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Book of the Month: Schola Caritatis: Learning the Rhythms of God's Amazing Love

  Starting a new feature for the next several months called Book of the Month.  I will present one of my books and tell you a little of the ...

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

toiling in vain

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.  In vain you rise early and stay up late toiling for food to eat--for he grants rest to his beloved. (Psalm 127:1-2)

This life is a constant battle between being whom and what God made us to be—in all of its truth and all of its beauty—and trying to be something, or someone, other than that.  It is the difference between receiving a self (a true, God-breathed self) and trying to manufacture one.  It is the difference between being organic (or authentic) and being synthetic.

We are builders by nature, even when it comes to the self.  We are always, it seems, trying to build a life, a career, or a reputation—trying to make a name for ourselves—when who we are has already been whispered into us before the foundations of the world.  We just need to find out who that is and be that.  A dear friend once said, “I think I’ve been asking the wrong question most of my life.  I’ve been asking, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ when I should have been asking, ‘God, who do you want me to be, and help me to do whatever helps me to be that.’”

That’s where this Psalm comes in.  It is a reminder from God about the order and essence of real life.  Whenever we start building (even a self to be), our labor will most likely be in vain.  The true self is God-built.  We just need to discover who that is and what that looks like in the world.  When we start trying to make something of ourselves, we just end up creating layer upon layer of falseness, “putting on coats against the cold” as Frederick Buechner once called it.  And that is the definition of toil—laboring in vain.

Give me the wisdom, O Lord, to know the difference—this day and every day—between who you truly made me to be and what I have merely tried to manufacture as a result of my own fears and insecurities.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

word within

The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:14)

If we let the word of God take up residence within us, it will become something.  It is alive.  In fact, “It is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword,” the writer of Hebrews reminds us.  We do not have to try and make it into something, it already is something, and will become something more in us as we give it time and space.
The problem is that while we may indeed read the word of God, we do not typically allow it the time and the space to become—to live and dwell within us.  We do not give it room to have a life of its own.  Therefore, more often than not, the seed of the word falls on the hardened path of our own busyness and activity and comes to nothing.  What a tragedy.
If we truly desire intimacy with God, if we truly want to hear God speak to us, we must learn how to plant his word in our hearts and souls in a way that it comes alive in us, and then works its way out into our lives and our world.  We must, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully said, turn our eyes into ears.  We must come to God’s word fully realizing its personal and specific nature, fully realizing its potential to speak deeply into our hearts and lives.  And we must make time and space for it to do so.  It will not happen by accident.      

This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it! (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, The Message)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

flame on

No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed.  Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light." (Luke 8:16)

You have lit this flame in me, O God, and I burn with love for you.  Yet at times I am content to hide the flame, to put it in a jar or under a bed, rather than setting it on a stand and letting it shine.  Sometimes I do this out of fear, sometimes I do it out of laziness, and sometimes I do it out of comfort--not wanting to go through the anxiety and the angst that putting this light on a stand creates in me.  But this flame, which you have lit, was made to shine, so that those who come in can see the light.  All it really costs me is to be; to be the one you have made me to be, and shine.  After all, that's what a light does.  Right?

Shine your light in and through me, O God, that those who come in can see the light of your love and your presence that resides in my heart and surrender themselves to you.  Amen.

Friday, November 10, 2017

subtraction by addition

     His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
     For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
     Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.  For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-11)

Life with Jesus, it seems, is more about addition than subtraction.  Or, at the very least, subtraction by addition.  I don't know why it has taken me so long to understand that.  For most of my life I have taken it on myself (with God's help of course) to try and eliminate all of the habits and patterns and vices and dysfunctions and sin that fills my heart and my life.  And, for the most part, I have failed miserably at ever being able to do that.  But maybe my problem has been that I have had it all backwards.  Maybe living life with Jesus is much less about subtracting sin than about adding more of God.  Don't get me wrong, of course God wants sin eliminated from our lives.  But how that happens is not so much through the subtraction of vice, as it is through the addition of God.  Not so much through the push of "ought and should," as the pull of love and affection.  Thus, as God fills more and more of my heart and soul, as he seizes me more and more with the power of his great affection, there will be less room in me (and less desire) for sin.  Thomas Chalmers once called this  The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. The only way to eliminate a lesser affection is to be captured by a greater affection.

I think that's what Peter is getting at here.  He doesn't focus as much on what needs to be eliminated, as he does on what needs to be added.  That's how lasting change really happens, through the pull of God's love.  That's the place where making every effort can be a really helpful thing.  It is not making every effort not to sin (good luck with that), but making every effort to add more of God--more virtue--in your life.  Then the space that was once occupied by sin will, instead, end up being occupied by Love.  Do not be overwhelmed and overcome by staring constantly at the negative, but be consumed and compelled by the positive.  It is very similar to what Paul said in Philippians 4:8-9.  We do not overcome anxiety by constantly trying not to be anxious.  We overcome anxiety by focusing on that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  We overcome anxiety by filling our minds and hearts with the beauty of God, by truly coming to know the God of peace.

Thus, Peter says that in order to live the life God wants to live in and through us--to be participants in the divine nature--we need only to add to our faith goodness.  That is where it all begins.  Pray.  Meditate.  Make time and space for God to move and act.  Ask him to plant his goodness in us.  And, as far as making every effort is concerned, be good.  Focus on being good--to yourself, to your spouse, to your kids, to your friends, to your world.  Make a concentrated effort to add more goodness to our lives, to our inner dialogue, to our conversations, to our interactions.  And before we know it, as goodness has begun to take root in us, add some knowledge (of God, of the Scriptures, of ourselves, of others)--and so on.  And eventually, as we are faithful in our adding, we will find our way to love.  Not just an outside in kind of love, but a love that has grown organically within us as a result of us adding more of God to our lives.  Thanks be to God that he has indeed, given us all we need  for life and godliness.  All we need to do is fill our lives with all that he has given.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

using jesus

Beware of the teachers of the law.  They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.  Such men will be punished most severely.  (Luke 20:46-47)

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law loved the respect and the honor, the popularity and the reputation that came with their position.  At some point, I'm sure, there was a deep love for God and a genuine desire to serve him that was the main motivation for their lives of service.  But somewhere along the line that once pure desire had become tainted.  In fact, as Jesus comes on the scene in Luke 20, it seems that they were much more in love with the perks of their position than they were with the God who put them in it.  Somewhere along the line they had begun to use God rather than serve God.  It was a subtle shift that I'm sure they were hardly able to notice, but an enormous one.  And now they mostly used their role in the life of Israel to serve themselves, not their God.

There is a great temptation in the life of faith, particularly in the life of ministry, to use Jesus rather than serve Jesus.  The problem is that the difference can be incredibly subtle.  And, more often than not, we do both at the very same time.  The biggest problem with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law was that they were a little more obvious in their using of God for their own purposes.  And because of that, Jesus had some pretty harsh words for them.  But if we think that we are above doing the same, we are deceiving ourselves.  We're just a little better at hiding it.

There is a very thin line between using Jesus and serving Jesus.  And oftentimes it is in the serving of Jesus that we get lost in the using of Jesus.  It's like we were en route to a really good destination and somehow lost our way.  As we served Jesus, we began to realize that we could actually use Jesus to meet our own needs for security and significance.  By "serving" Jesus we found out that we could actually gain notoriety or popularity or reputation for ourselves.  In fact, many of us might have ventured into ministry in the first place because of what it could do for us, rather than what we could do for Him.  We tasted a little of what the Pharisees and the teachers of the law tasted, and liked the way it felt.  We liked what it did for us to be significant in the lives of people.  It fed something deep within us.  We liked that serving Jesus could become an avenue to a career, a vocation, or a decent income.  Or maybe we started out on a really good and pure path and discovered these other things along the way.  And now we are unwilling or unable to give up the reputation or the position or the paycheck that ministry provides.  We started out as followers, but quickly realized that by being a follower we could gain followers, and we liked that.

There is no better example of this than the world of social media.  It brings this truth right out in the open.  In the world of likes and followers, we all have learned the secret that giving likes and becoming followers is the best way to receive likes and gain followers.  And having a lot of likes and a ton of followers feels really good. It makes us feel valuable and necessary.

I guess the reason I bring this up is because I truly believe that most of us deeply desire to serve Jesus rather than use Jesus.  We desire to serve Jesus for Jesus' sake and not our own.  Somewhere in us there is a pure desire to return to the purest form of life and ministry: loving and serving Jesus simply for Jesus' sake.  But in order to do this a few things must happen.  First, we must recognize and admit the ugly truth that lives deep in our hearts. Then we must bring that ugly truth to God.  Finally, after we have recognized and admitted the truth, we must turn away from all the patterns and the ways and the means by which we have tried to use Jesus for our own benefit, and turn back to him in simple love, desire, and adoration.  It is a continual process, but one in which, by the grace and strength of God, we will make progress as we continue to walk in the way of Jesus and become more and more like him, rather than continuing to walk in the way of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who use Jesus for their own benefit.  And by God's mercy we will.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

building versus being built

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

...you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood...(1 Peter 2:5)

There is a definite tension in the life of faith between building and being built.  We all, it seems, are builders by trade.  We make plans, we gather materials, and then we make the magic happen--or so it seems. 

But the scriptures tell us a different story.  The scriptures tell us that the life of faith is not as much about building, as it is about being built.  Not as much about acting, as it is about being acted upon.  Not as much about manufacturing, as it is about growing organically.  Not as much about production, as it is about fruitfulness.  Not as much about initiative, as it is about receptivity.  Not as much about doing, as it is about being.  Not as much about our activity, as it is about God's.

So how do we make this necessary shift within?  How do we put down our hammers and stop building our "houses" and start letting God do his work on and in and through us?  My guess is that it starts with stillness, and silence, and prayer.  It starts by coming before God with no plans or agendas, with no blueprints or diagrams.  It starts by letting go of our self-importance, which ironically is a product of our own insecurities, and realizing that apart from God's hand we can build nothing of lasting value.  In other words, it starts by stopping.  For when we stop, it gives God space to move and to act.  We are no longer taking up all of the room.  

Maybe I'll give that a try today.