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Friday, December 14, 2007

Can vs. Should

A friend of mine recently told me about an experience she had in her college Bible class. The professor boldly stated that any single verse of Scripture could be used as the basis for a sermon. To prove his point, he went on to preach an entire sermon from one obscure verse in the Old Testament. I don't recall the exact verse, nor did she, but the essence of it was, "They went from here to there."

This story brought to mind an issue that I've been thinking about a great deal over the last several months. As we approach life, and even faith, we tend to ask the question, "Can I?" but rarely ask the follow up, "Should I?" Can you preach on one single obscure text of the Bible? Sure, I suppose anything is possible. But should you? Should you attempt to take an entire message out of a detail that is used to support a much larger narrative? I believe that all Scripture is given to us by God, but to me, that doesn't mean that every single bit of it has to say something to us. God communicates through the stories, and the verses make sense in the context which they are given. When we take them out of context, we twist the Word to say what we want it to say.

More than a moral question for preaching, however, I think this is an important idea for our approach to life. We are taught in the American Way to ask, "Can I?" Can I afford this large TV, can I afford a bigger home, can I get a bigger and better job? As long as the answer is yes, we feel like it's OK to move forward. But how often do we pause to say, "I can do this, but should I?" I can afford a larger TV, house, or job, but should I do it? Should I take on the payments? Should I commit to the longer work hours? Should I say yes when I know what impact it will have on other areas of my life?

For me, this brings up an important modification to human freedom. We prize being free, and sometimes we assume that because we're free, we CAN do whatever we'd like. But part of our freedom is an understanding that God has created us with limits; limits to our energy, limits to our money, limits to what gives life and health and what takes it away. As good Americans, we look at these limits as hurdles to be jumped on our way to great accomplishment. But could it be that God has given us limits in order that we might more fully enjoy our freedom? By understanding we have a limited supply of energy, we choose to say no to opportunities that will rob us of the energy we need to give to our families. By understanding our limits, we can turn down the bigger house because we're unwilling to sacrifice other freedoms. Limits are not bad- limits allow us to enjoy the freedoms that matter most to us.

May your journey this week reflect a wise discernment between "Can" and "Should".

Nick

Friday, November 30, 2007

Back of the Line

I have a vivid memory from my grade school years. It involves waiting in line for a hot lunch in the cafeteria. Even at that young age, many of my most significant experiences involved food. Everyday, we would line up as a class, and walk down to the lunch room. The order in which we walked was the order in which we would wait for our meal. But there was always that one kid. You know the one- the bigger bully who always wanted to take cuts. One of his little henchmen would save him a spot and he would parade up past the rest of us. Inevitably, as the cutter would try to get in line, the others behind him would begin to protest loudly- "Hey, back of the line!" This was usually loud enough to draw a teacher's attention, and the would-be line usurper would head back to their rightful place. I can remember harboring a sense of grim satisfaction each time this would happen. "Serves him right," I would conclude in my mind.

Recently, reading through the book of Luke in the Message, I ran across a phrase that sparked this memory. Jesus is talking about John the Baptist and how important a role he had in welcoming the Messiah. But then Jesus says that even the lowest person is ahead of John in the new kingdom. People who accepted his message loved this, but the Pharisees were unhappy. They had rejected John's message. And listen to the words written about them: "(they) wouldn't think of giving up their place in line to their inferiors."

This strikes me as the perfect picture of spirituality gone wrong. The Pharisees were at the pinnacle of spiritual understanding and wisdom in their day, and yet their hearts were all wrong. They looked at their position and place in life as something they had properly earned and were now entitled to. No one was going to send them to the back of the line!

I've been pondering lately what it looks like for us to live in a way where we would willingly give up our place in line. Anyone whose ever waited in line at Disneyland for hours on end knows how we become fond of our place- our little territory. And yet as I look at Jesus, I can't help but see someone who regularly gave up his place in line.

He came to the world as a King, and yet he was born in a stable. He was the rabbi of all rabbis, and yet he taught in the wilderness. He was God's Messiah, and yet he died on a cross. He could have commanded armies, and yet he directed a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors. Could it be that God's idea of importance is vastly different than our own? Could it be that the very things we hold to so tightly are the things we need to let go of in order to experience real freedom?

Giving up your place in line- what would that look like for you? Maybe it is a literal idea where at the grocery store you could allow someone else first. But I suspect that if we stop there, we're not going deep enough. I think it means living out the words of Philippians 2:2, "Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand." (from the Message)

May you journey with the attitude of one who would gladly give up their place in line. Peace.

Nick

Thursday, November 15, 2007

You Can't Handle the Truth!

One aspect of jury duty that I found intriguing, and a little intimidating at the same time, was the burden placed on us to discern truth. The judge made it very clear in his instructions to us on the first day that we alone were responsible to judge the credibility of each witness, and based on that judgment to determine if their statements could be believed.

On about the third day of the trial, the prosecution brought in an eye-witness who was central to their case. He had observed the entire accident scene and his testimony could seal the deal. Unfortunately for the prosecution, he was only minutes into his testimony when his story began to unravel. Details didn't line up with the scene, his memory changed with each answer, and his own story contradicted itself. When it was the defense's turn, they blew his story out of the water.

As jurors, we were left to wade through this murky pool of information and decide what was true. For some jurors, they felt he should be given the benefit of the doubt. Others believed that we should throw out everything he had said. In the end, we chose to only accept those parts of the story which could be confirmed by physical evidence or the testimony of other witnesses. His shaky version of truth made our decision very difficult.

This situation resonates with something I was reading today. In his book, Soul Cravings, Erwin McManus talks about truth. He says, "If you discover that the source cannot be trusted, you will naturally conclude that nothing he said is true even if he told you the truth." McManus goes on to say that the more reliable and trustworthy a person is, the smaller the leap of faith it is to commit to their words.

This is again what makes Jesus so unique. Many people look at him as the one who came to proclaim truth and make known the words of the Father. This is accurate to a degree, but it misses the greater reality of who Jesus is. Jesus made an interesting declaration about himself. He said to his followers in more places than one, "I am the truth." Not, "I am telling you the truth", or "the words I say are true" (although he certainly claimed that as well), but "I am the truth." Jesus was taking truth a step further; from impersonal statements to personal reality. Jesus said that if you want to know truth, then get to know him. And the awesome reality is that as we come to know Jesus personally, we know that the words he says are true.

What this brings up for us is how we approach faith. Often, we believe that we get to know Jesus by understanding his words first. But Jesus would seem to say that we should first get to know him, and as we do that, we will understand the meaning and truth behind his words.

This is why Pharisees and other religious people struggled with Jesus. They wanted to understand his words first, and those words were often offensive, confusing, and shocking. On the other hand, fishermen, sinners, and prostitutes had no problem believing his words because they first believed in Jesus. They got to know him, they saw his heart, and they trusted his love. After that, believing and living out his words was simple.

How about you? Are you struggling with the truth of Jesus' words? Some of them are very difficult to accept, but I believe that as you get to know the man- as you observe his actions and seek Him in your spirit- His words will become life, and truth, for you.

Journey in His truth today.

Nick

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I rest my case...

Can it really have been two months since I last blogged? To anyone who checks regularly for updates, I apologize for the number of times you have been disappointed.

Over the last several weeks, I've had a reasonable excuse. For the first time in my life, I was selected for jury duty, and after four days of jury selection, I found myself seated as juror #11. (I ended up as juror #5 because I switched chairs with a much shorter juror, but that's another story for another day.) Every day for the last three weeks, I've gone and sat all day in the jury box rather than in my office. This experience was long, difficult, and taxing in many ways, and yet a very intriguing process.

I went naively into the proceedings, believing that the truth would be easy to spot. Either he did, or he didn't, how difficult could that be? Yet as the lawyer's brought in a parade of witnesses, and each side had the chance for examination, cross examination, re-direct and re-cross, it became evident that the truth would be hiding in many shades of grey. A witness would come in, sound reliable and believable, but then the opposing side would pose questions that quickly shot holes in the testimony.

After 11 days of witnesses, our group of jurors was sent to a small, closet-like room to determine what was true. For over 10 hours we wrangled back and forth, primarily trying to determine which statements could be believed and which ones could not. Thanks goodness for a reasonable amount of physical evidence, or we would still be haggling over the truth of each witnesses' statements.

Many people would like to approach faith the same way as a jury trial. The witness stand gets filled with different voices who tell their side of the story. Aristotle argues from the universe, Locke from logic and reason, Buddha talks of harmony, Muhammad points to the Koran while Gandhi speaks of peace, Jesus testifies to sacrifice and Yoda explains the force. We are tempted to conclude that in this arena, the truth lingers in the shadow of each testimony, waiting to be discovered by us, the eager seeker.

This approach may have merit in ascertaining a person's guilt or innocence, but it is a faulty system in deciding what is true. You see, on this witness stand, one person alone makes unique claims for truth. While many portend to speak on God's behalf, only one witness dares assert that He is from God and that He is God. Jesus makes claims that separate him from all other voices and these claims leave us in a place where we must make a crucial decision. Either Jesus is truth because He is God, and all that he has said is true, or it is all a lie. There are no shades with Jesus. He doesn't invite us to enjoy some of his statements while rejecting others. We aren't given permission with Jesus to blend his words with Buddha, Gandhi, and Yoda. He is either truth, or he is nothing. All others who wish to make claims about truth must put their words up against his. As author C.S. Lewis has pointed out, Jesus was either a fantastic liar, a raving lunatic, or he was everything he claimed to be: Son of God and Lord over all.

How are you handling Jesus' words? Are you searching for half-truths hidden in shades of gray, or have you embraced the words of Jesus as absolute truth in your life?

May you live and walk in the rock solid truth of Jesus Christ as you journey in this life.

Nick

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On Becoming

I've been reflecting a great deal lately on something I read in Erwin McManus' book, Soul Cravings. As McManus writes about the God-given desire we have to live out a destiny, he makes this statement: "...whatever you choose to become is what you begin to call others to. Remember, Thoreau didn't just go to Walden; he called us all to go there with him."

I only have vague memories of Thoreau from my days in high school English, but I can remember how well he described his experiences at Walden Pond. As he detailed the simplicity of his life and time there, I remember feeling a sense inside of me that my life was too complicated and that I could learn from observing Thoreau. Whether he realized it or not, Thoreau was setting himself up as a model and an example to be followed.

As Jesus went to Jerusalem and approached his final hour on earth, he also called people to follow his example. Jesus clearly understood that what he said and did was a model laid down for his followers. At one point during his final week, he got down on his knees and performed the servant's task of washing his disciples feet. When he had finished this humble act, he got up and said, "As I have done for you, so you should do for one another." Jesus was confidently calling us to follow his example of love.

We may not think of ourselves as being very much like Jesus, or even Thoreau for that matter, but this simple truth remains: we are also calling people to follow us. Whether we know it or not, people are watching us and taking cues from our behavior. It may be a co-worker, a child, or our spouse, but they are all learning how live by what they see us doing. And this provokes a very deep question for me, as McManus asked as well, "Who am I becoming?" What are the things that I am passionate about and around which I am centering my life? Because as I give myself to different pursuits, I become a certain kind of person. And so the question I ask is, am I becoming the kind of person I would like others to emulate? Would I be proud if my two daughters grew up to be just like their father? In some ways, yes, but in many others, no.

Who are you becoming? If we want to know who we are becoming, the best way to answer that question is probably to look at who in our world are we following. Are we modeling our life after the world around us, or Thoreau, or Jesus?

May you become more and more the person God created you to be, and may you find in that pursuit, you are becoming more like His Son.

Journey on,

Nick

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Power of "If"

"If you embrace this kingdom life..."

Jesus says these words (in the Message paraphrase of the Bible) to his friends as they walk along the road. He has just cursed a fig tree that bears no fruit, and the tree shrivels on the spot. Jesus' followers gasp in amazement, and then Jesus offers these words, "If you embrace this kingdom life and don't doubt God, you'll not only do minor feats like I did to the fig tree, but also triumph over huge obstacles." Jesus invites them to be part of a world that up to that time they have only observed through him. They are called to experience the power of God.

But this promise is preceded by the incredible word, "if". This one simple word can open up an entirely new world to them. IF they will embrace the kingdom life, incredible things can happen.

What does it look like to embrace something or someone? The word embrace brings to mind for me a mother hugging her daughter as she goes off to college, or a young military wife jumping into the arms of her husband as he returns from a tour of duty. When we embrace, we open our arms wide to someone or something and commit ourselves completely to it.

In this story, Jesus calls us to embrace a Kingdom way of life.

You know, I feel like a lot of the time I am more content to shake hands with the Kingdom life. When we shake hands, we remain more distant and free to do as we choose. When we shake hands, we still have another arm free and we're really not committing to anything. Isn't it easier to just shake hands with God's plans for us and the world, to give one hand to God but to also keep one for ourselves?

It may feel easier to just shake hands, but how much do we miss out on? Jesus calls us to embrace. If we will embrace the kingdom life, then a new realm of potential is ours. When we shake hands with God's way of life, we miss out on his power.

May you experience the power of God in your life as you EMBRACE the Kingdom.

Journey in His ways-

Nick

Friday, August 03, 2007

Our Miracle Arrives!


She chose to wake us up at 3 AM to get the process going, but we were delighted to finally welcome our second daughter into the world. Madelyn Grace was born at 10:56 AM on Tuesday morning, weighing an impressive 8 pounds 11 ounces. (I guess what's impressive is that she outweighed her sister by over 3 pounds!) She was 21 inches long and just a real cutie.

I know that you can scientifically and medically explain everything that happens at the time of birth, but it is still an amazing, miracle-type event. Every step of the process from the time Madelyn was just a single cell until the time she was born had to come together in such a precise and profound way. And to top it all off, not only does everything function properly, but she is endowed with beauty (like babies are) from day one. I'm not sure how anyone could be in a delivery room at a time like that and not believe in a good and loving Creator. We are blessed by the GRACE of our wonderful heavenly Father.

I pray that you are trusting in Him, as we are, in this journey.

Tired, but filled with incredible joy,

Nick

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ipod Insights

When you see someone running past with little white headphones jammed in their ears, you probably assume they're listening to some type of rock and roll to keep them motivated. When you see me running past, in all likelihood I'm listening to a sermon. When you preach on a regular basis, you have no idea how enjoyable it is to listen to someone else speak!

The other day, I was reminded of a powerful principle from a message by Rob Bell. Bell pastors a large church in Grand Rapids, MI. And while I may not completely agree with some of his theology, I find his heart, his passion, and his insight very refreshing. He said something that reinforced an idea which God has been planting in my own heart during our summer "Miracles" series.

He points out that in the John chapter 2 miracle of water being turned into wine, Jesus never turns the water into wine. I know, this sounds redundant, but go look it up. At no point does Jesus command the water to turn, say a prayer and ask it to turn, or perform any physical act that might induce such a transformation. Instead, we see Jesus' mother instructing the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. Jesus tells them to fill jars to the brim with water, and when they follow his instructions, the jars overflow with wine. Make no doubt- Jesus is the source and the power of the miracle- but who does the miracle? When the servants do what Jesus asks them to do, they are the ones who literally do the miracle. And at the end of the miracle, we see that the master is pleased.

Is this perhaps a Biblical picture of what miracles look like? When servants of Jesus obey His commands, miraculous things happen. And the Master is pleaed. For me, this is motivating because I frequently find myself sitting around waiting for God to do something amazing. I'm waiting for Jesus to get up and go pour water into jars so it can become wine, when He has asked me to do the job. Throughout Scripture, God invites people to become part of the miracle- to act in obedience to Him and then watch while amazing things occur.

As you journey in simple obedience, may His power flow through you and lead you into miracles.

Nick

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Storytelling

"That's why I tell stories: to create readiness."

In The Message paraphrase of the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that this is the reason why he speaks in parables so often. According to Jesus, the crowd that comes to hear him preach can not yet discern the message he is preaching because their spirits and hearts are not yet ready. By speaking to them in stories, Jesus is hoping to create a new openness and awareness to spiritual things. What Jesus is saying is that people can't hear the true message because they aren't searching for it. By telling stories that connect everyday experiences with spiritual things, Jesus knows that he can help foster a desire for understanding. When the desire to understand is in place, then the message will be heard.

I find this thought helpful today as I consider how I can tell the world around me about Jesus. So often, I think I need to have some well-thought out apologetic in place in order to convince my friends and neighbors of the truth-claims about Christ. In reality, the Bible would suggest that most people aren't interested in all that because they just aren't ready for it.

What are people ready for? Stories. Stories that connect to the kind of life they live and the experiences they are having. I find this encouraging because I love to tell stories and I find that most people love to listen to them. (Not just to mine- stories have some kind of hidden power! Just try saying, "once upon a time" in a crowd and see how many people turn to listen.) As I tell stories of the simple realities of knowing God in my own life, I too can take part in helping people get ready to hear the message of Jesus.

So, be a story-teller today! And if you are one who is seeking after truth and curious about Jesus, listen to the stories he told.

May Jesus journey with you today in the story of your life.

Nick

Friday, July 06, 2007

And We Wait...

When your wife is 8 months pregnant and expecting any day, you begin to end all of your sentences with the phrase, "unless the baby comes." Any plans we make, any ideas we have for how to spend a day, any attempts at putting something on the calendar all go through the grid of "baby or no baby" scenarios. Our first daughter came a month early and caught us by surprise, so this time we're ready. Almost too ready. We wake up everyday and think, "maybe this is the day!" And we go to bed each night talking about what we'll do the next day, "unless the baby comes."

I can't help but think that waiting for the physical birth of a child is a bit like waiting for spiritual birth or renewal to take place in our life, or in the life of a church. New birth, whether physcial or spiritual, is truly miraculous because it's not something you can force or make happen. (Ok, I know that medically speaking, there are things they can do to make a baby come out, but just go with me on this, ok? Besides, everyone agrees that the best possible scenario is always when the baby comes on its own time.) We can't make our baby come. We can't do anything to cause labor to happen. And believe me, we've tried! We would pay a lot of money for an "Easy" button we could push and have the baby come on our schedule.

But instead, all we can do is provide the right environment in which the birth can take place. My wife eats well, stays active, and gets plenty of rest. We've prepared a nursery, bought baby clothes, and pre-registered at the hospital.

We've been talking as a staff at our church about how we feel like we're on the verge of really great things happening. We feel a bit like we're awaiting a miraculous birth of spiritual awakening and renewal. And yet, we also recognize that we can't make this happen! New birth is always the miraculous working of our heavenly Father, as He opens eyes and softens hearts to respond to Him. For us, we are focused on providing the right environment for spiritual birth to take place. We stay focused in our work. We pray and ask God to have His way. We love people and point them to the Savior. And we wait for spiritual breakthrough, which just like human birth, WILL happen!

Have you hit a point in your life where something new needs to happen? Are you in a sense waiting for God to bring you new life? Know this- you can't force it, or make it happen. But you can provide the right envirnoment in which God can and will work. Stay focused. Keep praying. Keep dreaming big, impossible, God-sized dreams. And wait on Him. He will bring new life, and it will be at just the right time.

Enjoying the journey of waiting on God (and babies),

Nick

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Some things just go together...

In this life, some things just have to go together. Most people would agree that a plain peanut butter sandwich is lacking. It needs something else to complete the picture. At dinner time, rarely do we pass the salt or the pepper alone- they get dished around as a pair. Mornings and coffee. Hot summer days and ice cream. Weddings and a white dress. The list could on with items that that are made complete by the addition of one other.

Around our house lately, the combination has been "sleep" and "pink blanket" for my two year old daughter. At her birth, she was gifted with literally dozens of wonderfully soft baby blankets. But over the last year, one in particular has become her special favorite. If we even attempt to put her down for the night with an imitation blanket, she can sniff it out a mile away. This can become problematic when the pink blanket is smelly and dirty and sitting in the washing machine, while Alyssa cries for her pink blanket. For her, sleep and her blanket are an inseparable pair.

You may know this already, but Jesus calls us to remember such a dynamic combination. When a religious man came up to him and asked, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?", Jesus couldn't help but give two. The ideas were so linked together that Jesus couldn't quote one without tagging on the other. Jesus told him, "to love the Lord your God with all that you have and all that you are," and quickly went on, "and to love people around you as you love yourself."

This passage is reference over and over in churches and gathering of Christ-followers. It's what we base our faith on- loving God and loving others. Yet while we value this combination as a statement, we don't always live it out as a reality. You see, most people are convinced that if they simply grow in their love for God, they are doing alright. But I would contend that it is impossible to grow in our love for God without also growing in our love for people.

We may say, "My relationship with God is as deep as it has ever been!", but if we don't also find ourselves more compassionate and gracious towards other people, than I would question if we were closer to God at all, or merely enjoying religious sentiment and emotion. It is a false notion that we can grow closer to God without also growing closer to other people. Why? Because God is that way, and because God designed us that way. I have often heard people say something to the effect of, "I don't need church or other believers to help me grow in my faith. I am fine on my own." But God in his very nature shows us that growth towards him will always result in growth towards other people.

I'm not saying that the only way we know God is through other people, but I have been reminded that the greatest barometer of my love for God always has been and always will be my love for other people. The person who says in his heart, "I love God" but at the same time refuses to love another person proves that their love for God is selfish, shallow, and artificial.

As you grow close to the heart of the Father, may you find His love being directed through you to other people. Become a conduit of his love as you journey on. Together.

Nick

Friday, June 15, 2007

Cravings

I've always known that my obsession with good coffee held some spiritual significance. Erwin McManus recently confirmed my belief in his book, "Soul Cravings."

"Science is only now discovering the medicinal value of the sacred bean. If all goes well, it will soon be its own food group. I've never been pregnant (my wife volunteered both times), but I do know the power of cravings. Is my relationship to java a problem? No, espresso is a guilty pleasure, and I am grateful for my dealer...um...barista...
There are cravings within me, though, that pull on me like an addiction...
My soul craves, but for what I don't know...
And there I tell you is at least half of my problem. I've tried so many things and done so many things, certain they would satisfy my soul, but they never did."

I identified with this quote, because I know the craving, the restlessness I feel when I deprive my brain of caffeine. I find myself obsessed with fulfilling my desire for a good cup of espresso.

On other days, I know the restlessness that resides in my own soul, and it has nothing to do with coffee. I deprive myself of a real connection to God, and I can feel the longing in a tangible way. But unlike my addiction, er, craving, for coffee, I don't always know where to go to fill up my soul. I can always find a Starbucks around the corner to meet my espresso demands (thanks to their aggressive global marketing), but for some reason my soul gets lost in seeking God. It's as if God isn't interested in flooding the market with his label so that he's available at every corner store and market. It's as if God hides a bit, wanting to be found.

And so I, like McManus says, find myself craving the love and significance that only God can bring, but seeking it everywhere else. It is when I allow my soul to "come home" and rest in God that my craving can finally be satisfied.

"For Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." St. Augustine

When you find yourself craving, may your journey take you to Him.

Nick

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reflections...

I spent some time recently visiting our county jail to do pastoral care with inmates who ask to speak with a minister. Now, before you congratulate me for being servant-minded, you should know that this activity scares me to death. Not because I'm worried that a prisoner will try and hurt me, but because I feel incredibly inadequate and separated from the experiences they are having.

And yet I have a sense of feeling called to do this, and so every month I go and pray that God will give me the words to say. It's an incredible way to build my faith!

The last time I visited, I believe God reminded me of something. I spent several hours sitting in a small 6x6 room, separated from the inmate by a very thick piece of glass, as they sit in their 6x6 room and share their story. As one young man poured out his heart and his need for God (which was very cool in and of itself), I noticed that I could see my reflection in the glass. As the young man would look up at me, not only could I see his face, but my own distinct image staring back at me.

"We are not so different, you and I," I thought to myself. As I saw my reflection, I was prompted to consider how similar I truly am to the person on the other side. Sure, I am free and on the right side of the law, but our hearts our similar. As the prisoner shared his story, I could hear bits and pieces of my own. The only difference was that at certain critical junctures, his story went one direction and mine another. The kind of friends we chose in high school, the jobs we chose to pursue, the way we began spending our free time- where I had gone right, he had gone left.

I was reminded in this that I am here by God's grace. Within everyone single one of us lies the capability to be something we never want to be. I am more and more aware of God's hand on my life and his direction even when I couldn't see him. And this also fills me with compassion for the man on the other side of the glass, who, even though he has become what he never wanted to be, still has incredible potential to be who God is calling him to be.

I hope he finds that person within himself. I pray that God gives me the grace and strength to continue pursuing that in my own life. And I pray that you will, too.

Blessings on your journey-

Nick

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Examen

One of the daily challenges I face in spiritual life is how to discover God and His activity in my everyday routines and experiences. Most of my days are common and ordinary, and yet I expect God's activity to be something spectacular and well, beyond ordinary. I ran across something recently, however, that is a helpful tool to discover God in the ordinary.

While the name may sound intimidating, the practice is really quite easy. Several hundred years ago, a group of monks began practicing a daily ritual they called "The Examen." In this exercise, two simple questions are asked and reflected upon. First, for what have I been most grateful over the last 24 hours? Where did I experience the most life? And second, for what I am least grateful? What diminished life over the last 24 hours? As a person reflects on these events, the goal is to bring them before God and allow Him to direct, lead, and speak into these situations.

I would encourage you to try it! I have been discovering that even though my days have been "typical", I can still readily identify these two areas of life-giving and life-draining. In both, I can see the hand of God at work. For the first I am thankful, and for the second, I find reasons to really pray.

May God speak words of life into you as you attempt the Examen.

Continue your journey with hope.

Nick

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Just a PB&J

I've never been a big fan personally of the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but with a two- year old in the house, we seem to eat them quite often. This simple meal has sustained toddlers, teens, and adults through many days over the last number of decades. You've got your protein, your grains, and your fruit (assuming the jelly of choice actually has some real fruit in it!). Add a glass of milk and you've covered the basic food groups. Nothing flashy. Nothing elaborate or expensive. But filling, cheap, and usually quite available.

I've been reflecting lately on simple meals. In the gospels, Jesus takes a simple meal, blesses it, and feeds the five thousand. This beloved story has been used countless times in churches to remind us all of how God can use even the smallest gift we have to give. I know this story well. I've preached on it several times. But a truth in the story hit home for me in a new way this week.

During a time of reflection, I was led to consider the size and simplicity of the young boy's meal of five small loaves of bread and two fish. (Perhaps the PB&J of his day?) I can only guess that as the disciples went around the crowd asking if anyone had food, the young boy was not the only person out of 5,000 who had thought to bring a lunch. Surely there were others who looked at their meal and decided not to share. For some reason, however, the boy looked at what he had and decided that if the Master really wanted it, that was reason enough to give it. He gave, God blessed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here's where my heart was stirred. How often have I been one in the crowd who took a look at his lunch and decided that it was too small or insignificant to bother giving it to God? Oh sure, I can think of times where I have done simple things in the hopes that God would bless it. But far more often, I save myself and my energy for those "big" moments of contribution. Once I have a great big grocery cart of food, then God can really use that. Once I have something really great to offer God, I will give it gladly. And yet I can't help but wonder; how often is the Master asking me to put my PB&J into His hands to be used? A short note of encouragement, a few minutes to lend a helping hand, a brief phone call to encourage, a simple act of kindness- are these the things that could feed the crowd today?

May you be encouraged today to offer all that you have to the Master, be it something grand and wonderful, or simple and common. God is in the habit of using the smallest gestures for the greatest impact, so that in the end everyone will know that the real gift was God's blessing, and not the person who gave it.

Journey in His grace this day.

Nick

Friday, May 11, 2007

Yeah, I've Got Nothing...

I remember awhile back watching a video blog of a pastor who was launching a new website. He would stare into the camera for several seconds, and then begin what sounded like a profound statement. After only a few words, however, he would stop and continue to stare into the camera while considering his next words. This went on for about two minutes, and at the end he finally looks straight into the camera and says, "Yeah, I got nothing," as he reaches over and switches off the camera.

I remember laughing at this poor schmuck who had all the desire in the world to say something of significance, but couldn't think of a single thing. Ironically, I have found myself in that same place as I've considered blogging over the last few weeks. I sit to write and ponder deep things, and in the end I walk away with the same sentiment, "Yeah, I got nothing."

I guess you could say I've been facing a little bit of a dry time in my spiritual walk. Before you gasp in shock that a pastor would say such a thing, try to keep in mind that we are all human. And as human beings on this journey of discovery, we will all encounter times where we feel that God has gone strangely silent. We will all run into periods of life where we wonder if our souls have fallen asleep. I'm guessing you've been there. Maybe you are there. Sometimes spiritual dryness can be the result of overly busy lives, crowded work schedules, or unconfessed sins. At other times, however, we simply arrive at a place where we feel spiritually alone and uninspired.

The psalmist and king David ran into this quite a bit, evidently, which is encouraging to me because he was called a man after God's own heart. And yet he wrote,
"O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I need you most?" Psalm 10:1
"O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?" Psalm 13:1
"My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant?" Psalm 22:1
The list could go on and on. A man who pursued the heart of God better than any of us, and here he is asking the same questions I've heard myself and many others ask.

Maybe there's something to this. Maybe the very fact that we feel dry at times is a good sign- perhaps it means we've experienced enough of the life-giving presence of God that we know what it is like to be without. I'm not saying this makes a spiritual desert ok, but perhaps we can be encouraged to know we've become connected enough to God to realize when we've grown more distant.

So, from one seeker to another, here's some ideas for spiritual dryness. None of these are miracle cure kind of ideas, but this is what I've gleamed during this time from my own experience and the encouragement of others:

1)Keep at it. If your spiritual routines no longer feel meaningful, don't immediately get rid of them. Some of the greatest growth and refreshment will come through the perseverance.
2)Change it. At the same time, varying your routines and spiritual pursuits can bring renewed vision to your soul. Take a hike, sing in the shower, read a new author, visit a museum- try something new and search for God's presence there.
3)Remember. I believe the Bible calls us to remembering the work of God in our lives and the history of His church for times such as these.
4)Be a Blessing. Spiritual dryness always makes me more concerned with me. Spiritual vitality usually comes by caring more about others.

Keep seeking Him on this wonderful journey.

Nick

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This is the Truth Video

Hello! Several of you asked about the video clip shown in this weekend's message.

It is a powerful reminder to me of how different our world can be when we learn to think differently. Sometimes as countries, groups, or individuals, we get used to hearing the same words about ourselves over and over until we believe them to be true. Too often, these "truths" are only negative language that we have learned to accept as reality. The exciting TRUTH is that God has great plans for each and every one of us. As we are reminded in Romans 12:2, 'let God transform you by changing the way you think!' One of the greatest keys to knowing and following God is learning to think and see life as He does. Is it time to turn your thinking upside-down?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFz5jbUfJbk

This is the truth:
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13, 14

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" Matthew 6:25, 26

Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits-- who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. Psalm 103:1-5

This is the truth! May you experience God's blessing as you journey on.

Nick

Friday, April 13, 2007

Distinguishing Between Sounds

The other day, I had the opportunity to take a run/hike in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge near Multnomah Falls. As any of you know who have visited the area, this is beautiful country. The rush of the falls, the lush green forest, and the views up and down the river are all awe inspiring. In my mind, though, some of the best views are discovered beyond the falls themselves. A steep climb to the top of the falls will take you to higher country, where the rushing stream cascades over several more waterfalls. These picturesque scenes were the perfect backdrop for a cool morning outing.

I had a unique experience on the way back. When you come down from the high country, there is a small ridge you must cross to descend back into the Columbia River Gorge. As I came to the top of this ridge, the sound of the rushing stream behind me gave way to a new sound- the rush of the freeway below in the river gorge. It struck me how similar these two sounds are. If you weren't paying much attention, the steady buzz of the river and the highway would be almost indistinguishable. In my mind, the natural beauty of God's creation was being mimicked by what man had made.

It came to me that this is a frequent occurrence in our lives. We live in a world that offers us this constant balance of what God has created and what man has made. And if we're not paying attention, it is easy to exchange one for the other. God in his wisdom and goodness has given us the gifts of marriage and sexual intimacy. Man has given us exploitative images and one night stands. God invites us to experience purpose and meaning through knowing Him. Man offers the illusion of purpose through accumulation and achievement. God offers rest and peace through reflection and stillness. Man has promised relaxation with bigger boats or better spa treatments.

And in every case, what man has made is usually easier to come by and more readily available. The rush of the freeway is available just a few miles from my front door. In order to hear the rush of a mountain stream, I have to go there. It takes effort to leave the freeway and climb to the top of the falls. And yet that experience, of entering in to God's creation, was more satisfying by far.

So, are we listening? Are we learning to distinguish between the noise of culture around us and the gentle music of God's grace around us, made evident in His creation? If you're having a hard time recognizing the difference between the real life God offers, and the mimicking of man, then go to the source. Discover again the richness of God's plan in His Word. Sit in stillness and enjoy the beauty of His creation. Reflect on the joy you find in your heart when you trust in Him above all things. And don't be afraid to leave the buzzing freeway to sit beside the rushing stream.

Journey in the grace of a good Creator.

Nick

Friday, March 30, 2007

Finding a Still Center

Many persons, ordained or not, live in a fairly constant state of noise, with their unresolved past and the uncertain present breaking in on them. They lack a still center and it is only for such a quiet point that we can listen attentively. -Urban T. Holmes, Spirituality for Ministry

I've been reflecting quite a bit today on the implications of this quote. I don't know about you, but I know that I live a life that is filled with "the uncertain present." Our world is moving so fast and so much is happening around us that it can be difficult to get our bearings and know who we are in the middle of it all. For me, my life is wrapped up in many things- being a seminary student, a track coach, a pastor, a loving husband and father, a friend- the list could go on. In the midst of all these activities and roles that I play, I wonder about who I really am. Am I by nature a coach? Is that mentoring role where I find my still center? This seems too peripheral a response. Am I by nature a husband and a father? While these are certainly more noble pursuits in my mind, they still come short of defining that still center.

For me, and for so many of you on this journey, that still center is found in one place only- being a loved son or daughter who lives under the grace of an Almighty God. As I reflect on that role, I realize that it demands little from me, in the sense that I cannot perform or work hard enough to belong to God. In another sense, however, I realize that this role requires everything of me. In order to truly live in the still center with God, I must give myself completely. If I am only part His, and part everyone else's, then I fail to discover that center all together.

Today, I want to live as a centered person- that in the midst of all that happens around me, I know who I am at my core. For it is from this still and uncompromising center that we are able to truly live.

May you experience more of God today as you journey on.

Nick

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Confluence of Life

Isn't that a great word? I actually had to look it up to make sure I'm using it right, but confluence means "a flowing together or gathering of events." I'm amazed at the number of times in my life it feels like there is a "confluence of events" where different pieces of the day come together in a remarkable way. I find that this is often how God speaks to me- in the random components of life that suddenly don't seem so random. Does this ever happen for you?

I've been reflecting lately on a podcast I picked up from Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, MI. The pastor, Rob Bell, was giving a talk from the book of Exodus and he spent some time highlighting the way in which God fed the people- bread from heaven. This bread would come down every day, and the people were to gather as much as they needed for that day. I find it humorous how the NLT version of the Bible describes their next activity: "But, of course, some of them didn't listen and kept some of it until morning." The Israelites figured that they should get as much as they could so they could live off of it for awhile. The next morning, however, they found that their heavenly bread had become less than heavenly; maggot-ridden and rotten smelling. Yuck!

Here's the confluence of life. The next morning, I was pulling out my journal, and rather shamefully discovered that it had been quite some time since I had last written. I found this a little frightening because my journal is a good barometer of how often I have stopped to really think deeply- to consider who God is and what he's doing in my life. And so I sat there and wondered about the effects of my rushed life over the last few weeks and my unwillingness to stop and be with God. Suddenly, the message from the podcast came to my mind. God had promised to give his people what they needed for each day, but not enough for the next. I realized that I was living like my heavenly bread would last. I had gathered well one day, and then attempted to live off of that sustenance for the rest of the week. As I reflected on a week that had felt frantic and where I had felt heavily burdened, I wondered if I hadn't suffered the effects of "maggot-ridden bread."

In some way, we may find it frustrating that God only promises to give us enough for each day. Wouldn't it be easier if he was like a holy gas station, where we fueled up and then ran on that gas for several weeks or even a month? But then we'd miss the point. You see, in the desert, God wasn't just trying to feed the Israelites. He was trying to teach them to depend on Him for everything- every day and in every way. Throughout the Bible, He's a day by day kind of God. We're told not to worry about tomorrow, for today has enough trouble. We're told that God's love and mercy is new every morning. We're told not to make promises about what will happen tomorrow, because we've only been given today. Essentially, God is calling people to know Him in this day, and then tomorrow do it all over again.

I wonder how often we get so busy that we try to live off of day-old maggot-ridden bread, and as a result our souls face a slow death. What would it be like to become a "daily collector" of heavenly bread? What would it be like to go to God every day not out of debt, duty, or guilt, but out of a profound sense of our need, a profound sense of our hunger for Him?

May these questions cause you to stop and reflect on your journey.

Nick

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Power to Remember

I just thought I'd share an insight from my reading this morning.

When we reflect on the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, it's easy to be critical of how fickle and rebellious they were towards God. From our perspective, we might say that their major problem was a heart attitude; deep down they just didn't want to follow or obey God. Interestingly enough, the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, give us a different picture of the malady they faced. Psalm 78:10 gives a typical description of how Israel went astray,

They did not keep God's covenant,
and they refused to live by His law.

That sounds plain and simple enough. But the next verse is revealing, as it seems to answer the question, "Why?" Why did they not keep His covenant?

They FORGOT what he had done. (vs. 11)

And again a few verses later,

They forgot about His power...They forgot about His miraculous signs. (vs. 42, 43)

The Israelites plunged themselves into sin and rebellion primarily because they forgot about God! They forgot about His presence, His power, and His provision for them. As their vision of the Divine faded from view, their eyes turned to other things, and soon they were lost in the worship of other so called gods.

But in this passage comes one glimmer of hope; one flash of hope that they might get things right:

Then they REMEMBERED that God was their rock,
that their redeemer was the Most High. (vs. 35)

Unfortunately this awakening was short lived and the very next verse says they only honored God with their words and so fell back into rebellion. But I don't want to miss the point here. Could it be that one of the most spiritual things we do is simply to REMEMBER? To remember God's presence and think about him all through the day?

C.S. Lewis seemed to agree. In his book Letters to Malcom: Cheifly on Prayer, he said, "The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake." What Lewis was saying in this brief quote was that we don't find God by escaping from life and world around us, but by recognizing God within life and the world around us. As we are constantly aware of Him even in our routine and our common world, we come to know Him in a deeper, more profound way.

So now, may you be awake today; awake and aware to God who surrounds you at all times.

Remember Him on your journey.

Nick

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Secret of Following

Can you ever have too many good quotes? I for one don't think so! I do apologize for any of you who read this and grow tired of so many quotes. But here's one I feel is worth pondering a bit.

"Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, 'Pray for me that I not loosen my grip on the hands of Jesus even under the guise of ministering to the poor.' That is our first task; to grip the hands of Jesus with such tenacity that we are obliged to follow His lead, to seek first His Kingdom." Richard J. Foster, Freedom from Simplicity

What a great thought! I know that many of us are highly interested in what it takes to be fully-devoted Christ-follower. We're not interested in half-hearted, mediocre, luke-warm commitment. We want to give our all for Jesus just as He has given his all for us. So how do we do that? How, as temporal, simple human beings do we completely devote ourselves to following Someone who is Wholly Other? As Foster states, we grab hold of him with such fierceness of resolve that we can't help but go where He is leading! As we wrap our lives around Jesus and make it our highest aim to know and serve Him, we can't help but follow in His steps.

May He lead you in your journey today.

Nick

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Heart of Evangelism

I've been reflecting on this reading lately as it relates to the Christ-follower's call to make His name known to all people:

"True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worldling pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship...We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ."
-Albert Edward Day, Discipline and Discovery

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the "going" nature of faith that we can supplant true spirituality with mere activity. We're so concerned with what we're doing on behalf of Christ that we lose sight of who we are in Christ. And this is a crucial mistake, because true evangelism is the overflow of our sincere devotion to Christ. If you had to pick between spending time in prayer and spending time in "evangelism" (as if it were an activity we could segregate into time allotment) I would say pick prayer every time. For if our heart is developed in Christ through prayer, we can't help but become evangelists.

In Eugene Peterson's The Message paraphrase of the Bible, he translates I Peter 2:11 to say, "Don't indulge your ego at the expense of your soul." At first glance, we might not think of this verse as having much to do with evangelism at all. But in this letter, the apostle Peter goes on in the very next sentence to say that when we live in this manner of holiness- where our soul-care is of utmost importance- the result is that the ungodly will see Christ in us! We can never sacrifice eternal and unchangeable realities for the fleeting moments of pride and self-gratification so prevalent around us. What seems appealing and pleasant to us now may be seen as a great abomination when we see it from eternity's viewpoint. Have in mind the things of God- things that will last, that will grow and enrich your soul- and not the things of man, things that we grasp and strive for but that leave us empty. All the praise in the world and the highest pulpit to preach from won't mean a thing if it's "us" and ego-driven. Our souls are in His hands, and so we trust Him with all that we have.

And when we live in this way, we can't help but proclaim the truth of our Savior to people everywhere, both in word and in deed.

May your soul be His alone as you continue this journey.

Nick

Friday, February 16, 2007

The End of All Things

Ok, so it's not the end of all things, but every time I come to the end of this two week experience, it feels like a major accomplishment! It's a bit odd to feel "filled up" spiritually and mentally, and yet be drained physically and emotionally. I hope that you have enjoyed walking this journey with me and I hope that in some way, even if it is small, you have been challenged in your thinking by something you've read. I'll keep posting after this- so keep checking back in! It probably won't continue to be daily, but I'll shoot for a couple times a week.

So, what will I take from this experience? One thing I always take from this is the grandness of God and my relative smallness. Growing up in a safe, evangelical context, I have learned to see and speak about God in ways that make sense to me. When I come here and am challenged by different theologies and different ways of seeing God, I feel like God grows in size. Now, we know that it is impossible for God to grow; but in my perception of Him He has grown larger. He is more than I know and more than I can understand. This continues to lead me to a place of humility and dependence. Life can be so "me-centered", so the larger God becomes in our mind, the more foolish this way of living appears. He is all, and so our best decision is always to give Him our all.

I am also impressed again with the value of others. As the greatness of God helps move us beyond "me-centeredness", so does a recognition of the need we have to interact with others. I am blessed here, and back home, to be part of a great community. In this intensive time out here, we have no choice but to lean into relationships and learn from one another. Honestly, when I return home, I realize that I have gained as much or more from interacting with my peers as I have from the classes themselves. I would say that the classes give us a context from which to build community. In some ways, I think this is a little how church services work. The church service is not the end all and be all of our faith. Those that treat it as such usually end up with weak and poorly developed spiritual lives. The gathering of believers, however, gives us a context out of which we build community and meaningful relationships, both with God and one another. I don't know how connected you are to others in your world, but I hope you are becoming more and more convinced of our need for others; our need to have people who pour life into us, challenge us, and in turn are challenged by us. It is this "healthy friction" that causes us to grow and become less like fallen beings damaged by sin and more like men and women created in His image to honor Him with our life.

May you know the love of God and the partnership of others as you journey in this life,

Nick

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rising From Our Knees

Well, only one more day of class left to go! I think my brain is full and I may be too tired to say anything profound, but I'll still leave a thought from today. (I realize that after hearing this, some of you may feel that perhaps I have been "tired" my whole life! Just trying to make a joke at my own expense. Ha, ha.)

We've started each day of class by looking at a leadership example from the Bible. Today, we began by looking at Nehemiah chapter one out of the Old Testament. In this book, Nehemiah has just received some depressing news from Jerusalem- the people were in distress, the wall was torn down, and the gates had been burned. As a Jew living in exile, this dire message from his homeland broke Nehemiah's heart. The Bible tells us that he sat and wept; praying, fasting, and mourning for his people. The next many verses are his cry to God, asking Him to remember the people of Israel.

For many people, the story would end here. Sad news is received, mourning follows, and life goes on. But not for Nehemiah. The last thought of his prayer is, "Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me." Nehemiah has grieved, but now he is ready to go. The passion he feels for his people has stirred him into action, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to see the fortunes of Israel change.

One more thing- this chapter ends with a seemingly "cast-off" sentence, "In those days, I (Nehemiah) was the king's cup-bearer." The significance of this statement may be lost on modern ears, but in Nehemiah's day this role was one of great importance. He was one of few people who had unlimited, daily access to the king. Nehemiah goes on to leverage this position to ask for help on behalf of Israel. King Artaxerxes ends up commissioning Nehemiah and a group of Jews to return home to re-build the wall and refashion the gates, a task which they would complete 12 years later.

Notice what has transpired here: Nehemiah receives bad news and we see that he has great passion. Then we learn he is a right-hand man of the king, someone powerful enough to help. And finally, in chapter two we learn that God's hand is on Nehemiah and God blesses him to go and accomplish this task. Put plainly, a need arises which matches up with Nehemiah's passion, and he in turn uses his position to go forth and accomplish God's purposes.

I wonder how many of us would stay in our "prayer room," content to mourn the fortunes of those we love but not willing to do much about it. But be assured of this- there is a place in your life where your passion and position are lining up with God's purpose, and as they do- be ready! He's going to use you! In fact, the reality is that for many of us, that opportunity may already exist! The question is, will we have the courage to move from a place of prayer into action? When we do this, we are accepting the fact that often times, we may be a part of the answer to our own prayers. As we pray, God says, "I'm so glad this has caught your heart- now go, I want to use you to answer your prayers and mine." Is this too much for us? I don't think so. Why else would God grant us passion, and places of influence or "power"? He wants to use us!

Lift your life to Him and offer Him all that you have. And don't be surprised if He takes you up on that offer!

Journey on-

Nick

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Our Greatest Need

This morning our professor made an interesting statement. He asked the class, "Do you know the answer to every community problem?" We all stared at him a little dumb-founded. Could any one answer possibly suffice? The problems that communities face are so diverse and complex, how could any such simplistic solution exist? But the confidence of our professor was unmistakable. He believed in the answer he was about to give. Seeing no hands raised, he continued by answering his own question. "The answer to every community problem is simply more leaders."

What do you think of that? I know that at first I really had a check in my mind. But the more I think it through, the more it makes sense. This isn't to say that money, systems, resources, etc, are of no importance. It simply means that without leadership, all the money and resources in the world won't solve the problems. Some pundits would interject at this point that governments, schools, and various businesses have proven this! When leaders get involved however, real change becomes possible. And when I say leaders, I don't have in mind only those who are naturally born to lead. What I have in mind is people who care enough about a situation or purpose that they rise to the occasion and take an active role in working for a solution.

If this statement is true, that the answer to every community problem is more leaders, then this is a very challenging thought. You see, most of us would rather throw money at a problem. Or hire an expert to take care of it for us. Or merely go somewhere else where the problem doesn't exist. If the answer is more leaders, more people that will say, "follow me as we give ourselves to this cause", then we are drawn personally into action. This kind of self-sacrifice for the good of a group can be the hardest thing in the world, but it can also be the greatest.

I know that for many people, just this idea about leadership is bothersome. Leading is a scary concept! By and large, most of us don't think we have what it takes to lead. And by and large- I say you're wrong! God has crafted and created each and every one of us with talents, traits, and personalities that uniquely qualify us to lead in a way that no one else can. Do we lack knowledge to lead? We can be trained! Do we lack courage to lead? We can find support from God and others! Do we lack opportunity to lead? God can and will lead us to the place.

As I look at the local church- not just ours but churches all over the place- I can resonate with Dr. McCloskey's words. The answer to every church problem is simply more leaders; more men and women who are captured by God's grander vision of life and have given themselves to him. When our willingness to lead aligns with God's passion to use us, nothing can stop us! Search within yourself- you know the power to influence others is within you. And it's not just you; it's what God has made you to be. Will you lead? Will you wrestle with what this means until God puts an answer on your heart?

As you journey in His grace, may you turn around to find that others have followed your lead.

Nick

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why Do We Worship?

If you had asked me this question in the past, and by worship I am here referring to the kind of corporate worship we do when believers (and unbelievers, too) gather together, I would have responded that we worship in order to draw near to God. The music we play and sing on a Sunday morning (or Saturday night, or Sunday night, or whenever) is meant to usher us into the presence of God so we can experience more of Him.

Recently, God has been changing my mind on this. Today at a chapel service, we sang the song, "Beautiful One", and it contains the line, "Beautiful One, my soul must sing." Now, I will grant you that this line is not taken directly from Scripture, but at the same time I would suggest that it conveys an idea which is deeply rooted in Scripture. The idea being brought forth in this statement is that we first contemplate and enjoy the beauty of a risen Christ, and as we behold him in his majesty, splendor, and humility, then we cannot help but sing. We must worship. Worship in this case becomes our joyful response to what we have already experienced.

This might sound like a minor distinction, but let me explain why I think this is such a tremendous change. When we approach worship as the means of coming to God, then our personal worship is dependent on the music; we need music done in a way that agrees with us and helps us feel "in the mood" to worship. If the musical style or selections of that particular morning are contrary to our desires, our worship is hindered. We can't worship because the music doesn't "work" for us. We make comments like, "How can I focus on God when I'm so distracted by the music?" When we say this, we show that we need the right music in order to get to God.

On the other hand, if worship is our response to the goodness and beauty that we see in Christ and in God the Father, then we can worship regardless of the style of the music. This morning in chapel, the service was highly liturgical. I am not from this kind of religious background and I would typically be very critical and skeptical of a seemingly contrived and overly-structured worship service. For some reason, however, God gave me grace this morning. I arrived in a spirit of gratefulness to Him, looking to respond to that in worship. And by no means am I looking to congratulate myself in this, but I want to confess that the worship was moving; not because the presentation or leader was so overwhelming, but because God had freedom to move in my heart. When worship is our response to God rather than our means of approaching God, we can respond by using any kind of music! Whether it's a hymn, a chorus, a responsive reading, or even meditative prayer, all of these can be meaningful expressions to God.

So if you find yourself struggling to worship because this instrument is too loud or that voice is too quiet, turn your mind away from the presentation for a moment. Allow your heart and mind to fixate completely on Christ and his life given for you. See him there on the cross out of His love for you until your soul and spirit begin to respond; until you say, "My soul must sing!" And as you return to the corporate worship occurring around you, begin to respond to God out of this vision. I think you'll be amazed at how worship comes alive- even if you don't like the song!

"Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you. Then you will sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts. And you will alwyas give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:18-20)

May your journey be filled with worship to the living Christ,

Nick

Monday, February 12, 2007

That's What He Said...

Another week of class has begun! The weekend was a great time to catch up on some sleep and downtown, but went by far too fast. My class for this week is called "Transformational Leadership." This is a type of leadership marked by a desire to see real and lasting change happen in the hearts of both followers and leaders. We'll spend a lot of time over the next few days discussing the true nature of leadership, how change occurs, and how we can grow in leadership.

I thought as a way of introducing this week, I'd provide some of the quotes that were meaningful today. Read on! For no matter what we may call it (coach, pastor, friend, parent, boss, mentor, etc.) we are ALL involved in leadership on some level.

In regards to what kind of change is transformational: "It is a change in the core trajectory of my life. It is deep, personal, and lasting." (Dr. McCloskey- professor)

Speaking of our ability to change: "A person's openness to transformation is more a function of their emotional maturity than of leadership style." (McCloskey) What this says to me is that willingness to go through deep change is a sign of maturity- not just a character trait.

About servant leadership: "There is not much traffic on the extra mile." (unknown) Will you and I be willing to go that far?

How people handle change: "All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move." -(Benjamin Franklin)

A quote about being teachable: "An intelligent mind is simple and teachable, it sees its faults and allows itself to be guided. A mind that is dull and narrow never sees its faults even when shown them. It is always pleased with itself and never learns to do right." (Teresa of Avila)

About the power of being a learner: "In times of change, the learner will inherit the earth, while the learned are beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exists." (unknown)

The need for humility in the leader: "As small as my slice of knowledge is, there is a lot that I don't know, but even more that I don't know I don't know!" (McCloskey)

Why transformational leadership is needed more than dynamic, charismatic personalities: "Charisma may carry the day, but the transformational leader will carry the decade." (McCloskey)

A reminder on how we can all develop as leaders: "The process of becoming a leader is no different that the process of becoming a fully integrated, healthy human being." Warren Bennis

I hope some of these will stimulate your thinking. May we all offer ourselves to God and allow him to direct us, and use us, as He pleases.

May your journey be filled with peace.

Nick

Friday, February 09, 2007

Mushy Brains

Well, class is finally over for the weekend. After 5 intense days of systematic theology, I think I can safely say that my brain has been overloaded and turned to mush. It will take the weekend at least to return to a normal state of functioning! I hope that you've enjoyed this journey through theology and all of the questions it brings up and asks us to consider. Honestly, I just hope a few people have actually read this! If you are reading, I encourage you to participate by leaving a comment or question. In this way, we can dialogue back and forth and learn from one another.

I'll close the week with the idea that closed our class time. The main point is that every theology and Christian system is influenced by the context and culture in which it is presented. Because theology and terminology will differ from culture to culture, you have to decide how you will approach your individual culture. We looked at a chart with the far left hand side being "liberal and inclusive" and the far right hand side being "conservative and exclusive." On the one extreme, culture is viewed as completely good and healthy. In this view, the gospel is merely brought forward as a way to enhance an already meaningful way of life. On the other extreme, culture is seen as being evil and corrupt. In such a case, the gospel is taken to people in order to rescue them out of evil and bring them safely into a new culture.

By and large, Christianity in America has camped out on the far right- viewing society and culture as the fallen by-product of fallen humanity, and so we establish fort-like churches where we can shelter and protect people who are set free. I think there is something to be said for this idea, but by and large we have so sheltered ourselves within our own "holy" culture that the message just can't get out. The world passes by in front of us- within easy reach but out of touch to a church that no longer speaks their language. Now don't get me wrong- I also think it's a mistake to treat culture with arms wide open and unquestioningly accept all that it has to offer. But for those who seek to follow Christ, we need to move towards a greater degree of syncretism (harmony)with our society. Not to the level that the gospel is watered down or even worse changed, but to the level that we speak intelligently with people who have little or no knowledge of a Biblical worldview. To put it in the words of one author, "we need to start sitting in the smoking section." Ok, so most places have out-lawed smoking in public places, but you get the drift. Theology, doctrine, and apologetics are all wonderful and good, but if we can't speak the language of our culture, these ideas will never be heard by thsoe who could benefit from them most.

How do we do this? In the most simple of ways. Getting to know our neighbors. Taking in a community play. Hanging out at Starbucks past our bedtime. Watching a movie outside of our generational or genre preferences. Reading a book or buying a CD by a non-Christian author. In no way should these activities take the place of our spiritual disciplines, but being intentional to add them to our life can help us be relevant to the world around us.

Just my thoughts. Do you agree?

Enjoy the journey.

Nick

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Free Will Theology?

Today in our theology class we had a rather lengthy discussion about a new brand of theology known as Free-will theology, or open theism. For those who many not be familiar with this term, let me do my best to explain. Keep in mind that I myself am just a student, so this will be pretty simplistic. Open theism basically says that God is present with us in time but does not know the future. Now, because God knows us better than we know ourselves and because he knows all things, he can predict with a high degree of accuracy what will happen, but in truth the future is impossible to know. Because God does not know the future, this gives us true free will. The open theist's contention is that if God knows what I am going to do before I do it, then I am not truly free. This free-will theology isn't challenging God's ability to know all things- they just claim that it is impossible for anyone, including God, to know what will happen next because that is based on humans freely choosing to create that future.

Ok, for many that probably sounded a lot like mumbo-jumbo and reminds you of why you never went to seminary, but here's the deal. For my part, I believe that just because God knows what I will do tomorrow, the next day, or in 2022, that doesn't limit my free will to do that. It just means that God can see the scope of my life and is most capable of guiding and directing me because he knows me from start to finish. The heart of the matter for me, however, has nothing to do with these attempts to define God. We can get so caught up in trying to explain and rationalize what we don't know about God that we lose sight of what we do know.

What do I know? I know that God knows me better than I know myself. "O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know what I am going to say even before I say it."

I know that God made me on purpose and crafted me according to his design. "You made all the delicate parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb. You saw me before I was born. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed."

I know that God sees me and is with me wherever I go. "You both precede and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. I can never get away from your presence. If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I go down to the place of the dead, you are there, too."

I know that God guides and directs me so that I can follow Him. "You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am. "

And I know that God in his infinite goodness and loved has turned his mind towards me. "How precious are your thoughts about me, O God! They are innumerable. I can't even count them...when I wake up in the morning, you are still with me!" (all references- Psalm 139, NLT)

It can stretch our mind and develop our understanding to try and comprehend God in all His fullness. But the heart of our faith is in what God has already revealed to us. Rest in His Word, and remember that the Word became flesh, lived among us, and gave His life for us that we might know Him who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Journey in His grip.

Nick

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Can God Tell Time?

Well, today's class was probably the kind that only a student of theology could enjoy. We had a two-hour plus discussion about the relation of God to time. Did God create time? Was time just the natural consequence of God creating finite matter? Did humanity in essence begin time when we begin marking off the days? Is God present with us in time, or does he see all of history, and all of the future, from one "above all" position? You might think that these kind of discussions are meaningless (and I'll admit that on some levels they might be!) but when you work out the implications of each question, you begin to realize these are significant matters.

Which brings you to a scary place. In theology, you are studying a subject matter which by nature you have to admit you can never truly comprehend or describe. In most other "ologies", the student sets about on a quest to master the topic. Geology is to discover everything there is to know about the earth, and most would agree that we have the human capability to explain or master our discoveries. With the study of God, however, we have to acknowledge up front that our understanding and ability can only take us so far. At some point, whether the topic is time, predestination, or free will, the student has to say, "I'm not sure. This is what the Bible says, this is what the Spirit has led me to believe, and the rest I'm just leaving in God's hands!"

Remarkable, isn't it, how much that sounds like faith itself? We seek to know God and follow him, but we admit from the beginning that complete knowledge of God and the ability to completely follow him is well beyond us. So, as earnest students, we can also conclude, "This is what the Bible says, this is how the Spirit has led me, and the rest is in His hands!" It's oddly comforting to worship a God that is beyond our comprehension. If we could comprehend him, we would try to control Him or bend Him to our purposes. As we grasp his infinite qualities and immeasurable traits, we can't help but put ourselves in His hands. Because we can't comprehend Him, we are left in a position where we must trust him. And that is worship- willingly placing our hopes, dreams, and very lives in the hands of a Master, Creator and Lord that will always be beyond our ability to fully know.

But that doesn't stop us from trying! And if we keep it in perspective, I believe there is something very healthy in that pursuit. In our quest, we seek not to conquer, master, and change, but to be conquered by His love, mastered by His grace, and changed by His Spirit.

Journey on, my friends.

Nick

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

And Now It's Snowing, Too!

Well, as the weather outside stays cold, the conversation inside has heated up. Today in theology, we had some lively debate about Mark 10 and the way we are to interpret Jesus' words about the rich and the camel. (Go look at Mark 10:17 and following if you're confused!) What impressed me was the way in which the class was able to enter into debate, bringing strong personal opinions, and yet able to listen well and gain understanding from opposing points. Sometimes in our pursuit of God, we can become so attached to certain ways of viewing God and the Bible that we close ourselves off from good conversation! Are we guilty of only listening to people who think like we do, or are we content enough in our faith that we can allow ourselves to be stretched and challenged? Churches on occasion act like they've cornered the market on truth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic. Individual believers act the same way, and look down their noses as people with "inferior" versions of faith.

What I'm challenged by today is lets learn to really talk. Let's learn to challenge others in their beliefs and allow ours to be challenged as well. Don't get me wrong here- we've got to have some "lines in the sand" that we are unwilling to cross. But in so many other areas of faith, we would grow a great deal if we were willing to honestly consider different ways of looking at and interpreting the Bible. The truth is that the Bible tells us a story in a variety of methods, and we usually approach it looking for a book of rules and principles. As we listen to a variety of interpretations of God's story, however, we can gain a deeper understanding of what God is revealing to us in His word. So enjoy the richness and the depth of God's story, His word, and then enter into healthy dialogue, even debate, yes even arguments, about what God is saying. These conversations will give new life to your faith!

Stay on the journey.

Nick

Monday, February 05, 2007

16 Below Zero Is Cold

As the airplane began to make its descent into Minneapolis/St. Paul, I was awakened by the voice of the pilot informing us that we were preparing to land. I was in a pretty groggy state by this time, but was aware enough to hear the pilot announce that it was 5:30 AM local time- only 3:30 AM back home. Normally, I would have been distressed by this early hour had not the second announcement made me forget completely about the time. In a rather matter of fact tone, the pilot continued to inform us about local conditions, stating rather dryly that the local weather was -16. I laughed a bit and turned to my seat neighbor; "Wow, I must be tired," I said, "I could swear the pilot just said it's -16." When she didn't laugh, I realized that the pilot was being serious. My next thought was to inform the stewardess that I had changed my mind- I would not be de-planing in Minneapolis after all! My plan was to sit resolutely in seat 16F until the aircraft landed somewhere with temperatures more suitable for life to occur. As you may have guessed, this kind of plan doesn't go over real well with the airlines, and so I begrudgingly grabbed my bag and braced myself for the arctic chill that was about to greet me.

The weather here my not be to my liking, but it is good to immerse myself in studies and to consider what God wants to teach me. This week's class is a venture into the world of theology, the study of God. And I can't help but think about the similarities between this kind of study and my attitude towards the weather today. Sometimes we are so willing to stay simple and basic in our understanding of God that we are like a person who would rather stay on the airplane than venture into the cold. But the irony is that no one was made to live in the cozy confines of an aircraft hull. These flying vessels are a means to take us somewhere- to take us places where the journey can begin. If we stay on the plane, we may keep warm, but we miss out on the grander adventure outside the doors.

Sometimes I hear people talk about "having faith like a child" in a way that Jesus never intended. Jesus' intention was that we come to him in simple obedience to follow wherever he leads. We think it means we can stay elementary in our understanding of God and leave the hard work of more mature Godly wisdom to others. But if there's anything the pursuit of theology is teaching me, it's that God is much bigger, much grander, and much more dangerous than we realize. When we get a glimpse of this, it can be a bit frightening and leave us wanting to stay "safe on the plane." But God is calling us to step out of what might be a childish understanding of Him in order that we discover him more and more in His "holy otherness."

God never intended to make us safe or comfortable. He invites us on the ultimate adventure of following Him; a Being who is dangerous, majestic, and awesome beyond all human understanding.

Button up your coat and step out. God is waiting- journey on!

Nick

Friday, February 02, 2007

Praying Too Hard?

I ran across this quote in my reading this morning and thought I would share it. It speaks to our tendency to approach God thinking we need to "try harder" in order to love Him and serve Him. Somehow, this doesn't seem to line up well with the nature of God; a God who calls us into love, joy, and freedom. The quote goes like this; "A friend once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, 'How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.' A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God's time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us."

This reminds me that ultimately prayer is God's work, not mine. I approach God and open my heart and soul to Him, asking Him to do his work in me. When I approach prayer as my own task or burden, I put myself in control; as if I could force God's hand. Not only is this theologically inaccurate, but it makes prayer a task rather than a delight. As we watch Jesus praying during his time on earth, we don't get the sense that he was working in prayer, but that he was consumed by joy of being with the Father.

I think of the times when I have felt the greatest joy and love towards my little daughter. I do not work or labor to love her. I do not make a plan and then force myself into loving her. The greatest moments of realizing my love for her have come when I am simply holding her, appreciating her and the beauty God has given her. These intense feelings of love sneak up on me, almost as if I had to be first unaware of them in order to truly appreciate them.

Perhaps it is the same with God. Sometimes we try so hard to love him, when we need to learn how to simply rest in the beauty of his presence. And without working for it or thinking about it, an intense joy and love for him sneaks up on us. We simply "sit in the sun" as the apple does and we allow the Greater to act upon us the lesser. As we pray, we can remember that, "God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases Him." (Philippians 2:13)

May His light shine brightly on you as you journey on.