Tag Archives: Spirit

Judgment, Fruit Inspection, and Mixing Metaphors

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV)

For over 25 years I have been in the business of the behavioral analysis of human interactions (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for training and quality assurance purposes“). One time the Quality Assurance (QA) manager of a client told me that she gave an agent a score of “0” on her call. There were about 30 behavioral criteria analyzed in a given call so that the score reflected a generally accurate picture of what the customer did and didn’t experience in the interaction. To get a “0” an agent would almost have to pick up the phone and immediately stroke out, but even then the agent would be credited for not rushing the caller off the phone. Getting a zero is practically impossible if the agent had blood pressure and a pulse.

As I asked a few questions I soon discovered that the manager didn’t particularly like the agent who took the call she scored “0.” I suspect there were other employment or personality issues between the two. When the agent did something the manager didn’t like on the call, the manager took the opportunity to exercise her power and dismiss the agent and her performance as utterly worthless.

In today’s chapter Jesus continues His famous Sermon on the Mount with a direct command not to be judgmental of others. He goes on to illustrate what he means by describing those who will find a “speck” of something wrong about someone else which they use to justify their judgment, grudge or dismissive attitude towards that person. The judgmental person is, of course, ignoring the glaring 2x4s of their own personal flaws as they do this.

Later in the chapter Jesus is speaks specifically about “false prophets.” In Jesus day there were all sorts of religious teachers, cult leaders, and false prophets making all sorts of religious claims. One of the things we fail to realize is that teachers and preachers claiming to be the Messiah were quite common in Jesus’ day. Just like televangelists and cult leaders in our current era, it was a lucrative gig to convince the crowds you’re the Messiah.

Jesus then gives a word picture to help his listeners be discerning and objective in their Quality Assurance assessment of these “false prophets.” Look at the fruit of their teaching and ministry. Is it the things of God? Goodness? Humility? Generosity? Repentance? Reconciliation? Changed lives? Or is it the things of this world? Wealth? Arrogance? Pride? Power? Control? Hatred? Look at the outcomes and results of these prophets and teachers. That’s the way to know if they are servants of God or servants of themselves.

Along my life’s journey I’ve run into many of my fellow followers of Jesus who will proudly and loudly proclaim: “I’m not supposed to judge other people, but I am called to be a fruit inspector!” These individuals then quickly find a “speck” on the “fruit” of another person’s life and feel perfectly justified in claiming the power and authority to dismiss or condemn the whole tree for quality issues. They use Jesus’ call to be “fruit inspectors” of false prophets to justify their judgement of anyone and everyone’s “specks.”

This morning I’m thinking about the ways we mix up Jesus’ metaphors and twist His teaching to justify the very things he commands us not to do. Even as I write this I’ve got my own 2x4s staring me square in the face. I’m praying for mercy this morning, and confessing my own critical and judgmental attitude towards others. God’s Message tells us that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. In order to consistently produce a good crop there is regular regimen of cultivating, watering, tending, and pruning. I’ve been following Jesus a long time, but I constantly have some pruning to do.

Lord, have mercy on me.

 

Temptation’s Basic Appetites Playbook

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
Matthew 4:1-3 (MSG)

Wendy and I spent a few days at the lake this week opening the place up in preparation for summer fun with family and friends. I keep the basics I need at the lake so that I don’t have to pack clothes back and forth each time. So it was that I went to put on a pair of “summer” jeans for a trip into town and had to face an undeniable fact. Ugh. Once again my winter appetite has gotten the best of me.

Oh it’s the holidays. Just a little bit more.

Family potluck. Haven’t had that in ages. I’ll have another helping.

Man that’s tasty. I’ll take two. They’re small.”

One thing I’ve learned along my life journey is that our spiritual enemy has a very thin playbook for tripping us up, and it begins with turning our own basic appetites against us. It has been that way from the beginning:

When the woman  [Eve] saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (appetite of indulging our flesh) and pleasing to the eye (appetite for acquiring shiny things that strike our fancy), and also desirable for gaining wisdom (appetite for feeling superior), she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

In today’s chapter Jesus has arrived on the scene to address messy at its core, and the first thing He must do is face the same spiritual test as Adam and Eve, who started the mess in the first place.

You’re hungry. Turn these stones to bread and indulge the natural appetite of your flesh.”

Throw yourself off the pinnacle and let your angels catch you. Indulge your appetite to proudly prove yourself and your power to me.”

See the kingdoms of the world? I can give them to you, and indulge your appetite to acquire all the shiny new things you could possibly desire.”

Each time, Jesus responded to the temptations of appetite with God’s Words spoken, as we like to say, by heart. His appetite for the Word and for relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit had been fed and nurtured so that when the enemy opened his basic temptation playbook, Jesus’ appetites of flesh were checked by His willful obedience to the appetites of the Spirit.

This morning I have to confess that I have indulged my basic appetites for food (meaning I have regularly eaten too much) and sloth (meaning I haven’t exercised) more than I care to admit over the past several months. As Wendy and I discussed this on our drive home from the lake yesterday we acknowledged that this happens time and time again because I simply want to do what I want to do. I want to eat what I want eat, as much as I want to eat it, whenever I feel like it eating it. Add the appetite of willful pride to my appetite for food and drink. Welcome back to the Garden. As I said, the enemy’s playbook is pretty thin.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m also reminded this morning of my need to follow Jesus’ example in the most basic of things. Time for me to feed and nurture my appetite for communion with Christ, my appetite for consuming His Word and seeking after the things of the Spirit. When I do that, I know that I am better able to face the temptation of all the other appetites.

 

Deaf Amidst the Din

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Isaiah 35:5 (NIV)

This past weekend was the close of our local community theatre’s holiday show. After the final performance on Saturday afternoon the entire cast and crew worked diligently to strike the set, clean up the stage and dressing rooms, put away all the props, and return the costumes to the costume shop. Then it was time for the requisite cast party and celebration.

Between cast, crew and family there were over sixty people gathered in our friend’s home for the cast party. As a hearing impaired person this can be a challenge. Even with hearing aids, the loud din made by a celebratory crowd in a small space makes distinguishing words in conversation a challenge. I can hear the sounds and I try my best to read the lips, but distinguishing the actual words being said to me is sometimes impossible.

In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah foresees that one day the Messiah will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the dears of the deaf. In fact, Jesus alluded to Isaiah’s prophetic words when He told the followers of his cousin, John the Baptist:

“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

Yet while the miraculous physical healing of the blind and deaf was witnessed and well-chronicled by Jesus’ followers, the healing of the physical body was just the surface of Jesus’ intention. He made it clear that His mission was clearly focused on infirmities of the spirit. Those who physically see and hear perfectly well can, at the same time, be spiritually blind and deaf. Jesus quoted another one of Isaiah’s prophetic words when He described the crowds following him:

Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

That’s a concept I increasingly understand as I sit amidst the loud din of a cast party or a crowded restaurant. I can hear the sounds all around, but I am deaf to the messages being spoken directly to me by a friend. Though hearing, I am deaf.

This morning I am thinking about being blind and deaf. I wonder if there isn’t, for some, a reciprocal relationship between the physical and spiritual; As my eyes fail my spiritual sight becomes more acute, and as my ears become increasingly deaf my spiritual hearing reaches new levels of clarity. This is my hope. I can manage relatively well if my ears and eyes fail along my journey. The circumstances are more dire if the eyes and ears of my heart remain blind and deaf.

Reason, Creativity & Metaphor

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:1-2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Throughout God’s Message He speaks through word pictures: poetic word pictures, word pictures in parables, typology, foreshadowing, metaphorical names, dreams, visions, and prophecies. God is a creative artist. God is the Creator Artist. The intricate, mathematical design of all creation is balanced by the Creator’s artistic flair in communication and story telling. We are made in God’s image. Left brain and right brain. Reason and creativity.

I have found that many people get perplexed and confused when approaching the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Reading the prophets can be a head scratcher. There is no doubt. This is especially true considering that we are reading an English translation of the original Hebrew text. The original Hebrew is much like the balanced reason and creativity of Creation. It can be very left-brained in its intricate (even mathematical) poetic structure and very right-brained in its metaphorical content.

This morning’s chapter begins with a Messianic prophecy. If you delve into the word pictures, you begin to unlock the full meaning.

Jesse was the father of King David. King David was told by God that his throne would be established forever (e.g. the Messiah would come from the line of David). During the time of Isaiah’s writing, the line of David was still sitting on the throne of Judah in Jerusalem. Alive and bearing generational fruit. But, within a couple of hundred years of the writing the monarchy of Judah would be cut-off by a series of occupational empires (Babylonian, Persian, Roman). There would be no king in Jerusalem. The family tree of Jesse’s royal lineage would become a lifeless stump.

From that dead, life-less stump comes a shoot, that will develop into a branch which will bear fruit. Life will spring out of the seemingly dead line of Jesse. That’s why Matthew and Luke are both careful to record the family tree of Jesus in the telling of the Jesus story. Jesus was a descendent of Jesse, born in the town of David, the town of Bethlehem.

And what does Isaiah’s prophecy communicate about this new shoot of life?

Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.

Consider Jesus’ own words:

“No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and spirit.”

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

“God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth.”

“The Spirit gives life. The flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of Spirit and life.”

Jesus even took this same word picture of trunk, branch and fruit and passed it on to His followers (see John 15). How cool is that to see the manifestation of the word picture the Creator planted in the design of creation: Trunk give birth to branch which bears fruit that falls to Earth and “dies” and is buried, which then gives birth of Life to a new tree which develops branches and bears fruit. God’s intricate, creative design speaks God’s language: metaphor.

This morning I’m inspired thinking about the depth and layers of meaning in Isaiah’s prophetic writing. There were layers of meaning Isaiah himself could not possibly comprehend as he wrote the verses 700 years before the “Shoot of Jesse” would spring to Life. I am thinking about design and creativity. Words and word pictures. Spirit and Life. I’m praying that I perpetuate the word picture; praying that Spirit and Life is bearing fruit in and through me today.

 

More, Faster

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
James 5:7 (NRSV)

The culture I have known my entire earthly pilgrimage is one of instant gratification. In comparison to my childhood, the world I now experience on a daily basis is instant gratification on steroids. Things just keep moving at increasing speed. This is not the musings of an aging man, but the realities of a culture rebuilding Babel with Cat-5 cable and DNA strands.

When I was 5 I received an “electronic football” game for Christmas that was nothing more than a vibrating panel with little plastic men moving chaotically around the bouncing cardboard panel. Sometimes the “running back” with the magnetic ball on his base would spin around in circles. Sometimes he turned around and vibrate to the opponents end zone for a safety. I was, nevertheless, mesmerized by the experience.

When I was 10 I was playing a hand-held “Mattel Electronic Football” game that was nothing more than little red blips on a tiny screen which would switch on and off representing players (see featured image). I played it for hours, those red blips transformed by  my imagination into the Minnesota Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

When I was 30 I was playing football as a video game on my home computer. The black and white, heavily pixelated graphics seemed revolutionary. Now the computer could simulate actual players, teams and leagues and keep track of my stats across an entire fantasy season.

When I was 40 I had a gaming console playing a much more sophisticated and realistic video game version of football allowing me to play the game as a player, coach the team, or run an entire team franchise including roster moves and salary caps.

At 50 I can play electronic football that looks like a real television broadcast complete with commentary, and I can play against virtually any person, anywhere in the world from the comfort of my man cave.

This is just a trite example, of course. Yet, I can expand this example to almost everything I do during my day. I am growing increasingly used to getting what I want, when I want, and how I want it.

How is this affecting my spirit?

source: singularity.com
source: singularity.com

Throughout God’s Message we find example after example of people who waited. Noah built the ark and waited for years before it rained. Abraham and Sara were promised that their descendants would number like the stars in the sky, then waited for decades before their first child was born. Joseph, as a child, received a vision of his brothers bowing down before him then lived a lifetime of struggle, slavery, scandal and imprisonment before it was ultimately fulfilled. David was promised he would be king as an adolescent boy, then spent thirty years on the run with a price on his head before it would come to fruition.

I have learned along my journey that God’s sense of timing is not our human sense timing. Following Jesus and fulfilling our God-given purpose requires patience, waiting, and perseverance. These qualities are increasingly rare in a world in which I can order virtually anything I want from the palm of my hand and have it delivered to my door step within hours or days. Why on earth would I believe in a God who wants to groom me to accomplish His purpose for over 40 years when I can have my 15 minutes of fame on YouTube right now?

This morning I’m thinking about purpose and patience. In a world that keeps speeding up, I am realizing how critical it is for me to choose to slow down, breathe deeply, and be patient. God’s creation is about the ebb and flow of time and seasons. Humanity’s creation is about more, at increasing rates of speed. If I am going to embrace the former, I must consciously address the latter.

chapter a day banner 2015featured image source: dcjohn via Flickr

Community Spirit

The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.
Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)

Last night was a beautiful summer evening. Wendy and I shuffled across the street at the invitation of our neighbors Kevin and Linda. We sat in their front yard and sipped cold drinks as the sun set and the stars came out on a cloudless sky. As always, the conversation with our friends meandered into diverse topics. One of the topics was that of community support.

We live in a thriving small town in Iowa. Our little town is a hoppin’ place. When you go to “the square” during the day you’re often going to hunt for a good parking spot. Housing is in short supply compared to the demand of those moving in (another topic of our conversation). Many rural towns our size would love to have such a problems.

There are a number of reasons for our town’s success, but one of them is simply community support. “Buy local” aren’t just buzzwords here. There is a true spirit among residents of supporting local businesses. You feel the expectation, and you generally feel good when you’re a part of making the community successful. Our conversation with Kevin and Linda last night meandered into the sticky wicket that residents face in discerning when to bite the bullet and pay higher prices to support local and when/if it becomes fiscally foolish to do so.

In today’s chapter, the Israelites around Jerusalem were facing similar dilemma of community support. They had restored the broken down walls and gates of Jerusalem. They had resurrected worship at the temple. But, their efforts would be in vain if people didn’t actually live inside the city wall and support the local urban renewal project. So, they cast lots (the ancient version of drawing straws) and chose ten percent of the families from among the tribes. These families were to “support local” and move themselves within the city walls and do their part for the community. The fact that they had to draw lots makes me wonder just how excited those families were about moving into the rubble.

This morning I’m thinking about community. I’m thinking about the support that is required to make communities, small businesses, and community organizations run. Without a spirit of community among the individual members, the whole suffers. Jesus’ teachings of washing each other’s feet and loving others more than we love ourselves is woven into the spirit of community. We need each other.

 

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“Don’t Be Afraid; Just Believe”

“…their hearts melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them….”
Joshua 5:1 (NRSV)

Earlier this year our local group of Jesus’ followers ran concurrent series of messages on Sunday mornings. In one room there was a series on fear and in the other room my friend Matthew and I did a series on shame. It was a fascinating juxtaposition of topics because both fear and shame have similar paralyzing effects in people. The series in both rooms have proven to “have legs” as the topics continue to resonate with both Wendy and me in our conversations and in our lives.

I assume that’s why the phrase above leapt off the page at me this morning. The word pictures are vivid reminders of fear’s debilitating nature. A heart has melted. There is no heart left to believe, to hope, to yearn, to persevere, to strive, to survive, to pump the blood and muster up courage. The spirit is gone and there is no breath of life or inspiration. Lifeless. Dead.

Once again, I am reminded how often the phrase “Do not be afraid” and “Do not fear” are found in God’s Message. Over, and over, and over again we are encouraged, admonished, and commanded to choose not to be afraid. And, the antidote God routinely gives to counteract fear is belief. Have a little faith; just a smidgen will do. Place your trust in God, even when you don’t see Him.

Don’t be afraid; just believe.
-Jesus

Not a bad reminder for this Good Friday.

 

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