Tag Archives: Inspiration

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.

Driving the Action

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matthew 17:9, 22-23 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a message and the text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11. As we unpacked the story together, I made the point that Jesus was not a victim of the events around Him, rather Jesus was driving the action of the scene.

Whenever a writer crafts a story, play, or screenplay, he or she must be mindful of how to drive the action of the story and propel events forward. Sometimes action can be circumstantially driven when an event takes place which unleashes a subsequent series of events. In The Godfather, there is an unexpected attempt on Vito’s life and an attack on the Corleone family. [spoiler alert!] As a result of these events Vito’s son, Michael, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s illegal business will become just like his father.

Other times action is driven by a character in the story whose words and actions propel the story forward. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf makes a prophetic observation that even Gollum has some part to play in the events leading to the ending of the One Ring. Time and again Gollum’s mischief and machinations drive the action, even to the climactic moment of the epic.

One of the things that becomes very clear as we read the story of Jesus is that Jesus is driving the action. He is not a passive victim of others. He is not the victim of unexpected events that lead to execution. At every turn Jesus is driving the action which will lead to His arrest and even foreshadowing the events to come. In today’s chapter, Jesus twice refers to his death and resurrection. He knows what is coming because it was part of a larger narrative that He had storyboarded in the beginning, and had been prophetically envisioned for centuries (see Psalm 22 [c. 1000 B.C.] and Isaiah 53 [c. 700 B.C.]).

This morning I’m thinking that Jesus came with purpose. He was on a mission and He drove the action. What about me? What’s my mission? Do I act, think, speak with purpose, or am I passively awaiting for circumstances to drive the narrative of my life?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that Jesus told us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Those are not commands to be passive, but to participate with God in driving the action of our stories.

Featured image courtesy of bnorthern via Flickr

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.

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!)

Faith, Faery, and The Artist’s Way

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

Many years ago I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way and embarked on its path. The Artist’s Way is a course designed to help anyone tap into spiritual, creative flow. It was a life-changing journey for me, and God is still leading me back to its principles over and over again.

There are two foundational activities required of pilgrims on The Artist’s Way. The first is called morning pages, and it’s the simple act of waking each morning, immediately sitting down and writing three pages, long hand, stream-of-consciousness. Morning pages help empty the mind and spirit of all the crud that we didn’t even realize were gumming up the works. The second required activity is called the artist’s date. It is quite simply letting your adult self recapture the act of playing; Giving yourself permission to indulge, explore, imagine, touch, smell, taste, and see whatever it is your spirit finds fascinating. As the morning pages make way for fresh flow, the artist’s date begins to “fill the well.” It is a simple two-step process. And, it works.

This morning I was reminded of The Artist’s Way as I read the chapter. Jesus reminded His listeners that the things of God are hidden from the “wise and learned,” their minds gummed up with important things; Their spirits shriveled and sucked dry by the urgent cares and anxieties of the world. The things of God are revealed to children and to the child-like spirits whose minds are open and tapped into God’s flow, their willing hearts open to the wonders of faith.

I’m also reminded that the learned and wise C.S. Lewis first experienced what Jesus was talking about one day after a walk and conversation with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. What was the subject of the conversation that led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity? Tolkien’s belief that Faery stories are “real.”

“Harsh Realities”

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Matthew 10:34

Follow me for any length of time and you’ll discover that I enjoy the game of baseball. One of the many reasons I enjoy baseball is the way the game metaphorically reflects life in so many ways.

In the narration of his great documentary about the game, Ken Burns speaks about the game beginning each season with the hope of spring, and ending each year with the “harsh realities of autumn.” How often life is like that. The optimistic young soldier ships out with his head filled of dreams of glory and returns with his spirit tempered by the realities of battle. A couple begins their marriage in the fog of romance, but soon find themselves living day-by-day facing the sacrificial requirements of love. Just months ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth with greeting cards chalk full of words about hope for humanity, joy to the world, and peace on earth. In a few weeks we will remember Jesus’ kangaroo court trial, torture, and gruesome execution. Death must come before resurrection can even be a possibility. That’s a harsh reality.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is preparing his followers for what life is going to be like on their mission of taking His message to the world. It’s not a pep talk. It’s a sobering reality check. Jesus didn’t fill His messengers with visions of fame, fortune, and prosperity. He called them to austerity, humility, and sincerity. He did not send them out with hopeful promises that the Message they would carry would create inspirational social movements of unity, peace and brotherhood. He told them to be wary and shrewd, expecting opposition, persecution, and conflict. The sweet manger baby we all celebrated as the “Prince of Peace” has grown to deliver a more difficult message: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Along my journey I’ve come to accept that we as humans like to dwell on the things that are easy, optimistic, inspirational, and accessible. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the glass half-full and being grateful for it. We need hope and optimism to carry us in dark times. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that there is wisdom in being sober minded. We are quick to remember Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of people by miraculously multiplying a few loaves and fish. Few of us recall that just a day later Jesus drove that very crowd away when He asked them to “eat my flesh, and drink my blood.” The crowds wanted the former without the latter. We still do.

Baseball season starts in a week and a half. Right now fans like Wendy and me are experiencing the annual feelings of giddy excitement. Come the evening of April 2nd it will be hot dogs and cold beer at the Vander Well Pub. Every team’s record starts at 0-0, and everyone is hopeful. This year Wendy and I even get to feel the joy of our team starting the season as World Series Champions, and that’s a lot of fun. It does not wipe away, however, the knowledge that we’ve never felt it before.

Harsh realities of autumn 108. World Series Champions 1.

Play ball!