Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From East to West...

"The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities... as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us."
(Psalm 103:8-10, 12)

I'm going to prison today.  I'm starting a new once-a-month Bible study with some of the inmates at the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu.  We'll be journeying through Matthew together.  I'm both excited and a little nervous.  I'm not at all worried about the environment... but rather, will this study be "real" to the men who will come?  Will it make a difference in their lives?  If it was purely up to my "brilliance" (or lack thereof), then who knows.  But the true power of Bible Study comes from the Spirit of God that speaks through the pages of Scripture - not the qualification/preparation of the leader.

Today's passage from Psalm 103 is a great message to keep in mind as I engage in this new ministry: Mercy.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  I'm reminded that this is Good News for me!  God doesn't ultimately deal with me according to my sin.  My sin has been removed, hallelujah!  As I begin to work with the men at the Detention Center, I go as a fellow sinner.  I go as one who needs God's grace just as much as anyone inside the facility.  I don't go to "impart wisdom" or morality or even faith.  I go to help connect others to God in new ways.

There's power in Scripture.  I can't wait to see how God shows up in prison... and teaches me new things about His amazing grace!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Choosing to let go...

"...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntery and not something forced."
(Philemon 14)

Philemon is such an interesting letter/story.  Paul is writing to his friend-in-faith, Philemon.  The letter is delivered by Onesiumus - a man who used to be Philemon's slave, but ran away!  He became close friends with Paul.  So Paul sent him back to Philemon (as the law required), but asked that he willingly release Onesimus so he an come back and be part of Paul's ministry team.  (Can you imagine how that scene played out!?!)

In the letter, Paul writes that he could compel Philemon to release Onesimus... or, he could have  simply kept him and told Philemon that the situation with Onesimus has changed.  But instead he sent him back - so Philemon could choose to release him on his own.  Paul knew there is great power (and HEALING!) when one is allowed to choose to let go.  Philemon not only had to let go of Onesimus, but also of the great pain, bitterness, and resentment that he must have harbored in his heart towards him.

Which begs us to ask... What might we need to willingly let go of?  Control of relationships?  Past hurts?  Resentments?  Personal will?  What "voluntary good deed" might lead to healing, restoration, and new life... in us or in others?  Hmmm... maybe this runaway slave has something to teach us even today!?!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It even had a name!

"(Hezekiah) broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it, it was called Nehushtan."
(2 Kings 18:4)

So there's this interesting story in Numbers 21 about a time Moses was with the Israelites in the wilderness.  They were being even more "whiny" than usual, complaining about everything... so God sent a bunch of poisonous snakes into camp.  THAT sure got their attention!  People got really sick and looked to Moses to help save them.  Mo took it to God, and God suggested he make a bronze serpent... put it on a pole... and lift it high up in the air.  Then whenever someone gets bit by a snake, they can gave upon the bronze one, and God would heal them.

Well, over time, it seems this became an 'idol' in the land.  What had started as a symbolic reminder of God's healing power became a god to the people - they made offerings to it and even gave the snake a name: Nehushtan!  (Note: the serpent was also one of the symbols of the Ba'al religion of the neighboring Canaanites!)

I wonder if we've co-opted another one of God's symbolic reminders of Him today: the cross.  It also was used for healing - as Jesus was lifted high on the cross for all to see... and when we gaze upon his crucifixion with reverence, our sins are forgiven.  But Jesus should be the focus, not the cross.  Sometimes I think we in the church have come to elevate the cross even above Jesus!  It's easy to connect to a visible object like a cross.  We can put them no our walls, our desks, in our cars, around our necks, etc.  An yet, God calls us into a relationship with Him - not a cross.  Plus, unlike an inanimate object like a cross, Jesus actually impacts our life.  No more idols... (even Christian ones!).

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Cleaning

"In the first year of his reign, in the first month, (Hezekiah) opened the doors of the house of the LORD and repaired them."
(2 Chronicles 19:3)

I absolutely love this guy!  2 Chronicles 29-31 tells about King Hezekiah... a 25-year old king of Judah who had a 29-year reign.  He was one of the "good guys" when it comes to Israel & Judah's kings.  One of his first acts as a king was to open up, clean out, restore and sanctify the Temple in Jerusalem - which had fallen into deep neglect over the years.  After a major cleansing, Hezekiah called all of the people to come and worship together.  And worship they did!  Hours upon hours of singing, prayer & offerings.  "And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because of what God had done for the peopel; for the thing had come about suddenly" (2 Chr. 29:36).

From here, the king tackled the festival of Passover - which also had been neglected over the years.  This was their time to remember God's saving history in their lives... and was a major step in restoring the people to a right relationship with God.  What's interesting as well is that Hezekiah suggested a humble and contrite attitude by the people of Judah might have an intercessory-effect for their brothers and sisters from the North (Israel) who were in captivity from the Assyrians.  So it had a sacrificial tone to it (30:9).

In the end, there was great joy, community, and fellowship in Judah.  "For since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem" (30:26).  Wow.  What a testimony!  And it all started from a little cleaning...

(I wonder what might need to be cleaned/cleansed in my life and circle of influence today?)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Stupid & Senseless

"Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening... Have nothing to do with stupid & senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels."
(2 Timothy 2:14, 23)

I don't know if there's any deep spiritual insight here... I just resonated with these 2 verses from 2nd Timothy, chapter 2. Some people seem to be always looking for an argument or debate. I get it that people have passions and beliefs - many of which run quite deeply. And yet, oftentimes it seems the goal is more to "stir up the pot" and get others riled up. Congrats... it sure works. But it's not my style.

Paul tells Timothy to avoid this. As a leader, Paul knows there's a time and place to "take a stand" and "speak the truth in love." However, I dare say he recognizes that God wants him to be IN RELATIONSHIP with others, too! Getting frequently involved in "stupid and senseless controversies" tends to limit that quite often.

I guess I'd rather be "in relationship" with others, rather than to be "right" all the time... but that's just me (and maybe, Paul, too!).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Money, money, money...

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."
(1 Timothy 6:10)

"Money makes the world go round," so the saying goes. In some ways, that's true. Without enough financial resources, life can be very hard. And yet, we here in the West probably have an inflated definition of what "enough" is.

This passage from 1 Timothy 6 is often misquoted as "money is the root of all evil." Paul didn't say that. Paul said THE LOVE OF MONEY is the root of all kinds of evil. Here's where so many of us get in trouble. Whether it's working ourselves to the extreme in order to gain as much money as possible (or working simply to get a higher-paying job)... or hoarding as much money as we can (with the idea that we can never have "too much"!)... we often have an unhealthy relationship with money.

How can we avoid the "love of money"? Give it all away. Maybe. Then again, it might just mean we're called to love something (or someONE) more! When God becomes our "all consuming passion" (not money), then we're freed up to use our money in whatever ways God directs. Helping a friend in need... sponsoring a poor child through Compassion International... giving to a local charity that works to alleviate poverty... supporting a missionary, etc. I dare say there's eternal value in that!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Speaking of..."

"Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters - with absolute purity."
(1 Timothy 5:1-2)

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!" So we sang as children. And yet, as we grew up, we realized that wasn't exactly true. Words can hurt. Words do hurt. Regularly.

Certain parts of the country seem to place a premium on respectful words - at least initially. "Southern hospitality" raised generations to say, "Yes ma'am, no sir." Here in Hawaii, our children are taught to call any older man "Uncle," and any older woman "Aunty" (whether they're related to us or not!). The military community teaches "Yes, sir!" and "No, ma'am"... and their children are (by and large) very respectful. Respectful speech is underrated.

The apostle Paul must have sensed that, too. He instructs Timothy to speak to everyone with the utmost respect - older men as fathers, older women as mothers, younger men as brothers, and younger women as sisters (of course, that assumes one already speaks with tenderness & respect to their family members!). But Paul adds one caveat on the end of these instructions - "with absolute purity." Maybe this is a remark meant to cover all 4 groups of people previously mentioned... but somehow I think it refers specifically to younger women. Could it be that men back in Timothy's day often said inappropriate things to younger women - especially when they found them attractive (like we do so frequently today!)?

What would it mean for us to speak with "absolute purity" to everyone today (especially to younger women)? Maybe people would come to feel valued & respected for who they were, not for how they looked? That's what God intends. We're all made in God's image... whether we're young & vivacious... or more "mature". Hmmmm... sounds like an easy enough assignment... but can we live it out? By the grace of God... YES!!!

Monday, September 14, 2009

What REALLY matters...

"On that day people will regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel; they will not have regard for the altars, the work of their hands, and they will not look to what their own fingers have made, either the sacred poles or the altars of incense."
(Isaiah 17:7-8)

There's big business in religion. People and organizations spend BILLIONS every year on religious "things" - books, icons, jewelry, music, clothing, etc. Churches & faith communities invest tons of money in buildings and edifices, equipment & instruments - all for the sake of their faith (whatever faith that may be!).

Isaiah 17 speaks of a time when all the "religious stuff" that people focus on will be of no real importance. What WILL be important is that they come to seek the LORD. Directly. Now, I recognize the original context of this passage was addressed to those nations who worshiped other gods. And yet, this is a message that we in the Christian faith need to take seriously, too! No matter how many Christian t-shirts, crosses, CDs or Bible translations we may have... no matter how beautiful our churches may be... what really matters is that we seek God. Period. And, the Bible assures us (and I can attest to this fact!) that God will be found. Amen to that!

Friday, September 11, 2009

No excuses (and no celebration, either)!

"Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. I must bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he takes my side and executes judgment for me."
(Micah 7:8-9)

We seem to have a morbid fascination with people who have "fallen from grace." Whether it's a story of a celebrity who has gotten in trouble, a politician caught up in a scandal, a religious leader beset by 'moral failing,' an athlete who has (another) run-in with the law, etc. We love to watch/listen/read about them. But whenever WE'RE the ones on the 'hot seat,' it's a different story. We hate when others gloat over our misfortunes, don't we?

The prophet Micah wrote at a time when the nation of Israel was going through much difficulty. The northern tribes (Israel) had been over-run by the Assyrians. The southern tribes (Judah) were spared, but their time would soon come (from the Babylonians). Micah witnessed God's chastising of his people. Sin had ruled far too long. But instead of making excuses or fighting the punishment or asking "why me?" Micah accepted God's judgment. And yet, he didn't despair. He knew God would not abandon them. In God's timing, they'd be restored. In the meantime, God would be a light in their darkness. He could take his punishment & wait on the LORD.

We have a lot to learn from this. About how to react when we (and others) face difficulties. No excuses. And no celebration, either, when it falls upon others. Can we trust God's presence in our lives even amidst correction? (NOTE: not everything bad that happens is necessarily "punishment" or "judgment" from God. That's the message of the book of Job in the OT! But we must also come to grips with the fact that our actions have consequences... and sometimes (oftentimes?) what we do DOES come back to haunt us. I'm just saying...)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


"Make a joyful noise to the LORD all the earth."
(Psalm 100:1)

When it comes to the most well-known psalms, there's Psalm 23 ("The LORD is my shepherd...") and then there's a HUGE gap before whatever psalm comes next.  Psalm 100 might be that #2 psalm.  It's opening line is also quite memorable: "MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE TO THE LORD!"

As I read this today, my heart stopped on the words "joyful noise."  I wonder what the ratio between praising God and cursing God is these days?  Granted, most people who "use God's name in vain" probably aren't actually associating God with their curse.  It just rolls off the tongue, "God &@##$+!"  And yet it literally pains my heart every time I hear these words - either via movies, TV show, or in person (in fact, I've begun the practice of immediately asking God to forgive whomever said it... "they know not what they do!").

How frustrating it must be for God - who created us all - to have to hear a "grumbling noise" all of the time from us!  The One who gives us so much (of himself, even!) often gets our worst.  So the psalmist challenges us to be intentional about making a joyful noise to the LORD.  In the morning when we rise ("Oh God, time to get up already!??)... while we're driving (especially with those "less thoughtful" drivers on the roads!)... when our kids get us frustrated (we can ask God's blessing upon them, instead of... well, you know!)... when we come to worship - expecting God to meet us ("Enter his courts with praise!").  May we be more intentional about making joyful noises to the LORD... and may praise & joy be ever on our lips!  AMEN.

Friday, September 4, 2009


"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
(Isaiah 6:3)

It's like a scene from the classic late-80's Disney film, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!" The prophet Isaiah had a vision in which he was standing before God. God was sitting on his throne in the temple. But the only part of God that actually fit in the temple was the hem of his robe. THE HEM! Can you imagine? (And I thought good 'ole Abraham Lincoln sitting down in his Washington DC memorial was big... but he's got nothing on Yahweh here!).

There are also angels buzzing about (of course)... and they speak, saying, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD... the whole earth is full of his glory." Pastor Rob Bell noted that the Hebrew word for 'glory' (KAVOD) literally means 'weight' or 'significance.' Wow. Glory has sorta become one of those 'spiritualized words' that we tend to set aside in the 'churchy' category of our lingo. But to say, "The whole earth is full of God's significance"... Wow!

I believe this is true. The whole earth IS filled with God's significance... it's just that most of the time we're not aware of it. Rainbows, sunsets, flowers, mountains, oceans... the smiles of children... the face of someone homeless... the whole earth is filled with God's significance. Most of the time, however, our eyes aren't trained to look for God's significance around us. That's too bad. I wonder how our day would change if we realized that we were staring at the hem of God's robe... right before our very eyes? Wow.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

To be a saint...

"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ..."

(Philippians 1:27a)

Graham Greene wrote a short story called "The Power and the Glory." The main character is a seedy, alcoholic Catholic priest, who after living months as a fugitive is finally caught by the revolutionary Mexican government and condemned to be shot. On the evening before his execution, he sits in his cell with a flask of brandy to keep his courage up and thinks back over what seems to him the dingy failure of his life. "Tears poured down his face," Greene writes… "He was not at the moment afraid of damnation – even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint, and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint."

For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, this is the challenge, isn't it? On the one hand, we're all sinful creatures. No one's perfect. But on the other hand, we all have those moments when "a little self-restraint, and a little courage" could go a long, long way. As Christians, we believe the presence of the Holy Spirit (God with us, though unseen) can help us make wise and right decisions - IF we choose to listen... and respond! (Ah, there's the rub!)

Paul writes to the church in Philippi... encouraging them to live their lives "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." He could have called them to live as saints (he does that elsewhere), but then we might have heard that and dismissed it as impossible. Instead, simply lead a life worthy of the gospel. Maybe that's not so simple after all. It seems that even the most committed Christians have a hard time following that at times. And yet, by the grace of God... with a little self-restraint and a little courage... who knows what God might be able to do through us!?!?!

PRAYER: You know where my heart is, Lord... when it's on track and when it wanders. Keep me walking in your light... give me the courage to choose a little self-restraint when it's needed most. Thank you for the saints who have influenced my life over the years... and may I be that kind of influence to others. AMEN.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Scarred People

"Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side."
(John 20:19b-20a)

They'd abandoned him. Fled. Deserted. Ran in fear. And now they were locked away in hiding. Crushed with guilt, fear & uncertainty. So when Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of his resurrection, he met a group of people in desperate need of consolation.

What was going through their minds that night, I wonder? "How could we have left him like that?" (Remembering Jesus' arrest, trial & crucifixion - but they were nowhere to be found!) "Is this his ghost, come back to haunt us?!?" "We don't deserve to live!"

Jesus knew. Everything. So the first words out of his mouth were: "Peace be with you!" NOT... "How could you?" or "I'm so disappointed..." or even, "If only..." But, "PEACE!" And then he showed them his scars from the crucifixion. He showed them the signs of the pain he had endured. Presumably to prove that he wasn't a ghost, but it was really him. And the scars changed everything. They knew it was Jesus. And they rejoiced!

I once heard a speaker say that likewise, God can use our scars and wounds to bring comfort to others in need. Which is kind of an amazing thing, don't you think? Those painful chapters from our own history... those times we either messed up big time... or got hurt by others... (or both!)... God can, down the road, use those experiences to bring comfort to others. If only we can get past the "why me?" stage. "Peace be with you," Jesus says.

No one likes scars. Whether external or internal, we know they're there. But God brings healing and new life to scarred people. We're all scarred people (sometimes even scared & scarred at the same time). "Peace be with you," he says TO us. "Peace be with you," he says THROUGH us. Wow.

Just imagine... how God might use your scars and wounds for good...