Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Service with a smile

For the past four years I've been "mentoring" a young pastor named Blake.  I put the word mentoring in quotes because I often feel like he's far brighter, far more well-equipped for ministry than I am.  And he is certainly more of all the things we look for in a call than I could have hoped to be at 32.   Anyway, he gives me an exercise in humility every Thursday morning at 8 in a little restaurant not far from where he lives.   

Three days ago I came down with some kind of stomach flu-thing.  I called Blake on Thursday morning and told him I couldn't meet with him because I wasn't feeling well enough.  He was gracious and said it was no problem.  Thursday afternoon I had a cord of wood for our fireplace dumped in my driveway.  I looked at it all afternoon Thursday and just couldn't face moving it.  This morning I knew I had to.  I have three showings on our house on Saturday and the place has to look good.

I called Blake and my young friend Bobby (also someone I've mentored for 9 years) and asked if they could help me out in a jam.  Both said yes immediately.  It was Blake's and Bobby's good backs, strong arms, and cheerful hearts that ministered Christ to me today.  Blake called himself "The Engergizer Bunny".  I'd call it a servant heart.  Bobby I've come to expect it from.  It is part of his nature.  It is one of the ways he expresses his faith.   He has been there for me and for our family with physical assistance with our dog, our house, moving stuff, transporting people, more times than I can count.  He never complains -- ever.   A couple of servants.  You just never know where you'll find them.  

I guess Jesus was right with that business about the cup of cold water.

Thank you, God... for Bobby and Blake.  Oh... and thanks for the load of wood.

Jon

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Found my song

There's something about being reconciled to God. It really IS like what happened to the Lost Son in Jesus' story. One minute you're out eating corn husks because you think there is nothing better. The next you've got a robe and rings on and are dining at a feast set by your father.

I know the moment I started to step away from where I really should be with him. It was when I stopped singing and playing the piano for devotionals, and I'd hate to tell you how long ago that was. See, I'm Reformed by theology, but in my heart I'm an old arminian pietist. I need to constantly be reminded in my heart, in my deepest emotional places, of what God did for ME. And so I was converted reading Romans 5:8, and the song began. It isn't a performance thing. In fact, it has always been hard to coax me to do this in front of people because I get embarrassed (am I ashamed of my life with God?). Anyway, I just spent the most glorious 30 minutes singing to him... singing with him.

You might call this old hymn my "theme" song. I hope it touches your heart too.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

-- text by Thomas Moore, 1816

Power and Glory

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.
(I Chronicles 29:11)

Yesterday I went to see Tim Keller speak at Park Street Church in Boston.  I don't like to use words like "transformational" and "life-changing", but a couple of things he said as he spoke to a group of pastors certainly were.   Actually, "humbling" and maybe even "humiliating" might be better.   I won't cheapen the experience by writing about it here.  I just wanted to put down a marker so I'd know when it was.  I so want to go beyond knowing God.  I want to experience God.  I want to find -- just once in my life -- what I've told people for years, that he's all I need.   I haven't been giving him what is really due him, and I'm tired of it.

Jon

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Classic Call

Read: Isaiah 6

We talk about "call" in Christian circles like it was the most ordinary thing.  Everyone who is a believer these days is told whether literally or figuratively that they should sense a call to ministry.  So it isn't any big deal when God calls you... right?  Actually it is a VERY big deal when God calls you.  Take a look with me at Isaiah's situation:

When God called Isaiah the first thing that happened was that Isaiah "saw the Lord".  We live in a time when people want to see almost anything before they'll want to see the Lord.  There's a lot of hot air out there from people (I provide a good deal of this pollution myself) talking about God and offering seminars and sermons on how to know him.  But what would happen if you or I actually came in contact with the God Isaiah saw?  He is "high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple."  Now THAT is one cathedral-length train, for those of you who have ever gone wedding dress shopping.  

There were angels (seraphim) flying above God in Isaiah's vision.  It doesn't say exactly how many.  Most times I think about this scene I want it to be down-sized so my brain can take it in.  Maybe there are 2 angels, right?  I don't think so.  In Matthew, when Christ's birth is announced to a group of lowly shepherds on a hillside it says a "multitude of the heavenly host" showed up.  Seems to me that if that's what people see on a warm June night off in one corner of the Middle East, if you were taken into the very throne-room of God you'd see a whole lot more!  

So here is Isaiah standing... well... prostrate before God and a host of six-winged creatures who never sinned but who, in the presence of a holy God keep their faces covered out of respect and awe, and the effect on Isaiah is total: "I am undone.  I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips."  The number one thing Isaiah is thinking is that this is going to be the last moment of his life.  But that's not what happens.  Instead, in the midst of Isaiah's agony before God, the Lord sends one of the angels to minister to him, to cauterize his lips (the offending organ in Isaiah's confession), and to take away his sin.  

Do I really allow myself to come in contact with a holy God?  Or am I merely trying to live according to the rules (well... trying to bend the rules to my own pleasure while trying to make it look like I'm holy to everyone else)?  A call from God is a call to holiness.  It is a call to BE in the presence of God.  I don't make myself "better" in order to engage in ministry.  In fact, I shouldn't be praying that God would "convict me of sin and make me better."  I should be praying, "God, take me into your presence.  Let me experience YOUR holiness," and the rest will follow naturally.  

Are you called to ministry?  Great.  I hope you hear his voice.  But "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years."  I can play fast and loose with God's law in my heart while preaching righteousness and become nothing more than a moralizing fool, or I can simply allow myself to enter into The Presence and engage with him and do what Isaiah did: simply share what he saw.

Jon

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where's the Power?

READ: John 15:5

I'm standing in The Apple Store in West Hartford, CT.  It is nearly noon and I'm just getting to filing my "morning" watch.  The purpose of this devotional, for those of you who may be joining us for the first time, is to keep me on track spiritually.  Why publish it to everyone?  One friend of mine has said that he thinks God called him to preach because if he wasn't constantly reminding himself of the essential truths of the faith sin would run so rampant in his life he would be useless to the church.  Being in the word on a regular basis gives me power for the day.

That brings me back to why I'm loitering about in The Apple Store.  When I left Nottingham, NH yesterday to spend my "weekend" back in Connecticut, I thought, I really thought I had everything I needed.  Living in two places really messes you up sometimes.  I have my home in CT and your "life" in NH -- all except Jama.   So, as you can imagine, I was really motivated to get back to where she was last night.   Somewhere around Worcester I had a funny feeling like there was something important I had left at the church.  When I stopped for gas I realized what it was: the power supply for my Mac.   I checked the battery life this morning and it was clear that I either needed to purchase another power supply ($79) or do what I'm doing... standing here surfing the web while my Mac charges up on one of the power supplies here in the store.  

Running off into your day without spending time with Christ is a lot like what I did last night.  At first you don't think anything of it.  You're in a hurry to get to the next place.  I call this the tyranny of the urgent.  Getting to work on-time this morning is more important than spending time with the Lord.   A little later you get the nagging feeling like something isn't quite right.  Your power levels don't seem to be just where they should be.  But, you reason, everything's okay.  You must be imagining it.  It isn't until much later when you pull off the freeway of life for lunch or a break that you are able to remember what it is you forgot.  "I should have spent time with Christ this morning."  Now you'd like to, but you're still too busy.  Only if you had taken the extra time and planned ahead at the beginning would you have had the amount of time to do this without everything else getting in the way.   

It turns out that for most of us the worst thing we can do for our devotional life is what many of us do: we leave the power source at home day after day.  Then, when the battery is completely drained we go to a conference or a mid-week service or a small group expecting we can recharge the battery there and save ourselves the extra "expense" of doing it on our own.   How would the church change if every believer came to church "all charged up?"  What would our small groups look like if we were each daily in the Word and in prayer and in fellowship with Christ?   I can tell you it wouldn't be a bunch of posers sitting around trying to look spiritual.  It would be a group of people who know that apart from Christ they can do nothing leaning on him and learning to let him minister through their brothers and sisters in a profound way.

Still charging...it takes a while when the battery is down.

Jon

Sunday, August 17, 2008

James 3:3

"If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well."

Every once in a while I think I may have found a verse that you can't really dig into and find out something new. For a second I thought this was one of those verses like Nehemiah 7:69, "their camels 435, and their donkeys 6,720." And after you get over laughing, even THAT verse reveals the size of herds in ancient Israel and... okay... maybe there isn't a spiritual point in it.

James 3:3 though makes an important point. The purpose of a bit in a horse's mouth is to guide, not to cause pain. The bit sits in a space between teeth so that even when the horse's mouth is shut tight it isn't hurting the horse. In training a child a wise parent will never use the words "Shut up!" even when the free-flow of verbal diarrhea makes the parent feel they may drown in the muck. What we should be doing is channeling all that learning capacity into a series of teachable moments. If the "bit" we put in our kids' mouths is a gentle one they will grow into inquisitive people who really want to engage with their environment in positive ways. If, on the other hand, we squelch their desire to learn or shut them up with TV, or worse, with food, we will soon rue the day we put the bit in their mouth for the pain it causes. I always thought I had been pretty even-handed with my 2 kids. But at a critical time in the grade-school years there were just enough times when I had my younger one, Beth, in the car when I was trying to have a serious discussion with one of the teens I was mentoring where in the moment I told her to sit quietly and read, that she felt, not the gentle bit of guidance, but the painful bit of a parent who simply wanted an immediate outcome. We've discussed it over the years and forgiveness has been offered and received, but I know the hurt was very definitely there, and it is one of the deep regrets of my life.

We all need the bit of guidance. We need to know the discipline of not being so "direct" with people that we hurt them, of not saying "anything that comes to mind". Spontaneity is great at the right time. We all need to learn when the right time is. None of us is perfect. No one is so aware and so gracious that they always say the right thing. Look at the poor guys who are vying for the presidency right now!

I may not agree with everything either of them says, but how would you like to have every word you say scrutinized and discussed and parsed and graded? After the remarkable forum at Saddleback Church, the talking heads actually gave John McCain more points for his choice of the three wisest people in his life than they gave Barak Obama because Obama's list was his grandmother, mother, and wife and McCain's list was a general, a civil rights leader, and a business CEO. Actually, now that I think of it, the two lists are the same! This may seem like a cliché, but in African-American society over the last 50 years or so, very often a grandmother needed to be a general, mom has had to be a civil rights leader, and frankly, black or white, most wives of the post-war 20th century needed to be CEO's.

But now I'm running on. Maybe I'd best put that bit back in my mouth.

Jon

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A New Ministry/New Life

I don't know how many people actually read these musings, but I thought I should take a moment and chronicle the most amazing move of God I've seen in the past couple of years in terms of God guiding Jama and me in ministry and our lives.  

It all started back on May 14th.  That day Jama noticed a church looking for a pastor on MinistryList.com, which is a sort of 'clearinghouse' that mates churches looking for ministry positions of all kinds with people looking for those ministries.  It was a really different ad, and that's why it caught her attention.  They were looking for a 3/4-time pastor (and since I know how to waltz, we figured a little Strauss would be good).   She showed it to me and noted that the next day was the last day to apply.  So as a matter of course I put my name in.  I hadn't been actively looking for a pastorate, but my mentor Bob Frederick (who is 77 and an awesome encouragement to me) and my partner in ministry Steve Poole at Vision New England had been quietly oodging me toward taking a pastorate for months.  I love those guys!  How pushy.  What do they know?  Sheesh.  

So I applied ON the 15th.  

Two weeks later, on a Tuesday, I got an email from the correspondent from the Pastoral Search Committee of Nottingham Congregational Christian Church (a CCCC congregation -- my denomination) asking if they could arrange a phone interview for the following evening.  When they called we talked for over an hour and I felt the great sense of freedom to say exactly what I thought on a wide range of topics.  When I hung up the phone I was excited... and guarded.  I have been through enough search processes to know that a phone call means very little.

Then, about a week later I got an email from the search committee again.  "We like what we've seen and we'd like to go to the next step.  Would you be able to come for a face-to-face this weekend?"  You don't say no to something like that.

I've got to tell you at this point that I resisted the IDEA of my being the pastor of a local church for nearly 23 years.  I was in entrepreneurial ministry -- missions work.  Para-church ministry people rarely have a positive view of the local church and vice versa.  How sad that pride is our necklace.  We ought to wear the perfume of Christ upon our necks and nothing else.  No vain jewelry should adorn that which only the sweet kiss of the Savior should adore.  It seems to me now that God was gently preparing me these last couple of years so that I would become thirsty for the local Body like a man, deprived of his dearest companions for years, who finally one day walks into a pub and there they are!  That first draft with those friends will be the sweetest he ever drank.

Jama and I went up to Nottingham that Saturday unsure of what we were walking into, but already beginning to feel something was percolating.  When we first drove into town it was overcast and threatening rain.  We had asked for clear direction from God.  The deeper we drove into the woods the more nervous we felt.  We were suburban people.  How would I ever work as the pastor of a small church in a small town?  Where would we find friends?  But as I sat with the committee (Jama went and explored during the interview) I just felt... connection.  At the end of the interview they took us upstairs (yes, it is a 2 room church) to see the meetinghouse.  It only seats 120 -- packed.  Again I was nervous about the fit.  As we drove away we had more questions than answers.  All that connection.  What WAS that if we didn't fit in a small town?

Another week went by.  Another phone call.  The committee liked what they saw.  They were arranging for me to preach in a neutral pulpit in Tyngsboro, MA the following Sunday.  Could I be ready in 4 days?  Um... sure.  

All my doubts fled away after the service that morning when Jama and I went to lunch with the committee.  That was when we started to feel "at home".  They liked us and we liked them.  There was no-two-ways about it.   We simply felt something.

At the end of the next week I got the phone call that at this point I was really wishing for: a candidating weekend was being arranged for July 25-27.   We would be put up in the home of one of the search committee members, go to the men's breakfast (Jama went out with some women as well), meet with the finance committee, go house hunting, have a barbeque with the whole congregation followed by a Q&A session.  I would preach on Sunday morning and then meet with the Elders.  By the time the weekend was over we were totally sold.  The Elders meeting didn't feel like I was a candidate.  It felt like it was my first Elder Board meeting as Pastor.   We hugged in the parking lot of the restaurant we met at and there was great emotion felt by all.  We didn't want to leave.  We had come home.

This past Sunday (August 3) the church voted on whether to call me as pastor.  They called just as soon as church was over.  The vote was unanimous -- including absentee ballots.  What a thrill!  

I will begin as Pastor of Nottingham Congregational Christian Church on Tuesday, September 2nd, and I couldn't be more grateful to God for the process, the people, the place, and the power of his love.

Yours in Christ,

Jon 
  

Thursday, July 31, 2008

James 3:2

"For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. "

I find it interesting what the Scriptures define as "perfect". Or maybe I should say I find it interesting how ready WE are to accept our own preconceived notions of what words mean. It doesn't take much digging to really understand the Scriptures. To reference 3:1, I think the way we who teach will be strictly judged is when we fail to really dig. And there is a greater responsibility in this technological age because we have so much more good scholarship available to us than even one generation ago.

When I was just starting out as a Christian I remember sitting in the living room of the leader of a Bible study I was attending. They pulled out several books they were using to do research. What they produced proved to be a huge breakthrough for me in Biblical understanding. That day I took the brochure for Christian Book Distributors (CBD) and DROVE from Connecticut to Delaware in order to get to a Christian book warehouse where I could purchase Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich's Lexicon of Greek Words, a greek New Testament, and a newly published book that was a New Testament keyed to 4 or 5 of these study texts. I was set. It all cost me probably $200 in 1977 money. Today, if you purchase a $20 copy of the ESV Bible you get a free link to Bible software that does everything I just shared and about five times more. So we have no excuse for not understanding biblical language. I STILL don't read or understand much Greek or Hebrew. And I'm a pastor.

Okay, back to the text. The word being used here for "perfect" is teleios, which is often referenced as the root word for what Jesus said as he hung on the cross: "It is finished" -- teleo. The word bears the connotation of fullness or completeness, not so much the idea of perfection the way you and I might think of it. Here in James it is probably more accurate to say that if someone doesn't stumble in what he says he is "mature" (think of corn when it is ready to pick).

For years I had a problem. It was tied to personal insecurity and immaturity. In personal discussion or when meeting new people I would become so inwardly nervous about how I was to be viewed that I would end up saying outrageous things. I once told a bartender he was ugly because I was nervous about how to impress the girl was with. What a geek, you say. Perhaps, but the real problem was that I hadn't learned how to bridle my tongue. That was never a problem in my teaching of Scripture. THERE I was confident. THERE I knew who I was. You know... the only place I still revert to that kind of unbridled talk is when I'm on AIM chatting with people. What a great leveler of people IM is! We ALL become jerks on instant message.

Paul says to Timothy "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness." What is maturity if not knowing what to say and when to say it? Tim Keller has a whole audio series out on Wisdom, mostly using materials from Proverbs. I recommend it highly. You can find it at www.redeemer.com. Keller defines wisdom as "competence with respect to the 80% of life where the rules don't apply." It isn't in the exegesis of Scripture that we falter first. It is in the exegesis of our LIFE that we get it wrong. We don't rightly interpret the mysteries of God as displayed in our own being and so we misread the signals. We know we want food, so we become gluttons. We enjoy a drink with our friends and so become drunkards in the name of "fun". Our body is telling us we want sex and so we elevate that impulse to the highest place in our life and become addicted to our impulses in all sorts of ways. And we let our tongue have free reign in our life because we think we're simply being "direct". And I'm not talking about unbelievers here. I'm talking about what whores we are as Christians with respect to Him who is the lover of our souls.

When will we become mature? The world is dying for a church filled with people whose first love really IS Jesus.

Jon

Monday, July 21, 2008

James 3:1

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

Aw maaaaaaan. I'm just not feelin' this verse. That's like a real bummer, man. The dude is like messin' with my head. 'Cause like, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan... dudes don't want The Rev. to be all starchy and hung up and all. They want the boss-man to be chill and cool and into the groove like everyone else.

Okay. Well... maybe not.

Actually, the word "teacher" here is didaskalos. I've heard this passage used to suggest that pastors are held to a higher standard by God than the people of the congregation. Using the test we have been working with (remember the five solas) we know this can't be the case. There is no hierarchy in heaven. ALL will be judged solely on the merits of Christ. But that doesn't save them from being greater targets in the courts of the human tongue!

Jesus railed against the Pharisees, calling them "blind guides" and saying that once they found a convert they made them "twice as fit for hell" as they themselves were. Again, with a nod to Lewis' Screwtape, there is no lowerarchy in hell. You don't actually receive a more severe punishment for being really bad. The reward is the same: the wages of sin (any, all, one, several) is death. But ah! When Jesus publicly called out the Pharisees for their error it was a great example of the particularly potent form of judgment that only He whose counsel is in the heavens with God could offer. For Jesus was in a position to offer that legal decision and find them wanting. And all who presume to teach the doctrine of the faith to others need to understand that their work will be scrutinized and guard their tongues carefully to be sure they are properly representing God.

Jon

Friday, July 18, 2008

James 2:26

"For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. "

One of the saddest things to see or experience is when a person intentionally disconnects from the One who gives them life. This shows up first in a denial of gifting. I have known several young worshipers -- people for whom worship is more than just an activity -- who have placed other loves above their first love. The first "tell" that they're not where they were designed to be is that they stop singing. They (or I, and I'll get to this in a second) start off by saying something that sounds intellectual and oh-so-mature like, "I've moved beyond that."

What? You moved beyond breathing?

A quick look at the Greek of this sentence reveals it. Another way of wording the first clause is, "As the slave apart from the breath is dead..." This is a different word for "slave" than we're used to. A household servant was a "doulos." This is a person whose position in society made them subservient to those over them. They were alive completely apart from their master, they simply had no rights to do what they liked or go where they wanted. But a "soma" was nothing more than a machine. The car without an engine is just a body (soma); the computer without a hard drive is just a body (soma); a clock case without works is just a body (soma), and I can direct my doulos (slave) to install an engine, a hard drive, a clock works into the bodies of these slave devices. See?

I enjoy conducting choirs, but that's not my breath, it is not my spirit. I can walk away from conducting anytime I want and not feel much of a loss. But when I walked away from pastoring on a regular basis it had the effect of silencing my spirit. I didn't notice it at first. I could get something of the same feeling from going to worship and singing. Jama noticed long ago that when I was just "in" the congregation I always sang louder than everyone else -- like I was showing off. Compensating is more like it.

I was gifted to be a pastor and within that gifting God uses me in a few very specific ways: to lead others into worship, to preach the Word, to disciple and mentor others. When we Christians talk about "gifting" we might as well say "breathing". I intentionally shut Musicon down in May, 2006 because I saw that God was bringing that ministry to an end. But I was also mad at God (didn't know it) because he had brought it to an end. I breathed that ministry. It was natural to me. Doing it used all of my spiritual breath (gifts). The mistake I made was that I couldn't see beyond that one expression. So I repeatedly said "no" to other forms of ministry. I continued to mentor. But I was cynical toward the organized church. THEY weren't doing it like we did. But in the absence of the framework of worship and preaching my mentoring has been pretty wobbly. In retrospect I'd have to say it was because I just didn't want to move on. I couldn't conceive of life after Musicon. And it has taken me two years to come back in sync with where my breath lies. You can say that "works" don't save us, and academically and theologically you'd be right. But God has wired us to breathe. He has hard-wired our bodies (soma) for spirit (pneuma)! Without that breath our body is only a shell.

Have you ever been thrown into a pond or pool and didn't have time to take a proper breath? I once voluntarily got onto a "water slide" (diabolus machinae, if you ask me). It was basically a drain pipe the evil masterminds at "Action Park" had put up on a hill about half a mile away from where it was going to dump you out. It looked innocent enough to me. The thing I wasn't prepared for was that it "dumped" you about 20 feet above the water. Not being a swimmer of much skill, when I hit the water it totally took my breath away. I became disoriented and tried to breathe under water. Not a great idea. On instinct I shot straight up for what seemed like an eternity. When my head finally cleared waterline I was gasping, choking, sputtering... but I was breathing. Glorious, sweet, clear, AIR.

These past months I've been more and more aware of a suffocating feeling gathering around me. I've been under water trying to breathe. God has been building in me a desire -- no! A desperation for the sweet air of his spirit. I'm coming to believe that he has been saving this little church in New Hampshire for me. And I expect that the sign from God that this is the next move in ministry for Jama and me will be that I won't just go willingly or obediently. For God has cleared out all the cynicism and pride that twenty-five years in "para-church" ministry had left me. And while I know that no place is perfect and there will be challenges galore leading this new church, I expect the sign of His call to me will be the feeling of breathing glorious, sweet, clear, AIR.

Jon

Thursday, July 17, 2008

James 2:24

"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."

I want to suggest a dangerous thought about biblical interpretation and see how it plays. For years (and I don't really know how many... could be all the way back to the Reformation) we have been taught to accept that everything in the Bible is "true." When we say it that way most of us assume that means that everything found in the Scriptures is somehow the way God wanted it. But let's examine that for a second.

Assuming that all of the events recorded in the Bible actually happened as reported, and I have no reason to assume otherwise, with the possible exception that Job may be allegorical and not historical, that takes care of one meaning of the word "true." It is therefore true that Jacob had two wives and two other lovers who bore him a total of 12 sons (and probably as many daughters, we'll never know). But does/did God approve that kind of behavior? It is also true that there was a very strict code in Old Testament law about not eating shrimp or pork. Am I disobeying God when I enjoy those foods? This level of "true" is things that are placed, as the writer of Hebrews says, "for our instruction," though not for our obedience.

There's a third batch of things that are "true," and the present verse is, I believe, an example of just such a thing. If we miss the understanding of how to read these things it will seriously mess up our faith. It is true that James wrote "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." But that doesn't make the doctrine of justification by faith alone hogwash. Ask the question: Is the statement something to itself build a doctrine on? Do we Christians generally accept sola fide as a tenant of our faith? Yes. But we also generally act as if the exact opposite was true. Why? Because somewhere deep inside we know that it would be as great a sham for us to declare faith in Christ and not live it out as if two people "married" and never ever had sex, or if someone bought a car but just left it in the driveway and walked even though they had the car right there. Though I'll admit that with gasoline prices where they are that is tempting, but isn't all that practical.

I am compelled to say that, while true, I can't build a sound doctrine off of either this verse OR a verse like Titus 3:5 "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit." I have to balance the two -- even search the Scriptures for other verses that add depth to the doctrine. Only then will I be on firm ground.

Jon

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

James 2:23

"and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness—and he was called a friend of God."

Abraham took a proposition about God and acted upon it.

Isaiah 41:8-10
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

At the beginning of Isaiah 41:8 God addresses his Israel and then, half a sentence later, addresses them as Jacob. He is reminding his people of the name-change from "One who supplants" to "Wrestles with God." It was IN Jacob's wrestling -- in finally engaging with God in a physical way -- that Jacob's future is formed. Then he addresses them as offspring of Abraham. The play on the change from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many nations) is evident. And God's sovereign choice of us to be his people is shown in the passage; and we are told not to fear; and we are promised strength, help, and support (an allusion to the Trinity, I think: strength=father, help=holy spirit, support=son). James is saying that "Abraham believed God"="Abraham moved when God told him."

What do I do? I so often sit, frozen in fear because I can't quite make the leap from Jacob to Israel, from Abram to Abraham. And so I find it is safer to sit on my couch and let everything fall apart (or not) around me than to act decisively because I am sure that God is my father and I am beloved. Will I ever come to the place where he calls me his friend?

Jon

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

James 2:22

"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;"

Sometimes I think theologians "overthink" passages like this. I've been sitting here staring at this for the longest time trying to make it say something profound. Really all it says is that faith requires an action in order for it to be anything more than theoretical. By implication it is also saying that you wouldn't be tempted to call something you do to a "work" unless you were a believer.

The first statement is easy: you wouldn't even bother to own a TV unless you believed in radio waves. But just believing in radio waves and owning a TV won't get you any closer to receiving the information that's available on the tube. What gets you the information is a "work" -- getting out of your chair and turning the darned thing on! Well... actually... these days you can use the remote. But it is still a "work" motivated by faith in radio waves. In fact, I've seen people who know perfectly well that the power is off or there's a problem with the cable actually sit in their chair and periodically push the button, so strong is their faith in the power of radio waves to bring information and entertainment into their homes.

I had a friend once who, when he was a teen, you'd walk into his home after school and the TV would be on in the den... and in the kitchen... and in his parent's room. That wouldn't be all that strange, except that no one was home. You might say, "Wow. What an exercise of faith! They believe so much in the power of TV that even when they're not there they leave it on in the hope that someone may come along, see the TV and become a believer themselves!" Personally, I'd say, "Wow... what a waste of electricity." You can be the biggest believer in the power of TV and yet still totally waste the effect of it.

Now, the converse is a little harder to see. What is the value of "works" apart from faith? This is the whole question of where we derive what our modern age calls "meaning in life." These days there's a terrible contradiction going on in our culture. Everyone is searching for the meaning, so they join the Peace Corps, become environmentalists, give away large sums of money to social causes (ie: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), start colleges, go to museums, have families, love people. But many of those same people believe deep in their heart that when you die, you're dead and that's the end. They believe life as we know it is just the random product of the most colossal stroke of dumb luck and well... here we are. But if there is no God -- in fact, if there is not YHWH, the one God who is personal and created the universe into nothing and sustains it by the word of his power -- if THAT God is not there, then what is the meaning?

"For the betterment of humankind." Screw humankind. I'm not that virtuous. If God hasn't spoken truly in His word and through his Son... "To become one with the universe?" Thanks, I'll pass. It isn't that impressive anyway. And so I have to agree with Pastor Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC) when he says, "If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, have the guts to admit that your life is insignificant."

The moment we seriously work our way through these thoughts, we are led to the conclusion that works without faith is meaningless. It just can't be an either/or. It MUST be a both/and; faith and works walking hand-in-hand, or neither makes any sense at all in this world.

Jon

Friday, July 4, 2008

James 2:21

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?"

I told you it was going to be a bumpy night.

But here is the reason I reminded us of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Scripture is its own interpreter. That means that we must test every Scripture by and with Scripture. Any verse taken in isolation can be made to say nearly anything. So I can immediately come up with a verse that says the complete opposite: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:20) And Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. "

Certainly, if anyone could be justified by his works, it would be Jesus. What are we to do with Jesus' teaching (it isn't really a parable because he's being pretty plain about his meaning) on the sheep and the goats, "Then he will answer them, saying, Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Keith Green's chilling ending to his interpretation of Matthew 25 haunts us: "And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this scripture, is what they did, and didn't do!"

The church, just like culture itself, goes through "swings". Over the past 60 years or so words like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" came to be associated with people steeped in biblical teaching but really short on social action. Meanwhile the word "liberal" meant people who rolled up their sleeves and got involved in social causes but whose theology was so general as to make many churches indistinguishable from chapters of The Lions' Club. Over the past 10 years or so that has begun to seriously change. A new generation of the church has grown up that is quietly reminding us that it isn't an either/or proposition. It has always been a both/and.

We must not do "works" in an effort to please God. That is what is clear from Paul's argument about Justification by Faith in Romans. But we must not presume that works are irrelevant or unnecessary to salvation any more than baptism is unnecessary or regular attendance at the Table of the Lord is unnecessary. At the very least, having the Spirit of Christ in us ought to so annoy us into "doing the right thing" for our neighbor that we can't walk away when need is before us.

Young Christians today are wearing the badge of "radical" proudly. This survey of the Scriptures on faith and works confirms that we do need to be radicals. We need to be radically balanced.

Jon

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

James 2:20

"Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?"

Before we can go any further in this text I want to do a bit of review about, as the liturgy says, "those things which we most surely believe". Most of the Reformation traditions agree on five latin phrases as central expressions of the bedrock of our common faith. They are usually called the five "solas":

Sola Scriptura
The understanding that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are "the only rule for life and faith" -- and that Scripture is its own interpreter and needs no external explanation from sources such as church councils, bishops, or the Pope.

Sola Fide
That salvation is by faith alone and that no work done in the flesh by us can add to or help us merit the declaration by God that we are righteous.

Sola Gratia
Salvation is by grace alone and through no merit on the part of the believer. We are all worthless before God because of our sin. It is totally by his gift that any of us is saved and there is no requirement in the nature of man or of God that he choose to save any particular one of us.

Solus Christus
Salvation is through (or by) Christ alone. There is no other mediator, either priest, Pope, or saint who has anything to do with our salvation (this doctrine was especially important in establishing the protestant teaching that rejects as heresy any cult of the worship of Mary).

Soli Deo gloria
The teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action.

Okay. Everyone take a deep breath. As Lauren Bacall said in All About Eve (1950), "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night" for the five solas as we look at the core of James' teaching on faith and works.

Jon

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

James 2:19

"You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!"

There are two verses referenced by this one verse. The first is the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart." And the second is Philippians 2:10-11 "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

It think that at least in part James is addressing a divisionist view of the Trinity. "You show me your works and I'll show you my faith" is sort of like saying "I have the Father (faith in what is unseen) and you have the Son (the works of God through Christ)." And he is quick to put the lie to that sort of talk. God IS ONE. Any Jew of the first century knew his meaning immediately. And isn't there more than just a touch of sarcasm in his next phrase, "even the demons believe and tremble." It is like telling his audience just how stupid their assertion is that God can be divided. "You're all Jews. You believe that 'God is One' (and recite it daily, by the way). That's pretty smart. But then you talk about faith apart from works? Dur. Even a demon in hell knows you can't take God apart that way. At least THEY aren't trying to be philosopical about it."

The statement in James 2:18 really does sound like William F. Buckley might have said it with his best mummy-and-daddy-sent-me-to-Yale accent. "There is faith, and you can have your faith in the Father. And there are works, and I'll have my faith in the Son. You see? There are many ways to God." James just blasts that kind of intellectualism right out of the water.

We need to apprehend the whole of the Trinity in our faith. We need to know the God who is unseen and yet made visible in the works of Creation, who is untouched and yet known in the lives of his people, who is unfelt and yet experienced daily as his Spirit moves people from the heart.

Jon

Monday, June 30, 2008

James 2:18

"But someone will say, You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."

Embedded in this verse is the seed of a doctrine of universal salvation, if you want to look at it a certain way. James is quick to dismiss that possibility because he clearly tells us that faith without works is ineffectual, but just for a moment let's entertain the thought.

He writes, "someone will say...you have 'faith' and I have 'works'." While I have emphasized the way this verse reads to highlight the point I'm about to make, I don't think this emphasis is beyond the text. This text, in fact, seems tailor-made for the culture in which we live today. I can't tell you the number of people I know who would say Jesus is my savior, but that doesn't mean he has to be everyone's savior. The argument is then broadened from salvation being by works or by grace to salvation being via wholly other means. I don't think there are very many buddhists out there who believe Buddha saves them. And there shouldn't be ANY Islamists out there who believe Mohammad is savior. These men were prophets and/or expositors of a religious or philosophical system. There are, they say, many paths to God. Jesus is just one of them.

But there are so many things Jesus said and did that make this argument so improbable.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me."
"I and the Father are one."
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
"Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (spoken before the crucifixion and resurrection)

I just don't think these are the words of someone who intended us to believe there are many paths to God.

But now I'm starting to create an argument. And you can't argue someone into the Kingdom. I can, however, let my works speak for themselves and lead a person to faith! And my faith in Christ certainly can inspire others to good works. And so the principle of faith WITH works comes forward. Both are necessary for salvation.

Jon

Friday, June 27, 2008

James 2:15-17

"If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

Back in 1981 one of the prophetic voices speaking to the church was a man named Keith Green. Those of you who were born after he died in 1982 in a plane crash may not know his music, but it had that classic ability to speak deeply across the generations. I'm drawn to his interpretation of Matthew 24:31-46 still.

If you want to hear something powerful, call it up on you tube and listen along with the lyrics. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5wUDgDEOmg). It is called simply,

"The Sheep and the Goats"

And when the Son Man comes, and all the Holy Angels with him,
Then shall he sit on His Glorious throne,
And he will divide the nations before Him,
As a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
And she shall put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left,
And He shall say to the sheep; come ye, blessed of My Father,
inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world,
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink
I was naked, and you clothed me,
I was a stranger, and you invited me in,
I was sick, and I was in prison, and you came to me.
Thank you! Enter into your rest.

And they shall answer Him, yes, they shall answer Him,
And they'll say, Lord, when?
When were you hungry Lord, and we gave you something to eat?
Lord, when were you thirsty? I can't remember. And we gave you drink?
Huh, when were you naked Lord, and we clothed you?
And Lord, when were you a stranger and we invited you in?
I mean, we invited lots of people in Lord. I could never forget that face.
And Lord, when were you sick and we visited you?
Or in prison, and we came to you? Lord, tell us?
In as much as you did it to the least of my brethren, you've done it unto me.
Oh yes, as much as you've done it to the very least of my brethren,
you've done it, you've done it unto me. Enter into your rest.

Then He shall turn to those on His left, the goats.
Depart from me, you cursed ones, into everlasting fire,
prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was naked, out in the cold, in exposure, and you sent me away,
I was a stranger, and I knocked at your door,
But you didn't open, you told me to go away,
I was sick, racked in pain upon my bed,
And I begged, and prayed, and pleaded that you'd come, but you didn't,
I was in prison, and I rotted there,
I'd prayed that you'd come.
I heard your programs on the radio, I read your magazines, but you never came.
Depart from me!!!

Lord, there must be some mistake, when?
Lord, I mean, when were you hungry Lord and we didn't give you something to eat?
And Lord, when were you thirsty, and we didn't give you drink?
I mean, that's not fair, well, would you like something now?
Would one of the Angels like to go out and get the Lord a hamburger and a coke?
Oh, you're not hungry, yeah, I lost my appetite too.
Uh Lord uh, Lord, when were you naked,
I mean Lord, that's not fair either Lord,
We didn't know what size you wear.
Oh Lord, when were you a stranger Lord,
You weren't one of those creepy people who used to come to the door, were you?
Oh Lord, that wasn't our ministry Lord. We just didn't feel led, you know?
Lord, when were you sick? What did you have, anyway?
Well, at least it wasn't fatal; oh, it was?
I'm sorry Lord, I would have sent you a card.
Lord, just on last thing we want to know,
When were you in prison Lord? What were you in for anyway?
I had a friend in Leavenworth..

ENOUGH!

In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me.
In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me. Depart from Me.
And these shall go away into everlasting fire.
But the righteous into eternal life!

And my friends, the only difference between the sheep
and the goats, according to this scripture,
is what they did, and didn't do!

Jon

Thursday, June 26, 2008

James 2:14

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?"

For years as I was growing up I passed the small chest of drawers in our livingroom. Above it there was a curio cabinet hung on the wall. I never really thought about those two pieces until one day when I was about 20 I sat down on the couch and looked up. There they were. The same two pieces, yet totally different for the moment, revealed in the light of whatever thought I was having as something different -- though not finer -- than they ever had been before.

The juxtaposition of faith and works in James 2:14 is just like that cabinet and chest. I've grown up as a believer casually walking past these words and not giving them much thought beyond what I knew them to be. Faith without works is dead. Standard and understood as part of evangelical thought.

But wait! What is the context of these words? James hasn't been talking about doing good deeds. He hasn't been urging us on to philanthropy or service projects or missions. He's been talking about the most pedestrian thing in the world and yet one of the highest callings of the believer or the lowest sin: favoritism and judgment. If I favor one believer because he is well-dressed, I'm in sin. And if I judge a brother and don't feed him or clothe him or offer him the gospel for his soul I'm in sin. What are the profound works of faith that are necessary for faith to live at all? It isn't your missions trip (or missionary life, for that matter). It isn't your giving away millions of dollars (I Corinthians 13). It isn't the church you built (meaning a building project) or the size of your congregation (if you're a pastor). What is this work that makes faith alive? The little things of daily life.

My faith is most fully alive when I listen to my children and when I take time with the waitress at the coffee shop or the kid who is checking out my groceries whom it has always seemed to me is trying very hard to look and sound gay and "alternative". Do I engage with him as much as with the sweet woman who is the mother of one of my daughter's friends from high school? If I have the chance do I go to her check-out line or his?

As Peter says, "God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble." God, give me humility to so I don't even have to THINK about the choice. The word "unselfconscious" comes to mind, God. Oh God... help me not to think about the choice but simply to do what you would have me do.

Jon

Monday, June 23, 2008

James 2:13

"For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment."

Here's a chilling verse. Maybe you'd like it better in the King James version (1605... just for the record, but a great piece of scholarship for the time)...
"For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment."

Or the New American Standard Bible (1960)
"For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment."

Why am I doing this? Because I'm not totally sure what the passage means. Since I'm not a Greek scholar the best way I've got of 'getting it right' is to read the passage is several translations. Once I do that I sometimes take a crack at the literal Greek using Strong's Concordance and a good lexicon. Here's what came out when I tried a literal translation:

"For justice (judicial decision) will be swift and inexorable where there was no swift mercy; (and) mercy exalts itself over judicial decision."

We live in a culture that absolutely hates the idea of "judgment". If there is a biblical montra for this age it is "Don't judge and you won't be judged." But what does the post-modernist mean in saying "don't judge?" I think it ranges from "don't have an opinion about anything I believe" to "don't tell me what you think I should do or how I should behave." But that's not at all what the concept of judgment in the Scriptures is about. The word we're translating as judgment is really "decision" in the sense of a court of law handing down a decision against a plaintiff. The other, namby-pamby-mealy-let's-just-be-nice-to-everyone kind of 'judgment' has no teeth. The reason is that the judgmental person has no power of judgment, in a judicial way, over the person he/she is judging. And I don't care how "nice" of a person you are. We ALL do judge in this way. Even if it is just commenting on the driving habits of the person in the next car, we're 'judging'.

The kind of judgment James is talking about is a judgment-with-bite. In order for someone to hand down a judicial decision one must have authority to execute judgment against the plaintiff. The example James uses of this kind of judgment is the juxtaposition of rich and poor that happens all the time in the church. Those of you who go to churches where folks still "dress up?" What would happen if someone came to church in jeans and a tee shirt? Don't tell me you and your friends would fall all over yourselves to get that person a Bible, a hymnal, and rush to displace Miss Nickerson who always sits in the second row, first seat on the left. And if you did all that for this stranger-than-we'd-like person, how many weeks would THAT go on before you assigned a deacon to tell them in-no-uncertain-terms what the dress-code is here at First Presbaptigationpalian Church. And for you more casual folks who think you've got the dress-code thing conquered, what would you do if someone came in with tattoos or lots of metal? Or what if a gay couple joined you for worship? How long before you offered words of correction? Because the church building is "yours", you are in a position to execute judicial judgment. And you know what? Most of us DO.

Most of us never get the profound honor of entering into a serious discussion with someone whose manner of dress or way of life is far from ours. Why? Because we don't let those people get under our skin. We don't let them become, in the most real sense, our neighbor. So most of us "Christians" don't ever engage with the world because our xenophobic jailhouse keeps us "safe" from all that. We never get to speak the truth with our neighbor (note I didn't say "to") because we don't want to risk being changed or finding ours was the ungodly way. You don't need to stop speaking the whole counsel of God in order to love well. You just have to learn to LISTEN first and SPEAK second.

Now I'M going to shut up and listen...

Jon

PS... here's a challenging link for you from a young voice speaking to the church: www.speaklisten.com

Friday, June 20, 2008

James 2:12

"So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty."

This is a tough passage for us Western-20th/21st century-evangelical-post-modernist Christians to get right. The minute we hear "liberty" we think of Thomas Jefferson's words "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Or we think of civil libertarians, and hear "keep your laws off my body!" "Live and let live," "Do whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone." But that is not at all what this passage is saying, and it should never be construed to even vaguely take us in that direction.

The "law the brings freedom", quite simply, is what Jesus said in John 8:32, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." The greek word here for free or freedom and for liberty is the same exact word and is used to mean both english equivalents. So it comes to mind that we now need to know what "the truth" is that sets us free. Back to post-modernism, "my truth is not your truth"... "what's true for you"... stuff like that. But what did Jesus say? "I AM the way and the truth and the life" Him. Jesus himself.

But wait. I just said "Jesus". Back to postmodernism. Because today you can make Jesus be anyone you want him to be. I'll cut to the chase here: I'm talking about the second person of the eternal Trinity. Everyone LOVES JEEEEsus. What's not to love? He's a blonde surfer-dude with a real laid-back personality who goes around just loving and accepting everyone and heals and raises the dead and neat crap like that. And other than asking him to be your "savior" (and we're really not sure if there's anything we've done that we need to be saved from, since sin is a non-word in Newspeak), there's nothing he requires of us at all.

Everyone loves Jesus. Not everyone loves the Christ of God. Because, you see, the eternal Christ is the one with whom my soul must deal. And it is not MY definition of sin that counts. It is HIS definition. It is not my definition of truth that is important. It is the Truth that is eternally IN him and by which I will be judged. And it is the law (truth) that brings liberty. How can I say that? Because it is HE who saved me from my sin and who offers me back my freedom in relationship with him. If I will BE in relationship with him he promises me that I will be free.


Jon

Thursday, June 19, 2008

James 2:11

"For he who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law."

Let's review the 10 suggestions...er... commandments, shall we? There are two ways to view an exercise like this. There's the traditional "western" way of doing it:
1) Thou (notice the 17th c. language)... shalt have no other gods before me
2) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy
5) Honor thy father and thy mother
6) Thou shalt not kill
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery
8) Thou shalt not steal
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
10) Thou shalt not covet

I have a friend who recently said, "Don't give me a list. When I see a list I think I have to pick one and let all the others go. So for that friend I have a different way of looking at these:

"Don't ever let anything become so important in your life that it comes before knowing me or causes you to think of my presence (name) lightly or casually. I'm so jealous for time with you I want you to set one whole day of every week aside just so we can be together. In practical matters always do right by your parents, don't take a life unnecessarily, stay faithful in your marriage, and don't take anything that isn't yours or say something about a friend that isn't true or spend any time wishing you had something that isn't yours."

This way it sounds like advice a wise parent might give. The other way it sounds like a list of laws. This way it sounds like the heart's desire of someone who loves you. The other way it sounds like cold statements generated by a legislature. This way I am in relationship and have the opportunity to show love in return. The other way a system is being laid upon me like my dog's invisible fence and a collar is digging into my neck that I'd really love to be rid of if I can.

I think that James' point is that if I insist on turning it into a list this is what I'm asking for: to be judged coldly by cold laws. He also uses logic against me. It really doesn't matter where my dog breaks the electric fence. He can shoot out into the street in broad daylight in front of the house or he can sneak out into the woods behind the house where no one will see him. The effect is the same: he's going to catch it from me when I finally find him. If you really want to be judged by a list it doesn't matter if you had sex out of marriage (a backyard sin, for sure), coveted something that belongs to a friend (sideyard sin), or murdered someone (definitely a frontyard break!), it is all the same. You've broken the whole law.

But when I live in relationship with someone grace is looking them eye-to-eye and being able to say you know that in this one area you're doing something that really hurts me AND I love you. Because I love you, you don't become a zero. The depth of our love keeps us together. See? It doesn't cheapen the offense. It acknowledges sin for what it is and does it unflinchingly and without fear. As John says, "for fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

God, grant me the grace to know and to live your commands in the love of our relationship and not in the law of indifference.

Jon

Monday, June 16, 2008

James 2:10

"For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."

As George Bailey's uncle Billy once said, "This is a pickle George. This IS a pickle."

There are two ways people commonly meet this verse when they encounter it. The first is to claim a blanket absolution of grace: they needed to get a 100% on the test in order to pass it at all. "Mea culpa", they shrug. I'm guilty of transgressing the whole law. But because of the "wonderful grace of Jesus" I don't have to try. I've been given a "pass" because Jesus covered my sins and now I don't have to do a thing differently. And like the character Juan in the old joke about the man who runs for a series of municipal, state, and national offices, they say "I don't got to be good no more" when they finally rise to be president.

The other way people deal with this problematic verse is to become legalists in a desperate attempt to make sure there is nothing, or at least very little God can hold against them in the end. When they sin they are shocked at their own behavior; devastated because somehow this wasn't supposed to happen and they wring their hands like Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story: "Now I've got guilt!" It isn't so much that they really CARE about the law. They care about what's going to happen to them in the end.

I would submit that both ways of meeting this verse are wrong and both are right. The wonderful grace of Jesus DOES cover all my sins and I SHOULD strive with all the might that is in me to live a godly life. But when a deep love for Christ is absent our selfishness takes over and we end in license or law. As James just said, "The royal law -- the law that brings liberty (or freedom) -- is a law of love. And John again reminds us in his first letter that if we don't love our brother whom we have seen we cannot love God whom we have not seen. The very thing that got me into this mess in the first place is my own self-centered heart. I don't WANT to love my brother. I want everyone to love and do for ME. And so I find that I don't want to love God with my whole heart or any other part of my being either.

So I strive and struggle like a small child trying to learn to walk. I don't give up because Daddy is just paces in front of me saying, "That's awesome! Keep trying! Come to Daddy!" And I feel the love and approval of my Father. No guilt. No shame. Do I fail at times? Do I run off course and break things? Sure. But my wise Father keeps picking me back up and standing me in front of him on my wobbly legs.

"Come to Daddy!" And I do.

Jon

Thursday, June 12, 2008

James 2:9

"For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."

I used to read this passage and feel all sorts of condemnation (which, by the way, Romans 8:1 expressly tells us isn't coming from God). The logic runs like this:

A) The goal of the Christian is to "live the Christian Life"
B) The Christian Life consists of me gaining The Victory (caps intentional) over sin
C) If I live the Christian Life long enough, I should be able to "get it right".

Now, when it comes to point C, most of us (except those extreme Arminians who believe in a doctrine of total sanctification [big word, Glory Hallelujah, can I get an Amen-ah]) would at least give lip service to the idea that we will never get it ALL right. But we really have been trained to "grade" ourselves -- and others -- when it comes to sin and righteousness. The worst of it all is that we play this little evangelical game with ourselves. The truly sanctified among us give ourselves a B+ and think that's good enough. Others of us smite our breasts, give ourselves a C-, and continue to do whatever is making us feel mildly guilty. Still others of us never really can seem to deal with the whole standard of performance thing, don't even try, shrug our shoulders and claim God's grace as the way we're going to "graduate" even though we got an F.

I am a self-conscious lover. In all realms of love from platonic to sexual I am acutely aware of what I'm doing at every turn and grade myself on every interaction. I have spent more time discussing love (with myself and others) in all its aspects and whether I did it right than I ever have actually loving anyone. I'm also very hard on those who profess to love ME. I first noticed this with my father. For years I used to say we didn't have a very good relationship because he didn't know how to love me the way I needed to be loved. The truth is I simply wouldn't LET him love me the way he knew how. I kept giving him a D- in the love department.

Are there things that are right and things that are wrong? Yep. Has God told us most of them or given us the ability to discern what they are? Yep. Then if that standard exists, why isn't it wisdom to apply it? Because of this verse. I might, just possibly, be a "pharisee of pharisees" and DO the whole law in every point. But the minute I become a self-conscious lover and start my critique of how well I and everyone around me performed, I stand condemned.

How about a better way? What would happen if I really, wholistically apply the Shema Israel and just love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and let him tell me in His wisdom when I've sinned, not so I can get a better grade but so I can love him more fully? I suppose I'd have to stop grading everyone else too (not much fun in that), but I'd be at peace with God and probably at a greater peace with my neighbor and all my other loves than I've ever been.

Jon

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

James 2:9

"But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."

Grace is an awful finicky thing.  The real meaning of it eludes us so easily.  It is right to offer someone grace who is in need of it.  But the minute you verbalize that you are offering grace, you're in sin because it is almost impossible to say, "I'm going to offer you grace" and not come off as superior.  When you offer grace to a poor person you're often in sin because you're showing "reverse partiality."  In order to help out the poor so many shun the wealthy (even though they may be wealthy too).    Some have a tendency to show partiality to people they  "like"... people who are the picture of  those deserving of the gospel.  But in doing that they often end up turning a deaf ear to those Jesus is really leading them to.  

I also don't like sinners and have plenty of judgement stored up in my heart for those who disturb my peace and well-being with their sin.   I, of course, attained perfection some time ago and am, therefore, exempt from the mirror of judgement (**lightning bolt fries Jon**).

So I find that the only way I can offer grace without coming under condemnation myself is to simply DO it, and not talk about it.  If I'm really going to love someone it is no good for me to tell them how I love them and then sit in Panera Bread telling a third person how annoying the first person is to me.  The worst thing, of course, is keeping self-righteousness at bay.  Since I am a more evolved being than all the rest of the population, I've gotten pretty good at offering grace and not talking about it (**rumbles of thunder**), but the final evolution would be if I could do the whole thing (offering grace and not talking about it) unselfconsciously.   Oh... and I would actually BE like Jesus if I could add to that some unselfconscious ACTION, like taking that annoying person out to lunch or really paying attention to a friend who is rattling on with some IM thing they're writing.  But maybe because I'm so fully evolved, just philosophizing about it is enough (**ground opens up and swallows Jon and the Prophets of Baal**)

We're sorry, but Jon is no longer available to write The Morning Watch.  In his own words, he has... evolved... to another... form.  

The Editors

"By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?  And they made his rave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth."  Isaiah 53:8-9

Monday, June 9, 2008

James 2:8 Update

For those of you who read my blog and think I've abandoned you... I'm continuing my study in James. I posted James 2:8 this morning, but it somehow showed up as an earlier posting, so look down beyond "Paradigm Shift" and you'll find the continuation of James. More will surely follow.

JC

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paradigm Shift

Every once in a while God breaks into my life in an unexpected way. Now, to say that anything God does is "expected" would be to reverse roles and place myself above him. But accepting that from my perspective it is unexpected, I'm sure you get the idea. This past weekend was just such a time.

I had set a "deadline" in my head of May 1st to raise much of the funding I need to consider myself "fully employed" at Vision New England so I can focus on building a pastoral mentoring network for the churches of New England. Ambitious goal, huh? When I began this new ministry in February I told myself I would set about the work of raising money for the task and then do the task. What I didn't realize was how utterly broken I was after putting a twenty-five year ministry to bed and spending most of the past two years asking myself the question "who am I NOW?" I think my frame of reference was wrong. Something in me still wanted to look back to old contacts, old modes of working, old ideas to accomplish the new thing God was doing in me.

The year I began Musicon (1980) Eugene Peterson published his insightful little book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (still available through IVP) I talked about that book often over the twenty-five years I was doing Musicon because the title explains and appeals to the idea of continuance as a core value in Christian discipleship. You continue with people. You continue with ministry. You continue with God, first of all.
And I did that. The fruit of ministry is found there... in continuance. And as the old adage goes, all good things come to an end. I never intended Musicon to outlive me. I wasn't trying to build a youth movement or do something grand. I was just trying to be faithful to respond to loving God, loving people, and loving the thing God is doing. All that time my paradigm for life was Peter, the somewhat impulsive, flawed-but-faithful man whose long obedience earned him the nickname "Rock". My paradigm was Isaiah whose ministry of speaking to a people who wouldn't hear was long and tiring and ultimately gave us a huge harvest of prophecy. This is how I've seen myself all these years.

Enter Vision New England. Enter Pastoral Mentoring. Enter a paradigm shift.

Jama and I went to visit with our dear friends Jeff and Kathy Kraines on Saturday night. We shared dinner together and then built a fire in the back yard fire pit. We are four people who don't get into small talk. I think it was Kathy who began, almost the moment we sat down for the fire, "so Jon, what's going on with the job offer you got?"

On Friday morning I had been offered a job doing something-sort-of-like-what-I-do as a project manager for an organization that does the same sort of work Big Brothers/Big Sisters does. I had interviewed for it because of the personal mandate I'd given myself to have a salary by May 1. The problem was that they came back with a very low salary figure for full-time work. I told them I was working for VNE. I told them what a priority pastoral mentoring is in my life, and they said the schedule was "flexible", but that it was goal-oriented work and as long as I produced what they needed no one would be looking over my shoulder.

Let me articulate a principle here: NEVER use ministry to pay for ministry. Be a tent-maker if you need to, but let that other job be something casual; on the side. Let that other work be something you don't have to believe God called you to. I don't care whether you sell stuff on Ebay, do carpentry, or walk people's dogs. Those things don't take commitment. Ministry does. Social service work does, especially in view of the low salaries these works typically pay.

As we continued our discussion Jeff said, "If you were twenty-five I could see you doing this. But you're fifty-two (ironically, the numbers 2-5 reversed). When you're young you can afford to putz around looking for something to focus your ministry on. When you're our age you have to make every moment count because you don't have that much time left." Then Kathy observed that I didn't seem all that excited about taking on this other job. I wasn't. When I talked about it I had all the enthusiasm of a man about to go to the dentist.

So there it was: I had spent the past 4 months doing something I love and believe in, getting every greater indications that this is the thing God has for me at this stage in my life, and feeling like I was (and this is a hard word to use) entitled to have the funding just drop into my lap. There it was: I didn't want to have to begin again. I wanted to be able to continue in the same direction like I always had. I wanted my old doners to continue to support me. I wanted not to have to develop new leads, meet new people, expand my world once again.

Are any of YOU in your fifties? I think that at twenty-five you stare down the demon of options: who to marry, where to settle, which of these careers might interest me. In your fifties you stare down the demon of loss: what have I done with my life? how have I failed to meet my own expectations and those of others? what can I do with the limited options and limited energy I have left? And where is the paradigm for where I find myself now?

Enter Moses.

Moses' life can be divided into three segments: 40 years with Pharoah, 40 years in the desert, 40 years in the wilderness. Now if we do a bit of math, assuming I won't live to be 120, we get the following scheme based on an average Western-male lifespan of 78 years: if Moses lived that kind of lifespan today the major shifts in his life would have happened at 26 and 52. He'd have lived with Pharoah until he was 26. He'd have been in the desert until he was 52. He'd have wandered in the wilderness with Israel until his death at 78. Yep. I lived in my parents home (or various college situations) until I was 26 (though I began Musicon at 24). I did Musicon and raised my own family until I was 52. Now I've got (Lord willing) another 26 years to do one more significant thing.

One other thing about Moses and me. Notice that with each major "break" Moses was unable to take his "contact list" with him from his old life. When he left Pharoah's house it was a break if ever there was one. Other than the family he raised while in Midian (he had 2 sons there), he has to really leave that home too when he goes to liberate Israel.

I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm no Moses. But I think I can say this without sounding vain: I spent 26 years marrying and raising a family and learning everything I'd need to know in order to do the next thing. And what is that next thing? A call to pastors to come out of the bondage, the isolation, the feeling they have to be perfect. A call to pastors to come out of Egypt.

Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift: a paradigm shift.

Jon

Thursday, April 10, 2008

James 2:8

"If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well."

The first statement of this Royal Law happens in Leviticus 19:17-18
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

This is going to become an important parallel passage as we work through the next several verses. And isn't it interesting that it appears no where else in the Old Testament? I think we also need to look briefly at Jesus' own take on this Royal Law. He brings it up specifically 3 times:

In Matthew 19:17-19: "And he said to him, Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments. He said to him, Which ones? And Jesus said, You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Matthew 22:35-40: "And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?
And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

And Mark 12:28-31: "And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, Which commandment is the most important of all? Jesus answered, The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

So there is a clear appeal to what is called the Shema Israel (literally, "HEAR, Israel").   As John says in his first letter, "No one who hates his brother whom he HAS seen can love God whom he has NOT seen."   

We live in a country of laws.  How strange that the civilization that holds up the idea of personal freedom the highest should end its days as the country with the largest number of laws on the books.  Imagine what would happen if the country's entire legal code were reduced to ONE law: "love your neighbor as yourself."  What would my life entail?  On the highway I'd be more concerned about making room for my neighbor in the next car than about getting where I wanted to go.  In a job interview I'd be more concerned about what was BEST for the company rather than about whether I got the job.   In marriage I'd be more concerned about my spouse and children than about whether I get my needs met.  REAL freedom IS real commitment to my neighbor's greatest good.  Oh, I know this only happens fully in the Kingdom after time itself has ceased, but think about how freeing this principle really is.  All that emotional 'baggage' you are carrying because your father doesn't love you the way you want to be loved?  It would all go away if you could just say, "What does my father need?"  Sure this is idealistic.  But wouldn't it be an awesome exercise?

Jon

Monday, April 7, 2008

A lesson in mid-flight

This weekend I was on a flight from Detroit to Denver on my way to an International Mentoring Conference at Denver Seminary.   It was near the end of the flight and the turbulence coming into Denver was a bit unnerving.  I had been finishing up watching a movie on my laptop and was just putting my self-centered upper-income technology away when I glanced up to see one of the stewardesses walking down the aisle carrying a huge bag of garbage from all the other affluent travelers and with several discarded newspapers under her arm.

At this juncture I should mention that, for me, air travel is always like being put on a conveyer belt on an assembly line.  You get "worked on" and "assembled" by a great many "machines".  None of these machines has a name.  None of these machines goes home at night or even has a home or a family to consider.  I know this because no matter what time of the day or night I happen to fly the machines and the assembly line are still in operation.  So these machines are of little concern to me.  They are there for one purpose: to get me to the end of the assembly line and cause as little discomfort to my affluence as possible.  At the end of my trip down the assembly line there will be a nice warm bed and wide-screen TV in the hotel which itself is populated by so many more of these convenience makers who also exist merely for the whim of my pleasure.

Anyway, I glanced up to see this particular machine walking down the aisle.  She was struggling to stay upright in the turbulence of our decent into Denver and yet I noticed she had a smile on her face and was saying "thank you" to every affluent American that unthinkingly handed her their garbage.   I'm sure none of them thanked her.   As I handed her my own stash of stuff I happened to notice her name badge:  "A. Person".  No joke.  "A. Person" is what it said.  

I will never view the travel experience the same way again.  Thank you, Lord, for your gentle rebuke.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

James 2:7

"Are they (the rich) not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

I am sitting, as I often do, in a diner. On days when I'm not at the office in Boston I like to do my work as much as possible in a diner because I don't like to be alone. So, even when I don't have a mentoring appointment you can often find me in a diner.

One table away there are some women discussing how best to give their now-three-year-old girls the best leg-up on college grants and government handouts. One has identified her daughter as "hispanic" on all the forms, even though she is only one quarter of that ethnic group. Another woman chimes in, "How can I pass off my son?"

I begin reading in James. HOW do the rich blaspheme the name of Christ?

I'm drawn back to the women's conversation.

"We wanted to go to Boston the second weekend, but it is Patriot's Day and the opening of the baseball season, so rooms at the Long Wharf Marriott were going for $499. So we'll go the first weekend when they'll be half that." "We go all the time," said another. And all agreed that Boston is a great place to go for a weekend.

I find myself judging the contradiction I've just heard and thinking they wouldn't NEED to look for government handouts for the kids' college if they weren't spending so much on hotels and trips and such.

Like I'm one to talk! I find the same contradiction in me: I want the world's goods... I crave the best of everything... I love a beautiful hotel, a good steak, a night at the symphony or the ballpark, a great Italian meal in the North End. What then is it that bothers me about these women? Ah! I see myself in them, and my tendency to forget the Lord so quickly and follow after other gods when my impulses softly caress my heart.

Dickens' Scrooge has a moment that might have provided the same sort of self-revelation. The Ghost of Christmas Past has taken him to see the end of a courtship. His betrothed speaks kindly and lovingly to him. Her rebuke is just:

"It matters little," she said, softly. "To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve."

"What Idol has displaced you?" he rejoined.

"A golden one."

"This is the even-handed dealing of the world!" he said. "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"

"You fear the world too much," she answered, gently. "All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?"

"What then?" he retorted. "Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you."

She shook her head.

"Am I?"

"Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man."

"I was a boy," he said impatiently.

"Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are," she returned. "I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you."

"Have I ever sought release?"

"In words? No. Never."

"In what, then?"

"In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us," said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; "tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!"

He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle," You think not?"

"I would gladly think otherwise if I could," she answered, "Heaven knows. When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl -- you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."

Oh! I would become a confirmed Arminian! For in my heart when I cast God as the fiancee and myself as Scrooge I tearfully realize my own lust for "other things". I 'blaspheme' the good name of Christ in the same way Scrooge blasphemed his girlfriend's good name by calling her betrothed and beloved when his heart was far from the passion of those words. And I thank God he has more patience with us than we have with each other! Thank God he refuses to release US with a full heart for love of what we once were when our passion burned for love of Him alone!

What sadness... to be rich in the things of this world: money, friends, sex, beauty, food, wine, and be so poor toward Christ! Wasn't Lewis right when he said we turn to Him, finally, when "there is 'nothing better' now to be had?"

Jon

Monday, March 17, 2008

James 2:6

"But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

When I came into the office this morning... wow, it feels good to say "I came into the office", since I spent 25 years of my career with a home office... I sat down at my desk and had a brief conversation with my co-worker Jack. We're both in the same boat, really. Jack and I both "work for" Vision New England. But VNE is a missions organization. To work for VNE is to raise your own funds to support your part of the ministry. Like I said, Jack and I started to talk about our efforts in fund-raising and we agreed first that asking for money is one of the harder parts of what we do. The second thing we agreed on is that we simply can't concern ourselves with who is giving or how much when it comes to the outworking of our ministry.

There is a great temptation when you are at the mercy of people with money to lean a little in their direction when it comes to offering your time, attention, and affection. This doesn't happen just in the church. In politics they have a word for it: Influence peddling. That's why political campaigns that accept money from lobbyists are automatically seen as suspect when it comes to their objectivity about the thing the lobbyist supports. If politicians need to be careful about this kind of thing, so much more do we who give ourselves to the ministry of Jesus need to take care to offer Christ not just free of charge, but free of personal strings attached.

I know that James was talking specifically about those who are poor and wealthy in financial terms when he wrote this passage, but Jesus spoke about another kind of poor person: those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). I have so often shown preference to those who are wealthy in social -- what I perceive wrongly as spiritual -- terms. Here is a person who quite simply attracts. They are the social equivalent of Warren Buffett. Money just seems to come to him. People just seem to flock to certain types of people. This kind of rich person is talented or witty or good looking or just fun at parties. They are usually a bit narcissistic, but no matter, we like them. The problem is that generally they are not the ones who suffer a need of God. They can't be bothered.

I had a young man who wanted to be part of my ministry group years ago who, when I asked him if he was a Christian said, "Yea. God is cool with me." As a teen he was always surrounded by a bevy of girls vying for his attention. What wasn't to like? He had long, well groomed hair, a nice personality, an engaging smile, AND he was an awesome guitarist. The road for him to really give his life to Christ was long and winding. It was years before he finally really gave himself to the Lord. He was just too engaged with being rich to be bothered by how poor he was.

This kind of young person is a burden for a discipler like myself. I will confess freely: I'm a bad judge of character when it comes to someone like this. The reason is that I find myself drawn to this kind of person just like everyone else. I find myself needing to be needed by them. I guess I figure that if I can reach the star of the show, everyone else will follow. But this is such a lie. It isn't their fault. They're just saddled with the wealth of who they are. And their wealth ends up oppressing me. Meanwhile there are so many "poor" people -- really rather rich in the things of God -- who are so grateful to be included. I'm thinking here of one of the guys I share a Bible study with weekly right now. There is, for sure, a great deal of affirmation I receive every time we meet for study. I believe he gets that same thing from me. But the overpoweringly deep work that God is doing in his heart as he receives the Word? THAT is the thing that makes me want to go out of my way to make sure I don't miss our appointments. He isn't a star. In fact he's someone that goes unnoticed by most of his friends. That's because he is sincere, faithful, kind, generous, and other-minded. He doesn't play the star game. And so, in his poorness in the world he is becoming rich in faith.

God, forgive me for focusing on the wrong people. I know ALL need your love and forgiveness. But forgive me for thinking and spending more time on the ones who seem the most put-together, the most beautiful, the wealthiest in the things of this world. I pray for them that you will break into their lives and use someone who is oh-so-not-impressed with them to reach them with the gospel. Send me instead, God, to those who are poor. Through those relationships I pray you would end my poverty toward you and draw me near to what your heart values.

Jon