Tag Archives: Confession

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

When “Love” is Hard

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight….
Philippians 1:9 (NIV)

Along my journey I have managed individuals who were in the wrong position. They weren’t suited for the tasks they were given, they didn’t enjoy the work, and the fruit of their labor was often rotten.  The fact that we had good person in a bad position was obvious to me as a front-line manager. I have two very vivid memories in which I argued with my boss that an individual needed to be terminated. This was not so much to alleviate the problems felt inside the system (though it would certainly do that) but because the individual needed to be freed to find something for which he or she was better suited. In both cases I was told that the best thing to do was to “show grace and love” by continuing to work with the individual, keep encouraging the individual, to keep overlooking their failures, and to perpetually give them another chance. In neither instance did the this course of “grace and love” succeed.

Love is a simple word, and very often love is a simple concept: a random act of kindness, going out of your way to assist a person in need, an encouraging word, or a thoughtful gift.

As I read the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in the town of Philippi, I was struck that he prayed, not just that the Philippian believers’ love would abound, but that that it would abound in knowledge and depth of insight.

I have found along my life journey that love is often not such a simple concept. In fact, sometimes love is hard:

  • Coming clean, owning my own shit, and getting help.
  • Forgiving, knowing you’ll never forget the injury and/or the perpetrator will never admit, own, or repent of what he or she did.
  • Refusing to rescue a child; Allowing him or her fail as you watch and pray.
  • Choosing to make a child responsible for earning his or her way rather than freely providing all things.
  • Severing relationship with a crazy-maker.
  • Walking away from a toxic relationship.
  • Telling an addict, “No.”
  • Terminating an employee who isn’t a good fit for the job.

Just as Paul wrote that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, I’ve learned that sometimes what looks like love on the surface of a situation is actually not love at all. Quite the opposite. Often, the loving act is misunderstood in the moment. It requires knowledge to realize that it’s actually the best thing for the other. The truly loving act can initially illicit anger, bitterness, and lashing out. Depth of insight is required to see how things will play out in the long run.

This morning I’m thinking about the two individuals I referenced at the beginning of this post. I’ve learned that they moved on, found a better vocational fit, and appear to be successful in their chosen fields. I’m happy for them. They taught me an invaluable lesson. Showing “grace and love” sometimes means making the difficult, uncomfortable, even unpopular decision with the knowledge and insight that it’s actually the most loving thing to do.

 

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Becoming the Evil from Which I’ve Been Delivered

So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
Jeremiah 34:10-11 (NIV)

I found today’s chapter in the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages particularly fascinating. It is a series of messages given during the very time that Jerusalem, the capital city of the ancient nation of Judah, was besieged by the armies of Babylon. Judah’s King Zedekiah had issued a proclamation that all Hebrew slaves (in other words, the people of Judah had enslaved their own people) should be emancipated. After initially abiding by King Z’s emancipation proclamation, the slave owners reversed course, rounded up their former slaves, and returned the slaves to their chains.

In his book exploring the nature of evil, M. Scott Peck describes evil people as “pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities” while “unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” I thought of those descriptors this morning as I read about the Hebrew slave owners who initially choose to appear obedient and upright in following the King’s edict, but then quickly put their own slaves back in shackles and maintained the status quo of the evil of slavery. The Hebrew people, whose ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had in effect become their Egyptian masters. While maintaining the appearance of being “God’s people” they were unable to see that they had become the very evil from which their own people had been delivered.

This morning in the quiet I’ve been doing a bit of my own gut-check. Somehow I’m sensing that it’s too easy to wag my self-righteous, 21st century fingers at the ancient Hebrew slave owners. Where in my own life do I make effort to keep up appearances of goodness while simultaneously maintaining a destructive status quo in my behaviors and relationships? Ugh.

I may be able to look back and see that have made spiritual progress on this life journey, but I can still look inside, then look ahead, and see how far I have to go. And with that, my spirit whispers an ancient prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Note to my readers:  As much I’d like to think that slavery has been outlawed and eradicated by our enlightened society, reading a few stories from groups such as International Justice Mission (an organization Wendy and I support) are a reminder that the evil of slavery addressed in Jeremiah’s ancient message is very much alive in the world we live in today. One practical way to make a tangible difference for good is to make a donation to IJM’s efforts or any one of many similar organizations. Peace.

Pre-Scribed Events and Reimagined Narratives

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
2 Kings 5:11 (NIV)

I’ve always had a rather active imagination. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the land of make-believe. I can remember many scenes of war and espionage played out in my back yard and neighborhood. There were all sort of athletic miracles and Rudy-like moments that took place on the neighbor’s basketball court. I can even remember drawing colorful geometric shapes on notebook paper, taping them to the wall in a line and transforming my room in to the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. The final frontier alive and well in the limited space of my bedroom. I was that kid.

As I’ve continued on in my life journey, I’ve come to the realization that my active imagination has some unintended consequences. Because I have this unconscious ability to make up a narrative in my head, I sometimes find myself applying my imagination to real life. I just read the other day how, according to the author of the article, eye-witness testimony has become one of the least reliable forms of evidence in today’s justice system. People testify to what they honestly imagined they saw. I get that. Wendy sometimes corrects my retelling of events as my imagination makes changes and embellishments to the facts over time.

I have also found that I like the stories I tell myself. In fact, if I’m honest, I often like my own imaginative narratives better than the one God seems to be dictating in my current “real life” and present circumstances.

So it was that I found myself uncomfortably identifying with Namaan in today’s chapter. The worldly rich and power leper came to the prophet Elisha for healing. He also came with an imaginative narrative already written in his head how the events of his healing would unfold. Perhaps he’d heard others’ stories, or perhaps someone planted ideas in his head of what Elisha would experience (here I go again, imagining what might have happened). What we do read in this morning’s chapter is that when circumstances didn’t live up to the imagined narrative Namaan had prescribed for himself he became disappointed, frustrated, angry, and finally was utterly dismissive of the instructions Elisha prescribed for healing.

Namaan almost missed out on being healed of his leprosy because it didn’t match the events as he’d imagined them and pre-scribed (think of the word pre-scribed, literally: “scripted ahead of time“) them in his head!

In the quiet of this beautiful summer morning I’m glancing back into the past and honestly taking stock of ways that I have attempted to pre-scribe life along my own journey. I’m also doing my best to genuinely search for ways I may have imaginatively reimagined past events to place myself in a better role, give myself better lines, and alter others’ perceptions of events to place myself in a more favorable light within the scene.

I confess that I do these things more than I’d like to imagine.

[sigh]

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

Practice Required

But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
2 Corinthians 8:7 (NIV)

I received a text from one of our daughters the other day. She was doing an exercise for work and each person was asked to quiz a few people who knew them well and ask , “What is it that I do better than anyone else?” In other words, what was the thing or things at which she excelled. It was an interesting question to ponder and fun to be allowed to share my thoughts with her.

I have always had certain things at which I excelled and many things at which I did not. I was never very good at sports. The only sport at which I exhibited some excellence was swimming, and this was only because of years of constant and disciplined practice. I was always a pretty good student, however. And, I displayed a modicum of excel-lence in the arts, especially on stage.

In today’s chapter, Paul answers our daughter’s question to the followers of Jesus in Corinth. Paul reports that they excel in faith, in good conversation, in being knowledgable and in their earnestness. Then, Paul then urges them to add one more thing to the list. He wants them to excel in giving.

The interesting thing about the encouragement given here is that generosity must have been an area that the believers in Corinth had not already displayed excellence. It was something that was going to require exercise and practice, and this was the entire point behind today’s chapter. Paul was urging them to stretch their generosity muscles and practice giving.

One of the passages of God’s Message around which I’ve chosen to try and model my life is Psalm 112, which has ceaselessly admonished me in the same way Paul encourages the believers in Corinth. The lyrics of the psalm describe the person who is “generous and lends freely” and who “scatters abroad their gifts to the poor.”

I must confess this morning that when it comes to generosity and giving I am an honorary Corinthian. I have known people who excel at giving, for whom it is a spiritual gift. For me, it is a lot like swimming. If I want to excel I’ve got to endlessly practice. Generosity stretches and builds spiritual muscles that are not naturally strong for me, but the effort and development is good for me in a myriad of ways.

This morning I’m pondering the areas of life in which I easily and naturally excel, and the areas like generosity that require repetitive practice. I don’t ever want to stop working on improving. I’m encouraged this morning to keep working, keep practicing, keep driving towards excellence in these important areas of Life and Spirit.

Willingness

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said.
Matthew 8:3a (NIV)

When my daughter Madison was about four years old I called out to her from my home office in the basement of our home. She came scampering in my office from the next room where she had been playing. I needed something (I can’t remember what it was) retrieved from upstairs. “Will you go upstairs and get it?” I asked.

“Sure Dad!” she said with a big smile and child-like excitement. “I’ll be happy to!” And with that she ran off, immediately did as I asked, and cheerfully returned with the item.

I sat there for a moment thoroughly dumbstruck by her willing attitude. I can vividly remember sitting there and enjoying that little moment. She didn’t do what I asked grudgingly. She didn’t do what I asked dutifully. She didn’t do what I asked because I paid her allowance. She didn’t do what I asked out of obligation or familial obedience. She did what I asked out of a cheerful, willing attitude. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

One of the rarely demonstrated service skills I teach my clients is the simple act of expressing your willingness to do what a customer asks.

“Can you…?”
“I’ll be more than happy to do that for you.”

“Will you…?”
“You bet I will. I’m on it.”

“Is it possible…?”
“It sure is. And I’ll be glad to take care of it.”

In this morning’s chapter, Jesus begins by using this simple service skill when asked by leper if He’d be “willing” to heal him.

“I am willing,” Jesus said, and I imagine the warm smile on his face as he reaches out to touch the contagious, infected, deformed leper.

The rest of the chapter reveals so much about Jesus willingness:

  • Willingness to heal the son of a member of the despised Roman occupational force. (I’m guessing that Jesus’ disciple, Simon the Zealot, would have preferred Jesus kill both the Roman Centurion and his son).
  • Willingness to cast out evil spirits and heal anyone and everyone who came to him.
  • Willingness to heal the mother of his friend, Peter.
  • Willingness to use His power and authority to calm both the sea, and his followers fears.
  • Willingness to show mercy, even to His spiritual enemies, and grant the demons’ request.’

This morning I’m enjoying the memory of Madison’s cheerful attitude. I’m thinking about Jesus willing attitude, and I’m recalling what He said in yesterday’s chapter as He concluded His “Sermon on the Mount”:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

I must confess that I, too often, approach God and Life with the attitude of scarcity. I expect that God wants to punish more than bless, and even if He does bless me He will be miserly doling out those blessings. “After all,” I think to myself, “I’m such a wretch that I should be grateful for anything I receive.” I sometimes attach to God my own warped image of the begrudging parent. Ugh. I see God out of the lens of my own personal shortcomings.

“If you’re willing,” I hear Jesus whispering to my heart this morning in the quiet of my home office, “you can choose to see me differently. To see me as I am: Willing.”

Yes, Lord. I’d be happy to do so. By the way, thank you for your willingness to be patient, and to help open my eyes.