Would You Become Your Dog?

Jesus loved us so much that he became one of us. That is the wonder of Christmas.

I love my dog but I would never want to become him.

That would mean that I would put on the limitations that he has as a dog. As a human becoming dog, I would operate on instinct rather than inspiration and creativity. My range of emotions and feelings would be limited and sparse. Any power I possessed would only be confined to a few senses that for the most part wouldn’t benefit any one else but myself. I would lose an awareness of the larger world around me. I would lose imagination and the ability to improve myself on my own.

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This is the limiting and confined experience that Jesus gladly took on when he became one of us. Christ, the Son of God, “did not see equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Is there a more beautiful and amazing piece of scripture in all of the Bible than those words?

In another spot in scripture, it says that in Jesus we have a leader who can be “touched with the feelings of our weeknesses.” Paul Brand and Philip Yancey state, “God wasn’t satisfied enough to just love us from a distance but came along side us.”

Though Jesus was all divine and all human the packaging of the flesh and bone must have been so burdensome and fraught with potential problems that Jesus must have had moments of clear bewilderment at his existence on this Earth. Yet, he chose the incarnation to serve us, to demonstrate love to us, to teach us, to heal us, to cover us with mercy, to live a life that no one else could live so that he could die a death that no one else could die to bring us new life that no one else could bring.

God’s son loved us enough to become us. Who would do that? That is the wonder of Jesus that we celebrate each year at Christmas.

The Three Things Challenge

Several years ago, I started a simple practice when taking our daughters to school. As we drive, everyone in the car has to say three things they are thankful for.

There is only one rule, you can’t say something that someone else has already said. You are forced to come up with your own unique list of three things. Our girls are so used to doing this that I never have to prod or offer suggestions, they can usually shoot off their three in a matter of seconds. When we first started this, the lists contained the usual. They mentioned items such as “food,” “a house,” “family.” But now, they expand their list to include anything or everything. Examples being “socks,” “hair ties,” and “brownies.”

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I have to do it too and some days I have already determined my list before I really even get in the car and some days I struggle to come up with even two. Those days that I struggle with my list are dark days and a good measurement on where my soul is. I ask myself tough questions on those days. What has so clouded my spiritual life that I can’t come up with three things to be thankful for? What am I not noticing that is right in front of me, blessing me? Am I choosing self absorption and self pity over gratitude and faith?

As a person who writes a blog on spiritual formation, I am often thinking about how I can encourage others to practice spiritual disciplines. This practice of three things is a spiritual discipline that anyone can do with no special training or explanation why. So many mornings, this practice has reset my day, established my priorities, and reminded me of God’s goodness on even the darkest of days.

Don’t make gratitude just a November thing. Do it daily by coming up with your own three things. This has been an invaluable gift to me and I think to our daughters. Try it for yourself.

Why I Need Jesus And You Do Too

Why do we feel the need to prove the existence of God and of Jesus as his son? At this point in modern thought, what real effectiveness am I making by trying to make a factual and historical case for Christ? I don’t know what good this can actually bring. 

What I can do though is show that only Jesus provides the answer to this question: What is most needed in my life?

What is most needed in my life is a way to live that cultivates faith, hope, and love. What is needed in my life is a way to overcome my deepest faults and my propensity to screw things up. What is most needed in my life is a way to Grow Up so that wisdom shapes my existence and not selfish and limited thinking. What is most needed in my life is a way to care and love those around me that changes their world for the good and helps them Grow Up in wisdom too. What is most needed in my life is a way to persevere and overcome the absolute worst things that life can throw at you.

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Jesus has provided these things for me. Jesus has not been proven right in a court of law but has been proven right because through his indwelling in me and the help of the Holy Spirit, I now possess hope and am able to love more freely. His sacrifice of his own life means I don’t have to be buried in my mistakes and doomed to shame because of my poor choices. His teachings have given me words to live by and expressions of life and hope that others need to hear. His example and transformation of my heart has empowered moments in my life where I sacrificed strictly for the benefit of others. Jesus has shared in my suffering and has been present in my lowest moments and that has given me strength to move through and beyond struggles and heartache.

I am not perfected and still have the capacity for great harm to myself and to others but I have let go of patterns that no longer serve me and have begun to surrender to Christ’s way of life and the results have transformed me in more ways that I can count.

That is what is most needed in my life and what is most needed in your life. Try Jesus, see what he can do for you. Prove me wrong.

Kanye West, Church Signs, and the Shallowness of Faith

Last week, I saw a church sign that simply said, “Jesus is King.”

Yes, I said to myself. Here is a church that is proclaiming the truth of Christ and forgoing the need to be clever; that tells it like it is; and is using its sign to proclaim truth in its simplest form. I thought, “That’s refreshing. I would like to attend a church that has as its mission statement, Jesus is King.”

Those thoughts came in a about two seconds before it registered that this church was posting the title of Kanye West’s latest album. Then, my heart sank. I quickly remembered that this church’s usual sign messaging is worthy of its own Pinterest board for Bad Church Signs. Their signs usually amount to something like this: Tweet Others as You Would Like to Be Tweeted or There Are Some Questions That Can’t Be Answered By Google. The church had gone from spouting off lame pop culture meets religion slogans to a great spiritual truth simply because some celebrity had a religious experience.

I think what bothered me the most is that this church and many Christians seem to need a celebrity to give them permission to proclaim the good news of Jesus. As if validation for our beliefs and life can only come from a person with millions of followers on Instagram and influencer next to their name in a sentence or holding a position of power in politics.

I have no doubt that God is working in some way in the the conversion of Kanye West and the platform that he does possess. But the last time I checked, God’s kingdom doesn’t advance on hype and quick media fixes. Jesus is not Lord because Kanye West has proclaimed him such or because a certain person was elected to office. Jesus has already been inaugurated and has already taken office at the right hand of the Father.

So before you champion the next celebrity that makes a big religious splash remember who your Lord is, what he did for you, where your allegiance lies, who you are committed to follow and the great promises that are being fulfilled for you. Live out those promises, announce those beliefs, proclaim Christ is King for what he has done for you and is doing for you. Don’t be a copy cat or a ride the back of trends but be rooted to the name that is above all names, Christ our King.

Why Bother?

I recently came across this definition of sin by Jim Keenan: “Sin is a failure to bother to love.”

This surprised me because the word sin usually just conjures up images of a list of don’ts that begs the question, often yelled, “WHY NOT?” In Keenan’s way of thinking, sin is more a poor posture towards living than just something we do against society’s moral standards.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Levite and the priest were probably within their society’s moral boundaries by not bothering to serve the bleeding man on the side of the road but sinned because they failed to bother to love the man. Love was not a priority in their way of life and that became a problem.

But what is love? Dallas Willard says:

Love is not a feeling, or a special way of feeling, but the divine way of relating to others and oneself that moves through every dimension of our being and restructures our world for good.

One of Jesus’ disciples, many years after Jesus’ public ministry, said “He who does not love abides in death.”

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One thing that has helped me love better (for there are many times when I haven’t bothered to love) is asking myself, “What is the most important thing about this other person?” So often, my answer is not all the things they have done for me or against me or how loving they have been towards me but simply this: “They are a child of God, made in his image, one that God is especially fond of, a brother or sister in Christ.” This fact demands that I bother to love that person the best way I know how. To bring them consolation, a life giving connection with God, is the way of Christ and essential for any hope. But oh so much easier said than done.

May we all be bothered to love today. That may mean that we have to Grow Up in certain areas and put away old patterns of behavior but that simple act of love is life giving and is restructuring our world for good.

 

I Overslept This Morning

I overslept this morning and missed my writing time for this blog post.

I overslept this morning and didn’t read my Bible.

I overslept this morning and didn’t meditate or say my normal prayers.

I overslept this morning and didn’t read that book that I committed to read for 10 minutes a day.

I overslept this morning but I received some rest that has been hard to come by lately.

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I overslept this morning but enjoyed a fantastic, drama filled, exciting World Series game last night.

I overslept this morning but spent dinner last night with great coworkers enjoying a meal and playing games.

I overslept this morning but rode a mechanical bull yesterday and lasted longer than some college students.

I overslept this morning but had a good conversation with my Mom last night.

I overslept this morning but ended last night with these words,

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

The point is, God needs us to commit time to him and to design our days to make space for him to work on our mind and heart but he can still operate through the ordinary and still blesses through activities that may not be on the “religious” list. Give yourself grace when your Growing Up plans fall through and appreciate the wide range of God-moments that are present in good days like I had yesterday.

The Film That Haunts Me

As a parent, I have had to sit through countless children and young adult movies. Some I tolerate, some I wish to never see again, and some haunt me, in a good way, for years. One such movie is Because of Winn Dixie.

What has haunted me is the beautiful picture of God’s available blessing expressed in the film. In the film, a diverse and disparate group of people are brought together because of the precocious friendliness of a mangy dog and the available love of a little girl. There is a blind recovering alcoholic, an antiquated and lonely spinster, a convicted felon, a grumpy dog hater, and a preacher who has lost his wife. All of these people have been written off by society and judged to be beyond true blessing. They, in the world’s eyes and even in their own eyes, have some fundamental flaw, that makes them unworthy and hopeless.

The best way of looking at the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to not see them as prescriptions to blessing but as proof that blessing is for everyone, even the meek, even the grieving, even the spiritual flunkies, even the ones who are missing righteousness.  Dallas Willard describes it this way:

The Beatitudes…They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us. They do this simply by taking those who, from the human point of view, are regarded as most hopeless, most beyond all possibility of God’s blessing or even interest, and exhibiting them as enjoying God’s touch and abundant provision from the heavens.

At the end of Because of Winn Dixie, all of these forgotten and despised members of society are brought together for a party. These scenes are my favorite from the film as these people who have had such burdens and faced such condescension and judgement are renewed through the power of friendship and love and community. They found blessing in the love of others and the breakdown of assumptions and false narratives. And like the ragamuffin guests at the banquet in one of Jesus’ parables, they are free to taste goodness and true blessing.

There are some things in my life that I often feel make me unworthy of blessing from God. Maybe there are some things in your life as well but the truth is that no “human condition excludes blessedness, that God may come to any person with his care and deliverance.” Jesus welcomes all to his kingdom. Even you. That is the gospel of the Beatitudes and the Gospel of Because of Winn Dixie.

The Promise Land Fallacy

“Everything will be better when I get this job.”

“When we get this situation turned around then things will be fine.”

“What is most important to me is achieving this goal.”

“I just need my relationships to be restored and then I will be truly blessed.”

“If healing would just come to this family member, that would make all the difference.”

These are all Promise Land situations – events or resolutions that we think are life’s great purposes or antidotes. The truth is that, like Moses, we may never make it to the promise land.

Moses had two great purposes in his life – deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt and lead them to the Promise Land. In what seems like a cruel turn of events, God doesn’t let Moses enter the Promise Land.

God leads Moses to the top of a nearby mountain so that he could see all that was to be promised and envision the full potential of the land and the blessings coming to God’s people. On the side of that mountain, Moses’ dreams are in sight and all of the conflict, all of the times of uncertainty, all of the difficulties are finally worth it because the Promise Land is at hand. But, God tells Moses that, “I have let you see it, but you will not cross over into it.”

Moses, who was never one to shy away from a complaint to God, who liked to plead his case before God, who would call God out if he felt it warranted – doesn’t say a word. Moses doesn’t argue or make a suggestion even though his life’s work has led to this great moment. Half of Moses’ life has led up to this moment. He had dreamed of this chance to walk among this great land and call it his own. Instead, he seems perfectly content on the side of that mountain.

Moses’ contentment at that point in his life came not from an achieved goal, or a positive turn of events, or a restored relationship, or a healing but from a dynamic, interactive relationship with God. Earlier in the Moses story, Moses had asked God to send people to help him, that he couldn’t do this job of being deliverer by himself. God doesn’t send helpers, but he does provide help, “The Lord replied, My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”

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From that moment on, Moses experienced God’s presence and began to see that this was all that he needed and that true rest was found there. He began to see that the actual Promise Land was not the point of his life and was not the maximum fulfillment he thought it would be. True fulfillment was found in God’s friendship, his love, being in his will, growing in knowledge of him. For Moses, the Promise Land wasn’t the point.

I have been guilty of turning situations in my life into a Promise Land. I think that if this one thing will change, then everything else will fall into place and life will be the way it is supposed to be. But that one thing might not be the point or what God wants to do with my life. The point may be for me to Grow Up, to learn to trust, to experience his presence, to find rest in him, to die to self. My Promise Land may be right in front of me in the transforming work of Christ and his redeeming love and mercy. A relationship with the almighty was good enough in the end for Moses, it should be good enough in the end for me.

Let go of your personal and self-generated Promise Land and see how God will go about bringing you true rest, fulfillment, and contentment.

If Your Belief Doesn’t Change Your Life Then What Belief Do You Have

I heard a speaker say recently, “I have no interest in theology that is not incarnational.” In other words, they don’t want to hear big thoughts on God that cannot be lived out in the little moments of today.

He then began to tell a story of a person who his friend was working with who faced years of abuse and has multiple personality disorder. His friend was a noted author and professor who has written big ideas about God but was willing to bring those to practice in this one darkly troubled life.

Last week, the whole country was moved by the gracious mercy and forgiveness shown by Brandt Jean towards Amber Guyger, the person who shot and killed his brother. Jean noted the forgiveness and mercy shown to him by Christ as reason for him to show the same to the one person he would have every right to not show forgiveness and mercy to.

Botham Jean's Brother Forgives Amber Guyger, Hugs Her ...

Recently, I have been struck by the encounters of the resurrected Jesus and his followers. I was struck just by how ordinary and real they were.

Here is the only person who has truly defeated death and he looks so ordinary to be mistaken for a gardener. Another time, he is just walking along a road and another time he is just a guy on a beach telling fishermen how to do their job.

There were no more miracles, except the whole reappearing and disappearing thing, done on the other side of Jesus’ death. But there was relationship, there was deep understanding, there was love, there was restoration, there was consecration of food and conversation. Seems rather ordinary for someone who just rose from the dead. But is it really that ordinary?

Mary’s deep, sobbing grief was turned to elation. Thomas’ skepticism was turned to faith. Cleopas’ broken heart was warmed, and Peter’s life and ministry was restored despite his rejection and betrayal of Jesus. The settings were ordinary but the results were nothing short of a miracle.

Jesus’ concern was not to perform tricks or to spout off doctrinal statements but to touch people right where they were. The obvious truth was Jesus was the son of God who through the power of the resurrection had defeated the sin and death that went after him with such precision and force. He had bore the weight of sin’s curse so we wouldn’t have to. Out of those great truths, he fed his friends breakfast, restored their doubts, and renewed relationships.

None of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection means anything unless individual lives are changed and futures transformed. That is theology that is truly incarnational.

Have You Tried Trust?

At some point in everyone’s religious life, one has to make a choice. Do I double down on this religion thing and jump through more hoops, maybe up the ante on my dogma and belief system or do I just simply trust that God knows what he is doing and Jesus is who he says he is?

I heard William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, say recently that, “religion is easier than trust.”

So much of religion becomes personal image management. I may not really love God or neighbor but if I can attend this next Bible study, read that book, do that service project, have that theological stance I can project an image that will impress others. Jesus’ enemies were not the “unchurched,” do-wrongers around him; those people were especially fond of Jesus. No, Jesus’ enemies were the very religious people around him, the Pharisees, who thought they could put God in a box by their strict adherence to rules and practices and dogmas. Through their actions, they tried to manage God so they wouldn’t have to listen to him, follow him, or love others. This is a great temptation for all of us.

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When you really think about it, nothing about playing church will get us ready “to receive God’s sufficiency in our lives.” Only trust will do that. When I trust God, I put myself second in the equation and him first. When I trust God, I can leave outcomes up to him. When I trust God, I can sit when it is time to sit and act when it is time to act and worship when it is time to worship. I have the freedom to live my life without adhering to the latest cultural church fad, without solving the latest theological controversy, and without meeting everyone’s expectations. Those are religious concerns that may hold some importance but do not bring life and definitely not an abundant one.

Jesus said that he was the “way, the truth, and the life.” He didn’t say he was the ritual, the ceremony, or the religious system.

Live in trust in Christ today. Leave your religious ways of manipulating God and others behind and find life, love, and a new way of being.