Monday, February 28, 2011

IS first (not second)

"'I am the Alpha & the Omega,' says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." 
(Revelation 1:8)

I was a bit taken aback this morning when I started reading Revelation and came across an expression I thought I knew well.  God is introducing himself as "the Alpha and the Omega" (the first & last letters in the Greek alphabet)... and then says "who was and is and is to come."  (I've always liked that statement!)  Only, that's not exactly what God said.  That's what I've always said about God.  But what God actually said was, "who is and was and is to come."  (Did you notice the difference?  No?  Read it again.)

("You're telling me, Jim, that you're getting all worked up over the ORDER of the words?  Seriously?  That's the best you could do today?!?!")  Okay, stay with me here... When God first introduces himself, he says he IS... as in PRESENT TENSE.  First and foremost, our God is a LIVING GOD - not one who is known primarily as a "used-to-be" God or a "God of the Past."  GOD IS.  Then God adds the "was and is to come" part.

So why did I "mis-remember" that phrase?  It was bothering me that I'd said it wrong for so long... until I came to chapter 4.  The author (John of Patmos) gets transported to heaven (via vision?!) and sees the throne of God.  All kinds of funky things are going on there - including "Four Living Creatures" who sing praises to God, 24/7!  Their song comes from Isaiah 6: "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty..."  But they add something else: "who was, and is, and is to come."

THERE IT IS!  That's where I learned it!  I've been remembering the 4 Creatures' phrasing!  ("Again, Jim... I think you're reading way to much into this than there actually is!").  Maybe you're right.  Maybe it's just an inadvertent switch in the sentence structure.  But maybe not.  Maybe these 4 Living Creatures think in terms of what God has already done, first... whereas God is focusing on the present... on what He's doing NOW... active & alive & involved in all Creation.

So what difference does it make?  I want to be someone who thinks of God first in the present, not the past.  I believe God is alive, concerned, and active in the world today!  I don't want to give my life to mere history (no matter how powerful that history may be!).  I want to submit my will to the One who IS, and was, and is to come.  So be it.  AMEN!

Friday, February 25, 2011

"What about him???"

"When Peter saw (the disciple), he said to Jesus, 'Lord, what about him?' Jesus said to him, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?  Follow me!'"
(John 21:21-22)

It must have been bittersweet.  Peter, who had denied & abandoned Jesus when he needed it most, had just been forgiven & restored by the Master.  The Risen Christ had come to Peter and the disciples while they were fishing.  He'd given them a few fishing tips (extremely effective, as always!), BBQ'd breakfast for them on the beach, and had a heart-to-heart with Peter.  Powerful!  But Jesus also told Peter he would (eventually) die in his service of God.  So it's only natural that Peter might point to his buddy sitting next to him and ask Jesus about his future (v.21): "Lord, what about him?"

We love comparisons, don't we?  We have top 10 lists "out the wazoo."  We rank anything & everything, from caffeinated beverages to sports teams to music.  We analyze... size up... examine things side to side, etc.  Even (especially!?) people.  How do we compare with him/her/them?

But Jesus cuts this off quickly.  He tells Peter not to worry about it.  Peter's job is simple: "Follow me!" Jesus says.  Period.  Don't waste time & energy comparing myself to anyone else.  Follow Jesus.  Focus on how he's called me to live out my faith.  My faith.  No one else's.  Sounds kinda simple, doesn't it?  (Yah, I know... I would have asked the same question Peter did, too.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Of Tangerines & Grapes...

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you."
(John 15:1-3)

Uncle Dennis is a farmer.  He has an orchard of all kinds of fruit trees on the Big Island.  He took me through it a while back.  He introduced me to fruit I'd never even heard of (loquats?!?) and told me his secret for his "sweetest tangerines in Hilo" moniker: pruning!  "I prune off more tangerines in my orchard than most people have on their trees!"  He said he likes to keep his fruit on the "outside" of the trees - where each can be facing the direct sunlight at some point during the day.  His pruning techniques work amazingly well, too!  (Though I admit it was strange to see potential fruit "wasted."  He reminded me it's not wasting, but pruning in order to maximize the harvest quality!)

Jesus uses the same imagery to talk about our relationship with God - but with grapes & vines, not tangerines & trees!  Branches that don't bear fruit get cut off... branches WITH FRUIT get pruned in order to "maximize the harvest quality."  How does God "prune" us?  Through life circumstances?  Sometimes.  Through relationships with others?  Of course.  But the word Jesus uses for "prune" in verse 3 has the same root for the word "cleansing," which is also used later in that sentence.  So were pruned/cleansed by "the word that I have spoken to you."  Jesus' words.  Jesus' instructions.  His stories, parables, teachings, actions & endeavors from the Gospels should be our "pruning shears."  Things in our lives that are generally going well (fruit) need to be pruned by Jesus' life & teachings, so we can be even better!

But don't just take my (and Jesus') word for it... Uncle Dennis will back us up, too!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

tough LOVE

"Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end."
(John 13:1)

How challenging was it for Jesus to love all his disciples.  He only had a dozen.  Still...  On the one hand, HE was the one who originally chose them.  He'd worked with them closely for 3 years.  They'd been through a lot together.  On the other hand, they frequently "didn't get it."  They had a hard time grasping (sometimes significant) pieces of his message & ministry.  Still, he loved them.  Sincerely.

Near the end of his life, Jesus was gathered with his disciples.  He was imparting his final words & instructions to them.  He knew Judas was about to betray him, which would start in motion a series of painful (and costly) events.  Nevertheless, Jesus loved him too.

There are moments in any leader's life when s/he is in a similar position.  To love those given to him/her to lead.  Even when they don't "get it."  Even when they repeatedly challenge & question.  Even when they don't seem to be on the same page as the rest of the team.

Jesus... loved... them... to... the... end.

Jesus... loves... me... to... the... end.

May I have the courage & strength to do the same.

Friday, February 18, 2011


"For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins." 
(2 Peter 1:9)

There's a wonderful passage in the first chapter of 2 Peter that encourages the believers to "support their faith" with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love.  The author comments that these attributes should be INCREASING among us, so we'll be kept from being unfruitful & ineffective.  It's a beautifully written section of Scripture.

Then the author says that if you don't find these attributes (increasing!) in your life, then there's a good chance you're being "forgetful of the cleansing of past sins."  How pointed.  All have sinned.  Many (most?!?) of our sins have been forgiven (if we've repented).  We love the phrase "forgive & forget."  However, maybe we should adjust that phrase a bit.  It's good to "forget" when you're the one granting forgiveness... but when you're the one BEING FORGIVEN, it's best to remember!  Remember the forgiveness.  Remember the grace.  Remember how you've been freed from your past.  That should trigger a chain reaction of goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Shepherd & Guardian of Our Souls

"For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd & guardian of your souls."
(1 Peter 2:25)

This has long been a favorite verse of mine... primarily because of the beautiful phrase used to describe Jesus... The Shepherd & Guardian of Your Souls.  But this morning I spent a bit of time reflecting on the truth & reality of that name.

Few Christians will argue with the designation of sheep & Shepherd when describing us and God.  It's an honor to be "one of the flock."  (Though just about every place else, to be seen as a "sheep" is a negative connotation - 'Don't be one of the (mindless) sheep.')  But despite this designation, we often act like WE are the Shepherd & Guardian of our own souls.  We want to have control of our own lives (physical & spiritual).  We have a hard time with submission (especially to God).

The funny part is, sheep don't do well on their own.  They are prone to wander & stray!  Which gets them in trouble quickly.  They weren't made to be "lone rangers," prowling the countryside alone.  They need a community (flock/church) and Shepherd (God) to care for & protect them.  They flourish when they submit to that authority. 

As a wayward sheep, may I remember that truth.  May I completely submit to The Shepherd & Guardian of My Soul!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Timothy & Tahir Square

"I solemly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching."
(2 Timothy 4:1b-2)

There is great rejoicing in Egypt today.  Mubarak has stepped down.  18 days of protest by many young people in the streets of Cairo & Tahir Square have been rewarded.  They proclaimed their message - consistently!  The world listened.  The government of Egypt listened (at least the military listened).  Change has occurred.

Paul is writing to Timothy with similar encouragement: "PROCLAIM THE MESSAGE!"  In good times and bad, Paul says, stay on point... proclaim the message!

Of course Paul's message and the Cairo protesters' message are quite different.  They wanted their leader out of office after 30 years of rule.  Paul's message is actually our message: That God's great love for us brought Jesus... who lived, died & rose that we might be united with God forever.  Grace, forgiveness, new life & hope abounds for us all!  (That's basically the message.)

How often, however, do we (in the Church) get caught up in "institutional maintenance"?  Eager to take care of our buildings, make our budgets, plan our events, and maintain the day-to-day operations?  It's easy to lose sight of "The Message" if we're not careful.  Instead of being an ends themselves, each of those areas should merely be components of the means by which we carry out proclaiming The Message. 

May we be persistent in our proclamation... so others may come to know and experience God's amazing, transformational love!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Trifecta

"Likewise, urge younger men to be self-controlled.  Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured..."
(Titus 2:6-8)

I still think of myself as a "younger man."  Despite being 43, I don't' really feel "older."  So when I was reading the book of Titus today, and they list 5 groups of people (older men, older women, young women, younger men, & slaves), I identified with the "younger men" (I think the -er ending helps a lot!).

The author instructs us younger men to be self-controlled, to model good works, and to teach in such a way that one's opponents can't find any faults.  He gives 3 tenants of teaching as guidelines: INTEGRITY, GRAVITY, & SOUND SPEECH.  As a 'younger man' who teaches on a regular basis, this caused me to reflect...
  • Integrity... May what I say reflect who I am, what I believe, and how I live...
  • Gravity... May I speak about things that actually matter in people's lives... that have depth & relevance.
  • Sound Speech... May my words be clear, grounded, easy to understand, and true.
Simple in concept. Difficult to live out.  Crucial for ministry.
May it be so with me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Single Deity Seeking Intimacy..."

"Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, 'I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.'  But of Israel he says, 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient & contrary people.'"
(Romans 10:20-21)

Paul, who grew up a strict & devout Jew, is writing about his longing for his own people to come to embrace Jesus.  He still believes they are God's "chosen people," but recognizes the mission has also expanded to the Gentiles (something that devout Jews find incredulous).  Nevertheless, he has a firm hope that God will still redeem His people, though they've strayed.

The fact that God's mission has expanded is not surprising to Paul.  He cites Isaiah who wrote that God would be found "by those who did not seek me."  I love thinking about that in today's context.  God isn't spending all His time hanging out in churches, waiting for people to come to Him.  He's actively engaged in the lives of people all over the world - reaching out to them, even when they haven't (yet) expressed any interest in God!

Along that same vein, Paul cites another passage from Isaiah... where God laments that He's been holding out his open hands to many of us who call ourselves "believers," yet we've ignored or dismissed him.  Why?  It's an age-old question.  One that is couched in our sinful humanity.  Forgive us for ignoring you, Lord.  Forgive me.  Open me up to embrace you fully.  Your outstretched arms are wide enough for so many!  Let me take nothing for granted. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Things that Stick

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
(Romans 8:38-39)

I've recently taking up painting.  Oil painting. We have a painting passion group at church and I love it!  It's fueling my creativity and need for artistic expression.  But I've learned something (actually, I've learned a LOT of 'somethings' through painting, but today I'll just mention one): once on your skin (or anything), oil paint is really hard to get off!  The pigment in oil paint sticks like few things else.  For days (weeks?) after a painting day, my fingers bear the marks of my passion.

In one of the more well-known passages from the Book of Romans, Paul lists something that sticks even more than oil paint: THE LOVE OF GOD!  In fact, Paul says there's NOTHING in ALL of Creation that can take away God's love in us through Christ Jesus.  Nothing.  Not government intervention... nor natural disasters (shout out to all those in the wake of wintry weather today!)... or religious bureaucrats... or spiritual forces of wickedness... or even our own foolishness & sin.  Nothing!  Once we give our heart to God, we're stuck with God's amazing love.  Our souls bear the marks of Christ's passion.  Forever.  (Amen to that!)