Tag Archives: Inspiration

From Spiritual Mountain Top to Relational Valley

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
1 John 2:9 (NIV)

A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:

  • “It is messy.”
  • “It is hard.”
  • “It is complicated.”

Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.

Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.

This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”

But, that doesn’t happen.

It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.

Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.

The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.

What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.

This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.

 

“Get Me a Musician”

[The prophet, Elisha, said,] “…get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him.
2 Kings 3:15 (NRSVCE)

I mentioned in my post the other day that while we’re at the lake Wendy and I are limited in our television viewing choices to the collection of DVDs we have there. So it was that last week I pulled out that oldie, but goodie of the cinema: Die Hard. The movie played in the background as Wendy and I sat at the dining room table with our laptops going about our work.

In case you never caught it, the underlying musical score for Die Hard is one endless string of creative variations on what most Americans know as the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The iconic melody of that familiar hymn comes from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony. As I sat at the dining room table, tapping away on my keyboard, the melody suddenly and unexpectedly took me to another moment, in another place.

London. 2009. The Royal Philharmonic. It was our first night in London and Wendy and I had tickets to hear both Mozart’s and Beethoven’s final symphonies in one program. Wendy’s favorite was Mozart, but mine was Beethoven. There is a moment in Beethoven’s ninth when the music suddenly stops and a lone voice begins to sing. I will never forget the moment I heard that voice. I just began to cry as I listened. A chorus of voices joins the orchestra and the music continues to build to one of the most amazing and moving musical climaxes ever. What most people don’t realize is that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote his final symphony. He never heard a note of it with his ears. He only heard it in his spirit. Amazing.

There is something deeply spiritual about the language of music, and I have learned over time that music is a language all its own. It has a special place in creation. Music is an integral part of heaven in the glimpses provided in God’s Message and the theme of music is woven throughout the Great Story.

In today’s chapter the prophet Elisha calls for a musician. When the music begins to play the power of God comes upon him. The language of music was the conduit of God’s Spirit. I get that. The language of music is a spiritual language (both for spiritual light and spiritual darkness, btw). Music has the power to reach deep inside to touch hidden places inside us. Music has the power of inspiration, conviction, revelation, exhortation, and even transportation.

My body last week was sitting at a dining room table in central Missouri. The melody of Beethoven’s ninth playing beneath Bruce Willis’ machine gun suddenly and unexpectedly transported my spirit, in that moment, to the Royal Orchestra Hall in London. My eyes began to mist over. Physicists tells us that all of time is contained in each moment. Perhaps music is a gateway.

This morning I’m thinking about this powerful medium we call music. I’m mulling over the incredible breadth of music that has spoken to me, moved me, and inspired me over the years. Beethoven to Berlioz to Bach, Miles Davis to Bob Dylan to Yo-Yo Ma, Gospel choirs to bluegrass banjos to steel drums and a Reggae beat. I’ve come to accept that I will never know (in this life journey) fluency in the language of music that I desire. I still can experience its power in ways human beings throughout the millennia of history couldn’t even imagine. I literally have access to the entire catalog of human music in the palm of my hand.

“…get me a musician.”

Kingdom Economics 101: Paying it Forward

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the movie Pay it Forward. It’s a bittersweet story, but the reality of life is bittersweet. Along our life journeys we all slog through deep valleys and we all have our mountain top moments. The story of Pay it Forward is predicated on the notion of people simply going out of their way to perform a random act of kindness for others, asking only that the recipient of their kindness “Pay it forward.” The whole idea is beautifully void of organization, legalism, regulation, or institutional systemization. It is organic and relational and personal and spiritual.

One of the deepest valleys of my own life journey was the period of time that I was going through the end of my first marriage and subsequent divorce. I’ll never forget meeting with a wise counselor, who also has a prophetic gift. I remember meeting with him expecting condemnation and judgment, as I’d experienced a generous dose of both during that time. This wise counselor, however, extended grace and kindness I didn’t expect.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and then said, “Some day, you are going to walk along the side of another who will find themselves walking this same path. You will help them, and give them comfort.” In other words, “You will take what wisdom and comfort you experienced while traversing this valley, and you will pay it forward.”

I have been able to pay it forward more than once. In the Kingdom of God, paying it forward is Kingdom Economics 101. It’s how God operates and it underlies all of Jesus’ teaching. He gave to me so that I might give to others. He laid down for me so that I might lay down my life for others. He comforts us so that we might pay it forward.

That’s exactly what Paul is getting at with the followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Corinth in this morning’s chapter:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This morning I’m thinking simply about how I might pay it forward today. I realized long ago, but need continuous reminders, that being focused on myself and my momentary difficulties blinds me to the many opportunities I have to show random acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness each day. I have to stop looking inward (at my I-phone, I-pad, I-mac, and I-everything) and looking around at others if I truly and consistently want to pay it forward.

Called Still Deeper

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

I have a confession to make this morning. I’ve been aggravated recently with a particular relational scar. It’s a past injury. Call it near ancient history. I forgave. We moved on and our paths led different places in life. It’s easy to forget past injuries when you don’t really have to continue in relationship with the person you’ve forgiven. Now,  years later I look to the horizon and our paths appear to once again be converging.

My scar itches.

I was struck this morning by Peter’s command, not just to love but to love deeply. And the reason for the call to this deep love is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a tough one, and Jesus certainly addressed it head on. Peter knew this only too well, because it was his question that prompted Jesus to address the matter:

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Ironic that Peter would ask about forgiveness when it would be he who three times denied that he even knew Jesus, who heard the rooster crow, who looked into the eyes of his Lord at that very moment and experienced the need of seventy-times-seven forgiveness. Peter knows all about deep love and forgiveness.

Some other words of Jesus come to mind this morning as I ponder:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I sit in the quiet this morning with my itchy scar, and I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others was never just about loving those who are easy for me to love and those with whom I don’t have to be in relationship. Jesus calls me to follow deeper on the path of love. To follow Jesus is to push into the deep waters of Love that He waded into when He forgave my heaping helpings of weakness, foolishness, and failings. That was the whole point of His parable of the indebted servant. I have been forgiven for so much, how can I not forgive another for so much less even if I have to keep forgiving in exponential measure.

I’m seeing myself in Jesus parable this morning. If my love is not deep enough to salve itchy old relational scars of an already forgiven issue in the past then it is, plain and simple, not deep enough.

Today, I’m pushing deeper.

Lover Lessons

…love one another deeply, from the heart.
1 Peter 1:22b (NIV)

As I press on in this life journey I have actively attempted to be a continually better lover. Jesus said that all of God’s law can be summed up in two commands:

  1. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  2. Love others as you love yourself.

And, so, I have endeavored to be a better lover. I realize, as I meditate on it this morning, that I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’m pondering some of the things I’ve observed about love…

  • If I am unwilling or unable to accept that I am lovable and receive deeply the love, grace, and forgiveness of God and others, then I will be handicapped in my capacity for love and my ability to give it away.
  • To be an increasingly better lover I must embrace that it is part of my journey in this life and in this life I will never arrive at an acceptable destination. The deeper I grow in love the more fully I appreciate how utterly shallow my love is and how strong is the call to grow still deeper.
  • I can’t wait for others to become lovable in my estimation before I love them. Not only is this judgmental and unloving, but others never arrive at an acceptable estimable level. I have to start with loving others without qualification and as I grow in my love-giving I receive the priceless experience of understanding how absolutely lovable they are.
  • Love is sometimes soft and warm. Other times love is hard and even cold. Love can even be painful at times in both the giving and receiving. Wisdom and discernment develop as I mature as a lover for they are increasingly required to grow still deeper in love.
  • I can be loving in all that I do with all whom I encounter, but mature depths of love are generally only reached through increasingly intimate depths of relationship over time. That level of mature, intimate love can only be reached with a small number of relationships, but those few mature relationships increase my capacity and ability to love far more people at a deeper levels.
  • In rare cases, the most loving thing I can do is walk away.

In this morning’s chapter, Peter urges not only that we love, but that we love deeply and from the heart.

I’m still working on it (and I always will be).

Power in the System

Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Amos 7:14-15 (NIV)

Early in my life journey I worked for an old and well structured organization. There was an organizational chart and rules of governance for the organization. It had operated successfully for well over a hundred years. I had a position of leadership on the staff of the organization, so when our long-time executive director decided to retire I, along with the other staff, were concerned about the choice of an interim director to lead while we searched for a permanent successor.

A potential interim came in to interview. It was a nice person with all the right qualifications, but there was a general consensus among the leadership team that this person was not the right fit for us. A vote of the organization agreed and the candidate was informed that we were going to move a different direction.

The following morning when I arrived at work I was called into a hastily arranged meeting that became one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The chair of the organization’s Board, who just the previous day had agreed that the interim candidate was not right for our organization now blasted the staff’s leadership team for embarrassing the organization and denying the interim the position. We were criticized, chastised and reprimanded for actively conspiring to sway the vote of the organization.

I remember leaving the meeting utterly confused by what I’d just experienced. I couldn’t figure out the 180 degree turn the Board chair made overnight. I felt blind-sided, wrongfully convicted, and punished by a kangaroo court. It was not long afterwards that I came to realize what had really happened.

In this organization was a long-time member who had been active and in leadership for many, many years. This person was also a successful local business owner who had donated a lot of time, energy, and money to the organization over the years. When the vote on the interim did not go the way this person wanted calls were made. Commands were given, pressure was applied, and power was leveraged. Despite the fact that it went against the organizational structure and by-laws of our group, the Board chair buckled and obeyed the demands of this one power-broker who remained hidden behind the scenes.

Human systems naturally develop centers of power. Governments, businesses, organizations, churches, and even families develop systemically around those who develop and wield power to drive the will of the system. It was a hard lesson for me to learn that the organization I worked for was not really governed as organized. The real power in the organization was a power-broker hidden behind the curtain pressuring the organization to do their will even if their individual will ran contrary to the will of the organization as a whole.

In today’s chapter, the backwoods prophet Amos runs into a similar situation with the power brokers of his day. Amaziah was a powerful priest and the religious right-hand of King Jeroboam. Amaziah ran the idolatrous religious center of Israel’s northern kingdom and helped Jeroboam maintain control over the people. When the poems of Amos (critical of the northern kingdom and predicting the nation’s downfall) grew in popularity , the small-town prophet suddenly became a target of Amaziah’s political power. Amos refused to back down, and gave Amaziah a prophetic vision of the down fall of his own house and family.

This morning I’m struck by Amos, the shepherd and fig farmer from a backwoods town whom God used to shake up the powerful systems of government and religion in his day. “My ways are not your ways,” God tells us through the prophet Isaiah. Human systems tend to favor the powerful, the wealthy, the beautiful, the well-connected, and those willing to step on others to gather and cling to worldly power. Again and again in the Great Story God chooses the weak, the broken, the least, the marginalized, the outcast, and the youngest to accomplish His purposes. Jesus teaches that real power, spiritual power, is found when you let go of power and give it away for the benefit of others. Jesus exemplified this Himself when He…

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:6-8

Today, I’m thinking about my early experiences in that organization and the power-broker who used threats, pressure, and power to pull the organizational strings from behind the scenes. As I have progressed in my journey I hope that I have learned to follow a very different example with what little power and authority I’ve been given. I hope that I can increasingly follow the example of Jesus, who didn’t grasp and cling to power for His own advantage, but let go of it for the advantage of us all.

Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.