Friday, March 31, 2017
How much of your life is curtailed because of fear? How many things do you avoid, or risks you refuse to take, because the fear of the loss that might come to pass, is just too great for you? The thing we call life, the way we define our existence, is so often ravaged by our fears. We construct a box for ourselves to live within, hoping that if we stay confined to our box, we will be safe. But inevitably life has a way of knocking down the walls of any box, and when the reality of those challenges present, its most devastating side effect, is to deepen the fear that governs how we live at all. Imagine for a moment if you had taken every risk you were ever presented with, but imagine that they all worked out positively. It is as if your brain won’t let you imagine that outcome. Surely the nature of a risk, is that not all of them work out the way we want, so imagining they do is nearly impossible. It presents a “too good to be true” scenario. And yet, your mind is much more comfortable imagining every risk would have worked out badly. And that kind of imagination, governs what you have done, and what you will do.
That kind of risk avoidance, that is so easy to imagine going badly, and so difficult to imagine working out the way we want, leaves a footprint in how we live. It confines our actions, and stunts our imaginations. It pushes us to want a life we can define, and predict, with relative certainty will go the way we want. You call that common sense. An outside observer would call it moved-by-fear. So to get you to look beyond. To get you to examine what life may have to offer beyond the limits and history of your fear, you must ignore your fears. This is especially true in matters of religion. Nearly every time an Angel is commissioned to communicate with mankind, the first few words are generally, “fear not”. There is a reason for this. Confronted with the supernatural, with the out-of-bounds, something beyond the limits you set for yourself and your ideas about life … the first human response is one of fear. Not joy, not rejoicing (imagine it, most of the news they have to say is usually always good, sometimes really good), not even curiosity. The first human response is fear.
Having an Angel appear in your real world, knocks the wall down of the nice little box you construct for yourself. Thus, the message of the good news they bring must wait, while first they re-assure our fears. And these messages are most often reserved for believers, for people who have chosen to believe in our God, in His Word, and the history of communication between God and man it has presented. Even behind the lives steeped in belief, remain human fear, human uncertainty. And this condition is not meant to be permanent. It is not even meant to be how we live today. Consider as an example, the slightly misplaced argument that toddlers have on the playground about “my dad is bigger than your dad”. The real notion behind it, is that the toddler is asserting his/her own security based on the idea that their dad is big enough to ward off any threat. The toddler is comfortable looking to daddy to protect them, care for them, and generally be a fence between themselves and evil. While slightly misplaced, the basis of this argument is sound, if we were to apply it to God instead. Even daddies need that analogy.
Security enables us to feel better. Certainty, a hedge against the downside of risk, allows us to live life in a completely different way. When you are not scared about eating, about making a living, about God taking care of the things, the burdens, you usually take upon yourself; something wonderful happens. You begin to let go of the fear, and start to really live, outside of the box, outside of the boundaries you used to place upon yourself. Your existence begins to change because the way you think about your existence begins to change. It is in a sense self-fulfilling, but it cannot begin or be effective, without an outside assurance that will cover the fears we face, and hedge the risks we no longer fear to take. What our “Daddy” can do for us in this regard, is something He longs to do. It is how we live in the eternity of heaven. And it can begin right here and right now, if we will only let Him do it for us.
Jesus Himself gives us the roadmap for this. Matthew continues recording His Sermon on the Mount in chapter six of his gospel. Jesus has just concluded a snippet about true currency valuation, and what relevance money has in the light of eternal things. But before humans can let go the fear of using our money differently, we need assurances too many of us ignore. Yet here they are. Picking up in verse 25 Jesus continues saying … “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” This is radical reprioritization. We spend our lives working to feed our families, put a roof over their heads, and clothes on their back. From the extreme rich, to the very poor, the mechanics remain the same. Yet here is Jesus putting an abrupt halt on everything we value, on our entire economic structure, and furthermore saying “take no thought” for it.
This is beyond a general admonition not to have fear regarding it. This is nothing even remotely related to having balance between responsibility and spirituality. This is a one-sided, completely weighted statement, that passes up any boundary we are comfortable with. “Take no thought” means past not worrying or stressing, don’t even think about it. We can be that certain in how we live, that God Himself is looking after our lives, that we need not even think about what we eat, or wear. The question is not whether I shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, or Walmart, for my clothing. The proposition Jesus makes, is that my body is the important thing to God, and God will take care of clothing it.
Jesus continues in verse 26 saying … “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” Jesus has a point. Birds wake up every day, and go eat. The bird never has to worry that they will not find food. They simply look, and there it is. God does the worrying. God provides for the feeding. The bird is just living his life, he is not obsessing about whether he has a full pantry of food at home, or whether his canned goods supply are adequate to withstand the next hurricane disaster. The bird just wakes up and eats. Mom’s bring home food for their little birds. There is never a worry about this kind of thing. If you took the evil of predatory creatures out of the equation, birds would thrive. You don’t see them going extinct because of lack of food. Even though they still have to contend with what man does to their natural habitats, with pollution, with weather events just like we do. Yet after a hurricane, when the storms roll away, there are the birds. They just wake up and eat and live without a thought about it.
Jesus drives home the point in verse 27 saying … “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” This is not just a frustration the shorter population faces. It equally applies to health issues you have almost no control over. Think about it, as you read this, your local hospital is filled with people in varying degrees of need. This is true all over the city, country, and world in general. Wealth is no barrier against being there. Youth isn’t either. Fitness despite all its other benefits does not shield you against cancer. And our thoughts about what we want, and our fears about what we want to avoid, do nothing from keeping any one of us from becoming the patient in the bed right next door. If we cannot control our bodies by sheer force of will, why do we take on the fear and stress over them as if we could. The stress does not fix the problems, it only makes them worse. There is a better solution.
Jesus continues in verse 28 saying … “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: [verse 29] And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [verse 30] Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Ok Macy’s, your entire value proposition has just been cut to the ground. And so has yours Walmart. Jesus asks us to simply look at the beauty He has created around us in nature. Beauty that occurs whether we encourage it or not. If God offers us the beauty of Roses, and Lillies, and Tulips and Trees; He takes care of things that have a short span of time here in the world, and things that last. Flowers cannot just transplant themselves to find better foods. Nor has a tree ever been given this kind of option. The Sequoias have been there for quite some time, and yet still they grow, their beauty a remarkable thing. If God so takes care of the transient things, why would He not take care of you?
Jesus summarizes His thoughts picking up in verse 31 saying … “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? [verse 32] (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. [verse 33] But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Your thoughts, your worries, your pursuits are either wasted in the temporary things of this world, or founded in the eternal things of God that matter. Jesus tells us here that what we eat is not worth thinking about, food will be there. He tells us what we wear is not our concern, God will make sure we have something, and that it lasts. Following this advice may not offer us a wealth of new clothing every season, but it will meet our needs. Following this advice may not have us eating at Morton’s every night, but it will have us eating to meet our needs. And trusting God, to provide these things, is to just test what He provides. His gifts are amazing.
What should be our focus is seeking His kingdom, the thing that lasts and matters. The rest of the temporary needs will be met. Jesus concludes this line of thinking with a more realistic and somber thought continuing in verse 34 saying … “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” The problem is not our food, or clothes. It is our priorities. It is our faith or trust in God. It is our inclination to focus upon ourselves and begin to indulge the evil that lays in wait all around us. THAT is the real problem. That is something we can have a little stress about. Because the problem there is not half so much about what surrounds us as what lies inside of us. Our refusal to trust. Our refusal to change how we live, and who we rely upon to support us. We take on burdens that do not belong to us, and in so doing continue to entertain fear, and uncertainty, that otherwise could die a permanent death.
How great could be our Christian lives and experience if we could think differently about who takes care of us, and who is there to meet the risks, and solve the challenges. A sense of self-reliance is our biggest handicap. Atheists must rely upon this as it is all they have. But Christians should be able to rely upon something more, to a point where we literally … take no thought.
And the Sermon was far from over …
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Where do you keep your funds? For folks at the top of the middle-class strata, a financial portfolio is warranted. You never want to keep too much cash just sitting idle in your average checking account. But for folks a way down from “upper” the question has less meaning … we keep our funds in our rent, in our utilities, and in the food we put on the table. For folks even farther down, it is not as much an issue of managing cash, but rather, managing credit and debt. But no matter where you sit, the question is still relevant from a different perspective … what do you use your funds on, or plan to use them on? From this angle, each of us might have more in common than we think. We ALL use whatever funds we have, to maintain us, to maintain our families, and to try to put our children (if we have any) more ahead of where we started out.
So for nearly all American Christians, we value our funds, our currency, in what it is able to do for us, and for our families. Money then, becomes a tool. It is a mechanism we exchange for the basic needs of life. On occasion, we have more than we need of it, and so we use it on something we “want” rather than something we “need”. Even the poorest of us have spent credit dollars on something we wanted instead of something we needed, knowing that may not have been the wisest of decisions. But the mechanics remain the same, and so our valuation remains the same.
But then, what happens when heaven becomes our home? All of the sudden, currency has zero valuation. It no longer exists, even as a mechanism for exchanging goods or services. We have everything we need without effort, and what we create finds its highest meaning in being given to someone else to bring happiness to another. It would be harder to define the exact opposite of where we are now, than to simply picture what life in heaven will be like. So how do we bridge the divide? How do we find a practical way of transitioning our current currency valuation to our future state currency valuation without becoming destitute or going without the basic needs we have on a day-to-day basis? Most Christians rarely attack this question. Fear keeps them from thinking about it. But as it happens Jesus lays out for us an excellent transition plan in His Sermon on the Mount. Matthew continues recording it in chapter six of his gospel.
Picking up in verse 19, Jesus says … “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:” To transition how we think about currency valuation, we must begin by recognizing that wealth itself is transient. Beyond the addiction of always wanting “more” no matter how much we have now, there comes with it, an intense fear that we will lose even what we have. Banks are built upon this fear. We secure our currency in banks, because to keep it all at home, is to invite a burglar to a field day when they learn of this. Keeping our money in a bank, insured by the FDIC, our funds are supposed to be largely safe from theft. Until the theft comes in a three-piece-suit costing more than your home; packaged in the form of securities that not even the best accountants can easily decipher, with interdependencies so entangled it makes a plate of spaghetti look linear. When the theft happens this way, the FDIC is no match for it. Banks can easily collapse. Your funds can easily disappear. And your wealth, your savings, your insurance for your future, becomes a footnote in history about the next great depression as something too big to fail, does.
So the first counsel Jesus offers, is to change the strategy about where we place the currency we value. He continues in verse 20 saying … “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:” As it turns out there is a better place to put treasures, it is the eternal city of heaven, where not a single thief makes his home. Where no bacteria exist to destroy, rot, or age whatever you place there. Now this sounds wonderful, except that the mechanics are clearly a bit fuzzy. How does one place funds we will need access to, into the heaven first national bank, given the light years of interdimensional separation that exist between us and our God. Could our angels become our currency couriers? Or is there a more instantaneous method of making deposits and withdrawals?
Jesus continues in verse 21 saying … “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This winds up being a very profound statement. Jesus reverse engineers our mechanics of deposits and withdrawals. Currency, no matter what format we currently value, coin, cash, certificates, stocks, bonds, etc.. should not be where our “hearts” are. We use that currency on ourselves and our families today. It is the object of our spending that winds up being closer to where our hearts are. We love our families. And sadly, as our spending patterns reveal, we love ourselves quite a bit too. But there is a fix for this. If we begin to examine our funds as a tool, a continuation of what we already do. But instead of using the tool on ourselves, we begin to use the tool, on the people we love, the people we hate, and the people we hardly know … we start making deposits of our currency into the city of heaven. In point of fact, we are exchanging our currency from disposable formats to permanent ones.
Money does not make it to heaven. But your wife does. Your son does. Your daughter does. The co-worker who edged you out of that promotion does. The boss who makes your life miserable does. The homeless man you are sure spends all your donations on liquor and drugs does. Some guy in Africa you never met, and at the moment, could care less about, winds up in heaven, because the tool you employed here was translated into a tangible demonstration of love, meeting the needs of that person you never met, showing him Jesus in a real way, and making him curious about the love of this God he hardly ever knew until a random missionary introduced him. You yourself, have never been to Africa, or Asia, or downtown L.A. on skid row. You yourself, may not have ever moved much off of the pew you sit on at church week-to-week. But your current funds can travel very quickly, and be translated into permanent impacts in the lives of people you may hardly know, or care about, or frankly dislike.
Imagine what your co-worker thinks when you take the time to shop for their child to buy them something they wanted at a holiday. Or to meet a need they may be struggling with when life presents the challenges it does. Translating currency into real world impacts, into tangible offerings of love, has a heaven bound deposit on the transaction. And when you submit yourself to your Lord, the passion He puts inside of you for other people is so intense, you may wind up going through your earthly currency very fast, in favor of heavenly currency. What you value changes. And it must. For the American currency system is headed for the fires that will purify the earth. But your co-worker does not have to be. The guy who calls himself your sworn enemy, can still be the guy you spend eternity with. Not begrudgingly trying to find the far side of heaven where he will not be. But the guy you want to live right next door to. The guy you keep trying to give your mansion to, but he won’t take it, insisting you take his instead. The kind of real love you will have for each other in heaven will be so intense, you will think he is family. And he is. Not because of birth, but because of choice. Ultimately because the currency you had here was nothing more than a tool, to help get him there. Otherwise it was worthless.
This comes because what you value changes. What you focus on changes. It is a post-transformation realization such as nothing like it before. Jesus continues talking about that change resuming in verse 22 saying … “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” If we focus on the real value of finding ourselves, and the community we touch and encounter in heaven, the light we will reflect will be enormous. Jesus continues in verse 23 saying …” But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” First, this second portion of this text is not about your particular salvation. You may be saved because of the grace and mercy of God, no matter what or how you spent your funds on in this world. But if your focus with your funding is centered upon yourself. It will be spent upon yourself. And the opportunity you had to use it as a tool for the salvation of others is squandered and wasted, and will never return again. You cannot get that time back or the impacts you might have made. You cannot back up time and do it right a second time. You have only one shot to get it right, and the community you encounter has only that single shot from you as well.
How great the darkness! To be in heaven and have the Schindler’s List moment; realizing there could be so many more people here if you had been willing to part with your funds and your love more generously here on earth. If you could have seen what your currency was truly valued at, and used it to bring others to Christ. You would not retain a penny. But the Monday Morning Quarterback realization does nothing to change the game that has already been played. If your co-worker is lost to heaven, he is lost forever. And YOU above all others will feel that loss, because in your heart of hearts, you know you could have done more, but instead you held on to your funds and your love, fearing a reduction in either.
Jesus then summarizes the problem with money we refuse to value in the light of heaven in verse 24 as He says … “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” You cannot serve God and the acquisition of funds. Spending your life making money. Spending your life making just a little more of it. Winds up exhausting the time clock of the life you have been granted. The abundance of your life’s work is not spent moving souls to the Kingdom of Heaven by introducing them to Jesus. It is instead spent in meetings, in office politics, in debating financial strategies with the spouse, in trying to recover from the challenges life throws your way. The abundance of your life is spent battling the effects of stress, because currency acquisition is a cruel mistress, unforgiving, and fickle. While you give your life and time to it, it gives you back nothing but a hunger for more. An aching hole of more and more and more.
When at last you look back upon your life, how many meetings will you remember, and how important will they be? Would you not trade the accumulation of whatever wealth you have, for just more time to insure the love you could have expressed is expressed? If I am always working to sustain myself. I am always working. Period. The scraps of what is left, are scraps, not the bulk of what we had to offer, but the left overs. It is the left overs we offer to our families. The left overs we offer to our church. Nothing to the co-workers, the folks we don’t know, and the folks we don’t care about … because to prioritize, I must reserve what left overs I have for the folks closest to me. And so we live our lives content to share only our left overs with those we love most, and we call this “normal”. And it truly is. It is the normal Satan has convinced us all, is the only way we can survive.
But Jesus continues to offer us another way. And the sermon was far from over …
Friday, March 17, 2017
I happened to be in Los Angeles recently and noticed an interesting phenomenon at one of the local parks, and generally throughout the city wherever I went … the people are largely thin, or should I say, fit. Oh sure there are a number of tourists like myself who bring the average weight per person up quite a bit, but the locals, the folks who live here, seem to all share a body physique that looks closer to the bill board signs throughout the city, than they do the picture of “southern health” that comes from eating too much bacon and fried foods. It’s weird to see so many people so thin. They say the coastal regions do not reflect the thinking of most of the nation, and in this purely physical regard, that truism hits the mark. But then, L.A. is the birthplace, of the “fad” diet. It is the author of the “super food”. The entire kale industry banks on L.A. for its very existence. Should broccoli ever rise to prominence again, kale might go the way the of the dinosaur. L.A. for better or worse, has the power of the cultural megaphone, and its influence attempts to drag the rest of the nation with it.
But dieting and matching the barbee-doll physique has a few mental side effects for those with lower self-esteem issues. And let’s face it, advertising builds its empire on insuring women retain a degree of self-esteem issues. Before you know it, voila, dietary diseases brought on by extreme states of mind. Anorexia and Bulimia become moderate epidemics. Not confined only to women in the local scene, these diseases spread throughout the land to all areas were women and younger girls, are driven to match the bodies they see spread across every road sign billboard, TV advertisement, magazine cover, or child’s barbee doll. And while most of us would agree a “normal” woman is just not that thin, medical science is not so comfortable with us accepting “fat” as “normal”, so it seems the healthcare industry is content to nag us to do better, even if not to match the bill board sign entirely.
And despite what L.A. might think about it, nutritionists are generally unhappy with even the idea of a “fad” diet. Going all grapefruit all the time, or all potato, or zero carbs, or high protein … pick your poison, so to speak … unbalancing what inherently should be balanced is just not a good idea. But there is another kind of dieting that exists, that has a long historical precedent, and is far more akin to anorexia than it is to a real diet, the idea of just not eating. This does not happen because something in the brain keeps telling you, that you are still too fat. No, this kind of extreme diets tend to happen by lack of food availability (starvation), or something harder to understand, fasting. Starvation is usually something you have little power to correct, you need outside help for that one. Enter Sean Penn. But fasting is a choice people make for some indiscernible reason. L.A. would argue that fasting is nothing more than the ancient equivalent of the modern “cleanse” (another L.A. patented idea). But there is more to it.
At least in Biblical times, before the advent of TV and the land of milk and honey by the Pacific Ocean (with a considerable share of fruits and nuts as well), the fast was done for a spiritual reason. If there was a cleanse component it was intended to be spiritual as well. If there was a weight loss component, it was also an unintended consequence. The fast was not done to lose weight, or strangle the junk out of your colon, it was a form of self-denial for spiritual reasons. Ok. There were a great many traditions the Jewish faith embraced over the years, with more than a few well off the common-sense bus. Perhaps fasting was just something they witnessed from the heathen nearby and somehow the practice stuck. Or perhaps one of the Pharisees got it in their head that this was a key to open up the floodgates of heaven, and with some limited success, everyone else started doing it too. Or perhaps the Romans, or Babylonians, or Greeks, left the Jews little choice from lack of food. But whatever the genesis or evolution, and whatever the motives, fasting was a well understood practice in the time of Christ.
However, just like everything else, whatever value that could be derived from fasting had already been perverted by the Sanhedrin in the method they conducted their fasts. It was something Jesus noticed. And continuing in His theme about keeping what is between you and God, a private matter between you and God, Jesus felt the need to address how the Israelites (or at least the leadership) were doing it wrong. Matthew continues the Sermon on the Mount in chapter six of his gospel, picking up in verse 16 Jesus says … “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
A few things emerge from this first admonition of Jesus as it relates to fasting. First and foremost, the practice of fasting is not something Jesus thinks is a bad idea. If it were, His counsel would have been for His people to knock it off. He could of as easily said, guys, there is no need for this kind of self denial at all, eat up, and pray right. But He does not say that. What He does say, is if you are going to fast, don’t do it for attention. Making something that should be private between you and your God a public spectacle gives you the attention of your fellow man, feeds your pride, and disables God from changing in you what needs to be changed because you lack the humility to ask in private.
Jesus continues in verse 17 saying … “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; [verse 18] That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” In this case Jesus actually asks us to present ourselves in public as if there is nothing wrong with us, as if we are just “fine” or “normal”; all the while, secretly performing a fast. Keep in mind the practice of fasting is a complete choice. There is no mandate in scripture that says, you must do this every “x” amount of days, or during a particular season, or feast, etc.. This practice is purely a personal one, done for personal reasons. But the self-denial is not done as a sacrifice made to a vindictive God who takes pleasure in our suffering, happy. Nor is it done as a form of trade; if God punishes us enough, perhaps He will reward us with some goodie we want.
The potential benefit of a fast is that it might bring more clarity to our minds, as the toxins that exist in our foods (sometimes even in our water), are flushed out of our systems in a matter of one or two days. Fasting could be as short as 12 hours, or as long as 48, and still keep from doing too much harm to the human body, as long as we resume a healthy eating and drinking regimen when the fast is over. In this sense a fast is quite like the Hollywood cleanse, we are indeed dumping the toxins out of our bodies. The difference becomes the motive and the result. In the Biblical context, we are freeing our minds to be more keenly receptive to hearing and discerning the will of God regarding some decision or challenge we face.
And lest we think Jesus did not put His proverbial money where His mouth is, let us just remember how His ministry began, with the Spirit driving Him into the desert where a forty day fast began. During His fast, Jesus neither ate nor drank. That is a recipe for death. None of us would survive it. Even the portly folks (begin charitable) such as myself, would not survive it as the need for water would be keenly felt in just a few days, even if the need for food could last well longer. And we have no reason to believe Jesus began this fast as large as someone like me. More likely He was fit going in, and emaciated near death coming out. Had angels not sustained Him after His encounter with Satan, I believe He would have surely died from exposure and malnutrition / starvation. This was not a practice He wanted for us, at least not at this kind of extreme.
But even in this extremity, Jesus heard the will of His Father even more clearly. He met Satan with the clarity of knowing His Father’s will, even if His own physical condition was nowhere near where it needed to be for that kind of taxing encounter. In our day, a fast might serve to help bring us the same kind of clarity of mind. It remains no kind of requirement. But it remains a practice we could elect to participate in. An attempt to purify ourselves from the toxins that dull our brains, our senses, and our attention away from a communication with God that we hope to reach new levels of clarity. This is not meant to be some sort of extreme diet. The Bible does not offer it, or present it this way. This is not a Biblical justification for the Anorexic to assume they are just fasting like Jesus did. Again, not designed for that. No weight loss intended.
But to attempt to bring ourselves clarity, to focus our humility, to discern better what decisions we might make without the distractions of what normally consumes us, is the point of a modern day fast. In this sense, and even across all Christian denominations, fasting is practiced very little. Imagine if Hollywood got a hold of this idea, and promoted it to the rest of the nation in the same way, and regularity, as they promote a whole host of other minority opinions as if they were the majority normal; we might have fasting being done in every home in America. It might become the new “kale”. It might be the new “normal” part of the culture every American home and school system should be forced to adopt (by peer pressure if nothing else). To have the power of the cultural bully pulpit used for something that lends itself to spiritual clarity would indeed be the first kind of minority opinion of this type Hollywood would have ever pushed. But have no fear. L.A. is not designed to push spiritual ideas of a Biblical nature. The industry has a different boss.
And the sermon was far from over …
Friday, March 10, 2017
Whether you may be a parent assembling a toy for your child, or perhaps a simple piece of furniture, or just attempting to use that new software for the first time; there are many occasions where we pay little attention to, or discard the instructions completely. This may stem from the notion that we “know” what needs to be done, and the instructions will only slow us down. Or it may be that the instructions were written in a foreign language, and we figure we couldn’t have understood them anyway. Finally, it may be that the instructions were just too long, and would have required too much of our time and attention to really read. So we set about “assembling” or “interacting” with our objective in the manner we think is best. Throughout that process though, a good many of us find ourselves at a dead end, unable to figure out how to proceed next and our first recourse beyond google … is to check the thing we avoided up to this point, to refer back to the instructions.
The disciples of Christ were simple men, when it came to matters of the Kingdom of God. For that matter, most of the audience in attendance at the Sermon on the Mount were simple people. They all understood the need for prayer. But the mechanics of how to pray, was something no one was completely certain of. The Sanhedrin had ideas, and they followed them. Traditions passed down, that no one dare oppose. But the people sitting on this mountainside, were learning wisdom from the Messiah Himself. What was coming out of His mouth, was coming out of the mouth of God’s own Son. So to have their questions answered from Jesus was quite literally, a God send. The people and the disciples wanted more certainty in how we should communicate with God. And Jesus sensed their need even before they had occasion to voice it. Matthew recorded the entire instruction set in only 10 verses in chapter six of his gospel.
Jesus begins his simple instruction set, in a common language of the people, in a way that would easy for them to understand, picking up in verse 5 saying … “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” This text follows on the previous section that talked about how we should give our alms to the poor, and those in need. One of the important points of that section was to give in humility, and in secret, not looking for credit, or an opportunity for comparative holiness. And so to begin, Jesus continues this very theme as it pertains to prayer. Prayer, designed to draw attention to itself, prayer designed to show off the oratory skills of the person offering it, will miss the blessing of true one-on-one communication with God.
It is difficult to truly humble ourselves in front of others, particularly when our goal is not humility, it is to be “seen and heard” as a person who prays “powerful” prayers. In the days of Christ, the Sanhedrin ruling class craved this kind of attention. They did not just want to pray, they wanted to be “seen” praying, to be heard saying their prayers before God in public places in order to gain the attention they deserve. And we look down on them for that. But then, we turn around and offer several public prayers in our church services, in front of hundreds or even thousands of other believers. Those who are asked to pray at these times, are suddenly cognizant that they will be “scrutinized” by the church for how well they pray. It cannot be too long, or too short. It must make a point. It should not be a mini-sermon. It should be pertinent to the activity that follows or precedes it. All of the sudden, the Sanhedrin is reborn in us, and while we may not sound a trumpet to call attention to ourselves, the sequence of events published in the bulletin will perform that same function just as well.
And so we miss the benefit of humility, for the sake of seeking credit, for the eloquence of our speech. Jesus continues to offer His alternative to us in verse 6 saying … “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Here we go again. Our human minds equate this promise to a powerful secret Santa; we avoid public prayer, and our secret Santa showers us with the desires of our hearts. But then, that is not what is promised here. What is admonished is prayer in secret, in places where no one will judge us for our eloquence, where we will not be seen at all. In that place, true humility before God will be possible. To know our need. To know how vast our need is. Is already a blessing that words can scarcely describe.
But beyond having a semblance of how wretched we truly are, and how glorious our God is, while in secret we can pour out our hearts to God, craving the change we so much need. To lay our sins down upon the altar of prayer in that private place is possible. We can confess what we would not want other ears to hear. We can ask, not only for forgiveness He freely offers, but for re-creation within us we do desperately need. To want something else. To have our very desires remolded by our Creator, is possible when we are not being watched by our peers, or even family and friends. Our salvation will be personal. It will be one-on-one. It will be Jesus saving you … from you. This cannot be done in group session. It cannot be done in public, for we become too conscious of who is watching and what they will think. It must be done in our closets, in our private places, where no one is watching but our God who never sleeps. It is there, in private, where our salvation is achieved.
God does not simply grant us the wish list we bring to Him. Instead in those private moments, He works on the character within us, to re-create our thinking, our desires, our motives, and ultimately as a result, our actions. This reward is only possible when you are free to pour out who you are to God, in a place where you can do this without the pressure of others watching. And so what do “we” do? We hold prayer meetings to pray in front of each other. We do it again at family meals, or family worship. And while these practices are not wrong in themselves, they deny us a benefit we might otherwise be getting if we were praying in our private places. Our problem, is that we replace our private prayers, with only the corporate ones, and then think to ourselves that our prayer life is “just fine” based on the number of times we pray in a week, instead of the passion of our prayers poured out in private with only God watching.
Jesus continues His instructions in verse 7 saying … “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Vain repetitions. How many of the prayers for our food are a complete copy of the last time we said “grace”? How many other occasions whether public or private, turn out to be carbon copies of our previous prayers, they become memorized speeches instead of meaningful petitions. Churches use “readings” in public forums that are half-uttered prayers based on scripture we repeat over and over. Even the Lord’s Prayer itself coming in just a few verses away will become something we repeat over and over, thinking we have said what we needed to say. But its repetition will make its impact upon us dull, to the point of changing nothing in us. The idea that we repeat what we say “so that God will hear us” states, that our God is deaf, and uncaring. Repetition is not the way to gain the attention of God, it is a way to bore Him to tears.
Jesus continues in verse 8 saying … “Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” And herein is the secret to why we pray at all. It is not to make God aware of what we need, as He already knows that. It is not to beg God to provide what we need, that only reflects a lack of faith on our part, and is completely unnecessary when we understand how much He loves us, and can take trust in that love. His actions precede our words. There is nothing He does not know about us. Therefore our prayer life, is meant to show US, our need, and His love. We do not need repetitions. We need earnest communication with a God we KNOW is there listening and loving. We need a method to submit to Him, to lay before Him, our thinking, our desires (yes even the sexual ones), and our motives, to change as He sees fit. Prayer is a perfect mechanism to do this. Prayer becomes a channel where we enable God to save us, and ignore our otherwise disobedient lives. It is a channel where we ask Him to do what we know He already wants to do in us. Not for us, but in us. The things He does for us, He is already doing before we utter the words. What we truly need is the things He longs to do in us, and for that we need to give Him permission using the vehicle of our prayers.
All of these instructions precede the example of prayer Jesus would outline for His people. It was Jesus Himself who just finished saying we need not offer vain repetitions. The Lord’s Prayer can become a vain repetition when we have the vanity to think it is the only prayer we ever need offer. It can become vanity when we seem to only ever offer it in a public place, in front of other people. These were the instructions we simply find ourselves overlooking in order to get to the easier word-for-word repetition we could find in the Lord’s prayer itself. And we somehow find a way to look down on our Pharisee forefathers. Nevertheless Jesus wanted us to know what we could say to our God, and why it was important.
He begins in verse 9 saying … “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” First we identify that who we pray to is not just a nebulous god such as the Greeks or Romans might identify. Other cultures have gods that live beyond our sight as well. But our God, is also “our” Father. Jesus lifts up humanity and offers us the privilege of calling His Father, Our Father. Our God lives in heaven, not the heavens meaning the skys, but in heaven the city built trillions of years before our existence, the place He chooses to dwell. Heaven is a place where other life forms gather to be with Him, and to be close to Him. They would need a city to facilitate that goal, and so they have one.
Hallowed is His name. We do not know the name of the Father, but one day we will. Whatever that name is, it is to be hallowed, spoken with reverence. This term is to remind us of who we are, and who He is. For it is His greatness, and His love, that would be willing to part with His only Son to see us redeemed. It is the greatness of His love that is able to re-create in us what we have broken in our choice to embrace sin over and over. For that alone His name is hallowed and reverenced. But not unspoken at all. We tend to think because God is who He is, we should avoid talking to Him on a personal level, because that would somehow bring God down to us. But the point of prayer itself is to bring us up to God. That His name is hallowed, only reminds us of that notion. It does not keep us from speaking to Him in the words that pour from our hearts.
Jesus continues in verse 10 saying … “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” In heaven, it is the highest honor of existence to carry out the will of God. Angels long to do it. Other creations long to do it. God does not need us to do it, He can do everything and anything all by Himself. He permits us to help, because of His patience and love of His creation. To carry out the will of God on earth, despite our circumstances, bad decisions, and human failings, is no less a privilege to us. To think of it in those terms, is to be a toddler granted a new toy in the Kingdom of God. Daddy is going to hold our hand and help us do, what He needed to do. Perhaps in the life of another, perhaps you will be the tool to reflect the love of God the Father. In so doing, Daddy gets his will accomplished, sharing with you the joy of loving and making a difference.
Jesus continues in verse 11 saying … “Give us this day our daily bread.” This part of the prayer is not designed to send God a gentle reminder due to His old age and tendency to forget things now. Nope. This simple sentence is meant to address a few ideas in you. One, we need only ask for what we need today. There is no stockpiling in this idea, no hoarding, and no worrying about tomorrow. That is a complete departure from everything in our world. We work to take care of ourselves, always thinking about what we need in the future. Here is Jesus reminding us, to quit it. If we cannot trust God to already know He loves us and was already planning to meet the needs of today, how can we trust Him with the greater needs of our salvation? We should all be homeless, or at least be ready to be homeless, ready to let go of everything we cling to, and stockpile. But that idea is beyond our comprehension. So we work, and convince ourselves that this line in the prayer is nothing more than a blessing on food, and we repeat it vainly every time it is said.
Jesus now changes the subject a bit as He continues in verse 12 saying … “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” There was a very Jewish notion in this text. Literally translated it means, all those loans you think you loaned out, go forgive them. Release the people from their debts, give them the freedom not to worry about them. Why? It was in the sentence before, we are already getting whatever we need for this day from our God, we just got finished asking for that. So if I have all I need from God, why am I asking you to repay loans. I don’t need your money, I have my God. I can change your request of a loan from me, into a gift of resources, underwritten by my God. A chance to do His will on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus intended to come back to this one.
But for now, another pressing thought as Jesus continues in verse 13 saying … “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” This one came from experience. Those 40 days and nights in the desert being tempted of Satan were very hard on Jesus. None of us could ever have withstood it. But that did not happen by accident it happened because the Spirit led Jesus there. It was necessary to try His gold in the fire. Here Jesus asks the Father that we experience no such equivalent. It is hard enough for us to stay out of sin when there is no temptation. But when temptation comes, too many of us fall to it. So here, Jesus asks that He and His Father find a way to shelter us from evil and deliver us from evil, changing who we are without the added burden of temptation. It is the greatest mercy our God could ever show us. Again the reminder to us, of how great, and eternal is our God, and the conclusion of the prayer. A prayer we speak so casually now, we have it memorized, and it makes so little dent in our thinking anymore. The sample Jesus spoke has become the only prayer we take certainty in. We have increased our inventory of prayers not much beyond this one, at least not with any certainty. How sad.
But the instructions were not over yet. Jesus goes back to the trespasses thing again picking up in verse 14 saying … “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: [verse 15] But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” How can we be free when we cling to who we were? If we cannot release others to be free, it is ourselves we bind. It is a tangible demonstration that we hold something back from God, a part of ourselves and our greed, that we refuse to let go. We do not free others and in so doing we do not free ourselves. We hold ourselves captive to our greed, and refuse to trust God with our daily bread. Instead we cling to the notion that we can provide our own bread, let God focus on some other need. And this thinking then permeates our salvation. We can purify some portion of ourselves, let God work on something else, something we “need” help with, as these portions of ourselves we can do for ourselves.
And so “self” remains at the center of our religion, pushing Jesus to the side in a partnership role. And we keep our salvation at bay, preventing the heavenly Father from truly releasing us from the past, from who we were. As co-pilot, Jesus is not granted the access He needs to redesign the aircraft. While we stubbornly cling to the pilot’s chair and role, we block our Lord from doing what He so longs to do for us, if we would only yield control. Instead choosing to trust ourselves with our needs, both temporal and spiritual. We begin to look upon the Lords Prayer as something we say over and over in church, and thereby meet our obligations for prayer. Slowly but surely we take more of our salvation out of the hands of Jesus, and put it in our own. Increasingly denying what we allow God to do for us. Increasingly becoming comfortable with the chains of slavery to our self-love we hoist upon ourselves. Ultimately we find ourselves not truly knowing who Jesus truly is. For we have come to trust only us, in any matter of concern regarding us. We feed ourselves. We keep our debts. We provide for ourselves. And we will purify ourselves, when we get around to it, though that day never seems to arrive. And thus Jesus is not our savior, for we have never allowed Him to save us … from us.
All because we cannot let go of our past. All because we are unable to free others from owing us, and in so doing free ourselves from the burden of being owed. We are unable or unwilling to change loan into gift, because we worry what the financial implications might be, of not having the wealth of another to count on to sustain us. When we already have a better guarantee than any other human could ever provide, we have the love of a Father God, not just a Father, but OUR Father. We opened the prayer with that line, and already we have forgotten it. This ability to release others from their wrong doing extends beyond financials, it extends to every part of human interaction. Others will do us wrong. It is human weakness, and satanic evil behind it, but it will occur. When it does, we have the choice to free them, and in so doing free us from it. Or we can cling to it, and let it build hate and revenge in us over it. Until we drown out the idea of real freedom, and become slaves to our slights.
Oh the blessings we forego when we make those choices. But it need not be so. Freedom is here. It is right around the corner for you. It is as simple as trusting your Father, enacting His will here upon earth, letting Daddy hold your hand, and becoming an instrument of love. It releases you. It brings with it, a freedom such as you have never known.
And the sermon was still far from over …
Friday, March 3, 2017
You cannot out give God. You can try. He enjoys that I think. It’s like a Parent watching a toddler try to out-love them; a toddler just does not understand love enough to do it more than a parent, but they know enough to be extremely cute at trying. God does not give us things, because of our tithes and offerings. He gives us things, even when we hate Him. Our behavior does not determine His love. It is His love that has the power to alter what we do, by changing who we are. So His gifts to us are coming, to some degree, whether we like them or not. A toddler can say “no” all they like to a parent, but a loving Parent is going to feed them in spite of what they say. A loving parent is going to cloth them, and house them, no matter what the toddler thinks about these things. Many of us toddlers would prefer to run naked, eat bugs, and sleep in the mud – but I think our heavenly parent has higher aspirations for us than that (even if He allows us to realize that kind of eat-bugs-thinking is not all it is cracked up to be).
Sometimes we don’t treat our gifts as something we value. Sometimes we do things with them, that are downright destructive. God gives us health, and we take up a practice of smoking, or skydiving. Now, you can survive skydiving, although the risk is plainly apparent. But no-one survives the practice of smoking while maintaining excellent health. It kills you slowly, accumulating over time. It is less perceptible, but its long-term effects can hardly be hidden. The gift of God was given, regardless of what we did with it. God may know what we will do, but He offers us our gifts anyway, hoping we will allow Him to influence what we do, but never controlling our reaction. His love for us remains, and He does not starve us from His love, only because we make bad choices.
Wealth can be either a gift, or a curse. What we do with that can either destroy us, or enable us to bless the world around us. Whether we consider ourselves wealthy is only a matter of perception. Comparatively, we will always find those in the world with less than us, some far less. By the same token, there will always be those in the world with far more than us. So whether you consider yourself wealthy is how you think about yourself. Whether others think of you as wealthy depends on whether they have far less, or far more. The only question that remains is a reflection of “who” you love. When your resources are spent upon yourself, what most people consider, “taking care of yourself” – it is plain that you are high on the list of things you love. Those with families spend their resources there as well. And even though this only seems like the responsible thing to do, and the sensible thing, it is not the only thing our hearts should be so focused upon.
Case in point … the Word of God calls out a practice known as Tithing. Giving 10 percent of your income back to God (in most cases through a church), is one of our first opportunities to become toddlers showing that our love of God is greater than our love of wealth or means. It is rarely convenient to part with money. It is rarely “sensible or responsible” when measured against the “needs” our families have. But to give it anyway, in spite of these “realities” begins to put a crack in our adult armor, and return us to place of child-like trust that our Parent will not see us destitute because of what we give. The Bible actually also mentions giving offerings beyond the tithe. For those already parting with 10 percent of their income, offerings by definition, raises the percentage given. The Bible does not specify what more we would offer, only that the practice is like icing on a cake, and good for us to do.
Most believers are content to stop here. I give my tithe. I give my offerings, and now I am done. Whew! That was rough. (silly toddler, you have no idea how many gifts and blessings are coming your way, open your eyes and watch). But most believers are content that having engaged faithfully in these 2 practices our obligations for giving have been met. Nice try. But there is one more, that was designed with a far more specific purpose in mind. The last one perhaps is more meaningful, because it directly impacts the giver in a way the others do not, and it impacts the receiver in a way the others could not. And before you think I am just trying to guilt you into giving more, it was not my idea, it came from Jewish tradition, but was called out and ratified by Jesus Himself.
Matthew records the guidance in his gospel in chapter six, continuing with His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes up the practice of one-on-one charity. He begins in verse 1 saying … “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” The practice of giving alms is not the same as tithes or offerings. Tithes and offerings are given to the priesthood, or in our day to the church, for the preservation and expansion of the church. Giving alms was something you offered the poor, the homeless, the destitute that called for help from the street corners, and shelters, and impoverished places where they were forced to reside. Those who asked help because they had need.
In the time of Christ many of these were crippled unable to earn a wage. Some had horrific diseases like leprosy, or possession, and were social outcasts. In our day, the diseases are no less real, addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol or sexual misconduct). In our day, our veterans suffer from PTSD, and find extremely hard times trying to transition from killing or being killed every second to “normal” society. There are those in our world who only fake it, and use panhandling as a way to earn enough money to avoid other types of harder work. But this perception is so easily accepted by those with means, who are looking hard for an excuse not to give. I challenge anyone so inclined to stand on a busy street corner for 10 hours a day in the heat or cold, and call that “easier” than working a real job. Those who ask means of us, present us with an opportunity to give alms.
But the further counsel of Christ is profoundly deep. To give to the poor, only to be seen of our peers, denies us the rewards our Father would otherwise like to see us claim. Giving for the credit, or the notoriety of giving, feeds our pride. It is meant to make us appear better to our peers. It fosters the notion of comparative salvation. And it denies us the privilege of humility. Giving to another, one on one, where you offer what you have, to meet the need of the poor who asks, can truly change how YOU think. If it is done in secret, away from credit and pride, it becomes something only you, God, and receiver will ever know. That kind of giving changes your heart. It puts another crack in the adult armor that believes we must be sensible and trust in ourselves to provide for ourselves. That kind of giving, opens up the possibility that God could actually take care of you, just as you are taking care of the needs of the poor who stand right in front of you. This is the reward you miss, when you give for other motives.
Jesus continues in verse 2 saying … “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” In the time of Christ those who desperately craved to be seen as righteous, sounded trumpets to call the attention of the crowds and passersby to the alms they handed out to the poor. This was not a call of assembly for more efficient distribution, this was a call to show everyone else, that they were generous. When in truth, they were not. This was an exchange of services; money, for a better reputation. Jesus notes, they received what they had purchased. And the lack of impact within them, was the opportunity they lost.
Jesus continues in verse 3 saying … “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:” Instead of attention, Jesus asks us to not even we think about what we are doing. We just do it. We do not measure to ourselves the size of our donation, or the rationale for it, or whether we think the person might not use our gift the way we think they should. Ignore all that. Decide not to think about all of that, and give anyway. As our Parent gives to us, knowing that we often misuse and abuse what He gives to us, but He gives it anyway. Not as a means of control, but because He cares about us, and loves us. There is something personal about giving directly to someone who asks. There is no middle-man, it you and them and God. Our gifts are not meant to occupy a continued place in our thinking. They are meant to happen, and be forgotten. We are not meant to keep inventory of them to use in a false analysis of our comparative holiness with our peers (even if only in our heads). We are meant to discard the memory, and only maintain the practice.
When our giving is so common place that we could not possibly remember all the times we did it, or to who, we are finding a reward only the Father understands. Jesus echoes these sentiments as He concludes this section of His sermon in verse 4 saying … “That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” Here we go again. Our selfish minds immediately begin to think of this promise in financial terms. We give the homeless ten dollars in secret, and we expect God will give us back 20 dollars more openly. A business transaction. But that is not the reward our God who is obsessed with our salvation is making. The giving we offer in secret, in humility, and without remembering it constantly, has the power to help change how we think inside, and who we love outside. It has the ability to act as a tool to focus the values we hold in our hearts away from ourselves and towards others, as it is in heaven.
The financial investment we are making is in the perfection of our hearts, not in the doubling of our wealth. Our gifts and our giving may well cause us to lose what we have, to become poor as well. We could find ourselves having some of the same needs as the people we once gave to. Jesus is not making us a promise to shower us with wealth, that may very well destroy us because we are still not ready for it. Jesus is making a promise that the more important results and rewards that our personal giving to others makes is within our hearts and minds. And then there is something else, something even more, that money cannot buy, but humble giving can sure contribute to … the life of the receiver.
Imagine being the poor, or destitute, or even someone who fakes it. Imagine seeing Christians give to meet your needs every time you encounter one of them. Not just folks who roll down the window and hand you a dollar from their cars, on their way to somewhere else. But folks who pull the car over, get out, and ask you how they can help. Who stop to buy food, clothes, and take you to a shelter and pay any fees associated to get you in it. Some of them who would even take you home with them. Imagine being on the receiving end of so much love from SO many total strangers, who have nothing in common but a passionate love from Jesus Christ for someone so dirty, stinky, and likely diseased as yourself the poor and destitute. Even the heart of the faker will be broken in tears over watching what the true love of Jesus Christ looks like, not just in one of His followers, but in all of His followers. That kind of simple humble giving has the potential to truly change the world, finding poor who are searching for this kind of love, and discovering you who becomes so passionate about making sure they find it in you.
That is the reward of the Father. That is how the gospel is spread throughout the world. And just for the record, this is exactly the method Jesus used. He met the needs first, there was no sermon, before the starving were fed, the naked were clothed, and the funds or needs asked for, were granted. Only after the needs were met, the love was demonstrated, could the words find a listening ear. Our church growth is stunted, because we go out with words to those in need, and expect our prayers to get them what they want; instead of our hearts so steeped in His love, that our passion gets them their need. We must become toddlers once again. Toddlers share as they love, without a thought about it. We cannot out-give our God. But we can surely try. And in the trying, find something we could hardly have imagined.
For those who find Tithe, and offerings, and now the practice of giving alms to poor, just one more drain upon already meager resources – I would advise prayer, to see things and feel things, with the passion of Christ. Through submission, over time, what you value is going to change. What looks like burden today, will begin to become blessing tomorrow. And the best part is, our Parent was always in charge anyway. He was already meeting our needs before we thought to ask. This is only His chance to bring us into the system of giving to share with Him, what it is like to give, only because you love.
And the sermon was far from over …