Tag Archives: God

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

90 M.P.H. Down a Dead End Street

Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
Romans 6:19 (NIV)

It is one of those moments in life that is indelibly etched in my memory. Madison was about six years old or so and was sitting next to me as I shuffled through some new photographs that I’d just picked up from being developed (before digital cameras, we had to take rolls of film to get developed and wait for them). There was a photograph of me in the stack and Madison picked it up and held it up with a loud giggle. “Look,” she said. “It’s FAT DADDY!”

Ugh.

Throughout this life journey I have warred with my natural human appetites like every other human being on the face of the planet. I have lost many battles along the way. As a child I was exposed to pornography, and it secretly fed the seemingly insatiable cravings of a young man’s sexual appetite for many years. As a young husband and father trying hard to suppress and control my sexual appetites, I began feeding a different appetite. This time it was my craving for food and for sweets in particular. The result was Fat Daddy.

Through my battles with personal appetites I’ve experienced the reality that the pleasure from indulging my appetites is subject to the law of diminishing returns. I’ve observed this to be true no matter which appetite I indulge: my taste buds, my sex glands, my adrenaline glands, my need for security, my desire to control, my need to be loved, or any other appetite known to humanity.

I start with a craving. I indulge that craving and I feel a burst of pleasure. My craving is satiated for a moment. Slowly and subtly, the law of diminishing returns set in. What was such a blissfully guilty pleasure for a moment now feels, well, normal. My natural craving ups the ante. My brain and spirit collude to agree that if a little guilty pleasure didn’t do that much harm, then just a little more can’t be that bad for me. This cycle slowly repeats itself until I find myself way down the road in a place I never expected, nor wanted, to be experiencing really negative consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

This is the very thing that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He uses language and an analogy that all of his readers could understand. Slavery was a common, everyday reality in the world at that time. It was an essential part of the economy in the Roman Empire. There were even “white collar” slaves as former soldiers, physicians, and accountants were often slaves. One could even offer oneself to any number of slave positions in order to have work and the security of basic needs met. All you had to do is give up your freedom and subject yourself to being the controlled property of another. Of course this included your master’s legal right to punish you, torture you, sexually exploit you and summarily execute you at will. A person offering themselves into slavery would end up in very different circumstances depending on the master to whom they offered themselves.

Now Paul tells his readers “you’ve offered yourselves as slaves to sin and to ever increasing wickedness.” There’s the feeding of natural appetites and it’s law of diminishing returns that I have experienced multiple times with very different appetites. Every person I’ve ever known who has followed the path of indulgence and addiction will also tell you that they ended up enslaved to their appetite(s). One of my favorite lyrics is from Bob Dylan describing a person following their amorous appetites into a marital affair:

I took you home from a party and we kissed in fun
A few stolen kisses and no harm was done
Instead of stopping when we could we went right on
Till suddenly we found that the brakes were gone.

You belong to someone else, and I do too
It’s just crazy bein’ here with you
As a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat
Going ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.

There is “the cycle” speeding me down the road to a place I never expected, nor wanted, where I will experience really painful consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

Paul now urges me to make a different choice. He urges me to offer myself to God to be controlled by righteousness which leads to increasing measures of Life.

This morning in the quiet I can’t help but find myself looking back with regret at the foolish ways I have repeatedly “offered myself’ to my appetites along my life journey, and the dead end streets where I crashed. But, it doesn’t end there. I am also looking back at the crash sites where there stands one of those little wooden crosses to mark the spot. This cross marks the place where I followed Paul’s words from today’s chapter: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

To what, or to whom, am I offering myself?

Featured photo courtesy of Bob Dass via Flickr

Maturing into Child-like Wonder

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (NIV)

It’s fascinating to study the progression of Pablo Picasso’s artwork. He attended art school at an early age and his prodigious talent immediately revealed itself. He could paint with the  beautiful realistic style that his teachers instructed as they copied masters like Raphael. The further he progressed in his life journey, however, and the more he produced, Picasso found himself having breakthroughs that would change both art and culture forever. Instead of becoming more realistic, his art became less so. Rather than following the art world’s prescribed path of the artistic beauty of realism, Picasso embarked on a very different journey.

Wendy and I both have our “God stories.” We each have moments in our journey when God did something rather amazing, and I would in some cases call miraculous, to direct us on our respective and mutual paths, to encourage us in our journeys, or to give us a glimpse of what was to come.

Just last week Wendy was looking through some old journals and ran across a prophetic word that had been given to her during her long, depressing slog through singleness (she was 33 when we wed). She was struggling through a time when all of her other friends were getting engaged and married. It was a brief sentence, and she can’t even remember who gave it to her, but it encouraged her that marriage was, indeed, in her future. It also described me, and our situation, rather aptly. She showed it to me and we both just shook our heads with amazement.

I have other, similar stories. I was raised in Mainline tradition and with believers of conservative theological persuasions who dismiss the signs and wonders experienced by the early church as extinguished realities from a another time. I was taught to value knowledge of scripture and conservative theology above the experiential and often mystical work of the Spirit. As one teacher in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers described it, we were raised in a tradition in which the Holy Trinity was “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” The further I get in my journey, the more I’ve come to confess this as “quenching the Spirit” that Paul tells the Thessalonians to avoid.

And, then there are all these God stories that I’ve experienced along my journey. I had a vision the day after I made my decision to follow Jesus, and that vision changed my life forever. So, I’ve always known it could happen. It did happen. Yet I was taught to dismiss, or at the very least to diminish, such experiences by my early instructors and get back to focusing on proper doctrine. I have a different view of things from my current waypoint on my Spiritual journey. The further I have progressed the less beholden I am to the iron-clad “that was for then, not now” theology I was taught in my youth. The willing I am to explore the mysteries of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The more open I have become to the power of the Spirit in the here and now.

Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you’ll never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” I think this is at the heart of the place I find myself in this journey.  Which brings me back to Pablo Picasso.

How many people have looked at his later works and said, “My child could paint that!” Exactly. Picasso himself said that when he was young he could paint like a master, but it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.

Image result for picasso self portrait

That’s exactly what I feel about the things of the Spirit. When I was young I memorized scripture and learned theology, both of which are important. Yet, now as I’m getting older I find myself following Jesus down this path marked with the bread crumbs of our God stories in all their mess and mystery. I find myself increasingly pushing into childlike wonder and openness to the power and presence of the Spirit in every moment.

When I was young man people said that I had the wisdom and spiritual maturity of an adult. It’s taken a lifetime for me to learn how to seek the faith and Spirit wonder of a child.

Human Endeavor vs. Divine Direction

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Acts 5:38-39 (NIV)

When I was younger I had all sorts of ideas of things that I could do for God. I was part of a number of groups and fledgling movements and ministries that I, and/or others, were convinced were going to be “big.” Looking back, I confess that I regularly confused what I was going to do for God with what God wanted me to be doing. I’m pretty sure that my motivations were often the same as Peter and the boys when they were selfishly vying for positions of power and prestige in Jesus’ earthly administration.

What a contrast in today’s chapter to see the change in Peter and John now that they find themselves immersed in what God intended, as opposed to what they were envisioning they would do for God just a few chapters back.

I have always loved the simple wisdom presented to the Jewish leaders by Gamaliel (who, btw, was the Apostle Paul’s teacher and mentor). If what is happening is a human endeavor motivated by human desires under human power, then it will fade and fall apart. If, on the other hand, it is something divinely directed by God and part of what God is doing, then no one can stop it.

I long ago gave up my efforts at spiritual prognostication and looking for ways to predict and be in on the “big” thing that God’s going to do. I find that God is constantly doing a lot of really awesome and powerful things through a lot of amazing, faithful people. That’s cool, but it doesn’t mean it’s what God is divinely directing me to do. I discovered long ago that it is easy for me to become enamored by the desire to be part of the next “big” thing God is doing and ignore the “little” menial acts of daily spiritual discipline that make up the core work of being a follower of Jesus. If I focus on the latter, then the former takes on a completely different perspective.

I sometimes hear prophetic words given that God is going to do this or that. I think it’s awesome and I believe that nothing can stop God from doing what God is going to do. I’ve simply come to the place in my journey where my core desire is to be discerning between human endeavor and divine direction.

I simply be where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to be doing. The rest will take care of itself.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

The Junior Babcock of History

He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 27:8 (NRSVCE)

The very first role I had in a main stage production was my freshman year in high school. I played the role of Junior Babcock in the musical Mame. Remember that one? Didn’t think so. I still remember the day scripts were handed out. My script had one page in it which contained both of my monumental lines along with the last few words of the “cue line” or the line just before mine. That was it. I had no idea what the context of my lines or where it fit into the storyline of the musical.

I had a great experience in Mame. Along with my walk on, walk off part as Junior Babcock I got to sing and dance in the chorus. I learned the jazz square. I dressed in a tuxedo for the first time. I met a ton of new friends, including some Juniors and Seniors who actually treated me like a real person. I even got invited to cast parties. My unremarkable role was such a great experience that I decided that being involved in theatre was something I wanted to explore.

Today’s chapter is a short one. The Chronicler slips in one paragraph (only nine verses) summarizing the sixteen year reign of Judah’s King Jotham. Poor Jotham gets the Chroniclers thumb’s up rating for being a good king and following the ways of the Lord. Yet even with that Jotham only gets one paragraph, and two of the sentences in the paragraph are basically repeated word-for-word!

Jotham’s reign appears to have been unremarkable in the mind of the Chronicler. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” Jotham appears to have been cast as Junior Babcock.

This morning I find one of my life verses welling up in my spirit:

“…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

As I’ve shared in the past, I’m a Type Four on the Enneagram. Type Fours are all about having purpose and significance. It’s easy for types like me to equate purpose and significance with greatness, the spotlight, and starring roles. Yet along my life journey I’ve learned and have been continually reminded that there is both purpose and significance to bit parts and roles in the chorus. My unremarkable role as Junior Babcock had all sorts of purpose and significance for me and my journey. In fact, I’ve had a few “lead” roles which were not nearly as significant or purposeful.

Most all of us are part of the Chorus in this grand production of Life. Like Jotham we will play our unremarkable part and get a paragraph (maybe two) in the Obituary section of our town’s newspaper. Today’s chapter is a good reminder. I want to make sure I nail my couple of lines, hit my cues, support the production, build great relationships with other members of the Chorus, and play my part well.

“Places.”

Mine, Yours, Ours

As for you….”
2 Chronicles 7:17 (NIV)

Many years ago my friend, a marriage and family therapist, introduced me to three simple questions to ask whenever I am seeking definition of personal responsibility and boundaries in a relationship:

  1. What’s mine?
  2. What’s yours?
  3. What’s ours?

It’s amazing how some of the most profound things in life can be so simple. Time and time again I’ve returned to these questions. I’ve asked these questions in my marriage. I’ve asked them with regard to parenting my children. I’ve asked them with regard to my company and team members. I’ve asked them with regard to clients. I’ve asked them about personal relationships with friends, with organizations, and with acquaintances expecting something of me.

At the heart of these questions is the understanding that individuals and groups of individuals have responsibilities within any human system. When individuals have well-defined responsibilities and an understanding of those responsibilities the system functions in a healthy way. When relationships and human systems break down, it is often because of lack of definition, misunderstanding, and/or the boundaries have been breached.

  • I think this is your responsibility but you seem to expect it of me.
  • I want this to be ours together, but you appear to want to control it as yours.
  • This is an area where I have gifts and abilities and would like to handle it, but you keep trying to insert yourself in the process.

In today’s chapter, Solomon finishes his dedication of the Temple and God shows up in an amazing display of spiritual pyrotechnics. King Solomon, the priests, the worship band, and the congregation are all blown away. Everyone is on a spiritual high. A subtle repetition of phrasing used by the Chronicler is “the king and all the people” (vss 4 and 5) and “all Israel” or “all the Israelites” (vss 3, 6, and 8).

At some point after the successful dedication, God appears to Solomon at night for a heart-to-heart. In his conversation, God defines separate responsibilities for “my people” (vss 13-16) and for Solomon as King (vss 16-22). In other words, “Solomon, you can consider these certain responsibilities ‘ours’ to own as a nation and a people. These other things are ‘yours’ to own and be responsible for as King and leader of the people. And, these other things are ‘mine’ to own conditional to everyone owning the things for which each is responsible. If everyone owns their part then the system will work really well. If not, well the results will not be so good.”

Having just journeyed through the prophetic works of Jeremiah, I know that the kings eventually failed to own the responsibility that was theirs. The people failed to own their responsibilities. The system broke down, and what God warned would happen is exactly what happened.

This morning I’m thinking about my marriage, my family relationships, friend relationships, my work, and the organizations in which I’m involved. I’m doing a little inventory. Where are things working well? Where are things strained and struggling? Where have things broken down?

Okay, so…

Am I doing those things that are mine to own?
Am I allowing others to be responsible for what is theirs, and maintaining a balance of support, encouragement and accountability?
Am I working well with others and being a good team member in accomplishing those things for which we, together, are responsible?

Not a bad personal inventory to repeat regularly.