Category Archives: 26. Grasping

Grasping (Sunday)—Philippians 2:1-11

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. (Philippians 2:1-2)

This is like saying, “If the sun rises in the east, please be united in why and how you are living. Pursue the common objective of love. It will do my heart good.” It is a though Paul anticipates the question: “What exactly would this look like?”

 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others… Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

In Paul’s age when there was a stock of deities, and the reference points for great kings were Alexander and Augustus, Jesus, a Jew who died on a cross, was an unlikely model for a divine ruler, yet:

 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 1:9-11)

N.T. Wright points out that Jesus did not cease being like God, the divine ruler, as he subjected himself to the humiliation of the cross. Rather, he demonstrated what He was actually like in the core of his being as he willingly laid his life down for others. God’s nature is love and love is sacrificial.

In an episode of Friends, the character Phoebe was asked if she would like to help her closest friends on a project. She responds, “Gee, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” Upon hearing this unapologetic, un-sacrificial response, her friends go silent while the audience laughs. Did the writer’s of this show just generate a laugh by exposing us in what we frequently think but don’t say? Now that they are on the table, what are we to do with our selfish tendencies?

 Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world. (from Philippians 1:12-15)

My point? Phoebe’s light had gone out and so has ours, when, free of any fear and trembling, we fail to have in us that sacrificial attitude that was in Christ. While we may wish for the motivation to love our neighbor we need to understand that, as his apprentices, we must often obey before being gripped by inspiration. There is a good reason for this.

If we are not walking with him as his apprentices, we are still be walking in the flesh, in which we do not yet know how to love and we only know truth in propositional forms (as opposed to experiential forms). If we have not walked through this intimidating barrier of not wanting to when we are commanded to, we have yet to experience that Christ in us is our sufficiency even in a motivational lull. So, whether we’re struck by the mood or not, the command remains:

 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

So when we come to that place like Phoebe where we are presented with an opportunity to serve, we may be tempted to think, “Gee, I don’t really want to” but then add, “And I am happy to lend a hand.”

Perhaps as we lay aside our own agendas for the sake of others, we will discover we have found unity even when our beliefs are far from reconciled. Perhaps love shines most brightly when it is not dependent on theological unity. Could it be that the needs of others will become the thing that catalyzes our unity? After all…

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Father, Help us to rethink the role of these people you have placed all around us, whose needs sovereignly touch us. Help us to see that it is in their needs that we fulfill our calling as lights in this darkened world. Deliver us from our excuses of not being called or not being inspired. Animate the life of your Son within us to respond afresh to the needs you direct us to meet. Amen.

 

 

Grasping (Saturday)—Isaiah 55:1-13

I recently heard a law professor advocating, of all things, humility. To him, humility meant that you should consider you may be totally wrong in the way you’re looking at something. Humility is what I think God was after as well when, through Isaiah, he said to us:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

All men have an ancient family tree. We are either rooted in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or we are rooted in the Tree of Life. The fruit of those trees are either lies that bind or Truth who liberates. As those conditioned by a fallen world, we scarcely have a clue as to just how saturated we became with the enemy’s lies while we were serving him. Yet, how dangerous is our pride, which presumes to have cornered the market on understanding?

This is why humility is so precious and so rare. Humility is founded on the premise that we were born in bondage, that we have lived in and been conditioned by ideas that came from the wrong tree. Humility presumes that man’s thinking needs altered if not scrapped. Humility lives in dependency on the Word and the Spirit.

As an example: our presumptions regarding money. The wisdom of this world says, “Nothing happens without it.” The scriptures disagree. Through them, God says:

 Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? (from Isaiah 55:1-2)

Apparently money is not the coin of the realm in God’s kingdom. This verse is speaking to all who, in their pride, are totally wrong and who desperately need humility, which has actual value in God’s kingdom.

 God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)

So where do we go to buy this bread that is so affordable? Recall how Jesus referred to Himself:

 I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. (John 6:35)

We must come to Jesus, first to be born again and then daily as our Life. This is both impossible and simple. It is impossible to earn Christ because he is the Gift; it is simple because Jesus is the only way. We must each learn how to abide in Christ because He is our Life, from our beginning and in our ongoing.

Father, It is apparent in your words that abundant Life has been given to us and that you would continually direct our hearts to Him who is our Life. Please show us where we are attempting to live and get by on that which is not Bread. Help us to see where we are kicking against the goad, reaping time after time, that which we have sown in our own earthly wisdom and strength. Grant us the humility to admit: where the thorn and nettle continue to grow, we may be totally wrong. Amen.

Grasping (Friday)—Romans 7:14-25

What is Paul trying to grasp in our passage? Is he grasping for life inside his own personal experience, or is he portraying the grasping within an anticipated argument that will certainly come from his audience – Jews who understood the law? I am proposing that Paul, as a converted Jew, is trying to become all things to all men (in his reasoning) to his Jewish audience. After all, as a Jew, now complete in Christ, he knows precisely what the challenges are of embracing the New Covenant.

 I can anticipate the response that is coming: ‘I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not (spiritual)… Roman 7:14 (The Message)

To many Christians, Paul’s supposed confession of futility perfectly represents their own experience with sin; therefore, it confirms for them a theology leading to victimhood and fatalism. This misses the message of this apostle. We need to rescue this passage by interpreting it in the context of Paul’s life.

 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. (Romans 7:15-16)

 What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. (MSG)

I believe Paul is simply portraying an anticipated, yet-to-be-redeemed track of Jewish logic for the sake of highlighting the liberty he has come to know as a new creation.

Earlier in this chapter Paul states a fact: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” I could see Paul’s portrayal of spirituality arising from his older position of enslavement. Yet, while this was true, it is no longer true. Because:

 Now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:6)

This is why Paul can now say that we have been freed from the Law of sin and death—which produces the twisted logic of the flesh. Does the following sound like the Paul we know from the balance of his teachings as one who has been raised to newness of resurrection life? Listen to the spirit of the following words from The Message:

 But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.

Really? Paul knew the Jews concurred with the Law of God. He himself described this as serving the law of God in his mind. He also knew as well as anyone that just knowing about truth does not in itself produce liberty.

As I read Romans 6-8 and the rest of Paul’s writings, a futility-laced interpretation of Romans 7:14-24 does not fit as a description of Paul’s inner life. How can we reconcile Paul’s lamentable condition here with the fuller council of truth, which includes Romans 6? Sadly, this chapter is most famous as the place where we find verse 23, the verse, which to many highlights salvation in the hereafter sense, while the entire balance of the chapter relates to salvation in its fuller here-and-now sense. The whole of Romans 6 is abundantly hopeful in its forecast of man’s liberty. Paul’s life is totally out of sync with Romans 7 as a perceived dumpster dive into personal depravity.

In his address to the Jews, Paul says he knows there is nothing good that dwells in him and that the principle of evil and sin are within him. Really? How then, with a straight face, could he tell the Corinthians they were new creations in whom the old things have been replaced by new things? How could he possibly teach that Christ was in them and was now their hope of glory? Surely Christ is among the good things that had come, making a nothing-good comment nonsensical.

Paul says he is of the flesh while the law is spiritual. Really? In the very next chapter Paul says:

 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

I don’t believe Paul teaches we are doomed to inner futility. Rather, he teaches we are given new hearts, which not only concur with the law of God in the inner man, but, in Christ, we know the consummation of that law within us. We are not doomed to failure. We have the capacity, in Christ, to live as free men. This reality manifests itself in Paul’s life which is altogether contrasting to any futility interpretation of Romans 7:14-24.  I believe Paul’s overarching message is freedom from cycles of futility, which many, for conscience sake, gladly read into this passage.

I believe many of us, in our fatalistic interpretation of this passage, believe we have found legitimate relief for our troubled consciences, relief Paul never meant to offer. Does the Spirit really intend we find some misery-loves-company kind of salve that says, “Thank God Paul is messed up too!” This perspective leads to a view of grace that radically undershoots Paul’s intentions. The woe-is me view of ourselves causes us to think of grace more as a get-out-of-jail-free card for those frequently in trouble as opposed to the equipping-overcoming reality grace is for a people called to progressive freedom. For those of us in Christ it is true that:

 We have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

My experience has been that I fell into sin more frequently when I believed my heart was incurably sick and, for the most part, beyond hope. While I perceived the deepest truth about me was my depravity, my life consisted of one sin-management project after another. My reasoning went like this, “How could I expect more if Paul himself so frequently stumbled? How could I succeed if the principle of evil is ruling me from within?” This line of thinking, I can report, truly does lead to cycles of futility.

I fear this view of ourselves as just sinners saved by grace is a root-error within a theology which projects from its own experience, which at best, expects to tread water in this life. Mostly we will know setbacks, with most gains going to the kingdom of darkness. This leads ultimately to a retreatand-regroup theology, centered on a rapture (because a rapture is the only way we are getting out of this losing battle with our flesh). It reasons: we best get evacuated out of here so we can get new bodies and finally overcome sin because we certainly can’t do it with hearts that are prisoners of sin, ruling in our members. 

It all boils down to our identities. Who do we perceive ourselves to be at the deepest levels of our being? When we look down into our foundations, do we see flawed and fallen beings dominated by our flesh, doomed to a losing battle with sin? Or, do we see those who have been called and equipped to reign in life through Christ, who have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters which cry out Abba! Father! If we have not yet had this foundational revelation of God as our Papa, it should truly become the priority of our existence.

I don’t believe Paul lived his life grasping for more. I believe Christ was his sufficiency and that he was utterly content with Jesus as his inheritance. I don’t believe, after meeting Jesus, Paul thought something remained fouled deep within him. I don’t believe Paul vacillated in doing good or being indecisive. I don’t believe he was bullied around by sin which ruled him from within or that he lived his life at the end of some rope. I believe Paul, being in awe of the heights and the depths of God’s love, was trying to cast down an imagination which, for his own Jewish countrymen, would attempt to exalt itself above the true knowledge of God.

Father, help us to see where we have not yet come to rest in the complete provision of your Son as our identity. Persevere with us until we see ourselves in Christ and see Him in us. May our hearts comprehend that you have given us new hearts, which have been called, destined and redeemed for glorious outcomes in this life and the next. Help us to see that what we think of as the next life is coursing within us even now in Christ. Amen.

 

Grasping (Tuesday) – Mark 10:17-31

From birth, I had a front row seat at the moving picture; “The Failure of The American Dream.” The cast included the paternal side of my family. I was born after the dream of owning their own business was conceived. I was two years old when the Cummins Construction Company was launched but H.E. Cummins (my grandfather) and his three sons already had a big head of steam in 1955. You would have thought, with such a good seat, having the cast as his mentors, the first born male of the third generation would acquire a hard-knuckled grasp of entrepreneurial capitalism. You would have thought he would just follow the script and inherit the kingdom laid out before him. He did not. This relational oriented child was watching (and experiencing) what was going on behind the scene.

Some kids run away from home when they have had their fill of the corrupt regime that is running their households. In my pragmatic, wounded and rebellious heart, I just stuck around, enjoying the food and lodging; but I was running away in my heart. Growing up on this set, the grand revelation accruing to me was that material prosperity did not directly equate to quality of life. In the code that was forming in my heart, I was working with the premise that materialism in fact led to family dysfunction. The primary tutor, reinforcing this theory, was my often absent father, who was growing his part of the family’s regional conglomerate along with a duodenal ulcer.

The ulcers, the divorces, the hatred, the failing emotional and mental health of the cast, reinforced my vows that I would never, NEVER return to this set; that I would never participate in this horror movie, and that I would stay as far away from my Dad as I could. Why? It was painful. This relational child could not handle rejection. I witnessed the accumulation of wealth and pain. I didn’t know much at 18 but I knew I could not survive in this environment. I was able to flee geographically when I went to college. The primary lesson I learned there was that the regime was not the only problem. There was some kind of corruption at work in me as well.

I became a Christian in 1976, which addressed the root of my corruption but my vows remained in place. When I read our passage at the age of 23, I simply merged my vows with Jesus’ teachings. Christ’s teachings seemed to reinforce the revelation of my youth; “We must sell everything in order to be right with God.” Did you hear the lie embedded in that last sentence? Keep this question in mind as we read our passage together.

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. (Matthew 10:17-22)

“Amen Jesus!” It was so encouraging to know Jesus agreed with me. He and I both knew that one must maintain their vow of poverty in order to be right with him. I wasn’t going to go away sad. I didn’t own much property, and by God’s grace it would remain so. Thus, my life verse;

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. (1 Thessalonians 4:11) 

It seemed Paul too was in agreement with Jesus and I. Wow! It felt great to be walking hand-in-  hand with the Lord on such solid spiritual ground! Or so I thought. Let’s follow Jesus and I a bit further down the trail.

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Matthew 10:23-27)

The Holy Spirit would help us identify and renounce the lies we have believed. The whopper I had latched onto was that there was something remaining that I must do in order to be right with God. That is the demonic-inspired lie that fuels religion and it drove me for years. The Spirit didn’t just pluck that tare from the field either. He let it grow until I got a pretty good taste of the nasty fruit it can produce. Vows and oaths have deep roots and mine had even become entangled with scripture. However religion, like the Law, can be an excellent tutor. By God’s mercy, the Holy Spirit has been succeeding in his mission. If I hear the snake say, that I must do anything in order to be right with God, I quickly take the hoe to his head.

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” (Matthew 10:28-31)

Those who know me, know that I returned to my family in Enid and even served the Cummins Construction Company as its President for many years. How could this be? It came about because I had been caught up in another script that God my Father was writing. I am fond of Jesus’ words;

With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.

It is impossible for man to contribute anything that can make him right with God. If you think I am wrong, you are standing on shifting sand. It is Christ alone who has drawn me through the needle’s eye. It was as though I was born to play a role I swore I would not take. In spite of us, the author writes us back into his story; God restored my relationship with my Dad; My Dad became a Christian; In spite of inheritance squabbles, my sibling speaks to me once again. In spite of me, I have received a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms. If persecutions include the resistance of the world, the flesh and the devil to this story, then yes, there has even been persecution. And while I can not see it now, from the perspective of my part, I anticipate that many who are first will be last, and the last, first.

Father, we were born to play parts in a moving picture that will go on and on, far beyond our mind’s eye, far beyond this season in the flesh. Help our hearts to yield to those persecutions that have been written, inexplicably, into the plot. Help us to embrace them, knowing they are our cues toward Life. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Grasping (Thursday)—Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13-21)

We can only wonder what this offended, would-be heir thought when Jesus said, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” What do you suppose he thought when Jesus then attempted to rescue his heart (and ours) by saying,

Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

He probably thought, “Greedy! I just want my fair share! If there is one thing that I am not, it’s greedy! This guy is definitely a false prophet.” Even those listening probably thought, “What’s greedy about wanting a little justice?” When reading Jesus’ words, we must keep in mind that his mission was to set men free. The delivererdimension of being Savior required that he expose in fallen man those things that their hearts needed deliverance from. Jesus knows the god of this world does a masterful job assisting men in rationalizing everything they think and do. Jesus came to demolish these rationalizations, to get us to acknowledge our rebellion. He is simply bringing us to that place where we understand that we are, in actuality, in desperate need of Him.

We like to think of greed as that I-want-it-all attitude, and we would be right—partly. This man’s heart was not in bondage to that variety. The form of greed this man was enslaved to was a much-easier-to-justify form that applies to a farthing as well as a fortune. This was the entitlement-form of greed, which comes from victimhood and from our self-defined notion of justice.

The offended heir is grasping because he, along with all those sympathetic to his cause, are using this world and its temporal value system as its point of reference. If we think Jesus is being harsh it is because we are off course. We have forgotten that this is the same Lord who said a man is guilty of adultery if he wants his neighbor’s wife and is guilty of murder if he is angry. We may think he has set the bar far too high for a mere man to clear. However, we have to remember that as new creations we are no longer mere men; we are God’s offspring in Christ.

There is still more about greed which we are blind to. It is this: our grasping for a bit more is evidence in itself that we are not trusting God. We are not at rest with God as our ultimate provider. We are working instead with the stress-producing, material, time-bound notion that God is absent from the equation of our provision. We must also recall that without faith it is impossible to please him. To help us to better understand our bondage, Jesus offers a parable:

 The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself (aka: rationalizing), saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”‘ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16-21)

The deluded soul in this parable was hoarding and hedging. He was making storage provisions for his anticipated windfalls, which would insure his long-term comforts. For a man like myself (a boomer) who is nearing what our culture deems retirement age, these are relevant words. It would seem with this parable Jesus has his guns trained on my demographic. But again, Truth does not discriminate. It’s universally true, that unless we relate to Jesus as Lord and his words as authoritative, we will inevitably rationalize (reason falsely), requiring Jesus to expose us. Jesus does just this when he says: “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” This barn-builder might take pride among men for what appears to be good estate planning, but not before God to whom wealth-preservation does not mean the same thing. The Lord said:

 You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?

Because we are unwilling to see all forms of sin as deadly, the need for Jesus as Savior (and especially Lord) is modest to non-existent. Who needs rescued when, in our minds (steeped in rationalization), we are only moderately guilty or even all together innocent. Where this mentality is present, we may like to bring in Jesus on an as-needed basis. Where the Christian soul thinks good estate planning is its hedge against the unknown, it is enslaved along with everyone else in the world. I believe Jesus would implore his children:

 “Do not store up treasure for yourselves on earth. Instead focus on other’s needs. Be a wise and generous steward of all that has been entrusted to you. Do not be deceived: wealth can make itself wings. Trust in me as your true source. Guard your hearts against all the subtle forms of sin that your culture and its gods have sold you as harmless. Abide in me and let my words abide in you. My words are sharp for a reason. They are capable of demolishing the rationalizations. They are capable of exposing all forms of sin and enabling you to reformat your hearts accordingly. I will not deny that my knife hurts. While being stripped of lies is painful, please remember that it is my kindness (even in your discomfort) that will be leading you to repentance and the abundantly liberated life I have purchased and promised you. Think of your estate planning from this eternal perspective and you will have addressed your actual and truest long-term need. In this way you can be rich toward me.” (an assemblage of related truth from scripture)

Father, teach us to watch over our hearts with all diligence. Holy Spirit, help us to see every way in which we have rationalized our heart’s entanglements with this world. Deliver us from every lie that has us bound to the temporal. Teach us to number our days as those without number so that we may ultimately present to you wise hearts which have already been swept clean of hidden agendas and secret sins. And Father, please teach us that it is Jesus Himself who is our windfall. In Him our cups truly are running over. To you alone, Lord, be glory and honor and dominion in our hearts and all realms forevermore. Amen.

 

 

Grasping (Wednesday)—Matthew 6:19-34

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:19-24)

When we read brilliant words such as these, many of us scramble about in our hearts, seeking shade from such intensity. Note: It is helpful to think of the heart as that place where something can become a treasure or remain just a thing. There in the center of our hearts, where life either begins or ceases (see Proverbs 4:23), there is a conversation underway between the Holy Spirit and us. When this conversation reflects into our minds, it is often in the form of questions such as: “Is it possible to have wealth and not treasure it?” “What would actually constitute slavery to mammon?” “Am I a slave to materialism?”

If things are still too bright for us, we can push the questions further away from the center and, seeking a bit more shade, ask (perhaps with an attitude), “Well, why does Jesus have to use words like hate my earthly family and despise wealth anyway?”

If the remaining light is still too bright, the question gets shoved all the way to the periphery of our hearts where shade is abundant. Here in the shadow lands, we ask the wrong questions and unavoidably arrive at the wrong answers. Our wrong answers form a hard shell capable of deflecting light. This condition is evidenced by rationalizations such as, “Well, I was born into this culture. It’s not my fault. I didn’t choose affluence.  And after all, wealth is God’s sign of blessing to America and me.”

Do you see the progression in the heart from the light, through the shadows on into the darkness? If one stays in this place, tragically safe from the Light of the world, a destruction of conscience can occur where there is no Light at all. The Bible calls this a hardening of the heart and God, who gives us our heart’s desire, permits it. If one continues along this broad path, the inner, often-troubling conversation with the Holy Spirit may cease altogether and one will be troubled no more. We learn to live without questions, keeping a safe distance from those who do. Biblically speaking, what has just happened?

 The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

So, just how great is our darkness?

In a culture such as ours, where there is much affluence and much religion, it is not surprising that our particular darkness would be reflected by the idea that one can be saved from Hell without knowing Jesus as Lord. An analogy by Dallas Willard from Divine Conspiracy seems appropriate. It begins in Chapter 1, called “Entering The Eternal Kind of Life Now.”

 Life in the Dark. Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent—and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down. 

Her darkness was indeed great, and her inability to reckon with it cost the ultimate price. Following Professor Willard’s analogy, I believe that many of us are unknowingly flying upside down. I believe, if we are asking questions like, “Why does Jesus have to be so harsh?” we are just flipping switches on a control panel that is shorting out and is no longer feeding back to us accurate information about our flight path.

Our darkness is very great because we are infected in mass. Not wanting to be troubled by deeper heart-level questions regarding our true motives, we have accumulated for ourselves voices that tell us to steer clear of this domain. By cutting and pasting select ideas from scripture, we have redefined normal spirituality, excluding the heart, which is the birthing place of God’s kingdom. How does this happen?

I believe we form unspoken yet powerfully binding contracts with these voices. Their power rests in the fact that they form a collective to which people belong if they agree to not ask troubling questions. These quiet agreements work out like this: “If you (the voice) will steer clear of (or just give lip service to) these heart-level discipleship issues we (your patrons) will sustain your institution with our support.” The cannon of these unspoken agreements have redefined the gospel to suit western culture. The consequence? A church that wants a savior but not a Lord, a church that is saturated with knowledge and tradition yet void of transformational Life.

If this seems harsh, I believe it is only because we measure from the wrong benchmarks. We have exchanged New Testament Christianity (which was given as a plumb line) for a convenient collection of ideas that shield us from the light of Jesus’ most penetrating words.

Back to our flight. If we want to know whether we’re flying upside down or right side up, we must ask ourselves if Jesus himself is our navigational gyroscope, orienting our hearts toward reality. If we have not yet given our lives to him unconditionally, the gyro is not spinning. If we are not maintaining this conversation with his Holy Spirit, which assumes that all Jesus’ words apply to our hearts, we are likely inverted in our flight.

We may think the trajectory of our lives is a nice ascent while in reality an eternally consequential crash is imminent. The only way for any of us to have a functional gyro and repair our damaged navigation system is to live out of the center of our beings where we have given him permission to live and reign and say and do whatever he deems best. This requires that we keep this dialogue with the Holy Spirit, regarding wealth (and other messy things), alive. This is, in large part, what I believe it means to live with Jesus as our Lord.

It truly is Him with whom we have to do because it is before Him we will one day stand in order to give account of our lives. Here we shall finally discover which kingdom we treasured and which one we despised. It will be clear who was Lord in our lives, Jesus Christ or ourselves. All men’s secrets will then be revealed. If we have loved this world, if we have pushed this two-masters issue away from our hearts, our darkness will be great. Just how great it is will be exposed on that Great Day.

 Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:1-3)

 Therefore

 Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23-24)

If the type of conversation that was going on in the center of the psalmist’s heart could gain traction in our own, it would invite the Light of this world His rightful place as our Avionic system and our Pilot.

I believe our ongoing willingness to be searched by the Light of God’s Word is the only way we can live in harmony with Jesus’ words…and avoid a crash.

 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Father, teach us to intentionally identify and repent of every lie that has become a part of the bad wiring in our hearts. Come Helper and grant us the grace to be humble enough to break the agreements we’ve made with this temporal world.  Allow our definitions of your words to be refashioned to reflect their rightful kingdom meanings. Help reestablish your kingdom in our hearts as the beachhead for a fuller gospel in a culture contentedly flying upside down. Amen.

 

Grasping (Monday)—Mark 5:24-34

 And He went off with him; and a large crowd was following Him and pressing in on Him. A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse—after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:24-34)

I love how Jesus interacted with people! God Incarnate—the same God who was on record saying he grew weary dealing with the obstinate hearts of his chosen people, who punished their sin dramatically when needed. Fast forward: same God, same people, except this time he came into the world looking them in the eye, clarifying his heart toward them, revealing just what he was really like and what he really wanted for his people.

It is surprising that God is so approachable; He takes mankind off guard. He is so humble, so open-handed—He didn’t come emphasizing this woman’s sin or tracing down the cause of her illness.  He simply healed her. With no money left, she was at the end of the road.  It was going to be Jesus or nothing else. This, again surprisingly, is not a bad place to be.

While the end of the road can be an advantageous place it is also the last place most of us want to be. In fact, we work overtime to avoid it, being taken to that place where it’s Jesus or nothing. I believe this is what Jesus was getting at when He said we must sell all in order to follow him. Our resources, which are our hedges against last resorts, if not relinquished to God, pave a broad highway leading away from this most advantageous place where our Lord would meet us.

Taking up our crosses to follow him is the narrow way which scripture tells us few find. This less traveled pathway is paved with abandonment. Relinquishing our right-of-self-determination is our part in allowing Jesus his rightful place as our Lord. Knowing Jesus as our Lord is something vastly greater than just being saved from our sins. The travelers on this road are called disciples or apprentices. As they journey down this trail holding no heart-title to earthly goods, they learn to live, so to speak, at-the-end-of-the-road, where Christ becomes and remains, of necessity, their very Life.

Disciples make the surprising discovery that Jesus is so much more than just a savior. They find in Christ alone that exceeding and abundant dimension to the life He promised. They find rivers of living water flowing out of them. He Himself teaches them that He is not just the forgiver of their sins. He is Father and Friend, Healer and Deliverer, Sustainer and Rewarder, King and Co-heir, Creator and Brother. He is Life and Breath, and in Him we live and move and have our being. We personally discover that we are hidden in Him and are the object of his most intimate thoughts and care, now and forevermore.

While I haven’t been bleeding internally like the woman in our story, this is the 14th consecutive year I have dealt with chronic back problems. Unlike the distressed woman of our story, I have some money left: I’m just not sure what the point of spending it would be on doctors who each say, “Mr. Cummins, you are slowly decaying, albeit at a slightly faster rate than your peers.” What they actually say is that I have degenerative disc disease.

In spite of having to report some physical degeneration I also have a report of regeneration. My inner man is being renewed daily in the presence of physical deterioration. As I consider the alchemy of all-things-working-together-for-good, I give thanks because in its own way, back pain has provided a kind of an end-of-the-road destination which, perhaps, I might have only reached by traveling in this direction.

I did determine early in my journey with Christ that I would do my best to not squander sorrow and rough experiences. Whatever the day brings me (if I will only see it) can be an opportunity to trust him. I have come to believe that it is only along this trail (where suffering and trials exist) that we can ever learn to relate to Him by faith. Recall: our faith brings God pleasure. Faith both delivers and sustains. Whether we are delivered from trials or sustained through them God, is glorified and pleased as we trust in him.

To you, O Lord, who call the dead to come forth and the lame to walk and the deaf to hear; to you Lord, who reward those who trust you in their pain; to you, who deliver your children from and through both attacks and decay into a rest that transcends this world and establishes a victory that will be celebrated now and forevermore. Yes, Lord, to you be the glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.

 

Grasping (Sunday) – Philippians 2:1-11

Grasping – Philippians 2:1-11

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 

This is like saying, “If the sun rises in the east, please be united in why and how you are living. Pursue the common objective of love. It will do my heart good.” 

It is a though Paul anticipates the question;  “What exactly would this look like?”

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others….

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

In Paul’s age when there was a stock of deities and the reference points for great kings were Alexander and Augustus, Jesus, a Jew, who died on a cross, was an unlikely model for a divine ruler, yet……

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

NT Wright points out that Jesus did not cease being like God, the divine ruler, as he subjected himself to the humiliation of the cross. Rather, he demonstrated what He was actually like in the core of his being as he willingly laid his life down for others. God’s nature is love and love is sacrificial.

In an episode of the comedy hit, Friends, the character Phoebe was asked if she would like to help her closest friends on a project. She responds, “Gee, I wish I could but I don’t want to.” Upon hearing this unapologetic, un-sacrificial response her friends go silent while the audience laughs. Did the writer’s of this show just generate a laugh by exposing us in what we frequently are thinking but not saying? Now that they are on the table, what are we to do with our selfish tendencies?

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.

My point? Phoebe’s light had gone out and so has ours, when, free of any fear and trembling, we fail to have in us that sacrificial attitude that was in Christ. While we may wish for the motivation to love our neighbor we need to understand that, as his apprentices, we must often obey before being gripped by inspiration. There is a good reason for this.

If we are not walking with him as his apprentices, we will still be walking in the flesh where we do not yet know how to love and we only know truth in propositional ways (as opposed to experiential ways).  If we have not walked through this intimidating barrier of not wanting to when we are commended to we have yet to experience that Christ in us is our sufficiency even in a motivational lull.

So, whether the mood has struck us or not, the command remains…

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

So when we come to that place like Phoebe  where we are presented with an opportunity to serve, we may be tempted to think, “Gee, I don’t really want to” but then reply…

And I am happy to lend a hand.

Perhaps as we lay aside our own agendas for the sake of others we will discover we have found unity even when our beliefs are far from reconciled. Perhaps love shines most brightly when it is not dependent on theological unity.  Could it possibly be that it is the needs of others which become the thing that provokes our unity?

   By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. Jn 13:35

Father, Help us to rethink the role of these people you have placed all around us whose needs sovereignly touch us. Help us to see that it is in their needs that we fulfill our calling as lights in this darkened world. Deliver us from our excuses of not being called or not being inspired. Animate the life of your Son within us to respond afresh to the needs you direct us to meet. Amen.

 

 

 

Grasping (Friday) – Romans 7:14-25

Grasping – Romans 7:14-25

What is Paul trying to grasp in our passage?  Is he grasping for life inside his own personal experience or is he portraying the grasping within an anticipated argument which will certainly come from his audience – Jews, who understood the law? I am proposing that Paul, as a converted Jew, is trying to become all things to all men (in his reasoning) to his Jewish audience.  After all, as a Jew, now complete in Christ, he knows precisely what the challenges are of embracing the New Covenant.

I can anticipate the response that is coming: ‘I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not (spiritual)….. Roman 7:14 (Message)

To many Christians, Paul’s supposed confession of futility perfectly represents their own experience with sin, therefore it confirms for them a theology which leads to victimhood and fatalism. This misses the message of Paul’s life.  We need to rescue this passage by interpreting it in the context of Paul’s life.

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. (NAS)

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.(MSG)

I believe Paul is simply portraying an anticipated, yet-to-be-redeemed, track of Jewish logic for the sake of highlighting the liberty he has come to know as a new creation.

Earlier in this chapter Paul states a fact…..

For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” I could see Paul’s portrayal of spirituality arising from his older position of enslavement. Yet, while this was true, it is no longer true. Because…

Now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

This is why Paul can now say that we have been freed from the Law of sin and death – which produces the twisted logic of the flesh. Does the following sound like the Paul we know from the balance of his teachings as one who has been raised to newness of resurrection life? Listen to the spirit of the following words from the Message….

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.

REALLY!?

Paul knew the Jews concurred with the Law of God. He himself described this as serving the law of God in his mind. He also knew, as well as anyone, that just knowing about truth does not in itself produce liberty.

As I read Romans 6-8 and the rest of Paul’s writings, a futility-laced interpretation of Romans 7:14-24 does not fit as a description of Paul’s inner life. How can we reconcile Paul’s lamentable condition here with the fuller council of truth which includes Romans 6? Sadly, this chapter is most famous as the place where we find verse 23; the verse, which to many, highlights salvation in the hereafter-sense while the entire balance of the chapter relates to salvation in its fuller here and now-sense. The whole of Romans 6 is abundantly hopeful in its forecast of man’s liberty. Paul’s life is totally out of sink with Romans 7 as a perceived dumpster dive into personal depravity.

In his address to the Jews, Paul says he knows there is nothing good that dwells in him and that the principle of evil and sin are within him.

REALLY!?

How then, with a straight face, could he tell the Corinthians they were new creations in whom the old things have been replaced by new things? How could he possibly teach that Christ was in them and was now their hope of glory? Surely Christ is a among the good-things that had come, making a nothing-good comment nonsensical!

Paul says he is of the flesh while the law is spiritual.

REALLY!?  In the very next chapter Paul says…

If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

I don’t believe Paul teaches we are doomed to inner futility. Rather, he teaches we are given new hearts which not only concur with the law of God in the inner man, but, in Christ, we know the consummation of that law within us. We are not doomed to failure. We have the capacity, in Christ, to live as free men. This reality manifests itself in Paul’s life which is altogether contrasting to any futilistic interpretations of Romans 7:14-24.  I believe Paul’s overarching message is freedom from cycles of futility, which many, for conscience sake, gladly read into this passage.

I believe many of us, in our fatalistic interpretation of this passage, believe we have found legitimate relief for our troubled consciences which Paul never meant to offer. Does the Spirit really intend we find some misery-loves-company kind of salve that says, “Thank God Paul is messed up too!” This perspective leads to a view of grace which radically undershoots Paul’s intentions. The woe-is me view of ourselves causes us to think of grace more as a get-out-of-jail-free card for those frequently in trouble as opposed to the equipping- overcoming reality grace is to be for a people called to progressive freedom.

For those of us in Christ it is true that…

We have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

My experience has been that I fell into sin more frequently when I believed my heart was incurably sick and, for the most part, beyond hope. While I perceived the deepest truth about me was my depravity my life consisted of one sin-management project after another. My reasoning went like this, “How could I expect more if Paul himself so frequently stumbled? How could I succeed if the principle of evil is ruling me from within?” This line of thinking, I can report, truly does lead to cycles of futility.

I fear this view of ourselves as just sinners saved by grace is a root-error within a theology which projects from its own experience, which at best, expects to tread water in this life. Mostly we will know setbacks with most gains going to the kingdom of darkness. This leads ultimately to a retreat and regroup – theology, centered around a rapture. (Because a rapture is the only way we are getting out of this loosing battle with our flesh.) It reasons; We best get evacuated out of here so we can get new bodies and finally overcome sin because we certainly can’t do it with hearts that are prisoners of sin which is ruling in our members. 

It all boils down to our identities. Who do we perceive ourselves to be at the deepest levels of our being? When we look down into the foundation do we see flawed and fallen beings dominated by our flesh, doomed to a loosing battle with sin? Or, do we see those who have been called and equipped to reign in life through Christ, who have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters which cry out Abba! Father! If we have not yet had this foundational revelation of God as our Papa, it should truly become the priority of our existence.

I don’t believe Paul lived his life grasping for more. I believe Christ was his sufficiency and that he was utterly content with Jesus as his inheritance. I don’t believe, after meeting Jesus, Paul thought something remained fouled deep within him. I don’t believe Paul vacillated in doing good or being indecisive. I don’t believe he was bullied around by sin which ruled him from within or that he lived his life at the end of some rope. I believe Paul, being in awe of the heights and the depths of God’s love, was trying to cast down an imagination which, for his own Jewish countrymen, would attempt to exalt itself above the true knowledge of God.

Father, help us to see where we have not yet come to rest in the complete provision of your Son as our identity. Persevere with us until we see ourselves in Christ and see Him in us. May our hearts comprehend that you have given us new hearts which have been called, destined and redeemed for glorious outcomes in both this life and the next. Help us to see what we have thought of as the next life is coursing within us even now in Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grasping (Saturday) – Isaiah 55:1-13

Grasping – Isaiah 55:1-13

I heard a law professor (perhaps a judge) advocating, of all things, humility. To him humility meant that one should consider that he or she may be totally wrong in the way they are looking at something. Humility is what I think God was after as well when, through Isaiah, he said to us….

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

All men have an ancient family tree. We are either rooted in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or we are rooted in the Tree of Life. The fruits of those trees are either lies that bind or Truth which liberates. As those conditioned by a fallen world we scarcely have a clue as to just how saturated we are with the enemy’s proud and independent nature. Yet, how dangerous is our pride which presumes to have cornered the market on understanding?

This is why humility is so precious and so rare. Humility is founded on the premise that we were born in bondage, that we have lived in and been conditioned by ideas that came from the wrong tree. Humility presumes that man’s thinking needs altered if not scrapped. Humility lives in dependency on the Word and the Spirit.

An example would be our presumptions regarding money. The wisdom of this world says, “Nothing happens without it.” The scriptures disagrees. Through them God says….

Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?

Apparently money is not the coin of the realm in God’s kingdom. This verse is speaking to all who, in their pride, are totally wrong and who desperately need humility, which has actual value in God’s kingdom.

                      God is opposed to the proudbut gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)

So where do we go to buy this bread that is so affordable? Recall what Jesus referred to Himself as?

I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. (John 6:35)

Father, It is apparent in your words that abundant Life has been given to us and that you would continually direct our hearts to Him who is our Life. Please show us where we are attempting to live and get by on that which is not Bread. Help us to see where we are kicking against the goad, reaping time after time that which we have sown in our own earthly wisdom and strength. Grant us the humility to admit; where the thorn and nettle continue to grow, we may be totally wrong in how we are thinking. Amen.