The Next Step

The next step is always the scariest.  The next step could be the one where the earth falls from beneath you.

Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abram and God.  Abram is getting up there in years.  He is somewhere between 75 and 86 years old (Gen. 12.4; 16.16) and he has been on a journey.  He has been given the promise that his descendants would be “a great nation”, but that was many years back.  Is there an expiration date on the promises of God?  That would have been in the back of my mind.  But Abram now gets told that he will have a son, from his own lineage. (Gen. 15.4-5)

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15.6)

Abram “believed” is in the Hebrew Hiphil tense meaning “caused to believe”.  Abram was convinced.  He seems like a man who can think differently about situations.  Later his name would be changed to Abraham (this is how he will be referred to from now on). This is how I reconcile the strange verse in Hebrews 11.17-19:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  Abraham reasoned [gk. logizomai] that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

The idea of bodily resurrection, let alone individual resurrection, would have been a revolutionary concept.  Abraham is an outside the box thinker.  He has convinced himself of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Abraham takes the first step out of Ur on faith.  The next step is into the nursery with his son Isaac.  The next one is the first step to ascend the Mountain to kill the one walking behind him.

So what’s the next step on the journey?

Is it salvation?  It’s graduation Sunday.  All across Kansas, students will be turning their focus to college by 3 p.m. Sunday.  Thirty-two thousand students will walk across a stage towards a diploma this weekend.  A year from now, 60%, or 19,000 of them will walk away from their faith.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4.2)

Paul writes in Romans that it was salvation that Abraham stepped into in faith.  It was right-standing with God that Abraham walked into by trusting God.  The question had been posed: “was Abraham justified by works?” (2)  Could he have saved himself?  To that Paul points to the faith of Abraham as he argues in the previous paragraph:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3.28)

Abraham is Paul’s case study for justification by faith.  In a world where love and trust are performance based, the idea of salvation in exchange for faith is a tough sell.  Maybe that is where it should start?

Is it Spirit-led?  Maybe salvation has happened, but “life” isn’t happening.  The Galatian Church was struggling with the same issue that plagued the Roman Church: “What saves a man?”  Was it “faith” or “works”?  Must the faith be followed by action?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal. 3.6)

There is a difference between surviving and living.  That is what living with the Spirit brings.  Paul used Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans; in Galatians, Abraham is an example of a Spirit-led/fed life.  He precedes the quote of Genesis with this question: 

So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3.5)

His answer: Abraham believed.  Great things happened because Abraham had faith.  He pairs this with another Genesis quote a sentence later:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you!” (Gal. 3.8 quoting Genesis 12.3)

Being in-step/taking the first step with the Spirit changes lives.  It empowers middle schoolers to raise money to buy freedom for modern day slaves.  It challenges women to serve by making blankets for sex trafficked victims.  It encourages men to step up, step out and lead other men in study.  Is the next step, the same step Abraham took in Galatians; one of believing in a leading Spirit.

Is it disciple-making?  When writing to people scattered all over the Roman world about living as a Christian, one man wrote this in response:

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (James 2.23)

It was in the same context as other uses. It was a debate about faith vs. works.  James chimes in from left field.  He brings up Abraham but honors him for his action.  Check out the question he poses in verse 21:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did…?(James 2.21)

And you gasp!  Isn’t this the exact opposite of Pauline theology.  In Romans and Galatians, Abraham was righteous because he believed; however, James understood him as righteous because of what he did.

James is a book of activity.  Your faith must be animated, according to James.

  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (1.22)
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1.27)
  • “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? (2.14)
  • “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (2.17-18)
  • “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (3.13)
  • “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4.17)

James has an agenda.  While Jesus was on this Earth, he doubted.  Now that Jesus has ascended, he is leading a church and a following of people trying to live like Jesus.  His advice:  live like Abraham.

First things, first:  salvation.  Second things, second:  letting the Spirit sanctify and animate.  Finally, we must discipline (notice the “disciple” in that word) our lives to that of Jesus.  Verse 22 brings the argument together:

You see that his [Abraham] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete [gk. teleioo] by what he did. (James 2.22)

The greek word translated “made complete” and its cognates aren’t rare in the New Testament.  James, however, only uses the idea 8 times in his book (teleios-1.4 [2x]; 1.17; 1.25; 3.2; teleioo-2.22; teleoo-2.8; telos-5.11).  The idea is that “the goal has been reached.”  It is the ending, not the beginning.  James understands that “what he did” (21) was the goal in mind (22) when the “belief” began (23).  Faith comes first, but isn’t finished until follow through.  Belief is where it all starts but it isn’t done until action takes place.  Do I have to be in church every Sunday?  Do I need to pray every day?  Do I need to study my Bible?  Can I drink alcohol?  Do I have to tithe?  All these questions are questions of works.  They are actions that are to done.  We are saved by faith and faith alone; but, a part of faith is “the doing” of something.

In Hebrews 11, what some have called the Hall of Fame of faith, Abraham is admonished for three things.  Each is preceded with these words: “By faith…” (Hebrews 11.8, 9, 17)  He left Ur and followed.  He stayed and made a home in the Promised land.  He was willing to sacrifice Isaac.  He was commended for all these things.  Rounding out the section on Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes:

Abraham reasoned [gk logizomai]  that God could even raise the dead…(19)

Logizomai is the same word translated “credited” in every one of the passages above.  It was “credited to him as righteousness”.  God counts righteousness to Abraham all because Abraham counted all on God.

Easier said than done right?

Almond Joy

9D494A70-DAF4-4DAC-B0AE-5395FD5D2AAB.pngI have a routine and it really goes in month long cycles.

September is Football and Franks.  I love to tailgate and grill.  I also love brats and hotdogs.  So I are mostly hot dogs and brats throughout the month.

November is turkey/poultry and Thanksgiving.  I will alter my crock pot taco soup recipe by substituting shredded chicken for beef, load up on the tobasco, Fritos, and shredded cheddar cheese and eat a crock pot full every week.

December is all about the three C’s: Christmas, cinnamon rolls, and chilie.  Chilie is served seven nights a week, cleaning out the crock pot only to repeat the process.  Fun fact: apparently this is a Kansas thing because if you mention it anywhere else people look at you like you are crazy.

But that leaves out October.  Taco Soup (with beef) will get me through the month, but it really is all about candy.  Walmart keeps dentists employed in November.  I  saw a sign the other day where a store is offering to buy back Halloween Candy to keep kids healthy.  Meanwhile, I spoke with a Dad who refused to buy candy this years so he is taking his kids Trick-or-Treating an hour early so they can circle back by their house to refill their own candy bowl.  That is #NextLevelParenting.

I have recently been studying the life of Jesus.  I have also been trying to organize some thoughts on leadership and methodology.  Here I bring the two together.  One of my favorite get-to-know-you/team building games is what I call “synthesis”.  Each group gets one note card.  They have to write down 5 topics or thoughts on the left hand side.  Then the team trades with another team.  The new team has one minute to write down a word that corresponds with the first teams thoughts.  The catch is that there is a theme.  It might have to be an animal, or a celebrity, or a song, or anything else.  They have one minute.  Then each group has to explain to the whole group why they chose that thing to describe the first teams topic.

Since October really is all about the candy, how would Jesus ministry be communicated through candy bars?

One of the first things that draws me to Jesus ministry is how contagious it was.  People were drawn to him.  They brought the sick, they brought friends, they traveled miles, and they fought through crowds.  They climbed trees, dug through roofs, watched from gates, crawled between legs, and snuck into dinners, just to be near him.  But what drw them?  Certainly it was his ability, some of it was probably his teaching, but I want to focus on something that not many other’s have touched: his Joy!  Mostly because I struggle with it.

Joy is really a Paul word.  First, I want to introduce you to three greek words.  This will be painless.

  • Chara is the greek word for “joy”
  • Charidzomai is the greek word for “forgiveness”
  • Charis is the greek word for “grace”

Notice that all three of theses words have the same root.  From that the connection is easily made.  When we understand that we are forgiven and have been shown grace, the only appropriate response is joy.  Paul was joyful because he understood the great lengths to which he was shown grace and the the great depths that he had been forgiven.  The reason I say this is a Paul word is quite simple.  Half the uses of these words in Scripture come from Paul’s pen.  He loved to talk about “joy” and “grace” and “forgiveness”.

Fir James and Peter, the source of joy is found elsewhere.  James begins his book like this:

”Consider it pure joy my brothers when you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1.2)

James knew that the growth received through the testing of faith would bring about joy. Peter echos this sentiment in his letter:

“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1.7-9)

Peter and James found their source of joy in the trials they suffered.  These two knew about suffering.  Both would die a martyrs death.  Both would face beatings and persecutions.  Both would counsel people through the same things.  They knew that if you wanted the prize you were going to bear the scars.  This was joy.  Dostoyevsky once said: “One thing I fear is not to be worthy of my sufferings.”  Their joy came in the suffering in the same manner as Jesus.

But what about Jesus?  He didn’t need the grace that Paul was given and his sufferings were unlike any other.  It was his pattern that the other’s followed.  So where was Jesus’ joy found?  The Gospels don’t reveal it.  None of the epistles of Paul reveal it.  The only verse that touches upon it is found in Hebrews 12:2, in context it reads:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12.1-3)

The author of Hebrews encourages the Church to continue its run, not only because of those that have gone on before us and are cheering us on, but because that’s what Jesus did.  Still the question remains, what gave Jesus his joy?  Verse 2 tells us it was his death, resurrection, and ascension.  The process is called redemption.  Paul was joyful for the grace showed him, James for the sharing of suffering patterned for him, but Jesus was brought joy in the redemption he brought others.  Despite the coconut!

Leverage: Suffering (part II)

A single event can change perspective.  It is funny how an isolated encounter, a single experience, or a chance meeting, can radically alter the way things are perceived.  The world will never be viewed in the same way after 9/11.  Technology was in question after Apollo 13, Challenger, and Columbia.  Something as trivial as Lebron’s Decision (and in a smaller scale Durant’s move to San Fran) has changed the way athlete’s are viewed.  A single event, in this case, the Cross, changed forever how suffering can be viewed.

All the guys from the previous post had something in common; they all wrote on the other side of the cross.  The cross became the leverage point of suffering.

On the one side of the cross stood death and the other a resurrection that overcame death.  The empty tomb emptied suffering of all that it held.  That is why James can write: “Consider it pure joy my brothers when you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1.2)

James, the half-brother of Jesus, knew suffering.  He led the church in Jerusalem.  It struggled financially (see 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32).  It struggled doctrinally: “should the Gentiles be circumcised?” (Acts 15).  It struggled with persecution (Acts 8.1-2) and eventually James would be martyred by stoning.  Suffering was a major part of the ministry to which he had been called.

James leveraged his suffering though.

In the same way that our doubt can be leveraged into belief; hope can be born out of our suffering.  James knew that suffering would come.  Since is inevitable, James argues that we can learn perseverance in it.  I ran cross country in high school.  I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I enjoyed it.  It taught me to push through pain, to persevere and to endure the suffering.  The only reason I could do that was the finish line ahead.  Perseverance for James (James 1.3), obedience for Jesus (Hebrews 5.8) and Paul’s enduring example of Jesus (2 Cor. 4.8-12) came as a direct result of their suffering. But what for us can come about through our suffering?  What can suffering give rise too?

Suffering is a casual (don’t try to convince the one suffering of this) reminder that this world is not permanent.  We were created for paradise and partnership with God.  When our sin severed this pact, our world and our relationships in it were changed, but not permanently.  Temporarily, for or 100 years or so on this earth, we struggle in relationships, with the world, with identity, and with purpose.  In other words, we suffer.

John paints a picture in Revelation 21 of a different place:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

The garden of Genesis 1-2, the “good garden” where God resides with man with no barriers, returns in Revelation 21.  A place where paradise and partnership is reinstituted.  This is a welcomed sight in Revelation because of all the books of the Bible, Revelation probably has more suffering talk than any of them.  Think about this:

  • John is writing from the island of Patmos, where he has been exiled for preaching the Gospel. He even call himself a “companion in the suffering”. (Rev. 1.9)
  • To the church in Pergamum, he reminds them of Antipas martyrdom (Rev. 2.12)
  • The Lamb (Jesus) wandered around heaven with a gash on his chest, a reminder of the suffering he endured.  He looked as if “he had been slain” (Rev. 5.6, 9, 12)
  • The seals, the trumpets, and the bowls, all brought with them an element of suffering, be it war, famine, or plague.  Suffering was a key theme in them all.
  • The beast made war against the saints (13.7) and “this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (13.10)
  • The woman on the beast was “drunk on the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (17.6)
  • God will “avenge on her the blood of his servants” talking about the blood spilt by the temptress Babylon. (19.2)
  • John “saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.” (20.4)
  • The theme of “victory” or “overcoming”, the Greek word nikao from which Bill Bowerman built the company Nike, is woven throughout the book.

But then…

The New Heavens and the New Earth arrives and pain and suffering are no more.  Suffering is the reminder that this type of world was never a permanent landing spot.

So we leverage, suffering as an opportunity for hope.  Jesus suffered the very worst this world had to offer.  He bore the weight of every sin ever committed and will be committed by humanity, on his body.

But death could not hold him.  The empty tomb is an image of hope.  The dark hours of crucifixion, followed by the quiet bleak hours of Saturday, gave way to the rolled-away stone and the empty tomb of Sunday.

Like Paul says in Romans 8.37:

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The word for conquerors that Paul uses in Romans 8: nikao!  Since Jesus has overcome death, we too can conquer, not physical, but spiritual death!

Everyone will sit beside a hospital bed and watch a loved one waste away from cancer.  All will watch abuse or neglect steal the future of a child.  We will suffer!  But we know that because Jesus overcame, we too can prove victorious!

So we live with hope that Christ gives us that ultimately we will be in the place John describes.  And hope is leveraged suffering.

Leverage

Leverage (vb.) to use something for its maximum force

I have had the pleasure of coaching middle school football for a few seasons and involved for many more.  Last season we won the city championship.  Frankly, we were more talented than the other teams by far.  When asked “what team are you most proud of?, that team doesn’t warrant the #1 spot.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of that team and what they accomplished, but I am more proud of the team 2 years ago and here’s why: leverage!

Two years ago, the team was less talented and less experienced.  We finished 3rd in the city.  Not as great of finish as this years team, but respectable.  Still, they leveraged their talent.

Our fourth game of the season, against our arch rival, Jardine, we lost by 30.  It wasn’t even close.  Three weeks later, on a chilly night on the turf at Hummer Sports Park, we faced Jardine again in the 3rd-4th place game.  The coaches were hyped; the kids were hyped; our fans were hyped.  Man for man, they out talented us nearly across the board.  We may have had the edge at running back but that was all. That night we took it to them and avenged our 30 or beating with our own 14 pt victory.  That group of players leveraged their talents to the max.  They wrung out every bit of ability they had and achieved all they could. That is what makes coaches proud!  John Wooden once said: “Success is the piece of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

That team achieved success because they leveraged all they had to do everything they could.

We are given only so much time on this earth.  God asks that we leverage this life for His glory.  he desired that we make the maximum impact on the world around us.  That is what leverage is after all, using something for its maximum force.

James reminds us that our life here on this earth is a “mist”.  So the question is, “what will we do with our mist?”

Jesus makes it quite clear that our life is leveraged in pouring it out for others.  The maximum impact of our 80+ years on this earth is found in laying our lives down for others.  Set in his example (Mark 10.45), the lives that we have are leveraged in service to others.

James, Jesus half-brother, reminds his readers: “Religion that is pure and faultless is too look after orphans and widows.”

Looking out for others, serving others, laying our lives down, is the very best way to leverage the time we have on this earth.  It is completely contrary to what the world tells us this life is for.

“What can I gain?” “How much stuff can I accumulate?”  “How much wealth can I attain?”  “What is in it for me?”  The purity has been lost on this world.  Selflessness has been replaced with a me-first mentality.  Amazon’s catered for you, recommended-for-you, shopping experience has left us bereft of an others first mentality.  Facebook’s friends you may also know and stories-you-may-like, had led us to believe that we are the center of our relationships.  I fear that someday the shopping experience may spill over into the church, where we try to cater to the individual believer, at the expense of the community, in a gross misapplication of Paul’s famous verse: “When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” (1 Corinthians 9.22)

Certainly, Paul did bring the gospel to different people in different ways, however, the message never changed form. (1 Cor. 9.22)

I am reminded of a story told to me by my friend Scott Brooks.  A man named George Steinberger, who was quite renowned in the rodeo world, especially around these parts, was moving from his home in Olathe to Richmond.  On his ranch in Richmond, atop a hill, stood a massive steel cross.  George had no qualms about letting you know what he believed.  But this Cross had be built at his home in Olathe and followed him down to Richmond.  The problem was that his gates were bigger in Olathe than they were in Richmond.  The cross wouldn’t fit through.  So they cut the cross down to a manageable size to get it  on the ranch.  Immediately, after getting it on the ranch, they went to welding it back together, to its full size.  It sets on his property, full and robust, as a sign to everyone who George served throughout his life.

Want know what I think of every time I see it: “God, let me make the cross as accessible to everyone, but never let me cut it down to size to fit anyone!”  George understood to get it in he had to work at it, but once it was in someone’s life, it couldn’t be changed, cut down, or transformed.

The words: “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” are not words that are to be altered, changed, or softened.  It is a call to pour out this life in service to another. In other words: leverage this life to the fullest.

The problem is that this life isn’t all peppermints and unicorns.  There are every day obstacles that challenge and oppress us.  “Look on the bright side” is how the world has chosen to advise us.  But  scripture says, in the same advice of our life, we should leverage these things in the same way.

Doubt, suffering, and injustice are the products of living in a fallen world.  Still, they are arrows that point us to God.

Over the next few weeks, I want to discuss how to leverage these topics to their fullest in our walk with Christ.