Light in the Forest

Since I was a kid, I have camped in the woods along the central coast of Oregon. Nights and mornings were cool, so on the days we stayed in our campsite, we spent a lot time moving our chairs from one spot of sun to another. Few things are more beautiful than morning sun filtering through the cedars, spruce, hemlock, and Douglas firs. It is a cathedral of moving light.

The early morning sunlight slants through the mist and smoke of campfires, making golden paths to the tree tops where warblers and cedar waxwings warm themselves. For a while, light and morning dew fall together through the trees. The Sitka spruces are especially skilled at capturing dew and making their own rain.

Later the wind picks up. The swaying of the tree tops creates a strobe effect as the sunlight is turned on and off by the breeze. We often chase the spots of sun in vain. We discover ourselves in the shadows before we have read more than a few pages.

As the day warms, we spend less time chasing the sun. We are content to sit still with our books and accept the dance of shadow and light around us. Gray jays or Stellar jays visit the camp. Wilson warblers, with their lovely black berets, hop in the thickets of salmon berry. Bits of chewed Douglas fir cones rain down from the squirrels in the tree tops.

The light through the trees turns golden in the setting sun. The yellow-green moss on the branches glows. The sun is gentled by leaves, needles, and moss until we feel washed in a tide of light.

Right before sunset only the tops of the trees are crowned with glory as darkness gathers underneath. As the wind dies down, we hear more clearly the distant roar of the surf. We accept the darkness, but are thankful for the light that moved like random grace through the trees.

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Is Unconditional Love the Highest Kind of Love?

Perhaps not. It, of course, depends upon what we mean by unconditional. If we mean love that is given without regard for who a person is and anything they’ve done, then I would argue that this is ground level love. It is, for Christians, the lowest level of love we can have. It is foundational and therefore essential. It means that no matter who a person is or what they have done, we are committed to seeking God’s best for them. This is where our love should begin–but not where it should end.

The more I think about unconditional love in actual relationships, the more certain I am that we need and desire something higher. I know this sounds heretical because we have often been told that God’s agape love is unconditional love that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God being love.

Yet imagine my wife asking, “Do you love me?” and me responding, “I love you with unconditional love that will always seek God’s best for you. It has nothing to do with you but is simply God’s love radiating out of me to those in my life.” Honestly, many marriages would be transformed by even this kind of love, but I doubt that this answer would satisfy Teckla or most wives. If I told my sons that I love them with unconditional love that is in no way a response to who they are or what they have done, I suspect they would say with some disappointment, “That’s nice, Dad. I guess.”

When God’s love is described as a love that is totally spontaneous to himself, we make his love impersonal. Like the sun shining, God cannot help but love. I think God’s love can be unconditional but still responsive to who we are. My example would be God looking at all his creation, including Adam and Eve, and saying, “Behold, it was very good.”

Obviously, the goodness and value of creation all came from God’s wise and gracious work as a Creator, but his pronouncement was in response to what he saw. Even though fallen and often broken, we are all created in the image of God. God loves us individually for the goodness and purpose He has given each of us. He sees and loves the person He has created us to be. This is still completely to His praise and glory as our Creator—we have in no way earned God’s love. It does mean, however, that God’s love is expressed in ways that correspond to His unique purpose for us as His creation.

If we accept Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s love, we immediately notice that his ministry is individualized. He healed people in different ways and took the time to touch people one by one. Many times, Jesus declared that their healing was a result of their faith (Matthew 8:13; 9:22,29; 15:28). We must also notice that Jesus often acted out of his compassion for the people who were like sheep without a shepherd. His love was emotional and personal, not a general expression of benevolence to everyone everywhere.

I do have unconditional love for my wife, sons, and the family of God. But that is the beginning of love. A higher love is one that sees who God has created others to be and affirms the beauty and goodness of that person. It requires seeing them as God sees them and having a revelation of the glorious person that is sometimes hidden beneath sin and rebellion. Of course, every good thing discovered in us has its origin in God’s grace as our creator. Therefore, we cannot boast and need not strive to earn God’s love. This kind of love is not conditioned according to our actions, but it is shaped by the unique expression of the image of God in each person.

I will go further. I believe that people have a great hunger for the kind of love that recognizes our unique calling and gifts as individuals created in the image of God. Hearing that God is love and loves all people unconditionally doesn’t satisfy the need people have to hear God calling them by name. When the angel of the Lord calls the name of Hagar and gives her promises and instruction, we are told “she called on the name of the Lord who spoke to her and said, ‘Thou art a God who sees.’”

Like Hagar, many today, even those who have been Christians for years, need to know God sees them—and knows their names.

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My Blind-spots

I have come the closest to killing myself and others through failing to check my blind-spot before changing lanes. The older I get, the more convinced I am that checking our biblical blind-spots is crucial. I still like to spend time doing a careful exegesis and word study to mine the meaning of a couple of verses, but I am much more focused on discovering the truths I haven’t seen because of culture, tradition, habit, or personal taste. As I look back on my spiritual progress, I realize that most breakthroughs have come from looking steadily at the things I once failed to see in Scripture.

I will give examples that are instructive for congregations as well as individuals, but my intention is not to point out the blind spots of others, but rather just the ones I have discovered in myself. If possible, I would tell of the ones I haven’t recognized; I am certain there are many. Regrettably, I must also refrain from giving a full-blown study on each of these blind-spots. Let it be enough to assert they should be studied.

The Poor: I have been amazed at how much the Bible says about God loving the poor—the widow, the orphan, and stranger in the land. The Old Testament is full of exhortations to give to the poor. One proverb says that the person who gives to the poor lends to the Lord (19:17). Others promise a blessing to those who give to the poor. Jesus goes overboard and tells the rich, young ruler the one thing he lacks: “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” Matthew 19:21. I have usually flown right past the mention of the poor and launched into an explanation that God doesn’t really mean for us to give everything away and that this just means total consecration of our hearts to God. Anyway, the poor was once a blind-spot for me even though the Bible is full of God’s call to love, defend, and give to them.

I grew up in an evangelical denomination where everything was about getting people saved. We believed, often rightly, that sinning or being sinned against leads to poverty. Calling people out of sin and into the love of God seemed the best answer to poverty. Indeed, we had seen people who stopped drinking, smoking, and gambling suddenly have money to buy food and clothes for their families. But it was too easy to blame the poor for their poverty and to regard them only as souls needing to be saved. This denomination has now learned, I believe, to hold onto a clear gospel message of salvation and transformation while faithfully ministering to the physical needs of their communities.

Teckla and I have been challenged to move our care for the poor beyond mere acts of charity to genuinely sacrificial service. Often this has meant stepping into the mess and burden of personal relationships with the poor—sometimes inviting them to live with us. Over all our love for the poor, we sense the joy God takes in us opening our hearts and lives to them.

Obedience and submission: I am a child of the Sixties so these two words provoke a visceral reaction in me. By instinct, I challenge authority and question rules. I am also analytical to a fault and can be a fount of destructive criticism. While a student, I went head to head with principals and college presidents. Where I teach now, I have also been the grievance officer for the union. I am not wired for submission. Yet, this too is in the Scripture.

The last chapter of Hebrews contains this exhortation: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” I have often acted as if giving leaders grief was my calling. I have enough experience with pastoral ministry that I can easily launch into dissertations about what pastors should or should not be doing. But I have stopped.

I now pursue a heart of obedience and submission to leadership, both in the church and in the world. Not only does this honor God, I have found it “profitable.” Ironically, a heart of obedience to leaders often gives us more influence with leaders, not less. When our words aren’t a knee-jerk challenge to authority, leaders listen more carefully. I have found I possess more personal peace when not at war with every authority in my life. I think we sometimes we fail to grow spiritually because we are trying to submit to God while in a posture of rebellion to the authorities in our lives.

Anyone who knows me could testify that I still fearlessly speak truth to power. And if obedience to man ever conflicts with obedience to God, I will be quick to choose God. I am also sensitive to the toxic abuses of authority and demands for obedience. There are false shepherds and apostles that must be tested and rejected. However, American individualism and the spirit of rebellion in our culture has often blinded us to the peace and profit of obedience.

Unity: Myrtle Point, my hometown and where I live now, has about 2,700 people in the city limits but had about dozen churches when I was a kid. All the congregations were, and still are, small. Congregations struggle to keep the doors open and pay a pastor. Youth groups limp along and have little witness in the schools or community. At least four churches have disappeared. The enemy of our souls has used the divide and conquer strategy with devastatingly effect.

Although I grew up assuming the necessity of myriad denominations, in graduate school I experienced the glory of unity in diversity. My former roommate and I started an Inter-varsity Bible study for graduate students. We sometimes had 30—40 graduate students show up, all from different denominational backgrounds: Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Nazarene, Quaker. Our fellowship was wonderful and strengthened my faith.

I have been hooked on unity ever since. I have also discovered that Jesus prayed earnestly for the unity of His followers. He asked “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father art in Me, and I in Thee, that they may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to Them; that they may be one, just as We are one” (John 17:21). It is clear in this chapter that he is not just praying for the twelve, but for anyone who believes in Him (v.20). That means God wants us to be as one with each other as He and Jesus are.

Paul says to the church in Corinth, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). In light of these verses and many others, we can’t believe that the slicing and dicing of the Church by denominations is God’s will. Attempts to justify divisions as something similar to the tribes of Israel aren’t supported by Scripture.

Although I do not know how to dissolve all the denominational barriers, I am committed to praying and working with Christians from all the congregations in my community. I attend a non-denominational flavored Bible study at a Presbyterian church. Teckla has led and attended non-denominational women’s Bible studies in our area for many years. Teckla and I support and attend inter-denominational events whenever we can.

Too often churches pray for revival and growth within their own congregations and never realize that God might not give revival until the voices in the community become one. In Acts 4:23, Luke says that the church in Jerusalem “lifted their voices to God with one accord.” After their prayer we are told: “And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” Too often we pray for revival on our terms, for our group.

Doing the Works of Jesus: I grew up hearing a lot about the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. My family and my denomination loved missionaries. At church there were even altar calls for those called by God to be a missionary. However, we heard very little about the First Commission in Matthew 10:1,8: “And having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness . . .. And as you go, preach saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you received, freely give.” I was not told this was something believers could sign up for. Colleges and seminaries had no courses in doing the works of Jesus.

Although both commissions are given to the disciples, my denomination only applied the Great Commission to all believers. In Luke 10:1, however, we see Jesus sending out seventy others to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. In Acts Stephen and Philip who were deacons–not apostles also did the works of Jesus. Despite this evidence that the First Commission is for all believers, we had no altar calls for those God was calling to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. We ignored or tried to explain away, John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.”

Until I was around 30, I happily ignored this First Commission. Once I heard an evangelist preach a message on Matthew 10:1. He used as his text, “He gave them authority” but said nothing about the rest of the verse. His message was good—us having authority to say no to sin and live holy lives—but completely ignored the rest of the verse. I had recently encountered a person who was clearly and undeniably demonized, so I was hoping for some good news about our authority to cast out demons. When I got none from a verse clearly about doing the works of Jesus, I realized how big a blind-spot this was for me and many others.

Tradition: Many years ago, I ventured to teach a class on Christian contemplative literature. In preparation for the class, I read Catholic, Orthodox, and Quaker writers—even some Baptists. I grew up in a denomination that is only about 100 years old, so my Christian education and experience had been cut-off from traditional expressions of Christianity. The witness and wisdom of saints and church fathers have nourished my soul. I have often been blessed by liturgy even though I am still wary of liturgical worship divorced from real change in our hearts and lives.

The other path to tradition is more practical and experiential. I once took some college students on a silent retreat to a monastery. I was amazed by the number of students had spiritual breakthroughs when they simply got quiet and alone. In counseling, I have found that people who confess their sins often need a flesh and blood person to proclaim God’s forgiveness to them. This experience made me look again at John 20:23 and James 5:16 regarding confession. It made me wonder if we shouldn’t regard confession as an important sacrament. Bringing sin into the light through confession to another person often helps break the power of sin.

I know that many wise and holy things have been so encrusted by human traditions that we have lost their beauty and value. However, I think, we can engage in a kind of holy archeology that recovers and restores the essence and purpose of traditions. As an evangelical I have placed so much of my hope in an instantaneous transformation through an experience with God, that I have been blind to how traditional spiritual disciplines can help us follow Jesus.

I have a newfound appreciation for the physicality of worshiping and serving God. I have often spiritualized Paul’s exhortation to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1).  Interestingly, I have been schooled in presenting my body to God by the most liturgical and least liturgical believers. I love charismatic/Pentecostal hand-raising, foot-stomping, dancing-in-the-aisles worship because it calls my whole body into worship. But liturgical worship with all its standing, sitting, and kneeling and belief that the sacrament is indeed the blood and body of Christ also calls for my whole body to serve God. An important truth of traditional disciplines is that we need God working both from inside-out and outside-in. I humbly admit I need all the help I can get to follow Christ—even the wisdom of saints.

Conclusion: These have been my blind-spots. I have not discussed all the ones I have found, and I am certain I will discover new ones. My point is not about the importance of any one of these blind-spots, but rather the importance of asking God to help us see what we are missing. We, no doubt, will discover we are blind in different areas.

Recognition of our blind-spots opens doors for growth and greater fruitfulness, but there is always the danger of becoming comfortable with our blindspots. Seeing means changing, and we often hate change.  I have often wondered why Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. He was blind, so what he needed was obvious. But it was probably important that Bartimaeus ask to see. It was not only an expression of his faith in Jesus, but of his willingness to embrace the change that seeing would bring. He would, after all, now need to work for a living. Like Bartimaeus, we must humbly cry out for Jesus to restore our sight, and then get to work obeying.

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My Wild, and Wilder Calendars

Increasingly I mark the days by the blooming of wildflowers, change in tides, and shift in winds. Snow-queen appears in February looking like blue pearls in the frosty grass. In March the delicate turquoise of the grass-widows nods on a slender stem. Blue camas runs riot in May meadows.

It is all inexact. A cold spring or late snow can slow the bloom of fawn lilies. But in many ways the flowers more exactly reflect the seasons of my heart: early blooms and late thaws. Sometimes a flower not seen for years makes an appearance like some fragrance from childhood.

Summer marks the calendar with the ripening of evergreen huckleberries, salal, thimbleberries, and August blackberries. Asters and goldenrod bloom far into the fall.

Here fall is marked by the beginning of the rains and the overnight magic of mushrooms: chanterelles and boletes. The blonde and dry grasses of summer soften under my step.

In the winter the days are marked as the deciduous trees lose their leaves. The alders first and then big-leaf maples. The maple leaves cover the rocks along the streams like wet paper. Storms scatter branches across the trails and litter the woods with fallen moss and lichen. On the coast, king tides and storms sweep in and carve up the beaches—sometimes briefly uncovering agates that glow in the winter sun. The surf churns up a buttery foam and plays jacks with logs and stumps. The snaking course of the creeks on the beach wander north.

For about fifteen years I have been recording when each flower blooms, but this spring it seemed not to matter what date I assigned. The wildflowers have their own calendar written by sun, wind, and rain. We are close enough to the coast that even a change in sea currents can rewrite the calendars of yellow wood violets.

In the silence of the woods or meadows filled with flowers, I listen. With all my senses, I read the wild calendar. Sometimes the warm south wind smells like spring—soft and moist. In November the dry mosses of summer deepen and soften into winter’s deep green.

Perhaps I live more to the rhythms of a natural calendar because I have grown old and the calendar on the wall means little. As a teacher, I have often ordered my life by academic calendars, but this changes year to year and yet never changes.  Or it may be that I now spend enough time in the wilds of this place to listen in on the conversations of wind, rain, and all that lives.

This wild calendar slows my heart but makes it stronger—maybe wiser. I am more present. More importantly, the world around me is more present as a sacrament of God’s goodness, power, and wisdom.

There is a wilder calendar—one even more difficult read. I am slowly learning to read the seasons of God’s Spirit. On the most immediate level, I have learned to quiet myself before God and discern the season of my own heart and relationship with Him. I want my eyes open to all that each season brings. Every season has its own wisdom; its own lessons.

On another level, God has a calendar for his people. I deeply appreciate the timeless aspects of the communion with the saints, but God’s Spirit is also alive and active in each gathering of believers. Above and beyond the babble of division and confusion among believers, God has a calendar that we should learn to read. I am not good at this, but sometimes I detect a change in the wind and shift in seasons. Sometimes there is a false spring before the real one.

Then there is that divine cosmic calendar that Daniel, Ezekiel, and John read so well. This is the wildest calendar. It is felt in the blood—the acceleration of this world toward some end and some new beginning. I make no claims to read this calendar,  but I am listening and watching. I hope to be like the sons of Issachar who are described (I Chronicles 12:32) as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

All believers are like watchmen eagerly awaiting the dawn, scanning the sky for first light. We hope for that final spring that makes a new heavens and new earth. The day marked on God’s calendar.

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The Joy of the Hidden Life

Some days emptiness walks across the room and slaps you in the face even though, and sometimes because, you are a Christian. I know this can happen at any age, but it seems common as you grow old.

As I near retirement age, I am startled by how little I have done. Books not written. Prayers not answered. Dreams not realized. Fragments of achievement, but never enough.

I have measured out my life not in coffee spoons but in stacks of essays graded.  A competent teacher, but not legendary. And of course, as a parent you always wish you had done more or done better.

A life surrendered to God offers no automatic protection. We long to serve God in world-changing ways. We crave significance.

Sometimes emptiness pounds my faith in the promises I think (wrongly?) God has spoken. Why would God call me to pray for city-transforming revival if He never intended to release it? Yes, I know Jeremiah did exactly that. He preached and prayed and Israel never repented but instead went into exile. Jeremiah is, however, called the weeping prophet and was no fun at church potlucks.

Emptiness is relative, so it never helps to list the things you actually accomplished and the lives you have impacted for good and for God. There are always the dozens who have done more in comparison. Nor is hope had by considering those lives emptied by years of drug addiction or self-destructive living. Emptiness is no respecter of persons.

It is good to count your blessings one by one, but it does little to protect us from the slap of emptiness. In fact, you may just end up wondering how you could do so little with all God has given you.

Here are two things that stop emptiness in its tracks. After Jesus and his disciples see a poor widow put her two mites in the treasury, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” (Luke 21:3—4) Elsewhere Jesus says, “And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42

These two verses show that God’s kingdom runs on a different economy. The human longing for significance is God-given—but what is significant to us and to God aren’t the same. A life surrendered to God, like the widow’s mites, is within the reach of every believer. We can live for His eyes and according to his economy. In his kingdom and economy even a cup of water counts.

It is liberating to fully embrace the economy of God. Not only can I ignore what others think of my achievements, I don’t have to care about what I think. Every day can I sally forth with widow’s mites and give all I have to God. Every day, significance is within reach even if invisible to all but God.

 The second defense to emptiness is the hidden life. Paul wrote in Colossians  “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). Not only do others not see who I really am, I can’t see my life. I have died to the visible life—one lived for the eyes of others, or even my own eyes. I am free just to live in humble obedience each day. It’s enough.

Therefore, I resist the temptation to weigh my accomplishments or lack of them. My worth and life are hidden with Christ in God. Only God knows my heart—the great things done with pride and simple things done with purity. I can trust all this to God. This is the joy of the hidden life.

So when emptiness crosses the room to slap me, I grab it by the lapels, box its ears, and say, “You don’t know me! Hell [a personification of existential angst], I don’t even know me! But when Christ, who is my life, is revealed, then I also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Glory!

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Well, This is Awkward

Have you noticed that before Jesus fed the five thousand, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”? They respond by asking if they should spend two hundred denarii to buy some bread for the multitude (Mark 6:37).

This is awkward for three reasons. First, it had to be awkward for the disciples. Was Jesus serious, sarcastic, or just being mean? He knew, surely, they had no way to feed that many people. Second, although I have read and heard this story hundreds of times, I have never thought about why Jesus asked the disciples to feed them. How could I miss this? Third, if Jesus really intended for them to feed the multitude, I have missed an important part of the story—an unsettling part.

I first thought that maybe I had ignored this detail about feeding the multitude because it appears in only one of the gospels.  But Jesus tells them to feed the people in Luke 9:13 and Matthew 14:16, as well as Mark. John even adds more to the story:

Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” And this he was saying to test him; for he knew what He was intending to do. (John 6:5—6)

John’s comment that this exchange with Philip was a test may give some clue as to why in other gospels Jesus directly tells the disciples to feed the multitude.

But if this is a test, what would passing the test look like? All the solutions the disciples propose are natural ones: send them to the villages, spend some money to buy bread, get loaves and fishes from the boy. I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic when he told them to feed the multitude nor does it seem likely he said this to help the disciples realize they lacked the ability to feed them. That they couldn’t feed that many people was obvious.

The test could simply be that Jesus wanted them to turn to Him and say, “Jesus, you have all authority and so you feed them.” But this boils down to the disciples saying, “No, you are God so you feed them.” As much as part of me likes this reading, it means Jesus didn’t really mean it when said, “You give them to eat.” It also means saying “No” to what Jesus has asked and putting it back on Him to do. In this reading, the emphasis is on Jesus helping the disciples realize what they can’t do.

Jesus probably knew the disciples lacked the faith to perform this miracle, but what if the command to feed the multitude was serious? What if he was challenging them to perform the miracle that would feed the five thousand? Well, that would be awkward. It would make a point about this story that is almost never made. It would mean that this event isn’t just about what Jesus is able to do, it is about what Jesus wants us to be doing. It puts us on the spot.

This is awkward because it is so much easier to believe God can work miracles for us than to believe God can work miracles through us. As long as the story is only about what Jesus can do when we place the loaves and fishes (our broken lives) in His hands, we are off the hook. I, with great eloquence, have preached on the power of Jesus to bless our meager offerings and in miraculous ways multiply what we consecrate to him. I love spiritualizing this story! But what if Jesus was teaching the disciples that they could do the works he did? (See John 14:12)

The disciples had already been granted authority over unclean spirits and every kind of disease (Matthew 10:1). They had, therefore, some experience with God working through them in miraculous ways. His command to feed the multitude indicated that this kind of miracle was something the disciples could do through the authority he had given them. If we ignore Christ’s request that the disciples feed the people, we miss this point.

Mark ends this story on a sad note. Right after this miracle, the disciples cross the Galilee to Bethsaida. The wind has come up and they are straining at the oars. They see Jesus walking on the water and call out to him. When he gets into the boat, they are astonished because the wind immediately stopped. Mark says they are astonished “for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, for their hearts were hardened” (6:52). I worry that I may ignore Jesus’ request for the disciples to feed the people because when it comes to God doing miracles through his people, my heart is hard.

Certainly, the key insight from the incident of the loaves is the revelation of who Jesus is and the authority the Father has given him. But the command of Jesus for his disciples to feed the people is also a revelation of who we are and the authority we have in Christ. It reveals Jesus’ hope that the works he has done his followers will also do.

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The Pentecost Paradigm Shift

For several weeks the fifth chapter of John has haunted me. This chapter tells of Jesus confronting the Pharisees after he healed the man by the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. Jesus enrages the Jewish leaders by saying, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (v.17). He is announcing a shift change. It is not that the Father has clocked out; it is that now Jesus has clocked-in. Now the Father is working through his Son, Jesus.

Jesus enlarges on this shift throughout the rest of the chapter. He explains that He does nothing on his own initiative, but only what “he sees the Father doing (v.19). He explains that just like his Father, the Son “also gives life to whom He wishes” (v.21). He pleads that if they won’t accept the witness of John the Baptist, they would at least look at the works he is doing and believe the Father has sent Him.

So far so good. I can dismiss this failure to accept the shift from Father to Son as part of the general villainy of those terrible Pharisees. But what Jesus says to the Pharisees in verse 39 is startling:

You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life. (v. 39—40)

This rebuke of the Pharisees worries me because as an evangelical with a high view of the authority of Scripture, I have always thought that if I just stick to the Scriptures, I will be okay. I won’t miss anything essential. These Pharisees knew Scripture but missed the shift of ministry from the Father to His Son Jesus. They were blind to the obvious fact that the Father had now chosen to do His works through his Son, Jesus.

This failure of the Pharisees raises the possibility that I, and other evangelicals, could miss a major shift in God’s ministry even though we are devoted to Scripture. And here is the scary part, there actually was another shift—one that Jesus prepared for his disciples in chapters 14—17 of John. In chapter five Jesus told the Pharisees that “the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel” (v. 20). In chapter fourteen Jesus uses similar language about “greater works” to announce the next shift:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and greater works than these shall he do because I go to the Father. (v. 12)

He is announcing the next shift of ministry where the Father and Son abiding in believers will do the works of God. He explains this will be possible because when He goes to the Father he will send the Holy Spirit who was abiding with them but would be in them (v. 17).

Jesus declares that it is actually to the advantage of the disciples if he goes away because if He doesn’t the Holy Spirit (the Helper or Comforter) won’t come (16:7). In other words, without the Holy Spirit we can’t clock-in and begin doing the works of the Father.

We see the shift in action after Pentecost. In the Book of Acts we see Peter, Philip, Stephen, Paul all getting busy doing the works of the Father and Jesus. Peter and Paul were obviously of apostolic stature, but Phillip and Stephen were deacons appointed to distribute food to the widows. In I Corinthians 12 Paul describes how the church as the Body of Christ has been equipped by the Holy Spirit with gifts that empower it to do the works of Jesus. So doing the works of Jesus seems to be the work of the whole church not just the apostles or the anointed few. Of course, in different ways the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always been clocked-in and at work in the story of redemption, but I think we often miss this last shift in the paradigm of ministry because it is here that the full trinity begins to work in and through us—the Body and Bride of Christ.

So how well have we accepted this Pentecostal paradigm shift? Not so well. Some evangelicals have essentially said all the gifts were only for that period. We can pray for God to heal people, but healing isn’t central like it was in the ministry of Jesus or of Peter and Paul. We might pray that God would deliver others from evil, but never consider that the ministry of casting out evil spirits has now shifted to us.

We like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 but ignore the First Commission to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). Like the Pharisees, many evangelicals have justified this by exalting the Scriptures while at the same time ignoring the Pentecostal paradigm shift clearly announced by Scripture.

What would acceptance of this paradigm shift look like? First, every believer would understand that a decision to follow Jesus is a decision to do the works of Jesus by proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead. Second, all training for ministry would include both instruction in Scripture and in equipping the saints to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. Third, churches would devote the same time and energy to the ministries Jesus did: proclamation of the kingdom, healing of the sick, and casting out evil spirits. Fourth, the lack of the ministry of Jesus in our congregation would not be accepted as the norm but be seen as a reason for desperate intercession and “tarrying in Jerusalem” until we over-flow with the Holy Spirit. Last of all, we would refuse all false choices between God’s Word or God’s Spirit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. We would hear the call to be who Jesus was and do what Jesus did.  

It is time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the church to clock-in and get to work. It is our shift.

 

 

 

 

 

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Unstuck by the Holy Spirit

Jesus is invisible, and that is a problem. Like many today, I like to identify as a follower of Jesus. I think salvation without discipleship takes us nowhere. I often urge those hurt and bewildered by crazy and carnal Christians to keep their eyes on Jesus, not people. But it is hard to keep your eyes on someone you can’t see. You can’t follow someone you can’t see. Jesus left and is now with His father, so how can we follow him?

The answer that quickly comes is that Jesus left behind His Word and when we obey it, we are following Him. I would certainly agree that obeying the teachings of Jesus is essential, but following teachings is not the same as following a person. And, of course, God’s Word brings us full-circle by commanding us to follow Jesus. Jesus pointed this out when he rebuked the religious leaders:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness to me, and you are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life. (John 5:39)

All the “I ams” (the light, door, life, way, truth, shepherd) in the gospel of John also confirm the centrality of following Jesus—not only his teaching.

Another difficulty of making discipleship equal following Jesus’ teachings is that God’s Word needs interpretation and is subject to the filters of our culture and religious traditions. Consider as evidence these three commands by Jesus:

So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his possessions. Luke 14:33

Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Luke 6:30

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give. Matthew 10:8

Most who call themselves disciples of Jesus have not done the first, would not do the second, and aren’t regularly doing the last. And yet most would argue that following the teachings of Jesus is essential to discipleship. At the very least, these verses point up the need for interpretation and wisdom in application.

The last reason we need more than Scripture to follow Jesus is that God’s Word can provide an umbrella of general principles by which we should live our lives but does not provide the decision by decision guidance that following Jesus demands. If we reduce following Jesus to following a group of general principles, we get stuck following an abstraction of our own making. Oswald Chambers asks, “Many of us are loyal to our notions of Jesus Christ, but how many of us are loyal to Him?” Following Jesus requires more than mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions about Jesus.

How then do we follow an invisible Jesus? The disciples of Jesus worried about this after Jesus told them that he was going to the Father. He promised not to leave them as orphans:

And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know him because He abides with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. John 14:16—18

The answer to the problem of Jesus being invisible is the Holy Spirit. Only by being filled (and refilled) by the Holy Spirit can we truly follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can set us free from the personal and cultural filters that keep us from hearing the voice of Jesus day by day. All our talk about following Jesus must immediately lead us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and learning to walk in the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit makes the teachings of Jesus come alive in us. The Spirit will underline a verse and say this is for you today in this specific way. The Holy Spirit will never lead us into anything that contradicts the Word of God but is instead the voice of God applying His Word to the issues of our lives.

Even so, we may find that we prefer to follow the biblical principles we have formulated—because following a set concepts allow us to stay in control. We can pick and choose and schedule our obedience for the most convenient times. This approach allows us to compartmentalize our lives and lock God in our religion box. We must resist the temptation tame God and make Him manageable.

Walking in the Spirit requires surrender, humility, and trust. It takes courage. When we allow the Holy Spirit to lead, God is set loose in every area of our lives. We will quickly find ourselves living on the edge of our faith as the Spirit leads us into real adventure.

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Unstuck by Jesus

Here is a surprisingly religious way to get stuck in our walk with God: meditate on the transcendent divine attributes of God. God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. His ways are not our ways. Who are we to think we can know God or understand the mysteries of his providence? God’s will is irresistible so who am I to think God needs or even wants my help to bring about His kingdom on the earth. God is sovereign, and His will is inscrutable. Who can know Him?

This road block to growth and discipleship sounds religious, theologically deep, and even humble. It is not, you may have noticed, Christo-centric. To the degree that these ideas make God unknowable, it is unbiblical. When Philip asked Jesus, “Show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” Jesus was exasperated:

Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9

God is not the bad member of the trinity who in his wrath wanted to destroy us and Jesus the good one that took our place on the cross. They are one. The love displayed in the life and words of Jesus is the heart of the Father. Jesus makes God knowable.

Of course, we know this, right? It is the point of Christmas—the incarnation. In Jesus, God took on flesh to live among us that we might know Him and come to love Him. So how do we miss this experientially? I think we evangelicals too often reduce the gospels to sets of biblical principles and lose sight of the person of Jesus—who is the perfect revelation of God. Too often we arrange our Bible study doctrinally or topically and fail to read straight through the gospels so that the full force of the goodness of Jesus captures our hearts.

I sometimes challenge non-believers to sit down and read through the gospel of Mark. It is short and can be read in one sitting. I tell them to ask: “If God were like Jesus, would I love Him?” When we see all Jesus did in healing the sick, setting the captive free, rebuking hypocritical religious leaders, speaking tenderly to children and women, teaching with extraordinary wisdom and grace, we cannot help but exclaim, “This is a God I can love!” Jesus fulfills all our secret hopes for what God ought to be. It is good news that when we see Jesus, we see the Father.

It is hard to love what we don’t know, but when we realize God is just like Jesus our faith becomes an expression of love, not duty. And as important, we fall in “like” with God. It is easy to develop a vague religious, half-nostalgic, sentimental love for God, but never learn to like the ways of God. When I look at Jesus, I like the way he loved sinners and hung out with them. I like the way God used common folks—fishermen and tax-collectors—to be his messengers. I like the way God does stuff and this frees me from the tug-of-war behind my ways and God’s ways. I like God because He is just like Jesus. I am unstuck when I discover I like all the ways of God!

This truth may seem obvious, but it often isn’t in application. Some Christians ask how we can know whether God desires to heal people. They speculate that maybe sickness and affliction is God’s way to build Christian character or teach us important lessons that He can teach in no other way. They act like this is a deep mystery.  If, however, we regard Jesus as the perfect revelation of the Father, we can’t ignore what Jesus did: he healed all who came to Him (Matthew 4:24, 8:16, 9:25, 12:15). We must regard Jesus’ healings as a revelation of God’s attitude toward sickness. If we look at what Jesus did, we see that he healed people and never apologized for robbing them of their character-building sickness.

Of course, this doesn’t answer every question about why some are healed when we pray, and others aren’t. It does, however, reveal that God is all about healing people. Jesus’ actions are as much a revelation of God’s will as his teachings. But today much of the church doesn’t look to what Jesus did as a revelation of God’s will or values. And of course, we could say the same about questions concerning the casting out of evil spirits and miracles that attest to the truth of the gospel. Jesus not only revealed God’s heart in  ( his actions but he also gave his disciples authority to do those things (Matthew 10:1)

Jesus also called his disciples friends. This was an invitation to be friends with God. Friends talk. In other words, Jesus has revealed to us a God that desires to know us and be known. And there is even more good news. Jesus promised his disciples that after he returned to the Father, He would send the Holy Spirit through which both He and the Father would dwell in in the hearts of believers forever (John 14:16—17,23).

Of course, God is indeed sovereign, but one expression of His power is the ability to make Himself known and enter into relationship with us. We are not stuck in a static state of awe that paralyzes us. We can rise and walk in the Spirit of Christ who has called us to follow Him.

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Unstuck by God’s Goodness

In our home group, we are looking at biblical ways to get unstuck. Christians get stuck in different ways. Some get saved, slip through the doorway into the kingdom and then refuse to go or grow. Some walk with God many years, but then plateau-out: happy to be a little more spiritual than most they know. Others get tangled and bound in sin—then condemned, then depressed. Others have played the religious game to a stalemate: not forsaking God but also not surrendering. As you can see, there must be different cures for different kinds of stuck, so this will be the first of a series of posts on getting unstuck.

When I think about what has helped me get unstuck, I realize it always a truth everyone thinks they know. For instance, few truths have more power to yank us out of the muck than the truth that God is good. When the serpent tempted Eve, he first challenges what God has said and then plants a suspicion that God is withholding something good from her. Although some make a point about Eve adding “shall not touch” to God’s command, Eve basically gets right what God has said. The serpent directly contradicts what God said and proclaims, “You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In other words, you can’t trust God because He is wants to keep something good from you.

Like a lot of good evangelicals, Eve got right what God said, but she failed to trust in the character of God—in the goodness of God. Many believers get stuck at this same place. Temptation has power in their lives because they harbor a suspicion that complete surrender and obedience will mean giving up something good. Their mudhole is a cycle of temptation, sin, guilt, repentance—over and over. They live a life of faith with neither victory or joy.

A revelation of the logic of God’s goodness can free us from the tyranny of the cycle of sin.  God is perfectly good in all his ways. All his commands are expressions of His love and goodness. All debate about whether to obey God in this area or that area is stupid—a waste of time. Why? Because God is good and anything other than his will is shoddy and has a thousand one-star ratings on Amazon.

A second way we get stuck is when the meanness or hypocrisy of other believers trips us into the mudhole. Of course, reading the Old Testament should cure us of the idea that God’s people are always going to reflect His goodness. Often church is like a hospital’s ER, wounded and sick everywhere. During his ministry, Jesus was literally surrounded by the sick and demonized much of the time. His love seemed to draw them. That the hurting can hurt others should not surprise us, but it cuts to the bone when those who should be doctors wound us. Again, we need only read a history of Israel’s kings to discover how much corrupt leadership angers and grieves God. In all this, God is on our side, grieved and angered by hypocrisy. Our hatred of hypocrisy is best expressed by moving closer to God and being absolutely and humbly genuine. God’s people are a work (sometimes a jerk) in progress. God, though, is always good.

We get stuck in this mud hole in another way. Many Christians have been surprised not by joy like C. S. Lewis, but by tragedy, disappointment, and heartbreak. Many believers have written a happy narrative of how their life should go only to see it shredded by one catastrophe after another. Some are bitter and others shell-shocked. Many are stuck with low or no expectations of God.

I have friends, however, who have seen their dreams shattered by a marriage falling apart, a spouse dying unexpectedly, and a child dying. Man is fallen, the world broken by sin, and our own bodies targets for disease and injury. The question of why God intervenes in some situations and not others goes unanswered. But the logic of God’s goodness means we will never let anything evil move us further from God and closer to the enemy. In the face of every evil, we must proclaim God’s goodness. In every tragedy and attack of the enemy, our reflex must be to cling to God more tightly.

I have been pursuing God for fifty years and only now feel as though an unshakeable revelation of His goodness has possessed me body, soul, and spirit. Because God is good, I have decided to ask for everything His Word promises. (I have heard that God is a good father who won’t give me a scorpion if I ask for egg.) None of this seems radical until you begin doing it. When you start expecting your church gathering to have the power, love, and purity of the church in Acts, everything gets turned upside down.

Years of praying for that which I have not yet seen has not diminished my confidence that God is good, that He loves me, and that at any moment—maybe as I write this—His goodness will break through like the sun on a rainy Oregon day. I am unstuck and pressing on.

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