Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Smoldering Embers

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:22).

Tragedy and heartache do not recognize holidays; they do not take vacations. Inexplicable pain always seems to make an ill-timed arrival.

So it was on Christmas morning 2011. In Stamford, Connecticut a rambling and impressive home, aged and under renovation, went up in flames in the dark of early morning. On a day when little girls should have been thundering down the stairs to discover what was under the tree, two seven year old twins and their nine year old sister perished in the fire along with their grandparents. Many of us were probably buffered from the grief of the story by the noise and busy-ness of our own celebrations. If we heard of it, we couldn’t dwell on it – not on Christmas day.

We ask but never get an answer as to why such things happen. In the days that followed this event, however, investigators did discover an answer as to how it happened. Smoldering embers from the fireplace had been shoveled out and placed in a container in the mud-room of the house. The fire was dormant, but not extinguished. Eventually what was unseen and smoldering came to life with a flame, and the flame became a conflagration.

The anger we carry within our heart is like smoldering embers. The danger is unseen, no smoke, no obvious threat. But the fire is there nonetheless and if left unattended those smoldering embers will soon become a flame. Our deceptive hearts are capable of masking anger while at the very same time stoking it and feeding it. We smile at the world and perform pleasantries with our neighbors while harboring bitter thoughts and painful memories.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus connects words spoken in anger with the act of murder. The sharp and abusive tongue has its roots in the same soil as the violent hand. Both come from a heart that carries anger. James 3:5 likens the tongue to a small spark. A careless word can do great damage.

The hot glow of embers will usually go undetected unless we look deep beneath what seems to be harmless in order to discover the fire that is truly there. That’s what Jesus is inviting us to do. We can’t get too comfortable in the knowledge that we will never be prosecuted for the crime of murder. When Jesus takes this well-known commandment and makes us culpable of breaking it with our anger, we are being forced to look deep into our own heart.

Next Steps:
Smoldering embers need to be doused in order to no longer be a threat. Does this work with anger? Along with masking our anger and feeding our anger, we are also capable of simply denying our anger. Which of those are you prone to do? Read Ephesians 4:25-27. How do these verses help you understand the words of Jesus about our anger?

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my anger – and then grant me wisdom to know what to do with it. Help me to discover the smoldering embers in my own heart, and keep me from hiding my anger while feeding it at the same time. Guard me and others from the harm that a divided and angry heart can do, I ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Most Important Thing About You

"What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us . . . For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God."

(A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Friday, September 13, 2013

Blessed are You

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (Matthew 5:1-12)

I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and I needed some help.

I attended church, but I really didn’t know my pastor. Right about that time Mercer University, where I was a student, had brought on a new Pastor to the University and he seemed to be a very thoughtful and trustworthy man. I made an appointment to talk with him.

Looking back, I don’t remember the details of my conversation with Dr. C. Welton Gaddy. What I remember now is the way he listened, his comfort with my angst and his counsel that didn’t tell me what to do. Years later during my doctoral work I came across a book he had written. That in itself wasn’t such a big deal. He had authored several books by that time. However the title of this one provoked my curiosity: A Soul Under Siege: Surviving Clergy Depression.

A quick glance at the back cover summarized the story. This man whose counsel I had sought and whom I admired for his wisdom and pastoral sensitivity had hit a wall in his personal and professional life. He had admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital to get help with his depression. He tells of a public “pastor” persona that didn’t square with his deeper inner realities.

Thankfully, he was willing to share the story.

Far too many of us spend our energies working hard to keep up the persona. In the Beatitudes we hear Jesus’s invitation to stop living that way. Jesus names things in us that we might be inclined to hide, the things we don’t admire in others, and he names them blessed. Everyone finds a place in God’s Kingdom. It took a hospital, not a seminary, for Welton Gaddy to understand this. He writes:

"Strange. Who would imagine that ‘equality under the law’ lauded by our most basic civil documents and the ‘equality under grace’ commended and commanded by Jesus Christ would be implemented most dramatically among people considered ‘not quite right.’ Yet here in the mental-health unit of a hospital, among people sometimes labeled as aberrations of society, was the realization of one of our society’s most elusive aspirations" (p.114)
Gaddy then makes a direct application to the church. He notes that “no person is a member of the church because of superiority to other persons . . . In any community of God’s people two certainties persist – life can be put right for anybody and something is wrong with everybody.”

When we read the beatitudes let’s stop asking “who is Jesus talking about.” Let’s give up on trying to identify with “them.” The best response is simply gratitude, thankfulness that we too are included in this God–ruled reality because of Jesus and his grace.

Next Steps:
Jesus speaks ‘blessed’ over you. The real you. All of you. Live this day in that confidence and be thankful. And show the gratitude by blessing someone else.

We give you thanks, O God, for the kindness that includes us in the community of your people. We give you thanks for the freedom that comes with knowing that something is wrong with everybody and that life can be made right for anybody. We thank you for the gift of your blessing, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The First Word

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (Matthew 5:1-12)

The one word of the beatitudes that we all know best is perhaps the one word we understand the least.

The word Jesus uses over and over in an almost rhythmic fashion is ‘blessed.’ When the beatitudes are read aloud this word provokes a slight discomfort. Are we to pronounce it as a two syllable word as in ‘bless-ed’ or do we end it with a ‘t’ on the end?

Beyond the minor issue of pronunciation there is the deeper question of meaning. Jesus is telling us who is blessed, but it isn’t clear exactly what their state of blessedness means. Some translators have used an alternative and equally acceptable rendering of the Greek word and given us ‘happy’ in place of blessed.

As for the question of pronunciation, let’s agree that it really doesn’t matter. And as for the meaning of ‘happy’ as compared to the more familiar ‘blessed,’ we’ll come back to that later in the week. What we will observe today is the simple placement of the word in the beatitudes. Nine times ‘blessed’ is used and every time it comes first.

Inevitably, the beatitudes draw us into discussions about who is blessed: Who are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted? These are important discussions because the ‘who’ truly does matter. But each of those designations is preceded by the word ‘blessed.’ Enjoying the favor of God comes first, and in this we see the heart of our good news to the world.

In The Divine Conspiraccy, Dallas Willard carefully and persuasively cautions us against treating the beatitudes like a list of goals, as if by cultivating a particular quality of character we will thereby enjoy blessing. Not so says Willard. “Whatever the point of the Beatitudes, it cannot be that they state conditions that guarantee God’s approval, salvation, or blessing” (p. 115).

We do not become poor in spirit or meek or merciful or pure of heart and then find favor with God. In other words, God’s favor or blessing is not something we achieve or earn. We do not show ourselves worthy of receiving it. It is simply given – and it is given to these who seem least likely to be included among the recipients.

Being blessed is not an achievement; we neither earn it nor deserve it. And yet we spend so much energy trying to do just that. Could it be that it is our striving for blessing, the drive to prove ourselves worthy, that often keeps us from experiencing true blessedness?

Next Steps: 
Who do you typically think of as the ‘unlikely’ or ‘unimpressive’ in your world? Be specific. Who will you encounter today that strikes you as one of the world’s benchwarmers in the game of life? Make a plan to bless them – to show them favor and dignify them with your kindness for no reason at all. Make ‘bless’ the first word in what you do today.

Gracious God, your blessing and favor are given to us freely. Grant that we might give it to others, without regard for their status or smarts or skill, without calculating how we might benefit from the kindness we show. Help us to bless as you have blessed us we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Who Gets In?

 Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (Matthew 5:2-12)

For at least one more year I’m still driving carpool in the mornings.

Next year my son will be eligible to drive to school and park on campus. The key word in the sentence is ‘eligible.’ Whether he’ll actually have anything to drive and park there remains to be seen, but the possibility exists nonetheless.

What I’m noticing this year is that my route to the carpool line takes me past the other carpool lines of years gone by. I drive by the middle school line, always lengthy and slow, and I’m thankful to no longer be a part of that. After a right hand turn I drive by the lower school line, somewhat amazed at the years that separate me from that experience and how it only seems like weeks now. The final stop is at the upper school where both of my kids are now students.

Having two ‘high school’ students means that the college horizon looks much closer than it used to. Within a year we’ll be making real college visits, something we’re already talking about. With every such conversation there is an underlying theme, constantly present though not always verbalized: “Who gets in?”

What will it take for my child to be a part of that community (name the school)? Do they have the grades to get in? Are schools looking at test scores or leadership potential or personal initiative – and will they find those things in my son or daughter?

Who gets in? This much can be said with certainty: Not everyone.

Living with this reality may explain why we have a hard time with the way Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount. He begins by pronouncing a series of ‘beatitudes’ or expressions of blessing, telling us what it takes to be a part of a God-governed community. Jesus is telling us that this community is for everyone; those with the least impressive transcripts can get in.

Dallas Willard explains, “The religious system of his day left the multitudes out, but Jesus welcomed them all into his kingdom. Anyone could come as well as any other” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 116)

That sounds nice, but the longer we think on it the less we like it. Deep down we know that this isn’t the way the ‘real’ world works. So we tend to take Jesus statements and make them goals to achieve. As if we get in by being poor in spirit or merciful or meek or pure in heart. But Jesus is not giving us goals or providing us with a checklist for admission.

Jesus’s beatitudes leave no place for our craving to achieve and the pride that comes with it. The doors to this community are opened wide. The hard question: Does that sound like good news to you?

Next Step:
This week we’ll focus on the beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. Take time to read them now. Which of Jesus’s statements least stir your admiration or aspirations? And which do so the most?

By your grace, O God, teach us to see others as you see them; help us to bless those whom you bless; make us willing to embrace all whom you have embraced. And remind us that we ourselves have been included in your blessed community only through Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, September 05, 2013


Therefore, everyone who hears these word of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock (Matthew 7:24).

A few months ago one of my neighbors came over and asked to take a look at my basement.

Years ago the previous owners of our home had had some waterproofing work done by a certain company and my neighbor was interested in seeing a sample of their work. His needs, however, went beyond waterproofing. He had known for some time that the basement wall in his home was bowing in. What was once a slight curvature had become a protrusion that needed to be addressed.

Fixing a foundation problem like this is expensive. Ignoring it can be catastrophic.

Experts in foundation repair advise us that problems with a home’s foundation are often indicated by relatively minor clues. A slope of the kitchen counter or floors, more than an inch over 20 feet or so, could suggest a problem. A door that sticks when it is shut or a crack in the drywall – these little things may be pointing to a deeper problem. They may be telling us to look beyond the floors and doors and walls to the condition of the foundation.

Our fear is this: if we look closely we may see something we’d rather not know. Fixing it may be difficult, but ignoring it will be disastrous. Every structure we see is built on some kind of foundation, and the soundness of the structure depends upon the soundness of that foundation. The part that is never is seen is the critical piece to the whole, holding it up and holding it together.

Every life you see is built on some kind of foundation. There are no exceptions. Every person you know and every stranger that walks by you in an airport or on the street is an engineer. Every one of us wakes up each day to an ongoing construction project called “life” and every one of us has chosen something upon which to build.

Jesus, a master teacher, concluded his Sermon on the Mount with a timeless word picture. Contrasting a foundation of rock with a foundation of sand, he invited us to consider the foundations of our lives. Upon what have we chosen to place the weight of our lives? Is the foundation solid, sound, worthy of the life we’ve been given?

Next Steps: Consider the following:
1. What have you chosen to bear the weight of your sense of well-being, your confidence that the life you’re building is strong?
2. And have you ever detected a small indication that the foundation may not be sound? What might these be in your life?

Grant us your wisdom, O God, as we seek to build our lives. With each day’s decisions and actions help us to build well. And give us courage to examine the ways in which we have placed the weight of our lives on something other than you, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Know Excuses

Therefore, everyone who hears these word of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock (Matthew 7:24).

The city of Atlanta is ringed by a massive interstate highway known in these parts as ‘the perimeter’ – I-285. This highway was supposedly completed in 1969. As best I can tell, they’ve never stopped working on it.

These days along the part of I-285 that is closest to my house mobile electronic signs are constantly flashing a familiar warning: some variation of “Weekend Road Work. 3 Lanes closed.” Interpreted, the sign says “Do not dare come this way between Friday night and Monday morning.” At the very least, the flashing sign is an invitation to do some creative driving. What route will I choose to avoid that stretch of highway? Sadly, the alternative routes I choose are often no better than the highway, but that doesn’t keep me from trying.

In his highly regarded book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy, the late Dallas Willard states that “Jesus seemed to understand that we would do almost anything to avoid simply doing what he said” (p. 274). The words of Jesus are widely admired. To a lesser extent, perhaps, they are believed. But the degree to which they are practiced is another matter. Indeed, the believers are often most adept at avoidance strategies.

This isn’t surprising. Before concluding his ‘sermon’ Jesus acknowledged that the way of life he was describing was a “narrow way.” When it comes to the weekend road work near my house, I would do almost anything to avoid the narrow way. That’s why Dallas Willard’s statement gets my attention.

Believing what Jesus says isn’t the problem. Practicing what Jesus says is where we run into trouble. Willard is calling us out, naming our tendency to look for alternative routes. We are good and finding reasons why we cannot do what Jesus has said.

The life to which Jesus calls us is a narrow way – but ‘narrow’ does not mean ‘blocked.’ We are prone to admire the Sermon on the Mount while at the same time dismissing it as unreasonable; rather than discipleship, we practice ‘dismissal-ship.’ Admiration without application.

Here on the threshold of the Sermon on the Mount we would do well to know our excuses. Let’s name them for what they are. Don’t forfeit the game before stepping on the field. Take a step on this narrow way and ask for grace to walk it. That’s the only way this way can be traveled.

Next Step:
As you read through Matthew 5-7, are there specific teachings that seem beyond your capacity to follow or practice? Why do you think so? Be honest about where you’ve come up with avoidance strategies.

How easy it is, O God, to admire the things you say without believing that we can actually live according to your word. Forgive us for our excuses, our quest for alternatives to your narrow way. Help us to obey, living in your power, doing what we could never do on our own. Live your life through us today, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.