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Heart Matters 4: What You See Sticks

In 1999, Scott Ginsberg attended a convention, the kind where they have everyone attending wear a name tag.[1] The kind of name tags that as soon as you are heading out the door you rip off and toss in the trash.

Except Scott didn’t. He thought it might be fun to keep it on and see what happened. The responses the rest of the night led him to a crazy decision. He decided he would never take off his name tag.

It was a social experiment before you could find them all over YouTube. Cute girls started saying hello to him. People would come up to him, say “Hi Scott,” and give him hugs. One of his favorite stories is the time he was in line to get inside an Irish Pub. The big, brawny bouncer looked at his driver’s license, then his nametag, and said straight-faced: “Sorry, no Scotts allowed.”

As of today he has worn a nametag for 6191 days straight. Even if he took off the sticky-backed nametag, he’d still have on a nametag. He got it tattooed to his chest which landed him on a number of “worst tattoos” lists. It has also landed him in Ripley’s Believe it or Not as a world record holder.

On top of that he has turned his social experiment into a healthy six-figure salary. Some would call him an “overnight” success story. But he isn’t. It took him working hard for years and making very little money before success happened. He lived at home. He blogged. He worked on getting his name out there. He did the little things that he needed to do, day in and day out, until the time was right.

That’s true for most “overnight” success stories. Seth Godin estimates that it takes at least six years of hard work to become an overnight success.[2] It might take more.

  • It took Bill Gates eleven years before he took Microsoft public and became an overnight success of $350 million.
  • Steve Jobs spent almost two decades before he became an overnight dot.com billionaire with Apple.
  • Google started in 1996. Three years later no one had heard of it. But another five years it went public in 2004 and was worth $23 billion.

Most overnight successes you and I have never heard of until the moment they make it. They were working their craft. Learning their trade. And when their moment came they were ready.

No one had heard of the shepherd boy until the day he walked into the Israelite camp either. He had been in the hills taking care of sheep. Even his own family forgot about him at times. But this day he took some bread and cheese to his brothers who were on the battlefront.

They were on the battlefront but not in the battle. In fact, no one was. For forty days the Philistine named Goliath had taunted them. “I defy the ranks of Israel today. Send me a man so we can fight each other!” (1 Samuel 17:11). For forty days the Israelite army did nothing.

Oh, I imagine the men talked some big talk. “If I didn’t have a bum knee I’d take him down.” “I could probably defeat him, but I’m not very tall. Did you see his size? Not sure it would be a fair fight.”

Or someone might have said, “If only our ancestors had finished them off when they had a chance.” Three hundred years earlier Joshua had driven the Philistines out of the Promised Land. Everyone was destroyed except the inhabitants of three cities: Gaza, Ashdod, and…you guessed it…Gath. If you’re new to this story, Goliath was from Gath.

For forty days they looked at this giant of a man, all nine-feet, nine inches of him. He looked like an Oak standing on the hill on the other side of the ravine that separated the two camps. Forty days is a long time to listen to his trash-talk. Something had to give.

You’d think what would give is Saul. Not only was he the king, he was the tallest man in the army. You’d think he would step out and step up to the challenge. But he didn’t. He did not allow his anointing to shape his actions.

But David did. He entered into the camp just in time to see the Israelite army marching to the battlefront shouting their battle cry. They were just going through the motions because as soon as Goliath shouted his “usual words” they retreated like a bunch of roaches when the light is turned on.

David could not believe what he saw. He speaks up and says: “What will be done for the man who kills that Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26).

Pay attention to David’s words. He doesn’t see a giant. He sees an “uncircumcised Philistine.” He doesn’t see the Israelite army. He sees “the armies of the living God.”

It’s important what we see. What we see sticks. We have our own giants today.

  • Something from our past resurfaces every year on the anniversary of the event and plunges us into depression. The giant of depression strikes. Again.
  • The giant of unexpected unemployment taunts you with words you don’t think you can defeat: “You’ll never dig yourself out of this hole, your bills are stacking up so high.”
  • Your marriage is shaky and the giant of divorce is challenging you.
  • Failure to live up to someone’s expectations—maybe even your own—casts its nine-foot, nine-inch shadow over your days. The giant of shame looms large.

You’ve seen your own giants, haven’t you? And when you did and when you do, do you see God? David did. His first words among an army that has lost hope is about God. And like any group of God-fearing people you know what they did? They ridiculed him!

David’s oldest brother Eliab listened as he spoke to the men, and he became angry with him. “Why did you come down here?” he asked. “Who did you leave those few sheep with in the wilderness? I know your arrogance and your evil heart ​— ​you came down to see the battle!” 1 Samuel 17:28

If I were David I would have responded with, “What battle?” But he didn’t. He just kept talking about God. God is what he could see when others couldn’t. The others couldn’t because they had allowed fear and focus on Goliath to ruin the eyes of their imagination. They could not even be thankful for the gift of food that David had brought them. Sometimes our largest giants are in our own camp.

David finds Saul and tells him that he would go fight the giant. Saul, out of jealousy or maybe just care for David, does not want him to go. He points out that David is still a youth and that Goliath has been training for battle since he was young. That’s what Saul could see.

David saw something else. He tells Saul that he has had to kill lions and bears while protecting his sheep. Now he would treat Goliath just like one of those beasts and protect the sheep of Israel. Saul tries to give David his armor but it doesn’t fit and it weighs him down. He goes with what he knows: his staff and his sling.

What he does next is the difference between seeing God and seeing Goliath. He stopped at the brook and chose five smooth stones. Imagine the scene. Eugene Peterson did and he imagined David kneeling at the brook.[3] It doesn’t say he did in the text, but he had to in order to select his smooth stones.

Kneeling makes all the difference in a battle. How did David know to do this? Kneeling he could not see Goliath. Kneeling he could not run. We usually move to the dramatic part of the story, but let’s pause here for a moment.

David kneels and the story freeze-frames for a moment. He is in the valley of Elah. On one side is an anxious Saul. On the other is a brutal Goliath. Maybe you’ve been there yourself. Stuck in the middle of two bad options. You can retreat in fear or you can continue to let brutal voices attack you.

Or you can kneel. David knew to kneel because he had spent his years quietly shepherding sheep. No one to talk to. No noise. No television or Beats Headphones or iPads blaring nonstop. Only God-stories to ruminate on while he was out tending sheep.

He knew the story of the Exodus, how God delivered his people when the giant named Pharaoh held them captive.

He knew the stories of the Wilderness when God provided for his people when the giants of hunger and thirst attacked them.

He knew the story of the twelve spies and how ten saw the inhabitants of the Promised Land like giants and saw themselves as grasshoppers. He might have spent a lot of time thinking about that one.

He knew how Joshua and Caleb saw something more than giants. They saw God.

David had years of training in seeing God. In looking for God. In listening to God. He was saturated with God-stories and God-vision. He had years of worship. Years of kneeling before his God.

That’s how he knew what to do in the battle. He knelt, picked up the stones, and approached Goliath. It looks like a giant mismatch. A shepherd boy from Bethlehem and a Goliath from Gath. If that is what you see, look again.

Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors: cavalry, infantry, and archers and slingers. Slingers could hurl stones with an accuracy “within a hair’s breadth.”[4] David was carrying a lethal weapon.

And Goliath was carrying armor of a heavy-infantryman. That was his expectation. He tells David to “come to me” because he is expecting a close confrontation. But David doesn’t need to in order to win the battle. He can sling his stone at Goliath and hit him with accuracy. And he can do it within a second.

One historian said that “Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”[5] No one saw David as the person with the superior training.

All they saw was Goliath. And according to Malcolm Gladwell they did not see him clearly either. He notes that Goliath moves slowly. He’s insulted instead of terrified of a slinger. He characterizes David as a “dog with sticks”, plural, when he is only carrying one, his staff.

Gladwell says that many medical experts today believe Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. Two problems result. First, it causes unusual growth which would explain Goliath’s size. Second, it compresses the nerves leading to the eyes, causing vision problems. He needed David to come to him because he was not able to see him clearly.

But David didn’t. Once on the battlefield he took a stone out of his sling and sunk it into Goliath’s forehead before he ever knew what hit him. Then …

David ran and stood over him. He grabbed the Philistine’s sword, pulled it from its sheath, and used it to kill him. Then he cut off his head. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. The men of Israel and Judah rallied, shouting their battle cry, and chased the Philistines to the entrance of the valley and to the gates of Ekron. Philistine bodies were strewn all along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron.

David knelt. Then he ran and defeated the giant.

You will too when you learn to be human with David. Notice the progression of the first three stories we have about David. The first story tells us we are chosen by God for his purposes. The second tells us that God’s purposes are developed in our lives through the workplace. And this third story shows us how a God-focused imagination will lead us to reject Goliath-dominated imagination.

We are chosen and we live as if we believe it. We become who God wants us to be through our work, not by merely sitting in a sanctuary on a Sunday. We see God when and where others don’t.

We kneel. Then we run.

In this story David mentions Goliath only two times. He mentions God nine times. Do you think that perhaps your giants would be slayed if your thoughts of God outnumbered your thoughts of your giants by a nine to two ratio?

  • When finances are tight, remember when God has provided.
  • When relationships are rocky, remember God’s faithfulness.
  • When doubt descends, remember God has chosen you.

What you see can change the course of your life.

It did for Scott. Remember Scott Ginsberg, the nametag guy? When he saw the pile of nametags being tossed after the convention, he didn’t just see trash. He saw a trend. What you see sticks.

What you see will shape your life. And it may shape the lives of others too. The stories David knew, the ones that shaped his God-sight, were great stories of faith of his ancestors. But their faith could not save him. It had to become his own.

And because it did, his faith encouraged others to route their enemy.

Yours can do the same. You have a spouse, a friend, your family, your children who need someone in their lives to help them face their own giants. They need someone who sees what maybe they don’t. Someone who sees God.

Kneel. Then run. Then watch your giants run.

[1] http://hellomynameisscott.com/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/guess-how-long-overnight-success-really-takes-2011-3

[3] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 40.

[4] Judges 20:16.

[5] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

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Heart Matters 3: How to Live Out Your Anointing

It’s Sunday. Some of you are looking forward to Monday. But for most Americans in the workplace, Monday is a day to dread. A recent Gallup survey[1] revealed that 51% of workers are not engaged at work, meaning they have no real connection to their jobs. Another 16% are “actively disengaged.” They resent their jobs. They gripe about their jobs. They gripe about their jobs to fellow-employees and are the ones responsible for bringing down office morale.

Let’s think about work for a bit. You may remember David was out tending the sheep when Samuel found him. He didn’t look the part of a king. His father and brothers saw nothing in him that would suggest anything royal. Even Samuel missed it.

Saul, on the other hand, had most everything going for him. He had the looks. He had the height (“When he stood among the people, he stood a head taller than anyone else” 1 Sam. 10:23).  He had strength and humility. When Samuel presented him as the first king of Israel he said, “Do you see the one the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among the entire population” (I Sam. 10:24).

Imagine being Saul. Chosen. Tall. King. It all started so well. If it were me, it might have gone straight to my head. But not Saul. He went straight back to the fields. When Nahash the Ammonite threatened Israel and the men of Jabesh-gilead told the people of Gibeah about it we find that “…Saul was coming in from the field behind his oxen” (I Sam. 11:5).

That’s where the new king was. He did not understand this idea of being a “king” as a place of privilege. He still had chores to do. Even though the people cheered him at his inauguration (1 Sam. 10:24) he remained the same Saul inside. Working in the field. Driving the oxen.

The people cheered him. And then the men followed him. Saul was not about to let Nahash make Israel look bad. So he rallied his troops and defeated the Ammonites. That victory was then followed by more, one right after the other, against the Philistines.

Saul proved to be a good general and in general was also a good person. After the first victory, some of his loyal followers wanted to find the men who had scoffed at Saul’s kingship and kill them. Saul would not allow it. “No one will be executed this day, for today the Lord has provided deliverance in Israel” (1 Sam. 11:13).

It was a resounding start for this first king of Israel. The good news is that Saul was very interested in defeating the enemies of Israel. The bad news is that he was not that interested in the God of Israel. The work of defending Israel got his attention. God did not.

Samuel confronted Saul with his disobedience. In one instance against the Philistines, Saul’s army was deserting him. He had been told by Samuel to wait until he arrived and then he would tell Saul what he should do. When Samuel had not arrived and the men started departing, Saul made an offering to keep the men with him.

When Samuel showed up Saul got reprimanded:

You have been foolish. You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. It was at this time that the Lord would have permanently established your reign over Israel, but now your reign will not endure. The Lord has found a man after his own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over his people, because you have not done what the Lord commanded. 1 Sam. 13:13-14

Saul, in the middle of his work, did not listen to God. Another time Israel came up against the Amalekites. God told them to utterly destroy them and everything they possessed. What did Saul do? He let the people keep the best animals so they could offer sacrifices to the Lord (1 Sam. 15).

You and I might think, “What’s wrong with that? In fact, both cases against Saul have to do with worship. How bad could that be?” Pretty bad. It cost Saul his kingship. The same disobedience can cost us too.

There is a correlation between our work and our worship. Saul was anointed to do the work of God. But the work of God cannot be done without proper worship of God. Work and worship are woven together.

Saul was concerned more about his people than he was about God. In the first instance, he used worship to keep the people together and united. In the second he used worship to keep the people happy. Worship was done on the people’s terms, not on God’s.

Saul wanted to do good work and he used worship as a way to do that. We might say he used God for his own good. God became a resource to be used when Saul’s work needed help.

It can happen today.

  • A business owner gives little thought to God until customers begin to leave. So he starts showing up at church more often.
  • A minister wants people to attend his church so worship is dictated by what will make them happy.
  • Or, as I heard once from a Christian businessman in a discussion about God’s guidance in honest work: “You don’t understand. It doesn’t work that way in the world.” Like Saul, it did not matter what God had said. He was going to do what “worked” in his work, more concerned about the bottom line than God’s commands.

Work and worship should flow together. God is himself a worker. When we read the first pages of scripture he is working. For six days he works and then he rests, or takes a Sabbath, or worships. Work and worship are the framework for our week.

When he creates man and woman he places them in the Garden as workers. Our spirituality is worked out in our work. Notice God did not place his creation in a church building. He put them to work. It is there that we learn what it means to live out this life in the image of our Maker.

Then God placed Jesus in our world. When he began his public ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue and announced he was going to be about the work of his Father and how he was going to do it, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me …” (Luke 4:18).

We think strange thoughts about the word “anointing.” We say a singer has such an “anointing.” Or maybe a preacher has the “anointing” of God. I’ve never known exactly what that means other than that someone might prefer one singer or preacher over another.

In the Bible being anointed means that God has given a person a job to do. There’s a job to do, we’re getting the assignment to do it, and more importantly…we “can” do it. Our work—whatever it is—is connected to God’s work. Your employment and mine has to do with the work of God.

But any work that gets disconnected from God can lose its anointing. Saul lost his. It did not happen right away. But it did happen. When we are more interested in our work than we are in God, God will remove himself from our work.

David was anointed while Saul was king. Being anointed meant he was given a job to do. It’s no surprise then that the first thing David does is he goes to work. He finds himself in Saul’s court (1 Sam. 16:21). His work is seen against the canvas of Saul’s work. Saul had been anointed but was not letting that anointing shape his work. David was anointed and, as we will see, was shaped by that anointing.

How did Saul get so off-center? When we are working well and doing good work we are truly godlike. Remember, work originated in God and then he gave humans work to do. So when we are doing good work—which is godlike—it isn’t too big of a step to begin to think of ourselves as gods. And if we are gods, we don’t need God.

Work can be a common source of temptation. You probably never thought about that. You have thought about David’s story and his sexual temptation. But Saul’s temptation from his work was far more disastrous. The workplace is the primary place for spirituality. Work and worship go together.

Some don’t see it that way. One person is comfortable at work but not in church. Another is comfortable at church but not in work. Neither sees how the two fit together.

My grandfather did. He was a simple man. He lived in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Early in his life he taught in a one-room school house. Later he ran a small store in Birdell. All the while he had a small home on a piece of land large enough for him to farm and raise a few cattle and hogs.

My clearest memories of my grandfather came when I was a little older and in elementary school. He ran the Cash & Carry in downtown Pocahontas. I’d go to work with him and hang out in the store or go for a walk around the square to Joe Pete’s Variety Store. In a two-week stay at my grandparents my brother and I would buy up all the comics they had.

But what I loved about my grandfather was it seemed he knew everyone. And he treated them all the same. It didn’t matter their color. It didn’t matter their income level. He treated them and talked to them the same.

Many of them were members of the same church he was part of. And my grandfather was the same in church as he was in his store. He didn’t speak any differently. He didn’t treat people any differently. He was as comfortable there in his “Sunday go to meeting” clothes than he was in his work clothes.

I can’t say the same for everyone else. People don’t realize that a second-grader is paying more attention to them than they think. But I noticed some of the people I would see during the week had a different vocabulary on the streets that they did in the pew. They left some of their words outside of the sanctuary. They looked a little stiffer in the seats than they did at the restaurants.

What they didn’t realize is that the way they treated their customers during the week, the way they handled the conflict that inevitably came with their neighbors, and the boredom they dealt with on an uneventful weekend was the primary place for where Christ was working out their salvation with them. It was the context for their spirituality.

All work is a place where God can do his work in us. Before he was anointed David was a shepherd. It wasn’t “filler” work until his real work began. It shaped him. Silence. Solitude. Integrity of protecting the sheep when no one was watching. All that prepared him to be a king. He watched. He served. He protected. He led. He cared for the sheep. He helped the hurting. He kept order.

Watch. Serve. Protect. Lead. Care for. Heal. Order. That’s what kings do. And that’s what we do when God anoints us with work to do. We represent God. He works and we work. Listen to what the Psalmist said when he reflected on our unique place in God’s creation: “You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:5-6).

A major part then of what it means to be a Christian is to see our work as vocation. Our work is anointed. It is holy work. We are to do it well and to do it as God would do it. “Whatever you do” Paul says, “do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people” (Col. 3:23). Heart matters. Saul did what he did for the people and for himself.

David, on the other hand, had a heart for God. And because he did, God assigned him to do well what Saul had not done well. His first job was serving a bad king. Remember that when you want to complain about your boss. And yet he served well. He was faithful in what he was given to do. Later he will be given more.

His serving was not wasted time. Serving goes hand in hand with ruling. As Eugene Peterson writes, “Ruling is what we do; serving is the way we do it.”[2] All work is a training ground for God’s work in us. There we learn what it means to be shaped by our anointing. In a story about how we steward what God gives us Jesus has the Master saying these words to the faithful servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matt. 25:23).

God says the heart matters. Where is it centered? Is it centered on what he wants or what people want?  He finds the one who is faithful in the quiet things and gives them more to do. The one who is given much but is not faithful in that work will have it taken away from him. So:

  • Want to be the manager? Act like one now.
  • Want to be a great wife someday? Start acting as one would now.
  • Want people to trust you? Be a trustworthy person now.
  • Want to be a leader? Start serving where you can now.

Want real spirituality? You won’t find it jumping from church to church. You won’t even find it changing from one job to the next. The key to real spirituality isn’t finding the right church or the right job. It is doing the work of a king wherever God has placed you.

You’ve been anointed to a work by God that you can do. When you do that work well, you worship well. And you’re really anointed.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-so-many-americans-hate-their-jobs/

[2] Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 33.

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Heart Matters 2: Haqqatons and Hearts

“The little brother.” That’s what I was known as growing up. My brother Scott was 13 months to the day older than me. Come to think of it, he still is. We were about as close in age as you could be without being twins.

He’s always been older. Always been taller. Always been a year ahead of me in school and “firsts.” First to get out of diapers. (Actually, I think I was. But it would be embarrassing for him if I told you that so we’ll let him be first.) First to lose a tooth. First to go to school. First to experience Jr. High. First to enter High School. First to get to drive. First to get a job. First to get married. First to have a child.

Being the little brother is not such a great thing. Older brothers seem to think the parents take it easier on the little brother. It’s probably just that the older kids are the test case and by the time  you come around you get away with things they would’ve been killed for.

And your parents don’t always cut you much slack. How many times did I hear mine say to my older brother: “Please go play with your little brother. That’s basically the reason we had him.”

When we’d play in neighborhood pick-up games and would choose teams, being the smallest one there, I’d be one of the last chosen. I was the “little brother.”

If you’re the older sibling it’s probably not much fun having a little brother who is 13 months younger than you. You know all the same people. Go to the same schools. Have the same circle of church friends. Older siblings sometimes want some separation from the younger. There are times that was my experience and I felt unwanted.

You know that feeling don’t you? You interviewed for a job and made it to the final three but they went with someone else. You were encouraged to try out for the chorus so you did but didn’t make the final cut. You knew a group was getting together on Friday night but they never called you. You know the feeling. The feeling of being unwanted.

We say we’re “left out of the loop” or “didn’t get the memo” or were “left out in the cold.” Here’s one you may not have used: “he’s tending the sheep.”

That’s where “the youngest” was when Samuel came to town. Samuel by this time was a gray-haired, Gandalf type character. His work with God was due to a promise his mother Hannah had made to God. She was barren and told God that if he would give her a child she would dedicate him to God’s service. God gave her a child whom she named Samuel. Then Hannah gave Samuel to the priest Eli for mentoring and ministering.

Samuel was the one who had anointed Saul king. The people loved Saul at first. Saul was tall, head and shoulders above everyone else. He was strong. Probably good-looking. On the outside he was all GQ. But inside he was all EC: Empty Character. It was time for a change.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long are you going to mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and go. I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have selected a king from his sons.” 1 Samuel 16:1

And so Samuel is on his way to Bethlehem. Shepherd boys in the field see him coming and spread the word. It wasn’t every day the prophet showed up at your town. And if he did it might be to judge some sin. The elders of the town found enough courage to meet him and ask, “Do you come in peace?”

Their fear of judgment quickly turned into a cause for celebration. Samuel had come not to judge but to sacrifice and celebrate. He showed up pulling a young cow and extended a special invitation to Jesse and his sons to join him.

Once alone with this family, Samuel begins to inspect each son, beginning with the oldest. Eliab seems the likeliest new king. Oldest. Probably a bit of a bully. Knows how to exert his will over the younger brothers. Samuel listens for God and hears, “Nope. Not this one.”

Next comes Abinadab. He’s probably learned to get attention in another way. He can’t outmuscle his older brother so he outsmarts him. He’s got more brain than brawn. But again Samuel hears, “No, keep going.”

Shammah enters next. Perhaps he’s a little more sophisticated. He has plans to leave this backwater town and make something out of his life. He’s got a scholarship to the University and a career path lined out for him already. Samuel is impressed. But God isn’t.

Four more sons—who aren’t named here—are presented to Samuel. Four more times God says they aren’t the ones. Samuel is a bit perplexed because he is out of options. He asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse answers, “There is still the youngest but right now he’s tending the sheep.”

“… he’s tending the sheep.” Might as well have said he was “left out of the loop,” “missed the memo,” or was “left out in the cold.” He’s been put out in the field with the sheep. It’s the least demanding of all the jobs on the farm. He can’t do much damage there and won’t cause any trouble.

He’s “the youngest.” Not just the little brother. He’s the runt. The Hebrew word is haqqaton. It carries with it the suggestion of insignificance. It means he did not count for very much. His society did not esteem him. Even his own family sent him out to the pastures. Even his own father did not think of him when Samuel came calling. No one thought to bring “the youngest” to Bethlehem that day. No one thought much of him at all. Not his brothers. Not his father. Not even Samuel.

But God did. The “youngest” is the one that God tells Samuel to anoint. “Then the Lord said, ‘Anoint him, for he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him …”

I’m wondering how that last line affected you. Are you wondering what it would have felt like to be this youngest son, left out in the fields, being brought in as the forgotten one, and having Samuel the prophet take his horn of oil and pour it over your head? Can you imagine what it would feel like to have the oil begin to run down your cheeks? Can your heart grasp what it would be like to be chosen?

If so, then the storyteller has done his work. The intent is to turn everyone who hears the story into seeing something of themselves in this “youngest” and to see something of this “youngest” in themselves. He wants us to see that in our own obscurity we have been chosen by God.

We haven’t been chosen by society. Somewhere we’ve failed the grade. Our waistline isn’t small enough. Our house isn’t big enough. Our car isn’t new enough. We’re not young enough or smart enough or wealthy enough or famous enough. We just aren’t enough in the eyes of the world.

But not so in the eyes of God. Samuel saw the first son Eliab and thought “Surely he’s the one.” But God said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature because I have rejected him. Humans do not see what the Lord sees, for humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.” Heart matters.

How many people do we overlook because we don’t see as God does? I had a professor in college who said the world accepts into its circle four types of people: the rich, the smart, the beautiful, and the athletic. If you fit into one of those four categories, you will fit in with some group. If not, it could be the prescription for a lonely life.

Those we refuse God will choose. He’s got a track record of teaming up with those we separate from:

Abraham was old and childless, but God chose him to be the father of nations.

Moses got hyped up and killed an Egyptian, but God chose him to lead his people out of Egypt.

Rahab ran a house of ill repute, but God put her in Jesus’ genealogy.

And “the youngest” was quietly tending sheep in the field, but God chose him to be king of Israel.

He saw something no one else could see. The people saw the haqqaton. God saw the heart.

It’s extremely important to realize that this 66 chapter account in Scripture of a person who shows us what it looks like to be a human being living by faith comes to us in the form of a haqqaton. It isn’t a prophet, like Samuel. It isn’t a priest, like Eli. It comes to us in the form of a shepherd boy out in the pastures outside of Bethlehem. An ordinary person. An ordinary person whose heart was turned towards God.

God has always wanted to use his people—ordinary people—to be his priests. In the Wilderness, God set up a tent in the middle of camp. He said, “…you will be my kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). He was not only talking to Moses. He was not only talking to Aaron. He was talking to the entire group of people. People that weren’t leading. People that weren’t in charge. God wanted them to be his priests. They were not to have priests but to be priests.

The first Christians were given the same identity. When Peter wrote to those who were experiencing exile, he reminded them of their identity: “As you come to him, a living stone ​— ​rejected by people but chosen and honored by God —  you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:6). The “you” was plural. The “you” meant “you and me.”

Called by God something that no one else would have called them, they had to learn what it meant to be a priest. They did not wear special clothes. They did not wear a collar. They learned that a priest is someone who presents God to a person and presents a person to God.

Maybe you’ve had a priest or two in your life. Think back and recall someone who has made a difference in your life whose words or actions shaped you spiritually in a positive way. Think of someone that, because you had a relationship with them, helped you know God better.

Chances are the person you identify was not a pastor or a professor or a missionary. It was more likely a mother or father, grandfather or grandmother, friend or relative. It was likely someone you would not have thought had the right qualifications or experience to be that sort of person.

But they were. And so are you. You have been chosen by God to be his priests. It doesn’t mean that pastors and professors and missionaries are not mentioned at times too. It does mean that God does things in ways we often don’t see because we often don’t see as God does.

We see the haqqaton. God sees the heart.

He sees your heart and mine. It doesn’t matter if no one else does. It matters that God does. He doesn’t want you to put on any special clothes or collar. He wants you to put on your nurses’ scrubs, your mechanic’s shirt, your business suit, your workout clothes and do your priestly duties. Present people to God and present God to people.

I figured that out while I was in college. The preacher at the church I attended who later became a mentor of mine preached this story one Sunday. I connected with “the youngest” on a literal level and I connected with “the youngest” on a metaphorical level. I spent a few years of my life feeling left out, like I was out with the sheep and no one remembered I was there.

But then I understood I was chosen. And when I did, I got busy being what I was chosen for.

You can too. Others may size you up by your waist or your wallet. But God is looking at your heart. When he finds one that is set on him, he claims it. He’s the God of haqqatons and hearts.

You may be wondering why I haven’t called “the youngest” by name yet. The simple answer is this: the story doesn’t. If the story had started with his name you might have not payed attention. “Oh, the king. I’m not a king.” But a haqqaton? We can all relate to him on some level.

And once we relate to him, we find that he is David. Rest assured, God knows your heart and he knows your name. You are his chosen.

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Heart Matters 1: Living a Storied Life

“Tell us a story Daddy!”

The best part of the day when our boys were young is when they were ready for bed and they wanted a story. Some nights I was tired. Some nights I needed to work on a paper for my degree plan. Some nights I wasn’t too creative.

But every night they asked I obliged. Their favorite story had to do with how each of them became our sons. We’d start with how their mom and dad were praying for just the right, special babies to come to our house. Then we’d zoom up to heaven where God would go to his baby room and begin the search. (I know. It isn’t theologically correct. Cut me some slack here.) We’d talk about each of their friends, how God would pick each of them up to examine them and, although they were special, they weren’t special enough for us.

They’d giggle and I’d keep adding anything that would make them laugh. They’d snuggle a little closer and before long they’d fall asleep. Most nights Karen would come in and find me asleep too.

As they’ve grown older we tell other stories. Stories of our family. Of how Karen and I met. Working with homeless people in Denver. How we’ve handled various situations through life. When we’re with grandparents we ask them questions to get them to tell their stories. And as they do we can see what they saw and feel what they felt. Whole worlds come into being through stories.

That is why there are so many stories in the Bible. There are big stories: the creation, Noah, Abraham. The boys loved those too. As they got older I’d tell them the one about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac…or at least almost having to go the full distance…just to keep them in line.

Most people love stories. But not all do. One time a number of years ago I had finished preaching when a lady came marching towards me. The sermon was based in a gospel account, a story of Jesus. She said, “You tell too many stories.”

I said, “I take it you don’t like stories?”  “No,” she said. “You need to teach more Bible.”

“Do you think I should teach more like Jesus, then?” I cast the hook and she took the bait. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

Then I opened to Matthew 13:34: “…and Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and he did not tell them anything without a parable…”

Jesus loved to tell stories too. In fact, stories are the primary way in which God’s word is given to us. Stories are not only for young children. But for some reason we, as adults, leave them behind and graduate to more sophisticated or educated ways of speech. We might need to rethink that and return to story. God gave us story.

When we come to the Bible we find many stories. They are all important and have something to teach us. But there are two primary stories. One is in the Old Testament and one is in the New. The Old Testament story that takes up the most space is the story of David. David’s story is the primary story of the Old Testament. His story requires 66 chapters to be told. His name is mentioned over 600 times in the Old Testament and 60 times in the new. Even a novice reader of scripture would understand that there is something important about this person David. David’s life is a story to tell.

And so is yours and mine. What would you most like to hear from someone you’re just meeting around a dinner table: a list of facts like their age, height, and workplace? You might be dying to know their weight, but you wouldn’t ask that. Or would you want to hear stories of where they grew up, what their family was like, and what their dreams are? I thought so.

God uses stories to help us understand what it means to be human. Don’t underestimate story. But we do. Somewhere along the way we learn from someone that we need to read the Bible and pull out “spiritual principles” or “biblical truths” or “moral guidelines.” We think that if we learn these we can somehow squeeze ourselves into them and shape our lives into something that looks godly—whatever we think that is.

But that is not the gospel way. “Story is the gospel way,” says Eugene Peterson. “Story isn’t imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life.”[1] That’s how story works.

Just think about the movies you love. Take Dunkirk for example. There’s no big setup. The opening scene shows a group of soldiers moving cautiously through a street. Leaflets are falling from the sky, dropped from German planes warning them to surrender or die. Before you have time to settle in with your popcorn and coke the soldiers are running for their lives.

And you are too. You’re not quite sure if you are going to survive or how. When the movie ends you have to check to see if you are still breathing. That’s the power of story. Story invites you into its life. Through it we learn what the world is and what it means to be a human in this world.

That’s why the David story takes up so much space in scripture. David is very human. And yet David is always dealing with God. In fact, in Acts 13:22 Paul is preaching a sermon and includes David with these words: “… he [God] raised up David as their king and testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my own heart, who will carry out all my will.’”

David shows us what it means to be human and interact with God. We watch his life and we are there with him. David is as human as we are. He deals with danger and enemies. He has friends and lovers. He has children and wives. Too many wives but that’s another part of his story. He deals with pride and humiliation. He struggles with sickness and sexuality and fear. He’s not a very good parent. His son will have more wisdom to pass on than he. He’s an unfaithful husband.

“How did David ever wind up taking up so much biblical space?” you ask. David gets so much air time in Scripture because what is important about David is not his military genius or his morality. What is important is that he deals with God. We find in David the entire range of humanness where every event in his life was a confrontation with God.

And we can’t be human without God. We try. We get more education, more money, more clothes, more travel, more experiences. We know we are incomplete by ourselves. What we may not know is that it is God that we need.

David was human. David was a man after God’s own heart. Always pursuing after God’s own heart, the God who made him more alive when connected. Heart matters.

David’s story is the primary story in the Old Testament. But the primary story in all of scripture is the story of Jesus. Jesus’ story collects all the other stories and gives them a center, a glue that pulls them all together. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the story of Jesus. And yet they tell it in their own slant with different purposes. But each of them makes it clear that God is revealing himself to us. And notice how he does it: not through a list of theological truths for us to memorize and then try to live by. God reveals himself to us through a human being that came to our history.

John gets right to the point: “The Word was God… The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14).

In Jesus we find someone who is both God and human. Don’t miss the human part. God enters into our history as one of us, born of a woman who goes through a nine-month pregnancy and labor pains to deliver him to us. Through the Jesus story we see that God’s way is not to position himself far off and hurl edicts and thunderbolts at us but to come to be with us, to tabernacle with us.

One of the other great stories of the Old Testament is the story of the Israelites in the Wilderness. They are to build a tabernacle and it is to be placed in the center of the camp. Not on the outskirts but right in the center.

When John writes that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” he uses a word that means “to tent” or “to camp.” Jesus “tabernacled” among us. That’s how God works with us. He enters our world and he invites us to participate in his ways. He does not coerce. He does not force. He treats humans with immense respect and dignity. He doesn’t just put up with us. He actually enjoys us.

That is a little difficult for us to grasp. We know what we are like. We know what humans are like. Some are dishonorable. Some are wicked. All are flawed and often foolish. We are less patient of other humans than we are with the human we see in the mirror every day. It’s more attractive to specialize in something that looks “spiritual” than it is to be human.

And so we like the idea of a God, but we’d rather him not move into our neighborhood. That’s a little too close. Imagine that Jesus is human and lives next door to you. He’s also God. You know you should invite him over and into your home, but what do you do? Do you serve water or wine? Probably doesn’t matter—he can make either into whatever he wants. What jokes can you tell? What do you do with Jesus?

But David? After you get to know David, you’ll think, “Now there’s a down to earth guy we can connect with.” That may be why the Bible story connects the stories of Jesus and David. The Gospel writers keep referring to Jesus as the “son of David.” Matthew doesn’t finish his first sentence before we read, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).  That line speaks of genealogy but more importantly it speaks of God. The David story anticipates the Jesus story. And the Jesus story presupposes the David story. You need to know David if you want to know Jesus.

Why? Why David? Try this: David’s earthiness. David is so human. Fighting. Praying. Loving. Sinning. Angry. Devious. Generous. Dancing. There is nothing God cannot and will not use to work his salvation and holiness into our lives. The Gospel writers do their best to get us in touch with God in Jesus and then they do their best to keep us in touch with who we are in Jesus—our human selves.

“Jesus Christ, the Son of David…”

There are no miracles in the David story. But there is a lot of ordinariness, everyday stuff in his story. David, connected to Jesus, will not let us seek after miracle and ecstasy and flashy displays of the supernatural. There are those things. But they are never an escape from our humanity.

One of the problems of our age is that we have too many churches filled with men and women looking for an experience of some sort. There is forever someone new telling you how to “Be the Champion You Are” or “Be the Best You You Can Be.” There is a feeling of “spirituality” in all that but it has little if anything to do with God.

David has a lot to do with God. David deals with God. And you and I will never be more alive than when we learn to deal with God. Not in some abstract way. But in our humanness. We find we are alive when we discover a real spirituality.

And an earthy one: down to earth, dealing with who we are every day, learning to pray while doing the laundry or driving to work. A spiritual one: we are moved and animated by the Spirit of God and we become alive to God. Like David. A man after God’s own heart. Even more like Jesus, the son of David.

David keeps us from being so spiritually-minded we’re no earthly good. To be human is to be earthy. To live and breathe and work and play and love as humans. David was the kind of man that attracted other men to his mission and the women loved. Jesus was the kind of man that attracted other men to his mission and in whom the women found a man who would love them in the most loving way

The difference between the two? David was tempted in every way we are and he sinned. Jesus was tempted in every way we are and he did not sin.

God took a very flawed and human David and through him wrote a great story that ended up with Jesus. If he used David, he can use you. Any story connected to Jesus is an epic one.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall (Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1997), 4.

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The Art of Neighboring 3: Fear

One recent evening our doorbell rang at about 8:00 p.m. You’re probably thinking what I was thinking: “Who rings someone’s doorbell at 8:00 p.m.?” I was in the back room and thought maybe Karen had locked herself out of the house.

Our dog was going bonkers jumping up and down at the front door. I grabbed her to put her somewhere else so I could answer the door because now I had to answer it. Our door has glass in the middle and on either side. I saw the salesman and he saw me. Stupid glass door!

Karen and our son Taylor were hiding in the other room so I tossed the dog to them and went back to open the door. Outside, standing a courteous distance from the door, was a young man selling storm windows for homes. I smiled and listened to him. He asked if I’d want to schedule an estimate. I told him it didn’t matter what the estimate was because right now we would not have the money for the storm windows. He said we could finance it and I told him we like to stay out of debt.

He said if I gave him my phone number they could call and check in with us in a few months to see if we had changed our minds. I said if he’d give me his phone number I’d call him during the evening when he was relaxing at home. Not really. I just told him I saw the number on the flyer he handed me and we’d call if we decided we needed storm windows.

Then I said, “So, I noticed your accent while you were talking. Where are you from?” He replied, “From Egypt.” I said, “I know a guy who spent some time there when he was a young child. His parents kind of had to hide out there for a while. How long have you been in America?”

“Three years,” he said. We talked a bit more and then he asked for a bottle of water, which we usually have, but didn’t that night. I shook his hand and wished him well.

When I went back inside Karen had come out of hiding and told me our neighborhood Facebook page was full of chatter about the guys going door to door. Already the police and Constable had been called. The reason? The salesmen had sat on the curb and smoked for a few minutes.

Others said they were upset with someone coming to their door at that hour of the evening, especially with stories of abductions home invasions circulating.

Honestly, I don’t like people coming to my door any time after I get home either, so I understood my neighbors. But after visiting with Sameh Abdelaziz for a few minutes I saw him a bit differently. Sure, I wanted to tell him to get another job because door to door sales is not going to beat Amazon. But he was nice and probably just doing the best he could in this new world he found himself in.

There was a time when we weren’t afraid to open our door at night. But the world has changed. We close the door on people now because of fear. Sometimes we close the door on our neighbors due to fear.

Time is one factor that keeps us from our neighbors. Fear is the other. It’s understandable. Just turn on the news or look at headlines online and it’s easy to see we live in a broken world. When we are continually exposed to these stories a shift can occur in our own thinking. We can begin to think the sick people we see on the news are not only “out there” but can be “right across the street.” We become suspicious of the people on our street.

  • People on your block may have kids the same age as yours but their values may differ so you’re a bit uncomfortable whenever your kids ask to go over to their house to play.
  • What about the house in the neighborhood where the yard is unkempt? You know people live in the house but the appearance leaves you a bit leery of them.
  • Is there a family in on your street that seems to have consistent drama in their lives? You’re not sure if you want to enter into their chaos so it’s easier to keep your distance.
  • Or maybe you are cautious about getting to know your neighbor because you will then have a long-term commitment to them. Helping out at a soup kitchen one night a year is one thing. But your neighbor is always there.

You don’t need to set aside your judgment when confronting your fears. Some are legitimate. But some are unwarranted and may be obstacles to us learning how to obey the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Most of our “people fear” comes from how we perceive others.

Jesus saw the importance of spending time with neighbors and their friends. In Luke 5:27-32 we find the account of Jesus calling Levi—or Matthew—to be one of his disciples. Here’s the story:

Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” So, leaving everything behind, he got up and began to follow him.

Then Levi hosted a grand banquet for him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were guests with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus replied to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

It’s a short story. But it’s a fun story. Jesus gets to know Levi and then gets to know Levi’s friends. Sometimes we think we have to get to know everyone on our street and the immensity of that goal creates a fear in us of failure. So we do nothing.

But sometimes all it takes is getting to know one neighbor. When we first moved to Tomball our boys were in grade school. We were sitting at the dinner table and did not yet have a curtain on our window. We saw another boy their age outside, circling in front of our house on his bike. We got up from the table, went outside, and met him. Devin was the first friend they made.

But Devin wasn’t the only friend they made. He already knew all the neighborhood boys so their friendship with him became a friendship with the others too. And we piggybacked on that and eventually met and became friends with their parents. Jesus taught us through his relationship with Levi that overcoming our fear of meeting one new person might open the door to multiple friendships.

He also taught us that the friends God places in your path may not be approved by some church people. Did you notice that Pharisees and scribes were complaining to his disciples that Jesus was “eating and drinking” with the tax collectors and sinners? It’s a good hunch that they weren’t drinking diet soda and eating pizza.

Jesus does not back down. He understands his reason for being at the party whether they do or not. He knows that people who are not connected to God are only going to be found somewhere outside of church. So Jesus goes to the party regardless of what others might say.

What others think about us can be a fear we face in getting to know our neighbors. But if we follow Jesus that is where he will lead us. We might need to ask ourselves, “When was the last time we made religious people uncomfortable because of the people we are hanging around?”

Luke records another story a couple of chapters later. Jesus gets invited to another party. (See the theme here?) He goes to the church leaders house. The gathering would be held in the courtyard of the host home, not like our parties inside a house or at an event center. The guests would be in the courtyard area where other people could walk by and hear and see what is going on. And people could just walk in from the outside too.

Which is what she does. “She” is called a “sinner.” “Sinner” was a nice way of saying she is a prostitute. Maybe she’s heard Jesus before and has found something different about him than the men she is used to being around. So she enters and wants to wash his feet.

Jesus is reclining at a table as was the custom of the day. His feet would be away from the table and not underneath it as we sit today. Imagine this prostitute coming in and suddenly messing with his feet! She wants to wash his feet which are still dusty from his walk to the house. She has no water but she does have tears. She didn’t bring a towel but she had her hair. So she uses her tears and hair to wash his feet.

She also has a vial of perfume which is costly, most likely the most expensive thing she owns. She massages it into his skin. She gives everything to Jesus.

Of course this makes Simon think poorly of Jesus. “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘This man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him ​— ​she’s a sinner!’”

Simon thinks this to himself. Then Jesus responds to what he is thinking. He tells Simon a story about two people who were both forgiven a debt. One was forgiven 50 denarii and another 500, or ten times the first debtor. In today’s money the comparison might be closer to “$3600” and “$36,000.” They are both forgiven their debts.

Jesus asks Simon which one would love the creditor more. Simon answer correctly, “the one he forgave more.” Jesus then helps him see what he thought Jesus did not see. The woman had kissed him, had washed his feet, and anointed him with oil. All were things the host should have done but did not.

Jesus did know what kind of woman she was. But he did not let that keep him from her. He saw her as God saw her: someone in need of forgiveness that he could give.

Fear of what others might think can keep us from people Jesus would welcome.  So how do we overcome our fears? Here are some practical pointers that may help.

Push past your timidity by praying that God would help you love your neighbor. In 2 Timothy Paul writes: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:7). God gives us the power to take that first step even if it feels awkward. Fear of the other person is overcome by love for the other person.

Hang out where you can see your neighbors. Jesus did. He was in the marketplace, at the temple, in the village…places where he could see people and get to know them. One of the best times of the year is when neighbors are doing yardwork, taking walks, or helping their kids ride their bikes. Move to the front yard instead of the backyard. Jesus went to where the people were. We can go to where our neighbors are just by going to the front of our houses.

Give invitations. Jesus did. He said, “Follow me.” “Come and see.” He opened up his life to others. Learn to invite people to your house. You might just start with one neighbor. Once you are comfortable with them try another. All you need is one person in the group that is a good party person and you may find more doors opening for you.

Accept invitations. Jesus did. To weddings. To houses. To parties. Some of us may be a little uncomfortable doing so, especially if we have been part of a church for a long time. We tend to make church people our main relationships. That’s not a bad thing. But we want to find time also for those who are “in need of a physician” as Jesus said.

Just be yourself. Jesus was. He didn’t try to be anything he was not. He cared for people—especially lost people—so he spent time with them no matter what others said. He was only concerned with what his Father would say. So be yourself. If you’ve forgotten a neighbor’s name, just laugh and tell them you’re bad with remembering names. Get it, repeat it until you go back inside your house, then write it down on your block card.

Let’s face our fears of getting to know our neighbors. Sure, they are always there. They watch us. It may be easier to go to a rescue mission a couple of times a year, serve, and be done. But loving our neighbor is what Jesus commanded us to do.

A mentor of mine named Stanley Shipp once told me, “Church people will give money to help someone on the other side of the world before they will just walk across the street and get to know their neighbor.”

Let’s be the ones who walk across the street. And let’s be the Christians who know how to throw the best parties in our community.

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The Art of Neighboring 2: Time

It had us at hello. No, not some corny line from a movie. The iPhone. Ten years ago on June 29, 2007, the iPhone appeared on the scene and quickly made its way into our hands and spread faster than a California wild fire.

The iPhone basically changed everything.

  • It improved our predictions of what you will find a group of people doing in public places: looking down at their mobile device.
  • Within six years most Americans owned one.
  • It has allowed us to find our way around towns or on trips.
  • With it we can find places to eat and hotels to stay in.

But an advance in technology may have ushered in a decline in relational abilities. Sociologist Sherry Turkle uses the phrase “the alone together phenomenon” to describe what has happened.[1] Whereas in the beginning of the iPhone age people would huddle together and show each other what was on their phones, now they just look at their individual phones, sucked into whatever world they are seeing on their screen.

We text instead of call. We post photos of our trips instead of getting together with friends to tell them all about it. Relationships suffer when at least one person spends too much time looking at their phone, causing the other to feel depressed.

Simply put, technology that can enhance one area of our lives can also devalue other areas. Time-saving devices have not really done that as they have opened up more time for more work and more activity. We live in an “alone together” culture.

And yet, one study suggests something countercultural: “Interacting with people face to face usually makes us happy. Electronic communication often doesn’t.”[2]

Were you able to put down your phone and say “hello” to a neighbor? Maybe find out a new piece of information? If you did, that’s great. If you didn’t, most likely you asked yourself “How am I going to find time for one more relationship? Let alone the 8 relationships represented by neighboring houses.”

When Jesus declared the greatest commandment to be to “love God … and love your neighbor as yourself” he intended us to do so. He did. And he had the same 24 hours in a day that we have and the same roadblocks to fulfilling that command that we have. Time was an issue then. Time is an issue now. In fact, Time is the biggest obstacle we need to overcome to be effective neighbors.

Don’t we think that if we had more time we could be better neighbors? We have to wonder why we don’t have more time. Within the time we have had the iPhone there are possibilities we had not even dreamed of in our near future:

  • We can access the internet from our cars.
  • We can record programs we want to watch so that we can watch them when we want to, not just when they are aired.
  • We have the ability to see the people we are talking to even when they are miles away.
  • We’ll be able to text and drive in the not too distant future because our cars will be driving themselves.

But so far any time-saving inventions have only led us to pack more things into our already busy lives. Ours days are full. Our weekends are full. We live at a pace that leaves us little time to be available for our neighbors who live the closest in proximity to us.

Our lives are imbalanced in part due to some lies we believe.

Lie #1: Things will settle down someday. Have you ever said, “If I can just get past next Wednesday, then things will slow down”? Wednesday comes and goes and there’s something else that is pressing. “Someday” will never come until we either die or get intentional about adjusting our schedules.

Lie #2: More will be enough. We don’t feel like we are enough so we do more, buy more, try to be more. When we are able to do more, buy more, or be more, there’s always something newer—like the latest iPhone—out there to get or something more to achieve to give us the feeling of accomplishment.

Lie #3: Everybody lives like this. We convince ourselves that everybody else is living like this so it is just the way of life in our culture. Ask someone how their day is going and you’re likely to hear “busy.” If you heard, “not much is happening” you’d label them as lazy or unproductive. It’s a lie that “everybody lives like this.” There are actually people who live a healthy life.

Jesus was one of them. Bill Gaultiere tells of the time he was meeting with Dallas Willard. Dallas asked him, “If you had one word to describe Jesus what would it be?”[3]

It’s a good question. How would you answer it? Love? Compassionate? Holy? Teacher? Healer? All good words and admittedly it’s tough to describe Jesus with just one word. Bill did his best.

After some silence he threw the question back at Dallas. “What is your one word for Jesus?” Willard answered, “relaxed.”

Think about that for a moment. Can you ever picture Jesus as hurried? And yet he had as much pressure on him as any of us do. He was the Messiah but didn’t have a Messiah complex. He taught large crowds. He healed many. He trained Twelve. There was always another place he could teach and another hurt he could heal.

But he had time to stop for children. He had time to pause for a blind man on the side of the road. He could interrupt his journey to heal a centurion’s daughter. He did it all within the same time frame of a 24-hour day just as you and I have.

He did not suffer from “alone togetherness.” And he did not suffer from “hurry sickness.”[4] John Ortberg uses that phrase in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted. He was experiencing this “hurry sickness” so he called Dallas Willard to get his advice on what to do to get balance and be spiritually healthy.

Willard paused for a bit and then answered, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”[5] Ortberg said, “I’ve got it. What else?” To which Willard replied, “There is nothing else. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

Jesus did that. The only time we might infer he was in a hurry is from a line in Mark 10:32: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them.” In this passage he predicts his death in Jerusalem. “…walking ahead of them” may be meant to say Jesus was resolute in his mission. But it may indicate he was walking faster than the others because he was quickly moving towards his primary mission.

That’s what Mary did. Mary and her sister Martha invited Jesus to their home for a meal (Luke 10). Mary sits at the feet of Jesus while Martha takes care of the house and meal. Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.”

Put yourself in her apron. She’s busy taking care of and serving Jesus. She’s busy. She needs another set of hands to help. And she looks over and Mary is just sitting there at the feet of Jesus. So she does what most of us would do. She complains to Jesus.

Here’s what he said to her. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha get reprimanded for serving while Mary get praised for sitting. That’s not the norm in our culture. Action is rewarded. Even if it kills us. Jesus says there are “many things” and “one thing.” And the “one thing” is what is necessary.

In the Hebrew culture to sit at someone’s feet indicates a relationship between a disciple and a teacher.[6] In that culture, however, women were not students. They were supposed to be in the kitchen being a good hostess. Mary bucked the societal norms to be with Jesus.

We will have to do the same to be with Jesus too. Sometimes being with Jesus means being alone and quiet so we can hear his voice. We need times like that.

But sometimes being with Jesus has to do with being with people like our neighbors. There are many things we can do. But there is one thing that is necessary. Even if it means going against the busy lives we think everyone else is living to be where Jesus has called us to be.

If iPhones have not helped us do this, what will? We have to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. Three things will help:

First, make the main thing the main thing. This means taking time to reflect on what is the most important thing in your life and then scheduling your life around that. You have to identify your one thing as Mary did.

You’ve seen or heard the illustration about the large glass jar. The speaker puts in big rocks until it looks full and asks if that is all that can be put in. The audience says “yes.” Then the speaker pours in sand that fills in the extra space and he asks his question again. Now the audience is a little unsure but they say “yes, it’s full.” Then the speaker pours in water that filters through the sand and this time really fills the bucket.

The lesson is that we have to put in the big rocks first into our lives and schedules. For a follower of Jesus there are some big rocks. God first. Family next. And then, if we obey the Greatest Commandment, our neighbors will be next.

If we don’t set our priorities others will do it for us. Make the main thing the main thing.

Second, eliminate time wasters. If you need some help try these: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, watching TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. My guess is no one will say these are vital to their lives. They’re not evil. They just don’t add much.

In fact, one study showed that people who spend too much time on Facebook are actually less happy because of it.[7] These things that make us feel connected can actually cause damage. There is an upside in that we can see and be connected to people when we are not with them. But too much time can be a detriment.

It has been said that Michelangelo was asked by the pope what was his secret, especially after seeing the statue of David. Michelangelo responded by saying, “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.”

Michelangelo was a master of the art of elimination. We need to chip away the excess in our lives so the true beauty can be seen. Jesus saw beauty in God and people. When we eliminate time wasters we free ourselves for both of them.

And finally, be interruptible. Jesus was. And believe me when I say he had as much to accomplish as any of us. But interruptions are difficult. We go to work with a plan for the day. One interruption puts us 30 minutes behind schedule. Another 30 more. Eventually we feel a need to stay later to catch up but the family is expecting us at dinner time.

What if we learn to view interruptions as opportunities? We may need to control some interruptions to a degree, but what if we can eliminate hurry to the point that when a neighbor has time to chat we see that as a divine appointment instead of a disruptive moment.

Let’s learn to follow Jesus into a relaxed life. Ask: “Do I live at a pace that allows me to be available to those around me? And if not, are all of the things I’m doing more important than taking the Great Commandment literally?”

Face time—not the kind on your iPhone—with your neighbors is proven to bring you happiness.

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/hub/ct-bsi-iphone-10th-anniversary-conversation-20170629-story.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.soulshepherding.org/2008/06/dallas-willards-one-word-for-jesus/

[4] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 82.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6] The Art of Neighboring, 52.

[7] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/hub/ct-bsi-iphone-10th-anniversary-conversation-20170629-story.html

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Harvey: What to Do In the Aftermath of a Storm

It’s been a storm of all storms the past week. We’ve been sheltered in our homes waiting it out. Some have used boats to get down streets designed for cars. Others have listened to anxious people needing comfort. My hunch is everyone has prayed.

I did. At first I prayed for our house. Last year, in the Tax Day Flood, we had a few inches of water make our lives miserable for a few weeks. A few inches was nothing compared to what others have experienced then and now. But I prayed.

And I watched. I positioned myself on the couch for three nights to check on things through the night. When it looked like we were not going to be flooded again, I kept praying. For people in Houston. For the devastation. For the months ahead as people rebuild their lives again.

What do you do in a storm? While you’re thinking about how you deal with a storm, listen to this story in Matthew 14 of how those first disciples dealt with one:

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. Well into the night, he was there alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat was already some distance from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. 25 Jesus came toward them walking on the sea very early in the morning. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and they cried out in fear.

27 Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

29 He said, “Come.”

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus is in prayer. The disciples are in fear. Fear for their lives. The Sea of Galilee is not large: thirteen miles at its longest point and seven and a half at its widest. But this Sea is moody. Winds sweep down from the Golan Heights and can turn the lake into a blender, churning the waters from calm to choppy in an instant.

Peter and his friends knew they were in trouble. They were far from land already. Nothing nearby to steady them. The rain was falling in buckets. They were already in the “middle of the sea.”

Maybe that’s where you find yourself today. Not in the middle of the storm. For now, this one has passed. But in the middle of the aftermath.

  • In the middle of questions. “Why did this happen again?”
  • In the middle of guilt. “Some lost everything. I only lost some sleep.”
  • In the middle of financial worries. “I’ve lost work. I get paid by the hour. Rent is due.”
  • In the middle of helplessness. “There’s so much that needs to be done. What can I do?”

You’ve felt the winds. You feel far away from answers and fighting hard questions. We encounter hurricanes even when it’s not hurricane season. They’re even stronger when a real one hits.

That’s where the disciples were. Worse yet, Jesus had told them to get into the boat. Jesus, we’re told, came to them in the fourth watch of the night, somewhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. It’s pitch black other than lightning strikes. They’re fighting heavy winds and a wall of water. They’ve been in the storm for 8-9 hours before Jesus comes. It’s long enough for them to get weary. Discouraged. And it would be a safe bet to say someone asked, “Where is Jesus?”

From the middle of the storm in the middle of the sea came an answer. They heard the voice but couldn’t see him clearly. They thought he was a ghost. But what they heard was what they needed. “Courage! I am. Fear not.”

That translation may sound strange, but it is literal. Others try to smooth it out to “Take courage. I am here. Do not be afraid.” But we need to hear it this way. “I am.”

When you and I say “I am” we have to add something. “I am happy.” “I am brilliant.” “I am handsome.” If not, we would have people staring at us and wondering when we are going to finish the statement.

Jesus doesn’t have to do that. He can just say “I am.” Matthew wanted us to hear it this way. Because when you do you remember. “I am” at the burning bush. Moses asked for God’s name and he gave it. “I am.”

God is a present tense God. He is. We tend to live in the past tense. “I used to be able to rip out carpet all day when I was young.” We tend to live in the future tense. “When I get my degree I’ll be able to get the job I want.” Some just live tense.

Jesus doesn’t have to do that. He is not different than he was yesterday. He will not be different tomorrow. He is active in the present. He is a present tense God. And that means when you are in a storm, that is where he is. He walks into the storms of our lives—whatever hurricane you may be facing—and says, “I am.” He says that right in the middle of the storm.

That’s what FD Bruner says. He says this passage is made of two acts, each six verses long. The first act is verses 22-27 and he calls it “the power walk of Jesus.” The second act is verses 28-33 and he calls it “the faith walk of Peter.” Two acts, each six verses in length.

But then, the six verses each have 90 Greek words. And right between the two sets of six verse and 180 words is the phrase “I am.” Matthew was a tax collector. He was good with numbers. You know he did this on purpose.

What do you do when you are in the middle of a storm? You listen for the “I am.”

You may need to do that today. Before anything else happens, take time to hear Jesus speak to you in your storm. “I am” is a reminder that he was with you in the past and he will be with you in the future. The Savior that was Lord yesterday will still be your Savior tomorrow. And more importantly he is today. Present tense.

It was only after Peter heard the words “I am” that he was able to take a step out onto the water. You next step will be taken when you take your eyes off the storm and put them on Jesus too.

In the middle of your storm will you let Jesus speak to you and remind you “I am”? This is how you take care of yourself. Remember to take care of yourself. If you are aware of your anxiety, be still and practice solitude. You need moments of reflection to hear the voice of Jesus. You may recall Jesus was off by himself in prayer before he entered the storm. If he needed that, don’t you think you might?

Then a couple of other things that may help you.

  1. Then take care of others. There will be numerous ways to do so. Here are some ways you can do that:
    1. Be present with the people you are with and listen. We love best when we listen most. Some of the people in your circles may need to talk. They need someone who will listen. Can you do that? Don’t try to outdo their story. Just listen. And if you need someone to listen to you call someone in your church family. We need to be here for each other so we can be there for others.
    2. Learn. Learn what the needs are. One thing we have learned this week is that people want to do something. In their own anxiety they gather things and send them to donation centers and much of what is given is not what is needed. Watch our Facebook page and we will help you find the things that people need. Right now, cleaning supplies, “muck out buckets,” fans and dehumidifiers are needed. Even if you can’t help clean out a house you can pull some of these items together for those who can.
    3. Shop and eat out locally. I’ve had conversations this past week with restaurant owners, waiters and waitresses, and hair stylist who have all lost work because of Harvey. I visited Friday with a business owner who also had lost income but was more concerned about others but as she talked her eyes welled up in tears. You may be in the same situation. If you’re going to eat out do so and maybe leave a little more of a tip than you usually do to help them make up what they’ve lost.

One need I learned of had to do with the people with food trucks at 403 Eats. In particular, I talked to Justin at Lyndley’s BBQ. I told him that I’d tell our church to go there today after church to have BBQ. Will you do that? If you were going to go out anyway, would you go there? Karen and I will be there. And if you don’t like BBQ there are three other trucks you can choose from.

  1. Then, in connection to that, give. Give first here. The ministries of the church are dependent on your offerings. What we do tomorrow and in the future will depend on what you do today. But more importantly, the more you give here the more we have to help others. Above your usual offering you can give to the Harvey Relief Fund we have set up. You can do that with a check and note on it: Harvey Relief Fund, use your bank bill pay, or use our donation link on our website.

Hurricanes can teach us much. They teach us we will be better off not holding onto stuff too tightly but holding onto each other instead.

And when what you are seeing all around you makes you fearful, look to Jesus instead. He is the “I am.”

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24/7 Prayer 8: You Have All Power, Amen

Dual citizenship can be a tricky thing. For instance, if an immigrant wants to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, they have to take an oath. When taking the oath, a person makes this claim:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.

On the face of it, this sounds like a person has to be totally loyal to one country and one country only. And yet, in America and other countries around the world, dual citizenship is possible. As one writer said: “… this is an odd arrangement that challenges the notion that citizenship is an expression of national loyalty. How can a person be equally loyal to two countries?”[1]

That’s a good question. We’re not going to answer that for our country’s political issues. But, the writer highlighted the possible dilemmas when he posed that “the concept of dual citizenship is problematic both symbolically and practically.”

You may be wondering why I bring this subject up in a message about the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe your mother taught you some basic life lessons like:

Don’t chew with your mouth open.

If you can’t say anything nice about a person, don’t say anything.

Instead of saying someone is “a few bricks short of a load,” just say “Bless their heart.”

And the big one: Don’t ever talk about politics or religion at the dinner table or family gatherings.

Those two topics can set off fireworks worthy of the 4th of July around a dinner table. Your Mom was not the first to say it. The advice to “Never discuss religion or politics with those who hold opinions opposite to yours” has been cited in print since at least 1840. “Do not discuss politics or religion in general company” is from 1879. Even Linus of the Peanuts comic strip taught us that for him, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people…religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”[2]

So why bring them up: religion and politics? You have them both in this prayer. When Jesus’ disciples would pray “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” any earthly nation would get nervous.

Herod certainly did. When he heard that a king had been born in Bethlehem he immediately ordered that all baby boys under two in and around Bethlehem be massacred. When crowds were following Jesus the religious leaders and Roman leaders in Jerusalem got nervous. Jesus had not been killed as an infant. They would crucify him now.

Why the reaction? Their kingdom was threatened. People were pledging their allegiance to the “kingdom of heaven” and as so would follow their King rather than any earthly ruler.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, sang a song about these kingdoms in conflict.

My soul praises the greatness of the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,

because the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and his name is holy.

His mercy is from generation to generation

on those who fear him.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;

he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts;

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:46-53

Can you hear it in her song? Politics. Economics. Social structures. The poor are lifted up. The rich are sent away empty. The mighty are toppled from their thrones and the lowly exalted. This description does not fit the kingdoms of the world. When these things happen the kingdom of God is breaking in.

Isn’t that what we pray for? “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven”? The prayer we are taught to pray is a political prayer. It is bringing the politics of heaven to bear on the earth in which we live.

Those who pray this prayer are pledging their loyalties to God’s kingdom over any other kingdom. His kingdom. His power. His glory. These are not the same as the world’s.

Satan attempted to get Jesus to take the path of the world:

“Turn these stones to bread.” Using power for self.

“Throw yourself off the temple. Gaining some glory through your actions.

“Worship me and all the kingdoms of the world are yours.” Securing your own kingdom at any cost.

Jesus refused each of these. He could discern the difference in the power of the world and the power of his Father’s kingdom. They are not alike.

Consider Caesar Augustus. He was ruling when Jesus was born. His kingdom brought the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. But it came at a price. For some, the price was money. For others, maybe their lives. And for some it was a loss of the Republic of past days.

The result was a kingdom where the power was in one person’s hands. And there was peace, but the peace existed only if your interests lined up with that of the Empire.

And glory? It all went to Augustus. It was his kingdom. His power. His glory.

Jesus’ kingdom is a contrast. It has no geographical boundaries but resides within the human heart. His power is used not for his own good—he did not turn stones to bread—but for others, as when he multiplied the loaves and fish.

And his glory is altogether peculiar. We all would like some glory, wouldn’t we? This is why people spend so much time on social media portraying themselves as fun, witty, and not exactly who their real self is. It’s often more of an idealized self.[3] We hope to portray our best, our successes, and achievements. All for the glory of number of friends and “likes.”

Jesus redefined glory for his followers. In John’s Gospel he speaks often about the “hour of his glory.”[4] Most people misunderstood what he meant. Even his closest followers were looking for his glory to include an earthly kingdom where they would share in his power to rule and maybe be in the spotlight themselves.

But in John’s Gospel Jesus’ glory is his cross. Glory in God’s kingdom has to do with death, burial and resurrection. Glory in God’s kingdom says the power of the cross is stronger than the power of the sword. As N.T. Wright says, “Caesar’s glory is full of brute force and deep ambiguity. God’s glory—Jesus’ glory—is full of grace and truth.”[5]

His kingdom is not forced on anyone.

His power is used for the benefit of his people.

His glory is found in self-sacrifice for others.

“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” is not only an end to a prayer, it is a political statement. “Politics” comes from a Greek word that means “people.” “Politics” has to do with the “affairs of the people.” So what are we saying when we pray this prayer?

First, we are pledging our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven. It does not matter what country we live in; we are first citizens of heaven. Regardless of the rules our country might set in place to tell us how to live, we get our way of life from Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom. Whenever the two conflict—and they will in many places—we are to follow the kingdom of heaven.

Early Christians that faced persecution understood this well. When Caesar was intimidated by the talk of a growing group of people—the church—who served another king—Jesus, they would be forced to deny Christ and confess that “Caesar is Lord” or die. Many died. Or many watched a family member die because they refused to bail on their beliefs. The martyrs looked to the world like powerless victims, but the kingdom to which they pointed is still alive and those they rejected are part of ancient history.

In the Middle Ages the church would place statues of the martyrs at the front door, in the portal of the church.[6] Imagine walking into the church building to gather each week and being greeted by  scenes of “decapitation, bloody swords, and suffering servants of God”![7]

If a church grew with that kind of greeting, you know it is growing for the right reasons. People enter with a clear understanding that their allegiance is to God…no matter the consequences.

Once that decision is established, we are then pledging that we will be about kingdom business. Paul, when writing the Philippian church, reminds them that they are to live differently than people in the world. He reminds them that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).

Paul uses a word that is only used here in the New Testament. It can be translated “commonwealth” or “state.” It referred to “a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans whose purpose was to secure the conquered country for the conquering country by spreading abroad that country’s way of doing things, its customs, its culture, its laws, and so on.”[8]

Philippi, as part of Macedonia, was under Roman domination when Paul wrote his letter. But they had been awarded the highest legal privilege they could be given: they were dual citizens. Citizens of Macedonia and citizens of Rome.

Paul uses this word to grab the attention of the church. As a local church they were a colony, a commonwealth, of heaven. They could enjoy full citizenship of the heavenly city. And they had the responsibility of bringing the ways of heaven to their world.

That’s what we are pledging when we end this prayer. It’s not a throw-off line. It acknowledges everything that has come before: A good, good father who can bring heaven here, help us today, pardon us for yesterday, protect us and rescue us from evil.

He can do that because he is the ruler of the kingdom and has all power and all glory forever.

If you believe all that has been prayed, the way to respond is with an “amen.” “Amen” simply means “yes” or “so be it.” “Amen” is an affirmation that what has been said is true.

The Lord’s Prayer, prayed together, determines what is true. From the first “our” that reminds us we do not travel this path of faith alone to the final phrase that reminds us our Father is in control and all powerful, we pray this prayer and are transformed.

Two cautions surface when we consider these kingdoms in conflict. As Americans we live in a land where many have died for the freedoms we enjoy. Others outside of our country would die to have those freedoms.

Patriotism is a part of the American mystique. But be careful to not be so patriotic that you blur the lines and begin to see America and God’s kingdom as one and the same. They are not. They will often be at conflict with one another. Unless we are pursuing God’s kingdom first we will not be able to know the conflict when we see it.

The second caution may be closer to home. We like to build our own kingdoms and in doing so it is easy to substitute the way of life we want to pursue as the same thing as what God would want us to pursue. We make our minds up about a job, a move, a relationship and then believe that in prayer God is putting his stamp of approval on it.

Sometimes he does. Sometimes he does not. Letting this prayer become a part of our lives will guard us from living out of our feelings of what we want and learn to listen to the good, good Father first and follow him wherever he leads.

Don’t forget the first word in the prayer is “our.” Life is a journey meant to be traveled together. We can help each other discern between the two kingdoms.

Dual citizenship is a tricky thing. As Jesus’ followers, we have only one citizenship. We have no difficulty knowing where our allegiance rests.

It is in heaven. Where prayer is a 24/7 language.

[1] The problem of dual citizenship, LA Times Editorial Board at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-dual-citizenship-20141228-story.html

[2] http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/lipstick_in../P8185/

[3] For a good discussion of this topic see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-kay-green/the-social-media-effect-a_b_3721029.html

[4] John 7:39; 8:54; 12:16,23; 13:31; 15:8; 21:19

[5] N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996), 63.

[6] William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1996), 102.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Word Books: Waco, Texas, 1983), 170.

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24/7 Prayer 7: Deliver Us

As children we sang “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…” We played a game as we sang. It’s a children’s rhyme that might have its origins in earlier times when attacks caused the bridge to be in need of repair.

On the night of June 3, 2017, it seemed as if the Bridge was falling down. Three men unleashed a terrorist attack on London Bridge and nearby Borough Market in the heart of London. Eight people were killed and dozens injured as the three men wielded knives in the attack which began on the bridge and then moved to the Market.

Police quickly responded and shot and killed the three men. They later discovered in the van that was rented by the attackers thirteen wine bottles believed to be filled with flammable liquids, possibly intended to wreak more destruction.

The attack lasted all of eight minutes.

Eight minutes is not long. But eight minutes is all we need to agree that evil exists in our world. That evil exists no one debates. But as to the question of where it comes from and whether or not there is an evil One behind it there is much debate.

Jesus acknowledged evil when he taught us to pray, “… deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13b). Jesus knew something about the battle with evil and the evil one. Immediately after his baptism Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit for a time of testing by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). In this passage the “devil” is also called the “tempter” because that is what he does. He tempted Jesus three times in an attempt to divert him from God’s purposes.

Jesus had been fasting for forty days when he is tempted to turn stones to bread—a temptation of power. He’s tempted to test God by jumping off the highest point of the temple and let God save him by sending his angels—a temptation of glory. And finally he is tempted to worship the devil with the bribe of being handed “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”—a temptation of kingdom. Satan, the tempter, can choose who to give these things to. Jesus is tempted to accept power and kingdom and glory from him.

He tempts us with the same. Wouldn’t you like more power? Over your spouse? In your workplace? Wouldn’t you like more glory? To be noticed? To be praised? And wouldn’t you like to build your own kingdom? Set things up your way and have others serve you?

Jesus was tempted just as we are. And Jesus refuses each one by quoting scripture:

  • “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
  • “Do not test the Lord your God.”
  • “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

At the end of this experience God’s angels did come to him to serve him. Jesus knew the battle with evil. Although there are many things to learn from his experience, Matthew wants us to know at the outset of his writing that Jesus would deal with the devil and could withstand him.

We wish he would tell us more about “the devil.” Don’t we wish the rest of the Bible would tell us more?! How did he get here? And even if your understanding is not in a literal being called Satan, you at some point have asked “how did evil get here?”

Strangely enough the Bible is not as interested in Satan as we are. Ancient Christian tradition says he is a creature of God. He is not a human creature but an angelic creature of some kind. There are hints in Scripture (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6) that he and some of the other angelic creatures rebelled against God and together became the source of corruption of the good creation God had made.[1]

Other than that scripture shows little if no interest in where he came from. Turn the pages of the Bible back to the beginning and he just appears in the Garden. Any reader can see he is not supposed to be in the story. The creation is good, the repeated cadence of creation. Man and woman are made in God’s image. But by chapter three of Genesis Satan appears as the serpent:

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?”

This story was first handed down orally. You can imagine early hearers looking at the storyteller and saying, “Wait! What? A serpent? Where did this come from?”

No answer. Sometimes our questions aren’t answered in scripture. So we need to learn to ask the questions scripture is asking. And apparently “where did the serpent or Satan or the devil come from?” is not one of them.

We have to learn to be content with what scripture gives us. And from what scripture gives us we have two possible ways of understanding this Evil One.

The first is a literal interpretation. In other words, there is a personal devil and there are demonic powers at work in the world around us and, if we are honest, in us as well.

If we understand that there is a literal devil, we need to also understand that we do not “believe in” the devil. You have to remember that the word for “believe” is also the word for “faith.” Don’t make the mistake of saying that you have faith in Satan. As we will see, Christians believe against Satan and the powers of darkness, not in them.

Then, as followers of Jesus in this world, we have to guard against having too much interest in the devil. We cannot allow our interest in the devil become more important to us than the reality and power of God. Take the powers of darkness spoken of in the scripture seriously, for sure. But never make them the center of your thoughts where you are thinking and talking about them too much.

Doing so would give them too much honor. And Jesus taught us to pray that the Father is the one whose name is to be honored.

The other option for understanding the talk of the devil in scripture is a symbolic interpretation. Most people in our modern world would lean towards this understanding. Studies show that the more education people receive the less likely they are to adhere to a literal figure called Satan.

Instead they view the talk in scripture about evil and the powers of darkness as a primitive way of expressing that there is God’s order and good in the world but there is also chaos and evil. There is some sort of “demonic” or “Satanic” power at work in us and our world that can take over our desires as individuals but also entire societies and institutions. How else can the Holocaust and terrorist attacks and wars be explained? Some understand evil in Scripture as a force.

I believe there is a real being called Satan. Jesus spoke of him as real. But regardless of which interpretation we choose we will still be left unsatisfied as to an explanation for the origin or reality of evil in this world God has created.

Here’s what we do know. First, whenever Satan and his demons make an appearance in scripture it is always in a story about God’s power over them and of their “defeat and destruction.”[2] We see this especially in Jesus’ ministry.

In John’s gospel there are three times Jesus refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The word John uses is “archon” which was customarily used to denote “the highest official in a city or a region in the Greco-Roman world.” “Jesus is saying that, concerning ruling powers over the cosmos, this evil ruler is the highest.”[3]When the devil offered Jesus the “kingdoms of the world” Jesus did not dispute that he could do so.

That’s why in Jesus’ ministry we see such a battle. One time Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3). Of course he did this on the Sabbath while the Pharisees were watching. He asks them what is better to do on the Sabbath: good or evil? They didn’t answer because they knew what he did was right.

Then Jesus heals other people with diseases and unclean spirits. The spirits fall down before him. The word used means to pay homage. They cry out “You are the Son of God!” The unclean spirits know who he is before the people and even his disciples understand who he is.

Next Jesus calls the Twelve to “be with him, to send them out to preach, and to have authority to drive out demons.” The primary thing they are to do is be with him. Out of that relationship they have something to say—preach—and something to do—cast out demons.

Then the scribes begin saying that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, another name for Satan. They say he is “casting out demons by the ruler of demons.” Jesus responds with this teaching:

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house.

There are many other examples of Jesus “tying up the strong man.” But this one chapter in Mark tells us a couple of important things. First, Jesus spoke of Satan and his demons as real and operating in this world. Second, Jesus had a game plan. His ministry would be about “tying up the strong man” and then “plundering his house.” He did this through his preaching and healing ministry. He did this most emphatically on the cross where he let Satan unleash all his ammunition on him. Once it was over and Jesus rose from the dead, Satan was defeated.

We also know that though defeated, he still has some ammunition. Paul reminded us to “be strengthened by the Lord and by his vast strength. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Does Paul sound frightened? No. Does he sound aware? Yes. The devil has “schemes.” The Greek word is “methodeia” from which we get our word “methods.” The adversary has a plan. So Paul wants us to have a plan too. “Put on the full armor” he says. The greatest piece of which is prayer: “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Arm yourself with prayer.

Need to know the methods of the evil One? Pray.

Want to stay alert to his schemes? Pray.

Know some people who are under attack? Pray.

Arm yourself with prayer. And arm yourself with God’s word. Jesus did. Remember the attacks he faced in the wilderness? Face to face with the devil himself, what did Jesus do? Cringe? Shake in his boots? Run? No, he replied to each attack with scripture. He looked Satan square in the eyes and brandished his greatest weapon: the truth of scripture. And scripture won the battle. The armor Paul speaks of includes truth, the gospel of peace, salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.

Satan will try his best to get you to believe lies. Of him Jesus said, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Arm yourself with the truth of God’s word.

God’s word will also establish you in the gospel of peace. “Peace” in the Bible is when things are working as God designed them to. Guess who disrupts God’s design? You’re right: the devil. The Greek word for devil is diabolos. It comes from a root verb that means “to split.” That’s who the devil is: a splitter or divider.

Do you see friends divided? They’ve fallen victim to the schemes of the devil.

Do you see a family divided? Then you’ve seen the work of the devil.

Do you see a country divided? Don’t blame Republicans or Democrats. Go deeper than that to the root cause of the division: the devil.

The Bible is full of verses that show us how Satan works in our lives.[4] He does not only show up in terrorist attacks. He slips up on us in our thoughts, our anger, our inability to forgive, and in our taking oaths to convince people they should believe us. He even is behind legalism that can creep into churches (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Satan is a splitter and a divider.

Peter, who knew his attacks well, wrote: “Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

It has been said that “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”[5] So be alert. Arm yourself with God’s word. And arm yourself with prayer. Pray “deliver us from the evil one.”

Some days can be dark and difficult. Some days it may look like London Bridge is Falling Down. But remember that Jesus is still on his throne. He has defeated Satan.

And arm yourself with this promise of Scripture: “… the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

[1] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994) 179-182).

[2] Guthrie, 180.

[3] http://reknew.org/2015/04/did-jesus-believe-in-satan/

[4] http://reknew.org/2015/06/the-demonic-affects-us-all/

[5] At least Kevin Spacey’s character said it in The Usual Suspects at www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnGo6Qm0Wt8

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