t make that claim as a boast – just a fact. The first house I ever lived in was on a small lot right next door to God’s house. The same is true of my daughter Anna. When she was born we brought her home to a house that sat across the street from the house of God. In days that lie beyond the reach of my memory and in days that I will never forget, God’s habitation and my own habitation have been closely connected.

I learned what kinds of behavior are fitting for God’s house, “don’t run in church” being at the top of the list. I grew comfortable with the furniture: little wooden chairs for children, metal folding chairs for grown ups, and pews for everyone. Even now I can detect a scent that seems to linger in churches all over the country. Yes, to me God’s house has a smell that evokes recognition, a recognition of home.

I learned all of that at a very early age. And now, quite a bit older, I am trying to unlearn it. This doesn’t mean that I’m rejecting my love for the place or practice of weekly worship. It doesn’t mean that I hold in derision that which I have always cherished. What I am having to unlearn is the connection between the presence of God and a building.

Of course, I’ve understood for a long time that God doesn’t live in a house the way I live in a house. But deeply ingrained in me is a way of thinking that connects the activity in the building with the activity of God. This means that God is confined to church programs, church services, church meetings. That’s what must be unlearned.

Paul told the Corinthians that they themselves were God’s temple. This is a staggering claim. God does not take up residence in a building or a shrine or a structure. God inhabits a people. God’s very life dwells in you.

This simple truth could revolutionize your life. The reality of God’s very life dwelling in yours changes this day without changing anything you’ve planned to do. Suddenly what you’ve planned to do takes on an entirely new meaning. You are God’s plan for loving and changing the world.

It’s a good thing to invite the world to God’s house. Some will come. Plenty of others will not. But God inhabits a people and every week those people take God to the world.

You are God’s temple, God’s habitation. The Spirit of God takes up residence in your life.

How might this change your day? How might it change you?

Gracious God, you loved the world so much that you sent your son. You continue to love the world by sending us. Empower us today by your Spirit that we may be your very presence in this world. Make your home in us, changing us and transforming our days, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Unsightly Growth

“You are God’s field” (1 Cor. 3:9).

“All healthy things grow, but not all growth is healthy.”

I’d like to be able to take credit for those words, but I can’t. I’m not sure where I heard them or who said them. Something in my mind whispers to me that Reggie McNeal said that line in one of his keynote addresses at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference we hosted here back in February. Whoever said it, the words aren’t mine and a proper footnote needs to be inserted somewhere in this paragraph.

I didn’t craft the sentence but I know its truth well enough. I spent more than three hours in my yard this past Saturday removing growth. Around the right side of my house a small jungle had flourished. I had noticed it for several weeks, but I didn’t want to deal with it. When creeping vines had extended their tentacles as far as a second floor bedroom window, I knew it was time to take action.

My weapons of choice were an old-fashioned sling-blade and two different kinds of clippers. I didn’t need an axe or a chainsaw because not all of the growth was bad. Some of the healthier bushes simply needed trimming. But among the healthy growth I found all kinds of dead limbs and unruly branches. I went after them with the intensity of a personal vendetta.

“Not all growth is healthy.”

What I realize now is that I never should have let things get that out of hand. Looking at my house from the street you would have never seen that unsightly foliage creeping up the wall. You would have never noticed the brittle naked branches of dead plants and bushes. Typically my yard looks quite good. I won’t win any prizes from the homeowners association, but my yard holds its own.

The problem growth was hidden from sight and easily ignored. Quietly, insidiously, it took root and kept spreading until removing it required hours of unpleasant effort. I’ll be paying better attention from now on.

“You are God’s field,” wrote Paul. His point was that the Corinthians – and you – were the site of God’s master work in cultivating the life of the Spirit.

And yet, there are also some things in your life that probably don’t need to be there. Jesus used a similar word picture in his parable of the soils. Some soil allows the growth of weeds that choke the healthy growth of God’s word planted in the heart (Mark 4:1-8).

People may look at your life and never see what is out of control or lifeless in you. We do a pretty good job of ignoring those things and concealing them from others. The yard that is your life looks good, but just around the corner, out of sight from passers by, it’s a real mess.

Some of the most unsightly growth looks like this: anger that gets hidden in public and unleashed at home; envy that grows in the shadows of smiles and handshakes; greed that parades as hard work and commitment to a task; slander offered as a joke or sarcasm.

These are the kinds of things that need to be attacked and pulled up by the roots. Left alone, they’ll do nothing but spread. Eventually, they’ll kill the appetites of the soul that are necessary for spiritual growth (1 Peter 2:1-3).

What might have taken root in your life that needs to be uprooted today?

Show me, O God, that which has found a place in my heart and is not from you. Stir me from the sloth that keeps me from dealing with it and make me bold to remove the dead and lifeless things. Come by your Spirit and grant growth and life, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Field

You are God’s field (1 Corinthians 3:9).

Richard grew tobacco in a field across the street from our house.

It wasn’t the only thing he did. By the late 1990s the tobacco industry was changing. Thanks to multiple court decisions that reflected the realities of a changing culture, it was becoming harder and harder to make a living farming tobacco.

But in the community where I lived, and in the congregation I served, there were still a few people for whom the annual rite of planting, priming and putting in tobacco was as much a part of life as Christmas or the first day of school. A year without those things was unimaginable. Richard was, and as best I know still is, one of those people.

The field across the road from our house was nondescript. There were many fields just like it in Western Wake and Chatham counties. Given that the regular traffic of my life took me by this particular field over and over again, I paid more attention to what was happening across the street. I took notice of the activity there, the clouds of hot dust from a tractor, the healthy look of the lush broad-leafed plants, the threatening bleached brown that appeared when summer rains refused to fall.

And one year I noticed that none of that was happening. The field across the street looked scrappy and grown over, almost neglected or forgotten about.

I asked about it. I don’t remember, but I might have asked Richard himself. The answer was common sense, even for someone like me who can barely grow grass in the yard. To stay healthy, the soil needs a break from time to time. The same fields are not planted in every year.


“You are God’s field.” So wrote Paul to the bickering believers in Corinth.

Paul was trying to counter the Corinthian tendency to make celebrities of their teachers. Their attachments to and allegiances with a particular teacher / preacher was causing division among them. So Paul seized upon a word picture: He and Apollos and Peter and anyone else who labored among them were only field hands, planting and watering.

God makes things grow. And “you are God’s field.”

What was true of the Corinthians is true of you as well. God is at work cultivating something beautiful in your life. Specifically, God causes the life of the Spirit to become increasingly evident in you. This is what growth looks like: we become more patient, more inclined to kindness, more self-controlled. Elsewhere Paul called these things “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Think of it as what grows in a healthy field.

But like all fields, sometimes the soil that is your soul lies dormant. The field appears to be neglected, overgrown and unruly. The ground feels hard. Nothing is happening there, or so it seems.

God, however, is always cultivating his fields with purpose and intent. The dormant season is not a mistake. What looks like neglect is preparation. What seems to have been forgotten and set aside holds promise for days yet to come. You are God’s field. And God continually cultivates life, especially in the quiet and difficult days when it seems that nothing at all is happening.

Are these days of visible growth or is the field of your life dormant and waiting?

Gracious God we give you thanks for times of growth. And we also give you thanks for the dormant season, knowing that even then you are at work to bring life out of the hardened places in our lives. Do your work among us according to your purposes and in your time, we pray. Amen.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Spirituality of Place

“I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:11).

I was two years old when Vince Dooley took the field as head coach at the University of Georgia. When he coached his last season I was in seminary. When Joe Paterno began his head coaching career at Penn State I was four. Paterno still holds that job.

Not long ago while grinding away on an elliptical machine, working hard at going nowhere, I plugged my earphones in to watch a show on ESPN that was surveying the coaching scene in college football. In the banter between the show’s two hosts the observation was made that we’ll never again see the likes of Dooley and Paterno.

It’s not their love of the game or their appetite for winning that seems to be disappearing. Gifted coaches will rise to prominence in every sport and in every era. What we’ll see far less of is the durability of a Dooley or Paterno. One commentator was blunt in saying that a coaching tenure that spans decades in one place is a thing of the past.

It’s not just college coaches who are constantly being uprooted. We are a displaced people breathing the air of impermanence. There’s a restlessness that pervades our culture. Constantly shifting realities are the norm for us, and after a while we grow antsy and bored. Sameness feels like stuckness.

That may just be the way it is. But the life of faith finds practical expression within the context of place – the home we inhabit, the cubicles or boardrooms we sit in for hours, the other people who sit in those places with us, the traffic we negotiate, the weather we plan around. Following Jesus is a way of life, and life is always shaped by a place.


It would be nice if the Bible gave us a straightforward theology of place. You can look, but you won’t find it. In calling his first disciples Jesus asked life-long fishermen to leave their boats and nets and step away from the family business. Sometime later however, having healed a man of demon possession in the region of Decapolis, Jesus insisted that this man return home. Some are called to go, some are called to stay put.

Some of you woke up today in the same place you were when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. You’ve claimed a home and you’ve stayed in it – but everything around you has changed. It hardly feels like your place anymore. Your children are gone, the neighbors are different, streets have been widened and new construction has crept closer to your door. You’ve not left your place, but at some point the place left you.

Some of you will leave your house and go spend the day in a place you resent. Your skills are underutilized and you’re convinced you’d make a bigger impact somewhere else. But professional transitions in this economy are tough to navigate, and the debts you owe don’t show the slightest sign of going anywhere. So you gut it out in the place where you are right now and you remind yourself every morning that you’re really lucky to be there.

Some of you are in a new place. Every day you discover new people and new possibilities. You’re on an adventure, and your place is full of mystery and promise.

Whatever your place is like today – and regardless of how you feel about it – God has something for you there. Paul’s example to us in the city of Corinth is one of being faithful in the place where you are right now. Jesus reminded Paul “I have many people in this city.” That is to say, “I am at work right here in ways that you cannot see right now. I am doing more than you know.”

The place where God would have you be is the place where you are right now. God is at work there – and God has a reason for you to be there too.

Send us into this day, O God, knowing that you have assigned us a place in this world. We are not stuck or forgotten or left to manage as best we can. We are your people in the places where we live and work. Grant to us a sense of being co-laborers with you, wherever we may be. Give us the grace we need to be faithful where you have us right now, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

What We Already Know

Do not be afraid . . . for I am with you (Acts 18:9-10).

“People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.” I have those words written in a small notebook, attributed to Samuel Johnson. Whoever said it, our life experience bears it out. Sometimes we simply need to be told what we already know. We don’t need to discover a new truth. We just need to be deeply convinced of the truths we already cherish. So it was with Paul when he came to Corinth


By the time Corinth came up on the itinerary, Paul’s resume was thick. He had an impressive testimony, complete with blinding light accompanied by the voice of Jesus and temporary blindness. That’s hard to beat.

As far as his ministry was concerned he was seasoned and tested. In Paphos Paul had cast out a demon. In Iconium he had worked miraculous signs and wonders. In Lystra Paul had healed a lame man and in that same city Paul had been beaten with rocks, dragged outside the city and left for dead.

His mind was sharp and his theological arguments tightly honed. In Jerusalem Paul had gone head to head with Jewish disciples and insisted on the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community. In Athens he had stood boldly in the Areopagus and presented Jesus to would-be philosophers, scoffers and skeptics and intellectual snobs. Many dismissed him, but some of them had come to faith in Christ.

Well traveled, Paul arrived in Corinth with scars on his flesh and weariness in his bones. He came with tools in his pack and a burden on his heart. Reasoning in the synagogue was nothing new to him. Being rejected there was also nothing new. And making converts of Gentiles, again he had done that too.

He had seen it all before. But there was a moment when he needed to be reminded. He needed to be told what he already knew. And so God granted a vision to Paul, and Jesus spoke this message:

“Don’t be afraid. Keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you . . .”

Sometimes we need to be told what we already know. Maybe we’ve heard it a thousand times before. We need to hear it again. We need to be reminded.

There are time when our courage wanes. God shrinks as our fears and problems grow. Faith withers as our doubts put down deep roots. At such times we need to be told again. We need reminding. God is present. God can be trusted. God is actively involved in the place where you are and the life you’re living right now.

Even Paul, the mighty missionary apostle, needed such reminding. He needed to be told what he already knew. He needed fresh courage to keep on going. He needed a fresh awareness of the presence of Jesus. Perhaps you need the same thing today.

These words are offered to you as nothing more than a reminder. Bear with me while I tell you what you already know. You are not alone. Take heart and don’t be afraid. Jesus stands with you. Jesus left his followers with his presence and his power. Both are yours today.

By the work of your Spirit, O God, remind us today of what we know to be true: that you are with us; that you are at work in our lives and in the world around us. Give us courage to be your people, people sent into the world as a living reminder to others. Use us today to speak what others need to hear – the good news of your presence and love, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Closer than Julia

. . . because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them (Acts 18: 3).

Over the weekend my wife and I, child-free on a Friday night and celebrating our thirteenth wedding anniversary, went to see Julie and Julia. This is probably where I ought to tell you how I really had no interest in a “chic-flick” about cooking, but being the great husband that I am I made a chivalrous concession to my wife’s choice of films. I could tell you that – but I’d be a liar. She suggested the movie but I was more than willing to see it and it did not disappoint.

Perhaps a brief synopsis would be helpful: The movie tells the true story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a would-be writer stuck in mind numbing government job. Powell gets the idea to cook her way through Julia Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Along the way she blogs the entire experience. The challenge she sets for herself is to successfully execute all 536 recipes in 365 days. Powell’s story is skillfully blended with Julia Child’s story, portrayed with characteristic brilliance by Meryl Streep.

I like to think that Julie Powell had a kind of “daily devotional” for people who cook. That might be a stretch, but whatever it was it launched her writing career, and that part of the story interests me more than the cooking.

And this part was especially interesting: As Powell immerses herself in Julia Child’s world of cooking she begins to speak of Child as a living presence. When Powell is cooking she senses that somehow Julia Child is right there with her, in the kitchen, watching over her every move. Something spiritual was happening in the act of cooking.

Now, change the scene and change the story. Substitute your own kitchen or office or classroom or sales territory – wherever you spend the most ordinary hours of your most ordinary days. If Julie Powell sensed the presence of the master chef, shouldn’t we expect to the sense the presence of the Master?

Somehow – and I’m not sure how it happened – Jesus got sent to his room, grounded in the space beneath the steeple for six days of every week. This means that we speak of Jesus’ presence in church, but then go through the week without the slightest notion that Jesus is interested, much less involved, in the work we’re doing.

Jesus is present as depositions are being taken and motions filed. Jesus stands next to surgeons and sits bedside bus drivers. Jesus is behind the counter at Starbucks and has his head under the hood at Jiffy Lube. Whenever and wherever followers of Jesus go to work, Jesus is there.

Paul was a tentmaker. Acts 18 tells us that while in Corinth he did his theological work on the Sabbath when he “reasoned in the synagogue” (Acts 18:2-3). But during the week he worked in a tent-making partnership with Aquila and Priscilla – and you just have to know that in his tent-making Paul sensed that Jesus was present. The Master didn’t just hang out at the synagogue.

And one more thing. Julie Powell never met Julia Child. She wanted to meet her, dreamed of what it would be like, but it never happened. But Jesus knows you, knows every detail of your life and the number of hairs on your head. Jesus is closer to you than Julia ever was to Julie – and he delights in the work you do every day.

How will you attend to the presence of Jesus as you go through this day?

Gracious God, we give you thanks for your presence with us in all places and your careful attention to every aspect of our lives. You’re eyes are on us even when we are distracted. You hear our words, even when we don’t offer them as formal prayers. We would be attentive to you in all that this day brings to us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.