Feb 4 2011

What it means to be blessed

I grew up in a church who read from the Gospels each week (along with a passage from the Epistles, and the Old Testament). Sermons were sometimes based on the Epistles, but I seem to recall more coming from the Gospels. For one thing, the Gospels were stories, and even children could understand most of them. Secondly, I suspect that a lot of the impact came from the fact that the Gospels contained the words of Jesus, not simply words about Jesus.

I don’t recall any sermons having the message that as Christians, our lives would be a bed of roses. It’s actually hard to come up with this kind of belief if you actually read the Gospels. Jesus actually promises us quite a bit of trouble, when you come right down to it. And, as he lived as one of us for 30-plus years, and ended up being tortured and killed, I think he understood what he was talking about.

One of Jesus’ most famous sermons is the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapter 5. In a section known as the beatitudes, or the “blesseds,” Jesus says,

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

While some of the traits Jesus mentions are positive, such as being pure in heart, merciful and being a peacemaker, I don’t believe Jesus is saying that all of these are things to shoot for. Rather, he seems to be pointing out people who were personally suffering, or who were sacrificing their own good for the good of others. He did not meant that it is good to mourn or to be persecuted—in fact, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray to be delivered from evil, which these things certainly are. While the beatitudes are promises of hope and the coming Kingdom, Jesus knew that even though the Kingdom of God was at hand (Matt. 3:2), for the present time there will be suffering.

The Kingdom of God—the rule of God—has been described as “already but not yet.” It is “at hand” or “within reach,” but yet Jesus asks us to pray that the Kingdom of God would come to “Earth as it is in Heaven.” Of course, when I was a child, this was beyond me, but yet I understood that God was in control in spite of suffering—and that at some future point, everything would be set right. Those who mourn would be comforted, and the poor in spirit would inherit Heaven. In other words, the future would more than compensate for the present.

As a parent, I understand this now, as I watched my children fall when learning to ride a bike and take medicine that was hard to swallow. It is a matter of perspective. We need to learn to see beyond the present into the future, trusting that from God’s point of view, it all works out to our good.

At times there is healing and prosperity, and at times there is suffering and mourning. God sent the Comforter because we would need comforting, and he sent Jesus to bring hope and salvation in the midst of it all. Those of us who know God understand this hope.

That’s what it really means to be blessed.

1.       When is the last time you heard a sermon from the Gospels?
2.       How have you experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit?


Feb 3 2011

In God We Trust

“In God We Trust.” In the United States, we all recognize this phrase, which appears on all of our money. Obviously, this is hardly the case as far as our nation goes—and for that matter, it’s not always easy for we who believe, either.

To a child, there are few things more important than trust. Because children are not self-sufficient, they must rely on others—typically, and preferably, families—for basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing, as well as love and companionship. It’s a terrible, terrible thing when children grow up without any or even some of these things. Unfortunately, this is common in many parts of the world, and is not that uncommon in our own country.

At some point, even children with good families learn that their parents are fallible, or at least not omnipotent. Parents cannot always provide everything a child wants or needs. They can’t walk the halls with them at school to protect them from bullies, and they can’t keep family pets from being run over by cars, no matter how much they would like to.

However, we have a friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). This does not mean that God will always keep the bullies away, or ensure that pets live forever. However, while parents often don’t seem to understand the stresses of being a child, our “closer than a brother” God does understand, and is there to provide comfort, understanding, and healing.

There are unfortunate teachings prevalent today that leads some people to believe that God is there to make us healthy, happy and prosperous. This “Santa” notion of God is one of the worst things we can teach our children. The reality is that life is hard, but God is faithful.

When I was a child, most often sermons were taken from the Gospel readings of the day. I grew up listening to the words of Jesus, as he talked about God’s faithfulness. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” “Consider the lilies of the field.” And, more specifically, John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

As a young boy I understood that it was not God’s plan for us to be trouble-free, but that God was there to see us through. After all, Jesus himself had to suffer. And, Jesus promised that God would send the Holy Spirit to be a comforter—not to make us comfortable.

Life on the prairies of Minnesota was hard; I often joke that where I grew up, pain and suffering was a way of life, not something to sue others for. The winters were grueling and often dangerous, with below zero temperatures, ice and snow. The summers contained their share of hardships as well. I learned how to drive a truck at age 12, and from then on, my summers were busy helping on the farm (before tractors had air-conditioned cabs).The news was full of the war in Vietnam. People I knew died from sickness and accidents. Crops were destroyed by hail. Typically, we were poor.

In all of this, we trusted in God. Not that this is anything to brag about; in fact, I think we trusted in God because we really didn’t have any alternatives. Yet in spite of these hardships, I believe I had a happy childhood. God proved faithful, whether we were in times of abundance or in need. While I didn’t always understand the reasons why (for that matter, I still don’t), I grew to understand that God could be trusted. In this world we will have tribulations, but we rejoice, knowing that Jesus has overcome the world. This is our hope.

  1. What kind of God were you taught, a God who is there to make your life comfortable and keep us prosperous and healthy, or a God who comforts us during our times of need?
  2. How does your view of God change how you approach life and deal with trials?


Oct 16 2010

A Simple Faith

Christianity can seem pretty complicated, especially if you try to pay attention. There are way too many voices out there clamoring for your attention, each with their own intricately nuanced theology (even if they avoid using the word). Raise your hands if you’ve ever tried to figure out the four or five points of Calvinism, the modes of baptism, the differences between the “tribs” and “mills,” predestination vs free-will, or what the heck “emerging” means. It seems like it’s much easier to grasp the principles of quantum mechanics than justification or the trinity.

Sometimes it can be quite confusing just trying to figure out if you’re really saved. Were you baptized the right way? Did you pray the right prayer? Do you really have “saving” faith? And, are you saved forever, or just until you mess up again?

Is Christianity really that complex? Do we need a degree to be able to grasp the Gospel? Is intellectualism next to Godliness? Thankfully, Jesus did not say, “Unless you become a Ph.D., you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Not once.

What Jesus did say was, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3)” Earlier in Matthew, we read Jesus pray, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. (Matt. 11:25)”

I first remember these verses from listening to sermons as a young child, and they stuck with me. “Let the little children come to me. (Luke 18:16)” In a world where information was given to children on a “need to know” basis, here was Jesus putting children first, and telling the adults that children understand the Kingdom of God better than adults.

In the movie Hook, Robin Williams plays an older, wiser, Peter Pan, who has become so grown-up that he has forgotten who he is, and that the stories of his childhood he takes for fairy tales are really true. To save his children, and himself, he must “become as a little child,” remembering who he was, believing what he once believed.

In the adult world, skepticism is the key to knowledge; never accept anything at face value, question authority, look before you leap. Children haven’t yet learned to doubt; they simply understand that Jesus loves me, this I know.  I think that it’s not so much that children know something about God’s love that adults don’t. Rather, I think for children, God’s love is simply enough. When has God’s love simply been enough for us?

Certainly, it’s important to know a few things, like that Jesus is God’s son, and that he died and rose again to defeat sin and death forever. But, I’m not sure that the thief on the cross understood this — he definitely didn’t know about the resurrection — yet we know he made it to paradise. What did the woman at the well know about Jesus? Or what about all the people that Jesus healed?

The Bible is full of theology; that’s where theology comes from. Jesus taught theology, as did Paul and the other disciples. I’m all in favor of learning the Bible and theology. But if we lose what we had as children, we lose sight of the Kingdom.

Learn all you can. But let “Jesus loves me” be enough.

Questions:

  1. If you can, try to recall what you were like as a child of five or six. Thinking of the Gospel, what would have been enough for you?
  2. In growing and maturing, what have you lost?


Sep 17 2010

Splurging Grace

My grandfather’s favorite hymn was Children Of The Heavenly Father, a Swedish hymn by Karolina W. San­dell-Berg. The 1st and 3rd verses (translated into English by Ernst W. Ol­son in 1925) are:

Children of the Heavenly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever
Unto them His grace He showeth
And their sorrows all He knoweth

While the English is forced at best, it’s one of my favorite hymns, too — though I doubt I’ve sung it since I was a child, perhaps at my grandfather’s funeral. Through six short verses, it emphasizes that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”

It perhaps goes without saying that the father in the story of the Prodigal Son represents God, who always welcomes back prodigals with joy. As a small child, it was always reassuring to hear that no matter how “prodigal” you may be, the Heavenly Father always loves us, and there’s always plenty of grace to go around. As an adult, it seems we still need to hear that. There are way too many elder brothers hanging around to tell us we aren’t deserving, and that there’s no place for us here. We are, in fact, surrounded by voices calling us to “more” — more holiness, more commitment, more striving — with the goal of spiritual “maturity.”

Very few voices echo the father’s invitation to his two sons to more grace: “Here’s some more money, here’s a fatted calf, let’s party!” Neither son deserved a party. Neither son really knew their father or understood his values. The point was, it was enough that the father loved his sons. That was the only motivation for the father’s extravagance.

The plain truth of the matter is that we really don’t deserve God’s grace. To think we have to somehow qualify for grace is to miss the point entirely. Martin Luther, in a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon, tried to explain this. Phillip was trying to find the limits of grace, trying to sift through the critical voices challenging him about what was permissible and what was sin. Luther wrote: “God does not save people who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” In other words, live boldly, do not be afraid to make mistakes and fail. We will fail, at times. But know this: the Father’s grace is more than sufficient.

There is no such thing as the proverbial “fall from grace.” If grace is undeserved, as one definition puts it, then how can we possibly do anything more to “undeserve” it to the extent it is taken away? Likewise, we are not “restored to grace,” we are restored by grace. Grace is, from one perspective, God’s love in action. And — here’s a little math lesson — as God’s love and grace are infinite, so there is never any love or grace wasted. All of the money that the prodigal wasted did not diminish the father’s bank account whatsoever; an infinite amount minus anything is still an infinite amount.

This is what the elder son failed to grasp. He had become stingy with this father’s money — with God’s grace — because he failed to see that grace is never wasted, and the supply can never be diminished. Grace is not a finite resource. When you see God pouring his grace out on someone else, it doesn’t diminish what is available for you. Rather, it just illustrates how much grace is actually available for you!

This is how the father can give the prodigal a huge chunk of money, then give him access to the whole lot of it, and still say to the elder son, “All that I have was always yours. You could have thrown a party whenever you wanted, but you were too stingy. Come, now learn to celebrate.”

Jesus never tells us what the elder son decided, or what happened to him down the road. From the father’s comments to the elder son, we can learn one important lesson: We can’t take advantage or enjoy God’s grace unless we are willing to splurge a little. We need to learn the joy of extravagant grace, whether it’s spent on us, or on someone else.

Questions:

  1. How does God’s extravagance make you feel?
  2. How do you think someone can overcome the belief that grace is a finite resource?