Tag Archives: Salvation

Outside of the Lines

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Acts 9:10 (NIV)

I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. Working inside of large institutions typically brings it out though I don’t have a lot of examples to share because I’ve never been able to work well inside of large institutions. I’m allergic to bureaucracy. I believe God made me to work best from the outside in.

I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday when God first called me. “You will proclaim my word,” was the simple message I received. I was just naive enough, and just maverick enough not to ask questions about how. I just figured I was meant to start immediately. I delivered my first message just two months later, and within a year I was part of a team of young people traveling the state each week and speaking about Jesus wherever I was given opportunity.

As I read through the book of Acts, I’m continually struck by how the body of Christ expanded. My maverick heart immediately recognizes that it didn’t happen institutionally. In today’s chapter Jesus dramatically calls Saul, a man eager to be Jesus’ greatest enemy. Remember when Jesus said, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you?” Yeah, Jesus did that with Saul.

Then Jesus calls on a man named Ananias. We don’t know anything about Ananias. We don’t know his background, where he came from,  or how he became a follower of Jesus. His name was quite common in that day. It’s like God choosing a guy named John Smith. Ananias was just a guy in Damascus sitting at home praying. He wasn’t one of “The Twelve.” He wasn’t in Jerusalem where the leaders of Jesus’ movement were headquartered and deciding things. Out of the blue this nobody in Damascus gets tapped by Jesus to heal the man who was His self-proclaimed worst enemy. His name only comes up one more time in the Great Story.

From a leadership perspective, I love what Jesus is doing. He isn’t confining the work of His movement to be channeled only through his chosen leader, Peter, and the other eleven proteges. Jesus is expanding the work through everyone who believes and follows. Holy Spirit is filling everyone. Spiritual gifts are being distributed to everyone; Even an unsuspecting, common man named Ananias sitting at home in Damascus praying.

Jesus isn’t creating an institution. He’s creating an organism just like He did back in the opening chapters of Genesis. He’s creating a complex living body made up of millions of individual cells each called on to do their individual part for the whole, that it may accomplish its purpose of love and salvation.

This morning I’m sitting in my hotel room getting ready to go work with a client, who happens to be a large, global corporation. Like I said, I work best from the outside in. It’s how God made me. I’m sitting here thinking about the stories of an angry man named Saul and a common man named Ananias. I love that Jesus works outside the lines. I love that He’s not a God of bureaucracy but a God of living, breathing, creative power and beauty. That’s the Jesus I know. That’s the Jesus who called to me when I was 14 and still inspires me almost 40 years later. That’s the Jesus this maverick will follow each day of this earthly life (and then into eternity).

 

A Tyrant, My Faith, and Possibility

“I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.”
Jeremiah 25:9 (NIV)

On my spiritual journey I’ve had the opportunity to worship with, and serve among, a wide variety of denominational groups. Methodist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Reformed denominations to name the major ones, though the list expands to everything from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal when you consider a vast number of smaller experiences and events. I’ve observed along the way that most institutions dedicated to the notion of following Jesus, along with their respective followers, are reductionist in their faith.

Take the little town where I live, for example. The town was settled by one group of Jesus followers who were led to America from the Netherlands by their pastor. Not long after settling the group split. With time, the two groups split again. Most often, divisions were predicated on some minor disagreement in doctrinal belief. Eventually, some groups aligned with one denominational institution while others joined another. Rinse and repeat. Eventually there are over twenty different shades of the same belief system; Small groups of seemingly homogeneous people who have boxed themselves in their respective neighborhood church entrenched in their firm belief that the way they dot the “i” on their doctrinal statement or the music they sing on Sunday is the correct way.

The problem with this systemic pattern, I’ve come to believe, is that eventually my understanding of God’s designs and purposes get reduced right along side my insistence that my particular corner of truth is the correct way. It’s so easy to get lulled into believing and accepting that God’s official stamp of approval is really only good in my particular box. God can’t possibly bless or be at work in the box across the street where they dot their doctrinal “i” with little happy faces. [cue: rolling of the eyes] (“Goodness, where’s their sense of holiness and propriety?”)

As I journey through God’s Message time and time again I’m always struck at how expansive God’s purposes and designs really are. In today’s chapter, God calls the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” and when I read the book of Daniel I find God going to great lengths to reveal Himself to the pagan monarch from “outside” God’s people, to humble Nebuchadnezzar, and to draw the Persian king in. In other words, God is working outside the box and outside the defined lines of “God’s people.” God uses and cares about an evil, arrogant, murderous tyrant who is so deceived as to believe himself a god. God expresses a genuine desire for Nebuchadnezzar to know Him.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the different shades of denominational institutions I’ve experienced and the ways in which I saw God at work in and through each and every one of them. I’m also thinking about specific individuals with whom I shared each of those stretches of my faith journey; Individuals who isolated themselves within their denominational box to the point of believing that God could not, would not possibly bless those outside their particular box.

Lord, have mercy on us.

The further I get in my own journey the less reductionist, and more expansive my faith has become. I realize that the eyes of my heart are in the process of increasingly seeing that the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reaches further, has far greater design, and pulls in far more people from every walk of life than I can possibly know or imagine.

Who can possibly be saved?” Jesus’ disciples asked Him.

With man, it is impossible,” Jesus replied, and then He continued: “But, with God all things are possible.”

I don’t want my faith shrinking into the belief that it’s impossible that God would dance in the lives of others simply because they are different from me, hold to different traditions, have radically different views on religion/doctrine/life/economics/politics, or live a very different life style than mine. I want my own faith dancing and growing into the possibilities that God is dancing with the Nebuchadnezzars of my day (and in my life) as His Great Story continues to be revealed day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Compelled

For Christ’s love compels us….
2 Corinthians 5:14a (NIV)

I’m shaking my head with a smile this morning. I returned from a week’s hiatus and had to double check where we left off in our chapter-a-day journey. It’s a bit of synchronicity for me to read the five words pasted at the top of the post in this morning’s chapter because Wendy and I spent a good part of our journey home from the lake yesterday discussing them.

A number of weeks ago my fellow mystics at the Center for Action and Contemplation made a fascinating word connection in their daily meditation. The root of our word “mercy” is from an ancient Etruscan word, merc, which is also the root of our English word “commerce.” Over the past several weeks I’ve been quietly meditating on the transactional nature of relationship with Christ. And, it is definitely transactional in nature:

  • “Give, and it will be given unto you.”
  • “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
  • “Christ paid for sin, once for all.”
  • “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt of love.”

The problem, Wendy and I discussed yesterday, is that there are stark differences between the economics of this world and the economics of God’s Kingdom. In this life journey we are so ingrained with the concept of earning everything. Most of us earn our allowance as children, earn our grades and our diplomas as students, earn our paychecks and retirement as adults. Our entire lives are predicated on the notion that you get what you earn. This is a core piece of the curse of Adam when God said, By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” It’s even at the core of our justice system where you “get what you deserve.”

[cue: Cell Block Tango]

It is no wonder that we so easily we misunderstand the economics of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to reveal. We often mindlessly (and heartlessly) twist Christianity into the transactional system we know by making it all about earning God’s favor and proving ourselves good followers of Jesus by what we do to earn the title. We reduce relationship with God to a daily transactional paradigm in which I’m blessed if I do good things and cursed if I do bad things. In so doing our spiritual death begins to take hold because “God’s ways are not our ways.”

In the economy of God’s Kingdom we are motivated not by our need to earn, but by the experience of freely receiving what we haven’t earned, of having an irreparable debt paid off. We are not required to earn a thing because we’ve already been freely given all we need and more. The transaction that earned us salvation had nothing to do with us at all apart from being the object of God’s sacrificial love. It was all done by Christ Jesus on the cross.

In today’s chapter, in five words, Paul gets down to the crux of this small but essentially crucial difference in transactional spiritual paradigms. Why did Paul turn his cushy, well-respected life upside down? Why did Paul endure endless hardship and continually risk his life? Why was Paul willing to be persecuted, beaten, whipped, prosecuted, imprisoned, and have his head chopped off? He was compelled.

Christ’s love compels us.

This morning I’m thinking about my thirty-some years as a follower of Jesus. I think about messages I’ve given, blog posts I’ve written, resources I’ve given, and choices I’ve made along the path. Why? I’m compelled. I’ve got to. It’s the point Dumbledore made to Harry Potter about having to fulfill the prophecy. There’s a difference between “‘I’ve got to” and “I’ve got to.”

Which is where the conversation meandered between Wendy and me yesterday, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Have a great day.

While We Wait for Deliverance

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
Isaiah 63:7 (NIV)

We love stories of the lone hero. The mysterious figure shows up out of nowhere to aid the victim(s) of injustice and take out the bad guys who are oppressing the many. We see echoes of this theme from chivalrous medieval tales like Robin Hood, to the great Westerns like High Plains Drifter, and even the classic Samurai movies of Kurosawa.

As I often say, all good stories are echoes of the Great Story. In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah presents us with a poetic vision of Messiah who stands alone in doling out wrath and vengeance to the oppressive enemies of His people. This theme, and Isaiah’s imagery, is intricately wound into the visions of John’s Revelation, which would come hundreds of year’s later.

Isaiah’s poem starts out all bloody wrath as Messiah alone dispenses divine justice. Then, Isaiah’s poem turns to reveal the kindness and compassion towards the victims of injustice. Isaiah proclaims this kindness towards a rebellious and undeserving people who, in Isaiah’s current circumstances, are suffering from the destruction of their nation and God’s temple. The poem ends with a plea for that mysterious hero to show up.

I’m reminded this morning that we all go through times in our lives which seem dark and hopeless. We long for a hero, mighty to save, to dispense justice. Our hearts pour out pleas for deliverance as an unceasing mantra. Both of these are longings for that which we do not control. Yet amidst the two, the hope for a Deliverer and our pleas for deliverance Isaiah places a simple act:

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal there was an article with advice for those who chronically worry. One expert advised that people “tell themselves a different story.” I think that’s exactly the example Isaiah provides us. Even in the darkest of times, as we wait for deliverance and better times to come, we can recall the stories of blessings we have been graciously afforded, and ways that God has strengthened, provided, and shown us faithfulness.

Inclusive Love in an Exclusive World

“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Isaiah 49:6 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I’ve come to recognize that we as humans love to  categorize and label ourselves and our fellow human beings. It’s part, I believe, of an inherent desire to know ourselves and our place in this world.

“Who am I?”

“Where do I belong?”

“How do I fit in?”

In the process of self-definition, we come to understand our social groups. I belong to a groups genetically (Dutch, English, Irish), racially (White), sexually (Male Heterosexual), geographically (small town, Pella, Iowan, Midwest, American), religiously (Protestant Christian), educationally (college graduate), economically (upper middle class), politically (conservative), fanatically (Cubs, Vikings, Cyclones), and vocationally (business owner). I could go on, but you see the point. And, if you are reading this your mind is probably already contrasting yourself from me (and perhaps even judging me) based on your own contrasting personal social groups.

Never in my life journey have I recognized how people in society are so quick to label and categorize others. Never have I witnessed so many different social groups (racially, nationally, politically) being so judgmental and dismissive of those who don’t look, think, act, believe, and belong like they do.

This observation comes at a time when, in my own spiritual journey, I am becoming more aware than ever that God’s entire Message is about love and inclusivity.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Isaiah is writing prophetically, in the first person. Isaiah is taking up the voice of the Messiah. He is writing the scripted the words of Christ. Christ speaks in the first person of God the Father giving Him a mission of being redeemer of the tribes of Israel, the primary genetic, cultural, and religious social group to which He would belong during His earthly mission. Then He adds “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s love and God’s Message were never intended to be exclusive, secret, guarded, hoarded, and doled out to a selective few. They were intended to be generously and inclusively shared to every societal group we could ever think of or imagine. You can’t reach the “ends of the earth” until you’ve reached through every societal group and touched every one.

This morning I’m thinking about the fact that I can’t fulfill Christ’s calling to me as His follower to inclusively share and spread that Love, Light, and Message, if I live and love exclusively within my own societal groups.

My Butt Ain’t That Big

God’s Message to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand…
…I’ve singled you out, called you by name,
    and given you this privileged work.
    And you don’t even know me!
Isaiah 45:1,4 (MSG)

Yesterday, over coffee with a friend, I was sharing my experiences of attending a fundamentalist Bible college one semester. My friend asked me where the college was and I told him where it was located.

He looked at me in surprise.

I never knew there was a Bible college there!” he exclaimed.

Shhhhh!” I whispered, lifting my finger to my mouth. “They don’t want you to know they’re there!

I was jesting, of course, but the truth of the matter is that throughout most of my life journey I’ve found many followers of Jesus, and especially many of the denominational institutions, are an exclusionary bunch. Membership requires strict adherence to a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and/or public adherence to a list (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of moral and puritanical behavioral rules. If you don’t tow the line, you’re not welcome. Many will go so far as to say that if you don’t tow the line then you’re not only not welcome in their church but you’re also not going to be welcome in heaven either.

The further I get in my spiritual journey, and the deeper I get in my relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I’ve come to see this exclusionary religious model, adhered to by so many proclaimed Christian institutions and denominations, as antithetical to God’s actual Message and example.

In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah gives a message about Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire in the middle part of the sixth century B.C.. Cyrus was not Jewish. He didn’t claim to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In fact, Cyrus had a reputation of a “live and let live” policy for allowing the nations he conquered continue to pursue their local religions. It was quite progressive in his day. Cyrus was not one of “God’s chosen” people, and yet God through the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus his “anointed” whom He has “taken by the hand.” God has “singled Cyrus out” and “called him by name” even though Cyrus has no knowledge of this.

This morning I am reminded that the Creator, and Almighty God, does not live inside the box of my personal doctrinal and religious parameters. I am responsible to follow the path to which I am called, to follow Jesus’ teachings and example, to live out the comprehensive law of Love, to let God be God, and leave judgment to the Judge who is infinitely beyond all that my finite mind can think or imagine.

The Judgment Seat of Christ is a huge chair.

My butt isn’t nearly big enough to fit on it.

 

Step Back…There’s More to the Story

“Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
Isaiah 12:2 (NIV)

Last night Wendy and I lay in bed watching our beloved Cubbies lose Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) to the Dodgers in very undramatic fashion. For a life-long Cubs fan it’s hard not to feel like it has felt so many times before. It’s hard not to be pessimistic even though we’re only one game down. “There’s more to this story,” Wendy kept reminding me as the seemingly endless, hitless innings continued to rack up. More to the story….

I’ve been blogging this chapter-a-day journey for over ten years, and have been doing it much longer. It’s a great habit to get into, but it also lends itself to some interpretive difficulties.

If we’re reading a narrative history such as Jesus biographies or the Chronicles of the Kings, then reading a chapter each day is a lot like reading a novel. You remember the narrative from the day before and you pick up where you left off.

When it comes to the metaphorical poems of the ancient Hebrew prophets, however, it’s easy to get focused on the text of each chapter, and lose sight of the larger, poetic message the prophet is telling.

Today’s chapter is actually the final section of a larger message Isaiah was delivering from chapters 7-12. It I’m not careful, I might not catch the larger story to which today’s chapter belongs. Yesterday’s chapter was all about the coming Messiah. Today’s chapter is the result of Messiah’s coming: salvation and praise.

There is a pattern in the theme:

Sin -> Judgement -> Messiah -> Salvation -> Praise

This pattern is important because it foreshadows exactly what Jesus would teach us. Salvation is not something I achieve for myself, but something that God has done for me:

“God is my salvation….”

“The Lord himself…has become my salvation.”

“Make known in the nations what he has done.”

And, this great thing that God has done for me leads me to offer praise and thanks.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of stepping back and seeing the big picture. I’m reminded of the Message that God foreshadowed through the poetry of the prophets hundreds of years before it was fulfilled. I’m reminded, once again, that there is a plan. I’m reminded that there is more to the story if I’m willing to see it. That’s what Wendy was reminding me last night with regard to a game with infinitely less eternal significance.

Gave four of a seven game series is tonight. Come on, Cubbies. Let’s change the narrative!

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