Tag Archives: Thought

The Fragrance of Presence

 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
2 Corinthians 2:15 (NIV)

I’m on the road on business this week. I’ll be coaching three different teams of people over the next two days. I meet with these individuals every 2-3 months. In my job I often have the opportunity to be around people whom I only see on occasion. I come into their offices for a day or two, work with their team, and then I am gone for months at a time.

Early in my career I learned the importance of making the most of my visits. I don’t want clients to think, [rolling their eyes] “Oh great, it’s him again.” I want people to be happy to see me. While there will always be those who don’t like me (or perhaps they don’t like the process of being coached), the truth of the matter is that I have a lot of control over how people react to me with my dress, my demeanor, my facial expressions, my enthusiasm, my words, my conversations, and my actions.

This is not something that I take lightly. In fact, it’s motivated by more than good business. It is truly a spiritual motivation for me. I know that our jobs and working in our offices can so often be places where people feel like they get the life sucked out of them. I’ve literally had people tell me in coaching sessions that they feel like they’ve slowly been “dying” day-by-day in their jobs. Ugh!

When I’m working with clients I often think about the word picture Paul gave to the followers of Jesus in Corinth. I want my presence to be the fragrance of life for the people I work with. Many already experience the stench of death every day. I want my presence to bring something different to their environment. I want their spirits to sense the fragrance of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness. I want them to feel better when they leave our session than they did when they walked in.

I  know I’m not always be successful. I have my days like everyone else. But I always think about it on days like today when I’m preparing to go on-site. I don’t want to stink up the place. I want to have the opposite effect.

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

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.

The Struggle for Spiritual Perception

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

“You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?”

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Matthew 16:3, 8-9, 23 (NIV)

Over the winter months this chapter-a-day trek journeyed through the writings of the ancient prophet Isaiah. One of the many relevant and memorable take aways for me from that trek was this:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

On my ceaseless pursuit to observe and plug-in to the flow of what God is doing around me, I am constantly aware of my finite limitations to see, perceive, and know. Today’s chapter is another good reminder.

The religious leaders came with their hearts and minds closed, testing Jesus by asking for a “sign from heaven,” as if all the miracles Jesus had publicly performed were not evidence enough. Jesus walked away. “You don’t get it.”

The disciples had now been following Jesus for some time. They’d been continuously, listening, following, learning, and working together. Jesus had spoken incessantly in parables and word pictures for months. He’d even interpreted parables for them on a constant basis. The boys still couldn’t make the mental shift to think in metaphor. You can almost hear Jesus’ frustration when he says, “You still don’t understand?”

Peter even makes a huge declarative leap of faith to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Yet in the very next moment Peter proves how little he really knows as he tries to get in the way of Jesus’ real mission. “Peter, you’re only seeing from your own self-centered perspective. You really have no clue.”

Those who didn’t really want to see remained blind.
Those who really wanted to see still didn’t fully perceive.
The one who saw in part still revealed a skewed perspective.

This morning I’m reminded of what little I see, how poorly I perceive, and how skewed that perception can be from my own self-interested perspectives. I’d like to stand in judgment thinking that I’m more open than the religious leaders, sharper than the dull-witted disciples, and more perceptive than Peter. But, I confessed earlier in this post that I’m ceaselessly pursuing, seeking, and struggling to perceive. I certainly have no room to judge.

My prayer today is that I can honestly embrace God’s message through Isaiah. I don’t fully perceive the mind of God, nor do I comprehend all that God does. At least today’s chapter reminds me that I’m in good company.

I take solace in the fact that Jesus did not reject His motley crew of followers or strip Peter of the mantel of leadership that He’d just laid on the ol’ bass master. Jesus urged His followers on, and they changed the world. I think I’ll just keep pressing on and pursuing God’s flow despite my acute lack of perception. Maybe God will use me to accomplish a little something along the journey, as well.

Featured  photo courtesy of Jenny-pics via Flickr

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

Religion has always been good at making a lot of rules. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day and we read about it in today’s chapter. Jesus’ followers didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. The religious leaders were appalled that Jesus’ followers didn’t follow their rules. Jesus rolled His eyes. This was one of many religious rules that Jesus and His followers broke from not picking grain on the Sabbath day of rest, to healing on the Sabbath, to fraternizing with sinners, and on and on and on.

Rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing. God gave the initial set of rules through Moses, and they were a guide for life lived decently and in order. Of course, over time the religious people took the basic rules and made even more rules to clarify the original rules. Then they added more rules labeled “traditions.” Rules, upon, rules, upon rules that moved things away from the heart of the matter until rule keeping became a religious, behavioral litmus test. But, at the core the original rules meant to guide life still hold true. Jesus said, “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus makes it very clear where He is coming from on the subject of rules. He tells us that it all comes down to the spiritual condition of our hearts. If my spirit is diseased with pride, anger, hatred, grudges, greed, lust, prejudice, bitterness, envy, malice, jealousy, impurity, et al than it doesn’t matter how well I follow the religious rules about propriety and what to eat, what to wear, or what not to do. And, simply following a labyrinth of religious rules is not going to change the spiritual condition of my heart.

Jesus came to do heart surgery for humanity. He came to change our hearts, knowing that a heart that is spiritually healthy and connected to God’s Spirit will continually beat with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It will be motivated to naturally fulfill the only important rules. Out of that healthy, Spirit-connected heart will flow thoughts, words, and actions marked by that same love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, consideration, faithfulness, and self-discipline.

This morning I’m reminded that rules of behavior are impotent to change the condition of my heart, but my heart, transformed by Jesus, will powerfully and perpetually change my behaviors and relationships for the betterment of myself and others.

What We Find in Our Fears

Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

The king (Herod) was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.
Matthew 14:5,9-10 (NIV)

A few weeks ago we journeyed through the account of Herod the Great killing all of the baby boys of Bethlehem under the age of two, fearing that the Messiah born there (as reported to him by the wise men from the east) would grow up to supplant him. Herod was more afraid of losing his worldly power than anything else.

One of the little confusions in the story of Jesus is the fact that the Herod who killed the babies (that would be Herod the Great) is not the same Herod as the one we read about in today’s chapter. Herod the Great died (doesn’t matter how hard you cling to power and riches, death gets everyone in the end) and his kingdom was split up and given to three of Herod’s sons [cue: theme from My Three Sons]. The Herod who killed John the Baptist in today’s chapter is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

Now think about Herod Antipas for a moment. He is the son of a brutal and ruthless tyrant and watched his father desperately clinging to power. Think about the sibling rivalry among Herod’s sons for the throne and all that came with it. Think about the fear, machinations, and intrigue that may have been present between the three brothers. Think about their inherited lust for power and desire to cling to it.

Matthew gives us a couple of fascinating clues about the mind of Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas wanted to kill John. He had learned a lot about rubbing out your enemies to solidify your power from his father Herod the Great (“Leave the knife; Take the humus.”). The goal of Herod Antipas was holding onto what power he’d inherited, and John the Baptist was very popular with the people. Killing John might create a riot among the commoners, which the Romans would then have to deal with. The Romans didn’t like uprising and unrest in their Empire. Caesar Augustus in Rome might choose to replace Herod Antipas just as he replaced Herod Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, years earlier.

A few verses later we learn that Herod Antipas got played by his lover, who also happened to be his sister-in-law, his other brother Philip’s wife. Remember what I said about fraternal competition? Herod Antipas has stolen Philip’s wife who tempts Herod with her own daughter, his niece. Seriously, this is like a soap opera. Now, Herod Antipas is stuck with a house full of guests and his niece has publicly challenged H.A. to bring her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is afraid of the riot, but he’s even more fearful of looking weak in front of the rich and powerful players in the room. He’s stuck. Herod must choose between competing fears and their threat to his pride, prestige, and power.

This morning I’m thinking about Herod Antipas. He feared losing power. He feared losing face. What he obviously did not fear (and seemingly gave no thought to) was God or anything to do with the things of the Spirit. He was oblivious to the Great Story in which he and his father were playing, and would continue to play, a significant part.

Our fears tell us a lot about ourselves, our priorities, and our faith (or lack thereof). What are my fears? What do they say about me? Do my fears reveal a soul clinging to that which I can never really have, have enough of, or keep in the eternal perspective? Am more like Herod, or more like John and Jesus?

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
-Jesus

 

Words, Words, Words

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Matthew 12:36-37

Just last week I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the forensics of words. Scientists were able to accurately ascertain who wrote each of the disputed Federalist Papers by studying the words the writers used. Our words are like our fingerprints. We can be identified by our words.

Words. It strikes me this morning that my life is a trail of words. Just this blog alone has 3,625 posts. If I average 300 words per post (I’m not sure what the real number is), that’s nearly 1.1 million words. Yikes.

I think back to all of my words. There are the words I’m proud of like these blog posts, messages delivered, plays, stories, “my life for yours,” and countless repetitions of “you are lovable, valuable, and capable.”

And, there are words that condemn me. Broken vows, empty promises, critical words, profanities, obscenities, words of darkness. I can call them to mind just as quickly. They are mine. I’ll be honest with you: Jesus promise of judgement for every word sobers me up quickly. My own words condemn me.

Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

This morning I am simply reminded that my words are a spiritual barometer. Perhaps I need to be more economical with my words. Fewer words, chosen more wisely. Beginning now.

 

 

 

(Have a good day!)