It helps to point…

My wife has, for years, accused me of running out of words before the day ends. I get 3000 words, no less, no more, and none bankable. According to her. If I use them up, she can’t pry more than a syllable from me in the evening. I wonder if I work this way.

The more important question is: do I get 3000 in English, and 3000 in Italian? And if I screw up the Italian words (it can happen), do I get a redo?

Someone gave me a bike a few days ago. The chain was off, no lights, and one side of the gears was wonky. A new bicycle mechanic hung out his shingle two blocks down just last week, so I rolled into his shop yesterday. Disclaimers here:

#1 – I had probably used up all my Italian words at Monday’s Italian class (and I needed to borrow from tomorrow for the Bible study I led that Tuesday night (it’s complicated.)

#2 – I don’t speak “bicycle.” These are words that haven’t come up between “Piacere. Mi chiamo Rick” and “Dov’e’ il bagno.

#3 – My trusty standby – “Parli Inglese?” didn’t work on this 70-year-old bike mechanic.

Il Maestro di Biciclette” wheeled it into his back room, hung it on the shop rack. He tugged me over to watch. He pointed. I only understood three words (out of at least 300) – “catena ha caduto” or “the chain has fallen.” He pointed.

Then he tinkered with the gears on the right. After another 300 words, I heard “buona.” He pointed. I smiled, “funziona?” Back at me, “Si.”

He wiggled the left gears. He pointed. Another torrent and I heard “rotto” (I remember, rotten, for “broke.”) I grimaced, “non funziona?” “Si.”

After he worked some magic with the chain, he pulled it down from the rack. I asked him if it was a good bike. He pointed. He said, okay, but it’s older than me. We laughed together. I asked, “how much?” (I’m in the “Italian zone” by now.) He ignored me and handed it off. And I pedaled away toward the next challenge.

I’m glad to learn “catena e’ caduto” – reminds me that, for the Christian, the chains have fallen, they are “rotto” (in a good way.)

Two “take-aways” – it helps to point, and Italian men are gracious – and they get more than 3000 words.

Alla prossima volta,

Rick

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No Muck, no Miracle

I grew up two blocks from the famous “Grand Strand” of the South Carolina beaches, and just across our street stretched a long finger of marsh from the tides toward the inland highway. Its where we hunted for small bait (we called them fiddler crabs, since they “fiddled” their way sideways across the sand). I remember stepping into the mushy, wet sands and sinking down past my ankles. I can still hear the sucking sounds as I dislodged my feet from the muck! (My brothers, always encouraging, informed me there were hidden stretches of quicksand nearby waiting to gobble little boys whole.)

The psalmist writes that he found himself in “the slimy pit” and waited patiently for God’s clear path toward a firm footing (and everyone knows from the movies never to struggle in quicksand since it makes for a speedier demise.) He was stuck in the “mud and the mire” with no footing below and no way forward. And he did what any of us would do – he cried out, “help!”

We love the promises! When God gives a promise in the Bible, it nearly always is in the context of dire circumstances. Try a search on Top 10 promises and read them in context. God promises he will be near, that he never changes, he will strengthen us, uphold us, bless the work we do, save us, pour out his grace, and give us wisdom. The promises are truth, yes, but they are delivered in the quicksand of loneliness, pain, threats, fear, sin, hopelessness, and grief.

Today, and all week, my prayers have turned to a family I knew, worshiped with, and served alongside back in the states. The godly couple stood strong as an example of servanthood, leadership, and self-sacrifice. And they were lost to a careless driver’s bad choices this week. And there are kids, friends, church family, and more left behind.

In our hurt and in our prayers, we ask God to hear the cries that arise from the slow murkiness of grief. We ask him to provide a moment of firm footing in the midst of the swirl of questions. We ask Jesus to stretch out his hand and pull His kids back up onto the Rock.

It’s interesting what happens when the psalmist finds his footing in the Lord. Not only does he stand firm, but he breaks into song. Not a song from the canon of worship already learned and enjoyed. But, one that brings new comprehension of how much God cares and how near he is. It’s a new song, fresh from the experience of God’s provision and presence. And, through it all, as we wait, as we cry out, and we reach out for his presence, the psalmist says “many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”

On solid rock.

Tough Crowd

Preachers and worship leaders can read a room, so I’m informed. We stand before the crowd and can tell if they are tracking with us, indifferent, or just don’t like us (not that the third option ever happens in church!) Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s house (read Luke 14) and the place was filled with an audience not-so-favorable toward him or the message of the Kingdom. My guess would be to not expect much from a dinner party crowd like this (maybe like going to a Hillary rally wearing a Feel the Bern tee.)

Jesus turned the Sunday dinner soiree into a masterful time of teaching – about not living for crowd approval (he was experienced with this,) about humility and the urge to seek honor from others (don’t take the box seat unless it’s offered), and about lifting up those who can’t improve one’s status or power (toss to pre-approved invitation list and bring in the hurting, blind and invisible.)

And, he healed a man with a visible case of renal failure (his arms and legs were swollen with fluid.) Jesus noted the man’s illness and asked the crowd if he should heal him, even though it was the Sabbath. (I’m sure the host was asking, “who let this guy in? Next time, screen for dropsy!)

Of course, the crowd of Pharisees refused to answer – and of course, Jesus healed him.

But the next exchange is what grabs me. Jesus addresses the room and  asked, “Who here doesn’t do some kind of work on Sunday? Fix a tire? Empty the trash? Rescue a cow? Really?”  Silence from the room. (Cue the crickets.) And they couldn’t answer.

Not “refused” or “chose not” to answer. They couldn’t. Their world view simply would not give space for a reasonable answer. They were so entitled to their Sabbath day, that they couldn’t answer. The rules that governed their Sabbath ruled out their ability to speak aloud what was true and made sense. That God desired healing on their holy-day couldn’t penetrate their dogma … or their faith.

What we’ve experienced, good and bad, and what we’ve clung to that seems culturally acceptable might be exactly what stops us from believing … and being healed.

Comedians can read an audience, too. I read that some entertainers choose to beg off shows at colleges – they say it’s too dangerous. What they say is always under scrutiny. And being recorded.

What a shame that dogma might stop the laughter. And everyone needs a good laugh.

 

Vineyard 201 – Power of God, Power of Prayer

This week’s article by John Wimber, one of the key pastors who helped launch the “Vineyard Movement” links two important spiritual topics: the power of God and the Christ-follower’s prayer life. God wants to display His power through our lives – no question about his (the whole “same works and even greater” promise still wrecks my experiential grid!) But, what is our responsibility through prayer? And more importantly, how does prayer display God’s Kingdom and Power? Wimber would say, it’s all about intimacy!

Enjoy the article below and learn about the empowering nature of intimacy with God:

PRAYER: INTIMACY WITH GOD

Only in an intimate relationship with God can we hear his voice, know his will,

and understand his heart.

By John Wimber

If most Christians could listen to recordings of their prayers over a week’s time, we would discover we pray the same things, using the same words and sentence structures, over and over again. But, I suspect, what would disturb us most is the cold, mechanical, removed feeling of the prayers. We would become more aware of something we already know but can hardly acknowledge: our relationship with God is distant and impersonal – and because of this we are unhappy and unfulfilled.

Now think of the quality of Jesus’ prayer life. Picture in your mind the freedom and openness he always experienced with his heavenly Father. He spoke to his Father in terms of endearment, referring to him as “Daddy.” Jesus took every problem, every concern, and every decision to him moment by moment. And he did it with ease and joy! It was an intimate relationship, an openness in which he freely shared his most essential, private, and personal thoughts and emotions.

The quality of relationship with his Father also was a key to answered prayer. By knowing his Father’s will, he knew how, what, and whom to pray for. “The world must learn that I love the Father,” Jesus said, “and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). How did the world know Jesus loved the Father? Because he did what the Father told him to do, and he was able to do that because he had an intimate relationship with him.

I believe Jesus’ prayer life is something that we should aspire to, that intimacy with God in prayer is a primary goal of the Christian life.

Obedience

Why is our goal intimacy with God? Because only there do we experience forgiveness, renewal, and power for righteous living. Only in an intimate relationship with God can we hear his voice, know his will, and understand his heart.

Some of us, though, think of intimacy as merely a warm emotion—something akin to spiritual goose bumps. But this isn’t what I mean by intimacy with God. By intimacy I mean four things:

  • First, intimacy is self-disclosure. This is our ability to talk with God about who we really are, to say what we need and want, all the time knowing that he hears us and cares about these things. This touches on the formation of such character traits as honesty, integrity, and confidence.
  • Second, intimacy is being known by God. God doesn’t need our cooperation to know everything about us (Matthew 10:30). But for him to work in us and through us, we must cooperate with him, joyfully receiving his fatherly love.
  • Third, intimacy is continual obedience to God. This means knowing God in the deepest part of our beings, hearing his voice, experiencing his grace and then doing what he says to do. There is nothing fancy or mysterious about obedience. The rewards are great: A greater knowledge of God’s holiness and a clear conscience.

Scripture

  • Fourth, intimacy is knowing God. By knowing God I mean having relationship with him and knowing about him. The latter point contains a Catch 22, because a proper understanding of God’s nature is both a goal and prerequisite of intimacy. In other words, what we believe about God determines how we pray, and the quality of our prayer life powerfully affects what we believe about God!

A defective understanding of our heavenly Father’s nature (usually a result of some failure in our earthly father) is one of the greatest obstacles to an intimate prayer life. Do you think of God as quite distant from creation, disinterested in ordinary people’s daily struggles? If so your prayer life is probably an infrequent exercise in paying homage to the Creator, but in no way is it a life-changing relationship. Do you think of God as an angry old man, depriving you of life’s pleasures and joys? If so, your prayer life likely is a loathsome event, full of fear and anger.

God has provided means for overcoming our misconceptions about his nature: Scripture. In the Bible, God reveals his nature to us, but most of us require healing in some area of our lives so we can receive the truth of Scripture. Hurtful memories of our earthly fathers may hold us back from receiving our heavenly Father. Prayer for overcoming the effects of past hurts and immersion in God’s Word are the pathway to knowing God.

Models

Another obstacle to attaining intimacy with God in prayer is the dearth of mature prayer models, men and women who inspire and instruct us through prayer and deed.

As a new Christian, I was discipled by a man who embodied what it meant to be intimate with God. But even he wasn’t perfect, and when he moved away after only two years, I was forced to look elsewhere for a model of intimacy. So to whom can we look? Christ is available to all, our great example of intimacy with the Father. He is the one that we ultimately look to and pattern our lives after.

I began this article by contrasting our prayer life with Christ’s. In the remainder of the article, I will take a closer look at Christ’s relationship with his Father as found in what is commonly called the high priestly prayer of John 17.

The Upper Room

John 17 must be understood with its broader context, chapter 13 through17, the longest account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples in the upper room. Jesus speaks to his disciples in an intimate, after-dinner exchange. He discloses to them some of the most beautiful truths in the Bible. One prominent feature of his discourse is his use of the word love. It is used only six times in chapters 1-12 of John’s Gospel but 31 times in chapters 13-17.

Chapter 17 records Jesus’ conversation with his Father about himself, the apostles, and all believers. I am not as much interested here in what he prayed about as how he prayed, for his manner reveals much about his relationship with the Father.

Verse one says, “He looked toward heaven and prayed.” Did you know that the customary attitude of prayer for Jesus was to open his eyes and raise his head? His position on prayer was different from the practices of most Western Christians. Now, I believe there is nothing wrong in lowering our heads and closing our eyes (it communicates reverence toward God and helps us keep our concentration on God), but Jesus looked up and opened his eyes because his relationship with the Father was open, free, uninhibited.

He begins his prayer with the simple “Father,” the common address of a child to its parent. Jesus was using language common to everyday family life and transferring it to God. It reveals the close familiarity between Jesus and his Father.

Reinforce Truth

Jesus then goes on in verses two to five to pray for himself as within hours he would face the cross. But the tone of his prayer impresses me—informal, free, and heartfelt. These were the prayers of a friend of God. In reading many of Jesus’ prayers, I get the feeling that he is interrupting a private, unspoken conversation in order to speak aloud so the disciples can learn how to pray. In other words, his spoken words appear to be the overflow of a continuing dialogue with his Father.

In saying, “Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you,” Jesus revealed his one motivation in life was to glorify his Father. This meant that all his prayers were steeped with an attitude of obedience and sacrifice, a desire to submit his life to whatever his Father wanted. It is almost as though he is reviewing a fundamental principle of the Christian life: You glorify me, I glorify you. We too, should never hesitate to repeat the fundamental promises of Scripture to God in prayer; in doing so we reinforce his truth in us and faith grows. We need to regularly review our commitments, and what better place is there to do that than with God?

In verses 6 to 19 he prays for the disciples. He continues to focus on fulfilling God’s purpose: to redeem and raise up a people who know the Father. When we experience intimacy with our heavenly Father our hearts will naturally turn toward intercession. Why? Because we will take on his heart, his burden for men and women.

Jesus and the early Christians rarely prayed for the world. Instead, they prayed that the church would be bold in proclaiming the gospel to the unsaved! You don’t have to tell God your friends aren’t saved. He already knows. You need to tell them about Christ, and ask God for the boldness to speak the gospel in love.

Unity

In verses 20 to 26 he prays for all believers “that all may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (v. 21). This is the punch line of the high priestly prayer: We can have the same type of relationship with the Father that Jesus has.

I grew up as an only child with both parents who worked. From the ages of five to eighteen I devoted my life almost entirely to music, sitting alone for hours practicing different musical instruments. I didn’t develop very many social skills with a horn in my mouth. If it hadn’t been for my wife, I don’t know if I would have ever learned how to have deep, intimate friendships. I have found it difficult to know God as my “Daddy,” but as I grow in the knowledge of his nature and take risks with him, I’m learning he loves me and accepts me the way I am. I can enter into the same quality of relationship as Jesus has with the Father.

When we experience the intimacy of the Father and the Son, it will affect our relationship brothers and sisters in such a way that many pagans will believe that Jesus was sent by the Father to redeem the world (v.23). Christian unity, rooted in an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, is the most powerful testimony of Christ’s lordship in the world today.

 

Jesus isn’t like that…

Preachers have long suspected that most of what we say is forgotten. I know we want to think differently, and we can seek to be memorable and quotable all we want. But, a snippet or sound bite here, or a timely story there, and that’s all we get.

But, Sunday was different.

Let me cast the normal flowers: your message was moving, great, spoke to me, nice job, nailed it (that’s always a curious comment to say to a preacher of the Gospel), and my favorite – were you thinking of me when you prepared this message.

Here’s what changed my life.

Our lead pastor (Tim Holt, Seacoast Vineyard, been doing if faithfully since “the Call”) described what happened with Jesus and his disciples as they left the crowd one day, and in dire need of rest, sailed to a remote place to get some rest. The crowd got wind of the relocation and showed up before Jesus dropped anchor.

And here’s where it got good.

He said, for us, we might have looked at the crowd and despaired, or tried to send them away, or ignored them. After all, we were tired, we deserved some rest, some “me time.”

Are  you ready? Then he said, “but Jesus isn’t like that.” Wait… wait… wait… let it hit you.

He’s not like us. He’s not. Confessional time. He isn’t like me. We live in a world that measures Jesus by us. I know the argument: we’re the only “Bible” some will ever read, and how else will others know Jesus unless we are “Jesus with skin on.”

But, no matter how much we model our lives by Jesus, he is not like us. I can show compassion in a kind action. He is fully, beyond measure, love. I can share a word of wisdom with a friend. He is the source of wisdom; he invented it. I can pray for a sickness to be healed. He expresses healing and wholeness in all he does. Even in my best, he’s not like me.

A dose of humility. Jesus already has come with skin on. And if the Gospel another reads comes from my life, it will not be enough to save or transform. Jesus is completely and wholly not like me. Measuring Jesus by me is a mistake. But oh, how by His immeasurable grace, I want to be measured by his standard (“Life is not measured by how much you own. Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” Luke 12:15, 21)

Maybe we can quit judging Jesus without knowing him. We make him small when we say he is like us. Maybe a better plan is to go for a rich relationship with Him.

So, if you want to know what Jesus is like, my life is probably not the measurement you want… he’s not like that. But I suspect that, what you hope he is like – compassionate, consistent, near, trustworthy, forgiving, powerful, and full of grace – he is, and then some.

Thanks, Tim, for a life-altering word. (And btw, I remember what you said next, too – Jesus isn’t like that. He saw the people and had compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  And sheep when there are no boundaries or fences, need a shepherd.)

Rick

Price of slavery, Cost of freedom

Slavery has never been more profitable. But, human trafficking, as heinous as it is, isn’t the only end that the means justifies. Sell outs to subjugation go on all the time – bondage and entrapment are gussied up as the next experience to be had –  no matter how many shades of grey cloak it (btw, how can we rail against causing women pain and embrace the same in the name of pleasure? Using others for gratification or anger still leads to subjection.)

Judas gave up freedom for 30 silver coins. Whether he was disillusioned with the progress of the social takeover he’d hope would come with Jesus’ reign, or disappointed at being caught at embezzlement, he sold his freedom. Matthew and others give the details. Try Judas for your next character study. Or maybe not… it may be too familiar.

The cash he accepted equaled the cost of a slave (see Exodus 21) – 30 silver coins. Judas took his final step into slavery with the bribe, then surrendered it under remorse as the exact cost of a graveyard, the perfect final home for slaves.

Jesus planned for a better home for slaves.

For Jesus, these same thirty coins bought our slavery to sin. He cashed it in at the Cross. I am the direct beneficiary to this investment, a thirty coin bribe sought to capture and kill a King became the price to free a slave. Me.

Two simple applications: To the enslaved (yes, I know who I am – you do, too), your purchase has been proffered and accepted. The document is filed waiting to be claimed. To the set-free-ones, tell someone where freedom waits.

Rick the Purchased

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

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!

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

Not business, but personal

I’ve heard the “it’s full of contradictions” comment on occasion when dialoging about the Bible. Here’s one that turns up occasionally. Why do Matthew have two ladies at the tomb after the resurrection and John only has Mary Magdalene?

A couple of simple insights clear this one up. The Jewish culture called for two or more witnesses to validate a truth. Mary, Salome, and probably a few other women were there. OK, so the truth is validates (of course, they are women, so some of the most strict would discount the testimony anyway – it was Jesus, and Christianity that return the worth to women’s importance.)

And, for John, the story is about the personal touch. He writes as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Relationship is the thread of insight throughout his story from chapter one — remember that Jesus (the Word) was with God in the beginning (emphasis “with”) and came to earth to dwell among people (emphasis “among”) — to chapter 25 when Jesus recast the call to “follow” and do life with and in Him. Mary Magdalene, for John, got the nod in his account because Jesus had done so much in her life, to forgive and restore.

So, when we are about the business of sharing the Great News, it’s not business, it’s personal.

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