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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Alone Is So Exclusive

We've recently begun singing a song at our worship gatherings called "You are God Alone." I've loved the message of this song because it's all about God and has very little to do with me. The other day, a friend commented to me that he really didn't like one of the lines, which says "You are not a god in need of anything we can give; by Your plan, that's just the way it is." Particularly the words "that's just the way it is" didn't sit well with him. I agree. I think for all of us, whether we're pursuing God or not, we have a difficult time with this phrase.

Why is that? I believe it's because of the idea that we have absolutely zero control over the situation. If we're bumped off an airline flight and can't get a new flight out for 8 hours, the last thing we want to hear the airline say is, "I'm sorry, that just the way it is." It's like saying, "tough luck pal. The situation can't be changed, so just deal with it." We like the idea that we have some level of control over our life, even our approach to God. And so to say that God doesn't need anything from us, and that's just the way it is, is hard to do.

This is a reminder for us about the true nature of worship, and specifically our adoration of God. We have so often made worship about our response to God for what He does for us. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but too often it becomes the entire content of our worship.
"God, you're so wonderful because you do this..."
"God I love you because you did this..."

Isn't the point of worship for us to say, "God, you're wonderful" Period. "God, I love you" Period?

One author, Albert Day, says it like this, "We never really adore Him, until we arrive at the moment when we worship Him for what He is in Himself...Then we adore Him, regardless of whether any personal benefit is in anticipation or not. Then it is not what He has done for us or what we expect Him to do for us, but what He has been from eternity before we existed, and what He is now even if we were not here to need Him, and what He will be forever whether that "forever" includes us or not- it is that which captivates us and evokes from us the selfless offering of self in worship. That is pure adoration. Nothing less is worthy of the name."

So, it may not be easy for me, but it is good for me to say, "That just the way it is." It puts me in a place of complete surrender to Him. Which in my mind, is a very good place to be.

You are God alone
From before time began
You were on Your throne
Your are God alone
And right now
In the good times and bad
You are on Your throne
You are God alone

Journey on-

Nick

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sailboats or Powerboats

This last weekend at church, we looked at John 6 and the story of Jesus walking on water. I'm always amazed at the detail included at the very end of the passage- as soon as Jesus stepped into the boat, they reached their destination. I studied hard last week to find a way to rationalize or de-mystify this act, but the truth is, even in the original Greek, this is clearly being lifted up as miraculous.

I couldn't help but reflect on how the disciples had spent hours and hours on the sea, rowing with 12 sets of strong arms, and only achieving the halfway point. And then the Savior of the world walks by, gets in their boat, and suddenly they reach the other side. Journey over. I've been reflecting on the areas of my life where I am hard at work, paddling with all my might, but oblivious to the fact that Jesus is asking to enter my boat.

A fellow student at Bethel last week suggested that there are essentially two-types of people in this world; those who follow the powerboat approach, and those who follow the sailboat approach. People in powerboats control the speed, direction, and pretty much everything about the journey. They flip a switch, rev the engine, and point the ship where they think it needs to go. People in a sailboat do a lot more waiting and watching the wind. They sense where the breeze is blowing, and then they hoist the sails. With the sails lifted, the wind carries them along.

Powerboats make a lot of sense. They're predictable and controllable. They make a lot of noise and produce a lot of motion. And yet, as we look at life spiritually, I have to ask: do they get you to the right place? And what happens when you run out of gas? I can get busy living the powerboat life- steering my life where I want it to go, and only too late do I realize I'm out of gas, the Jesus is nowhere near.

What would it take to live a sailboat life? More waiting on God and his direction. More contemplation of my own motives and a willingness to let God take me where He wants. If I'm willing to do this, the payoff seems huge. Because in the sailboat, it's His energy and not mine. In the sailboat, I am the passenger and He the captain. And I have the idea that in this scenario, much like in John 6, with Jesus in the boat and pushing it with his wind, I'll reach the other shore.

My your journey be in a sailboat this week,

Nick

Friday, February 15, 2008

Warm Up the Jetplane

Another two-week stretch of intensive class work here at Bethel Seminary is about over. I feel it would be appropriate at this time to look back on a couple of things that will stand out as significant reminders during this experience.

Life is best lived with faithful friends and companions. One of the best parts of my seminary experience continues to be the group of fellow students that comprise "cohort I." Bethel intentionally moves you through the program with the group you start with. My group of 7 guys from around the county, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and D. C., has become very important to me. We laugh together, encourage each other, and do life together. Every class experience is made even better when we interact over the subject matter.

Who are your friends and companions in this life? Lean into them. Treasure them. We need them more than we know, and it's only in their absence that we most realize their value.

Knowledge can either lead you to pride or humility. I am continually amazed by the number of scholars we learn from in our study in seminary who have incredible minds, lists of PhD's, and no heart for God. On the other hand, I am greatly encouraged by the professors at Bethel who have such incredible knowledge, and yet it has made them so humble before God. The more they know, the more awed they are by God's plan, His greatness, and His love. My hope is that as I learn, it will lead me to humility and increased wonder and awe of the Heavenly Father.

The weather in Washington is quite nice. I may get weary of the rain, but today in Minneapolis it is 8 below zero. It is supposed to be 48 in Kelso. Washington, here I come.

The presence and activity of God can be found almost anywhere. The process of sitting in biblical classes all day tends to gear your mind into the spiritual realm occurring around you. I am encouraged during this time to recognize God through out my day, in different place and times. In the story of a friend, the laugh of a daughter, the meditation of a professor, the routine of getting ready and preparing my mind and body, the work of physical exercise, the joy of silence, the hidden blessings of pain- God is in all of these and more, if our eyes are open and we are looking for Him.

Going home is a good thing. Being away from home makes you realize and appreciate how much you really have. I am glad for this experience, but even more grateful for the life I have waiting for me back home. God is a good God, and He has blessed me. How's your level of gratitude and appreciation for God?

May your journey be a wonderful friendship with God today,

Nick

Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Wild Honey...

Do you ever get the feeling that if you're a "true believer" in Jesus that you're supposed to be a little miserable in this world from all the sacrifices that you make?

I think especially in the evangelical church we can fall prey to this mindset; that this world holds nothing for us and we are somehow saving up all our joy for eternity in heaven. But what if that eternity starts the moment you begin to follow Jesus?

I've been encouraged this week be reading and rereading Psalm 81. This was a song to be sung by their choir, praising God for his deliverance from slavery. I can appreciate that- I know that through Christ I, too, have been set free to live with God as my only master. Later in the Psalm, the writer laments that Israel has lost sight of God and forgotten that He is the one who accomplished these things for them.

Speaking from God's perspective, as the Psalmists often did, the writer expresses how soon God would act on our behalf if our trust was fully in Him. But here's the real clincher for me. Listen to the pay-off of this kind of trust: "I would feed you with the best of foods. I would satisfy you with wild honey from the rock." When you look into these words, this is far more than a promise of a good time in heaven. This is God proclaiming that he wants us to experience His very best right now. Particularly that last phrase, "wild honey from the rock." Think about that. Wild honey was a primary source of sweetener in the ancient Arabic world, and completely unnecessary for food or life. God is promising to give those who trust in Him the very best food just because He wants to bless them. And where will this wild honey come from? The rock- a place where wild honey should not be found.

The only reason for God to give them wild honey was to bless them; to satisfy them with the BEST of food. Maybe we need to rethink our belief about when the joy of eternity begins. I'm not advocating that God will give you a perfect life, or that Christ-followers should have lots of dough, but maybe the image of miserable Christian is less Biblical than we realize.

As you journey, may you discover the God who gives wild honey,

Nick

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blessed are the Broken

The weather has finally warmed up a bit. The high today may actually reach 20. It's funny how quickly our perspective can change- it feels downright balmy today.

We had a guest speaker come in yesterday who has been in the field of pastoral care and chaplaincy for the last 20 years. The following thoughts come from his discussion.

As Jesus and his disciples gather on a mountain side in Matthew 5, Jesus gives arguably his best-known message, now referred to as the "Sermon on the Mount." A large crowd moves in to hear his words, and as Jesus looks up on this collection of people, he opens with the words, "God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them." (NLT) How like Jesus, and God the Father, to begin with blessing. But this blessing is unique and wonderful. Essentially, Jesus is saying, "Blessed are those who are broken, and are aware that they are broken." We might expect him to go on and talk about how our brokenness will get fixed. But Jesus doesn't say that, at least not here. What Jesus does say is that those who realize their brokenness will receive the Kingdom. The connotation of this idea in the original Greek is that God will give His gifts to the broken. In other words, God will celebrate their brokenness by rewarding them with the Kingdom.

We tend to think of our weaknesses and faults as issues to be dealt with and cleared up quickly, but here Jesus is essentially celebrating what they can do in our lives. An awareness of our brokenness is what connects us to God's Kingdom and His ability to bless us. It's not to say that we're free to remain in our current condition, but knowing this can change our approach to spiritual health. If we think God is disappointed by who we are, we work with a slave-like mentality until we've achieved His approval. If, however, we recognize the love of God and His acceptance of all our brokenness, then we can live as sons and daughters who are free to enjoy the Father, knowing that nothing we do can make Him love us any more or any less. Our brokenness can be brought before Him without fear, for through our weakness, God can show Himself strong.

The world, then, breaks down into three groups of people. 1)Those who are broken but don't know it, 2)Those who are broken and know it, but choose to do nothing about it and pursue their own kingdom, and 3)Those who are aware of their brokenness and offer it to God as a way of connecting to His Kingdom.

This day, may you find yourself in group 3, aware of your brokenness, but also aware that through your brokenness, you are brought near God and His Kingdom.

And you are BLESSED.

Journey on.

Nick

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Getting to Give

The weather outside has taken a definite turn for the worse. We hit a high yesterday of about 5 below zero. The temperature on the inside, however, has stayed nice and warm as we enter week two of class. This week, I'm in Pastoral Care, looking at what it means to care for others in a ministry context.

Yesterday, our professor offered some great insight on how we can approach caring for other people. One verse of Scripture that we use often for friends or loved ones in a tough spot is I Peter 5:7, "Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you." This is a classic verse used to remind people that no matter what they face, God can be trusted and His love can sustain us through the most difficult of times.

We often forget, however, the importance of this verse for US as we seek to give care to others. We can easily feel intimidated or inadequate to help someone going through a difficult time. We wonder what we have to offer and if our words or presence will help the situation at all. At times like this, we need to be willing to quote the same Scripture to ourselves. We need to get the message of Scripture first in order that we can give the same encouragement to others. God does care for us, and as we feel anxious or uncertain in helping others, we too need to "cast our care" on God and allow Him to bring peace and joy into our hearts first. We can then walk into the dark situation that another person is facing, confident of the grace and presence of God that goes with us and before us. We get the message of His love and peace for ourselves, and then we are equipped to give it away.

As you journey today, may God give you eyes to see fellow travelers in need of His love. And may you be aware that the vessel of that love is YOU.

Nick

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Living in the Sea of Unknowing

I find it amazing how God helps us connect the dots in our life.

In a devotional book that I use, I was directed today to consider the value of "this day." Not looking ahead and putting all my heart and my hopes in tomorrow, but rather looking around and appreciating the beauty and mystery of today.

I tend to think of most of my days as common and ordinary, yet perhaps in this I am making an assumption; that what is common and ordinary will lack any mystery or surprise by God himself. In the book I was reading, Abraham Heschel says, "To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to gain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living." (Man's Quest for God) I was reminded today that God most often reveals his wonder and glory to me during moments that I might otherwise excuse as ordinary.

Later, I found myself at Greg Boyd's church, Woodland Hills, just outside of St. Paul. Boyd's text for today was from the gospel of Luke, chapter 11. Here, Jesus is telling his disciples how they should approach prayer; to keep on asking and knocking because God gives good gifts to those who ask in this way. Boyd launched off this text to talk about prayer, and his main point was that we pray because we know and understand so very little in this world that God has created. He said that we float on a small island of supposed knowledge in a vast sea of mystery. When we grab a hold of this, we learn to pray, not because we have a prayer formula that works, but because we are reliant on God to reveal himself, and His will, to us.

My mind drifts to the words of the apostle Paul in Corinthians, quoting Isaiah the prophet, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." When we believe that God and His kingdom are much larger than we can get our minds around, when we embrace that we know very little of how prayer, and life, and spiritual things work, we can truly celebrate that what God has in mind for us is more than we can possibly imagine. It is a wonderful sea of mystery that God invites us enter, unsure of what will happen but confident in his unfailing love for us. "This day", even in its commonness and routine, holds incredible potential.

In an era where "all" knowledge is a mouse-click away, may you rest in the mystery of God's creation and our limited knowledge, which forces us to depend wholly on Him.

Enjoy the journey and embrace the mystery,

Nick

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Wrapping Up

Week 1 of class is in the books.

After having had an extensive look into the Gospels of the New Testament, I can honestly say that I am more proud of this book than ever before. I realize that the word "proud" might seem odd to use of Scriptures, but here's what I mean. The more we scrutinized, analyzed, and researched this book, the better it got. Rather than falling apart are not holding up under the microscope, the Word of God only began to shine brighter. What wonderful truth we have been given if we will take the time to sit underneath it and learn from Christ himself.

One item of note from yesterday was a thought about the resurrection from N.T. Wright. This author has become one of my favorites over the course of seminary, and he has written extensively on the resurrection; 700 pages kind of extensive. In this book of monstrous length, Wright examines all the literature available around the time of Jesus and within a few hundred years of his arrival on earth. What he found was shocking. No where, in vast amounts of historical data, could he find one shred of support for a positive opinion of resurrection. Meaning, before Jesus, the idea of resurrection was unheard of and grotesque. No one believed that resurrection in bodily form could have any value. And yet that's exactly what Jesus did. What this tells us is that the resurrection rings of truth. This incredible survey reveals that it would be ludicrous to think the disciples or early church made this up. The only way it makes any sense- is if it actually happened. And it did.

May you find life and joy in the resurrection on your journey today,
Nick

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Seven Hour Small Group

Rather than reflecting on something from class yesterday, I'd like to offer some thoughts on a different kind of experience I had last night. After a long day of class (8:00 AM- 4:30 PM) a group of three college friends met me at the Seminary and we went out for the night. This group of guys and I used to meet on a regular basis in college for prayer, accountability, and growing together as Christ-followers. As we drove to a local restaurant, we realized that it had been over six years since the four of us had been together. In truth, it felt more like six days. We picked up right where we had left off, and for the next seven hours, we shared together our hearts, our dreams, our pains, our joys, our passions and our faults. Truth was spoken, grace was given, and God was glorified in the way that we entered into this deep community. Although I got back to my dorm late and tired, I felt as though we had only been together for a few short hours.

Now, you might be tempted to dismiss this as nothing more than a reunion of old friends, but I will tell you it was more than that. It was a level of Christian community that I have rarely found before or after that group.

I bring this up because I believe all of us long for that level of knowing and connection, and yet very few of us know how to find it or create it in our lives. Even having experienced this group, I have had a very difficult time recreating it in my post-college life. I've spent years in small groups and never found this same kind of Christ-centered community.

Why? Why is this so hard for us to find in our modern world? As I've thought this through, I've identified four characteristics that were present in our lives as we forged this deep bond.
1. Proximity: we were all at the same school and rubbed shoulders on a regular, almost daily basis. We had common experiences and events which we could then process together.
2. Frequency: we met regularly and the idea of skipping out on the group was unthinkable. Sure, weeks came where it just didn't happen, but those were exceptions to our routine.
3. Intensity: when we would come together, we didn't spend much time "shooting the breeze" or just catching up. We saw each other enough throughout the week that this was less necessary. Our times were marked with honest sharing, truth-telling, and fervent praying.
4. Commitment: Perhaps most importantly, we had so entrusted ourselves to one another that we knew we could say absolutely anything and find the heart of Christ in one another. No one was walking out, getting offended, or giving up. We were in the battle together, and knowing that someone had committed to you on that level made real community happen.

As I look at our general inability as people to create lasting community, these four traits are more difficult to come by. They require sacrifice. They require risk. They require a firm belief that God has called us to this. Could we all begin to move in this direction?

I would welcome your input and thoughts. Why is it so hard to develop this kind of powerful community? Is it worth the work to make this kind of thing happen? How can we get there?

May God draw you deep into community with himself and others around you as you journey in His grace,

Nick

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Learning to Fight

Well, we heard rumors of snow all day yesterday, but not a single flake has fallen here in MN. Meanwhile, parts of Iowa and Illinios have had to shut down with over 12 inches on the ground. I guess we got lucky!

Today's discussion in the gospel's centered on the temptation of Jesus. This is a familiar passage for many, and yet today I was encouraged to see something for the first time. Our professor, who gets really amped about all these topics and starts to talk faster and faster, pointed out a startling fact about how Jesus responded to the temptations. As the devil himself comes to Jesus, a very rare personal appearance, he tempts him to turn stones to bread, throw himself from the temple, and bow before him. In each case Jesus is able to say a resounding NO.

What is shocking about this interaction, when you step back and think about it, is that Jesus never once pulls out his trump card. At no time during the entire interaction does he lay down the "I'm Jesus, the Son of God" card. He doesn't take the obvious way out and act superior to all the temptations. Instead, he resists quite simply by quoting Scripture.

This is encouraging stuff. Because, quite frankly, I don't have a trump card to play. I can't just walk away from something alluring by saying, "well, I'm divine, so see you later." Had Jesus done that, it would have been difficult to find much strength from this passage. But Jesus, in His humanity and in His humility, chose to rely on the Father and on His word.

You know what? I can do that. I can remember a few good Scripture verses and say them when I feel weak. I can pray to the Father and say, "Lord, help me." And I can stand with Jesus against the lure of the enemy.

And do you know what happened after Jesus said no the easy plans of Satan? He was empowered by the Holy Spirit. With purity comes power.

Walk in the Father's strength on your journey today,

Nick

Getting Wet

Yesterday in class, we spent a good deal of time considering the meaning and implications of Jesus' baptism in the gospels. This baptism scene, which is discussed by all four gospel writers, has a particularly interesting twist in the book of Matthew.

In Matthew 3, we learn that John the Baptist is in the wilderness baptizing people "when they confessed their sins." So the baptism of John was connected to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. This presents a problem when Jesus comes and asks to be baptized. Does this suggest that Jesus had sin and needed to repent? John the Baptist himself saw this dilemma and said to Jesus, "I am the one who needs to be baptized by you." But Jesus says no. According the New Living Translation he says, "It must be done because we must do everything that is right." While this may be an accurate translation, we lose some significant wording. More literally, Jesus says that he must be baptized in order to 'fulfill all righteousness.'

Whatever this means, it is enough for John and he proceeds to baptize Jesus. This seems like an odd encounter, but remember- we have less than one percent of all Jesus said and did recorded for us. Matthew isn't wasting words here; he's communicating something to us. But what?

Now fast forward to Matthew 5. Here, Jesus is preaching his famous "sermon on the mount". Early on, he says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And then he encourages his disciples that unless their righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, they can never enter God's Kingdom. We have the same two words used in a different context, but located in close proximity to Jesus' words in Matthew 3.

What is happening here? Jesus is presenting himself, and his life, as the righteousness that people need. Throughout Matthew 5, Jesus takes the known law (do not commit adultery) and extends it even further (if you look lustfully, you are committing adultery.) All of these laws are beyond our capability to live out. So is Jesus commanding something of us that is impossible to do? No! He's highlighting that he has come, and through His life, we are made right with God.

This goes back to an early theory of the atonement known as "recapitulation." I know, it's a big fancy word, but it just means that a big part of Jesus' work for us was to go back over all of human life and do it right. The reason he could give us right standing with God at the cross is because he had lived in right standing with God throughout his life.

What does this mean for us? It means that we celebrate not only the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that we celebrate his life as well. We can experience meaning in baptism because Jesus was baptized on our behalf. We have the power to live in God's way because Jesus did just that 2000 years ago. We can pray, and be married, and eat, and throw parties in a way that honors God because Jesus has lived a righteous life, and in so doing, he has given that righteousness to us.

For some of you, this was probably for more "heady" information than you cared for, but it was exciting to me to see how Matthew pulled these events together (the baptism and the sermon on the mount) to make a point for us. Jesus is our righteousness, and in His life, we can find real purpose for our own.

May you be blessed on your journey because of His life today,

Nick

Monday, February 04, 2008

Surviving Monday

After an all-night flight into Minneapolis, that's about all I hoped to do today. This was day one of two weeks at Bethel Seminary. My reflections on today will probably be limited as I close-up for shop for the day and try to improve on the hour or so of sleep I managed last night.

This week's class is on the The Gospels. We listened to several hours of introductory lectures as snow fell outside throughout the day. The big emphasis of this class will be understanding what the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) actually say, as opposed to what we would like them to say. In other words, we have a tendency to "read into" a passage and our goal this week is to become more skilled at "pulling out" the information in a passage. This comes from a variety of material- accurate understanding of history and culture, careful observance of the text, and diagramming sentences (I thought I had seen the last of this in the 7th grade, but evidently this rarely-used skill has some practical application!) in order to catch the heart of the author's message.

I will leave you today with one interesting insight I've been mulling on during this course. If Jesus had three years of public ministry, and averaged four hours a day of "recordable" activity (ministry, speaking, miracles, etc...), then our gospels give us less than one percent of all that Jesus said and did! Can you believe that? Can you be comfortable with that? We tend to view the gospels as a complete record of all that Jesus said and did, where in truth we are really just getting the highlights! In my mind, this makes me want to be more attentive to all the material that we do have. If we have one percent of all that Jesus said and did, then the gospel writer's must have had very specific reason's for including what they did. I get they idea they wouldn't waste verses if they were already leaving out the vast majority of stories, teachings, and miracles available to them.

I hope you'll take some time and interact with me this week! Don't be shy- it's okay to post a response, and whether you leave your real name or not, I will do my best to respond. My desire is that in this way, we can learn from one another.

Have a blessed week!

Nick