being willing to take second fiddle and serve

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22

I have never seen this connection before, and I like how the NIV in its paragraph divisions, brings all of this together in one paragraph. During the Last Supper, of all places, after Jesus told them that one of them was about to betray him, they began to argue with each other over which of them was considered to be greatest.

Jesus pointed to himself as the one who took the place assigned to servants; the more important, or considered greater people, sitting at the tables, being served. But that, because they had stood by him in his trials, he would give them a kingdom in which they’ll sit down and eat and drink, as well as sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

The ways of the world easily rub off on us. We need to take care that we neither lord it over others, or expect them to serve us. Instead we need to appeal to them, and serve them. We especially need to be sensitive to those who have been hurt, and who might easily misunderstand our actions and words. But we also need to be open to the need for rough edges to be taken off of us.

I’m afraid that the world sometimes rubs off more on us, than our way in Christ rubbing off on the people of the world. We end up imitating what we admire. We need to learn to see the beauty of Jesus, and come to value that. And then see everything else in that light. Certainly that’s the way of humility and service. And in God’s grace by the Spirit, Jesus himself can live in us and help us. In fact, because of that, we can become more like him.

That is the key, but at the same time we need to be aware, and when need be repent and become like the little children of the Father in the kingdom, loving and serving each other, and the world, in God’s love, in and through Jesus.

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we are in process on a journey

Many bumper stickers I don’t care for, including the one we sometimes used to see, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or something to that effect. While it did communicate something important, it seemed to let Christians off the hook for behaving less than well. The wonderful writer and teacher Dallas Willard used to call it “bar code Christianity,” when people somehow thought their profession of faith to get to heaven was enough, with little or no life corresponding.

There is no doubt that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and not be our works, so that no one can boast. But that passage goes on to say practically the key of that thought. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he has planned for us (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Faith in Christ, in the gospel gives us assurance of eternal life, for sure. And our sins: past, present and future are taken care of. But it also puts us on a journey in a totally new direction. Faith in scripture is always submissive, and involves repentance. That involves a lifelong renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and instead, often against the grain of even ourselves, following the Lord through thick and thin, no matter what.

We are essentially those in process. We in Jesus never arrive in this life, but we are on a journey. There is a pursuit that keeps us going, even hungry. The completion of everything is promised only at our Lord’s return. Being in Christ, found by God and finding him, means we are on an entirely new pursuit. One aspect of that Paul describes in his great little letter to the Philippians:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

see Philippians 3

This is indeed a growth process. We should be becoming more and more like Jesus, over time. This involves an ongoing renewing of our minds which goes against the grain of conformity to the world (Romans 12:1-2).

And so there’s an ongoing tension in the sense that we are on a journey in which we have not yet arrived. Along the way we might mess up, and we will in some way or another. So that an essential part of it is the ongoing confession of sin, forgiveness and corresponding cleansing. And part of that is the necessity that we walk (or live) in the light, as Jesus is in the light (1 John).

And so we never have a sense in this life of having arrived. Yes, we have those moments, seasons, and times, even if they might seem to be rare, when we especially feel close to God, and when all seems well. But it won’t be long in this life, with the presence of the world, the flesh, and the devil, when we will be put both on the defensive, and the offensive, as we take up the word of truth, scripture and the gospel, and by the Spirit seek to follow on with others in Jesus. Someday the journey will be over, and we will arrive to the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. Until then by grace we press on toward and even in the beauty of our Lord.

God understands

We say in Christian theology that God knows all things, the end from the beginning, in every minute detail with the big picture in mind. Precisely what that means might deviate some. Like I might ask, “Can God know what isn’t already in existence?” Surely yes, in that he can create and control all of that, but maybe no if he chooses not to control it at every turn, I am thinking of human volition. All of existence is out of God’s doing. And God can force us to choose or do whatever, if God so chooses, but it seems on the surface at least, that there’s a real give and take in life between the individual, as well as people, and God. Maybe some of this we do best to chalk up to mystery, and leave alone. But it does seem that God invites us to grapple with all he has revealed, while the hidden things remain with him, indeed surely outside of our limitation to grasp.

We can be at a place in which we’re challenged to know what to do. In small ways that happens a lot, and is usually fixable. In larger ways, sometimes that can be quite difficult, beyond our ability to navigate well, if at all. It is good during such times to be in prayer and in the word, looking to God to give us the understanding we need, and proceed from there. That is usually incremental, and one step at a time. God can be trusted to be present through all of it, but it seems to me like God leaves plenty of room for variation on our part, including even failure. God has the big picture in mind, but also wants to be present interactively with us through the small things, as well. That is lived largely in context of our day to day existence as individuals, but is best worked out in community with others in Jesus. Not to say that God might not use the broader human community as well, and another friend who does not yet know him.

I look to God for his wisdom, believing certain things are beyond me, really many things. Essentially what concerns God in us, I believe, is a character transformation rooted in God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It’s not like other things are unimportant, all within the old creation is included in the new creation in Jesus. Salvation extends to every part, but perhaps its outworking is strange to us. And the fact of the matter is that we may not be necessarily included, if we don’t look to the source which is found in Jesus. There might be some major bumps on the road, and brokenness on the way to that salvation.

God understands. And can be fully trusted. In and through Jesus.

more, not less, but also less, not more

Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.

Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is the great psalm and scripture that one might call, in fact I am nearly sure I read this in connection with the psalm: in praise of God’s word. Of course we refer now to the written word, scripture, the Bible. I find that I need to be in the word more, not less, especially when there is so much on my plate in life, and pressures from various places seem overwhelming. It is often best to focus on one matter at a time, get that done, and then go to the next. In this life it’s never done; there’s always something more pressing us. And the world wants to crash in as well. There’s the tidal wave of US politics and all the controversy and divisiveness surrounding that. And all kinds of other things which can occupy so much of our attention.

I like liturgical churches, myself, where Holy Communion is celebrated every week, and it’s considered more than a symbol. And I read somewhere that instead of thinking one has to be in the word more, that kind of service helps us to be centered in the Lord apart from that, since most people just can’t sustain such a practice. I do think such a service helps keep the gospel front and center, and certainly the public reading of scripture is a big part of those times. And there’s always the danger of hearing, hearing, and hearing more of God’s word, while not sufficiently putting it into practice, as James warns us.

But I need to be lifted beyond my own thoughts, and perspective. And I need to get into the flow of God’s word, so that I can begin to see God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will, even God himself, of course in and through Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit. Reading scripture, and hearing it read (click the icon on the upper right to listen to Psalm 119, which is available in that translation from any scripture).

At the same time though, I also find that I need less, not more. Maybe in a sense that’s true of the word, though I think we both need to read, or hear read large portions of it at a time, and also slowly meditate on it. What I’m referring to now though is simply refusing to be taken into the more that needs to be done, and simply setting aside time to rest. Yes, unplugged. Even to do nothing, nothing at all, except maybe to simply be somewhere. With shoes kicked off, relaxing. Maybe in just hours of silence. Rest, and along with that something other than work, which we enjoy doing.

We need both more and less. A kind of rhythm in life in which actual physical rest is taken seriously so that we practice it. While we seek to remain in God’s word, in scripture. And along with that, in silence before him. Lifted beyond our own thoughts and troubles, and the chaos of this world, into God’s presence and counsel. Hopefully that practice along with the rest going together, in and through Jesus.

the prayer of examen, an essential, neglected part of true prayer

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139

Ed Cyzewski, an evangelical contemplative, talks about the prayer of examen, and centering prayer being essential for contemplative prayer, a practice that can help us pray, and deepen our faith. For those who tap into, and seek to sink deep into the riches of this tradition of the Church, this can be quite helpful, indeed revolutionary. But for those who stick to scripture only, and their own tradition, simply to acknowledge the importance of asking God to search our hearts based on Psalm 139 is sufficient. I think we should receive from tradition, while holding to scripture as our primary authority. Really, that’s a complicated issue by itself, since scripture gives the church much authority in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. But that’s another topic.

A major purpose of prayer is to change us, not just change circumstances. Real prayer is transforming, itself a humble admission of who we are, our need, and God’s goodness and greatness and promise in Jesus. But our prayers can often be less than prayer. We shoot out cheap prayers, while intending to go on our merry way. Hoping God will change our circumstance, or some situation out there, but with no intention of change in ourselves, or corresponding heart. As Jesus said in quoting from Isaiah, people can indeed come to God with their lips, while their hearts are far from him. Dangerous, ritualistic prayer, empty religion.

We are welcomed to throw up prayers of desperation to God (see the psalms). Sometimes dire circumstances can end up being a help in awakening us to faith, and out of that can come genuine change. But in the normal everyday grit and grime of life, even when things might seem to be going well, we do well to begin with what tradition calls “the prayer of examen.” Here is a brief description of it.

This kind of prayer takes some time along with attentiveness on our part. We simply don’t send it God’s way, then go on to our normal daily routine. On the other hand, it’s a good prayer to pray in the midst of our busy lives. But to have times of quietness before God with such a prayer is what is called for. Along with that, simple consistency in doing this, perhaps at the end of each day, that might be optimum. But indeed, regularly. As we see in the prayer, we can imply that God would reveal what we need to see about ourselves, certainly God knowing all in the first place. The petition is simply that in this, God would lead us in the way everlasting.

This isn’t merely for our good. The prayer of examen will change us so that we can better be a blessing to others: blessed to be a blessing. All of this in and through Jesus. And so we close where we begun. May it be our prayer today, and a regular part of our praying.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139

the Bible and the world (even the news)

John R. W. Stott wrote what in my lifetime was considered a classic, or at least a must read book for those training for the ministry, entitled, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. The idea, written in 1982, is something like for a pastor to be effective in his sermon preparation, he needs to have both a Bible (certainly with necessary helps when preparing the sermon) in hand, and a newspaper. Stott and colleagues used to go to landmark films together, and then discuss their meaning afterward.

I think Stott gets to a most important point. I may want to simply escape the world, and live in some kind of monastic order, thinking that I would actually do the world more good to do so. While there’s a grain of truth in that, there’s also, I think, some error. I live in the real world which has an overwhelming influence over all of us in all sorts of ways, most of which we take for granted, and are hardly even aware of. I think of the Modernist Enlightenment heritage of my own country, the United States. And just one result of that is an entrenched individualism which at best means we each take responsibility, and at worst that we’re not our brother’s keeper. Another strong emphasis coming out of that is the falsity which again has a grain of truth, but with what ends up a poisonous admixture of error, that all the world needs to overcome “evil” is simply knowledge. We need more education, another staple of the Enlightenment.

We don’t live in a vacuum in which it’s just us and God. We live in a real world, with definite issues, which can end up defining or at least impacting individuals and societies. And at the same time, we have a word from God, word meaning written scripture, and preeminently meaning the gospel pointing to God’s final Word, Jesus. That word speaks into our lives, but into them where we live, no less. The word is often called “timeless,” but a better word for it might be timely. It initially spoke into a specific time, place and culture. And it continues to speak to every generation and place. It is the ancient word, to be sure, but at the same time God’s word for the world.

And so we need to be those who major on listening to God through his word. And that word will speak into the world in which we live. Even as it spoke into the world of its original recipients. God’s word in Jesus bringing in God’s grace and kingdom in him, yes right into the world in which we live. Living in “this present evil age” as we look forward to the world to come when Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made one.

getting uncluttered in life

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

Matthew 13

When you get older you start to think about getting rid of all the things in your house or garage that you haven’t used for years and years. Paring down, before others end up having to do that for you, or after you’re gone. I think something similar applies for all of us as followers of Jesus. We need to be unencumbered, free from what can weigh us down, and essentially knock us out, or at least greatly impair and hinder our walk in Jesus.

For me more than anything else, this involves the spiritual discipline if you want to call it that, of being in the word regularly. I feel it if for a prolonged time I’m not in the word, in scripture. And being in the word is nothing scintillating or entertaining, as a rule. Actually it goes much deeper than that, right to the heart, to the very core of one’s being, and out of that forming one’s character and what one does, over time.

There are any number of things, indeed no shortage of them, which can very much distract and burden us, yes, unnecessarily. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of responsibilities in place and challenges that come our way that we can simply ignore and forget about. It’s more like how we address those issues, what we do when we’re doing so. Are we endeavoring to walk with Jesus, to be in scripture in whatever situation we’re in? Are we active in the fellowship of the church, in a Jesus community? This is all an essential part of us being those who hear the word, understand it, and find God at work in our lives for ourselves and others in and through Jesus.