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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We Are Drifting...

This week as part of my devotional routine, I have been reading Psalm 141. The act of reading the same Psalm for several days has been enjoyable, and I find that different verses will pop out at me on different days.

Today, I have been pondering verses 3 & 4. David writes, "Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips. Don't let me drift toward evil or take part in acts of wickedness." (NLT) Something about the phrase "drift toward evil" has lodged in my brain. I keep thinking about how so much of what we do in life is the product of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of small decisions. We rarely do anything, good or bad, all at once. Small choices repeated over time lead to big change. Step by step, choice by choice, we move towards a desired goal, or further away from it.

Whenever we fish on a lake, I am amazed at the surprising nature of drift. When we find a good fishing hole, we pull up to it, put down anchor, and begin to throw out our lines. For a time, the spot is perfect, but after a while I will look down and observe that our boat has "suddenly" run into the weeds. Yet nothing happens suddenly on a calm Minnesota lake. Inch by inch, the boat has drifted, and we find ourselves in a place we never meant to be.

The same is true in life. Dollar by dollar our finances drift and "suddenly" we're in debt. Selfish act upon selfish act and "suddenly" our marriage is in trouble. We don't realize the movement, but we look around and find ourselves in a place we never meant to be. In the same token, short prayer after short prayer and we "suddenly" find ourselves feeling near to God. Generous act after generous act and we are "suddenly" a more loving person. Daily, we make minor choices and decisions that slowly pull us away from God and his love, or move us towards Him.

So the question for us today is, "Which way am I drifting?" The truth is, we are all drifting one way or another, all the time. Are you moving God's direction? And rather than merely answering yes or no, we need to be willing to look at our lives and determine where the current of our choices is taking us. If we're drifting towards God, we should be able to identify the small decisions we are making that allow this to happen. And if we look at our life, and find that our words, our actions, or our attitudes are letting us slip slowly away from Him, then we make changes. Perhaps we don't come back all at once. That's the nature of drifting. We simply begin making better choices, choices that put the wind and the waves in our favor, and we begin moving towards God.

And one day, we look around at our life, and sense that God is much nearer, much more real, than we have ever known him to be.

May your journey be one of constant drifting towards our loving Father,

Nick

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fishing Those Minnesota Lakes

Hey all-

Tomorrow in class, we are all doing a 1-3 minute object lesson, so I thought I'd give you a sneak preview. You'll need to imagine me holding a fishing reel. Just the reel. Got it? Okay, read on...

After class ends up this week, I begin two weeks of vacation here in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. And one of the things I love to do on a Minnesota vacation more than anything else is to get out on one of those lakes for some fishing.

So I have brought with me this reel. And if you had never seen or heard of fishing before, I could probably convinced you that this is a complete and whole creation. It has moving pieces and different levers here and there. I could attach a lure to the line here and throw it out with my arm, and even reel it back in. And you would think that this, by itself, is enough.

But you've seen fishing, or you've been fishing, and you know that I am missing something. My dad is coming out, and since he has more room, and has extras, he's bringing the fishing rod. If you know anything about fishing, you know that a rod isn't a nice bonus, or something cool to add to my reel. You know that the rod and the reel were designed for each other. By itself, this reel has limited value, because it was designed with the rod in mind. The two were created to go together.

And so also, we are often convinced, especially in our western mindset, that our faith, our personal faith, is enough. That is stands alone. But we were designed with something else in mind, because the God who created and designed us is a God of community. He exists in community himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we were made with a community in mind. Call it church, call it a small group, call it a gathering, or even call it a fella-ship; God has created us for one another. It's not optional, not a nice bonus of the Christian life. We were designed and created with community, God's community, in mind.

And the awesome part is that when the reel of our faith and the rod of community are put together in the hands of a loving God, then we are extremely effective at fishing.

"All of you together are Christ's body, and each of you is a part of it." I Cor. 12:27
"Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!" Mark 1:17

Journey on, friends,

Nick

Friday, July 18, 2008

Things We Don't Like

One aspect of my trips to Minnesota which I always find difficult is going to bed. I know, you may not think this is a big deal, but allow me to explain. To being with, Minnesota is two hours ahead of Washington. On top of that, I am a natural night owl who tends to turn on at about 8 or 9 at night. And last but not least, I have grown quite accustomed to going to bed at the same time as my wife. When I'm alone, going to bed always seems odd, like something's missing. The problem with all of this is that class starts in the morning at 8 AM (6 AM, Pacific Time), no matter what time I go to bed. So I can stay up late and waste hours waiting until my West Coast body is really ready for sleep, or I can decide to go to bed early and do my best to rest. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I go to class on 4 or 5 hours of sleep. (This is not recommended).

This has me thinking about the nature of discipline. For me to go to bed early while in Minnesota is an act of personal discipline. I've been working on a definition of discipline that goes something likes this, "Doing what we don't like to achieve results we do like." I don't like going to bed early, but I really don't like falling asleep in class. So, the result I seek to achieve is a rested and alert mind, which means I must do something I don't necessarily like; aka, going to bed early. I've been truly amazed at how difficult this can be. I mean, just crawl into bed, right? But on some evenings, so much of my mind and spirit rebels against this.

Discipline is certainly something needed when taking Greek. I find myself frequently doing things I don't like (memorizing paradigms, sitting through hours and hours of class, etc.) These activities are not particularly enjoyable, but I can see a result I'd like to achieve. I want to understand God's Word better and feel more confident in how I use the Bible in my sermons. And so again, I find myself doing what I don't like in order to achieve results I do like.

Discipline is rarely easy. (This sounds reminiscent of my last post.) And because it requires some work or effort, we are tempted to shy away from activities that require discipline. But I think God calls us to look at the results we want in our life, and discipline ourselves accordingly. Do we want to grow closer to Him? Then we discipline ourselves in prayer and the study of His Word. Do we want to be healthy physically? Then we discipline ourselves in our eating and our exercising. Do we want a better marriage? We must discipline ourselves to put our spouse first. Over and over, we choose to do things we don't like, or things that would be easier not to do, in order that we might achieve the results we're looking for in life.

And the truth I find is that the more we purposefully enter into discipline, the easier it gets. Several years ago when I began running, I hated it. I did not like to run. But I liked the results I was getting and how it made me feel, so I kept running. Slowly, over the years, it became something I tolerated, then enjoyed, and finally something that I actually looked forward to. I would have never believed you had you told me that I would one day find running to be one of the best parts of my day. But through discipline, even what was once difficult has become life-giving.

So for now, I keep studying Greek, I keep running, I keep praying, I keep going to bed early. And my hope and prayer is that through all of these disciplines, I will be more and more the person God has called and created me to be. How about you?

May you believe that discipline makes the journey better,

Nick

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Greek and Basketball

By Wednesday of an intensive week, the theme of my life tends to center on endurance.

In class, we have been learning in a 3 or 4 hour time span what we are usually given a week to master at home. This isn't necessarily so bad the first day, but by the third day you feel like you've been given more information than you can possibly hold in any lobe of your brain. It reminds me of a Simpson episode where every new fact or figure that Homer Simpson learns causes him to forget something else, like his wife's name, because his brain is full. I'm beginning to sympathize. But I digress... We've spent hours learning the finer points of the Greek participle- present, aorist, and adjectival uses. If you find that complicated, just imagine if you actually understood those terms and had to keep their different forms straight! The mind grows weary after all this learning.

After class, a group of about 11 of us have headed to the gym for some basketball. This is a great way to give your mind a break and allow your body to get some much needed movement. I noticed the first day we were a pretty lively and competitive bunch. By Tuesday, many of us were settling for jumpers over the hard drive to the basket. Today, we were lucky to get half the team back on defense. Or offense. Or off the sideline. Like the mind, the body, too, grows weary.

And yet in both scenarios, in the class and in the gym, I find myself involved in a worthwhile pursuit. These things stretch me and challenge me, and hopefully enable me to improve, whether it be mentally or physically. I guess the theme is that many of the things in life most worth doing will require something of us. It won't come easy. There is something we must sacrifice and something we must be willing to expend in order to make progress.

The question is, will we be willing to pay the price? Too often in our comfort-saturated culture, we are led to believe that anything painful or difficult is bad. I'm not saying we need to become masochistic and look for opportunities to cause ourselves pain, but if you really think the matter through, you may agree that many of life's most valuable moments are the product of great energy, trial, and even pain: exercising discipline in our spending, making a marriage work, forging lasting and meaningful community, raising children, getting our bodies in shape- none of these come without sacrifice! Even the most beautiful moment of human birth is an ironic twist of pain and absolute joy.

I've yet to hit absolute joy in my Greek experience, but I hope it's coming. What is God calling you to do these days? Are you avoiding it because it sounds hard and even painful? Don't. Your best moments and days will be those that have been shaped by a journey involving great struggle.

May you find the courage to go there on your journey today. Blessings!

Nick

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wise Guides

I continue to be amazed at how the small things can make such a huge difference. During the time I've been taking Greek, I've noticed how often a single letter can dramatically change the meaning of a word or a sentence. This week, the small things have begun to matter even more. We learned early on in the course that the letters "ou" mean "not" in Greek. However, above the first letter is a small apostrophe, called a breathing mark. This mark may seem insignificant; nothing more than minutia noticed only by the advanced scholar. Not so. That little mark is of vital importance, because, as we learned this week, if you turn this mark around, the same two letters "ou" no longer mean "not." They now mean "where." One tiny breathing mark above the word, so small you wouldn't notice it without your glasses, changes the entire meaning and makes a major difference in translation.

This is why, in our learning environments, we have wise guides. We have come to know them as professors and teachers. These are people who know the material so well that they are able to look at a class and say, "While this may seem like a minor and insignificant detail, it matters. It really matters, and if you miss it, you will be lost." Our professor is the master of the details- he is able to explain how the words break down so we also can learn how to notice these small, yet incredibly important, details.

I think of how similar this scenario can be to our faith. As "students" of faith, seeking to follow after Jesus, we may be tempted to view some things as minor or insignificant. They may have value for someone, we think, but we write them off as useful tools for only the religious elite. And yet, much like a Greek student ignoring the breathing marks, we can get lost while skimming over unessential details that make a world of difference.

Fortunately, God has blessed us with Wise Guides. We call these the Word and the Spirit. The Bible is God's Word spoken to us; written thousands of years ago but still speaking to us today. The Spirit is God's very presence, placed in the hearts and minds of all those who turn willingly to Him. These are our guides, calling to us, "Notice this. This matters. This is not optional- it can change your life."

I think of topics like community. We are easily led to believe that community, a place where we are deeply known and able to know others, is a nice benefit but only essential for a few. Yet the Word and the Spirit would say otherwise. The Word continually calls us to the "one another" actions of life, and how can we "one another" unless we are closely connected in community? And as we yield our life to the Spirit, I believe we will feel drawn to places where our superficiality is laid down in favor of dealing with the truth of who we are.

What other topics do we try to gloss over as insignificant? And what do our Wise Guides tell us? Loving our neighbor, helping the poor, giving, a life of discipline- these are but a few of the many "details" of our faith that truly hold the power to change us forever.

How are you handling the small matters? May you trust the leadership of your Wise Guides above and beyond your own "student" reasoning.

Blessings on your journey, as you live in the class of life,

Nick

Monday, July 14, 2008

Random Thoughts

As I start a week of Greek here in Minnesota, I thought I would share a few random thought of the last few days-



Saturday night we had the privilege of hearing LifeVoice, a vocal group from Crown College in Minnesota. They led us in worship during our church service, and put on a short concert afterwards. My three-year old daughter Alyssa was downstairs in Kidsville during the service, but came up for the concert. When the music started and the group began to sing, I looked over at her and she was beaming. She had this giddy, gleeful smile on her face and she was laughing with joy. She looked at me and said, "Dance, daddy!" And then she began to "dance" in the aisle. You've never seen anything like it- a little girl waving her arms, jumping around, and just loving the music. I, of course, began to think about the people behind us being distracted, and so I leaned over to tell Alyssa to sit down. As I did, I couldn't help but think about which one of us had captured the true heart of worship. It wasn't me.

Last night I had the opportunity to "practice what I preach." This weekend I spoke about our need to invite God into every situation and go God's way in our life. The flights themselves went fine, but after that things fell apart. The trip from the airport to Bethel was filled with detours and road construction. Our 20 minutes trip took nearly an hour. I got to my room and found it to be missing many items that I would want as creature comforts- a lamp, hangers, an alarm clock, a kleenex box, sheets that fit the bed, etc. It was late. Very late. I was tired and hungry. And I was grouchy. Every thought in brain was a complaint. And then I heard, "Invite God in." I did. I didn't want to be, but I did. I'm not sure it led to a miraculous change of heart, but something about it felt like a better alternative than continuing to grumble and complain.

This morning, our chapel speaker talked about how all of our language surrounding "abiding" in Christ tends to be the language of "striving." We use phrases like "do" devotions, "carve" out time, "seek" Him in prayer, "make" time for God... Why is it when we try to abide we're still busy striving? The observation she made was that perhaps a better way we can abide in Christ is to "notice"- notice the presence of God in our world, notice the grace of God in another person, notice the goodness of God in our lives. Rather than an active project we undertake, we can allow our abiding to be something we observe and are drawn into by the grace of God.

On your journey, may you worship as a child, seek God in all situations, and notice His presence at all times.

Nick

Sunday, July 06, 2008

All About Ya'll

Have you spent much time in the South? My travels have taken (briefly) to such states as Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. On those trips, I have enjoyed the southern hospitality at local restaurants. Where else can you go and have a complete stranger call you honey, sweetie, and darling? But without a doubt, my favorite expression is the "ya'll." "How ya'll doin'? Can I get ya'll anythin' else? Ya'll come back now, ya hear?"

When you compare the English language to other languages of the world, you may begin to think that Southerners are on to something. In every other language that I know of, a clear distinction is made between you (singular) and you (plural). They look different. They sound different. They are spelled different. But in English, we just have plain ole "you."

So what's the big deal? Well, unless you are a brilliant linguist, my guess is you read a Bible printed in English. And because of our western mindset and our individuals-emphasizing culture, when you see the word "you", you naturally read "me." So we read "Jesus loves you." "Oh great," we think, "that's neat! Jesus loves me!" This is fine and good, (and true), but we often read singular "you" even in places where the Bible intends plural.

Nowhere is this more true perhaps than in the Lord's Supper. I believe that one of the main messages we are to take out of the Lord's Supper is an emphasis on "ya'll." Consider these things. Jesus intentionally initiated this practice at a time when all of the disciples were present and listening. He uses plural language throughout the account. And from its very earliest practice, the Christian tradition of the Lord's Supper has been one of plurality- celebrated when people are gathered together. So many other disciplines can be practiced alone- worship, prayer, Scripture reading- but not the Lord's Supper. The only concept we have of this practice is in the group setting.

Why is this? Why such an emphasis on the group activity? It's because the death of Jesus was for everyone. The redeeming work of Jesus on the cross was for "ya'll." And because it was, the way that we remember and honor the work of Jesus is to honor the "ya'll."

In the book of Corinthians, Paul wrote to a church that was having big issues with the Lord's Supper. He said they needed to examine themselves because they were eating the Lord's Supper with sin in their hearts. We tend to think of personal struggles, but Paul had something more in mind. The specific sin Paul had in mind is that the Christians there were eating in a way that was unloving towards their brothers and sisters. They were eating the Lord's Supper while being unkind to those who were with them, and so Paul says they are dishonoring what the Lord has done. In other words, in order to remember Christ appropriately, we must honor "ya'll" accordingly.

So when you celebrate the Lord's Supper, answer these questions. How am I doing at loving my Christian brother and sister? How committed am I to the body of Christ at my church? How deeply am I living in loving relationships with others Christ has called? Because when we take the cup and break the bread, the way in which we remember Christ is to honor the "ya'll."

You're on a journey, but you are not alone. Ya'll are with me!

Nick

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A God of Fire

Recently, I have really enjoyed listening to other people preach while I am out jogging. Thanks to the modern development of the iPod, this is now possible without the preacher actually running alongside of you. On a regular basis, I tune in to Greg Boyd, who pastors a church in the Twin Cities.

I appreciated some insight he had on why in the Bible, we find a God that is at times described as loving, benevolent, kind, gracious, and good, while at other times this same God seems to be angry, judgemental, and bent on punishment. We believe in one God, and so these are not two different deities. We also believe in the wholeness and perfection of God, so this is not a "yin and yang", good-God, bad-God routine. So if it is the same God, how do we reconcile these concepts that are so radically different from each other?

One helpful insight comes from C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia series. In the last book, aptly named The Last Battle, Aslan appears towards the end of the story. To those who know him and trust him, he appears as a mighty, glorious Lion. All those who love him run to him and are filled with joy at his appearing. To his enemies, however, Aslan appears as a horrible monster. They are filled with dread and fear and they run from him. This is the same Aslan, and he is a good and wonderful Lion. But depending on the heart condition of the person, Aslan will appear either as wonderful and beautiful, or as a horrible monster.

This is perhaps a good picture of why God seems to be both filled with love and filled with judgment and anger. As Boyd puts it, God is a God of fire. That's is his nature, and his nature is love. When we trust him, his fire fills us, burns away our sin and our imperfection, and draws our hearts to him. The fire is good and redeeming. But if any will not trust him and love him, God is still fire, and that same fire that is good in the heart of those who trust is painful for those who run from Him. As Boyd points out, it is not God's desire that any should perish. He is not hoping to judge and condemn anyone. But in his nature, he is a God of holiness and love, and when that holiness and love are not received, they become like a horrible monster. The difference is not in the fire. The difference is not the character and nature of God. He is love, and His all-consuming love is like a fire. The difference is in the response and perspective of the person.

What is your response to Him today? Will you trust Him and let him fill you with His fire of love? The alternatives seem rather bleak. But to know His fire, and let it consume you, is life itself.

Journey on,
Nick