Chapter-a-Day James 4

New_daySo let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet. James 4:7-10 (TM)

As I look back at the greatest changes the have occurred in my life, there are a few momentous events. When Jesus found me as a teen ager, the birth of my children, and going through a divorce are points on the time line of my life that altered the course of my life forever. There are, likewise, subtle shifts in my behavior that have resulted in similar lasting course changes. But I can’t pin-point a day, an hour, a week or a month that things changed. It wasn’t an event in time, but slow change of course.

When I changed my eating habits and lost over 40 pounds and when I began writing these chapter a day posts, there was no screaming event. There was no hoopla or announcement. There was no epiphany experience or voice from the clouds giving me direction. These fundamental shifts in behavior were a "quiet yes" to God, and I can tell you when it occurred. I woke up one day and began to do something different. I did it the next day, and the next. Step by step, day by day, my life was headed on a new path.

One of my many problems is that I like to dabble. I’m quick to head out for a distant country to play around in fun and games. Once there, I wait for my heavenly father to find me, hit me over the head and haul my sorry butt home. But the prodigal’s father didn’t go looking for his son. He sat on the front porch, fixed his eyes on the path leading to the family home and waited for his son’s return. He waited for his son to find himself wading in pig slop. He waited for his son to say a quiet "yes, I need to go home."

It’s a new day. Does something need to change in your life? Stop waiting for God to scream at you. Listen to that still, small inside you, answer with a quiet "yes," and take one step on a new path.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Gregory Pleau.

Chapter-a-Day James 3

Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life. James 3:1-2 (TM)

While in college, I spent a summer as an intern at a church in rural Iowa. When the pastor learned that I had a gift in preaching, he asked me to fill the pulpit on several Sunday mornings and many Sunday nights. It was a great opportunity for me to learn what it took to preach week after week.

One of the most vivid memories I have of that summer is of Vern. Vern was a kind, old man who faithfully attended the church any time the doors were open. If I close my eyes, I can still see in my mind’s eye exactly where he sat in the sanctuary. I can picture him sitting there with head bowed. His head was bowed, not because he was in prayer, but because he was constantly writing on the bulletin or little scraps of paper he found in his pockets. After the service was over, Vern would walk up and hand me the paper on which he’d been writing. On the little scrap of paper were all of the scripture passages he was determined I should have used in my sermon.

I’ve often joked that when you stand up in front of a group of people to you, inherently, have a huge target on you. People will be very critical of anything you say and some of them will have no problem telling you when they think you are wrong.

Out of the Lake & Diving Back In

It was a great weekend at the Lake. We took Madison and her friend Anna down to visit Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well, who have been down there for the past three weeks. It ended up being a nice weekend, weather-wise and the girls were able to soak themselves on the wave runner. We made the requisite trip to B&P Barbeque. Grandpa and Grandma taught us a new game and we played cards together in the evenings.

It was also a momentous occasion as Madison and I got tattoos together. It was surreal kind of rite of passage. More on that later. I have to get pics from Madison and will post more.

We got home late Sunday and I immediately packed to leave for Montana on business in the wee hours of Monday morning. I’m in Billings now and will be back late Wednesday night.

Many people have been asking me about Taylor’s decision. (First, a clarification. I was wrong when I wrote last week that Taylor’s youth pastor called Wendy to say they thought Taylor was supposed to go to the Desperation conference. Actually, Wendy ran into Leah at church and Leah mentioned that the staff had been praying about it and felt the Taylor was supposed to go. I don’t want to misrepresent things.) When we left for the lake she had decided to go to Iowa for one semester and then head to Discipleship Training School in January. She called on Sunday night as I was packing and said that she’d reversed that decision. She came to the realization that she was really called to go in September and was trying to put off what God wanted her to do. So, she plans to go to Colorado Springs in September for YWAM DTS. She’ll have about 12 weeks of full-time classwork followed by 12 weeks on the mission field. She will be back in February and is waiting to see what she should do from there. She now has just a few weeks to raise her support.

How am I doing with this decision? Fine. I’m watching Taylor seek God and make thoughtful life decisions. I think that she is taking the road less traveled and, for her, this is the more difficult path. It would be easy for Taylor to follow the prescribed route and make everyone happy. I can see God’s hand in this. We’re headed to the lake this weekend with Taylor and her boyfriend, Clayton. I’m looking forward to having some intense time of discussion and prayer with both of them.

That’s the latest. Got to get to a meeting!

Chapter-a-Day James 2

Love_feast_2My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, "Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!" and either ignore the street person or say, "Better sit here in the back row," haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted? James 2:1-4 (TM)

Believers in the first century were radically changing the social landscape around them. In a culture of entrenched class systems, slavery, and broad socio-economic differences, the early Christians acted on the command to "love one another" without regard to social status. While deep seated cultural prejudice did not just disappear, the believers put their faith into action and rattled the Roman world. Believers were such a threat to long-held prejudices, they were instigating such a radical cultural shift, that it brought intense persecution down upon them.

And what was this radical act which shook Roman culture to the core?

They had meals together. Romans and Jews, slaves and slave masters, rich nobles and penniless beggars would sit together at the same table and have a meal followed by the Lord’s Supper. It was the first and only time that all classes and people from every socio-economic level were placed on the same level. We are all sinners saved by grace. Jesus died once for all. It threatened long-held prejudices and when you threaten people’s prejudices they tend to react in violent ways.

That’s what James is addressing in this chapter. Believers struggled to act on their faith, to give up their prejudices, and to change the way they treated each other. The church leaders were struggling to get believers to break down the walls between class, creed, race and economics. They were urging believers to act out their faith and love each other as Jesus loved each of us and all of us.

Is it really any different today? I read today’s chapter and I ask myself how I respond to people who are much different than me. Am I willing to admit my own prejudices? Am I willing to turn my faith in to action and tear down those walls in my own spirit?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and numstead.

Chapter-a-Day James 1

Hearing_aidDon’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. James 1:22-24 (TM)

I’m hard of hearing. It’s a genetic issue. My grandfather was hard of hearing. My father is hard of hearing. I received my first hearing aid earlier this year. The hearing aid helps, but it’s not a cure. The type of hearing loss I have allows me to hear sounds, but not distinguish them. I can hear people talking, but I can’t make out the words that they are saying. It’s especially difficult in public places or in places with a lot of white noise like cars, airplanes or houses with noisy air conditioning. At best it’s a minor annoyance, thought sometimes it can be extremely frustrating for me and for my family.

Because I can hear the sounds, but have a hard time catching the words, my brain sometimes takes a few seconds to run the sounds I’ve just heard coming out of my wife’s mouth and run them through several filters before coming up with an educated guess at what she just said. Yesterday, as we drove home from a weekend at the lake, Wendy was talking to me. With the white noise in the car, I was finding it difficult to hear her. I could hear that she was talking to me. I looked at her, smiled and nodded as my brain began to process the sounds in an effort to decipher them into words.

Suddenly she laughed. "When you smile like that and nod I know you you didn’t hear a word I just said!" she exclaimed.

I wonder how often God says the same thing of me. With God, however, the problem is not with my hearing – the problem is with my obeying. How often do I choose to smile and nod, then walk away and ignore what I’ve just been told? God sends the message loud and clear. He’s not interested in those who show up and merely listen. He’s interested in those who listen and then act on what they’ve heard.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Jim Frazier.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Corinthians 13

CheckupTest yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don’t drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourselves regular checkups. You need firsthand evidence, not mere hearsay, that Jesus Christ is in you. Test it out. If you fail the test, do something about it. 2 Corinthians 13:5-7 (TM)

A woman was mad at her husband. "You never say ‘I love you,’" she complained.

"Look," responded the husband, "I told you ‘I love you’ on the day I married you. If it changes, I’ll let you know."

That kind of logic would not go over well with my wife, and it shouldn’t. Marriage is a relationship, not an event. A healthy relationship requires constant check ups and routine maintenance. It’s true of marriage, and it’s true of my relationship with God, too.

I’ve talked to many people for whom faith is centered on an event. I was baptized as a baby, so I must be okay with God. I was confirmed when I was 13 by my local church, so I must be okay with God. I’m a member of my church, so I must be okay with God. I prayed a prayer when I was a kid, so I must be okay with God.

In other words, "Hey God, I said ‘I believe’ the day I joined the church. If it changes, I’ll let you know."

I don’t think God appreciates that logic any better than the wife in my initial anecdote. If I am to have a healthy relationship with God, then I need to check in. I must be an active participant. I should constantly be asking myself what I can and must do to improve the relationship.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and law keven.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Corinthians 12

Flat_tireNow I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (TM)

While in high school I went on a mission trip to Mexico with about 40 other high school kids packed into a few old vans of questionable road worthiness. We drove from Des Moines, Iowa to Acapulco, Mexico and then drove back. The plan called for us to stop at several places in Mexico to give choir concerts and hold VBS programs for chidren. The trip was scheduled during the hottest weeks of the summer.

What began as a fairly routine mission trip with a simple itinerary became a swirl of chaos. Vans broke down and tires went flat. Many in the group, myself included, were struck down with Montezuma’s Revenge. Concerts were cancelled and housing arrangements fell through. We were lost – several times. Nothing went according to plan.

I had a blast. It was one of the most memorable events of my teen years.

It helped that I wasn’t in charge. Fixing the vans, finding housing arrangements, and rescheduling choir concerts were not my responsibility. My job was to be where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there, and do what was asked of me to the best of my ability. Grumbling and complaining about being broken down in the middle of the Mexican desert was not going to change my situation. So, I rolled with the punches, enjoyed the ride, seized each moment, and waited for direction.

Things don’t always go according to the plan. In fact, no matter which plan you follow there will certainly be a few obstacles along the way. The question is not if things are going to go wrong, but when they are going to go wrong. Brooding, complaining and wishing for things to be different will not change the circumstances in which I find myself. All I can do is roll with the punches, enjoy the ride, seize each moment, and wait for direction.

The way I figure it, life is one long mission a trip. God is in charge.

Chapter-a Day 2 Corinthians 11

BonhoefferI’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 (TM)

As my daughter, Taylor, has been getting back into the swing of daily life after a month on the mission field, it’s been interesting observing her. While she was never in any real danger, she was in an area of the world that is not kind to Christians. She was taunted, people screamed at her, authorities harassed her and she had bottles thrown at her. That’s quite a departure from the culture of "believe whatever you want and can’t we just all get along?" that she grew up in.

I see a difference in Taylor in the time she’s been home. It isn’t a flashy, obvious, bragging change. It’s a quiet, deep shift towards maturity. I personally believe it is a step toward maturity that was bought at a price when her faith cost her something.

It’s a privilege to believe at no cost. In fact, it can be argued that it is actually a hindrance. When faith costs you nothing you have little invested, it demands little of you, and you expect little in return.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it "cheap grace" and warned us of it in his book The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God. 45-46

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Bonhoeffer knew the cost. He died at the gallows of a Nazi concentration camp.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Corinthians 10

Church_numbersWe’re not, understand, putting ourselves in a league with those who boast that they’re our superiors. We wouldn’t dare do that. But in all this comparing and grading and competing, they quite miss the point. 2 Corinthians 10:12 (TM)

I’ve been watching as advertising for the Olympic games is raised to a fever pitch. I’ll admit that I always look forward to watching the games. I have been a fan of the Olympics since I was a kid.

We love competition in our culture, don’t we? Whether it’s Olympic races, presidential races or food eating races – we can turn anything into a game of sport. In fact, we’re so obsessed with competition that we’re not content to simply watch the actual competition, we have to create "fantasy leagues" so that we’re competing on fantasy games beyond the actual game.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that our lust for competition bleeds over into our spiritual lives. Just going to a church isn’t good enough – we need a "mega church." Bigger is better. How many people do you put in the seats on Sunday? I hear conversations all the time in which people subtly brag on the merits of their pastor as if they are raising the stakes on a spiritual poker game for the pot of bragging rights.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the first century, Paul found himself thrust into the same issues. The church in Corinth was divided as people lined up behind their favorite teacher as if they were picking teams for a game of playground kick ball. Paul had been warned that no one wanted to play on his team.

You have to appreciate Paul’s observation that, when it comes to all this silly competition, we’re quite missing the point. It’s not about bragging rights for my church. The point is not the number of converts to which we can lay claim. It’s not about the hordes of people my pastor attracts, the list of letters behind his name, who wrote what best seller, or that my pastor’s son plays professional basketball.

The point is simply knowing Christ, being obedient and striving to mature as, day-by-day, I live out this life.