Spiritual renewal in unlikely places

The tiled image was of a rooster and a turtle fighting it out, the rooster in frozen “near victory.” The entire basilica floor was tiled in mosaic – one inch pieces or less – that brought spiritual truths out of normal scenes of life. Baskets of bread and wine. Peacocks. A lamb with staff. Even a hippogriff (for you HP fans.)

Aquileia was one of the largest cities in Europe around 100 AD. Christianity had already begun to thrive in the international milieu of this port (it may have been Mark the Gospel-writer who first came to this city across the Adriatic from the Balkan peninsula.)

But it wasn’t until 313, and the Edict of Milan, that Christians could worship legally. Within five years, the first worship center and baptism room (yes, a full set of rooms for baptism) began. Along with what is now the largest modern example Christian mosaic art. It was art, but they mainly needed a floor that would stand up to the baptism waters (yes, they immersed), and the foot traffic of fishermen, Roman home owners, street peddlers, and senators.

My wife (Susan) and I visited Aquileia for an anniversary day trip. In this ancient church, we found beauty. I found renewal.

Christianity remained simple in this town – it was just a couple of centuries after the last Apostle died – and the truths of the Gospel found life in the symbols. God’s Kingdom is bounty – baskets of bread and wine. God is a lamb who cares for his children like little lambs.

Even the rooster (a metaphor for the dawn and light) gets the victory over the turtle (who always hid himself in darkness). In the Kingdom, light prevails but with the threat of darkness at the ready.

Near the altar, embedded in the floor are the Greek letters I-X-T-H-Y-S. The tiles declare Jesus-Christ-God’s-Son-Savior – and also introduce an extended theme of fishing, casting nets, enjoying the bounty of the sea (and a three-part scene of Jonah tossed to the sea monster, puked back onto the shore, and naked and unashamed in the care of his God).

It’s no wonder the largest scene is fishing – I’m certainly a fan – but, this city drew it’s physical existence from the gifts God gave them from the deep.

The symbolism is even more important for Christ-followers. There are fish needing to be caught. We are fishermen. And the Kingdom is the net. Simple. No grey areas here. It’s what Christians do because it’s what we are.

Within 100 years, the church was remodeled (though they kept the mosaics) and dedicated to the adoration of the Virgin Mary and the exultation of two saints (who gave their lives in for the Good News under Nero.) Those who would have chosen, if they could, to remain off-stage and point the praise the Jesus, became central. And it got complicated.

“God chose the foolish things in the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things in the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thing – and things that are not – to nullify the things are are, so that no one may boast before Him.”

The less sophisticated, the better. And I found renewal and beauty when faith was simpler.

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Some words are more important…

The polls are in and the top words banned in 2018 are fourteen overused words to avoid – included this year are “unpack”, “tons”, “drill-down”, and my favorite: “nothing-burger.” The number one vote-getter is “fake news.” Last year’s was “so” as in “I am so tired of lists.”

As we “off-board” last year and “on-board” 2018, it seems everyone is trying to put words to the year almost gone, maybe thinking what they might need to “walk back” or even “double down” on from the year –  and, or course, they “seeking traction” and are trying to “wrap their heads around” the coming months. I better stop now.

Some words are more important than others. Jesus came back to certain phrases to help us remember the important stuff. “Whoever has ears to hear, let him listen.” “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you” and it’s KJV companion, “Verily, verily, I say to unto you.” But, at the top of the list is ” The kingdom of heaven (or God) is like…”

Jesus would then attach to this phrase something totally, well, common. Relatable. A farmer, or a seed, or a net, or yeast, or a homeowner, or a wedding party.

My first thoughts about the “kingdom of heaven” is to look up, to the future, to eternity. And certainly eternity and heaven are within the stories Jesus told about the kingdom. But what we do here and now is kingdom stuff, too.

  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the woman who makes coffee for her friends so they can talk about Jesus around her table.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the builder who hires and treats his workers with honor so they will see Jesus in his life.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the living room filled with people from different countries, languages, colors, and stories whose lives have been changed by the Savior.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like… (On 1/2/2018, let’s leave a blank and see how we can fill it in each day by inviting the common things in our life to connect and display the supernatural acts of God.)

Call it a “paradigm shift” or an “adjusted grid” – Perhaps 2018 is the year that I will ask how the common, the relatable things in my life, can show others what the kingdom of heaven is like.

For the King – Rick

P.S. My pastor and friend in Myrtle Beach, Tim Holt, has said more than once that the Kingdom is present when the King gets His way.

P.P.S. (List provided by Lake Superior State University – they’ve offered this list for decades! https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/12/31/2018-banned-words/993549001/)

Nowhere to go

Not usually the poet, but Susan and I have spent extra time in praying and seeking God here at the end of our first year serving in Padova, Italy. The below has come from our life this first year. (The Apostle wrote “to live is Christ.” Any other “thing” that might gain our life’s devotion will disappoint. He also wrote “to die is gain.” Anything we live for we lose, except Christ Jesus – we gain Him!)

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hidden your truth where nothing can disparage me.

May the steps I take lead to holiness

May the sins I have drive me to my knees

Let my lips rejoice when I face my fears

Let my heart embrace every truth I dare

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hidden your truth where nothing can disparage me.

For you are the Holy One, you are my cup

You are the sacrifice poured out for me

You are the Promise, You are the Righteous One

Absolute faithfulness, eternally.

For you are my holiness, you are my cup

You are my fullness, poured into me

You are the Promise, You overflow in me

Faithfully filling me, today and always.

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hid your truth where nothing can disparage me.

May the steps I take lead to holiness

May the sins I have drive me to my knees

Let my lips rejoice when I face my fears

Let my heart embrace every truth I dare

(Quando vado, mi guida alla santita’

Quando ho peccato, mi prendi all’ gnicchocci

Quando io gioisco, la mia paura spedì

Quando io ti e braccio, dai mi coraggio

Tu, o Dio, sei mi stato secreto dove e’ l’eternita’

A te, o Dio, ho segreto tua verita’ dove non può essere rubata)

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.

Some look for a Wild Time; I’m looking for a Wild Place

When our kids were growing up, they were fascinated by a series of books (maybe more so, their dad) called “Where’s Waldo?” (Christian book fans, you may remember the “Seeking Sammy” series – I’m guessing it was the Biblical Sammy the Prophet.)

In case you don’t recall spending hours searching through the red and white minutiae for the scarf and ski cap bedecked Waldo, These colorful books opened to panoramic scenes of tiny people in public places, and stuck in the crowd was “Waldo.” The winner found him.

At times, I feel the same way about Jesus. Where’s Jesus? In all the minutiae of life, where is He? Sometimes life’s details hide or push out the right stuff.

Luke 5 is a busy time in Jesus’ life. But it has an interesting aside. Jesus is in the midst of gathering a group of friends and he’s performing miracles (while already avoiding arrest, it seems). And Luke says, “Jesus would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” I imagine that, in their travels, the guys got up, rolled their backpacks, and someone would say, “Where’s Jesus now?”

Oh, he must have found a wild place.

Jesus was regularly taking time from the wild press of people and their needs, and drawn to seek a place to be alone with His Father. Is there a connection between a wild place, the alone-ness, and God’s presence? Maybe our willingness to go to a wild place can helps us see God’s hand and presence more readily? And it might be the questions become more real in a wild place?

Three things about a wild place: 1)It’s not a quiet place (the noise is different, but still there. 2) It’s not a normal place (we have to choose to go there; the “beaten path” and a wild place are exact opposites.) 3) It’s not a safe place. (Wild places have critters. And the dangers can refocus one’s mind.)

When I find a wild place – a place off the beaten path – to spend time with the Father, I expect that my life will be refocused, on Him and His purposes for me and for His world. And that can be dangerous.

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

Not Mine.

It takes a lifetime to get and a lot of reminders, but I don’t own my life. The SUV I drive? Not mine. The TV I watched last night? Not mine. The checkbook I paid bills from? Not mine, either. The kids I helped raise? The marriage? Not mine.The hobby I claim? The diversion I make time for? The secret place where no one else is invited? Not mine. The faith I claim? The church I attend? The office I spend time in? Nope. Not mine. The country I love? The world I pray for? No. They don’t belong to me, either.
Jeremiah reminds himself as much as anyone else: “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course. So correct me, Lord, but please be gentle. Do not correct me in anger, for I would die.”
Sure, I have obligations, even passions for all of the above, but they belong to another. If I don’t own my television, my hobbies, my checkbook, my family, my marriage, or my nation… then, they don’t own me. Freedom.
Property of God.
Rick

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: 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.

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