Extravagant for good reason

We don’t have to read deeply into the news of the week to find at least one article criticizing a Christian leader extravagant living, for spending too much on (fill in the blank.) Too much house. Too expensive a building. Too beautiful a lobby. Too expansive the property.

It’s not the journalists’ fault. We can make some unwise choices. No doubt. And when it come to money, we live in the land of skepticism.

But, extravagant for the right reasons, pays off.

In Matthew 26, a woman shows up during dinner. This woman cracks open an alabaster container of anointing perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet. Those around, including the disciples, are appalled at the waste: “this decision should have gone through the right channels.” But, context can really help here. She literally poured out her dowry. She, essentially, relegated herself to serving Jesus as a single woman the rest of her life. The price of alone-ness, no children, no heritage, no safety net – an act of worship before the Cross and the Grave. The payoff, linked to the preaching of the Good News around the world for all time.

Three things to note in this story to help us judge wisely when tempted to judge others:
1) It was her call. She was the one who brought the gift. Broke the jar. Poured out the anointing oil. When we are tempted to judge Franklin Graham, Steve Furtick, or whoever next lands in the sites of a whistle-blower, our first thought should be “her call” or “his call.” Err on the side of grace and trust that things are right instead of suspicious. There may be a “bigger picture” issue. (i.e. Furtick invested royalties from his book sales on a home, Graham received long overdue retirement investments.) The investment: all that she had. The payoff: Jesus is anointed for his burial.

2) It was on Jesus. Being extravagant for a good purpose is a good thing. Some things we don’t skimp on. Cool toys in the nursery (what’s with the cardboard fake bricks!) New strings on the guitars. New batteries in the mic. One more word: double-ply.  I want the best we can afford to do the best work. It’s for Jesus. But, it’s also “on Jesus.” We’re going to make bad calls. Miss the mark. Choose unwisely in the heat of the action. And in retrospect, we will need grace. His grace and the grace of others. No excuses. Plenty of mercy. The cost: humility. The payoff: God’s grace is seen.

3) She prepared for the Ultimate Scandal to be told. Her choice. Her gift. But, his sacrifice. The scandal of the Cross, that God would leave the place of glory for a gory death. So the sinful, badly managed, neglected, mishandled life you and I hold onto so fretfully, could be forgiven, the books reconciled, the life changed, and linked up to the Good News. The investment: identifying our lives with the death of the Savior. The dividend: our lives take the back seat, the Gospel moves to the front because of the grace God has given us in Christ.

So, be extravagant. Make choices that take into account your free will, His generous hand, and the grace to forgive. And spend your life foolishly for the Good News.
Foolishly His,
Rick

Locating God

I grew up learning that God is “up” and you-know-who is “down.” The psalmist says the Lord rides on the clouds; he chooses to dwell in the mountains. The ancients in the Old Testament looked to the mountains to where God lived. In fact, ancient cultures looked to the mountains as the place of the gods. Mountains were awesome, insurmountable, and only God could reign over something so spectacularly frightful. Or God dwells in the highest heavens, the clouds, or the sky; again, insurmountable, unapproachable, and no one but God can be up there.

Social theorist Joseph Campbell asserts that all people and cultures develop myths to handle the unexplainable, especially the nature and location of God. The mountains, the highest hills, the clouds were all completely off limits to humans. No one dare go there! But now, the myths are debunked (we’ve climbed mountains, surpassed the clouds, entered space, seen the galaxies) and, therefore, the “myth of God” is finally put to rest.

The writers of the Old Testament got it right. Yes, God lives beyond where I would dare go without a guide — he resides inside me where contradictions often rule, every turn may reveal treachery, and each cave or corner, darkness. God chooses to live within those who trust, love, and serve Him, even though the mistiness of wrong choices and the faint odor of damaged goods lingers. The grandest expression of the location of God? “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The God of the clouds compressed to the locality of my inner self. He chooses to live here, inside me.

To the heights and depths,

Rick

Day One – Architect: Foundations, Spans, and Lanterns

Mark 1 – “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah…”

Of all the forms of art and kinds of artist, the one that gets to “play big” most often is the Architect. He may start with pen and charts (or CAD-CAM.) But, the medium of choice is often big…very Big! Space, acreage, height, square footage all call for a grand imagination and vision. No matter how large the vision is or how tall the building designed by the architect grows, one feature remains essential. The Foundation.

In 1418, the city of Florence, or more specific the guilds, commissioned through competition the design and building of what was to become the largest dome to ever top a basilica. The cathedral building itself had been rising slowly over more than a century at the site of a crumbling and much smaller 5th Century church. The foundation had been set 118 years previously.

Filippo Brunelleschi, a watchmaker and goldsmith, won the commission. He beat out a dozen other architect plans and set in motion the building of a structure that called for scaffolding, machines, and techniques never before invented.

No matter the project, the architect as artist works with the same basic elements: lines, angles, curves. Brunelleschi faced the enormous challenge of spanning 143 feet diameter with an octagonal dome that reached twenty-seven stories high.

But, building high wasn’t the problem; concrete walls can go higher. He needed to be able to go high and curve inward; the pressure straight down was complicated by the weight of 37,000 tons pushing outward.

He had to account for hoop stress. Like the pressure of two hands pushing an inflated balloon, each level he completed had to distribute the weight of the next level, or it would “balloon” outward. He needed all of the weight above to sit on a strong foundation.

Out of the Comfort Zone:

1 Try this for a fun application. Hand out decks of cards and have a competition to build the biggest “house of cards” using the most cards. Give awards for the tallest and the one with the most cards.

2 What have you built in your lifetime? What was the foundation like?

3. If you were to name one main thing in your personal or family life that needs a good foundation to support its weight, what would that be? What presses you in this area and causes “hoop stress?”

4. What kinds of elements make up your spiritual foundation? Is it deep? Is it deeper or wider? What reinforces it?

Keep building what no one else can – your extraordinary life of faith!

Day One – Mathematician and Faith

Most people don’t place mathematics with the Creative Arts – mainly because of traumatic algebra tests or unmemorized theorems. But the classical studies planted arithmetic squarely in the midst of seven primary liberal arts. Medieval philosophers so valued numbers that they declared “arithmetic to be pure numbers, geometry to be numbers in space, music to be numbers in time, and astronomy to be numbers in space and time.”

Boethius, a Roman during the last throes of the Empire, popularized math as a coveted discipline through his writing while waiting on death row as a political prisoner in the 6th Century. Though all he had to work with was the cumbersome Latin letter/numbers, he showed the West the value of studying arithmetic for it’s on value. Math became more than a tool for counting things; it became an art that influenced all the other disciplines.

Math and Church don’t mix well. Numbers equal counting, and counting (nickels and noses, especially) gets in the way of real Christianity. Christ-followers don’t think of faith in terms of numbers. but Jesus certainly did. Some of his best promises were math equations.

Read Mark 4:8-9. He promises that, if we keep our soil (Jesus says this represents us and the texture of our lives) supple and yielding to His Word, it will multiply in our lives and into the lives of others around us. It’s math.

Now, read the whole story (from verses 1-9). My ears hear what I shouldn’t do – no rocks, no weeds, no shallowness. I get the shouldn’t’s.  In math terms, we should add soil where we are shallow, subtract the weeds that distract us, and divide the rocks from our good soil.

But the promise is multiplication. Every truth I let sink through the crusty surface impacts my life in Kingdom benefits thirty or more times.

Out of the Comfort Zone:

1)Plan a game night with study – one with math involved like dominoes or Uno. Discuss the questions below during the game.

2)What truth from this chapter is God trying to get you to trust in?

3)Where in your life will you begin to apply this truth right away?

4)Who will your faithfulness impact?

And let God bring math back to your faith.

Day One: Painter – Unlimited Beauty, Unlimited Palette

Piero lived in the 1400’s  and spent nearly every day at a desk writing contracts and signing off on legal documents in an obscure village outside of the city of Florence. He would not even have made the history books except that, instead of retiring to his home after work,  he spent his nights with a peasant girl named Catarina. She gave birth to a baby that she and Piero named Leonardo. The village was called Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci was given a general education in math and science in his early years. But, Piero came into a fortunate position with the di Medici family and connected his son with the best training possible through mentoring. He became the apprentice of a goldsmith of fame called Verrochio (meaning “true eye,” necessary for a master artist.) Leonardo was mentored in the arts and sciences, as well as the broad sweep of techniques in sculpting, casting, and painting. He soon surpassed his teachers, and began creating new ways to span rivers, irrigate fields, and do battle. But is passion was painting.

Mark 2:13-14 records that, “Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to him. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.”

A businessman with plenty of means like Levi (called Matthew in most places) would be content, satisfied with his good fortune. But, Levi was wondering, searching, and waiting for what would fill his inner emptiness. We know this by what he did soon after meeting Jesus.

Read Mark 2:15-18 Why did Levi think having a party with Jesus mattered to his friends? What did he hope to accomplish? How do  you think Jesus responded to this type of party?

We likely didn’t get a personal verbal invite from Jesus of Nazareth like Levi did. But, like his friends who got the party invite from their tax-collector friend, he uses those who know him to introduce others to Jesus. If you are his follower, someone introduced you to Jesus. He speaks to each of us through the compassionate invitation of others.

Out of the Comfort Zone:

1. Consider your place at the party table. Who invited you? Send him/her a letter or email. Better yet, make a phone call. If that’s not possible, journal a letter you would want to write to him/her.

2. At church this Sunday, be intentional about bringing people to the party table. Look for a person, couple or family who needs a personal invite into your life in Christ. Ask them to lunch or schedule a time to meet, just for the benefit of “hang out time.”

3. Find a neighbor in your circle of people who needs a party. If it’s someone who needs your forgiveness, extend it. If it’s someone who is hurting or without something, provide it. Do something for someone that builds a bridge you can send a party invitation across.

Written Outwards

I know Christmas is over for now, but here’s a short one that relates to a Christmas a few years ago.

Christmastime is best when the days are peppered with classic movies. I’m a cinemaphile, so it comes natural to me; but, my wife Susan has classics on the mind in a serious way around Christmas.

One must-view is Miracle on 34th Street – the older classic is still my favorite, but both have the message. Kris Kringle is St. Nick come to NYC. His chief characteristic is that he knows who he is while at the same time, he doesn’t know how his unselfishness and unguarded compassion affect others.

I’m not often given to dreams; but it happens sometimes. I had a dream during Christmas while in Italy. I dreamed that I was looking at a dark background with bright letters etched across the space. At first, I didn’t recognize the words. Then, I noticed one of the words was written backwards. In fact, they were all written backwards in bright script.

Peace, compassion, serve, humility, all were written backwards on this dark screen or canvas surrounding me.

I woke up with the dream fresh in mind and to the interpretation and the Bible verse. (Always helpful.)

God writes his character across the canvas of my life (for the redeemed, our lives). But he writes in a way that others can read (see) his character. I’m not really supposed to focus on the characteristics I’m displaying (that’s why they are written outward and not facing me). My focus is rather on the people for whom the characteristics are meant to impact. They can “read” the peace, compassion, etc. because its there to give them a glimpse of His nature.

Our faith starts like that when we first say yes to Jesus – it’s all about Him. Remember?

So, for the new year, can I turn the words around in 2014 so others see Christ in me?

And the verse? “Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.”            2 Corinthians 3:2-3 (Message)

Etched with His pen,

Rick

Argos logos

The Stoics millenia ago invented a maxim to justify inaction, called “argos logos,” or “the lazy argument.” If it’s going to happen, there’s no reason to act against it, is the basic premise. It’s fated. Let it be. Que sera sera.

If that’s the case, why fight feelings or stand against temptation? Why repent? Why bother with choosing godliness over… well, all those other things we could choose, want to choose, and would if no one is looking.

Paul said to the Roman Christians, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” The sub-text to his plea is, “Don’t give up! Pursuing God and the life and adventure He offers is worth it! Turn to him and choose life!”

The alternative is to drift toward the rocks of self-centeredness and sin, or it’s dangerous opposite, self-righteousness and judgmentalism. The wreckage of relationships and soul-emptiness are in either choice’s wake.

Rome’s Christ-followers felt the tension, and from Paul’s words, gave in to “argos logos.” And I know the same tug and say to the soul drifting toward rocks, “Choose His Kindness.” Choosing Kindness!

Does this hurt?

We avoid pain (no-brainer). We run from it unless there is a higher payoff – improved game, better abs, new baby in our arms, a bill paid off, a binge weekend of “Glee.”

My son, for his first dozen or so years, came to me and announced “Does this hurt?” Then he would pinch, punch, pull, twist, or otherwise separate tissue from tendon. It came in the form of a question: it was really a warning. Pain was imminent.

Next to inclusiveness and tolerance, pain avoidance is right up there as sacred. In fact, some preach that, if we experience pain, we must be out of God’s plan for our lives – if God’s plan is wonderful, how could pain be involved.

I remember when my kids were younger, that they would start down a road to pain and punishment. (Don’t get me wrong: they were good kids. But also living proof of humankind’s fallen-ness.)The first action received a warning, the second a sterner warning, and finally the pain that halted the path they’d taken. It almost seemed like they were asking for punishment (my dad’s two phrases – “Do you want a spanking?” “Sure, sign me up.” and “This will hurt you more than me.” “Uh, yeah.”)

Good pain comes at the right place and for the right reason. Maybe I ask for it (discipline) or maybe I don’t.

Have I ever seen a branch ask for a good pruning? A smart branch knows a good pruning will make it better and healthier. More fruit, less dead weight, more pleasure in the purpose of growing and living. Jesus prunes what he cares for. So, in the pain, trust his hand and his love.

Lord, prune me. I am good with the pain if it makes me more alive. I can take the lopping off of the dead weight I carry. Snip, saw, and drag it away so my heart, life and fruit can be yours and spilling over.

Not finished yet,
Rick

The Impossible Calling

Some things Jesus said make following Him sound impossible. I understand it, for the most part, but don’t see how I can meet the standard. Most religions give a code of conduct, or a place to visit, or some chant or posture, and you’re in.

But Jesus asks too much! Like in this passage – Turn from selfish way I get; I can’t do it, but I get it. Then … die. Take up  a cross, and die. After all, that’s what a cross is for.

In case this isn’t clear enough, he says it another way: give up your life. That’s die, again, right?

Don’t get too discourage. It helps to read on a few verses. The upside down logic is a call to be a “living sacrifice.” To die is defined like this: live for Him, live for others, and value following Jesus above stuff that takes His place as Leader. Consider yourself dead to what takes His place in your life. And it only takes a couple of seconds to identify what this is, right?

Islam has the sacrificial death of suicide bombers. Daoism has seppuku, the ritual disembowelment because of shame. Buddhism has self-immolation. And Hindu widows throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyre in sati ritual.

These “calls to die” lead to death. Whether it’s to get reward in the afterlife, cover shame, protest a hopeless situation, or avoid grief, the death religions call for is self-seeking and self-attentive.

Jesus’ “call to die” leads to life, and life to the fullest measure. He offers, through His life, death, and resurrection hope for the hopeless, mercy for the shamed, comfort for the grieving, and real life for those facing or contemplating death.

He calls us to live as long and as passionately as possible,  as His own sacrificing followers, impacting our world with Hope.

Put Him first. Live to serve others. Leverage life in ways that point to His offer of life over grief, shame, self-consumption, and hopelessness.

It’s better by far to know Him, gain our soul, and give up on hanging onto life without Him.

Hanging on to Him,
Rick

Blurt it out

When I read the Gospel narratives, I sometimes superimpose Hollywood and years of how it’s been read publicly like a voice-over as I read. Sort of King James-ish, solemn, no jokes allowed. It can get stale when I read it through the wrong filters.

Jesus and the original “diversity awareness group” showed up at Caesarea Philippi – definitely off the usual path, north of their usual journey. I can guess that, after a long journey, the usual jabs and jest were tossed around. “Thomas, you doubted we’d ever arrive, eh?” “John, James, your mother couldn’t have made a better path for her son’s success, could she?” “Pete, anyone ever tell you, you rock?”

Then, Jesus asks: “What is the street saying about me?” A pause. “Some say you’re John come back from the dead to get back at Herod.” “Yeah, and I heard someone say you must be Elijah returned.” “Or… or, at the least, one of the prophets.” “Yeah, like Jeremiah… I like Jeremiah…I always listen to what he said.” “Yeah, John, so’s your mother.”

“But, what about you. Who do you say I am?” A longer pause. Simon, quiet all this time, for a change, blurts out what’s been bursting inside him since that day on the fishing boat. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Not a savior; The Savior. Not a son; but The Son of God.

Oh yeah, he got it right. May we blurt out what God has dropped into our hearts in worship and in witness. When we get the basics right, the rest falls into place.

Another blurt,

Rick

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