What I Saw – September 18, 2018

I met with my Tuesday morning pastors’ group for devotions today.  The Moravian Daily Text gave us John 1:1-13, which we read in the NASB.

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I find it difficult to hear God in texts that are too familiar.  I keep seeing the doctrines my Bible college professors taught me to see there.  This time, though, we all heard some significant things.

One of our group heard the term “creation” from verse 3.  That verse talks about Jesus’ participation in the creation of the world.  He understood from this that he is a creation of God, and thus must be loved by God since creators typically love their creations.

Another heard the term “testify” in verse 6.  She said that we have been called to testify to Jesus just as John did.  This idea was actually on my mind, too, as I had seen this commercial on TV while eating my breakfast:

She also connected this passage to the UP-IN-OUT triangle: verses 1-5 being UP, 7-8 being OUT, and 9-13 being IN.  She felt God was calling her to more OUT.

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At first, I just got a general vibe from this text that what God is offering me/calling me to is more than doctrines and beliefs and “going to Heaven when I die”.  I got the vibe that this is actually a story or a relationship.  As we continued to talk, though (and that’s why doing devotions in a group is so valuable), I realized that a finer point on this idea is that I am God’s child (verse 12) and that I can “rest” in being God’s child.  I don’t have to exhaust myself trying to earn some sort of status, as many people both outside and inside the church are doing.  I already have the greatest status there is, child of the Father King, and I can rest in that.  God is inviting me to rest in that, actually, inviting me to turn away from a lifestyle of competition and exertion that is destroying me.  It is an invitation I happily accept.

And that’s what I saw in our devotions today.

What I Saw – September 5, 2018

I met with several people from church on Wednesday night, September 5, 2018, to hear from God through the Scripture.

Following our traditional pattern, we read the Moravian Text’s New Testament reading for that day, which was Luke 20:39-51.

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This was a familiar passage.  Familiar passages can be difficult to use; they become too familiar to us; our familiarity with them keeps us from hearing God in them; we gloss over them or think we already know what they say.  But by reading slowly and looking at an unfamiliar translation (ESV), we were able to hear some interesting things.

Our attention was caught mostly by the fact that Jesus was praying.  We noticed that He was praying passionately even though He already received His answer (i.e., the cup would not be taken from Him).  We believed this was an indication that prayer is more than just asking God for things but is also a way to enter into the will of God.

This led us into the covenant triangle.

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We discussed the fact that obedience (which is what Jesus’ “thy will be done” prayer was) comes out of identity, which in turns comes from the Father’s acceptance/adoption of us.  We continued to discuss the fact that such obedience does not earn our identity but is an expression of our identity.  We noted that this obedience often comes through a time of prayer such as Jesus’ and takes a lot of trust.

After that, we asked what God might be calling us to do.  Since this was such a large message, I did not push anyone for a specific answer but allowed them to simply think about it.

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Here’s our whiteboard notes. The kids decorated it a little after we were done.

We finally concluded that this was not just a part of the Gospel story we all knew, nor was it even just a lesson God was trying to teach us.  We realized that this was actually Jesus living as a genuine disciple.  Yes, this is an example for us and can (and should) be used as such.  But it is a sincere example; Jesus did this not to teach us something (even though He does teach us in it) but because this is what disciples do; it is what He, as the premier disciple, needed to do at that moment.  Thus, such times of prayer, prayer offering submission to the will of God/a readiness to obey even in difficult circumstances, is what we need to do as well.

I was greatly encouraged by this devotional time.  I can’t wait for our next meeting on October 3rd.  I hope you can make it!

Making It, Getting Through, or Blooming

At some point in my Bible college career (earlier rather than later, I think), someone (I no longer remember who) gave me this advice:  “Never resign on Monday morning.”  What that long-forgotten person meant was that 1) Sunday can be discouraging for ministers and 2) Ministers should not act too quickly on that discouragement.  Most times, they shouldn’t act on it at all.

This advice was repeated and reinforced to me many times over the years, both by those ministers (almost always older than I) who simply said it to me verbatim and by those ministers (again, usually older than I) who didn’t follow it themselves, those ministers who let Sunday’s discouragement result in Monday’s premature resignation.  It was so common, I thought for sure I’d find some Internet meme about it.  I didn’t, but I did find this article from Thom Rainer which alludes to the idea:

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This came to mind this Monday morning.  I was driving (to an active shooter training session led by our local police department, of all things) and as I drove I was thinking about the discouragement I suffered during yesterday’s service.  That service was greatly discouraging for several reasons and, despite what I’ve been taught over the years and how well I was taught it, I was beginning to think of resignation.

As I thought about that, though, three phrases came to mind.

The first phrase was “making it”.  As I thought about resignation, I thought, “I’m just not going to make it in ministry.”  By make it there, I was referring to becoming what my home church would call “a big name pastor” or “a big man in the brotherhood”.  It is a celebrity minister, in other words.  We do live in an era of celebrity ministers.  I don’t know that we always did.  I don’t know that we always didn’t.  I don’t know when this thing of celebrity ministers came to be.  But I know it is now, and I know we’re living in that era now, and I know that most if not all of my fellow ministers believe that they need to/should be one.  I know that most if not all of my fellow ministers believe (whether they will state it directly or not) that they will be a failure if they don’t become one.  And I believe that as well.  I believe it subconsciously yet still actually.  I believe it should happen because I believe I have a message (a way of understanding The Faith) that should be heard by as many people as possible.  And I believe it should happen because I’ll be a failure if it doesn’t; that will be proof that I have chosen the wrong path in life.  And I’m beginning to believe it is not going to happen.  Unlike these people, I have developed the ability to see that I might not “make it”.

The second phrase was “getting through”.  As I sat there in my car, I thought, “If I can’t make it, maybe I can just get through it.”  That is, maybe I can just get through another twenty or so years of ministry, maybe I can survive long enough to build up a retirement and then get out.  That wasn’t the happiest thought I’d ever had.  I’ve always felt life had to have some purpose, some goal, some meaning.  “Getting through” seems to me to be the opposite of that.  “Getting through” seems to be a capitulation to the “fact” that it doesn’t have any of those things, or at least to the fact that those things are never going to be achieved.  “Getting through” is just “getting by”, “passing time”, a slow, sad death.  It’s like what The Beatles describe in “Eleanor Rigby”:

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So those were the first two phrases I hit on: one that seemed positive to me but also seemed unattainable, the other that seemed negative to me but also unavoidable.

But then another phrase came to me.  That phrase was “blossom where you’re planted”.  I first heard this phrase through a picture that the folks at the church I served while at college gave me when I moved off to start my first ministry.

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Or maybe it was “bloom”; I can’t remember and I’ve lost the picture.  Either one works.

And it seemed to me that this is more what the Lord is wanting from me, more what He hopes for me and from me.  I highly doubt “making it” is as good as it seems.  In fact, I highly doubt “making it” has any real place in the Kingdom and the life of faith.  It seems much more like a worldly idea to me, no matter what Christian skin we put on it.  I equally doubt “getting through” has any real place in the Kingdom and the life of faith.  While perhaps humbler, it is worldly in its own way.  No, the Lord/Kingdom/life of faith clearly want me to do something more like “blossom” or “bloom”.  They clearly want me to produce fruit or be fruitful.

Jesus talked about such fruitfulness at many times in His ministry, and Paul wrote about it often in the Epistles.  But perhaps the best reference to it comes from the Parable of the Sower (also called the Parable of the Soils).  There Jesus described three people types, all of whom reject or lose the Kingdom seed in some way.  Then He described a fourth people type, the type that not only accepts and keeps the Kingdom seed but multiplies it.  An interesting thing about that multiplication, though, is that it was never the same.  For some it was 30 times, for others 60, for others 100.

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There is no indication that the 100 times multipliers were any better or any more right than the 30 or 60 timers.  No greater or lesser favor seems to be shown to the multipliers here.  It is just the way it is.  Some did 100, but some did 30 and some did 60.  They all bloomed differently, but they bloomed where they were planted.  That’s what the Lord seems to be looking for.  Not the quantity of the blooming, but the simple act of it.

That’s an encouraging thought for me.  That’s something I can do.  It is something I am doing, even though I’m not making it and probably never will make it.  It is something I can do which makes getting through so much more than getting through.  It is something which keeps me from resigning on Mondays.

What I Saw – 2 Kings 4:15-28

My personal reading time gave me 2 Kings 1-5.  In those chapters, I found this passage 4:15-28).

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What I saw her was a woman who seemingly did not expect to receive goodness from God.  I can’t be sure that’s what is going on here (I’m always aware there might be elements in this historical stories that I miss which cause me to misinterpret), but that’s what it seemed like to me.  She somewhat rejected Elisha’s initial suggestion of receiving a son, and she references that rejection at the (temporary) death of her son.  It seemed to me like she didn’t expect God to give her anything good.

Whether or not that is the case for this woman, it is often the case for me.  For some reason, I don’t see God as “the giver of all good things”.  I don’t emotionally, that is.  Though I know the Scripture says this and I accept it intellectually, I struggle with it practically.

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This passage then reminded me to see God this way both intellectually and emotionally, to accept this truth practically, to believe that God will give good to me.  It reminded me to believe this not just when nothing is happening (as when Elisha first spoke to the woman) but when bad things are happening (as when her song died).  God is inviting me to not only know but trust that He is doing/will continue to do good to me, is giving/will continue to give good to me.

That’s what I saw in 2 Kings 4:15-28.

What I Saw – Luke 6:39-49

I met Tuesday morning with a group of pastors, as usual.  Our reading came from the Moravian Daily Text.  It was Luke 6:39-40.

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At first glance, this seems like a collection of disparate teachings.  The leader of our group suggested that this was a rabbinical style “string of pearls” teaching technique (apparently the rabbis wouldn’t teach for too long on one subject but would move from one to another to keep the people engaged).  Nonetheless, I saw a similar idea in most if not all of the teachings.  I saw several other ideas as well, which I recorded in my journal.

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The big thing I heard here is that most teachings have behind them the idea of a “good” or “fully trained” man.  This in turn lead to the question, “Am I good/fully trained?”  For me, this is a difficult question, one I’ve struggled with all my life.  I “feel” and/or believe the answer to be, “No.”  For that reason, I felt very challenged by these teachings.  I felt eliminated by them, in fact, as if they disqualify me or reveal my disqualification from the community of Christ.

As I continued to contemplate these things, I realized there is actually invitation here.  I think it comes when Jesus says “The student is above his teacher”.  With that, Jesus is eliminating all need for competition and comparison.  He is telling me that there is only so far I can go in this goodness/training, that I’m certainly not going to go further than or supersede Him (the teacher in question).  That being the case, I am free to pursue goodness and training without needing to wonder how much I and/or how much more I am than anybody else.  I took this to be an encouragement.  I saw, then, that Jesus was not eliminating me here (establishing that I am not good/fully trained) but encouraging me (asking me to pursue goodness/training).

One of the pastors in the group further suggested that this is not something we can do on our own, that goodness comes into us only from God.  I think this is suggested by the “foundation” idea Jesus ends the message on.  That foundation is obviously God/the teachings of God.  The man builds on it, puts some effort into setting himself upon it.  But that effort is only effective because God is there to begin with.

The main idea I took from this reading, then, is that God is an encourager, encouraging me to growth/training in His Kingdom.  The subsequent action I took from this reading was a need to ask God to make me good, to remove the evil stirred up in my heart/the plank in my eye/my blindness so that I can be good and fully trained as He is encouraging me to be.

And that’s what I saw in Luke 6:39-49.

Created Equal

I took my family to our local Six Flags amusement park last night.  I did so because A) we have a season pass and we need to get our money’s worth out of it and B) they were going to have a fireworks show.

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So we spent the afternoon there, having a good time together on the rides, enjoying the good weather.  When it came time for the fireworks, we discovered there was more to the show than just the visual part.  There was an audio part as well.  As the fireworks blasted across the sky, music blared out of the park’s outdoor speakers.  I can’t remember all the musical bits I heard, but I caught Ray Charles’ “America The Beautiful” and the Marine fight song and “God Bless America” (which I appreciated for obvious reasons).  There were some speeches mixed in there as well: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was one of them (and for those who accuse Christians of being racist or harboring racist tendencies, let me tell you that there were tears in my eyes as I stood there in the dark watching the fireworks surrounded by the many different nationalities and cultures we have in the Bay Area), and something from Ronald Reagan.

And then there was this:

That’s our Declaration of Independence.  I don’t think it was this version I heard (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, but I couldn’t find the one I heard and I really like Max McLean, so there you go).  And I love that Declaration of Independence.  For me, it is second in truth only to the Bible.  Besides God’s word, there is nothing as logical, factual, wise, and profitable for guidance than this Declaration.

That is particular true of this line:

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One thing I know about this line is that there are some variations.  One version of the Declaration read inalienable.  I think you can still find some people quoting it that way.  Another, more important thing I know about this line, though, is that it is not only “self-evidently true”, as Thomas Jefferson (or perhaps Benjamin Franklin, who may have suggested this phrase in place of “sacred and undeniable”) says it is, but it is also quite theistic.  It presupposes not only a God but a creator God.  It states not only that all men are equal but that this equality stems from God.

And I think that is the important thing for us to see here.  Not just that all men (re: all people) are equal, nor that all men are endowed with the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that all men are so equal and endowed because they are created by and thus indelibly connected to a creator God.  Indeed, the truth of equality and the further truth of rights can only be due to such a connection to a creator God.  It cannot come from an evolutionary understanding of the origin of man.  Equality and rights cannot be derived from a materialistic view of the universe (a view of the universe which eliminates the spiritual, which accepts the existence only of the material).  There is no equality in evolution, no basis for equality in materialism.  In fact, is evolution/materialism is true, if this is the correct origin and understand of man and the universe, then all men are certainly not equal.  What, after all, is the basis of evolution?  Survival of the fittest.  And what is survival of the fittest?  Superiority.  One organism being superior to another.  Greater than.  Better.

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Now maybe you’d like to limit this superiority to merely physical attributes, not personal ones.  I can understand why you might want to do that.  To begin to look at some individuals as superior to another is going to result in one way or another to “social Darwinism” (a phrase I first heard from my best friend in high school; he spit it out as if it were the most detestable thing he had ever heard of, taking me completely by surprise) and all the “evils” which follow in its way.  Nonetheless, I’m not sure what basis you have for limiting the concept in this way.  I’m sure none of us like social Darwinism (I’ve never personally met anyone who does, though I know there are people who promote related ideas).  But I’ve never had any non-theist explain why none of us dislike it so much, why it is wrong.  Looking at the “facts” of a materialistic/evolutionary understanding of origin and existence, I can’t imagine what basis they have for disliking it or resisting it.  I can’t imagine what basis they have for continuing to hold to this idea of equality which so obviously does not fit the mechanism of evolution.  I’m glad they do.  Really glad.  I just don’t understand why or even how.

As for me, though, I know the why and the how.  It is because of God who made us and put equal value on all of us.  I not only know that, but I love that.  I love equality.  I plan on celebrating it along with all the other wonderful aspects of the American value system tomorrow (and, yes, America has committed a lot of sins and has a lot of flaws, but its value system is indeed worth celebrating).  I’m sure you will as well.  As you do, though, understand why you are celebrating it (that’s why both practically and philosophically).  Understand that this equality can in no way come from “nature red in tooth and claw” but can only come and self-evidently does come from a Creator.

God’s Limitations

But, “Why?” isn’t going to go away completely, is it?  We are, again, irrevocably human and are going to keep asking this question whether it is the most pertinent or not.

And in my experience, one of the reasons we do this is because we believe God can stop or change anything He wants to.  We believe God can do this because we believe God can do anything, that there is nothing God can’t do.  Since there is nothing God can’t do, so God can (we thing) stop or change anything He wants to stop or change.  He can prevent all the bad things that happen to us and thus at least indirectly if not directly responsible for everything that happens to us.

I believe this is how we think.  I know it is how I think and I imagine that it might be how you think, so I believe this is how at least some of us think and thus the reason many of us continue to ask the question, “Why?”

And what we don’t realize is that this is completely wrong.

The fact of the matter is that God cannot do anything.  The fact of the matter is that there are things God can’t do.  Masie Sparks identified this fact in a little book called 101 Things God Can’t Do.  I read this book when I was fresh out of Bible college.  I found out this week it is has been updated to 151 Things God Can’t Do.

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And strange though it sounds, the premise of this book is true.  There are things the almighty, omnipotent God can’t do.

There are things He can’t do if He is to achieve His goal, that is.  There are things He can’t do if He is going to bring His art to its grand conclusion.  I think of God as an artist; I style myself as an artist (an author; I write or at least try to write novels and stories) and I accordingly think of God as an artist as well.  I think of Him operating as an artist.  I think of the universe He made an not only His art project but His unfinished art project, His work in progress.

And one thing I know about art is that it has limitations.  Art is about choices, and once certain choices are made, they by default eliminate other choices.  Say an artist decides he’s going to make a sculpture, going to sculpt a figure from clay or stone.  That’s great.  Notice what he has immediately done, though.  He has immediately eliminated the possibility of his art being in color. He has also eliminated the possibility of his art moving.  He has opened the possibility of his art having three-dimensions and being touchable, but he has eliminated the other things.

Say he decides to paint.  Now he gets color, but he loses three dimensions.

Say he decides to make a movie.  Now he gets color and motion and sound, but again loses three dimensions as well as touch.

Say he decides to write.  Now he loses touch and sound and color and image altogether, but gains the ability to directly communicate thought.

And on and on it goes.  Once an artist makes one decision, he limits himself from the ability to make other decisions.  And you find that not just in art but in other fields as well.  You find the same phenomena in engineering, by the way; once you decide to make a diesel truck you lose the ability to run it in the Indy 500.

We find these same limitations in God’s artwork, God’s engineering, God’s creation.  Once He chose to make us a certain way, He was naturally limited from doing certain things.  He can’t make a square circle (to use a childish example) because in the medium He chose things have definite shapes.  Maybe He could do that in a different medium, but He can’t do that in this medium.  He also can’t “break the fourth wall”.  If He does that, the work is ruined.  Nobody likes to see the artists in his work.  We wouldn’t like it if Van Gogh painted his thumbs into one of his paintings.  We hate it when we see a boom mike in a movie shot.

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It is the same with God.  There are things He can but can’t do, things He has the ability to do but is kept from doing by the nature of His art.  He talks about this Himself in one of Jesus’ well-known parables:

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“I can’t destroy the tares,” God says here.  “I could, but I’d destroy the wheat in the process.  So I could but I can’t.”

For some of us, this is a disappointment.  For others, it is an argument against God’s existence or goodness:

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Come on, guys.  There are way to many variables here.

The reality, though, is that this is just the nature of art (or engineering or any other creative feat).  And the best thing for us to do is to understand and accept that.  The best thing for us to do is submit to the artist in the knowledge and faith that He is making something wonderful.

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