Saturday, September 30, 2006

Do it now!

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, "But we knew nothing of this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?
Proverbs 24.11-12

A few years ago, Carol and I helped out at a youth camp where the clients were mainly children of refugees from Southeast Asia. We were involved for 3 camps. The first summer, Carol was a teacher for junior high kids, and I was a counselor for a bunch of 19-20 year old guys. The second, we both helped with the counselor prep time and we both taught. The third year it was just Carol helping with the preparation.

One of those years, a camper died in a fishing accident.
Over the years he had stirred up somewhat of a ruckus, but at the last camp he attended, he decided to follow Jesus. This was a guy I had talked with at that last camp -- he'd told me about his family situation, his idea of what he'd do after high school, and so on. A couple of months later, he was gone.

Anyway, one of the guys from that first summer called me some months ago. He urged me to call another camper, who he was afraid had gotten into drugs. I felt awkward, and kept putting it off. But after reading today's passage, I opened my wallet, where his phone number was written. I felt silly for waiting so long. Carol and I prayed. I picked up the phone and dialed the number.

Too late. "The number you dialed is not a working number. Please check the number and try again." I did. Same result.

What has happened to him? Why did I wait so long?

Friday, September 29, 2006

If you do this, then I'll do this

The Bible is full of conditional promises: if we do this, then the Lord will do that. Most of these are kind of long-term, like when God told Abraham that his descendants would be like the sand on the seashore or the stars in the heavens.

But here's one that has taken effect for me within days - hours, even:
...if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desires in a sun-scorched land
and make your bones strong.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58.10-11
I read recently the maxim that the best thing to do when you're feeling depressed is to help someone out. I guess it comes from here.

And I can't tell you how many times I've done this (not to say I get depressed a lot, but I have lived over half a century) and really felt the world brighten.

I don't know whether this is from a sort of special intervention from God, or whether it's just a sort of natural thing that happens -- I mean, as we express God's character in generosity and mercy and service, we're doing what we were designed to do, and that makes us feel good. Imagine a sports car getting onto an uncrowded freeway after being stuck in traffic. As it gets up to cruising speed, it's starting to do what it was made for, and if it had feelings, I think it would feel good. "This is what I was made for!" it might say.

I think that's the way it is with me.

One more thing though

I do want to say that there are some times of depression where "doing more" or "doing something for someone else" is absolutely the wrong thing to do! Consider Elijah in the desert for example. Or in the sports car analogy, if it has a flat tire, then getting on the freeway would be absolutely the wrong thing.

Every person and every case is different. But this has worked for me more times than I can remember.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

God doesn't think like we do.

Lately I have been feeling tired. Maybe I've been waiting on (hoping for) something other than the Lord, so that I haven't been appropriating that promise from Isaiah 40.31. (There are other reasons for feeling tired, but at this time, in my case, I think it's this.) I had some time to think about this in the car driving to work this morning, as I also thought about the opening of chapter 55:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight your soul in abundance.
Isaiah 55.1-2
I thought about that and prayed, asking "Lord, what does that mean for me today?"

I'd like to tell you that I got a clear answer that made all my anxieties disappear, the way some of our praise choruses make it sound. But it didn't happen. But come think of it, maybe it did.

Maybe it happened before I even asked -- maybe the only reason I prayed and asked was just this: That today, for me, "Come to the waters" means just this: "Bring your anxieties and weariness to me, and I'll listen. No, I won't give you all the answers or solve all the problems right now, but I will listen and I do care."

And that is a great thing.

Now what I actually had in mind to write about today was a famous passage a little further on in the chapter: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord (Isaiah 55.8). He goes on to say that his ways and thoughts are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth.

Many of us have heard that in sermons, or memorized it. And of course it's true just as it stands.

But what was the Lord talking about in particular? Why is the "For" there at the beginning of verse 8? Let's take a look at verses 6-7:
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. And let him turn to the Lord, for he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Isaiah 55.6-7
It's no surprise: of course the Lord's ways and thoughts are higher than ours in many ways, but the thing he emphasizes here is his mercy.

How cool is that? He's all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, but the thing he wants us to remember, the thing he emphasizes here, is his eagerness to forgive.

And that's good news for me every day.

posted 9/29

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

And be subject to one another...

I think I just found something that could help me with the challenge from yesterday's reading. It's in Ephesians 5.
Be very careful then, how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. ... and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
Ephesians 5.15-16,21
Or, as the NIV has it, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Could it be that if I submit more to the lovely Carol, rather than trying to prove myself right in her eyes, that I'd have an easier time with unwholesome words? H'm, I think maybe so.

Come to think of it, if I submit and serve others more, if I love them rather than try to use them to make me feel OK about myself (Have I mentioned Searching for God Knows What lately? He has a great section on this.)

OK, let me see if I can explain this before I lose consciousness. The way I understand it is like this:

To feel OK about myself, I need something from somebody. This is because I'm created in God's image; I'm relational. Though I might be an introvert, I'm not a robot. (Really!)

The Somebody that will satisfy me is God himself. But he's a little hard to control; he doesn't fit in a box, I can't see him -- all that kind of stuff. So the natural tendency is to look for other people -- they're made in the image of God, too, and hence are the closest thing to him in the universe -- and try to get them to give me that *something* that will make me feel OK about myself.

To do this, I try to prove myself right (, smart, nice, powerful, attractive, whatever) in their eyes.

But this is tragic in several ways. First, if I'm trying to get something out of them, I'm using them rather than loving and serving them.

Second, my efforts are doomed to failure (for all concerned), because they can't give me what I need anyway!

And because we're all doing this to each other, things aren't too pleasant.

But if we repent -- if I repent, then I can at least make life better for those immediately around me. And so I try.

But I need help -- help from the only Someone powerful enough and good enough to do it.

And luckily, he is willing and able. Good news.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Unwholesome words?

Some years ago, in one of those "verse packs," this verse from Ephesians 4 appeared:
Let no unwholesome word come forth out of your mouth, but only such [a word] as is good for edification, according to need, that it may give grace to those who hear
Ephesians 4.29
Well, I try to avoid those unwholesome words, but I'm not always successful.

But what's "unwholesome"? Some years ago I did a study on this section of Ephesians and discovered that the word translated "unwholesome" doesn't just mean "inappropriate" or "not too useful." Rather it means something more like "utterly without value" or "intrinsically useless."

H'm. You would think with that definition, the command wouldn't be too hard to follow, right? (I'd think so, anyway.)

Well, it's still hard. Sometimes I get totally frustrated and say things that I really regret later. Some of the words that come out of my mouth really are utterly without value. Which is sad.

Now let's look at the next verse: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Eph. 4.30). Do you suppose there's a connection between letting fly with utterly worthless words, and grieving God's Holy Spirit? Gaaa!

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and abusing that power is a grievous thing.

Lord, please help me.

posted 9/27

Monday, September 25, 2006

Will the real Isaiah please stand up?

Ever heard the phrase "Deutero-Isaiah"? There's a theory, promoted by critics of the Bible, that the prophet Isaiah, who wrote during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah kings of Judah, only wrote the first 39 chapters of the book that bears his name. Supposedly, they said, there was another, maybe two others, who wrote chapters 40-66, and did so after Judah was exiled to Babylon.

Why do they think this? One reason is the mention of Cyrus in a few places - once in chapter 44, and twice in today's reading - 45.1 and 45.13. Cyrus, as you may recall, was the king of Persia who allowed the exiles to return to Judah to rebuild the temple, and here's Isaiah, some hundreds (I think) of years before that, talking about him. If you have an anti-supernatural bias, you won't like the idea that a prophet knew, hundreds of years in advance, about a king in a distant kingdom who would send the exiles of Judah back home to rebuild.

Now let's look at the text:
"This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
Isaiah 45.1-3

"This is what the Lord says -- the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty."
Isaiah 45.11-13
Unusual for the Lord to do all that for a foreigner, a Gentile king. Unusual, but not unheard of. And also unusual to talk about it hundreds of years in advance, but it is in a section where the Lord is talking about how he knows the future
(I recently heard that Eugene Peterson believes Isaiah's book had two authors. Well, I guess there are more reasons than the anti-supernatural one, 'cause I'm pretty darned sure Eugene Peterson doesn't have such a bias. This confuses me, because it seems to me that the New Testament thinks Isaiah is one book by one author. But it's sure hard to disagree with Eugene Peterson about anything regarding the Bible.)
But the thing I get out of this passage is this: The Lord is in charge of this world. He knows in advance, and he directs the affairs of mankind. He decreed the exile to Babylon, the return to Judah, and all that stuff.

Even our bumbling "blind into Baghdad" was also something that the Lord allowed, for whatever his purpose was (and is) in all that.

He's got the whole world in his hands, and he's not about to drop the ball. And that's good news.

posted 9/26

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Help available

There's a great verse from Ephesians chapter 3 that I think every Sunday School kid memorizes at some point. It talks about how God is able to do more than we could ask or imagine, or according to one paraphrase "is able to do exceedingly abundantly more than we could ask or think."

This is a great verse but it's part of a paragraph where Paul prays for these Ephesians, and by extension for us too:
I pray that ... he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit... so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you... may have power... to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine... to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus ... for ever and ever!
from Ephesians 3.16-21
So yes, he can do far far more than we could ever imagine asking, but the point of all this is that we can be transformed.

Which looks pretty good! Check it out:
  • Christ to live in my heart
  • power to grasp Christ's 4-dimensional love (wide, long, high, deep)
  • know Christ's love that's beyond knowledge
  • filled as with the fullness of God
All that sounds great. And given how I feel some days, it really would take some unimaginable power to change me like that.

Fortunately, there's plenty of power available to do that... he can do exceedingly abundantly beyond all we can ask or think.

posted 9/25

Saturday, September 23, 2006


A fascinating picture of Messiah:
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice....
Isaiah 42.2-3
Why do I think this is fascinating? He will bring forth justice, but he's not going to be loud. How could this be possible?

I had the pleasure of working with a colleague who was not loud, but she was very effective. At the time, General Motors were establishing a set of computer communication standards for their suppliers to follow, and she went to Detroit to push for certain changes. I have to confess that I had my doubts, but she came back with all her goals met.

How did she do it? She looked at the guy and said, "I don't feel comfortable with section 2.3.1," or, "We have an issue with ...." And if he tried to move on, she said, "I still don't feel comfortable with..." Not loud, but very effective -- and quite a contrast to the student demonstrations in the 1960s.

Of course Gandhi comes to mind, and Dr. King.

But back to the text. I'm not sure what Isaiah was thinking about when he wrote this. Oops, that didn't come out quite right. What I mean was, if I can safely assume that the "not shout or cry out" part of this refers to Jesus's earthly ministry in 1st century Israel, what does the "he will bring forth justice" part refer to? Does it mean
  1. He will send his Holy Spirit and work through his followers, who will bring about justice?
  2. He will come again in power, expel the occupiers from Jerusalem, and restore a godly ruler to the throne of David? (the Armageddon scenario doesn't seem too quiet though)
  3. something else entirely?

I'm guessing that it's a sort of blend of #1 and #2, and in any case we who belong to him should be working to bring justice and healing to this world, right?

Easy to say, but hard to do. As for me, I sure need help from the Spirit to do much of that. That he is available to help us sounds to me like really good news.

posted 9/25

Friday, September 22, 2006

Strength for the present, hope for the future

Today's Old Testament reading includes Isaiah chapter 40. The end of that chapter is famous from the song: Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength... they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40.30-31). This puts me in mind of yesterday's New Testament reading from Galatians 6, which urged us not to lose heart or grow weary. So I guess that's a hint - by waiting on the Lord, depending on him, that might help us to keep on doing what pleases him.

I've often found comfort from this part, earlier in the chapter:
"To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
Isaiah 40.25-26
I've recalled this passage in time of trouble, and prayed something like, "Lord, these troubles are not bigger than you are." Then I think about how he has helped me in the past, like the author of Psalm 77.10-12 did.

The New Testament reading today is Ephesians chapter 1, which has to have the highest "in Christ" density of any chapter in the Bible. Paul talks about the hope for the future that we have as Christians, The part I want to focus on is in verses 19-20, where Paul says he wants us to know God's incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead.

Which means that for all the transformations still needed in my life... God has enough power to pull those off. (He had enough power to raise Jesus from the dead, didn't he?) And that's good news, too. Not just for me, but for everybody that has to put up with me!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

That could have been me

Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourselves, because that could have been you.
Galatians 6.1
OK, the text doesn't exactly say that, but I think that's the point, isn't it? Someone caught cheating, lying, etc. -- whoever it is didn't wake up one day and say, "Today I'm going to embark on a course that will ruin my life and destroy everything important to me, wreaking havoc on those who love and trust me - a decision I'll regret for decades."

No, they slide away gradually. They don't pay attention to what's right and think a little too much about what the world owes them. That they're thinking "The Lord owes me this and that" doesn't occur to them, but that's their attitude. They meditate on how so-and-so wronged them, and forget how many times others have forgiven them.

How do I know all this? You only get one guess.

Another thing they do is they get tired. Take a look at this encouragement:
And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
Galatians 6.9-10 (NASB, I think)
As my friend Jim says, the reason it's a command is that it's hard. If it were easy or natural to just keep on going, we wouldn't need a command here. But Paul gives us this command "Let us not lose heart..." and he gives a reason: good stuff will happen if we don't give up.

And in particular, "do good to all men" -- in the way that God sends sun to shine on the just and the unjust. So it's our privilege (and our responsibility) to reflect God's character to everyone we meet.

Which, if we walk by the Spirit, God will help us to do. I think there's a promise about that in Isaiah chapter 40, which we'll get to in the coming days.
written 9/21, posted 9/22

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fruit of the Spirit, Acts of the Flesh

Galatians 5 is just full of good advice, and good news, for the Christian life. Today's reading covers verses 13-26, but I'd like to focus on just a couple of points in it.

First there's a description of the fruit of the spirit, contrasted with the acts of the flesh (the NIV has "sinful nature"). Looking at the description of the acts of the flesh, it strikes me that these are all things of no value. They might be fun for a while, but they're worthless, even from a worldly point of view. Nobody would vote for a candidate that boasted of sexual immorality, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, selfish ambition, drunkenness, etc.

I think the good news regarding the fruit of the Spirit is that it's something that comes naturally from the Spirit's work in our lives. Yes, we can train ourselves for godliness, as Paul says elsewhere, but this is talking about fruit. How hard does an apple tree work to produce its fruit? We don't see it doing a lot of crunches or push-ups. The psalms paint a picture of a godly person as a tree yielding its fruit in season -- a lovely portrait.

And this passage gives a little more information about the fruit that results from the Spirit's interactions with you and me: Love, joy, peace, patience, and so on.

But along with the good news there is also a warning, down in verses 25-26:
Since we live by the Spirit, let us walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
OK, so it's not all effortless; we have to keep an eye on how we are living. Because we still have the flesh, there will be a temptation to indulge in the acts of the flesh that Paul described earlier.

The alternative, viz., to walk by the Spirit (the NIV has "keep in step with"), isn't explained in great detail, but Paul does give us a couple of clues in the passage. One clue is in verse 26: he tells us not to be conceited, and that we do well to avoid provocations and envy. Another is in verses 13-14, where he recalls the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (from Leviticus).

In fact, he says the whole law is summed up in that one command.

A couple of chapters back, Paul said that the law was just something to lead us to Christ. Why then does he bring the law in here?

Here's what I think. Some parts of the law are like "Love your neighbor as yourself"; they give us a picture of God's character, including the character of the Holy Spirit.

Other parts of the law are like "the priests shall sprinkle its blood against the altar on all sides"; they're detailed descriptions of ceremonial regulations. I hate to divide things up like this, but I think the author of Hebrews, for example, does it.

Anyway, what I get from this is two things. First, "love your neighbor as yourself" is a good policy to pursue. Second, considering love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, sober-mindedness, I should think about what I meditate upon, and try to arrange my inner world so promote those things.

So for example when I catch myself meditating upon how I wish the world were different, it's a good idea to correct my thinking and instead think about what I can do to be a better person - a better husband, father, friend, disciple, citizen, employee, etc.

written 9/21, posted 9/22

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Let's Be Reasonable

The lovely Carol has sometimes volunteered to help tutor ESL at a local high school. She told me about a particularly frustrating day when some of the kids were too busy (painting their nails and playing with their hair) to pay attention to the lesson. This is the kind of thing I don't think I could stand. They would be painting their nails in the Principal's office if I had anything to say about it.

Fortunately, God is more patient than that.
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it...."

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!

Isaiah 30.15,18
Well, the part I elided does describe some of the consequences of their stubbornness - they will be terrified by enemies, etc., but the good news is that the Lord is watching, waiting, wanting to be gracious and to show his compassion for them.

As he is with me, even when I've been pursuing worthless things: trinkets of trivial accomplishments rather than the treasures of meaningful engagement in intimate relationships. He is always waiting to respond to my repentance, to offer, as the letter to the Hebrews says, "grace to help in time of need."

Sounds like good news to me!

written 8/19; posted 8/22

Monday, September 18, 2006

Led to Christ

So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
Galatians 3.24-25

Here's how I have understood this passage: that the law functioned as a tutor or a schoolmaster (as in other translations) -- by trying to follow it we should recognize our wretched state, throw ourselves on the mercy of God, and find forgiveness through Jesus Christ. As I write it that way, the whole scheme seems circuitous and bizarre.

But it's no more bizarre than the idea that God would love the world so much, this world that refused to acknowledge him, rebelled against him, and often seems bent on destruction -- I'm including myself in all this -- that he sent his only son to die for it -- for you and me.

You know, I have been thinking lately about the question, "What is the gospel?" Not trying to be a troublemaker, but from reading books like Donald Miller's Searching for God Knows What, I'm thinking that the essence of the gospel is quite a lot different from the way I've thought about it and presented it all these years.

Rather than presenting the gospel in a modern outline like "problem: all have sinned, wages of sin is death; attempted solutions don't work; Christ the only solution" I wonder if the Good News is more aptly stated as, "Because of God's great love, humankind no longer needs to live lives of quiet desperation," and then inviting people to participate in this? No pamphlets or tracts, just one idea presented, and then an invitation?

I don't have it figured out yet, as if you couldn't tell. But I hope I'm getting closer.

One thing I know, though -- however we come to the gospel, it's all about Jesus.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

From those who despise the word of God...

In That Hideous Strength, the concluding book of Lewis's space trilogy, the ancient Merlin is brought into the 20th century. The bad guys think he will be on their side, but he turns out to be on the side of truth instead. Merlin goes into their headquarters and turns their banquet into Babel, saying something like, "From those who despise the word of God, the word of Man shall also be taken."

From that time on, nobody in the room is able to communicate with anyone else; what they try to say turns into nonsense by the time it leaves their lips, and whatever they try to write, it comes out as nonsense squiggles.

I have wondered where Merlin's curse comes from. No, I didn't find it, but here's a passage that reminds me of it:
Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
to whom he said,
"This is the resting place, let the weary rest";
and, "This is the place of repose" --
but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the
Lord to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there --
so that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured.
Isaiah 28.11-13
They didn't listen to God, so his word became meaningless to them.

I guess this is a kind of inverse of some of the promises in John's gospel: if we hold to Jesus's teaching, we will be true disciples, know the truth, and be set free. If we keep his commands, he will reveal himself to us, etc.

The inverse would be... if we ignore God, we lose the truth, he doesn't reveal himself, we aren't set free. And as Isaiah says here, we will become stupid; his word will just seem like nonsense to us.

I have to remember this the next time I feel like disobeying something due to laziness or fear, 'cause I don't need to become any more stupid than I already am; I need all the brain-power I've got.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Dangers of Technology -- and Technique!

I may have mentioned a question I got a few years ago from one of the kids: Why don't people believe so much in God these days? Is it because we have so many televisions and stuff? This brings up the question: How is God with technology? Like, dislike, indifferent?

Today's reading includes this passage involving military technology. The Lord is speaking to the "Valley of Vision" about defenses:
you saw that the City of David had many breaches in its defenses;
you stored up water in the Lower Pool.
You counted the buildings in Jerusalem
and tore down houses to straighten the wall.
You built a reservoir between the two walls
for the water of the Old Pool,
but you did not look to the One who made it,
or have regard for the One who planned it long ago.
Isaiah 22.9-11
So what's the problem here? Storing up water? Calculating resources and adapting them for defense? Of course not! The issue here is ignoring and disregarding God.

As it is in our day. We enjoy our cell phones and iPods; we like having doors and windows that lock. But if we ignore God, if we think that technology ultimately saves us, that's where we get into trouble.

It occurs to me that this can also apply to "technique" besides "technology." If we think that a particular skill set
, a particular line of questioning when counseling someone, or even a particular way of presenting the gospel -- if we think any of those things will accomplish the objective and we forget about God, we are in trouble. Or, for that matter, a particular way to pray or a particular set of words to use when praying for something!

We can get into this sort of trouble really easily. How many times have you heard the advice to face someone squarely, lean forward, ask open-ended questions -- this sort of thing? As if technique can communicate love that's not there! This kind of "active listening" advice has been handed out for decades, yet the results fall short of the hype.

Why is that? Because the thing we need, whether in counseling, marital conflict resolution, prayer, or warfare, is for God to supply the needful. In relationships, "active listening" technique is not the savior! Beyond technique, I must be willing to humble myself, to set aside my agenda, my desire to appear right, etc. In prayer, we need to seek the Lord himself more than what we want him to do for us. And "the horse is made ready for battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.

May we remember to seek him first!

posted late Saturday night from Japan, 6:40am pacific

Friday, September 15, 2006


Here is an interesting prophecy from the prophet Isaiah, about Egypt. Remember Egypt? The country that enslaved the Israelites for 400 years? Check this out:
In that day there will be an alter to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border. ... When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and keep them.
Isaiah 19.19-21
That's very cool. I don't think that's happened yet, has it? That means it's something we can look forward to.

Here is something I wonder, though. Will this happen "literally" - I mean will there be a physical altar at which literal grain offerings will be made? Or, since the temple is now gone (and, as Hebrews tells us, Jesus's one sacrifice has obsoleted the old sacrificial system), will this be fulfilled in a sort of New Testament sense, with men and women turning to God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ?

That's a hard one; at least it seems hard to me.

But what if many Egyptians were to follow Jesus (or "Issa" as more Egyptians probably know him as)? Would that be a fulfillment of this prophecy? I propose the answer is "yes," and that this can happen as followers of Christ in Egypt love one another and reach out to their neighbors in love and service. I don't think I can be any more specific than that, but wouldn't that be cool if that's the way this got fulfilled?

Anyway, I don't know how to interpret this prophecy without saying it applies to the literal land of Egypt, although as you see I could imagine sacrifices and altar being replaced by whatever "equivalents" we have in the church age.

In Egypt or out of it, should we, as followers of Jesus Christ, love one another, reach out to our neighbors in love and service, and work for justice and mercy? I guess so!

posted 9/14 8:50pm Japan... for 9/15

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The present evil age...

Today I have just a couple of scattered thoughts on the text. Isaiah 17.7-8 says:
In that day men will look to their Maker
and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
They will not look to the altars,
the work of their hands,
and they will have no regard for the Asherah poles
and the incense altars their fingers have made.
I want to claim this for the people of Japan.
(As I write this, our small team is here in Tokyo on a prayer/vision trip; the trip log is at
As we have visited various places of Buddhist and Shinto worship, we've seen people praying to the false gods, the lying spirits that have kept Japan in captivity for millennia. We've seen the incense altars, the temples of wood and stone, concrete and steel. There are some huge edifices, impressive feats of engineering. And they're a disaster for those who trust in them, as the psalms tell us:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
Psalm 135.15-18
The Japanese people as a whole seem to understand that the world is not only what we can see; they know that the spiritual world is real and not "just superstition." The tragic thing is that they are victims of these lying spirits and false gods.

We are also victims in the States, but victims of other lying spirits and different false gods. We Americans usually "believe in" philosophical materialism, that is, that the material world is all there is. Whether this drives us into a desperate frenzy to collect more toys or to reject the gods of Acquisition, our materialism and extreme individualism also enslaves us.

And so when I see in Galatians 1.4 that Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, I think, "Amen! This is an evil age we live in." Whether in affluent, technologically advanced countries like Japan or the US, under corrupt or repressive regimes as rule many other nations, or in crushing poverty, there is much about the present age that is evil and that we need saving from.

But as a human being, as a man and especially as an American, I don't like admitting that I need saving.

So help me today, Lord, to call upon you, to abide in you and to invite you to abide in me.

posted a little before 9am Thursday Sept 14 in Japan (about 5pm 9/13 Pacific)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Any fool can destroy, but building others up...

In this morning's reading, Paul mentions that the Lord gave him authority for building up the Corinthians, not for putting them down. I just noticed for the first time that he says this twice in 2 Corinthians, once in chapter 10 and also here:
We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority--the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.
2 Corinthians 13.9-10
Every chemistry student learns about entropy - the state of disorder that everything tends toward on a molecular level. Every mother knows about it too, on a room-by-room level.

On citywide or geological scale, too, decay and destruction are easy - earthquakes, rockslides, floods, thunderstorms, and even plain old rain (acid or not) can destroy stuff. As can any fool with explosives.

And on an interpersonal level, too, friendships and partnerships can be destroyed by a careless word.

Once broken, it's very hard to rebuild friendships and partnerships, buildings and cities, arches and mountains.

And fellowships and congregations.

When I look at Paul's comment about the authority the Lord gave him for building up the Corinthians, it inspires me to do more encouragement.

Now this doesn't mean Paul is always "nice" -- because he'd rather they (and we) be mature, complete, and perfect rather than smiling and complacent. And that's something I need to aim at, too.

Here's something I wonder, though: Who has the authority today to build others up (not tear them down)? Could the answer be: "every Christian does"?

And if, as I suppose, you and I have this authority, how does God want us to use it today?

posted from Japan 7:30am Wed Sep 13, 2006

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Two woes, and what to do about it

In today's Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah issues two woes. First,
Woe to those who make unjust laws
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless
Isaiah 10.1-2
It's interesting to me how God is so interested in the plight of the poor. With general elections coming up in a couple of months, I sometimes think it would be convenient if one major political party were unambiguously aligned with the prophets' proclamations and the other weren't. But this isn't the case.

Then he talks about the day of reckoning and disaster. This is about the northern kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by the Assyrians and scattered. (In his introduction, Isaiah says the word of the Lord came to him during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. These were kings of the southern kingdom of Judah, which you may recall was deported to Babylon and restored some decades later.)

That was the first woe. Now the second:
Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,
in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
I send him against a godless nation,
I dispatch him against a people who anger me,
to seize loot and snatch plunder
and to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Isaiah 10.5-6
But the king of Assyria doesn't want to just stop there. He thinks he's going to rule the whole earth, like God. So God says
"I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes"
Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it
or the saw boast against him who uses it?
As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up
or a club brandish him who is not wood!
Therefore, the Lord, the Lord almighty,
will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors;
under his pomp a fire will be kindled
like a blazing flame.
Isaiah 10.12, 15-16
So the king of Assyria is likened to a tool or weapon that rebels against the hand wielding it. You may recall from 2 Chronicles 32 that this judgment came to him when he attacked Jerusalem.

When I read this passage, though, especially at this time of the year, I think about the 9/11 attacks on the US, which seemed to me a wakeup call. Our country was settled by people who wanted to worship God in truth, but have we as a nation been arrogant (Isaiah 9.9-10)? Have we deserted God (9.13) and made unjust laws (10.1)?

It sure looks like "yes" to me.

And if the 9/11 attacks can be likened to Assyria's attack upon the northern kingdom (which isn't a slam-dunk), have the terrorists gone beyond what God wanted them to do?

Their propaganda makes it sound like "yes" too.

If those attacks were a rebuke to us Americans, but even if they weren't, I think it's important that we return to God, treat the poor as he commands, and humble ourselves before him. This has to begin with you and me as individuals, but we probably need to apply these principles in the voting booth too.

And that calls for wisdom.

posted 9/12 7:07am from japan

Monday, September 11, 2006

More than meets the eye

I've heard the phrase "seventh heaven" before, but I don't know where it came from. But at least "third heaven" is in the Bible:
I must go on boasting ... I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know -- God knows. And I know that this man ... was caught up to paradise.
2 Corinthians 12.1-10
So first, I'll go out on a limb here by saying I think Paul is talking about himself. He says he's going to go on boasting, then he says "I know a man in Christ who ..." and then gives first-person details. Then, I'll notice that Paul says he was caught up to "the third heaven" and then he says he was caught up "to paradise." I guess "paradise" means heaven, but what's this "third heaven" stuff about?

A few years ago, at a seminar to help prepare counselors for the Mien Youth Camp, I heard an explanation of the three "heavens." For what it's worth:
  1. First is the material world, the one in which science and technology pretty much work.
  2. Second is a world that most North Americans don't have experience of, a world involving demons and witch doctors, charms and curses.
  3. Third would be the world where God "lives"; usually when we say "heaven" it's this third heaven that we mean. Paradise, in other words.
Probably most North American Christians live in the first and think about the third. Any experience of the second they chalk up to hallucination or coincidence.

But in other parts of the world, this second is understood as powerful and real. Most missionaries in Japan can tell you about the effect of "o-mamori", charms left in the attic of a house after it's built. Nightmares, ghosts/spirits, and a palpable feeling of darkness have all vanished when the "o-mamori" is found and destroyed. I can tell you about it, too: one day, when we were living in Japan, one of our daughters started having nightmares. Every night she would wake up terrified. We looked into the usual things, and nothing turned up. Finally, I went into the attic with a flashlight and found the "o-mamori" -- it was a charm with some writing on it and some design. And it was in a part of the attic directly above our daughter's pillow.

I took it out and burned it in the barbecue. No more nightmares.

How do these things work? I don't know. The Bible doesn't say a lot about them, but we get hints of territorial spirits and so on, things that just seem assumed.

There is apparently a lot more to reality than meets the eye -- or is taught in school or in our materialistic culture.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

High Anxiety

OK, so Christians aren't supposed to have any anxiety. Our Sunday School teachers, our pastors, our mentors, not to mention insensitive busybodies, have all quoted that verse "Don't be anxious about anything, but pray about everything" (or however their translations put it). Well, somebody had better tell the Apostle Paul, because in today's reading I find this:
And apart from other things there is the constant pressure every day of my anxiety for all the churches.
2 Corinthians 11.28
OK, so the NIV says "concern", but the version I memorized (and I'm not sure I got it right - RSV or NAS maybe) has "anxiety."

So what's going on? Paul is telling them in this paragraph about what he is doing for the church - not just the Corinthians but church congregations elsewhere as well. This is where he talks about being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, etc.

Why does he do this? He wants the Corinthians to understand how much he is for them, to show that he really is an apostle, not an Elmer Gantry or a Jim Bakker (to mix genres).

But back to anxiety or concern. Paul goes on in verse 29: Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? Many of us today would call Paul "co-dependent" or "enmeshed" or some word like that. But would we be right? Does Paul care too much?

You can probably guess my answer: that it is rather we, in 21st century North America, who have gone off the rails and are way too individualistic. I'll say more about this when we get to Galatians.

posted from Japan, 6:18am Sunday Sept 10... the first time I'm ahead of schedule, and it's only because of the timezone

do you see a man skilled in his work?

Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings;
he will not serve before obscure men.
Proverbs 22.29
I knew a software guy that this applied to. He got laid off a few years ago -- pretty much his whole department was. So he e-mailed two Silicon Valley CEOs. (Both these companies are on Fortune's "100 best places to work" list; these were not startups, obscure or otherwise.)

(By the way, this guy wasn't a CTO or even a manager; he designed and coded and debugged code. Then how did he know two CEOs? He knew them when they were engineering managers, before they became vice presidents and CEOs. He asked for and took their advice, and he told them things he thought they should know.)

He had seen the handwriting on the wall and emailed the first CEO before the layoff notices actually came. "We can talk in my office. Please make a one-hour appointment with my assistant." He sent his resume and went to the CEO's office.

"I don't have to look at your resume to know I'd love to have you in _________ (his company). Your attitude, your values...." But the work available didn't fit my friend's background. If the tech bust had actually been over, this CEO would have offered him a position where he could learn a new skillset. "When the layoff actually happens, let me know; business may have picked up by then."

He emailed the second CEO after getting the layoff notice, not really sure if he'd remember him. "Of course I remember you -- I always remember the stars." He didn't invite him to his office, but he did send his resume to someone who interviewed him and offered him a job.

Of course, things don't always work out this way, but the Proverbs give us insight into the smart way to bet.

posted 9:58pm 9/9 from Japan

Friday, September 08, 2006

Annoyed by religion!

I'm not talking about your neighbor here; I'm talking about God. Today's reading from Isaiah 1 includes this:
"The multitude of your sacrifices --
what are they to me?" says the Lord
"I have more than enough of your burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me ....
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
from Isaiah 1.11-15
He goes on, but you get the picture. He doesn't like their sacrifices, offerings, incense, prayer. What's the deal?

It's this. They're playing at religion instead of doing good.
Your hands are full of blood;
wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!
Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
from Isaiah 1.15-17
The danger of religion, whether in the days of the prophet Isaiah, the times of Jesus Christ in the 1st century, or today, is that the deliverables and the measures, the practices and the tasks, capture our attention and distract us from what God really cares about.

Of course this doesn't mean that prayer is bad -- nor is going to church, putting money into the plate, reading the Bible daily, or whatever. The way we get into trouble is by doing those things while at the same time doing evil and neglecting God.

So this is something that I have to watch out for. I think I used to do this kind of thing more when I was younger, but I'm not immune to it today. With me it's not so much overtly religious things, but I like to be seen as carrying out my responsibilities. But to most people, it's more important that I treat them with kindness and respect. Whether I think I've done what I think is my "duty"... isn't important to them, or to God.

What's that about? Well, what it is for me is that I'm still not fully transformed, fully mature. There's still a part of me that's looking for validation, for approval, based on accomplishment -- which is dumb if not exactly rare.

What to do? Call upon the Lord I think, and ask him to continue that transformation. To help me grow into the man he wants me to be.

posted 9:55pm Sept 9 Japan time

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Some years ago I heard about the concept of "abundance thinkers" (vs. "scarcity thinkers"). Whatever you think of Disneyland, it is run by "abundance thinkers." For example, if you tell them you're thinking about opening your own theme park, they will be happy to share their ideas with you. You can learn about their training, facilities, whatever. They're not afraid, in other words, that you'll steal their secrets or their customers, because they know there are abundant possibilities, an abundance of potential guests, and lots of money to be made. If some guests go to your theme park, if you make a little money, there will still be lots for them. Not that they're complacent; they're just not stingy.

This short section from today's reading reminded me of "abundance thinkers". Paul tells the Corinthians that he's been bragging about their generosity, and he writes this about giving:
Now remember this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And he is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good work.
2 Corinthians 9.6-8
Did you see that promise at the end? Isn't that cool? Always having all sufficiency in everything -- wow.

But what does this mean, really? Does it mean three European sports cars parked in the garage of my 20-million dollar mansion? Does it mean such a huge pile of cash that I never have to trust God about any material thing?

Well, it doesn't say that. It does say I'll have plenty for every good work, though. Not every good work possible, but every good work that he has planned for me to do. This is a very freeing thing, because if God wants something done, then it's got to be his responsibility to fund it. If he wants me to go on a short-term mission trip, then he will (and has) provided -- sometimes by a fortunate circumstance, like a reimbursement/rebate I forgot was coming, sometimes by others' donations, and sometimes by giving us an idea of something we can do without for a while.

And what are the conditions on this promise? Nothing very specific.
  • sow bountifully, which I take to mean widely
  • think about it at least a little
  • give cheerfully
This doesn't seem onerous; it just seems reasonable -- and I think it applies even if you don't have the gift of giving. But it will be easier to actually do the list if you have that gift.

Now why do I think the list is reasonable rather than onerous? One answer might be "because I happen to have the gift of giving," which might be a cause instead of a reason. So I'll say this. Earlier we read how Jesus was himself rich and became poor for our sakes. As the recipient of such generosity, then, generosity is something that should flow from us.

More generally, we have a beautiful world, blue sky and sunshine, the gift of language, the chance of finding God and finding meaning for our lives, we can read (anyone reading this can, anyway) and get ideas from people from all over the world. And so on.

Yes, it's possible even with all this to be discontent at times. But we don't have to be. And if we remember to think about God's generosity, then with his help we can become more generous and thus become more like him.

Which is great in itself -- not to mention the promise!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Who are these guys?

I noticed something in this morning's reading that I don't think I'd seen before: two unnamed men, who will be couriers for the gift to be sent from the Corinthians. Take a look at what Paul says about these guys:
And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel.... We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men. In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you. As for ... our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ.
2 Corinthians 8.18-23
Did you see that last part, "an honor to Christ"? How would that feel, to have the apostle Paul say, "As for _________, he's a representative of the church and an honor to Christ." Wow! Or how would it be to have that on your headstone?

What were these guys like? And why doesn't Paul mention their names?

I guess we don't know their names because we don't have to -- that is, the Holy Spirit didn't think it important to put that in there. It may be enough that we see what these guys are like. So we don't know their names; what do we know about them? Here's a little list.
  • serves the gospel; all the churches praise him for that
  • men of integrity; if they are the couriers, no questions will be raised about how the gift is administered
  • zealous
  • really believes in the Corinthians
There are some people who, when you read about something they're doing, you think, "Oh, well if __________ is involved with it, it must be OK." Why do they create that kind of response? I guess it's because they are people of integrity. I want to be like that.

How about that last one: "because of his great confidence in you"? If somebody's carrying the mail, why does he have to believe in the sender? Well, he's not just the mailman here; he also gives encouragement to people at both ends of the delivery.

I guess this kind of confidence, or faith if you like, is part of love. And if love and encouragement are two of Paul's most popular themes, then I guess that's why Paul is so happy about the faith and love that this particular brother - whatever his name is - has for the Corinthians.

And that's part of what makes him "an honor to Christ." Wow. Want to be more like that? Me too.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Today I happened to read this article about Kerala, a state in India with a per-capita income about 1/70 that of the US. But the life expectancy there is about 70 (vs 72 for North America). Literacy was certified at 100% some years ago -- higher than it has ever been in the US.

This astonishing feat on 1/70th of the cash really caught my attention, but when I read today's selection from 2 Corinthians 8, the 70:1 wealth factor was foremost in my mind. In this reading, Paul brags about the Macedonians' generosity, and encourages the Corinthians to be generous too.

This is another great argument:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8.9
Now that's a tough act to follow.

Continuing on,
And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.
2 Corinthians 8.10-14
I really like this "according to your means" part. And the next verse is one of my favorites when it comes to giving: the gift is acceptable according to what you have, not according to what you don't.

If you're just scraping by, in other words, then whatever you give is fine! But if you're flying to vacation spots around the world, you can probably afford to give more. And if you owe money to someone, don't put it into the collection plate! If you owe it, it's not yours; you don't have the right to give away somebody else's stuff.

The last thing I want to write about this, and what kinda got me, was this remark about equality. He wanted the Corinthians to give so that things could be a little more equal.

The state of Kerala has about 1/70 the per-capita income of the US, and there are some Christians there -- a sizable minority. We don't have to go as far as Kerala -- we can just look within a few miles of our church -- our church of the astonishingly high median household income. What does it mean, equality?

Actually, even without traveling from Menlo Park to East Palo Alto, we have people in our church who are unemployed, getting evicted from their apartments, and so on. What does "equality" mean? What does stewardship mean, versus ministries of mercy?

Sorry, I don't have answers to those questions today. I can say that it's important to give, that the Macedonians (and the Corinthians too) were generous and worth emulating. I see the generous example of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But exactly what that means for me today? I guess I need God's help to make me more like Christ in that way, don't I?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Two from 2 Corinthians

(postings for September 1 and 2 are now up)

Yesterday I should have written something about this famous verse (it's famous among church people of a certain generation anyway) iin 2 Corinthians 6:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
2 Corinthians 6.14
People tend to associate this verse with marriage, and take it to mean that a believer and an unbeliever shouldn't get married. I agree with that, but looking at the verse in its context, it doesn't strike me as being obviously about marriage.

Context doesn't help me a whole lot here -- the immediately preceding part talks about how he's been open to them and asks them to be open to him (6.12-13).

A friend pointed out to me some years ago that the word "yoke" is the helpful one here. What does a yoke do? Well, this article tells us how a yoke works, and gives us a picture too. A yoke requires two animals to move in the same direction at the same speed. The Corinthians were mostly Gentiles I think, and probably not so familiar with the Old Testament -- but anyway "yoke" seems to indicate oppression and slavery.

So Paul's command here seems to be that a believer must avoid situations where they are stuck moving in the same direction and speed (I guess this is spiritual) as an unbeliever. This would be true in any close partnership -- marriage, co-owning a business (or a piece of rental real estate?), this sort of thing. The problem with these sorts of situations is that life is complicated enough without a disconnect in fundamental life direction.

Whoa, I missed something on context! In 6.11-13, Paul asks the Corinthians to open their hearts to him. Then there's this part about being yoked together with unbelievers, which also talks about purity. Then, right after that, he says this:
Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one.
2 Corinthians 7.2
It's like that "yoke" thing was like a parenthesis or something.

Or -- no, I think this one is right: he wants to assure them, both before and after that passage on purity and yoking, that he has their best interests at heart, that he is willing to (and did) sacrifice and suffer a lot for these Corinthians. I'm going to guess that this yoking and this purity thing were a big deal for them, that Paul's command would have been particularly hard to take, and that's why he brackets it with these assurances of his good will toward them.

OK, so that was actually in yesterday's reading! Today's reading in 2 Corinthians includes this part about godly sorrow:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
2 Corinthians 7.10
He points out their earnestness, the eagerness to clear themselves, etc., and how they have proven themselves to be innocent.

When I read "worldly sorrow brings death," I think of some incidents where a friendship was destroyed. Well, it wasn't just "worldly sorrow," but it was also an unforgiving heart. Here's the incident, and I hope I haven't told you all about this already. It happened in Japan, and I want to assure you that I am not all down on Japan. We love Japan actually and Carol is on her way there for a short term prayer/vision trip even as I type this.

Anyway, the deal was that Lance was part of this group that played loosely-organized basketball games. Joe wanted to play with them, but one day Lance told him that he missed too many passes or something like this. Joe went off and never spoke to him again. We are talking years here. These guys weren't ever really close pals, but it was just frosty. I mean Joe knew Lance's route (they walked and rode the bus, rather than driving) and made sure not to be nearby when Lance was there.

We knew both Joe and Lance, but we saw Lance more often. One day, we said something like "Haven't seen Joe for a while... do you know where he's been?" Lance had no idea.

Eventually we caught up with Joe, who explained the incident and said he felt insulted. Didn't he care at all about the friendship? He didn't, and hence refused to try to reconcile. Lance was the oblivious type, and so wasn't going to try to reconcile either. We didn't feel it was our place to tell Lance that Joe felt hurt, etc.

Having written this down (by the way, the names, etc., have been changed) I'm not sure it's such a good illustration of "worldly sorrow". Maybe it's more like worldly alientation and rejection? Well, I'll go out on a limb and say we could consider it "worldly sorrow." As far as I know, Joe didn't do anything to clarify or remedy the situation -- the situation of his ball-handling skills I mean. He didn't work with Lance to try to address the interpersonal situation either.

Insensitivity, alientation, rejection... stir and repeat for all relationships. Sounds pretty life-denying, doesn't it?

OK, but the Corinthians did better.
... At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. .... I wrote to you... that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.
from 2 Corinthians 7.11-12
I get the picture from this passage how important it is to be in fellowship, in relationships with other believers. Which makes sense, now that I think of it. Every part of the body is connected to every other part, isn't it?

Does this mean that I have to call up everybody I've ever had an unresolved issue with and go resolve it? Gosh, I hope not. But at least going forward I want to try to retain relationships more than I sometimes have in the past.

And may the Lord help me to do so.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Who are the poor?

(I'll post essays for September 1 and 2 soon...)

I saw this verse from the Proverbs in this morning's reading, and it reminded me of the opening scene of Superman Returns. Here's the verse:
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich--both come to poverty.
Proverbs 22.16
Now what's the movie scene I'm talking about? Well, there is a rich old woman on her deathbed, and she signs a new will -- leaving everything to the villain Lex Luthor.

Why does this verse about the poor remind me of a dying rich woman? Because although she was materially rich, she was spiritually bankrupt to give so much material wealth -- to think she owed so much -- to this awful criminal.

Now the verse isn't talking directly about that -- it seems to be talking about the materially poor and about physical riches -- but it seems to me that there's a general principle of, well, exploitation, if not oppression. Whatever kind of exploitation there is, God doesn't seem very happy about it.

The prophets talk a lot about justice for the (materially) poor, and Jesus did too, as did Paul. But I'd like to think a little more today about how that could be a picture of the spiritually poor.

On one hand, Jesus said that the poor in spirit are blessed (Matthew 5.3) and yet we can see how the poor in spirit can also be led astray (Paul talks about weak-willed people who are easily manipulated - 2 Timothy 3.6). In recent history, we see people like Manson and Koresh and Jones, who led astray lots of people and came to a bad end.

So what? You and I aren't leaders of paramilitary groups or suicide cults, but one application might be to take to heart what Paul says elsewhere (2 Corinthians 4: "We have renounced secret and shameful ways" for example) - i.e., that we not deceive people to try to control them - to gain power (to increase a sort of psychological or spiritual wealth).

Never to trick anyone or manipulate anyone... or "guilt" anyone into anything... Or, of course, to delay payment or underpay anyone either. May God help us to be people of integrity, and to avoid, yea to renounce, "secret and shameful ways."

Saturday, September 02, 2006

the meaninglessness of life in the face of the inevitability of death

We're spending (most of) the Labor Day weekend at Mount Hermon, a Christian conference facility in the Santa Cruz mountains. There are beautiful redwoods here, we heard some great teaching from the Bible last night, but the compelling reason for coming is to be with a family we've known for a long time -- we met back when we were all single!

We came to family camp last year at this time, too, and one of our speakers talked about Ecclesiastes -- which is, you guessed it, is today's Old Testament reading. Ecclesiastes starts off on this cheery note:

"Meaningless! Meaningless" says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaninglesss! Everything is meaningless."

(Ecclesiastes 1.2)

Accordingly, last year's teacher introduced his talk by saying, "Come to family camp and hear about the meaninglessness of life in the face of the inevitability of death!"

"Wait," you may be thinking. "Was this a Christian speaker? He sounds more like a nihilist existentialist or something!" (He didn't sound like Camus or Sartre, though, because being from Australia, he didn't have the right accent.)

Yes, he absolutely was a Christian speaker. His point, of course, was that attempts to find meaning in life are doomed unless we know God and focus our lives on him. Which is actually the point of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes tries all kinds of other things:
"Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.
Ecclesiastes 2.2-6
Laughter, drugs, landscaping, architecture -- and so on. Livestock, riches, beauty, sex. These are fun while they last, but what is the ultimate meaning? There isn't any.

And, whereas he says that wisdom is better than folly, the same fate overtakes them both.
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 2.16-17
Heavy stuff! Our speaker at that camp last year said he felt rather like a trespasser in this book, "because I have not lived long enough to understand it." In a sense we are all too young to try to explain it fully.

But -- one theme is abundantly clear. All the science and technology in the world (the text uses the word "projects") may be interesting -- fascinating, even -- and nice. Jet airplanes make it possible to travel great distances safely in a few hours, rather than dangerously in weeks. This is great, but do they make us better people? More specifically, does it make you or me a better person? Is your life ultimately more satisfying or meaningful because of a 767 or whatever?

We enjoy our cell phones, our ipods, our computers (when we aren't fighting them) but do they make our lives worth living? I don't think so.

How about knowledge? Success? Those are OK, but there are people who "have it all" and find their lives meaningless. One is in Morley's The Man in the Mirror. We heard about another from Alistair Begg as he taught this weekend on John 9. He mentioned a fellow, a very successful attorney I think, who came to him and said "I have absolutely no basis for my existence."

This was a great conversation. Alistair asked him to talk about himself a bit, and after a while asked him if he'd ever read the Bible. (He hadn't.) "You're in there," he said.

"Am I?"

"Sure you are. Right here: 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? See? You're right there!"

"Is that really in there?"

"Sure it is; do you think I'm making it up?"

There was much laughter in the audience, but the point is that modern (or postmodern) man doesn't have a basis for existence because we have by and large forgotten to think about where we sit with God, and whether we're following him. Are we his partners or his enemies, in other words?

Alas, most of what we do at the office for the organization isn't intrinsically meaningful. Even if we create the greatest product or service, what bit of meaning will it add to anyone's life? None! But that's not why we go to work, is it? Well, it's not the only reason you and I go to work (creating better products/services) -- it's also to be a blessing, to exude the fragrance of Christ to those around us, to do productive work and provide for ourselves (and our families if we have them) and not to be a burden on society.

But when we think that the actual task list at the office has ultimate intrinsic value... well, for me that's the easy thing to go off the rails on, because if I forget to be patient and kind, if I forget to build up and encourage and teach because of the task list, then well, I'm off the track.

So that's my challenge - to work diligently but not to base my life on it, not to forget that the ultimate point is to be who God wants me to be and do what he wants me to do. Which usually isn't the task list.

posted Sept. 4

Friday, September 01, 2006

A new creature, living for... himself?

Early in my Christian life, I was involved with the Navigators, a Christian group that encouraged me to memorize verses through things like the "Topical Memory System." The TMS was five sets of 12 verses each, arranged around themes like "Live the New Life" or "Rely on God's Resources."

The first verse of the first set, the card labeled "A-1," was 2 Corinthians 5.17, which is in today's New Testament reading. In the New American Standard version, it reads:

Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature, the old things passed away. Behold, new things have come!

Although I memorized that verse all by itself -- and as far as individual verses go, it's not a bad one! -- it naturally doesn't stand in isolation; it's part of a passage where he talks about the work of evangelism. This is a great passage, where he lays out the mission he's so dedicated to:
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation....
2 Corinthians 5.14-18
and he explains what that ministry is: that God himself provided, at great personal cost, a way for this sorry dark world to make peace with him.

Here's how I understand this passage. First, Paul says that Christ's death for us all means we were all as good as dead, and that we shouldn't live for ourselves but for Christ.

What do you think about that? We shouldn't live for ourselves but for Christ. Here's what I think: that these two (living for Christ, living for myself) have some overlap; it's not always an either/or thing. For example, why does Paul preach the gospel? This passage here says Christ's love compels him to do it. In 1 Corinthians 9 he says it's involuntary: "for I am compelled to preach," he says. So is he doing it for Christ or for himself?

And do people become pastors or missionaries because they feel their lives belong to Christ and that's where he's called them? Or is it really because they have a need to be needed by others, or because they're desperately trying to escape the sense of meaninglessness gnawing at their souls?

Well, their motives might be mixed. Scratch that -- their motives almost certainly are mixed. Mine always are. Paul's were, too -- after reading Romans chapter 7, I am sure of it!

But I'm OK with that, and I think you should be too. First of all, if through childhood loneliness or whatever, someone gets a gnawing sense of meaninglessness, or a deep desire to be needed by someone, can God use that for something good? Can he even use it to advance the gospel and to build his kingdom? Of course he can! And the same thing goes for someone who feels compelled to preach (for good reasons or bad).

And when someone chooses a life direction that accomplishes God's purposes while at the same time fulfilling a desire or need within his own soul, is he living for himself or for Christ? Well, to the extent that anyone else has anything to say about it, I say it's some of both.

Back to the passage, and I'll be quick because I've already written a lot for today... Because of this transaction, where we were all as good as dead and then Jesus died for us, Paul says, people are not what they look like on the outside. He talks about how people thought of Jesus based on worldly standards of achievement, and how that has now changed.

And that's why if anyone is "in Christ," then he is a new creature, or a new creation. And what an amazing thing that is -- to be a new person, to be "born again" (that is in the Bible, by the way - in John 3; it wasn't invented by the 20th century "Jesus movement").

So let me wrap this up with an analogy that I probably heard somewhere. When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we might say it's a new creature; it has a new nature so to speak. Though it has the same DNA that it always had, the expression of that DNA is now a butterfly expression rather than a caterpillar expression. When I became a Christian, my DNA didn't change. Most of the circumstances of my life didn't change. But my skills and strengths, my hangups and weaknesses, are expressed in a different way and for a different purpose than before.

Am I living for Christ then? A little bit. Well, OK, maybe "Some."

But I'm living (at all) more than I'm "living for Christ." That is, I'm living out who I am. By God's grace, "who I am" is becoming more like Christ, so the "living out" pleases Christ more and more. At least I hope so! Well, I believe it's so, by God's promise.

[posted 9/4]