Acting Out Our Faith: Speaking About Jesus


Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people!  If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  He is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone’.  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:8-12 (NIV)

I hate missed opportunities.  They leave pestering questions lurking about the brain and make a mess of your judgement. The ones that hurt the most are opportunities to speak about Jesus that are gagged by fear or propriety.  I need to be braver.  I need to speak about Jesus just as easily as I talk about the weather.  But it is easy to ride under the radar and think of my faith as something covert.

The rationalizations are plentiful and pitiful.  There’s always the got to argument of separation of church and state, or you can always opt for the “I don’t want to offend anyone” approach.  You can argue that you don’t want to be one of those “pushy” Christians or that faith is a private matter.  And you can fall back on the greatly abused and misused quote attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” These arguments fall to pieces in light of the consistent testimony of Scripture that we are called to speak of Jesus.

Peter is in an overtly antagonistic setting, with little reputation or resources to back him up.  His life and liberty in a political sense are at risk, and yet he speaks boldly before God and man regarding the life, death, resurrection and power of Jesus.  None of the arguments listed above have been given any thought whatsoever.  He is a speaker of truth and that is enough reason to speak and he used plenty of words over the course of his life to preach the gospel.  Granted that his words were often punctuated by the power of Jesus, but he used plenty of words.

I don’t want my children to ever be afraid of speaking about Jesus.  I want their conversations and proclamations about Him to be as free and easy as a greeting to a friend.  So I must overcome my own fear.  I must not care about being thought foolish.  I must not be concerned with reputation.  I must be fearless in speaking about Jesus.

Lord, give me courage to speak about Your son Jesus Christ with clarity and humility.  May I teach my children to share about the life they have with You through the death and ressurrection of Your Son.  Help me speak of Jesus often, openly and purposefully. Amen.

Resolutions: One Whose Eye Sees Clearly


A repost from last year.  May God bless you and yours this coming year.

 

Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert. When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him and he uttered his oracle: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened.” – Numbers 23:1-4

Balaam is an interesting man.  He is a prophet of God, but he works for an evil Moabite king, Balaak.  This puts him in a serious conflict of interest when Balaak summons him to curse the Israelites before they can overrun Moab.  When Balaam first gets the request, God tells him not to go because Israel is a people blessed by God.  Balaak does not relent and finally God releases Balaam to go as long as he says whatever God tells him to say.

Before Balaam was truly ready to speak on God’s behalf, he needed to go through a humbling experience with a talking donkey and an angel of death.  He needed to be reminded that it was better to fear God than a Moabite king.  When Balaam finally stands before Balaak, he is clearly a changed man.  The result of his transformation is proclaimed in the verse above; Balaam is now “one whose eye sees clearly.”

In the world of optics, resolution is very important; the better the resolution, the better the image. High definition TV’s, high resolution cameras, and prescription glasses are all intended to give us a clearer picture.  This is really what our resolutions should be about for the New Year – clearer vision.  Resolutions can give focus, clarity and definition to our intentions but that is only part of the picture.  It doesn’t help us at all to have good vision if we aren’t looking in the right direction.

I think that was Balaam’s problem.  He obviously could see before, but he wasn’t looking in the right direction.  He knew that God was on the side of Israel, but he didn’t want to be the one to bless them against the will of Balaak.  Once God had opened Balaam’s eyes, they stayed focused on God and not on Balaam’s fears and doubts.

In looking forward to a new year, and making the almost required resolutions, we would do well to check our vision.  Is it clouded by negative thoughts, fears and doubts?  Are we looking in the wrong direction or at the wrong things?  Are the worries and distractions of this world skewing what God wants us to see?  This year ask God to give you a vision of where He wants you to go.  Be one who “hears the word of God.”  This year, if you decide to make any resolutions, make sure they are being made by “one whose eye sees clearly.”

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Stray Sheep


I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. – Psalms 119:176 (NIV)

I have been lost before; lost in such a way that I had no hope of finding my way to safety on my own.  Only the effort of someone else seeking me out and finding me brought me back to safety.  I don’t remember the incident, but I have heard the story from my parents a number of times.  It involved a grocery store, three other siblings keeping my mother’s attention and my own overzealous curiosity.  My mom said when she found me, I was walking with one of the young ladies who worked at the store, looking for my family.

There are dozens of passages in scripture about sheep and many of them refer to them being lost.  It seems that sheep are prone to wander, much like curious children in grocery stores.   This is where the shepherd comes in; lost sheep need finding, and once found need watching. They are not independent or resourceful creatures, needing companionship, care, guidance and protection.    I find that I am no less the child to God that I was to my mother in the grocery store.  My curiosity draws me away from the flock to unsafe places, and it is only the shepherd’s patient searching that finds me and brings me back to the fold.

It is comforting to know the man after God’s own heart struggled with the same issue.  The warrior poet was also a lost little lamb and his prayer in the passage above rings with hope.  He fervently believed that his shepherd would seek him out and that he would recognize the shepherd’s voice when he called.  That is the discipline I desperately need to strive after; an ear to hear my shepherd’s voice.  I long to have the maturity and wisdom to hear His voice above all others and avoid the wandering altogether.  I look forward in hope to the day that I am content to rest in His pasture, but that day is not yet here.  Until then, I am grateful that my Shepherd knows me and searches me out when I stop listening to His voice.

The Discipline of Presence: Praise, Prayer and Grateful Living


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV)

Paul presents in this passage the hat trick of living in the present.  A trinity of disciplines that seem almost impossible, but “nothing is impossible with God.”  Paul is not unaware of how difficult life is in this world; in fact, he is intensely aware of the pain, suffering and despair afflicting his audience in Thessalonica and nothing has changed in humanity since then.

There are far too many ways for us to be anywhere but where we are – technology, daydreaming, internal conversations, fixation on past wounds or future wants – and all of them can kill the joy of the Lord.  All of them can silence the ongoing conversation with God that He desires.  All of them can uproot the gratefulness that should be at the center of our souls each day.  They steal the abundant life right out of our hands and replace it with cheap imitations and shoddy substitutes.

God has given us the means to abide in Him in our present circumstances through rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving.  They are critical disciplines that help us keep our branch from falling off the vine.  They each require us to focus on God and they each help us step back from our worldly perspective to recalibrate our view.

“Rejoice always” may be misconstrued as positive thinking, but it is much deeper and richer than sun-shiny optimism.  When Paul exhorts his readers to “Rejoice always,” he is asking them to remember where their joy is anchored.  He is asking them to remember that the source of their joy never changes even if everything around them does.  Rejoicing reminds us that we serve the God who was, is and is to come, the God whose love is limitless, whose grace is boundless and whose patience is unquenchable.  He is the joy we anchor our hearts and minds in so that the roughest day does not sink us in despair.

Prayer without ceasing seems like a tall order.  While I like to think I can multi-task, it just doesn’t seem feasible, but that is just my flesh trying to keep me from something profoundly important – an underlying conversation with God throughout my waking hours.  I heard a song at church this past Sunday and one line stuck with me: I don’t want to talk about You like You’re not in the room. (Dove’s Eyes by Misty Edwards)  It struck me how often I talk about God instead of with God.

I believe that what Paul was getting at is a conscientious recognition of God’s presence throughout our day.  If we are living each moment with the understanding that He is right there with us, prayer becomes a natural part of our inner conversation instead of the distracting thoughts that bring our eyes off of Jesus.

Giving thanks in all circumstances almost seems like a cruel thing to encourage others to do.  When you are in the middle of tragedy, loss or pain, the last thing on your mind might be thanksgiving, but that is exactly where Paul is trying to steer us.  The problem lies between two words: for and in.  The passage actually reads “Give thanks IN all circumstances,” but often it is taught and understood as “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.”  In the first (and original) version, we are instructed to be thankful in the midst of our circumstances, while in the second (and misleading) version, we are cornered into being thankful for things that happen which may not be good.  While Romans 8:28 promises that God can bring good from bad, nowhere does he say we have to be thankful for bad things.

God asks us to remain thankful for His work in our lives even when circumstances aren’t good, when the fallen nature of the world is in full bloom and the enemy is at the door, God still reigns in heaven and the hearts of those who call on His name.  That is reason to be thankful.

Paul has the resume to put forth this counsel.  He has suffered persecution.  He has seen the church in turmoil, ravaged by sinful forces both from the outside and inside.  His health had endured challenges, his reputation had been attacked and his friendships had been tested.  In the midst of all these obstacles, he calls the church to rejoice, pray and give thanks.  My testimony in this area is borrowed from Paul: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12)

I pray that I will learn what it is to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances.  I want to live the life abundantly by keeping my eyes on what God is doing.  Lord, help me to seal these disciplines in my heart and grow in me the desire to rejoice, pray and give thanks.  Amen.

The Discipline of Presence: History Lessons


As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” – Exodus 14:10-14 (NIV)

I wish I could read this story and not be able to relate to the complainers.  I wish I could say the thought had never crossed my mind that sometimes it would be easier to not be a follower of Christ.  The reality is that I can fall into the unmerciful grip of the-way-things-used-to-be far more easily than I would like to admit.

Israel had seen the unmistakable power of God revealed through wonders, signs and plagues, and yet just a short time after the taste of freedom is in their mouths, they are willing to spit it out and eat the sour grapes of slavery.  But this story is not a window, it is a mirror.  I see myself and the ugly scars of my past misdeeds and am warned by the words from Moses, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today… The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

It comes down to understanding the redemptive power of God.  What the Israelites did not yet understand, and what we forget too often, is the power of being redeemed.  When God redeemed His people from Egypt, He didn’t go half-way, but their doubt in His ability to protect them doesn’t affirm this truth.  I have waned in my trust in God’s ability to be my redeemer in this present day.  I get stuck on thinking it would be better to go back to my life before God asked me to move forward.  I forget about the promised land on the other side of the raging waters and the barren desert.  At those times I need to rest in the power and presence of being still.

Being still is less about lack of activity and more about our attitude.  It is the absence of anxiety and busyness. It is the ability to exist in an atmosphere of calm despite how the winds in the world are whipping.  It is not easy, but life without being still before God is far more difficult.  The way to the Promised Land for the Israelites might have taken weeks or months, if they had found their satisfaction in that place of stillness.  Instead, it took them forty years.

I don’t want to keep hitting my head against the same wall.  I want to know what it is to be still before God.  I want to take that stillness with me through each day, resting in the peace of God.  Paul gives the best advice in moving toward this goal: “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:16)  The Israelites were willing to regress in order to feel safe again, but Paul encourages us to keep moving forward, bolstered by what we have already experienced, learned and gleaned.  Paul challenges us to be perfectly who we are today so we can build one more layer tomorrow.

I am praying for a mind and heart that hunger for stillness.  I am praying for discipline to build on all that has come before to live perfectly in the present.  I am praying for faith that testifies, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Reconciliation: Christ Our Redeemer


For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV)

Have you ever experienced a long separation from someone you loved?  Do you remember the ache in your soul when they weren’t around for a special occasion?  Can you picture the moment when you were reunited and the flood of emotions that filled your heart?  Separation is painful for our earthly relationships, but it is nothing compared to the pain Christ endured to end our separation from God.

Mankind has been separated from God like the prodigal son from his father – by choice.  And yet the way has been made for us to be reconciled despite our sinful ways.  Christ has made the way for us to return to our father’s house; He has torn the veil between us and God so that we can be with Him and without shame.  This is the amazing grace of reconciliation: we could not do it ourselves and we did not deserve it.

Every day is an opportunity for us to walk empowered and challenged by that knowledge, or to live as if it had never happened – our choice.  I know that some days I don’t look like I have been reconciled to God.  I know that there are moments that I live more like the prodigal with the pigs than the prodigal in the Father’s house.  I need reminders that my life with God came at a terrible price.  I pray that as I grow in this relationship with my heavenly Father, I will have fewer and shorter prodigal moments, but I am so grateful for His grace along the way.

This week, remind yourself of all that God has done and continues to do so that you can have a relationship with Him.  Pray for a life that advertises the beauty and power of reconciliation.

In Loving Memory of Mike Gower


In Memory of Mike Gower

I first met Mike back in 1991.  He and Caroline had taken on the Resident Directorship for the men’s dorm at Simpson College and none of us knew then how much their presence would impact our lives.  We knew him then only as Gower, the big voiced, gregarious general with a strong handshake and a ready laugh, but we soon knew him as the compassionate, loving, wise and patient mentor who directed young men and women into a deeper life with God.

I remember being a resident assistant under his leadership, learning more about what it meant to serve others from him than I did in many of my theology courses.  He was an artisan with relationship, becoming the right person at the right time for each person under his care.  His prayers were insightful, purposeful, and always available.  He loved Caroline “as Christ loves the church” where all of us could see it and aspire to the same love.

I remember visiting Mike in the hospital the day after his open heart surgery with a fellow resident assistant to see how he was doing.  He spent most of our visit asking about how everyone was doing in the dorms.  He seemed indestructible, focusing his will on getting back to what and who he loved.

I remember the premarital counseling sessions that he did with Molly and me, challenging us to love each other more every day.  He pushed us to ask the hard questions and encouraged us to accept the hard answers.  He helped us lay a good foundation for a life together and we are both very grateful.

Choices and changes took our family away from Redding and the Gowers, but each time we returned we looked forward to seeing them and re-connecting.  And each time they made us feel like the connection had always been there, strong and true and genuine.  We finally moved back to Redding a few years ago and stepped back through the doors of our old church, Risen King, to be greeted again by Mike.

It was good to feel that handshake again, strong and true and genuine.  Mike put as much love into a single handshake as many people put into their deepest friendship.  If you were fortunate, his handshake would be followed closely by a hug from Caroline, God’s love and joy in each gracious embrace.  Together they not only welcomed people into a service, they extended an invitation to belong and be loved.  I don’t know if there are greeters in Heaven, but I certainly know someone who can do the job.

I miss Mike.  It will be some time before the sore spot in my heart and spirit go away, but if that is the worst I have to suffer for having called him friend, so be it.  My prayer is that I will not forget that handshake and the loving attitude of service that was extended with each simple greeting.  I hope that someday I can have that same love and grace toward others.  I want my marriage to be a reflection of God’s love for His people.  I want to be like Mike.

Provision: Everything We Need


His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. – 2 Peter 1:3 (NIV)

When I went through basic training, we did a number of marches and two bivouacs (a fancy term for camp-out), and every time we had soldiers who were unprepared.  It was never an issue of whether they had been given the right tools, equipment or clothing; it was their attitude and lack of discipline.  The Army had given all of us the same training, technology and time; it really came down to whether you put the effort in to use it.

I remember working for a manufacturing company doing fairly labor intensive work when I finished with college.  I actually enjoyed the work itself, but it still tops my list of worst job ever.  Management and supervision consistently were at odds, creating an atmosphere of discontent and unhealthy competition between the shift crews.  Supervisors would sabotage one another to make sure their production numbers were higher; crew members would badmouth other crews; staff meetings were brief and uninformative; training was inconsistent and infrequent.  Even with all of these shortcomings, management and supervision still expected perfection.  As you can imagine, there was a lot of turn-over in low-level staff and plenty of shortcuts being taken to meet quotas.  Fortunately that job was short-lived.

I am sure that my experiences are not isolated from some that you may have had; a new job with high expectations and no support.  It is a frustrating and even damaging environment to be in for very long.  It is easy to slowly give in and do what you can to blend into the background.  If you choose not to give in, every day can be a study in frustration, anger and the want ads for another job.  In this kind of situation there is no hope in ever pleasing your boss or satisfying his standards.

God, however, is a much better boss.  He starts with mercy, teaches with love and disciplines with compassion.  His desire is for us to be like Him, but He is patient with us in reaching that goal.  And He gives us everything we need to do the job.  He gives us the right tools, the right information at the right time “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  You will never find a job with a better benefit package than doing the work of God.

However, just as a soldier must constantly maintain discipline to be effective on the field, so we must also be disciplined to truly experience all that God has given us.  It does no good to say, “I’m a soldier for Christ” if you are not willing to live out what that means.  It is arrogance that demands the benefits of being called a workman approved by God, if we are not making every effort to submit ourselves to God.

God is loving, gracious, kind and compassionate. He loves blessing His children, but there are some things that we must strive toward.  Not because He is unwilling to give them to us, but because it is only in the striving that we become capable of handling what we strive for.  If we are called by God, we must strive toward our calling; if we are anointed for His work, we must strive to walk in the anointing despite the cost; if we are holy and dearly loved, we must strive to abide in the one who is holy – the one who is love.

The world is like that nightmare job – bad management, infighting, competition against each other instead of for each other, muddling through for the off chance we can party for a while to forget how miserable it will be when the weekend is over.  The only way we can overcome this world is to refuse to play by its rules.  So when you are having one of those “working-in-the-world” moments, remember that you work for the God who wants you to excel in all things, provides all you need to do so and gives you a multitude of brothers and sisters who will encourage and edify you toward that end.  Don’t settle for being all you can be, strive for being all He has called you to be, for He is faithful to help you on your way.

Provision: God Gives No Unnecessary Thing


Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:6-8 (NIV)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17 (NIV)

When I was a young boy, my mother made me eat things I didn’t enjoy; mostly vegetables like broccoli and lima beans.  While at the time thoughts that my mother might be trying to poison me crossed my mind, I learned over time that she was more concerned about my health than I was.  Fast forward a few years to a young man going through basic training for the Army.  We had a marching song that had an appropriate line: “They’re tearing me down so they can build me up all over again.”  The tearing down was a humbling, but necessary process in becoming a disciplined and skillful soldier, and while I would not relish a repeat of those experiences, I am grateful beyond words for how they helped me grow up.

Most of us have experienced this same maturing process where we learn to accept pain, or at least discomfort, to gain some goal we would otherwise be unable to obtain.  Jonah experiences something similar in this final chapter of his story.  The reluctant prophet at some point in his life decided that proclaiming the truth for God had certain boundaries and limitations.  He had set limits on what God could ask him to do, and God spends a good part of Jonah’s short story trying to get him back on the right track.

It would be easy for us to look at Jonah’s apparent stubbornness and pride and think what a horrible failure he was.  It would be easy to look at this as a portrait of flawed theology or the error of supposing God views the world through our eyes.  But the real challenge is to know ourselves well enough to realize we are all capable of being Jonah, and to know God well enough to realize He will provide exactly what we need to be right with Him.

Like our mothers, God brings things into our lives that may seem unpleasant, but they are beneficial to us.  Like a drill sergeant, He commands us to go and do and our obedience should not have conditions or limitations.  We are, after all, a volunteer army, aren’t we? Somewhere, sometime God has, or is going to put a worm in our shady vine, or ask us to go somewhere we do not want to go.  In those moments, I hope that God will bring to mind the story of Jonah so we will know better than Jonah to keep our eyes on Christ and not ourselves.