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Showing posts from 2016

The "Simple" Commandment to Love

"The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

The things God wants from us don't comprise a lengthy list of rules and regulations. What God wants is simple to say but hard to do. You can sum up everything God wants from you with one word: Love. It says it all. Love God. Love people. End of story.

Of course the logical question that follows unearths the difficulty of obeying this simply-spoken command: What does it mean to love?

This is why we need the Bible—not to burden us with lengthy lists of rules but to demonstrate what love looks like. In the Bible we see how God patiently waits for, disciplines and blesses people. In the Bible we learn how Jesus demonstrates love by laying down his life. In the Bible we discover the consequences of making loving choices versus those of making selfish choices…

Knowing God's Plans

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What is God doing in your life right now? If you could see what God was up to, would it give you confidence to move forward?

Having eyes to see God at work gives us hope and perseverance today. Knowing AND believing that you are beloved is perhaps the first step toward seeing God’s work in your life. Once you know how much God loves you, then you begin to understand that God wants the best for you. Then you can move boldly into the plans God has for you. But when you doubt God’s love and question God’s presence, then you cower in fear and live in the shadows of doubt, disillusionment and self-destruction.

I pray that “the eyes of your heart [may be] enlightened, [so that] you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph 1:18-19).

Five Keys to Reviving a Dying Church

This was my latest post for Charis. It's an online resource produced by the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University.

http://char.is/blog/2016/09/29/five-keys-to-reviving-a-dying-church/

Click, read & share. Thanks!

A Few Thoughts about Race Relations in the United States

Given all the trouble with police shootings and subsequent protests & counter-protests, I put together a few quick thoughts on the country's current situation (in no particular order):
1. Every gun death (or other violent death) is a tragedy and ought to be viewed that way.
2. We have WAY too many tragedies in our country.

3. Most folks jump to conclusions about what happened & why way too quickly.
4. Folks in law enforcement are typically outstanding people who have a tough job to do.
5. Being uncivil and rude to your fellow humans is rarely if ever helpful.
6. While protests might seem distasteful to many of us, the reality is that most hard changes would never have occurred without protest.
7. There are major, systemic problems in many of our African-American communities that don't run parallel to problems in other ethnic/racial groups.
8. The question to ask is not "Do these problems exist?" but rather "Why do these problems exist?" or perhaps …

When Emptying Out Isn't Enough

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According to the Four Noble Truths, the goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment by emptying yourself of the things that cause desire and that thereby lead to suffering. In other words, you must detach or empty yourself in order to reach Nirvana. And what is Nirvana? It is emptiness, "nothingness" or ceasing to exist. That is the goal of Buddhism—to totally empty oneself out into the universe.
Perhaps that sounds attractive to you. In all honesty, there are days when emptying yourself out into nothingness might be a nice alternative to the feelings of stress, exhaustion & pessimism that you might go through. For folks who feel constant pain and who sense the pain of others, there’s likely to be a recurring desire to shake free from these feelings.
The Christian faith also teaches the importance of emptying. But there are significant differences in this regard between Christianity and Buddhism. Emptying oneself is not the goal of being a Christian. The objective of the …

Do You Understand God's Forgiveness?

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How we view forgiveness shapes our understanding of everything in the Christian faith. To be more specific, our view of God's forgiveness impacts the way we forgive.
For a long time, many folks believed that God only forgave sin if he could punish before offering his act of forgiveness. This is a punitive or transactional view of forgiveness.
The standard storyline went something like this: God can't stand sin. Even though God loves you, God can't stand to be with you if you sin. God wants to forgive you but has to take out his disgust with sin by punishing you somehow until you get it right.
Since we're all sinners & repeat offenders, this creates quite a problem. According to the traditional story, Jesus came along and lived without ever sinning. Finally, here was someone God didn't have to punish. But in order to forgive you of your sins, God punished Jesus instead of you.
This standard version of the story of forgiveness is mostly rubbish in my book—and not…

Forgiveness vs. Transactional Forgiveness

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Do you practice transactional forgiveness or just plain forgiveness? Here's the difference:
Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but you have to grovel and be in the doghouse for a long time." Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."
Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but I'm going to hold this over your head as long as I like." Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."
Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but from now on you'll never be equal to me." Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."
Transactional forgiveness says, "I'll forgive you if you somehow do enough to prove to me that you've earned it." Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."
Transactional forgiveness flows out of fury & rage. Forgiveness flows out of love.
Transactional forgiveness comes from a heart filled with the fear of deprivation. Forgiveness comes from a heart filled with gratitude for God's a…

The Biblical Age of Kings #13: God's Love Endures

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Here's a short meditation on Lamentations 5:19-22:
It's good to praise God and to remember his love. This is especially easy when we experience the majesty and wonder of creation. It's also equally simple when you can witness the deliverance of God, either first-hand or through the stories of those who lived it.
For example, Psalm 136 is a hymn of hope. In it, the psalmist tells the history of creation and redemption—how God made the heavens and the earth, and how God redeemed his people from slavery and brought them to a good and prosperous land. After each affirmation in this psalm (26 times), we hear the same refrain, "For his steadfast love endures forever."
But can you testify to the goodness of God's love when your world has collapsed and when your enemies are having their way with you? Can you sing the praises of God's enduring love when it feels as if God is looking the other way? How can you declare, "God's love endures forever," wh…

The Biblical Age of Kings #12: The Day of the Lord

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Lord, come quickly!
It's a prayer that many people utter every day. When folks grow weary of life's struggles, they cry out to God for help. Especially in light of tragedies like the Orlando mass shooting, believing people pray to God, "Lord, come quickly."
This prayer or a variation of it goes back before time of Christ. God-fearing Jews apparently longed for God to come and save them. They coined the phrase Day of the Lord to refer to this hopeful concept. This was apparently an important turn of phrase, a way of signifying their special status as God's chosen people and of expressing their need for God's deliverance.
We don't know the total weight of this term. But we know this. They thought the Day of Lord was good news. They assumed that the Lord’s coming would protect them and crush their enemies in the process.
Onto this scene marches the prophet Zephaniah. Referring to the Day of the Lord, he tells his listeners, "Be silent before the Lord God…

After Orlando: A Believer’s Response to Tragedy

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The massacre of fifty people at an Orlando night club is a horror story. Unless you are emotionally numb, you ought to feel incredible sorrow when hearing about the victims. And as you learn about the gunman's perverted views on the value of life, you should feel some sense of revulsion.
But is it enough to feel anger or empathy? Isn't there something we ought to do? How should believing people respond to tragedies like the one in Orlando? What should our words look and sound like in the wake of disaster? How do we bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ when folks are torn by grief and fear?
Here are three biblical responses to tragedy.
1. Be present and be silent.
Job's personal disaster would make headlines in our world today. Job was a leading figure in his society, one of the wealthiest and largest employers around. Yet in one fell swoop, Job experienced a terrorist attack and natural calamity rolled into one. He lost all his family (except his wife), his workers and…

The Age of Kings #10: The Lord's a Witness

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Have you ever needed a witness?
Picture the worst kind of rush-hour traffic that you can imagine. Cars on the freeway. Stop and go. Maddening slowdowns and sudden stops. The daily negotiation of gridlock like this requires a huge dose of patience and skill. Even then things sometimes happen. And when it does, you might need a witness.
My friend Martina was driving in this kind of big-city traffic. Cars would stop for a while and then slowly inch forward. At one point when traffic stopped, the car in front of Martina suddenly threw it into reverse and smashed backwards into Martina's car. He jumped out, grabbed his neck and was going to claim that Martina had rear-ended him. Can you imagine how Martina was going to defend herself? Who would believe that this driver had backed into her when read-end collisions are so common in stop-and-go traffic?
Martina needed a witness! As soon as she realized what was happening, she bravely jumped out into traffic and flagged down drivers in th…

The Biblical Age of Kings #9: O Lord, Open Their Eyes!

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2 Kings 6:8-23 tells the great story of blindness and sight. It's a story of how blind we can be to the fiery host of heaven that surrounds us in our hour of need, of how we need the Lord to open our eyes to see his power and might. It's also a story of how God is able to blind the eyes of the enemy, leading them right into the hands of God’s people.
There are two layers of blindness and sight in this tale. First, there is Elisha's servant. He is terrified when the Syrian army comes and surrounds Elisha’s village. They've come for Elisha, and there appears to be no hope of escape. This unnamed servant can only see the enemy, and it’s a terrifying sight!
But he is blind to a bigger reality. The host of heaven is there to protect them, ready to strike down this conquering force. The hills are full of horses and chariots of fire. Elisha prays, "O Lord, open his eyes that he may see." When he sees, his sense of reality is completely transformed.
Second, there a…

The Biblical Age of Kings #8: Is There No God in Israel?

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In our moments of greatest need, we reveal what lies beneath outward appearances. For those who are empty on the inside, times of crisis can reveal a bankruptcy of character. For those who are filled with the wrong things, catastrophe tends to unearth wrongheaded priorities and misplaced frenzy. But in those who have been filled with the love and grace of God, we can see a calm strength that seems out of place in a world that values hysteria.
King Ahaziah, son of Ahab & Jezebel, reigned slightly more than a year. The narrators of 1 & 2 Kings don't tell us much about him, except that he walked in the evil ways of his parents and of the founding north Israelite king Jeroboam. Ahaziah is an unimportant figure in the annals of history.
His failure to trust in God, however, is the perfect canvas for the narrators to close out the prophetic work of Elijah. In Ahaziah's dumb and futile desperation, we see a clash of powers and priorities, and we discover the outcome of such m…

The Biblical Age of Kings #7: A Lying Spirit

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Micaiah (of 1 Kings 22) is not a well-known Jewish prophet. But unlike the 400 prophets who come and prophesy at King Ahab's beckon call, Micaiah is not on retainer with the king. He is not one of the yes-men who rubber stamp Ahab's plans. Micaiah speaks for God, not at the behest of an evil ruler.
King Ahab of North Israel wants to go to war with Syria to recapture Ramoth-gilead. He calls on his apparent lackey, Jehoshaphat king of Judah, to aid his war effort. Jehoshaphat makes himself and his army available.
It turns out, however, that Jehoshaphat is no pushover. He retains the faith of his ancestor King David. Unlike Ahab who has sold out to Baal, Jehoshaphat is a Yahwist who believes in worshiping the one true God. Of course, the narrators also criticize Jehoshaphat for being a pragmatist who makes peace with Ahab and lets his people worship other gods (1 Kgs 22:43-44).
Still, Jehoshaphat believes in the Lord, and he throws a small wrench into the plans. He says to Ahab,…

The Biblical Age of Kings #4: The Prophet's Rebuke

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Some of the Bible's craziest stories are in the books of 1 & 2 Kings. Remember the story of the floating ax head? Or do you know the one about how some kids called a prophet "Baldy" right before a bear came down and mauled them? And then there's the story of how God caused a lying spirit to help some prophets mislead the king? Yeah, weird stuff.
Well perhaps no story is stranger than the one in 1 Kings 14:1-18. The narrators relate the end of the reign of Jeroboam, the first king of a new northern kingdom. Solomon's arrogance laid the seeds for Israel's division, and his son Rehoboam's folly made certain that it collapsed. Rehoboam is left with the diminutive southern kingdom of Judah while Jeroboam claims the northern throne.
The story of 1 Kgs 14 begins with sickness. The king's son is ill. Jeroboam tells his nameless wife, "Disguise yourself and go visit Ahijah the blind prophet. Take him some gifts as if from a commoner, and ask him to fo…

The Biblical Age of Kings #3: If You Turn Aside

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When it comes to our spiritual development, there's no such thing as a body at rest. You're always moving. One way or another. You're never completely standing still, despite appearances.
Think about it first from the perspective of science. You may think you're not moving, but it's an illusion. For one thing, the earth is always spinning around its axis. Depending on where you are, you could be moving as fast as 1,000 miles/hour! Add to that the fact that the earth is orbiting the sun. And then there are the entire solar system and galaxy all speeding away from the center of the universe. It's dizzying to consider! But my point is simple: you're always moving one way or another.
The same is true from a spiritual point of view. Your life is always moving on a trajectory of one kind or another. You're either moving closer to God, or you're gradually pulling away from God. There’s no such thing as standing spiritually still. Either you're growing …

The Biblical Age of Kings #2: The Allure of Wisdom

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As we continue our study on the books of 1 & 2 Kings, we reach the apparent pinnacle of Israel's greatness in 1 Kings 4:29-34. (It's 5:9-14 in the Hebrew text). Solomon seems to be the greatest king ever for the small and otherwise insignificant nation of Israel. His wisdom, wealth and glory put Israel on the map of world powers. Solomon maximized the potential of Israel, at least in an economic and geopolitical sense. He was a master of public relations, churning out loads of artistic material and know-how, making him the envy of world leaders near and far.
This chapter and the surrounding narrative also contain a cynical undercurrent. While the story of Solomon speaks of great bounty and success, it also calls into question the nature of a Solomonic kingdom. God does not hold back in giving Solomon a wise mind and discerning heart, but this seems to produce in Solomon a man who suffers from memory loss. Although God is blessing him richly, he seems to quickly forget tha…

The Biblical Age of Kings #1: Walk Faithfully Before God

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This week, our church in Fresno begins a three-month, congregational study on 1 & 2 Kings. The title of the study is "The Peril of Power & the Power of Prophetic Resistance." This material covers 400 years of Israelite history, from the ascension of Solomon in 961 BC to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Most of the prophetic books overlap with this time period. The books of 1 & 2 Chronicles mostly duplicate these stories. In other words, there's no shortage of biblical material spanning these four centuries. Covering all this in 13 weeks will be no easy task.

As we'll see throughout our study, these books aren't purely history. While they certainly deal with the history of Israel and Judah, the books of 1 & 2 Kings provide theological reflection upon history. They give us a divine critique of Israel & Judah's failed experiment with monarchies. These stories show us in living color what happened when the people of God failed to remem…

Knowing Jesus #5: The Rocks Will Cry Out

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This week's text (Luke 19:28-40) tells the story of Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. But just what does this mean to us as informed readers of Luke's gospel? While Jesus claims the messianic mantle, he also redefines it. Luke is clearly working an angle here. He’s got a tale to tell, a sermon to preach, a message to get across. Do we have ears to hear it? Can we come to know Jesus through this text?
Throughout Luke's two-volume set (Luke-Acts), we detect some important patterns. Geography is one important thread: toward Jerusalem in Luke and away from Jerusalem in Acts. Luke's writing also appears to address the politics of the day. By politics, I mean Luke takes care to demonstrate that the way of Jesus & his followers is not a direct threat to Roman rule. The Ephesian town clerk's speech in Acts 19 is one strong example of this.
Jesus is certainly a king, Luke asserts, but not in the same way that Caesar is a king. They don't direct…

Knowing Jesus #4: Keep Your Focus

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Where is the kingdom of God? How can you spot it? And how can you get ready for it?
As Jesus nears Jerusalem, some Pharisees ask him if the kingdom of God is coming soon. We can only guess their motives. Are they egging him on? Are they genuinely curious? It's common to assume, perhaps rightly, that they think Jesus will try to liberate Jerusalem.
Some Jews no doubt hope for a strong leader who can make them great again. Others are spectators, hoping to see another failed conspirator crash and burn against the might of Rome. Perhaps there are a few genuinely drawn to the kingdom of God as described by Jesus—an upside-down kingdom in which the humble are great and the proud are humbled. But even these suffer from some confusion about Jesus' kingdom.
The Pharisees are not typically among the genuine seekers. Luke makes this plain. "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed him" (Luke 16:14). And elsewhere: "The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling an…

Knowing Jesus #2: The Humble Path

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It's not easy to follow Jesus in a Kesha and Kanye world. Fame is the desired destination for many people, and self-promotion is the clear path to get there. How can you find the path of Jesus in a world filled with so many other roads?
Christians are supposed to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. But too many people—even many so-called Christians—sadly know little to nothing about Jesus. They may like their own caricatures of Jesus: homie Jesus, homeboy Jesus, gangster Jesus, hipster Jesus or buddy Jesus on a dashboard bobble-head.  For these folks, following Jesus amounts to little more than believing in a fairy godmother or guardian angel who wants them to be happy.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. Too many folks think Jesus is all about their personal happiness. Their fascination with Jesus is not actually about Jesus. It’s in fact a sign of self-absorption or of a desire for personal fame, glory and importance.
Clearly, these folks have not paid careful attention…

Knowing Jesus #1: His Arms Are Open

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How well do you know Jesus? It's an ongoing quest to understand who Jesus really was. Throughout the centuries, Christians have grappled with the person of Jesus.
How do we come to know him? Do we look inside our hearts? Do we search the pages of scripture? Do we look for him in the words & actions of others? Who was the real Jesus and how do we know him?
Some have wondered aloud if the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of the Bible are one and the same. Perhaps the Bible, they say, has irreparably distorted the true picture of Jesus.
Marcus Borg was a brilliant scholar. Before his premature death, he wrote prolifically for a large audience of scholars and Christians. Borg "re-imagined" Jesus for his readers. He in essence claimed that the Bible is a poor place to know Jesus without guidance from folks like him. The true Jesus, he said, is hidden behind the ancient texts which are warped and must be carefully sifted through.
In his book Preaching from Memory to Hope, the…

Spiritual Arsenal #6: Listening to God's Word

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The final installment in this Spiritual Arsenal series deals with scripture. Listening to God's word as spoken in the ancient biblical texts is a key weapon in your spiritual fight. Jesus defended himself from the devil with it, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." By quoting scripture in his resistance, Jesus was modeling precisely how you can live on God's word.
Just how exactly does God's word function in your spiritual battle against evil? Some folks will of course immediately protest that they can hear the Word of God through avenues other than the Bible. There's no doubt about this fact. God can speak through a sunset, in a piece of music, via the touch of another human being, or even through a donkey if needed. There's no serious argument about this.

One could also point out that Jesus is the living Word of God. That's what John says in John 1:1. It's the message of the Hebrews writer in 1:…

Spiritual Arsenal #5: Prayer

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Why do we pray? Does praying actually change anything? Is prayer merely a psycho-therapeutic aid to calm our anxious spirits?
The fact that I’m including prayer in this series hopefully conveys my belief that prayer is a vital part of our spiritual warfare. When Paul depicts the "whole armor of God" in Eph 6:13-17, he wraps it up with this: "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me."
What does it mean to pray? For starters, prayer requires you to inquire what God’s true priorities are. You probably understand what it's like to request something from a powerful person, perhaps a boss, principal or community leader. You can't just get whatever you want simply because you request it. If your request doesn't align with the priorities of that powerful person, then your odds of success are slim to none.

Now imagine coming in prayer before …

Spiritual Arsenal #4: Fasting

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Are you one of those Christians who believe that you don't need to fast? Some have never done it and have no desire to do so. Maybe they think it belongs to the pre-Christian era rather than to the life of the church. Or perhaps they just don't want to give up food for even a few hours. Regardless, many Christians don't ever fast. What about you? What's your take on fasting?
There is some truth to these misgivings about fasting. Jesus and his followers were known more for eating than fasting. His critics considered him to be "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:33) because of his willingness to dine with just about anyone. The Pharisees were suspicious of Jesus because he and his followers didn't "fast and pray regularly" in the expected, visible manner of other religious leaders (Luke 5:33-34).

In the book of Acts, the Christian gatherings were often described as "breaking bread" together, clearl…