Luke 13

I am a reader. Those who know me will probably smile when they read those words. In my free time, I am rarely without a book in my hand. When I was younger, I read mostly fiction – especially the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series. My favorite author, though, was Louisa May Alcott. I read and re-read every book she ever wrote because I loved how she created a story. Even though her books were fiction, I felt as though I were reading a true story – her plot and details were that believable. And I always learned something from her books.

Jesus is the master story-teller. Over and over in the New Testament, we read of our Savior using a story to make a point or to teach a lesson. In doing so, He teaches about complex topics like faith and grace and salvation. We see this over and over in Luke 13, our chapter for today.

Jesus uses the parable of a barren fig tree to teach about how to live a Godly life (Luke 13:6 – 9). He compares the kingdom of God to both a mustard seed and to leaven used in baking bread (Luke 13:18 – 21) He uses the idea of a narrow door to represent the fact that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 13:24 – 30; John 14:6). The people to whom He was talking would have had as difficult a time as we do now understanding concepts like the kingdom of God, faith, and salvation. Fig trees, mustard seeds, leaven and doors, though? They understood those. They were familiar with these objects, because they used them in their daily lives. By using stories, Jesus made complex topics more easily understood.

As Jesus ends this time of teaching, He laments over the lost in Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). As I finish writing this devotion, it is Monday morning, and our country is waking to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas. Jesus’ poignant cries over Jerusalem remind me that my Savior also weeps today, along with those who grieve.

Colossians 2

Last night, I was cleaning out some old books and journals, and I came across a prayer journal that I had purchased but never really used. I had thought it would “work” for me – I even filled out a few pages – but it just didn’t. Nonetheless, I saved it, thinking that of course I would use it “someday”. Well, someday came and went, and I haven’t used it. But as I flipped through the pages last evening, I noticed a section I had missed before. For each month, the author had put together a list of daily prayer points. And for one month, the list was based on the book of Colossians. The list is titled “Seeing the Lord: Personal Prayers From Colossians”.* Several of the prayers are based on Colossians 2, our text for today.

I read through those prayers quietly, and I remembered all over again why Colossians is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I love how the Lord led me to hose prayers last night, as He knew that I would be writing this devotion today. The prayer that resonated with me the most on this list is based on Colossians 2:7. The prayer reads, “Cause me to be firmly established in You, with a heart of gratitude.” This seems to be a central verse in this chapter. Paul begins by stating that he desperately desires that the followers of Christ would be strengthened in their faith. He says “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you…” (Colossians 2:1). Paul continues, explaining why he wants their faith to be strong. He knows that when our faith is strong, our “hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” with the “full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (Colossians 2:2-3) With the strengthening of faith comes encouragement, love, understanding and knowledge. What an amazing gift!

Paul also knows that our strengthened faith enables us to stand firm when we are faced with the temptations of the world. Clearly, worldly temptations existed when Paul lived, just as they do today, and Paul knew how difficult it can be to discern truth from falsehood. Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) When our faith is rooted firmly in Christ, we can discern God’s voice from among the other voices clamoring for our attention. When we are strong in our faith, we can stand strong in our world. We will stand firm for what Christ stands for.

My prayer for us this week is this: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

May we be both rooted and thankful today.

* “Personal Prayers From Colossians” by Terry Gooding

Introduction to Ephesians

Tomorrow, our Bible-reading community will begin reading the book of Ephesians together. I’d like to offer an introduction to this book today, a brief overview that will provide some historical and cultural context before we start.

Like many of the books in the New Testament, the book of Ephesians was written by Paul. Paul wrote this book in approximately A.D. 60 while he was imprisoned in Rome.

Stop and think about that last fact for a minute. Paul did not let his circumstances – his imprisonment – hinder him from sharing the gospel. Let that be an encouragement to us today!

Paul wrote many of his letters to individual churches, and this one is no exception. His intended audience for this book was the church at Ephesus. God knew, though, that the themes and topics in this book would eventually be spread from Ephesus throughout the world, so in that sense we are also the intended recipients of Paul’s words.

Ephesians is a short book consisting of only six chapters, but each is packed full of wisdom and encouragement. Although several of Paul’s letters were written to warn individual churches against specific behaviors, the letter to the Ephesians is different. This letter is a nurturing one. The church at Ephesus was a young church at this time, and Paul writes to its congregation to encourage it to continue to grow and flourish. He also reminds them of what the Church should look like, and he challenges them to live as Christ-followers in a fallen world. This encouragement and these reminders are just as relevant to us today as they were to the Ephesians in the early days of Christianity.

My favorite verse in the entire New Testament is Ephesians 3: 20-21: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” This is the verse I will be praying for our Bible Journal community as we read this book together this week!

Contemplating Life As Worship

If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. -1 Peter 4:11

The entirety of our lives is made up of what we think, say and do. Our active and passive response to what we are born into, what happens to us, and our surroundings — situations that unfold.

Whether we see it our not, God is the author of life; of our lives. Each breath we breathe is from God. His plan includes us. Part of that plan is our free will, our ability to uniquely decide how we’ll respond to the world as it presents itself, including interaction with each other.

Through studying the Bible and from insights gleaned from friends and sages, I have come to believe I should glorify God in all things, making my life a constant act of worship. But without some understanding of who God is, this is difficult. Even though God’s revelation is available to us all and His law is written on our hearts, it seems impossible to consistently glorify God.

If I was able to subjugate every thought, and every word, and every deed to God’s power; or to fully understand His purposes and His perfect plan for my life, who would I be then? It’s worth thinking about. A life focused on giving glory and power to God in all things — a perfect life, perfect alignment with God’s perfect will.

My hunch is this would be better than any life I could dream up, construct, or will into existence on my own. It’s crazy to think about this perfect life I am unlikely to attain — yet by my faith in Jesus, and through His grace, God considers me worthy of total righteousness, offering me a different kind of life. One in which I am able to receive God’s love as if I were His perfect child.

Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross offers the best example of God’s perfect love. This is the reason I choose to surrender all, bowing down to the maker of heaven and earth.

Thank you God for giving me freedom in the deliverance from my sin, through my submission to you. Thy will, not mine be done, as it is in heaven and on earth. Amen.

1 Chronicles 23; 1 Peter 4; Micah 2; Luke 11

Small Fires

Igniting Match & Smoke

Today’s Readings: 1 Chronicles 16, James 3, Obadiah 1, Luke 5

How thrilled I was to open my Bible Journal reading plan today and discover James on my list! I love James because I’ve spent some real time with him. It’s probably the only book in the Bible that I have close to memorized. My excitement waned however, when I sat down to outline a few ideas for today’s post. James is a tough realist. There’s not much room for interpretation. Certainly I am in no position to issue warnings or guidelines about taming one’s tongue! In fact, after spending time with James this week I thought, “wow I really have a long way to go…who am I to be writing about this text when the folks reading it are probably way better Christian’s than me” I spent some time praying about encouragement. How can we use James’ words today to encourage us to be better Christians? In the first section of James 3, he shows us our certain vulnerability through speech.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man…How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” James 3:1-2 and 5-6

We miss the point if we fail to connect the next passage about wisdom:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” James 3:13-16

This leads us to a fundamental question we face as Christians: How can I hope to purify my behavior when it flows from my corrupted inward character? Is there one among us that is not taken down by that bitter jealousy or selfish ambition? How can we change our hearts for good? We’re getting a lot of practice these days. I moved to central Illinois from the heart of Washington D.C. I worked in a very urban children’s hospital. I was used to big conflict all the time. We lived in row houses that shared walls. When our neighbor didn’t take care of their home, we got the mice along with them. When there was religious or racial tension, we lived the consequences along with those groups. When gang members shot their guns, it was neighborhood children that were caught in the middle. When I moved to Illinois to this quiet little town I loved that everyone just got along. I loved the feeling that we all just agreed on the values that matter. Admittedly, I missed the shopping and Trader Joe’s but not the turmoil.

Now, eight years later I see that divisiveness is here too. It’s just quieter; it lives inside and stays there for the most part. Campaigns of criticism begin in us as individuals and spread silently. We think of ourselves as wise and are quick to justify our personal role in conflicts. But what if we were to invite James into our little community? How would he counsel us? He wouldn’t allow us to deceive ourselves. I’ve learned this week that James’ words provide a simple clarity in our life. It is a gift we are willing to surrender to it. Lord, I pray for your wisdom this week for all of our readers. I pray that we might learn to hold our tongue and let go of selfish ambition. Help us, as we meet with family and friends for Thanksgiving this week. Help us to be examples of Christ’s love and provide the clarity of James’ teachings in the moments we need them. We love you Lord, and we are grateful for all of your blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

All You Need Is Love

When Jesus speaks of the perfect life, He is very clear: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” -Luke 10:27. In perfect love, God desires our wellbeing, our fellowship and obedience.

Obedience is a hard word for me to hear, let alone to say or do! But obedience to God’s precepts ultimately make us better, stronger, healthier and happier. God’s law is no longer imposed, but encouraged in love. It’s not offered in oppression, but in freedom from sin through a life of tangible fellowship with the Creator of the Universe. Obedience to a perfect God is to seek the love Jesus speaks of.

Love gets more complicated when we are concerned for our well being, when others threaten our way of life, our freedom or interests. This is when we must chose between our own understanding or trusting God.

I am fascinated by the intensity of the discourse after this very unusual and surprising election. I have had to remind myself that God is eternally sovereign and we are not.

Living out our faith is about love in action, showing love without favoritism, loving the unlovable, practicing grace and gratitude. It is helpful to recognize our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, avoiding demagoguery, so easily embraced.

Personal spiritual transformation is the true source of social change. It is born in Love. God’s Spirit guides us. There is no other way.

God is sovereign and everything, even political power, comes from Him or is allowed by Him.

We have a lifetime of opportunity to live out values like kindness, humility, forgiveness, bravery, sacrifice, integrity, generosity, and compassion. We might easily claim these as our own, and overlook them in others, but love is the champion of justice and truth.

More than anything Jesus is saying to me, “trust God, surrender all to Him and love each other like there is no tomorrow.”

Perhaps John Lennon had it right; “all you need is love!”

1 Chronicles 15; James 2. Secret: Amos 9; Luke 4

A New Covenant

But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.Hebrews 8:8-9

As I read about this New Covenant I wonder: Why did we need one? How does it work?

God once made a covenant with His chosen people. These were the descendants of Noah, and the children of Abraham. He promised to bless them and save them; and to save the world through them. They, in exchange were bound to his law, essentially the Ten Commandments. Law that focused primarily on loving God and each other, putting God above all while striving for purity and relying on ritual sacrifice to receive God’s atonement for sin.

As I read through the book of Kings and 2Kings, it reinforces the tremendous disappointment God experienced in the almost constant rebellion of his people. Though God appeared at crucial times, rescuing His chosen people, offering many signs and wonders, still they turned away — worshiping other gods, sacrificing their children, and leaning on their own understanding.

The New Covenant came despite God’s disappointment, perhaps even because of it. It came as an expression of His constant love for people. This is not His plan “B” but the final reconciliation, through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Considering our tendency to rebel, it’s remarkable God extends salvation to us. When we receive God’s grace, in an instant our sins are washed away and we are made righteous by faith! No longer under the power of the law, we are set free in Christ and given freedom to pursue a relationship with the one true God. A holy God who declares our innocence, though we are guilty. A self-sacrificing God, who takes our place on the cross and dies for our sins so we don’t have to.

The New Covenant is based on an act of love that restores the fullness of God’s intended relationship with us — His created beings. Once set free from sin, we are able to pursue holiness in the power of God’s Holy Spirit and a life in the presence of a living God who offers everything we cannot attain on our own. In this way we are blessed with peace, freedom, power and joy in the truth and security of an eternal, dynamic relationship with the very creator of the universe! This is the New Covenant. Thank you God!

Reading: 1 Chronicles 1–2; Hebrews 8; Amos 2; Psalm 145

Dragonfly

In the faint light of a cool and certain world, three nymphs in a pond clung to a reed. In somber tones they discussed the departure of a friend. Why did he leave us? The young one asked. Seems strange to leave the world we know for one we don’t. I can’t imagine a better life than ours. Why don’t they ever come back?

The elder spoke. No one has ever returned from above, so we don’t know what it’s like. When you look up, all you see is a distant light, a bluish haze at the edge of the void.

As his friends descended back to the mud, the elder remained. The urge drawing him to the surface grew stronger. He began to ascend the reed, slowly towards the light. Eventually he broke the surface into the blinding sun. Groggy from the climb he stopped near the top of the reed and fell into a deep sleep.

When he awakened he felt he couldn’t breathe. The shell that had protected him for so long had become too small. Then just as it was squeezing the life from him, unexpectedly the center of his back cracked open and four wet gossamer wings emerged, unfolding majestically into the warmth of the sun. Then his body, with unforeseen skill climbed free from its shell, out into a new world. Soon the wings dried off as his eyes adjusted to a new world, unimagined — a world of dazzling colors and strange new shapes.

Then, as if he had always done it; his wings began to move at an incredible speed, alive with power, effortlessly lifting off the reed he flew. He hovered and darted back and forth across the surface of the pond, wondering about his friends below. This was what he was meant to be. To soar in the light above and begin his true life.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. -2 Corinthians 3:18

The life of a Christ follower, if it is anything, is a life of transformation through faith in action. Spiritual formation is the process of Christ’s likeness forming in us — His attributes of unconditional love, sacrifice and righteousness becoming ours. This is the miraculous transformation that we are called to and made for; practical as it is mysterious.

A few years ago I was at the funeral of my brother’s wife’s grandmother, Freda. She had lived the life of a Christ follower. Her funeral was a celebration of her as a beloved child, a young woman, wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother, now passing into the next realm.

This realm, Christians believe, is an incredible place, found in the fullness of the presence and glory of the living God — for all eternity. Though finer details are subject to speculation, by faith we look forward to an eternity with no tears, in a place filled with the brightest light of truth and love. A realm beyond our wildest imagination.

At the funeral, many of Freda’s family shared fond memories and stories about her abundant love and other-centeredness. Then the Pastor shared a story about the metamorphosis of a Dragonfly. I loved his metaphor and its revelation about the mystery and splendor of eternal life. About an existence we are destined for — one we never fully appreciate in the here-and-now.

When I looked further into this illustration, I found other versions, stories and poems. Perhaps this analogy has been used for centuries to tenderly explain death and offer hope to grieving survivors. For me it was a tale about spiritual transformation and a reference to the great divide between this life and the next.

I find it remarkable that nature offers an abundance of great metaphors amidst the splendor and complexity of God’s creation.  We are so blessed with this revelation. God speaks without words.

The coolest thing about spiritual transformation is that as we grow in Christ, He grows in us. We don’t have to wait for the next life to experience or understand His power. As we change, becoming citizens of another kingdom, we are increasingly given eyes to see and ears to hear. Enabled to understand the truth.

Ours is not a blind faith, it is a faith realized in our daily transformation, as we follow Christ. Eternal life beyond our wildest hope waits for us, but it is only by faith that we truly see beyond the pale.

We live by faith not by sight. -2 Corinthians 5:7

Daily reading: 2 Kings 11–12; 2 Timothy 2; Hosea 3–4; Psalm 119:121–144

Autumn Blessing

What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? -Psalm 116:12

In the pale light of an October evening, I sat on my patio — under the yellow rain of the locust trees, crows cawing back and forth. The cool air was filled with the smell of distant smoke as I sat wondering: How could I be so blessed?

In this tranquil place I had broken bread with my family and friends, sharing stories of our lives that intertwined like vines in a vineyard, planted and grafted, pruned and picked. Not all bore the best fruit, but the ones that did were special.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.John 15:1-2

Vineyards At Sunset

Why was I so fortunate? Honestly I couldn’t think of anything that I had done to deserve all that I had been given. A strong and healthy family. A beautiful, patient, loyal and loving wife. Three amazing boys, all so different. My businesses had been prosperous in ways that made it hard for me to take the credit.

It had also been a life that revealed the hand of God in the splendor of creation.

Scenery Of High Mountain With Lake And High Peak On A Clear Day

A litany of people offering hope and direction to a scrawny freckled faced boy, and then to an arrogant young man. People investing time in me along the way, wanting nothing in return. Now I worked with trusted partners in collaborations reaching farther than I ever could have imagined. Still, I had this feeling there was more to my life.

The feeling I had on this crisp Autumn day was more than abundant gratitude, recognizing God’s incredible grace. It was a sense of responsibility, but not burdensome — more like the anticipation of greater opportunities around the next bend. Yes I had been given much and there was a reason for this, a reason I wanted to understand.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:5

Nothing that was given to me was really mine. I had been entrusted with knowledge and treasures beyond my wildest dreams; perhaps even wisdom. I had been the unworthy recipient of unconditional love; this was the greatest gift of all. Yet when I finally realized that I was only the steward of these gifts, now I had to decide how better to use them.

In the brightness of Autumn it became clear, by surrendering all to God, the fulfillment of my purpose was possible. This was now my greatest opportunity.

Today’s reading: 2 Kings 4; 1 Timothy 1; Daniel 8; Psalm 116

Demonstrating Faith

“Be the change you want to see in the world!” Gandhi

The first rule of story telling is “show, don’t tell,” and it applies to every aspect of good communication.

“Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” St Francis of Assisi might have said this, and certainly others have used this idea to teach us that, our actions speak louder than our words. How we share the “Good News” of our salvation through Jesus may depend on our circumstances, but it is a thing that we should be doing constantly. This is both the by-product of our transformed lives and our obedient response to His teachings. All of this is the blossom of our faith.

“And we also thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe”. -1Thessalonians 2:13

Understanding who we are to God is one of the most private and personal things we can do. But when this occurs, one of the most natural responses is to shout it from the roof tops. This is evangelicalism, and it also happens to line up with the request of Christ in the great commission. In His own words; He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. (Mark 16:15) Not only preach it but….”go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19).

The problem here is nobody wants to be told what to think or believe. We all have a tendency to want to figure this out for ourselves.  So how do we as Christians proclaim God’s revelation in a way that best glorifies God? The answer is simple, sort of. We must BE the truth. We must think and say and do the very things that Christ encourages us to do. It is then that we become compelling evidence of the wonder and power of God’s spirit living through people who turn to Him. It’s simple really, just follow Christ, the rest is easy.

Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, O descendants of Abraham his servant, O sons of Jacob, his chosen ones. -Psalm 105:1-6

1 Kings 19; 1 Thessalonians 2; Daniel 1; Psalm 105