Friday, September 26, 2014

What are You Withholding?

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9).

Years ago we purchased a bike rack for the car. A Yakima – the kind of bike rack you can leave on your car to tell others that you’re athletic and outdoorsy and spend time on the beltline. Mostly, our bike rack announces that we’re headed out on vacation. We typically mount it on the back of the car when we make our annual beach trip.

As sturdy as our bike rack is, I don’t quite trust it when it comes to long trips on the highways. So once I’ve actually maneuvered the bikes into place and secured them with the rubber straps that came with the rack, I pull out a few bungee cords and go through a final ritual of binding.

At some level, this binding is born of fear. I’m doing all I can to keep what I’ve got. I don’t want look in the rearview mirror and see something flying from the back of the car. The binding is an act of securing what’s mine, holding it tight.

The Binding
The Hebrew word for binding is Akedah. It’s the word that rabbis use to designate the story of Abraham’s binding his son Isaac to the altar, obediently preparing to give his long-promised child back to God.

We don’t like this story. At the very least, it baffles us. As people who love God, the story sometimes embarrasses us, raising more questions about God than it answers. At worst, the story simply offends us. Why would God ask this? What’s God doing? What’s going on? The key to the story seems to be at verse 12.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” [God] said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
The word that catches my attention is “withheld.” The habit of holding something back, tucking it aside, putting it away for private use or enjoyment.

Abraham’s disturbing story on Mount Moriah has much to tell us about what it means to trust God - but one simple lesson is this: Trust is not about what we believe in our heads. It’s about what we hold in our hands. Abraham on Moriah is our model of radical trust, binding Isaac, nothing held back.

When Binding is Letting Go 
There is a kind of “binding” that tries very hard to keep something in place – like bikes on the back of the car. But there is a different kind of binding, like the akedah on Mount Moriah, where we give something up, let it go.

Our idols, the gods we truly cherish and trust, are discovered in those recesses of heart and mind where we say silently to God, “You cannot have this. You cannot have this relationship or my career. You cannot have my plans for the future or the people I cherish.”

We may not even be aware that we’re saying such a thing. There is no deliberate rejection of our faith, no defiant act of disobedience. But we are holding back, and the holding back is grounded in fear, not trust.

The question today: What are you withholding? What would it look like to bind it to an altar and offer it to God?

Show me, O God, what I’m withholding – keeping from you, fearfully binding it so I won’t lose it. Give me the grace I need to bind it to an altar where all I am and I have is yours. I ask this in the name of Jesus, your only son, freely given for the world. Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Do Over

And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you . . .” (Genesis 16:5).

What if you could travel in time?

What if you could revisit the moments that didn’t go so well, the careless word you spoke, the appointment you missed, the poor decision you made? Most of us don’t have to think too hard about the moments to which we would return or the events we would rewind if we could.

This was the premise of the 2013 film About Time. On one level this film is a love story between the two leading characters, Tim and Mary. At the age of 21, in a coming of age conversation with his father, Tim learns that he has the ability to travel in time. His father explains the basic rules and pitfalls of time travel as well as the physical act by which such a thing happens.

From that point on we see Tim using his extraordinary gift to fine tune certain critical moments in his life. When he meets the love of his life, Mary, he goes back in time repeatedly to get it just right. Each time he learns a little more about her and with each ‘new’ meeting he shows up in her life as the man of her dreams.

Early in the film the time travel gift seems like the remedy to all of life’s woes, the immediate corrective to every misstep. But as the story unfolds we see that going back in time for a do-over is really no gift at all. Rather, it is an enormous burden. What we see is a young man who carries the weight of trying to get his life just right. But fixing one thing over here has unexpected ramifications over there. Tim’s story shows us that trying again and again to get things right is not a burden we were meant to live with.

In place of time travel, what God actually gives us in real life is grace.

The Messes We Make
When Abraham and Sarah came up with a way to have the child God had promised through a scheme they had devised, they made a mistake. Their insistence on making something happen made them all miserable. Sarah resented the pregnant Hagar. Hagar was harassed by the embittered Sarah. Abraham was blamed for doing what his wife had urged him to do. What had seemed so smart was quickly shown to be a train wreck.

The real mistake, of course, was a failure of trust in God. Abraham and Sarah had not allowed God to truly be God in their lives. The consequences of this decision were real. Ishmael was a reality that would never be undone.

But that mistake did not ruin or negate God’s plan for Abraham. God did not write him off and move on to someone else. God did not come up with added demands so that Abraham and Sarah could make up for what they had done. And God certainly didn’t ask them to come up with a better plan. God remained faithful and kept his promise.

That’s what God does with all of us. We don’t get to time travel and try again – because God’s desire for us not that we keep trying until we get it right. God’s desire is that we live by faith, depend on his grace. Even if we’ve made a mess with our decisions. God redeems our messes.

Keep walking with God. Lean into his grace. Be done with regrets, bitterness, and shame. All of that has been covered and redeemed in Jesus – but we’re getting ahead of our story. More to come.

We give you thanks, O God, for your faithfulness and for the grace that covers what we would do over if we could. Teach us to walk with you today, trusting that you are guiding us and that what you have for us is good. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Key to Your Story

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

The car I drive has been in our family for quite a few years.

That means that the key that came with the car has also been in the family for a few years. The car has proven to be quite reliable. It shows no signs of quitting on us, and as long as that’s true we won’t quit on it. My key, however, has not done as well.

Several months ago the key that came with the car succumbed to wear and tear. It was one of those keys with remote control type buttons that unlock the doors and open the trunk. Along the way I had replaced the small battery a time or two. But after a while the entire plastic casing gave way.

I’m aware that such things can be replaced, but my easiest response to the problem was to simply use the valet key. True, the valet key has no remote functions, no buttons to open and lock doors or pop open the trunk. But that, as my wife would say, is a ‘first-world problem.’ The valet key starts the car and manually unlocks the door. What more does one need?

There is one minor inconvenience that caught me off guard. The valet key will not open the trunk. This quickly made sense to me once I reminded myself that the valet key is not really meant for regular use by the car’s owner. It is, obviously, for the valet.

My point in all of this has to do with design. What slight variation in design allows one key to do two functions while another key only does one? Clearly, a valet key is designed with a very specific purpose in mind. And I’ve been making use of it in a way that really isn’t in keeping with its purpose.

In God’s work of creation the human being was designed in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Simply put, you were made in the image of God. You were designed to live in fellowship with God.

The phrase ‘image of God’ encompasses much that is unique about us – our capacity for self-reflective thought and intimate relationships. We won’t linger long here with a definition. But what we must not miss is the design that is crafted deep within every human heart. We were made for God.

Psalm 16:4 says that ‘the sorrows of those who run after another god will multiply.’ Why is that? Because you were not designed to find satisfaction in any other god.

The deep peace and joy and rest that the human soul craves will not be found apart from the God who created us. And when we insist that it will be, when we run after those other sources of satisfaction in this life, our disappointments stack up. Our sorrows increase. Such a life may work for a while. It is functional – but it has its limitations. It is a way of life that isn’t consistent with the way were designed.

You were made for God. You are on this earth to reflect who God is and show God to the world around you.

This is who God made you to be. This is the key to your story. How will you live this out today?

Gracious God, you have made us to know you and to live our days walking closely with you so that others may see who you are. We confess that we chase our satisfaction in so many dead-end ways. Remind us today of who we are and help us to live in keeping with your design, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Let There Be Bacon"

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1)

Jon Ashton, Matt Heyman, and Dylan Doss are taking the story of creation all over America. And they’re doing it with a food truck.

In all likelihood their proclamation of how the world began is unintentional, the inadvertent echo of the Bible’s story captured in the name emblazoned on the side of their truck: “Let there be Bacon.” If you’re a fan of the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race, then you know all about “Let there be Bacon.”

The premise of the show is simple. Seven food truck teams begin a series of challenges that take them on the road from city to city. The winner is usually determined by highest earnings in each city. In the end, the last team left standing gets $50,000 and a new food truck. So far, “Bacon” is doing quite well.

Ashton, Heyman, and Doss probably want nothing more than to win the cash and the truck. But whether they mean to or not, they are telling a story with “Let there be Bacon.” The artwork on the side of the truck is a nod to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, the finger of God reaching out in creative power to touch strips of bacon.

Maybe these guys just love bacon. Maybe they’re just interested in making good food that happens to be made better by adding bacon. But with their food truck they are doing more than that. They are announcing the opening lines of the greatest story ever told.

They are doing this, first of all, by reminding all of us that there is a God who brought all things into being. This is where the story begins. “In the beginning, God . . .” If you ever find yourself in a discussion with someone about the existence of God, the Bible will not be very helpful to you in making an argument. The Bible never argues for the existence of God. God simply is.

Second, they are reminding us that this God is a speaking God. “Let there be” are the creating words of a personal God. The opening chapter of the book of Genesis is characterized by the repetition of the phrase “And God said.” That phrase is often followed by “let there be.”

New Testament scholar D. A. Carson says it this way: “The God of the Bible is not some abstract ‘unmoved mover.’ He has personality and dares to disclose himself in words that humans can understand.” Those words have power to give life and bring things into existence.

The story we want to tell in the weeks ahead begins here. God exists. And everything else that exists came into being by the power of God’s word.

We could easily make the mistake of rushing past this. Some dismiss it because they’re convinced that science makes it impossible to accept. Some believe it, but dismiss it because it’s so basic, so familiar.

But the implications of this for your life are staggering. For today, let’s leave it at this: If God exists and made all there is, then all that God made comes to us a gift. And the only fitting response from us is gratitude.

Enjoy the world you inhabit today. Savor all that’s around you. Sights and smells, sunlight or rain, the amazing uniqueness of a person’s voice and face, the taste of food and the aroma of coffee. And yes, you just might have a religious moment with the gift of bacon. Give thanks to God for all of his gifts.

And listen for his voice. The God who spoke still speaks.

For the gift of this day, O God, and all that it will bring we give you thanks. May every gift that surrounds us point us to you, our creator, the Giver of all good things. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Handle with Care . . . and Confidence

. . . you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God (Matt. 22:29).

“At least I can still play tennis.” That line came from pro golfer Greg Norman this past weekend following surgery that saved his left hand.

On Saturday Norman was at his home in Florida and had gone out to trim some tree branches with a chainsaw. In the course doing that task, he reached out to grab a limb he had cut. The chainsaw blade was slowing but still moving when the weight of the limb pulled Norman’s left wrist into the blade, barely missing tendon and artery. He was able to get to the emergency room where he was immediately taken to surgery.

A chainsaw is an amazingly useful power tool. I have two in the storage unit behind my house. One is very small and attaches to a pole that allows you to cut small branches that are hard to reach. The other is slightly larger. Norman’s story reminded me of how rarely I use them.

I am glad to know that I have a chainsaw. If needed, I know exactly where to find it. But I never intentionally look for chances to use it. Whenever I do happen to pull one of them out for something that needs to be done in the yard, I always have to relearn what to do. It feels awkward and strange and it takes a while to get a feel for how it works.

My relationship with my chainsaw is very similar to the way many people use their Bible. They are glad they own a Bible. They may in fact own more than one. But they rarely open it and read it. It sits undisturbed on a shelf or in a drawer. Beyond using it at church (if then) they don’t intentionally look for chances to use their Bible. And when they do use it, it feels somewhat awkward and alien to them. It takes time to get reacquainted with the contents of this beloved but neglected book.

The series we’re launching this week is about God’s story. But this story comes to us in a book. And before we jump into the story, we need to say a word about the book in which we find it. The Bible and a chainsaw share this in common: to use them well you need to handle them with care and with confidence.

Jesus rebuked some very religious people in his day because they knew neither the scriptures nor the power of God. His words were surprising because he spoke them to people who had memorized large portions of their Bible. But they misused what they read, and in this carelessness they missed out on God’s story. Both care and confidence are needed.

As for confidence: Along with these daily reflections, make use of your Bible. Find it and read it. You may want to load a Bible app on your phone or tablet. The more you rummage about in the pages of scripture the more confident you will become. You are perfectly capable of reading and understanding this book that tells us God’s story.

And as for care: come to the Bible willing to listen. Use other sources that will help you get familiar with the story it tells. Consider joining a group for eight weeks during this series. The Bible will reward careful, patient, humble study.

God wants you to know his story. He has revealed it to us in his book. Handle it with care – but also with confidence. You creator wants to speak with you.

We give you thanks, O God, for the gift of the Bible. Make us careful in our reading, attentive in our listening, and bold in daily opening the pages of your story. Help us to hear your voice behind the words we read, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Between the Lines

In the beginning . . . (Genesis 1:1)

This past Saturday morning my son had to be at school at 6:30 a.m. to catch a bus for a cross country meet at Wesleyan School.

This in itself is nothing new for us. He’s been running cross country for several seasons now. There have been earlier buses to catch. But in the past those early buses have also meant that Dad gets up, wakes up son, and makes the drive to school to deliver said son to the bus on time.

Things were different this past Saturday. My son got himself out of bed at 6:00 a.m. and drove himself to school to get on the bus – and he made it on time. There is indeed a God in heaven.

Cross country is really not designed to be a spectator sport. You can’t find a good seat and watch the game. Most cross country courses take the athletes out of sight for a while. There they exhibit their skills to no one in particular, the cheering voices fade, they suffer alone.

When I arrived at Wesleyan, dew still heavy on the ground, two key points of their cross country course were very clearly marked and easy to find: the starting line, and the finish lines. Hard-to-miss signs with large red letters marked the place where things would begin and end. As for the miles that lay between those two clearly marked points, that wasn’t so clear to me.

After a while, and with some help from others, I found a couple of places where I could stand and see the runners pass by a couple of times. But I never truly saw the terrain, the lay of the land, the inclines that caused pain or the turns that might have slowed them down.

Far too many people come to the Bible the way I come to a cross country meet. They know that Genesis is the start line (sadly, because of heated debates about creation). They also know that Revelation is the finish line (sadly, because of bad movies or bizarre end-of-world predictions).

Between the clearly marked start and finish there might be a couple of places where they find to stand – the Christmas story is usually one, and maybe the twenty-third Psalm that gets read at funerals. What they never really see is the terrain that lies between the finish and the start.

As with cross country, so with scripture. The real action happens between the lines.

For the next couple of months these daily reflections will be aimed at getting you familiar with the lay of the land, the terrain of scripture that lies between the lines. We will do this by discovering the singular story the Bible tells.

Plenty of people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling us how God expects us to behave. It is not. Others regard the Bible highly as great literature, and while it has literary features, it is not merely literature. The Bible tells a story – and knowing the Bible’s story allows us to make sense of our own story. Don’t be content to be a spectator with the Bible. The God who made you is inviting you to discover his story and find your place in it.

Ready. Set. Go.

Gracious God, we’ve spent too much time being confused spectators when it comes to your story. We’ve been satisfied with isolated scenes here and there, not knowing the terrain of your ways in this world. We invite you in these days to guide us into the fullness of your story, that we might better understand our own. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.