Monday, January 26, 2009

I'll bet most people who use computers don't have the slightest idea how they really work. But that lack of understanding is no deterrent to use. Similarly, I don't really understand how the kingdom of God works but I'm delighted to be a citizen and participant.

"The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows--how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

I heard on a Christian radio station this morning that a recent survey indicates that, for the first time in its history, the majority of Americans no longer look to the Bible as the source of guidance and direction. That's certainly an unfortunate trend but not terribly surprising. Christianity seems to be diminished in its impact in our era and this trend, as well as the decline in church attendance and growth in many churches, is cause for alarm by many. But this is no reflection on the growth and impact of the kingdom of God.

The fact is, according to the parable of Jesus, the kingdom grows silently and mysteriously among us. Regardless of the tide of popularity of Christianity, the vehicle designed to serve the kingdom, the growth of the kingdom is steady and sure.

On a personal level, the kingdom grows silently and mysteriously within us. We feed, water and cultivate it through essential disciplines such as prayer, worship, Bible study and Christian fellowship, but we no more understand its real growth than we do a garden that we've planted.

This much I'm sure of: the smallest of seeds was planted over 2,000 years ago and there has been steady, silent and impressive growth ever since. A day of harvest for the crop is rapidly approaching. With that in mind, I want to do all that I can to cultivate the "kingdom garden" in my life so that it is healthy and productive. And I urge you to do the same. It would be an unspeakable tragedy to come to the day of harvest with little or no crop to reap.

How does your garden grow? We can't answer that question but we can assess its health. If the crop looks less than healthy, today is an excellent day to provide the needed nutrients - while there is time. The Vine is waiting to supply His branches with health and vitality if we'll just reach out to make the connection.


Friday, January 23, 2009

A dynamic tension has always existed between change and tradition. Traditionalists like to chant, "if it ain't broke don't fix it", while so-called progressives would sweep away the old for the "new and improved".

Much of Jesus' earthly ministry was characterized by clashes with the rigid traditionalist religious leaders of the day. Sabbath healings, association with "sinners", and fasting were but a few of the issues of controversy. Ultimately, Jesus framed the clashes with two simple illustrations:

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins." (Mark 2:1-2)

The illustrations seem simple enough but the application seems less than clear. New patches are for new garments, and new wine for new wineskins. Mixing the new with the old will always result in loss and disaster? Tradition and progress inevitably butt heads?

Perhaps the point that Jesus is most trying to make is that He does not neatly fit into rigid systems called religion. He is the proverbial square peg that will not fit in the round hole. He is far more radical than the existing system and expectations.

If Jesus is the centerpiece of all God's plans and purposes (Colossians 1:16,17), then the exact opposite of the religious leaders' expectations is true - all must conform to Him rather than the other way around.

Jesus isn't the radical progressive who came to throw away all tradition; He is abundantly clear on the subject - "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17). The real issue with Jesus is His preeminence - "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me." (Matthew 16:24).

Jesus doesn't fit neatly into our lives and our expectations; He came to reshape them and conform everything to Him. And that's the adventure of following the King of the Kingdom - we must allow our lives, priorities, families, jobs - everything - to conform to Him rather than the other way around. He did not come to patch up the old garment but instead to give us a brand new one. He is also trading in our old rigid wineskin for for a flexible new one, and filling it with new wine.

I'm lifting my glass as I write today and inviting you join me in a toast to the King who is filling it with the finest new wine the world has ever seen. May its intoxicating richness fill you life today.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Growth. For children we measure it with marks on a wall or doorway. For adults it's reluctantly measured in pounds on the bathroom scale. Intellectual and professional growth is measured by degrees and awards.

A key life priority is balanced growth in essentials. Consider what is recorded of Jesus' growth:

"The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him ... And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." (Luke 2:40,52)

Even though Jesus was and is the Son of God, I don't believe that growth in these areas just happened. Physical growth and strength requires proper nutrition, exercise, and hard work. Growth in wisdom requires deliberate application of knowledge. Favor with men requires careful cultivation of relationships and social graces. Growth occurs through deliberate effort.

In response to Jesus' commitment to growth in key areas, "the grace of God was upon Him". Apparently God really does help those who help themselves. And that commitment to balanced growth coupled with God's grace resulted in even more productive growth: "And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."

A commitment to balanced and disciplined growth is blessed with the grace of God. Attention to nutrition, exercise, Bible study, prayer, and personal relationships are all subject to the favor and blessings of God.

It is interesting that the qualifications of church elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3) largely revolve around these key growth areas characteristic of Jesus. Leadership is much more about who we are rather than what we do.

The challenge before us today is to assess our personal growth. Am I growing in the key areas that God desires? Is there unproductive growth that needs pruning? How can I better participate with God so as to most fully experience his grace and favor?

May the building of Christian character be an especially rewarding experience today.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Life is but a dream", goes the classic nursery rhyme. Perhaps, but more often than not God's word and will is revealed in a dream. Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder. Daniel and Joseph interpreted the dreams of powerful rulers. Jesus was spared death as an infant because of a dream given to Joseph. The book of Revelation is a detailed dream of the future. And the Spirit of God works in these last days to cause old men to dream dreams (Acts 2:17)

Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt, had two specific dreams:

"Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. The ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke. He fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream." (Genesis 41:1-7)

Two separate dreams, each pertaining to two distinct sets of sevens, contained the mark and confirmation of YAHWEH God regarding the future. As was revealed to Joseph, these two dream represented the truth about seven coming years of abundance to be followed by seven years of severe famine (Genesis 41:25-32). The purpose was to prepare for the preservation of many people; especially God's chosen people.

The book of Revelation is largely a dream unveiling God's plan for history's last seven years. Like Pharaoh's dreams, it is designed to prepare us for what is to come. We do well to study its contents and plan wisely based on what we discover.

The biblical pattern of the past indicates the strong possibility that God may be revealing His plans for the future through His people today. How amazing that our Creator is concerned enough about our future to reveal such information!

An old saying goes, "I don't know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future". How thankful we are to know the One who both holds and reveals the future. Regardless of the details of the future, our greatest assurance is in knowing the One who holds it.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You just never know where he's going to show up.

"Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:16-17)

A night under the stars with a rock for a pillow was the setting for a dramatic encounter with God for Jacob. The presence of God transformed an unimpressive setting into the very house of God and left Jacob in profound awe.

The lesson and application for us is pretty simple but equally awe-inspiring: when God shows up the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. A non-descript setting becomes the very dwelling place of God.

I remember an evening several years ago when I had a powerful emotional experience. Several church members were present as I poured out my heart before the Lord in prayer with many tears. Several commented later that they had never sensed the Spirit of God present as they did that night.

I recall later opening the Bible and sensing its words being alive in way I had not experienced before - or since. His word and His presence came alive as I read at our very ordinary kitchen table. That brief moment and place became a 'Bethel' to me.

I've had several 'Bethel' moments along the way that have shaped me spiritually. I doubt I'll fully understand their significance this side of the Kingdom, but I stand in awe of my Father who chose to reveal Himself for reasons He alone knows. He took the initiative.

The exciting possibility of this day and moment is that it can be transformed into a 'Bethel'. Your work, school, or household routine can in an instant be transformed into the very dwelling place of God. And you will never be the same again when it happens.

One theme that is abundantly evident in Scripture is this: God has chosen numerous times to initiate life-changing encounters with His people. And that possibility still exists today!

May the God of Bethel initiate a life-changing 'Bethel' experience with you today.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Never underestimate the power of simple faith. A childless old man is asked to believe in descendants too numerous to count.

"And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:5-6)

In a way that only God could, He took Abram outside at night and used the limitless night sky to emphasis His point and promise. Literally, a starry-eyed Abram simply "believed in YAHWEH", and his simple faith was credited to him as pleasing to the Lord. Child-like, simple faith was the prized quality that appropriated the promise.

This passage is vivid in my mind. I picture Abraham standing beside God, like a young child standing next to his parent, looking up at the night sky in wonderment. In child-like innocence he simply accepts the outrageous promise that God makes because of His absolute trust In his Father.

Innocent, child-like faith is more difficult the older we get. The experiences of life can easily fill us with skepticism, pessimism, and callousness. Age and experience have a way of removing child-like innocence and simplicity.

Perhaps Abram's faith was so highly prized because it is so rare in adults. The complexities and realities of adult life had not tainted his innocent inner child, as so characteristically happens to most people.

The loss of innocent, child-like faith is to our own peril: "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all" (Luke 18:17). Accepting that we will be privileged to rule the world together with Jesus at His return is about as outrageous as a childless old man believing that his descendants would be as numerous as the night stars. And yet we, like Abram, are asked to accept this outrageous promise in simple, child-like faith.

In a way different than is commonly meant today, listen to your inner child.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

For government leaders it may be about the economy, but for followers of Christ it's about lifestyle.

"I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth." (1 Timothy 3:14-15)

The six chapters of 1 Timothy are chocked full of important information about how we ought to live as members of the household of God called the church. The foundation for that Christian lifestyle is found in Paul's very interesting description of the church: "the pillar and support of the truth". The church based upon its true purpose is the springboard for authentic Christian living.

This ideal isn't always a reflection of reality though, is it? It's far easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. Annoying habits and patterns of disobedience are as difficult to overcome as battling a brushfire with a water pistol.

Facing reality is an important step in seeking the ideal. Transparency is key to achieving the ideal. It's been suggested that Christian fellowship should require the same honesty as Alcoholics Anonymous: "Hi. I'm Steve, and I'm a sinner."

An old saying goes, "The church isn't a museum for the saints but a hospital for sinners." Authentic Christian fellowship isn't about displaying our righteousness but treating our sinful condition. Believers with one eye on the ideal and the other on their true condition are in the best position of all to be overcomers.

The church truly is to be "the pillar and support of the truth" - both in word and lifestyle. Loving the truth is a necessary prerequisite to living the truth. Both go hand in hand.

May our individuals lives and corporate fellowship be characterized by both love and lifestyle of truth.