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Thursday, February 26, 2009

True Sacrifice...

I have friends who are convinced that John Locke, a main character on LOST, is like Jesus.

If you follow the hit show at all, you know that Locke has been on a mission to get people back to the island. He has been told, and finally becomes convinced, that the only way to accomplish this is by dying. Only through his death will the mission be accomplished.

I finally figured out last night why this idea bothers me so much. Throughout the show, it has become evident that Locke's primary concern is for the Island. Not the people. Not his "friends" or his "enemies", but for the Island itself. The Island has miraculously healed John, and he senses his destiny lies there. So he acts on behalf of the Island. He also acts, not out of love for anyone or anything, but for himself. Because this is his destiny, his motivation is primarily self-directed.

This is not like Jesus. The kind of sacrifice that Jesus showed us, and then called His followers to, is motivated by love and done for other people.

So why bring this up? It's just a TV show, right? I mention this only because I see this idea of sacrifice, the John Locke variety, creeping in all over our world and being labeled as "like Jesus." We fool ourselves into thinking that any act where we sacrifice makes us like Jesus. Just going without, or experiencing pain, or having a rough day, does not make us like Jesus. We have been called to sacrifice, but this sacrifice has been defined for us: motivated by love, and done for others.

For this is the kind of sacrifice that truly changes the world.

Journey in Him,
Nick

Monday, February 23, 2009

I Need This On Monday...

I was sent this quote in an e-mail this week. In a "me" obsessed world, this is a powerful reminder of what faith is all about.

"God's loyalty is...foundational because it stops us from defining Christianity in terms of our personal performance and religious achievements. Many of us live as if the Christian life were a matter of feelings about God and duties done for God. We live as religious egotists. We say that we are doing well with God if WE are disciplined or if WE are obeying hem. We think that we are close to God if WE feel close to him. We believe that Christianity is true if WE have been made happy and successful by it or if our religious techniques work. We delude ourselves by thinking, 'If only I could conquer this nagging problem, then I would be a true Christian.' For many of us, our Christian faith is as good as we are, and not as good as God is. “

“But as long as we make our feelings, our discipline, our consistency, our techniques and our success and happiness the foundation for Christian living, we shall never know true Christianity. It always begins with God, never with us. He is loyal. That is the most basic truth. 'If we are faithless, he remains faithful--for he cannot deny himself' (2 Tim 2:13)"

[from the book, THE ADVENTURE by Jerry Sittser]

Journey on in his faithfulness,

Nick

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Takes Practice...

Practice. Never been one of my favorite words.

It conjures up images of 5:30 AM basketball practices when I was a sophomore in high school. It reminds me of double-days for college football in the muggy Minnesota heat. It puts me right back on the piano bench as a grade-schooler, struggling to learn songs that my older sister had long since mastered.

Yet once again I find my life circling back to this word. I have been reading through the book, "Your God is Too Safe" with a group of guys, and we recently went through a chapter on being aware of God's presence in your life. The author, Mark Buchanan, made it clear that becoming readily aware of God in our life requires...you guessed it...practice. He even references one of my all-time favorite (and least favorite) books, "The PRACTICE of the Presence of God" Written by a simple monk, this books encourages the reader to know and relate to God even while peeling the potatoes. (Seriously- check it out.)

In regards to "practicing" God's presence, Buchanan writes,
"We need to practice the presence of God: not just to acknowledge in some philosophical way that God is present, but to rehearse, to repeat, to work and rework our knowledge that even though we don't see Him and sometimes don't feel him, he is there. He is here. When we practice the presence of God, we train ourselves to desire His presence..."

I certainly want to desire His presence. But with all this talk of practice, I can't help but reflect on my experience of learning to play the piano. For me, that kind of practice was a constant ebb and flow in my life. I would go through seasons of intense desire where I really wanted to get good. But inevitably, before I would reach a true level of competence, I would become content with my current ability. As soon as that happened (and it always did), my desire to practice immediately went away. Sometimes it would be weeks, even months, before I would return to practice again. The net effect of this pattern is that to this day, I have likely spent more hours at a piano than anyone in the history of the earth who is still unable to truly play. Why? Because I got tired of the practice.

I guess today I don't have a real "motivational" thought, but instead I want to wrestle with this idea. I want to express a very real fear and a worry of my own heart that I will do the same with God. I will seek and desire His presence to a point, but when I sense a certain closeness with Him, my practice will end. And over and over, rather than walking in true friendship with God by continued practice, I will go through this cycle of unlearning and relearning.

How do we break from this cycle? I am not sure I know. Perhaps it has to do with focus, or commitment, or perseverance, or any other number of words that could be thrown out in a cliche fashion. Or maybe it's something more. Maybe the "answer" is in finding a certain level of contentment with this pattern I have, believing that even in the ebb and flow of my heart, and the on-again, off-again nature of my practicing His presence, that God is doing more in me than I know.

May you know, and practice, His presence on your journey today,

Nick

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Redeeming the Time

Howdy folks! It is good to be back in the gentle green of Washington State.

In a life that has grown increasingly busy, and noisy, running is one of the times that I can find some solitude to listen and think. I'm more and more in the habit of listening to messages on podcast while I run, rather than any genre of music. I find this ironic when I run past people who are blaring their ipod so loudly I can make out AC/DC from blocks away.

Anyway, yesterday on my run I was listening to a message by Andy Stanley, who leads a large church in the Atlanta area. He has a fresh, innovative way of thinking and if you've never heard of him, go find his stuff on itunes. He's worth the time. The message I listened to was all about time. I'll summarize here what he said (or more accurately, what I got out of it!)

The question we ask all the time is, "what time is it?" while the question we should be asking is, "what am I doing with the time?" The way we spend our time is crucial, and here's why. When it comes to the things that matter most in life(exercise, relationships, spiritual matters), doing them in small segments of time over months and years has a cumulative effect on our lives. So, when we eat smart and exercise over several months, we'll notice it down the road. The urgent things in life, while not as important, tend NOT to have a cumulative affect. Meaning, when we look back a year from now at how we spent time, we often can't remember the urgent things that took so much time.

The danger in all of this is that missing any one occurrence of the most important things (such a workout, a dinner with our spouse, or a time of reading the Bible) seems insignificant, and so we often push it aside for things that seem more urgent in that moment. The long range effect is that we continually put off what is most important in order to do what seems more urgent, even when we acknowledge that the urgent is less important.

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes, "Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil."

This "making the most of every opportunity" literally read, "redeeming the time". In other words, get the highest possible value out of the time you have been given. This is wise living.

How do we do this? By continually prioritizing the most important things in life- relationships, our health, our walk with Christ- even though each single act may not seem that significant alone. These small but regular investments of time will have a cumulative effect in our lives. This has been so important for me to remember as I return from a long trip. The "urgent" is all around me, screaming at me to ignore what matters more. And so, I'm trying to be smart enough to balance the "right now" with that which is simply "right."

How about you? What things that are most important to you do you tend to put off over and over? What secrets have you learned to stay focused on the important things?

May you journey in joy today,

Nick

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Absolutely Absolute

A few days back, I raised the question about moral absolutes. Are there ethics or moral that broadly apply to every person in every culture in such a way that we would say they are an absolute rule of practice. In discussing absolutes, most philosophers bring up broad terms such as lying and murder always being wrong, and protecting life and defending the innocent as always right.

The problem that "absolutists" run into is when two absolutes collide. (I've learned in ethics that you can make up words to suite your fancy, so therefore if you believe in absolutes, I now call you and "absolutist") What if a mad-man is waving a gun, promising to kill your friend and demanding to know their where-abouts. In this case, two absolutes (not lying and protecting life) would be at odds and therefore you would have to choose to break one of the absolutes. In so doing, you would no longer call that an absolute because there is a situation in which that "law" no longer applies.

There are many ways to deal with this. Some call for an ethic of the "lesser evil". Others call for one of always doing the "greatest good." A method presented in class that I have found appealing is the idea that we don't trust in absolutes; rather, we trust in the Absolute One. We believe in God as the only absolute and we enter into relationship with Him. His commands carry obvious weight, but the absoluteness (I think that's another new word) is not in His commands, but in God Himself. So the reason we obey a command, such as not lying, is because an absolute God has shown us this is the best way to live. But, in a situation where lying, and say loving our neighbor, are in conflict, we are able to choose rightly by looking to God and his love for us rather than trying to decide between two moral laws.

Have I lost you? If not, good. Thanks for reading this far. I hope that my class experience here is serving to at least make you think more deeply about why we do what we do.

ETHICAL QUESTION OF THE DAY:
When we face an ethical dilemma, (a choice where either way we are violating a moral law) how do we decide what is right? In other words, how might we discern God's leading in issues not specifically addressed by Scripture?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Be Vs. Do

Or as Frank Sinatra says, "Do be, do be, do!"

One of the big emphasises in this class has been on the difference between rule-keeping ethics, and character-based ethics. In other words, most ethical systems in the world today focus on doing the right thing at the right time. In this class, we've been encouraged to consider how God has invited us first to become the right kind of people through a reconciled relationship with Him. We're in such a hurry to do the right thing that we rush past our call to be the right kind of person. If we continually ground our life in relationship with God, our behavior will be life-giving, as opposed to straight rule-keeping, which can often ignore the greater life intended behind the rules.

A great example of this is the movie Les Miserables, which we watched in class today. (Yes, this is a GREAT CLASS!) In this movie, the detective Javert is a classic example of someone who always does the "right thing" by keeping the law and obeying every rule. On the other hand, Jean Valjean is a convict who has a life-changing experience when an old priest gives him a second shot at life. Being changed, he devotes his life to doing good for others by being the right kind of person. Throughout the movie, Jean Valjean violates many of his cultures "rules", but it becomes obvious that he lives a moral life filled with goodness. Javert, on the other hand, who never breaks the law, has a life-less, joy-less existance. In the end, he is so confronted and confused by the behavior of Jean Valjean that he...well, I won't tell you the end!

I guess what I am truly reflecting on tonight is that we, if you consider yourself a Christ-follower, maybe think that the world needs to see us doing all the right things- keeping laws, etc. But the kind of behavior that always catches people off guard is that which comes from a new heart and a new spirit. We "be" in order that we may "do". Getting these out of order is a crucial mistake.

ETHICAL QUESTION OF THE DAY:
Are there moral "absolutes"? Meaning, are there ethical principles that are true in every setting and circumstance because they are a natural part of God's created order? More on this tomorrow...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Morality is Wrong?

What a great day of class. This is always the part of my two-week trip that starts to get long. So I am always appreciative of Bethel's approach to these classes. The first week is typically much more heady and theoretical (Greek), while the second week tends toward more practical, here-and-now discussions. This week, I am in ethics, which is a welcomed change of pace from learning Biblical Greek.



I approached this class with the belief that ethics would primarily be about developing a system to determine right from wrong. In other words, I figured that ethics was all about morality. So imagine my surprise when one of our professor's first statements went something like this, "The problem is not that we are immoral. The problem is that we are moral." What!?!

Yes, that was my response. But, somewhat surprisingly, by the end of our first morning together I found myself coming to some agreement with his position. Here's the line of reasoning.



In the garden of Eden (yes, we have to go all the way back to our beginning), God created Adam and Eve as two people in perfect relationship with Him. The word we use for people in right relationship with God is "righteous." Try and forget all the other connotations you may have of the word righteous, because it fundamentally means to be in right standing with God. Anyway, God gave them free reign of the garden, except for a tree in the middle, of which he said they may not eat. You know the story- Satan slithered by and convinced them to eat, and their eyes were opened. As a result of this, God says, "now they have become like us, knowing good and evil." In other words, knowledge of good and evil (morality) was a result of fallen humanity. God's intention was for us to be rightoues, but instead we became moral. The foundational problem with this is that our purpose as humans shifted from living under God's true word to becoming our own moral compass. WE became the moral compass to try and determine right and wrong.



So, from this, all human attempts at being good are doomed to fail, because we inherently base these judgments off of our fallen perceptions. The true call to ethics is to return to God's intended design- righteousness. In other words, we become truly ethical when we give-up trying to be moral and simply enter into right relationship with God by living in obedience to His words. As we saw in the life of Jesus in John 12 a few weeks ago at church, this is the true path for human freedom. It is out of this right relationship that we can then begin to make decisions regarding right and wrong, good and evil. Because in this world, there is still good, and there is still evil. Yet our hope of living for the good and shunning the evil is not found in good and evil themselves, but in right relationship with our Creator. Make sense? Do you agree? Have I totally lost you?



ETHICAL PROBLEM FOR THE DAY:

Over the past few years, you've likely seen the provocative Super Bowl commercials put out by GoDaddy.com. Here's my question for you: is it ethically wrong for a church to hire GoDaddy.com to host their website? I leave the question open...please respond below.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Embracing Moments


It's been 5 days since I've seen my family and new baby Carter. This is a picture from yesterday. If you haven't seen him much, it will be impossible to notice how much he has changed! His cheeks are fuller, his forhead bigger, his eyes clearer- he's getting big without me.
Before I left, I held him and just looked at him because I knew this would happen. I wanted to capture that moment.
Life goes by fast. Appreciate the moments you are in and recognize the beauty of God in the common, everyday moments of life!
Journey on, friend,
Nick

Thursday, February 05, 2009

False Promises

After four days of Greek, I feel glad to still be thinking rationally. These intensives become very draining by the end. Thankfully the air is finally getting warmer. All the way up to 18 today. Heat wave!

We had some great discussion today relative to I Peter 5:7. You know the verse, but maybe not by the location. How often have you heard, "cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you"? If you're anything like me, you hear this assurance bantered around in Christian circles on a regular basis. It's interesting to look closer at the context. Here in chapter 5, Peter is wrapping up his argument and appealing to everyone, "all of you, serve each other in humility." (vs. 5) And then we are commanded to be humble, trusting that it is God who will exalt us, or give us honor, at the right time. Out of this command, we are encouraged to "give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares for you." (NLT) In other words, as we fret or worry about our place and our desire to be more important or more significant or more noticed by others, God invites us to trust in Him and not worry about these things. He will give us true honor in his timing, because unlike the world, He truly cares for us. So, rather than being a vague, generic encouragement to give him our worries, this is very specific instruction to first be humble! I wonder how often, if ever, we've thought of that when being told to give God our worries.

This highlights the Christian tendency to pick apart Scripture and use it for our needs. (See Rick Warren, who will shamelessly use 14 different translations in a message to back up his specific point. Don't get me wrong- I really appreciate what Rick does and what he stands for, but his twisting of the Bible to suit his needs sets a bad example.) Rather than really wrestling with the context and meaning of Scripture, we find the quips that we like and try to live off of them alone. We say things like, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!" This is a nice sentiment, but if we look at it (Ephesians 4), Paul says this in the context of learning how to get along in every situation- whether with plenty or with little. We use it as a general pep talk for any situation, when Paul offers it as a focal point for living with extra or in want. That really changes the meaning!

Now you might be concerned by this. "Hey, wait a minute, don't take away my favorite verses!" I guess what I would offer is that when we really wrestle with Scripture, the promises get even better. Perhaps we like convincing ourselves that we can do "everything through Christ" but there are just too many real life situations where we find we can't do everything. So then, either the promise is empty, or we've misapplied it. The wonder of this truth is that even if we have to get along in life with very little, we can do it because Christ fills the need in our life. This whole truth is better by far than living with a half-true slogan.

So, can we give all our worries to God? Absolutely. But when we really wrestle with Scripture, we see the beauty of a humble life being the source of worry-free living. When we refuse to pickpocket our favorite Scripture and we embrace the whole context of Scripture, we find real promises for living.

May you journey in godly wisdom today,

Nick

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Speaking Out

Tonight, the group of guys that compose "cohort I" got together for our traditional mid-week dinner. This has become a much anticipated event during the intensive weeks in Minnesota. For one reason or another, we have settled on Fuddruckers for this meeting, which could also be called "a bucket of grease on a bun." Good for the tongue, but not the digestive track.

Anyway, tonight while we were chowing down on 1/2 pound burgers, the conversation veered towards a class we had recently taken "together" on-line. Overall, the class had been a difficult and troubling experience for me, and I ventured out in this conversation with a small critique of the class format. Little did I know that I had just pulled the proverbial plug out of a great and massive dike. For the next half an hour, sustained complaints and frustrations poured forth from this group of friends. We had all had similar, and equally negative, experiences with the class. And to think, I thought I was the only one. For three months as I had taken the class, I had convinced myself that everyone else understood the program and found the class useful and enjoyable. I thought it was best not to reveal my opinions because I did not want to be labeled as a weak student, or even worse, a complainer. You can imagine how therapeutic this half an hour was! To hear my private hurts be shared and affirmed publicly was wonderfully freeing.

I have been pondering tonight how often we go through times like this in life. We are convinced that everyone else has it figured out- how to have a good marriage, how to be a good parent, how to have a fulfilling faith, how stay positive at work, how to forgive an enemy- and so we stay quiet, unwilling to be the weak one or the complainer. And yet how often is it that in reality, our friends are experiencing exactly the same thing?

So I'm wondering, where do we get this need to put on the good face and keep quiet about the things we struggle with? Why do we try to cover up and hide the very things where we most need wisdom and strength? Could it be because we believe that we are alone?

Today, I just want to encourage you- in whatever you face, you are not alone. I can guarantee you, others have been there, probably more people than you would ever guess. And the key for us is to take risks, sometimes even small ones, amongst groups of friends and to open up and be honest. Try it- and you may find, like I did, that expressing the truth was the path to freedom. And a great night of conversation with friends.

Jesus said, "I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark." When we hold on to our pain and our weakness alone, we remain in the dark. When we find communities of friends where we can open up, we invite truth in, and in the right contexts we welcome the very light of Christ into our situation.

May you journey in light,

Nick

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Temporary Residents

Today is day two of Greek Exegesis. "Exegesis" is basically short-hand for looking at a passage in Greek until your blue in the face. Okay, it's not really that bad. We have been going through the book of 1 Peter verse by verse to translate the Greek and learn how words function in that language.

One meaningful observation has been on the phrase "strangers and aliens" used in I Peter 2:11 and referenced several other places in the book. I remember running across this wording as a kid and thinking it was kind of cool that following Jesus made me an "alien." But beyond this, the general concept I had was that believing in Jesus made me, and anyone else, out of touch with this world.

The full meaning is much better. For instance, the term first gets biblical mention in Genesis, when Abraham describes himself as a stranger and an alien, living in the land of foreigners. It is an important note, though, that this is exactly the place God has led Abraham. He has become a stranger because God put him in that place for a reason.

By the time Peter writes this letter to scattered believers in present day Turkey, "resident aliens" has become an entire social class of people are on the move, usually to find income in tough times. This was much different than a move in our culture, though. Such a move made them a "second class" citizen who lacked many of the rights that land-owners and natives would enjoy. They had to do their best to live well in a place not truly their home.

Peter refers to believers, and ultimately to us, as these "temporary residents." I like this rendering of the phrase more than stranger and aliens, because it emphasizes that we are indeed residents. Between the cross of Christ, and the glory of God's coming kingdom, we reside here. But our time is temporary. We have been led by God to be in specific places, to integrate as best we can into society in order to bring about change. The instructions Peter gives in the following verses reminds us, as temporary residents, how to spend our time,

"I warn you, as temporary residents and foreigners, to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world." (I Peter 2:12-13)

When we pursue the things of God, and willingly live for him, we make a difference, even if others may at time misunderstand what we do. Continue in honorable behavior, and others will see.

May you know that on this journey, you are a temporary resident.

Blessings-
Nick

Monday, February 02, 2009

Beyond Rules

I am hanging out in the MSP airport this morning after a nice flight into the Twin Cities from SeaTac. I always appreciate how quiet and laid-back the Seattle Airport is in the middle of the night, even if it means I am about to board the red-eye!

Yesterday at church, I spoke about why the Bible has so many rules. We see Jesus in John 12 telling us that he says not only the exact words God tells him to say, but he says them in the way God tells him to say them. If we had to do the same, such as speaking for our boss at a meeting, we would feel confined- forced to behave like a robot. When it came to his relationship with the Heavenly Father, though, Jesus found this arrangement to be the true source of eternal life. (12:50) Jesus was free because he was in complete obedience to the Father.

So also, we can follow Jesus into freedom by living in obedience to the Father. As I read my class text for an upcoming Ethics class, I was reminded of a further development in our attempt to keep God's rule. In her book, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, Wyndy Reuschling argues that a truly Christ-centered ethic must go far beyond rule keeping. As an example, she holds up the third commandment (out of ten, for any that are uncertain of that reference) which tells us not to take the Lord's name in vain. In her view, it is unfortunate that we often reduce this grand call to the simplistic instruction not to swear by using God's name. (Or any derivative of it- we couldn't say "gosh" in my conservative home because that was only one step away from breaking this rule)

Reuschling goes on to point out that God gave this instruction to a group of people that had already committed themselves to him. He invited them into a relationship where they refused to use God's name lightly by invoking it in situations where God and his name were merely being used for the benefit of the speaker. In other words, God was telling Israel not to use him like another one of the house gods common in the world at that time. Other nations had gods, whose names they would invoke for any need. The gods were there to serve them. Jehovah God was reminding His people that their proper relationship with God was to serve Him in humility and fear, only using his name rightly in worship and adoration of Him.

All this is to say that when we set out to keep God's rules, we ultimately fail if we see these rules as nothing more than a checklist of spirituality. While Christian men might think it simple to check-off "do not commit adultery", we need to make sure we have enlarged this rule to encompass all of our heart attitude and actions as it comes to marriage. When we tithe, we can't automatically assume we have been generous. The rule God gives is like the base-line, the starting point for obedience. But if we stop here, we miss the true freedom that God invites us to through giving Him unconditional obedience.

On your journey today, may you see all of God's rules as invitations to know Him more and walk in freedom in this world He has given us.

Nick