Sunday, August 30, 2009

What's with The Shack?

Every few years, a book is written that captures our attention: not just the attention of 'church people' but of those who are spiritually hungry beyond the church walls. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young is such a book. Some Christian leaders are telling their people to avoid this book; while others like Eugene Peterson call it a modern “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I believe this is an important book that should be discussed in the light of Scripture. If you or a friend have doubts about God’s goodness or have been turned off by organized religion, I invite you to join me in exploring the Bible as it pertains to The Shack during our upcoming Fall preaching and Lifegroup series at St. John's Presbyterian Church, beginning Sunday, Sept. 13th. Call 310-477-2513 for more information; or visit our website at

To listen to a fascinating two-part introduction to The Shack by the author, click on the links provided at the top of this page, right column, under DOWNLOAD.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Walking on Feet of Clay

Forty years ago three men made history when they achieved the first lunar landing, it was one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind. When you realize that their boot prints will remain on the moon for a thousand years – they give new meaning to the phrase, “leaving your mark.” They were instant heroes, but the price of that small step was high. It took a toll on their personal lives. Rick Goldstein's review of Magnificent Desolation by astronaut Buz Aldrin points out that the same man "who walked on the moon... cheated on his wife... fought depression and alcoholism... just like millions of other people on this earth," thus proving that "even astronauts who leave their footprints on the face of the moon... have feet of clay."

The phrase "feet of clay" comes from the Book of Daniel where King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a massive statue with a golden head, arms and chest of silver, legs of bronze, and feet of iron and clay, representing the crumbling foundations of the kingdoms of humankind. For centuries, people have used the phrase “feet of clay” from Daniel 2: 31-32 to describe an unexpected flaw or vulnerable point in the character of a hero or any admired person. The dream and Daniel’s interpretation raises an important question in our culture of celebrity: What do we do when the person we most admire fails or disappoints us? I believe that the first thing we need to do is to recognize something fundamental about human nature, that...

We are often drawn to those with big dreams, position, popularity, or power. Nebuchadnezzar was a man of great power and influence – the King of the Babylonian Empire, the most powerful political and military force on the planet at that time; which had decimated Jerusalem in 587 BC and deported its citizens (the wise counselor Daniel, among them). Most dream of power, position, and popularity; but Nebuchadnezzar lived the dream. His fame was so enduring that 2500 years later, Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, insisted that he was the literal reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. No doubt the king of Babylon had thousands at his beck and call; servants, magicians, consorts, counselors, just to name a few. And they knew that in his service they would (for the most part) benefit as well.

Who are your role models? Who are you drawn to? Who are the people you like to be associated with? You may be drawn to a person because you sense that he/she walks closely with God and can help you do the same; because she has gifts you wish you had, or greatly admire; because he can help you to achieve your own goals; because he/she is able to fill a need that you have…like the love of a father or mother. The Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians that he had guided spiritually, “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul did not apologize for his fathering role in the life of his Corinthians brethren, he celebrated it. As I look back, I can see that God has blessed me with parents, teachers, pastors, friends, spiritual fathers and mothers who have played a significant role in shaping who I am today. I’m sure you can too. Celebrate that...

But, like Daniel, never lose site of who you are serving and why; especially if you have access to position, popularity, or power. There is a lot being written today about the Culture of Celebrity; that we live our lives vicariously through famous athletes, actors, politicians, psychologists, cooks, singers, religious gurus etc. Daniel was never so enamored with the King’s power or his own…that he forgot that he was God’s celebrity.

God’s celebrity uses power and position not just for himself…but for the benefit of others. When Daniel heard that the king intended to execute all the wise men in Babylon because they could not interpret his dreams…he spoke up (even on behalf of those who did not worship God). “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon” Daniel said. “Bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation” (2:24).

God’s celebrity does not seek glory, he gives glory to God. Daniel never let power go to his head. When he had the opportunity to interpret the king’s dream, he made it clear that he was at the king’s service by the grace of God: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (27-28). Daniel knew where his talents, gifts and abilities came from. He knew it was not just his abilities but God working in him. When he was praised he could reply, “See what they’re saying about us, Lord!” – and so can we…with every success, with every promotion, with every commendation, with every good grade, with every tackle or field goal, with every well run race, with every job well done, with every drop of sweat, and with every act of faithful service that others recognize, we can say….“See what they’re saying about us, Lord!”

Third, understand with Daniel that all human beings, regardless of their position, popularity, or power, have flaws (feet of clay) which must be acknowledged before God; or denied at great cost. Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of “a great statue…The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of bronze, its feet part of iron and partly of clay” (29, 31-33). Daniel explained to the king that Babylon represented “the head of gold” (38). From other parts of the Book we know that the kingdom after Babylon, symbolized by the chest and arms of silver, was the Medo-Persian Empire (8:20). The legs of bronze were a symbol for Alexander the Great who spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean (8:21). The iron and clay feet may refer to the future Roman Empire. But regardless of the interpretation, the outstanding characteristic of the statue is that it has a flawed foundation; a foundation of pride, of selfishness, of cruelty, of idolatry; and eventually it would all come crashing down. For in the king's dream he sees a “stone not made with hands” which destroys the statue; and which inaugurates “a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” – the kingdom of God (44).

The City of Babylon seemed invincible in its day. It was 14 miles square, surrounded by a 300 ft. wall, 25 ft. thick. It had 250 towers, each 450 ft. high; and was paved with stone slabs 3 ft. square. The City had 53 temples, and a solid golden statue of Baal that weighed over 50,000 lbs. Daniel writes about this statue in ch. 3. Did Nebuchadnezzar build this golden statue in defiance of the vision? Perhaps; but it didn’t save the city from destruction. The ancient greek historian, Herodotus, records that on the night of Oct. 12, 539BC, as the Babylonians were celebrating a great festival, the Persian army diverted the Euphrates River, which flowed under the walls and through the city. Then Cyrus and his men marched into Babylon on the empty riverbed (Herodotus 1.191). Babylon collapsed in a night.

Like Babylon and its king, all people regardless of their position, popularity, or power, have feet of clay. If you've been disappointed by a leader, a celebrity, or even a family member…you can bet that you’ll be disappointed by them again. One summer in high school, I participated in a Christian leadership training camp. It was led by a guy I greatly admired. He was a runner…so I started running. He took us on my first backpack trip, and I fell in love with backpacking. He loved to teach the Bible; and I wanted to as well. He had a wonderful wife; and I knew I would have one someday too. He was very cool…and I, well… I’m still working on that. I idolized him in many ways…and so it shocked me when I learned a couple of years later that he and his wife divorced. I didn’t think that happened to people like that. Suddenly, I saw that he too had clay feet.

People will disappoint you; the church will disappoint you. In recent years some churches have begun to backpedal from the proclamation that Jesus Christ alone is Lord and Savior; from the authority of Scripture; and from the call to discipleship - to putting God before things like national interest, success, sexual fulfillment, entertainment, or appearance. This week, I am again disappointed that something as well attested in Scripture as the call to marriage between one man and one woman or to chastity in singleness is considered optional in some corners of the church. I'm disappointed, but my faith is not in the church; my faith is in Jesus.

Like Daniel, you can’t always change Nebuchadnezzar’s mind…you may not be able to do a lot about the teacher or pastor or parent or work associate who disappointed you and let you down…but if they were irresponsible, you can be dependable. If they were disloyal; you can be faithful. If they were uncaring, you can be compassionate. If they were unforgiving, you can be merciful. If they were arrogant and unrepentant, you can model humility. And one more thing,

Consider “the Stone which the builders rejected” the One who rejected earthly position, popularity, and power; and whose Kingdom shall never end. Daniel speaks of a stone not cut by human hands (34) that crushes the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold; and becomes a mountain that fills the world. He tells us that it represents the One who will establish God’s kingdom on earth. Now that’s an absolutely stunning image of God’s rule over every so-called human power; but it’s even more startling when we realize Christ is its fulfillment. For on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus identified himself with this Stone (Psalm 118:22; Matt. 21:42); the stone which the builders rejected; the Stone that has become the Cornerstone. He is the King who set aside his divine position, popularity, and power, to be our Redeemer in the flesh.

I began by pointing out that even the men who walked on the moon had feet of clay. But if such great men are fallible; what hope is there for the rest of us? Our hope should be in the one whose imprint continues to endure after 2000 years, who set aside power, popularity, and position, to be our Redeemer in the flesh; and who will never fail or forsake us: to walk in his footsteps is the best way to leave our mark on this world. Yes, I will disappoint you...and you will disappoint me, but "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever!"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Phony Disguises

"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15).

About 650 BC, Aesop told a story that went like this. "There was once a Wolf who wanted to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Wearing a discarded sheep skin he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening it so happened that he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day mistakenly caught the Wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.” Could Jesus have been told that popular fable 600 years later? It's quite possible.

What we know for certain is that for Jesus, the wolf is the false prophet or teacher who seeks to ravage the flock, which is his church. He looks like a sheep outwardly, but he’s a wolf inwardly. In Aesop’s fable, the sheep don’t recognize the wolf; nor does the shepherd. On the other hand Jesus the Good Shepherd does recognize the wolf; and he gives us 4 tests to help us see through his phony disguise, even if we are the one’s wearing it.

The first test is the GATE test. In Matthew 7: 13-14, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate”; and again in John 10:9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” It has been the confession of the Church for 2000 years that Jesus Christ is the narrow gate that leads to peace with God and eternal life…not just one gate among several equally good options. There are many gods and spiritual leaders that are venerated in this world. So choose your god wisely! Your god may be money.…technology… your children… your reputation. Your god may be science or scientology. It may be fear. It may be the wisdom of a modern day guru. Choose your god wisely.

I for one am hungry for a God who cares about the suffering of this world, a God who offers me a compelling way to live my life, and a God who confronts the problem of death. Now I could see that God cared about suffering when I realized that God himself suffered on the cross and bore the penalty of my sin in Jesus Christ. I found a compelling model for living in the person of Jesus who showed me how to live life as it was meant to be lived; and, finally, I found in Jesus the hope of eternal life when he rose from the dead – a fact attested to by his followers to their deaths.

Choose your god wisely. There’s a ride at Disneyland that has over a thousand different variations (Indiana Jones & the Temple of the Forbidden Eye). At the beginning of the ride, you choose which portal you will pass through; and the mantra you hear over and over again is “Choose Wisely.” But although the details are different the outcome is always the same. There is a popular philosophy that sees all religions in much the same way. That worldview is like a sheepskin; it feels nice and warm and cozy, but it is ultimately harmful. Jesus tells us that he alone is the gate that leads to the Father (Rom. 6:23). To believers, I say this: Never be afraid to affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ above all as if you had to protect Jesus (or your faith) from being judgmental or unmerciful. Jesus can take care of himself (thank you very much)…and if we Christians can’t trust Jesus with all those who do not know or follow him yet, who can we trust? He is Lord; He is just; and He is good!

The second test is the ROAD test: Do we affirm the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us? Do we teach people to follow Jesus’ way of life and obey his commands or to ignore them? Jesus says, "the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7: 14); and again, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). Historically, churches have stressed either the call to personal faith in Christ, or social righteousness in his name; but the reality is that Jesus calls us to both. He calls us to believe in him, know his word, and fellowship with his people. But he also calls us to the street; to reconcile with enemies; to speak the truth in love, to guard and protect sexual purity, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; serve God instead of money; and to let our good works shine like a light so that others might see them and glorify God.

Last week, at a discussion forum focused on erradicating the evil of human trafficking, I heard a pastor involved in rescuing, sheltering, equipping, and mainstreaming children who have been victims of child trafficking and sexual abuse (truly God's work!) Someone from the audience asked him this question: “Where is God in all this?” (perhaps because he was the only clergyman on the panel). His gentle but firm response was, “Where are you?” He was being a faithful prophet…he was encouraging the people around him to take Jesus’ commands seriously, to walk the walk of a disciple. As I thought about this question, others surfaced as well. Where is God when you discover that children are being abused in your apartment complex or on the other side of the world? Where is God when your work associate is struggling with her marriage? Where is God when your neighbor finds out he has a brain tumor? Where is God when a friend at school says that she has no hope and wants to end her life?

Where is God? God is at work! Where is God at work? Philip. 2:12 says that “God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God likes people, and his intention is that his people be involved in addressing the pain, spiritual confusion, and injustices of this world for the sake of his kingdom. If someone tells you otherwise…he’s sporting sheepskin. The truth of the gospel is deeply personal…and deeply practical; a glorious word, and a world changing deed! “Dear children, let us not love with word or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3: 17-18).

The third test is the FRUIT test. I can teach people to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. I can teach people to do the right thing all day long...but the acid test as far as Jesus is concerned is personal integrity, “Do I practice what I preach; do I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in my own life?

Jesus says that “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7: 17-18). His meaning is crystal clear. If we are following Jesus then there will be fruit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; and if there is no fruit…we will be accountable to God’s judgment for that. Now let me say this, if you are a spiritual leader and alarmed when you read these words of Jesus; if you wonder whether you are really living out what you teach or proclaim to others, that's a good sign. The mere fact that you are alarmed and want to grow in the Spirit’s fruit is a sign that Christ’s Spirit is at work in you. None of us has arrived. One of the signs that we are drawing closer to Jesus is an increased awareness of our own sin and unworthiness; and our need of his grace. BUT, having said that, I must also go on to say this....

I do not honor Jesus’ words here…if I offer only consolation and no warning. To those who profess to be pastors or teachers or spiritual leaders but who do not show anything of the grace of Christ, and who do not really want in their hearts to be meek, forgiving, loving, or generous to those in need; but who are stingy, habitually unforgiving, self-righteous or arrogant, or embarrassed to be known as his disciple; Jesus would say that such persons should not be confident that they are converted. And so the prayer I’ve been praying a lot lately is, “Jesus, shine your light in me and in your church. Remove the sheepkin of hypocrisy, and reveal the places that there needs to be true conversion and repentance, real growth and a changed heart."

The fourth and final test that Jesus gives us here for genuine faith and trust in him is what we may call the STORM test: That is, has this person’s faith been storm-tested and revealed to be founded on the truth of God’s word. In Matthew 7: 24-27, Jesus says that the wind will blow and the rain will come, but that the house built on the solid rock of his word will stand…the house built on the sand of our own pathetic efforts and false gods will not. The fourth acid test of the spiritual leader is that he or she has found the word of Christ to be the solid foundation of his/her life in the midst of suffering and hardship.

In his book, Authentic Faith, Gary Thomas writes about the former editor of HomeLife magazine, Jon Walker whose unborn child was diagnosed with a fatal birth defect. Though the doctor recommended abortion, they decided to have the child anyway. The doctor was stunned. He was a confessing nihilist, believing that everything is random, that life is chance and that the Walkers just got “a bad roll of the dice.” Nevertheless, they believed that if Jeremy was only going to have 40 weeks in the womb to live…they were going to celebrate those 40 weeks as a gift from God.

Jon is not pollyanna about life…he admits very openly that the past 16 years have been difficult and on some days he wonders “why God keeps asking us to walk this road. It doesn’t appear fair.” After his baby died (the fourth child that they lost) Jon had to have an emergency gall bladder surgery, a hernia repair, and an operation on his writing hand – all in the same year! Jon wrote later, “I have to tell you that I’m not at all defeated by these events. In fact, I’ve … learned that because God is in me, He’s also in the middle of the mess, and I’ve learned that the mess is there to show me where I’m hanging my hope.”

Everyone suffers…but the man or woman of God knows that the mess shows us where we’re hanging our hope; therefore we reject the ridiculous teaching that says the true believer is guaranteed a pain-free life of prosperity and ease; and instead we pick up our cross with everybody else and follow the crucified and risen Lord into the mess of this world, doing his works and proclaiming his words with grace, compassion, and healing power!

One of the most memorable things Lisa and I saw in the Colorado Rockies two months ago was the spectacular big horn sheep. Let me tell you, wolves are impressive…but nothing beats a Rocky Mountain bighorn; weighing up to 300 lbs; living in large herds, able to climb incredibly steep terrain and more than able to defend itself with its large curved horns. But what’s amazing is that the bighorn was in danger of extinction not more than 70 years ago due to overhunting and exposure to the diseases of domesticated sheep. But the bighorn has made a comeback because the boy scouts and others made a concerted effort to protect it.

Friends, I believe that our nature is to be strong and resilient in Christ like the bighorn…it’s in our nature; but it’s foolish to think that we are invulnerable to attack either from without or from within. And so we boldly pray, "Jesus, protect your sheep by helping us see through the wolf's phony disguse, even if we are the one's wearing it; any fear of naming you as the world's one true Lord and Savior; any hesitation to encourage others to obey your commands; any failure to practice what we preach; any reluctance to trust your word in the midst of the trials we are going through right now. We trust you to do what's best, for you're the Good Shepherd, who says, 'I know my sheep and my sheep know me, and no one is able to snatch them out of my hand.'"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pigs & Pearls

Has being called a “pig” ever been a compliment? I sincerely doubt it; and the fact that the latest influenza outbreak was linked to pigs hasn’t helped their image. About 25 of our Middle School students had a great time at camp this summer but right after they came home (wam!) they all got sick with swine flu. It was passed around as they were sharing a huge 50 scoop Sunday at the camp clubhouse...which seems to prove there's a link between swine flu and eating like a pig (sorry).

Pigs were held in contempt by Jews of the first century. The flesh of a pig was considered to be unclean; and so Gentiles and "non-believers" were often referred to as "pigs" or "dogs." Jesus had a few run-ins with pigs himself. In Gergasa, he cast a legion of evil spirits into a herd of pigs, who ran headlong down a hillside and drowned (Mark 5: 1-20); and then there is Jesus' arresting proverb: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). It's obvious that Jesus thinks there are things in our possession far more precious than pearls...and that he doesn't want us to abuse them or cast them aside.

In Matthew 13: 45-46, Jesus says that the gospel of the kingdom is like “a pearl” of the greatest value that a merchant sold everything to possess. It would seem that the primary meaning of Matthew 7:6, then, is that we should not continue to push the good news about Jesus and his kingdom on those who are unwilling or unable to receive it; or who reject and despise it. The message of the gospel has been entrusted to us…and we are to be wise in how we share it. Let's face it, not many of us would bring our dog to church. We love our dogs but we know they would have trouble sitting up straight; and it would be difficult for them to even hum the songs. Nor would many of us buy a pearl necklace and then throw it to a wild pig at the LA Zoo! The fact is, pigs can’t digest pearls; and dogs don’t sing or pray. All that is to simply say that we can’t force good things on other people…not even the Gospel. They must be ready to receive what we have to give. Jesus is giving us permission to walk away…and to put that person in God’s hands.

But more often than not, our problem is not that we are too pushy with the gospel; but that we fail to share it at all. Our fear of appearing “pushy” should not discourage us from listening and getting to know the people around us who don’t know Christ; nor discourage us from sharing our faith in a relaxed and non-manipulative way. Having said that, there may still be a person who is simply not ready or willing to hear the gospel. Does this proverb about pigs and pearls mean that we simply write people off as hopeless? That doesn’t sound like Jesus. Let me suggest, then, that when our testimony is not welcomed -- our actions are more important than ever.

In his book, A Modern Epiphany, Cecil Prescott shares about a discussion in a camp of students from many nations regarding the various ways that Christ can be shared with other people. At one point, Maria, a girl from Africa, was asked what she did in her country. “We don’t have missions or give pamphlets away” she said, “We just send one or two families to live and work in a village; and when the people see what they are like, they want to become Christians too” (William Barclay, Matthew vol. 1). Do you think that strategy would work in West Los Angeles? And if not, why not? We cannot always tell a person about Christ…but we can show them Christ. Are you breathing a sigh of relief right about now? "Good," you say to yourself. "I don’t have to tell anyone about Jesus, I can just show them with my life." To that I would say that showing people Jesus with our lives is in many ways our greatest challenge…which is why I want to talk about another way that we can understand this proverb of Jesus. Namely, that there is a time to cherish and protect our God-given gifts & there is a time to share them freely with others.

Casting your pearls before swine, in this case, means to treat something precious with contempt; with disrespect; with carelessness. To live out the Christian life before others often means that we must learn to cherish the pearls that he has given us; it means that w e must often guard and protect them in a way that may seem strange, or unpopular, or out of step with the rest of the culture. What are the pearls that God wants you to guard and protect before sharing with others? How can you be a witness to Christ in the way you handle the precious and holy things that God has given you? Some examples would be helpful here, so let me suggest a few.

One very obvious “pearl” that deserves to be cherished and not hastily or thoughtlessly cast away is our purity. Our purity is something which God has given us…and as children and teenagers we have a God-given desire to protect it. We live in a day and time in which innocence is being violated at pandemic levels. Did you know that youth and children right now comprise 50% of the 15-30 million people who are being abused and trafficked as slaves?According to World Vision, at least 1 million of these youth and children are being trafficked as sex slaves ( I believe that we as a church should be involved in working against this plague. Why am I sharing this? Because it made me aware that what one million children are having violently taken from them by force; many young people everyday are casting aside without the slightest thought – I’m talking about their innocence. Our purity is like a pearl; and God calls us to guard and protect this pearl until the day we are ready to make a lifelong commitment in marriage. I want to challenge you to reclaim as your own what many would like to steal from you or drag through the mud. I would also like to say that Christ can heal and restore what has been lost as we come to him in humility and repentance….for he says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Speaking of children just now, I want to also say to moms and dads that our children are precious; that they are far more valuable than silver or gold or pearls; and yet we often spend far more time trying to accumulate silver and gold than we do cherishing our children. It’s not too late to re-evaluate our priorities; to begin counting our children and our family more important than our work or out hobbies or our so-called success. Having just celebrated a wonderful week of Vacation Bible School, I’ve been reminded again that Jesus was never too busy to spend time with children… and we shouldn’t be either.

Here is a third pearl that comes to mind today: our spiritual gifts and, in general, our capacity to serve the Lord in ministry and mission. It’s easy to underestimate the spiritual gifts and talents of our young people. Just last week I learned that one of the middle school students in our church completed a 2 mile ocean swim as a junior life guard. It takes incredible strength, endurance, and determination to do something like that…and it makes me want to get serious in the pool too! She has taken her God-given athletic ability, and developed it. Sadly, a lot of us are sitting on the beach…when God wants us to get in the water and start swimming. That wasn't the case with two of the daughters of our church who told me last week that they will be involved in hands-on mission work this next year. One will be working at Cal State LA with Campus Crusade for Christ; and a second has just been accepted as an intern with Youth for Christ and will be serving for six months in Mexico. God is calling these women into spiritual leadership; and he can do the same with us…but we must allow him to develop and to use our spiritual gifts and talents.

We’ve talked about purity, about our children and families, about our God-given talents; but I want to mention one more pearl – and that is our God-stories. While Lisa and I we were en route to Marina Del Rey on one of our early "pre-marital dates"… I had been sharing a lot about my background in response to some questions Lisa had asked me. But then I asked a rather dumb question of her: “Lisa, I’ve been sharing a lot about myself; how come you haven’t been sharing very much about yourself? You’ve been kind of quiet and reserved on our last two dates?” Then she quipped: “Well, I like to be asked; I don’t like casting my pearls before swine....” I laughed out loud as I was put soundly in my place; but inwardly I realized how insensitive I had been. It was then and there that I realized how important it is for Lisa to know that someone is actually interested in finding out how she is doing before she shares anything. And Lisa practices what she preaches…she is great at asking people how they are doing, but she likes to be extended the same courtesy. Don’t we all? How easy it is to get lost in our own world…and forget that the person sitting right across from us has a life too. Lisa reminded me that each of us wants to feel like a pearl of great value; respected, cherished and important; enough to merit concern, compassion, and curiosity.

That (painful) story brings me full circle, because until we truly value and respect each person we meet as a pearl that Christ has purchased at the price of his own blood… we will be in no position to share the pearl of the gospel with them. Until we are willing to climb out of our own world of self-concern and self-interest enough to get to know other people, to show genuine interest in them as human beings; the gospel message we have to share will ring hollow. We cherish the gospel message more than pearls…by learning to respect and value the people around us; and earning the right to be heard. Put another way, we can’t cast our pearls…until the common herd before us become in our eyes children of God whom he has called us to love and forgive just as he has loved and forgiven us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thorns in Paradise?

What is the most beautiful thing you have experienced this week? A sunset on the beach; the smell of a rose, or a good meal; something coming together at work, an unexpected opportunity, a loving glance from someone you care about; the squeeze of a child’s hand? Have you ever tasted Paradise? Most of us long to experience Paradise, and may even have tasted it.

Last week we visited my brother and his family in Maui; certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The deep blue water that is so clear you can see 20 or 30 feet down; the colorful tropical fish and the giant sea turtles that populate its coral reefs; the rainforests filled with hanging vines, exotic plants, waterfalls and rock pools, mango and passion fruit trees; and the songs of native birds…these things for me offer a taste of paradise.

Then there are the times of deep Christian fellowship and worship that have tasted like paradise; working together for a cause greater than myself; or enjoying a spiritual retreat like we did two weeks ago with many St. John’s families; seeing a guy I met last year who gave his life to Christ and what a profound difference he is making in his life. These experiences offer to me a taste of the joy and beauty of paradise.

Then there’s the Apostle Paul who actually visited Paradise. He’s one of those guys who can top anyone’s vacation! In 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10 he explains that fourteen years before, he was “caught up to the third heaven….into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (3-4). What could top an experience like that? Yet Scripture tells us that God has created this world in such a way that its beauty gives us a taste of the paradise that is to come, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that we are without excuse" (Romans 1: 20). Every one of us longs – whether consciously or unconsciously, to be in the place of overwhelming beauty and contentment and joy; and we may even feel (perhaps not as intensely as Paul) that we’ve tasted it here on earth....

Yet the reality of pain and suffering in the midst of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring experiences reminds us that Paradise has been lost. Despite Paul’s amazing experience he was very honest about "the thorn" that was his constant companion and teacher. For he says that “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan … to keep me from being too elated” (7).

What was this thorn? Christians have been pondering that question for 2000 years and have come up with many different answers. Some think he may have been referring to the pain of opposition and persecution which he experienced because of the gospel; others that he was referring to spiritual temptations like doubt or despair. One of the oldest theories was that Paul suffered from some physical malady; that Paul was speaking plainly when he said he had a “thorn in the flesh”. It’s been suggested from his letters that he had eye trouble; or that he had a recurrent form of malaria which was common to the Mediterranean and caused an intermittent stabbing headache. Notice that when these theories are put together, they sum up the variety of things that can cause pain and difficulty in this life…doubt, despair, loneliness, guilt, conflict with other people; the stress of a chronic illness or health problem.

The Bible tells us that these things are the result of human sin which has separated us from God, and spoiled our relationship with other people and with the creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says the Lord to Adam, “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…until you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken” (Gen. 3: 18-19). God intended for this world to be a paradise…but it’s been spoiled by human pride and our determination to reject God and go our own way.

Last week I thought I was in paradise…but I wasn’t. Even a beautiful place like Maui has pain and problems. We visited a woman last week who paints for a living and lives in the most beautiful home overlooking Napili Bay that I have ever seen. We were there, because my sister in law is making some extra money helping her around the house. But she did not hesitate to tell us how lonely she has been since her husband’s death; and she acknowledged that she was not a Christian. When she told me she had diabetes, I told my own story and how I experienced God’s love in the midst of my dependence upon insulin. The experience reminded me that even in a so-called Paradise…there is loneliness, there is illness, there is grief.
Believe it or not, there are thorns even in Hawaii. While driving along the road to Lahaina, my brother pointed out some large kiawe trees that grow beside the road and shoreline. He explained that they were brought to the islands by the Spanish because they grow quickly, and are a good source of firewood. The problem is that they have thousands of sharp thorns; that litter the beach. Sin is like that. It’s a foreign invader. It was not part of the original design. It spreads quickly; it’s hard to eradicate; and it causes a lot of pain. It reminds us that we’re not in paradise. But with all that said…there is hope.

Through a life of joy and hardship, God is forming the character of Christ in us; empowering us to serve him here and in the true Paradise to come. Paul made an amazing discovery. Three times he asked the Lord to take this thorn from him; but God said this: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness...Therefore (says Paul) I am content with weaknesses…for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (10). Jesus has shown us the way to overcome the troubles and temptations of this world…and that is not by denial or running away; but by humbly surrendering to the grace and power of God in the midst of them. In his commentary, William Barclay points out the all-sufficiency of God's grace in Paul's life:

It was sufficient for weariness. John Wesley preached 42,000 sermons and averaged 4500 miles a year; riding 60-70 miles a day on horseback, preaching 3 sermons a day on average. At age 83, he wrote, “I am a wonder to myself. I am never tired either with preaching, writing or traveling.” That was the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace.

It was sufficient for physical pain. A few months ago, our girls had the opportunity to meet Joni Erikson Tada; a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident in her teens. Today she inspires millions with her testimony of God’s power in her life…despite this affliction; and her work on behalf of the disabled. That’s the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace.
It was sufficient for opposition and ridicule. All his life, Paul faced those who opposed him and even wanted to kill him, yet he never gave in. No amount of criticism or opposition could break him or make him turn from Christ. That was the work of our Lord’s all-sufficient grace…the One who overcame the powers of sin, death, and hell, when he died for us on the cross and was raised to eternal life.

Sitting out on the balcony of my brother's house in Maui, as the sun was coming up over Molokai and Lana'i, I turned in the special Bible I use for a daily devotional and read Romans 6:22 where we learn that for those freed from sin and claimed by God through faith in his Son, “the end is eternal life.” As I read those words, I was reminded that as good as things may seem to be in this life (or as bad) this is not the end! The end is eternal life. Paradise, real paradise, is yet to come. Through his all-sufficient grace Christ is empowering us to serve him here in this imperfect world…and in the paradise that is yet to come. And for that I say, “Mahalo!”