The Soil of Our Soul – (Sunday) 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

If you would like to feel better about your local church, definitely read 1 Corinthians. The moral behavior of the local Moose lodge membership may be superior to that of the church in Corinth. (Note: I mean no offense to any big or small animal clubs.) Measured from contemporary religious baselines, the contention, immorality and abuses of the spiritual gifts going on in Corinth would raise questions about the legitimacy of these folk’s relationship with God. After all, righteousness behavior is the evidence of our salvation isn’t it?

I do not think such a thought ever entered Paul’s mind. Before Paul wields the rod of reproof in this letter, he reveals his apostolic-father-heart toward these people and how he views them. To Paul, these people (as messed up as they are) are first and foremost saints who will be “confirmed to the end, blameless in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ“. (read 1:1-9)

In today’s passage Paul does not immediately address their lifestyles, he goes directly to the root of their problems. The Corinthians have forgotten (or have yet to discover) who they actually are. Paul chides them, “are you not walking like mere men?”. To Paul, the core issue is an identity crisis. Paul, as a true spiritual father, knows his spiritual offspring better than they know themselves. They have forgotten (or have yet to discover) that they are now saints yet are behaving in accord with who they once were – mere men.

As you think of yourself, do you view yourself as a mere man or do you think of yourself as a saint? For many of us, there has been a subtle rationalization we have developed over time that goes something like this, “Well….yes, in theory I guess I am a saint; I have accepted Jesus so…. I am forgiven of my sins so…. I’m reasonably secure about eternity, but …..really, in regard to my nature and how I truly think about myself, my experience supports the mere man proposition. (Similar to yesterday’s devotional, this is a place where we are at risk of forming doctrines around our experience – following paths of least resistance; adopting beliefs that we can live with easier than God’s Word.)

This wise spiritual father cuts off this line of thinking, as Paul does, when he lovingly asks them, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”. Paul is saying that when we became temples of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer merely men. While it may have been more comfortable for them to write off their deplorable behavior to just being human, Paul intentionally stands in the way and says, “No!” He makes it clear their behavior is wrong because it is utterly incompatible with their new identities as saints.

Paul could have given them relief, confirming that they were just sinful men saved by grace; that by virtue of this curse, they were destined in their fallen natures to stray as mere men are inclined to do. I don’t think this thought ever entered Paul’s thinking (in spite of our interpretations of his teachings in Romans 7). To the same people, in a follow up letter, he comments, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things (such as identities as a mere men) passed away; behold new things have come“.

For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

As a wise master builder, I believe Paul is saying that the only foundation that can support a maturing and growing relationship with God is that of our new identities as saints – our own personal revelation that we are beloved sons of God with new natures. Again, do you think of yourself fundamentally as a mere man or as a saint? Have you ever thought through just how your identity has been formed? Do you think it has been your experience that the scriptures or your experience have had the greater role in forming your core identity?

The Corinthians, in their identity vacuum, reverted back to what they did naturally as pagans who knew nothing of a singular and holy God. Is it possible that in the lack of understanding and appreciation of our new identities, that we revert back to what we naturally do with our religious convictions – work hard at pleasing God as mere men?”.

Out of curiosity, do the songs you sing and the sermons you hear cast you more in the role of a saint or more in the role of a poor conflicted sinner saved by grace? It is truly a foundational question.

Father, we are not yet the radiant and powerful Church You have envisioned. Without condemning ourselves, help us to humbly acknowledge this. Help us to not explain this away as some kind of sovereign dispensation of mediocrity. Holy Spirit breath upon us. Awaken us to the inheritance of our new identities and confirm Yourself to this world through a Church who knows who she is. Amen.

The Soil of Our Soul – (Saturday) Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 (a continuation of 8.3.12 / Jn 12:23-28)

There was once an hour in my life where I would have agreed with Steinbeck and his assessments regarding the evils of capitalism. In that season (23 – 40), I had abandoned corporate life and would have booked my vacations (if I could have afforded one) at some negative altitude like Death Valley or the Dead Sea so that I might glorify the Lord in my sacrificial living. (Slight exaggeration but) I actually made a valiant stab at this lifestyle and to be honest I do not think the Lord was one bit impressed.

If you were to review my story, you might conclude with me, that God was working as valiantly as I to undermine my efforts and put me on another track entirely (which involved corporations and money and things I had vowed to avoid – and not all for very righteous motives). Into the complexities of corporate America, into family business, back into close proximity to my estranged family is where I believe the Spirit ended up leading our family in spite of my attempts of making applications of Jesus’ harder teachings.

Jesus goes on to say that if He be lifted up from the earth He will draw men to Himself. This surely applied to His mode of death. However, I think it also applies to the result of placing a Living Seed in the bowels of Satan’s domain. Whether its in Hell or our hearts, resurrection Life (if permitted) triumphs! It, by nature, breaks free of the power of death and of sin. It bears much fruit. It is attractive. It glorifies the Father.

That very same Living Seed resides in the hearts of those who publicly confess Him and are trusting Him as their Life and their Salvation, permanently modifying the soil conditions within us. Our hearts are now, by their new nature, the perfect growing condition for the Word of God. (Note; there is the assumption that in God’s sovereignty, His Spirit is orchestrating and making use of external circumstances to create sufficient heat to germinate the Seed. Most of you know what I am speaking of when I refer to “heat”.)

The deepest truth about our heart-soil today is not its bent of total depravity and propensity to stray from God. The deepest Truth about us right this very minute (with our new covenant) is that Jesus Christ indwells us and is now the essence of our being. You may be saying, “Well that makes the Good News just a bit too good for me! That is just not my theology AND its just not my experience”. (Note; We need to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that often the reason its not our theology is BECAUSE its not our experience.) Is it not possible that we would avoid a victorious theology regarding our hearts because; 1) it is painfully incompatible with our experience? 2) It would create new levels of personal responsibility to God if our hearts are in as good of shape as I am claiming.

My conclusions are neither complete nor are they perfected but they do lead me to believe a few things that “hating lifedoes not mean. I do not think a vow of poverty or an intentionally downward socio-economic lifestyle generates holiness. I do not think it glorifies the Lord in the least. I do not believe that the presence of money nor the absence of money have any bearing on holiness. I do not believe lives lived within a socialistic or communist regime are more likely to produce glorified saints any more than a capitalistic culture will. It is not about external conditions. It is all about our hearts and our heart’s orientation to money and power. The evil lay in the loving.

As one who has lived in an hour where things were lean (though by no means “dust-bowl” lean) and also in hours filled with material abundance (such as today), I have discovered that the Lord’s arm in not too short to create circumstances for growth in either climate. The Living Seed in our hearts (a former domain of Satan’s) will at appropriate hours (seasons) converge with external circumstances (courtesy of the Holy Spirit and seed previously sown) to promote a death of sorts. We will have to repent and side with His Truth over our old patterns of thought. Due to our resistance, some of our deaths may be quite agonizing. For those who belong to Him, the Living Word will ultimately grow and displace fallen understandings of the world, ourselves and God Himself. The fruit of His resurrection Life will be seen in us; the ruler of this world will be cast out and His Spirit will continue to draw men to Christ. In this hour He will be glorified!

Note; Please do not interpret my commentary as an unqualified endorsement of capitalism or democracy. Capitalism creates a host of unique temptations. I do believe we are still navigating through murky theology in the west. For the record and for future consideration, I believe strains of capitalism have found there way into western Christianity in the forms of doctrines that I feel sure would start Paul on an extensive letter writing campaign. But that is a subject for another day.

(Note: To my dear son Daniel, in whom I am well pleased; I know whose side you are on. I’m just having fun and further promoting our rich dialogue (which I dearly love). If you desire that I come to your class and give my take on the Grapes of Wrath, I’m all in, but be advised; it will probably not be from one who “hates” profits, capitalism and corporations in the same vein as Steinbeck.)

As I have read Jesus’ Word and attempted to walk in His Spirit these past 37 years, when Jesus speaks of “hating” this life or even our families, I think He was leading us to this idea; that there is no comparisons, even close, that can be made between His kingdom and the kingdoms of this earth; that there is no comparisons that we can make regarding familial ties as we have known them on earth to those that we can know in His kingdom.

Here is my best attempt at grappling with this hard word from our loving King; I think ultimately words like “hate” will be small and inconsequential in His kingdom which is coming and due to overtake our hearts. “Hate” is just a small temporary word that will be displaced by eternal words such as “Love”. Comparatively speaking we may, in a sense, “hate” bleached out, compromised motives and affections (however highly we might have appraised them in this life) once we taste more fully of the abundant ones He is endeavoring to impart to us.

Father, as for this hour (whether it be one of leanness or abundance), may we repent where we have opposed the Living Seed by depending upon external conditions. Allow us to acknowledge, that with the current circumstances of our lives, that conditions are ripe even now for germination, growth and an attractive harvest of righteousness, love, peace and joy. Right now Father, in this hour, be glorified in us. Amen.

The Soil of Our Soul – (Friday) John 12:23-28

John 12:23-28

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

And on this occasion the following are the words He chose.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal.”

John tells us (vs 33) that Jesus was talking here about His own approaching sacrificial death. But it is as though He uses His own circumstances as a reference point to teach us an inclusive principle about our own lives as well. We know that Jesus came to give us life that is abundant. To understand what Jesus was talking about, we have to consider all that He said about “life” to form our understanding. If I am hearing Him correctly, Jesus is saying that I need to have “hate” (?!!) as a soil condition in my soul in regards to this “life” in order for eternal “life” to grow there. Help!

Note:  This was written in 2012 from a beautiful mountain home.

Here in New Mexico, we have escaped the humidity and heat of Oklahoma.  At the encouragement of my son Daniel, who is an English literature teacher, I am brought The Grapes of Wrath along, an account of other Oklahomans who traveled west due to heat and drought. The stark difference is that they were trying to avoid starvation. I am just making a modification of 35 degrees in behalf of my comfort. While I prefer this climate, I guess I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that I hated my life at a 110 degrees.

I have begun my day thanking the Lord for His fresh mercies which are not limited to, but certainly do include, the pleasant circumstances of life at an altitude of 9,000 feet above sea level. So, should I have begun my day instead by asking God to remove the beneficial aspects of my life so that I might dial my current gratitude down to a more appropriate level of “hate“? As I read on in The Grapes of Wrath, I am convinced, if I should choose this track, that Steinbeck stands ready to assist me.

The author had attributed most of the evil driving Oklahomans west (and I am assuming corrupting society as a whole) to “corporations” (banks in particular). Double help!! It was a corporation that generated the funds for this home and this vacation. Are Steinbeck and Jesus on the same page? (Daniel, are you in on this too?!)

As I have attempted to navigate through these complicated theological waters I have not developed hard and fast rules that can be applied to Jesus’ teachings. You may ask, how then do I expect to direct my ship without firm biblical convictions. My answer may not meet your criteria, but I am attempting to navigating by faith in His Spirit who indwells me. I trust that (even with my imperfect understanding of Jesus’ hard words) that His Spirit within me has offered (and is still offering) sufficient light to move ahead.

Father, may Your Word penetrate the hard crust of our conditioned souls and find soil in which It may grow and bring You the crop that You desire, not some culturally modified crop that has no eternal relevance. Amen.

Soil of Our Soul – (Thursday) Matthew 13:24-30

Matthew 13:24-30

I love the Word of God – especially how He expresses Himself in scripture. Perhaps the Christian academic might say my love is limited because my study is limited. While I am not opposed to it, I do not go into my time in His word primarily to add to my base of knowledge. I am as interested in the “spirit” of the texts as I am the informational “letter” of their content. My deepest ambition is to know the heart of the Author. I want to know His heart like He knows mine. I want to enjoy His presence as I read and meditate. That is my chief desire.

I know that I do not do scholarly justice to the daily texts in the way perhaps, of an exegetical teacher. My approach is generally to just ask the Lord to speak to me. After reading the passage many times (often a day before I write), an idea or a short phrase or sentence will often begin to stand out. I will then see what light the rest of the passage and its broader context sheds on that seed-thought. While attempting to honor the text I also consider the ways that that seed may have already been growing and become a part of me by asking; What passion has it awakened? What dream has it stirred? How has the verse disturbed me? How has it exposed me? Today, the phrase “how then does it have tares?” is the one that is standing out.

This question was asked by some of the master’s slaves who seemed surprised to see tares in their master’s field which was known to have been sown with “good” seed. Most of these seed / sower type of stories seem related to individuals. This one has traditionally been applied to souls that are saved or lost with the tares (lost souls) being bundled and burned and the wheat (saved souls) being gathered and taken into the barn.

However, since this is a kingdom of God parable, I am also drawn to consider the broader context which includes all of those places that God aspires to reign. That may apply to that vast area referred to as the “air”- a spirit-domain in which Satan currently wields influence as a prince all the way down to nations, into communities, and other various human networks. I think kingdom reign especially applies to the domain of the human heart – a unique spirit arena where our consent is needed for kingdom seeds to grow and bear fruit.

I think many (Christians included) look at this world that God, who is both good and sovereign, created and ask, “How then does it have tares?”. How did things get so messed up?! The passage tells us that the tares were sown while man slept and that it was done by an enemy who no doubt aspires to destroy (if possible) or disrupt (at the very least) the Master’s harvest.

There is quite a contrast in reaction between the master and his workers. The workers are distraught at the presence of tares and propose hasty means of ridding the field of them. In contrast, the master is not alarmed or threatened by tares. He is patient and willing to permit them to grow side by side as if His ultimate harvest will be unaffected by them. Even though they are sharing sun, soil and water with the intended crop, the Master Gardner is not devastated by the presence of tares. No doubt, (at least in the context of society) these tares, with their money, preferences and votes are spoiling things for the main harvest who aspire to live peacefully and prosperously in a garden that is weed free.

We need the patience of God when we are tempted to ask, “where did these tares come from?” We may need restraint before we propose and act upon our own hasty solutions. When we see evil at work (within or without), we need to consider that Satan, as a temporary “prince”, sowed these tares (anti-kingdom propaganda and lies) while we slept. We must keep in mind that the sower of eternal Truth is an eternal King reigning over an ever-expanding
kingdom who has said of His Word; it will not return to Him void of the intended harvest.

Father, awaken us to recognize the lies and half-truths that have been sown into us while we slept. May we entrust them to You to pull away from our hearts at the right time and the right way. Help us to have Your patience in a world that seems overrun by tares. Amen.

The Soil of Our Soul – (Wednesday) Mark 4:30-32

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”  Mark 4:30-32

This is another parable where Jesus is likening the kingdom of God to seed. Since this is the third time in one chapter it is mentioned, the Holy Spirit must think “seed” and what it produces is quite important. This time Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed.

I have never seen a mustard seed. I don’t know if I have ever seen a mustard plant either. The writer says this plant grows up to be the largest in the garden even though, as a seed, it starts out as the smallest. It makes me think that it could be easily overlooked, perhaps undervalued.

This is also another of Jesus’ parables that He spoke to the multitudes (who were not getting it), which later He did explain to those who were following Him in earnest. One of the most sobering things about the Truth is that it is a narrow passageway, through which the scripture say, few will enter. On the other hand it says that many who travelled along a broader path will end up in a place of destruction. This is not good news to everyone. In fact, in our “rights-oriented” culture, this comes across as flat out discriminatory. I too might draw this conclusion if the Truth had not made Himself known and offered Himself, at great cost, as that narrow path.

Warren Buffet has made a fortune betting on the values of companies that others were overlooking. It has been his counterintuitive instincts and actions that have distinguished him as one of the few really great investors. I believe Jesus is saying that we are inclined to overlook and undervalue His kingdom. I believe He is saying that if we have ears to hear and act upon His investment council that we will have a radical return on our investment; a return that will be above and beyond our wildest expectations.  My instincts are telling me that the kingdom will not only pay dividends in heaven; it is paying dividends now. I have no doubt that the kingdom of God will give me the best return over the longest period of time. A few are going to get this.  Many are not. So, I pray….

Father, give us ears to hear and hearts to act upon the kingdom opportunities (in the lives of those around us) this day. Help us see where we are squandering our talents on kingdoms we (or others) are attempting to build. Help us to slow down and take a closer look at the soil of our souls to see if we cannot identify that small kingdom seed that You have planted. Let this tiny overlooked seed grow and mature in our hearts so that we may become a source of healing and refuge for many. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth (in our hearts) as it is in heaven. Amen.

The Soil of Our Soul – (Tuesday) Mark 4:26-29

Mark 4:26-29

Even though it is opposed by principalities and powers, the gospel is the best news that is being circulated on this planet. Why then was Jesus so focused on the kingdom of God? How many times did Jesus say, “The kingdom of God is like…….. (pick your parable). In this passage the kingdom “is like a man who cast seed on the ground“. “Casting” in this story is the only contribution by man to the kingdom. The rest is a total miracle dependent on circumstances that takes place beneath the soil – unseen by man.

What is the difference between the gospel and the kingdom of God? How are they related? I think its safe to say they are not in competition with each other, at least not as far as God is concerned. But, how about us modern western Christians? Is the gospel in competition with the kingdom of God in contemporary Christian culture?

A few years ago, this question would have seemed silly. I would have said, “of course it’s not!”. But my answer would have come out of a total vacuum of thought regarding the kingdom. I have not cornered the market on kingdom insight but it has definitely become more prominent in my thinking since I found myself resisting it a few years ago. I was the beneficiary of God’s grace, born anew and dramatically transformed yet beneath the surface of my life, the soil conditions were not conducive to kingdom growth. The plant that God was growing was stunted. There was no 30, 60, 90-fold harvest on the horizon.

Ironically, the outward plant had a trunk, limbs, leaves and even a little fruit. It looked pretty healthy as seen by men. However, If you knew me well enough to have listened to my heart, you would have known that the fruit was not too sweet. As good as it may have looked, it had a bitter taste to it. I have learned since that this was because their was some bitter roots in my life that I had not dealt with. I now know that a bitter root system is incapable of drawing from the Living Water (Christ) our roots are intended to reach.

I have come to think of the kingdom of God as that domain where God’s rule is active. It took me by surprise that I could be saved yet living in opposition to the kingdom. It was not until I had help from a few folks who knew bad fruit when they saw it that I was able to do my part in tending the soil. One of these people in particular was gifted and trained to trace bad fruit down into the root system and show me how to take responsibility. I will forever be grateful. Since dealing very intentionally with this bitter root, Living Water has flowed more freely through me than it has for two decades. That same Living Water has quenched my thirst.
It has given me a new sense of rest and peace.

So, yes, I have to say the gospel and the kingdom of God can be in competition with each other at the human level. I may have been a legitimate product of the gospel but a poor citizen of the kingdom because Love was not ruling in my heart. Unless God (who is Love) is ruling, the kingdom has not yet come. How sad that what was seen above ground that looked acceptable by most earthly standards of measurement (see 4:24) was unfit for the kingdom! And if Love is not ruling than the things being said (even if with zeal and conviction) will be nothing more than a loud unpleasant religious noise. (see 1 Cor 13:1)

Father, there is always a mysterious and miraculous interplay between the eternal Seed, the Living Water and the soil of our souls. May we grasp the kingdom implications of Your rule over our hearts. May we be honest about the bad fruit that is present in our lives when we hear our words subtly flavored with cynicism and resentment. Please show us how to trace these things
down into the soil of of our hearts. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.